#123 Ernest Hekkanen
February 09th, 2016
LOCATION: New Orphic Gallery, 706 Mill Street, Nelson. Directions: Near the intersection of Mill and Hall, four blocks from Selkirk College.
Ernest Hekkanen’s intimidating versatility and productivity have increasingly defied easy categorization and marketing. Although Hekkanen is clearly one of British Columbia’s most remarkable writers, his work is seldom recognized in mainstream publications and Canada’s literary festivals have consistently overlooked him. Library systems and bookstores depend on established conduits for ordering books, leaving staunchly independent producers such as Hekkanen out in the cold. His work frequently points to dark but universal recesses of the mind. As a sophisticated do-it-yourselfer, Hekkanen has gradually outpaced Adolf Hungry Wolf as British Columbia’s most prolific and serious self-publisher. He and partner Margrith Schrander also operate the New Orphic Gallery and New Orphic Review from their home.
Born in Seattle on April 27, 1947, of Finnish heritage, Ernest Hekkanen waited until his 47th book, False Memories, to describe a pivotal event in the Seventh Grade, at Lynnwood Junior High School, which would strongly influence him for the rest of his life. He later condensed the story:
“I found myself in a block class full of misfits, underachievers and emotionally disturbed children. When I surveyed my fellow classmates, I couldn’t fathom what I was doing among them. Our teacher, Tiny Thorton, ruled the class with an iron fist. He began the school year with an illustrated lecture, one that necessitated putting a ‘guinea pig’ on display. That year the role of ‘guinea pig’ fell to me. He strapped me into a straitjacket and proceeded to lecture us on how our bad attitudes had come to straitjacket our lives. According to him, most of us would end up failures of one kind or another, if we were unable to shirk the attitudes that had come to confine us. My role was demonstrate how difficult it would be to get out of the straitjacket each and every one of us had come to wear. Were I to get out of it I would be allowed to smoke in class for the rest of the school year, but were I to fail, the other kids were given permission to throw spit wads and crumpled balls of paper at me… Needless to say, I didn’t get out of the straitjacket, and needless to say, I swore I’d never be put in one ever again.”
Fast forward to 1969 when, after deciding to move to Canada as a draft evader in 1969, Ernest Hekkanen was dropped off on Main Street in Vancover by a friend. “I wasn’t of the Quaker faith or any other religious tradition opposed to the war,” he has written. “I simply objected to the Vietnam War, and the atrocities being perpetrated on our behalf.”
With his first wife and children he lived in Port Moody, working at job he hated in die-casting foundry, often writing on an old Underwood typewriter between three and seven in the morning before going to work. After eleven years in his adopted country, he applied for Canadian citizenship, partly out of pragmatism because he hoped he might be able to gain access to some fellowships or bursaries that would enable him to obtain an MFA in creative writing.
Hekkanen lived in Vancouver as an independent contractor/carpenter and gradually shed an early affiliation as a writer with magic realism. Hekkanen’s early fabulist fiction was compared to that of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Samuel Beckett after the publication of Medieval Hour in the Author’s Mind in 1987. With Gothic overtones, his second collection of stories revealed the angst of contemporary domestic lives.
In the 1990s, Hekkanen turned his hand to self-publishing under his New Orphic imprint. The press also prints books by other writers and manages the New Orphic Review, a literary journal that publishes twice a year without any government support. New Orphic covers sometimes feature artwork and collages by Hekkanen or his long-time partner Margrith Schraner, who co-authored Black Snow: An Imaginative Memoir.
Before moving to Nelson, Hekkanen was also active in a short-lived Vancouver chapter of PEN International.
Upon relocating to Nelson in the Kootenays, Hekkanen and Schraner began co-curating their home-based New Orphic Gallery. As well, the New Orphic Review has been published continuously from Nelson since their relocation to the Kootenays.
The range of Hekkanen’s writing is easily appreciated by looking at any handful of his titles. For instance, Man’s Sadness delves into the deadly destruction of an Army Math Research Centre in Wisconsin. It’s a tale of intrigue in which a Ph.D. student collecting oral histories at the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver uncovers the fugitive Jerry Rantala, alias the Rant Man of the radical Weatherman movement in the United States during the early 1970s. In another instance of art imitating life, theatre director Jay Hamburger’s true tale of interviewing theatre director and performance artist Peter Reade for Vancouver’s Co-op Radio, wherein Reade took off all his clothes during their conversation, prompted Hekkanen to write The Radio Interview featuring ‘Jay Jabberwocky’ and a nudist named Jeremy Pan.
Hekkanen has drawn from Lord of the Flies and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to create an allegorical novella Dementia Island, a place where madness and hurricanes pose an equal threat. Hekkanen’s 23rd book is a one-act passion play, The Lambing, originally written in 1983 for an intended performance on Mayne Island at Easter. “Although there is an obvious allusion to things religious in the play,” says Hekkanen, “it does not require the audience to be knowledgeable of Christianity or to understand rituals that involve sacrifice. Indeed, if one were to travel beyond the boundaries of the city and out into the countryside, one would discover that this passion play is performed every spring, wherever sheep are raised for food or wool.” Hekkanen’s novella The Island of Winged Wonders is a fable about a fisherman who catches a luminous silver egg. Hekannen simultaneously released a collection of essays, Sometimes I Have These Incendiary Dreams. Professor and feminist Pamela Dresdahl has it all-–a wealthy husband and a Range Rover–but she suffers a shattering loss of confidence in The Last Thing My Father Gave Me.
