It gets late early out there…

(Yes, a Yogi Berra quote. You’ll see what I mean about timing and accelerated schedules as you get into this one!)

Because my last few books have been spring releases, it seems that each time as the International Festival of Authors begins here, and Penguin (or, now, Penguin Random House) throw a cocktail party to get the show started, I end up in ‘discussions’ with people over wine and whatever hors d’oeuvres the servers are floating past with. No, it isn’t too early for this, they always tell me (the publishing people, not the servers!). I always mentally check the date and become aware, again, that long lead times are so the norm in publishing.

I have Serious Sit Downs ahead. With marketing and publicity and editorial here in November, and in NY in early December, and am meeting my UK editor (he promises single malt) in two weeks at Saratoga Springs.

Right. Saratoga, in upstate New York, is where the World Fantasy Convention is this year (the Chair tells me standby memberships can possibly still be scored). It is a lovely town, and WFC is my own favourite con … and not only because a diverse and gallant group seek each other out late at night deploying secret signs, having brought from their far corners of the planet good bottles of whisky to share. (There may be a theme emerging for this post, yes.)

I’ll also be doing the worldwide first reading from Children of Earth and Sky there, on Friday November 6th. I debuted both Kitai novels that way, too. This is always tricky for me, as it is well before I am really ready to talk about a new book (May release, remember!) but WFC offers a truly good mix of colleagues, professionals, book lovers, and it feels like the best place to open up a bit on the novels. Does also mean I need to give thought in next little while as to what I want to read.

Readings … we all need 5 minute, 10 minute, 20 minute passages when a book comes out. (I think going much longer is usually a mistake.) Actually, I’ve even been asked on radio to read a one minute snippet. All these need to be sorted out, though for me it always evolves as I start touring … you discover what feels right, learn what audiences respond to.

At this moment I am awaiting the Return of the Manuscript. The copy-editor, Catherine Marjoribanks, emailed this morning to say I’ll have it back tomorrow afternoon or Wednesday morning. Then she gets to relax and I get to be driven crazy by what she’s done to me. Mostly joking. Copy-editing is critically important (and I’ll add that it is too-often not done carefully these days). For one thing, a good one monitors consistency, and through a big book written over a long time, it is easy to run into issues. Usually small, but in a way nothing is small.

Catherine and other copy-editors are also looking down at the level of commas and paragraphing. If I disagree with her deletion or insertion of a comma, I’ll change it back, and she knows I will. In turn, I know she’s being thoughtful when she makes suggestions and even if I don’t agree with a perercentage of them, whatever I do accept has – this seems obvious – improved my book. I used to get irked when younger, by having to change things back. I don’t, any more. I’m grateful for attentive eyes on my pages, and for a copy-editor I’ve worked with several times now. There’s a comfort zone that emerges.

It is a painstaking process, though. And done under deadline. Publishers want the finished, copy-edited manuscript by November 17th, and I even had to ask the production director to do battle, to get that date pushed from the 10th. (May book, remember! These timetables can induce a shaking of the Authorial Head.)

Once the manuscript is with them the publishers move (quickly) towards a few things. They make what are called First Pass pages, set as they’ll look in the finished book. From these they also make Advance Reading Copies (ARCs). The ARCs are what will go off to reviewers, ‘influencers’, people who buy authors well-aged single malts. (Joke. Really!) ARCs always indicate ‘please check against finished book before quoting‘ as these pages still need to be proofread, by a professional and by the author – though some writers do skip doing this. Errors will creep in to typesetting (and errors often linger in books, as we all know, even with proofing).

So this update, as I await my novel’s return to me, is to say, it is getting tangible with this book. I had a running joke in an earlier edition of these tour journals with that word tangible, but any writer will tell you are are many, many stages to a book feeling done, real. A few will be ticked off here in the next few weeks.

Seasonal note

Depending on your perspective, I’ve either been remiss, or doing what I am supposed to be doing.

Focus on the new book, primarily, has led to few posts here through the fall. Of course these journals were envisaged as each being specific to a book release, tour, chronicling various events and ideas associated with those. On the other hand, the online world has changed a lot since I did my first tour journal here and the concept has expanded. I’m good with that, and with the idea of having an ongoing journal as a place to share thoughts and news – at more than 140 characters.

Holiday season calls for my good wishes to friends, readers, amusing and generous people I’ve encountered online. There are some very funny, thoughtful, clever people in my Twitter feed: I tend not to hang with those waking up every morning to discover what wildly outrages them for that 24 hour cycle. I do comment at times on world events, I try to do so judiciously, with respect for those who might think otherwise. Some issues make that harder than others. Vaccine truthers? Not my people.

I’m writing steadily. Too soon to give details or set out an estimated time of arrival, but I should be able to do the latter towards the end of spring. For a variety of reasons I never like talking too soon about what the novels are about, or the periods that inspire them. I’ll ask indulgence for that this time around, too.

