The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Sunday, April 30, 2006

I Will Beat Myself for You, Geist, for You!

by Andrew Tibbetts

My paltry three published stories are the tip. Submerged are a dozen unpublished, fifty unfinished, as well as two half-hearted novel attempts, half a screenplay, and a million bits that never took recognizable shape. When I sit down at the computer it's always to haul some of that iceberg above the "published" line: give a rejected piece another polish before re-submission, finish a half-born story, find the string that gathers some odd chunks into a shimmering necklace or start a brand new novel that completes itself in a rush of perfect sentences. But mostly what I do is play Tetris.

Tetris is a game of falling oddly shaped bricks. It's your job to move them into the holes in the wall that's being assembled- quick! I Love Lucy masonry! If you complete a row it disappears. You destroy the wall by building it. The bricks tumble faster and eventually the wall fills the screen- game over. Then you see if you made the scoreboard.

I only play with myself- asexual masturbation- so what I'm trying to beat are my own earlier efforts. Awhile ago, I stopped putting my name on the scoreboard- Hey! I just beat Andrew Tibbetts but I'm still behind Andrew Tibbetts!- and started putting in dates- Hey! I'm better than April '04 but June '05 still reigns supreme! Last month I got an idea to remind myself why I’m there: when I make the scoreboard I type in a Can-lit journal. It took me several weeks but now the best Tetris players at my house are:
A high score bumps the lowest one off. I add a new one. What I hoped would happen- consistent intercourse with these august titles inflames my desire to type- hasn't.

For example, this Sunday morning I made myself some coffee, micro-waved an instant oatmeal (high fiber raisin and spice), sat down at my writing desk and played seventeen games of Tetris with no adjustment to the rankings. Geist will have to languish in the minors. But then I remembered I had to write this blog!

The thing about computer games: they completely absorb my consciousness. They blot out all anxiety. The experience of playing them is utterly involving. I disappear. Well, not disappear exactly, but pare down to a perfectly focused missile of attention and intention.

The thing about writing: as soon as I put down a word several others tap my shoulder-“pick us, we're better”-, complete sentences smell funny, paragraphs contain their own audio commentary- "here's where the writer loses the thread and wanders aimlessly in a forest of hackneyed phraseology"- and entire pieces sigh with the dramatic moroseness of an Emo-teen- "I hate myself and there's no point in going on, delete me, Ctrl-X me..."

So the tumbling bricks call. My spirits lift as I switch screens. The anxious twittering dissolves as a simpler, surer part of my brain takes over. Go, Geist, go! I’ll get you on the scoreboard yet!

Nail That Opening

by Craig Terlson

Since embarking on this foolish, somewhat Quixotian, quest of becoming a writer, I have developed an addiction to trade magazines and craft books. Just can't get enough of them – even the bad ones, the ones that seem to be about the craft but are really just vanity-press propaganda.

I religiously read the latest Poet and Writer's mag, scanning the articles for any little tidbit or hidden treasure of knowledge that I could apply to my own work. Maybe a secret verb, the ultimate simile or some tricky adverb that you are actually allowed to use and that doesn't even end in "ly".
I also go through the winners of writing contests at the back. Through a mathematical formula (too complex to get into right now) I determine why people with certain last names win awards. I will tell you this, there seems to be something about the letter "M".

I can spend endless hours, days and weeks reading articles in craft books on the art of fiction. It quite pleasantly makes me avoid the task of writing, which is damn hard, to be frank. You want to know the reason Eats, Shoots and Leaves was a bestseller? Who wants to read 200+ pages about punctuation? Thousands of writers trying to avoid their eighth re-write of 2000 worder, that's who.

I digress. I always digress.

Here at the Collective I would like to share, condense rather, some of the gems I've uncovered in my self-study.
Now, I don't want to give you too much at once, you really need to savour these, internalize them as you would a good ripened cheese.

Part One: The importance of the opener.

A ton of trees have given their lives for all the essays written on the subject of how to grab that editor with your opening sentence. Editors are a busy and easily distracted lot (I have heard that all shiny objects are removed from their offices). If they don't absolutely love that first sentence your work gets the big red "X" faster than James Frey backpedals in an interview. Some editors only make it to the first word; others are put off by certain letter combinations and pre-fixes.

My first simplification of these complicated treatises on the opening sentence follows.
1. You can go big; start with a high level of dramatic tension:

As Bob leaned over to tie his shoe, New York City blew up.

