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  • Ethical Aspects of Animal Husbandry
    Ethical Aspects of Animal Husbandry
    by Craig Terlson

    A collection of short stories where the humour runs dark and the slipstream bubbles up.

     

    ...imagine if Raymond Carver called up George Saunders and Joe Lansdale, and they all went drinking with Neil Gaiman.

  • Correction Line
    Correction Line
    by Craig Terlson

    “… it's clear that Terlson is way ahead of the curve in terms of crafting an engaging premise that reaches for elevated territory and reinvents enduring archetypes of action and suspense.”  J. Schoenfelder


    "Sometimes brutal, often demanding and always complex, this novel will repay the reader who likes their assumptions challenged and is happy to walk away from a book with minor questions unanswered but the big ones definitely dealt with! It’s likely to satisfy those who enjoy Hammet and/or Philip K Dick and who like their fiction very noir indeed."   Kay Sexton

     

    "I love a novel that you can't put down, and this is one of them."  L. Cihlar

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Sunday
Feb052017

Just talk natural, why dontcha?

My understanding of literature at this time was: great writing was hard reading. What made something great was you could barely understand it.

... A good literary sentence was like a floor with a hole hidden in it. You dropped into the basement and, scratching your head, thought, "Why'd he say it that way? He must be a really great writer."

From George Saunders essay, Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra in The Braindead Megaphone.

I could probably just go on writing quotes, or maybe just type out the whole essay, and call it a day. But better, you should just go pick up this book. Of course, Saunders is on my mind, he is always on my mind. But with the pending release of his very first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he is even more so.
But in this post, I want to talk about what this essay triggered for me.

Saunders goes on to talk about his first encounter with Vonnegut's classic novel, Slaughterhouse Five. And how at 23, he didn't really get it (even railed against it) – but the book became transformative in so many ways in the future years, especially after he moved out of his Ayn Rand Republican hippy-hating self. And I know from reading his other work, and in interviews, how it took him some time to realize that literature (or better, just great writing) could come out of language that was more easily understood. That language being the kind he grew up with in blue-collar Chicago. Vonnegut also showed him that it was okay to be funny – and that funny, accessible work could be considered great writing, and even, gasp... literature.

One more from the essay:

Humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly that we're used to.

Wow. Let's just pause on that one for a while.

...

...

...

Wow.

So here come the similarities... Saunders is a few years older than me, and I didn't grow up in Chicago, or become an engineer. But, I grew up in a place with people who were just people. They didn't have strange exotic lives, where philosophy and science and great art was discussed in some late-night coffee/beatnik club. The works of Kant, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Doris Lessing, or Einstein weren't open discussions at the hockey rink. Or maybe they were, and I just never heard about that. But no, I'd more likely hear the story about the kid that got shit-faced at a bush party, almost fell in the fire, before he went home and combined half a wheat field while he was still three sheets to the wind.

Three sheets to the wind was a favourite expression of my mother's to explain a drunk person. I never knew what it meant (I'm still a little unsure), but it's just wonderful.

Similar to Saunders, when I thought about great literature, the stuff I was forced to read in my Advanced English Class in high school, it was stuff I never really understood... ergo, it must be great. Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums was a story I recall from this time. What the hell was that all about? In my 20's and early 30's, Steinbeck's work became very important to me. But at 17, I was like, um... what? A side note: I was in advanced English because I always was a reader, and a half-decent writer. But as far as literature, I was a babe in the woods. Back then it was all about writers like P.K. Dick, or Silverberg, or anything with cool sci-fi weird settings (no unicorns and fairies please), or crime guys like Donald Westlake. So when I took a class in Contemporary Literature in college, and the first book on the course list was... wait for it... Slaughterhouse Five. Everything changed.

I can still easily picture where I was when I read that book, in one sitting, on the floor of a drawing studio (I was in art school). I haven't read it in years, but it launched a many-yeared obsession with everything Vonnegut wrote. All of sudden here was a guy writing about aliens (!) in a historical drama (the fire-bombing of Dresden), and speaking directly to the reader with his: Listen...