There are various ‘plans’ in the works from publishers and elsewhere and the strong possibility of news bulletins from me early in 2015. I prefer these to be really tangible before sharing, but I will absolutely share when ‘tangible’ happens.

2014 was probably most memorable, professionally, for my being made a Member of the Order of Canada on July 1. Didn’t expect it (recipients aren’t supposed to know it might be coming) and I was very deeply honoured. Small trivia: you are supposed to wear the lapel pin they send you, or other members (or just those in the know) will call you on not doing so if they see you without. Had it happen to me twice, early, when I felt a bit self-conscious about putting it on. I work to remember it now when I wear a jacket. I do not wear it, no, with my Montreal Canadiens jersey. There will be no photos thereof. Hold not thy breath.

I was really happy to have the Chinese editions of Under Heaven and River of Stars appear this year, with absolutely gorgeous covers. (You can see them in the Art Gallery section here at Bright Weavings, if you haven’t.) Brazil saw the release of Tigana (in two volumes, which is not uncommon) and probably the most assertive and generous set of online reviews and commentary for any foreign language edition yet.

There were a number of other foreign language editions of different titles; I tend to report these and reveal covers when I get them over on Twitter or at the Facebook page coordinated by Alec Lynch and Elizabeth Swainston. Elizabeth also has created a Pinterest page on my work. I owe them both a great deal. Neither drinks, which kills the ‘single malt scotch as a gift’ vibe.

I did have some extraordinary single malts, and a very good time with a group that (I’m sorry) included Australians, at World Fantasy Convention where I was a guest of honor this year. The Hungarian Lentil Growers Agrarian Cooperative (HLGAC) was formed there. Of course everyone understands about that, right? Right? Our next meeting is slated for Saratoga Springs at World Fantasy in 2015.

Finally, before I wrap, a thank you to my readers for, among other things, ongoing patience. I write continuously but don’t emerge swiftly. When I talk to younger writers I feel their pain as many of them discuss the intense pressure to be ‘a book a year’ authors. The gift my readership around the world gives me (and always has, really) is the best gift they can: the opportunity to take my time, do the books as well as I am able, to be as faithful to the work as I can be. I have always believed that if I am being faithful to the novels, I am honouring my readers.

My best wishes to all, for the season and for 2015.





Party in Fionavar

So, there seems to be a party afoot.

Blame Chris Szego, the manager of Bakka Phoenix Books, Canada’s oldest Science Fiction and Fantasy bookstore (since 1972!). And blame HarperCollins Canada while you are at it. Do not blame me. That needs to be very clearly understood.

It seems that somehow, inexplicably, this autumn marks 30 years since The Summer Tree was published, beginning my career as a novelist.

I have used various calculators, an abacus, and fingers, toes and forks (don’t ask) to make the number come out smaller, but it don’t work. Thirty years. Ye gods and little fishes, as they say, when they aren’t really swearing.

And I have made my joke about being 14 years old at the time too often. Won’t do it here (well, sort of won’t).

The truth is, in a culture where the newnewnew is king and queen, where books disappear (off shelves, out of print) with increasing and alarming speed, I feel deeply grateful and profoundly honoured that Fionavar has remained out there, throughout the English-language world (and in many other languages) all this time.

So even curmudgeons sometimes say yes to a party.

There will be music from Martin Springett (backed up by Sam Alex Kay). The absurdly multi-talented Sue Reynolds, who did the map for the trilogy (and the maps for Tigana, too, in fact) has promised to attend ‘with bells on’. Linda McKnight, who acquired the trilogy when she was Publisher at McClelland & Stewart Canada (and later became my agent) will be there, rather pleased with her early judgement. (She likes to be right.)

We hope John Rose, the original founder/owner/god of Bakka Books will join us. He hosted the original launch for The Summer Tree in the store. My publishers brought me a tree as a gift. There were jokes about binding me to it. There may be a photo of that night. It may be on display. I will look younger in it.

There will be gifts and door prizes, Martin’s original cover paintings will be on display, with signed posters available. Add food, drink, wild carousing and glasses smashed on the – no, scratch that last.

So, original launch to thirty year anniversary at Bakka. All are invited if you can get to Toronto on the evening of September 19th. Here’s the evite.






China, and the cover for Under Heaven

Book covers are such chancy, variable things. Over all these years and books, I’ve been delighted and, well, aghast at different times. It gets even more uncertain when it comes to foreign-language editions. As a rule, by now, I have ‘cover consultation’ for all such sales of rights, but in practice this really can mean nothing.

