Thursday, October 18, 2018

Smiles on order?

The person who taught me the beginnings of this philosophy was a carpenter known in our home town as Jimmy the Greek. "Smile," he said. A new waitress with a summer job, I didn't appreciate his comment -- thought he was taking undue advantage of his position. In those bygone days, the customer was always right.

Jimmy always smiled and I took myself too seriously. I resented criticism, which was how I interpreted his first request to smile. Fortunately, I couldn't stay mad at him. As a regular, he always had a cheerful comment. Soon he'd invite me to "flip him for coffee." He always tossed, and I often paid from the tips in my apron pocket. Someone said he had a two-headed quarter. But I didn't mind. Jimmy was fun.

Reading a headline in the paper the other day, I was reminded of those long-ago summer I spend as a waitress in Gim Wong's cafe.

"Stop telling me to smile at the gym," screamed the headline. Like the younger version of me, the author had a negative reaction when the woman trainer instructed her to smile.

This interaction illustrates an important life lesson. It's not what happens that matters most. Our interpretation of what has occurred and our stories about what was intended are the things that give us grief.

If being asked to smile triggers a negative reaction, maybe we should wonder why. After all, it's just possible we're being reminded to enjoy the moment. It's hard to argue with such sage advice.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Hal Wake, Eden Robinson, Ali Hassan, and Peter Carey at Whistler Writers Fest

I really enjoyed Whistler Writers Festival. Left, writing conference familiar and expert author interviewer Hal Wake listens while Kitimat novelist Eden Robinson responds to one of his question. Below: comedian Ali Hassan is the interviewer. Along with a rapt audience, he listens to the intermingled funny and serious tones of Peter Carey, who talked about his latest novel.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Music and Stories at Whistler Writers' Fest and Whistler Independent Book Awards

Left, Indy short story writer Mike Sadava, a nominee for the Whistler Independent Book Awards, had a song to go with his stories. Fellow nominee Toko-pa Turner listens from the side. Below, another musical author, Dave Bidini reads from Midnight Light.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Echoes of Kate Atkinson on Thanksgiving Day

Left: Kate Atkinson signs a book for a fan in Vancouver.

I'm so thankful for the opportunity to read the work of amazing writers like Kate Atkinson. From the front row in St. Andrews Wesley last weekend, I delighted to hear her read from her new novel and converse with Vancouver writer Alix Ohlin. I even had a word with her as she signed Transcription. Her latest novel portrays a typist transcribing material captured on hidden recorders by MI5 in WWII.

The transcriptions used, the author assures us, are not actual, but "close facsimiles." Because the technology was less advanced, they contain plenty of gaps and inaudible sections, just waiting to be fleshed out by heated imaginations. In this book, Atkinson says, "Nobody is trustworthy when they tell you who they are."

It's always fascinating to hear how writers create, and how they think about the worlds their novels spring from. I was fascinated to learn that MI5 periodically releases material from their archives into the national archives, where Atkinson did the research for this book. It was also interesting to learn that MI5 used microphones plastered into walls.

Ms. Atkinson says her novel shows how the British "present themselves to themselves" as they look back at the war "through propaganda that we still have." She portrays Juliet, her protagonist, as a scholarship girl who "has been moved out of her class," and "is in exile from herself from the very beginning."

Other comments that stood out for me concerned the world of the time, when aged 18 in 1943, Juliet "has no idea that homosexuality exists." The character of Perry, a gay man, is based on that of Max Knight, (whom I met while reading Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms). This skilled spymaster began his life as a naturalist, and after the war became Uncle Mac, host of a children's nature program on BBC.

When interviewer Ohlin said how much she enjoyed the telling details about food, clothing and household, Atkinson responded by saying "I think I was alive during that period, but I wasn't." Speaking of food, she also informed her audience that "If you could hunt or shoot it, it wasn't rationed," adding that the post-war British diet was "really, truly appalling."

I was also delighted to learn that Jackson Brodie will be back. Indeed, she has finished the new book, and it will coming out soon. I was deeply relieved to hear that although she "did think of killing him off, he's not dead." It was profoundly pleasing to hear that in her "far distant future," she has a "big complicated novel about the early days of the railway."

Though readers find many moments in her novels hilariously funny, Atkinson's humour is "organic;" she never thinks about it while writing. She also feels she writes "filmically," but this too is not a conscious choice. Historical novels like hers, though "not necessarily true," contain "the essence of truth." I couldn't agree more.

A side note supports this idea: after publishing the book, she received a number of touching letters from children of men who flew the bombers. They said it helped them to better understand their dead fathers.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Dead and Kicking -- Paranormal Mystery writer Wendy Roberts at CA -- MV

Ready to evoke the Halloween mood? Join Wendy Roberts as she discusses ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night. Sometimes those spooky noises are just writing prompts from beyond the grave.

