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.