Some of you many have observed that I’ve removed most if not all posts relating to CBC Radio, including my memoir in progress “Adventures in the Radio Trade” (previously called Something Technical).
Sorry ’bout that.
My apologies in particular to those who’ve written to me lately expressing appreciation for said posts, or who have posted links to the material in question on other blogs (including Wikipedia, for which I plan to restore some of the material).
Don’t worry, I didn’t delete everything. I’ve just moved the status of those posts to “private.”
I’ve done this because I intend to release Adventures in the Radio Trade as a book, and I can’t have the material posted publicly on a blog and in a book. Well, I could, I suppose, but nobody would publish the book. For example, if Amazon detected material from the book on a website, they would decline to include the book among their wares. (They threatened to do this with my short story collection Other Times and Places after detecting one of the stories online, which I had forgotten to remove.)
I’d also begun to notice excerpts from my online version of Adventures in the Radio Trade on other websites, which, although somewhat flattering, made me afraid I’d never get it entirely offline when the need arose.
I did like the online version, which included many links and photos which I’ll not be able to include in the book version. But alas. The online version could never be permanent, whereas the book version can.
I’ve submitted Adventures in the Radio Trade to a handful of agents and publishers, but I don’t really care if it’s traditionally published. I’m perfectly happy to publish it myself, under my own imprint Donovan Street Press. I’ve also discussed publishing it as a joint venture with my sister Susan Rodgers, under her production company, Blue Mountain Entertainment. We shall see.
In the meantime, the manuscript, which includes a fair amount of material I’ve never posted before, is being edited by one of my two favourite editors (and good friend), Arleane Ralph. And I’ve already secured most of the permissions I require from the CBC to publish the book, just a few more “t”s to cross there.
I’ve just returned from a highly restorative trip to Prince Edward Island where I saw several members of my family, many of whom I haven’t seen since before the pandemic. I would call PEI “the land Covid forgot” except I don’t want to jinx the place. But it was almost possible to forget about the pandemic there, where masks are not mandatory (we frequently wore them anyway). I loved it. I never want another summer to go by where I don’t visit PEI, which is where I grew up, and where much of my family still lives.
While there, I collected everything my dad, Tom Mahoney, ever wrote. One of my projects this fall will be to assemble it into a book, and publish it before Christmas, also under Donovan Street Press, in association with Blue Mountain Entertainment. His writing is almost entirely of growing up on top of a mountain near Johnville, New Brunswick in the thirties and forties. There are stories of ghosts, log drives, backwoods bullies, acrobatic dogs, and more. (One story was featured on CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean).
Not only do I think it will be an entertaining collection, I think it’s of historical value, evoking a way of being largely lost to us now. Dad grew up with no running water and electricity. His father, my grandfather, wore his long johns all winter long to stay warm working mostly outdoors on their farm. There are crazy, memorable characters like Bob Tucker, a family friend and fellow mountain man who once crashed a locomotive, dynamited rocks in rivers to make life easier for himself, jumped off a train to avoid the first world war, got trapped in snow up to his neck, and whose first hot bath was in a hospital at the end of his life. I look forward to getting this collection out.
I’m three quarters of the way through a companion novel to A Time and a Place, called Captain’s Away, a straight up space opera set one thousand years in the future. It’s about the Doucette’s (descendants of Ridley Doucette) who are separated when their space station is blown out from beneath them at the onset of an intergalactic war. They have their own adventures while trying to find their way back to one another, each contributing to the war effort in their own way. It’s got spaceships and robots and evil emperors and princesses (or the like) and it’s a lot of fun to write.
Finally, while in PEI I had an idea for a mystery series that’s a bit of a departure for me, but that I also think could be a lot of fun to write. All I need is an extra twenty-four hours per day and maybe I can get all this stuff done (there’s still a day job, family, and de facto zoo to look after as well!)
A few weeks ago Ryerson student Amanda Raya interviewed me about turning my novel A Time and a Place into an audiobook. I spouted all sorts of inane gibberish and she politely thanked me and I figured she’d go find somebody infinitely more sensible to interview and that would be that.
She has since done her Ryerson magic on our interview and made me sound not only human but somewhat intelligible. I think her excellent questions have a lot to do with it.
She’s graciously allowing me to post the interview here. Et voila:
Last week Ryerson student Amanda Raya interviewed me about turning A Time and a Place into an audiobook for one of her classes. I thought she was just going to talk to me about the technicalities of audiobook production. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only had she taken the time to listen to the entire audiobook of the novel, she’d enjoyed it.
