Today’s tour starts with Robert J. Sawyer‘s Red Planet Blues. What a terrific title. To paraphrase the great Orson Welles,* with a title that good, forget the book, just release the title! Fortunately for us, Sawyer released both.
Sawyer no doubt requires no introduction to readers of this blog. Carol Birch, on the other hand , probably does. An English writer of (at last count) 12 books, she’s the author of the next novel on this section of the shelf, Jamrach’s Menagerie. What a tale this is, with plot elements lifted from the real life story of the whaling ship Essex. If you don’t know anything about what happened to the Essex, great! Don’t go looking. I’m not even going to link to it. Read Jamrach’s Menagerie first, and only then look up the true story. A haunting, unforgettable, riveting tale that will stick with you, and probably dissuade you forever from a career in whaling.
Almost hidden behind that cute little bear up there is The Moon Panther by local Whitby author Jason Shannon, a book I have not read yet. Since writing my own books, I have attended a number of book fairs, and met a lot of other indie authors like me, and if I like them, I generally purchase at least one of their books. This has resulted in a lot of books to read! And I feel tremendously guilty not having read them all yet. This is why, whenever anyone purchases one of my books, I always give them at least ten years to read it, and I’m very good about extensions. But I do very much like to support local indie authors, and I would encourage you all to do the same.
Alongside Jason’s book is Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, with an introduction by Neil Gaimon, as though Rudyard Kipling requires an introduction. This book was given to me by my youngest sister and her husband back when I broke my ankle to give me something to do, as I guess they figured I’d have a lot of time on my hands. As luck would have it, thanks to technology and the nature of my job, I just wound up working from home, so I didn’t have as much time on my hands as expected. Just the same I managed to read many of the stories within, and appreciated the chance to catch up on my Kipling.
Last year, at CANCON, a writer’s convention in Ottawa, I was about to purchase a book in the dealer’s room when I spotted the author of that book. It’s a friendly conference so I thought, oh, I’ll just introduce myself to the author and tell them I’m about to buy their book and maybe they’ll sign it for me and then I’ll have fond memories of our brief encounter while I’m reading the book and forever more. I did so. After informing the author that I was about to purchase their book, my impression was that they could not wait to get away from me. We did not chat and they did not offer to sign their book. So I put the book back and did not purchase it.
Immediately afterward I met the author C. L. Polk, who was as friendly as could be, so I bought her book instead, and she signed it for me. As an author myself, if somebody told me they were about to buy my book, they would have my full and undivided attention, not to mention gratitude. Now, I get that everyone is fighting their own battle, and maybe this other author was having a bad day, or was in a huge rush, maybe really had to pee or something, but… too bad. I bought C.L. Polk’s book instead, and it’s C. L. Polk’s book Witchmark that I’m reading RIGHT NOW instead of theirs. (Well, not exactly right now… when I finish writing this blog post.)
The Knowledge: How to rebuild our World From Scratch, by Lewis Dartnellis the book you want in your hands when civilization finally crumbles, which, from the looks of it, could happen any day now. I bought it thinking it would be handy writing a post-apocalyptic novel, which I’ve always wanted to do. Now I’m thinking it might come in handy in a month or two. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flip about our collective possible fate. I’ll just add that to the growing list of other things I shouldn’t do either, such as walk in the house with my boots on. Shh! Don’t tell my wife.)
Legend by David Gemmell is just a terrific book, one I’ve read several times. Thoughtful action/adventure in the sword & sorcery vein, and a treatise on heroism. Highly recommended.
Dune, by Frank Herbert. An SF classic; enuff said. Well, maybe not enough… apparently they’re making another film version of it. Here’s hoping it’s better than past versions.
Stephen King, a couple of books in the Dark Tower series. Gradually working my way through this one. I was lukewarm on the first book, but quite liked The Drawing of the Three, another clever title, I realized, once I completed the book.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. Another absolute classic. If you haven’t read this book already hie thee to a book store immediately (or, um, as soon as the pandemic is over) and pick this one up. You won’t regret it. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend another, lesser known Haldeman book as well: Camouflage, which won the Nebula Award in 2005. Just a great read.
