Just finished editing and posting the final interview from BookMarkIt! 2019. In this one author David Demchuk tells Mark Askwith the engaging story behind the publication of his Sunburst Award winning novel The Bone Mother.
Just finished editing and posting the final interview from BookMarkIt! 2019. In this one author David Demchuk tells Mark Askwith the engaging story behind the publication of his Sunburst Award winning novel The Bone Mother.
Finally finding the time to edit and post the readings and interviews of the many fine authors who attended BookMarkIt! inc. 2019. Here’s the first one up: Maighread MacKay. Many more to come!
Many thanks to Dean Ples, Tim Lorimer and Jess Riley for the technical production.
My room in the hotel had a phone on the wall.
That evening I phoned my girlfriend Lynda back in Canada.
I felt badly because I knew that she would be wondering why I hadn’t called her yet. She would think that it was because I couldn’t be bothered. Of course, this was not the case. I picked up the phone and got the front desk. Front desk made the whole thing simple, getting the international operator for me. Seconds later I was talking to Lynda. She sounded a bit hurt, wondering why I hadn’t called days earlier. I explained the difficulty figuring out the phones in France and she told me that she understood.
The next day I set out for the Institut d’Etudes Françaises pour Etudiants Etrangers. I knew generally what direction it was in. I had this naive notion that I could find my way anywhere. Such is the case in North America where cities and towns are typically laid out in grids, but this is not necessarily so in other countries. I took streets I had not yet taken, turned onto others when I felt it was time, and somehow miraculously found my way to the school. Later I found out how the city is actually laid out and it’s a wonder I made it there at all.
I found out from the Institute’s office that I could not be issued a student card until I paid my tuition fees. However, I could not do this until my bank draft came through, which I didn’t think would happen until the following week.
Without a student card I wouldn’t be able to use the housing registry. This meant I might have to stay in hotels until I ran out of the money I had on hand. I had a credit card but I hadn’t tried to use it yet and wasn’t sure if it would work for me in France. Also I wondered how would I pay it off in France. So I didn’t want to use it.
But the school did let me write a test to see what level I would study at. Everybody had to write the same test. If you got zero you were put in Niveau I, at the bottom, in class AA. Top students who already spoke French quite fluently were placed in one class all together in Niveau III.
We had one hour to write the test. I went through it and understood very little. I didn’t even understand most of the instructions. I guessed at most of it. Frustrated, I eventually just translated a bunch of words I knew and wrote a note saying I was just doing that to prove that I did know something! Then I handed it in.
They placed me in Niveau I, but four classes from the bottom, in class D. So I wasn’t the worst who wrote the test. And it turned out that this was about the best class I could ever have been placed in, based on the quality of the other students. It was just a great collection of people, many of whom became good friends.
I made an appointment to see the housing registrar even though I knew that she probably wouldn’t see me without a student card. Someone had told me that the housing registrar could be rather difficult. The appointment was for the next day around ten. I arrived a few minutes early. I needn’t have worried about being late.
When you walked through the school’s arch, took the left up the stairs to the second level, you arrived at a common area around which were spread hallways, offices, and rooms. In this common area sat a curious woman behind a long desk. You had to deal with her before you dealt with anyone else. Somewhere in her fifties, I would guess, she always dressed like she was a lot skinnier and younger than she actually was. She spoke French fluently but with a broad accent. At first I assumed she was French and just happened to speak English well. Later I found out that she was actually British but had lived in France for a quarter century. As the year progressed I eventually was able to tell for myself that her accent was too broad to be truly French.
When I arrived for my appointment I immediately informed her of my presence. She brusquely told me to take a seat and wait. I noticed that a lot of other students were already sitting around waiting. I told her the time of my appointment, thinking that perhaps it meant something. She told me rather harshly that she didn’t give a hoot about that and would I just sit down. I decided that she was a bit of a dragon lady. Subsequent encounters proved me correct, though eventually I discovered that dragon ladies can be people too.
