Saturday, January 12th 2012

Kevin,

It’s the weekend, though that doesn’t matter much here. Every day is basically the same – I wake up, trudge through the snow to my office, and watch Dr. Who before settling in to get some work done.

I have actually been working, and I thought I’d share some of that now. Whatever I have to say about Ceremony can probably wait a little while long (I’ve already devoured another book since finishing it, but still, digestion takes some time).

This is the first chapter from my new novel, tentatively titled Woman King. It’s the third of the Paris Trilogy I’ve mentioned, and the first to have a female protagonist throughout the entire book (the one I’ve just finished drafting today has a woman narrator, but only for the back half). Here it is, hope you like it:

Peaceful nights into oblivion. All of them. She doesn’t dream anymore. Or if she does, she can’t remember it.

She wakes from the sun through the useless blinds. Thirty years. They’d bothered her that long, but now she feels too exhausted to change her house. Its imperfections mirror her own: lived in, considered and shrugged off. Elliot had not come to bed.

Rachel pushes the covers down and lets the early morning warm her body. She has been trying to ease off the coffee. All that has resulted is the need to lay in bed longer before she faces the day.

Elliot will be at his computer. She walks to his study in her bathrobe, finding him staring into the screen through his bifocals.

“Darling, have you been up all night?”

And there it is. That single moment of no recognition. Then his eyes focus and he remembers who she is. Each morning it happens. Each time it seems to add to the weight she carries. Oh lover, where have you gone?

“Um, I guess I must have.”

Why would he remember that one hour can bleed into the next? Why would he know she woke without him? Her black slumbers broken by moments where she wakes to an empty bed.

“Would you like some coffee?” she says, giving up on her caffeine fast with the hopelessness that greets her every morning.

He nods, and she walks to the kitchen.

As the water boils for the French press she skims yesterday’s paper before checking her phone for recent emails. The only one worth a reply is from Leah.

How is she old enough to be married? Rachel has felt herself age, felt her muscles lose their strength and her tongue lose its sharpness, not the razor whip it once was, grasping for words that once came easily. But Lead seems to have jumped into the future. Once a child, then a girl in a skirt too short to be worn, it’s bottom lined with sequins so she sparkled as she wagged herself. Then a woman. Now a wife. Or soon. The email was about the wedding invitation.

 

Hey Gram,

Has it come yet?

Love,

L

 

It hasn’t, though so little of their mail comes to their front door. Ever since a death threat in the mid-eighties she’s kept a P.O. Box in the tiny post office on Spadina. Leah must have sent it to the wrong address, a careless oversight that nicked Rachel’s heart. It seems an added insult to the fact that he granddaughter has not been out to visit in a year, and only then to show off her fiancé.

Rachel likes Nate. He is tall and broad-shouldered like her uncles and sons. He looked her in the eye when he spoke. Deferential, but not officious. He is a steady hand, one that might be able to quell Leah when the Gray blood inside of her begins to rally.

She brings Elliot a cup, not mentioning where she is going as she leaves by the front door. Her favourite mug stays in her right hand as she pilots the car out of the driveway. The winter has only left a light dusting on The Annex, so she drives at her usual speed – fifteen over the limit. He Uncle Benton had taught her to drive his father’s tractor when she was twelve, making her lay on the gas for the fun of it. She likes to think she speeds in his honour, though she’s been doing it long before he passed.

The P.O. box is filled with the usual detritus. Requests. Bills. Invitations from foundations where she might lecture. A check from her publisher. And, at the bottom of the pile, a small envelope from Leah and Nate. She tosses the unneeded mail before scooping the rest up in the crook of her arm. Her coffee is cold in the car’s cup-holder, but she finishes it off on the ride back. It is becoming more and more apparent how little she wants to return home.

I could drive south, she thinks, stay at the farm for a few days. But she cannot leave him alone. Even with the chow chow to keep him company, and maybe have Andrew stop by to check on him. Elliot is not their responsibility. She pulls into the driveway automatically, not breaking her reverie until she comes to a stop.

She taps out a quick reply to Leah as she drops the mail by the stairs.

 

Got it. —Gram

 

She’ll call later to give her two cents on the typography or color. The only other artist in the family, Leah looks to Rachel for aesthetic approval, though she never know what to do with her granddaughter’s love of vibrant colours and big, black font.

Of course, the letter is hot pink against a yellow background, though Nate clearly has talked her into using a reserved cursive for the typeface. She lays the little card down on the kitchen table to read it.

 

Jack and Susan Clarke welcome you to the marriage of their daughter,

Leah Reese

To Mr. Nathan Deil Clavell

At 1:00 p.m. August 23rd

In the 2nd Presbyterian Church of Paris, Ontario

 

At first she thinks nothing of it, but it is his name that stops her. It is a name she’s known her entire life. But he was always Nate to her. Nate, the nice young man her little Leah has fallen in love with. Nate, the great addition to the family they all agree on. But he is more than that.

He is a Deil.

 

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Thursday, January 10th 2012

Kevin,

Things progress. I’m halfway through Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. It’s a devastating, enlightening read concerning the trials of Native American soldiers after World War 2. Silko’s Almanac of the Dead is one of my favorite books, and while Ceremony is less sprawling, it truly captures all the tension and fear that still exists in Native life.

I expect I’ll have more to say on it tomorrow. For now, here’s a song (apologies for the sound quality and my terrible guitar playing). It’s called Candace, and it’s the latest thing I’ve written.

 

-Noah

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Tuesday January 8th 2012

Kevin,

photo

This place is so beautiful. Right in the foothills before the mountains. I’m already feeling productive (started another book, hell yeah!), but I’ve got one last book review to get through before I can start reading for pleasure – The Past by Neil Jordan (who’s best known for The Crying Game). I’ll leave my comments on it for my review in Paste, but I think it’s definitely worth a read.

This was meant to be a longer post, but circumstances have not allowed, so I’ll just briefly comment on the most important event of the day:

David Bowie’s new album.

As you know, I am a huge Bowie fan (I have over a day’s worth of his music on my computer…it’s kind of nuts), and when his last album came out in 2003, I anxiously awaited another. But as the years passed and it seemed like he was done making music, I became content. Reality is a good album to close on, and I’m fond of it and 2002’s Heathen in a way I don’t feel about anything after Let’s Dance – though, for the record, both Never Let Me Down and Black Tie, White Noise are underrated albums. I don’t think I really need a new Bowie album in my life (which is saying something, I assure you).

The worst part is, his new single doesn’t really convince me otherwise.

Now, I’ve only listened to it twice, so maybe I’ll change my mind, but my biggest takeaway from hearing “Where Are We Now?” was that I’ve heard him sing this song before, only better. Perhaps this is the worst song on the album – and it’s by no means bad, just depressingly middling – and I’m in for a big shock, but right now I can’t say the prospect of a new Bowie album is unequivocally a cause for celebration.

What do you make of it?

 

– Noah

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Saturday January 5th

Kevin,

It’s our last night in Santa Fe. We’ll be heading off to Denver tomorrow morning and then I’ll make my way up to Wyoming for my residency on Monday. It’s been quite the trip – I’m kind of confused that I was chilling in St. Louis during a snowstorm only a week ago. Four days is a good amount to spend in Santa Fe, though. Its population is about 65,000, so aside from the downtown there’s not too much going on.

The downtown itself is pretty incredible. Endless art studios and shops, all in the pueblo style so the entire town provides an earthy hue backdrop for the turquoise-painted pillars and vibrant colors of the native clothes. The housing market is too expensive for Native American artists to actually reside in Santa Fe (or anyone, really, a lot of people who work here are commuters from Albuquerque), but artisans line up their wares beside the Palace of the Governors in the Plaza (the town square).

I’m pretty ambivalent about the treatment of native art here (partially because I don’t know enough about it), and I wonder what these silversmiths, jewelers, and weavers think about the kitschy “Indian” stuff that’s for sale throughout town. On the one hand, a lot of it is Noble Savage-style offensive. On the other, I have no idea how much the art market here brings money to the pueblos. Maybe the artisans make a good living, although selling their wares on the street while innumerable white-owned art stores line the town makes a bit dubious. I wanted to ask about it, but I felt a bit too awkward (“Hi, I’m a gawky white boy who’s interested in your oppression, would you mind giving me the scoop?”). Even with this giant caveat, I’d still recommend visiting Santa Fe if you haven’t – though you should probably do it in the summer, there just seems to be more going on, and the roads are less treacherous.

But about Fifth Business.

The term applies to a particular role that appears in opera. Typically, we think of the four major parts: Baritone (Male Hero), Soprano (Female Lead), Bass (Male Confidant or Villain), and Mezzo-Soprano (Female Confidant or Villain). But, in a classical opera plot there needs to be one more character, some minor figure who performs a deus ex machina or delivers an important message. Robertson Davies’ term for this is the “fifth business,” and the main character of his book performs this function. The book is similar conceptually to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in that it focuses on a minor character while the major storyline goes on in the background (the book came out about 4 years after Rosencrantz premiered, so I’d wager Stoppard and Davies came to the same idea around the same time). I’ve always been fascinated with these kinds of stories – some of my favorite TV episodes have used this conceit with great success. The only difference in Fifth Business is that the reader has no idea what the “big story” in the background is, though it’s clear the narrator is a minor character in the larger world in which he exists. The lack of background info makes the book all the more interesting, especially since Dunstan Ramsay (the narrator) doesn’t ever remove himself from the narrative to explain these larger events. He’s claiming to be fifth business but never really lets the story in which he is fifth business come into play. It’s an interesting contradiction, and a peculiar kind of unreliability. I’ve been thinking about how narrators lie, and how the most interesting (to me) are those that don’t lie purposefully, but obviously can’t see what they’re doing in telling their narrative. My own character, Mary, in the back half of Evening on the Grounds is doing something similar, in that she can’t see the impact of her actions, and so tells her story totally blind to them. Ramsay is deathly aware of his impact, but he’s oddly self involved, and doesn’t let the context of that impact become clear.

Anyway, it’s a great book. I know you’ve cut your teeth on Alice Munro, so Canadian fiction should be second nature to you.

I probably won’t manage to get another post out until I’m in Wyoming, so see ya then.

 

-N

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Thursday, Jan 3

Noah,

I must confess that I find myself so embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to respond, but I do have some excuses—the most recent being that I just got back from seeing Stanford win their first Rose Bowl since 1972 in Pasadena with my father, a Stanford alumnus.

After five and a half years in Chicagoland, four at Northwestern and the past year and a half living in the city, I decided to move away. Not because I don’t love the city—I do, and I could see myself living there permanently—but because I need a change of scenery, as twentysomethings are wont to do. And since I didn’t want to move back to the Bay Area, where I grew up, for much the same reason as I wanted a break from Chicago, I decided to make good on a childhood dream: spending the winter around Lake Tahoe.

My grandparents built a house near the lake in Dollar Point before I was born, and the house has been the site of many Thanksgiving and Fourth of July weekends. Since my mother’s parents passed away, and my brother and I got older and needed our school breaks for sports, internships, summer jobs, and later went off to college—I haven’t been able to get up to Tahoe. But now, with a few freelance writing gigs that only require an internet connection and a good amount of self-motivation, I can finally move to Tahoe to rent my parents’ house for an extended period of time.

But that’s not even the best part: I get to bring my 7-year-old Alaskan Malamute named Dynamite. I always wanted a Malamute, the dogs used in the Iditarod, not to be confused with the smaller, possibly blue-eyed Siberian Husky, and when I was 16 my parents finally relented, and I got Dynamite. I raised him and trained him, but when I went off to college I couldn’t take him with me, only going back to house and dog-sit for my parents after I graduated. Now I finally get to take him back, and move up to a house in the mountains where there’s snow all the time in the winter.

546489_4599017527802_1595064705_n

What am I doing with my time? I’ll continue to write book and television reviews from my secluded home near a mountain lake, and I’ve got a handful of graduate school applications to finish up, but I hope to have a lot of time to walk, think, and work on some creative endeavors.

Dynamite loves the snow, and when I was younger I distinctly remember my family taking our dogs to a cross-country ski area near Dollar Point. A few years back my parents gave each other snowshoes for Christmas, so I’m taking a pair and I plan on walking Dynamite in the snow around that cross-country ski area a few times a week.

Creatively, I’ve got a short story collection that’s been within a stone’s throw of completion for the better part of two years, and I’m going to get it done and start sending stories out. But the bigger fish is a novel about the demise of American Football. To that end, I’ve got a bunch of books I’ve been meaning to read or reread on the subject, from the muckraking Seattle Times expose on the University of Washington to how Teddy Roosevelt may have saved the sport to fascinating articles from Malcolm Gladwell and Popular Science on the current controversies over head injuries. I love football like you Canadians love your hockey, but it’s going to dry up like an oil well in the next 50 years, mark my words. Since my junior year of college I’ve been prepping and researching a book surrounding the topic, and this winter is when I hope to get a good draft down into the nebulous digital storage device on my computer.

But I will always make time for letters, because letters are wonderful. Upcoming letter topics include: my favorite films of the year, and why one particular scene is better than all of them; my family’s tradition of seeing a movie on Christmas and sending out belated Christmas cards; and the greatest 24 hours of my life as a sports fan: January 1, 2013.

That’s all for now, but I’ll have more to say soon enough, I’m sure.

-Kevin

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Wed January 2nd

Kevin,

Happy New Year’s from Santa Fe.

Santa Fe Sunset

That’s the sunset from the Cross of the Martyr’s a little outside of downtown. I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last post. Christmas in Toronto followed by driving to St. Louis, Tulsa, Dallas, Amarillo, and now here, hasn’t given me much time to compose (I also have a book review due for Tasha that I should get a start on tonight). It’s beautiful here, and old – very old, it’s one of the first American cities, founded in 1607. It reminds me of Quebec city in Canada in some ways, which was founded a year later. They’ve both been longstanding urban areas in North America whose initial cultures weren’t Anglo (places like Montreal and New Orleans were founded well over a hundred years later).

I keep being astounded by how diverse America is (yes, I know that’s kind of ridiculous) in terms of its cities. St. Louis, our first stop, is pretty much like Chicago, except smaller and with more white flight. Tulsa wasn’t much different. But I got to spend some time in Fort Worth, which I never really realized is distinct from Dallas, and it’s still a western town in many ways – they actually run cattle through the downtown once a year to commemorate the city’s ranching history. And Santa Fe is totally different as well. New Orleans is completely distinct, too. I’m not sure how many other countries can boast of such range in urban life (or in general culture). Canada has its different areas – the prairies are different from the center of the country, which is different from the maritime provinces – but, aside from Quebec, the changes I’ve noticed between Canadian cities is not as profound as here. Even with my point about Toronto’s immigrant population, Canada is still a very Scotch-English-French country, at least culturally. That’s changing, of course, and maybe one day we’ll have the same kind of physical diversity of cities that America does. I’d be surprised, though.

But back to that photo I posted at the end of my last letter.

DINO

That’s my sister with a cgi dinosaur. We went to an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (kind of like a cross between the Field Museum and the Smithsonian). This particular exhibit had an app you could download that would create an image on your iPad/Pod/Phone’s screen replicating what the various dinosaur skeletons would look like in real life (only smaller, much smaller).  My first thought when opening the app was: holy shit, augmented reality.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the concept, but bear with an explanation if you are. Augmented reality is the idea of filtering the world through a lens and annotating it – writing on the image of the world around the recipient in order to grant her insight about it, whether that be directions towards her intended destination, or showing her what this dinosaur would actually look like. The information displayed will react to the world (as when you’re google maps app reroutes you when you’ve taken a wrong turn), as well as how the lens is being manipulated (just as this dino did. When I pivoted my iPad, I saw him from a different angle). Those glasses that Google is coming out with are perfect examples of augmented reality devices.

The best way I’ve seen it described is in William Gibson’s Spook Country. Gibson is credited with coining the term “cyberspace,” and his early books all deal with virtual reality (The Matrix is SUPER indebted to his work. If you’ve never read him I highly suggest bringing Neuromancer along with you to Tahoe). In the first chapters Gibson shows how augmented reality can lead us to new forms of art – large-scale interactive works that appear once we look at them through a mobile screen (there are goggles similar to Google glass in his book, but the idea is exactly the same as me and my iPad). The fact that museums are now already using augmented reality to help give patrons a better understanding of their exhibits is super exciting. Clearly artists aren’t the only ones who can use this new technology for novel purposes.

I understand some of the worry behind naysayers who don’t like the idea of grafting the internet onto our daily visual life – we shouldn’t be wearing google goggles 24/7 – but the idea of a whole new kind of art/educational tool just starting to form is too good of an opportunity for us as a culture to pass up.

– Noah

p.s. By the way, I finished Fifth Business. I’ll have more to say about it when I’ve settled in Wyoming.

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Monday December 24th 2012 – Noah

Kevin,

J’arrive acadia, teedle-lum teedle-loo.

I dropped off Matea at the airport earlier today. I’ll miss her this Christmas, but I’m back soon enough for our big trip.

It’s a very Canadian day. I’m a little under 100 pages into Fifth Business and working on my own novel while listening to The Band (see the link above).

I’ve always felt a bit indebted to Robertson Davies – he’s really the first “Canadian Author,” and The Deptford Trilogy is the premier example of wide swath literature that gets into what it means to be from above the 49th parallel. What keeps such epic pretensions from becoming, well, pretentious, is the fact that Davies’ is so quirky and lighthearted. Terrible things happen (as they do in life), but he doesn’t dwell in degradation – which, his American equivalent (and one of my favorite writers) Faulker sometimes does.

You were one of the few people to read my first novel, The Gray Stables. Evening on the Grounds, the book I’ll be working on through most of my correspondence, is a sequel in the way that The Manticore is a sequel to Fifth Business. As I’ve been working on these two novels I’ve thought about my project as akin to Davies’. I’ll of course be writing a third book which in some ways ties the first two together, and I think I’ll call the three The Paris Trilogy (because they take place in Paris, Ontario – just as The Deptford trilogy takes place in Deptford). I’ll talk more about my intended similarities in the days to come, but I wanted to share something I always notice when I’m home.

55% of people 15 and up in Toronto are first generation immigrants. It’s always amazing to me when I walk through the city, because every group of people I pass are speaking a different language. Coming from a country that has yet to come to grips with its immigration policies, I’m always so shocked to see how progressive it is here. (That’s not to say there aren’t problems, there are, bu they are not as systemic nor pervasive). The Canada that Davies and I write about it predominantly white and rural, but that Canada is gone. I don’t mean to wax nostalgic – Canada’s (and Ontario in particular) ethnic makeup now is neither better nor worse than it once was, just different – but it is very interesting to see the change in the country. It’s like being in New York in the early 20th century. There’s a kind of dynamism here that I don’t feel even in Chicago, much of which is because Chicago is still so segregated.

In many ways I feel American, but every time I come home I’m reminded about how much I still identify with Canadian culture and ethos. It seems to me that the kind of rugged individualism that the US values so highly isn’t a facet of Canadian identity. There’s a larger sense of community, of shared experience, and I hope to tap into it with my writing. I’ll be thinking about all of this as Matea and I travel through the Southwest and eventually in Wyoming.

-N

p.s. We saw some dinosaurs today, here’s a photo of my sister with one. More on that later.DINO

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