A few days ago I finished the first draft of what will be my tenth novel. I took a few hours off and the next morning began work on the story edits of what will be book number nine. Next week I’m going to be reviewing the galleys for book number eight. This is a dream come true; it’s what I’ve spent the last twenty-five years practicing for; to be an author with a steady stream of books being published and people finding enjoyment reading them.
The challenge for me is that all of this writing takes place not in the fictional world where authors retreat to the woods, or to a sea side resort in the Bahamas’ to pen their masterpiece, but amid the chaos and distracts of everyday life.
This morning I was working through the edits on The Glacier Gallows; this will be the fourth book in the Cole Blackwater series. The story edit process is a tough one. I have an amazing editor who knows my work well and helps me craft and hone each story. I write the book, but she keeps me from getting bogged down, repeating myself, or from making some egregious procedural mistakes with my crime fiction.
The Glacier Gallows has been a pretty easy edit so far. I have to re-write a few sections, but for the most part things are moving along well. That said, it does require concentration, and when I’m deep into the story, it’s sometimes hard to extricate myself to deal with the world around me.
So it was this morning. The boys needed supervision and there were logistics to be sorted out and all I really wanted to do was stay absorbed in what I was doing. Returning to the real world from the fictional one didn’t go well. I wasn’t at my best.
But that’s the way it’s got to be. I don’t have the luxury of being able to disappear four or five times a year to pen first drafts and do story edits. And I wouldn’t want to miss my real world for anything. Every morning is a blessing; to wake to find I have a healthy, beautiful family, a full-time job making the world a better place, and the ability to venture out into the surrounding mountains to ride, run or ski. Sure, these things require me to parse out my time transfixed by the imaginary world of my characters, my essays, and my photography, but they are what fuels my creativity, and I couldn’t have one without the other.
The bomb blasts that rocked the City of Boston and its annual marathon were not only an assault on the 24,000 people running the race, and the hundreds of thousands of spectators who cheered them on, but on the human spirit as well.
Anybody who has ever participated in such a race knows that the finish line holds almost magical significance in the heart and soul of a runner. I’ve never run a marathon, but I’ve run shorter races, some of which were very hard, and the finish line is a place of both exhaustion and exuberance, and can signify a triumph over both physical pain and the mental barriers that have been repeating, over and over in the runners mind: “Just give up.”
When you cross the finish line – even if you crawl, on hands and knees – you are telling those voices that you are stronger than they are; that you can persevere. In every race I’ve ever run I always return to the finish line after I’ve crossed it and cheer on the few remaining racers who are still on the course after I’ve completed it. These are personal victories over bad knees, gasping lungs, stitched ribs, thirst, hunger, fatigue, and the pantheon of condemning internal voices that every runner rebels against.
The bomb blasts at the finish line of the Boston Marathon were a direct assault on the human spirit that triumphs over all of these obstacles.
Our challenge now is to rise even higher; to lift our hearts and voices above the madness of a few people who care so little for life, for love, for the story of each and every living soul who has struggled and overcome 42.2 kilometers of elation and adversity, and a life time of hindrances both great and small. Fear is the enemy of love and of life. The new finish line that must be crossed is the one that carriers us over the demarcation between fear and hope; between fear and love. In this race too we must quell the voices of doubt and trust in the indomitable nature of our spirit to see us through difficult times.
Sometimes you just can’t stop. Sometimes, despite knowing that slowing down, stopping, regrouping, is the best way to handle a plot challenge, or the slow-as-molasses in January feeling you get while working on a first draft, you just keep going.
That’s what I’m doing with Black Sun Descending. It’s been, by far, the most lethargic first draft I’ve penned as a writer. I’ve been at it for six weeks and I’m just 43,000 words in. Normally I take a month and I’m done. The words just pour out like sewage from a ruptured municipal pipe, all raw and fowl but at least on the page, and ready for the second draft treatment.
Not Black Sun Descending.
Part of it is I’ve been on the road a great deal with my full-time, paid work; part of it is I haven’t outlined this novel as well as I should have. Maybe part of it is I’m distracted by so many other book ideas that Black Sun literally has to compete for neural pathways to get to my fingertips and out onto the computer screen.
I did take a few hours the other morning to stop my manic effort to bulldoze the book into existence and sort out a few plot challenges. Who are all these people, I asked myself? Who are the suspects, the supporting characters, and what are their motivations? Normally I work all of this out ahead of time, but for some reason I just threw myself into this project with considerably less of an outline than I’m accustomed too.
Four years ago I wrote the synopsis for this three-book series, with Black Sun Descending being the second book of the trio. Sitting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon I mapped the whole Red Rock Canyon Mystery series, and when I returned from that trip, wrote a six-page précis of the novels. That’s what I’m working off of now. Usually I’ll have twenty or thirty pages of a hand written story-board. Now I’ve got two pages of typed material and it’s proving to be insufficient.
Why? Because writing a first draft is no time to stop and wonder what the hell is going to happen next, or who is this character and why do they keep insisting on showing up in my manuscript.
I got some of that sorted out the other day, but I’m still flying a little blind. And I suspect there is a canyon wall somewhere there in the fog.
I’ll get through it. If you scroll back through some of the posts in the Deconstructing Draft One section of this blog, you’ll see, as I do, that its always the same. Middle of the book: slow down, complain, question, moan, and keep going. Its the only way to get these things done. Plow through. No matter what.
