MartinJohnI have read a lot of good books over the last while. If you want to be certain of getting good books into your hands, surround yourself by smart and literate friends who will recommend stuff to you. They won’t let you down!

Here are some highlights of the reading life.

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield

This novel, about a sex offender – told mainly from his perspective and his mother’s – is funny and disturbing and is rightfully getting heaps of critical praise. I loved it; could barely put it down. Then I saw Schofield read from it at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival and was struck by how intentionally she’s incorporated a sense of rhythm into her prose. It’s the kind of writing that is inventive, demanding, and would be called beautiful if it weren’t so deliberately ugly for all the right reasons.

Submission, Michelle Houellebecq

I’ve been a fan of Houellebecq for a very long time, but over the last decade, I’d sort of started to wonder if he was becoming a parody of himself. Then he releases Submission, and I was still a little uncertain, because from the reviews it sounded like Houellebecq was simply trying to be as much of an enfant terrible as possible: conjuring a plot about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over France. But the book went down easily, “like a bad oyster.” It all seemed horribly plausible. Submission is not the reactionary raving of a racist throwback. It’s Houellebecq crafting compelling plot while winding up his audience, forcing readers to think through what would happen if there were a legitimate and well-planned plot against an ailing, enfeebled western liberal democracy.

Postcapitalism, Paul Mason

My yearly dose of non-fiction! First half was very compelling. Great insights into the crises that have plagued capitalism since practically its inception. I wasn’t so sure about the technology-fuelled optimism about the future. But I do think Mason is probably correct in his basic premise: a new form of economy is going to form out of experiments that emerge before capitalism itself is dead. Maybe the new already exists, and to steal from William Gibson, “hasn’t been evenly distributed yet.” A very compelling read.

You, Comma, Idiot, Doug Harris

Doug is a born-and-raised Montrealer and we actually have known each other for eight years, going all the way back to my strange stint of work at Bath Fitter (Doug’s production company cut Bath Fitter’s North America-wide commercials). I loved You Comma, Idiot. It’s a bit reminiscent of my own Blind Spot in that it features a schmuck for a protagonist. The book also provides a fantastic snapshot of Montreal, warts-and-all.

And I am up to stuff

Here’s a link to a recording of a true story that I told for This Really Happened, an annual event the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. It’s called My Pagan Family, and is about the exhumation of a dead goat, a World War II gas mask, and familial bonding through druidism.

As for my fiction, I feel like a walking cliché. “I am working on my new novel,” has been my refrain for three years. It isn’t ready yet, and is unlikely to be so any time soon. Tentatively called “Northern Lies,” drafting of the novel preceded the Jian Ghomeshi scandal as well as the release of the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But now that those two events have happened, I’m calling this a post-Ghomeshi, post-TRC novel, because without initially meaning to, I think I’ve delved into some issues of contemporary significance, and the fear that grips me every time I sit down in front of my laptop is: what makes me think I’m even remotely qualified to write this? But I keep on keeping on regardless, and have checked in with a professional editor twice now, who has reassured me I am not completely delusional that I could have a readable piece of work at the end of all this. It’s the third major draft that’s underway, and hopefully it’ll be finished by the end of the summer, when I will again check in with outside perspectives to see if I’ve committed a gross act of hubris and white privilege, or whether I’ve made an honest and empathetic attempt to portray a plausible scenario that could have unfolded some time in the early going of the 21st century in Canada.

 

 

 

 

 

 

clearingtheplains

I recently finished reading this devastating book by James Daschuk. It’s an examination of the health and livelihoods of Aboriginal peoples on the plains of Canada from the 17th through to the dawn of the 20th century, and makes several points very clear:

1-Deliberately letting Aboriginal peoples starve to death, watching them die from countless new diseases, and dispossessing them of land and resources at an insatiable rate — these scourges of colonialism weren’t an afterthought, they were front-and-centre of Canada’s nation-making project.

2-The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples actually gets worse over the course of history. The more the colonials built their prosperity during the 19th century, the further Aboriginal peoples fell by comparison. Settlers not only brought ways of living that destroyed Aboriginal means of subsistence — for example, the tragedy of hunting bison to extinction — they also intentionally inhibited new forms of economic participation, by frequently barring Aboriginals from trading with whites, or even with each other.

