World Fantasy Convention, the Prelude

Morning coffee with the estimable John Clute, one of the Guests of Honour at this year’s World Fantasy Convention, held here in Toronto this year. John and I try to sit down together at least once a year. He’s a critic, an original thinker, an encyclopedist, probably won’t get ticked off if I call him an eminence gris of the genre he likes to call fantastika. He is also someone invariably, almost helplessly interesting – which doesn’t mean, for anyone who knows me at all, that we invariably (let alone helplessly) agree on everything. That’s what makes the coffees fun. I always walk away energized.

WFC is the one convention I do try to attend each year. I regret (for strategic reasons) to report that I enjoy it. It is a ‘capped’ convention, limited to about 900 or so attendees, and with a very high percentage of professionals: writers, editors, artists, critics, academics, agents. It means that once a year I dine or drink with a number of colleagues who have become friends by now.

One tradition is a small dinner organized by Locus magazine as something of a memorial to Charles N. Brown who founded the magazine and who died a few years ago. There is an expectation I will arrive with new jokes (because Charlie loved them). Liza Trombi, current editor, does the same. Peter Straub has been known to filibuster with impossibly protracted shaggy dog jokes. We toast Charles, who is very much missed.

There has also been a watch-the-world-series mini-tradition in the various hotel bars, which San Francisco has destroyed this year by winning too swiftly. I’ll be doing the first-ever public reading from River of Stars on the Saturday. WFC feels like the right venue, and I did this with Under Heaven three years ago when the convention was in San Jose. I have figured out my ‘reading passage’ and it was surprisingly easy.

Those involved in coordinating the convention are, of course, watching the chaos on the east coast and I’m sure they are hoping (for all larger reasons, too, obviously) that NY and the eastern seaboard are all right – and that people can get out from the airports. It was a bad, dangerous night last night.

Finally, yes, I am editing, ferociously I might add. Here’s a progress photo. It is a slight cheat, I know, the red pens are ironic. I’m working on-screen, but this is where I’m at as of this morning.

Have decided not to put the red pens on eBay. Amused and happy the Seferis and Dante are two of the library bits that show. Both are epigraphs to Tigana! Nice accident.



Worth a discussion?

So, in the National Post today, Mark Medley, the Books Editor, interviews Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon together. (They both ordered the niçoise salad, he reports – you do have to eat smart on tour).

Diaz is quoted at the very end: ‘… because they’re genre writers they’re not going to get a f-king profile in the New York Times.’ (The discreet dash in f-king is the Post, not me!) Diaz and Chabon earlier were asked if the response to genre fiction wasn’t at least improving and both thought not. Diaz said, ‘I don’t think it’s changing at all, I think it’s worse … Name me a genre writer who’s won a Guggenheim. Name me a genre writer who’s won a National Book Award.’

(Mark Helprin comes to mind for a Guggenheim, but that’s not the point, and he only wrote one major fantasy.)

I hate the fact that I am older than both those guys. Been there, seen that? Diaz is whip-smart and a very fine writer. But I think he’s wrong in refusing to acknowledge that even if the speed may seem geological at times, literary culture is evolving just as popular culture is.

It is possible to see writers like those two, or Atwood, McCarthy, Jennifer Egan, Justin Cronin as ‘colonizers’ of genre from mainstream and there’s no question it is easier getting credibility moving in that direction than from being rooted in genre (any genre), but the mere fact that colonization of this sort (I’m using the word reluctantly, I prefer to talk about the blurring of borders or boundaries) happens carries a message.

So does the growing awareness within genre that writing that aspires to excellence isn’t some kind of lame pandering to the Muggles, to steal a J.K. Rowling term. Yes, there are holdouts in all camps. SF writers and readers who are irked and turned off by literary focus or ambition. Academics and judges and critics who reflexively avert their sensitive eyes from the dismal horror of genre books (or even the stressing of narrative verve) … and there always will be! But the numbers and percentages are changing for the better. I absolutely believe that. (I also believe that genuinely excellent work is as rare as it always has been, and we do ourselves no favours by trumpeting the capable – or the merely new – as brilliant.)

