"Gender is not a science, and biology does not make -- or unmake -- a woman."



Aline Irwin, who is way overdo for her own post, would approve of this petition on behalf of the athlete Caster Semenya.

So for Aline's sake I urge you all to take a look at it and to consider signing it.



(This bookplate was designed for Aline Irwin, somewhat androgynous member of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women's Book Club.)

War, Peace & the Kid Book


photo from here.


Here's a speech I gave last night at The Winter Drey book launch, posted at the request of some of the visitors.

I’ve never given a speech at a book launch before, but upon reflection I discovered that, at this one, I actually had something to say.

It always seemed to me that that the overall theme of these books would be clear from the launching-off point of the first one, a true historical battle between a pair of Viking kings from the 10th Century in which the weaker-seeming king won without a single sword being hacked into flesh.

But since, in the highest profile review I received for that book, the reviewer chose to admonish me for not being bloody enough to satisfy her ten-year-old son, I feel compelled to spell things out a bit.

I love bloody stories, don’t get me wrong. So many children’s books are about the battle between good and evil. Harry Potter, Eragon, The Lord of the Rings. Even the Silverwing saga, by our own Kenneth Oppel, has a few good battles, if I’m not mistaken.

It’s what makes these books exciting.



Still, I wondered if it was possible to write a series of books, in the grand epic tradition, about characters who choose not to fight, without being accused by a grown-up of being too boring for children. Is it possible to depict courage without hacking off an arm with your sword?

That was my question.

The Feathered Cloak had, at its centre, the battle, or non-battle, that I described above. It portrays the events that lead up to it, some mythical and others everyday, and tries to imagine a reason why the cards fell the way they did. It had a lot to do with a bloodthirsty warrior getting his symbol of battle transformed before his eyes into a symbol of peace.

The book was also about the wishes and dreams and feelings of a young girl.

The Winter Drey explores a different path towards and away from war, one that might strike you as a little darker and more contemporary: That is, what kind of person (or creature) would seek to control a much larger person (or creature) than himself by manipulating the love that person feels for something, be it country, or family, or world-tree? What sort of person (or creature) would asset that control by invoking a powerful but entirely invisible enemy?

And what kind of event would give the other person (or creature) an inkling that maybe he was being manipulated?

The book is also about the wishes and dreams and feelings of a little boy.

He’s the brother of the girl in the first book. She’s not in this second book, but these two children, beloved to me, will meet again.


photo from here, posted in honour of The Winter Drey's own Rat-A-Task.

In this book too I’ve created the weakest character you could possibly imagine. Think of the weakest creature you can imagine and then make it weaker. And then I gave gave this creature more influence over the outcome than anything else.

(Hint: it's not a squirrel.)

So yeah, basically, what I wanted to write about is heroic Vikings who choose, in the end, based on hard experience, not to fight. It may not be bloody enough for some, and I may not be doing the world any favours by filling the heads of children with naive notions like how peace is better than war and can be just as exciting, but it’s what I set out to do, and I intend to finish it, with ever escalating stakes.

-Sean Dixon

A Funny Vindication for the Switch to Prose



So it seems after all these years of being a playwright, I've gotten some of my best Toronto theatre reviews ever for a bunch of text that I wrote as prose.

It's weird though. Plunk Henry, whose name is all over these reviews, is one of the central characters of my next book, which I've just completed. It's strange to see his name all over the press, floating freely from my own.

Theatre is so weird.

Wild Gilgameshian Things

There seems to be a little hint of Gilgamesh in this exciting thing. Something about the way they deal with the trees, and the impressive place they build. Are they destroying their world? Is that what it is to be a monster?



Enquiring minds want to know. But have to wait till October.

Curated Videos



I'm a bit of a Facebook maniac. Originally I was using it as a storage place for research and for videos I liked. But I've posted so many things there now that I've come to realize it sucks as a closet. You can't find anything there after a week or two. Or maybe you can, but it will take hours. Days. Occasionally I'll read someone say how they're putting something up on Facebook for posterity. But Facebook never involved itself with posterity, not even before it adopted the twitter-style feed. It's always now, and now and... now! and NOW and now.

But I still like to post things there. Music videos that I've just discovered. Medieval church music on Sundays. The occasional jaw-dropping thing. Some politics, some humour. I'm rarely judicious, barely discerning.

Going to have to be now though.



One of my FB (and city) associates, a feller named Erik Rutherford, has come up with the bright, gorgeous idea of creating a website for curated videos. It's called Ryeberg and the idea is described (by him) as follows:

Watching and sharing video clips has become part of our lives, and it’s time we had a website dedicated to making sense of what all this video content means to us.

This is how it works: Ryeberg Curators select video clips from any video hosting site (YouTube, Google Video, Vimeo, DailyMotion), and present these selections with written commentary. These become Curated Videos. Curated Video = Video Clip + Written Text.

By inviting smart, talented, distinguished people to offer their thoughts on the videos they find interesting, Ryeberg aims to bring intelligent, convivial discourse to the great surfeit of video pouring through cyberspace.

Erik challenged me (essentially) to rein in my mad FB video postings, think about the ones I actually like, write about why I like them, and post them in the larger Ryeberg format.

