Friday, April 29, 2011

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

I'll start with where I'm going: I'll be signing copies of Moonlight Sketches at Coles bookstore in the Avalon Mall (St. John's) from 2-4 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday, April 30).
Books in waiting.

It'll be my first ever signing and I'm more calm about that fact than I thought I would be. I guess after getting through the book launch on zero sleep, with all the pressures that came with that event, spending a couple of hours just signing books for people who buy them, chatting to folks while I sit, doesn't sound like a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon. There's no pressure or stress there because--despite my tendency to be a hermit--I actually love talking to people. It's one of my favorite things in life. Don't call me on the phone, mind you.  Can't stand that apparatus. But meeting new people or greeting those I haven't seen in a while is one of life's greatest pleasures.

I've actually never been to a booksigning. I recall one in St. John's a few years ago from a very famous Canadian author, who shall remain nameless, who just seemed so gruff with everyone and couldn't wait to get out of there. That was a reading, open to the general public but mostly attended by an academic audience. I would have thought the guy would be grateful that anyone even cared to show up. But, no, apparently you get to that point in your career (at least some do) when you start to take it for granted there'll be a crowd and you'll think to yourself, I've got better things to do than to be here. He got paid to be there too, and all these people had bought his books. All they wanted was to meet him, have a few words if possible and ask him to please sign their copy. Not too much to ask, considering the price of books these days. Not that the author sees all that much of the cover price, but it's the thought that counts--the mere fact that somebody not only put out their hard-earned money for something you'd written, but, even more important, were willing to invest a few precious hours reading your words....and STILL cared enough about you and your words, even after reading them, to want to meet you and ask for a few pen strokes on the inside cover.

I just remember thinking to myself: Self, if you ever get in that position, treat people with kindness because they deserve no less. So whether I see 2 people tomorrow, or 200 people, expect me to be the same. All I know is, I'll be thrilled to see you there. Oh, and if you miss tomorrow's signing, there is another one--that includes a reading from Moonlight Sketches and a meet-and-greet--at Chapters in St. John's on May 15.

It's been a veritable whirlwind since the book launch. With the end of the academic semester, I've met countless previously-neglected friends for coffee or lunch, done radio interviews, and am working on several articles while reading the manuscripts of others, all the while hoping to eventually get time to finish my novel manuscript, to be submitted to my publisher some time this summer.

If you missed it, by the way, The Newfoundland Herald had a two-page excerpt from Moonlight Sketches and a bio, while the WANL (Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador) newsletter, called WORD, featured a column I'd written on my journey towards publication, including some advice for would-be writers. Somewhere in there, I managed to finish adjudicating the 2011 short fiction competition for the Writers' Federation of New Brunswick--a process I enjoyed thoroughly as I read each and every submission from beginning to end. I felt I owed these beginning writers no less than my full attention, as a show of respect for their commitment to their craft.

There's been tons more happening, but I won't bore you with all the details. I just wanted to fill you in on some of it and assure you I'll try to be a little more diligent about giving you the latest news and musings as the spring comes on and the summer spreads her hand.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Promo Sapien

An interviewer at the local university radio station asked me a question the other day that, I admit, I misinterpreted.

"What do you like most about being an author?" she asked. The question startled me because I'm relatively new to the idea of being an "author." I've long considered myself to be a writer--a sort author-in-training, but the idea of "authorness" or "authority" regarding anything hadn't really occurred to me...which became quite apparent in my response.

With a slight grin, I answered: "The interviews."

There was a brief pause and so I continued to explain that it was the opportunity to talk about writing with people who seemed interested to know about the process and about the book itself; the book merely gives me something concrete to talk to people about. I've been teaching university English for thirteen years, been a grad student for many years, an undergrad for five or six years before that (depending on where you count from) and, along the way, a high school English teacher and substitute teacher. I've never grown tired of talking about other people's writing. Literature is an enormous part of my life. I hesitate to say "Literature is my life" because, quite frankly, I tell my students every year, "This isn't life. It's about life." It's a sliver-thin line between the two, but the distinction, to me, is clear. It's the difference between reading "Young Goodman Brown" and actually going for a walk in the woods. But I digress. Fact is, I will never grow tired of discussing the uplifting prose of James Joyce, the sublime darkness of Flannery O'Connor or the gut-slicing poetry of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