Change in what is regarded as canonical or important is going to be slow. It isn’t even so terrible that it is, actually. Trends can carry too much momentum, distort our judgement. (Same is true of the law … it needs to lag a bit behind fast societal shifts, lest it bounce around too much when the society shifts back again.)

Yes, major awards for truly genre-grounded works are rare. Yes, when certain critics find themselves admiring a fantasy they must posthaste name it magic realism. (A pet peeve here.) But my own sense was and is closer to what Medley seemed to be looking for and not getting from his two interview subjects: change is happening, the landscape is evolving, just to stay with my ‘geological’ metaphor. It is better now than five years ago, and was better five years ago than twenty-five.

Also, for what it is worth, I kind of doubt the ’12 other novelists writing zombie novels’ that Diaz mentions (in the context of Cronin’s exalted status) all merit individual profiles in the NY Times. I also doubt he’d really argue they do. The emergence of some writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers in a given time as either pop culture or high culture ‘stars’ can involve many elements, and talent is only one of them.

Still, go read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Talent may be only one element, but it shines in both those books.



Don’t tell anyone …

… but the editing review on screen is actually pretty straightforward. It depresses me how reasonable I seem to be becoming.

Five chapters in (though I am going to try not to be boring with a running count!). As always, Catherine’s focused and precise, and she’s done so many of my books that by now that she ‘gets’ my ear and rhythms. We natter back and forth a bit on some sentences, commas, tenses … but it is pretty low-grade by now and usually if she asks for some detail to be made clearer she’s right. (I can get way too far inside my awareness of characters and setting, the perspective of someone coming fresh to the story is important. Others do this for me too, but she’s reading most closely.)

I value it hugely when she catches me in a slip. I had a long scene with seven men, towards the end of it I mentioned ‘six men’ and she spotted it. I always write ‘good catch’ in the margin (e-margin now), and breathe a sigh of relief.

The only negative about doing this electronically is that it is harder to change my mind. I’ve often, in the past, rejected something she suggests, then moved down the page, glanced back up, thought about it again, and accepted. Or the reverse. It is trickier to look at two phrasings or punctuations at once now. Having said that, in the end it is just a shift in mental process.

I can do that. Yankees are done in baseball, I am well-and-truly focused.

Need to do a post about the upcoming World Fantasy Convention. It is here in Toronto this year. I’m giving the first public reading from River of Stars. And connecting with a great many friends. The hotel bartenders are in 2-a-day workout sessions.

All right coppers, you got me … I surrender!

The red pen rolls in the dust. The curmudgeon lies curbed. The past is past (for now).

Sandra will be happy. I took a long look this morning at the printout. I took a long look at the electronic files on my screen. I think Sandra stacked the deck … the electronic version of the novel has these neat, clear, sexy red shapes down the righthand side which tell me exactly what Catherine did whenever she proposed shifting a comma or a word – with lines pointing straight to the comma in play.

The printout has … a little bar in the margin and a really bloody faint greyed-out comma or whatever that if I screw in my monocle and ramp up the lighting I can maybe possibly make out if it is to be deleted or added or is a bit from someone’s cookie in the photocopy room. No sexy red boxes and arrows.

Do my loyal readers suspect that the fix is in? That the success of the Marketing Department’s Tag Team assault a few weeks back (the Twitter Twiumph) has breached the wall of Authorial Intimidation? That people now recklessly (wildly!) believe I might be reasonable about things?

