Process Stories: Cathy Ace

Cathy Ace is always thinking about great ways to kill someone. Fortunately, she’s a crime writer, not a psychopath.

“It’s nice to be able to look out of the window and see the sun,” Cathy Ace says. We are chatting by phone; she is in her Maple Ridge, BC home-office, and I in my own writing room in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Cathy admits that the rain, never-ending this spring on the West Coast, was good for her productivity. She’s working on a draft of The Corpse with the Golden Nose, her second novel for TouchWood Editions. Her first, The Corpse with the Silver Tongue, was released in March.

I’ve called Cathy to conduct an inaugural interview to discuss what I’m calling Process Stories: how writers exercise their craft.

“I’m not someone who has ever spent time studying the writing process itself. I don’t know how it happens for other writers, but I’m fascinated by it,” she confesses. Cathy and I shared an audience, along with fellow TouchWood author Debra Purdy Kong, in April. I was reading from The Vanishing Track, and after our ephemerally brief readings, someone asked about the writing procedure.

Cathy admitted that her first novel emerged fully formed on the page. She said it was as if she watched a movie playing in her head and wrote as fast as she could to get the story down as the film unwound behind her eyes.

“I’m not convinced that it’s unusual; it’s just the way I write. Perhaps it’s not normal for everyone; I’m learning that other people are different, that there are umpteen drafts.”

That would be me. Half a dozen, sometimes a dozen drafts, each one inching its way towards a legible story. I assure her that while it’s not unheard off for a novel to emerge fait accompli, it’s not the norm.

It was that reading at Cadboro Bay Books that got me thinking about process stories. How does it happen for Cathy Ace? I ask.

“It’s very much about focus,” says Cathy. She has a delectable Welsh accent.  “I’ve always written for a living – advertising, PR, training courses and text books, business reports. I’ve always had a lot of things simmering. I focus on one to bring it to a boil and get it to a deadline. I take a business-like approach.”

Cathy explains that writing murder-mysteries is now her business. “It’s not a hobby. I’ve made a decision to stop my other work and this is now my business. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it; it’s a dream opportunity. But I have to look at it in a business-like way. If I don’t, I’ll end up just working in the garden all day. Writing is my main priority.”

I ask where that determination comes from. “It’s a Welsh, protestant work ethic.” Cathy explains that she hails from generations of people who just scraped by. She was the first person in her family to go to University, and she knew it. She worked 3 jobs to get through school. “There were no gap years,” she explains, referring to the modern phenomenon of taking a year off from University. She laughs: “Which is another way of saying you have your thumb up your ass. You find yourself through work. Not backpacking to Bali.”

Cathy Ace

Cathy tells me she read one of my blog posts where I confessed that about halfway through a recent draft of The Glacier Gallows I reluctantly had to create a detailed chart of all the characters to keep them all straight. Cathy says she creates a detailed list of characters before she starts writing. “I’ve got all my notes: names, parent’s names, how they grew up, how they dress, their features: height, weight, hair and eye colour. They are real people. It’s all written down before I start. I refer to it constantly while I write to make sure I don’t mix up a hair colour or which side they limp on. To me the places are all real too, even if I invented them. The story is all fully developed and real before I start. I’ve sat and watched the movie a couple of times. When I sit down to create a draft all I have to do is write it down.”

I ask about the movie reel: what does she see?

“It’s exactly the same as when I watch a movie, except that I can go backwards and forwards. I meet the characters I’ve created along the way. I start with what happened and who committed the murder and how. The rest of the movie is really just creating enough pleasant confusion to keep readers guessing. I want my readers to enter the movie with me. I want to take them on the journey that Cait (her protagonist) is going on. I want the reader to feel the emotions as the characters experience them. I hope they lose themselves enough to enjoy the storytelling.

“I don’t want my readers to feel they are being told a story: I want them to feel like they are experiencing the story.”

Here Cathy and I admit to one another that we haven’t read each other’s books. We both promise to get around to it soon. I ask about what she’s working on now: The Corpse with the Golden Nose. She explains the book is set in Kelowna wine country in BC’s Okanagan. “Someone is dead on the first page. I promise a corpse on the first page of every book.”

