Monday, 23 April 2018

THE GARAGE SAILOR

Pricing, Proofs and Packaging – Part I

Thursday evening I signed off the seventh printer’s proof of my third novel The Garage Sailor. This after a first draft scribbled six or seven years ago and six or seven rewrites. So many corrections. It’s too late to start the story all over again, rewrite it. The moment to let it go has come. In a couple weeks I’ll break the champagne bottle, launch the book, wait and watch, see if it floats.

Meanwhile, now’s the time to fret and sweat. There must be an error in its pages, typographical or grammatical. There must be an inelegant sentence somewhere in the prose, a rhythm breaker. My unconfident voice of self-doubt has risen from a whisper to a scream. How do I arrive at a price point for what is surely the worst novel ever written in the entire literary history of humanity?

In general economic theory, a product is sold at a price which ensures that its replacement twin may be efficiently manufactured and brought to market. Discounting the intricacies involved in most commercial transactions, the terms of exchange are clear. Should I sell you item A for one dollar, your money must allow me to make another item A and shill it at the same price you paid. Seems simple enough.

The rule of thumb in the brave new world of DIY publishing is to settle upon a cover price that is triple the cost per unit. The math accounts for expensive incidentals beyond simply printing a book: cover art, internal formatting, proofs, corrections (and the time they take) and couriers. It’s an insane equation for an author like me who’s never sold well to begin with – but hey, those dizzy weeks for my first two novels on the Edmonton Journal’s Top Ten list, they can’t take that away from me – I’m too insignificant to realize any economies of scale; this is the reality for many writers.

The Garage Sailor’s cover price of $29.98 was arrived at after some research and a few post-midnight cigarettes with the neighbourhood’s nocturnal creatures, skunks mostly. I ultimately went with my instinct. That competitive number allowed for a slight return on investment and did not breach a potential reader’s psychological barrier of $30 for a 6”x9” trade paperback. As the plot revolves around a music fan, a man who collects vinyl, I thought there was some resonance with $29.98: about the cost of two issues of either of those biblical British music magazines, MOJO or Uncut, or one new single LP.

And that, I thought, is that. So my attention slowly turned toward a projected fourth novel, a light-hearted ‘Walter Mitty’ fable with elements of science fiction exploring the universe of cancer and death. Naturally there have been a few false starts and a couple of different working titles. Oh, a beginning, a middle and an end would be handy, whatever their order. Life has had a way of providing lessons to me about stuff I really didn’t care to know about; I’ve got to write it down.

But not yet. This morning over bowls of chewy coffee a good friend of mine, a voracious reader, an author himself, and a fellow who appreciates the arcane craft involved in producing an actual physical book, said to me, “There are so many wonderful books out there. How do you choose, how can you?” I said, “What are you reading now?” He replied, “John le Carre and that’s because we’ve talked about him and you seem to hold him in such high esteem. Otherwise…”

Otherwise… The journey of The Garage Sailor hasn’t ended with a pen drop and a price point. The title needs to be advertised, brought to market and somehow distributed to interested readers. This is the part I didn’t sign up for.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

Uncle. UNCLE!

Tuesday morning, please be gone, I’m tired of you, hey, hey…

My sense this morning was that everyone living on our street has given up, become apathetic. The cause of so many drooped shoulders was not the news, economic, political, social or otherwise. No, it was the weather, the last damn thing anyone in any community has in common with their neighbours. The oppressive bone-toned sky rained down pins and needles, freezing rain and diamond-hard pellets of ice.

During the winter months most Edmontonians are diligent about keeping their walks, driveways, back lanes and public sidewalks clear, shoveling snow and spreading sand, grit or salt. I saw my first spring robin yesterday, Monday. A glimpsed red breast through a soapy car wash windshield blinding snowstorm, a bemused bird perched in a birch tree in the front yard. The flakes had snowballed on their journey down from the clouds, splatting to the ground in wet clumps. A bough of the overgrown lilac that usually overhangs and frames the garage door was bowed enough to block entry and exit.

I gave the bush a few whacks with my red plastic snow plow whose scraping edge has been chewed into some fatal-looking line you’d see on a medical chart. I reluctantly cleared a narrow path through the cardiac arrest snow for our newspaper carrier. The snow rolled up like a lead blanket. Shovel drop; nobody else on the street had even bothered to pick theirs up: sick and tired and fed up with this, this endless assault of winter.