Sometimes a publisher forgets. The contracts person doesn’t remind the art department or editor they have to check with the author. Or the rush to get the book finalized (there is alays a rush!) causes a very simple overlooking of that detail. Sometimes they do send the cover image to you – but too late to have input to effect any meaningful change. Screaming ‘Oh, my God, no!’ at this juncture may be a therapeutic release of extreme emotion, but achieves little else.

One can double down on the technical breach of contract, but this just means the book cannot be released as planned, it must be shelved for up to a year while a new cover is devised, and – in the real world – this is a bad course of action if the idea is an ongoing, working cordial relationship to everyone’s theoretical betterment. I have closed my eyes, swallowed hard (often swallowing a drink hard) and accepted some covers I hate.

Sometimes even really strong publishers go astray in their conception and execution, and one does that swallowing hard thing and waits to see if they are right. I disliked, to be honest, the covers for HarperCollins UK for Lions and for Under Heaven in hardcover, but then again I absolutely loved both their hardback and paperback for River of Stars. Win some, lose some?

I’ve been very lucky in North America with the last several novels, good art departments, artists, and steady, congenial consultation and discussion back and forth have produced covers I love – and reader feedback suggests you feel the same way.

But if you sit authors down in a bar and catch them early enough, while they are still coherent, cover discussion will be a frequent topic, and happiness will be … intermittent?

All of which is a prelude to this: I am happy to now share what might be my favourite cover for any of my books anywhere. Chongqing Publishing in China is releasing Under Heaven in July. I saw a rough of this a month ago, after waiting with some anxiety as they promised I would see it (with me having no idea at all what it would be). The rough was gorgeous, the finished is even more so. I flat-out love this.

Under Heaven Cover


Not only is it beautiful as a design, and profoundly suited to the book, it is original and inventive and subtle. What you need to know (it may not be evident in the jpeg) is that the cloud cover overlay is just that: an overlay! It flips back if you open it up from the jacket flap, revealing the entire painting, as if clouds had parted. Truly imaginative, and unique in its effect. (And, not incidentally in this business, really expensive design work.)

Then there is the chosen painting itself. It is a celebrated Tang Dynasty work by Li Zhaodao called ‘Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu’ about the emperor journeying to the far west, framed small against a magnificent landscape. And anyone who knows the novel (inspired by the Tang) will recognize how wonderfully well this suits the story.

Here’s a link to the original work, for interest:

But there’s even more to this cover. Classic Chinese artwork is usually marked with a variety of red seals on it. These are the personal seals of whatever distinguished (or imperial, if the artist is lucky!) figure has seen and held the work – and then shows this by putting his stamp on it.

It is a process alien to western art (well, maybe Byron carving his name on Greek ruins!) but in China it enhanced the value and prestige of a painting to have illustrious figure put their seals on it. So, here, the art director uses a brilliant, small red seal of – a heavenly horse. I am touched by the attention to detail and awareness of the nature of the book this shows.

In short, my appreciation of Chongqing, who are publishing this is extreme. I think this cover is brilliant and beautiful and evocative, and I hope others agree.



A post about my father

This morning I went to the cemetery where my dad is buried. I always go on the weekend of his birthday, and I had some nice news this week (which I’ll share when I can) and I often visit his grave at such times, too.

We planted a sapling there when he was buried, and it is a genuinely majestic tree now, tall and leafy in this springtime. Probably the only measure of time’s passing there that doesn’t conjure sorrow.

My father was a surgeon, but as far from the cliché of the surgeon as arrogant ‘lord of the ward’ as possible. He was brilliant and gentle, both, and I have often thought about how rarely those are conjoined. Essentially he was an urban, internationally-trained surgeon with the compassion and bedside manner of an old-fashioned country doctor. His patients adored him. Even as a child I could see that, and even as a child understand why.

He’d stayed on in Europe after the war, did his surgical residency at a teaching hospital outside Edinburgh. When he finished, and indicated he felt it was time to come back to Canada, they tried very hard to keep him there. After he died I found a letter among his files from the head of the hospital, describing him as the most gifted surgical resident he’d ever seen. Typically, my dad had never shown that letter to my mother, or any of his sons.

I’m aware that many artists find their access to art in hardship and suffering, whether within the family, or in the larger contexts of their lives (I am thinking of George Seferis, the Greek Nobel laureate and a personal icon, and how he was shaped and marked by the tragedy of Greece in WW2 and the savage civil war that followed). Other artists draw strength from their background, discover a willingness and ability to take risks from that sense of being anchored in love. There are no rules (that’s my own only rule about this) but I know I am of that latter group.

I had a conversation very recently with a man who talked of how he’d worried if he could be a good father, because his own hadn’t been, and his role-modelling was difficult. He spoke of how happy and relieved he was to discover that he had the ability, and the desire, to be a loving father to his son. (There are no rules there, either, only norms and likelihoods.) I know that I am a better person and father because of the example my dad set.

