RIP: Canada’s everyday poet



Gord Downie passed away last week.

Okay, that’s not news anymore. Every Canadian and many others around the world know that. But I need to acknowledge the passing and honour the man whose words have meant so much to me over the years.

Gord Downie was the front man and lyricist for The Tragically Hip, which has become known as “Canada’s Band.” Which makes Downie Canada’s principal poet and conscience over the past 30 years or so.

So I thought I’d share with everyone the words of the first Tragically Hip song I remember. Please, pay attention to the words. They are powerful, and like all great poetry, they have many deep layers of meaning.

“New Orleans Is Sinking”

All right

Bourbon blues on the street, loose and complete
Under skies all smoky blue green
I can’t forsake a dixie dead shake
So we danced the sidewalk clean

My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?
New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim

Colonel Tom, what’s wrong? What’s going on?
You can’t tie yourself up for a deal
He said, Hey, north, you’re south, shut your big mouth
You gotta do what you feel is real

Ain’t got no picture postcards, ain’t got no souvenirs
My baby she don’t know me when I’m thinking bout those years

Pale as a light bulb hanging on a wire
Sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire
Picking out the highlights of the scenery
Saw a little cloud that looked a little like me

I had my hands in the river, my feet back up on the banks
Looked up to the lord above and said, Hey, man, thanks

Sometimes I feel so good I got to scream
She said, Gordie, baby, I know exactly what you mean
She said, she said, I swear to god she said

My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?
New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim

Swim

What’s your favourite Tragically Hip song? What’s your favourite poem? Leave a comment below.

Writing amid calamity



Redwoods in the Muir Woods, Marin County, California.

California is a land of extreme beauty and extreme horrors. From the contrived glamour of Hollywood and Los Angeles to the awe-inspiring majesty of the redwood forests. From the unique personality of San Francisco to the wind-blasted isolation of the northern coast.

It’s also home to disastrous extremes. For the past three days, I’ve been at the Lei Crime World Authors Retreat in Monte Rio, a hamlet between the devastated Santa Rosa and the rocky coast of Bodega Bay. From day to day, the skies can be high and blue or a low, gray-brown haze as wildfires tear through the Napa Valley and leap over mountains into Sonoma. As I write this, more than 25,000 people have had to abandon their homes and flee the fires, thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed, more than 200 people are missing and 31 people killed.

For the past three days, I have been participating in the first Lei Crime World authors’ retreat in Monte Rio, a hamlet halfway between the devastated city of Santa Rosa and the coast at Bodega Bay. It’s safe, for the moment, anyway, although the first thing we all do when we get up in the morning is look to see whether the sky is blue or hazy, and sniff for the odour of smoke. From time to time, ash drizzles down, coating surfaces with gray. As another participant, Erin Finigan said, “That could have been someone’s home falling on us.”

A terrible juxtaposition

It’s not guilt that I feel, but there is relief mixed with helplessness. We gather in the the hotel bar to watch the news on the big TV. In night scenes, the fires dance bright orange among the trees. Day scenes show destroyed towns and weeping, shell-shocked residents. Stories people who left everything to the flames, grateful for having their family alive. Others crying because they cannot find a mother, child or sibling.

The situation, only a half-hour’s drive away, comes even closer when an evacuated family arrives at the hotel: wife, husband, daughter, son, dog and cat. They had minutes to gather family, photos and pets ahead of the fire when the power went out. In the dark, they found the cat, jumped into their car and fled before the fire consumed their home. They had to leave their computer behind, which held more precious family photos and memories, because it was in another structure which housed their family business, and which was already burning. They arrived at the hotel, shaken, pale, their faces drawn, their eyes wide but dull.

We writers, nine of us, pool what cash we can to help console them. It’s a moving moment, and one that underlines how small each of us is in the face of an elemental force like fire.

We are safe. For now. But we keep our suitcases packed, ready to go.

The most compelling stories

Today, I look out over my hotel balcony. The leaves on the trees that I cannot identify are turning red. Above, orange-tinted gray clouds accent the blue sky. Is that smoke? Or just a cloud? The news reports that the situation has become worse. The fires continue to grow. Long-time residents recall fires in 2007 and 2008 that were extensive, but not as bad nor as deadly.

We prepare to leave, to head south to Santa Cruz and Monterey. We will escape the fire zone easily, and in a few more days, will fly home to Ottawa. We may face other dangers there, but from everything I can gather, no existential threats.

We are all writers here at the Russian River town of Monte Rio. We tell stories for a living. We strive to make our books engaging and immersive, entertaining and evocative. We have come to reinforce our ability to write new stories.