Has it come to this? Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon…

Catherine, on the phone today, was the soul of calm. If I wanted the red boxes I could ask Penguin to print again, they had likely just accidentally (hah!) forgotten to trigger the option that printed everything in the margins. Of course they would do that for me. Or … I could carry on as I had started this morning, using the on screen text, wasn’t it actually pretty straightforward? And easier on the back? She finds it so! AND … I could just shift my hard copy read-through to the typeset version which she and I both have to review as soon as we’re done with this one anyhow, right?

hate when people make solid and sound arguments. Once I might have said, ‘I’ll hold my breath until I turn purple!’ But that is so last-year’s me…

Jokes and irritable author image aside, it feels all right. Have done a chapter and a half today on screen and I do live in the 21st century. And C is right … we do both have to go over the next version, which will be in the typeface and layout that will be the actual book’s including the dingbat/colophon/fleuron selected (much discussed in the last Tour Journal – those are the words, pick your favourite, for a section divider symbol). I will have my on-the-page read and won’t have wasted $4 on two pens. (Maybe only need one now, anyone want a red pen?)

Three interview requests/advance bookings today. That game starts earlier and earlier… suppose people do need my views on Verlander and how to pitch to Miggy Cabrera (very, very carefully).

Aware that there are an undue number of irreverent remarks in this post. One might deduce I’m in a cheerful mood. Don’t be silly.


And the bell goes…

Catherine Marjoribanks wrote me last night – she’d finished the copy-editing. Added that she had teared up reading, even though in ‘hyper-critical editing mode’. Yes, this pleased me a lot. Can’t imagine why. (I did check with her before mentioning this, she said she was happy to own up to it.)

Here’s a good example of the hyper-critical mode, what copy-editors do. She queried in the quick note whether I wanted councillors or counselors, the men giving counsel to the emperor. I needed to think. Opted for the former, as it focuses on the position, the office, the status (not the act of offering counsel), and in the world of River of Stars that’s key. Is that over-analytical? Not for me … I love that she’s on the case with these things. And that it makes me fine tune my own word choices.

Yesterday was a majorly (!) social day. Coffee with UK agent, lunch with a restaurant full of Penguin authors in for the Festival (and editors, sales directors, marketing people). Of course Charidy and Beth, the tag-team senior marketing duo who got me to Twitter, both tweeted about it. I replied. We got onto cocktails. Of course.

I think I may tweet more about cocktails. After lunch was another sit down with Nicole – President of Penguin Canada and my editor, then the thunderously loud, dense, jammed IFOA cocktail reception. Collapsed at home after to watch baseball and the debate – two sporting events?

But now, as of less than an hour ago, the copy-edited manuscript has been couriered from Sandra at Penguin. (Catherine sent it there electronically this morning.) Massive damned thing, sitting behind me on the second desk here. I do this run-through on paper not on screen. Hard copy. I am aware that Sandra probably rolls her eyes and mutters about Vexing Authors but I really like to see each novel on paper once before it goes to be typeset.

I feel it staring at me as I sit here. I have two red pens with which to defend myself. Am ready to turn and do battle…

Handle With Care


Q: How many authors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Half of them don’t need lightbulbs … they are reading off iPads.

IFOA Season. I’m off in a bit, possibly even wearing a tie (decision yet to be made), for four meetings and functions today – and I don’t even have any public performances this year. The International Festival of Authors is in full swing, and 100+ writers have gathered in Toronto … to watch San Francisco vs St Louis Game 7 tonight, No. To warch Obama vs Romney tonight. No. To check out the hotel bar and …

But yes, there are a lot of writers here. IFOA was begun a long time ago by a man named Greg Gatenby and has flourished. A somewhat controversial figure towards the end of his tenure, Gatenby is to be credited for creating and maintaining a literary event here in Toronto that is one of the most important in the world. He initiated a concept of treating his guest writers exceptionally well (there are stories) and IFOA glows brightly on the yearly map of such festivals. The culture media here (what’s left of that) and the publishing world (Canada’s is centred in Toronto, of course) go just a tiny bit crazy.

It is fun, and lively, and the gods know that the book world needs all the attention and support it can get. If I sometimes shake my head, with two scotches  in me, about the blurring of what makes good writing with what makes good stand-up comedy from an author or mellifluous performance, that’s nothing new in our society. We do steadily blur any line between the work and the maker. I worry at times about the gifted writer who doesn’t much like microphones, Q&A’s, cocktail parties, the people who became writers because they weren’t very much into social interaction let alone public performance.