So I sat and waited. Forty-five minutes later I was still waiting when a young man with long black hair approached me. “You speak English,” he said, in a British accent.
I agreed that I did.
He introduced himself as Mark, from England. He was looking for a place to stay as well. It turned out that his appointment was right before mine. He finally got to go in to see the registrar. When he came out he told me that she had told him of a place where two rooms were available. He asked me if I would like to come along. The registrar popped her head out and said that this wouldn’t bother her any if I did. I immediately agreed, knowing that she probably wouldn’t have spoken to me anyway without my student card. Lucky.
Mark was twenty-one and had just finished university in Wales. His father, the CEO of an extermination company, had allowed his older brother to flake out for a year in Spain after university, so Mark insisted that he be allowed to do the same in France before having to find a job. I’m not sure Mark learned much French in Aix, but I do believe he had a good time. Mark turned out to be a good guy and a lot of fun.
The apartment was a twenty minute walk north out of town, up a huge hill. Mark, a smoker, huffed and puffed his way up. He commented a couple of times that he couldn’t believe the hill, which was quite steep in places. You would be hard pressed to bike up it, but at one point it affords a great view of the city.
A man of about sixty, Monsieur Richaud, stood by the road waiting for us. The addresses could be hard to figure out so this was a good thing. He greeted us and took us through the parking lot to the condominium. There were four bedrooms with a central kitchen. Two students were already living there, Americans. At least two of the bedrooms were actually converted living rooms. Madame and Monsieur Richaud were staying in one of the rooms not yet rented out. They barely spoke English. He was French and she was German. As neither Mark nor I spoke either French or German we had to make do with the Richaud’s English.
The apartment was clean and tidy. We snapped it up right away. I was quite relieved to have one major worry resolved. The Richauds wanted money right away, so Mark and I went downtown where I discovered that my credit card worked after all. Mark had already borrowed something like four thousand francs from another student he had just met who later became a good friend of mine, a Scottish girl named Tracey Coleman. We went back and signed the lease, and moved in the next day.
One of the available rooms, the smallest, had a shower. The monthly rent was the least for this room, 1850 francs. (The other rooms all cost more.) The other available room was slightly bigger, faced east, and had a fantastic view of Mount Sainte-Victoire, made famous in a painting by Paul Cézanne, whose workshop turned out to be right next door (I always intended to visit the workshop but never actually got around to it).
I took the smaller room with the shower, a decision I never regretted. The communal shower sucked. Apparently you had to crouch to use it, although I never tried it. Mark was happy with his room because it was bigger and had a little balcony. And there were lots of pieces of furniture upon which he could place his empty beer and wine bottles.
My worries seemed to be dissolving, one by one. I knew my credit card worked, so I had cash for the forseeable future. I now had a roof over my head, or at least I would the next day, after I moved in.
I was starting to feel good.
That night I had supper with Mark, a young Swedish girl still in her teens whose name I don’t recall, and an American girl named Kristin, around twenty, who also became a friend of mine. We were all attending the Institute. We sat at outside at a table on the Cours Mirabeau. I was relaxed, extraordinarily happy to be in Aix rather than working back in Canada. Although early October, it was still quite warm in Aix. We talked about who we were and what we were doing there. It was such a great atmosphere. At twenty-eight I was by far the oldest at the table, but I didn’t feel old. Or rather, I didn’t feel bad being old. I felt more experienced than the others, is all.
Although in truth I was probably the least experienced of the bunch, at least when it came to travelling.
Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Three:
I finally got up, utterly unable to sleep. I knew I had to eat something. Unfortunately all I really felt like doing was vomiting. Nervousness and lugging too much baggage all over God’s Green Earth had left me weak and nauseous. I got dressed and visited a nearby convenience store. It was now evening and I was wearing my glasses, which I wasn’t accustomed to. That and the dark in a strange locale contributed to my feeling of dislocation. I picked up some fruit juice and an apple. The cashier, a young man, saw that I spoke English and asked me if I was an American. I said no, Canadian, and he perked right up and told about his brother who lived in Canada. He was quite friendly and again I thought how different people seemed to be here than I was led to expect.
