Friday, March 30, 2007


I stutter, and I write. I love people, and I’m too fuckety shy for eye contact. My cultural matrix is oral, oral, oral: chatter and stories are weapons and medicine.

Communication’s a big deal for me.

Spark-gap transmission was the start of radio telephony. Huge amounts of energy, intelligence and dirty-handed frustration went into wireless communication. There’s a lonely desperation to Fessenden’s snow, Marconi’s kite, Tesla’s vision. There’s such joy when the message is received. Small wonder Marconi’s Morse code signal to Poldhu was the letters C and Q.

Seek you.

The link below takes you to John Belrose’s article on spark-gap transmission. The photo of Marconi’s condenser under construction reminds me of the light show towards the end of Peter Gabriel’s "Signal to Noise" on the Growing Up Live concert DVD. Most of Belrose's discussion passes me by. Bits of it stick. Some of the "listen" links are dead, but there are examples of how spark sounded – huge effort, little apparent noise. And there’s a sample of Belrose on spark-gap transmission re-creating Fessenden’s first (and the first known) transmission of words without wires.

"One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen?"

The hiss and fuss of spark sounds like someone stuttering.

Is it snowing where you are?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Going naked

One of these days I’m going to get a thong in a knot. Not sure yet about the necessary gymnastics. Just a small ambition to keep me busy while I wait for the valerian to kick in.

I thought I could coddle and hoard my precious Doubleblind revisions until some time in April, or even the end of March. Don’t know why I thought that, but I did.

Tough titty. The ms had to get out to the blurbers, writers whose work I admire and whose time is tight.

Revisions got done. Hurried, but done. All I have left now is deciding things like "crimson" versus "scarlet." (I hope.)

But here’s a gutfall I didn’t expect. It’s right up there with not being thrilled to see many copies of my first book, The shadow side of grace, on shelves. (What? That many? Lord, they’ll never sell. And so on.)

I never expected to be scared about my second book coming out.

Not just scared. Shaking.

I stand five feet, seven inches tall and weigh nearly two hundred pounds. A lot of that is muscle; far too much of it is still flab. Every bit of it has become one exposed nerve.

You can forgive a lot in a first book. You expect a new writer to prove something in the second. Prove she’s learned something. Prove he’s no fluke. Prove she can actually write. And not just re-write the first book.

Very little of Doubleblind comes from my own experience, but it’s still my guts on the page. What interests me. What worries me.

And it’s in first-person. About all I have in common with the narrator is that we both speak English.

Harlan Ellison, in his introduction to PAINGOD and Other Delusions (Ace Books, 1983 edition) quotes his friend Avram Davidson, who called Ellison’s introductions "going naked in the world" (page 10). Ellison goes on to argue that everything he writes is like going naked. He then quotes Irwin Shaw: "A man does not write one novel at a time or one play at a time or even one quatrain at a time. He is on a journey and he is reporting in: ‘This is where I think I am and this is what this place looks like today’" (page 11).

Flabby gut, floppy breasts. Bleah. I’m going naked.

This is where I think I am.

Put in my place by poetry

So I've bragged before that my younger daughter is a poet.

Two nights ago, I was getting undressed, she looked up at me and said: "Your breasts are big."

They're not huge, but they're certainly noticeable. I recalled long hours nursing this tough little preemie, feeling maternal and proud.

Brushing her hair, she continued. "Your breasts are floppy. Like dog ears, only shorter."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Planes waiting to land

Finishing Doubleblind. Champing to get back to a project called Sky Waves, which needs some intricate work. Not expecting an old and abandoned project to resurface in my head, repairs underway.

My "first" novel -- technically third, as two other mss are in a box and will never come out -- is called Dead Reckoning, and my failures with it have broken my heart. So I left it.

It won't leave me.

I should know better.

What's my motivation?

Notes from revising Doubleblind ...

So you're a wicked man and need an understrapper. How do you motivate him?

Fear and threats will only work so much. Eventually your moderate man will become resentful or may find a way to become a passive martyr. Or worse, he may become (dramatic chord here) less productive. And no organization, wicked or not, wants unproductive employees. How can you stay competitive with an unproductive martyr-in-waiting?

You could give him impossible choices within a designed framework and then appeal to his dormant morality, perhaps even encourage him to see himself as more humane than his colleagues.

Good old Skinner behaviourism.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More s'posin'

To clarify: my character Keefer Breen is not evil. He does some shocking things, but what he does not do is regularly de-humanize other people. Keefer is driven by his compassion.

Josh Bozeman can and does dehumanize others. The moment you consider another person somehow less than human, you can do anything to them and prop up your justification in some pathetic ends-and-means argument. Josh suffers a certain emotional paralysis and is a much poorer man that Keefer for not loving.

