Is that proper grammar? “Me and the Mermaid”? Should it be “The Mermaid and I”?
It’s amazing how much I don’t give a shit.
So here we are, two blog posts in one day! Or maybe three or four! I’ve got some stuff in the draft folder to put up. And over a month without a blog post. That’s very erratic. I suppose I’m a bad blogger. I need to be consistent, and I sure as hell need to put some effort into making these blog posts search-friendly.
I’m pretty sure no one is reading. Blogs are a thing of the past. They’ve been replaced by Instagram, or Snapchat, or Twitter or Tik Tok. There’s endless merry go round of social media that we’re all supposed to be on and current with, or I dunno, they’ll take away our avatars.
Did I say Merry Go Round? More like a baroque game of musical chairs, except the chairs are constantly replaced with random furniture.
But what do I know? I’m only on Facebook and this blog, which in modern terms is the equivalent of two tin cans with a piece of string. I might as well have a Myspace profile.
This offers a certain freedom. I can write about whatever. Maybe someone will read it. Maybe no one will.
It doesn’t really matter.
I find I say that a lot these days.
Anyway, on the Goodbye to LEXX blog post, I mentioned a certain something. I thought I’d fill in that blank.
The very best, the most satisfying, the most profoundly feel good moment of my lifetime career was telling Titan Books to go fuck themselves, and killing a book.
The worst? That was the day I finally sold my novel.
I have a slightly complicated relationship with the Mermaid’s Tale. It was my “important” novel. I spent years writing and writing and writing, doing short stories and articles. The Mermaid’s Tale was always in the back of my mind coalescing. The characters and the situations, the moral architecture of the thing. Finally, I decided I was good enough to write a novel.
I did my practice novel – Bloodsucker, an existentialist vampire novel.
Then I did the Mermaid’s Tale.
I wrote it, was very happy with it. My writers group, people like Steve Erickson, David Keck, Governor General Award winner Ian Ross, and others were all impressed.
Back then I’d trained myself to send out short stories steadily, and get rejections back. I had a box of rejections and a very thick skin. I was buying writers digest, reference books, market research. So I just jumped into the world, sending it out to every publisher that seemed a fit, and to agents.
I came close a couple of times. Roc Books was actually interested but had used up their budget for the year. They asked me to resubmit in six months, but by that time they’d lost interest.
Anyway, I beat all the drums, pounded all the pavement.
My last reply was from an Agent who advised that they’d read up to page fifty and then were horrified by a particularly brutal and callous scene, and shut it down.
Ouch, I’d traumatized an agent.
There didn’t seem to be any other place to send it. So I stuck it in the drawer, worked on other projects, none of which went anywhere, which is typical.
Flash forward a few years – past all the upsets and implosions of life, past the LEXX debacle. I’m getting back into writing, trying to be a writer again. My life has enough stability finally, and happiness that, I can mess about. Reconnect with something I love. Reconnect with the community.
Anyway, I have some old friends or at least contacts.
One of them was Robert Runte, so I sent him a “Merry Christmas” one year.
Robert sends me back a “Merry Christmas” and mentions that he’s editing for Five River’s Press. He used to like my stuff back in the day.
Why don’t I submit?
Why not, I think. I’ve go this cool sword and sorcery thing, he’d really liked a draft he’d seen. So I get to work on that.
About a week or so before the deadline, I hear back. No, no, no! Don’t send that! The publisher hates that kind of stuff. Maybe something else?
So I looked around, and there’s the Mermaid’s Tale sitting in the trunk. I’d always liked it, and I thought it was important.
Here’s a thing with writers – there’s stuff that we do, there’s stuff that we do for fun, and now and then, there’s stuff that’s important to us, that for whatever reason, we seem to invest ourselves in extra deeply, stuff that’s pivotal. When you’re a writer, all your books and stories are your children. But certain of those children will be extra special and dear to your heart.
So blew the dust off, and figured why not?
I sent it in, and then I made a point of forgetting about it and getting on with my life.
April 8, 2015, at 9:20 pm, I get an email from Robert Runte.