Back in my room I got the juice and the apple down and tried to sleep again. I gave up and tried to watch some TV. It was all French, of course. There was a movie that looked interesting, a war film, but I couldn’t get into it understanding nothing of the dialogue.
I worried about making it to the train station on time in the morning. I worried about catching the right train. I worried about money again. I worried about catching the right train again. I worried about accommodation in Aix. I thought what if this just doesn’t work out at all? What if I have to go back home with my tail between my legs? What would my friends, family and colleagues think? What if I’m robbed? What if the school in Aix doesn’t let me in for some reason? What if I feel this nauseous for the rest of my life? It was the most nervous I’d ever felt in my entire life. One of the most anxious nights I’ve ever passed. Most of my fears proved to be ridiculous but boy they can be hard to control when they’re upon you.
I felt marginally better in the morning. I had gotten up quite early to make sure I didn’t miss the train. The front desk clerk was quite friendly, calling me a cab and chatting with me. He didn’t alleviate my fears about Aix, though. He told me to watch out for the people down there, that they were different in the south. Not like Canadians, he smiled. He’d been to Canada and found it so different from France. He’d loved it. Couldn’t wait to go back.
Another friendly Parisien. The stories I’d heard must have been about another city named Paris.
The cab took me straight (as near as I could tell) to the Gare de Lyon where I was to catch the TGV, those super-fast French trains. It was still dark and there were few people around. I walked inside, happy that my strength had returned a bit, enough to carry my bags. I wasn’t long finding the trains.
The Gare de Lyon is a huge, cavernous place. The trains rest side by side like giant sleeping snakes. I was there at five in the morning and they were all lined up waiting for me. I had about a two hour wait to figure out which snake was mine and how to get on it. I didn’t know if my ticket was good as is or whether it required stamping or what have you. I camped out by a set of stairs in good view of the arrivals-departures sign and nervously kept an eye on some rough looking types hanging out not far away.
Soon the place began to fill up with folks like me and I began to feel more secure in like company. I saw people stamping tickets in orange posts scattered about, found someone who spoke English and got the scoop on that. Yes, I was supposed to stamp the thing. I did so, glad I’d settled that. Later someone asked me the same thing, a fellow from India, and I felt happy to be able to instruct him.
The trains were quite long and I didn’t relish the thought of lugging my bags around trying to find out where I was supposed to be. I still wasn’t feeling all that well. There were carts around similar to the ones they’d had in the airport so I decided to grab one. I didn’t know how much they cost as they weren’t free like at the airport. I saw a woman about to return one so I thought perhaps she wouldn’t mind if I just grabbed hers. I did the “vous parlez anglais?” thing and lo and behold she didn’t. But she understood that I wanted her cart. I asked her how much and she waved a ten franc piece in my face. I dug out a ten franc piece and tried to give it to her but she wouldn’t take it. Instead she insisted on locking the cart back up with the others. We had a little bit of a tug of war, as I hadn’t completely understood how the system operated and feared that if she locked the thing up I’d never get it back again. But my manners soon got the better of me and I let her do it. Then, just as I was thinking, oh darn, there goes that thing, she grabbed the ten franc piece from my hand, inserted it into a little slot on the cart, and unlocked the contraption again. I was mystified why she hadn’t just taken my ten franc piece and let me have the cart to begin with, but I was grateful just the same. I suppose she just thought she’d teach me how the thing worked. (Such carts became common after I returned to Toronto, but this was the first time I’d run across them). Anyway, it was great not to have to lug my luggage around anymore.
I found my place on the TGV (which stands for train de grande vitesse, or Train of Great Speed). I was the first one on my car. By the time we left, though, the coach was packed. This bothered me as I had a window seat and I was still feeling nauseous. I could visualize some ugly things happening, worst case scenario speaking. I popped one of the gravol Ron had insisted I buy, kept an eye out for an ever-elusive Eiffel tower, and an hour into the trip managed to get to sleep.
