Retreat

I had the pleasure of spending a week as a guest (and sort of alumni) of The Pouch Cove Foundation, an artists’ retreat located in Pouch Cove, Newfoundland. While only about twenty minutes outside of St. John’s, it might as well be in the middle of nowhere, in the best possible way.

I went there to work on final changes to Book Three, and it was very productive. So much so that I’m hoping to hand off the book to my agent at the end of the month (fingers crossed). I was also happy to be sharing the retreat with a handful of visual artists who were preparing for a showing of their water-themed paintings in-progress. Writers and painters are different kinds of artists, insofar as painters come across as regular people when they’re not painting and writers tend to remain mumbly introverts when they’re not writing, not that we weren’t able to get together for the occasional beer and a chat in the evening. The good news is that we were all there to work and the setting was ideal for our tasks. And when we weren’t working, it was easy to step away and go on a hike along the East Coast Trail (in the course of one hike I spotted a pod of whales nearby and found myself tracked by a fox), or simply go down to the shore and admire the many gorgeous views.

Pouch Cove is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, and this marks a return for me after 20 years. Back then I was still working in film/TV but trying to get my act together as a budding author. A work colleague suggested I check out the retreat at Pouch Cove which, it turned out, her father operated. I was only able to get away for a long weekend at the time (because broke), but it was my first introduction to an artists’ retreat and I was able to develop some of the ideas that made it into my first novel, The Society of Experience.

James Baird, who runs the Pouch Cove Foundation, has been a tireless supporter of the arts community in Newfoundland for decades and is an extremely generous host to artists from all corners of the world. I’m very appreciative of his support and enthusiasm, and grateful to have had the opportunity to return.

It was hard to leave.

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Interview: The First Thirty, courtesy of Junction Reads

This is super last-minute, and I apologize for the late notice, however tomorrow (!) I’m going to be interviewed live (!) on Instagram. Junction Reads is an established (since 2014) Toronto reading series that brings attention to so many great authors. I’m going to take part in Junction Reads’ cool offshoot, The First Thirty, which is designed around speaking with authors about — you guessed it — how the first thirty pages of their published work came about.

From their website:

Writers know, and readers too, the first pages are the most important in any novel, memoir or story. And I want to talk about it.

The First Thirty is an Instagram Live series where I will meet authors for a quick chat (30 minutes) to talk about writing, and how they shape those first pages to be a warm welcome to the reader; to include the hook that makes a reader want to keep reading, and to give us the characters we either want to love or really hate.

You can hear me talk about my latest novel, Radioland, tomorrow (Monday, May 27th) night @ 7pm EST on Instagram by tuning-in to @junctionreads!

UPDATE: You can watch the interview here. I’m really impressed with the depth of Alison’s questions and if this is the last bit of promotion I do for Radioland then I’m happy to have it be this.

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Goodbye April

I haven’t had the opportunity to post here, however I hadn’t realized that it was over a month since posting something substantial. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything different going on in my life, so much as that, upon reflection, perhaps I’m spending a bit more time seeking comfort where I need it.

I got back into a martial art that I started before the pandemic, called baguazhang, or simply bagua (pron. bahg-wah). It’s a little idiosyncratic compared to more mainstream forms like karate, taekwondo or BJJ. I’d say it’s somewhere between what we in the West call “kung fu” (external) and tai chi (internal). Let’s just say there’s a lot of walking in circles. That said, I needed something that allowed me to move/train my body in a way that was different than going to the gym or distance running, which can feel static. Bagua is anything but static. Also, crucially, the very place that teaches it is literally across the street from my office in Chinatown. It centres me and its choreography is demanding enough without the more wild kung fu-style kicks etc. It’s also nice to do this with other people — something I was also sorely needing (ie a form of socializing that wasn’t chatting with someone at a pub)

I also started Book Four (I know, I know), which is coming along. I can’t really say much about it because it’s very early, however I’m liking its shape. What’s funny is that my previous long-form entry here was about not wanting to be stuck with Author/Psychotherapist in publicity material…and yet the protagonist of Book Four is exactly that. It’s also nice working on a book where the protagonist is a woman. Radioland had two protagonists — male and female — and The Society of Experience had an intermittent female narrative in the form of Seneca’s diaries, however I’m looking forward to keeping things female this time around. Book Three is in revision-mode now, for the last round I think.

