Category: Books (page 1 of 3)

Aurora Awards/Prix Aurora: Time to Vote!

Apparently I have a short story eligible for an Aurora Award this year. It’s called “Fizz” and you can find it by clicking here.
 
(Yes, I know it’s bad form in blogs to say “click here.” Don’t care. You’re going to see a lot of that in this post.)
 
But the fact that I have an eligible story is not the important thing. The important thing is that you be aware of the Aurora Awards, which are Canada’s top science fiction awards, and the fact that you can vote for them.

It costs $10 for a CSFFA membership to be able to vote. Oh come on, that’s not much! Well okay, it’s a bit. But it’s worth it to be able to vote for Canada’s best science fiction.

To become a member, go here.
 
If you’re already a member, just log in to the Aurora Awards/Prix Aurora site and nominate your favourite work(s).
 
Other Five Rivers authors with eligible works include:
 
Dave Duncan: Novel, Eocene Station
 
D.G. Valdron: Novel, The Mermaid’s Tale
 
Susan MacGregor: Novel, The Tattooed Queen
 
D.G. Laderoute: YA Novel, The Great Sky
 
Robert Runté: Short Story, The Age of Miracles (Robert is my editor)
 
Susan Forest: Short Story, Earth and Flame
 
Lorina Stephens: Short Story, The Intersection (Lorina is my publisher)
 
James Beveridge: Cover Art, Eocene Station, Spawning Ground
 
Jeffrey Minkevics: The Mermaid’s Tale (Jeff is doing the cover art for my upcoming novel A Time and a Place)
 
Patrick Hunter: The Great Sky
 
The complete eligibility lists are here.
 
Go vote! For your favourites.
 
 

David Hartwell

David Hartwell

David Hartwell, Senior Editor Tor Books

Much will be written of David Hartwell over the years. This may be the least of it, because I didn’t know him well, or hardly at all, but we did cross paths a few times, and he was a bit of a towering figure to me.

I first became aware of David Geddes Hartwell when I was hanging around with author Robert J. Sawyer for a bit, trying to make a CBC Radio show called Faster Than Light. In between attempts to get our radio show off the ground, I made a couple of documentaries on science fiction. For one of these, Robert suggested I attend one of Allan Weiss’s Academic Conferences on Science Fiction. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was quite a who’s who of Canadian SF attending this particular conference, maybe because Allan had snagged Margaret Atwood as one of the guest speakers, or (more likely) because they’re always like that.

Sitting a few rows up from me was a distinguished looked fellow in his early sixties, one of the few fellows present wearing a suit. Rob pointed him out to me. “That’s David Hartwell. He’s the Senior Editor of Tor Books.” Tor is a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Hartwell was Rob’s editor. At this time Hartwell had already edited hundreds of books, working with authors such as Frank Herbert, Gene Wolfe, and Philip K. Dick. He was nominated for the Hugo Award over forty times. The man was a legend in the SF field.

I decided right then and there that I wanted Hartwell to edit my books. He was the goal, the Holy Grail of editors. I wanted access to Hartwell’s brain, to his knowledge of how to write effectively, how to write books that other people wanted to read, and not just read, but read compulsively, and weep and laugh, and afterwards go wow, what a book.

But Rob didn’t introduce us and I didn’t have a complete novel at the time. I didn’t see Hartwell again until the World Science Fiction convention Anticipation in Montreal in 2007, when I drove up with my pal Fergus Heywood and hung out with the Rayner boys, Mark and Mike. In between all the panels and the boozy nights, I made it a point to attend one of Hartwell’s talks.

I don’t remember much of what he talked about, but during the Q&A I got up to ask him a question, because I still really wanted to pick the brain of this man. I asked him this: “You edit professional writers who are presumably quite advanced in their craft. What do you as an editor have to tell them that they don’t already know?”

He said, “That’s just concise enough a question that I can answer it in less than half an hour.” Everybody laughed. He went on to tell us that the big thing that professional, experienced authors mess up is setting. Their books often have no proper sense of place. There’ll be lots in the way of dialogue and ideas, but no sense of where it’s all happening, to the detriment of the story.

I was heartened by this, because I had spent a lot of time on setting in my novel (which still wasn’t quite finished), and ultimately set it mostly on Prince Edward Island, except those parts that take place on other worlds.

Hartwell also mentioned that Canadian writer Karl Schroeder had given him a 180,000 page manuscript that was obviously too long, and he quickly determined that 80,000 pages of it was a digression, which he urged Schroeder to cut, which Schroeder did. This prompted me to look over my own manuscript for digressions, and I concluded that there was a chapter about seagulls that was a digression, so I cut it. Until my sister Susan said, “You cut the chapter about the seagulls? I loved that chapter!” And my daughters Keira and Erin said the same thing, and I realized that it wasn’t actually a digression; in fact, in some ways it was the heart of the whole story thematically. So I put it back in.