I have written (most directly in the two Sarantium books) about our desire to leave a name, a legacy, a marker of having been here. For most of us it lies in our families, the way what we were may be passed on to those we marry, parent, befriend. My dad’s legacy is partly in the lives he saved, partly in those who (still) remember him with affection and admiration, and partly in his wife and sons, and what may ripple down through us to grandchildren and perhaps through them one day. That last is the way it is for most of us, I think.

The first poem in Beyond This Dark House, my selected poetry, is the only one I’ve ever been able to write directly for him, or about him, since he was killed. I’m going to post it here this week as another memorial, with thanks to Penguin Books Canada who published the book.





Driving through Winnipeg this autumn

twilight, a sensation has lodged

somewhere behind my breastbone

(impossible to be more precise).

It is at once a lightness and a weight,

press of memory and a feeling

as if tonight has insufficient

gravity to keep me from

drifting back, so many

long years after leaving here.


Quiet streets, the slowly darkening

sky (it can take a while). I turn

on Waterloo and stop outside the house

where we first lived. No curtains drawn

on the living room windows. I can see

into the past, almost. The willow in front

is so tall now. My parents planted it.


We played football on this lawn

(and the next one down, and next,

as we grew older, needed room to run).

Used the willow sapling when cutting

pass patterns, slicing in front of it

to shake a defender. I hear

my mother from the porch, ‘Don’t

break the tree!’ A car approaches,

slows, someone looks at me

in the gathering night, moves on.

So do I, gliding a little further

to Mathers Bay, where we’d race

our bikes, the finish line

right at the intersection,

so we’d be flying flat-out

and sometimes have to brake

in a squeal and sideways skid

(black tire marks on the road)

if a car was coming east.

I wouldn’t let my sons do that today.


The houses along the bay,

down to the curve and back

up the other side, were homes of friends,

or girls I longed for, and their

parents – men and women mostly

dead now. Each address marks

a grave. Ghosts water the night

lawns, rake leaves under stars,

look up as I coast by

and then turn away, as if politely,

not to seem to stare as this rented car

stops again, this time outside

our second home, the one

my parents built when I was nine.

I am heavy and light tonight,

entangled and drifting, both

at once. The city

is so full of my father.


I used to ride with him to Saturday

morning rounds at the hospital.

Proud, anxious not to show it (Why

was that? Did he know?) as we’d step

off the elevator and onto a post-op ward.

I’d read a book by the nursing station

then cross the street to the

Salibury House (long gone now)

and order two sandwiches, a milkshake

and a coffee, but only at the exact

minute he’d told me to. And he’d

arrive from his last patient just

as the waitress set the food in front of me.

I’m guessing he’d watch from the window

or door, to time it so exactly, for his son.


East on Mathers now, imagining kids

on bikes careening into my path forty

years ago. Waverley, and south. I’d

hitchhike this route to campus, winter

mornings, dreaming of away, anywhere

away. My parents had their first

date at a nightclub out here on

Pembina Highway. My father just back

from overseas. She thought he was

phony-British, using words like ‘chap’

and ‘bloody,’ all night long. Still, (she’d

later tell her sons), that night she

went home to Enniskillen Avenue and woke

her mother. Sat on the edge of the bed and said

she thought she’d met a man she could love.


We never tired of that story.

Our pretty mother,barely into her twenties,

her immediate certainty, the dashing

image of our father, home from away,

away, winning a woman for himself.

The city’s quiet on a Thursday night.

The forecast was rain but the sky’s been clear,

the air cooling down; football

games and burning leaves. Back north now,

on what seems to have become

a night drive entirely unplanned. I steer

with one hand at twelve o’clock and

an elbow out the open window.


The downtown ‘Y’ has been demolished.

My Uncle Jack would take me there

on Sunday mornings for a steam and

a swim. Such a sweet man. White hair

my father always joked of envying, ruefully

shaking his head in admiration. Dad’s

was a duller, white-grey, nondescript. Except,

it seems, the morning of the day he was

killed in Florida, my mother said to

him over breakfast, ‘Sam, look at your

hair! It’s white as Jack’s!’ Salt water,

winter sun, had bleached it bright.

I imagine my father surprised

and pleased, and thinking of his brother

when he took that last walk

with the dog along the coastal highway

in too much twilight.


There seems to be no crossing of streets

tonight where I can avoid

hitting my father or myself. Wellington

Crescent now, west towards the park

where I first kissed some girls, broke up

with others, dreamed of going away. My father

took a troopship to England in the

last year of the war, stayed over there

in Scotland for five years, came back,

came back, married, had three sons.


He taught each of us to catch a football, lost

deliberately (to each of us) in table tennis,

grimacing elaborately at a drive mis-hit

into the net, not fooling anyone. He’d look

shocked, shocked when we accused him

of letting us win, as if the idea

couldn’t have even crossed his mind.

