Alas, I think this is a state of being that’s likely to continue until at least the end of February. My secret is that I’m actually TERRIBLE at multitasking. However, I am excellent at pulling ridiculously long hours to get something done in three days, so that I can move along to the next task.
It’s not really cramming, because every project gets a very carefully appointed spot on the calendar. More like strategic slogging, I suppose. This month has mostly been eaten by the interactive fiction game, another Ontario Arts Council grant application, and the Six Stories, Told at Night stage adaptation (with some Apex Magazine podcastery thrown in there). Amidst all this, I keep poking at the novel because the constantly-breaking momentum is wrong-footing me.
This isn’t how I like to write novels. I like to write them over intense bursts that last four-to-eight weeks. Back in December, I was hoping to finish Beer Magic by the end of January, but it looks like I may finish it during my February writers’ retreat.
Such is the writing game, sometimes. As they say, “You can’t always get what you want.”
So what do you do, in these cases?
Honestly, I think there’s only one thing to do. You take a straw, and you suck it up. As I’ve always said, paying work and contracted work gets done first, work with hard deadlines comes next, and then you figure out the rest.
(Excuse me whilst I balefully poke at the novel a little more.)
But paradoxically, sometimes when I’m overwhelmed the best thing I can do for myself is…not write sometimes. Otherwise, I can drive myself into a tizzy. So…reading. Baking. Drinking adult-type beverages with friends. Going to choir and post-choir hangouts. (Honestly, I think choir is the thing that keeps me the most grounded.)
That sounds like a contradiction. Suck it up—but also don’t worry, go have fun!
Okay. Sometimes, yes, you have to be a writer first. Strap on your Grown-Up Boots and stomp through the swamp of unwritten words. But we’re also humans, and if we neglect that side of ourselves, what will we be good for writing, anyway?
I firmly believe it all comes down to scheduling. Everybody has twenty-four hours in the day. It’s up to you to decide how those hours get filled.
The swamp is good, in the end. It means there’s a lot of really cool stuff on one’s plate. And besides, it’s excellent practice. Writing is hard, after all. Theatre is also hard. Doing both?
Anyway. I hope you have an excellent week. Carry on!
What I’m Listening to This Week
I’ve been listening to this piece, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. Byron’s “She walks in beauty” is one of my favourite poems, and this choir is lovely, but I feel like I wanted more melody to match the metre, less preoccupation with moving chords.
Still listening while I figure my opinion out.
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.
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.
I didn’t really want to write this post. This is supposed to be the cumulative, “What I Did in 2017” post. You know, where we check in with that black-Sharpie list I made on New Year’s Day. But see—the thing is—I feel like I didn’t do much.
But that’s putting it mildly. Coming off the insane ride that was 2016—the year everything seemed to go right—this year has left me feeling fairly ineffective. A failure.
However, I do want to remain honest, always. And I think this year, while deeply unpleasant, was necessary.
So let’s get the main event over.
What I Did in 2017
“Her Hands Like Ice” came out in Bracken Magazine.
“Search History” sold to/came out in Daily Science Fiction.
Gave my “Fantasy Author’s Guide to Beer” talk at Boskone, the Nebulas, and Can-Con.
“La Corriveau” was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award.
“Six Stories, Told at Night” is currently a Parsec finalist (idk when the awards are being given—does anyone?)
Wrote and submitted a lot of stories. Some of them got very nice rejection letters.
Wrote a final draft of the Creepy Play, provisionally titled, A Canticle of Stars. It’s being produced in the spring.
“Six Stories, Told at Night—LIVE ON STAGE” got into the Toronto Fringe Festival. I probably will not add “LIVE ON STAGE” to the final title, but no promises.
Started writing the Beer Magic Novel. It’s currently about 25k. It needs a good solid whack with a stick before I can continue, but I’m having fun thus far.
Contracted with Choice of Games to write another interactive fiction game. It occurs to me that I never mentioned this publicly. But I’m totally doing that. It has dinosaurs in it.
Researched/began plotting a new play with Blythe.
Schemed quite heavily on other theatre things with Blythe. I can talk about them more in the New Year. The secret is slipping out, but I must be coy a while longer.
Took over as the Apex Magazine podcast producer. Which—whooo! I didn’t realize how much I missed podcasting until I was back in the saddle. This is the best arrangement, and I’ve loved working with the Apex team.