It’s dumping snow and I’m sitting at my keyboard, rather than hitting the slopes. That must mean I’m working on a first draft. The book is called Black Sun Descending, and it’s the second novel in the Red Rock Canyon mystery series set in the American Southwest.
It’s been ten months since I finished the first draft of The Glacier Gallows. That book, the fourth instalment in the Cole Blackwater mystery series, is now safely at my story editor (safe, that is, until I get it back and all hell breaks loose).
Ten months is a long time for me to go without working on a first draft. My publication schedule with TouchWood Editions has us releasing a book every six months. With three series on the go, that means whenever a new book is released in one series, I start working on the first draft of the next one. That leaves 18 months for the development of a novel, from word one to the final edit, cover design, printing and launch. That’s not much time, and my publisher has suggested that we need to get ahead of the curse and start working 24 months in advance.
That’s a great theory, but it’s proving tough in real life.
It’s not because I don’t want to write, or have ideas; the opposite is true. I have too many ideas. And sometimes life gets in the way.
Shortly after The Slickrock Paradox, the first book in the Red Rock series, was released last September, Jenn and I went to Morocco. The fall had been very busy with my paid work, and I didn’t get a jump on Black Sun for a variety of reasons. We spent three weeks in Northern Africa, and on the last day in Marrakesh we learned that Jenn’s mom, who had been sick with pancreatic cancer for a while, but who had been stable since June, had suddenly fallen into a coma. It took us 48 hours of exhausting travel to get from Morocco to Spain, London, Calgary and finally Nanaimo. We spent a week at her bedside before she passed away without having woken.
Two weeks later my mother’s husband, Ernie, died of cancer too.
I didn’t write a word of Black Sun until early January.
There have been other words in the intervening months. I wrote three new essays for my forthcoming work of non-fiction, Running Toward Stillness, to be published by Rocky Mountain Books in September. I also worked with the amazing editors there on the final story and copy edits, and spent a spellbinding week sorting through some 20,000 of my images to select forty for that collection. That was a highlight of the last few months for me; I’ve dreamed of having my photos published for longer than I’ve dreamed of being a writer.
All that to say, I’m behind. Fortunately, TouchWood made the decision not to publish my next mystery until next year at this time – so I wouldn’t have two books released at the same time – so I’ve caught a break time-line wise. I’m 15,000 words into what I expect will be an 80,000 word first draft, and have started to develop the familiar rhythm to the work. I’m writing a couple thousand words before breakfast most mornings, and on weekends I’m getting in three or four thousand down on paper.
It feels good, and I’m enjoying the characters and the plot and trying not to get hung up on research as I’m writing. I’m keeping a list of big questions that I’ll have to go back too to sort through at the end (such as, how long would it take a body to decompose if it was buried in the toxic tailings of a uranium mine?).
My constant enemy in this process isn’t writers block. I’ve simply never, ever had it; never for more than a few minutes or an hour. I’m simply too bull-headed to stop. My theory about writers block is to just keep writing, no matter what. No, my enemy is ideas. I have too many of them.
In addition to the seven books I’ve had published (The Third Riel Conspiracy has just been released), and the three that I currently have in the works for publication in the next 18 months, I have another twenty-seven book ideas in some form of development. Yes, I am a geek: I keep a chart.
When Jenn and I were in Morocco, a simple event like taking too long in the washroom at the airport spawning a story idea that by the time we returned had developed into a novel called Insha’Allah: The Willingness of God. Last week, in the time to took to walk to the bathroom at 3 a.m. and back, a few decades of thinking about a book set during the French resistance during World War Two became a trilogy mixing sci-fi and hard-boiled noir called Occupied.
You see the problem? I’m writing about 200-250,000 words a year right now, including all this inane blogging. Two books a year is a hell of a pace for a guy with a full time job. Thirty books will take me fifteen years to write. I’ll be fifty-seven. And it’s not like I can turn off the tap. Hell, I’m afraid to go to the john at night for fear of having new ideas.
My challenge is to stay focused. To, as blogger and novelist Chuck Wendig says, finish the shit I start.
So Black Sun Descending is on my morning’s agenda for the next month. Stay tuned to the Deconstructing Draft One section of this blog for updates from the front lines.
“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”
~ Unknown Buddhist Monk
Our suffering is killing us, and it’s destroying what sustains life on earth.
We suffer, in part, because we crave or desire material objects – a newer iPhone, a nicer car, a bigger house – as well as emotional safety, such as the illusion of stable relationships and certainty about life’s path.
No amount of material possessions can ever satisfy our longing because happiness and peace in life cannot be obtained from external belongings. Nor can we ever count on our relationships with other people, with our work, or even with our family for emotional grounding because these things are constantly in flux: friends move away, careers change with time, children grow up and leave home and loved-ones die. Happiness and peace are not found outside of the self; only within.
Across much of western society, and around the world, we have either forgotten this simple truth or have never learned it in the first place. We continue to try and ease our suffering through the accumulation of wealth and by denying the most basic fundamental truths of human existence: everything changes; everybody grows old, gets sick and dies; and everything is part of everything else.
Our difficulty grasping the interconnectedness of everything, not only on earth, but across all of time and space, leads us to feel a profound loneliness and a sense of isolation from one another. In turn, we try to ease this pain by filling our lives with material possessions, rather than practices that help us erase the barrier between ourselves and the rest of existence.