You mean you could write about that sort of stuff and it was still considered literature? Mind. Blown.

(Except we didn't talk in those declaratives at the time, separated with periods. We as a society came to that much later, and then jumped the shark when recently a certain Press Secretary started telling us stuff was a certain way. Period. And we all had a collective piss shiver. Period.)

I digress. Politically. Period.

And like Saunders, reading Vonnegut made me think about the language that I use in my own writing. This came much later, as I wrote some in college, but didn't start being serious about writing until my late 30's. And my Hemingway boner (Saunder's term) came later, after the Vonnegut one. 

When I think of my early attempts, when I wasn't trying to basically pay homage to Hem, I realized there was still the lingering thought that my sentences, my vocab, my syntax all needed a certain amount of complexity – fancy-ass talking if you will, nine-dollar words, and those sentences with a trap door – to be considered actual good writing. The big fat tag of LITERATURE.

George Saunders came along at a time when I was finally realized that those people I grew up with in my small Canadian city talked in a way that was very natural to my ear. For starters, I need to say that those people were me, are me, I am one of them, people, you know? A convoluted reminder to myself to stop distancing myself from that which is my natural upbringing. Just talk natural why dontcha?

There were other writers that showed me that direct, natural language was a road to great writing: Carver, Steinbeck, even Douglas Copeland (who whispered in my ear that it was ok to talk about the world we were experiencing right now.) Add to that the lyricism of Richard Ford, the strange mystery of Marquez, the complexity of DeLillo, and the wonder in great storytellers like Joe Lansdale and James Crumley... and, well, this part I can't quite articulate. But my own language became more natural, more fluid, and the challenge and beauty of some of that second set of writers, called me to make my own language even better. Most important was the harmony of the two.

Getting kinda esoteric here. Should probably add some fart noises, or something that brings this thing back to earth. But I should add that those first set of writers, were also lyrical and complex, but in a whole different way.

I'll end it there before I confuse both of us any further.

My new novel, Fall in One Day, more than anything else I've written has the voice and cadence of the language and people I grew up with. I am very pleased with that. It took quite a while to give myself permission to think that writing this way was okay. I have been called a "literary" writer. Even my forays into crime fiction are called, "literary." At times, I am awkwardly proud of this – the inner voice asking, really... do you think so? I don't have a PHd in medieval studies or anything. And this is just the stuff I heard around the hockey rink. Literary... ok, if you say so. (Fake blush).

But writing what is natural is both the simplest and most complex thing to do. I have now given myself permission to think that I can write the way I write, and some will call it literary (which is more a marketing term than anything).

My actual hope is that they will call it good.

Thursday
Jan262017

Go to the page grasshopper

Ok, warning, this post might get all Kung Fu mystic  – I'd say Zen, but I think there's already enough misunderstandings about Zen Buddhist principles out there... so let's stick with TV.
Sometimes writing craft is full of sayings that have the feel of Zen koan.

Show don't tell.

Find the conflict.

Release the hounds.

Ok, maybe not that last one. But can't you just see the master telling Caine to obey these principles. Snatch the misplaced modifier from my hand, grasshopper.

Figured I'd start with my digressions - get it out of the way. Okay, so what's the profundity here?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the discipline of writing. I work full time at a University, so it can be hard to find the time to write – especially after a long day. So I decided a few years to, ugh, get up in the morning. I am not one of those savages who loves the early morning hours when all is asleep in the world or some poetic crap like that— no, it's as simple as, if I don't get up, no writing will happen that day.

At the end of a work day, and lots of other commitments (including a new love and discipline of learning Tai Chi), there's just not much juice in the tank. Sometimes I can edit, or think of story ideas, or write various correspondence. But for the actual words on the page, it's up at 6:00 AM, baby. And when I say baby, I mean, I'd rather stay in bed sleeping like one.

So bleary-eyed, I munch on the raisin toast and wait for the caffeine to kick in. I really don't know what will happen when I come to the page, but I have learned I have to keep returning to it.

Go to the page.

