Writer, Broadcaster

Category: CBC (Page 1 of 14)

The Great Lockout of ’05

An Excerpt from Something Technical: A Memoir
Matt Watts offering his support during the Great Lockout of ’05.

On August 15, 2005, CBC locked out its unionized workforce of producers, technicians and other support staff, about 5500 workers, including me, after negotiations with the Canadian Media Guild broke down after fourteen months. Arnold Amber, President of the CBC branch of the Canadian Media Guild, said at the time, “The talks are all over, it’s going forward. We never reached agreement on any of the main issues and there’s still about forty items still undone.” The main issue boiled down to CBC management’s desire to have more flexibility over how it hired its employees, whereas the union in stark contrast was looking for more job security for its members.

I happened to be on vacation at the time, camping with my family. Because this was by now my third job action with the CBC I decided not to worry about it until I was back in town. This meant forfeiting one week’s worth of strike pay, but I didn’t care. A week of sun and leisure and canoeing and uninterrupted family time meant that I was in a pretty good mood by the time I returned to join the line.

 I’ve already written about my first two job actions in these pages. This one would prove to be quite a bit different in character than the others. For one thing, it took place during the summer, when it was warm, which made picketing infinitely more pleasant. But perhaps more importantly for me personally, I decided to blog the entire event. This would have an enormous impact on my whole attitude toward the Lock Out.

By the second week I had set up a blog using the free online blogging service Blogger under the pseudonym “CBC Workerbee.” I had decided to blog anonymously because I had no idea what management would think about my blogging. It seemed prudent to play it safe, though I wasn’t very good about keeping it a secret. My colleague, producer Laurence Stevenson, called CBC Workerbee’s identity the worst kept secret of the lockout. By the end of the lockout I publicly admitted on the blog who I was. As far as I know blogging the lockout resulted in no tangible repercussions to my career (well, yet). John McCarthy, who later hired me into my first position in management, even suggested that it helped me, although there was one curious piece of fallout.

There was a producer with whom I had been friendly. We’d worked on a successful drama series together. This producer was later promoted into management. In the years following the Lock Out I noticed that this person became noticeably unfriendly toward me. I would greet her in line at Ooh La La’s and she would ignore me. At first I figured that maybe she was just hard of hearing, until it happened enough times that I was forced to admit that, no, she really was snubbing me. I couldn’t imagine why. I didn’t associate it with the Lock Out. Especially after twelve or thirteen years had passed.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in a position where I was required to work directly with this person. I admitted to a friend that I was a little nervous about that because I didn’t think this person liked me. My friend, who knew this person pretty well, let me in on what was going on. The individual in question had been in management during the Lock Out. When she found out that I was the guy behind CBC Workerbee, she held it against me, at least according to my friend. Especially after I joined the management team, which I gather she found hypocritical. How could I criticize management one minute and then become management the next? My response to that would be what better position from which to enact change? In any case, once I heard why this individual disliked me I immediately went back to my CBC Workerbee blog to see what I had written twelve years earlier that had been so offensive.

I discovered that I had been pretty hard on the Senior Executive Team, but not at all hard on middle management, with whom I had (mostly) sympathized. I don’t think my frenemy had read my CBC Workerbee blog that closely. But when it became necessary for us to work together in 2017 to her credit she set aside her reservations, at least to my face, and we got along just fine. She even greeted me in line at Ooh La La’s once or twice.          

Tod Maffin in Simcoe Park
during the Great Lockout of ’05

Unlike the two previous job actions I was involved in, I came to (mostly) enjoy this Lock Out. I looked forward to hitting the picket line and acquiring more information to blog about. I would picket, snap some photos, and then come home to write about what I experienced. The words flowed unlike they had ever flowed before. It turned out I wasn’t the only one blogging about the Lock Out. Dozens of us across the country put pen to screen, posting regular updates. In time about five lock out blogs (as they came to be known) were posting regularly, and were quite well read, including mine.

