Category Archives: Reading

World Poetry Day Contributions

…in which I demonstrate my linguistic limitations and narrow perspective of the world but–nevertheless, sharing good poetry.

From Canada, Ken Sparling.

From England, L.A. Salami.

From Ireland, James Stephens.

From Brazil, Hilda Hilst.

From America, Richard Brautigan.

From China, Chiu Chin.

Naked Heart: Sneak Peek

NAKED HEART is back!

This year, I’ll be reading at Sneak Peek: Published Authors Share What They Are Working on Now (Saturday, November 12, 2016, 2:00-3:15 p.m. at the new Glad Day Book Shop at 499 Church Street, Toronto). I’ll be sharing the stage with Christopher DiRaddo, Jessica L. Webb and Liz Bugg.

I know what I’ll be reading from–it’s Greek mythology–but I have no idea as to which section I’ll be reading. You’ll have to attend the event to find out.

The selection of Naked Heart authors is nicely varied; as well as listening to me, attend some of the other readings, workshops and panels held Friday, Saturday and Sunday.


Write What You Know: Using Minority Characters in Fiction

Activity Being Avoided: grocery shopping (am totally out of milk, which inhibits tea and cereal consumption–which means I might die)
Music In My Head: 10 000 Words–The Avett Brothers
Tea Being Drunk: triple-strength peppermint
Book Being Read: Mercy on the Children–David Adams Richards

The book launch went well… for a first-time, self-published book in the centre of the cultural badlands that is suburbia.  I had a good time, in any case.

Here’s the talk I gave yesterday morning.  Pour yourself another cup of tea.