Cathy likes the classic style of murder mystery and employs one of its devises – the closed room – in her stories. “It’s an Agatha Christie devise: you reveal the victim while you set up the suspects. I love traditional classic whodunits and those are the stories I like to tell.”

The closed room creates boundaries for the reader: they know that one of these six or ten or twelve people has to be the killer. I tell Cathy that in The Glacier Gallows I’m using a high mountain ridge-line in Glacier National Park, Montana, as my “closed room.”

“The closed room can apply to many situations,” she says. “You can apply a closed circle of opportunity to many different settings. A room, or an environment, or a large geographic region – I like to use the closed circle of opportunity, matched with the very wide-open range of people’s motivation to kill, to create my plot. Sometimes I like to flip that on its ear: no one could have done it, but everybody wanted to.”

“In the Corpse with the Golden Nose, the deceased is ruled a suicide, but Cait believes that, physiologically-speaking, it was a murder. To the reader, the killer is invisible.” Cathy has created a closed environment but a wide open circle of opportunity. “I like to take the traditional rules and push them as far as the reader will allow me,” she says. “I’m writing for the traditional mystery reader. They know the long-established plot twists and turns, and like them. I just use them in a new way.”

So how does this all come together? I want to know how she writes:

“When I’m working on a draft of a novel I aim for  about 5,000 words a day. I’m a three or four finger  typist and pretty inaccurate. I can’t type an apostrophe; it always comes out as a semi-colon. I hammer away, trying to get the story on paper just as I’m seeing it in my head. I see it as a movie and I try to write that movie onto the page. I’m just there to introduce the things that you need to make a book: all the joining words.

“I do this for about an hour and then I print out what I’ve typed. I take it away to a different part of the house and mark it up: correcting the spelling and grammar. Then I go back to the computer and amend. Then I write the next part. I start at about seven in the morning and finish about five. Throughout the day I’ll do the laundry, play with the dogs, wander around with a cup of coffee. I usually eat lunch at four, when I remember. That’s the way it will go through the week.”

At that rate it takes about a month for Cathy Ace to write a complete novel.

“The story is pretty much set,” she continues. “I know what has to happen by the end of each chapter. Exactly how it happens depends on how the characters choose to act. Sometimes they say things that I didn’t expect them to say in order to present information and do it in character. I’ve met these people in my head, but I haven’t had conversations with them and they haven’t had conversations with Cait.”

Like many authors Cathy talked about her protagonist as if she’s a close chum with whom she has lunch  most days of the week. And of course, she is.

Recently I read Stephen King’s book On Writing and explained that King says an interviewer should never ask where “the stories come from.” So I ask.

Cathy says, “The first book came from listening to a radio interview in the 1980’s of someone who said something and I thought ‘What a great way to kill somebody.’ That stayed with me. Now she says that stories all begin with that thought: ‘what a great way to kill somebody.’

I ask if we’re talking about means; you know, the candle stick or the butcher knife?

Cathy says yes, but it might be the method as well.

“I’m always walking around thinking what a great way to kill someone.”

I say “that must make you charming company.”

“Oh, I’m just a delight.”

Having shared a stage with Cathy I can confirm that she is.

While Cathy is writing her second book for TouchWood, she has nine mapped out for the series in total.  She tells me that there could be more, but it seemed like plotting nine novels was a good start.

Like many writers, Cathy Ace had to make a conscious decision to invest in her writing: both time and money. She had a successful career in academia and public relations. In 1989 she was stuck in an airport and wrote a short story in response to a competition in a magazine. The story was published, and later anthologized, but at the same time she was starting her marketing communications business, so she decided to let fiction-writing simmer. But like everything else, the time came to put her focus back on her writing.

Two decades passed. In 2007 Cathy was approached by Martin Jarvis and Rosaline Ayres who wanted to produce her short story for BBC Radio 4. She was very proud to hear the story presented on air. She decided that that was the time to stop writing text books and training courses and turn the heat up under her fiction writing.

