Category Archives: A Person of Letters

Progress on “The Wind From All Directions”

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I hope your summer was wonderful. Mine was.  It’s almost a year since Poplar Lake was released, and I haven’t posted here for months, at least on the subject of writing. I’m no longer New Release but Back List, and I’m writing again. The project I’m working on is one I’ve been working on, on and off, for fifteen years. It’s an historical novel set in the Pacific Northwest in 1792. That year, British mariner George Vancouver, on a voyage to chart the last unknown stretches of the North American coast, met Spanish commodore Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra in Yuquot (Friendly Cove), in remote Nootka Sound. For a month that autumn, they wined and dined and played gunboat diplomacy while trying to convince the other to withdraw and cede his country’s territorial claims within the region. Neither asked the local Indigenous people what they thought. “Yuquot,” by the way, in the language of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht who lived there (and still do) means “the winds blow from many directions.” During those weeks of genteel pageantry and tense negotiations, the name of the places was particularly apt. And as the discussions became deadlocked, there was a murder, a murder that was never solved.

True story, so far. When I came across that nugget, buried in footnotes to primary sources, I knew there was a great story there and that I had to tell it. I went to work, researching and imagining the place, the time, life aboard a ship, life on the coast, the characters, the fraternization, the conflicts. I wrote a novel, which I called The Wind From All Directions. The first version didn’t work; it was historically authentic but it wasn’t alive. It didn’t breathe as it had to do. So I wrote it again.  TWFAD v2 worked well enough to convince an agent to take it (and me) on. While he circulated the manuscript to publishers in Canada, the US, and the UK, I worked on other projects, projects which crystallized into A Person of Letters (published in 2015) and Poplar Lake (2018).

The Wind From All Directions never found a home with a publisher, and I didn’t look at it again until 2017, after I’d signed a publishing contract for Poplar Lake and was wondering what I’d work on next. I blew the dust off my now-ancient manuscript and read it cover to cover. I saw immediately that it needed work, that my initial reach had exceeded my grasp. Readers want a good story, well told. In TWFAD, I had the former, not the latter.  This was a humbling realization.

I decided to rewrite Wind. I started from scratch, re-imagining the story, re-inventing its characters. I spent a lot of time puzzling over what I see as the central challenge, which I failed to solve in TWFAD v2: that is, of how to relate a story about a time so far removed from the modern, one that has British, Spanish, and Indigenous characters, and that captures their drivers, their motivations, their truths, while connecting with modern readers who know nothing about the period. The key, I realized, lay in the narrative voice, and I came up with a novel (so to speak) solution for that; and I’ve finally worked my way  through the story from start to finish and produced a first draft. Call it TWFAD v3 d1. Now I begin the process of kicking the crap out of d1 to produce d2. That’s what the writing process entails—at least my writing process. I’ll say more about the narrative challenges and the voice I’ve chosen and the project in general in future posts. Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board.

Yuquot remains a beautiful and unspoiled place, not much changed from the place where high drama and diplomacy played out in 1792. I’ve included photos of it as it was and as it is as a teaser for those interested.

Image result for friendly cove nootka sound henry humphreys
Yuquot, or Friendly Cove, in Nootka Sound, as it appeared in 1792. The buildings are part of the Spanish settlement.  Source: BC Archives at the Royal BC Museum, Item PDP02047

The Book Cover and 911

A Person of Letters at 1 World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) in New York

Today, as the anniversary of 911 approaches, I want to put aside the whimsical APOL tour to talk about the cover of A Person of Letters. Person is a satire on writing, creativity, obsession, and love. That encompasses a lot of territory, and while there is humour in the book, there is absolutely nothing funny about 911.  So why are those two not-quite-WTC towers depicted on the cover of the book?

Perhaps it was an over-reach. Those who have read Person know that it is not about 911. It is the life story of its narrator, and yes, he is there, in one of the towers, on September 11. He, like so many others, got out of bed that morning, put on his socks, and went about his business, not suspecting the cataclysm that was to come. He survived, although he is wounded and scarred, both physically and psychologically, by the experience. It changes him, and having cheated death (or so he believes) he changes the course of his life, setting out to write—to become a man of letters.

Back in the early, gleam-in-the-eye days when I began work on Person, I decided to subject an ordinary (if quirky) character to a life-changing ordeal, and imagine how he would react and what he would do. The question was, what kind of ordeal? I didn’t want it to be the subject of the book. I reasoned that by throwing him into the horrific cataclysm that was 911, he would be traumatized and forced to take stock of his life—and as everyone knows what happened that day, I would not have to write about the event itself. My skills were (are) simply not up to that task, and it was what happened afterwards that I wanted to explore: how he responds.