Write What You Know: Using Minority Characters in Fiction

What is a writer?
The question is, quite frankly, a waste of time because there is no correct answer to it. The only thing that can be said with any certainty, in every case, is that a writer is nothing without a reader.
This reader may not be one of the thousands-upon-millions thronging to Chapters for the latest best-seller; this reader might be the writer themselves, waking in the middle of the night and needing comfort from a familiar story in a familiar voice.
As Alberto Manguel says in Notes towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader, “The ideal reader is the writer just before the words come together on the page.”
Ideally, the writer writes for themselves. Let’s be good writers and uphold the noble practise of thievery: we’ll be stealing Manguel’s concept of The Ideal Reader.
So, why is the ideal reader reading? Another reader, the literary critic Northrop Fry, had a theory that the ideal reader is looking for the ideal life. He said, “Literature does not reflect life; …it swallows it.”
When a reader is searching for the answers to life, they turn to books, looking to be swallowed into a world that offers some sort of clarity. As readers, we know this well: the adolescent hours whiled away in the library, devouring the book that gave us an answer, a solution, a moment of relief. We found characters who were just like us, philosophers who thought the way we thought, poets who liked the same words we like. This created a learned behaviour, if you will. We still seek rescue through books.
So now, as writers, we’re trying to put stories on the paper, but our writing is hemmed in by the things we’ve learned in adult life: namely, how to behave in society. We toe the line between conformity and ostracism—at least, on a good day.
But then comes this need to write, and a need to do something productive with this writing. The ideal writer needs to find, hopefully, more than one ideal reader, and publishing is the simplest way to do this. So the writer searches for a means of getting published and runs into the problem of mathematics, where more readers make it easier to get published. How to go about appealing to more readers? Not by appealing to the minority, surely? “You’ll never get published if you don’t appeal to the masses!” (Now, it should be noted that non-fiction seems to be exempt from this rule: the “don’t frighten the horses” rule is for emerging fiction writers.) Agents and publishers echo this idea of conformity and playing nicely with other children.
Writers have all these words bursting from our souls, but society is also telling us not to rock the boat.
Do the readers agree with the agents and publishers?
The ideal reader certainly does not.
The ideal reader is desperately thirsty for knowledge, for the swallowed life.
The ideal reader reveres the work of the Brontë sisters, who provided the insane and insatiable lovers who frequent our dreams.
The ideal reader clasps James Baldwin’s books as if they were life savers: black and homosexual lifesavers.
The ideal reader searches for everything Stephen Fry has ever written: he’s got tall, homosexual, Jewish and bipolar covered.
Sunday schools and preschools, in particular, seem to encourage the concept of everyone being special. The specific interpretation of the word is up to the individual, but the general idea is there: each person has something that makes them unique. This singular trait—or, perhaps like Stephen Fry, a bucket of traits—is the connecting force between the writer and their ideal reader.
Writers of fiction are not known for being normal. To write fiction, one must be able to delve into the abnormal, paring reality down to its strangest parts. Readers don’t want to read about ordinary things: ordinary life is what we have to suffer every day. If the writer takes something ordinary—eating, walking to work—and writes about the extraordinary aspects of it, then the reader slurps it up.
So writers, when doing their best writing, write what they know. Sure, the writer is doing ordinary things like schlepping the kids to school and paying bills, but the writer is able to write about being educated by said schlepped kids and finding Total Enlightenment in the number of zeros on the credit card statement.
The same applies to characters. Just as the ideal writer would not be able to write well about something they’ve never experienced, they cannot write well about a character with whom they are not intimately familiar. The ideal writer, being abnormal in their own creative way, will take a minor trait of their own and add it to the blood infusion given to the character. This is how the ideal character is created. What could have been two-dimensional and commonplace suddenly becomes fleshed-out and animated because of this minor trait which the writer knows like the back of their hand.
The writer knows these things—not “knows” as in has studied or researched, but knows them intrinsically. The short person has no concept of what it’s like to be tall, and the tall person, though they were once shorter, has little-to-no recollection of living in a world where things are out-of-reach and obstacles obscure vision. The short author can write an authentic account of being short; the tall author can write an authentic account of being tall.
We know “write what you know” is a good rule because that’s what brings out our best writing. But to a certain extent, we’re also obligated to write what we know, to give those little moments of relief to the readers who are floundering through a difficult period, searching for something to keep them afloat. Gustave Flaubert said, “Read in order to live.” Writers do that; writers should help others do that.
For the benefit of the ideal reader, write about the less-than-ideal body, skin colour, sexual orientation, belief or persuasion; write about the raw-meat eaters and the blood drinkers; write about the ones who dance on the sky and the ones who sleep in trees. Write about the lack of mental health, the lack of physical health, the lack of emotional health, the lack of spiritual health.
When the ideal writer feels they’ve satisfied the ideal reader, there’s a second reason for rocking the boat with minority characters: tradition. The written word has always been subversive. Political and religious pamphlets are the signs of a society changing. Books are censored and banned (which, thank you, only serves to make them more popular). Writers have been the ones who, if they haven’t been the instigators of the discussion, have done their best to keep the discussion going. The discussion doesn’t have to be negative or violent or obscene. Perhaps it’s about spirituality or philosophy: the perfect blend of, say, spiritualism and Eastern mysticism at time when Christianity is not offering much comfort. (Herman Hesse totally nailed this for a lot of readers). Or perhaps it’s one of the early dystopian novels, The Time Machine or Brave New World, cautioning the reader not to get too limited in their thinking. Or perhaps it’s the book that makes the ideal reader laugh very loudly, in public, at Edward Gorey’s murdered children because it’s the right time for said reader to discover their love of black humour.
The ideal writer has all these new ideas, these new perspectives in their head. By writing these new perspectives, the writer can, in a small but radical way, change the world.
But what about fame and fortune? Well, if it’s fortune you’re looking for, fiction is the wrong way to go about it.
As for fame, society doesn’t remember the majority of its members. It’s the minority that become and remain famous—or infamous; it’s the oddballs, the rabble-rousers, the free-thinkers; it’s the six-year-old Jacob Two-twos who are repressed by their family but can still conquer the monsters, the Heathcliffs who are wholly unsuitable lovers yet capture the heart, and the Hannibal Lecters who challenge the leading culinary experts. These are the heroes who remain in our minds.
Does the writer have an obligation to write what they know at all costs? Logically, no: it’s more important to put food on the table, as a dead writer is useless. But, as the average writer does not depend on writing for their living, we can talk about the moral obligation to provide for the reader—the ideal reader, not some random, faceless reader that has no connection to the writer. This moral obligation is dependant on the individual, but the writer should think back over their literary lives to the times when books provided the wherewithal for life.
As writers, we need to find that transparent filament that lies between “yes, we’ll publish your book” and “what do my readers need?” It will be in a different place for each writer, but one can be a writer without a publisher; one cannot be a writer without a reader.
Both reading and writing provide for two needs: the need to be an individual, and the need to belong to a group. We can find and create the characters that cater to our individual tastes and specific needs of the moment, and with those characters we can be in the group we belong in. Think of it not so much as a rocked boat or a frightened horse, but an exceptional perspective of reality that society will remember whenever the topic comes up.
By giving the ideal reader a world in which they belong, a world in which they can safely learn how to be the human they’re meant to be, a world where they can think the things which need to be thought, the writer becomes the ideal writer.