I was also in the media for a while. As a nineteen-year-old, I was a fresh-scrubbed, awkward reporter for The Daily News, which specialized in stories about the end of the world and folks who kept pet roosters in the middle of downtown, keeping the neighbours awake. I also got to interview people like Ben Wicks and John Crosbie, politicians of all stripes and the occasional minor celebrity who found himself on the downside of a popularity that never quite materialized. Usually, the editor of the paper interviewed the more important, be-happenin' people. Years later, I found myself scraping a meager living by writing arts and entertainment pieces for a slick, ambitious magazine called Beam. I interviewed local music industry types and enjoyed what I did tremendously. Not a single arsehole among them, really, despite what one might surmise.

So now I'm the one being asked the questions. It seems, suddenly, it's not enough just to write. One also has to promote. Worse yet, one is expected to self-promote.

Okay, so there are worse things one can do to earn one's daily bread. But I have to promise myself that I will never knowingly cross that certain line, the one that separates the artist from the con artist.

Fact is, I love talking to people. So when I told that interviewer I liked the interviews, that's exactly what I meant. At the launch party for Moonlight Sketches last week, I talked to nearly every single person in that room, and it took some doing. But it never, for a single moment, felt like work and it certainly never felt disingenuous. I had a sincere connection with each and every one of them, and I recognized that they had used up some of their extremely precious time to come and help me celebrate something that was very important to me. How could I possibly just shake each hand and say, "Thanks for coming--next!" I couldn't do it. I wanted--even needed--to make sure that each one of them knew how much I appreciated them being there. I'm not supposed to say this, I'm sure, but I wasn't even concerned with whether someone bought a book or not. I mean, sure, buy a book--commerce makes the world go around. But I won't get rich from this book. Not financially, at least. But I meant it when I said I felt like the "richest man in town"--because there's a kind of prosperity that doesn't come from money. It comes from how many lives you've touched and, perhaps more important, how many of those lives you've allowed to touch yours.

My stock in trade has always been that I care about people. I couldn't be a writer otherwise. I recall a professor of mine from years ago told me he couldn't be a writer because, in order to compose believable dialogue, you had to be able to listen to people. And, really, as a listener, he was no Father Mulcahy. But he was right.

A writer has to be able to not just "watch" people; he has to be able to see them, understand them, empathize with them, relate to them on some level. It's not enough to study people--not for my purposes anyway. For me, being a writer comes directly from the need to connect and communicate. I've always maintained that making a new friend was like falling in love, at least in a certain emotionally complex way. It's always been that way for me. I want to stay up all night and talk with the world. I want to bring them home and give them milk and cookies. Talk about our favourite movies, our biggest disappointments, our darkest secrets (which I never actually tell anyone, not outright)--but really, I just want to know yours. I don't want to tell you mine. I mean, on some level, I really do want exactly that. But I'm more of a listener, you see.

Which brings me back to self-promotion. I don't have it in me. Honest. When I tell people something on Facebook or in my blog, or on the phone with my mother (though she usually has to wring it out of me), or in the corridor with a friend at work, it's because I think they might like to know, not because I expect something from them. I have always been the kind of person to keep accomplishments and failures alike very close to my chest for fear that someone will think--in that famous Newfoundland vernacular--that I'm attempting to "make a show" of myself. God forbid. We are all a "show" in our own way. It's just that we don't think of ourselves that way, and nor should we.

How many times have I seen my talented father refuse to sing at a party because he was shy? Which might well be another word for "embarassed" or "ashamed" of what one has to offer. How many students have I seen who know all the answers, including deeply profound insight on classic literature, and not offer to share their thoguhts because they couldn't work up the nerve to speak in a roomful of people? How many people have I seen who possess the talent to fulfill their dreams if only they weren't afraid of what someone else might think if they danced a certain, provocative, or just plain skilled, way or sang in that voice that was bigger than everyone else's or wrote only in a journal because they were afraid of offending friends, family and neighbours with their truth? Countless. An embarassment of riches, I have known.

