Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Next Big Thing

With thanks to Liz Harmer and Richard Scarsbrook for tagging me in, I bring you Chain Letter 2.0. Here's the deal: a writer answers 10 questions about his or her work-in-progress, then links to some more - they're at the bottom, please check out their work, too!

Without further ado...

1) What is the working title of your book?

Nobody Looks That Young Here.

2) Where did the idea for the book come from?

With a short fiction collection, it's hard to pinpoint when "the" idea came into being, but I can talk a little about where the first stories began. My first publication, "The Expiry Dates," (in Broken Pencil Death Match, which is currently open for submissions) was written in Richard Scarsbrook's Expressive Writing I course at George Brown College, and the prompt for it was "write about a job you've had." (Yes, you heard it here last: I actually worked at a Giant Tiger store in Southwestern Ontario.) A flash piece from that class as well, (from the very first prompt, "childhood"), ran in NoD at the University of Calgary - also open for submissions, until Jan. 1/2013 - under the title "Respect." I'm very much in the write-what-you-know camp, and before long I had a list of experiences, anecdotes, filthy rumours and out-and-out lies from which the collection's other 14 stories germinated. I eventually got them into the right order, which created something like a narrative arc that spans from approximately 1975 to 2005 in this place called Currie Township, somewhere southwest of London, Ontario, and probably not too far from where I grew up.

3) What genre does it fall under?

Literary Fiction; Short Stories.

4) Which actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie version?

Again a hard question because it's short fiction: there are a lot of characters, and a movie not named Short Cuts would probably have to drop a few. There are a lot of teenagers, and it would need both young and old versions of some characters. Nevertheless...

Dave, who moves away from Currie for university then comes back in his fifties to re-open the movie theatre, seems the hardest to cast, but someone wonderfully generic like Bruce Greenwood comes to mind. Claire, a girl he knew way back when, would be Julianne Moore, nowadays. Claire's sister, Susan, is Melissa Leo, maybe, and John Hawkes would play her common-law husband.

Entering the next generation, it gets harder - I can't name many teenage actors for Susan and John's kids and their friends, but type-wise, their son Mike would be equally generic, Shia LaBoeuf, maybe. His first crush Jessie would be an uglied-up Zooey Deschanel, and his next interest, Jenny - whose name is changing soon, too close to Jessie - would be Alison Pill. Sharon, the older girl from work, would probably be Ellen Page. (Sorry, Woody.) Mike's best friend Brian could be Channing Tatum, and Jennifer Lawrence is perfect for Brian's sister, Stella.

Sean Penn could play Jessie's abusive Dad, Hank Mueller, and the idiot ex-gym teacher guidance counsellor who suggests that Mike join the army would be Philip Seymour Hoffman, because no matter what the movie, were I making it, he would be in it. Him and Penelope Cruz. I'm sure I could rewrite something that works her in...

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Michael Carrion is born into a seemingly predestined, depressing small-town life and must constantly struggle to scratch his way free of it.

6) Will the book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don't have an agent currently, and I'm not sure I'll take one for this first book. I'm hoping that a good relationship I've developed with a small publisher that doesn't usually work with represented writers will prove to be the right fit, but I'm not taking anything for granted.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

That Expressive Writing course mentioned above began in September, 2009. I've published other stories not in this book in the meanwhile, and the stories were all polished one at a time for magazine submissions, but I finally wrote the first draft of the final story - the closer that gives the group its title - in September, 2012. I guess that makes three years... a long time for 180 pages.

8) What other books would you compare yours to?

I wouldn't want to tell a reader what my book should remind him or her of, but I would absolutely love to hear it compared to Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women or anything by Albert Camus. I feel a special affinity between my story "Comets" and the latter's "La Femme Adultère."

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My girlfriend (fine: "common-law partner") of nearly seven years, Sidonie Wybourn, who convinced me that, if told well, stories I might think were mundane because of their familiarity to me could seem strange and new to a reader, particularly an urban one. She'd be the first to tell you that some of the things I tell her about where I come from make it seem like there's a whole different world three hours down the highway from Toronto.

10) What else about your book might pique a reader's interest?

It's short, so it won't require much paper, which is cost-effective and eco-friendly. Plus, most of the individual stories aren't very long, either, which makes it ideal to read on the subway. I have high hopes that the final version will fit in your pocket.

Oh, and one story has outlaw bikers in it.