The site went up last week. Here's my latest and here's the main page. Sign up. Check it out.

Just Because



They all agreed she should be an honourary LCer.

An Open Letter to Scholastic Book Services




I am writing to you to serve notice about an incident that took place in 1972 which I have never forgotten and which, as is perhaps obvious, I still regard with bitterness and regret -- an incident in which you took advantage of my distance, my shyness, my politeness and, most egregiously of all, my tender age.

The scenario is as follows.

I was in Grade Two. Early that year, I managed to scrape together my meagre allowance and fill out an order for a book featuring the inimitable Pippi Longstockings. I don’t remember which book it was, but it had presumably been featured in your 71-72 catalogue, so perhaps you could look it up for me.

I was already a fan of Pippi, her stockings, her freckles and the actress who played her in the dubbed Swedish film adaptations that had recently been unleashed onto North American TV. Pippi was probably the first crush I ever had, which might go some way towards explaining the world of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women’s Book Club. Just saying.

Waiting for the Scholastic shipment to come in was the first thing that taught me about patience. I had to allow for time to pass, and though it was true that some things took a long time, it was also true that when that time was past, it suddenly seemed to have been light and easily borne.

What’s more, when those boxes were carried into the classroom, the excitement was almost overwhelming. How was it possible that this nearly unimaginable block of time had actually gone by? How far I had traveled, and now I was mere steps away from my goal: holding a shiny, slim new BOOK in my seven-year old hands.

And then I’d have it forever, free to peruse it for the rest of my life. It was my own searchable thing.

When my shipment was handed to me, though, there turned out to be some mistake -- I thought (at first) easily remedied. My book turned out not to be Pippi at all. Much to my horror, I was handed a changeling called Ramona the Pest.

-But Mrs McMahon, I didn't order this.
-Says here you did, dear.

I remember going to the front of the classroom to dig through the detritus of the box to see if there was some mistake, if my Pippi book was down among the paper shavings somewhere. But alas, no. Pippi was out of stock, I would not get my stockings, and SCHOLASTIC had assumed I would be content with some other girl. Your company assumed that I, an innocent seven-year-old boy, would take one girl over another, just like that.

Though I don't remember which Pippi I was after, I do recall the exact edition of the book that was placed in my sorry little hands.




The last thing in the world I wanted that day, if I was not going to get a Pippi book, was this. There had been several other books in the catalogue that had fought for primacy with Pippi. Pippi was a fighter though, and had won the day. Ramona? I don't know if she was even in there.

I've listed some questions for you:

Why did you do that to me?
Why did you think I would want Ramona?
How could you do that to me?
What did you take me for?
A girl?
That's what I thought at the time.
Still, that's no excuse either.

These days I can't help thinking you took me for some kind of slut.

Shame on you, anyway, whatever you thought.

I still think about it, after all these years. All my life since then I have often avoided popular things, in the event that I will be as disappointed as I was on that day -- a disappointment which, by the way, could have been avoided by the simple act of sending me my money back instead of Ramona the Pest.

It has recently occurred to me, however, that I am now an author. A published author! published by a fellow venerable New York institution no less!
I am therefore in a good position to seek redress!

(I'm serious, you know. That was not an intentional rhyme.)

Furthermore, it occurs to me that the sin you committed against my mute and innocent age may have been repeated over the years against countless other scholarly but diffident children. I mean why not? If I didn’t protest at the time, then what was to stop you from taking advantage of other children, just like me? How many other kids have got the wrong book simply so you could clear off the order desk and go home?

See, if an adult had ordered a history of the American Revolution, would any self respecting publishing house have sent them a book of essays on the influence of the French Revolution instead?

(perhaps with a note explaining how the French Revolution is considered historically more important than the American one, despite the fact that it happened afterwards. Nothing special about a colony revolting against the motherland. But the people rising up and overthrowing their own government? That's huge! Take this book instead. It has a nice introduction written by Carla Bruni and a free CD and DVD! Take this book instead!)

No?
Then why did you send me Ramona the Pest?

Oh it feels good to finally get that off my chest.

Don’t get me wrong. I think you guys are great. In those days, you also published a book of poetry, Grab Me A Bus, that had actually been written by children and for children. I loved that book.I was able to imagine, through the auspices of that book, what it would be like to write and be published. There were photos too.

(It occurs to me that perhaps it wasn’t as popular as Pippi Longstockings, and so it never went out of stock. Otherwise I might have gotten a copy of the collected poetry of Beverly Cleary instead.)

I held on to my copy of Grab Me A Bus for 20 years, until I finally gave it to the young son of a friend who was moving away from the small town where he lived to the big city. The kid was anxious about it. My friend asked me to write him a letter about my experience of that same kind of journey, undertaken at about the same age as he was.

So I gave the kid my copy along with the letter, and then later I found I missed my copy and tried to find another one on the Internet. But not everything is available on the Internet. I couldn't find one.

Though I did discover there that some kid somewhere (Australia, I think) had plagiarized the title poem from that collection (If You Grab Me A Bus) and used it to win an online poetry competition in, like, 1999. The poem was up on their site, proudly printed. I wrote and told them to take it down.

