The Reason for Time

Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged...

Late night, reading Edna O'Brien's A Pagan Place, it returned. The
glimmer that tells me I am soon going back to writing. Not FB promos for my new book, The Reason for Time, not podcast scripts and website updates, not emails to friends and associates to inform them of events and appearances, and ask them to share, share, share. But real writing. The next novel.

The first episode of the podcast, "This is the Reason for Time," is almost ready to upload. The script writing part of it was interesting because it wakened a style I used when I wrote radio dramas, which I loved doing when CBC still had a radio drama department. The recording part was more of a challenge. How to read and at the same time sound as if I was speaking directly to listeners. The wonderful Ethel Whitty, who agreed to read my character's voice through the ten episodes --chunks I had selected for her -- is more of a pro. She simply sat down and started to read, and when she knew she was drifting, reading the words without buying into them, she shut off the mike and started over. Even more challenging, the edit, carried out by my 16 year old buddy Harris Dixson, supervised by a retired recording engineer who lives in the neighbourhood. We finished a day or two ago, and while a few minor glitches remain, the episode is going to upload next week. Only nine more episodes to go, but all the pieces - my voice, Ethel's, the music, the sound effects -  are recorded. And editing will be easier the second time, my buddy and I feel.

This is truly diy book promotion, and it always feels like I'm moonlighting when I do something other than what I am meant to do. But since I explored the writing itself in the script, the why and how of it, the podcast is genuine in that I had not thought of those things in a formal, ie, communicable sense, before -- at least in relation to The Reason for Time. With luck, the podcast will grow legs that can walk to all the places my publisher cannot afford to send me.

Theoretically, I will then be free to reach for my notebook, or move to the computer when I feel the urging of inspiration in my mind, really my entire self, reading phrases like this, from O'Brien, at night: "Emma begged to be let make pies to pass the time. Your mother went and picked rhubarb. The stalks were young and the skins came off in shreds. When she chopped it a pink juice oozed from it..."

And this, from my daytime reading of James Joyce: "Stephen Dedalus watched through the webbed window the lapidary's fingers prove a timedulled chain. Dust webbed the window and the showtrays. Dust darkened the toiling fingers with the their vulture nails. Dust slept on dull coils of bronze and silver, lozenges of cinnabar, on rubies, leprous and winedark stones."

Words that create a thousand pictures...

Another Reason for Time

 In my new book, The Reason for Time, I quote Albert Einstein, who said: "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." A joke, with significance, and readers will learn that it is not the only justification for the title. But another reason for time is that it encourages reflection.

About eight weeks since the book was released by Allium Press of Chicago and introduced to readers in Gibsons, Vancouver, Toronto and Chicago. Reactions have been positive, enthusiastic. How a writer itches to hear, "I loved that book...," and readers I know, and don't know, as well as early reviews have outright said or indicated just that. At a book club group of young women readers in Chicago, I was particularly touched by how they related to the main character, Maeve, who lived 100 years ago yet had some of the same problems these 30-something's have today. It was also encouraging to meet readers at Chicago's Printer's Row Literary Festival whose ancestors had stories similar to Maeve, who even lived in her old (imagined) neighbourhood.

In this increasingly categorized world of books, I'm known as a writer of literary fiction. The Reason for Time is my first, and may be my only, novel that can also be described as historical. Inspired by the pure fluid voice of Fabian Bas in The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman, and the historical sweep and narrative invention of John Dos Passos, in his U.S.A Trilogy, I hope I've achieved the truth of my character Maeve Curragh, who lived through that one crazy week in Chicago that started with a dirigible crashing into a downtown bank building and ended with the worst of 25 race riots in the "Red Summer of 1919."

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How it's Going... now

The Reason for Time delivered, officially released by Allium Press today.

