Blackwater on Homelessness and the Human Soul

Cole Blackwater, the misanthropic, self-styled eco-crusader in my first two novels is considerably more comfortable with trees, wild salmon and grizzly bears than he is people.  But in the third book in this so-called ‘environmental mystery’ series, Cole must face some of the darkest elements of the human paradox as he works with his best friend, and advocate for the homeless, Denman Scott, to determine the fate of men and woman disappearing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

I’ve been working on this book since March of 2007, and have had the concept for it in my head, and jotted as a couple of lines of scrawl in a notebook since 2003. And now, thanks to my amazing publisher – Touchwood Editions — agreeing to pick up this series of novels, the third Cole Blackwater mystery will be released in the winter of 2012, about a year from now.

The book has been furtively called The Lucky Strike Manifesto since its conception, though that is likely to change. (It has: Its now called The Vanishing Track) The Lucky Strike in question is a fictional behemoth of a hotel, once a sparkling jewel on Vancouver’s skyline, but whose decline mirrors the downward spiral of the Eastside neighborhood it graces. Now a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residence, it is home to nearly 300 of the cities least advantaged citizens, and is on the chopping block. A condo developer has bought it and wants to raze it to build a ritzy high-rise for upscale Eastside living.

The book is a reverse mystery, inspired by one of my favorites in the genre, Lawrence Saunders’ The First Deadly Sin. Readers of the book will know from the first chapter who the killer is, but the protagonists – Cole Blackwater, his best friend Denman, along with newly minted Vancouver Sun Journalist Nancy Webber and a new character, street nurse Juliet Rose – struggle to unravel the mystery behind the disappearance of homeless people around the Lucky Strike Hotel. I hope to inspire outbursts similar to one I experienced while reading Saunder’s masterpiece where I actually yelled “He’s the killer! He’s the killer!” when protagonist and antagonist unknowingly meet face to face.

While Cole has been principally obsessed with environmental issues in the first two books, readers will recall that he has an interest in the issue of homelessness. Cole often cogitates darkly about humanity while befriending people he meets on the street. His camaraderie with Denman, who heads a legal-advocacy agency in the city, has exposed him to the complex challenge to eliminating homeless. As The Lucky Strike begins, Cole is asked by Denman to help stop the ongoing demolition of Single Room Occupancy hotels.

The Lucky Strike completes a narrative arc that began with The Cardinal Divide and continued with The Darkening Archipelago; that of Cole Blackwater’s steady emotional unraveling. When I conceived of this series it was first and foremost a means to tell stories about issues that were important to me – environmental and social justice – wrapped in compelling narratives. I quickly learned that the story had to come first, or the novels would be little more than soap box polemics with a murder thrown in for good measure.

What I discovered as Cole came to life was that his own story was equally important to me. Readers of The Darkening Archipelago have told me that Cole’s explosive breakdown, and the revelations about the abuse he has suffered, made them want to learn more about this character. His anger, his violence, is made almost tolerable by his enormous capacity to care for and protect his friends, and is rendered understandable as its origins are revealed.

But coming face to face with haunting memories is one thing; not letting them tear you apart is another all together. As The Vanishing Track took shape in early 2007, I realized that it was about much more than a physical landscape, in this case, the troubled Downtown Eastside of Vancouver; it was about an emotional landscape as well. With my best friend Josh, a clinical physiologist, I would run for hours in the hills around Victoria and quiz him on Cole’s various trauma’s as if the character was a friend I was hoping to cure. And in many ways, he was.

I penned the first draft of this book in my typical frenetic manner, working every morning for two months to complete the 140,000 word, 530 page jumble of themes, narratives and interwoven plots. This came on the heels of a spastic effort to write book two in the series, The Darkening Archipelago. In all, I penned both books, back to back, in a little under three months, writing 250,000 words and over 850 pages in that time. As I’ve noted elsewhere, they weren’t necessarily good words, but they were the skeleton of two stories that I could slap some meat on over the next two or three years.

All of this crazed writing took place on blind faith, because the publisher of the first two Cole Blackwater books didn’t agree to publish The Cardinal Divide until a later that year. And it all happened in the emptiness of my Fernwood home in Victoria; I had recently separated and moved out of my family home. Rio and Silas were with me for a couple of nights a week, my consulting business was in a periodic lull, and I had two months where I could rise at 4 or 5am and write until my fingers cramped into immobility.

The Vanishing Track is now in its eighth draft. I’ve cut about 80 pages and trimmed 10,000 words but much more needs to be done.  I recently worked my way through the entire manuscript again, in preparation for the editorial process with Touchwood Editions, and like the narrative arc that takes place with Cole’s emotional state. Fans of Cole’s gritty, rougher side need not worry that he is miraculously cured of his impulsive, paranoid ways. But there must be some promise of resolution to his explosive violence; a man simply can’t live with those demons for long without them devouring him.

And that was the plan from the start; write these three books as a sort of trilogy where Cole must first identify, and then reluctantly come to terms with his own emotional maladies, and their impact on his daughter, his friends and his life’s work. If Cole survives the final confrontation with novel’s antagonist, he may emerge a better man for it.

Click here to read more blog posts about Cole Blackwater. Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

40/9

My first son Rio and I have birthday’s two weeks apart.

I turned 40 in the middle of the month. Rio turns 9 today.

Passing the 40th milestone seemed like a pretty big deal at the time, but now, with it two weeks in the rear-view mirror, its significance has faded. At the time, Jenn and I were in southern Mexico, in the Yucatan; we spent the day driving from the Caribbean coast to the Gulf of Mexico. We stopped in the capital of Quintana Roo state called Chetumal, where my novel Thicker than Blood is set, to do on-the-ground research, and then pressed ourselves for almost six hours of exhausting driving to reach Campeche on the Gulf Coast.