But not before reading it and being reminded how much I missed by copy of Grab Me A Bus.

In conclusion, I would like to say that you don't need to send me my copy of Pippi Longstockings.

And you don't need to send me my money back.

What I would like, though, is for someone to head down into the dusty basement of Scholastic and dig out at old 1974 copy of Grab Me A Bus and drop it into the mail to my good friends at the Other Press. I can pick it up later.

That would certainly clear the air between us.

Yours Most Sincerely,

Sean Dixon
(Adult & Published Author)
Toronto, Canada

Romy's Bingotown


Image from here.

I pretended that Romy was from someplace other than Brantford, Ontario (I think I may have settled on Windsor in order to make it conceivable that she had travelled on the Nindawayma when it had served as a ferry between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island.)

But in truth, Romy is from where I’m from. She’s from Brantford. Wayne Gretsky is from there too. So is Alexander Graham Bell, no matter what you Americans say. In fact it used to be called The Telephone City on the city signs. Now it's called the home of Monsieur Gretsky. (I'm not even sure I'm spelling his name right.)


Image from here.

Things are looking up these days, apparently, but a few years ago, downtown Brantford was being used as a perfect location for horror movies. It all started in the 80s when someone had the bright idea of building an Eaton Centre on the downtown Market Square, thus blocking the view of every corner of downtown from every other corner of downtown. Ruinous? Yes. I love the commentary by the graffiti artist who peopled the walls of abandoned buildings with shadows, as in the photo at the top of this post.



They put that Eaton Centre up because they were worried the downtown was deteriorating (cf. the 'doughnut effect') and they wanted to revive it. Instead, it eradicated whatever charm the place had left.

I had always heard there was an old Six Nations curse on that Market Square, declaring that any institution that built on it was destined to fail. All that land was supposed to belong to the Iroquois, promised to Joseph Brant for assisting the Brits against the Americans and their revolution.

Where the Eaton Centre was concerned, it took a few years, but the corp went down.

And when the corp went down, there was even less colour there than there had been before. For Romy, who gets depressed by drabness, that meant a move to Montreal, the most colourful city in Canada.
At least sometimes. Other times it's not.

Eustace Tilley, Honorary Montrealer



The New Yorker is basking in the reflected glory of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women's Book Club (scroll to bottom of link to see if you're fit for membership). As, really, why should they not?

(Oh wait... that link wasn't about a magazine... It was about a train.)

(And apologies to all those who believed the LC was actually being somehow represented in the New Yorker.)

(And speaking of Eustace Tilley, I just found this beautiful compilation.)

I'm up on Large Hearted Boy...



... a unique & indespensible books and music site, with the official Lacuna Cabal playlist.

Including, among many others, Aline's taste for publicizing outrageous contemporary political events, like the tasering of a frightened, confused and definitively innocent man by the RCMP in the Vancouver airport...



... song courtesy of Bob Wiseman.

And in the archives, I find something from my friend Carl.

A Striking Young Beauty


I found this about six years ago on a bulletin board in a coffee shop downtown. I thought I should block out the name and address -- which is a suite in a fancy condo building at the heart of the city -- for the sake of a clearly wealthy and insane man's privacy, while at the same time indicating its positioning as the base of this impressive textual perfume bottle (or cremation urn, however you choose to see it.)

My question though: All questions of mental illness and sexual fantasy aside, if an obsession to reverse the aging process with vitamins isn't a mind-numbing and meaningless concern, really, what is?

Nindawayma


Photo : Julien Roumagnac (www.j-roumagnac.net)

I was watching a terrible Quebecois movie last year with my wife (its awfulness doesn’t stop it from being the highest grossing Canadian film of all time) -- Bon Cop Bad Cop. The premise was clever -- a cop from Toronto and another from Montreal are obliged to work together -- so it wasn't so hard to watch, but there was a big surprise for me at the end. The climax takes place at the Montreal port on board an old crumbling boat where the bad guy’s hiding out.

These scenes are poorly edited and fail to give the watcher any sense of place. But I suddenly recognized the setting. ‘Hey!’ I proclaimed, incredulous. ‘That’s my boat!’

I meant the Nindawayma.

It was the Nindawayma. Which is not, technically, my boat.


Photo : Julien Roumagnac (www.j-roumagnac.net)

At the end of the play version of The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal, Neil Coghill stowed away on a barge that was heading down the St Lawrence River to a port in St. Pierre & Miquelon.

By the time I came to write the novel, I realized I was dealing with a more international setting and my characters were going to have to head further afield.

I realized, in other words, that I was going to need a bigger boat.

I took a trip to Montreal and walked down to the waterfront. There was a spectacular old paint-peeling boat in the old port there.



In this image the boat appears to be in the same location but it’s pointing in the opposite direction from how I (and Neil and Romy) found it. I wrote down the faded names on its side, assuming I would not find anything but intending to conduct some research all the same.

Much to my surprise, there was a lot of information about this particular boat on the internet.

At the time, it was for sale by its owners, so there was even a website, up no longer, that included detailed specs and photos of the interior decks. These proved to be very helpful, though there was certainly not the wealth of information and imagery that there is now.

