Word Vancouver: From Comics to Kids Lit

WORD2015

This year at Word Vancouver, I decided I’d go to sessions that I might not typically be drawn to, especially comic books and Kids Lit.

First stop was a panel of children’s authors. One of the authors walked us through the steps she takes to create an animal character as the subject of a rhyming poem.  I really enjoyed that. Four authors spoke about how much going into the schools and reading to kids is an integral part of what’s required of children’s authors. That sounds like a fun thing. And as always happens, which is why it’s important to attend events such as this if you write, my own ideas came bubbling up as background all throughout the talks. Think of it as creative mind mapping, silently but stealthily, a running commentary of possibilities mingled. Creative thought begets creative thought.

I listened to Caroline Woodward, who had worked in the publishing industry for 30 years. She was speaking about living at the Lennard Island Lighthouse at the entrance to Clayoquot Sound near Tofino. Being one half of a lighthouse keeper has enabled her to get back to her first love, writing. Her latest book, Light Years, is about her time at the various light stations where she and her husband, Jeff George, started as relief lightkeepers. George’s photographs in slideshow format were a nice touch. Woodward’s favourite lighthouse is Nootka because of its history and its natural beauty.

I didn’t even know there were still people working at lighthouses anymore. Apparently seven of the 23 people who are stationed at lighthouses in B.C. are couples.

I listened to John Vaillant whom, of course, I’d heard about but had never seen in person or read before. He gave a compelling  intro to his book  The Jaguar’s Children and the life and death crossing into the USA of an illegal immigrant.  His reading and the prose was so precise that it was a clear lesson in how a compelling presence mixed with vivid language does indeed go a long way towards selling books. He said a teenage boy’s voice came to him clear as day one day while he was working on something else. He felt compelled to carry that voice onto the page.  This happened while he spent nine months living in Oaxaca with his wife who is a potter. Perhaps the spirits visited him. Perhaps they knew he was someone who could do their story justice.

It was cool to hear the journey of The Flour Peddler by brothers Chris and Josh Hergesheimer. Their original focus on local grains and farmers’ markets in B.C. (starting in Roberts Creek) eventually took them on a global journey to South Sudan. Their bicycle-powered flour mill is adding efficiency to small farmers there. Chris is now in Ecuador doing Ph.D. work through UBC’s Land and Food Systems faculty.

I found it kind of sad to hear the trials of cartoonist David Boswell and the trajectory of his comic, Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman. What began as just a one-off, one pager for The Georgia Straight back in the day, developed a small cult-like following with a script eventually optioned for a movie at Warner Brothers Pictures only to be quashed at the 11th hour by the executives who just didn’t get the humour.  That’s funny actually! The script remains locked in the vault there, stuck in limbo, history.  Boswell showed a movie that one of his nephews made about him with guest appearances by Matt Groening and others who sang his praises and the genius of the character, Reid Fleming.

The last session I attended was by Michael Kluckner. The local artist and heritage advocate has put together a graphic novel, a love story, called Toshiko.  I was surprised to learn that not all Japanese families were interned during WWII. Some lived independently, specifically up in Tappen, B.C., and Squilax near Salmon Arm where they worked on a farm called Calhoun’s.

I really tried not to buy but resistance is futile when it comes to books. I have to laugh at my purchases though which are more a reflection of proximity and mood than a strategic plan since I didn’t actually end up buying The Jaguar’s Children. I bought The Flour Peddler, Toshiko and Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life.  Boswell was selling his comic book, a signed copy for a Toonie, so I got one of those as well. Go figure?

Did you go to Word this year? What stood out for you?

Germany: Where Publishing Dreams can come true

This is a tale of publishing success far and beyond what most writers will ever come close to accomplishing, and yet few North Americans know this author’s name.

He was born in Germany, as a child he barely survived WWII. He emigrated to Canada at 10, grew up in Kitimat, went to university, gained an M.A. and became a college instructor in the humanities. He is a husband, father, and educator, who, in the 1980s, traded academia for the creation of a life carved from his own talents as compelling as the stories carved into the iconic poles of the First Nations artists in his adopted home.

ulrichHis name is Ulrich G. Schaffer. He lives in Gibsons, BC, in a house with an unobstructed sightline out into the Strait of Georgia where, perhaps the water helps waves of inspiration wash over him as regularly as the waves that lick the beach.