She sat down and discussed the prospect of writing full time with her husband. Geoffrey has grown children, but leaving her full time career would mean delaying his retirement. The couple decided it was worth the risk for her to pursue fiction.  This didn’t happen until this year! Have moved it to right spot

While continuing her academic responsibilities at Simon Fraser University, Cathy wrote a collection of short crime stories and pitched them to publishers. Pitched? “I sent ransom notes to publishers with letters I cut out of magazines,” she says. “The note said that the characters and I were held captive and that the publisher could release them. Everybody wrote back and said that it was not quite their cup of tea. But I kept writing.”

Her break came when she spoke at a writer’s forum in Maple Ridge BC in April of 2009. She met Brian Antonson and he put her in touch with Ruth Linka, the publisher at TouchWood, part of the Heritage Group. Ruth asked Cathy to develop one of the characters from her short stories into a full length novel. In December 2010 Cathy sent Ruth the manuscript for “The Corpse with the Silver Tongue” and on May 11th 2011 Ruth called to say she would publish the book. “I remember the date because it was my late father’s birthday. It was bitter sweet, but sweeter more than bitter.”

She sat down and discussed the prospect of writing full time with her husband. Geoffrey has grown children, but leaving her full time career would mean delaying his retirement. The couple decided it was worth the risk for her to pursue fiction.

Cathy says that going through the story and copy editing process for the first time was completely alien. “I’m sure I was a complete pain in the ass,” she says. “I kept calling and asking what was going on. It was like going into the rabbit hole and just sitting there for ages. But the novel came out relatively unscathed, except for punctuation. I’m sure I was a complete nightmare for the copy editor.”

As both Cathy and I are edited by the same two people, I know exactly what she means.

As our conversation came to a close I asked Cathy what advice she would give someone who was just getting started?

“Make sure you know, before you start, what the story is that you want to tell.”

It’s good advice. The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is available from TouchWood Editions, and can be bought in quality bookstores everywhere, or online. It’s also available at libraries. Watch for the Corpse with the Golden Nose in 2013.

Follow Cathy on Twitter @AceCathy

Dependence Day

Happy Independence Day America. As someone who spends a huge portion of his working life traipsing around your environs, I feel like I am getting to know you. And seeing how we’re all this – whatever the hell this is – together, I think I’ve earned the right to ask a simple question:

What exactly are we celebrating our independence from?

In 1776 the United States of America declared its freedom from the United Kingdom, earning the right to make its own laws and govern itself: of the people, for the people and by the people.

Two-hundred and thirty-six years later, we seem to have developed a few unhealthy dependencies.

White the first War of Independence was fought against taxation without representation; the next War of Independence will be fought against more complex, self-imposed forms of repression.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our reliance on dwindling fossil fuels that have chained our economy to the health of petroleum companies that by default rule much of the world;

The next War of Independence will be fought against our predilection to pick a fight with anybody and everybody, especially if our reliance on dwindling fossil fuels is at stake; and the defence companies that quietly urge us on.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our dependence on a handful of genetically engineered food crops and the companies we’ve allowed to take over and slowly destroy our heartlands, the greatest food producing region in the world.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our insatiable hunger for resources that no law, no park, no promise will ever protect our land, our wilderness, our wildlife, skies, and water from.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our fear that we will never have enough, and that we must always be accumulating more in the vain hope that somehow our homes, our cars, our smart phones and our grown-up toys will protect us from the inevitability of life, and death.

The first War of Independence was fought with muskets, swords, and pistols; with military cunning, bravery and courage. The next War of Independence must to be fought with courage too, but with our hearts and our minds and our love for one another, for our families, our future, and our nations.

The next War of Independence will be fought within ourselves: this revolution begins inside, and in the spirit of independence and the thirst for freedom that characterizes a nation with such extraordinary promise, blooms outward to create a world liberated from the factors that are leading us to destroy ourselves.

The next War of Independence will be fought hand-in-hand, across the borders that segregate us. None of us are independent from one another, and so we must wage a war of peace with love for our liberty from our self-imposed oppression.

Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault

Recalling Cactus Ed

When I was starting off as a writer – seriously starting to think that writing was something that I wanted to do, and not just writing angst-ridden teenage poetry under street lamps – I wanted to be Edward Abbey. Not write like him: be him.