Still, every age shapes the skill-sets that signify for it, and right now Twitter, Facebook, Journals such as this one, and being charming on stage are major elements of the literary process. And I do know that Dickens and Shaw and Dylan Thomas, among others, were stellar because of their performing, too.

Means lamenting this, trying to turn our focus back purely to the writing is pointless. King Canute is often cited as the poster-boy for arrogant monarchs … he’s said to have ordered the tide to stop coming in and (surprise!) appears to have failed. The true story seems to be otherwise. Canute was surrounded by sycophantic flatterers at his court, telling him that his might and prowess were so very great even the sea would obey him. Canute called their bluff, deeply aware of his limitations, and took them to the seashore to show the tide wouldn’t listen.

I find that story way more interesting. If Canute had only gone on the talk show circuit, or had enough Twitter followers, and told it that way a few times, we might regard him as a hero of sorts.

Off to hang with some of the 100+. Cheering for the Giants tonight. Expect the debate to be fractious and without any knockout punches. Also, glumly, predicting that election is so close there almost have to be legal challenges on election night.



Howard Jacobson, a bravo

It is so frequent, isn’t it … that we start thinking about a topic, or learn a new word, and suddenly it is everywhere. I was musing here a couple of days ago about character accessibility (can we relate to them??) and how it has become a wildly distorted expectation or demand of fiction, and then this morning I came up to a chapter in the book of essays I’m reading …

Howard Jacobson, Man Booker winner, novelist, columnist, commentator, very funny man, has a collection out called (wonderfully, after a Chico Marx line): Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It. I just read the piece entitled “If It’s ‘Readable’ Don’t Read It.”

His take-off point for this short, smooth flight is a neurological study showing that the brain is triggered, engaged, all the lights go ON when subjects confront challenges in Shakespeare’s syntax; the need to process, adjust, absorb surprise in language and the illumination that follows. (Yes, I know, a pun, electrode-wired lights go on, etc.) Words that don’t just dully mirror back our ‘usual’ ways of speaking and writing.

Howard (I’ve met and corresponded with him, does one need ‘full disclosure’ in a journal post?) exults amusingly about this, but goes on to make core points, akin to what I was riffing on earlier this week. (Told you, major coincidence … or maybe just receptivity.)

Try this: “‘Then thank me for it,’ I always say, should the charge of ‘difficulty’ be levelled at one of my novels … ‘Struggling with a book has more of reading in it than flicking through it at a predetermined rate… And laying it aside to scratch your head does greater justice to a book’s contents than never laying it aside at all. They also read who are not turning pages.”

I’ll add (Kay, not Jacobson) that laying the book aside to absorb and respond to emotional intensity, real, unexpected feelings induced in us, is another sign of something reaching deeply into our lives from a book. Passages that take us off cruise-control. We pause to think, to grieve or celebrate, or be wrapped in mystery…

And then (Jacobson again), there’s this: “… those other reading-group inanities – ‘I can’t identify with the characters’ or ‘I don’t find the hero a very nice person’…”

I hate to say it, but he’s right (and not just because I wrote this two or three days ago here!). I suspect Howard hates to say it, or see it, too. The idea that books demand nothing of us implies that they offer nothing to us. Or, worse, that the measure of excellence in a novel is how swiftly and smoothly it slides past us (and then, as often as not, is gone forever).

Books that have a reader up at night but then also stay long after, that’s what some want to achieve as writers – and search for as readers. I want a great book to change me, not just make a plane ride pass. It doesn’t happen often. I always say that excellence is rare, in everything – that is why we value it so much.

A love letter to Bright Weavings

Here’s the backstory.