After initial success in the 1970s, with eight books published by U.S. publisher Harper & Row (Fitzhenry & Whiteside in Canada), he’s continued to write and to try and get the attention of publishers in North America to no avail. He still receives small royalties from these early, previously published works.

When he turned from North America as a place to market his books, and headed to Germany, his birthplace, he found his niche. Ulrich has written over 150 different books, poetry, novels, large format coffee-table photography books, illustrated texts and calendars.

To date, he has sold more than 5 million copies of his books, (yes, 5 million!), published and sold in Europe. They have been translated into 10 languages. His poetry, some traditional, most what he refers to as spiritual texts, is often accompanied by his stunning nature photography, a few of his reflection images here.

Ulrich-Reflections

Ulrich-Reflections2

I think of his story as a tale of what happens when you’re a round peg trying to fit into a square hole and in a time of ever-shrinking traditional book publishing real-estate. But that would diminish his accomplishments.

For me, he offers an inspiring glimpse of what’s possible when you believe in your work, stay true to yourself and your dreams, and find a way to be entrepreneurial; to think differently about what’s possible.

It’s a story about how much a faithful audience matters, how loyal readers can take the soul of your books to their own hearts and remain keen to explore what you have to say, book after book, year after year. Perhaps it’s an extreme example of what happens when you find your audience, no matter where that might be in the world.

“Many people tell me they’ve lived with my books for 30 years. They write to me. They tell me stories about what the book has meant to them. They eagerly await the next one,” he says.

He is a man at the beginning of his eighth decade, married for 50 years to Waltraud Gursche. He’s especially intrigued by the complexities, the mysteries, and the possibilities in the connection between human beings. Fascinated by all types of love -deep, real, complex -not the idealized and bastardized version most of us have been raised on via television romantic comedies.

Ulrich first came to my attention in a conversation with Cathy MacLean, a classmate from SFU’s Writer’s Studio (2012). She met Ulrich when she was a student in one of his humanities classes at Douglas College in New Westminster in the 1970’s. It just so happens, they both now live in Gibsons.

In spite of more than a few anecdotes at frustrated attempts to get any publisher’s attention in Canada, he’s still hopeful he might find one again.

This year marks his 53rd trip to Europe in 33 years. On book tours, he typically visits 25 European cities and sells approximately $2000 worth of books a night. Without coming across as boasting, just matter of fact, he says, per book, he makes five times what he would make from a royalty off a book published by a trade publisher, which is how, in Germany, he’s made most of his income. He’s only switched to self-publishing in the past few years. He is currently working on a book about the relationship between Francis of Assisi and Clare.

I want to know why he even wants to bother with Canadian publishing given his success in Europe? Why does it matter to him? Is he still labouring under the stigma that only a book published by another is more valuable? Not really. After all, he has worked with those publishers in Germany. He says it’s this:  At 71 years of age, he would like to focus solely on what he’s most passionate about: writing and photography, not publishing his own work.

Ulrich Schaffer’s desk

Desk of Ulrich

The view from his deck
Ulrich-Viewfromdeck

***

This is how I decided to write this blog post. One morning I woke up, perused my Twitterfeed, and read a link that detailed the potential that exists for English writers via self-publishing in Germany. I immediately thought about a friend, Cathy MacLean, and Ulrich, a friend of hers that she’d mention in passing. I sent her an e-mail, got his number, and picked up the phone to enter into a delightful conversation. He’s sent me the PDF of a short novel called Izzabelle and Erich that, after his compelling description, I can’t wait to read.

So what do you think? Has your way of thinking about self-publishing changed in the last couple of years? Or are you staying steadfastly committed to the idea that landing a traditional publisher to push your story out into the world is the highest form of success when it comes to writing? If so, why?

A Road Trip on the Rocky Route to Publishville

Salmon Arm Wharf

The Word on the Lake Festival. Salmon Arm, B.C. May 2014 long weekend.

I peruse the list of presenters. Diana Gabaldon. Gary Geddes. Carmen Aguirre. Anne Eriksson. Gail Anderson-Dargatz. David Essig. C.C. Humphreys and others.

My gaze then passes over two more names: Howard White. Owner of Harbour Publishing. Carolyn Swayze of Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency.

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAT? Are you kidding me? The two people I most want to talk to in BC publishing? In Salmon Arm! Together.