I didn’t see Hartwell again until 2014, when I attended Rob Sawyer’s Academic Conference on Science Fiction, which was also celebrating the inclusion of Rob’s personal papers into the McMaster University library. At the time, I was almost finished my novel. Actually, shortly before the conference I had convinced myself that it was done, because I was tired of writing it. I knew I needed to finish it and get on with the next one, so I ended it, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t really done. I gave it to some friends to read and they weren’t too keen on the ending, so I picked it up again, and by the time I attended Rob’s conference I thought I could wrap up this new draft in about five pages.

I was nervous about attending the conference, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In the end I had a great time, mostly because I met a friend and we spent the day hanging out and attending the panels. Hartwell spoke at the end of the day, and I asked him another question during the Q&A. He said he was always on the lookout for talented writers. I asked him to define talented, and he provided a flip response that got a big laugh from the audience. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what he said, and I don’t want to do the man a disservice by guessing what it might have been, though I will say that I don’t believe it was particularly encouraging. After the Q&A I got a chance to have a proper conversation with him. He apologized for being flip with me during the Q&A.

I’m a little embarrassed about what happened next. I was on a mission. I wanted him to look at my manuscript. What began as a conversation with me, Hartwell and a couple of others quickly became a conversation between me and Hartwell as I monopolized the conversation. I was basically buttonholing him. I remember the look on one woman’s face as she realized what was going on, that she was not welcome in the conversation anymore. I wince remembering it. Looking back, I could no doubt have negotiated that moment infinitely more graciously.

David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013

David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013

Finally, I came right out and asked Hartwell if he would consider reading my manuscript. To my surprise and delight, he agreed, and offered to take it right then and there. But I hadn’t brought the manuscript with me. I hadn’t even thought to put it on a USB key. I figured I would just email it to him.

Also, there was the business of last five pages. I asked him if that was a problem. He said, “No. Just make sure the first five pages are perfect.”

I assured him that I would.

He invited me to dine with him and Rob and several others. I would have loved to, but I had already accepted an offer from my friend to drive me home.

When I got home I was quite excited about getting my manuscript to Hartwell. I realized I hadn’t asked Hartwell for his email address. I emailed Rob and asked him for it. Rob responded right away. In his email, Rob warned me that Hartwell was notorious for taking forever to respond. This fact was quite well known in SF circles, I think, but it was the first I’d heard of it. It was my first hint that Hartwell might take, well, forever to respond. Rob also suggested I only send the first five pages.

I opted to send the entire first chapter, but I didn’t send it to Hartwell right away. I took his advice about making the first five pages perfect. I enlisted the aid of a couple of friends to edit the first chapter. This was another instance of obnoxiousness on my part, presuming upon my friends to get their edits to me quickly. Which they did. Brilliant edits, which improved the first chapter immensely.

I sent it to Hartwell, reminding him of who I was, that we had spoken, and that he had generously agreed to look at the manuscript.

He never replied to tell me got it. I thought, this doesn’t bode well. He’s seventy years old, I told myself. Maybe he doesn’t have email etiquette down. Or more likely, I’m just some pipsqueak who’s not actually important enough to respond to.

For the next year, though, I felt like I could tell people that, hey, yeah, my manuscript’s at Tor Books with their senior editor, they’re taking a look at it.

A little over a year later I decided, well, enough of that nonsense.

I wrote Hartwell a friendly email with the intention of letting him off the hook, to make sure I could show the book elsewhere with impunity. I did not expect a response.

To my absolute astonishment, he replied within two hours. He apologized for not having gotten around to reading my submission. He said I was free to show the book around elsewhere, but promised to find the time within the next couple of months to read it. He wrote that he was “really sorry to have disappointed” me.

It was a humble, gracious note.

I never heard from him again, at least via email.

I met Hartwell for the last time at the CANCON writer’s conference in Ottawa in October 2015. We ran into one another in the hall in the Sheraton, where (again, somewhat to my astonishment) he greeted me like an old friend, and we stood and talked and he told me personal details of goings on in his life that I might have expected from a close friend. I told him that I was considering a publishing deal with another publisher, Five Rivers Press (I signed the contract two days later). Hartwell said he didn’t mind losing out to another publisher, so long as the book got published. I thought, he didn’t mind losing out? He thought he was losing out??! I didn’t pursue it.