We had a great conversation during which I discovered that Amanda is also a singer/songwriter.
Yesterday I was flabbergasted to learn that Amanda had written and recorded a song about A Time and a Place. Other than some illustrations which my daughters have kindly drawn over the years, Amanda’s song represents the first artistic work of any kind inspired by the novel, that I’m aware of. Needless to say, I’m touched, impressed, and pleased.
(This post contains spoilers for the third season of Ozark)
The other day, during a walk with my wife, I burst into tears.
During the pandemic we’ve gotten into the excellent habit of going for long walks. We find them therapeutic. On this walk, I was telling Lynda about some family history we’d never really got into before.
“He was my favorite cousin,” I told her, and then I burst into tears.
I actually stood hunched over on a corner racked with sobs for what felt like several minutes before I regained control. The last time I cried anything like that in public was twenty years ago, during the end credits of Life is Beautiful, the movie with Roberto Benigni.
This time also had to do with popular entertainment, but it’s much deeper than that.
Three nights earlier Lynda and I had finished watching the third season of Ozark. The season had begun by introducing a character who quickly became my favourite on the show, the brother of Laura Linney’s character. His name was Ben (played by Tom Pelphrey), and it soon came out that the character had bipolar disorder. This became a major plot point, and in the season finale things did not end well for Ben, so much so that I was devastated. I did not cry then, but I was wounded, and it lingered with me for three days, until Lynda and I took our walk, and it all came out.
Apart from the incident with Life is Beautiful, I’m not normally in the habit of crying during or after movies or TV shows. I’m usually immune to entertainment’s emotional manipulations. But this one hit close to the bone. It was more than Ben’s fate that did me in. It was reality. My reality since about the age of twelve.
No, I’m not bipolar. I’ll try to explain, the way I did to my wife during our walk.
When I was about twelve my parents gave me a gift. It was a book. They told me it used to belong to my Uncle Bill.
I wasn’t aware I had an Uncle Bill, and said so.
I don’t know how much my parents told me that day, but over time I learned that Uncle Bill had been institutionalized for schizophrenia back in the fifties. He spent most if not all of his life institutionalized. It’s my understanding that he experienced electroshock therapy during his time in the institution, back before they perfected that. I never met Uncle Bill.
When my parents gave me Uncle Bill’s book something was said. I don’t remember what, exactly. But it was something like Uncle Bill was creative and so are you so it seems appropriate that you should have this book. It was a perfectly innocent remark and it was meant as a compliment. But it had the inadvertent effect of creating, in my young, impressionable mind, a link between Uncle Bill and me.
Around this time, at the age of twelve, my best friend Kevin Brown moved away. A slew of friends I’d been friends with since Grade One drifted away. I found myself isolated. Some jerk at school began bullying me. I got moved out of my bedroom upstairs into the basement while my father built a new bedroom for me. One night, alone in the basement, just before I drifted off to sleep, I experienced the unmistakable, unfathomable presence of evil in the form of absolute despair.
That’s what it felt like, anyway—a fleeting glimpse of horror, of utter hopelessness. It lasted only a few seconds, but it shook me to my core. I had not known it was possible to feel such abject terror.
It was a long time ago so I don’t remember the exact chronology. But around then I decided I no longer wanted to go to school. Every morning, within minutes of waking up, a pit formed in my stomach. I lost the ability to eat breakfast. I just couldn’t eat. It would be eighteen years before I would be able to eat a full breakfast again in the morning. For a while there I couldn’t talk either, in the mornings. I remember reluctantly walking to school with my sister Susan while she tried in vain to understand why I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t have been able to explain even had I been able to open my mouth. I could only nod or shake my head at her questions. Once, or twice, or maybe thrice, I felt so weird during class that my mother had to come to school to take me home. She wasn’t happy about it. She didn’t understand. Neither did I.
I thought I was either crazy or about to go crazy, but I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I had to deal with it myself. I was absolutely certain that what had happened to my uncle Bill would happen to me. I didn’t know it but I was grappling with the inability to prove a negative. There was no way to prove to myself that I wouldn’t go crazy. Because I could have! Logically, if Uncle Bill had gone crazy, if people could go crazy, then it could happen to me. Only time would tell. This fear, together with the increasing isolation of my social circle, did me in, for a while.
It lasted until the summer. Sometime after school let out, my parents got us a puppy, Sarge, and took Sarge, my three sisters and me on a three week long trip around the Maritimes. We camped in Prince Edward Island, drove the Cabot Trail, visited my old friend Kevin Brown in Sydney, Nova Scotia, visited relatives in Norton, New Brunswick, and visited more relatives in northern New Brunswick. The trip was sufficiently eventful and fun that I forgot all my fears and returned to normal. I especially enjoyed visiting my cousins in Johnville, New Brunswick, including my cousin James, who was the same age as me.