I think what really spurred me on was, after posting about twice, I got noticed by the King of the Lock Out blogs, Tod Maffin. From that point forward I averaged a readership of about five hundred readers every single post. Blogging became like catnip for me.  I had found my voice. Psychologically it was highly therapeutic. What could otherwise have been a very unpleasant summer became great fun.

Like the other job actions, the Lock Out of 2005 turned into a great opportunity to catch up with all my CBC friends. Walking around the Toronto Broadcast Centre in pleasant weather with old friends was quite enjoyable. It seemed to me that the Senior Executive Team had made a terrible strategic error locking us out in the summer. We were getting strike pay. We were only working twenty hours a week. When we did work (picketing) it was nice catching up with friends and acquaintances. We could do this forever… or at least until it got cold. By the time it did become cold, two months later, it was all over. Ironically, I cherish that summer as one of my favourite times at the CBC. Not a bad way to spend a summer.

By the end of it all I had written and blogged about eighty thousand words. That’s about the length of a novel. I had never written so much so quickly. I found that I had been able to write good, solid blog posts in a draft or two. It completely changed how I approached writing. It convinced me that I could write a complete novel. So immediately following the lockout I tackled a novel I’d been trying to write and wrote an entire draft of one hundred and ten thousand words in about three months. (It took me twelve more years to revise it and get it published, but that’s beside the point!)

Still, even though the experience this time had been mostly positive, for me at least, I’d just as soon never repeat it, on either side of the picket line. A lot of hard work has been done by both CBC management and the union in the intervening years to improve relations, so I’m optimistic that I never will.

Relaxin’ on the line

The Matt Watts Years

An Excerpt from Something Technical: A Memoir

One day in 2005, after grabbing a coffee at Ooh La La’s, I stepped into the CBC atrium where I was hailed by Tom Anniko, then Executive Producer of CBC Radio Comedy. He was sitting at a table with a lanky young man of about thirty. Tom introduced him as Matt Watts, the writer and star of the next radio play I’d be recording. Matt’s claim to fame at that time was as one of the creators of the (soon to be) Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone and one of the stars of the second and third season of Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom.   

That’s Matt Watts in the back, with J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) in CBC Toronto Studio 212’s Green Room for a read-through of Straczynski’s “The Adventures of Apocalypse Al” about a year after we produced Steve the First. Not sure who that is in the foreground.

The radio play turned out to be Steve the First. It was about a laconic young anti-hero named Steve who has an accident and wakes up many years in the future to find himself in the middle of an apocalypse where everybody’s suffering from a disease that makes them “melt” over time. People in the grip of the disease are called “melties.” It’s up to Steve to save the day, except that he has little interest in doing so. Matt is a brilliant comedy writer and Steve the First was a funny show. A science fiction comedy, it was right up my alley.

Matt and I hit it off. I told him about my attempt to make a science fiction radio series and gave him a copy of my show Faster Than Light to listen to. In an unusual move, rather than ask me to mix Steve the First after we recorded it, Tom Anniko brought it to his base of operations in Winnipeg and asked a talented music recording engineer to mix the show. This fellow was a well regarded recording engineer but he specialized in recording and mixing music, not radio plays. Matt Watts was not pleased with the results. He’d listened to my mix of Faster Than Light (which, you might recall, contained two radio plays, Captain’s Away and The Cold Equations) and approached me about remixing Steve the First. I listened to the Winnipeg recording engineer’s mix of Steve the First and had to agree: it wasn’t quite up to snuff. Several of the sound effects just didn’t work and the dialogue was too far back in the mix, among other issues. Matt was quite upset. Would I remix it?

I really wanted to remix it because I was certain I could make it much better, but I didn’t want to disrespect the work of the other recording engineer, who I’d met a year or so earlier and liked. Matt and I went to Tom and asked him what he thought. Tom agreed to allow me to create an alternate mix. But first I felt I had to talk to the other recording engineer. I went into the conversation thinking it would be a delicate discussion but I needn’t have worried. He wasn’t precious about his work, readily admitting that he was first and foremost a music recording engineer.