Well, that still doesn't change my modus operandi. I will do book signings in the hope of meeting people who simply gather in the name of literature, friendship, or genuine curiosity. And I will attend book festivals and readings because they're fun--fun because I love words, especially when coming from the minds and mouths of those who are skilled with them and have something to say--not about the proper use of the comma or the supposed invention of a new narrative form--but about the human condition. Because that's what it is--a condition--and there's no cure for it except the obvious one of somehow becoming less human, of disengaging from the human race, of becoming an alien observer to one's own species, trading in one's keen insights for a royalty dollar and a date with the fame monster.

What do I like about being an author? It's actually the writing part. That feeling of sitting the butt down in a chair somewhere, pen in hand or fingers tapping the keyboard, and bringing the stuff in my head towards the light. Of course, then there's the part about having written something. That's not bad either, as Dorothy Parker obviously knew when she said it.

By any measure, Moonlight Sketches--and all of my writing--is an earnest attempt to make sense of the world for myself. And if you buy it, that's what you'll see in it. If you don't buy it, I'm sure we can still be friends.

Because, despite what the marketing geniuses, politicians, and corporate giants of the world want you to believe, that's why we're all here: not to sell each other stuff, but to understand something about who we are, to ourselves and to each other.

Or maybe I'm wrong, and perhaps we don't actually have any purpose.

But, somehow, I just don't buy that.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Live radio today

I'm on live radio at CHMR today at 1 p.m. with the wonderful Judy Gough. Should be an enjoyable hour for me because I don't have a clue what she'll ask, and Judy just happens to be a former student of mine, going back three years or so. I love the unpredictability of the situation.

Locally (St. John's, Newfoundland), you can tune in to 93.5. Online you can hear it at, aliant 825 or cable 942.

Here's the online link:


Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Week in the Life

A moment with the publisher.
A week ago, I was racing against the ticking clock to finish the last essays for the semester. Including revised essays and some makeup essays, I had about 120 to grade in just under four days. The first day, I got only five done, so the bulk was done in three days. That's almost 40 essays a day. To put that in perspective, I can, on a very good day, grade somewhere between 12 and 20, usually closer to the former.

On top of that, I couldn't sleep. It was mostly the adrenaline rush, and the less sleep I got, the more my brain compensated, allowing me to get nearly all the essays done and passed back to my students by Wednesday morning, but there was still a stack of about twenty or so that needed to be done before I could begin final tabulation--always a joy, but at least Excel lately has made that task easier.

So, working on less than two hours sleep in nearly three days, I went home Wednesday afternoon, intent on napping for an hour. Didn't happen. The wheels kept on turning. The thoughts pinged off the walls of my brain and kept me staring at the ceiling. Around 3:30 p.m., I got up and started thumbing through my copy of Moonlight Sketches for an excerpt to read at the book launch. The good thing about not getting any sleep, I was impervious to nervousness.
Of course, in the run-up to this state of affairs in the days before, I could be seen putting up posters all over campus, sending out (and responding to) dozens of emails. Then, on Tuesday, I received a call from my publisher saying the books had arrived from the printer and I could come see them. Seizing a propitious moment when I would have been taking a short break from grading anyway, I visited my book--which, for a short, obnoxious time, I was referring to as "The Precious." I was so thrilled by the look and feel of the book in my grubby little hands that I received an energy boost, but it was nearly impossible to focus on finishing those essays. Tick-tock, tick-tock. That was Tuesday afternoon.

By Wednesday evening, I was like a zombie--but an excited zombie. To put it in perspective, I have been writing, in one form or another, since the early 1990s. There were a few earnest years of simply putting pen to paper (literarlly, since computerization had not infiltrated the masses just yet), trying to figure out if I really was a writer and what kind of writer I would be. I won't go into detail here--not right now--about what the answers to those question were and how I actually decided that, yes, I could do this. Suffice to say, I had plenty of encouragement from editors at places like Random House, New York, as well as major American magazines. I felt, for the longest time, all I had to do was keep on going and the magic would happen. Hard work reaps great rewards, I believed.

