EARLY in 2006 I signed a contract with Knopf Canada to write a biography of Mordecai Richler. The advance was in the low six figures. Guessing the project would take years – better, that I would insist on producing a big book about a big subject – I applied to several agencies for further funding. All turned me down. Running a tab against the advance, I spent twelve months researching Mordecai, including stints in London and New York, and then three years writing it. Factoring in travel expenses and my agent’s fee, I earned maybe $20,000 per annum during this period, a figure bumped up to a less embarrassing tax bracket by large quantities of freelance journalism. All my workdays were long and there were few weekends or holidays. I was in my late forties and getting by with neither an assistant nor a net. My tax guy kept asking if, in my fatigue, I’d forgotten to list any income. I wished I had.
The manuscript was submitted in December 2009 at 300,000 words. My editor, Louise Dennys, slimmed it to 245,000, and together we spent the next several months assembling the behemoth that appeared the following October. I was indeed tired throughout 2010, but had also taken a contract to write a short thematic biography of Maurice Richard for the Penguin “Extraordinary Canadians” series. All the authors in the series were paid the same, courtesy of terms negotiated before the recession of 2008 and the rise of e-books, meaning I was, arguably, slightly over-compensated for time spent. Either way, I can’t clearly recall producing the first draft of the manuscript. Records show that I did so, however, between March and May. To repeat, 2010 was tiring.
Mordecai went on to win some prizes in 2011. I made another low six figures from them, which was good, given that, despite hardcover sales alone of 10,000, I hadn’t – and still haven’t, as of early 2016 – earned out the original advance. Foreign publishing contracts might have helped, but my book was long and my subject mostly forgotten beyond Canada – for the moment.
It proved to be another busy year. Maurice Richard appeared that spring, and between more than seventy-five events for Richler, and another twenty for the Rocket, I found myself rehearsing how not to pronounce on the acerbic Jewish Montreal novelist Maurice Richard and the mercurial Catholic Montreal hockey player Mordecai Richler. It didn’t always work, but I usually got a laugh at the (presumed) joke.
Subsequent to the two MR books, I wrote a novel, Planet Lolita, for which I was fairly paid by HarperCollins, whose publisher, Iris Tupholme, has supported my work since the early 1990s. Alas, Planet Lolita didn’t find many readers. I also kept trying to follow up the biographies with a major non-fiction project. In 2012, I spent several months working on a co-authored book about China, one that attracted ten international publishing deals based only on an outline. The project collapsed before anyone received a penny, due to my co-author’s woeful state of mind, leaving me with a folder full of contracts and more pitying questions from my tax guy. In 2014 I finally settled on a subject for a new book with Knopf Canada, in no small part to have a reason to work with Louise Dennys again. I was offered significantly less than I’d received for Mordecai.
Why all this dollars-and-cents literary business? Like most writers, I rarely discuss money, and am reluctant to commit even these cloaked figures to the page. Except for this. For the vast majority of us, dollars rudely interrupt the reveries of making sense of ambitions and talents, especially once the romantic fog of creative youth has lifted. Patterns become evident in the clear light of mid-career, as do proclivities and pathologies, few of them helpful to conjuring, never mind living, bigger book dreams. The writerly body, too, now past pretending energy is boundless enough to be cheerfully misapplied again, suffers. As does, for that matter, the creative eye, maybe faintly jaundiced, certainly shot through with the blood red of having-lived-long-enough to just know… and to be no longer able to pretend otherwise.
In summer 2015, I cancelled my contract with Knopf, walking away from a book I’d have been happy to write. The advance had not been adequate for the research, time, and travel that would have been required, and I’d have had to either continue living in prize-winner literary poverty for several years more or else hustle the project through to publication, at the risk of leaving it half-realized. Observable to anyone who sits on a non-fiction jury in Canada is that there are too many memoirs, written for cheap, and too many potentially excellent books that fall short, literally, of being researched enough, travelled enough, contemplated enough – i.e., financed enough to reach their potential. Most Canadian authors can’t afford to write non-fiction beyond the budget of our own experiences. The view out the back window is about all we have the funds to explore.