(For Canuck content you can substitute Toronto, Vancouver, Regina, or Whitehorse. Best to shy away from Calgary.)

2. If you don't want to be quite as dramatic, you can choose a slower, thoughtful opening; start with a lower level of dramatic tension, but still pose a question to the reader.

Jim sipped his soup; he really liked soup.

Hope that helps. Next time I will offer a gem or two around the writing of dialogue.

I see this series as a community service to other writers, though I'm guessing a lot of you will want to peruse these books on your own. If so, I suggest a large cup of dark roast coffee (Arabica beans, please), a hot bath with some of that yummy orange oil (guys steal it from your wives/girlfriends/significant other fragrance lovers), and a stack of said craft books piled on the floor in easy reach.
Dry hands in between reads.

Saturday, April 29, 2006



Patricia Parkinson

"She" looks back at me.

It's the first word of a story I'm working on. Is, "she" the the right word? How many other ways can I say, "She?"

There's "her," which seems the logical choice. But then, what? "Her," what? It's all too complicated.

What is she doing? Is she sitting or standing or walking or dead or dying? Is she having an affair? Or is she going shopping for her first bra? This is for me to write. I can make her do anything. Anything. It's daunting and exciting and paralyzing. It makes me feel nauseous. That's when I know it's good - when the words come fast and the feeling stays in my hands.

"She" can be anyone or everyone but more than anything, I want her to be someone.

Is she a mother? Yes, right now, writing this, she is. Does she work? No. Is she pretty? a way. She likes to sing.

Maybe she's alone in the world, or maybe she's walking home from a party with a man, with a boy. She's walking with a boy. He asks if she wants a cigarette. She only smokes cigarettes with white filters. She declines his offer of an Export A.

Is she healthy? Or is she sick? Is she fighting breast cancer? She has kids. I could not write about this.

Maybe the boy stops under a tree, out of the breeze, and lights his cigarette. She can look at him in the light of the flame. What will she see if she does? Is it interesting? Can I make it interesting, enough?

If it's a boy she's walking with and I know she's a mom, who is he to her? Her son? No. She's not that old. She's a girl. He's a boy, an older boy, out of school. They're in love. She's going to have a baby. This is why she doesn't smoke. But, I really like the white filter oddity - will keep it and work it in somehow.

I love the story already. It's full of possiblity.

What will happen? I have to decide and then I have to write the words that follow what each of them must define. It will come to me, in a rush. When I write the second word she could change completely and not be in love. She could be in lust, or in denial or both. She might be stepping off a train or waiting for one. She could be standing on the sand of an ocean she's never stood on before or maybe she's shopping for groceries and buys herself a purple, blue, green hydrangea.

Maybe she's someone I know, someone I saw at a park or a hockey game or through the window of her car last week when it was raining and I was thinking of someone I've never met, or maybe she is a woman, sitting alone in the dark with only her word.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Books to Film - Shopgirl

by Melissa Bell

Steve Martin’s Shopgirl became available on DVD this week. I missed it in the theatres (although “missed it” is hardly accurate – I deliberately chose to wait for its appearance on the shelves of my local Blockbuster), and I’m curious about it- curious to see how Mr. Martin adapts his own novel(la) to the big (and my little) screen.

Having read the book, I think I must have made one of those scrinchy faces that I make when I hear some rather weird news. In this case, the fact that Steve Martin was not only going have his novel(la) made into a film, but he was going to write the screenplay himself and play the lead role of Ray Porter.

Dude, if you’re going to do that, why’d ya bother to write the book in the first place?

I’ve always liked Steve Martin. I think he’s a fine man. And I thought he had turned a corner when he’d gone from doing such horror shows like Sgt. Bilko to writing plays. Then he started doing stuff for the New Yorker. And then out came Shopgirl. This was no Lolita or Anna Karenina or [insert novel of man’s eternal struggle here] – it was just a nice, decently written book that showed another facet of the author. Steve Martin – actor, comedy writer, musician, playwright…novelist.

So what made him take his book to the screen? And cast himself in the lead role?

Was he selling out? No! Not Steve Martin! Not the guy who seriously collected art, liked dogs, and the company of mathematicians! Then again, what else could it be? It’s not like Shopgirl was something that begged for big screen adaptation – it’s hardly The DaVinci Code. I couldn’t even imagine it as a movie – I still can’t (hence my curiosity to check out the DVD), because it’s really just a “thinky” little book with not much happening. Certainly not enough for me to fork over $16 at my Cineplex.