We spoke again the next day, when fellow author Melissa Yuan-Innes and I ran into him in the hotel bar, after he insisted on taking a picture of Melissa in her faerie wings (did I mention it was Hallowe’en?). I happened to remark that I was rereading Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogy. He said (as I have written elsewhere), “I rejected that trilogy.”

John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell

John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell


I was talking to a man who had rejected Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogy.

It wasn’t that he didn’t see the value in the series. He explained that Donaldson had originally submitted the first three books as a single volume. To make it work had ultimately required a massive amount of work on the part of Lester Del Rey, an investment in time that Hartwell couldn’t commit to at the time.

Knowing that Hartwell had rejected one of my favourite series, I immediately felt better about him not accepting my book (technically, he never did reject my novel).

A fact I have observed about my life: whenever I want something really bad, I often don’t get it. Instead I get something else. Something that, at first glance, doesn’t look anywhere near as appealing, but that in the end is really just a weird-ass portal to something beautiful (to paraphrase author Lidia Yuknavitch). For instance, when I was in Grade Seven, I wanted to play the trumpet in the junior high school band. I got the baritone instead. I came to love the baritone, a sweet sounding brass instrument which frequently played the melody of whatever piece we were playing. As was so often the case, it was only much later that I realized I’d lucked out.

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

I wish I could believe that I have some kind of guardian angel protecting me, steering me towards what’s best for me. I know that’s not the case. Probably I view what actually happens as positive because I’ve cultivated a positive attitude. Because the fact is we are not guaranteed positive outcomes. Bad things happen. Good people, talented people, important people fall down stairs and die.

I have lucked out with my novel, though. I’ve found a Canadian version of David Hartwell in the form of Robert Runte, who is currently editing A Time and a Place for Five Rivers Press. He’s the perfect man for the job. I couldn’t be happier about it.

In the meantime, I was privileged to have known (however briefly, however tangentially) a man many believe to have been one of the three greatest, most influential editors in the history of science fiction.

David Geddes Hartwell passed away January 20th, 2016.

Novels and Nephews

My nephew Ryley was doing what he loved best: writing and directing films. He was increasing his knowledge of filmmaking and making connections in the Ottawa film community. His films were crewed by fellow filmmakers and shot on location in and around Ottawa. He had several short films in post-production.

It all came crashing to a halt when he started feeling tired all the time and doctors discovered a growth on the mechanical valve in his heart. He’s had heart trouble since the day he was born. Since being admitted to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute in early October he’s received excellent care, but he’d much rather be out making films.

University of Ottawa Heart Institute.  (Photo by Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen)

University of Ottawa Heart Institute. (Photo by Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen)

About a month after he was admitted to the hospital I found myself in Ottawa attending a conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature (Can-Con). (It’s a lot more fun than it sounds.) It had been a rocky month for Ryley, including a stint in the Intensive Care Unit, but it looked like he was on the mend. He figured he’d be out of the hospital by Sunday, so I made plans to drop by his apartment Sunday morning, the last day of the conference.

I drove up in a rented car with Dr. Allan Weiss of York University. This was an excellent start to the conference. Allan and I had lots to talk about, such as what five SF films would you screen in an introductory course on speculative fiction? So many great films to choose from. I can’t remember which films Allan actually includes in his course, but I suggested the following:

Planet of the Apes (1968)
Gattaca
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Silent Running
Moon

None of which would make my nephew Ryley’s list. He prefers grittier fare, such as American History X, and most of Martin Scorcese’s films.

I dropped Allan off at his hotel Friday afternoon and checked into the Sheraton, where the conference was being held.

Several weeks earlier, I had emailed Dr. Robert Runte, Senior Editor of Five Rivers Publishing, looking for clarification regarding their submission window. I had a 110,000 word speculative fiction manuscript I was looking to submit. According to the Five Rivers website, the window looked to be several minutes long sometime in middle of a cold, dark night in January. I wanted to make sure I didn’t blink and miss it.

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Runte told me never mind the window, just send him the manuscript. He was also attending CanCon, and I was looking forward to meeting him.

When I told Ryley that I would be in town for a writer’s conference, and that I had written a novel, he wasn’t particularly impressed. He believes that books are a thing of the past. He knows that I made a short film many years ago, and has told me several times that I should give up my foolish dream of writing books and return to film making.

Ryley himself is a fine writer. He spends many hours writing scripts for his films. Often he will stay up all night writing. He’s good at dialogue. His scripts are visceral, kinetic, sometimes violent. They have strong linear narratives and memorable characters.

Back to the conference.

Dr. Runte had suggested I call him once I was settled in. I did so from the hotel lobby.

“Be right down,” he told me.

Two minutes later I found myself staring at a contract.

A fine start to a writer’s conference.