Now, go read:

Julie McArthur
Braydon Beaulieu
Amy Stuart

Message for tagged authors: 

Rules of the Next Big Thing:
  • Use this same format for your post
  • Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
  • Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reading Journal: All the Voices Cry, by Alice Petersen (2012)

It's a shame that the two stories I liked the most in this group were second and third from the end - though the stories are perfect subway length for me (about 10-page, 15-minute reads), I found that in most cases what I had on my hand was an account of some event or other but one that didn't pack much punch. The book ought to be divided in halves, too, I think; in the early going, the stories share common characters and a setting - a cottage north from Montreal - but then you're suddenly in New Zealand and the South Pacific, without any real closure on what seemed to be a linked group. I was beginning to somewhat enjoy untangling the character relationships from story to story in the first set - the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - but even the Journey-nominated "After Summer," the collection's first story that I had already read and enjoyed in the prize anthology, seemed lacklustre on second read. Petersen's style may be what I like least, and what complicates the effect of her prose (for me), as she stacks solid sentences one of top another without achieving an intuitive flow. I could put the pieces together on repeated reading, but to me a more enjoyable story is one that brings you along with the voice instead of forcing you to find your own path through. There are, however, some standouts in the group: "Neptune's Necklace," about an old woman, basically a shut-in, who imaginatively replaces her dead children with some young visitors, and "The Land Below," about the change in a father-daughter relationship after mother dies. The group didn't work for me, though.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading Journal: Afflictions and Departures, by Madeline Sonik (2011)

It's a challenge to put into words why I enjoyed this book, but I did. I've always loved coming-of-age stories, and perhaps the most exciting angle in this one is that the story is true. Sonik's essays tell of a girlhood spent moving around the U.S. and Canada with a father with a drinking problem and a repressive emigrant mother from England. In each piece, we see the author and her attempt to overcome the challenge before her, finding ways to exist that don't stop at not rocking the boat but that result in growth. And though strangely mundane and packed with (perhaps too much) historical context, the collection sings because it's written tightly and hard to put down - the essays are so short you have little trouble knocking them off a few at a time. I found myself thinking of the book as a sort of evil twin to Bill Bryson's Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, where instead of a surreal escapes to comics or B-movies, it's the actual changes going on in medicine, communications, politics, etc. that take Sonik to her utopia: a comfortable, "normal" environment to inhabit. Interesting, unconventional and surprisingly readable. Highly recommend.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reading Journal: A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey (2003)

I'll get this out of the way first: I don't care if it's true. Maybe it mattered at the time, because it was being sold as a memoir, but this far along, I think it can only be considered a story, a "fictionalized memoir" or an "autobiographical novel," using either term with a giant asterisk. I could, however, feel the controversy around the book affecting my reading of it and making me more attentive throughout. When I started thinking, for instance, "The addict voice he uses, all the 'want want want want want' etc., seems really cartoony," I wondered if I'd have even questioned it were I thinking it factual; and for all the repetitions he uses - incantations or refrains occasionally well-placed, but generally employed solely for emphasis, like those Star Trek: The Next Generation characters* did - and, as far as I can tell, completely arbitrary capitalization, I wondered "Would I forgive even worse writing if this were true?", because with memoirs, maybe because not everyone with a personal story is a capital-W Writer, I tend to criticize technique much more charitably. To me, what's especially interesting is that Frey first tried to sell this as fiction, because I would think that in a slush pile, it would look a lot like the hundreds of overly confessional based-on-a-true-story rehab "novels" that they reject pro forma. It makes me wonder: after a rejection of a short story for being too clearly "true" to be good fiction, would I try to publish it as a personal essay? If I was proud enough of the work, I think I would. And the only differences I see between that choice and Frey's "memoir" are that (1) that M-word carries a seemingly inherent claim of truth, and (2) my essay would not be 430 pages long.

But aside from all that: is it any good? Yes. I found the story compelling and very hard to put down. You could call his rhythms and style "stolen," from everyone from Henry Miller through William S. Burroughs or Jack Kerouac, though (as I already said) I can't understand the language conventions he chose to challenge, or why: if making Town or Hero a proper name, how are "small Town" and "football Hero" not? Any writer is free to do as s/he pleases with the language, but if I can't figure out the rules of the game - or if there aren't obviously any to speak of - I probably won't play.** As a whole, I thought Frey's fondness for repetition dragged the prose down more often than sped it up, but overall the writing moved at a surprisingly fast clip.

Taking the long-view, the book's not as ground-breaking as it would have been were it all true, or were it written before its stylistic forebears, but it's a book a lot like many books many people like; why, therefore, shouldn't people like it? We get a character who really needs help, and who works at getting it, meeting a ton of interesting characters and obstacles along the way - sounds like a decent story to me. And as a final note: I was reading it waiting for a takeout order in July or August, and in the Toronto Star that day, there was an "if you liked this, buy that"-type list. It surprised me to see that A Million Little Pieces was listed as a book popular with teens, but it makes a lot of sense - I don't think I'd be the first to say that the Frey character increasingly reminded me of Holden Caulfield as I neared the book's end, in the way that he discovered that despite his objection to nearly everything he the world, it was still possible to make his way in it. For that, I think the book's worth reading, pack of lies or otherwise.

*-Please comment below if you remember the name of these characters. Also, please don't laugh at me for watching this as a child.
**-Worth noting: I finished the book regardless...!