3-Particular scenes stand out, and in their particularity, remind you of some enduring traits in the character of this country. There’s the scene that took place in 1878, where numerous starving Aboriginals, forced to eat their dogs, beseech colonialists at Battleford, SK to give them food, and the response of the colonials is to simply fortify their dwelling so that no one will break in. This incessant miserliness, indifference to suffering, and focus on security, very much defines Canada up to the current day.

Among the most famous words ever spoken about Montreal came out of the mouth of Mark Twain during a banquet held in his honour at the Windsor Hotel on December 8, 1881. “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window,” he said. These are the words I recalled when I very first arrived in Montreal on the airport shuttle,  looking out at the sud-ouest and its many spires and domes. But what I never stopped to think about was, what had compelled Mark Twain to visit Montreal in the first place?

As it happens, the reasons for his visit are in many respects far more interesting than his observations on Montreal’s Catholic heritage. His stay at the Windsor Hotel from November 26 to December 9 – a season of grey, grim weather, far from ideal for tourism, as he himself acknowledged – was actually all about business and money. He had come to secure copyright for The Prince and the Pauper. Canadian publishers in Toronto and Montreal had been printing cheap versions of close to a dozen of his works over the previous decade, and many of these volumes had ended up in the United States, effectively undercutting the American versions.

In the first part of  his speech, reprinted in the Montreal Gazette, and later anthologized by humorist Stephen Leacock, Twain decries the ease with which authors like him were being ripped off:

“It makes one hope and believe that a day will come when, in the eye of the law, literary property will be as sacred as whiskey, or any other of the necessaries of life. In this age of ours, if you steal another man’s label to advertise your own brand of whiskey with, you will be heavily fined and otherwise punished for violating that trademark; if you steal the whiskey without the trademark, you go to jail; but if you could prove that the whiskey was literature, you can steal them both, and the law wouldn’t say a word. It grieves me to think how far more profound and reverent a respect the law would have for literature if a body could only get drunk on it.”

Twain’s official published speech concludes with a few droll mots about his attempts to communicate in French with the locals. But, as it turns out, Stephen Leacock missed the part where Twain continued speaking, more or less off-the-cuff, after his standing ovation. [This part of the speech is available through jstor.] And this is where things get even more interesting. Twain points out that establishing Canadian copyright law should matter far more to Canadians than to foreign authors like him, because nothing less than the identity of this young country is at stake:

“I have never had the slightest objection to my books being printed freely  in Canada, without any payment to me whatever. The matter that concerns me is the protection of the American side from the Canadian printed works…  I think that a new country should have an international copyright law for the protection of its own authors and for the building up of its own literature. It is much more important that Canada should have such a law than it is for older countries which have an established literature… When a country is as old as the United States, has established a literature as it has, then you really have nothing to fear from the influence of other literatures upon the people…  When you were situated as Canada is, in the absence of copyright law, you have the literature of the world at your disposal, and therefore your authors have a very small chance. You get the books of all the world and you get the teachings of all the world… You have English, French, and American literature. One result of this is that your Canadian literature is reconstructed, and another result is that by and by you may not have any Canadians at all. You are full of this foreign milk, you get your complexion from it, you are English, French and American, perhaps. You are not Canadians at all, except in birth and in name.”

But does this have anything in common with Taylor Swift, even tangentially?

Yes, maybe a little bit.

As Apple Music has just been launched to general controversy, there can be no doubt that the issues that concerned Mark Twain are very much alive still: protecting the rights of artists, and the nurturing of emerging talent. Taylor Swift – perhaps the Mark Twain of our own era? – recently spoke out against Apple, and there is an interesting parallel to Twain, in that she claims to speak not on her own behalf but rather for all those emerging artists who need support.

Twain&Swift

Swift is quoted by the Guardian: “I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.”

The article continues:

Swift went on to stress that her criticism is “not about me” but rather an attempt to stand up for emerging artists and songwriters.

“This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt,” wrote Swift.

“This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.” The Guardian.

 

Twain and Swift stand up for artists’ rights to be paid, but do so through reasoning that goes beyond the mere business-side of their respective industries.  With Twain, there is a social and nationalistic case to be made. If you want to cultivate a society that has some self-awareness, it’s not helpful for this society to depend entirely on cultural artifacts from elsewhere. There’s no doubt that importing foreign literature makes Canada a far richer place, but without also learning about our own stories and culture, we’re effectively cut off from ourselves.

