I’ve been digitizing some old photos and stumbling onto some interesting chapters of my life. I thought it might be fun to post some here and write about them, and in that way get the creative juices flowing before moving onto other, arguably more important work.
Some ground rules:
The photos will be from my fairly distant personal past
There’ll be some story associated with them
I won’t overthink the writing, the idea is to get the story down quickly and post it
Now, to the story behind these two photos.
France, 1993. I was studying French in Aix-en-Provence. At the beginning of the year some friends and I had gone to a social event at a place called La Cave, which I think took place upstairs at the St. Sauveur Cathedral.
There we met some French guys, who were definitely more interested in my friends than me, cuz the French guys were single, in their twenties, and my friends were largely comprised of attractive Swedish, Danish, and Scottish women, but it didn’t matter because they were decent guys and we all quickly became good friends.
The two main guys were Nicholas and Francois. Around Christmas, Nicholas invited some of us to celebrate New Year’s Eve at his place in Nantes with his friends and family. I accepted along with my friends and fellow Canadians Deborah and Doug Cameron, who are the couple you see at the end of the table facing the camera in the picture below (and with whom I had celebrated an amazing vegetarian Christmas days before the trip to Nantes).
I drove to Nantes with Francois. I had barely three months of the French language under my belt at this point, so I was always learning new words and expressions. Unlike our native languages, which it seems we just pick up organically, I remember where I was when I learned most of the French I know.
Francois and I drove under a bridge.
“Comment dit ca?” I asked him, pointing at the bridge.
“Pont,” he told me, and my vocabulary increased by one. This would happen several times during the trip (and indeed the entire year).
In Nantes, I switched to Nicholas’ car and Nicholas and I drove around a bit, visiting some of his friends. It was pouring rain.
“Il pleut comme vaches qui pisse!” he said.
“Quoi?” I said, cuz I hadn’t understood a word of that.
We almost never spoke English, so he explained it to me in French, and eventually I came to understand that he’d said that it was raining like a bunch of cows pissing.
Back at his place, which you see in the pictures, we had a great evening of delicious food, vast quantities of wine, stilted conversation in French, and even some dancing. Nicholas’ sister taught me “le Rock and Roll” which was fun, but which, months later, none of my Quebecois lady friends back in Canada would dance with me because apparently it wasn’t cool there.
Because I was having such a good time, and because I’m not very bright, I drank way too much. The next morning I woke up in Nicholas’ house with a terrible hangover. And when I say “morning” I mean “afternoon” because I slept crazy late. I knew Nicholas, and had met his sister, but I hadn’t met anyone else in his family. Aware that I was essentially in a stranger’s house extremely hungover, I didn’t want to get up and go downstairs and meet everyone, with no idea what “everyone” would consist of.
I forced myself to get up and take a shower (with a weird French shower attachment that didn’t hang on a wall, but that you held in your hand while sitting in a tub, so that afterward you would realize that you washed every part of yourself except the arm holding the shower attachment). Clean but precariously nauseated, I went downstairs, where Nicholas’ family awaited me. His Mom, Dad, and about half a dozen others. Never was quite clear who was who, but there was a four year old boy who spoke better French than me, and about half a dozen others. Nicholas father looked strikingly like Patrick Stewart, or, considering he was French, Jean-Luc Picard.
We all went out to see the French version of the movie Aladdin (with the genie played by Richard Darbois rather than Robin Williams). Trying not to woof my cookies and thus embarrass myself in front of Nicholas and his family, and new to the French language, I don’t think I understood a word of it.
Back home we ate a special New Year’s Eve meal which consisted largely of cheese and a mystery meat. I had no appetite but they insisted I try the meat. They asked me to guess what it was.
“Poulet?” I guessed. “Vache?” Chicken? Cow?
“Autruche,” I was told.
“Austrian?” I said, shocked, still trying to grapple with the language, and the possibility that I had wound up amongst cannibals.
Everyone laughed uproariously, and someone corrected me: “Ostrich!”
Despite feeling ill, I had a good time. I was embarrassed for having overindulged the night before, and for having slept so late. Nicholas family was generous and friendly. Although I thanked Nicholas, and thanked his family at the time, I feel like I never really properly thanked them for their hospitality, and unfortunately I never saw any of them again.
May this post constitute a step toward a more proper thanks, then.
It’s cold in the hamlet of Rankin Inlet but the air is clear and you can see for miles. People come and plan to stay for a few days or weeks or months and wind up staying years. This despite the cold weather and the slow internet and the distinct lack of Costcos.
Or maybe that’s why they stay.
Myself, I was only there for three days. I was a little wary of the cold. The coldest I’d experienced to date was minus twenty-nine one day in Whitby. That day I walked my daughters from the van to their elementary school entrance to make sure they got inside safe thinking damn, this is cold. My first few steps in Rankin Inlet were about that cold and I was thinking pretty much the same thing. It was minus thirty outside and even though I was dressed in four layers I was shivering by the time I made it from the plane to the airport terminal. Maybe because I’d already been cold inside my North Air Boeing 737, sitting in a window seat, where I’d touched my hand to the window and realized that there wasn’t a whole lot separating me from some pretty cold arctic air. I really hoped we didn’t crash. Of course, if we did I’d probably have bigger problems to worry about than the cold.