I’m trying to keep myself informed of what’s going on in the world, but the world is too big and there’s too much. I think the curse of social media is that there are so many perspectives on so many things that it can be paralyzing to even log-in some days, so currently I’m not. I’m very thankful that I re-subscribed to the London Review of Books this past summer because their coverage of what’s happening in Gaza is extensive and authoritative, without the self-censorship or bad faith arguments that have poisoned coverage of this conflict in much of the mainstream media. I’m not a prolific magazine subscriber, however I can’t help but think of how lucky I felt when I happened to subscribe to Harper’s just prior to the towers falling on 9/11, the drums beating towards a disastrous war. Reading informed, well-written arguments isn’t going to stop the worst of humanity from manifesting, but at least I can form my opinion from a source that isn’t compromised by a fear of spooking advertisers or an editor casting a dark shadow over someone’s shoulder.

Yes, and reading. Lots of reading. Let’s see…Labyrinths (a collection of Jorge Luis Borges stories and essays), Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (which is fabulous), The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton and Audit Culture: How Indicators and Rankings are Reshaping the World by Cris Shore and Susan Wright.

I hope this finds you well.

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What You Do vs What You Write

I had the occasion to be asked to do an interview with a Canadian podcaster recently, which I agreed to without hesitation. Firstly, their independently-produced program seemed perfectly legit, and secondly (more pragmatically) there are so many authors chasing interviews and fewer and fewer venues to provide exposure that — all combined — the decision was a no-brainer. That said, the week leading up to the interview my partner asked what I was going to be interviewed about. I had just assumed I’d been chosen based on my being a published author of two novels (etc), however she raised a good question: was it going to centre on my day job?

A backgrounder…

When I was preparing for the publication of Radioland in 2022 I felt more comfortable, perhaps because the book’s characters expressed behaviours of those who are traumatized, making mention of my day job in the lead-up promotional material. My day job, for those who don’t know, is as a Registered Psychotherapist in private practice. It didn’t seem to hurt to make mention of this, insofar as, personally and professionally, I was writing from a place of understanding. So, when the interview requests began to roll in — and believe me, as an author with an indie publisher, I’m grateful for every opportunity I get — I began to notice that, within the interest of Radioland and myself as its author, there was inevitably a tie-in question about my being a psychotherapist.

Some of the interest in my day job was matter-of-fact; there are few writers out there (who are not independently wealthy) who can get by doing this full-time. I had no issues with the professional curiosity. But, overall, a feeling began to grow that — in the way the questions were phrased — my existence as an author and the responsibilities of my day job seemed to be artificially stitched together. A particularly egregious suggestion — one I’ve had to field privately before, even from other writers in casual conversation — was whether I was ever tempted to use my clients’ material for my fiction. I’ve been able to handle this respectfully before, but I find this question offensive. First off, would they ask a lawyer or doctor this question? Well…some people still would, actually. However, most discouragingly, was the idea that I would wholesale take confidential client material and use it for my own creative purposes. Needless to say, this would be not only unethical but illegal.

I’ve been able to handle this respectfully before […] but I find this question offensive. First off, would they ask a lawyer or doctor this question? Well…some people still would, actually. However, most discouragingly, was the idea that I would wholesale take confidential client material and use it for my own creative purposes.

But there’s a more pernicious concern that developed in the way in which my day job was mentioned in the same breath as my work as an author. In the back of my head was this fear that my book was being portrayed as Good For You (because it’s written by a psychotherapist, right?), that it would thus contain Life Lessons based on Wellness Knowledge. In other words, that it was didactic and prescriptive. Radioland, in both form and intent, couldn’t be further from this, and the steady conflation I experienced between what I did for a living and what I wrote bothered the hell out of me as a result. I also didn’t want to be ghettoized, as some can be, where their non-medically-oriented books are quickly forgotten about.

I realize I bear some naive responsibility for providing this information initially, and yet I feel like it can’t be overstated: I am not my job. I am not my fiction. Of course there’s going to be a whole lot of Venn shared by my interests, my work and my writing output — I would probably be an anomaly if that wasn’t the case. But here’s the important part: what I write is not the product of a psychotherapist so much as that my choice to change careers 12+ years ago was the product of the same person who’s been writing since he was a kid. What I won’t allow myself to be is pigeon-holed, and so, coming back to the podcast interview I had scheduled, I prepared a brief statement which I planned to make if I felt that the same conflation was about to occur. To my relief, the interviewer focused almost solely on my writing with only a brief acknowledgement of my day job, with no attempt to draw the two together (note: I haven’t listened to the final, edited interview yet, which won’t be available for a few weeks). There is always hope.

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February update

self-portrait walking in Little Portugal, Toronto

It’s been a busy time in these parts. Working on the short story I mentioned last post, working on a Canada Council grant (because why not), as well as working-working.

My day job has been affected by the economic downturn since about September of last year. September is typically a busier time for therapists — end of summer/vacation, anxiety about returning to school, etc — but for me it was the opposite. And it was more or less that way until January, where it continues to be patchy. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it weren’t that I have an office lease and a number of other regular professional expenses. I’m getting by ok enough, but the lack of predictability can be stressful. The thing I also remind myself of is that psychotherapists are typically downstream from whatever’s happening in society, so it’s no surprise the economic crunch that so many are experiencing now should visit my doorstep.