We spent a good hour talking about the publishing business and my book. This alone was worth the price of admission. Peoples’ eyes glaze over pretty quickly when I start talking about writing. Not Dr. Runte’s.

He told me that he’d given my manuscript along with two others to his assistant editor Kathryn Shalley. After reading all three, Kathryn recommended that Five Rivers take on mine. I don’t know what she actually said, but what Dr. Runte said she said was that she loved it.

I think that bears repeating: she said that she loved my book.

It’s entirely possible that Dr. Runte misunderstood her, and that Kathryn actually said she shoved my book, or loved my look, or was referring to something else entirely, but the important thing is that Dr. Runte heard “loved my book”, so he recommended to publisher Lorina Stephens that Five Rivers publish it.

I shall be eternally grateful to Kathryn Shalley.

“Don’t sign right away,” Dr. Runte advised. “Think about it first.”

I did think about it.

I also thought about my nephew Ryley languishing in a hospital room a fifteen minute drive away. They hadn’t let him out of the hospital after all. He’d developed an infection and a rash. As I considered Dr. Runte’s offer, Ryley was listening to doctors tell him that they would have to operate and that there was a ten percent chance that he would die and that he would almost certainly require an entirely new heart someday.

My novel, A Time and a Place, is about an uncle trying to save his nephew. The nephew’s name is Ridley. I wrote the first draft (and named the characters) long before Ryley was born. Like the uncle in my novel, I once turned into a seagull to try to save my nephew. No, wait, that didn’t happen. But the fact that I should be offered a publishing deal for a book about an uncle trying to save his nephew on a weekend that I would be visiting a nephew in serious trouble struck me as eerily coincidental.

Like the uncle in my novel, I was essentially powerless to help my nephew. I am not at all averse to attempting heart surgery but I expect Ryley would prefer that I not start with him. So I limited my support to texts and phone calls and a visit.

Ryley is a bit of a deep thinker. Our conversations quickly escalate from “Hey, how are you?” to “what do you think of free will?” Ryley believes that every choice we make is dictated by every action we’ve taken up until that point. I asked him how it could be otherwise. He told me that I was just like everyone else; that I didn’t understand. I told him that I understood perfectly, that he wasn’t the only one who ever thought about these sorts of things.

I suggested he consider a thought experiment. Someone has just popped into existence from nowhere and has to decide what to do, but they have no prior experience upon which to base their decision. Would that first decision not constitute free will?

Ryley wasn’t convinced. “It can’t happen. It’s impossible for someone to just pop into existence. So it doesn’t prove anything.”

I told him about a scene in my novel where the main character begins to question the existence of free will. He reasons that if someone from the future tells him that he’s going to drink a cup of coffee because they have seen him do so in his past, and it’s impossible to change that past, then they will have no choice but to drink that cup of coffee. If you can’t change the past in a universe that permits time travel, then everything must be predetermined.

Ryley’s eyes glazed over. I had made the mistake of talking about my writing.

I needed to make a decision myself. That decision would necessarily be predicated upon everything that had ever happened to me. It might or might not constitute an act of free will. It was whether to sign Dr. Runte’s contract and publish with Five Rivers, or hold out for one of the so-called Big Five (Penguin Random House, MacMillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster).

I read the Five Rivers contract late Saturday night. I liked it. Unfortunately, I knew next to nothing about contracts. According to Dr. Runte, it had been written by Margaret Atwood’s lawyer, one of the country’s finest entertainment lawyers.

I signed it.

But I didn’t give it to Dr. Runte right away.

I carried it with me as I attended panels and mingled. There were a lot of smart people around. I asked some of them for counsel. One told me to hold out for the Big Five. Everybody else congratulated me.

There were an inordinate number of doctors at the conference. Dr. Runte, Dr. Weiss, and several medical doctors, including Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes, with whom I’d worked on a CBC Radio play a few years back. This was the first time we’d actually met. I checked out two of her panels and we had a lovely chat afterwards. She asked if I’d considered self-publishing my novel, but did not appear opposed to the Five Rivers deal.

Melissa Yuan-Innis

Melissa Yuan-Innis

I spent a few moments chatting with David Hartwell, Senior Editor of Tor, a major SF publisher, but we didn’t talk about Five Rivers or my novel. Instead we talked about a high fantasy series I happened to be re-reading just then, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogy, a favourite series by a favourite author. Hartwell had rejected the series for Tor. The series had needed a lot of work, he told me. Luckily for Donaldson, Lester Del Rey of Ballantine Books picked it up and turned Donaldson’s single baroque epic into three separate, readable books.

