I Went to a Book Reading…and saw a bear.

(I don’t usually write these kind of autobiographical “day in the life” type pieces…so we’ll see how it turns out).

I have a short story in this year’s edition of the annual Tesseracts anthology — the theme, this time around, was superhero stories. And though the book was released earlier in the year, they held the official launch of Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe on July 20th. And in a nice bit of cosmic synergy, Library & Archives Canada in Ottawa is featuring an exhibition on Canadian comic books (and it continues to run until September). So the launch was hosted at the Library & Archives building.

Contributors to the anthology were invited to come and do brief readings of their stories, and to hobnob, etc.

Initially I hadn’t planned on attending: it was a work day; I’d hurt my back a few days before; and Ottawa is a good two hour drive from where I live.

But, equally, I’d never been to a book launch before (and might never be invited to one again!) and I tend to be rather unadventurous in a lot of ways, not one necessarily given to impulsive acts. So I thought — heck, maybe I should just do it, just once, just for fun. Much to my surprise, my boss okay’d the day off (even though I didn’t give him much notice), meaning I no longer had an official excuse not to go — so I decided to attend.

But then it sank in — a reading! Good lord! I’m not the most articulate of speakers (people sometimes ask me where I’m from — implying, I guess, that my diction isn’t the best). So I quickly tried to do a few rehearsals of reading from my story. And even quicker I realized how long it takes to read aloud, and that a five minute reading slot only allowed for a couple of pages (which is why audiobooks can run over multiple CDs). So what to do? Read the first couple of pages? Pick a particularly good section part way through? Or read bits and pieces? That raised the question: what’s the point of a reading? To be entertaining in and of itself? To give a flavour of the prose style? To hook the audience and make them want to read the full story? Or simply to just, you know, be present?

This was particularly tricky with my story since it’s a tale that’s meant to unfold. And it switches perspective multiple times, the story told in different “voices.” A couple of pages wouldn’t necessarily give much sense of either the plot or the style.

So I decided to go for a bit of a Reader’s Digest version (does that analogy mean anything anymore?) — editing the story, but in a way that, hopefully, still seemed coherent to the listener. Starting a page or so into the first scene, then reading a couple of later scenes, hopefully giving a sense of both where the plot was headed and how it was being told — without, of course, giving the whole thing away. I also realized that I didn’t have to read the passages in their entirety, either. It’s not like anyone was going to be reading along and notice if I skipped a sentence or dropped an adjective.

As I say, this was my first reading, so I didn’t know the “rules” or what was expected. Turned out, none of this was unusual. Some of the other authors that night also read starting a few pages into their story. One showed me her text which she had gone through with different coloured pens, cutting a line here or there, editing an extraneous word, all in an effort to preserve the narrative forest even if it required cutting a few verbose trees.

But all that was after I arrived. And the getting there was its own problem.

As I mentioned, I was coming from out of town, and not that familiar with Ottawa. But it was no big deal, I figured. According to my GPS The Library & Archives building was only about five minutes from the highway. It was pretty much just a straightforward, uncomplicated highway drive, then a couple of turns and I would be there. No problemo!

Well…except for the heavy construction you run into once you hit Ottawa — and this being rush hour to boot. It wasn’t just that it added to the time but of course when you’re in a strange city and not sure what’s going on up ahead, it can add to the stress. Am I in the right lane for the turn I’m supposed to make a few kilometres ahead? Should I move over now — or will that move me into the wrong turn-off? Is the road even open or will there be a detour? Still, I stuck to my guns, held the course, and eventually saw the street sign for the street I needed to turn onto.

The Library & Archives building was literally a minute away.

And then my GPS cut-out.

It’s old and doesn’t hold a charge for long — about two hours, I guess (if not for that construction slow down I’d have been fine). So just as I’m getting into a strange city, with multiple lanes and heavy traffic — my GPS is gone. Still, I assured myself, it was no biggy — just before it died it told me I was only a kilometre or so away. Easy peasy, as they say.

Only turned out (unsurprisingly) there were a number of big government buildings on that street, so the one I was looking for wasn’t easy to identify (not when you’re navigating multiple lanes of busy traffic). So I ended up going past it — and now I’m starting to worry a bit. Strange city, etc. So I took the first turn off I could, and pulled into the first public(ish) parking lot I could find, and turned around, intending to drive by again.

