Writer, Broadcaster

Tag: Melissa Yuan-Innes

The Great Bookshelf Tour: Fourth Stop

Welcome to the fourth stop on the Great Bookshelf Tour of 2020, which I hope you find a bit of a distraction during these unusual times.

First up on today’s tour we have the books of illustrious Prince Edward Island based author Susan Rodgers. Susan Rodgers, you should know, is my sister, younger than me by one year, one month, and three days. I call her Sam because her initials are Susan Ann Mahoney, or at least they were before she married that Rodgers guy.

I could write an entire book about her, and our fabulous childhood together, including that incident where she heroically defended me from a pack of bullies who had stolen my mittens, and the time we got trapped on a cliff-face together (she made it off first), and so on, but that’s not what this tour is about. This tour is about books, and if you want books, Susan has written something like eighteen of them. I’ve lost count. My wife and I once marched into a bookstore and bought all of them, back when there were only nine. There, we’re done, we’ve supported her, we thought. Then she promptly wrote nine more. We’ve yet to pick those up. But we will. Maybe. Someday. Anyway, if you like angsty books about love and relationships and music and Prince Edward Island, you will LOVE Susan’s Drifters series (and related books).

Sitting in front of Susan’s books is one of my favourite books, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, by Gordon MacKenzie. A few things about this book. It was a thoughtful gift from a friend, which makes it special. I love everything about the design of this book, the illustrations in particular. If you look inside you will see that it is positively littered with the craziest drawings and sketches, all speaking to the nature of the content. I’ve long wanted to produce a book myself in this style. The book is about creativity and leadership, and it has many sage notions about all of that. There isn’t a much in the way of information online about MacKenzie himself. He’s a bit of an enigmatic figure, but video of him does exist. The books is based on a talk he used to give, which you can see online (and when you do, you’ll see just how much of the book is based on the talk). Curiously, despite the cult status of this book, hardly anybody has viewed MacKenzie’s online talk (145 views as of today). Something else I love about the book: it was originally self-published before Viking (Penguin) picked it up.

Next up, Robert J. Sawyer‘s Rollback. Rob has written even more books than my sister, and has known great success. I’ve known Rob since before he published his first novel, Golden Fleece (which I understand wasn’t actually the first one he wrote). I met Rob working on an episode of Ideas for CBC Radio. He was a guest contributor and I was the tech. He told me about his upcoming publication and that he wanted to be a professional science fiction writer. Little did he know that it was actually ME who was going to be the professional science fiction writer! Unfortunately, I turned out to be a lazy slug of mediocre ability, whereas he is a juggernaut with a big brain and actual talent. Which explains why he’s written so many successful books and I’ve written two, one of which COULD be considered successful if you fudge the criteria for success a bit.

Fast forward a few years (ahem; that would be a Sawyer pun there, if you know the man’s oeuvre). I decided to make a radio show featuring science fiction called Faster Than Light. I asked Rob if he would host it, and he agreed to. The pilot was wildly successful, but the network didn’t pick it up as a series, the Director of Programming at the time telling the Acting Head of Radio Drama that “if we put a show like that on the air, we’ll never get it off.” Oh well.

Fast forward a few more years. Rob writes Rollback. Some of the novel involves the CBC. Rob asked me to read the third draft of the novel to fact check the CBC bits. I did, and was surprised to discover that not only was the main character based on my profession at the time (a CBC Recording Engineer), but I was actually a character in the novel! So you can see that this is kind of a special book for me, beyond being an excellent story, well told, of a man restored to youth, and the impact on those around him.

And sitting beside Rollback up there is another Sawyer novel, Hominids, the first in his well-regarded Neanderthal Parallax series. I’ve actually read many of Rob’s excellent books, though not all of them are on this bookshelf (I do have other bookshelves in the house, and at the office), and I heartily recommend them all.

One day when I was about twelve I had just finished reading a good book and was looking for another of comparable quality, so I asked my father if he could recommend one. He led me downstairs to one of his bookshelves and picked out Cappy Ricks or the Subjugation of Matt Peasley by Peter B. Kyne, published in way back in 1916. What a yarn! I loved this tale of a crusty yet loveable shipping/lumber magnate and the feisty young sailor Matt Peasley he puts to work and torments on one of his boats. I’ve read it many times since. Kyne, incidentally, also wrote The Valley of the Giants (upon which the movie is based), among many other books.

Moving on we have another ancient tome called Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees, first published in 1926. It was recommended by fellow writer Dale Sproule (former editor of the magazine TransVersions, with Sally McBride) and I’m so glad he brought it to my attention. It’s an adult fantasy about fairies that as many observers have pointed out pre-dates Lord of the Rings by many years, and quite possibly influenced such magnificent works as John Crowley’s Little, Big and Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, both of which I also loved.

Hmm. Lots to write about on this shelf! Next up we have another book by a friend, this time Thrice Burned, the second novel in Angela Misri‘s excellent Portia Adams mystery series, which I reviewed on this very blog, favourably, I might add. And beyond her a medical thriller by yet another friend, Stockholm Syndrome, by Melissa Yuan-Innes, writing as Melissa Yi. This is one of Melissa’s Dr. Hope Sze‘s books, selected as one of the best crime books of the year by CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter‘s Mystery panel.

And finally, kinda hard to make out there at the far right, we have The Lost Millennium, by Floren Diacu. This is a fascinating book, exploring the premise that history might be off by oh, say, one thousand years. That what we think of as the dark ages might be dark because they actually never happened! Whether this is true (spoiler alert: it’s probably not) this terrific little book provides great insight into how history is actually recorded and conveyed to the rest of us. It’s nowhere near as straightforward as you might think.

Other Stops on the Tour

Novels and Nephews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Robert Runte and Me
Dr. Robert Runte and Me

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

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

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

Back to the conference.

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

“Be right down,” he told me.

Two minutes later I found myself staring at a contract.

A fine start to a writer’s conference.

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

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

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

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

I shall be eternally grateful to Kathryn Shalley.

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

I did think about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I signed it.

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

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

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

Melissa Yuan-Innes
Melissa Yuan-Innis

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

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

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

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

“I feel pretty real,” I told him.

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

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

They were still worth publishing though, in my view.

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

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

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

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

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

That night I gave Dr. Runte the signed contract.

The day after that I visited Ryley in the hospital.

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

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

What were the odds?

The Rental
The Rental

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

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

“Go for it,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

It was a good visit.

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

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

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

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