(This site was up at the time, but there certainly was not a Wikipedia entry. Nor were there Flickr collections.The most spectacular photos up now are all by Julien Roumagnac, who has kindly allowed me to illustrate this entry with a few of them. In his photos, the Nindawayma has been moved from where I found it to a more picturesque location closer to downtown.

(And there's another beauty at the bottom of this post, by Julien's brother, Marc.)

Oh, and I've just found a couple of questions I wrote to some boatnerders, the first of which was answered by a feller named Kent Malo, who discussed stowaways on barges with me and advised me to change my plot (which was the other impetus for me to head down to the Old Port, where I found the Nindawayma.) George Wharton gave me some answers on the second question, I think.

Information that I accumulated in all these places was the following, composed in the (later edited) narrative voice of Jennifer and Danielle:

When the Nindawayma was born, in 1976, she was one of three sister ships all named for Spanish Mountains: Monte Contes, Monte Corona and Monte Castilla.

The Corona was named for a Volcano that has not erupted in three thousand years. We don’t know where the Monte Contes is, but the word means ‘You count’ in Spanish, so you can figure it out. And the Castillo – closest to our hearts – was named for a mountain with beautiful caves containing painted art from ten thousand years before the Gilgamesh Epic was written.

They were all sold and renamed a number of times – the ships we mean, not the mountains – with the Corona finally running aground under the name Isla de Tagomago, at home in her birth-country in 1999, after which she had to be destroyed. The Contes was ignobly laid up in 2001, under the name Ciudad de Ceuta.

As for the Castillo, her story went like this: she stayed in Spain for only two years, where she was sometimes called the Monte Cruceta, but don’t expect us to figure that out. In 1978 she was renamed Manx Viking and worked for the Isle of Man. On her stacks she sported a triskelion for a logo – one of those triads of running feet meant to represent the sun moving across the sky, like this:




Only somewhat less denuded. Nine years later she was sold again to a Norwegian Company and renamed Skudenes. Some say she wasn’t renamed Manx Viking until just before she made the trip to Norway, but we just can’t keep up with the complexity of that sort of information. Then she got sold to a Canadian Company that called her ‘Ontario #1’ just until they’d gotten her over the Atlantic, at which point somebody sponsored a contest to name her properly, possibly for the first time. Nindawayma sprang from that, and the triskelion on her stacks was painted over with a logo of three N’s.

The Nindawayma served as a car ferry between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island for three years, assisting a bigger ferry called the Chi-Cheemaun, until they retired her and let her sit in the Own Sound harbour for almost a decade. Then she got towed up to Les Mechins, Quebec. Then she got towed back down to Montreal, where she’s been sitting ever since, at least until the night she was boarded by Romy and Neil.


Photo : Marc Roumagnac (www.roumagnac.net/blog)

The reason why we actually know all this is because there are a lot of people who pay attention to the fate of ships. They make it their hobby, or perhaps even their duty, to spend their days writing logs and shipping journals and posting photographs and asking after the whereabouts of the ships that might have carried them once across Georgian Bay or into a port at Barcelona or the Isle of Man. They track their progress and mourn their passing. They lie snug in their beds at night and think about the hull that once protected them from the deep. We’ve even found a testimonial by a Nindawayma-fan in Montreal who bewailed the state of her paint-job but affirmed that she was still “a part of the family.” Thousands of ships are adrift across the Internet due to the intercession of such people. The Nindawayma is one of them. So is the Manx Viking, which turns out to be the same ship. So is the Monte Cruceta and the Monte Castillo and the Monte Corona and the Monte Contes. That’s how we know. We’re amazed, really, at how much we know. Far more than Neil and Romy knew, that’s for sure. Though we’ve never even stepped aboard.


Since I wrote those words, the Nindawayma seems to have been taken over by the government and used as a setting for a couple of movies -- Bon Cop Bad Cop and something called Saved by the Belles -- and has been moved to a dry dock scrap yard, presumably nearing the end of its existence.

Seems to me, I didn't entirely make up my alternate history though. There had been a plan at one time to turn it into a cable ship, but that didn't happen in the end.

We Interrupt This Program



Just to say 'Wow'.

Funny irony that Lesley Gore would be so much more well known for It's My Party (and I'll cry if I want to), along with its sequel, It's Judy's Turn to Cry, two songs that must be so much more reassuring to hear in a man's world than this one.

Happy belated birthday, Lesley.

Real People


self portrait by Goya

I don’t imagine I’ll do it again anytime soon. It’s been a source of some embarrassment to me. Not so bad, really, but when you’re a fundamentally shy person, when it doesn’t take much to trigger old reserves of guilt, fruits of a Catholic upbringing, well…

Still, I was depicting a book club. Book clubs pay attention to the institution of literary celebrity. So I, perforce, paid attention as well.

For example, the subject matter of the book dictated that I contend with the popularity of Canada’s Michael Ondaatje, since his groundbreaking Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion famously took its title from one of the great passages of the Epic of Gilgamesh as translated by N.K. Sandars:

And when you have gone to the earth
I will let my hair grow long for your sake,
I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.