This time I did spot the building (thanks to the existing comic book exhibition, there was a big superhero-themed sign out front). But I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the building itself. So I pulled into the first convenient parking lot — only to see signs announcing it was for those with permits! Wondering where the public parking was I stopped a lone pedestrian sauntering across the parking lot — who, as chance would have it, was actually the lot attendant; and he was done for the day so he said I was (probably) good where I was.

All in all, my five minutes from the city limits to the Library & Archives building had mutated into about 30 minutes (another writer got delayed about 45 minutes — and she was already in Ottawa!)

The book reading and mingling itself went smoothly. In attendance were fellow contributing scribes Leigh Wallace, Jason Sharp, and Alex C. Renwick (all of whom were based more locally and, coincidentally, comprised a gender-balanced roster of two women — Wallace and Renwick — and two men — Sharp and myself). As well there was Tesseracts Nineteen’s joint editors Claude Lalumière (who also co-edited a previous anthology in which I had a story, Masked Mosaic) and Mark Shainblum (co-creator of such Canadian comic book figures as Northguard and the satirical Angloman). Also in attendance were some representatives and curators of the Library & Archives exhibit (whose names escape me — to be honest, I’m bad with names and the only reason I can conjure up the names of the others is because I can look them up in my copy of Tesseracts Nineteen!) The public who attended were a small but interested group (including some with a connection to one or the other of the speakers — friends and/or family).

The contributors who attended were a good bunch, responsible for some strong stories in the collection: Wallace’s atmospheric and, to my mind, slightly Magic Realist “Bedtime for Superheroes” (though I’m probably applying that label incorrectly), Sharp’s realist noir (with a nifty super power) “Black Sheep,” and Renwick’s grittily melancholic “A Week in the Superlife.” Renwick has been writing (and getting published) for a while, but both Wallace and Sharp, I believe, are relatively newer scribes (I think Wallace suggested this was only her first or second published story) — but you’d never have guessed it.

They were all well written, literary-type tales. I fancy myself a bit more of a pulp writer. If others thoughtfully stitch together well crafted and delicately shaded pieces…my writing is kind of jammed together with duct tape and staples. Like a used car you bought cheap — it ain’t always pretty, and it may ride a bit rough, but it’ll get you where you’re going and, hopefully, you’ll enjoy the trip (and not be too distracted by that occasional smell of burning oil).

(Re-reading a few stories from Tesseracts Nineteen another story that sticks out for me is P.E. Bolivar‘s “The Rise and Fall of Captain Stupendous” — partly because it straddles playing around self-consciously with the superhero tropes while still, at its core, functioning as an adventure/suspense tale; keeping a boot in both camps).

I wrote about my story, “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” (or “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumor?” as it’s spelled in the book) in a previous post but, since this is my blog (like it or lump it), I’ll take a moment to talk about it some more. Claude Lalumière, when introducing my piece, remarked that with both this story, and the story of mine he had published in Masked Mosaic (“The Secret History of the Intrepids”), what I brought to the table (and I’m paraphrasing since I can’t remember the exact phrasing) was a deep understanding of the superhero genre mixed with a sense of Canadiana. And as someone who has been reading and writing about comic books and superheroes for most of my life, as well as (in a separate but parallel hobby) Canadian culture and identity…that’s about the best assessment I could ask for. While others often write prose superheroes tales as basically short stories that play around with themes and tropes associated with the superhero genre, I’m trying to capture the feel of a superhero/comic book — in prose.

(Actually Claude Lalumière once gave me the pithiest assessment of my style when, for my story in Masked Mosaic, he referred to my writing as having a “dry wryness” which I think kind of sums up what I do. And it’s probably a style I actually picked up from old comic books: no matter how serious my story, I’ll occasionally wink at the reader. In the case of “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” it’s essentially serious — but there’s also a bit of tongue-in-cheek).

