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Place, Identity, and Home

So I’m reading Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife for the first time, and I’m only surprised that it’s taken me this long. Terri Windling is a superb editor (her fairy tale series with Tor is particularly worth reading). I love her blog, where she talks about her creative life amidst the green of Dartmoor. Her takes on mythic fiction fascinate me.

In short, she’s entirely up my alley. I’m not quite done The Wood Wife yet, but I am devouring it. It’s contemporary fantasy, and it’s still got very old magic in it. In many ways, it reminds me of Charles de Lint’s fiction (unsurprising), and I love it for many of the same reasons I love his (even more unsurprising).

It is also a novel inextricably tied to place; in this case, the desert and mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona. The dried-out washes, saguaros, vivid mountain colours, and harsh desert light enfold everything else: place is the magic and place is the character, and it speaks to a lot of what I’m mulling right now in terms of place, identity, and building Home.

This passage particularly struck me:

“He could only guess by the lines of his face what lineage was in him…Did it matter? He was of this land, whatever it had been. He was born here. Eaten its food, drunk its water, sweated under its hot, hot sun; he had taken the land into his body. His blood and bones were formed of it. He belonged here, as nowhere else.” – Terri Windling, The Wood Wife

The same can be said for the novel as a whole. Somehow, Windling has taken the land into the novel. It wouldn’t work, set anywhere else.

Place is particularly on my mind because I finished rewrites on the Beer Magic novel this week. Beer Magic isn’t mythic fiction—there are no Old Ones, here—but I’m trying to treat place in a similar way, trying to take Toronto and its ravines into the story, to sing its own song back to it.

We’ll see how well I do. That is one nice thing about the new place, though. I am closer to the ravines…

Of course, another writer’s words float to mind:

“I truly believe that each of us has a natural home. It may or may not be where we are born. We make it—yes. But we cannot make it perfect unless we discover where it belongs.” – Timothy Findley, Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer’s Notebook

I think I’m trying to figure that out now. I don’t think I shall do so within the next year, or even the next two, or five. But it will come closer—and I think the persistent preoccupation with place and home in my fiction is part of that journey.

But for now? The goldenrod and chicory are blooming in the ravines, and the leaves have that limp, strung-out look they get before they change colour. The sun sets earlier; warm though it remains, autumn is hastening.

And I have more of The Wood Wife to read.

-KT

What I’m Listening to this Week

“One foot in front of the other foot” will be my motto for the next while. Repetitive, forceful as marching footsteps, this song’s been surprisingly comforting.

The Parsecs and Me

The news has filtered through the internet by now: SIX STORIES, TOLD AT NIGHT has won the Parsec Award for Best Small Cast Story (Novella). It’s an incredible honour, I’m very pleased, and I want to show you a picture:

This is the 2012 Parsec Awards at Dragon*Con. It’s blurry because my hands were shaking, even worse than usual.

I was very young. Sitting alone, at the fringes. I was awkward and incredibly nervous. And also overwhelmed by the fact I’d made it to Dragon*Con. Guys, for 2012 KT, this was like attending the Oscars. My favourite podcast celebrities were all there. I’d been hanging out with some of them through the weekend. This was mind-blowing.

I remember feeling so uncomfortable, though.

Uncomfortable and hungry. God, I was so hungry (metaphorically speaking). After the awards, Pip Ballantine nodded to the big screen, saying, “Maybe one day, it’ll be your name up there.” And oh, I wanted that so much. Even then, I was gingerly feeling around the dream’s edges. Podcasting means a lot to me—I’ve always believed in the art form. I always wanted to create something beautiful with it.

In 2014, my short story “Under Oak Island” made the finalist round. So yes, my name was up there. It didn’t win, but it was a huge honour nonetheless.

Coxwood History Fun Park didn’t make the finalist round. Honestly, that was Okay.

And then I wrote SIX STORIES, TOLD AT NIGHT.

I’ve said before: SIX STORIES is the first time I’ve sat back after production and said, “Yes. Yes, I have produced the podcast that justifies me.”  It is not a perfect podcast, but it contains all of my heart and all of my ability, and it is exactly the way I wanted to go out.

From the start, I knew it was my last kick at the Parsec can.

One last story. One last shot.

And we did it.