In Hekkanen’s oddly titled novel Up and Coming (In Seattle), a third-generation Finnish-American art professor in Seattle is recovering from the death of his mother and the loss of his wife to a lesbian relationship when he learns his impotent father Harry is about to marry beautiful 39-year-old named Rosemarie Venturini. In this comic tale, the father attempts to cure his problem with the installation of a ‘pecker pump’, inspiring his son to create a huge sculpture near the Seattle Opera House called Please, Dad, You Don’t Have to Show Us. The title story of Ernest Hekkanen’s 34th book, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street is inspired by a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. A prosecuting attorney observes a girl rolling a bicycle hoop down a cobblestone street only to be drawn into a Robbe-Grillet-like mystery. There are comical shades of Kafka throughout these 12 stories set in six identifiable countries of Hekkanen’s fervent imagination. Kafka reappears prominently in the novella, The Life of Bartholomew G., in which a former ESL teacher has spent more than 20 years on his M.A. thesis about Franz Kafka. Burdened by family expectations, the Finnish-Jewish Canadian protagonist remarks, “I’ve come to think it isn’t good enough to simply study Kafka. In a manner of speaking, to better know him, one must become the man.” But Hekkanen himself is not an unabashed admirer of Kafka. His 37th title, Kafka, The Master of Yesno, concludes that “Kafka took the easy way out through tuberculosis and death rather than fulfill his promise as a truly great writer.” This iconoclastic study also criticizes how scholars “have turned Kafka into an industry at universities around the world.”
Shadows on a Cave Wall is an amusing and fascinating character portrait of a former prize-fighter, musician and fiction writer, Sebastian Salo, undertaken by a fictional chronicler, Jacques Dupuis, after Salo’s body has been discovered two months after his death. As Dupuis gathers the myriad of views of Salo from members of a West Kootenay town, Hekkanen simultaneously provides a sly and revealing study of the town itself through the voices and prejudices and emotions of its citizens. The concert of opinions and personalities that comprise Shadows on a Cave Wall was possibly prompted by Hekkanen’s leading role in promoting the favourable recognition of American draft resisters in Canada in 2006 against the wishes of small-minded and fearful citizens in the Kootenays who failed to understand why peaceful, anti-war sentiments ought to be respected.
The aforementioned cultural clash between the Chamber of Commerce types in Nelson who were anxious about their tourism industry and the Kootenay area’s left-leaning back-to-the-landers and transplanted Americans, such as Hekkanen, who saw the world in larger political and moral terms, was the basis for Hekkanen’s novelistic memoir, Of a Fire Beyond the Hills (New Orphic, 2008). History happens in the wink of an eye. There is much to be said for recording it while memories (and wounds) are fresh. Although Hekkanen has elected to subtitle his story “a novel based on news stories,” this narrative reads like a frank rendition of the truth, as well as a cathartic and self-preservational upchucking of an extremely unpleasant experience. After right wingers from across the United States sent a barrage of hate mail to Nelson, protesting the possible erection of a War Resisters Monument, Hekkanen ended up being the spokesperson for the idealists. “What does the monument mean to me–to me personally,” he advised the media, “For me, it’s a middle finger salute to the White House, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and all the other right-wing morons who determine foreign policy down in the United States.” As his role became fundamental in news stories from CNN, ABC, FOX, CBC, Los Angeles Times, Vancouver Sun, New York Times, and Globe & Mail, etc., he found his private life rapidly eroding. After the Doukhobor Museum outside of Castlegar failed to provide an alternate sanctuary for the monument as hoped and planned, Hekkanen reluctantly provided its refuge in his own living room–and his wife was far from thrilled. Neither was the mayor his town council who requested Hekkanen get a business license because he was not otherwise allowed to have a sign on his house saying New Orphic Gallery. Reading Tolstoy’s Patriotism: The Slavery of our Times, back in 1967, helped Hekkanen take a stand. Hekkanen fought city hall and won. In the late spring of 2007, as a forest fire raged outside the town (giving rise to the title), Hekkanen had put his money where his mouth is, but also paid a heavy personal price for it. Having born the brunt of hostility from the conservative Chamber of Commerce types, he has struck back with his considerable writing talents, providing a frequently brilliant and often funny local history of the wave of fear, patriotism and hysteria that effectively blew the lid off Nelson’s image as a ‘laid-back’ and idyllic community. Hekkanen likens this strange book to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, but it’s more journalistic and confessional. “Now I wear a beard similar to Abraham Lincoln’s,” he writes. “I don’t look anything like Lincoln. I look more like I could play the role of one of the apes in Planet of the Apes–without any facial putty.” Of a Fire Beyond the Hills resonates not as an advertisement for his bravery so much as a defense of it. Somebody has got to stand up to the madness, even if it sometimes means standing alone. “I didn’t take the death threats very seriously,” he writes, “knowing how my former compatriots, especially those on the political right, loved to bravely puff up their pigeon chests.”
Ernest Hekkanen has continued on the offensive since the controversial memoir, Of a Fire Beyond the Hills, was launched at the Oxygen Art Centre in Nelson, likening the climate of intimidation he faced to the repression of free speech in Nazi Germany and the political landscape that has shaped U.S. foreign policy under George Bush Sr. and Jr.
“The U.S. made it very uncomfortable for people on the left to express their opposition to war,” he told the Nelson Daily News, “making it seem like they were unpatriotic. I saw the same things occur in Nelson. I couldn’t help writing about it…. We have a lot of politicians willing to compromise our freedom of speech in order to buddy up to Americans and the almighty dollar.” This book was one of three books shortlisted for the 5th annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in 2008.
Seriously comic, fabulist, theatrical, iconoclastic and shrewd, Ernest Hekkanen is a literary outsider by temperament and necessity but probably not by choice. He has done too much, too well, too fast, too independently, too far away from Ontario, to be fashionable.