As for Swift, she’s adamant that innovation and creation by artists merits reward, just as Apple reaps the financial benefit of its innovation and creativity. There are questions to be raised, to be sure, about whether we strictly recognize artists based on the amount of money we reward them with, and whether such financial rewards are what artists have in mind when they are striving for excellence, but nevertheless, kudos to Swift for pointing out that Apple is wrong to accumulate billions in profits while saying to the “content providers,” that even for a limited time, no, we won’t give you so much as a penny for your efforts. That’s criminal, and if it was whiskey they were making, no corporation would dare to rip them off.

When I was young, my birth-mother was intermittently very sick, and so raising me was largely up to MY DAD. He protected and nurtured me in a world that was often very scary, and despite everything, I had a magical childhood. We would go for long, long walks in the English countryside, pick blackberries, and tell each other stories. We’d have picnics, for which he always brought along a Kit Kat. I still have a soft spot for Kit Kats today. He strongly encouraged my love of writing.

Here is a picture from my first note book (with my dad’s photo rather clumsily pasted on top by me) showing a story I dreamed up in 1982, called THE DAY THE MONSTER WALKED. Before I could even put pen to paper, I would record stories on a tape recorder and my dad would patiently transcribe them. These were stories about Buck Rogers and Doctor Who. That he did all this for me, while holding down FT employment and being, for several years, almost my sole care giver, is remarkable. The role a father has in your life is unbelievably powerful, something I realize more and more with every passing year. Thank you, Dad.mywriting-2

argo_bookstore

The plight of independent book stores was dire for over a decade. They struggled to compete against big box stores like Indigo and Chapter’s, and the ruthless Amazon machine didn’t do them any favours either, selling books at a loss and paying little to no taxes in most jurisdictions where they operate. But independent book stores are still around! The massive cull has ended, it would appear, and the hardy operators that survive are in it for all the right reasons: because they love books, not money, because they love to be part of local literary communities, because they help forge social connections between customers and authors.

The inaugural Authors for Indies day in Canada is May 2. It’s been a great pride and joy for me to be helping organize and promote some local activities here in Montreal. I will be at Argo Books from 11am to 2pm and then at Librairie Clio from 3pm to 5pm. I was interviewed about this event, along with Heather O’Neill, by the Montreal Gazette, and the Rover Arts talked to Janie Chang, the national organizer and founder of the event, as well as JP Karwacki at Argo, and again, yours truly for this great article.

It’s time to talk books, buys books, enjoy books!

This is the poster Chalsley Taylor of carte blanche made for the Argo event. Exciting times!

Argo Books
[Top photo: Argo Books, Ste. Catherine]

This is a harsh January in Montreal. The weather here is actually colder than in Edmonton, where Monika and I spent the Christmas break. One day is plus 2 and raining, the next day is minus 15 and even colder with the windchill. It’s jarring… Whine, whine!

What’s helping ease the pain of mid-winter is… books. Holy crap, have I been exposed to some great books lately, and that is to a large extent thanks to Argo Books, an independent bookstore located on Ste. Catherine, not far from where I work.

NorthEastNorth East, Wendy McGrath
This novel from NeWest Press (hey, that’s my publisher!) is set in Edmonton as well as a rural prairie farm, and is big on mood and the feelings of the young protagonist, a girl who is likely going to grow up fast, given the family dysfunction and scarcity she is exposed to. It’s very strong for psychological insights and there is a rhythmic, repetitive quality to the prose that is sometimes reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard.

The Freedom in American Songs, Kathleen Winter
Oh boy, I haven’t devoured right through to the marrow of short stories in this way since discovering Mavis Gallant’s Home Truths. “You Seem a Little Bit Sad” is a stand-out hit (for me) in a collection that is witty, true, poignant and beautiful.