Reading from "Fish of the Damned."
So I kept writing and writing. One novel manuscript, then another and then another. You get the picture. It really wasn't until I started writing and submitting short stories that I began to see a crack in the darkness. In 1998, I published my first short story--remember, I didn't write any short stories up until then, and I don't really count the ones I wrote as an undergrad, one of which actually found its way into the student MESS magazine (a feat I didn't truly appreciate, I admit, because the story was semi-autobiographical and therefore felt like cheating). In 1999, I won an arts and letters "Honourable Mention" award for an excerpt from my novel-in-progress and in 2000, that same novel won the Percy Janes First Novel Award for an unpublished first manuscript.

I was on my way, right? Lots of interest. Publishers and agents took me seriously. To this day, I have never received one of those nasty rejection letters that some people get. They've always been encouraging, always pointing out the strengths in my writing. They rarely mentioned any weaknesses, other than the fact that they didn't want to publish it. A couple of agents came extremely close to signing me and one publisher kicked the tires for nearly two whole years, in which time I re-wrote that prize-winning manuscript several times in an effort to get it published. I began my Ph.D. program in 2000 and gradually I was consumed by the doctoral monster--classes, seminars, an endless stream of gigantic essays to write, studying dozens upon dozens of books in preparation for comprehensive exams, and then, of course, there was the giganto-thesis--"me manifesto" as I called it. Somewhere along the way, my writing career had taken a backseat to life. And by that I mean that it was dead in the water, having never arrived.

So last Wednesday night was like a dream--all the more so because I was severely overworked and underslept. But I was giddy, as was evidenced by the fact that I surely hugged everyone in the room. But it was genuine affection on my part, and I assume on theirs, because of both the weight and the levity of the moment. It was a time for celebraing, and it felt like it wasn't just a celebration of my book or even necessarily of me, but of the very idea of perseverance in order to fulfill one's dream, what has been a part of me for so long--and denied me for so long--it begins to feel like a destiny and a quest. And, to be perfectly melodramatic about it, it was like finally pulling the sword from the stone.

Talking. Talking. Talking. My favorite part.
I have no idea how many people were there, but the room was packed. The first people I saw when I walked in were my brother-in-law, Matt (who bought me my first  computer a long time ago, as a loan that I ultimately repaid) and his wife Jenn, who are always very supportive of my writing, always have been. There was Helene Staveley and her husband Brian, sitting in the big chairs like guests at a fancy party--which they were. And, of course, my publisher and her assistant, Donna Francis and Pam Dooley (who started working there less than two weeks earlier), were selling books and keeping things runnings smoothly. Those were the early-comers I remember. Then, suddenly the room was filling up--I next saw my old professor, Roberta Buchanan and her friend, followed by my very dear friend of nearly twenty years, Allison and her husband Stephen. My friend Mike Heffernan, a fine author himself who introduced me that night, as well as the cover artist Darren Whalen. Then came my sister-in-law Katherine and her partner, then writers Jessica Grant, Chad Pelley, Russell Wangersky and Sam Martin, then one of my former students, Carla, Kayla and then Megan, and then another and then another and another. I was utterly shocked to see so many students there from the past twelve years (shout-out to the amazing Jo-Ann!). My wedding day notwithstanding, it was the most gratifying day of my life. I could easily list everyone who was there--I remember you all. I remember a moment with each and every one of you.

Throughout the night, I had three thoughts that I distinctly recall a week later. One was that I felt like Bilbo Baggins and now would be a perfectly good time to disappear and go off on some big adventure. The other was that I had some notion of what it feels like to attend your own funeral, with all those faces from the past, people just showing up to say they thought of you, remembered you, and wished you well. Not everyone gets to have that experience, and, morbid as it sounds, I treasure it.

The other thought, of course, was that I was the richest man in town, just like George Bailey in my favorite Christmas-themed movie, It's a Wonderful Life. After years of paying my dues, keeping my head down, doing good work and trying my best to help anyone I could in any way they asked, I felt like it was all coming back to me. There were moments of darkness in those years before I published, times when I wondered why I even did it and what the reward was. Now I can see it. It's not about the book; it's not about how many you sell or whether you win any awards or get great reviews. This was a chance to bring together my friends, some family, former students who were now my friends and even some family and colleagues whom I consider to be my good and treasured friends. I felt like Sandra Bullock on the night of the Oscars, asking: "Did I really do something to deserve this, or did I just wear y'all out?" It was a fantastic night.

