Archive for January, 2011

One Good Idea

Friday, January 28th, 2011

A well-known writer friend (11 novels to her name) recently mentioned that she doesn’t blog (despite publicists urging her to do so) because, so she claims, she only has one good idea every three-fours years and she doesn’t want to waste it on a blog.  This got me thinking that many terrific writers seem in fact to have the same good idea every three-four years.  Seriously, isn’t a good two-thirds of Margaret Atwood’s work, and all of her earlier stuff, about isolation?  Not in the survival, lonely Canadian winter sense, but the person just on the fringe of mainstream society with a bit of feminist angst sense.  Someone like Anne Tyler meanwhile always – everything I’ve ever read by her at any rate – writes about the “hidden” depths, mysteries of everyday people.  And really, could Graham Greene have had any more struggles with his faith?  But the more I think about it, the more OK I’m with that.  If a writer does a particular theme well, and it’s obviously of interest to him/her, and the theme is rich enough, why not keep going back to the well?  As a reader I even take a certain comfort from that.  Sure it’s nice to have a book full of surprises, but sitting down with a good writer struggling with a certain known idea can be like comfort food.  So could you please pass me some Nick Hornby?

The WHOLE Story

Friday, January 21st, 2011

...it's all in the follow through

We recently read The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre in my book club.  Members were pretty evenly divided between annoyance at the narrative being a little too cryptic (what exactly did the dad do to the daughter?) and those who enjoyed the ambiguity since, hey, that’s the way life is.  I’m personally OK with ambiguity.  It can even be kind of fun.  But I do think that there is an obligation on the part of the author not to leave the reader unsatisfied.  While this can, and probably does, regularly happen – you don’t like the writing, you find the protagonist annoying, it’s just not your thing – and there is little the author can do about it (short of being a better or different writer), the author can avoid setting up the expectation that a particular issue is sufficiently central that it will be resolved, and then simply not follow through.

Sharon Pollock, a fabulous playwright I had the great pleasure of working with on several occasions, once said that the audience is typically willing to go along with the writer on anything as long as you signal to them early the kind of journey they’re on (i.e., no act three appearances of an extra-terrestrial in a Victorian bedroom drama unless there was a space ship in the first act).  I would add to that, having sold them on a particular type of trip, don’t sell them short (i.e., if there was space ship in the first act, those aliens damn well better make an appearance before the end of the show).

In Memory of Paul Quarrington

Friday, January 14th, 2011
Paul Quarringtion

Paul Quarrington, photo by Irene Duma

Paul Quarrington was my mentor through the Humber School of Writers correspondence program in 2009.  He passed away a year ago on January 21 at age 56.  Much was written at the time of his passing about how wonderfully generous and hugely talented he was.  All of it so true.  I had an experience demonstrating just how generous. 

The Humber program is seven month long program wherein the student provides a manuscript for the mentor to comment on.  Paul and I were working on Tumbling After.  In about May 2009, I was getting a bit impatient since I hadn’t heard from Paul for quite a bit so I finally sent him an email – polite but written with the underlying righteousness of, “Hey, I’m paying for your feedback.”  Paul wrote back apologizing for the delay, mentioning, but not offering it up as an excuse, that he had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.  Much abashed, I assured him that something else could probably be worked out with Humber, but he insisted carrying on with the work.  And he did, providing comments on all but the last pages of my novel.  But this is not the amazing part.

Paul had indicated that he would recommend the book to the HSW Literary Agency.  The normal protocol for this is an actual letter of recommendation.  While I had an email from him saying that he would do so, I had no letter.  This was the fall of 2009 and I really didn’t want to bug him about it, but my prospects were not looking good without the letter.  Plus, I self-interestedly reasoned, I had seen him perform with his (terrific) band in October – how bad could it be?  So in November I emailed him one more time to ask about the letter.  He responded immediately, apologizing that he had been so tardy but he had been laid up in a Calgary hospital, having suffered a heart attack.  He sent me a letter that night before he checked into a Toronto hospital.  Two months later he was gone.

I am still overwhelmed.

Hand me my rabbit’s foot!

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Actors are a superstitious bunch.  They’re like NHL hockey players during the playoffs.  Although, shaving is normally required if one is to appear on the stage night after night, this doesn’t mean that a particular pair of socks won’t be repeatedly worn.  And a plague on any who dares mention luck before opening or, at any point, breathes the name of a certain dead Scottish king.  Even outside the theatre.  Writers are not necessarily much different: certain sweaters that must be worn, rifts of music that must be listened to, all to summon the muse or at least ward off the “block”. 

While I am not so foolish as to say Macbeth out loud on stage, I have largely managed to stay clear of falling into “good luck rituals”.  They can become debilitating.  At times due to their sheer length.  Always because a missed step can mess with your psyche.  Besides, it’s not only liberating but often necessary, given that writing is not my day job, to be able to write anywhere.  Now if I could only do it without having to win a game of solitaire first … just kidding but I do know an actor who wouldn’t go near the theatre until he had.  Not shaving would be easier.