So when I heard about the forthcoming film edition, with Steve Martin as screenwriter and star, it just sounded... strange. Was this really Mr. Martin’s serious attempt at exploring literary fiction? Or was it just some drawn out treatment for a film that would score him some pocket money from the bookstores as he waited for a producer to pick up the movie rights?

And here’s where I get into fights with a lot of people (luckily they’re the kind of fights that are easily forgotten if I just buy the next round, but still).

I’m not against double-dipping in terms of media. I’ve done it myself. But given the subject matter of Shopgirl – a rich older man dates an emotionally unstable and much younger (and poorer) woman – it felt just this side of creepy-hidden-Hollywood-agenda when Steve Martin tossed himself into the adaptation of his own story rather than just turning the whole thing over to somebody else and graciously going about the business of working on his next book. Or starring in the remake of something family- and fan-friendly. Because as charismatic and well-preserved as Steve Martin is, do I really want to see him and a half-his-age-at-most Claire Danes have on-screen sex? No. No, I certainly do not. And I’m not sure why Steve Martin would think his fans would want to see that either.

Which is a nice thing about waiting for the DVD: the fast forward button.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

My Journey to the Internet and Back


FRIDAY, APRIL 25, 2003

I’ve had two sips of coffee, and I’m already thinking about the mailbox, the screeching sound of the cast aluminum lid scraping against the bricks, the hollow clap signaling the mailman has started down my front steps two at a time. As I sneak to the front door and peer through the peephole, I’ll be hoping one corner of my envelope will be sticking out, saving me one split second of wait time. It’s been six months now. When I see it, my SASE, my heartbeat will flutter, my fingers will tingle as they push the lid out of the way. It’s my envelope, I know… I know… but you never really know, so I’ll snatch my long lost but not forgotten submission, and rush it into the kitchen. My coffee cup has rings in it, but they’re my rings, so I’ll refill without rinsing it first. I’ll need a coffee for this. I have to enjoy the moment. I’ll weigh the envelope in my hands, and see if I can tell the difference between real ink and the moutzoura from a photocopy machine. Deep inside, I know acceptances don’t come back like this. They’re phoned in, I think, aren’t they? I won’t be able to wait any longer. It’s been six months. I’ll tap the envelope on the table so I don’t rip any of the pages insides, and then tear a clean opening along the top. I’ll blow, ballooning the sides out, and listen to the rattle of my unmolested story shivering like a dog waiting to be let out of a cage.


Here’s where I get all psycho-analytical with myself. When I see that receiving mail message tick, tick, ticking in my inbox, I feel connected to the world. It takes what… a couple seconds and the message appears? Within those couple seconds, that space in time when the sneeze is pulling your guts out through your nose, when every orifice in your body is loosened and partaking in the orgasm, I actually believe I am connected. Someone is thinking of me. Someone knows I’m here. Even if it’s only the exiled King of a tiny African country in need of my assistance, because, hey… I’m Antonios Maltezos, and he couldn’t think of any one else to ask. I’m connected. It’s as if the numbers are about to start falling, and I can see that nine resting upside down in the plastic tubing. I’m gonna win this time, maybe. Someone big, high up in the literary world, is gonna come calling in a moment asking me for something I don’t yet have. Okay, it’s just spam, but it could have been. It could have been—damnit!

MONDAY, APRIL 27, 2009

Coming home from work today, I was cut off. A little old lady stepped in front of me just as I was about to board the bus. I would have nudged her out of the way, but there were people behind me. What’s more, I knew she’d get the last seat, and that I’d have to focus in on those tiny dots of color forming the overhead advertisements, wonder what the hell a spot of blue has to do with a model smile, if it’s all computers, or someone’s chosen which color dot goes where? Jeez. It’s been six months now and still nothing in the mailbox but bills and an assortment of flyers. I may order pizza from Adamo tonight, eat it cold while working on character, the conflict in my latest story.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On If A Book Is But A Hammer

by Denis Taillefer

Were the eggs in your refrigerator hatched by free run hens? Your beef fed only grass and organic grains? Your running shoes not sewn by a child slaving in a dingy basement somewhere in the Philippines? And that coffee you are enjoying this morning, did the farmer who grew those beans receive his fair share on that transaction?