Things had seemed so fine on Sunday. There was a flash of garter belt blue in the sky, the teasing band of a come hither spring. It seemed warmer outside the Crooked 9 than inside. I sat on the porch enjoying the mild temperature although I had to wear a fleece pullover and a scarf. The windows were open to create draughts of fresh air, change the stale atmosphere after months of low light and freezing cold. I’d left the front door ajar for the cat and because Van Morrison live at the Rainbow in 1973 was on the stereo in the living room: Turn it up! A little bit higher, so you know, it’s got soul. Turn it up!

Two men, both of them a little older than me, walked up the driveway. I didn’t recognize them. They mentioned the music spilling out into the street. Uh-oh, I put my cigarette and beer down. But on that same note, they’d arrived on a nobler mission than one of sniffy complaint: to gauge interest in a proposed block party in June or maybe July, blocking off the street and getting neighbours together for a shaker. I said, “Yeah, sounds great. Summer will be here before we know it.”

And, well, gee, on a lazy April Sunday summer seemed like a genuine possibility. A sure bet in fact because there was some semblance of spring in the city, something I could actually smell. But that was then.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

SAINTS PRESERVE US

KAOS!

Can you hear the discordant notes in the music of the geopolitical spheres? Is it just me? My latest issue of The Economist reports that more global citizens have lost their lives to murder than have died in military conflict. The difference might be semantic as there are degrees of murder as opposed to the blanket euphemism of sustained collateral damage in combat zones. Apparently though, the planet (and war itself) is safer than ever before. Yet on the morning Friday, April 13th while perusing The Globe and Mail and trying to make heads and tails of things, my sense was of a tossed coin flipping in the air, that the existing statistics on killing might be reversed.

“Perfect world” war is waged in enemy territory. Unlike sports, real warriors don’t play for home field advantage. Even better is a war fought by proxy in a distant elsewhere wherein the main adversaries employ third party patsies to do their dirty work while still making nice at the United Nations and ducking any potential blow-back on the home front. Since war is a human construct, it is rarely a tidy exercise. SNAFU and FUBAR occur in a hurry and well, gee, things tend to escalate. Syria is a prime example.

Russia is an ally of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s little tin god. He is either a monster who deploys chemical weapons against his own people or a legitimate ruler struggling to maintain his government whilst in the throes of civil war. The United States, intently interested in promoting democracy, backs the rebels or terrorists, depending upon your point of view. Just for fun, let’s throw homeless Kurds and neighbouring Turks, Iraqis, Israelis, Lebanese and various sectarian factions into the cesspool. And let’s add more organic waste to our tailings pond of sewage because Allah knows the ultimate agendas of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The presidents of the United States and Russia share some history. Just how much, nobody knows. They share a common though loggerhead goal: make their countries great again. One is a buffoon, a dotard, and the other clever and ruthless. Tweeterdumbest warned Russia that an attack on Syria “could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Missiles were launched during the night. Clever ploy or Doctor Strangelove? Now it’s Russia’s turn to make a move in this lethal game of chess with an odious vulgarian who plays only checkers.

Russia, like China, senses America’s End of Empire. There’s a vacuum to be filled, plenty of space available to spin our globe like a top. These countries are emboldened, they will not back down. America has shriveled into a deeply divided and inward-looking country. Cracks in that noble collective have been eroded into chasms, chipped away in part by the machinations of its superpower rivals who utilize the influence of soft power and weaponized information.

A particularly Canadian gag: At the height of the Cold War every structure in Canada west of Manitoba had a southward-pointing arrow painted on its roof. The red directionals were intended to aid Soviet bombers: “The US border is a little further south, Ivan! Keep going!” My childhood, complete with a looming fear of nuclear apocalypse and posted civil defense instructions on ducking a blast has come around again. It's hard to feel nostalgic. There’s a gallon of red paint in the workroom here at the Crooked 9.

Friday, 6 April 2018

THE GARAGE SAILOR

Keith Gallaher 2003-2018

My third novel The Garage Sailor will be available before the end of the month. I’ve parted ways with my publisher and have decided to go full indie on this one. What could possibly go wrong with this fictional experiment? My instinct tells me too that my recurring anti-hero Keith Gallaher has reached the end of his literary life. The Garage Sailor is a story involving a broken-hearted record collector saddled with obligations to a diabetic tabby cat. Keith is a minor character who plays an integral role in the plot.

My three books were never conceived as a trilogy. Each one was written to stand or fall by itself, sell or stiff. Keith Gallaher emerged fully formed from the pages of an orange Hilroy exercise book before the turn of the century. He is the protagonist and narrator of Murder Incorporated. He is a wistful ex-pat Montrealer who works out west in the advertising industry. He loves the Canadiens, spy thrillers and the Who, and is overly fond of beer and cigarettes. He’s not me: write what you know.