Born Standing Up is an autobiography by comedian Steve Martin. This is also a great read, really interesting insight into the man himself, the nature of comedy, and his somewhat sad relationship with his father.
And finally, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, a neat little SF tale, with a tragic story at its core, that I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
*Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovitch told Orson Welles he was thinking of changing the title of his film adaptation of the novel “Addie Pray” to “Paper Moon,” but wasn’t sure whether the new title worked. Orson allegedly told him, “With a title that good forget the film, just release the title!”
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.
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.
Author Robert J Sawyer in conversation with Mark Askwith at BookMarkIt! 2019. Rob talks about television adaptations of his books, dream projects, and provides advice to up and coming writers in this wide ranging, entertaining conversation.
It’s called BookMarkIt!, complete with capital letters in strange places and exclamation marks that Elmore Leonard would almost certainly frown on.
BookMarkIt! happens May 4th—Star Wars Day—at the Whitby Curling Club 815 Brock Street North in Whitby, 10am until 5pm, rain or shine.
Many authors from all over Ontario will be present. Award winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer is our Special Guest. Well known producer, author and interviewer Mark Askwith of Prisoners of Gravity fame will also be on hand to interview some of our amazing authors. Which authors? So many to choose from! We are pleased to have Dale Sproule, Sarah Tolmie, Douglas Smith, Bernadette Dyer, A.A. Jankiewicz, Maaja Wentz, Lesley Donaldson, Yahaya Baruwa, and many more. We are also honoured to have publishers Bundoran Press, Brain Lag, and ChiZine Publications taking part. ChiZine authors David Demchuk, Stephen Michell, Michael Rowe and Brent Hayward will also be dropping by.
BookMarkIt! is designed to introduce books to to readers and readers to books. Our mission is to promote the work of Canadian, Small Press, Independent, and genre authors. All of our resources and efforts are focused on these tasks.
We are proud to be sponsored by the following terrific and generous
organizations: SF Canada, Amazing Stories Magazine, On Spec Magazine,
Constellate Publishing, Groupa Concrete, and Bookshelf (Writer’s Community of
Our industrious team is active on Twitter (@it_bookmark),
Facebook (@whitbybookmarkit), Instagram (whitbybookmarkit) and more. Check us
out at www.bookmarkit.ca.
If you’re an author or deal in book related products, it’s
not too late to join us. Tables are $75 apiece. You can sign up at
If you’re a reader, reach out to us on one of our social
media feeds. And by all means drop by the Whitby Curling Club May 4th to meet
your favourite—or new favourite—author in person!
Much will be written of David Hartwell over the years. This may be the least of it, because I didn’t know him well, or hardly at all, but we did cross paths a few times, and he was a bit of a towering figure to me.
I first became aware of David Geddes Hartwell when I was hanging around with author Robert J. Sawyer for a bit, trying to make a CBC Radio show called Faster Than Light. In between attempts to get our radio show off the ground, I made a couple of documentaries on science fiction. For one of these, Robert suggested I attend one of Allan Weiss’s Academic Conferences on Science Fiction. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was quite a who’s who of Canadian SF attending this particular conference, maybe because Allan had snagged Margaret Atwood as one of the guest speakers, or (more likely) because they’re always like that.
Sitting a few rows up from me was a distinguished looked fellow in his early sixties, one of the few fellows present wearing a suit. Rob pointed him out to me. “That’s David Hartwell. He’s the Senior Editor of Tor Books.” Tor is a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Hartwell was Rob’s editor. At this time Hartwell had already edited hundreds of books, working with authors such as Frank Herbert, Gene Wolfe, and Philip K. Dick. He was nominated for the Hugo Award over forty times. The man was a legend in the SF field.
I decided right then and there that I wanted Hartwell to edit my books. He was the goal, the Holy Grail of editors. I wanted access to Hartwell’s brain, to his knowledge of how to write effectively, how to write books that other people wanted to read, and not just read, but read compulsively, and weep and laugh, and afterwards go wow, what a book.
