December 11, 2013

Editing Services

I recently finished the Editing Certificate program at George Brown College:

Grammar for Editors and Writers
Editing Principles and Practices
Substantive Editing
Production Editing
Editing for the Web
Editorial Placement (Joyland Magazine)

*I recommend the grammar course to writers living in Toronto.

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

I have experience editing web content as well as fiction manuscripts (novels and short story collections). Recent credits include:

Editor, BabyWorld by Jonathan Martin Dixit
Copy Editor, Retro Vol. 1 No 3: Selections from Joyland Magazine
Pre-Publication Editor, Nothing Man and the Purple Zero by Richard Scarsbrook

In the new year, my website will be redesigned with more information on my editing experience and services.

August 7, 2013

"Little Hawk" in Little Fiction

My story "Little Hawk" is up at Little Fiction. This story went through many revisions, workshops, and rejections before finding a home. I haven't come up with a cool-enough one-sentence synopsis to hypnotize yet, so I'll just encourage you to check it out when you have a few free minutes. This story is in my first collection, Men and the Drink.

Inspiration included kitchen work in restaurants, sibling relationships, the rural-urban divide, and Moss Park in Toronto.

Much thanks to Troy Palmer, editor and creative director of Little Fiction, for his excellent fine-tuning and beautiful cover design. To learn more about Little Fiction, read this recent interview with Troy at The City Fox. All short fiction at LF can be found HERE.

My other online stories...
"Rivals" at Joyland
"The Promise of Puppies" at Dragnet Magazine
"Hybrid Love" at Lies With Occasional Truth

July 28, 2013

Reading List 2013

In the past I would post reading lists early in the year and add to them as months passed but after a long bout of reading paralysis, I felt hesitant. Alas, I have been reading steadily (perhaps not at the Ravenous Reader level) and have been privileged to read/edit/workshop several pre-publication manuscripts of writer friends. Most of the books thus far have been recommendations, lenders, and gifts which have landed with great success.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet - Salman Rushdie
A Complicated Kindness - Miriam Toews
American Gods - Neil Gaiman
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - John Boyne
Nothing Man and the Purple Zero - Richard Scarsbrook
Daisy Miller - Henry James
The Remains of the Day -Kazuo Ishiguro
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
Night Shift - Stephen King
Retro Vol. 1 No 3: Selections from Joyland Magazine
The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt
Nobody Looks that Young Here - Daniel Perry
The Sailor and the Pugilist - Nadia Ragbar
Stories for Ibarra - Harriet Doerr
Open - Lisa Moore
Dust to Dust - Timothy Findley
Post Office - Charles Bukowski
The Family Fang - Kevin Wilson
The Tale of One Bad Rat - Bryan Talbot
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

July 7, 2013

Ravenous Reader #5

Rosie reads and reads and rereads in Etobicoke.

1.  Do you have an early memory of learning to read?
No, I don't remember learning to read, the actual process. I remember specific picture books I became obsessed with. I would take the same Halloween books out of the public library throughout the year. For some reason I just liked all the pictures of the witches. And then there was a particular Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I remember the pictures more than the words. My earliest memories of reading are more about the visual.     

2.  Have you always been an avid reader?
I think so. By around eight or ten I was constantly reading, pretty trashy stuff for the most part. I think I read all the Nancy Drews, and then there was some kind of teeny bop, whatever the teen version of salacious reading was.      

3.  How do you decide what to read next?
Sometimes out of desperation, whatever I can get my hands on because I've usually run out of things to read. Sadly these days, I'm often looking at my bookshelves to see what book I haven't read so many times.

4.  Do you have any reading rituals that you follow? 
Lately one of my patterns has been to read in the bathroom, smoking while sitting on the edge of the bathtub.

5. What makes a great story or novel?
For me, there's a couple of things. Definitely character, but I'm not sure if I can articulate what that is. I tend towards female characters, maybe because I relate to them better. I like books that tell me about the inside of a person and not just a quick moving plot. And the setting or creating of atmosphere is really important. I have to be able to see it clearly. It has to feel like a real place to me, which doesn't mean the author necessarily needs to give me all the details, but they have to give me enough that I can continue to create the rest of it for myself. Stories that don't address atmosphere at all tend to fall flat for me.

6.  Do you have a favourite genre?
I'm not sure. I read just about everything.

7.  Who was the first author you fell in love with? The last?
I think the first book that really grabbed my attention, that seemed really special, was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. That was my favourite book for many many many years; something about it just stood out for me as being in its own kind of category. I don't know if there's anyone I've felt the same passion for since. One author I enjoy reading these days is Joanna Trollope which I find kinda funny because I think she has a reputation as writing women's slightly trashy fiction. I'm not sure where I got that idea, but she writes about everyday situations that really speak to me.

8.  What classic or well-known book have you never been able to get through?
I did try Middlemarch several times but was unable to get past the first couple of pages. Nothing about it grabbed me.

9.  What book or books do you reread?
I reread most of them because I'm always running out and have to have a book to read at all times. I read every Jane Austen novel every winter for probably ten years in a row, but it's finally reached a point where they've sort of lost their magic. I do like to revisit books that I've enjoyed, some more than others. I like to reread Jane Urquhart. Yay! Canadian authors.

10. Do you have dry spells where you stop reading or read very little?
Very very infrequently, and a dry spell would be like two days or something like that.