My existence had been a see-saw of duality. If my personal life was great, my professional life was misery and vice versa. Neither went well at the same time, always a cigarette smoke dream of mine. Then I began to wonder what would happen if both anchors went overboard simultaneously. I needed a name for a drowning man being pulled only in one direction, down.

I wanted a short, tough, rock ‘n’ roll given name. They don’t come any better than Keith Moon, Keith Relf and Keith Richards. Ignatius Gallaher is a passing character in James Joyce’s Ulysses, I believe he turns up in a pub – forgive me, I haven’t re-reread the novel in two decades. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was the founder of the Jesuit order and that resonated with me because I was fortunate enough to attend Montreal’s Loyola High School. The surname of Joyce’s character intrigued me; readers might inadvertently add a second g to create the more common Gallagher. My own given name of Geoffrey has been butchered by bureaucrats and by people who know me – so much so that it’s even wrong in my 1977 high school graduation yearbook. My ad man would get as prickly and rankled over perceived slights as I do.

The original title of Murder Incorporated was Taking Stock, suggesting ruminations on a life and an oblique reference to the usage of stock photography in print advertising. My publisher thought it boring so I used the name of the boutique ad agency depicted in the novel, one which I’d lifted from a Bruce Springsteen rarity. Sticking with the Boss theme, I called my second novel The Last of the Duke Street Kings, a line I stole from Springsteen’s ‘Backstreets,’ a song about loyalty and friendship. My publisher thought it was too long and so we settled on Duke Street Kings.

It’s fair to say that my first genuine experience of grief was the Beatles’ break up. Life got real in a hurry once my parents divorced and relatives on either side of the split began to die off. The Fab Four was the first shock though, after all, they were best friends. I have been blessed with a few lifelong friendships that I treasure. I may have angered or embarrassed (or both) my closest friends over the course of 45 or even 50 years, but we’re still a gang because I’ve been forgiven or plain laughed at. “When you’re a Jet…” Naturally, I began to speculate on how bonds could be broken.

If Keith Gallaher hooked up with a few ex-Montrealers around his age in Calgary, I thought it likely that some of those old musketeers would’ve grown up in the same neighbourhood, perhaps on the same street. Loyola dominated my life from 1973 through 1977. I spent a lot of time in the west end. The Catholic girls I lost my high school heart to and head over all lived in the vicinity. The streets and the avenues were archly named, very British: Oxford, Regent, Royal, Coronation, Mayfair, King Edward… The urban geography would handle the insertion of an imagined Duke of Windsor Street which the locals would contract to Duke Street.

If Keith was to be an equal member of a larger cast, he would have to interact with the other characters on a regular basis. A pub seemed like an apt setting for that to happen. These fellows would need a reason to get together frequently and I’d no interest in researching the nuances of pool or darts. There was a period in my life when I spent too much time in bars because the alternative was going home. That field research paid off double at the window. Many local establishments engaged shuttle buses for their patrons’ convenience, transport to sporting events, pre- and post-game drinking assured. Others sponsored pick-up slo-pitch or midnight shinny teams. I had a hook. And dear me - the conversational topics when unhappy guys sit around bending unfiltered elbows – I couldn’t make them up.

Spencer Graham is the hero of The Garage Sailor. He’s a burnt-out social worker, something of a well-meaning milquetoast. In his role as a counsellor it was conceivable to me that he could encounter a troubled Keith Gallaher, a man whose marriage has been a whitewater ride through the tunnel of love. Can either one of these stunted, hardcore music fans recognize a kindred soul? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Ultimately Spencer and Keith find themselves together in a hotel room, menaced at gunpoint. One of them will talk, attempting to dial the tension knob down. For the other, the needle drops: rash actions twist and shout volumes.

Monday, 2 April 2018

A FAN’S NOTES

Seeing the Real You at Last

In the dead of winter a good friend and fellow Bob Dylan fan gave me a book called ‘Why Bob Dylan Matters’ for my birthday. Its author is Richard F. Thomas, a Harvard man, a Professor of the Classics. The premise of the modest tome is that Dylan since the release of “Love and Theft” (the album title really matters in this instance) has been liberally lifting lines and imagery originally penned by the poets of antiquity. The Nobel laureate (and former high school Latin clubber) has been borrowing from the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid et al.

However, in the insular kingdom of ivory towers, this is not plagiarism; it is instead a process known as intertextualization wherein the light-fingered writer brazenly builds upon words which came before thereby altering their contexts, whereas the plagiarist attempts to conceal sources in order to assume authorship. If you don’t care to think twice about intertextualization, it’s all right.