The Covenant trilogy is about a leper, Thomas Covenant, who is destined to become the saviour of another world called The Land. Covenant becomes healthy in this alternate world, but he refuses to believe that The Land is real. This is a defense mechanism. Covenant fears that if he accepts the reality of The Land and his newfound health, and he’s translated back to reality, he won’t be equipped to deal with his leprosy anymore, and it will kill him.

Covenant wasn’t the only one struggling with reality. So was my nephew Ryley when I visited him on Sunday.

“What if you’re not real?” he suggested. “What if no one’s real but me?”

“I feel pretty real,” I told him.

Later, I wondered under what circumstances someone might believe that they were real when in fact they weren’t. A character in a book, perhaps.

I told him about the Covenant books, and Covenant’s struggle with reality. He wasn’t impressed. Books were a dying art, after all.

They were still worth publishing though, in my view.

Saturday afternoon, Dr. Runte and I discussed my book. He let me have it straight. I wasn’t likely to get rich and famous publishing with Five Rivers. I might only sell a couple of hundred copies. Much of the success of the book would be up to me. But I would get a team of talented people who would help me create as good a work of art as possible, and who would publish it with as much care and expertise as they could muster.

I attended a party that night. I chatted with several authors, including Ryan McFadden, whose novel Cursed: Black Swan was about to come out with Dragon Moon Press. He encouraged me to sign with Five Rivers. Moments later I found myself chatting with Barry King, who used to work with ChiZine, another independent Canadian publisher.

“I won’t tell you what to do,” Barry said, before proceeding to tell me what to do.

He pointed out that I had a publisher who loved my book and was keen to publish it. How often was that likely to happen? I might never have another chance. Barry himself had an unfinished novel in a desk drawer. I encouraged him to finish it. Someday, he said. Maybe.

I had never met Barry before, but I liked him instantly. Speaking to him, I realized that I needed to work with Dr. Runte on this book, and maybe the next one too.

That night I gave Dr. Runte the signed contract.

The day after that I visited Ryley in the hospital.

Ryley likes fine automobiles. He often includes them in his films. When I visited him, he wanted to know what car I was driving. It just so happened that I had rented a Cadillac for the weekend. Which one? Not much of a car aficionado, I couldn’t remember. When I went back outside to put some more money in the meter, I snapped a picture of it.

“Oh, it’s an SRX,” he told me, looking at the photo. “I used to own an SRX.”

What were the odds?

The Rental

The Rental

We talked a bit about my book. I told him I wasn’t looking to get rich and famous.

“Would you be offended if I told you something straight?” he asked me.

“Go for it,” I told him.

“You’re settling,” he accused me. “You need to be more ambitious.”

I used to want to be rich and famous, I told him. Now I have a different perspective. I have a roof over my head. Food in my belly. I’m surrounded by people I love who love me. There’s no empty feeling inside. Call that settling if you will, but I don’t need anything more.

Doesn’t mean I’m not going to bust my butt to sell as many copies of my book as I possibly can.

We spoke a bit about reality and free will. I told him that I was going to dedicate my book in part to him. He thought that was cool, having forgotten, perhaps, that I had no choice in the matter (no such thing as free will) and that I was merely a figment of his imagination anyway.

It was a good visit.

A month later, Ryley had heart surgery. It could have gone terribly wrong. It didn’t. The surgeon was able to clean out the clot and some other growth that was obstructing his mechanical valve. He’s recovering. Hopefully he will be out of the hospital soon and back to making films.

I wish I could end it there, but I can’t.

A week before Ryley’s surgery, I was told that Barry King died. I have no idea how or why. I had only met him once. Just long enough for him to talk me into signing with Five Rivers.

Asparagus

In nineteen-ninety-two, while on vacation in Halifax, my girlfriend and I went to see a play.

There was a statue above the stage in a little alcove. I assumed it was just a part of the theatre’s decor.

Before the play started, Lynda leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think that statue has anything to do with the play?”

It's a Stone Angel, silly

It’s a stone angel, silly

“You mean that stone angel?” I asked, realizing as the words came out of my mouth that of course it did, because the play was an adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.

The play was directed by James Roy, who worked for CBC’s radio drama department back in Toronto. I didn’t know James then, but I knew of him, so when I returned to work I sought him out to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play.

Seven years later James welcomed me into the Radio Drama department, where I had the honour of working with him on many radio plays. Seven years after that I was invited to record a play in Blyth, Huron County, during the Blyth Festival, at which time I learned that not only is James an accomplished director, he was also the founding Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival.