He quizzed me before high school tests,

tsking with dismay at wrong answers

that were clear evidence of insufficient

application. He worked so hard.


I think we knew that, even very young,

but still assumed he’d have infinite time

and room for us. I wince, tonight, remembering

the absolute sureness of that. How did he

elicit so much certainty? I wonder

if he ever looked for and found

clear signs of his own nature in

three very different sons,

or if that kind of thinking

required too much vanity.

I liked coming home from a downtown

appointment with him. Walking to

the Mall Medical Building, waiting

in the doctors’ lounge, listening to the

talk of football and politics, grabbing

myself a Coke from the little fridge, and then

the feel of the room altering as he came in,

loosening his tie, hanging up the white coat,

raising an eyebrow at my soft drink

before dinner. The drive back home,

just the two of us, end of a work day. He’d steer

with one hand at twelve o’clock and

an elbow out the open window. No one

ever born had hands I’d ever rather feel

enclosing mine. Then. Now. The day

the son we named for him was born.


If it was summer, turning west on Grant,

the sunlight would be on us. We’d put

the visors down. (I was too short for that

to help, but copied him.) Or it might have been

darker, cooler, under a prairie sky

in a twilight like the one that started

and compels these images,

if it was autumn then, as it is now,

above this ground of memories.


Heaviness, and that so-strange

sense of weightlessness. I thought,

before, I couldn’t locate these feelings

precisely within myself. Not so,

in the end. They reside, together,

anywhere my father was in this city

and in me, which is pretty much

everywhere, and he’s been

dead too many years now already,

with more years and more years

and more long years of being gone

still to come.


To Market, To Market?

Help me out, everyone. Comments this time will be useful.

I wrestle sometimes with my own nature, and the changing nature of the book world and our culture as a whole. As I have said before, the pressure on writers (especially younger ones, but not only) to do more than ‘just’ write their books is more and more obviously undermining people I know. Add this to expectations of speed in delivery of books, and the home run or strike out mentality of the industry, and it is too easy to see some sad, stressed author behaviour (sad for me, at any rate).

But that ‘sad for me’ is the point of this post. I may just be out of step. I don’t think so, obviously, or I’d be acting differently, but I have friends and colleagues making a case regarding authors and readers and the need to use, to mobilize, one’s reader base. I called this the ‘Release the Fans’ idea in a newspaper op-ed a while back. I just don’t think of readers as there to be mobilized, but that’s the issue.

This all came up again in discussions over the last ten days or so. CBC in Canada ran an book awards competition called the Bookies, across many categories. Voting was online. River of Stars was nominated in one category, with the immensely distinguished Margaret Atwood as the favourite.

I didn’t post anything about it here on the journal while the voting was open, or allow (or request) the Bright Weavings team on Facebook or the main website to alert that the competition was even on. I did a generic tweet about the entire multi-category event, and another at the very end expressing (real) pleasure at being runner-up to Atwood’s Maddadam.

But I didn’t want to campaign. I never want to campaign. And I am now being told by culture-astute and web-savvy friends and professional colleagues that this is because I misunderstand the real nature of what is going on. So I want to open it up for discussion.

The shrewdest one lecturing me, probably (an unfairly sharp cousin), says I am over-focused on these things in terms of the legitimacy of the award. In other words, I don’t want to turn winning or losing into who cajoles most or loudest, or who has the most fame or Twitter/FB followers (this happens for other awards too, of course). I am, she says, too hung up on the ‘legitimacy’ issue.

Her take is that these awards are never going to truly be about the ‘best’. That the Oscars, say, have long had aggressive ‘for your consideration’ campaigning. (All thanks to Harvey Weinstein? I think it pre-dates him but he made it a modus operandi.) These popular vote awards are about empowering readers to be more than merely passive enjoyers of a given writer (or writers), she argues. They let readers participate, fight, lobby, engage, be active. She tells me I am denying my readers the chance to do that by staying quiet when the votes come up.

And there are writers I respect who obviously agree. They treat the Bookies (and others) as a game of sorts – though some think of them as mattering more than they do, I suspect. They rally their online forces, spread the word often … do the ’empowering’ thing, if that is what it is.

It therefore becomes, some are urging me, about the new age of active consumers of any art. Passive enjoyment is old school. This is an age of real time tweeting of a television show (building community), of Kickstarter campaigns to revive cancelled favourites (why does the network get to decide?), or even, on the very dark side, aggressive online threats to actresses (usually actresses, alas) who are disliked. I’ve written an essay about how this level of consumer activism can’t help but shape the art produced when the work is ongoing and the feedback is continuous and urgent. (I’m not saying this is automatically ‘for the worse’ but I’m noting the process.)

I have argued before, perhaps quixotically, for the value of some distance between writer and work, writer and reader, preserving a space where the reaction to the books (in this case) is not bundled with a reaction or ‘relationship’ with the writer.

Let me digress, but it isn’t really a digression (just looks like one!).

When I was young, first reading and writing and studying poetry, Robert Frost was seen by most of us as safe, bland, boring, the whole crusty New England thing was uncool. It took the outstanding critic Randall Jarrell, with two superb essays on Frost’s brilliance to change my mind (and I’ve tried to be an advocate ever since). But something else happened when I was still young, and it had to do with the man, not the work.

A three volume biography came out on Frost and it pretty much savaged him, left him in the dumpster. Frost was an evil, odious, selfish, vain, unfeeling near-monster. This biography stamped him in the minds of my generation (those who cared). It was long, long afterwards that we learned that this biographer had had a huge, compromising, personal agenda, a reason for vilifying his subject. But when a far better, balanced, biography came out it made very few waves: the image was set too hard, even among those who knew or should have known better. (Joyce Carol Oates wrote a recent story using Evil Frost as a character and I admit I was disappointed. To be fair, she now says, apparently, she was ‘commenting’ on the phenomenon, not endorsing it.)

The good news is, just this month the first volume of Frost’s Letters has appeared and reviews seem to be (finally!) working to correct the entrenched maligning view of the man and poet. I’ve seen several pieces to this effect in the last few days.

My point here (see, it wasn’t a digression) is that focusing on the artist, accurately or otherwise, can lead us to lose or devalue – or overvalue, in other cases – the work. This, as I have said here before, is part of my ambivalence about social media.

It is possible I am just out of synch in this. On the other hand, I have (this post is evidence!) spent years crossing towards the new online world order, sharing tour information, industry norms, and very personal reflections with readers (and non-readers, in theory) here, through Bright Weavings or its Facebook page, and more recently on Twitter. If I’m hiding, I’m not doing it very well.

But I still wonder about the Darwinian analysis of the process today. It is being argued that only those who ‘get’ the new system, who plug in all the way, campaign, lobby, hit book clubs non-stop, pop onto each others’ blogs, make deals or promises to vote for each other,  essentially looking to create a readership (or fanbase, but I prefer to speak of readers, not fans) in order to leverage it … these are the writers who will succeed.


Leaving aside  issues of excellence (another essay, maybe?) I’d argue, that this take on things may leave open what ‘success’ is in the larger scheme of art and life.

If people are driven to exhaustion, are made deeply stressed and anxious, feel fearful if they don’t have a good blog idea for a given day, or a witty tweet lined up (or are afraid their latest tweet will elicit hate), if all this subverts their writing, who has won? Do readers win if a liked writer hurries a weaker book out? Do we care about quality or about connecting? Is there a role for grace or restraint? Are we always served by more intimacy – or (very often) the illusion of it?

I’m not sure. That’s why I’m throwing out these questions. They are real ones, not rhetorical. I’m interested in the answers. And thanks.









Appearing near you…

Readings, interviews, signing appearances are complex and widely varying things for an author – and for those hosting. They are also receding from the book landscape to a degree, as marketing moves online and brick and mortar stores decline. The cost/return ratio for a publisher to fly an author around gets iffy. Many times now, a signing tour is paid for by the author, as he or she flies/drives hither and yon and may even be doing the bookstore liaisons him or herself. A reality of the bookworld today. These author-funded tours are common in genre fiction, especially, because there are still good specialty bookstores around (crossing fingers for all these indies) and there are also conventions to give something of a springboard, with an area tour launched around one.

Signings can also be hugely stressful for author and bookstore. Ego and anxiety kick in hard sometimes. Stars can get prickly if they feel under-appreciated or under-promoted. The store doesn’t want it to be a failure, and the author, obviously, does want people to be there. Also books – books in the store are good. Many of the great horror stories of Old Time Tours involve stock not being there when the author was.

When we launched Under Heaven in Canada, the attendance at the Toronto Reference Library for the reading and onstage interview blew past what both publisher and library had expected. It was wonderful, and a bit crazy. The library started hustling more chairs down the service elevator from wherever they lock up their folding chairs, and Penguin … well, they did truly yeoman service, but with some good luck, too.

Purely by coincidence, the launch coincided with the national sales rep meeting in Toronto and all the reps attended that evening, with a reception at a nearby bar beforehand. (I stayed sober and judicious, they didn’t have to.) When we all got to the actual event and they saw what was happening, the Toronto-area reps scattered to their cars where they all had some stock, others zipped up to the office where there were other books (the warehouse was too far) and the bookstore on duty was furnished with just enough copies to avoid a real awkwardness. It was actually a pretty impressive exercise of publisher adroitness.

By now, as a craggy (too craggy) veteran of the game, I am pretty relaxed about events. I have read in recent years for 15 people and for many hundreds in another city two days later, and have been surprised both ways, though not rattled. So many variables can come into it, not just how well the event is publicized. I have been known to thank the NHL in my opening remarks for not scheduling a playoff game during a reading.