My Struggle, Books 1 and 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard
This series of six books, totalling over 3,000 pages, has been a massive success. Reportedly about one in five inhabitants of Knausgaard’s native country of Norway has read it. Zadie Smith compared it to crack, and I agree. It’s got a super-addictive quality and is unflinchingly candid. I’ll be trying to say something more intelligent about this series on my blog soon.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith
This is the only book on the list that disappointed me. I enjoyed Smith’s debut, White Teeth, so I was surprised to be so let down this time around. For a campus satire, it lacked… well, teeth. Smith was too kind to all of her characters, and ended up seemingly on the fence about everything.

Island of the Doomed, Stig Dagerman
It astounds me that Dagerman wrote this when he was only 23. I’m about halfway through and already my mind is being a little bit blown. Seven survivors of a shipwreck are trapped on an island with blind seagulls and a whole lot of iguanas. The “memory-dreams” of each survivor are in many case even more bizarre than his or her shipwrecked present.

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I started out 2015 by finishing the second draft of a novel that is tentatively called Northern Lies. I’ve been toiling away on this since summer of 2013, and honestly, I have no idea whether it’s publishable. If it is, there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s set in Montreal, Mont Sainte-Anne, and the Eastern Townships.

In more unequivocally positive news, I had a story of mine, “The City of Magnitogorsk” published by Cosmonauts Avenue, an online magazine based here in Montreal that I am just a little bit in love with.

Happy 2015!

There is a fantastic essay over at the New Yorker called “An Answer to the Novel’s Detractors.” It’s a sort of rebuttal to the many recent writers who appear to have grown exhausted/exasperated with conventional fiction, a group that includes a couple of writers I admire greatly, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Waldman’s essay takes issue with David Shields’ book Reality Hunger, which I admit I have not read. Her essay is by no means a polemic, or even a severe critique; it could be read, in some respects, as a call-to-arms for novelists to recognize the particular attributes that makes novels unique, and to deploy them skillfully, and to not lean on the many tired devices that can make narrative seem manipulative. (She is in agreement with Shields’ list of these tired devices, coincidence, eavesdropping, melodramatic reversals, kindly benefactors, cruel wills, to which Waldman adds “the revelation of long-buried family secrets”).

I really liked the way she set up her essay, suggesting a few ways in which contemporary fiction might be in trouble:

The novel form isn’t the reason so much contemporary fiction seems uninspired; for that, we’d do better to consider other causes, of which there are plenty: an emphasis on documenting social conditions and modernity over the study of individual characters, a post-Freudian tendency to lean on secondhand psychoanalytic ideas as a cover for incomprehension or shallowness, a corrosive commitment to niceness at the expense of the kind of social and moral judgments that used to be at the novel’s center, MFA programs, to name just a few possibilities.

I admit I got a quiet thrill out of reading “corrosive commitment to niceness.” There’s an awful lot of this  lately. I don’t know so much about the USA (Waldman’s home is Brooklyn) but in Canada the idea is endemic that books have to be good for us, have to grapple with social problems, build bridges between communities, etc. I’ve often believed that Canada would be about the worst place to be a talented reactionary fiction writer, and yet we must concede that such a writer might be pretty worthwhile reading, not exclusively because he or she would most certainly trouble the rather milquetoast consensus that’s emerged among our nation’s liberal left-leaning taste-makers. (I say this as an unreformed leftie!)

Waldman also  shows why good narrative is typically not ideological, and shouldn’t comfort us or confirm our worldviews, but rather, “baffle” us:

The novel’s tendency to work against generalization is not limited to political or social biases. When novel characters sound like mouthpieces for the author’s overarching theories about human motivation or psychology, even the least sophisticated readers recognize this intuitively as bad. And so novels don’t usually offer up simple theories about human nature—for those, one must look to self-help books. In this sense, good fiction doesn’t tend to console but rather to complicate, to baffle our desire for easy explanation, to give us not what we want but what we suspect is more meaningful, more akin to the complexity we encounter in life.

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Since 2014 is wrapping up, I thought I’d look back on some of the books I read this year that truly stuck with me. One of them is Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. It was such a refreshing and original journey into the male psyche.

Some more highlights from 2014:

Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard. My first Bernhard experience most certainly won’t be the last. The Austrian misanthrope’s 1985 novel is cruel, hilarious, and unexpectedly life affirming at the end.

The Freedom in American Songs. Kathleen Winter is one of my favourite short story writers since I discovered (very belatedly) Mavis Gallant. I haven’t even started on her novels or memoirs yet! Lots to look forward to.

