Tuesday, May 17, 2011

writers in paradise and dinner at the martins

life as a published writer is a delightfully strange experience. people who write - and people who like writers - run across the full range of society. i spent the weekend in a writer's paradise - literally, for dave and paulette whitman of bailey chase books had organized the second annual word in the hall in paradise, nova scotia.

it was a wondrous meeting of writers. unlike many literary festivals, which focus on big shot writers talking to the masses and selling books, the paradise festival celebrates writing in its purist form. some, like mike parker, were established local writers who have sold thousands of books. others, like an elderly woman who wondered if she could print just 20 copies of her book for her family, were unknowns to all but those who matter most.

'a writer is a writer is a writer,' paulette said to me in a moment of epiphany. and it's true: the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is not to do with their writing, but with how life has played out for them. getting published is about having talent, but it is also largely about tenacity - writing a book is hard work. getting it published is more hard work.

and so it was grand to sit with kindred spirits and talk about that which we love most: writing.

i'll be talking more about writing tonight at the woodlawn library, with a presentation on the hermit of africville as part of book week. tomorrow i'll be hosting a round-table chat from 5:00–6:30 pm: The author-publisher relationship: featuring nominees for the APMA Best-Atlantic Published Book Award, Old Triangle Irish Alehouse, Halifax. you can see a full list of events here. thursday night's the big night: the unveiling of the awards. fingers crossed.

in the meantime, i thought i'd post this true short story from a couple of years ago. it's about an odd experience i had just after black snow came out. i've only changed some of the names. it was a curious night - and apart from giselle, i never heard from any of them again.