The 880 pages and 73 stories of Volume One and Volume Two of The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic, Surreal & Postmodern (New Orphic $28 each) represent an astonishing range and depth over forty years of highly original storytelling. None of the stories in the twin compilation escaped editing, and a few were extensively re-worked. After 41 books, he wrote, “My history as a writer has been that of believing in myself and my work, in the face of near anonymity—which, rather early in my career, after my first few books were published, became my modus operandi. Indeed, working in solitude and anonymity became a kind of discipline for me. For a long time, it was my belief that a writer should write as though he didn’t desire to be read, for, in the end, when our solar system performs its final feat of collapsing, all the words in all the books on the face of the earth won’t be words enough to animate the human tongue.”
Medieval thinking clashes with modernity in Ernest Hekkanen’s 30th fiction release, a novel, Heretic Hill (New Orphic 2013), his 45th book since 1987. Hoping to prevent the primitive execution of his friend, Dr. Sadhar Badhar, in an unnamed Middle East country, New York Times correspondent Aki Kyosolamaki, the narrator, risks his own life when he is permitted to visit Badhar in the Reeduction Center for Misinformed Individuals, ostensibly to convince Badhar to confess his sins against Islam.
Bill Gaston has dubbed Hekkanen Canadian literature’s “most resolute maverick.” Possibly Hekkanen would agree. Meanwhile this iconoclast will just have to do his life over again before tastemakers will recognize his value.
Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime–to his long-suffering brother who was the only person who consistently loved him and supported his work. After his death, the artwork of van Gogh has generated billions of dollars for commercial enterprises around the world, such as the ever-popular van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the collective value of his separate paintings made over a ten-year period is beyond calculation. The disturbing Kafka-esque genius apparent in Ernest Hekkanen’s novella I’m Not You (New Orphic 2014) brings van Gogh’s fate to mind. Is it possible that one hundred years from now people will be reading this existentialist allegory and wonder how it could have gone unrecognized during the artist’s lifetime?
Like van Gogh, who sold one painting, Hekkanen has only been published (twice) by one commercial press. For his 46th title, he introduced a nameless character who is discovered beaten almost to death in the woods of Manning Park. Brought to a hospital in Abbotsford, he cannot recall his name, or his past. He draws a complete blank, much to the consternation of the police and medical authorities. The man—who reluctantly accepts being addressed as ‘Sir’ in lieu of anything else—sometimes has a nagging voice in his head that questions his thinking, but he is helpless in his efforts to cooperate with other humans who are thoroughly perplexed by his amnesia. In great pain, Sir eats again, he defecates. He is very frightened when he sees a face in the mirror. He does not recognize what everyone else insists must be his own reflection. He doesn’t know himself; so he only knows that he is not other people. Mostly he wants to get his clothes back. It is humiliating to be held prisoner in a hospital as a mere victim of circumstance. There is no indication that he has committed any wrongdoing. Finally he escapes down the elevator only to be dragooned by three nefarious men in a black van. They drive him back to the woods in Manning Park and they start beating him… The opening paragraph of I’m Not You is repeated, word for word. Is that giving too much away? Well, hardly anyone is going to read it for another one hundred years anyway…
1. Medieval Hour in the Author’s Mind (stories), Thistledown Press, 1987. 0-920633-31-5
2. The Violent Lavender Beast (stories), Thistledown Press, 1988. 0-920633-45-5
ALL OF THE FOLLOWING TITLES HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED BY HEKKANEN’S NEW ORPHIC IMPRINT:
3. From A Town Now Dreaming (novel) 1995. Dr. Koski of the Seven Arrows Clinic in Blazon, Wyoming keeps a journal to record the bizarre behaviour and dreams of the townspeople. 0-9699162-0-5
4. Black Snow: An Imaginative Memoir (fictionalized memoir with Margrith Schraner), 1995. $23.95 0-9699162-1-3. The married authors seek to recount a shared experience “only to discover how differently and inventively they remember the past.”
5. The Wedding Cycle (poetry), 1996. 0-9699162-3-X
6. Journeys that Bring Us Here (stories), 1996. This collection illuminates men who live on the periphery, eternally on the road or in jobs they dream of escaping. $15. 0-9699162-2-1
7. Turning Life into Fiction: An Aesthetic Manifesto (essay), 1996. 0-9699162-4-8
8. Beyond the Call (one-act play), 1997. Produced at The Havana theatre in Vancouver by Theatre in the Raw, it’s a drama about emotional fallout and generational conflicts that arose from the Vietnam War. $12. 0-9699162-7-2
9. The Soul You Call Your Own (stories), 1997. $18. 0-9699162-6-4
10. Chasing After Carnivals (novel), 1997. This story examines the lives of two brothers who come of age in small town America during the Vietnam War. 0-9699162-5-6 $20
11. The House of Samsara (novel), 1997. This is the fictional version of the play Beyond the Call concerning Trevor Knight’s trip around America. In seeking to learn why his father left the U.S. in the late 1960s, the protagonist finds Alex Koivula, an intimidating Vietnam veteran who lives in the squalor of a Seattle rooming house. $14 0-9699162-8-0
12. You Know Me Better Than That (novella), 1998 0-9699162-9-9
13. Those Who Eat at My Table (stories), 1998. [See review below.] $18. 0-9682800-0-5
14. Bridge Over the Tampere Rapids, and Other Finnish Stories (stories), 1998. These stories and essays concern ethnic identity pertaining to those of Finnish origin. 0-9682800-2-1
15. The Last Thing My Father Gave Me (novel) 1999. “On returning from North American Studies Conferences in Finland and Estonia, Pamela Dresdahl, once the youngest tenured professor in Canada, suffers a shattering loss of confidence. A feminist who has attempted to excel in the academic world, she suddenly finds that she is a nervous wreck–on a roller coaster ride of emotion that has something to do with her past and the last thing given to her by her father.” $20. 0-9682800-1-3
16. Dementia Island (novel) 1999. 0-9682800-3-X
17. My Dog Is More Than Just A Dog To Me (novella) 1999. Dialogue between two dog owners in an East Vancouver park, a political cartoonist and an ESL teacher, reveals their life stories as intimacy emerges. 0-9682800-4-8