The Katimavik Suites Hotel sent a truck to pick me up at the airport. It was too cold to wait outside so I waited inside the terminal. It was pretty crowded. I admired the attire of a young mother who was wearing a kind of parka with an enormous hood. But the hood wasn’t for her head, it was for her child, tucked comfortably into the enormous hood, his feet perhaps wrapped around his mother’s waist. This permitted Mom to have both hands free, an arrangement that worked quite well, I imagine, unless she happened to bend over too far to pick up something, such as, say, a fish, in which case her infant might shoot out of the hood over her head. Which actually happened once, somebody told me later. Fortunately the parent in question caught the child, though they lost the fish.
Warm and comfy Katimavik Suites Hotel
A young woman from the hotel clad in furry winter boots stepped into the crowded terminal looking for me. In her truck I spent a couple of minutes trying in vain to locate a seat belt but there was none to be found. “Nobody uses seatbelts up here,” she told me. “We don’t go fast enough.”
This was another one of those communities — like Iqaluit — with a fair amount of vehicles on the road (mostly trucks) but not a whole lot of road to drive them on. There is only one road out of Rankin Inlet, and it only goes for about twelve miles before ending at an Elder’s Lodge.
Beyond that it’s snowmobile country.
It may have been cold outside, but it was warm inside. A bit too warm—in the hotel I had to strip down to a T-shirt to make myself comfortable. In the morning I enjoyed a continental breakfast in Katimavik’s kitchen and chatted with a bunch of guys in town to convert an existing hardware store into a Home Hardware. Myself, I had business at the local CBC Bureau.
To get to the bureau I had four taxi companies to choose from, which seems like a lot for a hamlet of only 2900 people and a finite series of roads. I chose Fluffy’s Taxi because I liked the name but, although friendly, there was nothing fluffy about the guy who came to pick me up. I shared the taxi with two women from Iqaluit who were in town to do some accounting for the local government. Government work being, I understand, Rankin Inlet’s primary industry, though it’s also known for other things such as mining once upon a time, and hosting the only Inuit Fine Art ceramic production facility in the world.
CBC Rankin Inlet
After spending the morning at the CBC a colleague took me to lunch at one of the few restaurants in town, the Captain’s Galley, located adjacent to another hotel, the Siniktarvik Hotel. I ordered a salad, but it turned out they were all out of salad ingredients (this happens a lot in the North, my colleague informed me), so I had what he was having, the Inukshuk Club Sandwich. A fortuitous choice; it turned out to be one of the best club sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. And so huge that I wound up skipping supper that night.
Driving back to the bureau (it was too cold to walk—maybe the reason there are so many taxi companies) I saw lots of big black birds, about half again as big as crows. Ravens, my colleague told me. Nevermore! Ravens are the raccoons of Rankin Inlet, after your garbage. Except, unlike raccoons, they work in broad daylight and disappear during the summer, heading further north, maybe. Or perhaps they’re simply on vacation then.
I saw a lot of dogs, too, some loose, others chained up. Apparently the hamlet has been cracking down on loose dogs since a couple of kids were recently attacked. The dogs all appeared to be of the husky variety. Not a whole lot in the way of Chihuahuas.
Back at the bureau we parked beside the local graveyard, where no grave dates earlier than 1950. Before 1950 those who passed on were buried on the land, usually beneath a pile of rocks. Due to the permafrost, a backhoe is required to dig the graves. The story goes that one year the man in charge of the graveyard, deciding to get a head start on the digging during the summer, pre-dug a bunch of graves. But he dug way too many. So many that everybody thought it would take years to fill them all.
That year they filled every single grave.
They never pre-dug the graves again.
That’s the graveyard, off to the left. No pre-dug holes this year.
On my third and last day in Rankin Inlet the temperature rose to minus 12. “T-shirt weather!” a local joked. Not quite, but it sure felt nice after minus thirty. It was quite comfortable, actually. People who reside in the north have told me that they find minus one in Toronto harder to take than minus thirty in the north. A different kind of cold. Drier, warmer somehow, up north.
That morning the aforementioned local (he didn’t want me to share his real name, so I shall call him Rupert here) offered to drive me around the hamlet and show me the sights. We drove through every part of town, which is divided into Areas 1 to 5, if I recall correctly (I was hoping we’d see Area 51 but apparently that’s in a different, much warmer part of the world.) He showed me the hamlet’s giant Inukshuk, one of the human-made towers of rocks that my club sandwich had been named after. Inukshuks are used by people of the north for several reasons: to signify a cache of something valuable, or to act as a landmark, or to indicate direction. Rupert also showed me the town dump, a bit of an eye sore, I’m afraid, but one that hamlet authorities appear to be dealing with if the “no dumping” sign at the edge of the dump is any indication.