Dinner with the Martins

He invited me to dinner after a magazine ran a two-page spread on my first novel. He invited my wife, too, but agreed my girlfriend would do.
            “We’d love to see you,” he said over the phone.
            “I have no idea who this man is,” I told Giselle as we drove slowly in the city, looking for his address. “He could be a freaky old pervert luring us to our death, or a fabulously wealthy benefactor who will kick start my career.”
            “Either way, it’s bound to be interesting,” she said.
            We had been dating a matter of months.
            It was a nice, but not spectacular, Victorian building. From the outside, it was impossible to tell if it was a private home or apartments. The front door was open so we went into the foyer and rang the bell at the second door. After a few seconds, a young man opened the door, revealing a dark room with an elegant wood staircase, several closed doors and a coat rack. The man was in his early 20s, with short hair, wearing a polo shirt, khakis and deck shoes.
            “I can take your coats,” he said.
            While He hung them on the coat rack as Giselle and I exchanged puzzled looks.
            “I’m Jon,” I said, offering him my hand.
            “Jason,” he said, shaking briefly. He seemed surprised. I introduced Giselle; he nodded and led us upstairs.
            “George will be in in a minute,” Jason said, depositing us in the front room. “Can I get you a glass of wine?”
            We sat on one of two plush sofas facing each other across a bowl of crackers and cheese. An armchair completed the U of furniture and a piano sat in front of the bay window behind us. The room was light, brightly coloured and contained items that looked like they had been purchased at Wal-Mart’s International section: African fertility gods and metre-high wooden giraffes. Tchaikovsky was playing loudly – a children’s version of his music, with a young narrator speaking over the orchestra.
            George Martin swept into the room. He was an old man, with thinning white hair and a slight belly. He wore casual slacks and a button-up shirt, and shoes. Everybody in that house was wearing shoes. He shook both our hands before flopping stiffly into the armchair.
            “I love Tchaikovsky,” he said, eyes closed to better take in the sounds. “Don’t you? Our other guests are joining us shortly. They are in the symphony: he is the chief violinist here and she plays cello in Brussels; they jet back and forth.”
            He opened his eyes after a moment and noticed the copy of my novel I held in my hands.
            “This is for you,” I said, rising and handing the book to him. I had signed it to “The Martins,” but was starting to fear I had made a mistake.
            “Thank you!” George said, briefly examining my book before setting on the small table beside his chair. He told us he had moved here from out west to teach at Dalhousie University. The money was not to his liking and he stumbled into real estate, making a nice profit when the south end started booming. He moved onto tales from his world travels, revealing that he and Jason were soon heading to Egypt as part of a cruise. He grumbled about the inconveniences of travel.
            “I’ve always thought ‘relaxing vacation’ was an oxymoron,” Giselle chimed in. George looked at her for a moment, as though she had announced she ate children. “Because of the security, and then being stuffed into a plane like sardines,” she elaborated.
            “Oh. I don’t know. We always travel first class,” he replied. “It’s very nice.”
            Tchaikovsky filled the silence.
            The other guests arrived: a young, good-looking couple. We exchanged names. George started talking again.
“Dinner’s ready,” said Jason, sticking his head into the living room. We moved to the big table stuffed into the hall above the stairs. The doors around us were open, apart from one white door in the corner. The walls were dark wood and the space contained what I imagined was the bulk of George’s travel collection.
            Dinner was salmon, to accommodate my vegetarian diet. Jason had cooked it, but got George to serve it. The couples sat facing across the table; George sat at one end and Jason at the other. Conversation naturally turned to music.
            “Jason is taking flute lessons, but he’s too lazy to be any good,” George announced. We couples could not avoid staring at Jason. “I don’t know why I bother paying for the classes, he never goes.”
            “I always go,” Jason countered, irritated.
            “You didn’t go last week.”
            “My grandmother died.”
            George shrugged. Jason gave him a dirty look. George didn’t notice.
“How do you like the salmon?” he asked.
We murmured our approval.
“I caught it myself this morning,” he beamed. “Jason and I were up at the crack of dawn and hauled it in before noon.”
“Wow,” said the violinist.
Later, George asked how we liked the potatoes. He had grown them in the backyard.  The joke was repeated over dinner until it touched upon all of the dishes.
            “Ron’s written a book,” George announced. We all looked at him, pleased for Ron. “It’s about the Halifax explosion,” he added. 
            I wondered at the coincidence, until George held up my book. “I’m sure Ron will sign a copy for you two, if you’d like,” he said.
            After dinner, George suggested we retire to the library. The two couples went; George and Jason disappeared into the kitchen.
            The library appeared to belong to Sherlock Holmes. On one side, the oak book cases held well-bound Reader’s Digest condensed books. The other side was a mishmash of Stephen King, celebrity biography and best sellers. A giant plasma television hung from the wall over a defunct fire place.
            The couples chatted awkwardly. The woman was bored and wanted to go home. The man seemed to consider time in the library a part of his job with the symphony. I think they both wondered why we were there. We wondered why we were there.
            George entered the library holding a CD.
            “It’s time to continue your musical education,” he said to the violinist, struggling to get the CD into the machine until Jason came in and did it for him. Crackling, upper-class BBC voices loudly filled the room, accompanied by piano.
            “Flanders and Swann,” George announced.
            “Ah,” said the violinist.
            “I’m teaching this young man about music. He had never heard of Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf, so we played that, and now it’s time for Flanders and Swann!”
            “Good,” said the violinist, exchanging looks with his wife, who was frequently consulting her watch.
            “Coffee?” asked Jason. The expression on his face had not changed from mild contempt all night.
            After intense, subterranean negotiations, the musical couple agreed to coffee. We followed suit.
            George flopped stiffly into the armchair, eyes closed, feet up. The violinist folded his hands in his lap, stretched out his long legs, and closed his eyes. His wife looked at him hard, but he would not open his eyes, so she sighed. Giselle and I sat holding hands.
            People have always eaten people, What else is there to eat? If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, He wouldn't have made us of meat!” sang Swann, or perhaps Flanders. The other countered that he did not eat people. It was all very amusing, if you found dark foreigners funny.
            The song ended.
            “Track 10!” shouted George, eyes still closed.
            There was a pause before the violinist popped open his eyes, leapt up, and advanced the CD.
            “This is the very first of the animal songs,” said Flanders, or perhaps Swann. “Some people think the title of this song is irrelevant. It’s not irrelevant, it’s an hippopotamus,” he continued in a funny voice. The recorded, long-dead audience laughed.
            The duo sang in harmony. They hit the chorus: “Mud, mud, glorious mud...”
            George moved his hand in musical accompaniment.
            After more lyrics, the recorded audience joined in on Mud, mud. George started to mumble along, realized we weren’t with him, and stopped.
            “Track 14!”
            The violinist was ready this time and the transition was smooth.
            The coffee arrived.
            We sipped as track 14 played.
            “Jason!” called George.
            Jason re-entered.
            “Bring up the dog. And Cabaret.”
            Jason flipped through a shelf of videos, selecting Cabaret.
            “Ah, VHS,” said the violinist, admiring the ancient technology.
            “Beta,” corrected George. “It’s a fine system.”
            Jason slid the video into the player: a crackling woke up the sleeping surround-sound speakers and lines flickered across the screen. The violinist’s wife shot him a desperate look. When Jason departed, the violinist followed.
            That left the four of us.
            And Liza Minnelli.
            She fluttered her eyes prettily in the 1972 musical. When she opened her mouth, a garborator sang.
            “Oh dear,” said George. “Jason!”
            Liza crooned like a detuned radio.
            The song finished. Jason appeared.
            “Can you fix the tape? There was nothing wrong with it when we watched it in the afternoon,” George assured us. “We didn’t watch it – we just had it on in the background while we … did other things. And it was fine.”
            The violinist re-entered the room, winked at his wife. Jason fiddled with the tape. He pressed play again, but now the screen swooned with wavy lines, as though Liza were dreaming. The sound was worse.  
            “Drat,” said George.
            “I guess that’s the problem with the old tapes,” consoled the violinist, “the quality goes on them.”
            George was upset. He lowered his recliner’s footrest sadly. Picked up the phone. “Send up Sam!”
            He explained that Sam came up at 9pm every night, had a bone, and then went to bed. Sam slept in a cage.
            With a clatter of feet sliding on floor, a Labrador burst into the room, ecstatic to see its owner, then angrily shocked to see us. The dog barked fiercely and ran straight at me. His teeth gnashed a few inches from my crotch while Jason and George shouted at him. Jason finally grabbed the dog and pulled him out of the room.
            “I’m so sorry about Cabaret,” said George. “Perhaps we can find another film.”
            The four of us rose together as if we were at mass.
            “Well, actually, we’d better get going,” I said. I stretched and yawned for effect. “Early start tomorrow.”
            Giselle had a little stretch too, to show we meant business. Everyone was stretching.
            “Another time, then,” said George, gazing sadly at the screen, where a now-muted Liza launched into a burlesque show tune. We stood there for a bit. The violinist took the initiative and led us out of the library. George followed. Jason emerged from the kitchen, assessed the situation, and headed downstairs. To get downstairs, we had to pass the kitchen. Sam was in the kitchen; a six-inch wood panel was all that blocked his path.
            “It fell on him when he was a puppy,” explained Jason. “He’s terrified of it.”
            Single-file, we passed the dog. He looked at us, tried to leave the kitchen, but couldn’t bring himself to approach the panel.
            George stayed upstairs after bidding us goodnight. Jason handed us our coats silently.
            We walked out into the night.

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