James was a lot of fun. He and his brothers taught my sisters and me how to play many card games, and one night we camped outside their old farmhouse on the old Mahoney homestead. That night James told me the funniest joke I’d ever heard up til that point in my life. “What’s big and hairy and sticks out of your pyjamas?” he asked me.
I laughed and laughed, and I hadn’t even heard the punchline yet.
“What?” I asked.
“Your head,” he said.
I just about died at the age of twelve laughing.
James was my favourite cousin, I decided.
By the time I started Grade Eight, I had recovered from my anxiety, and no longer thought I was going crazy, and replaced all that with an almost but not quite crippling case of self-consciousness, especially around anybody I thought was better than me, and girls. I thought just about everybody was better than me, especially girls, so I was pretty much self-conscious around everybody. Still, I’d replaced the old set of friends with a new set and with thoughts of my poor uncle out of my mind I was more or less happy for the rest of my teens.
I don’t remember seeing much of cousin James until later on in my teens when we visited my Aunt and Uncle’s cottage on Skiff Lake in New Brunswick. James and I found time to do a bit of canoeing around the lake together, and I quickly discovered that he wasn’t quite the same James as I remembered. He told me tales of a trip to Toronto that did not sound quite right to me, adventures so fantastic and prurient that I did not think they could be true, and that whether true or not I found disturbing. I found I couldn’t relate to him, and alas he became no longer my favourite cousin.
On January 17th, 1985. I was attending Ryerson Polytechnical Insitute (it wasn’t a university yet) in Toronto. I was a long way from home, in a completely new environment, with a whole new set of friends, but I was having a good time. By this time I was keeping a journal. On that date I wrote:
“I am susceptible to two different kinds of depression. One I’ve felt all my life; I call it the ‘Black Irish Mood.’ …the other depression borders on clinical depression. I’ve felt it three times that I can remember. I get it when I’m extremely tired or physically run down. I felt it for a large part of grade 7, for the last few weeks of summer, and I feel it occasionally now. It scares me. It is characterized by feeling totally out of control of my life. I feel at the mercy of unknown forces.”
I would come to think of that first year in Toronto as one of the best years of my life. Still, that journal entry hints at some dark clouds assembling on the horizon.
All remained well until I returned home to the island for the summer.
On May 5th 1985, I wrote:
“Since getting home I haven’t been feeling like myself.”
This was a bit of an understatement. On June 17th I elaborated:
“This last week has been one of the strangest weeks of my life, at least psychologically speaking. All Wednesday night I felt real uncomfortable, and it wasn’t the first night I’ve felt like that. It was like a feeling of anxiety or nervousness. I had to go plant strawberries at Burn’s Poultry Farm on Thurs, so maybe I was a bit apprehensive. Why I don’t know; I couldn’t control the feeling. …for some reason I was gripped by anxiety, a pit in my stomach. I thought I was becoming depressed, but there was no reason for it. Weird ideas and thoughts came unbidden into my head (e.g., suicide, not something I would ever consider seriously). It crossed my mind that maybe I was on the road to a nervous breakdown or insanity. I tried to reason with myself, but the pit in my stomach wouldn’t leave. I think it is gone now…I never want to experience it again.”
I would experience it again many times. It was a bad summer. And a bad fall. It was everything I’d felt when I was twelve years old multiplied by one hundred. I became distant from my friends. I became concerned for my state of mind. I was afraid I was going crazy. I WAS crazy, kind of. I thought about how I was feeling constantly. I could hardly concentrate on my summer job. I told no one but my journal:
July 23 1985
“I still suffer the occasional feelings of anxiety or depression or whatever the hell it is.”
On September 4th, on my way back to Toronto for my second year at Ryerson, I experienced my first panic attack:
“Well, when I hit the plane I wish I knew what hit me. I had a really scary attack of the nerves, at times really bad, that lasted until about 2 hours after I landed. No reason, no warning, nothing. Scared the hell out of me. Feeling of total emptiness, of despair, and I knew that if it kept up, a total breakdown, & maybe suicide, was inevitable.”
From that point onward I lived in fear of more panic attacks. I was right to be afraid, because they kept coming. I would have them at night. I would get up and run around my apartment trying to make a panic attack go away, or keep it at bay. I would drink a glass of water, not because I thought the water helped, but because the act of getting the water and drinking it distracted me. I would have panic attacks in the morning after waking up, and run around the apartment like a madman, out to the balcony for fresh air. I would have them during the day, alone, with friends, in class, the entire time convinced that I was going crazy, that it was only a matter of time until I suffered a complete nervous breakdown, whatever that was.