Fairly typical view within the Hamlet of Rankin Inlet, as seen through a window of the CBC Bureau
Rupert pointed out a long pipe that ran from the coast into town, which is how they get fuel from oil tankers into town. And he told me the legend of Marble Island (though we couldn’t see it as it’s located 32 kilometres east off the coast). Marble Island only looks like it’s made of marble—it actually consists of a type of rock called wacke, laced with quartzite, which just happens to resemble marble. Anyway, according to Rupert, a young girl got swept out to sea and prayed to her Gods to save her. In response to her prayers, the Gods made Marble Island rise from the sea to carry her to safety. Or so the story goes. It didn’t save eighteenth century explorers, though, who got stranded there and perished, starving or succumbing to scurvy when they foolishly refused Inuit offers of help.
We drove past a long, high fence at the edge of town placed there to prevent too much snow from accumulating in town. It’s made of slats with plenty of holes between them and is strategically placed to inhibit prevailing winds. It’s much higher now than when it was originally built because the permafrost is gradually forcing it out of the ground. The permafrost is an issue for housing, too. There are no basements in Rankin Inlet. All houses are elevated and designed in such a way that the houses can be relevelled every couple of years. Also, you have to be careful how you build houses up there. Even a tiny hole can result in massive snow piling up inside your house. A couple of guys from the south came up and built a house with ventilation in the attic. Perfectly sensible idea in the south. Bad idea in the north, unless you like lots of snow in your attic.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see any Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) during my time in Rankin Inlet, but maybe this was a good thing because I like to whistle, and according to Rupert, if you whistle at the Northern Lights they will descend from the heavens and take your breath away. Rupert swore this happened to him one night outside of town. Putting the legend to the test, he whistled at the Northern Lights and sure enough they began to descend from the heavens. Before they could take his breath away he stopped whistling and hightailed it back to town and has never whistled at the Northern Light since.
One curious feature of Rankin Inlet is the local military base, which, although diligently maintained, is completely uninhabited. Once in a while a few soldiers will come up for an inspection or to fix or check on something or conduct a military exercise or two, but nobody ever stays for long.
Aside from that, Rankin Inlet is a bustling hive of activity. A central hub for many smaller communities in Nunavut that you can only get to via snowmobile or airplane. It’s got variety stores, grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, an elementary, middle, and high school, a college, and even a minimum security prison.
“That’s got to be fairly empty, isn’t it?” I asked Rupert.
“Pretty full, actually,” he told me. “Minor infractions, though, like the two guys busted for throwing furniture out a hotel window not long ago.”
Shortly afterward we drove past the hotel in question and sure enough, a large window on the second floor was boarded up.
But what is there to do in Rankin Inlet? Lots, it turns out. Right now they’re building a new sports arena. Rankin Inlet just happens to be the home of Jordin Tootoo, famous Canadian hockey player. If you like hunting and fishing, like Rupert does, you might like Rankin Inlet. Or maybe you like Bingo. Early on in his stay in Rankin, Rupert was invited to a Bingo match. He wasn’t interested. Until they told him it was a ten thousand dollar purse. They take Bingo seriously in Rankin Inlet. He bought cards for himself and his roommate. His roommate won the ten thousand dollar purse. Rupert never played Bingo again.
If you prefer something a little more dramatic, you can spend your time in Rankin Inlet on the lookout for Russians. In the arctic, we have our own version of Texas Rangers, called Canadian Rangers (often mistakenly called Arctic Rangers). Five thousand strong, armed with Lee-Enfield Rifles, our rangers patrol the north, assist with Search and Rescue operations, and help train soldiers in cold weather survival. If I lived in Rankin Inlet, I would want to be a Canadian Ranger.
It’s an expensive place to live, though. You want to be smart how to spend your money. Goods only come in via airplane and barges. You have a choice between spending a fortune shipping something up by plane, or planning wisely and using a barge. Not one you have to build yourself. One you can rent space on. For instance, you want some printing paper? Consider purchasing three years worth via barge rather than $70 a shot by plane.
Rankin Inlet is undeniably frosty, at least in the winter. It gets up to about 10 or 15 degrees in the summer. Rupert told me he couldn’t get warm for the first three years he was there. Until he finally got himself a homemade winter jacket. It’s all about the windproofing, he told me. A friend made it for him. Rupert bought some raccoon fur and sewed it on the hood himself. He was wearing it when I met him. it looks terrific. Honestly, I thought it was store bought. It’s much thinner and warmer than a Canada Goose jacket. Which, according to Rupert, is the sort of coat tourists wear.
It’s a small town, Rankin Inlet. Everybody knows everybody. And, according to Rupert, they like one another. It’s easy to make friends in Rankin Inlet, Rupert told me. That’s why he likes it. For the people.
Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Four:
Cabs pulled up outside the Aix-en-Provence train station about once every ten minutes. I nobly let an older lady grab one before me while I checked out my Berlitz book of French phrases. It had been a gift from a friend at the CBC, Claire de Visme, who hailed from Lyons. She knew what it was like to be suddenly immersed in a foreign culture where you aren’t comfortable with the language. Although it’s my understanding that her English had been much better when she first arrived in Canada than my French was now.
I located and memorized the words, “Un hotel, bon marche!”
And that’s what I said to the cabby who picked me up. He didn’t have a problem with this, and before I knew it we were whipping through a crowded, festive looking Aix. He drove me through what I later learned was the Rotunde, around la Grande Fontaine, and down a wide, busy street to my cheap hotel. Hordes of people clogged the streets, strolling, relaxing in sidewalk cafes, everyone in shades and shorts.
I wondered briefly (as I always do in a cab in a strange place) whether the driver was taking me for a ride. Obviously, I was a foreigner. But because I’m generally an optimist and believe that most people are good, I decided that, nah, he was probably honest. I still winced at the end of the ride when it came to about forty francs. I was watching every franc I had until my bank draft came through.
We pulled up beside a one star hotel. “C’est bon marche,” the driver told me.
It was a dubious looking affair called Hotel Vendome, located above a pharmacy. You had to pass through a decorative arch and climb a set of stairs on the outside of the building to reach the hotel door. I paid the driver and thanked him, then wrestled my luggage through the arch to the stairs. I got my stuff up in two trips, pausing briefly in between to pat the head of a black cat that was resting on the landing. Afterward I tried the hotel door. It was locked. There was a note affixed to the door in French. I took a moment to decipher it.
It said “ouvert a 1600.” My French was pretty poor at this point but this was fairly obvious. It was currently three thirty, so I sat on the steps to wait until someone showed up. The cat did its best to make me feel welcome.
A heavyset man about forty years old showed up right on time at four. His looks, I would learn later, were typically Provencal—dark and swarthy. He nodded at me and I at him. He parlayed anglais assez bien. My fears around finding accommodation in Aix proved groundless (for me, at least). He had plenty of rooms free. He led me inside and around a corner. My room turned out to be quite spacious with a large bed and a huge window. It also included a shower, a bidet, and a sink and mirror. It had everything, was reasonably clean, but somehow still felt rather seedy.
I may have decided that because it was a one star hotel it had to be seedy. Or maybe it was the threadbare sheets and the dark and dusty hallways. If I’d had my druthers I’d have preferred to stay someplace else. But just then I was grateful that I didn’t have to spend the night outside on the street. Not only that but I’d managed to find the place quite effortlessly.
Here’s the embarrassing part. Checking out the room, I must confess that I was confused by the bidet. I realize that this is the classic (unsophisticated) North American’s mistake. Also I have no excuse having seen Crocodile Dundee 2 in which the eponymous Australian confronts a bidet, so I should bloody well have known what the thing was for. Just the same I didn’t recognize it. I just saw what I thought was a vaguely urinal shaped porcelain object resting on the ground beside the sink.
It gets worse.
As there were no other objects in the room resembling a toilet, I naturally concluded that this object must serve some purpose related to that. So, feeling the need, I took a whiz in it and the process seemed to go quite well. However, I couldn’t imagine number two going quite so smoothly. The hole seemed too small. The fact that you couldn’t sit down on the sucker (it was too low to the ground and had no seat) didn’t bother me; I just assumed the French were more than happy to squat (hey, I wasn’t completely ignorant). And how would you flush it? There was a faucet, you could run water through it, yet…
The mystery was solved shortly afterward when I returned to the hall and discovered a door nearly opposite my room. Behind it lay a small chamber wherein lay a comfortable, conventional toilet. Clearly then, my floor model was something else altogether.
I was bemused by the key to my room. It was a skeleton key, such a simple affair that I wondered about the security of my room. It seemed to me that the lock would be easy to pick.
I took a shower, which felt great. I had no shaving cream so I was stuck with about two day’s growth. But I looked fairly respectable with a black blazer I’d brought along, and it was thusly attired that I first ventured out on my own, in Aix.
Although I wasn’t particularly hungry, I hadn’t eaten a good meal for a couple of days and figured I’d better eat something to keep my strength up. As I walked, I kept an eye out for someplace where I could get a healthy dinner.
In the cab on the way to the hotel we had passed what looked like the main street of Aix, featuring a prominent fountain, which I recognized from reading about Aix before leaving Canada. I later learned that this street was the Cours Mirabeau. I judged it to be within walking distance, so I set out to find it.
It was late afternoon but still quite warm. It felt good to be walking somewhere while not lugging more baggage than I could carry. In fact I felt pretty good period at this point despite the thousand concerns still on my mind.
I noted that there was a large supermarket near my hotel. Walking up my street to what I hoped was the centre of town I observed bars, travel agencies, other hotels, shops with signs such as “Boulangerie” and “Patisserie” (bakery and pastry shops respectively).
