In conversation with author Melissa Yuan-Innes:
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.
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)
The Day the Earth Stood Still
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. 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.
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?
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.