“The Mermaid’s Tale isn’t just good. It’s Fucking Brilliant! The manuscript blew me away!”
He says a lot of complimentary things. It’s effusive, and sincere. I’ve just made his day. A few months later, he’d walk past me at a convention panel, without knowing I was there, and announce that the Mermaid’s Tale was the book he wanted to be remembered for, the one that would make his reputation as an editor.
Seriously, I’d been pushing this boulder up this hill for over twenty years. This was success, finally, after so many years of rejections, of things going wrong, disasters, just all the crap, including indifference. I should have been dancing around the room. It should have been glorious. After all those years, to receive an acceptance, and an acceptance like that. Holy shit!
I didn’t feel a damned thing.
I was numb.
You see, just previously, at about 9:05 or 9:10 pm, my brother had called me to tell me about Dad’s cancer. Dad was in the hospital and it was looking pretty bad, he was pretty weak. He’d been fighting cancer for a decade, but now he was in steep decline, the spiral was starting. My father was entering his death march, it could be weeks or months, but it was starting.
This man who had been an anchor of my life, who had taught me and terrorized me, whose approval I’d always sought, who I’d rebelled against, this man who was an inspiration and a cautionary tale, whose shadow had always loomed, and who always, always a larger than life figure. This man who had been a giant, immortal, unstoppable, this figure of iron strength. This man I loved was dying.
We had a very practical conversation, my brother and I. We were raised practical. We talked it over. I thanked him. We hung up it. It had been brief.
This vast, suffocating darkness spread over me.
That was when I opened my email and read “Fucking Brilliant!” and didn’t feel a thing, just numbness and black, spreading despair.
After that, they were inextricably tied together in my mind, this novel and my father’s death.
I couldn’t even look at the contract initially, not for a couple of months. Even when I looked at it and signed it, on the eve of some new decline by my father, I couldn’t bear to discuss it, except in the most perfunctory way.
Publication and my father’s decline seemed to march in tandem, as if linked together, the timing synchronizing again and again. The contract, and galley proofs, working with the artist, the back cover copy.
Intellectually, I understood I was having an amazing degree of input into the publication process. You don’t normally get to discuss your cover with the artist or work out ideas. You’re not normally invited to approve or rewrite your back cover copy. I owe a huge debt for such considerations.
But I remember just the two things proceeding side by side, like two horses in traces. Even when they weren’t directly together, they were still together. My helpless grief and frustration transposed to the novel. I hated it, I raged. And then I’d be practical and understand that they weren’t actually joined, that I had a job to do whether it was proofing the galleys or talking to the artist and I’d get on with it. And sometimes, lying alone at night, free of presence and the duties of practicality to either of them, I’d feel the emotions wash over me, all twisted and tangled together, and I’d go a little crazy.
My father was on the coast. I was on the prairie. My publisher was in the center of the country. Everything was simultaneously remote and far away. It was all distant and abstract, except that it was personal and demanding.
I never mentioned the novel to him, or the sale.
The imminence of death makes every fucking thing in your life seem so trivial.
Worse than trivial. It seemed so selfish, so shallow, so stupid and empty.
I wanted to tell him. I wanted to say “Hey Dad, this thing I’ve wanted and worked towards my whole life, I finally broke through.”
I never did.
Because he was dying. And it was about him and his death. It was about facing this looming mortality. There was really no point. Talk about myself? Talk about this pointless, stupid, little thing? That would have been so selfish and petty.
So I never brought it up.
I just left it off the table, and concentrated on more important things with him
I kept in touch regularly, as regularly as he could bear. He fell behind on bills, I paid them, the ones I knew about.
I went out a few times. And each time, this giant of a man that I’d crown up with seemed smaller, frailer, almost translucent. He still went to the garage every day, or every other day. Not for the full day anymore, just a few hours.
He was tired a lot. He laid in bed more and more. Going to the bathroom was tiring, he kept a bucket by the bed to piss in. He shit the bed now and then, something that scandalized my brother. His common law, Sue, had to struggle to keep up with that.