I kept the way I was feeling entirely to myself. I pretended I was okay. There’s a picture of me with my friends and roommates on Thanksgiving after baking a turkey. We’re all standing around the turkey smiling at the camera. My smile is too big, unnatural, entirely fake. What was going on outside was entirely at odds with what was going on inside.
One day one of our professors at Ryerson paired each of us students up for an exercise. I was paired with a young woman whose name I wish I could remember now. She was nice, I liked her. We were told to interview one another. Ask one another a bunch of questions, get to know one another, and afterwards, share our impressions with the rest of the class. I was a mess, but I got through it okay.
“What were your impressions of Joe?” the professor asked.
“Calm,” she said. “Confident. In control.”
Anything but, I was shocked that I came across that way. But the turmoil I felt was completely inside. I did not let anything out, except rarely. I told two friends how I felt, but they were too young, had no experience in such matters, and could not help me. One of them teased me about it later, while I was still in anxiety’s horrible grip. I mention it, but I don’t hold it against him.
I went to see Ryerson’s doctor, explained my symptoms. I remember him as being older than I am now, writing this, though he might not have been. We might as well have been on two different planets. He attributed my symptoms to stress, which sounded too much like, “it’s all in your head” to be of any help to me. He couldn’t—or didn’t—help me.
I remember long, long walks at night, around enormous city blocks in the cold, to chill the fear out of me. It kept the panic attacks at bay but did not otherwise help much.
Still, a part of me resisted this invisible, relentless foe. Though I could see no end to my suffering, tiny nuggets of hope occasionally appeared to sustain me. A grandmother wrote to an advice column that she had suffered depression all her life, only to have it mysteriously lift in her old age, and now she could enjoy her grandchildren. If it could happen to her, it could happen to me. Maybe I would be fine in my old age. It was something to cling to.
One night when I decided I needed professional help. I visited Princess Margaret’s Emergency department. The emergency physician asked me several questions. The only one I remember is whether I was gay. I guess he figured maybe I was struggling with that. That wasn’t it. I asked if I could see a psychiatrist. He said the waiting lists were long, but he’d put me on one. I never did hear from anybody.
I went home for Christmas that year, barely holding it together. Fake smiles, fake Christmas cheer. I felt better when I drank, so on occasion I drank a lot. One night at the local hot spot in town—it may have been the Regent—it was Zombies. You know, to turn me into a zombie. I drank one after another. They had no absolutely effect on me until suddenly they did. My mother was waiting up for me. Even less impressed than when she’d had to retrieve me from school back when I was twelve. The next morning we had our family picture taken. Shortly before the shoot I was in the bathroom puking my guts out.
“We have to get our picture taken in fifteen minutes and listen to this!” Mom complained to my father outside the bathroom. I barfed, on cue, sick, depressed, but amused.
That family picture hung on the living room wall for years. Punishment, I guess.
Waiting in the Charlottetown airport to return to Toronto, I found a patch of sunlight by a window, sat in it, and reflected on my state of mind. I decided then and there that I had to beat this thing, whatever it was. There was nobody to help me, only me. I had decided this before but it never quite took. This time resulted in a subtle shift in attitude. A positive bias that hadn’t existed before. Back in Toronto things got better. Not all at once, the panic attacks didn’t quite go away—I continued to have them off and on for years—but I dealt with them better. My fear of going crazy gradually vanished. I wasn’t going to become like my uncle. I wasn’t going to become schizophrenic. I became myself again—happy.
Meanwhile, my cousin James, my erstwhile favourite cousin—the same age as me—was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He attended university in Ottawa. I don’t know the whole story, but one day after he stopped taking his medication they found his car abandoned in a field. The driver’s door was shut and his wallet, money and identification had been discarded on the passenger seat. The passenger door was ajar. None of us has ever seen James again. They never found James’ body, and they never found James.
Thirty-four years later I watched Season Three of Ozark and rooted for my favourite character Ben, who suffered from Bipolar Disorder—not the same disorder, I know, but it resonated, like all great art.
It had all ended okay for me because I’m lucky.
It did not end well for Ben, but that doesn’t really matter because he doesn’t even exist, other than in our imaginations.
But there are those who have existed, and my cousin James is one of them, and it didn’t end well for him.