Last week my friend and I attended a lecture by Professor Thomas on the University of Alberta campus, ‘Bob Dylan and the Classics.’ The idea of an academic talk on His Bobness amused me. After 45 years of listening to Dylan, reading interviews and books, going to concerts and watching documentary films, movies or promotional videos, it had come down to this. Educated chatter. It was equally strange for me to once again haunt the hallowed halls of higher learning.

My introduction to His Bobness, Dylan 101, commenced in 1974 when I bought Before the Flood, the double live set featuring the Band. It was current then and I knew all the songs. Of course, they sounded nothing like the Greatest Hits versions I was familiar with. First lesson absorbed. By virtue of a simple twist of fate, ’74 was an opportune time for a 14-year-old to dive into Dylan because Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes and Desire soon followed.

The evening at the U of A began snippily enough. The head of the English Department lamented that the event had to be staged in a room in the Faculty of Business because doesn’t it just get all the funding? After her introduction, things became awkward for Professor Thomas. From the lectern he asked the 60 or 70 students and teachers present if anyone had read his book. I waved my copy at him. Great, at least one copy sold in Edmonton. Had anyone heard Tempest, Dylan’s latest album of original material from 2012? I raised my hand, lonely as a cloud. Okay, had anyone seen ‘Masked and Anonymous,’ Dylan’s last foray into acting? Oh dear, just me. Surely everyone had listened to Dylan’s requisite Nobel lecture set to a tinkling piano and in which he cited ‘The Odyssey’ as a major influence on his art? Merely me again. Right, what about Dylan’s book ‘Chronicles,’ who’d read it? My friend and I reluctantly raised our hands, the two of us alone in the lecture hall.

The distinguished and erudite visitor left his final question unspoken: Just what the fuck are you all doing here, exactly? I thought it worth posing aloud, very Dylanesque. His Bobness has been asking his audience, all of us together through life in modern times, that same question in one song after another, in his words or another’s since 1962.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

The Chattering Classes

It has been a remarkable morning inside the property lines of the Crooked 9 even though the temperature outside is an unpleasantly frigid -18. There’s a party going on in the backyard, about 10 feet above the two feet of accumulated snow. A massive, noisy flock of Bohemian waxwings are feasting on the frozen mountain ash berries and wizened crab apples that dangle above the rotted, collapsing back fence.

Birds have come to fascinate me these past four or five years. They are beautiful creatures, elegantly designed. The many, many species seem to work well together amongst themselves, as if the pairs or flocks constitute one collective brain. The nearby river valley provides a rich habitat for all sorts of singers and I am curious about my world, what’s wafting on the ether.

I’ve moved Ann’s late father’s bird books up from the basement and shelved them by the backdoor where the windows are. I did download the Cornell University Merlin bird app to my iPad, but when I want to learn more about a subject I’m inclined to reach for a book, old school. Ann’s dad told her that after he died he intended to come back as a woodpecker. And doesn’t a proud pileated woodpecker hang around the Crooked 9 in the late fall or early winter, tock-tock-tocking on the birch trees and back alley telephone poles. I lost my faith a long time ago because of science and customer dissatisfaction and yet I still give up hope for Lent every year, old habits. However, the constant kah-kah-kahing of a big bird with a crimson punk crest makes me wonder about the nature of existence and the nature of stardust motes in the cosmos.

At this time of year Bohemian waxwings are preparing to migrate north to a scrubby band of Canada which lies between the boreal forest and the Arctic tundra. They’re leaving town to nest and mate, ceding their Edmonton turf to incoming Canada geese. Nature knows spring is here even if humans are shivering beneath a blue sky and high yellow sun.

There was a strange magic in our frozen world earlier this morning. Said flock of waxwings, at least a hundred birds with enviable rock ‘n’ roll haircuts, swirled and swarmed from our neighbour’s towering willow tree and alit on an overgrown and under-pruned bush by our front walk, landscape scraggle growth we neglect for privacy purposes. Ann and I were outside, transfixed five feet away, unable to puff on our cigarettes. For a moment there was stillness and silence, nothing else existed, nothing else ever had.

The flock on some silent cue then exploded into an arrowhead, a laser-guided football Flying V formation cloud. Whoosh! I have heard some remarkable sounds in my life: the Who at maximum volume from the tenth row in the Montreal Forum, the leggy whine of cicadas on a hot, humid summer’s day, the buzzing whir of a World Cup cycling peloton, the who-are-you hoot of a great horned owl overhead at midnight and the howls of hungry coyotes in the dusk, but I have never before heard a sound like one hundred pairs of wings displacing air in concert. Maybe we heard the noise of the Holy Spirit, or a departing soul.

