Tour de Blog

I was invited on the Tour de Blog by Ali Bryan Author of Roost. Here are my answers to the four tour questions and I hereby tag Samantha Warwick the Director of Calgary Operations for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and author of Sage Island for the next blog stop.

Please see the bottom of the page for previous tour stops.

What am I working on?
I’m currently working on my second novel which I call The Amazing Adventures of Mattress Boy. It’s like wrestling a fifty-two headed monster at this point and lately I hate it greatly until, at moments, I love it again. The protagonist is an eighteen year old boy/man called Sebastian Quincy McPhail. His mother makes him dress up as a mattress to wave in front of the family furniture store. With hippies and babies, doppelgängers and headbangers, from attending university to living in a grain bin, from starving in communes to selling Papal souvenirs, pigeon companions and confounding visions Sebastian adventures through the 1980’s looking for the 1960’s.
Here are some of the things pinned above and around my desk that relate to the work:

I’ve heard newborn babies wailing like a mourning dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question then is it hopeless and forlorn?
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.
-Shelter from the Storm- Bob Dylan

“Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly.”
-Leonard Koren-

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’m not really sure what my genre is. I called Dance Gladys Dance a “darkly comedic dissident chick lit ghost story with deep(ish) social meaning” which I don’t think is a bookstore category. I think humorous works by women are often given a pink cover and relegated to the “chick lit category” which removes them from general readership.
Here are some examples of female vs male covers inspired by Maureen Johnson (scroll down for a cover flip gallery).

I would work the rest of my life to be placed on a bookshelf in between Roddy Doyle and Kurt Vonnegut.

Why do I write what I do?
I write to explore issues and characters that intrigue me in some way. I love to read something that makes me think about society in a new way or offers me new insights into the way people work.
My writing is very much character driven. I’ve often said that I have a ‘character problem’. When I was living in a big city and regularly went thrift store shopping I developed a ‘lamp problem’. Who knew there were so many fabulous lamps to be had for next to nothing? Unfortunately there is a limit to the number of lamps that one can usefully own and eventually The Great Lamp Purge occurred. I have the same sort of problem with creating characters. Look ma, I can make a person out of nothing but words and paper. And because I can and because I enjoy it I have to watch that the characters I create have a useful place in my story. I recently removed “Germ Free Berdine” a myopic intellectual stranded in a northern town from my manuscript and I miss her greatly but she no real purpose and so had to go.

How does my writing process work?
My writing process is slightly messy. I write and figure out as I go. I often have twice as many pages of notes as I do of actual draft. In Dance, Gladys, Dance I knew nothing at the beginning except that I wanted to look at the idea of a woman trying to give up on her art. In the Amazing Adventures of Mattress Boy I know the beginning and the ending and am writing my way from one to the other- with much lurching back and forth.
Writing sometimes breaks my heart and sometimes lifts me way up above the madding masses. I write whenever I can. I am still the infamous small town Co-op grocery store clerk/writer in residence and my days off can still be filled with errands and laundry. I have been wandering around muttering “August is mine” for several months, so with four days off a week and no travelling or speaking engagements I hope to accomplish fabulous things during that month- which begins two days from now. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Ali Bryan  Leanne Shirtliffe  Bradley Somer  Janie Chang Theodora Armstrong Kathy Page  Lorna Suzuki Barbara Lambert Matilda Magtree Alice Zorn Anita Lahey Pearl Pirie          Julie Paul Sarah Mian Steve McOrmond Susan Gillis  Jason Heroux Christine Miscione Gary Barwin Rob Mclennan Robin Houghton Jayne Stanton Maria Taylor Kim Moore Em Strang Rachel Connor Laura Wilkinson Jenny Kane Jane Jackson Anne Stenhouse and the beat goes on…



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I Think I’m a Rock Star


I’d like to write words like Keith Richards plays guitar.