February was…fun? Keeping the momentum going from seeing Quebec band La Sécurité in late January at The Monarch here in town, earlier this month my partner and I hopped on a train to Montreal, where I haven’t been in nearly a decade, in order to see one of my favourite current acts, Sweeping Promises, play at La Sala Rossa (note: they are not Quebecois but hail from Kansas). I was not let down. Super-impressed with their energy and their songs translated to a live venue easily. Strangely, having heard all my adult life about how tame Toronto audiences can be, I was surprised to see the Montreal crowd’s energy was so restrained…and here I was, in my early 50s and one of the more enthusiastic people in the audience. Needless to say, it was great to be in Montreal and I was struck by how little damage the pandemic lockdowns did to their bars, restaurants and live venues. Otherwise, I pushed myself to get out and socialize more this month, which I’m thankful for, even though I’m a little more introverted than others, as it was good to connect with old and new friends.

If I do get some grant money I’d like to see about booking a return to the artist’s retreat run by the Pouch Cove Foundation in Newfoundland. It really is a stunning place. If I have a burning frustration with the airline oligopoly in this country it’s that it’s cheaper for me to fly to Las Vegas (3,619km) or Vancouver (3,359.km) than St. John’s (2,686km), and believe me I would take St. John’s any day over those and many other destinations (okay, only between the months of May and October).

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Grants

It took someone on social media posting a reminder of an upcoming deadline for me to realize that I haven’t applied for a writer’s grant in the better part of three years. For anyone outside of publishing reading this, while there’s no obligation to do this (unless of course you’re depending upon writing for a living, in which case it pretty much would be an obligation), it can make life a lot less burdensome for those who want to be able to take time off work so that we might devote ourselves more thoroughly to our writing projects. Most of us secretly bend time and space to be able to spend a few hours here and there each week.

This strikes me whenever I’m researching residencies for writers. A lot of the ones I’ve been interested in have a time stipulation of something grand, like “at least three weeks”, and that’s a deal-breaker for me. I pay for residencies out of my own pocket, and typically 5-7 days is the max I can allot. This is where grants come in. The big ones, from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Arts Council, have the capacity to provide wide financial support (in other words, scalable to the needs of the applicant, depending upon their professional and personal circumstances). The catch is that you have to go through the application process, which necessitates answering a lot of very detailed questions, not only about your project but about things like your budget (which in itself requires a breakdown of living expenses, etc). You have to essentially provide a compelling argument for the arts council awarding your project, as well as providing a reasonably accurate idea that you (the artist) understand what it is that you’re talking about from a financial perspective.

One of the reasons I’m writing this post is that I think it might be easy for outsiders to think that Arts Council grants are easily awarded, as if it were a question of simply hacking an algorithm. Let me assure you: they are not. If such were the case, there wouldn’t be professional grant writers marketing themselves (and paying their bills assumedly with something other than magic beans). Most artists might be able to summarize their projected finances, or describe their motivation for being an artist, or provide a captivating enticement for their current work-in-progress. Not many can do all three. And, just to add a dose of reality, even if you manage to ace all three, you’re still at the mercy of whomever is reading your application and whatever inevitable cognitive biases and preferences they have.

I’ve never received a big grant, though I’ve certainly applied. I supposed I stopped applying for the same reason I begin walking when I realize the streetcar isn’t coming any time soon; I’d rather try to achieve something on my own than be let down by something out of my control. That said, I run a small business. If I take time off, I don’t have any income. So yes, when I see a TWO MONTH MINIMUM on a writer’s retreat, I can get punchy. Truth is, there’s something strangely out-of-date about a framework whose parameters so clearly prohibit those who don’t have careers which allow such long absences.

The grant I mentioned at the beginning of this post is the Recommender Grants for Writers (via the Ontario Arts Council). It’s not nearly as big (or as arduous to complete) as others. I was lucky enough to have been awarded once before, which helped me book a flight out west to the Banff Centre for the Arts for a self-directed residency, so I pushed myself to submit a sample of Book Three to one of the indie publishers who are participating in the program this year, hopefully before their internal deadline (with this grant in particular, which runs from September to January, the deadline for submissions is set internally by the publishers).

One of the benefits of grant writing, and a reason for my writing this post, is that it can motivate (aka force) you to polish/revise/clarify your work for an actual (aka real) audience, even if you never see them or know exactly what they liked or didn’t. It can be a good prod to work on your bio (which a lot of writers freak out about), or the synopsis of your piece. I’d like to think there’s no downside, other than going through a bit of stress.