Wendy is the author of eleven novels, including two series: the Body of Evidence thrillers and the Ghost Dusters mysteries. She has also penned standalone mysteries Dating Can be Deadly and Grounds to Kill.

Hosted by Canadian Authors -- Metro Vancouver, this event takes place at the Alliance for Arts and Culture on Wednesday, Oct 10 from 7 - 9 pm.

All are welcome and CA members are free. Students with ID $5 at the door; non-members of Canadian Authors pay $10.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Agony and the Ecstasy with Vancouver artist and writer Michael Klucker

Canadian Authors--Metro Vancouver hosted Michael Kluckner at WORD this year. An attentive audience enjoyed a talk by this cartoonist-painter-writer. "Remainders of the Day" described the highs and lows of his years working to stay afloat. Authorship, he told us, is "a niche market," and one that is constantly changing.

His advice? Stay flexible, develop a thick skin, and don't take resounding indifference personally. Following these principles, Kluckner has survived and thrived from his early cartooning, through the vanished days of making money at magazine writing and the halcyon ones of winning prizes for a beautiful book that catapulted him from his "regional" status when it hit Toronto running, and got him promoted to a "Canadian" writer.

Before the late nineties, an Indy bookstore might carry 4000 titles to serve its local community and book prices were  stable, netting authors about 10% of the retail price. Conditions changed dramatically when Chapters megastores listing 100,000 titles beat back the small booksellers, demanding not only a 50% discount, but a 3-month return option on unsold books. Compounding the problem, Costco and some grocery stores normalized selling books at discount prices. The downward pressure on book prices hit authors and publishers hard.

Less than ten years after the book-buying public was slapped with GST (in 1990), book prices were pushed down and "royalties fell off a cliff." An illustrated coffee table book that would have fetched $40 in the eighties was priced at $35 three decades later. Amazon had become the "poster child" for the online sales model: the platform makes the money, while those who produce the art get next to nothing.

Now that writers and publishers can no longer afford to produce large colourful art books, Michael has moved on. His current genre is the  graphic novel, and his work features archived material, like a newspaper from 1910. Sold at comic fests as well as indies like Black Bond and Book Warehouse, his new work includes a biography of WWI ambulance driver Julia Henshaw, and Toshiko, a fictional Japanese Canadian protagonist in war time. Graphic work, being easier to read, also has the merit of being accessible to a wider and younger group of people, as well as those for whom English is not the mother tongue.

So what's a writer to do? Have a website so people can find you, maintain faith in your solitary craft, and enjoy your community as you find it, both fellow writers and fans. In closing, Michael posed an interesting question. Are contemporary people more interested in authors than books? Whether or not this is true, many now seem to have a "vicarious desire to be part of a creative process."

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Dear Corporate-style Charity

I am writing about the enormous calculator and tri-color pen you sent me in the mail. If you are relying on such a device, I suggest you re-check its functioning. Your calculations are clearly incorrect. You say my donation is worth triple the dollar amount I send, yet offer absolutely no evidence for this mathematically nonsensical claim.

A more realistic estimate is that perhaps half my donation will be used to support your good works. The rest will have to be spent on sending the next round of cheap bribes. I understand that giant corporate charities have to solicit funds in a dog-eat-dog world, and compete for diminishing dollars. But may I suggest that the race to flood potential donors with ever fancier bribes of plastic goods is far from an ideal solution? I for one resent resent such transparent attempts at manipulation.

Still, since my mother taught me to be polite, courtesy is an ingrained habit, so I must thank you for the calculator and pen. But in these days when every phone and computer has a calculator function, just how many calculators does a household needs? Has it never crossed your minds that people might donate freely?

If you really must send "gifts," please refrain from sending more unwanted plastic clutter. Fresh flowers would be a lovely choice, or possibly chocolates. Even better, I'd love a small pet - perhaps a goldfish. But no, those ideas are all too impractical.

I have it! How about a rebate cheque for the money you refrained from spending on bits of plastic? Then you wouldn't be seen to be contributing to the garbage problem and wasting non-renewable energy. I doubt that I'm alone in my frustration at witnessing how as charities like yours work for their various causes, they contribute ever more irresponsibly to the tsunami of junk mail.

On receiving the calculator, I sent you a donation -- in spite of and not because of the bribes. Lest you think this letter is not serious, let me assure you that next time I receive a large package like the one that came yesterday, I will return it to you by the next post, sans donation.

Sending my best regards, and thanking you for your good work, I remain

A sadly misunderstood potential donor (but only if you quit with the bribes)

PS Today in the post, I received a nickel from a rival charity. They've promised to make my donation worth five times as much, because for every dollar I donate, a large life insurance company will donate enough to quadruple it.

Where will this end?