The Blyth Festival is unique. James, along with his co-founders Anne Chislett and Keith Roulson, created a festival dedicated to the production and development of Canadian plays, which was at one time—and perhaps still is—the only five hundred seat theatre in Canada devoted solely to Canadian plays. Not content with merely producing plays, James and his partners also created an Art Gallery, and the whole enterprise is still going strong forty years, ten artistic directors, a choir and an orchestra later.

Blyth Festival

Blyth Festival

In the summer of 2006 I drove up to Blyth in a rented car accompanied by sound effects engineer Anton Szabo, who would be doing live effects for the reading we would be recording. That afternoon we sat through a rehearsal of the reading. Actually, I snoozed through the rehearsal in a really comfortable armchair. I was suffering from cat allergies which were waking me up in the middle of the night with the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, a sensation that would linger throughout the day. At the time, I had no idea that it was because of cat allergies, so it had me rather on edge.

Anton and I set up the next morning. AKG 414s on each of the actors and another one for Anton’s sound effects. Anton had a keyboard sampler plugged in for additional effects. I was situated on the stage not far from Anton’s setup, well behind the actors, but visible to the audience. I had two DAT machines but I’d learned my lesson at the Royal George; they were only for backup. My main recording would be done on ProTools on a Mac laptop. I was getting a 60 hertz buzz on one of the lines. Somebody that worked for the theatre lifted the ground on an extension cord. It did the trick.

We recorded one dress rehearsal, and then the actual performance. I don’t remember much about either recording except that they went well.

What I do remember is asparagus.

After the performance, James, Anton, myself and several others went for supper at the Stage Manager’s house. I am doing the Stage Manager a great injustice by not remembering her name. She had a house on a hill outside Blyth. But not just any hill—it was a hill from which you could see for miles and miles. A house from which you could see the sun set, but not set into the rooftops of houses halfway up the sky. Here it set directly into the horizon, painting half the sky wonderful shades of red, one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The Stage Manager had a garden out back in which she grew fresh vegetables, some of which I may have eaten, but all I remember is the asparagus. I’ve had asparagus soup before, and possibly actual asparagus, but I had never eaten fresh asparagus straight from anyone’s garden before.

I was astounded.

Hmm... fresh asparagus!

Hmm… fresh asparagus!

The asparagus was sublime—the food of, if not all the Gods, then at least those with sense enough to eat vegetables. I couldn’t stop eating it. We ran out. Seconds before I capitulated to symptoms of withdrawal, the Stage Manager went out and picked more, God bless her.

The asparagus wasn’t all that surprised me that night. I found myself enveloped in a wonderful sense of fellowship. It was a privilege to be part of such a company: directors, stage managers, writers, sound effects engineers, producers, and me. Colleagues, but also friends. We had a lovely meal, and a lovely talk. Such a night had snuck up on me unawares. I felt as though I belonged. I felt as though I could breathe. I felt as though I could eat more asparagus.

So I did.

A few weeks later I bought some asparagus at Sobey’s and served it to my family. It was the first time they had ever tried asparagus. It was stringy and tasteless. We all hated it, and have never eaten it since.

Studios From Scratch

Most of the time, CBC Radio shows are broadcast out of special, purpose-built radio studios, all carefully designed, built, and equipped by experienced broadcast engineers. In studios like that all you have to do to get your show on the air is go in, sit down, and turn on a piece of equipment or two.

Other times, studios are built from scratch.

Sometimes this is as simple as a microphone attached to a recording device by an XLR cable, along with a pair of headphones.

Sometimes it’s rather more complicated than that.

When we go offsite and cobble one of these transient radio studios together, whether it’s simple or complicated, we call it a “remote.”

Some remotes are more remote than others. If a remote is just a few blocks away and the tech happens to forget a piece of gear, maybe a microphone stand or a clip, he or she can just dart back to the Broadcast Centre and get it. If a remote is hours away, maybe half-way across the country or in a completely different country, the tech had better have all the right gear.

Some remotes last only an hour or two; others never seem to end. Sometimes a show will broadcast live right from their remote location. Other times they’ll record what they want and edit the content later and broadcast it sometime after that.

My first remote was a music pick-up in the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto, not too far away from the Radio Building. Recording Engineer Dave Burnham was recording a choir there to be broadcast later on a show called Listen to the Music. (The Cowboy Junkies had recorded their superlative album The Trinity Session in that same church a few months earlier.) My job was to help Dave, which mainly meant lugging all his equipment. Remotes almost always involved a lot of lugging.

Inside the Church of the Holy Trinity

Inside the Church of the Holy Trinity

It was a simple enough remote, on the surface of it: recording one small choir. Dave’s setup consisted of a handful of microphones connected to a small console. Still, there were several questions that needed to be answered. Just how exactly to make this choir sound as good as possible? What kind of microphones to use? How many? Where exactly to place them? What kind of outboard gear to use, if any? An experienced high-end recording engineer like Dave had plenty of tricks up his sleeves, and employed his own unique strategies. Recording music out in the field was an art, and although I accompanied engineers like Dave out on a few remotes, and did some music recording of my own privately, I never acquired anything resembling the expertise of someone like Dave.