I awoke a couple of hours later feeling much better.
We were about an hour outside Marseille. I’d probably slept about two hours and the difference in how I felt was incredible. I was able to sit back and enjoy the sights.
It was quite picturesque in this area. The landscape was quite rugged, lot of rocks and hills. The forestation was sparse and shrubby. I had my first glimpse of the Mediterranean. I don’t remember being struck by the colour of it at this time, but I saw it again on a trip to Nice and marvelled at its truly remarkable shade of blue.
The architecture of the houses was quite a bit different from what I was used to. They used uniquely shaped shingles made from what looked like baked clay in a variety of colours. I later discovered that this rounded type of shingle is unique to Provence.
We made it into Marseille around noon. The day reflected my improved mood. It was hot and sunny, just as I had expected the south of France to be (at least, when I wasn’t worrying about being stuck outside all night). I was still nervous, but now my nervousness was focussed: how to catch the train to Aix? It wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped it would be. My ticket had specified a time, but when I scanned all the platforms in the Marseille St. Charles station I could find no corresponding trains. I did find one platform with a train leaving about an hour later than the indicated time.
I found an information booth and asked the young woman there if she parlayed anglais. Brusque and businesslike, she informed me that, “Non,” she did not.
Somehow I conveyed to her what I wanted to know and together we determined what platform my train was supposed to be on. I carted by bags to the platform (on another one of those great carts) and began waiting. I kept a close eye on my bags as I figured I looked like a pretty easy mark.
Half a year later a friend from Calgary told me the story of her arrival at the St. Charles station.
Suzanne was an experienced traveller, having already spent thirteen months seeing the world from the deepest heart of India to Europe and North America. Nevertheless her mental state upon arriving in Marseille was not unlike mine. Flying from North America to Europe pretty much requires being up most of the night, and if you’re travelling again the next day you’re going to be pretty knackered. Suzanne had been smarter than me, having flown to Nice instead of Paris, so she didn’t have as far to go. Just the same she was still pretty tired when she got to Marseille. Like me, she was feeling nervous about what was going to happen in Aix.
As she was waiting for the train, she noticed a seedy looking guy checking her out. She didn’t pay much attention until she went to use the washroom and the guy followed her. He waited just outside and was there when she came out. Scared, she went back inside, waited a bit, and then checked again. He was still there, leering at her. Again Suzanne went back inside the washroom, by this time quite scared and worried.
How to handle this? As she put it, she completely forgot that she was already a battle-hardened world traveller. It had been a year since her world travels so perhaps she was a bit out of practice. Unnerved, she shed a few tears, but finally managed to pull herself together. There was a woman washroom attendant present, so Suzanne confronted her with the problem. Fortunately Suzanne already spoke enough French to make herself understood. The attendant was helpful and fetched a gendarme who told the guy to beat it. He disappeared and Suzanne was able to finish her trip uneventfully.
Another friend, Tove from Denmark, told me that she found the trip to Aix quite unnerving as well. She worried about everything just like Suzanne and me. One of Tove’s main concerns was “wondering if anyone would like me.” This might sound silly but it was true. You do wonder whether you’ll be able to get along with people.
Tove told me that when she got to Aix she went straight to the hotel she’d booked only to find that, just like my hotel in Paris, they were all booked up, despite Tove’s reservation. Frustrated, she insisted that they phone around to find her another place. They did so, but apparently not very willingly. It didn’t do any good. She was informed that every hotel around was booked solid, sorry. Alone, with more bags than she could easily carry (just like me), she became quite concerned about her possible fate. She set out on foot to try to find a place to stay. Luckily, she met some other students outside who offered to help her with her bags. As it turned out the first hotel she tried had plenty of room (suggesting that the previous hotel hadn’t tried very hard). Relieved, Tove stayed there, and the students who had helped her with her bags became her roommates for the first term.