A Favourite Clip from Steve the First

So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, replacing sound effects, bringing the dialogue forward, and taking what I’ve always thought of as a “leave no stone unturned” approach to mixing radio plays. I’d learned a lot mixing Faster Than Light and every other radio play I’d mixed in the five years since I’d joined the radio drama department. I was mixing within a smaller dynamic range, making my waveforms look a lot more like the waveforms you’d see in top forty music on commercial radio, the better to allow my product to compete on that medium. I made my sound effects much louder and punchier than when I’d first started out.  I worked alone, or sometimes with Matt, without a producer looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do.  Having Matt hang around the studio was a huge bonus, because he was the star of the show, so it featured his voice a lot, and if I thought a line needed to be different, either a completely new line or different delivery, I could ask him to record it then and there and simply incorporate it into the mix. There was never any discussion of paying him extra to do that because, for one thing, I didn’t have the authority to authorize that, and for another neither of us cared. We just wanted to make the absolute best product that we could.

We were both pretty happy with the way Steve the First turned out. And we became fast friends in the process. Never up to that point had I felt so sympatico in a creative collaboration.

The CBC contracted Matt to write three more episodes of Steve the First. I was just supposed to be the recording engineer on each of them. But when Matt started writing the second episode, he sent his early drafts not only to Tom Anniko but to me as well. I don’t know whether he expected me to comment on it, but because I fancied myself a writer I read it and had some pretty strong opinions. I waited a bit to see whether Tom responded, and maybe he did, but if so he didn’t copy me. So I sent Matt my thoughts.

Much later Matt told me that he got my notes and read them and they made him angry. He was so mad that he went outside for a smoke and stomped around a bit. And then he thought, dammit, he’s right! And went inside and rewrote some stuff based on my notes.

I’m not relating this story to illustrate what a great writer or story editor I am. It’s more evidence that Matt and I were operating on the same wavelength when it came to his material. From that point forward I story edited all of his radio plays, unofficially for the four episodes of Steve the First and the four episodes of its sequel, Steve the Second. I became the official story of the final series we worked on together, Canadia: 2056, but they only paid me $150 per episode rather than the usual $500 story editors usually got paid. But I didn’t mind, because it was fun work, doing what I loved, and of course I was still getting paid to be a recording engineer at the time.

Matt and I had a lot of fun making Steve the First and Steve the Second. I became the de facto producer, at least for the mixes, and I did all the post production sound effects (Anton Szabo did most of the live-to-tape sound effects). There were some memorable moments. Sometimes Matt and I would mix the episodes during the evening. For one scene we needed the sound of a big jug of water bouncing off the floor. I grabbed a great big spare bottle from a water dispenser and brought it into the studio. We hit play and record on ProTools and Matt and I stood in the booth and dropped the completely full, unopened water bottle. To our surprise it cracked, flooding the booth. The carpet was completely soaked. There was little we could do to mop it up or accelerate the drying process, though we did the best we could with scads of paper towels. The next day I had to tell my boss, John McCarthy, who took it extremely well. I don’t think there was any lasting damage other than to the water bottle itself, and maybe a slightly moldy carpet.   

After mixing an episode I would burn it to CD and take it home and listen to it in several environments: in the car, in the kitchen, in the living room. I wanted to see what it sounded like in each environment. The car was always the noisiest. If a bit of dialogue or a sound effect didn’t cut through in any of those environments, I went back to the studio and remixed it until it did. I was trying to make the shows the most sonically successful work of my career. I was pretty happy with the results, but I didn’t entirely succeed. After the shows were broadcast, when it came time to print the shows to CD for sale, the woman in charge of doing so, Patsy Fraracci (I might have her last name wrong, if so I apologize!), came to visit me in the studio and we had a friendly conversation about the quality. Reviewing the audio on the CDs, she’d noticed a little glitch or two. I was incredulous. She played them back for me. Sure enough there were a couple of weird audio anomalies. Just fraction of a second things that I’d never noticed in all the times I’d listened, but that she’d caught. Of course, she was married to one of the top CBC music recording engineers at the time, Todd Fraracci, and evidently shared his ears. I was embarrassed. I went back to the original mixes and did what I could to fix them, but due to the nature of the glitches my options were limited. They’re still there in the final product, to some extent. But I daresay you would probably need the “golden ears” of Patsy (or her husband Todd) to discern them.   