After a couple of years of lugging gear for other techs and learning what I could, I started getting my own remotes. Despite my time observing, I was initially a bit handicapped. Unlike many other techs, I never did a stretch in Radio Technical Stores. Radio Tech Stores was where techs got equipment for their remotes. Working in Stores you assembled equipment for more senior techs and accompanied them on their remotes. If you paid attention, you learned what gear was best and how to make it work.

Motivated by a profound fear of failure, I overcame my handicap by spending time in Stores on my own, hooking up gear and figuring out how to make it do what I needed it to do. Over time my preparation paid off, though the knowledge of gear I acquired didn’t entirely compensate for certain other massive deficiencies, such as an inability to find my way around Toronto.

One of my first solo pickups was for a show on politics called The House. My job was to record the second last Mayor of Scarborough, Joyce Trimmer, on a Nagra in her office for one half of a double-ender. A double-ender consists of an interviewer back in the studio talking to a guest on the phone while somebody like me records the guest out in the field. Afterward, back in the studio, a tech eliminates the poor phone quality recording of the guest, replacing that recording with the high fidelity recording done in the field.

Joyce Trimmer, former Mayor of Scarborough

Joyce Trimmer, former Mayor of Scarborough

I needed to be at Trimmer’s office by two pm. We only had the studio in the Radio Building booked until two-thirty. Unfortunately, I didn’t own a car and wasn’t used to driving in Toronto. I didn’t know my way around the streets of Scarborough at all. Driving a Stores van, I got hopelessly lost. I couldn’t find Trimmer’s damn office. Somebody had told me it was in the Scarborough Town Centre but I couldn’t even find that. When I finally did, I figured there must be offices in it somewhere. Maybe there is, but if so she wasn’t in any of them. Turned out her office was in a building behind the Scarborough Town Centre. Panting and sweating and lugging my equipment, I got there twenty minutes late. Back in the Radio Building the producer and host must have been freaking out. Trimmer herself was the epitome of graciousness. She offered me a glass of water, which I gratefully accepted, and we managed to get the recording done in the time remaining.

My remote skills (such as they are) really came together while working for the folks at CJBC. CJBC is a part of CBC Radio-Canada. An affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, they broadcast to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860 out of studios on the fifth floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre. I was loaned to them for four and a half years after I took the better part of a year off to live in France. We did a lot of remotes during my time with them.

The first big remote I did for CJBC was for something called a Salon du livres, held in one of the big halls in the Toronto Convention Centre. Basically it was a book fair. We did one of those a year. Because the Salon du livres was a relatively big remote, and because I really didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I asked for an assistant. I was assigned fellow technician Carlos Van Leeuwen, who happened to be working in Stores at the time.

The remote consisted of a host and three guest positions set up at one table in the middle of the book fair, facing a small audience. The guests and hosts would use headphone microphones. There was a PA (public address system) set up for the benefit of a small audience. During the live show I would sit at a separate table with my mixing console and the producer and associate producer at my side. There would be a talkback set up for the producer and the host to be able to communicate with one another. An ISDN unit would transmit the show to the Broadcast Centre and live to air.

Tech Stores had something called a McCurdy Turret System for exactly this kind of remote. Carlos and I decided to give it a try. Only problem was neither of us had ever used it before, and we had only the barest idea how it worked. There were no instructions and we didn’t have access to anyone else who know how it worked, if such a person existed. The only way to figure it out was to plug it all together in various permutations until it finally worked. I would say that it was a completely unintuitive system except that I know people who used to work for McCurdy and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

For some reason that eludes me now, but that I’m sure made perfect sense at the time, we didn’t start trying to figure it out until the day of the remote. There were moments I didn’t think we’d ever get the bloody thing working. But we did, and I will be eternally grateful to Carlos for his help — without him I’d probably still be staring at it cross-eyed.

Once I understood how the McCurdy Turret System worked I began to use it on all my remotes. One day another tech watched me set it up. The connectivity was so bizarre that he couldn’t believe it worked that way. He insisted that I must be doing it wrong. Happy to entertain better ways of doing it, I challenged him to make it work another way, but he couldn’t.