As humanity struggles to address the most pressing global issues of our time – a changing climate that will irrevocably alter life on earth, crushing poverty and inequality, and the loss of biodiversity that will cripple global ecosystems of which we are inextricably a part – we need to address not just the outcome of these challenges, but their root cause: our suffering’s impact on the world that sustains us, and on one another.
For almost twenty-five years I’ve been an environmental and social activist. I’ve taken a straight-forward approach to advocating for what I believe in: a patch of wilderness that I cherish is threatened, so I work with my community, scientists, and with other activists to fight oil and gas development, logging, mining or road building. An important animal like the grizzly bear or the bull trout is threatened with extinction so I rally the public to fight for stronger laws and regulations to protect it. I’ve had some success, but I’ve also watched so many things that I cherish slip away.
My advocacy was often fueled by anger, and its underlying cause fear, because of what we were losing. Around ten years ago that started to change; I realized that letting my love for other people, for wild places, and for the dignity of humanity fuel my work to make change was far more effective – and personally sustainable – than being driven by my fear. In 2006 I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership to outline what I thought was a better path for people who want to make the world a better place to follow.
Since then I’ve been trying to use the three pillars of the Tao – restraint, compassion and love – in my everybody life, first as a consultant to non-profits and business, and once again as a leader in North America’s conservation movement.
In doing so I’ve stumbled upon a difficult reality: all of our victories to protect the fabric of life on this planet, all of our efforts to provide dignity, food and shelter for people who are in need of it, are temporary. Everything we do to protect the backbone of the globe’s biodiversity only lasts until our own insatiable appetite for whatever riches lie buried beneath that place as goal, oil and gas, or growing on it as merchantable timber, are needed by an ever more desperate human population.
Nothing is safe and no place is so sacred that we won’t one day sacrifice it if we grew desperate enough. There is no law that can’t be rescinded; there is no United Nations status that is so prestigious that it won’t be ignored if humankind continues on its current trajectory. Witness the status of South Africa’s black rhinoceros: hunted to near extinction for the aphrodisiac believed to be continued in its horn. Laws and even an armed militia aren’t enough to keep poachers from shooting these animals and leaving them to rot, and for what? So that someone somewhere can satisfy their sexual desire.
Witness also the full-out assault on Canada’s laws to protect our environment; laws that once made us the envy of the world, and now leave us the laughing stock. In just a few short years Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper have dismantled the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waterways Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, once the strongest piece of legislation in Canada for safeguarding the Environment. The Species at Risk Act, which I helped advocate for from 1997 through late 2002, is next on the chopping block. Why? To make it easier for petrochemical companies to drill for oil and ship it to refineries around the world.
Until we address the underlying cause of the rampant destruction of the natural world, until we address the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor around the globe, every effort to protect life on earth will be fleeting. We need another approach; we need something in addition to our political and community advocacy in order to address what Wade Davis calls the “fire burring over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”
Through the practice of meditation, which I began in earnest during a period of personal upheaval in 2006, I began to understand the nature of my own suffering, and that of every other human being. Suffering is at once deeply personal and universal. We all suffer; it is the nature of humanity to feel the pain that comes from life, and our perceptions of it.
Twenty-five hundred years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama felt that pain too. Raised in opulent luxury and sheltered from the world of sickness, disease and death, the young prince came face-to-face with these realities and fled his life of privilege and began to follow a spiritual path. After six years of wandering, meditation, and self-deprivation, the man who would become the first Buddha was no closer to solving for himself what is a universal paradox: life ends, everything we love is taken from us, and we and everybody we care for will one day die. Nothing we can do will stop that; we have to make peace with it.
Siddhartha sat down under the Bodhi tree and meditated on this quandary. He recalled that in his youth he had found the greatest peace of his life enjoying a profound interconnectedness with nature, and with all life on earth, and in that moment realized what Buddhists now call the two Great Truths: that everything is temporary and everything is interconnected with everything else.
In that moment he ceased to be Siddhartha the prince and he became a Buddha; one who has conquered suffering; an enlightened being.
All the riches in the world could not fulfill the young prince’s soul; he had to confront the most basic facts of human existence, and make peace with them, before he could be happy. From that moment on he dedicated the rest of his life – another forty-five years – teaching a simple message: that we are all the Buddha. Every human being who has ever lived and ever will are Buddha, and all that is needed is a profound understanding – not just intellectually, but an actual emotional and spiritual acceptance – of the basic conditions of life.
Let me be clear about this: I have not surmounted the obstacles to suffering. I have not achieved enlightenment; not even of the 25-watt kind. Enlightenment isn’t even my goal; peace of heart and mind is my simple ambition. But the world is careening toward disaster and I am no longer convinced that activism alone will abate the destruction, so I find myself writing about an end to suffering out of a moral imperative to preserve what, and who, I love.
In concert with activism of all kinds, I believe that a spiritual and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching could ease the pell-mell ruin of the earth’s wonders. Once we have experienced, first hand, the simple truths of the Buddha’s teaching, and put into place some basic tenants to guide our behaviour, we no longer feel the need to satiate our appetite for material objects to fill the hole in our hearts. It does not mean that we must live the life of an aesthete, shunning any material possession or pleasure. It means that we control our desire, rather than the other way around.
The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that we must confront before we can do so.