Along the way we had a lot of time to talk and I remember telling Jenn about my fears: that the journey was half over. If I took care of myself, and if luck was on my side, I might get another forty, or fifty years out of this corporal being that houses heart, head and soul.

There is still so much to do.

Back in Alberta, in our glorious home, Jenn throws me a slow-motion surprise party. The guests – many old friends who I have lost touch with while in BC – show up over the course of an hour or two and I’m grateful that I put on a party shirt for the occasion. Silas and Rio run wild with half a dozen other kids and the party feels like equal parts house-warming and birthday celebration.

I remember my mother’s 40 birthday as if it were yesterday; making her a card with a hand-drawn picture of a voluptuous woman reclining on a sports car; the sentiment being that she was still young at 40, even though I thought she was ancient at the time.

A few days later the morning dawns on Rio’s 9th birthday, his 10th trip around the sun, and it feels so right to be back in Canmore where he was born.

I lie in bed with my boy, his little brother still asleep above us, and he tells me about his night-time dreams. We discuss why we dream, and what nightmares are, and why we are afraid of some things and not others. And then he tells me about his real dreams; the ones that he will pursue in life. He wants to travel around the world. He wants to work with animals. He wants to climb mountains. He wants Star Wars Lego for his birthday. And carrot cake.

We rise and get ready for the school day and he and I sneak off and have breakfast together in town before I drop him at school. I love that both he and Silas are making so many friends in Canmore. I was shocked and amazed a few weeks ago when one of our neighbors – the mother of twin boys who are in Silas’ class – showed up at the door and took my son away for the morning. It was glorious watching him traipsing off with these new chums. It felt like bliss. In Victoria, we felt as if we had to watch the boys all the time; here Rio heads out the door with another neighbor to toboggan and play at his friends house and I don’t waist a moment on concern.

It feels so right to be here.

Later today we’ll take the boys to the Nordic Centre for their ski lessons and then head to Boston Pizza for a birthday dinner. Rio wants to go to the Royal Tyrrell Museum to see the paleontology exhibits, so the next nice weekend they are here we’ll make the trip to Drumheller.

Part of what sends jolts like electricity through me from time to time is the knowledge that even as we plan and prepare for our lives here in the Rocky Mountains things are slipping away. Rio has recently started to greet me with hugs when I pick him up from school again, but I expect that will be short lived. Soon it will be back to fist-bumps as a means of acknowledging my aching love for him as he makes his way into the world. Silas is still all snuggles and hugs, but the cruel reality of being a parent is that from the moment your children are born – the very first moment – we have to start letting go.

As it is with our very own lives; it’s all just a process of letting go; of surrender.

This year will be a big year; for the 9-year-old and the 40-year old. I recently learned that my amazing publisher – Touchwood Editions – will pick up a third series from me, essentially publishing my books as fast as I can write them. After nearly 20 years of effort to make something of my writing I feel that I am on the cusp of commercial success, and loving the process of arriving there. And in the next few days I will have an announcement about my impending return to the conservation movement after a 6-year hiatus (exile?).

It seems that the return to the Bow Valley, to the Rocky Mountains, has indeed been fortuitous.

And of course, there will be a world to travel. And animals to help. And mountains to climb.

And Star Wars Lego. And a carrot cake.

I Am Resolved

Before 2011 gets away on me, I thought I’d put down on paper a set of ideas I feel resolve for this year. I wouldn’t say these are resolutions as much as strong notions that I am humbly committed to. I’m sort of hooked on the idea of there being eleven of them:

1)      To live fully in the place my family has chosen as home – the Bow Valley of Alberta – and to rediscover the majesty of the Rocky Mountains and its communities.

2)      To learn to let go more: long a part of my spiritual practice, I am resolved to stop clinging to those things which were never in my grasp in the first place.

3)      To rededicate myself to maintaining the temple of my body, so that it can be a vehicle long into the future for spiritual fulfillment, love, adventure and excitement. I’m in good shape, and I want to be in great shape.

4)      To continue to write every day. It is my dharma.

5)      To find a meaningful way to earn a living, because my dharma isn’t cutting it quite yet. This could mean taking a terrific job (I interviewed for one in mid December that would be perfect) or the continuation of my consulting work.

6)      To make peace part of my every day practice. For so long I’ve been journeying towards this goal: 2011 will certainly be a seminal year in that pilgrimage. To calm the fires.

7)      To reignite my daily practice of meditation. Along with daily study and finding opportunities to gently show others the opportunities to conquer suffering and strive for peace, this will be the foundation of my undertaking as a dedicated, well-meaning but somewhat distracted amateur Buddhist and Taoist sort-of-person.

8)      To let go of more: of more things, of ideas, of pre-conceived notions, of iron-clad ideas. And to let go of the idea of letting go: sometimes its OK to hold on tight. The world is spinning pretty fast, and hurtling through space at thousands of miles per second. Holding on makes good sense sometimes.

9)      To continue to love people – as many as I can – as much as I am able. Starting with my family: Jenn and our boys, my parents and Jenn’s, our siblings and their amazing families, and our extraordinary friends; and radiating out beyond that to random people I meet on the trails and on our travels, in café’s and in Safeway and Costco. To try and stay out of jail while doing this.

10)   To be a caring and nurturing friend, husband and parent who embraces restraint, compassion and love; the three pillars of the Tao, and the fundamental teachings of the Buddha.

11)   To let go of the silly idea that there needs to be eleven of this things so it jives with 2011.