Monday, 26 March 2018

A FAN’S NOTES

Lightfoot in a Vacuum

Nearly 30 years ago I sauntered into a downtown Edmonton pub called the Rose and Crown. I was carrying a hardcover book which I’d just plucked from the remainder shelf of a nearby Coles bookshop. I was on time to meet another ex-pat Montrealer for a social pint. The book was the translated memoirs of Rene Levesque, Quebec’s first separatist premier. My friend said, “Why would you read that?” I said, “Well, we’re both here, aren’t we?” A thousand miles from many places, especially a since departed home city and province in which neither one of us felt particularly welcome anymore.

I was seeking some insight, curious about the mind of a man who was a factor in prompting me to make an unwelcome and life-altering decision. And I needed to get some sense of Alberta, where I landed, and so I delved and dove into other books about the western Canada, history and fiction. I had to understand where I left and why, and where and why I went where I did. I craved context in order to get a handle on my displacement and my new, blossoming sense of another place.

I’m currently reading a book about another prominent Canadian who has also had an impact on my perception of this country and my place in it because “there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.” Lightfoot by Toronto-based music writer Nicholas Jennings is the first in-depth work I’ve read about Gordon Lightfoot, our blonde troubadour. Good memoirs and biographies reveal their subjects to the reader in part by inserting the reader into the subject’s environment. A portrait of a person cannot exist on a plain white canvas; there must be a backdrop, context. Lightfoot is a curiously dry and colourless rendering of a towering figure on the Canadian songscape.

To be fair to Jennings, these past months I’ve immersed myself in Canadian music literature. Robbie Robertson’s Testimony guided me through northern Ontario, Toronto, upper New York State, the Big Apple and Los Angeles during tumultuous and ever-evolving times. With Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man I walked the streets of Montreal with Leonard Cohen and shared a room with him in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel. Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond), the adopted son of a blind, alcoholic Royal Canadian Air Force rear gunner, held my hand in the back alleys of Hamilton’s toughest neighbourhood, and again as we endured the shakes and sweats of rehab in Beautiful Scars. Still, these titles are the competition; these are the books on the shelf alongside Lightfoot.

Prior to Lightfoot’s birth in 1938 his hometown of Orillia was best known in the guise of Mariposa, the provincial Ontario town portrayed and gently lampooned in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912). Jennings describes Leacock as Canada’s Mark Twain, a lazy analogy which does not constitute context about anything. Ronnie Hawkins, one of Canadian music’s most charming and certifiably lunatic characters, is just a “friend.” Lightfoot played the Gaslight where his idol Bob Dylan had once performed; perhaps that joint’s in Yonkers.

The simplistic Dick and Jane premise of Lightfoot is that Gordon Lightfoot is Canada’s Bob Dylan. He is not. Nobody is anybody’s Dylan. Dylan has zigged, zagged and worn so many masks that a chameleon like David Bowie died trying to keep up. Even rival Canadian contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Neil Young (both absented from Jennings’s narrative for the most part) have always taken the fork in the road, exploring genres far beyond the realm of their musical roots and rote comfort zones. Mingus? Trans?

An element of creative genius is an innate understanding of what not to do. Once Lightfoot established a sound that perfectly complimented the timbre of his voice, his precise enunciation and the emotional depth of his lyrics, that rich acoustic six- and 12-string blend of folk and soft rock virtuoso stylings, he stuck with it. The crash course in Lightfoot is the Warner Bros. release Gord’s Gold, produced by Lenny Waronker. Crucially, the set features rerecorded versions of Lightfoot’s earlier hits waxed for United Artists label. That album is the definitive sonic definition of Lightfoot’s unique oeuvre. This is how we hear him.

Gordon Lightfoot is his own artist. No Dylan, and no one else either. My hunch is that Gordon Lightfoot is not as bland and boring as the character portrayed in Lightfoot. The author of ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Minstrel of the Dawn’ deserves a more thorough and colourful study. With more context. Lightfoot reads something like a lengthy obituary: dry as dust, slight bon motes.

Until the ultimate book about Gordon Lightfoot is written, there is silly succor. Visit YouTube and search ‘Burton Cummings (Guess Who) sings Gordon Lightfoot.’ The footage is barely three minutes, it’s a brilliant parody performed with affection. It speaks more to Lightfoot than Lightfoot does, more telling. It puts Gordon Lightfoot in his rightful place, revered by a fellow legend, with context.