There are variables, too, in how the actual event unfolds. Some venues are very dear to me. I used to love launching books in University of Toronto’s Hart House Library and Reading Room. It was a wonderful room with deep dimpled leather couches, and I had personal memories of cutting law school classes to read The New Yorker or Harpers there. There was a warmth, a feeling in that room as it grew crowded; we all felt connected to each other. Actors will know how much the space matters. When the Canadian launches outgrew that space (fire marshall rules, believe it or not) and we reluctantly moved over for a couple of years to the nearby theatre, it suddenly felt so formal, so distant, by comparison.

I still like doing smaller, more intimate events. Some years ago I was invited out to the Carmel/Monterey area by some readers who arranged a dinner gathering of 12-15 people at a restaurant, then a larger (but not too large) invitation-based reading and signing at an indie bookstore that stayed open after-hours. It was wonderful, classy, memorable. I have some terrific readers.

This Saturday I am doing something similar, also in California as it happens (the database is too small to draw firm conclusions, though!). There is a group of Canadians in the techworld there, in Silicon Valley, they have annual picnics on Canada Day and various  events through the year, and I am one such event this week, though they have opened it to all readers.

The information link is here, by way of Kepler’s Books, a wonderful bookstore in Menlo Park (it really is terrific) which will be selling books that night:

You click through to the registration from there. This is an evening event with wine and food and chat, with a short reading and interview tucked in. It is in a private home, and there is even valet parking. I joked on Twitter (what, joke on Twitter?) that I could not vouch for the valets handling quadrigas.

I am genuinely looking forward to this. The chance to mingle this way, have some time to actually talk, as opposed to a signing lineup where I feel guilty chatting with people too long if others are waiting patiently behind them, is so nice. I expect there will be some football talk, as Sunday is San Francisco vs Seattle, along with ManningBrady Redux.

If anyone brings a quadriga, I expect a ride.


Cover up

Well, the cover is up online, so the title of the post works, right? Right?

At least it is a better pun than one I saw today in the National Post: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolkiens’. Meh. Up with that I will not put!

Here is the new Penguin Canada trade paperback cover, for the edition that will be released in the spring. They did a reveal on their website this morning.

Penguin Canada paperback cover

Penguin Canada paperback cover

I have been very lucky with River of Stars in my English-language covers. (We’ll start seeing some of the foreign language cover roughs soon. Cross fingers with me.) I loved the blue court figure for the Canadian and US hardcovers (and the US will adapt it for their paperback) and I loved the beautiful UK cover as well (they are also staying with a variant of this for their pb).

I think this new effort by the Penguins in Canada is terrific. My publisher/editor, Nicole Winstanley had some  strong ideas about what she wanted to try for, but of course it becomes the task of the (long-suffering?) art director and department to find visual ways to achieve this. I know, because they made a point of telling me (!) that a lot of work and fine tuning went into this look. I saw it in next-to-last version and had only one note, which they agreed with, and smoothly incorporated.

In the final version, the yellow for title and name will be gold, and the black tree will very likely be embossed/raised.This will be strong on the shelves, and online, I think. It feels classy without being forbidding, and the red and gold and black work very well – classically, to my mind.

I imagine people will have favourites among the three that have so far appeared. I don’t think that’s an issue at all because obviously our aesthetic tastes vary. There is probably someone out there who loves the Hungarian cover for Ysabel. (Actually, I don’t think there can be. I take that back.)

Covers for books also have to incorporate awareness on the part of the publishers as to the nature of their specific market, the writer’s readership base (and possible expansion of that) and the dictates of a given format. A hardcover isn’t a trade paperback which isn’t a mass market paperback, among other issues.

A website a while back was going to put the US/CDN and the UK hardcovers up online for a preference vote, I don’t think it has happened yet. I’m as intrigued as anyone by the results of such comparisons, but in the end, they can tell us something about aesthetics, but less about effectiveness. There is a famous story of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood first coming out in the US with quite stylish covers – and bombing. They were pulled, reissued with more downmarket ‘gore’ covers – and took off.

I remain a gore-free cover zone, and am entirely happy to remain so.


Autumn in Bookland

I suppose the title here is another pun of sorts. Autumn, leading up to Christmas, is a major, often a defining season for publishers, booksellers and, obviously, authors. Seasons matter a bit less than they used to, many major titles appear in late winter or spring now (rarely midsummer, as media are on holiday too often, frivolous people that they are), but Christmas still matters a whole lot.

My other meaning, of course, is that the book business feels profoundly under siege these days, marginalized, anxious – autumnal, with fears of winter. Some of the literary fights that go on are a reflection of that. And that anxiety spills over in this season in particular, not just as a metaphor of autumn. Year-end sales are too critical.

