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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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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First Drafts

When I wrote my first novel — not the published one, but the one that came before that — owing to the fact that this was literally my first time tackling such a thing, I adopted a rather brutal style of writing the first draft. Like I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing, nor did I understand how difficult I was making things for myself in writing in the way I did.

My style, if it could be called that, was edit-as-you-go. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? And, to be honest, there are many writers out there who take this approach. I say this because I would be wrong if I said that this was a “bad” way to go about things. However, what it did was front-load a lot of analysis during a part of the work that really (really) should’ve been purely creative, in the playing-in-the-sandbox sense of the word. Editing as you write requires a writer to switch between two hats within the same writing session, which is (among other things) strenuous.

That book, it should be known, no longer exists in any form except for some files I have backed up. It simply wasn’t worth the amount of work that I realized, as I began to take submitting it to publishers/agents seriously, it would need. Like, a lot of work. And I’d just spent a number of years already on it, and its imperfections (and various forms of writerly immaturity) became harder and harder to ignore. So, into the figurative fireplace it went. A few years back my sister-in-law sent me a photo of the manuscript I’d sent her to read, asking if I wanted it (they were moving house and had to ditch things). I told her to burn it.

From the point where I started what ended up being The Society of Experience (originally titled The Improv Class), I chose a much more practical style of getting the first draft down, and that was simply getting it down. Didn’t need to be perfect. Didn’t need to necessarily match whatever chapters came before or after stylistically. The rule of a first draft, as I saw it, and mostly continue to see it, is to get it on paper (or on a laptop) as quickly and painlessly as possible. Then, and really only then, though there are points in the process where this might have to come sooner, will I get the editor’s hat out.

Revising is drudgery. I was at a retreat a few years ago, and was asked by a couple of painters what I was up to process-wise. I attempted to describe what revising was, and inquired what a painter’s version of this might be. They looked at each other and back at me and said: “Backgrounds.” That said, the important thing is that revising is where the magic really happens. The first draft is really just a proof of concept. It could be solid. It could be 70% of the way “there” (wherever “there” is), but it’s just not done yet until you revise. And revise. And revise.

The only problem I encounter with this style of writing is that the prose in my first drafts can end up being very (very) compressed — in the process of getting everything down I will often elect to not elaborate or flesh things out unnecessarily, feeling that this can be done on the next pass. I sometimes describe my first draft style as being “dehydrated prose,” as in “add water and it will expand.” Sounds good, but sometimes I’ll read something I quickly jotted down, and I’ll end up sitting there and asking myself what exactly it was that I was thinking about when I wrote it — sometimes the subtext gets lost when you’re writing in a fast and compressed style, especially when I’m coming back to it weeks later.

I must regretfully admit I notice this a lot with this blog. I don’t have a lot of time to blog, so my style here tends to be of that compressed first draft style, which can lead to comprehension issues in retrospect. I’ve had several incidents where I’ll go back the next day and read something I’ve posted and freak out, namely because what’s there isn’t really clear. Or worse, it’s open to misinterpretation (especially if I’m getting more explicitly political, where I need to add lots of context for rather forward opinions), which can be embarrassing. I once submitted a short story to a publisher, and when I went back and looked at it I went pale it was in sooo much need of revision. Lesson learned.

Writing is work, which is fine because I like writing. I’m good at it. But, creativity aside, it’s also a skill which requires a necessary amount of tradecraft in the process of making your workflow, well, work for you.

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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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Essay: Making Art is Hard

I wrote this essay last year, anticipating that my choice of having a Black protagonist in my novel Radioland might be met with curiosity (or criticism) about the nature of that choice. What actually followed was complete silence on this topic, save for when I eventually spoke with Steven Beattie for his That Shakespearean Rag site (subscriber only). I wish I’d been better able at that time to communicate some of what I wrote here, but I was battling exhaustion at the time and that’s just the way it goes with interviews. I’ve made some mild revisions to this, but otherwise it’s what I wanted to say.

The title comes from a fortuitous moment where I happened upon visual artist Shary Boyle, leading a presentation of her latest works at the Gardiner Museum to a group of U of T students last year. “Making art is hard,” she said, and followed it by imploring those paying attention to not rely on curators or critics to summarize their work; that it was important for artists themselves to put something out there — a statement, an explanation, a proposition — for the record, before other people do that for you.

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Making Art is Hard

Making art is hard. It doesn’t always need to be, but if you’re trying to get a handle on the complexities of our world – let alone articulate them – I feel there’s no room for those who don’t have a personal stake.

When I set out to write Radioland, I did so as I’ve done before, with a focus on moving beyond only telling a story, or rather, to tell a story of people with an eye to those who inhabit the place I live. That place, as much a character as any other, is Toronto, where I’ve made my home since 1995. This city is a lot of things, with a distinct history of its own. Like other major cities in North America, it shares a deep and often troubling history of disrupting the lives of its citizens, mostly working class.