This fact would never escape the notice of the members of the Lacuna Cabal. Not in a million years. In fact, Runner Coghill actively tries to obfuscate the title of the book so she can hold the rest of them off from making the connection for as long as possible. She calls it He Who Saw the Deep and He who Saw Everything. She says the title is ‘a matter of opinion.’ She doesn’t want the awe of literary celebrity to colour her fellows’ first impressions of the epic.

But she also knows she can’t hold off the real title forever. When it finally comes out, the LC members get very, very excited.

And, as a result, I get a little embarrassed now when I run into the man in Toronto literary circles.

And then there’s Ann-Marie MacDonald, whose Fall On Your Knees was, for awhile, the quintessential book club book. It’s the one the LC has just finished when Runner introduces her ten cuneiform stones.

It was a fitting book, though I had a hidden agenda as well, since its author was, like me, trained as an actor at the National Theatre School of Canada, has written several plays and was, truth be told, the first person who encouraged me to make the leap to prose.

In both cases it was fun to lightly satirize criticisms the authors had received, especially Ondaatje, who didn’t get any grief for depicting an alleged World War II traitor in The English Patient until it had been transformed into a blockbuster film.

There are several other name-droppings from the Canadian literary world, as well as a few luminaries of British children’s fiction -- Romy Childerhose’s admiration for same being a poorly kept secret in the club -- like Richard Adams, Philip Pullman and, of course, Ms. Rowling.

And Margaret Atwood’s last name is used as the root of an adjective evoking, in general, weak, cowardly, conformist pumped-up males defined by their adams apples. It’s actually neither accurate nor fair, but it’s not my job to make Jennifer and Danielle either accurate or fair.

On another level, there are the generous, irreplaceable contributions of Professor Bruce Kuklick of University of Pennsylvania and Professor Jan Walls (retired) of Simon Fraser University. These learned men both wrote so beautifully in answer to my queries that I quoted them verbatim, altering only the party to which they were speaking.

And Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne makes a cameo appearance, stepping into the role of Shiduri the barmaid (inadvertently undercutting the wishes of Priya who wanted to play the part.)

But the most important cameo in the book is of course that of Salam Pax, the famous Baghdad Blogger.

(Potential spoilers follow.)

I was introduced to Where Is Raed, not by surfing the net, but rather in the object of a birthday present given to me by my friend Carl Wilson. So I read The Baghdad Blog, at first, as a book, not a blog.

I won’t get into my reasons for choosing Salam Pax to encounter Aline, Neil and Seyed Samir other than to say I wanted the appreciations of the LC’s membership to move gradually from the arcane to the concrete, from an imaginative world into the real world.

And so it followed that I wanted them to make the lateral move from the printed page to the active recording of personal experience that a blog -- especially a great blog like Where is Raed -- provides.

But I realized I could not bring myself to just up and do it. I felt I had to ask permission. I'm aware it's not the act of a fearless novelist. But I never said I was a fearless novelist. I'm more of a tremulous novelist.

I wrote him a letter and sent it in the body of an email.

From: Sean Dixon
To: salam pax
Subject: funny query

Dear Salam,

I have a question for you.

I'm currently writing a novel, the last part of which involves two young people stowing away on an old ferry ship, that starts out docked in the Old Port of Montreal and gets towed across the ocean to Portsmouth in England where it's meant to be transformed into a Cable Ship. They get caught part way.

One is a ten year old boy who has run away after the death of his whole family in Montreal. Well, actually it's just the death of his sister, but she's the last in a line of unexpected deaths, The other traveler is a 21 year old female student who's trying to take care of the boy.

When they arrive in England the boy is transferred to the Canadian High Commission in London. The girl, since she's an adult, is jailed and later bailed out by the fellow members of an Exclusive Montreal Young Women's Book Club who have been chasing them in a high-powered parental yacht. They all have their passports and arrive in England legally.

One of the yacht-riding club-members is a fan of Salam Pax -- that's you of course -- and learns while in England that Salam Pax is actually there as a guest of the Guardian.

I would like to use you as a character because a major theme of my story is the intersection between the lives of these character and the books they're reading. But one of them doesn't read books: He reads blogs.

Also, the novel takes place in 2003.

He finds out where you are and tries to meet you and in fact wants the ten-year-old boy to meet you too. The ten-year-old-boy has been acting out the story of The Epic of Gilgamesh as away of coping with the deaths in his family. The reason why he is acting out the Epic of Gilgamesh is that it was the book that was being read by the book club when his sister died. It was his sister's favourite book.

He becomes interested in Salam Pax when he discovers that you are also from the place where the Epic of Gilgamesh is from.

Salam Pax meets the boy and tells him about the war in Iraq. in theory at least.

But I wanted to write to you first and check to see if it would be okay to have you make a brief fictional appearance in the latter part of my book.

The only other real person who makes an appearance is the woman who at one time in her life had been the subject of the Leonard Cohen song Suzanne. She is apparently a real person. Friends of mine in Montreal have met her. An ex-teacher of mine taught her in an acting class once. In my novel she lives near the Old Port of Montreal and helps out some of my characters.

So you would not be alone.

I also refer to the works of several Canadian authors, whose books are being read by the Club. However, they do not make appearances.

That's all, I guess. I thought it would be fun to write to you. I love this project, and have been working on it as a novel for the better part of a year. It started out a few years ago as a play, but the number of cast members just kept growing, until I eventually made the leap. It's called 'The Girls who saw Everything'. I'm fast approaching my ocean journey section and thought I would write.

If you consent to appear as a fictional character, then I have three questions. They are somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

Would you, in theory, have consented to such a meeting, with a 10-year-old Canadian boy, while you were in England, or does this not strike you as a realistic scenario?

What would you have told him?

Have you ever read the Epic of Gilgamesh? If so, what do you think of it?

Hope to hear from you.

Yours,
Sean Dixon
CANADA

ps, if you google me, you'll find I'm not the British soccer player or the inmate of an Arizona Penitentiary. Nor am I the Sean Dixon who writes his name all in lowercase letters and is, I believe, also from Arizona. I'm the Canadian Playwright. I live in Toronto. I'm wondering whether your film will come here.

Date: Wed, 12 Jan 2005 01:58:13 -0800
From: salam pax
To: Sean Dixon
Subject: Re: funny query

hey me a character in a novel?..woohoo...will get back to you on the questions

I think I caught him on a high.

There was a period, after the optimism that seemed to be prevailing in Iraq at the time when I wrote to him, when things got really bad in Baghdad. I believe Salam's whole family had to get out. They left the country just around the time when I was publishing in Canada. I only know this because I saw somewhere that he was supposed to make an appearance in Toronto at around that time, but he canceled it because of these troubles.

And then eventually he popped up as a student in London. Now he’s blogging again. Twittering too, in fact. It's great to see.

But I do wonder if, over the months and years since that exchange, the man hasn’t had second thoughts about loaning his character to a fictional scenario by an author who happened to catch him in a good mood very early in 2005.

I counter these feelings of guilt with the thought that I can offer my book as a sort of advertisement for his book -- The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal as a bit of ephemera to serve as publicity for The Baghdad Blog.

In truth, my most paranoid fear is the thought that my project may have prevented Salam Pax from being depicted in a piece of fiction by one of his literary heroes, William Gibson. I heard at one point that Gibson, who is also a fan of Pax’s, was considering putting him into his novel Spook Country. I don’t know what prevented him in the end. Surely he wouldn’t have cared if a small time fellow Canadian had done the same thing. Surely not.

Surely not.

If that was the case, and I really don’t believe that was the case, but if that was the case, then I’m very, very sorry.



Postscript: The plot described in the letter to Pax is no longer entirely accurate. I chose to send my characters much farther afield than Portsmouth, England...

(although I had an interesting conversation with the Port of London Authority’s Martin Garside on the subject of how he would handle an underage stowaway on one of his ships. He gave me his phone number and was helpful and witty. The first thing he said to me was “Well this is one of the stranger requests I’ve received in awhile.” Without his intervention, my own stowaways would never have had the courage to leave Canada. In the play, they only get as far as the island of St-Pierre et Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland.)

… and I also decided that I could not depict the character of Salam Pax in any corporeal way, but rather only in the way he'd been revealed to me. That is, not face to face but rather as an internet scribe.

Thus endeth the shriving.

Desk, Ball, Boxing


I'm on Desk Space this week.

The book-cave with the window overlooking domestic quarrels was the desk at which I wrote The Last Days...

But I did not sit on a yoga ball while writing that book. Although I did have a serious back incident just around the time when Romy and Neil were stowing away on the Nindawayma (the boat which, someday soon, will be the subject of its own post.)

The injury was a serious lumbar twist that had the effect of making me feel like I was being broken on the rack. I had to get frog-marched by paramedics down our narrow apartment stairs, since their stretcher wouldn't fit. and then, at emergency, I was provided with some pretty serious drugs so I could eventually limp out of there at a funny angle and they could have their bed back.

So yes, now I sit on a yoga ball. I've written two novels perched on this thing. And I go to boxing classes Tuesdays and Saturdays. And, so far, I have not had a repeat incident. Or I suppose I have, but not quite like that one.

Montrealers on the Starship Enterprise



In celebration of the release of the new Star Trek film this week, I will risk the ire of Lacuna Cabal members everywhere by simply acknowledging it.

And, further, explaining that the character of Coby, inventor of the fitzbot, was initially described as sounding just like James T. Kirk by virtue of the fact that he hailed from the same neighbourhood in Montreal as William Shatner. Yes, it's true.


Coby's bookplate

But I scuttled the idea in the end because I didn't want people to think that the entire Montreal English speaking community -- its poets and musicians and poets and musicians -- spoke like Captain Kirk. Because it just isn't true.

Coby does though, a little bit, sometimes.

Bye Bye Wiki



I used to have a Wikipedia entry. It was fairly brief and modest, mentioned only The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal in its various incarnations, no plays, no short stories, no YA books. I have no idea who put it up. But it seems this guy has taken it down, just in time for my US release, because I'm not notable according to the guidelines.

Not notable? I've never been so insulted in all my life.