Steve the First and, later, Steve the Second aired Saturday mornings at 11:30. I think they went over fairly well, but neither Matt nor I became anywhere near as famous as our radio drama hero Douglas Adams, famous for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Maybe next time.

Neil Munro and Barry Morgan

I stumbled across the following recently which had appeared on an early version of this blog (July 14th, 2009, to be precise), before the blog self-destructed shortly afterward (one of a handful of blog implosions over the years). I like to recapture this sort of thing for the modern incarnation of Assorted Nonsense so that it doesn't get lost to time and also because it keeps alive the memory of some important, interesting people in my life. 

Neil Munro

aka “Inspector Nickles” (Photo by David Cooper, Shaw Festival.)

Neil Munro has passed away at 62 years of age.

I was fortunate enough to work with Neil off and on over the course of two or three years. Although they don’t mention it in the notice at CBC.ca, one of Neil’s many accomplishments was starring as Inspector Quentin Nickles in The Investigations of Quentin Nickles , for CBC Radio’s Mystery Project.

Working on these plays I had the opportunity to observe Neil’s craft up close.

You had to be a skilled actor working on these shows. Producer/Director Barry Morgan was a one take wonder. Rarely did we ever make it up to take two. So the actors had to get it right the first time, and they almost always did. If we had to do a second take it was usually because one of us technical types had screwed something up, or one of the sound effects engineers was caught on tape snoring during a brief siesta (that actually happened once).

Neil also wrote/adapted several radio plays; I remember recording and mixing two or three wild and crazy examples of his work. The names escape me now, but I recall them as full of mirth and inventiveness.

I remember Neil Munro as not only a consummate professional but as a genuinely warm and friendly man. He deserved better than to have died at 62, it seems to me. As Truman Capote said, life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.

In Neil’s case, I’m afraid someone eliminated the third act altogether.

So long, Inspector Nickles.

My friend and colleague Barry Morgan, whom I referenced in the post, responded with a comment which I thought was gently chiding in nature. I realized that I may have irked him slightly with my remark about doing everything in one take. I hope not, because Barry was a great guy and I hate the thought that I might have annoyed him.

Anyway, here's what he wrote in response:

Barry Morgan

Writer, Producer, Director, All Round Nice Guy

 Joe, a really nice appreciation of Neil.

Perhaps I can clarify the “one take” reference.

It was because Neil brought his incredible energy and focus to the rehearsal session before we ever got to the studio floor. The work was already done. And beyond that his electricity energized his fellow cast members to the point that the performance bar was raised far above the level of `excellent`.

We have enjoyed a long history of fine radio actors from the days of John Drainie, Jane Mallet, Frank Perry and a great many others. Neil Munro was certainly among the front rank of those incredible talents.

It was a great privilege to have him around to make all of us look better.

I will always treasure his friendship.

Black Lives Matter

“If you ignore the problem you are part of the problem.”

Yasin Osman, photographer, cartoonist and founder of Shoot for Peace, as quoted in the toronto star

I’m a white guy. They don’t get much more white than me. I grew up white, in a white neighbourhood, in a white town, in a pretty much white province, Prince Edward Island.

I am the embodiment of white privilege.

I’ve been stopped by the cops a few times in my life for speeding, once because I had a taillight burned out. I never thought the police would beat me up or hurt me, let alone kill me. Never crossed my mind. Once a cop in Quebec asked me to get out of the car and walk in a straight line (I’d told him I’d drunk a glass of red wine six hours earlier). I walked the line perfectly fine; he still made my wife drive instead of me . This cop was an idiot. Still, it was a peaceful encounter. I imagine now that had I been black it wouldn’t have been as peaceful.