Where else would I have an opportunity to talk to these two and why, God, must it be there, in that place named after a West Coast fish and a rather useful but wholly mundane human appendage: Salmon Arm.

Now. Let me be clear. Salmon Arm is really pretty. A cute little town. For some people, I’m sure it’s a great place to live. Never mind that Trudeau gave it the finger. You have to have lived there, hated it, and survived to relate to the gesture.

Someone has written, ‘Smile, God Loves you,’ on a building. And that’s the first hint. There’s something creepy underneath all that tidy organized. That subtle crack in the Leave it to Beaver brings a sense of relief to me, reaffirms just one of the reasons I grew to hate the place and here are a few more.

In 1979, I played on a championship high school basketball team ranked No. 1 in the province and we lost to the Salmon Arm Jewels in the final game of the BC Girls Basketball Championships. Years later, when my eldest sister was terminally ill at only 43 years of age; when she lay dying from breast cancer that had metastasized, she went into a coma while spending her last days at Eagle Bay, a nearby area. My first love/hate relationship with journalism began at the Salmon Arm Observer, a sentence that lasted 18 months.  It was also the first place where I lost it enough (the first time) to need to go to counselling and god knows that did not end well–not for me, and definitely not for the counsellor.

I haven’t set foot back in Salmon Arm–on purpose–for more than 14 years and I had no intention of ever going there again in this lifetime.

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…” It’s as if the Salmon Arm city limits are my very own fiery gates of hell; a test I must keep passing. Way too many important life exchanges, proportionately, have happened for me in the confines of its geography. Surely, I must have lived a couple of past lives there as the only plausible explanation.

An internal pull of intuition persisted. I knew from experience it was futile to resist.  Just shut up, get in the car and drive.

So I did.

Before I left, however, I made sure I had my query, the first 10 pages of my manuscript, my bio, and just in case there was any opportunity to hand it to either Swayze or White, a manila envelope to put it in.

Five hours later, I arrive. The next day, I miss an appointment with Howard White that some fabulous volunteer had to work really hard to get me. They call it a blue pencil. Might have even involved a sexual favour for all I know. Only one problem. They forgot to tell me. At the end of the afternoon, I hear the sad news. Appointment? What appointment? I missed it? With Howard? Are you kidding me? Damn!

Oh well. Not meant to be. I walk towards the elevator to go back to my room. When I look up he’s standing beside me. I suddenly forget his name. We move into the elevator. I don’t miss a beat. His name comes back to my adled brain.  I introduce myself. I ramble off the premise of my manuscript as quickly as an auctioneer trying to sell antique jewelry. He looks back a little dazed and wholly uninterested.

The festival continues. Mingling and learning abound. Fast forward to Sunday.  Carolyn Swayze’s workshop ends. It’s now or never. I ask her if she’d be willing to look at my query and my first 10 pages. “As long as your contact info’s on it,” she says. She takes the envelope.

It’s not much, but it’s something. I’m happy. I try to imagine the pile it will get chucked onto back at her office on Tuesday.

I proceed to the last workshop of the day. Howard White begins at the front of Room 136, Okanagan College. Next thing I know, Carolyn Swayze enters the room and takes the seat directly in front of me. I overhear a conversation that indicates she’s only there to wait for her ride. She begins to fidget. Of course she’s bored. She’s heard all this before.

She reaches down and takes something out of her bag. Oh my god. Is that mine? Is that my manuscript? She lifts the manila envelope and removes the white pages. She puts it down on the table in front of her, her head bends and she begins to read.

I inch forward in my seat.  I hold my breath. I’m almost close enough to lick the back of her neck. I’m bobbing left and right, past her head, over her left shoulder, straining to see what page she’s on.  I feel like a stalker but, hey, just a minute, I was seated first.

I’m horrified and ecstatic as I watch her turn the pages.  It’s like witnessing a bad car accident and being proposed to in the very same second.  I’m watching Carolyn Swayze reading the first 10 pages of my manuscript to pass the time while Howard White drones on, directly in my line of vision, at the front of the room.

Is she still reading? What page is she on? Why’s she looking up? Is that part boring her? I can fix that. We can fix it together, Carolyn. You can get me an editor. Focus on the potential. I will my thoughts to penetrate her cranium with laser beam precision.