That's my mantra these days. Sometimes I go and the words just fly out of me. Sometimes they are like week- old gummies stuck on a sneaker and pried off with a dull butter knife. But I have to keep going to the page.

When things are happening, and maybe even when they are not, my subconscious kicks in. Those times it feel like I'm not really writing – I am just observing. I'm watching a character, seeing what he or she thinks, or much better, what they do. If I follow them long enough and they aren't doing anything, I'll throw something at them.... say, a flaming cat. That should get things going.

But sometimes, after multiple fiery felines, at least two of Chekhov's guns, an earthquake, and a roller skating vampire that sings show tunes... well, still nothing is happening. And then I have to call it a day, or a morning at least. Get ready for work, and leave the page. 

But in the morning, I gotta go back. Don't get me wrong, I am not some stoic where the discipline always wins. Yes, I believe I should write every day – I've seen how that changes things. It's what "real writers do". I put it in quotes because I was relieved to read that there are authors out there that don't believe in the whole write everyday thing. Breaks are taken. But the problem begins when the breaks become too often, and too long.

I remember Stephen King saying (I think in On Writing) that he feels you should be able to bang out a novel first draft in a few months, if you are disciplined (it also helps if you happen to be Stephen King). But it was his other comment about this process that struck me. To paraphrase, he said that if you take too long to write a first draft, or take long spaces in-between, all of your novel's characters start to feel like European relatives. You know they exist, they are out there, but they are distant, and you don't really know them.

You have to go to the page. Daily if possible. If not possible, do it anyway. (Zen cheerleading koan).

But why? Why do I have to do it? Well, you just never now what might spill out of that subconscious. I believe there is a certain fear in that blank page - I've seen it a lot in younger writers. And I think I used to have it. But when I decide to just face into it, and begin to write, no matter how crappy it is, something may come of it. Something usually does.

So grasshopper... wait, why is he called that? Do we ever know? Why did the master choose that name? Why couldn't he be "Ant" (more industrious), or "Beetle" (tough, hard shell, fun to step on) - or why bug at all? Why couldn't he be Skippy?

Because he wasn't. Sheesh. Now grasshopper, get your ass to the page.

Huh - I guess there was an explanation for the name. Have a look...

 

 

Sunday
Jan152017

Write to the beat, man.

 

You probably noticed the latest fbook trend—and it was a good one: without thinking too much, list off your top ten albums in high school.

Now after riffing on some serious Floyd, or the kinda sappy, (but beautifully profound) 10 CC, I wondered how, me, a prairie kid in smallsville Saskatchewan got into the first wave of ska music in the late 70's. (I blame Saturday Night Live, which The Specials appeared on, and as they say: changed everything. Who were these guys? What was this music? No one I knew was listening to it—what was it called? Ska. And I also knew it was about the coolest thing I'd ever heard and seen. Some guys in the band didn't play instruments, they just jumped around. And when the song was done they dropped their instruments, and walked off. Okay, okay, major ska digression. Send a message to Rudy... and I'm back).

So this all got me thinking about the importance relationship between music and writing. In so many ways these two go together. The best scenes flow like a great song, there is tension, release, a build, an overall mood, vibe, or groove. This vibe is on a sentence level, a paragraph, page, and whole chapter level—entire books have a soundtrack to them even if they never ever get made into a movie.

The idea of music in fiction really sunk into me when I was writing my first novel, Correction Line. A character has just escaped from a house that is about to blow up (long story why, read the novel, it's cool)—and he just about clears the area before... boom. Now, I pictured him not explosively flying across the field, but floating along in the air, dreamlike, the blast carrying him, and depositing him on a somewhat soft bush. Dean Martin singing "Sway" popped into my brain, and I said, yes. Like that. I actually have the character thinking about that song before he blacks out. But even if he never mentions the Dean Martin tune, the feeling of that song pervades the scene.