That’s the thing with dying. There’s no fucking dignity in death. Whether in a hospital room or at home or wherever. It’s not pretty or easy, and certainly it’s never dignified. You piss, you shit yourself, your organs shut down, you bleed out. There’s pain and discomfort. You lose yourself by inches. No part of dying is pretty, it’s the slow loss of dignity and self.
I remember one of the last times I was out, he was restless so he drove to the fish store and bought crab legs, a maritime delicacy. We sat there together for a meal, just cracking them open and sucking the meat.
He said they had no taste, and for some reason, it broke my heart. It just seemed so unfair that these fewer and fewer pleasures would fade like that. There ought to be taste, there ought to be some satisfaction and pleasure in eating, as the end comes close. It felt wrong. And cold, it felt cold, because it was another sign the shadows were coming close.
I didn’t get out there as often as I should have. I did what I could.
We spoke by phone on my birthday, before the end. It was horrific.
Some days after that call, my brother called to tell me to come home. We were at the end. I was there the next day. He was already unconscious. Our sister was in Australia, I called her and put the phone next to his ear. It was so clear, it was like she was in the room. He writhed and moved as she spoke, maybe her voice slid into her dreams. I don’t think he knew me and my brother were there.
He died after a couple of days.
He never woke up.
The book published.
I’ll give you the Coles notes versions. The reviews were spectacular, and continued to be spectacular. The sales were decidedly not.
There were weird indignities.
I missed my own book launch. I didn’t even know they were doing a book launch for me until I got an email mentioning it. I wrote back “Terrific! Where? When?” Turns out the book launch was at a festival called When Words Collide in Calgary. So immediately, I tried to sign up. Turns out they were full, not accepting registrations. I thought okay, I’ll go up there and I’ll sneak in. The hotels were all booked.
They had the book launch without me. I hear it went well. It’s kind of a funny story, sometimes I tell it for laughs.
It just felt like more sad sack loser-dom, like I was getting revolving ‘fuck you’ notes from God.
Despite it all, I did my best for the novel. I sought out interviews, went to conventions, did panels and readings, set up Face book pages, eventually got a web site together, submitted to book awards, and even got short-listed for an award.
Sometimes it was painful. It would come and go. Sometimes I was okay, and sometimes it like being flayed. I remember doing a reading at the Chi-Zine series at McNealy Robinson, and it was just fucking excruciating, I locked everything down and kept moving forward. But all I wanted to do was throw up. It was probably my worst reading ever.
That Christmas, as part of exchanging pleasantries, with my publisher, I mentioned the project I’d started working on, a prequel to the Mermaid’s Tale called The Luck.
She sent me a contract for it with the next email.
I think the description impressed her.
Grief consumed me.
It drove the novel: A conversation the protagonist has with a dying man; the moments of losing her people; losing a new adoptive family; losing a friend she loved; coming to terms with loss; eventually falling in love and knowing in the end she has to give that up. Grief pervades the novel, the pain of loss and the struggle to live with it in all the different ways. It both drove the novel, and it slowed me from writing. I wrote all over the place, all kinds of things. Grief pervaded everything I wrote.
The truth of grief is that it doesn’t really go away. You just learn to live with it. Day after day after day passes, and you have to deal with all the random bullshit of living, and it covers it. Like an oyster coating some bit of grit over and over until it’s a pearl. That’s what it’s like, the grief is always there, just kind of buried after a while in the layers of having to live.
Eventually, the Luck was delivered, and they loved it, they were ecstatic. It was all set to be published.
And then Five Rivers Publisher closed down, a month or so before the Luck was to see print.
Another little ‘fuck you’ note from God, as I like to call them.
The rights to both The Luck and The Mermaid’s Tale reverted back to me.
Which is nice. The writer getting screwed over by one random fluke or another is beyond a universal standard in the industry. Everyone but everyone has scars and war stories, and a lot of brilliant people have to start from zero, or end up with dead careers because of random shit. I’m lucky to have had a novel out in the world. I’m luckier to have the rights back. In that sense, I did okay.