Friends and family who know of it have been very kind in their acknowledgements, the first review is favorable, three launches arranged in Canada - Gibsons, Vancouver, Toronto - as yet indefinite plans for a launch in Chicago, near the time of the Printer's Row literary fest. Interacting with other writers, and a few actors, as I plan to present the book with readings in different voices, including mine. Excited to see how that works with two poets (David Zieroth and Paddy McCallum) and an actor (Earl Pastko) reading the opening Carl Sandburg poem; two young actresses (Pippa Johnson and Chala Hunter) and a generous fellow writer, poet/novelist Karen Connelly, reading the main character, Maeve. Hoping for an audience, especially in Toronto, where I have few personal contacts. Searching my memory for potentially friendly faces there, I thought of the man who published my first book, Suburbs of the Arctic Circle, thirty years ago. We have never met in person. With literary presses, especially those a long distance away, communication was primarily by letter and the rare phone call. John Flood and I did not use email then, but I used it today to reconnect. While there is not a lot of traffic on the title, it is still listed in Penumbra Press's catalogue.

Busy head, hard to concentrate on other things. Thinking of words, punctuation I would change in the book. It never ends. Discovering ideas I subconsciously developed in the text. Love that part. And there are parts to the process... from the idea generation, to the struggle to give it form, to the ventures out to the world. Does anybody want to publish it?  Acceptance. Then work,  many emails back and forth between publisher and writer. Finally the finished product arrives. Beautiful. Making a book, the process itself, another reason for time.

"For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. "  T.S. Eliot, East Coker

Trouble in Chicago, almost 100 years ago

(From The Reason for Time, from Allium Press of Chicago)

Tuesday, July 29, 1919

The answer didn’t come like magic, but not much work got done at the almost empty office of The Chicago Magic Company, neither. No Billy, still no Florence. Eveline, of course, gone to her cousin’s. Mr. R himself missing for half the day left me free to search the directory for the location of Provident Hospital. It would be a long walk and not a safe one, sure, not for someone skin light as mine in a neighborhood belonged to all those people at the heart of the trouble. Oh, what to do? But safe not even around us in the Loop when a colored man could be attacked and shot on his way home from work, something I learned when I took the elevator down and stepped outside and saw the story in another paper, all the papers plastered up to the board at the corner and me not the only one crowding in to read.





Happened two blocks from where I stood with the others, and me having to angle in from the side, since there were few shoulders low enough for me to see above. Two blocks away only, the poor fella’d run from the mob chasing him. And he’d not been the only one hounded, though he was the only one killed.

One hundred whites, led by five sailors, marched through the Loop early this morning in search of Negro employees. The mob was dispersed by a squad of policemen from the central station, but there was no violence. A Negro employed at Weeghman’s restaurant on Madison, near Dearborn, was driven into the kitchen. He escaped by jumping through a window and running down the alley. Later the mob chased a Negro busboy into a restaurant in the McVickers building. He took refuge in an ice box.

(Above excerpt from reports of the Chicago Race Riot in the Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1919)

An Irish Girl in Chicago, July, 1919

(From, The Reason for Time, from Allium Press of Chicago, April, 2016)

      "I could tell Margaret he’d stood me up—she didn’t have to know who—and, feeling sorry for me, she’d ply me with something, as our mammy used to do. Let me cook you an egg, she’d say, for we had eggs for comfort more than anything else. A nice soft-boiled egg with the skin clinging to the rounded knob at the end I’d pop in my mouth while she salted the rest, scooped it into a cup. Two mouthfuls and gone. Something so delicious coming out of that button-eyed hen clucked at the back stoop and wouldn’t lay in a proper nest, but wherever she felt like it, so some went wasted even though we thought we knew all her hidey places.

"Thinking of home, more than eight years after I squeaked open the wicket gate and crossed into the single room housed us all. Even though I could buy myself eggs and eat them every day, they never tasted savory as that surprise Mammy would find for one of us. To think she might find only one, too, while there in the shops along Halsted were dozens displayed, creamy white, fawn, brown, and speckled.