This is just one example of how I have benefitted from being white. I could list many others. Here’s a fairly trivial one: flesh coloured band-aids. The colour of whose flesh? My flesh.

Here’s another one: growing up, I read positive portrayals of people like me in books, watched shows about them in TV and in movies. This was reflected in my own writing. Reading an early draft of a novel I was writing, I was shocked to learn that I hadn’t included any black characters. Even the final draft is not satisfactory. There is one overtly brown character and another character that I deliberately made ambiguous. My thinking was that she could be interpreted as either black or white or anywhere in between. I should have just made her black.

Here’s another one: if a white person does something stupid, or is lazy, or commits a crime, that fact will not be used against me and others who share our racial identity.

Here’s another one: did you know that lighting black people in movies and TV has long been problematic? Cinematographers would just light for white people. If a white person was in the frame, they’d light for that person and leave the black person in shadow. Not cool.

There are many other examples of white privilege. For other examples I suggest you do your own research. You can start with this essay by Cory Collins. The thing is, it’s a subject that requires some thought to really understand the nuances. I certainly didn’t get it right away. I probably still don’t fully understand the implications. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I will never fully understand, because I’m not black, and I can never truly understand the lived experience of being black, no matter how much I talk to people who have lived it, or how much I read about it. I can only try to deepen my understanding as much as I can.

Here’s an example of me not getting it.

Once I was in a leadership course. The subject of hiring came up. I was a hiring manager at the time. I spoke up: “I will hire the best person for the job,” I declared, “because the corporation needs the best people it can get in these jobs. I don’t care what colour they are. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m colourblind. All that matters is that we get the best person for the job.”

I was ignorant. I didn’t know any better (not that that’s any excuse). There are at least two things wrong with what I said.

First, when I went to hire someone, I would get about one hundred candidates for a single position. I’d whittle those down to about twenty and then someone would pre-interview the rest. I’d wind up personally interviewing about eight. Most of those candidates would wind up being white. Why? That’s a deeper, more complicated question. My guess is that black people weren’t getting into the schools we were looking at because of other systemic racism issues, or weren’t doing well there because of systemic racism, and so on. The fact is the deck was stacked against black candidates as a result of systemic racism. I thought I wasn’t being racist. I didn’t have to be: reality was plenty racist enough without me. So when I went to hire my “best candidate for the job”, often it could only be a white person because a black person didn’t even have a seat at the table. For me not to be racist, and to counter the systemic racism, I needed to make sure that there was equal representation amongst my candidates.

The other problem with what I said during that leadership course was the business of me being colourblind. I used to love to tell people that I didn’t see colour. We’re all the same colour, I would say. I’ve done this up until recently, I’m sorry to say. As I learn more about racism and white privilege and systemic racism, I learn more about not just how I’ve benefitted from being white, but how I’ve been hurtful and damaging as a white person. Saying that I’m colourblind is, first of all. absurd. It’s denying reality. We are all different colours. Insisting that we’re not is refusing to accept the lived experience of the people around us. It’s ignoring the reality of race and when we ignore the reality of race how can we talk about it, and if we can’t talk about race, how can we talk about and defeat racism?

I have to admit that I was afraid to write about this subject. I was afraid of getting it wrong. Of writing the wrong thing, missing some nuance and being called out on it. I was afraid that it would come off as virtue signalling. That’s why I placed that quote at the top by Yasin Osman. It spoke to me, reminding me that I have a voice, and a platform, however small, and that I had an obligation not to ignore the evil of racism, and an obligation to speak up against racism in all its forms. And more than that, an obligation to do so as a white person, even if I don’t fully understand it yet, even if I do get parts of it wrong.

I continue to learn. I don’t want to be racist. I don’t want to perpetuate systemic racism. I don’t want to see black people treated unfairly. I don’t want to benefit at their expense. I don’t want to see black people hurt and I sure as hell don’t want to see them killed.

White privilege is, in part (as Cory Collins writes), “the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity.”

I choose not to exercise that power.

I denounce racism in all its forms.

Black lives matter.