18. Good Ol’ Boy: Willis V. McCall (novel, with Ed Roy). 1999. 0-9682800-5-6 [See review below.]
19. Straying from Luminosity (poetry)
20. Sometimes I Have These Incendiary Dreams (criticism and essays) $18 0-9682800-7-2
21. The Island of Winged Wonders $15 0-9682800-8-0
22. Man’s Sadness (novella) $15 0-9682800-9-9
23. The Lambing (play) $15 0-9687317-0-8
24. The Well (play)
25. Harbinger of Fall (play)
26. The Clown Act (play)
27. The Radio Interview (play) 2001. 0-9687317-4-0
28. The Misadventures of Bumbleberry Finn (novel). With outrageous characters and plot lines, Hekkanen pokes fun at the Finnish community. 0-9687317-5-9
29. Exhuming Carl Jung (play)
30. The Shipwrecked Heart (stories) 0-9687317 $15
31. The Expulsion, Or Goodbye, Chubby Chickens, Goodbye (play). 2002. “After an absence of seventeen years, Rose comes home to New Eden to introduce her husband and son to her parents, only to have her parents deny that they are related to her.” 0-9687317-9-1 $15
32. Up and Coming (In Seattle) (novel) 2003. $25. 1-894842-03-0
33. The Big Dave and Little Wife Convention (novel) 2004.
34. Melancholy and Mystery of a Street (stories) 2004. 1-894842-05-7
35. The Life of Bartholomew G. (novella) 2005. 1-894842-06-5
36. Heretic (essays) 2005. $18. 1-894842-08-1
37. Kafka, The Master of Yesno: A Critical Study of the Writer and His Work (non-fiction) 2006. $25 1-894842-09-X
38. Shadows on a Cave Wall, 2007. $20. 978-1-894842-11-2
39. Of a Fire Beyond the Hills, 2008. $25. ISBN 978-1-894842-13-6
40. The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic, Surreal & Postmodern, Volume One ISBN 978-1-894842-17-4, 427 pages, $28. New Orphic Publishers, 2010
41. The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic, Surreal & Postmodern, Volume Two ISBN 978-1-894842-18-1, 457 pages, $28. New Orphic Publishers, 2010
42. Wintering Over: Poems Strewn on Snow. New Orphic Publishers, 2011 ISBN 978-1-894842-14-3
43. All Night Gas Bar. New Orphic Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-1-894842-20-4. Combination of stories with memoirs.
44. Flesh and Spirit: The Rasputin Meditations, with a commentary by the author. New Orphic, 2012. ISBN 978-1-894842-22-8
45. Heretic Hill. New Orphic Publishers, 2013. ISBN 978-1-894842-23-5 $22
46. I’m Not You, a novella. New Orphic Publishers, 2014. $18 978-1-894842-24-2
47. False Memories and Other Likely Stories. New Orphic Publishers, 2015. $18 978-1-894842-26-6
48. The Ventriloquist’s Dummy Tells All: A Politically Incorrect Novel, New Orphic Publishers, 2019, 242 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1-894842-27-3
The Flat Earth Excavation Company (New Orphic $23) A surreal fiction anthology ‘spanning the length and breadth of surreal fiction–from automatic writing, or thought’s dictation, to stories that are fabulist, mythical, alchemical and even postmodern’. 1-894842-00-6
PHOTO: Ernest Hekkanen and Margrith Schraner at the ‘Sweet 16’ New Orphic Review anniversary celebration, held at the Oxygen Art Center in Nelson, B.C. (May 17, 2013). Photo by Liba Zdrazil.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2019] “Fiction” “Literary Criticism”
Ernest Hekkanen’s 11th self-published title and 13th book, Those Who Eat at My Table (New Orphic $18), explores food as a focus for revealing human behaviour. The epigram in the frontespiece is from Chogyam Trungpa’s The Myth of Freedom: “Food, of course, symbolizes anything you may want — friendship, wealth, clothes, sex, power, whatever. Anything that appears in your life you regard as something to consume.”
With titles such as Ice Reports, Taedium Vitae, Miasma, The Priest Fainted and Flesh and Spirit: The Rasputin Meditations, Hekkanen’s stories are intentionally distressing. Perversely grim or humourous, Liver and Liberace tells of a boy growing up in dysfunctional family, under the shadow of Arnold Lahti, a father whose enormous appetite is the result of life’s hardships. When the boy gags on the liver and throws up on the kitchen table, his father is outraged. “It’s good, wholesome food. Get him another plate, Angela, and serve him up some more liver.” As the boy chews methodically on his rancid food, watching Liberace give a piano concert on television, liver and Liberace become inextricably wedded. “I referred to him as Liverachi until I was well into my twenties.”
The Hungry Ghost Upon his Sleigh features another father, Glen Maallinen, whose insatiable hunger is the result of a bleak childhood. Raised in an arid coal-mining town of south-west Wyoming during the Depression, the father eats methodically, completely engrossed in the activity. “Once the bone had been relieved of its flesh, he would crack it open and suck on the marrow, his lips, cheeks and fingers delightfully greasy.” Glen recounts stories of the Depression, shaming his children into appreciating their easy life with pot-roast every Sunday and bacon every morning. “Once I got a job branding cattle,” he recalls. “My job was to remove their testicles, and to sew them up again. But their balls didn’t go to waste, no siree. We popped them into a pan on the fire and ate them straight away. We called them prairie oysters.”
