British Columbia has always been the right place for me
August 07th, 2012
Publishing is much like the movies; no one has a clue as to what will be successful, and when something is successful it is immediately imitated by twenty copycats.
I have had great good fortune in my writing career by, time after time, being in the right place at the right time. I am really happy that I am not starting out as a writer in today’s climate, for I don’t see any way I could break into the market and make a good living as I have done for the past 30-some years. While my novels have been successful, I favor the short story because I feel it is a much more complex and interesting form of expression.
My first experience of being in the right place at the right time was enrolling in some creative writing courses at the University of Victoria in 1970. I was raising a young family, managing my own business and writing madly in all direction – my first creative writing instructor, Derk Wynand, had one huge folder for the 20-page stories I was churning out each week, and one small folder for the remaining 15+ students.
The very under-appreciated poet Robin Skelton was the first to recognize that buried deep in my meandering stories there might be seeds of talent. He told me about the great poet Stephen Spender who would write 100 lines a day and be delighted if two of them eventually became usable. I got the message.
Then W.D. Valgardson came to teach at UVic. His story collection Bloodflowers influenced me greatly. From it I learned about great opening lines. Valgardson would take one of my 20-page run-on sentences and tear off the first page, then scissor off half of the second page. He would then tear off the final two or three pages and say, “You warmed up for a page and a half before you started your story, you wound down for three pages after you finished it. Don’t do that.”
I’m a quick learner. Suddenly, in 1974, I had five stories accepted by literary magazines in a single week, and I’ve published virtually everything I’ve written since then. If it hadn’t been for Bill Valgardson I might still be driving a cab in Victoria, with several suitcases of unpublished manuscripts under my bed.
It wasn’t just having my talent recognized, it was the fact that short stories, which were considered a second class art form in Canada, suddenly came into vogue. My slyly funny and subversive Silas Ermineskin stories were considered daring and ground-breaking and became in great demand by virtually every literary magazine in the country. Some editors expected me to lavish praise on them for daring to publish my stories. My first collection, Dance Me Outside in 1976, published by Michael Macklem at Oberon Press, had no advance, no publicity, but it became a best seller with a few good reviews and a whole lot of word-of-mouth, and still sells well 33 years later. I know people who bought 25 copies and sent them to their friends. A young assistant at Longhouse Books in Toronto, Jan Whitehouse, made me a personal project and touted my book to everyone who came into the store. All through the 80s and 90s my multiple story collections sold very well. Was it the chicken or the egg? Did my stories make the short story form acceptable again, or was I just in the right place at the right time?
British Columbia has always been the right place for me. I’ve been here since 1967 except for two years at graduate school in Iowa, and five horrible years, each one longer than the one before, at Desolate U. in Calgary, where anything creative was regarded with suspicion if not downright hostility, and where my time was wasted teaching bonehead English to students so unprepared for university that 90% of them should never have been allowed on a campus unless they were bussing tables in the cafeteria.
I was also in the right place at the right time when my novel Shoeless Joe was published in 1982. With that publication I discovered that there was a market for baseball fiction. Precious little had been done in the genre: Malamud’s depressing The Natural, and the difficult-to-read Great American Novel by Philip Roth. There was no one taking advantage of the baseball short fiction market. This revelation was like a prospector finding a large vein of gold. The prospector would work the vein until it was exhausted. I worked the vein of baseball writing successfully for the next twenty years.
I chose to stop writing fiction about 10 years ago, partly because of the market conditions. For example, my novel Box Socials sold about 70,000 hardcover copies, but when the sequel was ready the publisher not only didn’t want to publish it; they didn’t want to read it. Not enough sales. Go figure!
Short stories were out of fashion again, and the market for non-trash novels was shrinking monthly, besides I had said about all I had to say, and I have seen far too many writers scribbling on into their old age, Updike, Mailer and Anne Tyler come to mind, turning out inferior and repetitious parodies of their earlier brilliant work.
I have drawn criticism for touting myself as a professional writer whose income should match that of other professionals such as doctors, lawyers or engineers. I have no time for the “writer living in a garret mentality,” with art coming first and income second. Book sales have always been the bottom line with me. A manuscript is nothing until it is published, a published book is nothing unless it is widely read.
In that vein, I’ll close with a favorite epigram from Hilaire Belloc: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said: ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’”
Essay Date: 2009