On Kobo

I made a decision. (Break out the champagne!) The e-books are now available on Kobo.

You can order my books here. (I’m not sure why Holland and Jaime doesn’t have its cover: it does on my author’s dashboard.)


Holland and Jaime: List of Secrets (an excerpt)

On Saturday, October 1st, 2016, To Be Human Again will be published.  Its first public appearance will be at Culture Days at Mississauga Central Library.

Human may be suffering from a serious case of nerves that day, so it will be sitting quietly on a table… shivering, right out in the middle of the Atrium where everyone can see it….

Despite it being Human’s first day, the public reading that day will be from Holland and Jaime.  Holland and Jaime is comfortable being exposed to the world (and the very broad audience at the library will likely be more comfortable with Holland and Jaime than with Human).

You can keep track of events for both Human and Holland and Jaime here.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the Holland and Jaime stories, List of Secrets:


ERIK KEPT A LIST of everyone who knew about him. On the filthy, worn piece of paper was the name of each of his doctors at the psychiatric hospital. Under each of their names were those of the people they talked to about Erik. Several times a day, he would take this list from his pocket and review it, rubbing his hand nervously through his short, grey hair.

He’d kept the list through twenty of his forty-six years. Every few years, he’d get a new set of doctors and nurses, and he’d have to start the whole list over again: he despised that part. He would carefully put the old list in his locked, fire-proof box, then hand a pen and paper over to the new doctors. Sometimes, the new people wouldn’t understand: they’d write other doctors and staff nurses and consultants. If it was a good day, Erik was able to explain that he needed first and last names, as well as their relationship to the doctor. If it was a bad day, Erik would just walk out and return to his room. He would turn out the lights, draw the curtain around his bed and just wait until someone trustworthy came to get him. In the beginning, they tried to get him to back to the untrustworthy doctors; now, more often than not, they just find him a new doctor.

Only one doctor ever refused to fill out the paper. He’d promised, instead, to never breathe a word to anyone about Erik. As it turned out, he’d lied. When Erik found out, he’d put his list into his fireproof box and had refused to come out of his room for over a month.

Erik wasn’t a danger to anyone, so he was given a green passcard which allowed him to leave the building and walk around the grounds. It was an intern who had actually handed him the pass, and the intern had beamed so widely, so brightly, that Erik had screamed in fear. The intern had been shocked; he explained that he was just proud of Erik and the progress they’d made. He hoped Erik would enjoy the freedom.

Progress. Freedom. Erik had taken almost two years to painstakingly map out every window, every see-through door and every security camera in the building. The new intern didn’t seem to understand the enormity of trying to keep track of those same things out of doors. It was easy to see someone outside, peering in, but it was difficult to see someone looking out the window at you unless the light was right.

Erik didn’t use the passcard for many months.

IT WAS A VERY PLEASANT young nurse who had brought him a map of the new covered courtyard when the construction was finally finished. An overhead trellis had been installed, she said, and covered with artificial grapevines so no one could see down from the windows above. The windows that looked onto the courtyard were in the nursing station and the physiotherapy office. On the map, she had also marked the two cameras, and even where the tables and chairs were. Erik studied the map for days, inscribing the layout into his brain.

They said there was usually no one else in the courtyard between 10:45 and 11:45 because everyone was busy with programmes then. The charge nurse unlocked the courtyard door and held it open for him. He peeked out, comparing the layout to the map the young nurse had given him. He was relieved to see it was identical. Adjusting his ball cap and sunglasses, he gingerly stepped out onto the patio stones, leaning his back against the cool brick wall. Sun trickled through the plastic grape leaves, leaving patterns on the white resin tables and chairs.

“Other than the cameras,” the charge nurse said, pointing them out, “only I can see you through the window. No one is using the physio room right now.” She propped the door open with a chair and left Erik alone.

Outside. He was outside. He wasn’t sure if he was comfortable with it, but he stayed standing against the wall until the nurse called him in for lunch.
Every day, Erik waited for the nurse to unlock the door so he could venture into the courtyard and spend an hour standing with his back to the bricks. On rainy days, he wore his new hooded camouflage rain poncho and Wellingtons. He very quickly became addicted to his one hour of quiet, relative privacy and fresh air. It was an hour of thinking about different things than he thought about when he was inside – nicer things, personal things. Being alone was rather pleasant.

H and J title

To Be Human Again: the Third Excerpt

There is not a lot of sex in To Be Human Again: my goal was not to write erotica–nor pornography.  If the reader is looking for titillation, they’re likely to be disappointed (with the possible exception of one story, but that’s not the one we’re talking about today).  Still, it was the best moment of my literary life when someone admitted they’d found themselves getting turned on by an eight-year-old girl eating raw meat.  Whenever I need a boost of confidence, I look back at that note in the margins of the rough draft.

This is where write what you know comes in–and people who know me are going to be raising eyebrows ’round about here.  I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian.  I’m supposed to say something like “being vegetarian, I found this difficult to write”; oddly, it wasn’t all that difficult.  These are precisely the sensations of eating meat, just with a positive spin on them.  As well, family members will be able to identify (correctly, for once) where I have thieved ideas from real life.  The maternal side of my family has a celebratory ritual known as A Great Bloody Feast, which involves an uncommon silence as they all smack their lips over a very rare roast of beef.  As I always declined to participate with equal fervor, I had plenty of opportunity to watch them.

This is not the part of the story that got the beta-reader all hot under the collar.  This is just a weekly menu:

from Haematolagnia

Though she was only eight years old–young, some said, to be separated from her mother–Clara was content to be in the convent school. She appreciated the familiarity of routine, the dependability of stringent regulations. She found the curriculum stimulating–both the exhortation to do and say certain things, and the titillating list of Devil’s Work that one was never to so much as contemplate. The dormitory was comfortable and friendly with all the other little girls who would walk beside her, play with her, and whisper through the darkness until someone hissed at them to go to sleep. But it was the food she loved the most.
Meat: the first meal she had at the school was a thick soup with vegetables, potatoes and hunks of venison. At the first whiff, she was unsettled by the sudden watering of her mouth, the unclenching of her stomach. It smelled rich and hot, and she glanced at the other girls to see if they were truly allowed to eat it: she surmised it was a kind of test from the Devil. But the girls had all picked up their spoons and dunked their bread.
Her first spoonful was pure broth, glistening on the tarnished silver spoon. She allowed the saltiness to saturate her mouth, loosening her jaw muscles so the liquid filled the space between her cheek and her teeth.
The second spoonful scooped up vegetables, soft and earthy, familiar textures but with a new flavour that was alive. The third spoonful was one of the three chunks of venison. She tentatively raised it to her lips, testing the rough texture, feeling the heat radiating from the middle of it. She slid it into her mouth slowly and let it rest on her tongue. It was a gamey taste, wild and primitive, like the smell of the young man who delivered wood to the kitchen at home. She moved the piece of meat over to her molars and bit down. Rare juices shot through her mouth, and she drew in a sharp breath.
She glanced around the table again. The other girls were shovelling the soup into their mouths, alternating with bites of sopping bread.
She ate the soup, savouring each texture, each flavour. When the bowl was empty, she regretted leaving the slice of dark bread until the end: the strong taste removed the residual meat flavours from her mouth. She rinsed the black bread away with small ale.
That night at supper, she left her thin slice of ham for last. She relished the springiness of the hefty fibres as she bit down on it, the smokiness that filled her mouth, nose and throat. She imagined the pinkness of the ham mingling with her red blood, giving her nutrients, making her stronger, imagined her body as an oak, rooted, immoveable and ancient.

The noonday meal was her favourite. The meat was always thick, heavy. White meats had a subtle sweetness like grain; red meats had an animating iron tang that made her head swim and her heart race. There was a simple purity to the meat served at this meal. It did more than just satisfy: it fulfilled.
Supper also included meat. Usually, the meat was spiced or salted: ham or sausage. Still, it gratified her. She would eat her vegetables first, then her bread or potatoes washed down with ale, and then–finally–the meat. Each night, she would crawl into her bed thinking about flesh.

The first Friday was devastating. The noon meal was roasted vegetables, black bread and fish–plain white fish. When she put the fish in her mouth, her molars seemed to bounce off the flesh. Its meagre substance was flat, pale, flaccid. She let it rest between her teeth, willing it to release a metallic flavour. It did not.
Sundays were the best. When a large piece of meat was roasted, there was inevitably the rare part in the middle. She lived for the rare part. The novice who sat at the head of her table and served the food noticed the look of sheer pleasure, of near ecstasy, and began to save the rarest parts for her: the juicy dark flesh of fowl, and the bloody centre of a roast of beef. Clara thought she had been keeping her face expressionless, and she blushed deeply when she realised the girl was watching her eat. From then on, she made an effort to conceal her bliss.

Visceral Human Cover

Continuing the Quest

Living in the barbaric suburbs makes it difficult to find books.  Yes, there’s always the internet, but sometimes one just needs an actual bookstore: it’s a pilgrimage thing.  (No, Chapters doesn’t count as “an actual bookstore”.)  One of my favourite pilgrimages begins at ABC (the closest to Bloor/Yonge subway), moves on to Glad Day and ends at Eliot’s (the closest to Wellesley station–it’s all about geography).

The proprietors of these stores either know me or are familiar with me.  The first shop and the last get assailed with a “do you have this” list, and are able to brush off my frustration if my demands are not met.  Glad Day gets held to a different standard, and I insist they give me suggestions.

The people at Glad Day must be quite subtle in their eye-rolling, etc: I never notice it.  They do their very best to recommend something–anything–that might appease my literary persnicketiness.    My last trip there bagged three books: L’Asphyxie, Therese and Isabelle, and What We All Long For.  I love the first, enjoyed the second, and was bored by the third.  This is unfortunate because I really wanted to say I liked that book.  Dionne Brand is a good poet, but she is not a good novelist.  Neither the characters nor the plot developed: it just took 300 pages to tell the reader everything.  (That said, I did reread the occasional line that demonstrated her poetic abilities: “Anyone walking by would see a girl thin and sickled against a maple, resounding its stillness and winter quiescence” (Brand, 250). )

The quest for adept female writers continues.