Three days after I hurt for bewildered, betrayed Ben as he stepped out of that restaurant in that final episode, I stood on the street with my wife, and said, “He was my favourite cousin.”
And it brought forth such a well of long suppressed feeling that I cried for James, and for my Uncle Bill, and for my younger, hurting self, I think.
And then I had to explain it all to my wife, as I’ve just done for you.
This past month I was fortunate to have sold plenty of copies of A Time and a Place. About 1400 copies, all told. And copies of Other Times and Places, too. People have been reading my work, and forming opinions about it. This is great, and I’m pretty happy about it. It has resulted in reviews and ratings on several platforms, primarily Amazon, Kobo, and Goodreads. And not just Amazon Canada, but in the US, Australia, and Great Britain as well, and some of the ratings from those locations have shown up on Amazon India too.
Although I wish I was impervious to reviews and ratings, I’m not. Maybe one day I will be (I kind of doubt it). Whenever I notice a new review or rating has been added, I get butterflies. My curiosity gets the better of me, and I scroll down to see how one tiny portion of the universe has reacted to my work. Sometimes the response is positive; sometimes less so. You have to take it all with a grain of salt. You have to develop a thick skin. But that can be easier said than done.
The work I’ve publicly released into the world, that I consider worthy of an ISBN, that I dare to charge money for, is the best I was capable of producing at the time I created it. I gave it all a great deal of thought and in most cases injected massive amounts of time and effort into it. If someone indicates that they’ve liked it, I’m gratified and feel a tiny bit vindicated. If someone indicates that they really dislike or hate it, I get a bit deflated, at least temporarily. If someone reveals that they’re ambivalent to my work, or they kind of like it but consider it flawed in some way, I’m disappointed but okay with it.
I’ve received a couple of one star ratings on Goodreads. They haven’t been accompanied by reviews, so I consider them meaningless. I’ve heard Goodreads described as “crazy town” by other writers, so some of what shows up there you just have to ignore.
Now that I know how much work goes into writing and publishing a book, I’m a bit bemused by the whole concept of ratings and reviews. Sometimes I think you shouldn’t be allowed to simply rate someone else’s work without an accompanying review. You should have to defend your rating. Shouldn’t you?
A writer spends (in some cases) years of their life working on their opus only to have someone read it in a matter of days (perhaps not even closely) and then dash off a rating in few seconds (or a flippant review in minutes). It doesn’t seem quite fair. Fortunately, this doesn’t bother me too much. I have long since abandoned the idea that life is fair (it’s a recurring theme in my work, after all).
For ratings and reviews to be fair they would have to be produced with integrity. Ideally the reader would read the work reasonably closely and reflect upon it before producing an opinion that they then back up with a cogent, considered argument. Although I much prefer to receive four and five star reviews, I don’t mind receiving a three star review if it’s accompanied by a solid rationale explaining why my book only merited three stars. I might even agree with it.
Myself, I can’t rate any book less than four stars anymore (although I have done so in the past). I just can’t bring myself to do it because I relate too strongly to the authors of those books. I know they’ve worked hard on their book, and they’re trying to sell it, and anything less than four stars isn’t going to help sell the book. I hasten to add (for those of you who have given my work three stars) that this is just me. I’m not complaining about your rating or asking you to change it (something I would never do). Different ratings mean different things to different people. Megan Lindholm (writing as Robin Hobb) posted the following on her Goodreads account:
“I am shocked to find that some people think a 2 star ‘I liked it’ rating is a bad rating. What? I liked it. I LIKED it! That means I read the whole thing, to the last page, in spite of my life raining comets on me. It’s a good book that survives the reading process with me. If a book is so-so, it ends up under the bed somewhere, or maybe under a stinky judo bag in the back of the van. So a 2 star from me means yes, I liked the book, and I’d loan it to a friend and it went everywhere in my jacket pocket or purse until I finished it.”
So that’s what a two star rating means to her. It’s not what it means to me! Myself, I’m appalled that she would even consider rating the work of a fellow writer two stars. Three stars I could see: the existence of three star ratings accompanied by a well-reasoned review helps lend integrity to the rest of the reviews. But two stars? That’s just insulting. And I say that as a fan of Megan Lindholm’s work. The Wizard of the Pigeons is one of my favourite books. I rated it four stars (instead of five) because of the ham-fisted execution of the final three pages, which, in my opinion, almost completely undermines the quality of what comes before. Perhaps I should revise my rating to two stars.
I know that ratings and reviews are ultimately meaningless. All that really matters is that we do the best we can when we produce our work. We mustn’t derive our self-esteem from external sources. True value (and self-worth) comes from within.