As consumers, many of us have become more ecological and health conscious, more sensitive to the wellbeing of animals that are farmed, cautious of not supporting third world sweatshops. My often overwhelmed eco-health-ethical-conscience has become a bit of a nag, lately. But still, I persevere, and sometimes I will not simply submit to convenience or price when purchasing goods.

And then there are the superstores, or 'category killers', as some call them. Especially since the arrival of free trade, we've seen many of these box stores spring up across the country. So now, even when I buy a hammer, I have to question my motives for shopping at Home Depot instead of Rona. But then again, do I care if I help pad the purse strings of American rather than Canadian stockholders? Not really. But what about the store's chain of suppliers and all the other indirect players whose livelihoods might be affected by where I buy that hammer? 'Ah, shaddup!', is what my confused conscience sometimes receives as feedback on such occasions.

And then there is the business of books. How are independent bookstores faring in the presence of Chapters and Indigo superstores that have sprouted all around them? Is it a simple question, again, of who gets to pocket my money? And what about the local and Canadian writer, the publisher, the reader? How are they being affected?

With these questions in mind, and knowing little about the business of books, I set out to speak with an independent bookseller, and hopefully, someone in the know at a local Chapters, to get their thoughts on these matters.

I first sent an email to Writers Deadline, an email list formed here in Ottawa, which helps share news, events, and various requests related to writing and the arts. I requested suggestions of a good candidate for an independent bookstore, and a possible contact for an interview with a Chapters representative. The response was overwhelming. I received many leads on independent bookstores, yet nothing to do with Chapters.

My interview with Jean Barton, owner of the independent bookstore, Books On Beechwood, Ottawa:

When I entered the bookstore, Jean and an associate were speaking with clients. Everyone seemed friendly, on a first name basis, as they exchanged pleasantries. The store consisted of one large room, well lit, with books lined neatly in sections surrounding the outer walls, and in floor shelves.

I approached Jean and requested an interview. She agreed to speak with me and we moved next door to a café.

Denis: Can you tell me your name, and how long you've owned the store?
Jean: Jean Barton, I had a partner for the first seven years, and we opened in 1994.

Denis: And how is business? Have revenues been decreasing or increasing over the years?
Jean: Pretty much increasing, except last year, but I wouldn't want to have to raise a family on the income of the store. But it's been a good investment for me.

Denis: I've heard that owning a bookstore has to be a passion of love, otherwise you're in the wrong business.
Jean: That's right. You're not doing it to make a pile of money, but you'd have to be doing something pretty stupid to lose your shirt, too.
Denis: Yes, I understand.
Jean: I started it when my kids were gone and I needed something to do for the next twenty years of my life, so I thought, I've always been involved in books, so...
Denis: And I imagine you have to love books?
Jean: Oh, yes. And people. And it is fun.

Denis: Is owning a bookstore what you expected? What are you most proud of?
Jean: It is what I expected. What am I most proud of? I'm most proud of the people's response to the bookstore, they love it.
Denis: As shown by your name coming up so often.
Jean: (laughs) And I'm proud of the staff who are always open, and, I mean it's a great team that we've got over there.
Denis: And I imagine that they also have to love books, and know books in order to serve the clientele.
Jean: Yes, yes.

Denis: Tell me what are, in your experiences, the greatest challenges and rewards in running such a business.
Jean: Well, the reward of course is customer loyalty. That's wonderful. And the challenge is keeping up with all the work. It's a huge lot of work.
Denis: What kind of work, for example?
Jean: Well, for instance, I must write--sixty checks a month.
Denis: For suppliers?
Jean: Yes. Logistically, it's a huge job.
Denis: A bit like owning a confectionary store, I imagine, where you have different suppliers for different-
Jean: But more.
Denis: More? Wow. For some reason I imagined all the books coming from one place.
Jean: Like Random House?
Denis: Uh, yes?
Jean: (laughs) No! As much as they'd like that to be the case, it's not. (more laughs)

(We talk about her store being suggested to me as a good candidate for an independent bookstore. Jean mentions other good ones then speaks of a fellow owner, John Hatfield of Pascal Books, who recently retired...)