"I crossed the street, right past the policeman winked at me as I went, must a been he’d decided me an honest woman. I tried to look up and admire the buildings and thought I might even stroll into the Palmer House a few blocks away, as once I’d done, venturing past the liveried boys, onto the marble walkway, up the stairs into the grand lobby with the ceiling painted like a cathedral, angels and cherubs and gold leaf. The same year we arrived in Chicago, me just turned sixteen, and one of them in livery thinking me there to pick up the laundry or polish the silver. The gilt, the marvelous designs in the plaster, the chandeliers with lights Bridey never would have believed, bright, yet spreading gently onto the seating area as if breathed down from the ceiling by one of them broad-winged angels. The liveried one took my arm and tried steering me over to the housekeeping department, thinking I wanted a job.

"But my bold words saved me, me who doesn’t talk much, something made me different from the start at home where, if talk were money, we’d all a given Potter Palmer and his kind a run for theirs. I lifted my chin and said, 'No, I am not here for work, but to meet my father.' Did he believe me, the bell captain? If not, he pretended to and escorted me to a straight chair, velvet, in my favorite blue, color of twilight. I rested from the outside bustle, imagining my da limping up them marble stairs in his cap and his black jacket going orange with age, collarless shirt, stubble on his cheek, the way he’d come through the door at home some days, smiling, smiling, like he’d a secret when he was only imagining something and how he would be reaching for his book to describe every thought."

Now Comes the Hard Part

The book is almost ready. It took years. Though it is a small novel, my smallest, a two-foot-high stack of some of the books I consulted, then kept, and boxes of catalogues, newspaper clippings, website print outs and archival photographs testify to its density. It was fun, too. Not as in sex, drugs and rock and roll fun, but the good deep fun of discovery, then wrestling with imagination, and in this case, putting imagination together with facts I hoped would disappear in the narrative. My first historical novel.
Worth a thousand words

I feel lucky to have found an enthusiastic and careful publisher, who has created a handsome book. While she suggested changes that at first seemed difficult to make without compromising my ideas, the work I put into trying them stimulated my understanding of what I was writing. When I resisted a change and explained why, she almost always accepted my view. "It's your book."

The Reason for Time will be released by Allium Press of Chicago in April. But now comes the hard part.  Nobody is going to buy and read the book unless they know about it. That means promotion and marketing, things literary folks resist because they are, from the writer's point of view, the opposite of sitting in a room by yourself, and from the publisher's standpoint, a lot of effort for questionable results. And yet, books are made to be read, and to choose one over another in the ever-expanding universe of books, you have to be aware of its existence.

Since my first book was published, this end of the business has changed big time. Most new books, including mine, are simultaneously published as print and ebooks, and the eworld must be covered as part of the promotion effort. Authors are advised to have a website, to interact on social media like Facebook and Google plus, all of which I have and do, to some extent. I've avoided Twitter because of its extreme temporariness and I haven't done much with Linked in or my Goodreads author page since I signed up.  Will it make a difference if I do? In the literary eworld,  promotion is frenetic, I found when I first dipped into it a few years ago. Lots of cleverness going on, bright, insistent voices.

It used to be that publishers depended on newspaper reviewers and columnists to spread the word about books.  In fact, sending out review copies might have been a small publisher's main, even sole, promotion effort. It was always a gamble, because editors received so many books. The stacks around reviewers' desks must be growing even higher because there are few book sections left in printed North American papers. Few printed papers period. Even the well regarded Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal went completely digital as of last week.

So, well, we'll see. While it might not be testing oneself against angry bears and arrows from enemies, icy rivers and ruthless companions, publishing a book these days is still a survival challenge.

Difficulty at the Beginning

Now that the edits are finished on the new book (The Reason for Time, forthcoming from Allium Press of Chicago, spring, 2016), I see the 540 page monster from the closet still sitting here. Chuck it, leave it. It's written. Move onto something else. Yet, why did I write it in the first place? And if was so important once, how can I toss it? It's finished, but it isn't really finished until it is read, which means it has to be made public somehow. When I was sending it around eight years ago, no publisher wanted it.  I should just leave it.  At least one draft exists in my archives, which are stored in a library in Toronto. If anyone is interested, it is there for him or her to read, this novel that involved me like a knot in an essential cord that takes hours and patience and much trial and error to untangle.