It turned out I was seven or eight minutes from the Fountain. Hanging a left from the fountain put me on the main street, the Cours Mirabeau, which is famous as one of the most beautiful, breathtaking main streets anywhere in the world. Don’t feel bad; I hadn’t heard of it either. But it is quite something. Bordered on either side by stately plane trees (I didn’t know what they were either—apparently before they were planted along the Cours Mirabeau it was all elm trees, but they died, so the city fathers replaced them with plane trees). Plane trees look similar to Maple trees when they have leaves, but look gnarled and strange when they don’t have leaves, in the winter. The Cours Mirabeau itself is a street bordered on one side by cafes, restaurants, a fast food restaurant called Quik, a record shop, more cafes, a department store called Monoprix, a bank or two, and more restaurants and cafes. On the other side is mostly large, stately bank buildings. At one time many of these buildings had been the homes of the French elite.
I walked up and down the length of the Cours Mirabeau three or four times, thrilled to be there. The street was packed with people. Everyone seemed carefree and happy.
Menus for the restaurants were placed outside on the sidewalk so you could peruse them before going in. Very few people sat inside the restaurants—almost all of the patrons sat around tables arranged outside, crowded together so that you could barely move amongst them. I examined each menu as I strolled past the restaurants, trying to glean from what might as well have been hieroglyphics to me what exactly was being offered and for how much. Each menu offered a plat du jour (I understood that much). But when I finally settled on one for 55 francs at Les Deux Garcons I had no idea what I was going to get.
All the tables outside were full so I went inside where there was plenty of room. A black and white uniformed man with a thick black moustache served me with what I thought was an air of slight disdain.
“Le Plat du Jour, s’il vous plait,” I ordered, with what had to be among the worst accents he had ever heard.
But he understood me and soon I was eating a dish of lamb, served with a thick, sweet sauce. Although it was delicious, I had absolutely no appetite and had difficulty finishing it. I forced myself to finish it anyway. I drank water with it because I didn’t want to spend too much. I just ordered the water in English because I didn’t know how to in French. The waiter had no trouble understanding me.
On my way back to the hotel I checked out a phone booth because I’d been meaning to call my parents and my girlfriend to let them know that I was okay. From outside, the phone booth looked fairly North American. Inside, the phone itself was slightly different. The main difference lay in the fact that it did not take money. I was surprised and dismayed to see this. There was a slot that accommodated a card of some kind. I thought, okay, it takes credit cards, maybe. But I didn’t try it at the time. I was eager to get back to my room to see whether anyone had broken into my room and stolen my stuff. A little paranoid, maybe, but I figured that with the way the locks were it would be easy enough to do. I wasn’t really worried but the possibility crossed my mind, and I was in a bit of a “worst possible case scenario” frame of mind during those first few days.
But when I got back everything was cool. All my stuff was untouched. I reclined on the bed and read a book I had brought along: a fantasy, The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan. It was the fourth in the series, so I was familiar with the characters and the general storyline, and I liked it well enough. It helped me get my mind off my fears, so I was glad I had it.
After a while I got up to find a convenience store or somewhere to buy shaving cream to get myself cleaned up. I found a gas station down the street with a little store where I bought some. I shaved back at the hotel, then went out again to try the payphone.
I still couldn’t believe it didn’t take change. I just wanted to get a hold of an operator to call my folks and my girlfriend using their calling card numbers, or failing that, collect. But it needed some kind of card. There was a grey display panel on the phone that produced words in black letters when you took the phone off the hook. I didn’t understand any of the words. There were operating instructions on a sign in the booth, again all in French, which I didn’t understand.
I tried my credit card. The panel told me to “decrochez.” I took the phone off the hook and the panel told me to “raccrocher.” I dialed numbers but got nowhere. In the end it was all a bust. I thought, I’m stuck in the south of France, I don’t know a bloody soul, my money will run out, I won’t be able to get any more money, somebody will steal all my stuff, and I can’t even figure out how to use their damn telephones to call home and say “help!”
I went back to my hotel room and read some more Robert Jordan. When I tried to go to sleep, I lay awake some time wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been the night before in Paris—I wasn’t feeling physically ill anymore—but I was still kind of panicky. Whenever I thought what’s the worst case scenario here, it kept coming up DEATH. I’ll have no money, I’ll have to sleep on the street, I’ll have no food, I’ll simultaneously freeze and starve to death. To make matters worse, the pillow on my bed was strange and uncomfortable. It was hard and round, about half a foot around, and ran the width of the bed. It was not an acceptable pillow.
“How’d the book launch go?” somebody asked me the other day.
There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to answer that question.
“Amazing,” I tried.
Sephora Hosein introducing me at the launch.
I could also have said, “Magic.” Or: “One of the best days of my life.”
All completely true. Certainly the beginning of an answer.
Here’s a longer answer.