How Should a Person Be, Sheila Heti. I read this for a second time and was just as impressed as the first time. There’s no plot, nor does there need to be. Just an examination of some of the most important questions of our times!

My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I now believe the hype!

Brighton Rock, Graham Greene. While promoting my own book in Edmonton, I publicly disclosed on the radio that I had never read Graham Greene. Embarrassing. Ran out, bought this, remedied my shortcoming. This is a mean, bleak book. I was hooked.

A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov. Just brilliant. I raved about it here.

Some Extremely Boring Drives, Marguerite Pigeon. Fellow NeWest’er.

Here are the books I am reading next:

On Beauty, Zadie Smith (currently reading)
North East, Wendy McGrath
Boundless, Kathleen Winter
In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje
10:04, Ben Lerner
419, Will Ferguson
My Struggle, Book 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Us Conductors, Sean Michaels

It’ll be a good finish to 2014, a strong start to 2015, hopefully!

Me-in-E-town

Me pretending to write a book at the busy intersection of 109th street near the Garneau Theatre in Edmonton. Photo: John Lucas, The Edmonton Journal

Six weeks. It seems like a lot longer, but in fact, it’s only been six weeks since Blind Spot became available as a book in the world. In that time, I’ve read to about one hundred and fifty people over the course of six events: four in Edmonton and two in Montreal. I feel that, in many respects, being a newbie in this business means building relationships with readers almost on a one-by-one basis. I’ve met many new people throughout this, and what brings us together is a passion for narrative. It’s very life-affirming.

A writer needs readers. A reader needs writers. We’re in a reciprocal relationship. Of course, readers and writers are often one and the same person. Whenever I read to a roomful of people, I always try to stay conscious of this. There might be somebody in this room who, unbeknownst to me, is also a writer — quite possibly a brilliant one. Maybe they’ve not been discovered yet. How does that influence how I read or answer questions about Blind Spot? At the very least, it means I try not to act like I am privy to any special knowledge. Sometimes I answer a question about the writing process with an answer that sounds like another question. I’ll finish my statement with, “you know?” As in, do you agree? I’m not entirely sure. This is what I think. What do you think?

Several great questions stand out:

What is the difference in writing process between a short story and a novel?

How do you know when you’ve finished a book?

I answered the former question by saying I believe a short story is like a brief glimpse at the world. It’s like opening a window and peeking out. The writer perhaps draws your attention to something you hadn’t noticed before, or you had noticed it, and maybe thought you were the only one. There’s that nod of the head, that sense of almost kinship you feel with the author sharing this moment with you. By contrast, I said, the novel is far more concerned with story-telling. Even if the novel appears plot-less, there is still a requirement to set up a problem and to resolve it between the covers of the book. A novel is a far better vehicle for bringing closure.

Then my interlocutor said, “But I asked about process. What’s the difference in process?”

And that’s where I had to admit, I was a little stumped. Is it a question of time invested? Hard to say. I’ve got one short story that took about three to four years to complete. I kept going back to it over and over again. It took me that long to figure it out. Hmmm. There’s the obvious fact that writing novels, generally, requires producing more words. So it’s going to take a lot more clickety-clacking at a keyboard. But that was the only true difference I could identify.

So how about the second question. How do you know when you’re finished? Well, ideally, I’d say, you get to the point where you can’t think of anything left you want to change. I genuinely feel this way about Blind Spot today. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t change it, because the book that exists in the world today is true to the vision I had when I was drafting it. If I tinkered with it now, I’d likely end up breaking it. I’m a rather different person now, and so I want to write different kinds of books.

That’s why I’m writing a second novel!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Blind Spot is out in the world, and on balance, I am happy. I am particularly happy with how it has been received in Edmonton. My former hometown seems to have embraced the story with particular enthusiasm. At the time of writing this, I’ve been on the Edmonton Journal’s bestseller list for five weeks, rising as high as the number one spot.