And it feels—okay, well, honestly, it feels incredible. This is a dream I’ve had since I was eighteen years old. It was a long, long road—eight years!—which makes it all the more poignant. I have learned so much whilst podcasting, I’ve made so many friends, and I’ve grown so much.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m LOVING my tenure producing the Apex Magazine Podcast. But in terms of producing my own fiction, writing my own intensive audio dramas…

I’m good. Parsec or no, SIX STORIES said precisely what I want to say. With this story, I’ve done what I set out to do.

The Parsec is a wonderful symbol of that. I can scarcely describe how it feels to have a story that means so much to me, recognized with an award that holds such weight for me.

But I stand on the shoulders of giants. My utmost thanks to the many talented podcasters who came before me, inspired me, mentored me, and laid the foundation of the audio fiction canon we see today. My thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for providing the funding that made SIX STORIES possible. My thanks to Alex White, Starla Huchton, and Ellen McAteer for their contributions to this podcast. And of course, my thanks to Blythe Haynes for a beautiful performance.

It’s been an incredible ride, and I could not be happier.

But it’s not over. Not yet, not with SIX STORIES hitting the Toronto Fringe in July.

So thank you, all, for believing in this little podcast that could. I’m truly touched.

All best,

KT

What I’m Listening to this Week

I had a bunch of choral pieces, but I cycled back to Kevin MacLeod’s “Long Road Ahead.” This was the piece that concluded Hapax, and it feels especially apt for this week…particularly the final movement at 1:40.

 

Writing, Love, and Ethics

It seemed so easy. Write a 15-minute pantomime script. I’ve done that before. Use “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” as the base fairy tale. No problem. That’s my absolute favourite fairy tale (for those unfamiliar, it’s basically Norwegian Beauty and the Beast, with a polar bear). I know it backwards-forwards-and-inside-out, and hey, I’ve adapted it for the stage before.

Easy-peasy.

As you recall from last week, this November is Crunch-Month (although the To-Do list keeps shrinking), so the idea of a dead-simple project was great. Just bang something out real fast, and then get back to the mountain of edits, writing, and seekrit projekts.

As you can probably guess, it didn’t quite go that way.

I banged something out real fast. Unusually for me, I hand-wrote the first draft, edited in transcription, and then tossed it over the wall to Blythe. She made a few suggestions; I tweaked a few things. Then I sat in on the actors’ first reading.

“It’s really funny,” they reassured me. “It rockets along.”

It was barely 12 minutes.

“Man, you were ruthless with the source material.”

Ruthless? Really? The longer I sat and listened and took notes, the more dread started sinking through my gut.

I’d made a terrible mistake.

I’d taken my favourite fairy tale, and—because I was stressed, because it was Crunch-Month, because I was arrogant—I’d banged out something really fast. It was cheap, in every sense of the word. I felt cheap, when I realized. I’d taken something incredibly important to me, and excised everything I actually love about it.

You see, there is more to writing than making sure the plot and characters and sentences all square up. The story has to sit right with its creator, ethically. Art comes from our deepest selves; if it’s going to mean anything, it cannot be cheap. It cannot be inauthentic. Love is the wellspring—and there was nothing of love in that first attempt.

Then there is the whole separate issue of respecting source material. Maybe I could’ve skated by if this was pure parody…but it wasn’t. Pantomimes, for all the laughs, have a true core, which I completely ignored in my dash to the finish line.

So what does one do?

I took a little time to be angry with myself. And then I went back to the source. In my personal library, I have two versions of “East o’ the Sun.” I read both, then looked at the Kay Nielsen illustrations, and then put on the instrumentals for the opera libretto I wrote a while back.

I began again. I kept very little from the first draft. Because this—this—is what I love about “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.”

I love the brave girl and bear travelling north together.

My favourite image (Kay Nielsen, 1914).

I love the image of northern lights playing over sheer ice.

Cover of Edith Pattou’s novel “East,” by Stephen T. Johnson.

I love the brave girl accepting her mistake, and going off to save her prince.

“East” illustration by Kay Nielsen (1914).

I love the four winds.

Production shot from “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” Canadian Children’s Opera Company, 2014. Photographer: Michael Cooper

I love her cleverness, her bravery, and her love.

“The Kiss,” by PJ Lynch, from a 1962 illustrated version. It makes even my stony little heart quicken.

The next script had much more of that. I breathed a sigh of relief.