The Noodle House introduces us to Ernest, a young man who reflects on his past. While Ernest and his friends wait to order in a Kitsilano restaurant, he recalls the maggot-ridden liver his mother used to cook. But instead of avoiding any foods that made him gag as a boy, Ernest orders a bowl of tripe (intestines) and noodle soup. “He chewed it for a long time, unable to mash it into pulp with his teeth. When he swallowed, a gag reflex brought it back up into his mouth.” Margrith offers to share her curried seafood with Ernest, but he declines. “No, I bought it and I’m going to eat it.” — by Jeremy Twigg
Co-written by Ernest Hekkanen and Ed Roy, Good Ol’ Boy Willis V. McCall (New Orphic $29.95) alleges that Lake County, Florida was like a country unto itself from 1945 to 1972. Sheriff Willis V. McCall made sure the cheap black labourers showed up for work and that civil rights activists stayed far away. Presented as a historical novel, Good Ol’ Boy examines the man allegedly responsible for the roadside shooting of two black prisoners wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. According to promotional materials, McCall was exonerated for any wrong-doing and anyone who tried to besmirch his legend, such as co-author Ed Roy, a former real estate developer, was harassed by law enforcement agents and subject to Grand Jury Investigations. According to the publisher, co-author Roy was arrested provisionally at gunpoint in Vancouver, at the behest of the United States and in lieu of extradition. Roy issued a press release announcing his plans to produce a documentary film on the life of McCall.
“Wrestling with Demons” by Ernest Hekkanen
ON OCCASION, I teach short story and novella writing at the Nelson University Center, usually to complete novices who labor under the assumption that fiction has something to do with life writing – a genre that is slightly more ambitious than diary writing, from what I can discern.
Sometimes my classes resemble five-step recovery programs more than they do writing classes. When my students select material to write about, they go no further than their own lives. They unpack their domestic, relationship, employment and addiction problems and expect them to be of interest to readers. Quite often, the main characters are thinly disguised stand-ins for themselves.
Usually, I reply that the material is worth dealing with, but it begs being developed. How can the author get the most out of the situation that his characters find themselves in? How can he maximize the stress on his characters and so force them to act on the page – to create a sense of drama? How can a greater sense of moment be brought to the story, in order to involve me, the reader?
Often, after tossing off a few suggestions, I will get a look of incredulity or even shock, followed by an utterance that might go something like this: “Yes, but it didn’t happen that way. It happened the way I described it in my story.”
“Fiction is the art of letting characters do what you wouldn’t ordinarily do – what you might not countenance doing yourself,” I reply. “What you’ve got to do is raise the ante – put more at stake.”
Many of my students have picked up the adage, “Write about what you know,” and have made the mistake of assuming that that means they should slavishly write about themselves, in situations they are familiar with, without employing the least bit of imagination. Novice writers often cling quite stubbornly to events in their own lives, without realizing that they are boring the hell out of their readers. They are so attached to a particular trauma, dramatic episode or dysfunctional relationship they have experienced, they are unable to have fun with it on the page.
On one occasion, after a student unpacked the details of her rather harrowing childhood, around which she hoped to concoct a novella, I said something to this effect: “Great. Wonderful material. You should consider yourself lucky to have had such a traumatic upbringing. You’ve got a trunk full of treasures you can now draw upon for stories. All you have to do is find a way to sustain our interest. What do you conceive of as the thread of continuity in your story? What do you foresee as the climax?”
Because such writers see themselves as the hero or heroine of their dramas (or, in current pop-psychology parlance, a survivor of trauma) they find it difficult to come up with a climax or end point to their stories, mainly because they haven’t stumbled upon that end point in their own lives. For me – or anyone else, for that matter – to suggest how they might unfold events to best advantage and so supply their dramas with a satisfactory finale, well, that, to them, amounts to fabricating or lying about events – that is, fictionalizing them.
I’ve come to the conclusion that such individuals live in fear of what their imaginations might disgorge. They are wary of their imaginations leading them into uncomfortable territory and, as a result, they cling to the so-called facts out of fear that they might be judged to be giving false testimony. To paraphrase Farley Mowat, they allow the ‘facts’ to stand in the way of a good story.
‘Lying’ or ‘stretching the truth’ has always been frowned upon – if not condemned outright – by most major religions, and yet, those same religions often engage in the most flagrant fabrications, especially when it comes to shoring up the so-called truths inherent in their belief structures. To ensure that followers abide by the ‘truths’ encoded in a particular system of thought, the devout will go to great lengths to persuade others, including the use of threats, extortion, brainwashing, excommunication, torture and violence. Freedom of thought, let alone expression, is contraindicated. To employ the imagination for anything other than memorizing scripture or patriotic platitudes is seen as subversive.
Having practiced the art of storytelling for several decades now, I have acquired a pretty good feeling for when a ‘lie’ is being passed off as a ‘truth’. Indeed, most of the ‘facts’ we cling to are little more than versions of what we think of as facts – that is, they are mere projections. By ‘sticking to the facts’, novice writers manage to avoid a thorough exploration of the material lying dormant in their own psyches. They fear acquainting themselves with their demons and being forced to engage in a vigorous wrestling match with them, as Gerald does in Women in Love, for instance. The mere idea of participating in such a leviathan struggle exhausts them and so they try to avoid it at all costs.
As a practiced, professional writer of fiction, I have, for greater or lesser periods of time, allowed myself to ‘become’ a variety of characters, some of whom I have found to be genuinely disconcerting. By doing so, I have come to realize how changeable or, perhaps I should say, how fluid personality is. A large part of what we believe to be quite solid and unshakable in ourselves changes depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in, and that is exactly what novice writers fear most – the relative nature of their perceptions and personalities.