But Rob didn’t introduce us and I didn’t have a complete novel at the time. I didn’t see Hartwell again until the World Science Fiction convention Anticipation in Montreal in 2007, when I drove up with my pal Fergus Heywood and hung out with the Rayner boys, Mark and Mike. In between all the panels and the boozy nights, I made it a point to attend one of Hartwell’s talks.
I don’t remember much of what he talked about, but during the Q&A I got up to ask him a question, because I still really wanted to pick the brain of this man. I asked him this: “You edit professional writers who are presumably quite advanced in their craft. What do you as an editor have to tell them that they don’t already know?”
He said, “That’s just concise enough a question that I can answer it in less than half an hour.” Everybody laughed. He went on to tell us that the big thing that professional, experienced authors mess up is setting. Their books often have no proper sense of place. There’ll be lots in the way of dialogue and ideas, but no sense of where it’s all happening, to the detriment of the story.
I was heartened by this, because I had spent a lot of time on setting in my novel (which still wasn’t quite finished), and ultimately set it mostly on Prince Edward Island, except those parts that take place on other worlds.
Hartwell also mentioned that Canadian writer Karl Schroeder had given him a 180,000 page manuscript that was obviously too long, and he quickly determined that 80,000 pages of it was a digression, which he urged Schroeder to cut, which Schroeder did. This prompted me to look over my own manuscript for digressions, and I concluded that there was a chapter about seagulls that was a digression, so I cut it. Until my sister Susan said, “You cut the chapter about the seagulls? I loved that chapter!” And my daughters Keira and Erin said the same thing, and I realized that it wasn’t actually a digression; in fact, in some ways it was the heart of the whole story thematically. So I put it back in.
I didn’t see Hartwell again until 2014, when I attended Rob Sawyer’s Academic Conference on Science Fiction, which was also celebrating the inclusion of Rob’s personal papers into the McMaster University library. At the time, I was almost finished my novel. Actually, shortly before the conference I had convinced myself that it was done, because I was tired of writing it. I knew I needed to finish it and get on with the next one, so I ended it, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t really done. I gave it to some friends to read and they weren’t too keen on the ending, so I picked it up again, and by the time I attended Rob’s conference I thought I could wrap up this new draft in about five pages.
I was nervous about attending the conference, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In the end I had a great time, mostly because I met a friend and we spent the day hanging out and attending the panels. Hartwell spoke at the end of the day, and I asked him another question during the Q&A. He said he was always on the lookout for talented writers. I asked him to define talented, and he provided a flip response that got a big laugh from the audience. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what he said, and I don’t want to do the man a disservice by guessing what it might have been, though I will say that I don’t believe it was particularly encouraging. After the Q&A I got a chance to have a proper conversation with him. He apologized for being flip with me during the Q&A.
I’m a little embarrassed about what happened next. I was on a mission. I wanted him to look at my manuscript. What began as a conversation with me, Hartwell and a couple of others quickly became a conversation between me and Hartwell as I monopolized the conversation. I was basically buttonholing him. I remember the look on one woman’s face as she realized what was going on, that she was not welcome in the conversation anymore. I wince remembering it. Looking back, I could no doubt have negotiated that moment infinitely more graciously.
David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013
Finally, I came right out and asked Hartwell if he would consider reading my manuscript. To my surprise and delight, he agreed, and offered to take it right then and there. But I hadn’t brought the manuscript with me. I hadn’t even thought to put it on a USB key. I figured I would just email it to him.
Also, there was the business of last five pages. I asked him if that was a problem. He said, “No. Just make sure the first five pages are perfect.”
I assured him that I would.
He invited me to dine with him and Rob and several others. I would have loved to, but I had already accepted an offer from my friend to drive me home.
When I got home I was quite excited about getting my manuscript to Hartwell. I realized I hadn’t asked Hartwell for his email address. I emailed Rob and asked him for it. Rob responded right away. In his email, Rob warned me that Hartwell was notorious for taking forever to respond. This fact was quite well known in SF circles, I think, but it was the first I’d heard of it. It was my first hint that Hartwell might take, well, forever to respond. Rob also suggested I only send the first five pages.