Jean: He went out on a high, I think. Which is nice because for years after Chapters moved to town, independents were dropping like flies.
Denis: They were, eh?
Jean: Yeah. Oh, yes, for sure.
Denis: That is a question I was going to ask. So Chapters really did make a difference?
Jean: Oh, it did. And a huge difference. Not so much in Ottawa as in Toronto. Even now, in Toronto, the independent bookstores are hard to find.
Denis: So why are they hanging on, here, in Ottawa? Chapters have many franchises around town.
Jean: I don't know. Maybe people are more protective of their own neighbourhoods and they want their neighbourhoods to be--urban villages. And the big box stores don't.

(We talk about the importance of community events in being successful in running an independent bookstore, such as holding readings, etc...)

Jean: We have had a lot of trouble getting authors in the last few years. The publishers are getting a little bit fettered, but more approachable for us independents to get writers, now. We used to have a great reading series next door at the pub.
Denis: Oh?
Jean: People would have dinner then sit and listen to the authors. And we had tons of wonderful authors, there. And then the pub changed hands, and the crowd that's in there now--they're not the same. Not as literary.
Denis: A little more genre? (smiles)
Jean: A little more dumb. (laughs)
Denis: I won't write that. (laughs)

Denis: How do you choose the books to be displayed on your shelves?
Jean: Well that's the million-dollar question.
Denis: So there's not this general roster where every store grabs the same-
Jean: No, not at all. You have to know your customers. That's the key. You have to know what they want.
Denis: So as they request books you see trends growing and-
Jean: Yes, yes. You have to rely a lot on the publishers reps for new stuff, you've got to know what kinds of books you're likely to sell, then you can make a much better guess on what to order.
Denis: What about bestsellers and such?
Jean: Anything that tends to sell at the grocery store, we tend not to sell, and not that we wouldn't try, but…
Denis: It's not what your clients are looking for.
Jean: No, it isn't.

(We talk about 'location' and how we were both familiar with New Edinburgh before it got so posh, when the shabby Claude Hotel used to stand across the street. Another place where readings would not have been such a good idea. On how they are lucky in the bookstore business in Ottawa, because people here are fairly educated and professional, on the whole...)

Jean: They say that you need a population of fifteen thousand to support a bookstore, but I mean, they have to be literate. (laughs)
Denis: Good point. It might not work, say in...
Jean: (whispers)
Denis: Huh?
Jean: (whispers again) Smiths Falls.
Denis: I was going to say, Arnprior. I'm glad you went first.
Jean: I think they've got a good bookstore in Arnprior.
Denis: Yes, I'm sure they do.

Denis: We already talked about superstores, if they've made a difference, and obviously they have.
Jean: Well we were opened only a year when Chapters came to town, so we don't really know what kind of hit we would have taken. But we certainly saw a lot of independents fold up their tent.
Denis: Right. And mostly because they cut their prices? Is there a big difference in prices?
Jean: Oh huge, for some of the titles, for the high profile titles, for the new blockbuster releases. They discount them thirty, fourty percent. We can't possibly do that.
Denis: Is it because like any other business they get volume?
Jean: They get better volume discount, for sure, and they can afford to lose money for YEARS. We can't.

Denis: Uh huh.
Jean: I like to think that it's us independents that really have our ear to the ground who create the bestseller list because we seem to be a couple weeks ahead of what turns up on that list.
Denis: They reflect what's on the bestseller list, and you'd like to believe that you help create that list?
Jean: Yeah.
Denis: Interesting.
Jean: That may not be true. Maybe. (laughs) But I think because we're so much more responsive, and… That may not be true with the big blockbusters, but for anything that sells on its own merits, then maybe it is.
Denis: In an ideal world, everyone is happy, and no one is stepping on anybody's turf, but in reality these superstores, and even Amazon, are basically taking away sales from independent bookstores?
Jean: Yeah, they are. They are just trying to run a business too, but their predatory practices are pretty awful.
Denis: They are? Can you share in a couple?
Jean: Well, not so much now because the publishers have got smart, but about five or six years ago, Chapters and company would buy up full print runs, tie up the entire stock until after Christmas, then return them all, and we couldn't get our hands on them.
Denis: That's cruel.
Jean: Yeah. And they got away with it.
Denis: But they were probably not breaking any laws.
Jean: No. It's the way the industry works, but…

(We talk about the Canadian Booksellers Association, how they play a role in ensuring fairness in the publishing and bookselling business, and other tidbits. We talk about The Canadian Writers Collective and how this interview might be read by many if we ever go live.)