As the girl discovers—mistakes can be fixed. Bears and princes can be rescued. The way can be found.

In writing—and “East”—it is love that will see you through. This was a good reminder.

-KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

I’m not sure why this popped up, but here we are. “Love Changes Everything” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. Michael Ball has an utterly adorable, buttery singing voice. This is musical cotton candy, but sometimes, that’s what one needs!

At Home with Monsters

Pondering two separate-but-related things this week. First, I went to At Home with Monsters, the Guillermo del Toro exhibit currently on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibit purports to bring patrons inside del Toro’s home, “Bleak House.” It features art and books he holds dear, along with costumes and models from his films.

It’s a fascinating look into the creative “mulch” from which an artist’s work grows. The exhibit drew largely from del Toro’s childhood influences: a conservative Catholic grandmother, fairy tales, comic books and movie monsters. (No wonder I like the man’s work so much.) Montages from his films then show how those influences translate to his art.

It occurs to me that while the exhibit references his physical house, it’s mostly about home in a metaphorical sense. What mental furnishings does del Toro have; what relics from childhood and family tradition lie semi-forgotten in the attic of his mind, hauled back to light when least expected?

We all have such a mental home, of course, outfitted with whatever pieces we’ve picked up along the way. Which relates to my second pondering…

I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot this week. Partly, it’s the season. The fifth anniversary draws nigh in a month or so, which…fuck. Partly, this tends to happen around Remembrance Day, with all our choral pieces focused on death, loss, and memorializing.

Thinking about my mental home, grief and loss feature pretty prominently. Look at the fiction I’ve written since he died. It shows up again, and again, and again, like I’m telling myself the same story in hopes that this time I’ll understand the ending.

(Spoiler: I never do.)

“The Angel of Death,” from “Hellboy.” In all the exhibit, this piece struck me the most.

But there was an unexpected thought in all this. I don’t have to be afraid anymore. See, for a good few years after Dad died, my operating rule was that – eventually- everyone dies or leaves. No one was for Keeps. No one stayed forever. Sometimes that assumption was consciously articulated; sometimes it just underlay everything, like the lowest, half-heard rumble from an organ.

It runs all through my fiction: this obsessive fear of loss. Sometimes, that works (Six Stories). Sometimes, it doesn’t. (I can name probably half-a-dozen short stories off the top of my head.)

The mother from “Crimson Peak.”

But here is something I’m still trying to puzzle through. Grief and loss and death are my monsters—some of them, anyway. They live in my mental house with me; I’ll never get their stains out of the carpet and wallpaper.

But I’m not afraid, precisely, in quite the same way.

It’s a bit like my fear of Medusa (who also appeared in the del Toro exhibit, to my equal delight and dismay). Medusa’s a monster in my house too. But I’m not afraid—in fact, I’ve co-opted the gorgon image for myself, turning a symbol of my utmost dread into something powerful, strong, protective.

She’s a monster I live with. Though I fear her, I’ve got the power, now.

We all have monsters. I think their appearance in our art is inevitable. I’m not sure that you can write about them while you’re still afraid of them. I think that for art to be successful, you need to have some distance from it, to let it work as art in itself, rather than a veiled autobiography. Art is synthesis, not straight translation.

And my roundabout point is that I think grief and loss are finally undergoing the same transformation for me. My monsters, my furnishings, but not something that controls me. Rather, something I can co-opt, something I can drag out from the attic when they’ve mouldered into something less recognizable, rather than using them straight-from-the-box.

What can you write, if you’re not afraid?

I’m not entirely sure. I guess we’re going to find out.

-KT

PS. For more information about At Home with Monsters, click here. I will definitely be returning; my one regret is that I had an appointment to keep, and so rushed more than I would’ve liked.

What I’m Listening to this Week

Love me some Ralph Vaughan Williams, but I’d never heard this cantata before now. According to the accompanying notes, “Dona Nobis Pacem” was written in response to “…war, or the deepening sense of trouble which by the mid-1930s seemed set to explode into war.”

Equally disturbing and reassuring as a whole, the second movement (starting around 4:00) is one of the most intense and angry choral pieces I’ve heard in a while. I think we know one of Vaughan Williams’ monsters. Also listen to the quiet, driving drums and baritone in the fifth movement (26:40)…before the choir explodes into more anguish, followed by a glorious final movement.