Do enough writing and you will eventually discover that your personality is built on quicksand. At any moment, what appears to be a solidly grounded personality might sink out of sight, into the generative muck of the underworld, where uncertainty and dissolution also reign. If this issue of The New Orphic Review can be said to have a theme, this might be it.
— by Ernest Hekkanen [BCBW WINTER 2003]
from BCBW Summer 2004
Containing many stories previously published in The Violent Lavender Beast, The Big Dave and Little Wife Convention (New Orphic $24) is Ernest Hekkanen’s 33rd book. “When one operates as far outside the accepted circle of literature as I do,” says Hekkanen, “one’s antics are very rarely observed and then only by accident—ultimately to be dismissed as the pitiful ravings of a lunatic.” 1-894842-04-9
Vive le Franz
Bartholomew G. sometimes feels more like a fictitious character than a human being. A chronic disappointment to his medical doctor father, the central character in Ernest Hekkanen’s 35th book, The Life of Bartholomew G (New Orphic, $18), is a lowly ESL teacher who has legally changed his name from Bartholomew Gustafson to echo the Kafkaesque character known as K.
Having received his B.A. from Simon Fraser University in the late ‘60s, the chronically self-analytical ‘Mewgi’ has increasingly identified with Franz Kafka, the subject of his chronically unfinished thesis. When told he couldn’t legally adopt the single letter G. for a surname, first he altered his last name to Ge, then made the ‘e’ smaller and smaller until it finally became a period.“I’ve come to think it isn’t good enough to simply study Kafka,” he tells a friend. “In a manner of speaking, to better know him, one must become the man.”
Bartholomew is a self-elected defender of the great writer against the arrogance and stupidity of other intellectuals and assorted nincompoops. During a three-hour period of G’s life, while he prepares to go to work at his part-time job at the Avant Gardener, he stews in his litany of humiliations, frustrations and fears.
Alienated from his drug-addicted son and a feminist ex-wife who has long since surpassed him in academe, our pathetic anti-hero remains obsessed with the physical minutae of his body and his tiny Kitsilano apartment while clinging to sexual memories of an absent Finnish girlfriend. His brilliant sister, from whom he is forced to borrow money, likes to send greeting cards portraying him in demeaning situations–and now she is coming to the Avant Gardener to take his photo in his shop assistant attire.
That’s the gist of Hekkanen’s disturbing and amusing portrait of an obsessive wise man who stumbles through life like a fool. Bartholomew G. jumps back and forth between self-loathing to self-aggrandizement like a literary hybrid of Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman. “He was no longer capable of concentrating with the single-mindedness of a cat about to pounce on a mouse,” Hekannen writes. “All the intervening years had resulted in his mind becoming slack. A windbag. A flaccid bladder.”
This short and frequently brilliant novel is an exaggeration of how we all could feel if we dared to dwell upon every tiny prick of mental injury and desire. Like a traffic accident, we can’t help but look.
The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic, Surreal & Postmodern by Ernest Hekkanen
Guaranteed to be the most impressive, least-talked-about fiction accomplishment of 2010, the 880 pages and 73 stories of Volume One and Volume Two of The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic, Surreal & Postmodern represent an astonishing range and depth over forty years of highly original storytelling.
None of the stories in the twin compilations escaped editing, and a few were extensively re-worked.
After 41 books, he has written, “My history as a writer has been that of believing in myself and my work, in the face of near anonymity—which, rather early in my career, after my first few books were published, became my modus operandi. Indeed, working in solitude and anonymity became a kind of discipline for me. For a long time, it was my belief that a writer should write as though he didn’t desire to be read, for, in the end, when our solar system performs its final feat of collapsing, all the words in all the books on the face of the earth won’t be words enough to animate the human tongue.”
Bill Gaston has dubbed Hekkanen as Canadian literature’s “most resolute maverick.” Possibly Hekkanen would agree. Meanwhile this iconoclast will just have to do his life over again before tastemakers in eastern Canada care to recognize his output.
Late last year I attended an e-publishing presentation. It drew an extremely large crowd by small-town Nelson standards. I would guess eighty percent of the audience was made up of individuals over sixty years of age, many of whom have turned their attention to writing books now that they are retired or on the verge of becoming retired. I was reminded of a remark uttered by Margaret Atwood, when a medical doctor suggested that he was going to become a writer after retiring from his profession. Her reply was something to the effect that she was going to become a brain surgeon after retiring from the writing profession.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against individuals developing a late interest in life, in particular writing books. Frank McCourt managed to produce some fine literary works in his later years, namely, Angela’s Ashes, Teacher Man and ’Tis, each of which became a bestseller. Certainly, by the time an individual reaches the age of retirement, he should have acquired some experience worth rendering in words and phrases. However, the late-blooming desire to write a book does indicate a little something about how much contempt the average person has for writing—if not for literature, in general. Anyone who’s able to successfully jot down a list of shopping items seems to think he has sufficient skills to become an author. On a few occasions, when I taught creative writing to adults, I was amazed at the number of people who felt they should be able to successfully write a book without ever having read one. They were just born with a tale to tell, apparently.
This brings me back to the e-publishing presentation. The literary agent who gave the talk tried to persuade us that electronic publishing was the way of the future. The industry is heading in that direction, due to the high cost of producing books that reside between covers. The marketplace isn’t prepared to absorb all the literature being produced in the old-fashioned manner and, in all likelihood, publishers will only “jacket” the most popular books by the most popular writers. E-publishing is a stepping stone in that direction. A book that proves its worth as an e-title is more likely to be selected for jacketing later on. Apparently, for a fraction of what it costs a librarian to purchase an old-fashioned title, she can scroll down a list of e-titles, merrily ticking off the ones she intends to stock on her e-shelves and—presto—they’re delivered, without any nasty shipping or receiving costs. And, let’s not forget, library space is limited, our presenter told us. Very limited. An e-librarian in the virtual world of e-literature doesn’t have to worry about actual shelf space. It’s all stored electronically, in the up-and-coming e-world of e-libraries.