I wrote my first novel, The Society of Experience, as someone making sense of a bustling but dark, often cold city where power was seemingly held by a tiny coterie who may as well have been in a secret society; a blend of the Family Compact and The Theosophical Society, if you will.

Downtown Toronto in the 90s, to borrow a phrase from my editor, was as white as cream cheese. The news was written by white people from a middle to upper-middle-class white perspective (which it largely still is). The people who wrote my paycheques were white. I started in TV commercials which were uniformly white. And white inherited wealth ruled the roost (which it still does). Hell, in the 90s you could get by as exotic if your parents were from Eastern Europe. That white. I worked my first TV post-production jobs downtown, and it was rare to see individuals from Black or South Asian communities in those spaces. The politics of racial identity wasn’t in the foreground for me because I was a white guy surrounded by a largely white crowd.

Becoming aware of my white-guy blinders and the default whiteness of our media perspective has happened gradually. I began to notice how public conversations about multiculturalism (its brokering of what gets acceptance in a predominantly white society) were often conducted by panels of white people with a token racialized academic on hand to lend credibility; how it seemed that the same over-educated white people talked about Toronto — its rich tapestry of ethnic identities! — as if commenting on a really good food court they discovered in Markham. As I shifted from film/TV, training to eventually operate in private practice as a psychotherapist, I learned from my program and especially via the lived experiences shared through client work, how the idea of multiculturalism that I grew up with felt more like a form of gatekeeping, essentially regulating whomever was allowed in to respect the established values and hierarchies of white society.

Radioland is, among other things, a novel about the scars of trauma, told within a macabre world that is somewhat stranger and more speculative than our own. It concerns Kris, a white musician having a nervous breakdown as he comes to terms with his experience of sexual abuse as a kid, and Jill, a Black woman who harnesses a strange and ominous form of magic within her, whose power sometimes leaves a trail of destruction. There’s also a serial killer, but let’s not go there.

A significant factor, though not the only, in deciding to change how I approached Radioland came indirectly from none other than J.K. Rowling, author of the vastly popular Harry Potter series, whose public blessing of main character Hermione Granger being Black (reacting to the casting of Noma Dumezweni for a 2015 theatre adaptation) seemed not only a rather oblique after-the-fact bestowment of white acceptance, but, as has been pointed out, rather than taking on the work of making any of her main characters explicitly racialized in her books, readers were left to, very optionally, in the words of the late Doug Henning, use their imaginations. To do the work for her, in other words. There’s a double-standard around a white author suggesting the reader change the landscape of representation, not the author. Reading this exchange, its discourse about power, I also saw my own faults – as someone who grew up in white rural and suburban enclaves — or should I call them defaults. Ultimately, I thought, fuck billionaire JKR, where were my blindspots?

When I started Radioland in 2016 I wanted to describe, and have the novel reflect, the changing Toronto I saw around me. I wanted this complexity and diversity to be reflected in my characters. I wanted it to be about music, magic, and madness; highly sensitive people roaming through and seeking connection in a randomly insensitive world. Alarmed by rapid neighbourhood gentrification and wage inequity worsening around me, I didn’t want to write a novel about people who, for some reason, never seem to worry about rent or bills, let alone debt or uncertain comfort. I didn’t want to put into the world another lie about a rock band “making it” (whatever the hell that means). I wasn’t interested in magic saving someone from the realities of an unfair world; what would it be like, in fact, if magic made it worse?

I wrote this essay because it’s not 2016. It’s 2023, and there is a lot of scrutiny out there; an understandably greater burden on white authors, whether or not they are established, to take more responsibility for what they’re working with when they choose to include characters of colour in their work; readers and authors increasingly want to see diverse, relatable experiences reflected in their media, otherwise it frankly risks irrelevancy. As a white author who chose to make one of his book’s protagonists Black, this required a lot of things. Mostly humility, and knowing I was going to need to do a lot research, as well as meditating on what it means for a white author to choose a Black character (especially a protagonist), what the privilege of that freedom of choice means, and the responsibilities that come with this. And within the portrayal of the character, Jill, not wanting to have a Black protagonist who’s made to speak for all Black people but rather a woman who is her own person, yet doing so without erasing her Black identity, or obscuring the racism she has internalized. Balancing the very real lives of Black people with care not to veer into a monolithic, monocultural depiction, or reducing the depiction into a convenient political tract, perhaps what Naben Ruthnum may have meant by social-betterment fiction.

Specifically in terms of writing from the viewpoint of racialized characters, I came upon some influential works that were helpful. One of them is a piece Jen Sookfong Lee wrote for Open Book focusing on the question: how do I write about race when it’s not my race? Writing advice can be Janus-faced — the opposite is sometimes just as true as the rule sometimes — but her well-considered guidance made me feel, at the very least, that I wasn’t indulging in a disaster. Written for an academic audience (though immediately approachable) there is also Linda Alcoff’s excellent paper, The Problem of Speaking For Others, and the author’s thorough consideration of the many perspectives involved in writing from a racialized perspective. Most recently, Jay Caspian Kang tackled this in response to the release of the film Turning Red.