Then again, I suppose I've played fast and loose with the free encyclopedia now and again in the past. I once rewrote the end of The Fountainhead's synposis. It stayed up for three whole days before someone finally commented, 'That doesn't sound quite right,' and changed it back.



Maybe they pay attention to that sort of thing?

Ah well, it was worth it to have three precious days of some people swallowing the idea that Ayn Rand blew up Roark's building a second time.

Assyriological Theory



There was a bit in the original manuscript of The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal in which I riffed a bit on the lesser known older version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Enkidu, rather than catching a disease and dying, offered to retrieve G’s mallet, which had fallen into the Underworld. Once down there, Enkidu discovered he would not be allowed to return.

This version struck me as a slightly less harsh gloss of the Gilgamesh story, intended perhaps, I thought, for children. My editor wanted me to cut it though, because it came directly on the heels of the death of a major character, and she didn’t think I should be dicking around in the realm of clever Assyriological theories.

Here, for the blog, is the restored fragment of Jennifer and Danielle’s depiction of Gilgamesh’s fallen mallet.


Claire Calnan about to read the excised passage at the first launch of The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal. She's making fun of me because I've accidentally called her up at the wrong time, thinking it was her mistake and not mine. Photo by Ashley Winnington-Ball.

The other thing we wanted to tell you was about how, back in the old days of Mesopotamia, there was a version of the Epic of Gilgamesh prepared and carved into stone especially for children.

It was decided somehow, considering the Epic was widely used in school exercise books for the study of proper Cuneiform, that the death of Enkidu was needlessly harsh and confrontational for the child mind. So, in the altered version, instead of losing Enkidu, Gilgamesh actually loses a sort of croquet ball, and the Underworld is depicted as the deep ditch underneath a sewer grate. So we see the disconsolate Gilgamesh tossing aside his mallet, rending his garments and chopping his hair all because he’s lost his ball. No matter how hard he stretches and reaches through the grate – just like that man in Strangers On a Train – he cannot reach his ball. He can see it, but he cannot reach it. He thought he was strong as a reacher and instead learns the terrible lesson that, as a reacher, he is weak.

And so Gilgamesh grieves in Cuneiform:


I’ve lost my ball!
My ball has fallen through the sewer grate!
I have lost it!
My ball is gone forever! I will never roll that ball again!

And so on. The Mesopotamians, it should be noted, are highly regarded for their uncompromising culture of death. Their view of the world is considered to have been among the harshest that has ever stood in the history of culture. Still, they really shielded their children, didn’t they? We shudder to contemplate what their initiation rituals must have been like.

Neil, on the other hand...

Influence


Jackson Pollock's Moby Dick

Another nice review with an acceptable caveat from Mr. Cutter, a beautiful moniker for a literary critic (though I must add that his criticisms of my book are gently rendered. And they're far outweighed by praise:
There’s a whole other thing ... that this book emphatically deserves praise for: the thing’s trying, in total good faith, to engage with the present world. Meaning, in this case, Iraq and blogging and wars, meaning nationalism and antiquities, meaning how all good stories not only overlap but are literally, at a genetically-coded level, made of the same stuff. For the sake of the book and it’s really great narrative riches, I won’t go further into it than that, but know that, reading Lacuna is not akin to reading some slow-burning navel-gazer about middle-classers coming of age, nor is it some hijinxy send-up of mores and morals and manners. The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal’s a fierce and challenging and spunky book, and it’s fun as hell...)

Where he finds fault, it seems to be with the narrative voice, the first person plural negotiations of Jennifer H and Danielle D.

J&D's bookplate

And he lays the blame for my choices squarely at the feet of David Foster Wallace.

Now I’m honoured to be considered part of the genius run-off from DFW, given that he should be still here and he should be still writing, he was clearly a writer for the ages and a great teacher, and I also admire his heroic struggles to contend with the bullshit of some contemporary philosophers, using language that these same philosophers would understand...

I also pride myself on giving credit where credit is due. Although in this particular instance it suddenly occurs to me that Mr. Cutter is talking about blame rather than credit, so I must suddenly assume for the purposes of an essay on the subject of influence that he would cite DFW for influence over more positive aspects of my book as well...


Image from here

But I’m afraid I’ve never read Infinite Jest.

I’m aware that it’s possible to be influenced by a work through the zeitgeist, through all the chatter that accumulates around it and through the work that it influences, and so I could most definitely be wrong about the following theory, but…



I would say rather that DFW benefited from the same primary influence as I did -- the great stories of J.D. Salinger. Not Catcher in the Rye -- though that novel has always been Salinger’s calling card among scholars and critics -- but rather Franny & Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, considered far less important by these same critics (with some notable exceptions), but whose moment-to-moment narratives are the precious touchstones for me, and, I suspect, for writers everywhere.



Actually no. They’re not touchstones. I don’t go back and reread these stories. I haven’t read them in twenty years. They’ve rather become woven into the mechanics of my synapses, their images occasionally popping up in association with moments in my own experience, carried from firing to firing (and no I'm not talking about my undistinguished employment record) (although on the other hand I could be) throughout my life.