At this point, I was given cause to reflect upon the sale of my books, which are produced in the old-fashioned manner, between actual jacket covers. The number of sales to libraries has steadily declined over the past four to five years, probably due to librarians ordering e-titles from e-jobbers in the virtual world of e-literature. The intermeshing gears of e-commerce work extremely well, at a fraction of the cost, it would seem.
So, our agent concluded, e-books are the way to go, the way to break into the writing trade in the burgeoning world of e-literature. The notion was met with murmurs of enthusiastic agreement by hobbyists in the audience, many of whom were laboring on books and some of whom had already taken the e-publishing route. The important rule to remember is that you don’t want to deny yourself the services of a good agent who will make sure your book is in top form before being presented to an e-publisher, and nowadays agents provide all the necessary services a would-be author might require, we were informed.
One man (a former school teacher, and possibly a plant) had already gone this route. His book had appeared not only as an e-title but as a jacketed book as well and, as we eventually came to learn, it had only cost him $10,000. Instantly I thought, “This man has more money than brains.” The costs accruing to our sixty-something wordsmith covered editing, page layout and cover design, because, even in the e-publishing world, it pays to have a great cover, apparently. The costs did not include marketing, of course; that was left up to the writer, as usual.
No wonder so many boomers had shown up for the presentation! The publishing industry is in such dire straits, the focus has shifted from publishing and selling literature to finding easy marks who can be relieved of their cash, and boomers are the preferred targets in the new e-literature world. Remember the old adage, A sucker is born every minute? E-publishing is the way of the future because the focus is now on relieving boomers of their retirement income, by appealing to their vanity, to their need to leave behind an artifact that will testify to the fact that they once existed on the face of the earth. In the publishing industry, the big money is now being made by people who offer services to would-be writers of my generation, individuals who were squeamish about pursuing a writing career early in life, because it wasn’t likely to provide a sound financial future. A lucrative job was more important. Now they have too much time and money on their hands, and they’re fishing for something to do. Writing (and publishing) has become a popular pastime—like golf or fishing or lawn bowling.
Let me make a prediction: for the next ten to fifteen years, while the boomer generation is being swallowed up by old age and eventual death, e-hobbyists will attain preferred customer status in the post-literature e-world of e-publishing. The industry’s health will be determined by the number of customers fleeced of their hard-earned cash. Remember Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi scam artist of Wall Street? He’s the sort of individual who will be offering services in the brave new world of publishing—for a price, a considerable price.
Meanwhile, here at New Orphic Publishers, we will continue to defy the odds by putting text between jacket covers, and we will do it independently, without sucking down grant money from government agencies.
by Ernest Hekkanen
FOR THE PAST six months, I’ve been working on a collection entitled False Memories and Other Likely Tales, a book that will go to print around the same time as the Spring, 2015 issue of this magazine. Writing it has meant having to recall the landscape of my youth, which I’ve come to think of as a good exercise for the aging brain. But, as I say in the preface to the collection, the terrain of my childhood has changed quite considerably, so much so that the present-day geography has turned the geography of the past into fiction.
I’m one of those writers who has never found it fruitful to keep a journal. I have tried—several times—with poor results! As soon as I apply pen to paper I feel as though I’m fudging, as though I’m fictionalizing my life. My day-to-day existence is so ordinary in its dimensions, I either give up keeping a journal or the details get reworked into pieces of fiction. To tell the truth, I think I’d rather spend my time in the landscape of my imagination than in the real world, a malady I’ve suffered from since early boyhood.
Margrith Schraner, the Associate Editor of The New Orphic Review, frequently reads books devoted to the craft of writing, and now and then, while we’re having our morning coffee, she will read aloud passages she thinks might be of interest to me, because I never read such books, myself. During the fall of last year, she brought to my attention a condition known as dysnarrativia. Instantly I fell in love with the malady. The way it rolled off the tongue was so sensuous: dys-nar-ra-tiv-ia.
Dysnarrativia is a condition applied to people who suffer from various states of narrative impairment, due to brain injury or pathological deterioration affecting several neural network components. In the abstract to The Neurology of Narrative, Kay Young and Jeffrey L. Saver contend that “individuals who have lost the ability to construct narrative have lost their selves.”
This gave me cause to ponder.
When I finish a writing project, be it a novel or a short story, I often feel at loose ends. Agitated. Depressed. Directionless. I tap around in the dark with my mental Seeing Eye cane until I bump up against a line, a smell or an image that results in the unfolding of another narrative, and then I feel alright. Well, most of the time, anyway. My Associate Editor and I were shopping in the local Safeway not long ago. A flyer had advertised a fantastic deal on heads of lettuce and, during the long months of winter, in Nelson, a good, inexpensive lettuce is difficult to find. That was the narrative we decided to subscribe to that afternoon: obtaining a good lettuce.
By the way, during the winter, we go everywhere on foot. I tote our purchases home in a backpack. I tell myself the walk is good for my health, another narrative I subscribe to. At the Safeway, we popped two heads of lettuce into our shopping basket. Goal achieved. My Associate Editor then decided to explore the rest of the store to see if there was anything further that might catch her fancy. Around this time, we ran into several people we know and began to chat with them; this is easy to do in a small town like Nelson, population 10,000 souls. Between run-ins with friends and acquaintances, we continued our journey up and down the aisles of the grocery store, in vague pursuit of a bargain. Here, I should make an admission: I have always found it difficult to drift, to float. I don’t mind taking long, exhausting walks that lead me in an enormous circle, but I find it difficult to drift. It de-energizes me. I start feeling lethargic, immensely so. In the Safeway, I began to feel as if I were strolling an Alzheimer’s ward, aimlessly, all sorts of colorfully packaged items shouting at me from the shelves. At this point, I knew I had to get out of there—to preserve my sanity!
