Radioland, a Nine-Month Retrospective

As of August 2nd, it will have been nine months since the official launch of my second novel, Radioland. I wanted to reflect, if non-linearly, on how things have gone. And yeah, I get that “nine months” is a fairly loaded measurement of time. Fact is, I could’ve written this months ago, but time is my enemy.

a copy of Radioland on my home work desk
  1. I will always (and I mean that literally) be thankful for the opportunity to have my work published, especially in novel form. The format takes a lot of time and energy. Time from my life. Energy from my life. Not only am I thankful that those sacrifices were not in vain, but that my publisher (and acquiring editor) took this particular book on. Call it what you will or want — psychological thriller (a descriptor my publisher chose that I’m sometimes uncomfortable with), weird fiction, urban fantasy, or simply “literary fiction” — this isn’t an airport book (ie easy to read, not exactly challenging or demanding on the reader).

2. Unlike my experiences with the publication of The Society of Experience, which went so smoothly that I stand in awe of it, with Radioland every step of the way was difficult. Not only was I tasked with promoting a complex, multi-threaded tale in the sort of limelight I didn’t have for The Society of Experience, the more I tried to summarize it into an elevator pitch for radio and podcast interviews, the less I believed it (or felt I was doing the book justice). From an investment standpoint, my publisher choosing psychological thriller makes sense in that it at least gives the potential reader a rough idea of what’s inside. It’s certainly better than literary fiction which can mean anything to those who don’t discern or care whether they’re reading Jo Nesbø or Eudora Welty. As thankful as I was for the opportunities, it still felt as if I was peddling some vague literary fiction, especially given that the vast majority of those I spoke with didn’t have time to read the fucking book (this, I understand, is par for the course), leaving me to build a scaffolding of sense about it while they prod me with the same goddamn questions gleaned from our PR person’s one sheet (“So, this is a psychological thriller. Could you tell us about that?” “What’s it like writing about Toronto?”). I would’ve killed for someone to have asked about its darkness, its weirdness, its splitting the world into the real and unreal and how both of those worlds are in internal conflict. At least my chat with Jamie Tennant included realtalk about music, given that a) he actually read the book, and b) he’s a musician. The strange, flattening, surreal experience of trying to get word out about a novel in ways much more wide and far-reaching than The Society of Experience and yet walking away not knowing whether anyone listening had any better a clue about what it was that was being presented.

3. The pants-down ridiculousness of University of Toronto Press Distribution not anticipating that lower / less consistent orders from independent publishers and bookstores (this coming after the lockdowns of the pandemic) would cause their internal algorithm to go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ just as publishing’s fall season was unrolling in anticipation of the Christmas buying season. This meant that my book wasn’t in stores when people expected it to be. I was marathon-publicizing a book (see #2) that no one was able to buy in the city of Toronto. Oh, but they could buy it in Ancaster. I was interviewed about it here, but there’s a paywall (that said, Steven’s site is worth the $5/month). Here’s an excerpt:

One affected author is Matt Cahill, whose second novel, Radioland, published on October 18. His book is still not in stores in his home town of Toronto, and some stores are not even sure when they will receive supply of the title. “As an author I bust my ass to revise and make deadlines; the editorial and layout staff are busting their asses; the publisher has paid an advance to me and is overseeing the printing schedule; bookstores are preparing to stock their shelves for the upcoming season; readers are creating their Christmas lists; preorders have been prepaid,” Cahill says. “And all of this comes to a crashing halt for reasons that don’t sound unforeseeable.”

4. Oh, and then there were the book reviews. I’m not going to go into thoughts about Goodreads (note: please feel free to leave a review there if you wish), but rather reviews written by people whose role is to actually review books. Now, I know that reviews aren’t aimed at the author (and their ego) but rather intended to help readers sort through new releases, etc, and it’s always good to come back to this. But there are so few outlets left in this country (forget about getting a review in another country for a there-unknown Canadian author) that each one seems to have more gravitas than before. Add to this that a review of one’s work can be just a little stressful in the first place. Add to this that a review posted online anywhere is 100% better than nothing nowhere. Radioland received a couple of glowing reviews from the Ampersand Review and The Minerva Reader which I deeply appreciate. It also got a couple of mixed reviews elsewhere, which I find issues with, but it would feel neurotic/insecure to post my feelings here. I should note that The Society of Experience had no reviews. Nix. And there’s something about this that illustrates the deal you make as a published author: you want exposure? Ok — oh, but you don’t get much say in how it happens. It is, as they say, what it is.