But it’s kind of poisoned a little bit.
The Mermaid’s Tale is always going to carry a little bit of the shadow of my father’s death. It’ll never be far away. I don’t talk about it, I don’t inflict it on people. But it’s there. It’s always going to be.
It kind of poisoned writing for me.
Obviously, I still write. I mean here I am.
You know what? I’d quit if I could. I’d quit and do something useful with my life. I wish I’d never started, I wish this wasn’t a part of me. Maybe I’d be a better lawyer. Maybe I’d have been a better husband, maybe I’d have been a father. Maybe I’d have done more and better things with my life,
Maybe I could have been a fucking human being.
But here I am. I can’t let it go. It’s half pathology and half therapy. Even when I quit, I just come back to it in some stupid futile way.
I feel like I’ve gone past the point, the age, where I would have had a career. And if I’m past that, what do I have now?
I do this self publishing thing, I think I’ve got about fifteen books or so out. Mostly the self publishing isn’t commercial, it’s a matter of clearing out the hard drive, things that feel worthwhile, but aren’t going to make money. I just want them out in the world, instead of sitting in fields of electrons waiting for the next hard drive crash. Or at some point, waiting to be consigned as electronic waste as my executors clear away the traces of my life.
Or maybe there’s no point to it. What difference does it make to get it out into the world or not?
I think there’s a certain desperation at work in me.
My commercial work, or the novels and projects that I think have commercial potential, that some publisher might want to buy, some agent might want to represent, a bookstore might want to sell – those I save to pitch to agents, or send to contests or publishers that accept un-agented manuscripts.
My heart is broken and my soul is poisoned, I’m past my prime and still I’m chasing that brass ring, and I don’t know why any more.
Sometimes I’m so angry and frustrated, that I want to throw things across the room.
But in the end, I buckle down and suck it up, and chase that brass ring.
I’m not even sure why?
Stubbornness? That I never give up and never back down, even when it’s completely, tragically futile? Maybe it’s just a ‘fuck you’ to an obstinate world, meeting it with my own mindless obstinacy.
On some level, am I still clinging to this illusion, this notion that there’s some satisfaction to be found? Some catharsis? Some validation for a wasted life? Is that hope even a possibility? Maybe?
Maybe I just don’t feel like I have anything else left in my life.
Someone once described introspection as a ‘pit of scorpions.’ I can understand that. I find myself thinking of that poem by Housman, “Terrance this is stupid stuff” and his couplet “Malt does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to man.”
In the end, there’s no point in endlessly going around in circles. You live in the world. You deal with what’s before you, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. I write because that’s who I am. If I chase the brass ring because I don’t have anything else, well that’s a good enough reason to chase it. Maybe there will be satisfaction, maybe there won’t.
But it’s my life, and I’ll live it.
As for the Mermaid’s Tale, boys and girls, well I’m a practical guy. There’s always going to be that bad taste, at best bittersweet. It’s still a good book, and it’s still important to me. You can’t put your heart into something and then just close it. I hope it finds a place out in the world again.
If I can find a publisher or agent for it, sure thing. The reviews were astonishing. I like to think with the right backing it could have real legs.
A very small press did seem to express possible interest, but that felt like a step sideways and slightly back. I wasn’t really interested. If it has a chance to go somewhere, I’d like to go forward.
The trouble is that having been published, even out of print now, I think it’s kind of burned for Agents and Editors. Or at least, that’s generally how the talk goes about previously published manuscripts.
So the Mermaid’s Tale is a little bit back burnered.
On the other hand, I’ve got the Luck, an unpublished prequel, which is possibly the best thing I’ve ever done. I think its best to try to lead with that one.
So far, a big pile of ‘No.’ But then I’m kind of crap with query letters and approaches. I’ll stick with it and see what happens.
Unless of course, I get cancer or something, in which case everything goes up and out into the world, self pub, because I have no intention of going out like John Kennedy Toole (author of Confederacy of Dunces, unpublished and unpublishable in life, posthumously discovered and Pulitzer Prize winning in death).