A long time ago on a campus not that far away (U of Waterloo) some people in the English department asked me if they could do an ‘authorized site’ on my work. At that time (1999!) I was pretty down on author sites. They seemed deeply self-indulgent and mostly content-free. My sound bite quote when asked why I didn’t have one was Cato the Elder: ‘I would rather the Romans ask why there are no statues to Cato, than why there are.’ (Still love that.)

But the Waterloo team promised content – scholarship, art, showcasing other people’s ideas around my novels, and the concept that their students (many of them teach the books) would funnel material to the site year by year. It would be a real repository. I bought in. Drinks were involved, as I recall.

Meetings were taken, a committee was struck, students were recruited. A designer was found. Some of the students began chasing down scholarly articles (this was way before that was an easy web-search) and scanning book covers in prep for an Art Gallery on the site. Then, predictably, it rolled towards December and the students had exams and deadlines and the profs looked at each other and said ‘Where are the students?’ My good friend Neil Randall, who had spearheaded this, called me in mid-December to say, ‘We screwed up. It is always too hard to keep these things on track.’ More drinks were ruefully promised – and accepted, not unhappily.

I really wasn’t distressed. More amused, than anything. But then … I got a New Year’s email from Deborah Meghnagi, with whom I’d been corresponding for some time. Deb was then doing some web work for a company and in the immediae aftermath of the U of Waterloo collapse, I recklessly wrote the words, ‘One of these millenia I should get you to do a website for me…’ (Remember, this was New Years 2000! And yes, I know that isn’t really when the millennia started. Lost that argument back then with everyone!)

Cue music.

After not replying at all, and in something like three days (she’ll have the exact details) with a couple of all-nighters I think, Deb sent me, totally without warning, a url for the template of Bright Weavings.

She’d essentially done, on her own, what hadn’t happened in months through a committee or group. (Cue knowing nods of heads.)

I really didn’t think I could say no after that. It took her 6 more months of work, and went live in, as best I recall, June of 2000. This Journal residesthere, as are the three previous ones, and a tremendous amount of content.

Over the decade plus Deb has scandalously proceeded with a life: husband, child, another on the way, a period as a senior editor for Toby Press, freelancing. I regard all of this frippery as irresponsibly going AWOL, of course. (I also regard teasing as a right.)

On the other hand – and this is a key to this post – the community that sprang up around her and the site led to four or five others stepping up and offering generous and creative support and expansion to her original idea. BW now has a Facebook page and a Pinterest board. It had a Twitter feed at @brightweavings until I was pounded into submission and it became @guygavrielkay (that tragic tale is part of the first post here, I think).

And when I speak of a ‘community’ I do mean it, and that’s what impels this entry. This weekend, about 20 of the denizens who have long gathered in the BW Forums will be actually gathering in Toronto from all over the place to hang with each other – for the fourth or fifth time.

I basically regard myself as no more than an excuse. Some years, when this meet-up happens, I’ve booked a bar for drinks, once we all had a Chinese banquet, this year it’ll be a breakfast gig. Then I get out of the way for most of the weekend, avert my eyes, ask not to be sent the more incriminating pictures…

But flippancy aside, I have to say that the emergence of this group of worldwide friends, spun from the website, has brought me enormous pleasure over the years. If anyone wants champagne and OJ with their breakfast and lattes this weekend, it’s on me.

On the strangeness of the past

“I wanted to approach Shakespeare as if foreign … The past is another country.” That’s a composer named Thomas Adès in the New Yorker this week, regarding his opera of ‘The Tempest.’

The second part of his quote is the famous L.P. Hartley line (Hartley said, ‘a foreign country’). As I read the piece (in Critic’s Notebook) I wasn’t sure how I felt about what Adès meant by the comment. But the line started me thinking.

We sometimes over-focus, I think, on trying to make history’s people ‘accessible’ or ‘relevant’ in too-obvious ways. This isn’t the same as linking up themes or motifs, it has to do with trying to make it easier for readers to identify with characters. But the truth is, it seems to me, Adès is right … Shakespeare is both universal and remote. (That’s genius for you, yes.)

