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.


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.


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.


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.


Growing Pains

So, as you might have read, my 2nd novel, RADIOLAND has been picked up by a publisher, and I’m very happy and excited about this. A lot of work went into it over a number of years and…

…and it’s a week later, and I’m reading over the manuscript (actually, “reading over” is not quite accurate, I’m squinting at it) and I’m experiencing a darkly familiar feeling as I had with the last book. With THE SOCIETY OF EXPERIENCE I was initially ecstatic to realize that it was going to be published. And then something inside tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned around to hear it say: “You realize you wrote this years ago and that it doesn’t reflect you or your interests as a writer currently?”

And as I’m squinting over the current draft of RADIOLAND and going over the editor’s notes (five pages), I am finding part of myself wishing in the same familiar way that, if time, patience and energy were no object, whether I could just rewrite it from scratch.

Now, of course I’m not going to do that. I need to honour the work that I started. However: why the hell am I thinking this in the first place?

It’s complicated, but I’m going to try and break it down anyways. First, part of it is the sheer amount of work I set up for myself, having written a fairly ambitious piece of fiction that is trying to blend a number of genres and comment on a number of things, all while attempting to maintain a sense of rhythm while keeping the reader interested in the characters and where they are going. With any level of ambition comes the requirement to follow-through with what it is you’ve promised the reader or else you may not deliver the goods and the reader might feel ripped off. We can call this the weight of expectation. Second, and perhaps something only writers or other artists might identify with is that, while it’s healthy to have time away from your work for sake of perspective, there’s a part of me screaming out but I’m not the same person/writer now as I was when I wrote this, and so, as I squint at the manuscript with an eye to revision, I’m needing to find a way to re-approach the work so that I’m respecting what it was I was not only going for as a novel, but what I was going through and ruminating on at the time that I wrote it. I honestly don’t know if other novelists experience this, but I certainly do. Third is easy to explain but hard to do. It’s called: letting go.

In any case, I look at these as growing pains, and I’m privileged to be in a situation where these are my problems.


Book #3 update

The pandemic has had a deleterious effect on many writers. Whereas it’s affected my ability to hold my concentration on reading (for pleasure), it has certainly proved to be an obstacle on the creative process of others. I’m grateful that I have, somewhat contrarily, thrived.

I committed to starting my third book in earnest, seeing as I had plenty of time on my hands — business was (and is) down, leaving me with large swaths of time during the week. Add to this the lockdown, which has affected my ability to plant myself in my familiar café/bar haunts, given that they have either been forced to close or restricted to only outdoor seating, I found myself working from home. And I’m not used to this, seeing as I share it with my partner. A good pair of headphones have helped.

My writing process is different this time. Typically, in the past, I’ve written most of my first drafts by hand in a notebook, then transposed to laptop. But that style was very much based on walking about town with my notebook and stopping off somewhere to jot down the skeleton of a chapter. This time, I’m staring at a blank screen on my laptop because somehow writing a rough draft in a notebook just doesn’t seem necessary (or, if I am honest with myself, perhaps less efficient). And, as it’s turned out, staring at a blank page on my laptop has become an invigorating challenge. I’ll know in my head the rough outline of what it is I’m supposed to write (i.e. This is the chapter were Marcus and Alex need to connect with one another), but aside from my marching orders I don’t really know what it’s supposed to look like. The advantage of handwriting is that there’s an implicit casualness — if I want to doodle in the margins then it takes the piss out of whatever I end up writing being somehow sacred, if that makes sense. And so I begin filling in the blank laptop page with tidy New Times Roman text and there’s a kind of rush, not unlike pushing off from the lip of a snowy hill, poles in hand, skis firmly strapped to my boots.

I wrote earlier about how I was considering Book #3* as a comedy. This has changed. There is plenty of comedic absurdity, don’t get me wrong, but I think The Point of the book has changed and developed, and clarified. This is the magic of writing: watching something that only exists in your technicolor imagination take shape imperfectly in the real world of the formerly blank page, and the more you write the closer it is you get — not to the technicolor thing you imagined necessarily, but what you learn it should be, if that makes sense. A novel is in some respects an argument for its own existence, and what exists only in your imagination is but an impetus. Once you begin to manifest it you discover that, like a legal argument, characters will demand that you justify what happens to them, what they say in the form of dialogue, so that you are ultimately being fair to the spirit of the material.

I suppose what I’m saying is that my relationship with writing has undergone a substantial shift between Radioland and now, and I think part of it is being more practical with my time/labour, and the other is finding a new way of focusing as I write, which I may write about in another post.

*technically this isn’t Book #3 per se. I wrote a novel prior to The Society of Experience, which I proceeded to put aside (if you read the acknowledgements in SoE you’ll get the story around this). Then, while waiting for SoE to work its way through to publication I began work on a spiritual sequel to SoE, which I also proceeded to put aside (short version: I had a better, more dynamic idea for a novel, and I didn’t want to feel trapped in the same narrative universe as SoE). Thus, my forthcoming “Book #2”, Radioland, came into being. So, Book #3 is really Book #5, which is some crazy backwards Star Wars shit, I know. It’s also, as some might realize, a lot of pages of writing that no one will probably ever see, and if any neophyte authors are reading this and wondering how I feel about that, my answer is that it’s part of the process. Just as musicians practice their brains out before going into studio to record, there’s going to be a lot of effort that your audience is never going to see that ultimately (and quietly) benefits the parts they do see.


Radioland and Book #3 Update

I’ve written about Radioland (aka Book #2) before. It’s being submitted to publishers now that the industry has adjusted to the lockdown. Fingers are crossed. As tempting as it is to divert myself with this, I’m trying not to think about it. And yet…it’s The Second Book, the sophomore effort, etc etc. It’s a giant unnecessary burden — as well as a cliché! — to feel that somehow, of all things, this is the book that determines my future and not the last one (or the next). And so, yes, I’ve been a little concerned sometimes about this being some sort of reckoning of me as a writer, which is kind of silly. Whereas my mind is like Is the book good? Yes? Then that’s all you should really care about. And yet…

In other news, prior to the lockdown I started a third book, which I wrote about here. I didn’t expect to start another novel so soon — in fact, it’s the last thing I wanted — but something had been building up within me during the latter part of working on Radioland. It’s very different (and yet, the more I work on it, I can see how it falls into place with both The Society of Experience and Radioland’s themes). Don’t worry it has a name…buuut I’m not sharing it with anyone until it’s done. Let’s call it Book #3. What makes it different? Unlike the first two, it’s mostly a satire. Now, I can do humour, no problem. It comes second nature to me. And yet, devoting an entire book to it is something altogether different and a major challenge. I also have to say that I’ve not written anything so quickly before (I don’t share my word/page counts publicly, sorry, just like I don’t share my 10K race times). It’s the sort of book that wants everything out of me, and now. The good news is that I think it rocks. I don’t know where the hell it’s necessarily going (which perhaps also answers anyone’s question about how strictly I outline things), but I’m enjoying the trip.