That was more than twenty-years ago. I had taken a summer job, after my first year (of two) of college, at a small Provincial Park called Murphy’s Point, an hour north of Kingston, Ontario. I was a student naturalist: I manned the small visitor centre, talked with people about the park’s plants and animals, especially the endangered black rat snake, and assisted with campground programs. One of the women who lived in the old Junior Ranger camp that served as park housing gave me a copy of The Fool’s Progress and I read it early in my season at the park.

It changed the way I look at the world. Not all of it for the better.

Now, twenty-one years after reading my first Edward Abbey book, I’m awaiting the release of The Slickrock Paradox, my mystery novel set in the south-western United States and inspired by the life and writing of Edward Abbey.

The Fool’s Progress is the thinly veiled autobiography of Abbey, alternately told in first person as Henry Hollyoak Lightcap and a third-person observer, as we watch the dying protagonist ricochet across the United States, from his adopted residence near Tucson, Arizona, to his ancestral home in the “smoky hills” of Appalachia.

It’s a brash, misanthropic, heart-wrenching read about a character who was born a hundred-years too late, and is at odds with nearly everything in his life: his procession of wives, his meaningless jobs, and the industrial society that is engulfing all that he loves; especially the canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona.  It was in the canyon’s that the fictional Lightcap spent a couple of summers as a Park Ranger and fire lookout, mirroring Abbey’s long on-again off-again career with the Park and Forest services in such places as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lee’s Ferry, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

I loved every word. I recall sitting on the porch one rainy Saturday, listening to the CBC on a portable radio, drinking tea, and reading the hilarious opening scene of The Fool’s Progress, where Lightcap’s third (and final, he professes) wife leaves him for a computer engineer, and he gets snot-hanging, toilet hugging drunk, shoots his refrigerator and bakes a loaf of bread.

My days at Murphy’s Point were very much like those Ed Abbey described for his character when he took up his post at Arches National Park (then a monument), expect for me the locale was the mixed Carolinian forest of the Canadian Shield. I rose early and watched the sun rise. I started nearly every day with a paddle around Loon Lake, on which the old Ranger camp was perched. I donned the park uniform and proudly, if somewhat ineffectively, introduced visitors the natural history of the place. After work my friends and I swam in the 80-degree water of the lake and many lights I slept in a tent to escape the stiffening heat of the bunk house that summer.

At first I thought I was Henry David Thoreau, filling a 400-page notebook with observations on the mating habit of loons and my observations of giant snapping turtles, great blue herons, fox, beaver and nesting osprey. But as the summer wore on, there was less Thoreau on the pages and more Abbey.

In the middle of the summer I traveled from Murphy’s Point to Toronto to visit my girlfriend, who came up from her summer home near Sandusky, Ohio. It was a terrible trip: Toronto jarred my sensibilities, and lines from Abbey’s book about syphilization kept poisoning my impression of the world. I was grumpy (even more so than usual) and angry and only wanted to be back on the shore of Loon Lake.

I can’t blame Abbey for that: I was a grumpy bastard before I ever read him. But The Fool’s Progress didn’t help.

It did, however, introduce me to a whole new world, both in literature and geography. The next book I read by Abbey was (big surprise) Desert Solitaire. Arguably his most famous book, it’s the mainly true story of Abbey’s three seasons at Arches National Monument, and the surrounding wild country of the Four Corner’s region. I bought my copy at Banff’s Book and Art Den, and read it during my first summer as a Park Naturalist in Banff National Park.

That book, more than anything else, started my love-affair with the southwest. Two years later I applied to volunteer in the US Park Service through the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and was stationed at the South Rim of Grand Canyon. It hadn’t been my first (or even 2nd or 3rd) choice, but because I didn’t have wheels, they sent me somewhere I could walk to get groceries and to work. In the end, it was an extraordinary introduction to the canyon country. I hiked into the Canyon dozens of times. I was sent on a week-long raft trip down the Colorado River with the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies team. Three times I got out of bed around 2am and under a full moon hiked into the canyon to the Tonto Plateau (about 2/3rds of the way down from the rim to the river) to watch the sun rise and then hike up in time for breakfast.