Reflections on The Mermaid’s Tale by Den Valdron

The Mermaid’s Tale
by Den Valdron

This is both a review of Den Valdron’s book The Mermaid’s Tale and a reflection of sorts. Because The Mermaid’s Tale is a thought-provoking book. I mean that literally—it has provoked many thoughts. But before I get into those thoughts, a few disclosures. I share a publisher with Den, Five River’s Publishing, and I’m a tiny bit acquainted with him, virtually at least. We’re both members of SF Canada, Canada’s National Association of SF professionals. And editor Robert Runte edited both our books when he was Senior Editor of Five Rivers. I don’t believe any of those factors has influenced my opinion of The Mermaid’s Tale.

I’ve been curious about this book for a while because there is some buzz about it. People are talking about it, writing about it. I first heard about it the weekend Robert Runte signed me to Five Rivers. He didn’t mention the name of the book, but during our conversations that weekend he mentioned that he’d signed another book that he was quite excited about, that he thought was challenging, and now I’m fairly certain that he was talking about The Mermaid’s Tale.

After The Mermaid’s Tale came out, I read comments by others that suggested this book was a cut above. On Goodreads and in emails. On the SF Canada Listserve over the years I’ve read emails by Den in which he has proven himself to be eminently readable. When Den writes an email on a list-serve you generally read it. He’s thoughtful and considered. Smart. Reflective. Only natural to expect those qualities in a book written by him. So I went into this book with high hopes. I wanted to like it. I wasn’t disappointed.

I have many writer friends. Some are professional, at the top of their game, successful. Others struggling, or just starting out. I have bought books from many of these folks over the years. Some of the books are good, some not my cup of tea. If I don’t like a book, I won’t finish it and I won’t review it. If I like it, I’ll finish it. Usually, I’ll rate it on Goodreads. Sometimes I’ll write a review as well. If I know the writer, I try not to give a book less than a four or five star review. This is because I know how hard it is to write and sell books, and I know that a three star review won’t help sell books. If you’re reading this and thinking, wait, I gave one of Joe’s books a three star rating, don’t feel bad. It’s okay. I want you to be honest. I’m just explaining how I operate, not how you should operate.

Sometimes when I give a book a five star rating it’s not because I think it’s the best book ever written. Sometimes I’m employing other criteria. Maybe I think it’s a five star book for that author, or there’s some other quality about the book that elevates it to five star status. You may not agree with this approach. I don’t care—it’s my approach, refined over time. Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that in this case I’m giving The Mermaid’s Tale five stars because I think it actually deserves five stars. I think it’s a five star book.

A confession based on a fragment of memory. Years ago, when I was working in a certain capacity for CBC Radio, somebody sent me some chapbooks. I think they were about zombies, and I think it was Den who sent them. I might be misremembering. I got sent a lot of books at that time because of the projects and shows I was involved with. I didn’t have time to read all the books I was sent. The CBC gets sent a lot of stuff. When I worked on the show Q we had a table that we called “The Table of Shit.” It wasn’t all shit. It was just stuff we got sent that we set out so that people could pick through it. Eventually a lot of this stuff winds up lining the shelves along the atrium. I hung onto the chapbooks for a while, then, like much of the rest of what I was sent, they made their way to those shelves. I never read the chapbooks. They were snatched up pretty quickly by someone else. I hope they found a good home. Now I wish I’d read them, because if they were in fact from Den, I’m pretty sure they were worth reading.

Even if they weren’t from Den they’re worth mentioning because like I said, if I recall correctly, they were about zombies. The Mermaid’s Tale has nothing to do with zombies, but it’s all part of the same continuum. The Mermaid’s Tale is about orcs and dwarves and goblins and hobgoblins and vampires and giants and trolls. Now, I love science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not generally a snob, but even I, when confronted by books and chapbooks about zombies and the like, become instantly suspicious. I suspect that what is before me is probably not very good. It’s probably poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly edited, shallow. In other words, I’m prejudiced against the subject matter. Whoever wrote those chapbooks about zombies produced them before zombies hit the mainstream. I saw zombies and pretty much dismissed them. A few years later, Walking Dead hit comic book stores and the airwaves and zombies became huge. Mainstream. I saw that stories about zombies could be compelling. Yeah—I wish I still had those chapbooks.