Jean: I hope I didn't sound to awful about the, uhm-
Denis: Our site won't be advertised until we decide to go forward, so what I'll do is let you read this interview online before we go live, if ever, and if anything embarrasses you I'll understand, and we can talk about it.
Jean: (laughs) Okay.

Jean came across as a pleasant, smart, and passionate woman. I thanked her for her time and we bid adieu.

My interview with Kimberley Ulman, Manager of Chapters, Gloucester branch, Ottawa:

I first called a Chapters store, downtown, and was directed (electronically) to a representative named Jennifer Herman. Her answering machine asked that I leave a message and that she could also be reached via an email address that was included.

I chose to send an email, and I think I am fortunate that she has still not replied. Jennifer Herman represents the area, and in her message alone I could sense that she was a public relations person of sorts, with whom I'd likely get nowhere with the questions I had to pose. I needed someone closer to the floor, so to speak.

When I entered a Chapters store and approached the help desk, a woman was accepting staff application forms from a few young, shy men and women, likely high school age.

I asked if she was the manager, and if she would speak with me.

(Our discussion, prior to turning on the dictaphone:)

Kimberley: I'm sorry, but no one can help you here. You should contact Jennifer Herman. Here's her card. (Jennifer Herman, Area Marketing Manager, Ottawa.) I see you're smiling. Do you know Jennifer?
Denis: I've left her an email. Her phone message says she might be on holidays? I thought maybe you could help me.
Kimberley: Oh no, she was in earlier this week.
Denis: Ah. My questions are general and I'm sure that you can be of help.
Kimberley: Well, I'm fairly new at Chapters.
Denis: That's okay.
Kimberley: All right. I can give you five minutes.
Denis: Should we sit and have a coffee?
Kimberley: No, let's walk through the store.

(Dictaphone turned on:)

Denis: Oops, now it's recording.
Kimberley: (laughs) Excellent. Shall I give my name again?
Denis: No, it's okay, I've got your card. (Kimberley Ulman, Manager) So you were saying you started here in September?…
Kimberley: September, 2005

Denis: So how is business going, for Chapters?
Kimberley: For the entire company, or us as an individual store?
Denis: Well, both.
Kimberley: Both? Very, very well. It's one those businesses where you constantly have to be in the know, keeping things fresh for folks, being on top of things. When something is going to hit, you're ready for it. An example would be, we've got a book right now, The Bird House, and, there's the Ottawa Writer's Festival Happening now?...
Denis: Yes.
Kimberley: She's here! So she's in town and we know that when folks go to see her this weekend, everybody's gonna want that book. So get ready for it because-
Denis: I hear you. Yes.

Denis: That leads to another question I have. How do you select the books that you put on your shelves?
Kimberley: With us, for the large extent, our head office does that. So that's not within our own control.
Denis: Okay.
Kimberley: The control we have, is say for instance, I've been working on the floor and everyone's been asking for a book called Marley And Me. It's a story of a dog, a self-help type thing. And then I would go up to one of the other managers and say, look, EVERYBODY's asking about this book, and we only have five copies on the shelves, can we get more? So we have control in that respect, where we can order more in.
Denis: But not necessarily for titles that other franchises wouldn't have?
Kimberley: One thing that might make us a little different than say, a Chapters in the West End, is that we have a higher percentage of French speaking clientele, here, so we might carry more copies.
Denis: So store managers might have a little bit of pull, in their region?
Kimberley: Yes, exactly.
Denis: But on the whole, these decisions are made by Head Office.
Kimberley: Yes.

Denis: What about the local scene? Is it fair to say that independent bookstores carry more local stuff than Chapters does? And even Canadian books?
Kimberley: Well, I can only speak from my personal experience. For us, personally as a store, we're great with local authors. We have a great local author table, for kids, and for grownups, so…
Denis: And again, is this decided by the managers within a specific franchise, or?...
Kimberley: Well a lot of times authors will walk in and introduce themselves and-
Denis: So I can potentially come in here as an author and say, I have a book to flog and can I have a table?
Kimberley: Yes, yes. So we would put you in touch with the fellow in charge who does all the local authors, and you guys could sit down and have a discussion and work it out from there.
Denis: And you would do that?
Kimberley: We'd certainly try. But obviously, there's no guarantee. I can give you like, another minute.

