While posting on facebook about my Sunburst nomination, I noticed that the two short stories I had forthcoming– “An Important Failure” and “The Bletted Woman” which will be in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction-– are both sad stories about the BC coast. Then a friend pointed out that “The Glad Hosts” falls into this category. As does “Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” and “Lares Familiares, 1981” and “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady.” Basically, I have a genre, wherein sad, weird, unpleasant things (magical, dystopian, alien) happen to people on the west coast. Or to people in some way related to the west coast. In this case, it’s about a luthier who’s collecting wood to build a violin in a poor, beat-down near-future version of Vancouver and Vancouver island.
So “An Important Failure” is another one of these sad stories about the coast. I started writing it while watching the bushfires in Australia back in January, and finished it in June, while in lockdown. The world seemed to transform several times in those months, and the story reflects my disorientation. It’s a story about processing change– how we do it, how we fail to do it. It’s also about the giant trees of BC– the “Champion Trees” of UBC’s big tree registry. The miraculous old growth they show you on fifth grade field trips to Cathedral Grove, or just off the road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew. They’re vulnerable, of course: logging, poaching, climate change, wildfires. They’re so old, they belong, quite literally, to a different world.
Finally, it’s about what’s leftover when the world changes and what we do with trees after they’ve fallen. And it’s about making a violin, sort of, because though I love forests, I also love the things that come out of the forests: the people, the houses, the shakes, the paper, the stories, the colour of red cedar, the feeling you have walking into a wood-heated house in January, when it’s raining outside, the smell of fire fills all the rooms. I love the lives and afterlives of trees. I love the violin my main character is trying to make, and even the lengths he must go to to make it.
“An Important Failure” is available to read at Clarkesworld.
Now available to read. You should check out all the other work, too. It’s a good issue.
For a few months, my partner worked in a call centre. I made notes. This sounds mercenary, considering the very very long hours he put in, but at this point he knows bits of his life will show up in my work. I try to be respectful, but some of his anecdotes about call centre life were so absurd, they snuck into a(nother) story about disaster. I’m really hard on Canada’s west coast, which I love, and which I continually destroy in one way or another.
Re-reading the story I’m surprised to see feelings I am now intimately familiar with: a slow-moving disaster traveling inexorably toward us; total helplessness; a combination of loneliness and intimacy that comes with hearing voices from far away. I think, though, this has a speck of hope in its ending– not that the disaster can be averted, but that we can help one another across those distances.
I was dealing with this woman on Vancouver Island who couldn’t generate invoices. We’d been at it for two hours and I could feel her getting upset when I told her to wipe the whole system and start again. I can help you do that, but she was like no we’ll lose two weeks of work, and there’s nothing I can say to that, so we keep troubleshooting even though it’s pointless.
“Okay, I said, can you go back to the root invoice and try—“
“—oh,” she said, “what—“
And that was it, I didn’t hear anything but the line itself, which just went dead, that kind of absence you get when someone hangs up on you.
I have long admired Undertow Publications. They’re a small Canadian press that publishes beautiful books in that narrow category of literary-weird-horror. It’s the same country as Daphne du Maurier, Robert Aickman, and Alberto Manguel’s Black Water anthologies: precise, elegant, and uncomfortable. I particularly recommend Aickman’s Heirs which contains “The Underground Economy” a story that will scare you in a deep and absurd way. They also have a regular anthology series called Shadows & Tall Trees, and I’m pleased that it includes one of my stories, “Child of Shower and Gleam.” It’s about pregnancy, motherhood, and childbirth, so part of the same family as “Uterus Abscondita” in Shimmer, and “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” in F&SF. It’s darker than those, I think, not about the terror & hope of transformation, but a changeling story, a story about vulnerability in the everyday world.
When we moved to this neighbourhood– shortly before our son was born– I liked how busy it was, mostly with students, but also with kids. They traveled in packs on bikes and scooters, shouting up and down the street to the park at the end with the swimming pool, draped in beach towels, with the occasional supervising adult or older sister. There were a few children, though, who seemed out of step with the others, a little behind the group, more often alone, and never accompanied by adults. Sometimes they knocked on our door, asking for treats and glasses of water and just for the attention of a friendly adult who would listen to their strange stories and watch their somersaults. Sometimes I had the time. More often I did not, with a baby and a wholly transformed life to figure out.
Then– as is often the case in a neighbourhood full of rental houses– they were gone. I still think about them.
So. After a slightly chaotic and blog-free summer, I thought I’d update with two things. First, we moved to Windsor for some teaching work. Second, I’ve added a page to keep track of forthcoming stuff. I feel this may be a little optimistic, considering I only have a couple of short stories coming out. That’s not actually a lot to keep track of.
I want to write about Windsor. Or, to be more accurate, I want to write about staring across the river at the Detroit Skyline, which leads to a lot of contemplation, especially regarding those disaster-pornish photographs of decaying public buildings that flood instagram and facebook. In pop culture Detroit seems to exist exclusively as a dreadful-but-fascinating warning, a place for post-Fordist disaster tourism, rather than an actual community. Creepy. It’s shockingly beautiful from across the water, especially at sunset.