BS#1Bestseller

THANK YOU, THANK YOU above all, to the independent bookstores. I was a big fan of independent bookstores before Blind Spot, I’m a lifelong devotee today. I can see how a city without an independent bookstore is diminished, somehow. Indigo and Chapter’s don’t care about books; they scarcely even have a passing knowledge of books. They sell products they don’t give a shit about in pursuit of profit, pure and simple. I hope I don’t live to regret these words one day, but there, I said it! Of course, I am one hundred per cent OK with people buying books from Chapter’s or Indigo — I don’t want to leave the impression that I am not. A bookstore — any kind of bookstore — is better than no bookstore. And even within these giant corporations, you will find individuals that care. I’m just arguing that caring about books is not key to the overall business model. Whereas for the stores that helped me launch Blind Spot — Audrey’s in Edmonton, and Drawn and Quarterly and Argo in Montreal — a love of books is integral to how they do business.

God bless those bookstores.

In the course of these six weeks, I’ve been joined by other writers. I have read with Thea Bowering, PJ Worrell and Marguerite Pigeon. I’ve discovered great new Canadian fiction. I’ve read things I never would have read otherwise, because before Blind Spot I didn’t really pay much attention to new Canadian writing. Now that I am paying attention, I can see there’s a veritable flood of fantastic fiction. Even though I haven’t read with either of them, I want to also mention Greg Bechtel and Kathleen Winter, two other writers I discovered this year. They’re both fucking great! The kind great that makes you want to swear just like that!

But still, I’m not completely satisfied

There, I said it. In reflecting on how it feels to publish a first novel, I admit that I want more. I want to read in other places and reach a wider audience. Next year I may well get to Yellowknife and Vancouver Island, and perhaps I’ll get to Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg, too, and I’m excited about these prospects, but I want even more. I want to read to Americans. If any American is reading this and wants me to come to his or her city, let me know! I want to read to Brits. If you live in my former homeland, invite me in for a scone and tea! I enjoy readings. I really do. They’re exhausting, but I feel like I’m fulfilling my life mission when I do ’em. I especially love talking to readers (who, as I mentioned, are also often fellow writers). I feel the social side of writing is often overlooked. I don’t want to overlook it. If books aren’t read, aren’t discussed, aren’t shared, there’s no point. We do this so as to feel less alone, less trapped in our own heads. We do this to make connections.

There is plenty more news about Blind Spot on the NeWest Press website, including reviews and media coverage, so I won’t repeat it here. I will make a brief aside, though, and say that the review in October’s Quill and Quire made my heart soar! Here is some of what they had to say about Blind Spot!

“Laurence Miall’s debut novel isn’t a cover version of L’Étranger, but you can hear Camus playing in the background… Blind Spot is the story of a minor failure, made all the more powerful by its honesty and restraint.”

I love this because I like to feel part of a tradition, part of a greater culture, part of something so much bigger than just little old me.  And I’m not at all adverse to wearing my influences on my sleeves. Albert Camus? Fuck yeah! I’ll take that.

So yeah, I feel like I am where I want to be. In 10 days, I turn 39, and I feel happy to have reached this promising juncture in my life. I still have a shit-ton to learn about writing and about the business of writing (less fun, still important) but as of today, I feel I’m doing OK. Above all, I am grateful to each and every reader that takes a chance on me and dives into Blind Spot and finishes it and tells me what they think. Even if the reader hates my protagonist, Luke, I’m still delighted that they make their thoughts known. We’re in this wonderful world of books together. Let’s live it to the fullest.

Black Dog Freehouse

Where it all begins! The book launch is here, 7pm, September 5.

Everything is set up for a busy fall, with several events now booked for promoting my first novel, Blind Spot. I’ll kick things off at Edmonton Public Library – Strathcona Branch (8331 – 104 Street) with a reading on August 31 at 1:30pm. Then comes the official launch at the Black Dog Free House in Edmonton (10425, Whyte Ave.) on September 5 at 7pm. Fellow NeWest author. Thea Bowering, will also be reading from her new book, Love at Last Sight.

Back in Montreal, I’ll be joined by my Concordia colleague, Christian Durand, a fellow former Edmontonian, who will emcee an event at Librairie Drawn and Quarterly (211 rue Bernard O), September 25 at 7pm. Then on October 6 at 7pm, I’ll be reading downtown at Argo Bookstore (MY LOCAL, MY BELOVED! — 1915 rue Sainte Catherine O). I’ll be joined by fellow NeWest Press author, Margaret Pigeon, whose new book is a collection of short stories called Some Extremely Boring Drives.