I've read about writers like Stephen King writing to hard rock while doing first drafts (or so I'm guessing it's first drafts—I am not sure how you could listen to music while doing hard editing... it's a different part of the brain.) Not everyone can do this, it requires an odd separation, you're listening to the music, but you're not listening at the same time. The music supplies a heart beat to the action. And if you get swayed over too much to the song, you get lost, and pause, stop, or just write drivel (hey, I write drivel when I'm not listening to music, too! So there's that.)

For my crime novel, Surf City Acid Drop, the name of the novel came from its soundtrack. It was a solid wall of surf rock whenever I started pounding out scenes with my protag Luke Fischer. I'd put on tunes by Dick Dale for the fight scenes or the Sandals when things got mellow, and maybe a bit romantic. The mellow vibe of the Theme from Endless Summer provided so much of the setting, and even what the main charactedr was all about, that I wanted to name the novel after the song. The only problem was Endless Summer sounded like a really cheesy 80s romance novel. I could picture the cover: flowing hair, biceps, and a setting sun across the pacific were involved.

Fall in One Day needed tunes from the era (mostly 1973) to get me in the mood, and create the right atmosphere. While writing the novel, I rediscovered my deep love of Steely Dan. in fact, I playing it so much while writing that at the end I loved them even more than when I first heard them. Geeky note: at one point, in an early draft, every chapter of Fall in One Day had a dedicated Steely Dan song. While reading, and rewriting these chapters, I would put that song on repeat, and see if it fit the chapter. Maybe I'll dig up those recipe cards at some point and show the evidence.

But like I said, when it comes time to rewrite and edit... I can't really listen to anything. Maybe to kickstart myself, but eventually it is just me, the story, and the clicking on my laptop. (Which, when I think of it would make a cool ska riff—just add horns, and a jumping around guy.)

In my WIP novel, I am still trying to find that soundtrack. I've bounced around with some alt-Country (Western States, a now defunct Canadian Band), Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale's amazing album: The Road to Escondido, and some mood music from The Great Lake Swimmers. I feel like when I finally nail the soundtrack for this new novel, then I will finally find its centre.

By the way, I attempted to write this blog post to music (video below), but it only somewhat worked. There was no groovy fight scene, or someone busting up a bar, or driving a car around a California ocean curve, in this post... but as I listened, damn, I wanted there to be.

Tell me what you listen to when you write, either in the comments, or jump over to twitter, and tell me your own writing vibe.

Here was my writing music for the post: the Kings - Switching to Glide.

 

Friday
Jan062017

What Matters

I stopped myself from putting a question mark after this post's title – because I want to state what matters, not ask you, dear reader, the question. I came across a quote on the old fbook that went like this:
"Write like it matters, and it will." (Libby Bray). (h/t Patti Parkinson)

This connects to a lot of my thinking over the last two weeks, or ten years, either and both. Why do I write what I write, and does it matter? For sure, certain authors (Richard Ford) have been asking and telling me: why write stuff that doesn't matter to you? In other words, don't write for the market, write for yourself. Write the book you want to read.

But what if I want to read about skateboarding zombies with laser eyes and the ghosts that fight them. Hmm, wait a sec, jotting that one down. Plot ideas for next novel...

Well, I guess the question is: does what you are writing matter to you? And then the corollary always is: does it matter to anyone else?

So don't get me wrong. I love reading from all kinds of genres. Joe Lansdale's crime-fiction series with Hap and Leonard are some of my favorite novels. And I've long been a huge fan of all things Tolkien, and PK Dick continues to be an influence in ways I don't even understand. So when I say "matters" don't get all hoighty-toighty, and reach for your Henry James and Dostoyevsky... just hold on there pardner (hmm, L'Amour wrote a lot of fine books, too) – in terms of matters, I mean, do you care about this? If you don't, then why are you writing it?

Over the holidays I reacquainted myself with Flannery O'Connor. And by reacquainted, I mean obsessed on. (See: DeLillo, Marquez, Carver, Ford, Saunders and Munro, for other examples of previous "acquaintances") Someone gifted me her book of letters, the Habit of Being (pubbed after her death... no I can't spell posthumousyl).