As for the stories—I seem to have officially crossed some genre-line into the land of awesome known as contemporary Speculative Fiction, which was something I should have done a while ago, since Angela Carter, and Ursula K. LeGuin, and John Wyndham have always been important to me. One of the stories is about an AI suffering from debilitating nostalgia, and the other is about a cyborg. Fun!
D moved to Kingston, On the same month I moved to London, On. The second apartment he had there was right downtown on Princess Street, the tallest building in Kingston, a stack of early-70s brutalist boxes that steadfastly resists gentrification or modernization. It’s called Princess Towers. On the ground floor you can get poutine from a place named Bubba’s, and there are a half-dozen bars are on that block and the next.
Inside, the apartments have been remodeled with the cheapest, ugliest fixtures available at Home Depot, made of that special particle board with white veneer, the kind that warps slowly and inevitably every time water drips from the faucet or the pipes. D’s front door had a two inch gap under it, through which he heard at night the flip-flopped pacing of Queen’s students who carried their fast-food packaging through the fire door to the garbage slot. The slamming doors—one out, one back usually after midnight—meant he knew their garbage-disposal habits, as he knew their pre-drinking habits and what time they got home on Sunday mornings. When we talked on the phone I could hear the metallic echo of slamming fire-doors all the way across the province.
Last May D and I drove south to the Niagara frontier to see the Corpse Flower in bloom at the Niagara Floral Showcase and to visit Queenston Heights, because I’m working on a chapter about the battlefield. The Corpse Flower gets its own post, though, as a kind of footnote.
Queenston Heights is a park that was once a battlefield. You know it was a battlefield because there’s a very large monument to Sir Isaac Brock, the English General who led British and Canadian troops against the Americans in October 1812, and who died early in the battle. The memorial tower rises aggressively on the Canadian side of the frontier, with Brock at the very top, pointing toward the American side of the river, as though the tower isn’t only to remind us of the general’s death, but to tell us where and how to look toward his American enemies.
Last spring D and I made the trip out to Whitby, Ontario, for an early Doors Open Toronto event at Intrepid Park. It was May, one of those days that aren’t cold really or warm, but blustery and dull, with a flat, pale sky, and quite a bit of mud.
There are no doors to open at Intrepid Park, because there’s nothing there but a concrete memorial, a few shell holes, and a grassy mound. It’s a nice park, with viewpoints from which you can look along the coast of Lake Ontario toward the downtown skyline, which looks delicate and almost translucent at that distance. Continue reading
I like to know where I am. I grew up in a valley, on an island off the south coast of British Columbia. I learned to find my way on what were once logging roads, pinched between Satellite Channel and Saanich Inlet to the northeast, and the hills and mountains of the Vancouver Island Ranges on the west, north and south. Wherever you are in the Cowichan Valley you can find your way by looking up at mountains whose names you know: Tzhouhalem or Provost, the Malahat, Mount Baker and the Olympics on the American mainland, Mount Newton on Saltspring Island, across the channel. Vancouver was the same, with “mountains” always meaning “north” in my neighbourhood.
Goin’ Down the Road is a 1970 film about two knuckleheads—that’s director Donald Shebib’s word—from Cape Breton who head to Toronto for something better than they had at home: work, opportunity, money, sex. The movie is iconic, and I’ve known about it all my life, but I really started thinking about it when we planned our move to Toronto. Our situation isn’t much like Pete and Joey’s, but our combination of joblessness and expectation made me feel close to them. Continue reading
My first visit to Toronto was a ninety-minute layover between Vancouver and Montreal. I got in to Pearson before 6am, so it was still the-middle-of-the-night (PST), and all the coffee shops were closed. I had tried to sleep, but the night was very short and brightly lit, and somewhere over the Great Lakes I had seen the sunrise. When I looked out the window of the lounge I saw a landscape of tarmac, with the distances hazed over. There was an enormous pile of refuse from some construction project. Then I boarded a plane to Montreal.
My second visit to Toronto was a layover, too. We spent the time between trains at Union Station, eating hotdogs from one of the carts on Front Street.
In the first four years I lived in Ontario I spent less than a week in this city, including more layovers at Pearson or Union station. Last winter we moved here, and I suddenly found myself living in Canada, the one I’d seen in TV, or read about. I was surprised to see the CN Tower looming at the end of a street, to look up and see MuchMusic’s corner of Queen West, or De Grassi Street on a sign. This was CBC Canada, and Globe-and-Mail Canada, where people say “aboot” and have cabins on Georgian Bay and along the line of smokey hills the crimson forest stands. It was strange to see that the postcard version of Canada was a real place.
I’ve wanted to start a blog for years, and my arrival in this version of Canada seems like a good place to start. Welcome to Toronto!