I didn't sleep that night. I was all wound up, talking nonstop to my amazing wife about what it was all like, about what surprised me most, about who I was glad to see. It turns out that I was glad to see everyone. The line-up for the book signing was long. I was eager to talk to each and every person who had bought a book and wanted me to sign it--but also there were people whom I know (because they were students, mostly) didn't have the money to buy a book, and just wanted to show up and show support, which I dearly appreciated. But I had a connection with nearly everyone in that room. Every one of them knew what this night meant to me--some were more aware than others, of course. My good friend Wendy put it in pespective when she half-jokingly said, "I've had this date circled on my calendar since 1994."

Since last Wednesday, I've made an attempt to get life back to some sort of normal. There've been papers to grade and literally hundreds of emails to answer. I'm almost through them all. There was an interview with Weekend Arts Magazine's Angela Antle a couple of days after the launch. It wasn't my first CBC interview, but it was my first one in which I talked about my own writing, about a book I'd published. To me, it was like appearing on Oprah's post-Oscar show the day after the Oscars ceremony. There's no feeling quite like it.

There is a small part of me that doesn't want to let go of this feeling. But it's necessary to get on with normalcy, whatever that means. I do feel that my life has been changed forever. There are book signings coming up (April 30 at Coles bookstore, and a reading/signing at Chapters on May 15), another radio thingy on Saturday (this time live on CHMR, the local universty station) some invitations to literary festivals throughout the summer and fall, and various opportunities that come from having published a book. Next week, when I've finished grading final exams, I'll take a deep breath and look out through the window of my new favorite coffee shop on Water Street and try desperately to feel all this, to know that it happened and that good things will come from now on. I can stop trying now and just do and be what I've always been. That part of it is over.

The excited zombie in action.
But there's more to come--because I've got a novel almost finished, soon to be submitted to my publisher. Maybe next year, I can launch my first novel into the world. And you're all invited to the party, to do it all over again, as a celebration of life. Not just my life, but the ideals of perseverance, friendship andthe enjoyment of life itself.

It's all just one gigantic kick at the darkness, ain't it?

Thanks, all, for being there--not just physically but in other ways, too. I really do feel like the richest man in town.

And, oh yeah, I finally did sleep on Thursday night, perhaps the biggest triumph of my entire week.


(All photos courtesy of my friend Helene Staveley. I'll post official photos, if there are any, when they become available.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tune in to see if it's a turkey drop or not...but, baby, if you've ever wondered...

This coming Saturday, April 16th, I'll be live on the air at 93.5FM CHMR at 1:00 p.m. Newfoundland time, talking to Judy Gough about my just-released short story collection, Moonlight Sketches.

Locally (St. John's, Newfoundland), you can tune in to 93.5. Online you can hear it at, aliant 825 or cable 942--or so I've been told.

Here's the online link:

And, oh yeah...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

First Interview

For those so inclined, and especially if you missed the book launch Wednesday night and had wanted to be there, here's the direct link for this morning's interview with CBC radio's Angela Antle. It includes an impromptu reading from the short story "The Darkness and Darcy Knight," a story about a young, idealistic American school teacher who finds himself in the backwoods of rural Newfoundland in the late 1990s.

The interview was a completely pleasurable experience, from start to finish. Angela Antle is the consummate professional, extremely likable and she has a way of getting you to spill your secrets...if only there was time to say it all. This is the first time I've been interviewed regarding Moonlight Sketches.


Interview with Weekend Arts Magazine


Friday, April 8, 2011

CBC Radio Interview

Tomorrow morning, I'll be talking with CBC radio's Angela Antle about the writing of Moonlight Sketches. If you're interested in knowing what inspired the madness, check it out. The interview airs at 8 a.m., Newfoundland Time.

Interview with Angela Antle