The first is the truth of suffering. We all suffer. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that all life is suffering, but that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught us that life entails suffering.
Second he taught that there is a cause to this suffering. Our suffering is caused by our lack of understanding of the two Great Truths: that everything changes and everything is connected. We become attached to things, to people, to loved ones, to objects of desire, and that attachment, our desire for these things, causes us to suffer when we can’t have them, or when they change. We suffer also because we perceive ourselves as separate from one another and the fabric of life on earth and across the universe.
Third, the Buddha taught that there is an end to suffering. If we can experience the interconnectedness of life and make peace with the nature of change, we can conquer our suffering.
Finally the Buddha taught that there is a path that we can follow to peace, joy, liberation from suffering and ultimately nirvana: the magic of living fully in the present moment in a state of enlightenment. That path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and it remains a guide that we in the 21st century can use to achieve peace while addressing the underlying cause of the suffering we inflict on the world.
The Noble Eightfold Path is not a mystical passageway that leads to a conversion or to a religious belief: it is a set of guidelines for living a life free of suffering. The Eightfold Path is right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right concentration. Right in this case means “in the right way” or “straight” or “upright.”
For example, right view means developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how to end it. Right view means developing personal insight into these truths and believing in our hearts that there is an end the pain caused by our misperceptions of life and having faith in ourselves that we can overcome this pain because many others have already.
When we have come to grips with the nature of suffering through right view, we then automatically begin to think more clearly about our lives and the choices we have to make, and so on. In this way we see that each of the Noble Eightfold Path’s steps are at once a logical progression from one to another and all interconnected.
My purpose in writing this book is simple: I want to help ease human suffering so that we in turn can ease the suffering we cause the world and one another.
The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, nor is that my purpose. While I identify myself as a Buddhist – one who has accepted the basic truth about human suffering and who is trying to ease it – I also am a father, a husband, an activist, a writer, a community member and a friend. The teachings of the Buddha are not aimed at converting people to a certain religion. People from any faith can learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – along with many other teachings – and adopt them as part of their own personal trajectory towards happiness and peace. While there are certainly schools of Buddhism that verge on the worship of the man who was Gautama Buddha that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught that we are all Buddha, and that each and every one of us can wake up to the peace that comes with liberation from suffering.
Nor is my purpose in writing this book is not to replace what I think of as traditional activism with a spiritual practice. Buddhism has existed on earth for more than two-thousand, five hundred years; the process of seeking and finding nirvana – everyday freedom from suffering – is a slow process. We will need to use all of our skills and tools to save what we love about the earth, its cultures and its people. We must continue with political pressure, with protests and marches, with letter writing and economic pressure; but to win in the long term, we must remove the desire that drives the hunger for more; more things, and the precious resources that must be consumed to make ever more material objects.
My purpose is this: if we want our success in preserving life on earth and human dignity to be lasting then we must quench the fire that burns in the heart of humanity that must constantly be fed by more and more material demands. Until we do nothing will be sacred. Once we begin to make peace with our selves and the basic truth of human existence everything will be sacred.
This is the first piece of writing in a series of essays I am completing for a book. What do you think? I want your feedback to improve the ideas, and to collect first-hand examples. Please chime in.
 Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.
 From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.
The hardest book I’ve ever written is set to be released in the coming weeks (mid March, 2013). The Third Riel Conspiracy is the second novel in the Durrant Wallace Series of historically themed murder mysteries, and is my seventh published book. It was hard to write in several ways: the research was hard; the writing process was hard; and the editorial process was by far the hardest I’ve gone through.
The book follows Durrant – the one-legged North West Mounted Policeman – from the newly minted town of Calgary to the battlefield of Batoche at the apex of the Northwest Rebellion. He arrives during the chaos of the final day of the four day battle to find that a man has been murdered in the Zareba, the African inspired fortifications erected by the Northwest field force. A Métis man is in irons for the crime, but Durrant suspects that there is more to the murder than simple revenge.
When I started working on the Durrant Wallace series in 2007 I quickly plotted out the first three or four books in the series. This is how I’ve approached all of my writing projects. I don’t think in terms of single books, but narrative arcs that continue over several volumes. The first book in the series, The End of the Line, was published in the fall of 2011, and by the time it came out I was already neck-deep in the second volume.
That was the first thing that was hard: the research. Writing historical fiction isn’t like penning a regular mystery novel. In addition to mapping out the plot of the story and ensuring that the settings are accurate – something that I think is very important – there is the additional challenge of matching the storyline with the actual events of history.
In the case of The Third Riel Conspiracy, that meant doing a great deal of reading about the Northwest Rebellion and actually visiting many of the places in the book. Starting in the summer of 2009 I began reading dozens of books on the history of this seminal period of Canada’s development. The roots of the second Northwest Rebellion were in the uprising of 1870 in Fort Garry so I had to reach back that far in my research. The conspiracies that form the backbone of the novel’s plot are based on actual political skulduggery at the time so I made a chart of the real life machinations afoot and then changed them to meet my needs. (Interestingly Riel and his colleagues’ sentiment in 1885 was that “the west wants in;” 100 years later the Reform Party would use that same sentiment as a motto but with a much different result.)