Music is one of my favourite tools as a writer. Listening to music can settle me in, rev me up, and inspire me. I make specific playlists for each project I’m working on. Sometimes a playlist for each character. When I sit down to write a certain person, listening to ‘their’ music can help me get into their head. Or I’ll make a playlist for certain sections of a story, like ‘The Love Story Playlist’ or ‘The Down and Out Playlist’.

In my own head, I compare myself more often to musicians and singers than to other prose writers.  That’s mostly useless, but interesting nonetheless. A good songwriter can tell a complete story, sometimes spanning years, in three minutes. That’s writing talent. Take a listen to Beeswing by Richard Thompson (okay, a complete story spanning years in five minutes).

Off the top of my head (and at this particular moment), as a writer, I’d like to be Steve Earle (the real Steve Earle – not the one known only for Copperhead Road and the like), John Hiatt, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams, Macy Grey, Lou Reed, Mark Knopfler, Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, Buck 65, Rickie Lee Jones, Sheryl Crow, Tanita Tickaram, Benny Goodman, and of course, for those that know me, Mr. Tom Waits. I don’t think I’ve ever made a playlist for anything that doesn’t contain several Tom Waits songs.

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Turkey Bingo (or the importance of slowing down)

Sometimes, for weeks on end, it seems I’m always running, my mind going five hundred miles an hour.  I’m watching the clock, composing and checking off mental lists, getting ready for my next task even while I’m recovering from the previous one.

Awhile ago, I was invited to go to Bingo, more specifically to Turkey Bingo where the prizes were either hams or turkeys.  Bingo.  How hard can it be? A number is called and you put a daub of ink on it.  I wasn’t prepared for the picture frame, postage stamp, kite, Sputnik, and endless other bingo configurations. I panicked. The ladies around me were very helpful and finally lent me a pen so I could outline on my card the picture I was supposed to be filling in.

I concentrated on my card and the room grew silent as the cards filled and bingos grew closer. Then the world changed.

I could hear every nuance of the squeaking hand cranked ball spinner.  I looked up and saw with clarity the woman across the room, her hair in perfect waves from the hairdressers, her wire glasses slightly askew.  I could smell the burnt coffee and the chemical orange of the cheezies in the bowl in front of me.  Everything was wonderfully distinct and delineated.

For weeks on end, the world passed by in an insignificant blur as my mind raced with its endless tasks and now, in a moment of quiet, the world filled with gorgeous detail.

I need those details as a writer. The curve of the backs of the wooden stacking chairs, the cat hairs on a woman’s pink sweater, the miniature faded union jack flag in a vase of dusty plastic flowers, the fact that a group of eighty-year old women giggling sounds just the same as a group of twelve year-old girls. Those are the sights, sounds, and smells that inspire and nourish me as an artist.

But, unless I take the time to slow down, to quiet the self-important hamsters spinning the wheel of my brain, I will miss those tiny but most important details and I will be the poorer for it, as a human and an artist.


(and I won a ham too…)

Double bingo.

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Art from Dance, Gladys, Dance – Pablo Picasso (Dora Maar)

Excerpt from Dance, Gladys, Dance

When I was nine, looking for pictures of Spain for a social studies report, I came across a photo of Pablo Picasso’s painting of Dora Maar. She was like nothing I’d ever seen. I sat on the green linoleum floor (which my mother referred to as battleship linoleum because it lasts forever – as if that was a good thing), held the magazine open in my lap, and stared at the photo. I had no idea who Picasso was, but I knew that painting, that style, those colours, in my bones. Dora’s face was wrong; it was orange, with stripes of green and white. Her nose tilted over to one side, her eyes were too big, and her ear was a piece of macaroni. Shapes of colour formed her clothes: purple, black, blue, and the background just two flat panels of orange. She was as ugly as heck, but she was powerful. She looked like I felt.