It’s been kind of a strange year. I broke my ankle in January. At the time I thought, well this is kind of bad luck. Is that what kind of year this is going to be? This is the year my novel A Time and a Place is supposed to come out. Is this a bad sign?
Of course, any rational person knows that breaking your ankle in January and having a book come out in October have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Thinking that an event in January (never mind that it happened on Friday the 13th) might set the tone for an entire year is clearly ludicrous. I like to think of myself as a scientific rationalist. I don’t usually indulge in such thinking.
But sometimes I do.
Anyway, it turned out that breaking my ankle wasn’t all that bad. Courtesy of the Canadian Healthcare System, I received first class medical care. Afterward I was able to work from home. I got lots of sleep for a change. I watched a few movies I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to watch. I got to spend more quality time with my wife and family. As the year progressed, other good things happened. My ankle healed nicely. I got seconded into a nifty new position at work. My book edged ever closer to publication, and I began planning the book launch.
I was determined to get the launch exactly right. Not just for me and the book, but for anybody who might show up. I didn’t want to waste anybody’s time. Truth be told, the launch became a source of some anxiety. I don’t throw a lot of parties. A handful in my life. For my fiftieth birthday, for example, I’d always thought I’d throw a big party, but when the time came, I settled for a quiet dinner with my family and a couple of close friends.
I wanted to go bigger for the book launch. I figured it might be the only one I ever have. It was to mark the culmination of several years of writing a novel that for the longest time I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish. Twelve years of hard writing preceded by many years of false starts and dead ends. I wanted to mark the end of that long journey appropriately somehow.
I read blogs and articles and talked to fellow writers about how to hold a proper book launch. I discovered that such a launch is supposed to be more than just a celebration of finishing a book. It is, as the name suggests, supposed to launch the book, propel it forward into the great wide world. From a marketing perspective, the idea is to make as big a splash as possible to give the book the absolute best chance to succeed. You want as many people to come as you can manage. It may sound a bit crass, but the fact is you also want to sell as many copies as you can.
Some big decisions had to be made. Where to hold the launch? Four immediate possibilities came to mind: home, a bookstore, a pub, or a library.
I didn’t want to have it at home because my house isn’t big enough. It’s also too far away from downtown Toronto. And it wouldn’t have lent the event any cachet. I wanted the launch in Toronto where it could generate the biggest possible turn-out. As for bookstores, the most appropriate would have been the science-fiction and fantasy bookstore, Bakka-Phoenix books, but I didn’t feel comfortable approaching them because I didn’t have a relationship with them. As for pubs, I could think of a couple that might have worked, but I wanted a location with more significance.
I approached my friend Annette Mocek, a librarian at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction in the Toronto Pubic Library on College Street. She passed my request onto Lorna Toolis, Head Librarian at the Merril, who discussed it with the Friends of the Merril Collection, and I was thrilled when they agreed to host the launch Thursday evening Oct 26th. A Time and a Place is a science fiction/fantasy adventure; other than Bakka/Phoenix Books, there really was no more appropriate venue in Toronto.
Lorna, who has hosted many book launches, suggested I approach Bakka-Phoenix Books about selling copies of A Time and a Place at the launch. I felt awkward about this because, as mentioned above, I didn’t have a relationship with them. I live in Whitby, well outside of Toronto, and Bakka-Phoenix Books is located too far from where I work in downtown Toronto to make it easy to drop by. Bookstores are often approached by new authors seeking help, whether it’s to sell their books on consignment or hold a book launch or what have you, and they are understandably skeptical when approached by authors who, as far as they know, have never frequented their store.
I had in fact visited Bakka-Phoenix when it had been located on Queen, and I’d also met the manager, Chris Szego, at a conference, but it was unlikely that she’d remember me. Still, I steeled myself and undertook the long walk up to their current location on Harbord, just off Spadina, about fifty minutes away from where I work. I was just back on my feet after recovering from the broken ankle—it was a good test of the freshly healed foot. I still had a bit of a limp, and the bad foot wasn’t quite pointing in the right direction yet, but it got me there.
Chris Szego, Manager of Bakka-Phoenix Books
Chris was there when I limped in. I began by asking for some recommendations. Chris suggested two books, both of which I bought (Company Town and Ancillary Justice). I did this because I wanted to give her business before asking something of her, but also, I was not going to visit a science fiction bookstore without purchasing some science fiction. I mean, seriously.
Afterward, still feeling awkward about the subject, I brought up the business of the book launch. To my delight, Chris immediately agreed to help out, possibly because the Merril Collection was already behind me. We resolved to connect again when we got a little closer to the date.
I had one small concern about hosting the launch at the Merril Collection. Because it’s located within the Toronto Public Library system, and is a collection of valuable SF materials, we could not have food or drink in the venue. This bothered me because I felt badly about inviting a bunch of people to come celebrate with me only to offer little in return other than a bit of speechifying and a brief reading. My friends Ann Jansen and Dave Carley suggested I invite everyone out for drinks afterward, but my wife and daughters would be along, for whom there would be school and work the next day, so that wouldn’t work.