I tried my best to understand the various motivations – religious, social and political – for the return of Louis Riel from Sun River, Montana to the Saskatchewan Territory in late 1884 and use those to create suspects for the murder. This gave me the chance to explore each of these themes in turn throughout the novel. In addition, I wanted to tell the story of the Battle of Batoche, a fascinating and often overlooked marker in our nation’s history, but didn’t want to reduce myself to mere exposition. Instead, I selected four key suspects and through Durrant’s interrogation of them revealed the events of the four-day conflagration.
I made dozens of pages of notes and charts and printed maps of the battleground and created a detailed timeline that placed my characters into the context of the real action of the day. As is my custom, I created a thorough outline of the book – what happens in each chapter, and how the characters interact – before I started writing. I made a chart of all the suspects – and there are a fair number in this novel – and then created a list of red-herrings that would be used to distract the reader from the actual killer.
All of this took place in the summer and fall of 2009. It was obvious that I would have to visit Saskatchewan, so instead of taking a trip to Utah to ride our mountain bikes, Jenn and I went on a four- thousand-kilometer road trip from our home in Victoria BC to the battlefields of the Resistance: Fort Pitt, Frenchman’s Butte, Fort Carlton, and finally Batoche National Historic Site. My wife is a good sport.
This on the ground research was vital. While I had a vague sense of the landscape from reading the historical accounts of the conflict, seeing it, feeling it underfoot, breathing in the prairie air, was critical to being able to write about the place, and for understanding the origin of the uprising. It was very much about the land and the Métis and First Nations relationship with these beautiful places.
When we got back from the trip we were distracted by our upcoming move back to the Canadian Rockies (we had bought a house in Canmore on the final leg of the journey) and writing The Third Riel Conspiracy got put on the back-burner. It would be a year before I took it up again.
That was the second thing that made writing this book so difficult: the time lapse between research and writing. I’ve outlined some of these problems in more detail in the section of my blog I call “deconstructing draft one.” The main problem was that my notes, while plentiful, left me guessing in places about what I wanted to happen, to whom, and when. I didn’t have to start over once at the keyboard, but I did have to reconstruct some of the plot.
The next challenge was fitting the actual historical events into the timeline I had constructed for my characters. Durrant Wallace is a sergeant in the Northwest Mounted Police, but because there was no official investigative branch in the NWMP, he operates outside of his jurisdiction. He reports to Sam Steele, who during the period of the Battle of Batoche was more than 300 miles away, tracking the Plains Cree and Big Bear as they fled towards Frenchman’s Butte and Steele’s Narrows. I had a critical exchange that I needed to engineer between the two men, but they couldn’t just text each other; I had to get them in the same place at the same time. Steel stopped at the burned-out Fort Pitt at one point, so that’s where the scene would take place. I had to jimmy dates and Durrant’s progress in the investigation to allow him to arrive at Fort Pitt the same time Steele would. It worked, but it took several tries to get the dates aligned.
Similar challenges occurred with Leif Croizer, who was the Deputy Commissioner of the NWMP at the time. I took some liberties there.
Undoubtedly the greatest challenge with writing the book was how to address Louis Riel. More than one-hundred and twenty-five years after his execution, Riel remains one of the most contentious characters in Canadian history. One possible motivation for the murder in this book was the complex web of politics that surrounded his life, and death. I figured that having Riel as an actual character in the book would be a flashpoint for controversy, but only he could have the critical piece of information that Durrant Wallace would need in order to find the real killer in the novel.
You’ll have to read the book to judge how I handled this challenge.
The final challenge for this book (so far) occurred when I sent it to my publisher, and the book went through the inevitable story-editing hell. I love my publisher, and I love my editor. We’ve worked together on five books now, including The Third Riel Conspiracy, and the upcoming Glacier Gallows, and without a doubt they have made every single one of those books better. But it isn’t easy. Buy the time I press send on another novel, shipping it off to the publisher, I’ve spent several years with the book. I’ve dreamt about it; I’ve sweated bullets over dialog; I’ve made painful decisions about, as Bob Seger says, “what to leave in and what to leave out.”
So I’m attached. I try not to be, but inevitably when the edits start rolling in, I realize that I am.
The Third Riel edits were very difficult. I’m not going to go into details, because it’s water under the bridge, but suffice to say that for the first time in decades I seriously considered stopping writing. It lasted for a few weeks. On a good day I require a pretty heavy hand when it comes to edits, but The Third Riel was by far the most red ink I’ve ever seen. I plowed my way through, frustrated and a little despondent, wondering how it could be that seven books into my writing career I was still making all the same mistakes. I got through them, and with a pep talk from my publisher, got excited once more about writing. But there were some pretty dark days during the editorial process for this book.
The book should be back from the printer this week, which means soon I’ll get my shipment of complementary copies, and will experience once more the excitement of opening the box, smelling that fresh-printed-ink smell, and get to fondle a copy of The Third Riel Conspiracy for the first time. I know from experience when that happens all the challenges of creating the book will dim and I’ll get to feel the excitement of holding this creation in my hands.
I don’t know if this being the hardest book I’ve ever written will equate to being the best book I’ve written. I’d like to think that’s true for every book I write, which would mean that my writing is always improving. That’s for you to decide.
When we were together last September, when in the afternoons we’d sit in the backyard, near the weeping birch, and talk, we discussed the idea of you telling a story. In those warm days of September neither of us could imagine what you would soon face; then we were rebuilding our relationship after so many difficult years, and you were emerging once more, my mother.