I also made a lot of new friends (waves at Twitter), wonderful thing happened to my friends, and I read a LOT of good things.
Which…okay. I look at all that, and I have to concede that perhaps I am not a total failure. I’m just not living up to my own expectation. It’s silly, and I know that writing doesn’t work this way, but I fell into the trap of assuming that last year’s streak would just…continue.
Except it doesn’t always.
Except that writing—like anything—happens in cycles.
Except that you have to keep going, even when it feels like you are the Absolute Worst.
This year—yeah, this year, I failed. Not totally. But I did. And if one is going to survive writing, one has to learn how to survive that. 2017 shook me to the roots—and while I cracked a little, I’m still standing.
Terri Windling has interesting thoughts about this, actually. Quoting Jane Champagne, she says, “…sometimes the old artist has to die before the new artist is born. And the “death” part takes as long as it takes. It doesn’t care about schedules and deadlines.”
This is comforting, because it addresses another difficult aspect of this year:
It’s been hard to write. I feel clumsy. I feel inarticulate. I feel like I have laryngitis: the same frustration in expressing myself; notes once so easy, now out of reach.
After this long, I know: throwing myself into a long-term project always helps rekindle the fire, so I’m very glad for Beer Magic. Even if it needs a good whack. (It’s a weird one, my friends. Fun, but weird.)So the important thing for 2018 is to keep moving onwards. Write more, write better. And more importantly, write with more joy. I realize now that was often missing from my 2017 writing. That may have been part of the problem, actually.
Well. Hmm. That’s something to chew on. I’m glad we had this chat, friends.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Aptly, a piece I literally just discovered, Daniel Schreiner’s “Fear Not.” There are some incredibly beautiful dissonances here—and those droning, held tenor/soprano notes give me goosebumps.
Greetings, friends! So after some early flailing, the Beer Magic Novel seems to have kicked into gear. It’s about 16k at the moment and I can feel the momentum building (I miss it, when I’m not working on it). BUT it also hasn’t yet reached the critical threshold of, “I’m pretty sure this novel’s not gonna die,” so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.
For indeed, it is mid-December! It is time for all the yearly wrap-up posts!
Without further ado:
Some Things I Read and Loved in 2017
(In roughly the order I read them.)
Green Grass, Running Water—Thomas King
I’m only counting fiction here, but I read this shortly after King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. And I’m glad I read them in that order: King’s meditations in the latter helped me appreciate the former even more.
I loved the voice in Green Grass. I loved the blending of conventional novel structure and oral storytelling principles. It’s funny and honest and heartbreaking, and please just read it.
Strong, sassy women and hard-luck, hard-headed men, all searching for the middle ground between Native American tradition and the modern world, perform an elaborate dance of approach and avoidance in this magical, rollicking tale by award-winning author Thomas King. Alberta, Eli, Lionel and others are coming to the Blackfoot reservation for the Sun Dance. There they will encounter four Indian elders and their companion, the trickster Coyote—and nothing in the small town of Blossom will be the same again. . . .
Kiss of the Fur Queen—Tomson Highway
This one—we start with champion dog-sled racer Abraham Okimasis, and then follow his sons from early childhood to adulthood. It’s immersive and beautifully written and painful—and again, I’m head-over-heels in love with the voice, particularly that of eponymous Fur Queen.
Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis are all too soon torn from their family and thrust into the hostile world of a Catholic residential school. Their language is forbidden, their names are changed to Jeremiah and Gabriel, and both boys are abused by priests.
As young men, estranged from their own people and alienated from the culture imposed upon them, the Okimasis brothers fight to survive. Wherever they go, the Fur Queen–a wily, shape-shifting trickster–watches over them with a protective eye. For Jeremiah and Gabriel are destined to be artists. Through music and dance they soar.
The Stone Angel—Margaret Laurence
Do you sense a theme here? The Stone Angel gets assigned to a lot of high school English classes. Mine missed it, but I’m glad I waited until adulthood. Basically, Hagar Shipley runs away to the woods and remembers her life—and pals, it’s devastating. Laurence’s characterization is superb. And it’s those little, tiny details that hit with the most weight.
In her best-loved novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence introduces Hagar Shipley, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.
As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride…
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter—Theodora Goss
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this novel. It’s a well-curated collection of Victorian literature’s girl monsters. On one level, it’s a terribly fun romp. On another, it’s a very intelligent dance with Victorian literature. Of course, this is all up my alley.
Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.
But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.
When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.
A Green and Ancient Light—Frederic S. Durbin
I picked this up from the library on a whim. Early on, it says: “I won’t tell you my name or that of the village where I spent that spring and summer when I was nine. I won’t because you should realize there were towns just like it and boys just like me all around the sea…”
It’s a vague world, and yet complete. In a nutshell: boy, grandmother, and faun try to both protect a downed fighter pilot and find a long-lost door into Faery.
When I finished, I could only think, “This one is part of me now.”
It was that kind of book.
Set in a world similar to our own, during a war that parallels World War II, A Green and Ancient Light is the stunning story of a boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother for the summer in a serene fishing village. Their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane, the arrival of grandmother’s friend Mr. Girandole—a man who knows the true story of Cinderella’s slipper—and the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house. In a sumptuous idyllic setting and overshadowed by the threat of war, four unlikely allies learn the values of courage and sacrifice.
Bonus Short Story: “The Last Sailing of the Henry Charles Morgan in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841),” by A.C. Wise.
This story is told through the registration notes that accompany museum artifacts; in this case, six pieces of scrimshaw. Look, I work at a museum. I’ve read these notes. Wise nails them. It’s an inventive form of storytelling and it is wonderfully, wonderfully creepy. This is the winner of the 2017 Sunburst Award for short story—and it’s easy to see why!
And that’s all I could fit into this one post! What about you? What did you read and love this year?
What I’m Listening to this Week
Oh my goodness, I’ve been obsessed with Purcell’s “Cold Song” this week. Actually known as “What Power Art Thou?” it’s from the King Arthur opera. This is the point wherein Cupid wakes the “Cold Genius,” or the spirit of winter.
Look at the way the vowels punch the same note repeatedly. It should be a half-note or whatever, but it’s been split into repeated eighths—because he’s creating the effect of shivering!!!!
I love it. I’m so down. I want to work the emotional resonance into a story somehow.
So it’s Friday night and I’m going to a party, yeah? On the way, I buy a can of pop, and I’m just heading into the subway when my phone explodes.
Congratulations on getting into the Fringe!
Hey I think you just got picked!
We heard your name!!!
To which I responded eloquently: WHAT.
You see, I’d been pondering adapting my podcast audio drama Six Stories, Told at Night for the stage. So I tossed our name in the Toronto Fringe Festival lottery. The draw was Friday night. And I…well, I completely forgot about it until the announcements started rolling in. But I hopped off the subway, found cell signal, and checked the Fringe Twitter feed.
Yep. There it was. Right there. Our number.
So I called Blythe.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“So…do you want to be in a Fringe show?”
I will treasure the subsequent scream for a good long time.
Towards the end of the night I got emotional and cried a little, there on the street. It’s just been such a journey, you know? First it was the Ontario Arts Council funding, now it’s getting into the Fringe. Like—Blythe and I are heading to the Toronto Fringe this July. This is what I’ve dreamed of for years.And then I came home, and I had to do laundry with my cat’s not-terribly-helpful assistance.
And then I got a rejection on a story I was just starting to feel vaguely hopeful about.
And I still need novel words today, even as the Inner Voice whispers that maybe I’m not such a good writer after all.
And I realized:
This is it, guys. This is what they mean when they say, “It never goes away.” The rejections, the Imposter Syndrome, the unglamorous domestic chores—they are always there, no matter what you write, no matter what opportunities and accolades come your way. This is the artist’s life.
It keeps us humble, I guess. Hungry, too. Sitting on one’s laurels and basking in adulation never created great work.
So yeah, right now I feel surprisingly melancholic—but also absolutely stoked at the exact same time. For me, the biggest breakthrough right now is accepting that these two states can co-exist. It’s never going to be Either/Or. Self-doubt lies alongside the awesome, but it doesn’t undermine it.
I’ve talked about this kind of faith before: the resolute plodding forward, even as we don’t know where the road is going, or even if it’s going anywhere at all.
We just have to keep going. Creating art that makes our hearts sing. Taking risks. Tossing our names in lotteries because why the hell not?
Somehow, it’s enough. This is indeed what I signed up for. Knowing that helps immensely.Journey well.
And oh, yes…
See you at the Fringe!!!!