Dave suggested a pre-party. I immediately latched onto the idea. Ann researched some possibilities, and we settled on the Free Times Café, just down the street from the Merril Collection on College. The owner of the Free Times Café, Judy Perly, booked the Bistro part of her restaurant for me, and I pre-ordered a few platters of food for everyone, without any idea how many people might show up. I told Judy between ten and seventy.
In the Bistro of the Free Times Cafe before the launch
There was still work to be done. By this time, I had been introduced virtually to Sephora Hosein, who had taken over as Head of the Merril Collection upon the retirement of Lorna Toolis. Sephora assured me that we were still good to go.
One month out, I sent out invitations to everyone I could think of who could conceivably be interested. Rather than one mass mailing, I sent personal invitations to everyone, using a template for the details, but personalizing each invitation. This took many hours but was absolutely worth the effort.
For one thing, making the invitations personal felt right and good. I tracked it all on an Excel spreadsheet so I’d know who I’d invited and who responded. I invited about two hundred and twenty people, almost all of whom I knew personally. Well over one hundred people responded. About eighty said they planned to come, twenty declined, and another ten or fifteen said maybe.
Just for fun, I also invited the Mayor of Whitby, where I live, and the Mayor of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, where much of the novel A Time and a Place is set, and where I hail from originally. The Office of the Mayor of Whitby wrote back declining the invitation, but proposed an invitation of their own, that I come to meet the Mayor, Don Mitchell, so he could purchase of a copy of my book. Delighted, I agreed to meet him the afternoon of the launch.
The Mayor of Summerside wrote back personally and offered to purchase a copy of the book, so I sent him one. I didn’t charge him for shipping, so I lost money on that purchase, but what the heck, it’s my hometown Mayor.
I also promoted the event on Facebook and Twitter, as did the Merril Collection and my publisher. As well, I placed posters, created by the Friends of the Merril Collection, on every floor of the CBC Broadcast Centre, where I work.
Neither the owner of Five Rivers Publishing, Lorina Stephens, or the Senior Editor of Five Rivers, Robert Runte, could make it to the launch, so I asked each of them if they’d mind making a short video of themselves saying a few words. They both agreed and sent me a couple of minutes each, which I edited together in a single video for the event.
Fast forward to the day of the launch. Everything was booked. I had a short speech prepared that I’d gone over several times, along with a short reading. Together, they would take less than fifteen minutes to deliver. I didn’t want to bore anyone. It was shaping up to be a good day, though of course there was still the possibility of disaster. It was entirely conceivable to me that no one would show up.
In fact, starting that morning, I started receiving emails from people expressing their regrets for various reasons. For one thing, it turned out I’d booked the launch on parent/teacher interview night in Toronto.
I’d taken the day off work so I could concentrate on the launch. My wife, (Lynda) and I hung out in the morning. It felt like an ordinary day. I wasn’t that nervous; I think all my elaborate preparations had a lot to do with that. I packed the car with boxes of my book. Seventy-eight copies; I figured that ought to do it.
At twenty to two, Lynda and I headed off to see the Mayor of Whitby, Don Mitchell. Mayor Mitchell and his Executive Assistant, Andrea Kennedy, were both funny and charming. We chatted with them about science fiction and publishing and had a great visit. The Mayor paid me for a copy of the book and I signed it for him. Or, began to sign it for him…
I had just written, “To Mayor Mitchell, fellow science fiction” when he jokingly asked Lynda what it’s like living with a temperamental artist like me.
With Whitby Mayor Don Mitchell
Distracted, I put a comma after “science fiction.”
It had been my intention to write, “To Mayor Mitchell, fellow science fiction fan,” but placing a comma after science fiction messed it up.
Darn it, I thought. I’ve screwed this up.
While Lynda answered his question, I quickly worked out a possible solution.
I added “and fantasy fan” making it “To Mayor Mitchell, fellow science fiction, and fantasy, fan.” Which was far from perfect, but seemed less of a disaster. It was better than, “To Mayor Mitchell, fellow science fiction, fan.”
Despite my blunder, the meeting was a great prologue to the launch.
After meeting Mayor Mitchell, we collected our daughters and headed into Toronto. Annette met us at the Merril Collection and helped us carry the books upstairs. I gave her my laptop so she could hook it up to the projector.
Here I encountered the first (and only) heart-stopping glitch of the evening: I couldn’t log into the laptop. Kept getting either the password or the username wrong. All the while thinking: well, I guess we could skip the video. Except, I really didn’t want to—Lorina and Robert had gone to a lot of trouble to film themselves for me, and I was certain the videos would add a lot of value to the evening.
Finally, after about twenty tries, I got it working.
Messing with the laptop made us about ten minutes late to the Free Times Café. Several guests were already sitting in the bistro section that had been reserved for us, but they didn’t all know one another and were sitting separately, so I set about introducing them to one another. Soon, the entire bistro except for one booth was packed with people attending the launch.
