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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.

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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.

Blind Spot cover

Click to enlarge

This has been a particularly exciting week in the life of my novel, Blind Spot. The super-talented Michel Vrana, who also created covers for Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and for Jian Ghomeshi’s 1982, has produced what is in my opinion a fabulous design.

I’d always felt that the cover should depict a car crash, and furthermore, that it should be pretty clear that the crash was the result of a collision with a train. So I hope I’m not being hyperbolic when I say it was a stroke of genius for Vrana to take the railway crossing sign and blow it up like a giant X — symbolic of a warning, an error, or even an overturned cross.

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For obvious reasons (!) I’ve been thinking a lot about covers lately… My personal favourite book cover of all time is the one for The Great Gatsby. I can’t  think of any cover quite like  it, having the power to live on in a reader’s memory forever. Those eyes and lips, seemingly floating in an early night-time sky, are forever entwined in my mind with the novel itself. This Atlantic article makes it pretty clear that F. Scott Fitzgerald himself felt similarly. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher. “I’ve written it into the book.”

It’s perhaps fitting that Gatsby’s cover remains the most iconic, born as it was when mass marketing was hitting its stride. Many other famous books, Lolita, for example, have been approached in numerous different ways by designers with very different sensibilities. This is probably more the norm for the book world. A story is as open to as many different visual “identities” as there are people reading it. Here are a few modern takes on Nabokov’s controversial classic. I like the way the designers feel in no way encumbered by the story’s most obvious thematic.

Besides Gatsby, the other covers that are most memorable to me are the ones for J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, and Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Blind Spot is out September 2014  from NeWest Press. It’s already available for pre-order at evil Amazon.

Miall-authorphoto-1The exceptionally talented photographer, Owen Egan, who recently had a great pic of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler published in Rolling Stone magazine, took this photo of yours truly doing my best latte-sipping liberal routine.

The coffee is from Myriade in Montreal. So is the muffin. The shirt was given to me by my beautiful wife. Without her I’d still be wearing sweaters three sizes too big.

Blind Spot, my novel, is out in September from NeWest Press.

Come-Barbarians

Come Barbarians started life named The South of France. With a title like that, you could be forgiven for expecting humorous observations about obsessive artisan cheese-makers, reflections on tending a herb garden in a hot, dry climate, and odes to breathtaking mountain views of sky and sea. Something like Peter Mayle’s famous Year in Provence, perhaps…  Let me tell you — warn you — dear reader, you are not in for a book like that!

The title change was a very good idea, because Todd Babiak’s fifth novel is a no-holds-barred-thriller that doesn’t simply use France as a fancy backdrop but instead probes the country’s seamy and corrupt underbelly.  When it opens, I found myself experiencing a profound feeling of disorientation. That’s appropriate for the premise: our protagonist, Christopher Kruse, has just lost his daughter to a fatal car accident and his wife, Evelyn, has gone missing. A sense of mystery hangs over these pages, like fog in the tight streets of a medieval town. What the hell has happened?

This is the burning question that propels the narrative forward, and boy does it rip, TGV-style, all over France. Kruse, it appears, has been cuckolded; Evelyn was embroiled in an affair with an aspiring leader of France’s notorious right-wing party, the National Front. That leader, like Kruse’s daughter, is also dead. And Evelyn is suspect number one for his murder.

Kruse’s search for Evelyn is also a search for the truth. It gets him deeper and deeper into interconnected webs of deception, manipulation and political skullduggery at the very highest levels of government, but nothing ever stretches the limits of believability. It does, at times, test the reader’s stomach for violence and brutality. There is an act of torture about halfway through the book that will not help with your insomnia. DOES ANYTHING GOOD EVER HAPPEN IN MARSEILLE?!

Babiak’s book comes at a curious time for those of us who grew up as francophiles. France is still the most heavily-visited tourist nation in the world, for obvious reasons (the Louvre, Avignon, Normandy, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean – all in the same country?). Sensible Americans envy its world class health care system. And France’s citizens are mostly — and again to the envy of so many — still quite svelte, unlike those flabby and beer bloated hooligans inhabiting the country just the other side of the English Channel. And France’s literary culture still generates considerable excitement and notoriety. Writers like Michel Houellebecq have become national heroes/villains.

But… but… as Babiak’s book so adroitly makes clear: there are two Frances. There is the France of “The South of France,” and the France of Come Barbarians, set, by the way, in the early 1990s. This France is well on its way to becoming the France of today, even less mythic, more conflicted, which passes laws prohibiting public sector employees from wearing the hijab or turban and, tiresomely, inspires a new government in Quebec to attempt a similar act. Each version of France fascinates, intrigues, and enrages those who take the time to get to know it.

In short, France cuts a pretty arresting figure on the narrative scene.

As for Babiak’s prose, it is tight, like an electrical wire. It primarily serves the plot, but like any good power-line, it hums along and goes everywhere: from a nondescript hotel in the ‘burbs to a gendarmerie in an ancient cobblestone town to a crowded political forum. The following brief but telling scene, I think, gives a pretty good insight into the kind of master craftsman’s touches to expect:

The ugly courtyard in front of the Sorbonne was deserted. He could see his champagne breath as he exited the taxi, whose driver was from Afghanistan and longed to be in London or New York, where a man could go from poor to rich in only a year or two. He could not marry and raise a child in this country of whores and faggots because a man does not own his wife and child in France–the state owns everything. La France, yes? La? Even the men are womanly. It is illegal to touch your own wife, to smack your own child if he is misbehaving. What sort of life is that, Monsieur?

Kruse did not give the driver a tip.

CanLit’s detractors sometimes claim our books are too nice, polite and reserved. No one is going to say that about this book. Come Barbarians, like France, compels our attention, throwing dirty punches one second, and charming us with wit and sophistication the next–and never apologizing  for holding us unflinchingly in its callused grip.

My article about peak oil, which includes an interview with James Howard Kunstler, is now online.

If you’ve ever driven or been driven somewhere, used a plastic container or its contents, eaten the produce of a fertilized field, purchased goods transported by airplane, truck or boat – in short, if you’ve done anything except live the life of a feudal peasant, you have been benefitting massively from oil and its derivatives. Just a few of our favourite oil products include gasoline, diesel, naptha, kerosene, ethylene, propylene, benzene, ammonia, methanol, plastics, synthetic fibres, synthetic rubbers, detergents, and chemical fertilisers.

“Life as we know it today would be extremely difficult without crude oil and its by-products,” declares OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries).

No kidding.

In The Long Emergency, a book I remember making a small media storm upon its release in 2005, author James Howard Kunstler invites us to imagine a world in which oil supply is highly contested, and eventually, a world in which oil might no longer be readily available at all.

Read the rest at the warehouse.

I am almost finished the final draft of my book.  At this time in writing long works, I always get a bit scared that a bus will plough into me, turning me into strawberry jam.  It is not a nice thought.  I would hate to die without having the finished work get into somebody else’s hands.

The most recent draft of the book was emailed to my Yahoo account and currently sits in a file called Blind Spot.  This is as close to the final version as currently exists.  There is a note to myself in chapter 32 to rewrite the remainder of the chapter.  If I did not get around to that, chapter 27 from the previous draft would suffice.

 A draft also exists on my USB key, called — appropriate enough — “Blind Spot.”

All that said, I do intend to stay alive and finish things off!  Probably this weekend!

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