As I delved into it, I realized here was a person diagnosed at an early age with a terminal disease, who went on to write some of the best fiction of the 20th Century - and man, does her work matter. I'd read her before, loved Wise Blood, quoted a Good Man is Hard to Find too often (She would have been a good woman if there had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life), and had certainly read a number of her other stories. But somehow her stories struck me anew. The work was beautifully rendered, the writing exquisite in its clarity, and wonderful in character and storytelling. But what nailed me was its ferocity.

I picked up The Complete Stories (winner of National Book Award, also post-h, and named the best of 50 years of National Book Awards), and I started to read and re-read her fiction. One thing I loved was reading a letter about a certain story, and then reading that story, and then going back to the letter. It's hard for me to articulate the inspiration I found in her writing - but ferocity comes close.

Ms. Snark/Janet Reid had a great post recently (h/t to my friend Mark Conard), where she talked about wanting to read something that made her gasp. I knew exactly what she meant. The last book that really had me gasping was Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad. So when I got nailed by O'Connor's, The Artificial Nigger, the gasp reminded me that it had been a long time since the last gasp.

When the grandfather denies that he knows his own grandson in an intense moment, the onlookers in the scene audibly gasp (or so I imagine) – I did too. What struck me here, was reading a piece of fiction that had an impact beyond sheer storytelling (though, I don't want to underplay that value). The whole "human condition" thing has been repeated to the point of parody, or at least boredom. As in: you need to write work that espouses what can be known of the human condition, that which we collectively hold together in our Jungian consciousness.

Whoa. That's pretty fucking deep right there. Especially the part about espousing, and that Jung stuff. Note to self: stop being so pretentious and finish the post, Craig. Also, I don't think that's a proper use of espouse - but it's a helluva word anyway.

You were waiting for the digression weren't you?

Anyway, read the Artificial Nigger - or just about any of her stories, and I think you will see what I'm talking about. Writing what matters is about taking the work seriously, no matter what the genre or subject matter is. I found when I wrote Surf City Acid Drop, my nod to the 70s detective novel, that I set out to write a fast paced, drinking, shooting, fighting, and more drinking type novel (yes, I did call it beer-fiction at one point). What surprised me in writing the main character, Luke Fischer, was that I wanted to know more about him. Where did he come from? Why did he do the things he did? Who really was this guy, and what was he about?

Wait a sec... holy crap, I'm espousing the human condition!

So yes, I discovered that Luke Fischer mattered to me - and still does - even more so in the follow-up I am writing to Surf City.

But to finish off, it was the O'Connor work that reminded me of what matters to me as a writer. She lived every ounce of her life, and all she believed and cared about, was poured into her fiction (and her letters and essays). She was on the planet for much too short a time (she died at 39), but her impact is immeasurable. I know she has made me think deeply about the words I am writing, and why I'm choosing those - why this story, and why at this time?

It is quite something for a writer, one who has been gone for as long as I have been alive, to affect me all these years later. What a gift she left behind.

Here is a link to the beginning of the doc on her life, Uncommon Grace (that I can't seem to find the rest of - please let me know if you know where I can find it.)

 


 

 

Monday
Dec192016

Telling the Truth (with Auggie Wren's Christmas)

"The fiction writer’s task is not only to invite the reader into the world of fiction, but also to permit the reader, once he has entered, to believe in its reality; the writer’s task is to create the illusion of truth, a story to believe."

From: The Reader at Play in "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" by Paul Auster.

 

I don't know of many really great Christmas stories –  for sure Dickens comes to mind, and even more so, the brilliant performances of Alastair Sim and George C. Scott in that famous role. And then there is my family tradition of reading Leacock's Hoodoo McFiggin (best sad/funny Xmas story of all time). For me, to complete the trilogy of awesomeness, it has to be Auster's Auggie Wren story.

 

To wind it back a bit...
Even though the idea of becoming a writer was in the vestiges of my brain ever since I was a kid, there were three moments that I can remember, quite clearly, that told me... okay, I need to write.