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Word Freak

Plasmodium Credit: NIAID

Speaking of specialized dictionaries, here’s a few choice words from them

Nonthreshold Logic: a family of integrated logic circuits that operates at a high speed at relatively low power. (The Penguin Dictionary of Electronics, Penguin Books, 1988)
(My brain on a little sleep and a lot of coffee – high speed but relatively low power)

Ophicleide: an obsolete bass instrument made of metal and having keys
(A New Dictionary of Music, Penguin Books, 1967)

Mundus Intelligibilis: a Platonic realm of Perfect forms or Ideas that serve as the models for the imperfect existences in the sensible world
(Dictionary of Philosophy, Barnes and Noble Books, 1981)

Moabite Stone: A monument commemorating the campaign of the Moabite king Mesha against the Israelite King Omri (835 BC)
(Pocket Dictionary Biblical Studies, InterVarsity Press, 2002)

Sandbagger: In bowling an individual who purposely keeps down his average in order to receive a higher handicap than he deserves (Look, here comes Sandbagger Joe)
(The Complete Sports Dictionary, Scholastic, 1979)

South Sea Bubble: Towards the end of the seventeenth century companies were formed in vast numbers and for quite bizarre purposes, such as importing jackasses from Spain
(The Penguin Dictionary of Commerce, Penguin Books, 1982)

Thief: A thief who carries the heart of a toad about his person will be immune to detection
(Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions, David Pickering, Cassell, 1995)

Thalweg: The line joining the deepest points of a stream channel
(Dictionary of Geological Terms, Anchor Press, 1976)

Plasmodium: the vegetative state of slime-fungi (I think I have this in my fridge)
(The Penguin Dictionary of Biology, Penguin Books, 1977)


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Art from Dance, Gladys, Dance – The Goddess Durga


Excerpt from Dance, Gladys, Dance

“I’m working on a series of drawings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses for a book,” he said. “Do you think you’d like to pose for me?”

“I’m not Hindu.” Brilliant, I thought, ‘yes’ might also have been a good answer.

“It’s the body form I need. The faces will be modelled on ancient drawings. He circled his fingers around my wrist.

I couldn’t think. Visions of Eastern gods flew around in my head. “It’s not the elephant is it? What’s its name?”

“Ganesh? No, I was thinking of Durga,” he said. “The goddess Durga.”

When a man tells you he wants to model a goddess after your body, it’s hard to resist. I didn’t know then that Durga had eight arms.

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Art from Dance, Gladys, Dance – Georgia O’Keeffe

Excerpt from Dance, Gladys, Dance

Not two weeks after Norman first noticed I was working again, he invited the local artists’ league over for tea. A troupe of ladies in floaty afternoon dresses and one man in a corduroy jacket with leather patches on the elbows showed up. They were horrifying. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I crumbled my biscuit in my desert plate as they discussed the merits of realism and denounced every artist imaginable since Rembrandt. One of them had recently been on a trip to New Mexico and the conversation turned to Georgia O’Keeffe. Now, I thought, I can participate.

“Oh, her flowers,” said one.

 “Her poppies.” They gave a collective sigh.

I said, “Did you know that Georgia said that she hated flowers and only painted them because they were cheaper than models and didn’t move?”

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). Red Poppy VI, 1928. Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches (90.2 x 75.6 cm). Private collection © 2006 The Georgia O’Keefe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Excerpt from Dance, Gladys, Dance

They looked at me. I smiled. “Did you see her cow’s skull series?”

They shook their heads. “I love her attitude,” I said. “I once read that she said ‘I can’t live where I want to. I can’t go where I want to go. I can’t do what I want to. I can’t even say what I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to.’ Isn’t that brilliant? A very stupid fool.”

“I suppose,” said the man, Geoff, I think his name was, “that you’re one of those feminist revisionists who wants to rewrite art history.”

“No, I just thought it was a good quote. I don’t even know what a feminist revisionist is. And,” I said crushing my biscuit into tiny crumbs and letting them fall from my fingers onto the table, “I don’t care.”

Geoff sniffed.

36 x 40 1/8 in. (91.2 x 102 cm)
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1959 (59.204.2)
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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