What I’m Listening to this Week
Loreena McKennitt is pretty cool. Her music has that mythic-otherworldly flair to it. And I really, really like this piece: “The Old Ways.” There are some beautiful touches in the lyrics, and I have fallen head-over-heels for the refrain, especially when it starts really driving in the third minute.
I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.
Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.
It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”
“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.
It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.
What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.
Forging new opportunities.
And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.
GOBLIN 1: The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.
GOBLIN 2: But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!
GOBLIN 1: It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.
The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).
So if not for fame and fortune, why write?
Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.
At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?
I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—
Then the fight is already won.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.
This week, I kicked a few more pieces of the new novel into place, which felt good. It’s at a peculiar stage: I know the general plot arc, but I’m not ready to start writing. Partly, I need to know the characters better. But also, there’s more substance and under-the-surface thinking I need to figure out.
It felt too superficial. A colourful facade with nothing beneath. And so, I’ve been continuing my research: not only delving into Toronto history, but also theories of the Gothic and the sublime.
Including this roundtable on Southern Ontario Gothic!
Coles’ notes: Southern Ontario Gothic blends realism with terror, generally through explorations of family dysfunction, decay, decrepitude, and repressed trauma. In Southern Ontario. The conversation is well worth watching in full, especially for its characterization of Canada as a haunted country, which suggests a way to reconcile some artistic problems I’ve been having.
I was particularly struck by Jane Urquhart. First of all, because she reminds me of Elizabeth Hand—slightly in mannerism; greatly in her razor intelligence.
But also, because of this:
I think that, as an author, I write about what intrigues me, and then it’s later that somebody else decides that whether or not I’m part of some kind of movement.
The genre was handed to the writer. The writer did not think to him or herself—“I know, I’m going to write something in the Southern Ontario Gothic genre.” I don’t think writers think like that. They don’t invent genres.
It was interesting. It’s not even that I necessarily disagree with her—I just want to explore these ideas further.
I think there is often a bumblebee-doesn’t-know-it-can’t-fly phenomenon going on with the development of new literature. Look at steampunk: K.W. Jeter only coined the term after he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock had produced early examples of it. And once you have a name for something, once you have tropes—that’s when the family resemblances start appearing in subsequent works, whether the author intended them or not.
So what about when the genre is already established? I mean, the Creepy Play was initially code-named “Southern Ontario Gothic.” I wrote the script knowing exactly which genre it was.
But then—as Urquhart said, the genre was handed to the writer. I didn’t fit the story to the genre; I fit the genre to the story. (“Oh, wow, this is a dysfunctional family shot through with degeneration and repression—in Southern Ontario—I think I know what shelf this goes on!” rather than, “I want to write SOG, so I’d better build a family on the brink of collapse…”)
Going further with the bumblebee theory, I know some writers who refuse to read anything in their genre, for fear of contamination. For me, though—I fall back on my Stonecoast training. If you’re writing a Gothic novel, you read other Gothic novels. You read the early ones; you read the most recent; you read the literary criticism surrounding them. It’s important to understand where the genre came from, how it developed, and what people are saying now. Because it’s a dialogue—and you’re part of it. How can you contribute if you don’t know what’s been said before?
As for writing what intrigues me—I’m intrigued by the haunted, the degenerate, the many shades of family dysfunction. I’m intrigued by the liminal space between realism and the fantastic: the place where the worlds cross. I’m intrigued by the mountain of CanLit I’ve consumed this year: but I want to add magic.
So no—I don’t think (most) writers set out to create genres. But I think it is useful to have some idea of what you’re working with; what you intend to do. It’s like painting: tempera, oils, and watercolours all behave differently, and they all create different effects.
Perhaps we don’t name the movement. But surely, we imagine its form and colours…
What I’m Listening to This Week
I cycled back to a lovely Scottish-Gaelic piece. There’s still something about this music that makes me want to write all the things…
I have a friend from Stonecoast visiting this week, which means there has been lots of gallivanting and little else. So not much musing today, just updates.
I’m a Sunburst nominee?
So last Monday, I posted about this strange, transitional sense I’ve been having. And the minor crises of self-esteem. Then I opened Twitter…
…and found the awesome and talented Kelly Robson congratulating me.
Having “La Corriveau” on the longlist was a huge honour; I honestly never expected it to go any further than that. This is likewise a huge honour—look at that list! Go back and look at the longlist! There is serious talent there!