I didn’t want to be Anne Tyler, who recently underscored how frustrating this is: “I’m astonished by the appropriation issue […] It would be very foolish for me to write, let’s say, a novel from the viewpoint of a black man, but I think I should be allowed to do it.” The big problem is in her use of allow. No one is stopping white authors like Tyler from writing from the viewpoint of a Black man, but, perhaps for the first time, they are feeling liable around liberties previously tolerated; the freedom, yes, but not as trustworthy without some sense of self-reflection on the implicit privileges those of us producing art may bring. As someone put it in simple terms, this is more about consequence culture than cancel culture. And what we’re seeing are white people being asked to take responsibility. To make matters worse this is being manipulated in right-leaning quarters as a form of existential annihilation.

A sensitivity reader was ultimately hired, and I’m humbly thankful for their insights. I had considered hiring a sensitivity reader during an earlier revision cycle, but stalled on the idea as there had been stories of authors hiring SRs only to throw them under the bus, owing to not taking into account the advice they were given and treating their hiring as a sort of de facto sanctification against criticism. There’s a lot of misplaced and defensive rhetoric that has come out with the rise of the sensitivity reader; a cursory search will unfortunately direct you to articles that don’t so much compare but literally call the hiring of SRs a form of censorship. The very notion of people of colour suddenly being in a position to gatekeep (which SRs don’t actually do) scaring the living hell out of white people is revealing enough. But let’s get back to this allegation of censorship. It’s not. Not only is it about continuity and accuracy, but authors and publishers being open to taking more responsibility for what we create. In the notes I got back from the SR, there were no “thou shalts”. I was pointed to some technical things in my manuscript that I simply hadn’t considered — and it was flagged because the reader thought it didn’t make sense, or needed more clarity. Good catch, I thought. In their preface, the words of the SR who read my manuscript are important, too: “[…] that being said, I am only one Black [person] with a specific experience growing up in Toronto.” They were there to be an informed eye. This was not some NYT op-ed’s notion of woke-ism run amok. Should we then be surprised when sensitivity readers, such as the person who read my manuscript, decline to be publicly identified or acknowledged by name?

All of this is not to say that I don’t exclude the possibility I’ll have to take responsibility for what I might not have thought through well enough. Oppositely, it’s not like I’m expecting some sort of special singling out for not setting the default depiction to white. Making art, as I mentioned earlier, is hard. I don’t think art-making is well-served if we’re seeking to float safely above that which we are thoroughly immersed in.

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Ebook & Death

Hi all — the ebook of Radioland is out. Please don’t ask why it’s taken this long. It was actually out a while back but I’ve neglected this blog, something I’m thinking of changing as I grow tired of the social media (read Twitter) scene. It’s much better to share my thoughts here, especially book-related.

So, death…

There’s been a bit of that in my life recently. First was the passing of an influential instructor I had when I did a summer intensive with the Humber School for Writers, way back in 2005. DM Thomas was an author known mainly for his seminal work, The White HotelHe was the right person at the right time, and from that class I co-founded a writers’ group that lasted about nine years, all of which is to say I wouldn’t be sitting here — a published author, with two novels, several short stories and a couple of essays under my belt — had it not been for that experience with him. I have fond memories of DM, particularly one evening at the Duke of York, with my classmates, which featured a gaze of raccoon cubs climbing after their mother along a tree in the patio. DM had a formidable perspective as a prose writer and poet and was a gracious host with a long list of stories to tell. May he rest in peace.

When I worked in film & TV I worked alongside many coordinators at post production houses across the city, but none was more professional, reliable and affable than Gary Brown. I first worked with him at Magnetic North and then afterward at Deluxe. With Gary, what you saw was what you got; his smile was genuine, his explanations were clear and his assistance was crucial on more projects than I could begin to list off. I worked with him for over a decade in a two-decade career, and I never had a better experience. With someone like Gary you always knew you were in good hands. It helped also that he didn’t have any of the boy’s club bullshit (read: casual misogyny) that I encountered with unfortunate frequency. Gary passed about a month ago, at the tender age of 46, of cancer. He left a family behind, as well as the respect and admiration of everyone who was lucky enough to work alongside him. May he rest in peace.

Lastly, I want to thank everyone who bugged the Toronto Public Library to stock my book. They do now, which is great. We can’t all afford new things, and libraries serve a crucial purpose for this reason. Much appreciated to all who helped out.

I mentioned that I was going to provide more content here, and I’ve got something coming up — an essay on Radioland and my choice to feature a racialized protagonist. I’ll be posting that soon. Thanks for stopping by.

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