We talked then of you writing the story of your childhood; of growing up in a gold mining town in Northern Ontario, and of losing your father at the age of five. Too young to really know him or have much in the way of memories; instead, you were raised by your mother and older brother. It wasn’t an easy upbringing. We talked about how to write that story; without bitterness or guile. People aren’t inspired by resentment; what they want to read is a story of hardship, honest, simple achievement and of what life was like in a very interesting place, and time.
I asked you: what is the story you want to tell about the first chapters of your life?
When I drove you to the airport and said goodbye at the gate, I was filled with hope and love. You and I haven’t had an easy go of it. It’s nobody’s fault. I wasn’t a very good kid when I was a teen: I drank, and snuck out of the house a lot and was moody and angry. You drank too, and didn’t want to let go, or face your own fears. We clashed. For a long time we were at each other’s throats; it wasn’t easy on either of us.
But over the last decade we’ve started to grow back together. We’ve both grown up a little, and time can take the edge off; make it easier to forgive.
He proposed to you when you got off the plane. Who says you don’t get second changes, or third?
Six weeks later you got married. And four weeks after that, the ailment that had forced Ernie to sit during your wedding ceremony was confirmed as cancer.
And now he is gone. And you are alone once more. And it leaves you, and me, heartbroken.
The last year has been hell. There’s no other way to say it. In and out of the hospital during the rapid decline of your third husband, the second to be stolen by cancer in a decade. The last few weeks were more than anybody should have to endure; to lose a soul mate, one you hoped to have in your life for a few more years: just a few more years to love, to debate (and yes, argue), to share tender moments with, to discover what life’s true purpose is.
It would be understandable for you to sink lower, deeper into despair. You’ve spent a lot of your life living with regret, and its made you angry at times, lonely at others, and most of all, bitter about what could have been, but hasn’t become.
And now you have a choice to make: what do you want the next chapter of your life to be?
You can write this chapter any way you want. Yes, there are limitations: you’re struggling with a lot of physical challenges. Some of these there is nothing that we can do anything about. Some we can find treatments for, and some you can control wholly.
But within the confines of these maladies, you still have a choice. You can choose to accept control over your decisions and the consequences of those choices. You can choose to be happy; unreasonably so if you have to. Nobody would blame you if you decided to slip from mourning into a deeper despair, and resentment. But if you’re going to author this next chapter, why not choose to make it about service, about a modicum of joy, about peace?
You have it within you. I know you do. I told you at lunch before I left Hamilton that what I wanted more than anything was to see you smile again; for you to know happiness. You’re not alone; you have Chantel and I and you have friends. But the sort of happiness you must seek now can’t be dependent on others; you’re going to have to find it within. It might be centred on community, or on faith or service, but at the end of the day, you’re the one holding the pen: only you can write the story.
My MP in Ottawa is an earnest young man from Airdrie named Blake Richards. He’s a backbencher with the Conservative Party, and I get a lot of mail from him extolling the virtues of his efforts on my behalf in Parliament, and those of this Party.
It’s pretty rare that we agree on much of anything. We’re both in favour of open, accountable government, but he isn’t a part of one. The F-35 fiasco has proven that beyond a doubt. Apparently we’re both in favour of responsible spending, but the Conservatives hand $1.4 billion dollars every year to oil and gas companies in Canada, which in turn record massive profits at the expenses of our environmental and health: hardly a wise investment.
Otherwise, I find that my voice is completely absent from Ottawa as my MP could really care less about someone like me: fish-kissing, gay-rights supporting, pro-democratic-reform whack-job from Wildrose.
Now I’ve found something else Mr. Richards and I can staunchly disagree on: I am one Canadian who has NOT grown “increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the actions of those who blockade highways and railways” as Mr. Richards suggests in his January 18 “Richard’s Report.”
“There can be no doubt that Canadians have had a lot of patience with the recent Idle No More protests taking place across our country,” he says in his Report.
I’m pretty sure that the First Nations people he’s referring to are also Canadians; the First Canadians in fact.
The MP then goes on to say that thanks to the dedication of the Conservative Government, 80 land claims have been settled and 10,000 units of housing built on reserves. This is all well-and-good, but it doesn’t seem to have helped the poorest people in Canada pull themselves out of poverty, nor does it address some of the fundamental concerns that have lead to the Idle No More movement across this country.
Bill C-45, among other pieces of federal legislation, is at the centre of this dispute. The massive omnibus bill threatens to further destroy Canada’s environmental protection by gutting the Navigable Waterways Act. Already the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act have been reduced to shadows of their former selves. The Species at Risk Act is next. First Nations people argue that the federal government has a duty to consult them on the most recent desecration of Canada’s environmental safeguards, and that destroying those provisions amounts to a violation of their treaty rights.
Mr. Richards concludes his newsletter by saying this:
“Our government respects the rights of all Canadians to legal, peaceful protest. In the case of Idle No More, this movement has done a lot to engage our First Nations citizens. This sort of awakening can be useful in helping us make progress on matters of mutual concern like economic opportunity, housing, education and accountability.”
So true: what the Idle No More movement has come to realize is that as Canadians we can have our awakening and “make progress” until the cows come home, but it’s not solving the problems that lead to the moment of reckoning in the first place. The rest of us Canadians should be out there in the cold with our First Nations colleagues, neighbours and friends fighting for what makes Canada great: the vast beautiful green land that until recently was considered one of the most pristine on earth, but is rapidly becoming a toxic sewer, ever fast now under the Conservatives.
Mr. Richard’s government is running Canada into the ground. We’re an international pariah on the environment, deliberately sabotaging any effort to curb green house gas emissions and make meaningful progress on other important global issues such as poverty and meaningful aid to developing nations.
And meanwhile, this nation’s First People’s are still living in government sanctioned squalor. Yes they have problems; some of their fiscal management is almost as bad as our federal and provincial governments. But for ten thousand years these First Canadians lived good lives on in this extraordinary landscape of prairie, forests, lakes, mountains, tundra and sea-shores and in the last two hundred years all of that has been ruined for the sake of profit and the progress that Mr. Richard’s espouses. Nobody expects First Nations people to live as they once did; but nobody should expect that when our country continues to break promise after promise made to them that they will sit still and say thank-you for building a few houses and settling the occasional treaty.
What the Idle No More movement seems to be saying – at least to me, an outsider who shares many of their concerns – is that respect is as important as anything else that we can share with our First Nations countrymen and women. And what Mr. Richards makes clear on behalf of his government is that he has very little of it when it comes to his relationship with this country’s First Peoples.
I’m one of those authors who always reads his reviews. I don’t get a tonne of them: five or ten for each of the six books I’ve published so far, so it’s not an onerous commitment. Two of every three reviews I’ve received since starting to publish books in 2006 has been positive, and as Meatloaf crooned, that ain’t bad. I like the ego-massage of reading good reviews, and knowing that my intention as an author is hitting the mark, and I take heart when a reviewer points out where I could improve either the content or the style of a book. I’m new to this, and committed to learning as much as I can about the craft of penning novels and non-fiction alike.
The recent review of The Slickrock Paradox in Briarpatch Magazine hit on a third topic: what I apparently missed completely in penning the novel.
In The Slickrock Paradox Silas Pearson is looking for his wife Penelope de Silva in the searing heat of the American desert. De Silva went missing three-and-a-half years before while working on a clandestine conservation project in the canyon country of Utah and Arizona that centred on the writing of Edward Abbey, the iconic and controversial desert rat who penned The Monkey Wrench Gang and other books.
The reviewer, Yukata Dirks, seemed to enjoy the central mystery of the book, and has very nice things to say about how I portray the landscape of the Canyonlands, but points out:
“Unfortunately, Legault never addresses Abbey’s reprehensible racism. In 1963, Abbey wrote: “I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals.” Just as insidious were Abbey’s racist, colonial ideas about Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land he fervently defended. Midway through The Monkey Wrench Gang, the gang destroys a coal train and plants false leads around the site to point the blame at Red Power radicals. Indigenous people don’t have a place in Abbey’s narrative of eco-resistance, even if it is their traditional lands that are being destroyed.”
I can’t say I’m shocked by this feedback. Edward Abbey was a controversial figure in American literature and the life of the American West in many ways. In addition to being racist, he was misogynistic, crass, anti-social and at times bordered on abusive. He had five wives and it’s probably fair to say that the first four were happy with being left in the rear view mirror as he carved his path through life. He fathered five kids. He was a complex writer and a complex person, and just like the rest of us had plenty of demons to grabble with, more than a few created by his own hand.
I consider racism reprehensible and unjustifiable. If I were writing a book of literary criticism, or a critical biography of the man, it would be shameful not to mention these character flaws while praising his prose and his depth of feeling for life. But I’m not. The Slickrock Paradox is a mystery novel that is centred on Abbey’s nature writing. My protagonist, himself a critic of literature, openly states his distaste for Abbey’s writing; he prefers Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy (all of whom I love). It was a bone of contention between Silas and his missing wife.
Briarpatch goes on to criticise my portrayal of the American Indian in the book:
“Sadly, although Legault’s plot turns on the discovery of the ruins of a Pueblo gathering place by a young Hopi woman, The Slickrock Paradox suffers from a similar, though less crass, erasure. Despite his realistic portrayal of the political and economic landscape of the Southwest, the role of Native Americans in the defence of their land and water rights goes unmentioned, and Legault’s few Indigenous characters are treated as objects more than actors: victim, grieving sibling, spiritual Elder.”
It’s true that there are no American Indians among the leading characters of this book. It’s not a book about tribal water rights or the efforts of the Navajo or Hopi to defend their traditional lands. Characters like Darla Wisechild, the sister of one of the deceased in the book, are much like other supporting characters in the novel; they help carry the plot. In a book of 85,000 words there isn’t time to create in-depth portraits of every person that appears and still maintain a fast pace with lots of suspense. These characters are foils for Silas’s investigation. The fact that so much of that investigation involves the discovery of Ancient Pueblo ruins, artifacts and mythology merely reflects the reality that life in the Southwest today is an overlay of an ancient culture that has existed there for ten-thousand years and there is no place you can turn without confronting that.
In my 2008 novel The Darkening Archipelago Archie Ravenwing, a “Northern Salish” elder is a complex and flawed leading character fighting salmon farming on traditional First Nations territory in BC’s Broughton Archipelago. Every book can’t be about everything.
