Giving the Reading

February 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

We all do it. The Reading.  We wrote the book.  It’s published.  It’s in boxes upstairs or sitting on the floor beside us.  It’s the kid all dressed up and ready to go.  Time to meet the teacher.  Time to slick back the hair, put on the new shirt.  Time to remember how to spell your first name.  It’s the public time not consonant with all the alone time it took to write the book.

I  once went to a reading in San Francisco when I was living there that stands out for me.  The writer was Alistair MacLeod.  He is one of Canada’s most distinguished writers.  He was raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and is the author of two volumes of short stories and one novel. His work has been translated into 27 different languages yet my hunch is that he is still not widely recognized in the United States. He composes his work in longhand and the legend goes that he will not proceed to a new sentence unless totally satisfied with the preceding one.

The reading was probably held in 2001 and the attendance was slight. His book Island, a compilation of his short stories, had recently been published in its First American edition by W.W. Norton and Company.  I had a copy with me and wanted to have it signed.  MacLeod was introduced.  He is not a tall man but stood erect and with a reserved demeanor and with what I thought then and now in recollection, a rather bemused expression looking out at the group before him.  He apologized for having a bit of a cold.  He held his book by his side and then began his reading by reciting from memory the first paragraph of the story he had selected to read.  He writes beautifully crafted stories and has a Gaelic roll to his intonation so that you were swept away to that place by both the curl of the language and the story. He seemed completely relaxed and in his element and he took us with him.  Perhaps that is what a reading should be without the glare, the thought of platforms or networking or sales but the joy of sharing a story with people gathered together who have come to hear it.

The Obligation to Imagine

February 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Obligation to Imagine

When a writer enters into a world of historical fiction, he/she enters, as completely as possible, that historical time-frame.  If that world means the trenches of WWI, as in the case of A Generation of Leaves, then the writer must be there and summon the words to create that world. The characters must eat, sleep, and breathe that world and if it proves too much for human endurance, the characters escape literally or figuratively.  But, what right did I have at this remove, never having experienced the WWI reality, to imagine those  situations, those reactions, that dialogue? While I was writing, sometimes, those doubts would intrude, sometimes they would give me pause.  They never ultimately stopped me because, what can I say, I was on the trail.  I had caught the scent.  I had some blind faith, ultimately, in the truth of my imagination.

Recently I read an amazing essay in the New York Times written by Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq entitled, “After War, a Failure of the Imagination”.

In his moving and bold opinion piece, Klay states bluntly that you don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” He makes a compelling case for neither civilians or soldiers being excused or excluded from discussion of war.

The imagination provides an empathic and stubborn ground for truths that we often too busily overlook or are afraid to face whether it be the horror of war or the shocking beauty of an ordinary gesture.


More on Archive Diving

February 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Peaks Island Press just published Tip #3 on writing an Historical Novel.  Check it out!

February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Archive Diving

Why was it important that my Uncle Leo on August 21, 1915 had a chest girth of 37 1/2 inches and a range of chest expansion of 2 1/2 inches? An answer to that question, generated by a doctor’s notation on my uncle’s Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Attestation Paper, had a lot to do with archive and internet research. One would think this would be a dull and dusty exercise.  It isn’t.  The old copy of the Attestation Paper, yellowed and dog-eared, that I hold in my hand bears my vanished young uncle’s signature.  I received that document after a request to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. . The answer to why chest expansion was important was because such expansion or lack of it was thought to be an indicator of pulmonary tuberculosis, a grave threat to troop strength during the war years.  Knowing this, led to other questions about the health or lack of it, that young men had before they were shipped to England and then off to Belgium and France.  Maybe it’s that one thing leading to another that goads the novelist as it does the archeologist so that they must continue digging.

 Sometimes, the official record is itself conflicting. Some documents I received said my uncle was killed in France but in following his direct action reports along with other research into the battles fought by the Royal Canadian Regiment at the time and date of his reported missing in action, the location was determined to be near the Hooge trenches in Ypres, Belgium.  Also, his name is engraved on the Menin Gate Memorial in that city along with 55,000 others whose bodies were never found. 

Archive diving can also mean stumbling onto information in the public domain. It was there that I first discovered the pigeoneers who later feature in the novel.  I won’t be a spoiler.  You’ll need to read the book but here is a link that shows one of the converted B-type busses from London converted into a mobile pigeon loft for use in Northern France and Belgium, during the Great War.

Beware, such sleuthing can be habit forming.  There are many nooks and crannies to uncover and an impossible number of trails to go down. Give yourself the time and take provisions—it might take awhile before you’re finished. 


Where Am I?

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