I opted to send the entire first chapter, but I didn’t send it to Hartwell right away. I took his advice about making the first five pages perfect. I enlisted the aid of a couple of friends to edit the first chapter. This was another instance of obnoxiousness on my part, presuming upon my friends to get their edits to me quickly. Which they did. Brilliant edits, which improved the first chapter immensely.
I sent it to Hartwell, reminding him of who I was, that we had spoken, and that he had generously agreed to look at the manuscript.
He never replied to tell me got it. I thought, this doesn’t bode well. He’s seventy years old, I told myself. Maybe he doesn’t have email etiquette down. Or more likely, I’m just some pipsqueak who’s not actually important enough to respond to.
For the next year, though, I felt like I could tell people that, hey, yeah, my manuscript’s at Tor Books with their senior editor, they’re taking a look at it.
A little over a year later I decided, well, enough of that nonsense.
I wrote Hartwell a friendly email with the intention of letting him off the hook, to make sure I could show the book elsewhere with impunity. I did not expect a response.
To my absolute astonishment, he replied within two hours. He apologized for not having gotten around to reading my submission. He said I was free to show the book around elsewhere, but promised to find the time within the next couple of months to read it. He wrote that he was “really sorry to have disappointed” me.
It was a humble, gracious note.
I never heard from him again, at least via email.
I met Hartwell for the last time at the CANCON writer’s conference in Ottawa in October 2015. We ran into one another in the hall in the Sheraton, where (again, somewhat to my astonishment) he greeted me like an old friend, and we stood and talked and he told me personal details of goings on in his life that I might have expected from a close friend. I told him that I was considering a publishing deal with another publisher, Five Rivers Press (I signed the contract two days later). Hartwell said he didn’t mind losing out to another publisher, so long as the book got published. I thought, he didn’t mind losing out? He thought he was losing out??! I didn’t pursue it.
We spoke again the next day, when fellow author Melissa Yuan-Innes and I ran into him in the hotel bar, after he insisted on taking a picture of Melissa in her faerie wings (did I mention it was Hallowe’en?). I happened to remark that I was rereading Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogy. He said (as I have written elsewhere), “I rejected that trilogy.”
John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell
I was talking to a man who had rejected Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogy.
It wasn’t that he didn’t see the value in the series. He explained that Donaldson had originally submitted the first three books as a single volume. To make it work had ultimately required a massive amount of work on the part of Lester Del Rey, an investment in time that Hartwell couldn’t commit to at the time.
Knowing that Hartwell had rejected one of my favourite series, I immediately felt better about him not accepting my book (technically, he never did reject my novel).
A fact I have observed about my life: whenever I want something really bad, I often don’t get it. Instead I get something else. Something that, at first glance, doesn’t look anywhere near as appealing, but that in the end is really just a weird-ass portal to something beautiful (to paraphrase author Lidia Yuknavitch). For instance, when I was in Grade Seven, I wanted to play the trumpet in the junior high school band. I got the baritone instead. I came to love the baritone, a sweet sounding brass instrument which frequently played the melody of whatever piece we were playing. As was so often the case, it was only much later that I realized I’d lucked out.
Dr. Robert Runte and Me
I wish I could believe that I have some kind of guardian angel protecting me, steering me towards what’s best for me. I know that’s not the case. Probably I view what actually happens as positive because I’ve cultivated a positive attitude. Because the fact is we are not guaranteed positive outcomes. Bad things happen. Good people, talented people, important people fall down stairs and die.
I have lucked out with my novel, though. I’ve found a Canadian version of David Hartwell in the form of Robert Runte, who is currently editing A Time and a Place for Five Rivers Press. He’s the perfect man for the job. I couldn’t be happier about it.
In the meantime, I was privileged to have known (however briefly, however tangentially) a man many believe to have been one of the three greatest, most influential editors in the history of science fiction.
David Geddes Hartwell passed away January 20th, 2016.