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December Update

It’s been a year, and I feel that the air is clearing. If that sounds vague, let’s just say that 2023 has been a challenge. Not like 2022, which was quite calamitous by comparison, but certainly from the perspective of world politics and (closer to home) the health of my business, it’s been a tough one. The economy is hard and a lot of people (myself included) are being a lot more financially conscious than ever.

After some super-constructive feedback I’ve been intently focused on revising Book Three, which has been tough. You’ve probably heard the term “kill your darlings” before, in regards to the sorts of sacrifices an author inevitably has to make during revisions; well, this last revision has led to a small cemetery of darlings. And necessarily so, since I attempted to cram a lot into the second half of this novel, and the result was the lack of a sense of a singular theme/conflict as opposed to a barrage of them. That said, I think it’s in a good place now, and I’ve put the manuscript in a proverbial drawer in order for it to sit for a while, so that I can come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. It’s still a solid story, and I’m very happy with the process of deciding what it was I wanted to, well, say — sounds straight forward, but it’s harder than it seems, especially when you have a lot of things you want to reflect on. Hoping to turn this over to my agent in the spring of 2024. It’s also nice to not be staring at the same project, so that I can (god forbid) consider other writing projects (short stories, essays) I’ve either neglected or temporarily abandoned.

Musically, I’ve been blessed to have come upon a wide array of artists who are new to me: Sweeping Promises, Water From Your Eyes and Froth most recently stand out.

Tomorrow, for the first time in two years, I’m taking part in the Holiday 10k (formerly the Tannenbaum 10k), and the weather is going to be perfect (a little wet, but above zero), so I’m going to quietly focus on a personal best time. Don’t tell anyone.

photo of my racing bib, showing my name and racer number
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September

September is a strange month. As a therapist, I associate it with a predictable increase in new and former clients reaching out for support. Why is that? A bunch of things, depending upon the situation of the individual, but to name just a few reasons: end of summer, beginning of school, vacation(s) in the rearview mirror, THE END OF THE YEAR IS COMING (if I were the months of October and November I would file a complaint), shorter days (and, subsequently, daylight). What’s that, your pulse is racing just reading this? I’m not surprised.

I find September to be a significant time for reflection, whether or not I’m looking for it, and this year is no different for yours truly.

As an author, it’s hard not to think about the progress on Book Three. I’ve just received some substantial feedback and I find myself wanting to balance between (putting on overalls) OKAY LET’S GET TO WORK!… and taking a little bit of time to stand further back from the book (if possible), so that I’m not simply following through on what I’ve already created, but asking myself essential questions about structure, story, themes.

Writing a book (or short story), one can sometimes fixate a little too much on what the original idea was — that thing which struck your passion and allowed you to sit your ass down and start the project in the first place — and in doing so run the risk of missing how the larger form might change to convenience the parts which require changing within it. It’s like getting the inspiration for a mansion on a hill only to discover, the more you think about what it is you’re aiming for that, actually, a bungalow near a pond is actually a closer realization of your original idea. This can especially happen if you’ve put in a shitload of work already. Your insecurities begin to howl, and suddenly the idea of changing direction is giving you heart palpitations. No! No! I have to finish it soon, I want to move on to the next project! I don’t want to work on this forever! As with psychotherapy, there are no easy answers in this profession, and much of the time it boils down to “it depends.”

Welcome to September.

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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.

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Hello, it’s summer

A

I’d like to enjoy myself this summer.

The city is alive, certainly this year more than last. I get the sense that this is the year people chose to figure out what “normal” was going to be. With the recent municipal election results, though I will admit I didn’t vote for Chow, it feels as if I can relax a little; at least one form of government has hope of improving things, depending chiefly upon Chow’s relationship with city council. I’m pragmatic. I’m not looking for magic wands, or accepting magic beans.

I’ve been working steadily on Book Three. It’s in a really good place, and if I’ve made progress over the last six months, a good part is thanks to feedback from a couple of early readers. This afternoon, I finished making revision notes based upon my reading of the latest draft, and I’m hoping — if stars align — I might have it completed for the autumnwinter. Feeling very good about it. It’s propulsive, well-plotted and, most of all, I gave myself license to write something that incorporated more satire. I wrote the first draft in the first eight months of the pandemic, and I needed an excuse to allow people to be amused. Being able to make people laugh is something I would love to do because laughter allows us to be so vulnerable. And because there were so many terrible things going on in the world, I wanted to spin a tale that, somewhere between the encroaching darkness of a movie like Brazil and the fantastical energy of a book like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, catches the reader off-guard with an certain amount satirical flair. It’s been a joy to work on (though I’d like to get it off my plate) and I appreciate the support from friends and loved ones as I keep at it.

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