Moment one was reading Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude. I'll write about that in another post some time, but it was life changing. Moment two came around the same time - in my early 20s - when I finally read Catcher in the Rye for the first time. Also life changing, and somehow bringing me closer to the idea that I could write something, or better, I needed to write something. But I was busy drawing and painting stuff as an illustrator, and deeply involved in that passion (and my sole source of income for a couple of decades.)

Moment three was unexpected. And it came in 1995, when I was 32 (did some quick math there). I went to a movie by myself, a smaller independent film, starring Harey Keitel and William Hurt. the moive was called, Smoke. And it was written by Paul Auster, directed by Wayne Wang. It was much later that I discovered the original Auggie Wren story from which Smoke emerged (Wren played by Keitel). But the particulars don't matter. What did matter was that exact moment when I walked out of the theatre, my head filled with one thought, "OK, enough fucking around. You need to write."

That was a while ago (I'm not doing the math), but I still recall that it was the storytelling that nailed me. Jump some years later when I disappear into Raymond Carver, and then Richard Ford, and re-visit Hemingway, and read more Marquez, and, and, and... the world of story somehow just opened for me. As much as I loved sci-fi, fantasy, and all sorts of genres, the ones that always got me were the "real stories."

Now, Richard Ford would haul off and smack me one if I even uttered the phrase "dirty realism" – and rightfully so. Because good fiction isn't real, it only seems that way. John Gardner's Art of Fiction talks about the fictional dream, and many writers will tell you how they are in the business of lying. But it is in lying well, and making the fake become real (in fact, you don't want the fake at all!) In a word as simple and complex and profound, and yes, pretentious, great fiction seeks the truth. It's Hemingway's "one true sentence" played out in its largest form.

If you're familiar with either the movie Smoke, or the Auggie Wren story Auster did for the New York Times, then you know how it is a story within a story. Incidentally, I found out they made this story into a short book, complete with illustrations. That kind of shit really burns me. When publishers take a thing that is beautifully short, and just fine in its own form, and put it between some hard covers (make the type extra big, so you don't figure out how little you're getting), and maybe a few drawings or photos to plump it up. The worst is when they take Vonnegut's or Elmore Leonard's writing rules, and because they know us writers are desperate for any craft words from the masters, they slap a fat price tag on it, and we can't buy it fast enough. Or else a well meaning friend gifts it to us. Uh, yeah, I liked it the first 300 times I read it on the internet. Nice font though.

I digress. Or rant. It's hard to tell sometimes. 

And no, I am not linking to any of those books.

In the story, the main character (writer Paul Auster, as himself), talks with his friend the cigar store owner Auggie Wren (who I always think of as Harvey Keitel because I saw the movie before I read the story) about being commissioned by the New York Times to write a Christmas story. Auggie says this:

"A Christmas story?" he said after I had finished. "Is that all? If you buy me lunch, my friend, I'll tell you the best Christmas story you ever heard. And I guarantee that every word of it is true." 

It's the every word of it is true that gets me. Because without realizing it we all lean in, just the like the fictional writer does. Why? Because we are about to be told something that is true. A true story. Who doesn't love that? Now, it is important to say that Auster's superb craft in everything leading up to this point, and everything after, is what convinces us of the truth in this story. It is in there right from the beginning of the story:

I heard this story from Auggie Wren. Since Auggie doesn't come off too well in it, at least not as well as he'd like to, he's asked me not to use his real name. Other than that, the whole business about the lost wallet and the blind woman and the Christmas dinner is just as he told it to me. 

If you want to disappear into literature geekdom, follow the link to essay above, where the writer expounds on the idea of "storylistening". For me, this is at the heart of what I try to do with my stories - I am trying to make something real. Yeah, yeah, "true' - but even writing that out seems so damn inflated.

One of my favourite instances of this is at the beginning of Twain's Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. 

So that sums up all you need to do in your writing: tell the truth. Easy-peasy lemon squeezey.

 

Here's a link to the full text of Auggie Wren's Christmas Story by Paul Auster – read it to your family this Christmas eve.

 

And here is that amazing clip from Smoke, where Auggie tells his story. Enjoy. (Also great Xmas viewing)

 

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