Now here we are with mermaids, orcs, trolls etc. I already knew this wasn’t going to be your usual mermaid, orc, troll story because it’s Den and because of the buzz around the book. This book contains these sorts of fantasy/horror cliché characters, and that might make it sound juvenile, but I assure you it’s not. One of the many strengths of the book is the spin it puts on all of that. These aren’t the mermaids, orcs and trolls we grew up with. They serve a purpose. They have much more depth. We feel for them. Boy do we feel for them.

The book is from a small independent publisher. Like I said earlier, it’s one that I share with Den. A publisher like this can’t afford to publicize its books the way a large publisher can. It’s print-on-demand so individual print copies are a bit more expensive than we’re used to. (I actually bought this book twice: first the inexpensive e-book version, then, because I realized I don’t like reading e-books, the print version. I’m glad I did. The print copy looks and feels great and was a pleasure to read.) Some people might be inclined to look down their noses at independent publishers. I have had people in the industry smile indulgently, somewhat patronizingly when I told them I was published by one. But thank God for the existence of such a publisher, because they find and publish quality books like The Mermaid’s Tale. Look up Five Rivers back catalogue. They have published many fine books by many fine authors. And they must be doing something right because they continue to do so.

You might be asking yourself: who is Den Valdron? This is a bit of a problem for Den and authors like him. When you’re not a name author, few are going out of their way to find books by you. So who is Den? He’s an aboriginal rights lawyer originally from the Maritimes in Canada. A man who’d probably rather spend most of his time writing but can’t because you can’t make a living writing these days, with rare exceptions. So he can’t pump out as much material as required to make an impression. He could be a Stephen King but he’s not as prolific and hasn’t pulled off a Carrie yet. But he might—just give him time.

Den won’t break out with this book, I expect. It’s special, all right, but it’s got a jaw-dropping act of violence near the beginning that I suspect some people won’t be able to get past. I can imagine it would be pretty triggering for some. It reminded me of a scene in one of Stephen R. Donaldson’s books, Lord Foul’s Bane, that I first read when I was about seventeen, and that almost made me stop reading that book, I was so outraged. The scene in Den’s book did not make me stop reading it, but I wondered about it. I wanted to understand its place in the book. It’s not random, it’s not gratuitous, it’s ugly and horrible. It’s integral to the plot, to the characters, to the theme. It would not be the same book without it. It’s referenced later in the book. It speaks directly to the characters’ pain. It’s tragic and awful and something that happens in the real world and therefore merits inclusion. How do we deal with such violence if we simply bury it, refuse to acknowledge its existence, and don’t talk about it in our art?

The Mermaid’s Tale deals directly with such violence. This is a story about characters who live in a violent world. It’s a story about the impact of that violence on them. It’s a story about characters who must live with the knowledge that they are reviled by everyone around them. Everyone, even themselves. It’s a story about the corrosive impact of that terrible knowledge upon them. But this isn’t just fantasy; all of that violence and hatred exists in our own world too. This is a reflection of that, and forces us to reflect upon that fact.

I should probably also mention that it’s a murder mystery, but, although important and well executed, and it’s the mystery that provides the scaffolding, that aspect is almost incidental. It’s the story, but not what the story’s actually about. The Mermaid’s Tale is greater than the sum of its parts.

We live in a world saturated with art and entertainment. It’s a golden age for television. A century’s worth of films to choose from. Hundreds of thousands of books published every single year. Much of this art and entertainment is very good, some of it sublime, created by gifted people know what they’re doing. We can’t possibly sample even a fraction of it. Like the unnamed protagonist in The Mermaid’s Tale who doesn’t stand much of a chance in her world, a violent book about an orc by an unknown author from a small publisher may not stand much a chance in this world.

And that’s a shame, because a book of this calibre deserves to be much more widely read.

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