The internet makes publishing easy. I could attach it to this blog or my web site, or go further and make an ebook out of it. Maybe I will do those things, and yet, maybe there is a reason those publishers turned it down. Too big? Okay, maybe. Too sad? Well, yes, but... Well written? Thanks, but never written well enough. What then?

More finished will be when it exists between actual covers as a conventional book for a reader to hold, to hole up with. Old-fashioned as it may be considered to be, that's still my model. Knowing the difficulties of publishing a novel that will fall into no particular easy-to-shelve, easy-to-promote genre, but only the vast ocean of literary fiction, I must begin again knowing full well that even if it is perfectly wrought (and why aim for anything less?), it may travel longer than Odysseus before it finds home.
It's a voyage. You've decided to go. You must prepare all you will need for an undetermined time. You haven't actually tossed the rope onto the wharf and let the current slip you away, but you're on board now, checking supplies.

Compelled to try again, you begin, to cut, to fold back into research, such a comfortable and interesting refuge, like those coves where sailors shelter in particularly vicious storms when the course is uncharted, when they're feeling their way, tacking in this direction, then that, to find the wind that will sail them forward and finally into the harbour they are destined for, wherever that turns out to be.


Presto! Just like that, my historical novel formerly known as Presto! has become The Reason for Time. And the reason for that is because my publisher thought Presto! misleading. It's a word usually associated with magic, and while there is magic in the book -- in the content, I mean -- it isn't the primary subject.

Yet there is always a kind of alchemy involved in the transformation of an idea to a story that morphs into a novel that will become a book, forthcoming from Allium Press of Chicago, Spring, 2016. While not a formal process, like the fourteen steps described by Samuel Norton in The Key to Alchemy, I can relate to the fourteen steps as they apply to transforming the thin air of an idea to the solid form of a book, starting from well before publication stage.

1. Solution, the act of passing from a gaseous or solid condition, into one of liquidity, for example, is the beginning, when the thought... this would make a great novel... strikes, and notes begin to accumulate in my notebooks.

2. Filtration, the mechanical separation of a liquid from the undissolved particles suspended in it. The discoveries I made in old newspaper files in Chicago's Newberry and Harold Washington libraries. What to photocopy, what to leave behind?

3. Evaporation, the changing or converting from a liquid or solid state into a vaporous state with the aid of heat.
Out of all that material has to come an idea for a story.

4. Distillation, an operation by which a volatile liquid may be separated from substances which it holds in solution.
Early drafts, and the trial and error of deciding what works and what doesn't.  If I leave a particular part in, the whole idea could blow up on me.

5. Separation, the operation of disuniting or decomposing substances. 
Okay, so restructure.

6. Rectification, the process of refining or purifying any substance by repeated distillation. 
Write another draft. Read through again, and again. Cut out anything that doesn't pertain.

7. Calcination, the conversion into a powder or calx by the action of heat; expulsion of the volatile substance from a matter.
Print out.

8. Commixtion, the blending of different ingredients into new compounds or mass.
Possibly add verbatim bits from actual sources, such as newspaper headlines, to help reveal events.

9. Purification, (through putrefaction), disintegration by spontaneous decomposition; decay by artificial means.

10. Inhibition, the process of holding back or restraining.
That scene that is hard to be true to, given the point of view... just go for it. Imagine it.

11. Fermentation, the conversion of organic substances into new compounds in the presence of a ferment. 
With all the ingredients in place, write another draft.

12. Fixation, the act or process of ceasing to be a fluid and becoming firm; state of being fixed. 
First completed draft sent to potential publishers.

13. Multiplication, the act or process of multiplying or increasing in number, the state of being multiplied. 
This would be the period when I added many thousands of words to replace the section my publisher felt would distract from the whole. When I completed yet another draft, that -- thanks to an editor's eye -- was satisfyingly filled out in places I had neglected before.

14. Projection, the process of turning base Metals into gold.
Let's hope.