I wanted to say hi to everyone, so I worked my way around the room, grabbing a chair at one point to carry with me, and spoke to as many people as possible. There were plenty of CBC’ers who hadn’t seen one another in a while, and who were happy talking to one another, so I didn’t have to worry so much about them. But there were others who didn’t know anyone, and I wanted them to feel comfortable and welcome. Time flew by. At six-thirty it was time to head back to the library for the actual launch.
Rushing to the library, we passed a homeless woman in rough shape who asked me for spare change. As I gave her some, I was struck by the difference in fortune between the two of us. I was enjoying what was shaping up to be one of the greatest nights of my life. She was living a nightmare. I didn’t know what to make of this disparity between us. I still don’t.
Shortly before, in the Free Times Café, I had asked a friend who I hadn’t seen in years how she was doing.
“It’s been an adventure,” she told me.
“Lots of traveling?” I asked.
“A stroke,” she told me. “And then I had a bad fall.”
She was chipper about it all, obviously not wanting to put a damper on the evening. She had endured all that and yet had come out to see me on this night. I really didn’t know what to say.
Rushing back to the Merril Collection, thinking about the homeless woman and my friend, I wondered about enjoying good fortune while other people suffered. Of course, I experience extreme good fortune pretty much all the time relative to many people in this world simply by virtue of the circumstances of my existence. But the contrast seemed especially stark on this night, and I have thought about it a lot since. It bothers me. A subject for another entire essay.
It was almost seven by the time I made it back to the Merril Collection. The place was already packed. Before I even got through the door, I was waylaid by friends who wanted me to sign their copy of the book. Other copies of my book had been neatly stacked on a table to sell. I signed a few on the edge of the table. Chris from Bakka-Phoenix Books was there doing the selling. Oliver Brackenbury from the Friends of the Merril Collection was there too. I thanked both of them for their help.
An impromptu line formed for me to sign books. This surprised me—I had thought that I would have time to mingle before getting up to play the video and talk.
I was just about to make myself comfortable signing books when Annette whispered in my ear that we had best begin the proceedings. I made my way to the front. Sephora began her introduction. Standing off to the side, I saw that the place was packed. Friends had driven from as far away as Omemee, Peterborough, and Niagara-on-the-Lake to be there. There were also quite a few faces I didn’t recognize. I was a little gobsmacked, and a lot grateful.
Annette played the video from my laptop. First, Lorina Stephens, Publisher of Five Rivers Publishing, said a few kind words about me and my book. Then, Senior Editor Dr. Robert Runte told a couple of amusing stories about acquiring my book and editing it. Both went over well.
Then it was my turn.
I have a love/hate relationship with public speaking. Many times in my life I have been forced into situations where I have to deliver speeches or act as Master of Ceremonies. I can do it. Sometimes I even enjoy it, but it does not come naturally to me. As a teenager, I once hosted a variety show at my high school during which I could not even lift my eyes to meet the audience until the show was just about over. I was determined to get better at it, though. Eventually, I figured out that the key to success is preparation. I began thinking about my speeches days or weeks ahead, and rehearsing them mentally over and over until I had them completely memorized.
I got reasonably good at it, until the day I completely botched a speech at work because I’d grown too cocky. I hadn’t bothered to prepare. Figured I could wing it. Seconds into my speech, in front of dozens of people, I realized that I had no idea what to say. It just got worse from there. On the plus side, I never failed to prepare for a speech again.
So I was ready for this speech. I hadn’t completely memorized it, but I knew it well enough. The crowd was incredibly supportive, laughing at all the right places, and even a few places that surprised me.
Afterward, Sephora ushered me over to a table that had been set up for me to sign books. She even gave me a special pen that she said other authors seemed to like. It was indeed a fine pen. A line formed, and I spent the rest of the evening signing books, taking long enough with each person to chat a little bit and attempt to personalize each signature. Even if I knew perfectly well who someone was, I asked them how to spell their name, just to be sure.
I had thought I would have time to mingle afterwards, but it wasn’t to be. I signed books right up until the end. There were a lot of people who came that I didn’t get to talk to. I felt a little bad about that, but I think everyone understood.
“You were pretty busy,” a friend reassured me later.
We sold fifty-eight copies of A Time and a Place that night. Chris told me later that it made A Time and a Place the top selling Trade Paperback at Bakka-Phoenix books for the month of October. My deepest thanks to everyone who purchased copies.
Finally, only a handful of us were left: Sephora, Annette, Chris, and my family. We took a few final pictures and said our goodbyes. Outside the library, mundane reality reasserted itself by playfully hiding our car. In the dark, my family and I didn’t recognize the narrow alley way down which we’d parked, and we walked well past it before finally clueing in and turning back.
Still, it had been a brilliant night. Not a prelude to becoming a rich and famous author (neither the goal nor the expectation), but confirmation that I had friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances kindly disposed toward me, willing to give up an evening of their busy lives to help me celebrate.