And I read pretty much every other book by Abbey that winter, all borrowed from the tiny public library there on the South Rim.

I wrote my first work of fiction during that winter of 1993-94, sitting at my friend Greer Chesher’s computer. It was she, who after reading my work – an apocalyptic tale of father and son, set in the Rockies, and horrifyingly similar to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, except that the later is one of the best novels ever written, and my short story was abysmal – suggested that my fiction would be stronger if it actually had a plot. I took that to heart.

Later that winter, after my time at Grand Canyon had come to an end, I did a tour of the southwest, traveling from Flagstaff to Tucson to Las Cruses, New Mexico, into El Pasco, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and then up to Santa Fe. While I was in Las Cruses, I visited the achieves at the University of New Mexico and asked for all of the papers they had on Edward Abbey. I read stories published in obscure journals featuring an early incarnation of Hayduke, his bridge-blowing-up Wildman from The Monkey Wrench Gang.

I returned to Utah and Arizona many times between 1994 and 2002, doing month-long trips in Canyonlands, floating the lethargic Green River and hiking its arboreal side canyon’s and sleeping on its sandy beaches under the vast constellations.

Despite the fact that I wrote hundred’s of my own essays and articles – I was started to get published in small magazines and free journal’s around that time – I was never able to become Edward Abbey. Not even a Canadian version of him: a little more polite, without quite so much bile, and wearing a tuque most of the year.

And that’s probably for the best. The world only needs one Edward Abbey. His singular place in the canon of western literature can’t be mimicked. And besides, what every writer must eventually do is shed the influences of their heroes and find their own way of telling their story.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to find a way of honouring the role he played in exciting my love of writing and of the southwest.

In 2008 I was canned from my job at Royal Roads University where I was a Senior Development Officer for the Foundation. It was a syphelized job if there ever was one: I wore a tie to work most days, and tried to convince rich people to give the University money to help them build an art gallery and environmental education centre to honour the wildlife artist Robert Bateman. My position, along with a quarter of the other staff at the University, was cut during the recession of 2008.

The first thing Jenn and I did when I got the lay-off notice, and the fat severance package that accompanied it, was plan a trip to the southwest. And as I was seriously pursuing writing by then (my second book, The Cardinal Divide, was published in 2008, and the Darkening Archipelago was already in production) I decided that now was the time to create a novel that would take me back to the canyon’s that I love.

By the time our two-week trip was in the rear-view mirror, the Red Rock Canyon series had been mapped out. The protagonist, a Canadian named Silas Pearson, is searching for his wife, missing these three-and-a-half years, somewhere in the sprawling American desert around Arches and Canyonlands National Park. Penelope was working on a clandestine conservation project when she failed to return from a hike into one of the locales that Abbey wrote about. Pearson, an absent husband more interested in high-brow literature than the pedestrian Abbey, never paid much attention to his wife’s passion for wilderness and Cactus Ed’s ranting.

Until she disappeared.

Jenn and I visited Arches and Canyonlands, The La Sal Mountains, the North Rim of Grand Canyon, and the Escalante National Monument on that trip. Several days were spent just writing the outline of the first three novels in the series: The Slickrock Paradox, Black Sun Descending, and The Same River Twice. One afternoon I sat in a lawn chair at Cape Royal, watching the vast emptiness over the Grand Canyon, and writing dozens of pages of notes. Another was spent in the golden aspen forest on the North Rim, creating character sketches and plot lines.  I would bounce ideas off my wife and she would ask me tough questions to help me firm up the outline.

When we returned, I wrote the first draft of the first book, and my publisher – TouchWood Editions – agreed to pick up the series, bless their souls. In September The Slickrock Paradox will be released.

The book is a murder mystery, and as my story editor constantly reminds me, the point is to create a compelling who-dunnit first and foremost. I think Slickrock accomplishes that. But beneath that drama is an ode to both a dramatic and inspiring landscape and the man who first introduced me to it.