The buzz in the media has begun early for Blind Spot. The novel is in Quill and Quire‘s Fall Preview and in 49th Shelf’s “Most Anticipated” List. The Edmonton Journal is running a series of four articles about the novel, mapping its lifespan, from inception to sale-time. The first article appeared Friday.

Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant. Photo

This piece originally appeared in carte blanche, the literary review of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. My sincere thank you to Nicola Danby for editing it.

To me, the longstanding appeal of fiction has always been to escape my limited worldview and enter that of somebody else. Now, I don’t read stories by women to find out what women are like. There’s real life for that. I read stories by women for the same reason I read stories by men. When I say I love the stories of Mavis Gallant, I don’t say so because she is a woman. I say it because she is a great writer, full stop. It’s embarrassing to belabour this point, but I feel I should, because I am a man, and because there is nothing so awful for a man to say than something like, “She’s great. And she’s a woman, too!”

Something rather dreadful like this happened recently on Twitter, when Playboy (who’da thunk a Hugh Heffner production would be so sexist?!) tried to heap praise on the musician Neko Case. The cringe-inducing tweet that Case was “breaking the mold of what women in the music industry should be” elicited more than a cringe from Case—thank God. She replied:

IM NOT A FUCKING “WOMAN IN MUSIC”, IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!

It’s in this spirit that I present my list.

1. The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street, by Mavis Gallant
This story, about ex-patriot Canadians in Europe (like many of Gallant’s stories) is probably one of her most famous. It’s the kind of story you can read, not get, read again, not get, and keep not-getting, perhaps for your whole life. Because that’s how Gallant is—so astonishingly life-like are her literary creations that you never, ever feel the authorial temptation to tell you something, explain to you something. No, what you get is messiness, confusion, self-doubt. This story is about an encounter between a male protagonist with a younger woman who is originally from a small-town in Saskatchewan. It’s simple. And it’s not.

2. Dear Life, by Alice Munro
The title story of Alice Munro’s most-recently published collection is a gem, not just for all the many usual reasons that Munro’s fiction is celebrated, but also because it’s such a compelling account of how an author picks over the events of her own life—seeking stories, maybe meanings—and how both the stories and meanings change over the decades. It’s probably not a stretch to say that only a woman of Munro’s extraordinary longevity could pull off this kind of feat.

3. Bliss, by Katherine Mansfield
“Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at–nothing–at nothing, simply.” That’s how much fantastic writing is on offer just in the first line. New Zealand has produced so much more for us to marvel at than the backdrop for the The Lord of the Rings.

4. The Museum of Useless Efforts, by Cristina Peri Rossi
The imagination of the Uruguayan Rossi, is larger than the constraints of earthly reality, if one can make so bold a claim. Her highly experimental fiction is always weird, never dull. I really love this story because it starts with such a wonderful premise—a museum that catalogs all the “useless efforts” in history (“a man tried to fly seven times; some prostitutes attempted to find another job; a woman wanted to paint a picture”)—and it just gets better from there.

5. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The classic story of a descent into madness. It’s made all the more poignant because madness, of course, plays out worse for women than men in the late stages of the nineteenth century, when this was written.

6. The Resplendent Quetzal, by Margaret Atwood
Atwood is possibly the wittiest author Canada’s given the world. Her story from 1977 about tourists in Mexico is a gem.

7. The Story of an Hour, by Kate Chopin
Intense, fast moving and with a shock ending. Frequently anthologized.

8. Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty
Set in the deep South, by an author who, like Faulkner, was determined to create narrative out of the society immediately around her, this story bursts off the page through the entertaining but also cruel conversation/argument that you get in a close-knit family.

9. How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti
This entry on the list is, well, me cheating, because this is not in fact a short story, but rather, a novel excerpt that the magazine n+1 published back in 2010. I was blown away by it and scant months later, bought the full work. Heti is easily one of the best young Canadian authors at work today.

10. In the Tunnel, by Mavis Gallant
I said I loved the stories of Mavis Gallant, so I had to include a second story by her on the list! This one sets a couple of stodgy old Brits in the south of France with a young Canadian guest who is sleeping with somebody she calls Professor Downcast. Brilliant.