This is one reason fall’s awards season looms so large. For literary fiction, often the only thing that will generate attention and sales is winning one of the major awards (Booker, Pulitzer, National Book Award, Giller…). Even a nomination is of only marginal sales benefit, usually. It isn’t unusual to see an added print run of 50,000 hardcovers for a major prize winner that had 3,000 (often less, in the UK) before the prize.

For spring books, the Christmas season can be a challenge. The October/November buzz has to be about new titles, and the nominees in the run-up to the major awards. There is nothing surprising about that. So how does an April book get attention or bookstore re-orders in November?

Well, one way is to appear on important Best of the Year lists. That brings a title back to people’s attention just in time for gift buying. And Christmas is usually the  last shot for a spring hardcover, since the paperback, whether trade paperback size, or mass market, will be coming in the spring. (Hardcovers generally get a year or so before the paperbacks appear; e-book prices often drop at that point, too.)

Which is all to say I am really pleased this weekend by some developments for River of Stars. It landed on a major list in all three of the major English-language markets. put it on their list of best books of the year, then The Globe & Mail in Canada did so in today’s paper, and I was just informed by a colleague in D.C. (she woke early with insomnia!) that it is also on the Washington Post ‘Notable Books of 2013’ list, online today, in the paper tomorrow. Too early for single malt, but I’ll have an extra latte.

I’ll also add something. For those writing seriously, this sort of thing goes way beyond possible book sale boosts. The Globe and the Washington Post are among the most respected book pages in today’s sadly diminished newspaper book coverage. We all write, if we’re ambitious, to have our work noted, recognized, ‘gotten’ in places like that. Strong, thoughtful reviews, such as those that came for River in the spring, are reinforced by year-end endorsements, and that matters internally, too, in the long process of crafting a novel.

In other words, a good morning.


A letter from Armenia

When I wrote Tigana I knew I was taking certain artistic risks. I have often told the story (in part meant for young artists pushing themselves and their fields) that when my very experienced, very enthused agent talked me into letting him send it out at the halfway mark he was shocked to find it unsellable. He’d expected a bidding war, and didn’t even get an offer.

That was a hard moment in my writing career. Kick in the teeth level, as I was still shaping and evolving a very ambitious book. The happy ending (for me) is that after I did suck it up and get back to finishing the novel over the year that followed, editors around the world were suddenly hugely excited. They didn’t have to guess that I could manage to pull this concept off. They had it in front of them and they judged that it worked. The bidding wars did happen, Tigana became my breakout book.

But it became something else, too. It seems to have acted for many people (including, Deborah Meghnagi, the splendid woman who created as a catalyst for some powerful personal feelings and life responses, and as a kind of marker of a trail for some younger writers over the years: fantasy can do and be more than it tends to be allowed.

For me, some of the most intense responses I get when I tour in other countries to read from my work or discuss literature as a whole, come when readers, writers, critics put up a hand in a crowded room or catch me at a signing after to ask, ‘When you wrote Tigana, were you writing about us?

I have experienced this in Croatia, Poland, Quebec. Had variations of the question asked from Korea and Mexico, among many others. The list is long. I’ve been asked about it in China, in the context of Mao’s cultural revolution. Tigana is about the relationship between identity and memory and culture, and what happens when attempts to erase the latter two are put in place. Of course I was writing about all these places, and more, it was an attempt, in part, to use the universalizing of the fantastic to make a point about the real.

And variants of the original comments and queries still come, almost a quarter of a century later. I’ve received permission to quote part of a birthday letter I just received from readers in Armenia, where the genre is just getting untracked, and where the memories of assaults on their identity and culture surely remain as raw as anywhere.

I am deeply touched (I think that is obvious) by their comments on Tigana and Lions, but even more moved by their personal eloquence and this evidence of the relationship between art that touches us, and the ways we can come to see hope in the world. It is a letter that gives me some hope, actually.

So my thanks go out to Frunz Harutyunyan, Eleonora Manandyan and their colleagues for this:

In fact, we all are constantly looking for happiness – in the dark recesses of the events and experiences, but sometimes you may open the book, and hear the boy screaming in the street – with love, with infinite devotion – “Tigana!”, and then become able to look at own homeland and love it again. Or having plunged into sadness of “Lions of Al-Rassan” suddenly realize that something constantly goes away, but with the Grief the memory of happiness remains, and it fills life with colors.
We perceive fantasy as not even a prisoner’s escape but just the ability to see over the roofs of skyscrapers and find the infinite sky, shining of stars and the radiance of sun, and then understand, realize and learn to appreciate the uniqueness of everything, learn to notice and wonder at the miracles around us – the wonders of love, devotion , compassion, and then begin to breathe, create worlds in the “image and likeness”.

Thank you for your support and hope your books bring to this world .