Readers with an awareness of narrative provenance will recognize a bit of a nod to the old radio hero, The Shadow, in “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” And I’ll admit when writing the opening scene, set at the real life Toronto night club, The Palais Royale, and passing references are made to real life celebrities who supposedly frequent the place, I was thinking more than a little of a scene in the 1991 Hollywood movie, The Rocketeer. I often like to drop pop culture references into my stories as a matter of course — a gimmick I think I originally picked up from American comics, making it especially appropriate in this deliberately superhero-themed story. I toss in references to — among others — ’40s starlet Ella Raines, the comic strip Li’l Abner, vanished businessman, Ambrose Small, and even the 1940s Canadian comic book character, Drummy Young (the latter as an “in joke”). Pop references — a way of grounding the fantasy of superheroes in our reality — were perhaps first really emphasized by Stan Lee and then picked up on by later generations of comics scribes (and really made a signature of some, such as Roy Thomas — particularly as a way of rooting a story in a particular era).

A reason to use pop references is to establish a sense of place. My story is a period tale — but at no point is that actually said or a date actually cited. The reader is meant to infer the time period from the allusions peppered throughout. The story itself is told from the POV of various characters, most of whom don’t know the whole story themselves — so it falls to the reader to assemble the big picture from their little glimpses.

Even though I suggest my writing is “pulpy,” I will lay some claim to attempting subtlety. What I like to think of as an “obvious subtlety” or maybe a “subtle obviousness.” That is: attempting to write something where it’s obvious to the reader what’s going on — even as it’s a bit obliquely stated. It’s a tricky technique. If you’re too obvious it’s just heavy handed, but if you’re too subtle people can misunderstand the story (I came upon an on-line discussion once where someone claimed there was a “plot hole” in the Hollywood movie, The Reader…because the character was illiterate and so couldn’t have written the damning report! So for that viewer, the obvious was too subtle).

So, all in all, traffic and GPS issues aside, it was a fun little excursion. I got to chat with some talented writers, had the experience of reading before a crowd, wandered about the Library & Archives comic book exhibit. As mentioned: it’s running till September — and you can read some more detailed pieces about the exhibit and Canadian comic books here (there are a few different related blog posts, I’ve just linked to one, but you can check out the site for others — and you should). Co-editor Mark Shainblum even mentioned that another story I had submitted to Tesseracts Nineteen, “Rumours of Glory,” had been a tough call, with him and Claude arguing whether they liked it or “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” better. The latter won out, obviously — but it was nice to hear it was a close race. (“Rumours of Glory” is included in my own recently published anthology of superhero stories — just fyi).

Oh, and lest I forget — I saw a bear.

Seriously. I was driving back along the highway and it was a slightly surreal experience since it’s not something I was expecting. I saw a black head poking out of some tall grass, just watching the cars trundle by. At first I thought it was a dog — but there was something incongruous about its shape. I half wondered if it was a man — but it was too hot for someone to be wearing a fur coat with a hood. And then I realized it was a bear. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely sure if a bear should be that close to urbanized areas, but I guess it’s easy to forget just how much flora there can be outside of cities. After all, there’s nothing strange about seeing a deer, or a coyote, so why not a bear? Hopefully he/she knew enough not to try and cross the highway.

I kind of wonder what animals think of highways and cars. Do they see them as animals, like an endless caribou herd stampeding by? Or as some sort of non-sentient phenomenon, like a river? Animals seem to understand the concept of roads, weirdly enough — hence why birds and deer and, I guess, bears don’t seem to worry the cars will veer off the macadam and come for them.

Yeah — thoughts like that bounce about in my head.

Anyway…that was my experience with a book reading. Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe is available from most book sellers. And, since I’m plugging myself, I’ve recently published my own, single author anthology of superhero stories — a project inspired by my writing pieces for Tesseracts Nineteen and it opening up a creative floodgate.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve long had an interest in superheroes, and equally have long written about and argued for Canadian identity in popular culture (when so many Canadian filmmakers and storytellers often deliberately expunge any Canadianness from their work). So this is me telling a bunch of superhero-themed adventure and mystery stories, imagining there had been a decades spanning Canadian comic book publisher and the sort of plots, and heroes, that might have been created. The stories themselves ranging from mid-20th Century to today. Who knows? — you might enjoy it as well.

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