He is certainly deeply affected; he manifests all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress; but in his survivor’s guilt, he refuses to acknowledge his own PTSD. He chooses instead to escape—he writes about anything but the experience that traumatized and nearly killed him. He becomes obsessed, and as his journey unfolds, he veers (possibly—it is left to the reader to decide) into madness. Is the spark external (his experience) or internal (a seed that was always there)? (Or is it pharmaceutical? I left many clues to that possibility.)

I wanted to examine many things in Person: if there is a manic aspect to creativity; the point at which obsession becomes madness; and how somebody’s creation actually becomes “art”—how does it get recognized? To my narrator’s credit, he refuses to be defined by the 911 experience; he is an everyman who takes up a pen, and he wants only to be known on the merit of his oeuvre. But that is not how things work, and ultimately he is defined in terms suggested by others.

911 is a turning point in the character’s life, but A Person of Letters is not about 911, and I know that the picture on its cover confuses some people on that point. In light of that confusion, I might today choose different imagery, but artist Andrew Judd’s iconic image was created to be symbolic, not literal.  What appear to be two towers, one flaming , one inert, are actually books. Person’s protagonist finds relief from his trauma in writing. The two volumes represent his first book, which has come to nothing, and his second, which is stalled. Perhaps the reason is his refusal from the start to confront his trauma straight on. Instead, he produced a muddled, un-publishable nautical epic, an escape, so he thought, but in truth an avoidance; hence the ship on Person’s cover, sailing away from the conflagration at its centre.

For those who question the cover, I accept your perspective. 911 was a cruel tragedy. But inspiration comes from many places, and in many forms. From darkness springs insight, and in this case, dark farce; and hopefully, a modicum of truth.

Note: Information on my novel A Person of Letters is available at Martin Scribler Media. The book’s solo world tour is documented on this tour archive; it owes much to magical realism.

Now Showing at Ben McNally’s

Ben McNally's Books - interiorI’m pleased to report that my novel, A Person of Letters, is now available at Ben McNally Books on Bay Street in Toronto. This is a homecoming of sorts for Person’s narrator, a designer of financial derivatives who once worked on Bay Street. Appropriately, his homecoming coincides with the opening today of The Big Short, an excellent movie adapted from an excellent book about the near collapse of the global economy – primarily because of gonzo financial innovations like the derivatives Person used to think up.

Ben McNally Books is Toronto’s literary hotspot, a booklover’s delight, a bastion of books amid the downtown towers. Go in and browse – you’ll enjoy the experience. (I certainly enjoy seeing APOL on its shelves!)

Many readers of APOL have provided generous feedback on the book (thank you!) and asked how they can help raise its profile. My reply is – tell a friend. That’s the single best thing you can do. There are more things too, if you’re so inclined. Post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, your blog, or elsewhere. Ask for it at your local library. Ask for it at your favourite bookstore. Suggest it to your book club. Follow my Facebook Author Page. Share links. All of these actions, all of your word of mouth efforts, are greatly appreciated!

Merry Christmas to all, and thank you for your support in 2015. All the best in the New Year!

A Person of Letters, Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Bike trimOver the last several weeks I’ve been personally delivering signed copies of A Person of Letters to people all over Toronto. Usually I do this on my bike. It’s a great form of exercise, and if I wasn’t delivering (and visiting along the way) I’d be cycling anyway on my favourite route through High Park and along Lake Ontario to the mouth of the Mimico and back.

A number of people farther afield have asked how they might get a signed copy of the book.  It’s fantastic to have a personal connection with readers, wherever they may be – but I can’t cycle to Calgary or Victoria. It’s getting cold even going as far as Mimico. In a month or so I’ll need to park the bike for winter.

Today I’m pleased to let you know I’ve worked out a way, via PayPal, to get a personalized copy to those who’d like one, wherever they may be.  The details of the process (it’s very simple) are posted on publisher Martin Scribler Media‘s website on this link.  I particularly like this solution because it provides readers with a secure purchase option via PayPal.  This is important to me, so I understand how important it is to others.

Locally, I’ll still be delivering personally. It’s not yet time to park the bike – although I’ll wait till the remnants of Hurricane Patricia pass the city before I venture out again!