As I stood waiting for the train, I was approached by a tall, athletic, bearded fellow. He had a small backpack and carried another small bag. I thought, boy, that’s the way to travel. He’d have no trouble getting around. I decided that the next time I’d do it that way: nice and light. Anyway, this guy was everything I felt I wasn’t just then:
Joe: Dishevelled, pasty-faced, too much luggage.
Guy: Confident, tanned, fit.
He’d seen my Canadian flag on my backpack and asked me if I spoke English. I said yeah and we talked for a bit. He was going to Aix too. He was from California (I’d never have guessed) and was on a two month trip around Europe by himself, though he was going to meet up with a female friend later.
I told him my plans and he seemed to think it was an interesting idea, studying French in Aix for the year. We talked about travelling around Europe. I asked him if he made reservations in advance at the places he visited. I was still worried about finding a place in Aix and was looking for reassurance. He laughed and said almost never. In all the travelling he’d ever done, he said—and he’d done a lot—he’d only found himself stuck once, in Bangkok. And it hadn’t been that big a deal to spend one night outside.
Eventually a train arrived but it turned out not to be the train to Aix, even though I had been informed that it would be, and the sign at the head of the platform said that it was. This prompted some scrambling around as we hastily tried to discover the correct platform. At the far side of the station we discovered the appropriate platform. I boarded the train as the Californian went off to look for a sandwich somewhere, and I didn’t see him again until Aix.
It was a forty-five minute trip to Aix. It was beautiful, sunny and warm—a good sign, I decided (as an optimist, I managed to consider both rain and sunshine auspicious). We crossed over hills and trestles that allowed me to look down into Aix as we arrived. All the buildings seemed to be white in the suburbs. I wondered what kind of people lived in them. I wondered whether I would fit in.
We arrived at the train station and suddenly there I was, in the place I would spend the next six and one half months of my life. I lugged my bags into the station and ran into the Californian, which wasn’t hard to do as the station wasn’t very large. I was kind of hoping that he’d be looking for a hotel and that I could sort of tag along, making my life easier. I didn’t want to be a leech, though, so I said nothing, except, “So, what are your plans?”
He replied that he didn’t even know if he would stay the night. He was scanning the big overhead schedule for train times back to Marseille in case he didn’t like Aix.
I said, “Oh,” and “Well, I guess I’ll go and find a place to stay.”
He wished me good luck, and I had the distinct impression that he meant it. He looked at me with a sort of pity, as though regarding a particularly scrawny stray dog, wondering if it would still be alive in a day.
It’s been just over a year now since my debut novel, A Time and a Place (ATAAP for short), was published by Five Rivers Publishing.
Time to sit back and reflect a bit on the experience.
One year in and I’m not exactly in J.K. Rowling territory. Still got the day job and the bank account looks roughly the same. I did not expect anything different. I went in to this knowing that I might only sell dozens of copies, that it could have been critically ravaged; or worse, completely ignored.
I also went into it with the intention of making it as uniformly positive an experience as I could possibly manage. I’m happy to say that I’ve (mostly) succeeded on that front. And that it hasn’t been critically ravaged or ignored.
It was a year marked by at least a couple of miracles.
The experience started on an amazing note when, shortly after publication, I stumbled upon a positive review of A Time and a Place by Publishers Weekly. I hadn’t even heard of Publishers Weekly before publishing ATAAP. I had to look it up, and when I did, I was interested to learn that Publishers Weekly is considered one of the Bibles of publishing, having been published continuously since 1872. To get a positive review from them was enormous validation of all the work I’d put into the novel. It meant that the work had paid off, at least on a critical front. It also immunized me from any subsequent bad reviews. Publishers Weekly liked it! Who cared what anyone else thought? Well, I did care, but one positive PW review meant that I could easily stomach any other bad reviews.