During that first Salon du livres there were many long moments where nothing worked properly, during which I seriously entertained the notion that we wouldn’t make it to air. There is a moment like that on every remote. It can last seconds or it can last hours, but it’s always there. Sometimes it’s dead simple: you have a microphone set to line instead of mic on the console. Fine. You spot the problem and fix it. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that, and you have to troubleshoot your entire setup to find the answer, maybe a bad cable or a faulty mixer, and there are no maintenance techs around to help you (well, sometimes there are, on some big music remotes, but there never was for me). I had a rule of thumb that served me well: it’s never the cable. And it never was. Except for once, when it was.

Sometimes the problem will have nothing to do with your equipment. Once, during a setup for a remote in Welland, I couldn’t establish continuity with Master Control. I wasn’t too concerned; it was an hour before airtime. Forty-five minutes later it still wasn’t working. I was certain the problem wasn’t anything on my end. Nor was the problem in Master Control. Turned out it was in between, with Bell. A Bell tech fixed it ten minutes before air time — someone had patched a cable wrong.

Remotes were usually pretty straightforward once you got everything working. Once I had to deal with a bit of feedback from the PA, and another time a dirty turret developed a bit of a click whenever the host toggled the microphone on or off, but I never had a remote go completely belly-up on me.

I came close, though. The closest was during a remote in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was working for the Radio Drama Department at the time. We did multiple remote pickups every summer at the Shaw Festival for the Bell Canada Reading Series. They were usually a lot of fun. Sometimes another engineer would tag along; sometimes it would just be you and a producer. On this particular day I was flying solo.

Because I had to be there early, I packed up my gear the night before and drove the CBC van home. Proud to work for the CBC, and proud to be seen working for the CBC, I always liked driving a CBC branded van (yes, I’m aware that pride is one of the seven deadly sins). I got up at five in the morning the day of and made the two and a half hour drive from Whitby to the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Someone let me in in the theatre and I set up. I don’t remember what reading I was recording on this particular day. It might have been an adaptation of the French novel Le Grand Meaulnes, or it could have been something about Emily Carr. Whatever it was, it involved eight or so actors lined up in a row on stage reading from scripts on music stands. I typically used AKG 414s on the actors, plugged into a snake, fed to a Sony MXP61 mixing console. We recorded straight to DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in those days. I had two decks; one master and one backup.

I’ve always hated DATs.

When I first started doing remotes I would only bring as much equipment as I thought I would need. I mistakenly thought that sort of economy constituted good planning. And maybe it would if you were travelling to the North Pole. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was much smarter to bring as much as I could cram into the van. Extras of everything. Two consoles instead of one. Extra microphones, stands, snakes, whatever I could get away with. But sometimes even that wasn’t enough.

Royal George Theatre

Royal George Theatre

There is no air conditioning in the Royal George Theatre, and it was unbelievably hot that day. I wondered if it might be too hot for the DAT decks. I was parked right outside the theatre. I considered moving the DAT machines into the back of the van and turning on the vehicle’s air conditioning. We’d done that once before. But it was getting a little too close to show time, so I left the setup the way it was.

Patrons filed into the theatre. Soon the place was packed. With all those people it got even hotter. The show started. My top deck was a Panasonic. The bottom deck was a Sony. About ten minutes into the show the Panasonic deck stopped recording. No problem. I still had the Sony. I got the Panasonic going again. A few minutes later the Sony froze. Uh oh. What if they both froze at the same time? It went on like this for the entire hour it took to record the reading. First one deck locking up and then the other. I was sweating bullets, but not because of the heat.

Once the recordings were finished I tested playback. The Sony would play back but the recording was spotty. The Panasonic wouldn’t play back at all. This wasn’t good. It was a long drive back to the Broadcast Centre. I had screwed up the entire remote. How would I break the news to the producer, Barbara Worthy? I had never seen Babs angry before. Well, there was always a first time.

Usually, I would head back to the Broadcast Centre, unload all my gear, return the van, and head home on the GO Train. This time I unloaded all my gear as fast as I could and made a beeline for the edit suites. I needed to know if I could get anything off the DAT tapes or if in fact the remote was a complete failure.

The best way to retrieve material from a DAT tape is to play it back from the same machine it was recorded on. I didn’t trust the machines I’d recorded on so I found the same make of machine in two different studios. Playing back the tapes, I saw that some audio had successfully recorded on each tape. But there were gaping holes in both tapes.

I transferred the contents of each DAT tape into ProTools, then lined them up on separate tracks, allowing me to see visually just what was missing from each tape. Although each tape was missing several minutes worth of material, through some miracle each track compensated for the other. Between the two tapes I had an entire show. What a relief! I resolved to bring seventeen spare DAT machines with me to the next remote.

Fortunately, technology was constantly evolving, and I didn’t have to rely on DAT tapes much longer.

More on that in my next post.

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