It’s very humbling. And I’ve always been fond of “La Corriveau.” If nothing else, the historic Marie-Josephte Corriveau was a remarkable woman: I hope I’m doing her some justice.
The Sunburst winners will be announced sometime this fall.
Starting in September, I’ll be producing the Apex Magazine podcast!
This was unexpected, but delightful news! I’ve missed working with sounds—as everyone predicted when Six Stories wrapped up, I love podcasts too much to quit them entirely. Not only is Apex a wonderful team, it seems like the perfect balance: I’m just producing. That cuts down on time and workload, but still lets me keep a toe in the pool.
At the moment, I’m busy cultivating a stable of narrators. So yes, you’ll be hearing more from Blythe. I’m also excited to bring some new voices to your ears, too!
And that’s about it for the week. Things continue to tick along. We shall see where we end up.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sometimes, the hardest thing about finishing a story is leaving the world. I was very fond of Heartstealer and Skarland. This piece brings me right back to the northern woods and autumn hearths…
So I’ve seen Moulin Rouge! three times over the last week. Partly it’s because the music got well and truly stuck in my head (as we’ll see in What I’m Listening to this Week), but also, I feel like a little kid with their favourite story.
“Tell it again!”
“Um…they still fall in love. It still doesn’t end well.”
And it got me thinking. In a funny way, I feel like I imprinted on this particular story very young. Not just Moulin Rouge! per se, though that was the first variant I encountered. Moulin Rouge! is itself mostly a riff on La Traviata with some strains of La Bohème. La Traviata, of course, is the operatic adaptation of a mid-Victorian play called La Dame aux Camélias. In turn, that play was adapted from Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel of the same name.
Lots of variations, all essentially the same story: a courtesan and an earnest young man; impossible love; self-sacrifice through deception; and of course, consumption.
Doomed love and unabashed romanticism—what can I say? It’s my catnip. La Traviata remains my favourite opera, and I’ve never survived Act Three dry-eyed.
And looking at my fiction, I can see echoes here and there. Not necessarily in courtesans and consumption, but in some of the themes, the feel…the motif of impossible love.
I think that some stories do leave their mark on us quite deeply. They find touchstones within us, and so resonate through our own works. Asking why is kind of like asking why we have recurring dreams. There is something deep in our subconscious that sings the same song back, and so it makes sense that these are the stories we return to again and again—even if we’re not entirely sure why.
Sometimes, they’re wholly unexpected. Honestly, I find myself returning to Neuromancer more than people might expect. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite books—not like La Traviata is my favourite opera; not like East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon is my favourite fairy tale. But there’s a bit towards the end that’s never left me.
Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.
And one step in that dance was the lightest touch on the switch, barely enough to flip—
and his voice the cry of a bird
3Jane answering in song, three
notes, high and pure.
A true name.
Neon forest, rain sizzling across hot pavement. The smell of frying food… But all of this receding, as the cityscape recedes…as the roads and crossroads scribed on the face of a microchip, the sweat-stained pattern on a folded, knotted scarf.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Fantasy author can’t get over the climax of a seminal cyberpunk work? Say what?
It’s the moment of transcendence, you see. That’s what I keep trying to answer, in my own way. And that’s really it: some stories, you keep trying to write back to, subconsciously or not.
For me, this all gets back to the idea that we write what we don’t understand. We write what confounds us, perplexes us, what the mind cannot quite work through. I’m not sure that it always does, of course. Some stories echo in us forever.
And so we keep singing back to them.
What stories resonate in you?
PS. A reminder that Lauren Harris’s YA novel UNLEASH released last week! Do you like gritty urban fantasy and kickass heroines? You can get your copy here!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Really, all of Moulin Rouge! but let’s just say, “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” which is a song to which I never really paid attention before this week. SPOILERS, it shows up as a devastating motif later, but I like it here as a way to show another side of Satine’s personality. It’s really the only time in the film we see her in (assumed) privacy, not performing for other people.
I’m in the beginning throes of a new novel, which feels an awful lot like making your entrance in an unfamiliar choral piece. If you can get your starting pitch, things usually stay more-or-less on track. Landing sharp or flat? It’s difficult to stop the piece falling apart when you’re wrong-footed from the first note.
I usually forget how much flailing about I do at the beginning of a story. And then because I never remember the angst, the flailing feels disastrous, and I freak myself out.