The second miracle was the book launch. The Merril Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy (of the Toronto Public Library system) agreed to host the launch of the book. Having the launch at such a respected venue gave the launch some credibility, in my mind. And Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s biggest SF&F bookstore, agreed to sell the book for me at the launch. And the attendance at the launch blew my mind. Seventy-eight people confirmed their attendance beforehand and I’m pretty show we had more than that actually show, as it was an open-door event. I remember walking into the Merrill Collection the night of the launch and being gobsmacked at how many people were there. It was a packed house. One of my favourite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, and the classic line from that movie is “no man is a failure who has friends.” The book launch was my It’s a Wonderful Life moment. That night I felt like I had friends.
We sold fifty-eight copies of ATAAP that night, which made ATAAP the number one best-selling Trade Paperback for Baaka-Phoenix Books for the month of October 2017. It was a great start to the life of the book.
That same day my wife and I were invited to meet the Mayor of Whitby, Ontario. We had a great chat with Mayor Don Mitchell and he graciously purchased a signed copy of A Time and a Place.
Shortly after the launch, I was approached by a film/TV rights database called Rightscenter inquiring about the dramatic rights for ATAAP. I thought this sounded promising but apparently it’s actually just standard practice. Around the same time I was approached by someone about translating the book into Italian. These two events, along with the great launch and the Publishers Weekly review, made me think, holy cow, who knows what’s going to come of this book? But nothing came of either the film/TV rights or the Italian translation.
It was fun tracking ATAAP on Amazon.ca over the year, where it sat on Amazon’s bestseller list for Hot New Releases in Time Travel fiction for a while. I’ve conducted a few interviews about the book over the year, including one on CBC Radio Charlottetown (approved by the CBC ethics commissioner, a requirement because I work there), another for an online radio station in the states (Jessie’s Coffee Shop), and another just recently on Hunter’s Bay Radio in Muskoka (Storylines with Christina Cowley).
I spent one day in Chapters attempting to sell ATAAP (sold nine copies that day) and several days at various other events attempting to do the same (Bookapalooza, Ad Astra, etc). I’ve read from ATAAP at several events, including Words of the Season for the Writer’s Community of Durham Region, and twice at the Parliament Street branch of the Toronto Public Library. And I participated on a panel for Indie Author’s Day in Ajax.
I was roundly ignored by the organizers of Toronto’s Word of the Street, which stung a bit, especially after sending them (at their request) two copies of ATAAP, but apparently they’re run by a small team of volunteers, so maybe I just slipped through the cracks.
I had hoped that ATAAP might get shortlisted for an award or two (the Sunburst or the Aurora Award) but it didn’t even come close. My publisher had warned me that this would likely be the case but one must have one’s illusions.
Over time ATAAP continued to garner excellent reviews, mostly four and five stars, on Goodreads, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Chapters, Library Thing, Audible, and even one five star review on Amazon.co.uk. There is one two star review on LibraryThing and one three star review on Goodreads. Some of the reviews are by people I know and some are not. Without a doubt, ATAAP has received at least one or two extra stars from some of the people I know. For this reason, it’s hard to know where ATAAP actually sits critically. There is that positive Publishers Weekly review though, and several four and five star reviews from people I don’t know, so I think I can safely conclude that at least some people like the book.
Gradually the interviews, events and so on began to taper off. Sales, too, began to dwindle. To combat this, and at the behest of my publisher, I created an audiobook version of ATAAP, which was released a couple of weeks before the anniversary of its initial publication. As I type this, it has climbed to the top of the Amazon Audible Bestseller list (in the niche category of Science Fiction/Time Travel), fallen off that list, and climbed back up gain, where it currently sits at #2 on the Hot New Releases in Time Travel list.
That sounds impressive, but to tell you the truth I have no idea what it actually means. It could represent two hundred sales or two. The ways of Amazon and Audible are largely unfathomable. I won’t know until I get my Royalty statement from Five Rivers.
So, one year later I can report that although A Time and a Place has not made me rich or famous, it has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It has taken me to a few new places, made me a few new friends, and introduced me to a couple of new opportunities.
The thing about books, as someone told me recently, is that they have long lives.
A Time and a Place may have more to offer yet.