It’s as if my dead sister looking down upon me has intervened. She’s saying, ‘oh, for heaven’s sake, can we just get on with this. Can you just get on with the next chapter of your real life and start living again, not writing? You’re boring me and I’m already dead.’

Howard White’s voice continues to dub over this surreal scene.

It’s too funny.

It’s enough to bring a big fat smile to my face and keep it there – Cheshire cat-like – all the way back down the Coquihalla Highway.

Mission accomplished.

Just add personality

personalityforwebsmallIt’s pretty obvious, after going to countless number of book readings over the years, that it’s no longer good enough to be a great writer.

If you’re a great writer and you’re really boring then do yourself (and the audience) a favour and don’t read in public. Bask in the book sales that your story, your intellect, your unique take on the world, or your research has garnered.  In other words, let the audience read your magic but don’t inflict yourself, in person, on them. None of us can be all things to all people and it’s good to know one’s strengths.

Not only do writers have to write a great story these days but they also have to be able to tell the interesting stories behind that story, to be equally enticing a character as the characters they’ve brought to life on the page.  Are you worthy of a paragraph or two according to someone other than your mother?

But it’s not fair, you say. Writing the damn thing was hard enough. Now you want me to be Margaret Cho as well?

A friend who was a bookseller a decade or two ago told me her Farley Mowat encounter story the other day. She was in her twenties or thereabouts. She was standing with another young attractive female employee outside the bookstore at a large department store in downtown Vancouver where Mowat was going to be reading/signing books. When he showed up and  they went to the door to greet him, he said, “I won’t come in unless you kiss me.” He was in his late 40s or thereabouts then.  I’m not sure that’s personality as much as just your run-of-the-mill randy old guy (and he wasn’t that old then) but on the wake of his death it captures an aspect of his personality that, apparently, was well known. Afterwards, he went on to write a salacious little snippet in the book purchased by the other young woman.

Of course I want to hear a bit of the author’s writing when I attend a reading but mostly I want to hear the stories behind the story. Why this idea? What prompted that plot? Your struggles with writing it. Your process. The people you met while you were standing on that desolate beach trying to get a feel for the place. All the other wannabe writers hoping one day to be on that stage where the featured writer is presenting are just as eager to receive a PetSmart-styled literary treat as well.

I think back to a few of the personalities who also happen to be able to write who are/were masters at entertaining their audiences:

Tomson Highway at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest some time in the 1980s reading from The Fur Queen.

The late Peter Matthiessen on Salt Spring at ArtSpring in 2008 because of the stories he told about the on the ground research he did in writing The Snow Leopard.

The late Maeve Binchy in the first very funny 15 minutes of her intro to the reading of her book Tara Road back in 1998. At least, I think that was the book. See. I’m a little unclear about the book, but I didn’t forget her intro at the Vancouver International Writer’s Fest.

Patrick Lane at a reading at the Sechelt Writer’s Fest introducing his new book, There is a Season: A Memoir. I now can’t even recall why but the way he was, his persona, stood out for me.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz because she is really funny and once again, I’m not positive but it may have been the release of her book Recipe for Bees, but it could just as likely have been Rhinestone Button. I don’t remember. I do remember it was at Sechelt and she kept the audience in stitches leading up to her reading.

The late Frank McCourt at the Chan Centre at UBC, in his glory, centre stage, and yet he might as well have been having a chat at his local pub with the audience sitting in the next booth eavesdropping his interaction he was that elegant in the casualness of his storytelling. Damn Irish! They’ve got an advantage.

The biggest shock to this day, for me, was probably Margaret Atwood. Maybe circa 1985. UBC. A Saturday night on a cold fall evening. She was wearing a floor-length black cloak, hood up, and when she opened her mouth to read, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the voice of the woman whose words on the printed page had kept me riveted was as monotone as white paint drying. It was almost painful/irritating to listen to her. It’s still hard for me to believe that the person I saw and heard then is the same Twitter feed personality now, and with a sense of humour. I guess she’s loosened up a bit.

You get the idea. I don’t live in New York.  I haven’t been to too many readings of the cream of the crop of glorified literati. And my choices have been limited by my ability to remember.

What about you? Any really interesting authors who are also great readers/presenters stand out for you? Do tell! Or maybe you find the whole idea of authors having to be dog and pony shows offensive. Whatever.