Slickrock, among other people, is dedicated to Cactus Ed. The plot allowed me to use short passages from his various books – Desert Solitaire in particular and One Life at a Time, Please – to point my sleuth in the direction of his clues. But most importantly I was able to use what must surely be my favourite line of prose ever written. It’s from The Fool’s Progress:

I want to weep. Not for sorrow, not for joy, but for the incomprehensible wonder of our brief lives beneath the oceanic sky.”

There were many other things that inspired the Red Rock Canyon Mysteries, and over the next few months I’ll write about them here. But it was Edward Abbey who started it all, and it’s to Cactus Ed I owe my deepest literary gratitude. We never met – he died the year before I started reading his books – but if you’ve spent as much time crawling over the slickrock mesas and slithering through slot canyon’s as I have, you get to know him a little bit. He’s there in the rocks, down by the river, and up in the sky masquerading as a lonesome black soaring bird.

For updates on the release of The Slickrock Paradox follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Review: BLACKBIRDS by Chuck Wendig

I love the cover art for Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.

This pains me, but I didn’t enjoy Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig as much as I had wanted to. I’m a big fan of Wendig’s online, expletive-laden, deliciously-vulgar and self-described dubious writing advice. Much has been made on Wendig’s blog and twitter feed about Blackbirds, so I was prepared to really enjoy it. I wanted to really enjoy it. I picked up a copy last week and read it over the next few days, and while it wasn’t really bad, it wasn’t as good as I had hoped.

I suppose the Buddha was right that all expectations lead to disappointment. Makes book marketing tough, mind you. Twitter doesn’t really lend itself to subtlety.

Blackbirds is the story of Miriam Black, a young drifter who has a unique gift: with just one touch she can tell when, where and how you will die. The whole story of your death plays out before her eyes in just a quick blink. This, as you might imagine, causes some consternation for young Miriam, until she learns how to profit from her gift. When she comes in contact with someone who is near their demise, she shadows them and like a vulture, picks over their bones (and their pockets) when they croak. Despite this predilection for profiting from other’s bereavement, Black remains a tortured soul.

It’s a great premise, and Miriam is an interesting character, with a complexity that makes her both hard to love and lovable at the same time. She’s crass and fowl mouthed, and extremely violent, but with a latent tenderness that is seeking a soul to settle on.

In the end Blackbirds is a violent and disturbing incursion into the very darkest corners of human nature. Miriam’s gift comes to the attention of some very bad people and they fix their attention on exploiting the exploiter.

It struck me as I was reading Blackbirds that the world that Chuck Wendig creates must exist somewhere, but it’s so dark, so craven, that I have a hard time accepting it. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, as all fiction begs us to do. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I live in a naive, rose-coloured world where the sort of uni-dimensional characters that make up Blackbird’s list of bad-guys simply can’t be real. I had the same feeling recently while reading The Glass Rainbow, the most recent offering by James Lee Burke, one of my favourite mystery writers: how could so many truly awful people all find each other in a place like New Iberia, Louisiana, or in the case of Blackbirds, the truck-stops and diners along the Interstates of Pennsylvania?

I’m not a prude: a curse a blue streak, both in real life and in fiction. My kids are growing rich from the swear jar in my house. My most recent fictional antagonist is a psychopath who enjoys a good torture session as much as Wendig’s character Herriot does. That’s not what bothered me in Blackbirds. What got me was the lack of restraint: sometimes you don’t need three or four contiguous descriptions of vulgarity to explain an act of psychopathic homicide or torment. Sometimes one will do. Let the reader fill in some of the blanks.

I read Blackbirds cover-to-cover in a couple of days, though one of those included a cross-country plane trip, so that gave me a few extra hours. I’m a pretty slow reader, so I either motored through it, or it was a pretty easy read, or both. The ending was satisfying, but not surprising. The much vaulted act of redemption, of balancing the equation, that leads to the altering of a man’s fate, felt a little contrived.

The sequel, Mockingbirds, will be out in 2013. I’ll likely pick it up, with lower expectations, just to see what fate has in store for the young woman who knows so many other’s providence. In the mean time, I’ll keep reading Wendig’s excellent and hilariously crude advice for writers. Somehow there all the vulgarity works.