I cancelled the contract because I’d taken a job eight months earlier, a “real” job, and all that implies. Now a year and a half into “working for a living,” as my father would put it, I stand on the shore watching, out on the lake, the literary regatta that I took part in for nearly three decades. It suddenly seems far away, too far to discern who is crewing the boats, which team has the lead, even where the buoys are designating the course, and the actual race. My eyesight isn’t what it once was, and many of the flags are new. Then there is the midday sun off the water, its glare blinding.
And there is me on dry land, shielding my sore eyes with my hand.
For the past eighteen months I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about books – instead, admittedly, of writing them. More precisely, I’ve been tracking the paths my mind seems to want to wander down, generally without conscious permission, and assembling a map out of the rambles. To my own surprise, recent career fluctuations represent just one path, and it is by far the shortest and least interesting. I rarely bother taking it.
To start, there is no larger narrative to follow. There are only individual events and their consequences, most of them unintended. For any writer hoping his or her (mis)fortunes can be traced to the pitiful tastes of editors and prize jurors and the reified appetites of mass readerships, this is an ongoing disappointment. It is true that non-fiction in Canada is increasingly underfunded and, as a result, under-realized. But there are plenty of recent exceptions – Rosemary Sullivan’s internationally lauded and Canadian-prized biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s Daughter, leaps vividly to mind – and plenty more, one suspects, to come. As so often in life, no plot, never mind a conspiracy, where none intended.
Worse, down this mental path lies the thorny terrain of personal bitterness. If only my agent had sold Mordecai internationally. If only that film director had turned one of my earlier novels into a sleeper hit, with back-end residuals and a tie-in edition. Even more certain to draw blood are the pricks of self-recrimination: If only I’d written stronger novels and chosen smarter subjects for biographies. If only my luck had been better. If only I’d made better luck for myself.
Several less anxious rambles have been offering healthier exercise. There is the minor matter of literary muscle loss. I started writing every morning at age twenty-two and, aside from holidays and sick days, did so without exception or exemption until age fifty-four. Then I stopped. Unexercised muscle turns soft and flabby, a tendency exacerbated by age. But surely the craft built up by rigorous daily exertion for decades is beyond atrophy? Surely both the mechanical skills of book creation, and the ardour fuelling the mechanics, are as embedded in my being as my very name? Talent isn’t a bicep fated to end up underscored by skin wattle, is it?
Okay, some anxiety there.
A longer and more engaging walk follows the stages-of-a-creative-life path. On learning that I’d taken a job running a Not-for-Profit, a friend commented: “Maybe you have nothing left to say as a writer.” My answer to him was the same I’d been giving for years to variations on the question. As a writer, I replied, I can’t run out of things to say for the simple reason that I’ve never had any – at least, not in the way most people mean it. A discerning critic of “Sarsfield Bridge,” a story I published in 1982 as an undergraduate, and of 2014’s Planet Lolita, will likely detect a through-line of interests and preoccupations, the same thematic and aesthetic itches being scratched over and over. But something to say? Not at all.
Literary fiction, in fact, relies for its success on its authors having no direct intent or bolded purpose. Plots need to be satisfying and characters should invade private space and overshare almost like the passenger in the seat next to you on a plane. But the glue between reader and book isn’t those obvious adherents. Rather, the voice behind the story and characters, the one sounding loudly through all those words, is what makes the beautiful connection. Voice is how an author is in the world perceptually, emotionally, and morally. Voice is how an individual consciousness does its best with the challenges and deep mischief of language in order to best mark its brief time on earth. Not to argue anything; just to be present, observant, and unafraid; dismayed and amused; stirred and awed and, above all else, unable to keep silent.
Until, that is, silence silences you.
But my favourite book-minded ramble is along the path that re-connects me to my own start. I was eighteen when I vanished into a paperback of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I re-emerged seventy-two hours later, stunned by both what I’d read and what it had done to me. I couldn’t quite believe the bodily effect, of having been drowned in language, or the parallel, sensory one – of suddenly seeing people and things newly, like I had actually died and been reborn. While I thought I’d been changed for good by Márquez’s magic realism, I’d really only been altered by it for a few days. The trick, as with any mind-altering experience, was to keep on experimenting.
All these decades later, my desire for the high is undiminished. My intentions, too, remain as impure as they were during a brief, shameful early phase when I physically pulled novels apart – second-hand paperbacks only – to better study how their author had constructed them: scaffolding, proportionality in story-telling, how pace translates into page count. Writers, after all, aren’t just readers. We’re also thieves. In our defense, we only steal from our own family members and the more honourable among us always leave behind disingenuous but well-written notes of apology and gratitude.
How does Donna Tartt hold my attention in The Goldfinch for nearly nine hundred pages, about a quarter of which seem to be about antique furniture? The audacity of that book’s material bulk and American solecism! How does a novel about homeless dogs in Toronto (André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs) affect me so bodily I have to sit in a dark room for half an hour to recover from it? And then there’s No Great Mischief, which I am presently re-reading: Alistair MacLeod’s poetic vision of life may strain under the weight of a full novel, but it also carries plot and character like a wave destined to crash into a Cape Breton shoreline without beginning or end.
Truth is, the architecture and wonderment of great novels keep my mind happiest company these non-writing days. Like a besotted lover – besotted equally at age fifty-five as eighteen— I can’t stop thinking about this girl/book I first met so very long ago.
But back to my original metaphor, of watching the boats out on the lake from shore through middle-aged eyes. The literary regatta, I’m coming to realize, is no longer what I want to focus on, or even care much to track. This includes my own tiny part in it; what some might describe as my “career,” although I only began using the term quite recently, and then always with the usual hedge of those inverted commas. Instead, the horizon itself has become the preoccupation. Children, because life is so simple and unknowable, and old people, because life is so complex and mysterious, look most naturally past near-shore busyness to what lies further out. Kids, the elderly, and some artists – the latter group a kind of black dot moving within an etched circle made up of the first two – all drawn to where earth meets sky.
Artists such as Herman Melville. The American novelist called that distant point “the howling infinite” in the opening chapter of Moby Dick, foreshadowing the terrible fate of Captain Ahab and the great white whale. But the line proved no less prescient about its creator. Published in 1851 in the wake of several popular sea-shanty adventures, Melville’s masterpiece received mostly baffled reviews. It also sold poorly. Stunned and dispirited, he insisted on publishing two more challenging novels that decade, each one deepening the hole he’d dug with Moby Dick, and then lapsed into a creative silence that ended only with his death, in 1891. The novella Billy Budd appeared posthumously.
“Call me Ishmael,” rings the famous opening sentence. “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” All about the “insular city of the Manhattoes,” Ishmael claims, “stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.” For most, dry land simply won’t do. Not with “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open”; not with how “we see ourselves in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
The call to action is as clarion as it is disconcerting. Are our creative reveries so collectively oceanic? Do we all yearn to strike out, in our work, into that wonder-world? Plenty of writers I know are making art that certainly swings open the great floodgates. In the last year alone I’ve read three Canadian novels – Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us, Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, and The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – infused with such wanderlust. But Herman Melville likely would have found them too landlocked as well. He believed it the function of art – his mature art, at least – to seek that ungraspable phantom, “the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself,” and damn the consequences. As it turned out, Moby Dick took almost another century to find its footing as a classic, long after its author’s descent and demise. Damned indeed, Ahab and Melville.
By standing on dry land, I too am failing to truly strike out, to risk all, to be reckless, mad, and glorious in pursuit of the overwhelming idea, whatever it may be. But my gaze is out there on the water where earth meets sky, and it is intent. That must be enough for now.
—From CNQ 96, the summer issue, July 2016