Denis: Okay. A couple more questions. Now this one's a bit of a hard hitting one. Once upon a time, at least, Chapters played hardball and kinda squeezed out the independent bookstores-
Kimberley: Uh huh.
Denis: What's your opinion on that?
Kimberley: Uhm, can I be so rude as to say I'm not comfortable answering that one? Just because, uhm, I don't know enough about the initial history to answer it accurately.
Denis: But nowadays, they have a vision that you share in?
Kimberley: And I think our vision is now that, when a customer walks in through our doors, they're gonna feel like, our staff is here to help find the exact book, the exact gift, the exact magazine, whatever, so that when you walk through the door it's going to be a relaxing, informative time. You can find what you want, and when you are done, you are going to say, I really enjoyed that. And that what we're providing for you, locally, and across the country, is where you want to be.
Denis: Uh huh.
Kimberley: I know what you're saying, in regards to the small-
Denis: Well, I've heard a few things-
Kimberley: Absolutely.
Denis: ...whereby, nothing illegal I'm sure, because business is business, but practices where print runs were held, and no one could-
Kimberley: In all honesty, I know nothing about that. Neither on a personal level before I was with the company and even now-
Denis: Right.
Kimberley: -so I couldn't answer correctly or incorrectly on that one, at all.

Denis: Last question, because I know you've gotta go.
Kimberley: Yup.
Denis: Do you hold readings here, and other events?
Kimberley: Yes, yes. And now, with me being in the store and having a bit of an effect, we're trying to do that more. We have local writers who meet here once a week. We have a local book club. We do children's events, we do the local author readings, and-
Denis: So you do feel it necessary to be close to the community?
Kimberley: Absolutely. And we want to do that more than we've done in the past.

Denis: Thank you very much for squeezing me in.
Kimberley: Yep. And give Jennifer a call.
Denis: I will.
Kimberley: And have a good day.

Kimberley came across as a no-nonsense, Type A, hyper manager. Afterward, I was exhausted and needed a smoke.

After transcribing these two interviews, I felt I still needed answers. Specifically, what kind of influence does Chapters and company have on Canadian publishers? Are these superstores affecting what is being published, and therefore written, and in turn, read? I hit the net and found an interesting article by Frank Davis, a publisher living on the west coast. I will provide a link to this article, down below, but here is an extract that touches on that very question:

'...that state of affairs lasted about twenty years, an era which saw the rise of what came to be called "the blockbuster syndrome," as the big bookstore chains started calling the shots in publishers' editorial departments.'

'Independent booksellers will continue to suffer the effects of going up against a large, dominant competitor which enjoys vastly better terms of trade than they do. Readers will see a reduction in choice as the big-box stores curtail their selection, and will find it increasingly difficult to get their hands on books they know exist. (Chapters ambiguously reports titles they do not carry in stock as "temporarily unavailable", implying they are out of print.)'

So I ask myself, "Is buying a book like buying a hammer?" No. It seems to me that the simple transaction of purchasing a book has even more far-reaching ramifications. And I have a hunch that Jean Barton will be seeing more of this potential client. Besides, when I walk into a bookstore I usually carry a list of titles to buy, my 'to read list', and rarely are those books stocked on Chapters' shelves. So instead of having them place an order, or going through, why not let someone like Jean have my business?

Related Links:

Indigo Blues - An essay by Frank Davis, 2002...

Books On Beechwood

Canadian Booksellers Association

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Capote Lesson

by Tricia Dower

If you’re a writer, “Capote” has gotta make you wonder: Could you sacrifice your integrity and decency for a story? Betray another’s trust if the stakes were high?

On a Victoria-mild February afternoon I sat in a small theatre watching that wonderful movie with increasing astonishment. I’d been drawn by reports of the lead actor’s brilliance and my admiration for “In Cold Blood,” a book I bought in hardback and have in my collection still. I hadn’t read the biography on which the film is based and all I knew of Truman Capote was that he was talented and quirky. As the account of how he came to write “In Cold Blood” played out on the screen, I was repelled by the extent to which he lied and manipulated to land that book, the one he was “born to write,” the one he knew would create a genre and give it his name. And I was ambushed by the recognition that I understood his hunger to tell the story. That spark of recognition generated the power of the film for me.

I have no illusions about my ability to alter the DNA of literature. And I can’t imagine hoping someone would die to end my book. But I wrestle with my own moral dilemmas such as the temptation to steal pieces of others’ lives for my work -- this one’s past, that one’s neurosis. It’s easier than making everything up, everybody does it, it’s no big deal, right? Friends and family are a “gold mine,” as Capote said of the murderer who spilled his guts to him, who shared the rich details the writer could not have imagined quite so well.

Parts of my daughter appear in my first published story. In another, a character channells my husband. (My recent works are less derivative; I may be bored, at last, with my own life.) Both husband and daughter read “their” stories as I was writing them, got to comment on and influence them. But what about my other borrowings, my truer betrayals -- the former husbands, neighbours, bosses and co-workers who show up thinly veiled in early works? I didn’t consult with them. If they stumble across my writing and recognise themselves, will they feel violated?

A friend is crossing a treacherous mountain pass, dealing with a situation that’s unique and epic in emotional scope. Because we’re friends, he shares his feelings about it, lending me insights I couldn’t earn on my own. What a compelling story it is, one that if I wrote it well would have the literary world singing hosannas to me. (My fondest delusions involve praise.) It might not be the story I was born to write, but it’s a powerful one, laid out as a feast on a table before me.

I could change the details so the borrowed life wouldn’t be obvious to most readers, but my friend would know. I could ask his permission and give him a sharp blue pencil with which to rule the manuscript. Whether he answered yes or no, he’d be wary from then on, not as comfortable sharing the confidences that deepen our friendship. He’d wonder if my interest in his life, my encouragement to unburden himself, was driven by shallow self-interest. For the sake of a story I could lose a friend’s trust. That's too big a price to pay for now and for always, I’d like to think, but the lesson of “Capote” is: Don’t be so sure; keep those delusions in check.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

On Impediments and Introductions

by Tamara J. Lee

Introductions baffle people when they first meet me. It is not, as I would like to pretend, due to any unique aesthetic qualities, but rather due to my ‘accent.’ You see, I do not have one. In its place I have a rather unglamorous speech-impediment, which ‘places’ me as an East-coaster, the opposite shoreline of where I am from. My slight, but discernible, inability to roll an ‘ahr’ adequately means people usually assume I am from New Jersey, Brooklyn, or Boston. I haven’t even been to any of these cities.

When I was 13, on an awkward vacation in Hawaii with my father, I chatted with some dubious people in the second-rate motel my budget-minded father booked us into. And doing what I’d done for fun many times before, I came up with a lie about my identity by telling the motley crew that I was from Brooklyn. Unfortunately, so was one of the motley crew. But rather than laugh and back out of the lie with my hands up, I did what any stupid teenager would do: I pushed it further. When buddy asked me where in Brooklyn I was from, I recalled research for a short story I was writing and said, ‘The Heights.’ When buddy said, ‘Hey, my cousin lives in the Heights, what street you on?,’ I stuttered (a throw-back to another part of my speech impediment I’d learnt to wrestle) and finally, unimaginatively, settled on Kings Road, my actual address. Buddy smiled at my lie, at the defiant teen with the ‘funny accent,’ and informed me there is no Kings Road in Brooklyn Heights. So I reluctantly settled on the full truth that I am from a Vancouver, BC suburb, which he somehow found more interesting, as he generously handed back my pride to me.

My discomfort with where I come from has been an obstacle since I started writing stories at nine years old. Aware that my favourite writers up till then came from interesting places like Copenhagen (Hans Christian Andersen) or Belfast (CS Lewis), I wrote my stories from a place called ‘Anywhere-but-here.’ Seems I didn’t have the imagination to include my own borough in my stories, much less my own country. Reading tales about people in faraway lands seemed infinitely more interesting than anything I’d ever experienced. Rather than write what I knew, I tended to write what I read, including ghastly attempts to seem British. That I grew up in a city with its own diverse geography and people—from the last remnants of ancient rainforests, to the waterways carrying exotic wares and people to the city, to the towering mountains named for native legends—never struck me as worthy of writing about when I was young.

As an adult, I am recovering from this impediment, though rather like a belligerent teenager, I still wrestle with ‘place’ from time to time. More often now, characters I develop come from somewhere similar to Vancouver. Sure, they might not have been born in Vancouver, but they may find themselves here, or find themselves trying to get away from here. And the more I travel, the more I realize how I tend to write about that place from whence I came. Except, when I tell it, it still sounds like I’m saying it with a Brooklyn accent.

Welcome to the Canadian Writers Collective. As the site grows into itself, we hope you will find the diversity of our words, our accents, both engaging and entertaining.