5. I’m gladdened by the unwavering support I’ve experienced from loved ones, friends, family and complete strangers. Despite my own anxiety, despite the fuck-ups with the distribution, despite it not being an airport book, despite the ebook coming out months after the paperback’s publication, many people indulged themselves in my work, which is very gratifying (<- understatement). It’s good to remind myself of this, especially as the seasons cycle and the latest “hot book” takes up all the oxygen, and the opportunities for me to publicly promote Radioland become less and less. It’s also good to remind myself of all the people who helped get Radioland into Toronto Public Library, most of whom I don’t know.

6. What is success as a literary writer? I can tell you that I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want people to recognize me on the street (though this *sometimes* happens, especially in Kensington Market where I used to live). If “Matt Cahill” is just a name people associate with my writing but not me as a person I’m ok with that. Would I love it if my book sold thousands of copies (thus supporting bookstores, my publisher and me)? Sure thing! But that’s not very realistic in the smaller market of literary fiction. So, success… I think success is reaching a broad spectrum of readers. Art doesn’t exist without an audience. I don’t know how much Radioland has sold — and, like external reviews, maybe it’s best I don’t inquire too much — and I won’t know until year’s end. I still don’t know how my weird tale of two people trying to find connection in a city almost designed to thwart them is going to land with readers. That said, the arrow has left the bow. I’ve done all I can on this one.

The one person who has been through all this with me is my partner, Ingrid. Without her support, her ear and her perspective, I’d likely set fire to all this years ago. I’d also like to thank you, dear reader, for giving me time to open up a little here, warts and all.


Book Review: The Jazz of Physics, by Stephon Alexander

A publishing colleague posted this book’s cover on Twitter and I was immediately interested. If you know me or know my work, then the subjects of jazz and physics (particularly quantum physics) are both dear to me. To my surprise, I was subsequently sent a copy of Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics in the mail…which I then proceeded to neglect for over a year.

Why? Well, for one, I had a backlog of books I’d earmarked for reading and I was also finishing off the manuscript for my next novel. However, if I were to be perfectly honest, it was partly out of fear. Aside from the loose premise, I didn’t know Alexander as an author and I didn’t know what the thrust of the book and, perhaps most importantly, its tone would be cover of The Jazz of Physics I was afraid it would be a beginner’s guide to physics using jazz as a loose, entertaining metaphor that ultimately ends up lacking specificity about either jazz or physics.

I could not have been more wrong. It’s the opposite. The Jazz of Physics is written by someone who is as serious and seriously accomplished a physicist (currently a professor at Brown University) as he is a dedicated and well-studied jazz musician. Rather than a figurative metaphor, Alexander uses jazz as a profound analogy for the very workings of our universe. He’s not using it to disingenuously sell physics. Growing up in the Bronx surrounded by musical influences (a story about the Five Percenter Nation is fascinating) as well as having a natural intuition for understanding the principles of science, The Jazz of Physics is a fascinating biographical narrative and nothing short of a passion project, an attempt to argue in the deadly-serious terms of cutting edge quantum theory that the relationship between music — specifically jazz, in how it centres on improvisation — and the formation of the universe is less figurative than literal.

Tall order? Yes.

First, let me stress how difficult a task it is for someone such as Alexander to pull this off. I have read well-argued books by esteemed physicists that ended up self-sabotaging themselves because they lost track of who their audience is — something I am inclined to believe is the chief challenge of any such endeavour. As an author writing for a general audience, the deeper you go into the macro and micro of physics (corresponding respectively to relativity and quantum theory), the harder it is to keep the reader’s attention. Alexander works hard, imaginatively and creatively, to find analogies to help the reader along — the use of analogies themselves are the cornerstone for him:

Next to mathematics, I learned that one of the most powerful tools involved with unraveling the secrets in the theoretical sciences is simplifying the system at hand and borrowing an analogy from what might, at first glance, be a completely unrelated discipline. It is in the limits of these analogies, where there exists a need for further research, that an avenue for discover lies.

Along his path, we are introduced to both eminent physicists — not just the usual suspects such as Einstein, Dirac, and Schrödinger, but contemporaries such as Lee Smolin, Faye Dowker, and Bill Unruh — and their musical equivalents: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and MC Rakim. Yes, I wish there were more women represented in this book, but I’m not going to put that on Alexander because he’s drawing from direct experience.