But there is nothing that we could write to rival what evacuees are living now, whether they’re from Napa and Sonoma, or Puerto Rico, Afghanistan, the Congo, Libya, Syria and many many more are living now.

They have lost everything. The rest of us are unscathed purely through luck, or the grace of whatever god you believe in.

Let’s remember that.

Dark clouds in Bohemia



The wind ruffles the surface of the Tepla River in southern Bohemia, Czech Republic, just before the dark clouds roll in—very similar to my 2011 short story, Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.

Elmore Leonard said “never open with the weather.” But he never said anything about opening with his admonition against opening with the weather.

Another writer’s rule is to avoid clichés like the plague. I guess I’m going to break that rule, too.

Opening with the weather

Last month, my wife and I travelled to the Czech Republic. On our last night there, we had supper on a patio overlooking the Tepla River in southern Bohemia. Darkness came early, presaging a summer storm.

We had thankfully finished our dinner and were enjoying the last of our wine when I looked up and across the river. Dark clouds had covered most of the sky, but under them, a lighter-coloured cloud was moving fast, like a carpet unrolling—straight toward us.

The ragged edges of the cloud reached for us, some like ragged fringes, others like grasping tendrils of an undersea predator.

The sight unnerved everyone on the patio that night—not just my wife and me, but also the group from Poland at the table next to us. I could see gusts ruffling the river’s surface into flotillas of tiny ripples that dashed from one strand to the other.

Life imitates art

The second work of fiction I published was called “Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.” There’s a scene where the heroes see a dark cloud moving fast toward them, across the sky. When the cloud reaches the protagonists, the son and daughter-in-law of the Witch Queen, it throws up a storm of dust and pebbles, blinding and stinging the couple.

In Bohemia that night in June, the strange dark cloud continued to unravel over our heads—but if it had been unrolling, the rolling motion was counter to the movement of the overall cloud, itself.

When it hit us, the wind whipped a napkin off my lap and a glass bottle off the table. My wife stood up to move indoors, and her chair flew off the patio, landing three metres away, then sliding down three stone steps.

The wait staff reacted immediately, picking up napkins and cutlery and small items, sweeping up broken glass before the wind scattered the pieces. We guests retreated indoors and watched the clouds come lower and closer.

Then the rain hit like surf crashing on a beach. When the lightning began, it illuminated the forested tops of the rides and hills surrounding the hotel. It continued flashing for hours, light filling the dark hotel room, providing entertainment unmatched by any summer blockbusters.

Living what I write

It was a memorable moment, a memorable night. Even my wife said “It’s like your story, ‘Dark Clouds.'”

It’s always been important to me that my writing is as realistic, as believable as possible. That’s why I do so much research about the settings of my stories and the history behind them. It’s why I describe little details about the places, the furniture, the light and, yes, the weather. It helps put the reader into the story, helps them understand and, ultimately, experience the story.

Because that’s why readers enjoy books: they take the audience out of their everyday reality, and allows them, in a small way at least, to experience the exotic, the fantastic or the downright impossible.

So when something happens to me that echoes so closely what I described six years ago, I have to admit—it’s gratifying.

When has your life reflected art?

Tell me about something that happened to you that seemed to echo something you read or saw in a book, film, song or picture. Leave your description in the Comments.

Travel, beauty and writing



Tyn Church in Prague

The Gothic-era Tyn Church in Prague’s Old Square, fronted by newer buildings that now make up its entrance.

People often say travel broadens you. It opens your mind and your heart to new ideas, exposes you to different cultures and people, and tends to make you more accepting of differences.

For me, travel is also inspiring—literally. When I travel, I often get new ideas for stories and novels. These can be sparked by people I see and meet, buildings, streets, forests, coastlines—just about anything.

I recently returned from a visit to Prague and the Czech Republic. If you have been, you’ll know how beautiful that capital city is. If you haven’t been, you should put it on your list of places to visit.

The Astronomical Clock in Prague’s Old Square, built in 1410.

Prague itself is an arrangement of architecture that, for at least 700 years, has intended to embrace the current styles, yet fit in with the established buildings. As one of the travel guides points out, you can stand in the Old Square and see architecture of the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Deco periods. And you don’t have to walk far to find later examples — the Cubist house of the Black Madonna is just steps from the square.

At least in the centre of the city, it’s hard to find a building that’s strictly functional—almost all are beautiful in some way.

The Municipal Hall is too prosaic a name for this Art Nouveau building on the National Square, home of two concert halls, including Smetana Hall.

Inspiration

Walking through a city that’s new to me gets my imagination going. It’s easy to think of the beginnings of stories, more like dramatic situations. But in Prague, I came up with more of a feeling or a theme than a plotline. The juxtaposition of buildings from every era of the past 700 years points to a Prague characteristic: its continual embracing of the modern while honouring, and making full use of tradition.

It brought to mind a kind of story of two people in a relationship, who are both trying to solve the same problem: one from a 21st-century approach, based in science and technology; and the other taking an older, more traditional perspective informed by psychology and religion.

This building is the home of the Hotel Paris in central Prague.

Prague has always been known as a music-loving city. Mozart loved Prague, and Prague loved him back. Today, you can find street performers at almost any time, any place—and theyre really good. These guys called themselves the De Facto String Quartet, and played a version of Stairway to Heaven that sounded terrific.

I don’t know what the problem will be, yet, nor what the plot points are. But I have the characters worked out. And it will definitely be set in Prague.

As if the architecture, art and music arent inspiring enough, Prague has immortalized its favourite native-born author, Franz Kafka, with this metallic scupture of his head. The sections rotate independently, according to some program that occasionally lines them up to reveal the writer’s likeness.

Prague really likes Kafka! This statue is in the Josefov area, the old Jewish Quarter. Maybe the head was taken for the sculpture in the previous picture.

I’ll keep you informed.

In the meantime, why not leave a comment sharing places that inspire you, and why?

Photo from World War II: A soldier returns home



Maurice-soldier-1941-smallerForWebMy wife and I found this picture from World War II—it’s 75 years old! I wish I had found this photo years ago, before I published the first edition of Army of Worn Soles.

This is a picture of my father-in-law, Maurice Bury, on the day he returned to his village of Nastaciv, Ukraine, after escaping from the German POW camp in late 1941. The woman beside him is his cousin, Tekla, who was named after her aunt, Maurice’s mother. Tekla was the first family member who met Maurice on his return home.

Here’s the story as told by Maurice, years ago

Even though it was wartime, the market bustled as farmers sold the last of their harvests: corn, wheat, parsley, apples, pears, onions and beets. Townspeople pressed through the stalls, haggling over vegetables, chickens and animal feed. Behind a stall selling eggs stood a slim woman whose dark brown hair threatened to burst the knot in her kerchief.

Maurice tapped her on the shoulder. “Hello, Tekla.”

The woman spun to face him, expecting trouble. She glared at him for several seconds before her eyes widened. “Maurice? My god, I cannot believe it.” She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. She had to lean over her table of eggs, but she held on. Maurice hugged back, wary of knocking eggs down. When she let him go, she looked at him as if she were afraid he was about to vanish again. “What are you doing here?”

Tekla was his cousin, daughter of Myhailo Kuritsa, his mother’s brother. She had been named after her aunt.

“I’m coming home. Can you give me a ride?” he asked.

She threw her arms around him again. “Of course, Maurice, of course. Oh, I can’t believe it. We heard you’d been…been killed.” She held him at arm’s length. “You’re so thin. You must have been starving.” She called to the woman in the stand next to hers, who had been staring at them. “Hanyah, please, sell the eggs for me.”

“Of course, dear. Take the young man home and give him something to eat. Right away,” Hanyah said. She was older than Maurice’s mother, and Maurice did not know her, but she smiled at him as if he were a grandchild she had not seen for a year.

Tekla re-tied her scarf and pulled on her gloves, took Maurice by the hand and led him out of the market. “My wagon is over here,” she said, then stopped. “You know what we should do, Maurice? Let’s get a picture together.”

“Can’t we…”

Army of Worn Soles cover

Army of Worn Soles

But Tekla interrupted, took his hand and led him through the market to a small shop, where she paid a few rubles for a picture. The photographer had Maurice sit on a stool in front of a cloth draped against the wall, and posed Tekla standing next to him. Tekla could not stop smiling, nor babbling.

“I can’t wait to see Auntie’s face when she sees you standing on her doorstep. Oh, and my father, too. It’s too bad your father is not here, Maurice. He would be so relieved, so happy to know you’re home safe. Are you sure this is my better side?” She asked the photographer as he adjusted the camera. He smiled, nodded and calmly pressed the shutter.

“The print will be ready on Thursday,” the photographer said and handed Tekla a ticket. “Welcome back, friend,” he said to Maurice.

The print promised for that Thursday, 75 years ago, is the one at the top of this post, and we found it in a box of Maurice’s old things in our basement last week.

I am thinking of incorporating it in a new edition of Army of Worn Soles, or maybe I’ll use it as part of the cover design for an Eastern Front trilogy boxed set.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Live blogging from my event



 

 Here I am at the Coles The Book People location in the Billings Bridge plaza in Ottawa for my second-ever book signing event. On the table, I have the three paperbacks in my Eastern Front trilogy: Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War. 

Traffic isn’t all that heavy—it’s mid-day at the beginning of what looks like a beautiful long weekend. This might have worked better outdoors.  

It’s interesting to watch the shoppers go by. They seem to come in waves. The babies come in groups—one moment, the mall is quiet; the next, three squalling babies in a phalanx of strollers are crowding the mall in front of my table. 

Most people just walk by, not even looking. They’re not here for books. Some people slow down and look at the books on my table. Occasionally, one will stop and talk.

People seem delighted to meet authors, and eager to share what they know about either the war, history or even books. And a few buy books. One lady even bought the whole set, since I’m offering a special price for all three.

It’s a very different experience than marketing e-books online. I like talking with people interested in the subject, or history. And the tactile aspect of a paper book, rather than the virtuality of e-books, well, satisfying.

I may try this again some time.

Writing tips: What is style?



Creative Commons: dbdbrobot

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing style lately. Actually, I’ve thought a lot about it for a long time — as long as I’ve been writing, which is most of my life.

I find that my response to a book or to a writer, no matter what the subject is, depends a lot on style. I like an author who is original, who does not just try to copy a best-seller or the current trend in books you can pick up at the drug store.

But there is also something else that determines how well I like a story, something about the way the writer uses language.

I’ll give you an example: Margaret Atwood is generally accepted as one of today’s greatest writers. She has written a great many books in of a range of types — I am trying to avoid using the word “style” in different ways here — and, it could be argued, in different genres. Alias Grace could be called “historical fiction,” set in 19th century Upper Canada and based loosely on real events. The Handmaid’s Tale is a set in a dystopian future and, while it doesn’t have a lot of sci-fi tropes, it won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction.

Atwood is both accomplished and unarguably a master of the writing craft, but while she writes about many different subjects, there is something about her manner of writing that puts me off a little. The only word I can use to describe it is heavy. Her writing is heavy — I don’t read it quickly or easily; on the other hand, I can’t put it down once I start, either.

One writer whose style I really admire is Mark Helprin’s, particularly in his Winter’s Tale, a fantasy set in New York City. In addition to his ability to meld fantastic elements, humour and action into a setting simultaneously believable and fantastic, Helprin also manages to be very descriptive as well as economical with prose. It’s as good an example of magical realism as any I’ve ever read.

But what is it that determines the style? Word choice? Sentence length? Description? Active voice? Those are just a few items in the writer’s toolbox. Also critical are creating realistic, believable and interesting characters, pacing, mixing action and pathos and so much more.

The accepted good

There is a tension between popularity and what is accepted as “good writing” by the publishers and the leading literary critics of any time.

For instance, today, “good” writing is usually characterized by lean prose, active voice, realistic dialogue and sparse description. Writing coaches keep advising us to avoid adverbs in favour of more precise verbs, except when it comes to describing dialogue. We should only use “said,” and not try to change that around with “exclaimed,” or “replied.”

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard came out with ’s 10 rules of writing a couple of years ago; he admitted that he was at least a little facetious at the time, but now he says he seriously believes them. Okay. And Leonard is a great writer, and changed the literary world, and sells zillions of copies, okay, okay — but is he the arbiter of the English language, now? What if something happens in a sudden way? Elmore, what is wrong with the word “suddenly”?

The exemplars of great writing are still supposed to be Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I love their work, but again — should we all try to emulate their styles?

On the other side of that tension is writing that flies in the face of those rules, yet sells millions of copies. The current target of criticism is EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Here’s a passage:

I watch José open the bottle of champagne. He’s tall, and in his jeans and T-shirt, he’s all shoulders and muscles, tanned skin, dark hair, and burning dark eyes.

Descriptive, yes. Also clichéd — it’s been done so many times. “Burning dark eyes”? While we can all imagine what those must look like, couldn’t the author have thought of something original?

And yet, millions of readers ate that up, burning eyes and all. Did the burning eyes cause heartburn, I wonder?

Description

Writing coaches also tell us not to use too much description. Hemingway and Fitzgerald did not describe what their protagonists looked like. Okay, but Dashiel Hammet did.

I agree that too much description can get in the way of the story. There is a lot of material for people to read, that communication of any kind must compete for an audience’s attention with so much more material than there ever was before, so we writers should always try to get as much information across as efficiently as possible — fewer words, more information. I get that.

Efficiency is the goal! (Photo: The Pug Father/Creative Commons )

But we do need to describe some things, some times. And occasionally, an adverb is the best way to do that. See?

Who says so?

Watch this space. Last week, children’s- and middle-grade author Roger Eschbacher opined about writing style. In future, other bestselling authors will weigh in on the subject. So watch this space, and leave lots of comments and questions for the guests, please. Maybe we can finally determine exactly what writing style is, after all.