And so, I thought it would be instructive to remind myself exactly how common false starts are for me:
It was a clear evening, one of the first of summer. A warm breeze wound through the City, caressing friends drinking outside taverns and lovers strolling through narrow streets. Plucking guitars floated over conversation and laughter, occasionally joined by soulful tenors. The golden stones that formed the City’s buildings still carried the heat of the noonday sun. Overtired children and the elderly clustered on them; the latter thanked the warmest spring in memory for driving away the chill winds that usually made one last appearance. And above, the stars, ever twinkling: familiar constellations smiling on the summer night. The Ox, the Hunter, the Vineyard, all the old friends that heralded the beginning of the new season.
(Then there’s an extended bit where two old men eat chicken and talk. Seriously.)Eventually:
The time, at last, had come.
A new star ignited over the City. Like a drop of blood glinting in the darkness, it blazed in the Serpent, brighter than any other star in the constellation. Under the starlight, the City crouched in the night, perched atop its plateau. Sheer cliffs fell away on every side; if not for lack of water, it could have been an island.
No breeze stirred the warm air. In narrow alleys, shadows stretched as quiet and endless as the gorges beyond the City.
Time passed. The stars danced on.
Sara had not felt so ill since her first glimpse of her husband’s headstone. That had been nearly six weeks ago, and plenty of stomach-turning moments had filled the emptiness between. Yet juddering along a country road in a carriage with shot springs ranked high among them. Sara clenched her hands in her lap, gritting her teeth each time the horses pounded over a half-buried stone or fallen branch. To her amazement, the coach’s other two passengers slept. An older woman leaned against the side of the coach, while a towheaded boy nestled into her.
I had not felt so ill since the funeral. The stagecoach rattled over the road and my teeth rattled in my skull. I kept watching the road ahead, even though dust streaked the windows. We jolted again. A large rock or another half-buried stump. There hadn’t been macadamized roads since several towns back, and since we’d left the train station at Ossington, the road had only gotten rougher. Too slow—I just wanted to get this journey over with.
Sophie clutches her knife tight, watching the unicorn across the pit.
(That is, apparently, as far as I got. It was bad.)
The hunt begins as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.
This is the first story.
Once, there were two girls who lived in a little village far in the north of Québec. Let’s say the younger girl was seven, and the older one was ten. When you told me this story, you didn’t say what the girls looked like, but I always imagined that they looked like us.
The older girl had flashing dark eyes and knees covered in bruises. Her mouth quirked at the corners. The younger girl, her friend…well, she was paler. Frailer. Just a wisp, her grand-mère always said, just a bit of thistledown that would blow away in the wind.
This is the first story.
I’ve got this friend Joëlle, right? She moved in when I was seven. She was ten—a big kid. Only she wasn’t much bigger than me. Bruised knees and these huge, haunted eyes. Mom made sure she got an extra slice of pizza at our first sleepover, that’s how skinny she was when she arrived.
When my sister rose for the third time, we called the vampire-hunter.
He came in the stillness between afternoon and dusk: that suspended, grey time that happens only in winter. From the forest he came, shouldering a leather pack, and he went straight to the inn. There, by the smouldering hearth, he spread a cloth over the scarred taproom table and opened a glossy walnut box with hinged lid. In the firelight, the wood gleamed, and his onlookers—the entire village, it felt like—pressed closer.
The hands of the vampire-hunter move like spiders, and I hate them. They creep over our kitchen table, avoiding the plates of sausage and country bread my mother has laid out. They scuttle along the sides of a polished walnut case. Quick fingers, sly fingers—they lift belts and let brass buckles fall with a clink, clink, clink. They ease the lid up. Inside, his tools rest on velvet the colour of old blood. My mother chokes on a gasp; my father will not look.
You get the point. Sometimes, vestiges of an early attempt survive, but really, it takes me a while to figure out the tune.
Worth remembering, as I flail about with this novel…
My friend Lauren Harris recently revealed the cover of her upcoming YA urban fantasy UNLEASH.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Even after all these years, I have a soft spot for the French horn. Here, I love the dialogue between the horn (basses supporting) and the rest of the orchestra, especially the building tension around the 1:30 mark. Also, those devastating accidentals around 2:20.
And it’s Mozart. Of course it’s exquisitely well put-together.