What leaps off the pages of The Jazz of Physics is Alexander’s passion for both disciplines, and he goes to pains in order to lure the reader — the question of which, jazz fans or amateur physicists, are more likely to be interested is a question I will come back to — into the complexities of these distinct yet related worlds and his unfolding thesis — that, ultimately, the stuff of our current universe may very well have been formed via sound. A stumbling block for some readers might be the extent to which they are either a) versed in these subjects, and b) prepared (if not) to travel the highly sophisticated, often mathematically structured path Alexander is, by his own decision, obligated to illustrate. There might also be those who question the extent to which the term “music” is construed from what is ultimately sound. This latter concern is remarkably well handled by the author who ultimately provides a convincing argument.

With respect to the mathematics and formulae included in the book, there are two sides to look at this from. Alexander is careful in the beginning to encourage the casual reader to accept the parts that are over their head and keep following the tune, as it were. I am by no means adept at math, my interest in quantum physics being more conceptual than anything else. While I was able to proceed past sections where the author felt it necessary to draw the more mathematically-minded kids in the room closer without losing a beat, I have to admit that three-quarters in I began to get lost in the minutiae of quantum theory itself. Want to know what a brane is? Inflaton fields? Anyone? No? After a while, neither did I, and this is where I began to ask myself — as someone who felt that this book was written for me — how many other readers with a general-to-specific interest are going to find themselves skipping numerous paragraphs (if not the better parts of chapters) because of the growing complexity of these quantum building blocks that Alexander discovers in his journey. I can’t fault him because these are the very things that were stumping him so why should we be able to swallow it in one gulp? It has led me to ask myself how well this book sold, seeing as it might be too science-y for jazz fans, and the language of jazz itself can be a figurative mess for anyone who’s never needed to decipher a symmetric diminished scale.

This is a science book that draws its inspiration from a deep and abiding love of jazz (and music as a whole). Anyone expecting to understand music in the same way that Alexander attempts to illustrate his passion for physics might find themselves disappointed, although, to the author’s credit, his passion for both is infectious.

Lastly, there is something very significant in this book about mentorship. Alexander’s journey of discovery is also one of, to use a phrase from Sir Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants. Science, like jazz, is inherently collaborative — the thing is, not anyone off the street is going to be given room for a solo on the stage. You have to have chops, and I appreciate how the author comes back to this bargain one makes, that if you want to learn and grow with the more experienced colleagues in your field you have to first demonstrate your aptitude and willingness to learn.

The Jazz of Physics (ISBN: 978-0465034994) is available at an independent bookstore near you. Curiously, I wonder what it’s like as an audiobook?


Book Review: Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging

Whenever a mental health authority is interviewed in the media it’s nearly inevitable that this person is a medical doctor, usually a psychiatrist. This individual typically isn’t a practicing therapist; they may only be able to speak of clinical diagnoses and/or the prescription of psychopharmaceuticals. I mention this because when this authoritative psychiatrist is interviewed in the media I end up listening to a depiction of the massively complex human interrelational landscape I see around me every day, as both a writer and psychotherapist, reduced to a chemical imbalance in someone’s brain. It’s like ascribing a boxer’s loss of a title match solely to the width of their biceps.

book coverThe gold standard for looking at mental health is through what’s called a biopsychosocial lens, a flexible model that allows professionals to consider the biomedical (for example, thyroid issues, dementia), the psychological (traumatic experiences, abusive relationships), and socio-economic factors (unemployment, impoverished environment) that might be at play in the mental health profile of any given individual, even if it ends up a combination of one or more parts. In North America there is unfortunately a sacred primacy around the biomedical approach to mental health, with the psychological and socio-economic as (at best) secondary considerations at the table of funding and education. At this moment there are medical doctors losing sleep wondering how to beat the shame of knowing there is a patient in their care whose condition might be psychogenic (meaning, whose pathology is not, strictly speaking, a biomedical end product). Continue reading “Book Review: Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging”


Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin

I posted about this book earlier, noting that it was surprisingly hard to get into, particularly for someone such as myself who, while not majoring in physics in high school, has always been curious about science and particularly interested (since a young age) in the concepts surrounding quantum physics. Boy, what a difference the last half of a book can make.

Smolin’s approach to the organization of information in his book might make sense to him, and – if I had an undergraduate in physics – it would to me also. He begins by stating five fundamental unsolved problems with our understanding of the universe, not already explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity (governing big stuff) and quantum physics (governing small stuff). He then goes on to discuss the idea of string theory and how it was posited as a candidate for a unifying theory which might possibly go to explain these unresolved problems (along with the effects of gravity). After laying out the details, he then discusses the Continue reading “Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin”