The 2016 Canadian Writers' Summit is coming up this week! It will take place at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. See all the details and the great lineup at: http://www.ccwwp.ca/conference/
I had an uncomfortable conversation with Dr. Laura Schlessinger today, discussing my writing. She is reputed to be one of the most popular talk show hosts in radio history.
After the devastating news of the magnitude - 7.8 earthquake this past weekend, with the epicenter around the coastal Manabi Province, there are many people affected and are in need of assistance and help.
If you would like to join the relief efforts, please follow the link below. Many options are included.
The book launches for Poor Man's Galapagos on Saturday, November 21, 2015 at the Paintbox Bistro at 555 Dundas St East in Toronto, and the launch on Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 at Meet at 66 King East at 66 King St East in Cobourg were well attended. The crowd in Toronto enjoyed the Flamenco dancing and the readings, and took time to peruse the book table after the launch. I was interviewed, along with Shane Joseph for his new novel "In the Shadow of the Conquistador" by two radio stations, CFRC 101.9FM’s ‘finding a voice’ and Northumberland 89.7. Afterward, I was interviewed in a televised interview by thatchannel.com. CFRC 101.9FM's interview aired December 11, 2015 (archived, see under "interviews" for more information). The other interviews are forthcoming and will be posted on my website when available. Look for the upcoming virtual book tour and upcoming tour dates. And most of all, buy the book and support Canadian small presses!
Hi! Well, here it is, the final day of my WorldTeach Twitter Feed Blog. It has been great blogging and tweeting this week, and I wish to express my sincere appreciation to WorldTeach, and to Erika, for giving me the opportunity!
Blue Denim Press will be launching my novel Poor Man's Galapagos on November 21, 2015 in Toronto, as well as another novel by Shane Joseph entitled In the Shadow of the Conquistador, where two backpackers are forced to confront their pasts together as they hike along the trail to Machu Picchu. Please continue to check my website for updates on the launch, and if you are in Toronto on November 21, 2015, please drop by. And if not, please look for information on my website about where to buy the book. I have included a synopsis below. Thank you my WorldTeach friends!!!
Poor Man’s Galapagos is a story about an irrigation engineering student living on a small, impoverished island in Ecuador, South America. Tomas, the main character, is conscripted into military service in a border war where he is certain he will die a senseless death. His father, a renowned British travel writer, is accused of embezzling government funds and quickly leaves the island. Tomas searches for answers amidst the backdrop of a fight for conscientious objection; the construction of a luxury hotel designed to attract tourists and infrastructure; a priest promoting the philosophy that it is against the precepts of religion to focus on spiritual needs while ignoring the worldly ones; and a nurse who longs for escape from serving as a doctor in a remote rural community. Tomas embarks on a journey of discovery that may lead him closer to his father, his biological mother who abandoned him at birth, and away from his home country for the first time in his life. The novel explores the enduring themes of duty, honour, obligation, sacrifice, and how the struggle to improve the condition of our lives sometimes comes with an inestimable expense...
Hi! Well, here it is, Day 6 of 7 of my WorldTeach Twitter Feed Blog. In this posting I will talk about the country of Ecuador, and travelling as a WorldTeach Volunteer. In April 1992, WorldTeach sent its first group of seven volunteers to teach English in Ecuador; and the numbers have increased ever since. There are four regions in the country: the coast (Costa), the mountains (Sierra), the rainforest (Oriente) and the Galapagos. I have travelled to all of these regions, with the exception of the Galapagos Islands. The capital city of Quito, sitting in the Andes Mountains that separate the coast from the rainforest, is surrounded by volcanoes. The city serves as a gateway to other destinations, and as such there is a Gringoland area which is inhabited by foreigners. Ecuador has 11 million people, military rule ended in the late 1970s, and democracy is now in place in the form of presidents elected for a four-year term with no option for re-election. There is a monument to the equator, the Mitad del Mundo, which is one of the only such monuments in the world.
In addition to teaching for WorldTeach in Ecuador, I also worked with Plan International, a group dedicated to improving the faltering rural education system. For example, schools affected by the mudslides of El Nino had been simply abandoned. While in Quito, talking with a woman at Cafe Cultura, I saw that there were opportunities to become involved with other organizations dedicated to improving copper mining (abandoned mines leeched chemicals into groundwater) and the oil industry (a pipeline traversing Ecuador leaked in places and was not repaired). All noble, worthwhile causes.
I had time to travel within the year I served as a WorldTeach volunteer. I went with friends, and alone, to various places throughout Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. In Ecuador, I spent time in Quito with its wild iguana parks; Cuenca with its narrow European cobblestone streets; Ambato, Latacunga and Tena on the way to the rainforest; Papallacta with natural hot springs not smelling of sulphur; Jatun Sacha, a biological nature preserve in the rainforest with ancient trees; hiking, whitewater rafting and kayaking along the Amazon; Amazoonica, an island rainforest animal hospital with a capabara (world’s largest rodent), a parrot, a small black jungle cat separated from the rest of the animals, an assortment of monkeys, and a boa constrictor which tightened its grip as I did; the port city of Quayaquil; Machala where a banana queen was chosen yearly; and around my home in Portoviejo, I often went to the coastal town of Manta, as well as beaches near Montecristi, San Jacinto and Bahia de Caraquez.
I travelled with a friend from Canada, a Peace Corps volunteer, and an Ecuadorian friend to the scenic beach city of Cartagena, Colombia. The new part of the city has signs everywhere asking the question “how great is this place?” to which I reply that, with statues of winged horses and a semi-circular array of buildings overlooking white sand beaches, it is great. The old walled city has flowered courtyards and a rustic, picturesque and very intriguing feel.
I travelled to Cusco in Peru, the ancient capital of the Incan Empire. We hiked along the spectacular vistas and stone steps of the Incan trail, looking down upon the clouds, arriving after four days to the city of Machu Picchu. The ancient holy city was abandoned by the Incans as they did not want to lose the place to the Conquistadors. Part of my forthcoming novel Poor Man’s Galapagos is set in Peru, and Blue Denim Press will also be concurrently launching another novel by Shane Joseph entitled In the Shadow of the Conquistador, where two backpackers are forced to confront their pasts together as they hike along the trail to Machu Picchu.
I think that as WorldTeach volunteers we have a unique perspective on the places in which we have lived and taught. We all have stories to tell about our experiences. And I encourage others to put their stories in print, or to otherwise share them as I have chosen to do through fiction.
To be concluded...
Hi! Well, here it is, Day 5 of 7 of my WorldTeach Twitter Feed Blog. I wanted to start this blog post with a quip. A few years ago I read an excerpt from Poor Man’s Galapagos at a reading series in downtown Toronto. Steven Heighton, a renowned Canadian writer, was there. (I have communicated with him recently and I am sending him a copy of the novel after it is published.) During Steven’s reading the lights went out and people brought candles to the front. Later as he continued, smoke began to rise from the podium. He lifted his poem and a corner had been eaten away by fire. A piece fell onto the stage, still aflame, and he had to stomp it out. He started blowing on the paper in his hand but that only reinvigorated the fire. So he had to dunk the parchment in water. Then he commented that he probably wouldn’t be invited back. The next reader arrived at the front to say that she loved the smell of burning poetry.
In my upcoming novel Poor Man’s Galapagos, the island’s mayor initiates construction of a luxurious hotel on the island, which is designed to attract tourists and infrastructure. The island priest is obsessed with liberation theology, the philosophy that it is against the precepts of religion to focus on spiritual needs while ignoring worldly needs such as adequate food and water. While his church is based on Portoviejo’s, the concept of liberation theology is one that has long been embraced in Latin America. Juan Carlos, Tomas’s friend, is a reporter and formerly a lawyer on the mainland who agrees to help Tomas with his fight for conscientious objection. Tomas’s “Ecuadorian mother” (his step mother who takes care of him) is the feisty Señora of the family. There is another character, a nurse acting as a doctor, who lives in the campo (the countryside) and cannot seem to escape.
Now all of these different characters could have separate, disparate lives. But books such as “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maas (a literary agent in New York City) emphasize the importance of having complex interweaving between the characters’ lives. Adding as many layers as you can to have intricate connections between them is important, as it enriches the story and brings it to life. I found this while doing rewrites, and that made the editing process both challenging and rewarding.
Another important aspect of the story was bringing someone back to the same place to show a change in character. That is a literary technique, showing how a character thinks of a place in one instance, and then how he or she thinks and reacts to that same location and situation after having experienced an inner change.
A word about readings, writing groups and courses. I have been on the executive of the Canadian Authors Association Toronto Branch since 2010, and I am currently the President. I strongly believe that aspiring writers should read their work in public as much as possible, and engage with other writers, editors, publishers and agents. Groups such as the Canadian Authors Association, which holds talks with writing professionals and member readings, can only enhance a writer’s development. By interfacing with those who have developed their skills as writers, editors, publishers or agents, writers can advance their own skills and become more effective in planning their own individual writing paths.
To be continued...
Hi! Well, here it is, Day 4 of 7 of my WorldTeach Twitter Feed Blog. I thought I would talk about Poor Man’s Galapagos today, and I will continue to discuss how my WorldTeach experience influenced and fed into the novel, as well as the basis for some of the characters.
Poor Man’s Galapagos, my new novel to be launched November 21, 2015 with Blue Denim Press, is set on an Ecuadorian island. The island is known as Isla de la Plata, or the Isle of Silver, due to the colour of its rocks. It is called Poor Man’s Galapagos due to its proximity (20 miles) to the coast, as the Galapagos Islands are 600 miles away. The Guardian (UK) calls Isla de la Plata “Ecuador’s other Galapagos” as it has some of the same wildlife, armadillos, monkeys, sea-lions, blue-footed boobies, and 200 species of birds for a fraction of the cost, and without the crowds.
In Poor Man’s Galapagos, an irrigation engineering student living on Isla de la Plata is conscripted into military service in a border war. That is the border war between Ecuador and Peru, which had been transpiring, on and off, for 200 years. A war over land, but mostly over the oil and uranium resources there. The war ended during the time I was in Ecuador, which was an excellent achievement for both sides. But in the novel, the main character Tomas is certain he will die a senseless death at the landmine-littered, disputed border between the two countries.
In Ecuador, there is a mandatory military service of one year. All of my friends from there were required to finish this year, and to engage in military activities in high school as well. I have often imagined what I would do if I was conscripted into war. My great-grandfather fought in World War I, and he left some letters behind which I read, intensifying my interest in that question. The novel explores what would happen if someone who, convinced they would die, decided to fight against conscription. At the same time the main character’s father, a renowned travel writer, has been accused of embezzling government funds and suddenly leaves the island. Tomas cannot leave the country, work, or go to school with his year of military service unfinished. So he must fight.
There was a government protest while I was in Ecuador, a protest against the president who had been in office for a few months of a four-year term. In the Postgraduate office at the Technical University of Manabi, talking with my brother on the phone, I was informed that there were protests and we were to leave the university immediately. I finished my phone call quickly and went outside to be confronted with the lingering scent of tear gas. Seeing protestors who had barricaded themselves within the confines of the university walls, I decided to take another exit. I wrote about that event shortly after it happened, and rewrote the scene for the novel. That comprises the book’s opening pages.
Tomas is an irrigation engineering student, modelled after some of the students I taught, and he studies the ancient albarradas in Ecuador and Peru. Albarradas are u-shaped irrigation embankments designed to trap rainwater for irrigation. There were new albarradas made recently in Ecuador which were washed out by the rains and mudslides of El Niño. But the ancient albarradas survived. Somehow the ancients knew what all of our modern technology could not predict. This is a question that intrigued me and, by extension, the novel’s main character.
More to come...
Hi! Well, here it is, the much-anticipated Day 3 of 7 of my WorldTeach Twitter Feed Blog. I thought that over the next few days I will talk about my start as a writer, how my WorldTeach experience influenced and fed into my novels, and the basis for some of the characters.
To start, I will need to fast forward to the time after I arrived home from Ecuador. Unsure of where to start a writing career, I began with some courses. I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend the Humber School for Writers twice. I was mentored in novel writing by two of Canada's top writers, MG Vassanji and David Adams Richards. The Humber School has a 30 week studio-type course in which writers provide feedback on your work. Both were excellent mentors who taught me a great deal about the process of writing, and they helped me to understand the important characteristics of storytelling. That is when I learned about how critical the first page is (it should hook the reader and make them want to read more, to turn to page 2), as well as the first fifty pages of a novel (which establishes the characters, the themes, the story arc, and the problems which must be resolved by the story’s end).
While I was interested in writing fictional novels, I understood from various courses that publishers and agents want to see short story publication credits first. So I began entering contests and submitting short stories. I published a short story with Tightrope Books in Toronto about a lone man set adrift on a sailboat journey around the world, entitled Solitude. I shortlisted in the 2010 Matrix Litpop Awards for fiction for a short story set in rural Ecuador. The story was based upon a possible life that a Peace Corps volunteer in Portoviejo might have had. I have since turned that short story into a novel, set in Spain, which is completed but yet to be published. I won a short novel contest with LWOT Magazine in Montreal. The short novel contest was actually a 3-Hour Novel Contest, a parody of the 3-Day Novel Contest. So more of a short story contest in actuality, as the “novel” really wasn’t very long. In that short story/ novel, I wrote about the process of writing an entry for yet another contest. It was my foray into humorous writing. You can still read it at http://www.lwot.net/contest.htm . I contacted Falcon Picture Group in Chicago, Illinois, as I was a fan of the Twilight Zone Radio Dramas and they were looking for script writers with publication credits. I was commissioned to two scripts for them. One of the scripts was based on the Invaders episode, which is about a lone woman confronted by tiny aliens. Difficult to do in a radio drama, so I had to introduce a husband for her to talk to. They didn’t end up using that and went with a version from another writer. The other script was based on a radio drama from the 1940s, but it hasn’t been produced. Not much success there, all in all, but it was good to write for a nationally-syndicated radio program and I’m still a fan of the series. I published a story called the Russian Soldier in Descant Magazine, a literary magazine based in Toronto. That was based on my honeymoon trip to St. Petersburg, Russia and is basically a walking tour around St. Petersburg, with history and Russian literature woven into the fabric of the story.
I attended a meeting of the Canadian Authors Association Toronto Branch, in which the publisher of Quattro Books outlined what made a good novella (short novel). He cited examples of novellas such as Kafka’s “The Trial”, Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, and Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” (in which Hemingway stated that Paris is a Moveable Feast because you take the memory of it wherever you go). He stated that a good novella is centered around a particular timeframe such as a summer, or within the physical confines of a house. And there shouldn’t be too many characters, as there is not sufficient time to develop them. Quattro runs a contest every year and so I rewrote a story I had, submitted it, and was shortlisted. I was offered a publication contract for the book, Abundance of the Infinite. In the book, a psychologist specializing in dreams travels to a small coastal fishing town in Ecuador. That coastal fishing town is Manta, and the love interest is based upon Karin, a friend of mine who lived there. There is also a portion which is set in the jungles of Ecuador, and on the Amazon River. I travelled to the Ecuadorian jungle with a friend who was visiting from Canada and we visited Amazoonica, an island animal hospital with a capabara (world’s largest rodent), a parrot, a small black jungle cat separated from the rest of the animals, an assortment of monkeys, and a boa constrictor which tightened its grip as I did. We kayaked and white water rafted along the Amazon, and stayed in jungle huts with an innumerable array of sounds. I find the interplay between dreams and reality, when travelling in exotic settings, to be interesting. As the jungle was so surreal to me, the setting seemed appropriate to make a character whose dreams and reality interweave, and I liked the fact that the main character was a psychologist. I was reading “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” by Jung, The Pearl by Steinbeck, and Heart of Darkness as I was doing rewrites...
To be continued...
Hi! Well, here it is, Day 2 of 7 of the WorldTeach Twitter Feed Blog. I thought today would be a good day to talk about my host family in Ecuador, and my initial inspiration for writing.
My host family consisted of Flory and Pancho, Flory’s mother, Richard, Ines and Monica. Flory’s mother was from Vilcabamba, said to be a place of longevity because of the extended lives of those who lived there. I visited Vilcabamba’s clean air, the water streaming down from the mountains, and spoke with the aged, sun-baked farmers. We lived in Portoviejo, 30 miles from the coast. Literally translated, Portoviejo means ‘old port’ and was relocated, I understand, because pirates kept chasing the inhabitants inland. Flory, who I still refer to as my Ecuadorian mother, was a very good conversationalist, eager to discuss the news - such as the cause of government protests that sometimes happened in our town - as she prepared meals of rice, the ocean fish picudo, fried plantains and soft rubbery cheese. Pancho was a taxi driver who complained about the dust and the fact that he was working so much. Ines would escort me around the university (the Technical University of Manabi) where I taught English. Ines, Flory (and sometimes Monica, who also worked excessively) helped me to see the beauty of the culture, and Ines introduced me to some of my best friends there. We would sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s events. I told them that the town of Portoviejo was the same size as my home town of Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
How did all of this parlay into fiction? Well, I moved there to have time to read. I was working 18 hours per week, mostly teaching night classes. I therefore had a great deal of time to travel and to read. Flory said that reading too much means you think too much, and I did both. I read works such as Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, one of the best books I have read, which I lent to a Peace Corps volunteer. There were many others, the ones I can think of being One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez; Anna Karenina and “What is Art?” by Tolstoy; Boccaccio’s Decameron; Great Expectations by Dickens; The Good Soldier by Ford; James Joyce’s Ulysses; Metamorphosis and other stories by Kafka; Plato’s Republic; Hemingway’s Moveable Feast; Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray; Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac; Crime and Punishment, Poor Folk, the Gambler, and other stories by Dostoevsky; others by Turgenev, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald among others. I only read the classics, and my writing reflected that. So I had to work hard to get rid of that voice and obtain my own style. All of these influences, and what was happening all around me in Ecuador, inspired me to write. I hadn’t planned to write, just to read.
I was hard at work, but enjoying life at the same time. Which is a tenet I still live by today.