In a part of my mind, I will always be in the back seat of the limousine with Buddy Glass, stuck in a traffic jam with several strong characters travelling away from Seymour’s cancelled wedding. I will always be executing a perfect shave with Zooey, talking with his mother on the other side of the bathroom door; lingering on the phone with Franny who sits downstairs in a darkened living room; even swatting flies with a fat lady, sitting on her porch and listening to It’s A Wise Child, along with Christ himself, buddy, Christ himself.



I loved these stories and I carry them with me, not because of their themes and apparent allusions to eastern philosophies, but rather because of the inherent warmth in the relationships and the reader’s capacity to get right inside the dialogue.

That said, I also consider it reasonable to regard DFW as the primary Salingerian heir, since Infinite Jest seems to have pushed Salinger's very personal brand of narrative as far as it can go. One of these days I intend to read it and find out for sure.

Hey


Photo: Reuters

The girls of the Lacuna Cabal just got their first US review.

Priya


My first impulse when writing the novel — aside from the notion that it was a book club reading the Epic of Gilgamesh — was how I wanted to explore the love of things that are very old by people who are very young.



One of the members of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women’s Book Club was a self-conscious songwriter named Priya. Since I thought at the time I was writing a play, I set out to write songs for Priya that could be performed. I wrote two. The first was meant to be a whimsical failure and the second a half-decent song that would be sung by the whole company (i.e. the book club) as they made their journey across the sea in search of a lost young boy who was himself searching for a wise old man.

Throughout the story, she contemplated dichotomies such as young/old, present/past, living/dead, and human/god.


It was meant to be a proud moment for Priya.

She was the only character who had awareness of the members of the audience. It took a scene or two for her to noticed them, but when she did, it wasn’t long before she came up with an explanation:

I had no idea I'd dreamed you up.
God, you must think I'm the most self-centered creature.
Then again how does an aspiring songwriter get by unless she imagines an audience hanging on to her every word?
Oh I'm sorry; you're probably thinking: "But we're really here!"
[That's so cute...]
I mean, sure, okay, yeah, sure, it's vain, okay, sure, but think of it this way: I'll always try to impress you. I'll always try to put my best face forward, be a hero in my own movie. It's almost like you've replaced God, don't you think? Or the gods.
The Pantheon.


Thus was born the idea that ended up in the song she wrote and performed at the end of the play, We’re in the Movies. She took the old argument that belief in a god turns us into ethical creatures and replaced the idea of god in that equation with the audience.



It's a funny switch from the standard. When we're sitting in an audience, isn't it the performer who seems to be larger than life? At least if all goes well? Isn't it the performer who equates with the gods?

In fact, it becomes, if all goes well, a back and forth. Each seeks the gift from the other, of something special, something timeless, something, maybe, godlike.



Funny too though that Priya imagines herself not on stage but in a movie:



At the end of the film
there's so much to discuss

As we try to figure out
just what happened to us

Did we win? Stay together? Did we cry? Did we pray?

Did we find we worked hard by the end of the day

Were we good? were we ill? In the movie, did we kill

A conviction, an appeal, was it fake, was it real...


Take one more step in the argument and the audience (a collection of people) gets replaced by community - a group of people that hold individuals in their midst. Perhaps it's our community that turns us into ethical creatures. God = Audience = Community.

The human community is an ageless thing. It has always been with us, whether in a tribe or a polis or (under certain circumstances) a young women's book club. Their polis can bridge the gap between present and past. Their founding goddess can also be a girl from Westmount.

And the movies themselves make us godlike as well, hammering a nail in the wall and hanging us up like Inanna in the realm of Erishkigal. A pinup for the ages,



a performance imprinted upon the ages. Buster Keaton is long gone, but his spirit still flickers though the projector onto the wall or through the zeros and ones to our digital laptop screens. It’s how someone can be both young and old at the same time: Gilgamesh glories in his youthful kingship. Priya acts out the adventures of the Lacuna Cabal and imagines her own movie. She can be old and young at the same time as she performs her song.

But I'm starting to get very complicated with what is really a very simple idea: the fact that we all imagine ourselves as heroes in our own narratives.

+++

I tried to make this ‘imaginary audience’ conceit work in the novel, but I couldn’t do it. Priya therefore became more or less the silent character that she mostly seems to be to the other characters. She still wrote songs that are present in the novel, and the dichotomies are still there too. But it’s not the same. Poetry is not performance.

+++

Chris Abraham and I workshopped the play with students at the National Theatre School of Canada in 2002 and then again in late winter of 2003, during the lead-up to the Iraq War (also, not coincidentally, time period in which the novel is set.) The part of Priya was played by Michelle Girouard.

Here’s Michelle playing the song The Oil Men performed as a distraction for Cabal members while Romy is up on the roof pretending to be the monster Humbaba battling boys:

video

And here’s Michelle playing We’re In the Movies:

video

(At one point in rehearsal, Michelle got a nosebleed and I ended up taking her over to the Royal Vic, where I could swear we saw Neil making his getaway with Runner in a wheelchair.)

And here's the youtube site for our contest, deadline May 31st. We're looking for performed covers of Priya's song.