But Josh doesn't know that, and he's telling the story.

Ink gets ya dirty.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

S'pose, b'y -- a moderate man

"Picked and prudent sentiments. You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man. You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but you are useless for right." --Herman Melville, The Confidence Man.

It's passivity masquerading as awareness that Melville's on about. Though he hardly makes it easy on his characters. You can argue that Starbuck in Moby-Dick is such a moderate man. How does that affect your sympathy for him?

Moderate men -- and by "men," I mean all humans, regardless of which bathroom they pee in -- stuck with the Milgram experiment.

Moderate men could smell crematoria but be surprised by their existence.

Moderate men obey without struggle, in a perversion of the human desire to submit to a higher spiritual authority. (This can get really tangly with atheism.)

From Milgram's article "The Perils of Obedience:"

"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority." (Milgram, Stanley. (1974), "The Perils of Obedience". Harper's Magazine. Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority. Reproduced at Wikipedia entry "Milgram experiment.")

I'm exploring this with several characters, most notably Keefer Breen and Dr. Josh Bozeman.

Opening and closing my collection The shadow side of grace, Keefer is at once capable of looking for patients in his job as a hospital personal care attendant, and of smacking a dying woman across the mouth. The context of Keefer's violence -- this violence being the only resort of someone truly powerless -- is intolerable conflict. In a later story, Keefer sits with a dying man going through a crisis of faith. He uses his hands all through the story -- gently. Does this later act redeem the former?

Dr. Josh Bozeman is the narrator/protagonist of Double-blind. His violent acts, much more subdued than Keefer's, come more from his obedience, from his "simply" doing his job. He's more educated than Keefer, speaks standard English, albeit with a southern American accent, but he is no better a man. (Given the choice, I'd much rather spend time with Keefer.) Josh's struggle is to get beyond his obedience to a lower authority, but he litters his path with other people's pain.

While both of these characters need to be sympathetic to make their stories work -- there's got to be something likable about them -- I want them to be more than that. I want the reader to feel the deeper empathy, the coldgut recognition: "Yeah, I can see myself doing that. Not proud of it, but I can see it happening."

I am not proud of my moderate moments. I'm determined there will be fewer of them.

Monday, March 5, 2007

No, Max, I would find that very hard to believe.

So I'm revising a novel. Got a publication date, got a deadline. Got a full-time job besides and a regular tension headache from too much time hunched at keys.

Got a problem.

Double-blind is a hybrid. I want it marketed and read as "literary fiction," whatever the hell that is, but it's full of pulp. In some places it smells of the paranormal. It's a study of complicity refracted through one doctor's ethical collapse -- there's the literary fiction part, I guess -- and that collapse is shown through his MKUltra work. There's the pulp.

My dear doctor's final actions are taken when he's nearly seventy, straining credulity for some readers who have seen the ms. I guess my task now is to strengthen the litfic stuff to keep him a complex and developing character who can surf the pulp.

Complicating that is the destroyed reality of MKUltra. We don't have a clear picture of what went on in the name of Cold War research; the glimpses that have survived the shredder are terrifying. Ewen Cameron at the Allan in Montreal for a start.

Pulpy, yes, but with precedent. And somewhere in there, in writing this story, I still need to play.

Panties in a twist, as usual.

I'm losing sleep.

Insert dialogue here, or, sometimes I need a good smack

Last week, Thursday I think, was Dr. Seuss's birthday. My daughters' school celebrated by inviting students to bring in their favourite Seuss book. My older daughter's class spent time on, learning that Dr. Seuss's real name was Geisel and, best of all for them, making up stories using Seuss characters. Site visitors choose characters, backgrounds and music and get four panels to develop a story. My older daughter spent hours this weekend making up silly dialogue for Horton, the Who Mayor and others. Every ten minutes or so I was called to the computer so she could giggle through, er, read me another story.

Her stories were deliciously silly. She didn't need encouragement to keep going. I piled it on anyway.

But inside I was dubious, like a mother who won't allow her child to have a colouring book because it might somehow stifle creativity. (I've never banned colouring books. Turns out my two would rather draw their own pictures anyway.) What? Making up dialogue for someone else's characters? Isn't this, well, cheating somehow?

Then a great hammer came and hit me on the head. Or at least it should have.

One, my daughter's a child.

Two, the story maker is play.

Like making up dialogue for Star Wars action figures. Or for your plush toys. Or your Barbie dolls.

Or for Achilles and Odysseus.

Gotta play more.

Spark-gap transmission / Michelle Butler Hallett

Spark-gap transmission / Michelle Butler Hallett
in progress