In my work I think I’m obsessed with trying to show both things … elements of the past that are startlingly similar to concerns today, and other aspects that are just as startlingly alien. And this author-goal can collide with some modern readers’ desire to ‘connect’ with characters (an analogy: the way Presidential candidates do photo-ops drinking Budweiser in bars, or bowling, just folks.)

With Ysabel, as an example, I was surprised by some readers lamenting (mostly younger ones, but not only) that they didn’t ‘get’ or ‘relate to’ the character of Ysabel herself. She seemed remote to them, inexplicable. But that was the point, from the writer’s point of view. She’s a 2500 year-old capricious, doomed, eroticized Celtic goddess-figure returning in an endless cycle. How should we have a beer with her? How should I (or the reader) see her as accessible, readily understood, just like us? To my mind, a writer who makes such figures clear in their nature and motivation is failing his work, even if he or she makes the book ‘easier’.

I love, and often cite, a line from Walter Bagehot: “We must not let in daylight upon magic.” We aren’t supposed to see certain things too clearly, have them explained too precisely. (A reason I have trouble with fantasy derived from dice-rolling games.) But I apply the line to more than the supermatural. It seems to me to resonate also with regard to any work that walks back into the past. Too much daylight, too complete an explanation, is a failure.

Hilary Mantel’s language does a good job of addressing this, even if she’s at pains to present her Cromwell as a ‘new man’, allowing readers to see him as a figure at the doorstep of the modern. Mary Renault was very good at injecting strangeness into her Greek novels. (“There is only one journey that all men make. They go forth from the Mother and do what men are born to do, till she stretches out her hand and calls them home.” That’s from memory, decades ago, and still gives me chills – I may have it a bit wrong. If someone has The King Must Die to hand, do correct me. If you haven’t read it, do!)

My friend Cecelia Holland, especially in her earlier, brilliant historical fictions, is a master of this effect: offering us that feeling of strangeness in the long-ago, in characters with a world-view alien to our own.

I am endlessly wrestling with these issues in my work, looking to balance them. The familiar and the strange, intersecting with each other.

Writing of the past

Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize a few hours ago, for Bring Up the Bodies, a book I greatly admire. I reviewed it for the Globe and Mail back in May:

You do need to read Wolf Hall first (even if the publishers say you don’t) but that’s possibly even better, and also won the Man Booker.There’s a profile of Mantel in the New Yorker this week, by the way. Success came late, and deservingly.

Along with a few others, I don’t essentially agree (as a writer) with this approach to treating the inner lives of real people, but I’d worry about my responses as a reader if I let that stop me from appreciating excellence on this scale.

For a treatment of history and real lives (rather more recent history, even more chillling than the dangerous court of Henry VIII) I have been recommending Laurent Binet’s HHhH. The odd title is an acronym for ‘Himmler’s Brain is Called Heydrich’which was apparently widely used at the time in Berlin … and the book treats the Czech assassination of Heydrich. Binet shares my resistance to appropriating the thoughts and feelings of historical figures – but takes an utterly different approach to dealing with this. It is a exceptional book about an incident too little known outside the Czech Republic.

The small church where the assassins and their fellows were trapped is now a memorial, and the crypt below it where most of them died can be visited. It is deeply moving, with a very well done explanation of the context and the event in the room up above. I’d put it very high on any list for visitors to Prague. And Binet’s book is a superb, distinctive telling of the story.

Here are two photos from there, SS Cyril and Methodius Church, a walk from Wenceslas Square, towards the river.

This is where the Czechs were trapped and eventually killed themselves with their last bullets. The window is where the Nazis tried to send in tear gas and then water in an attempt to flood the crypt. At lower right is the tunnel the trapped men started in an attempt to get through to the sewers. Tributes and memorials fill it. There are bullet holes everywhere.

Busts of Gabcik and Kubis, the men parachuted in from England to kill Heydrich. They deserve to be better known. So do the victims of Lidice, the village site of the Nazis’ most vicious reprisal.