All of this reminds me of the curious moment when, after publishing Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, that I read a review that criticised my portrayal of the Tao te Ching for not including a discussion about Taoist sexuality. Really? I tried to imagine about how I could have shoe-horned a discussion of ancient sexual energy into the book between chapters on strategy, fundraising and leadership styles. I recall thinking at the time that 1) my book was about leadership and activism, and not about sex; and 2) that sometimes reviews are a good way for the reviewer to make a tangential point only peripherally related to the topic at hand.
I used Edward Abbey’s writings as a centre-piece for The Slickrock Paradox’s mysteries because I love his passionate description of the landscape and because of his iconic stature among the canon of western literature. It doesn’t mean I endorse everything about the man, or his life, or even every word that he has written.
All of that said, every review I read gives me something to think about, and I’ll certainly been considering this feedback while penning the second book in the series, Black Sun Descending, due out from Touchwood Editions in 2014.
Have your say. Should Edward Abbey’s racism necessarily be part of any discussion of his writing? Or can we accept that he was a good nature writer and a passionate man without investigating his other character flaws?
The news that former criminology and psychology student, and convicted animal-torturer, Karla Bourque was released from prison last week is unsettling news. Kayla Bourque was convicted of cruelty towards animals and sentenced to eight months in prison, six of which she had already served. The judge in the case gave her the extra two months so that a long list of complex parole conditions could be prepared. These parole conditions included a ban on owning knives, needles or duct tape.
It raises challenging questions: this is a woman who has admitted wanting to kill homeless people, and who has shown to take pleasure in torturing her family pets, so why is she being released from prison after serving just eight-months, and what can be done about it? How do we protect ourselves and our communities against people who feel no remorse for their actions, and experience none of the moral constraints that prevent them from committing terrible crimes?
This story strikes a nerve with me because my 2011 book The Vanishing Track is about a male version of Ms. Bourque. In this mystery novel, set in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, a young man named Shawn Livingstone graduates from juvenile delinquency to torturing and killing animals, stealing cars, burning down a neighbourhood grocery store to stalking and killing the homeless. Sean is a psychopath – a human abomination incapable of feeling the most basic emotion: empathy – and that makes him capable of committing the most heinous crimes without feeling any remorse. He, like all psychopaths, is intelligent and superficially charming, but he lacks the ability to feel. He can mimic normal human emotions, but as Dr. Richard Hare of the University of British Columbia, and the world’s foremost expert on psychopathy, says “he knows the words but not the music.”
I don’t know if Kayla Bourque is a psychopath, but the odds are in favour of it. Dr. Hare has developed the standard model for assessing this severe form of mental deviation. It’s called the Hare Phychopathy Checklist and it includes two main categories: personality “aggressive narcissism” and case history “socially deviant lifestyle.” Under the first category are behaviours such as having a grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying and the failure to accept responsibility for his/her own actions. In the second category are historical habitats such as a need for constant stimulation and tendency to experience boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioural control and juvenile delinquency. Twenty questions in all, the checklist is administered by a trained professional and each of the twenty categories is scored on a scale of 0-2 (zero meaning no evidence of the trait is displayed, 1 meaning there is a partial match and 2 if there is a reasonably good match). The maximum score is forty; different administrators have varying thresholds for the label psychopath but it is usually in the range of 25-30.
Screenings of the general population using Hare’s checklist suggested that around 1% of the people in North America are potentially psychopaths. One in a hundred people demonstrate the behavioural or historical traits of psychopathy. Not all psychopaths turn to criminal behaviour: in fact Dr. Hare, along with Paul Babiak, wrote a fascinating book about what many psychopaths end up doing called Snakes in Suits: when Psychopaths go to Work. Think about the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and the lack of remorse shown for the suffering that caused and you’ll understand Hare and Babiak’s thesis.
Many psychopathic individuals are content to live non-violent lives, but they are almost never without victims. Some male psychopaths express their parasitic tendencies through casual and exploitive sexual relationships; others prey on families and associates through petty crimes or mental, financial or emotional abuse.
The cause of phychopothy is not known: researchers speculate that a chemical imbalance between testosterone and cortisol may be to blame; others suggest environmental factors such as abuse during childhood while others say poor socioeconomic status might be a factor. No one has yet stated categorically that there is a definitive cause.
Psychopaths are gross malformation of the human species; so like us in so many ways, but lacking the moral fibre that we associate with humanity, and therefore not quite fully human.
There is no cure. One psychologist who spoke with the troubled Ms. Bourque before she was released said that the young woman will likely require supervision for the rest of her life.
Ms. Bourque has admitted to wanting to kill people, and is intelligent enough to study criminology at Simon Fraser University to learn how to do it in a manner that she will not be caught. Consequences have little meaning to psychopaths: they don’t fear being caught because they will be punished; they fear being caught because it will spoil the fun.
It was only Ms. Bourque’s inflated ego that led her to being arrested: she bragged about her cunning to a fellow student who called the police.
The question remains: what do we do with people like Ms. Bourque? She hasn’t yet committed a crime that warrants locking her up for the rest of her life, but obviously the judge in this case feels that she is likely to re-offend or he wouldn’t’ have imposed such strict probation. Our judicial system prevents us from locking Ms. Bourque and others like her up for crimes she has yet to commit, and monitoring her behaviour for the rest of her life will be a costly and human-resource consuming operation for police and social service providers. If we don’t watch her she will almost certainly commit additional crimes. And what do we do with all of the others?
There is no easy answer. I’m open to your ideas: