Gimme Shelter!

A troubling realization that came out of the discussion ignited by my 1992 novel Centre/Center, at my most recent Travelling Book Café, was how Canada has changed since the 1970's when war objectors and even deserters from the U.S. armed forces were welcomed with kindness by the government and any number of open-hearted individuals who provided shelter, offered jobs, donated food and clothes, extended friendship.
     It was standing room only at the Gibsons Public Library late Saturday afternoon. I had invited three former U. S. War Objectors to join me at the front, and after introducing "the times" with a short reading from Centre/Center, which deals with the migration to Canada during the Vietnam war years, the men described their experiences. Dan Bouman, a former town councillor and head of the district conservation society, talked about how his decision to cross the border influenced his family in Michigan; how, despite criticism from a local church minister and a threatening call from the FBI, his army veteran father began to understand that Dan had made the right decision. He was welcomed and aided by the Quakers in Vancouver. He thought then and still thinks of Canada as a place of refuge. Ken Dalgleish, a popular piano player, remembered the various people who helped him along, from a California Induction Center doctor willing to believe that Ken had been suffering chronic headaches, to an immigration officer who told him: If you want to stay we'd like to welcome you. Dr. Michael Klein detailed his Ionesco-like exchanges with the military board and showed a film now mounted at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  In the film Klein describes how he and his wife were advised to cross from New York to Montreal at night when French Canadian border guards would be on duty, French Canadians having been historically opposed to conscription. There is also a sequence about the difficulty Iraq war resisters have experienced because nowadays, instead of welcoming immigrants for humanitarian reasons, the present government gives preferential treatment to entrepreneurs promising to invest in other businesses or open their own.  Meantime, war objectors like Rodney Watson have to seek sanctuary in churches to avoid being sent back to the U.S.  All three speakers had commented on Canada's traditional place in the world as a haven. Acknowledging the new reality produced a mixture of emotions and shame was a major component. So it wasn't just about nostalgia, all the talk, but living history that gives us an opportunity to consider how Canadian society has evolved.
     This Travelling Book Café confirmed that the Vietnam War era remains unfinished business for many who were touched by it. The time was too limited to allow all the audience members who had been involved as war objectors, or soldiers then veterans (as is one of the characters in C/C) to tell their stories. Those who did, including Dan Bouman, were grateful. "It's the first time I have ever talked about my experience in public and the first time anyone asked me to."
     There are clearly more to speak and to be heard. The Centre/Center Travelling Book Café hits the road in mid-February, willing to stop in interested communities along the way. Quebec and Ontario in late February, early March.

Contents Under Pressure

A relatively new e-reader, I am learning the advantages of  Tables of Contents. You want to know what's ahead  in the pages you can't see until you touch and touch and touch your screen and eventually get to them. But as a writer of short stories, novellas and novels, I have had different ideas about chapter divisions, and thus the necessity of including a Table of Contents at the beginning of my books. I loved writing short stories. I thought a short story had more potential to be perfect than a long sprawling novel. Then I read John Gardner, in fact I read and re-read John Gardner, and I remember his thoughts about the  novella, how it traced a single emotional line (or something to that effect). Then I wanted to write a perfect novella. In fact my first "novel" Centre/Center is really three linked novellas. It qualifies as a novel in terms of the breadth of material, number of characters, time covered, complexity of theme, etc, but I divided it into three sections that focussed on three different but related characters. The breaks between the novellas are equivalent to chapter breaks.

When a friend read my recently published novel You Again on her IPad, she felt lost without a detailed Table of Contents. She is a disciplined person and likes to read to the end of a chapter before she falls asleep at night, and she prefers to know what she is getting in for. Having been reading on my Kobo, first The Great Gatsby, and most recently, Confederates in the Attic, I now understand what she means (though I find guides such as Tables more useful in non-fiction, like Confederates). So I relented, and created a fairly thorough Table of Contents for You Again, still not chapters, however. Instead, as in Flashing Yellow, I have big chunks I call "Parts," and, in You Again, month divisions. Within each month, though, the narrative moves from one character's point of view to another's, and those are separated by simple lines. For me it's a matter of rhythm, breath. I wonder how it is for other authors?  My friend  quickly surveyed the novels she was reading and found different ways of handling contents that lead to Tables. She liked Kate Atkinson's very precise Table, but found less detailed Tables in Colum McCann and Achebe.
If necessity really is the mother of invention, perhaps my habits will change as I write texts that will be published electronically. I had to think about it again when I updated my Shinny's Girls Trilogy for epub, because I want the Trilogy to be available to libraries, where I find most of my readers. Epub seems to require only that divisions are clear within the text, then goes ahead and makes the Table of Contents automatically. Much easier than doing it myself, with Kindle, even though the instructional video I followed for Mac users featured an Englishwoman with a lovely, patient voice.
In this eworld of books, TOC's seem to be an aid for readers. That requirement is prompting me to consider how organize my contents and, more importantly, why I do so. Is it the instinctive rhythm, the stopping for breath I feel, and changes in narrative voice as points of view shift from character to character,  or a greater logic I have not yet considered?

("Contents Under Pressure" is the title of one of my friend David King's comedies for theatre.Thanks, Dave.)

Confederates, faceless men, draft dodgers...old wars reconsidered

Reading a paper book, and  an ebook, both concerned with the lingering effect of old armed conflicts. Civil wars, if wars can ever be considered civil. Confederates in the Attic is the ebook, and I am reading it in preparation for my southern odyssey in November.  I finished the first few chapters on the train from Toronto back to Quebec City, between glances out the window at sumacs dripping scarlet alongside the tracks, and white birch trunks composing a warp behind the turning maples.
Tony Horwitz writes about his boyhood obsession with the the war between the states, as it was called, his experience as a hardcore reenactor of life as a confederate soldier, and the southern loyalists he met in Salisbury, North Carolina. As the Via train rolled east, after a switch at the Montreal train station, (where I picked up a felafel sandwich from my favorite Libainaise food kiosk) I learned of the commitments people make to keep memories alive. There is even a group called Children of the Confederacy. Horwitz examines the South through a lens ground to a single focus. My aim is to get a general first  impression. Instead of following the trail bloodied by combatants in the 1860's, a subject that never really compelled me, except when I was in school and I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, I plan to make my first trip to the southern U.S. a bit of a literary pilgrimage. I want to visit Asheville and think of the wordy romanticism of Thomas Wolfe; You Can't Go Home Again waits on my ereader too.

But here, chez moi, it is a novel en français, L'ombre du vent, or The Shadow of the Wind, that absorbs me. Even though I am not yet, nor may ever be, fluent in French, I can read well enough to savour the language, the style of Zafon, the compelling voice of his narrator, who, as a child, is taken by his father to a cemetery for forgotten books. That sequence begins a story haunted both by a man with a face burned so that he has no features, and, more intrinsically, by the Spanish civil war. But a cemetery for forgotten books! How wonderful! All we authors must wish for a kind of Graveyard day (I remember the Bobby Ann Mason story), when people would come visit our neglected books

That has happened to some extent recently with my novel, Centre/Center (Talon, 1992) which, coincidentally, also concerns war, the Vietnam war in this case, and consequent migration to Canada of draft dodgers and war protestors. A few messages from readers who discovered the book (in the kind of cemetery that now exists on-line), and a book club discussion have convinced me that the divisions created by that war also still exist, here in Canada and in the United States. It was a different kind of civil, rather, uncivil war.

Ma vie en français

J'adore la ville de Québec! Here I am, back after a six month absence, and so comfortable now. Just bought trois tournesols pour célébrer! Personne m'a repondu en anglais. I have made progress enough to understand and be understood en français.

This is the fifth time I have arrived for a stay of several months in this beautiful  City founded four centuries ago. J'adore le son de la langue française on the streets, des pierres partout, stone buildings with wooden window and door sashes in French blue, a rusty or bright red, ochre, light or deep greens. This time I live just off rue St Paul, on a small côte of cobblestone, in a 200 year old building with wooden posts at least a foot thick. Formidable! At this time of year the city is full of tourists whose faces are hidden behind cameras pointed up at mansard roofs, cupolas, spires. Bells peal from scores of church towers, a joyous sound no matter your religion.

The papers are full of opinion about Madame la Première's proposed charter of Québec values, the one that contains the contentious prohibition of religious garb in government workplaces. She was born feisty, Pauline Marois. In this age of multiculturalism, she must have known the furor this proposal would incite. Is it simply a matter of separating church and state, right down to dress codes for government workers, or is she trying to appeal to the worst in an electorate that has been under the threat of non-French invasions since the battle of the Plains of Abraham? Qui sait, mais c'est un commencemant intéressant.

As for la vie littéraire, my second night here I met with members of the book club who had  read Centre/Center, my third book. Pleased that they thought it a "true" representation of the 60's, that one woman in particular was sad when the book ended ( a real compliment; I have had that feeling about my favourite books), and surprised that the book evoked a spirited discussion about the Vietnam war. That old wound seems to fester still, and not very far below the surface.