It dawns on me as I write this editorial that I must have lost the thread to my narrative while in the Safeway. I might as well have been wandering King Minos’ labyrinth. Any one of the grocery store aisles might have ended up with me running into the bone-crunching Minotaur—had that been the overarching narrative du jour! However, that wasn’t the narrative; the day held no such surprise. All it offered was numbing lethargy—and lettuce!
My contention in this editorial is that there might be gradations of dysnarrativia, and that people might be suffering from this condition to various degrees, even if the narrative-managing components of their brains haven’t been destroyed by injury or disease. Also, the condition known as dysnarrativia might be more widespread than the authors of The Neurology of Narrative have allowed themselves to contemplate. Dysnarrativia might even account for why young men brought up in a state of relative comfort in the West have become warriors in the fight to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East.
Allow me to briefly pursue my argument.
There are different types of narratives you may or may not have discovered by analyzing your life. For instance, there are personal narratives, familial narratives, social narratives, national narratives and grand narratives that pretend to explain our existence here on earth. In the beginning, our personal narratives interface almost exclusively with our familial narratives; in fact, one might contend that our personal narratives are inextricably bound up with our familial narratives. As protagonists, we come to learn the rules and mores of family life—that is, how we are expected to behave. Our families, in turn, introduce us to the society in which we live, and then our society begins to impose expectations on us, too—in the form of further narratives. We go to school to be familiarized with society’s demands, and are educated accordingly. Also, around this time, we are indoctrinated in various national narratives we are expected to pay allegiance to and then, of course, there are the grand narratives we are encouraged to absorb without question, because they are deemed sacred. To make a long story short, we become protagonists layered with numerous narratives, and so it should come as no surprise to discover that there are neural components in the brain devoted to making sense of all of this, otherwise how would we be capable of navigating a world chock-a-block with narratives?
However, what happens when these intertwining narratives fail us, or when the neural components that sort them out decide to go on strike? This happened to me in the middle to late 1960s, when the United States offered me the chance to fight in the Vietnam War. The national narrative, which was based on the domino theory that communism would arrive on the shores of California if it wasn’t stopped in Southeast Asia, had obviously been dreamed up by a bunch of madmen who didn’t have a firm grip on reality, and it resulted in the loss of millions of lives, mostly Vietnamese lives. I became an anti-war activist and, later on, fled to Canada where I had to accommodate myself to a national narrative that wasn’t terribly dissimilar to the one that had failed me.
In The Neurology of Narrative, the authors quote Aristotle as having said: “The more isolated I become, the more I come to like stories.” I have trouble thinking of Aristotle as an isolated individual; after all, he was teacher to the rambunctious Alexander the Great. However, there is something about that quote which strikes a chord with me, and which harkens back to what I have said about feeling agitated, depressed and directionless when I’m not working on a narrative. You see, I have never found the overarching narrative of North American life all that inspiring. To simplify it, that narrative goes something like this: Get an education that will allow you to get a good job that will allow you to buy as much stuff as possible, especially after you’ve had a kid or two, and then, upon retiring, enjoy the pastures of plenty.
I found that narrative uninspiring and, to endure the brain-numbing isolation it induced in me, I came to appreciate stories—in much the same manner that Aristotle did, I would bet. I have been writing stories since my early twenties, and have clung to that activity with frightening tenacity. I don’t think it would be stretching a point to say fiction writing made it possible for me to survive 35 dead-end jobs and 45 years of near-anonymity in a country I have never fully adjusted to living in, especially after Prime Minster Pierre Elliott Trudeau left office and the country as a whole seemed to drift from pillar to post to tar sands to visionless future.
Believe it or not, this brings me to Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the fellow who killed the soldier standing guard at the Canadian National War Memorial. I would bet anything that Bibeau was suffering from narrative failure—due in part to drug addiction, if we are to believe reports, but also because our national narrative left him feeling estranged. After earning big bucks with Labour Union Local 1611 (purportedly $5000 a month), he drifted from one homeless shelter to another until finally he ended up in Ottawa where he single-handedly carried out an armed assault on the Parliament Buildings. Not long before taking his appointment with destiny, he was denied a passport that would have allowed him a one-way trip to Syria to fight for the Islamic Caliphate, and so resorted to Plan B. Another young fellow by the name of John Maquire, who purports to have been an average, hockey-playing Canadian kid, denounced his decadent country of origin in order to fight on behalf of the Islamists. (Recent reports indicate he is now dead.) Apparently, there are at least a dozen Canadian men who have chosen to go on this adventure. If we subscribe to what Young and Saver have said in The Neurology of Narrative, it looks as though these young men might have lost the ability to construct a meaningful narrative here in North America, and so lost their selves.
Analyzed in a somewhat different manner, what these young men had in common are narratives that failed them: personal narratives, familial narratives, social narratives, national narratives and grand narratives. Rather than suffer from a debilitating state of dysnarrativia, they put their faith in a narrative that galvanized all of the other narratives in their lives, and which, moreover, gave them a sense of meaning, intensity, daring and grand commitment (a need that many young men have, it would seem). By so doing, they wrested their lives from meaningless anonymity and managed to become footnotes in Canadian history—that is, our grand, national narrative, mediocre though it might be.
Is this an acceptable way to deal with feelings of dysnarrativia? For those who aren’t capable of dealing with a lot of ambiguity, or what looks to be a visionless future, it would certainly appear to be the case.
Entry made March 1, 2015
9,000 + words