11. How do you organize your collection?
It's half organized and half disorganized. I have books separated into fiction and non-fiction (martial arts, natural healing, gardening, and other subjects). I did have a system where books were arranged alphabetically by author, at least for novels, but then I got too many books so as you can see they're two rows deep and the alphabetizing got lost somewhere along the way.

12. Do you enjoy recommending books to others? What criteria do you use?
It's rare for me to recommend a book. It would have to be something fairly specific and to someone who I have a good sense of what they like. For me, reading is more of a personal love, so I don't feel a huge need for anybody to like the things that I read. Every once in a while, if something seems to speak to a particular person then I might say, "try this," or "this made me think of you," but as a rule, I don't share the books that I love.

13. You host a dinner party for five authors (dead or alive). Who’s invited?
I don't host dinner parties.

14. Do you write? If so, how does reading influence your writing?
Actually, I have a phobia of writing, which is why you're recording this and will have to transcribe it. I did write when I was younger, poetry and journal writing, but any writing that may ever, in any way, be viewed by another human has no interest for me and causes great anxiety.      

15. What are you reading right now?
This morning, I pulled five books off the shelf to contemplate which to reread.  

Ravenous Reader is a regular series.

June 14, 2013

Ravenous Reader #4

Daniel Perry is a fiction writer living in Toronto. Nobody Looks that Young Here is his first collection of short stories.

1.  Do you have an early memory of learning to read?
Yes, though it’s more of a recounted memory than something I clearly remember. Before starting kindergarten, in my school, you and your parent(s) would come in for a short sit-down with the principal. (I wasn’t supposed to be there, actually, but I was, with my father.) I had spent most of life to this point watching Sesame Street, and my parents had been teaching me, so I was a reader before I had even started school. The story goes that my dad asked the principal if I’d be challenged enough; “He can read, you know,” to which the principal said, “Well, I’m sure he knows a few words.” Dad picked up a for-parents pamphlet from the desk and handed it to me, saying “Dan, read this.” I asked where to start, Dad said “At the beginning,” and I’m told I sounded out pretty much the whole thing, and the principal said, “Holy shit, he can read,” (though that last bit sounds like standard working-class point-scoring). I didn’t end up skipping a grade – I’m born December 31, which would have made me two years younger than some classmates – but they did put me in French Immersion, which means I’m lucky enough to be able to read in two languages.      

2.  Have you always been an avid reader?
Other than a six-month dry spell after I washed out of grad school – I got the master’s, but didn’t turn up the next fall for the Ph. D. program that accepted me – I’ve always read, moving from Curious George through the Hardy Boys and R.L. Stine into John Grisham and Tom Clancy before hitting high school and getting into capital-L literature. I remember in undergrad, a former girlfriend’s roommate saw me somewhere that wasn’t campus and observed, “You always have a book with you, don’t you?” It’s especially true now that I live in Toronto and take transit everywhere. I never leave home without one.       

3.  How do you decide what to read next?
For the longest time, if I read an interesting review or excerpt, I’d go straight to the Toronto Public Library website and place a hold. What I read would then be decided by what came in when, and which books were closest to their due dates… and I was so overcommitted, most books spent the full nine weeks (three week loan, twice renewed) in my apartment. I’ve taken control, though: for 2013, I’ve placed myself under library moratorium and focused on reading books that I’ve bought but not read. There is a specific Read-Once-And-Get-Rid-Of pile that’s right beside my writing desk. I’m steadily plucking books off it, but it’s somehow growing anyway…

4.  Do you have any reading rituals that you follow? 
I try not to start a new novel unless I have enough time to get through a good 50 pages in the first sitting; reading Chapter 1 on the subway to work and Chapter 2 on the way home only results in having to read them both over again on the weekend. Also, I make myself write a paragraph about every book I finish, a sort of journal that I post from on my blog and my Facebook page.

5. What makes a great story or novel?
Selection. I struggle with it in my own writing sometimes, but to me a good story contains absolutely nothing that’s extraneous; as Chekhov said (paraphrase), if there’s a gun on the mantle in Act I then it had better go off by the final curtain. I go crazy reading novels in which every character is introduced with a paragraph about what they’re wearing – it so rarely comes to bear on the story! Show me what I need to see, and ditch the rest. Get on with the story. I haven’t read him in a long time, but I remember thinking there were no wasted words in Stephen Crane’s work.  

6.  Do you have a favourite genre?
I don’t think so… unless Literary Fiction is a “genre.” I try to read all kinds of different books, throwing in the odd thriller, mystery or historical page-turner to offset the classics, the award-winners, and the disproportionate amount of good, good, whole wheat CanLit.  

7.  Who was the first author you fell in love with? The last?
Leaving aside the series I loved as a kid, I think the first author I really devoured was John Steinbeck. His books were generally short, emotional wallops, and my dad was a fan; we had all the old Bantam paperbacks. Growing up in rural southwestern Ontario, I found they dealt with a kind of life and a class of people I could understand. More recently, I’ve read three books (and bought one more) by each of the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones (try Mister Pip) and Kingston, Ontario’s own Steven Heighton (whose novel The Shadow Boxer is one of the most criminally under-celebrated books ever produced in this country).   

8.  What classic or well-known book have you never been able to get through?
The Lord of the Rings. This might go back to Question 5: too much scene setting. Eighty pages in, and still nothing’s happened…? No thanks. Tried it three times.

9.  What book or books do you reread?
I rarely reread – there are too many books in the world! – but I recently reread an assigned undergraduate book, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, as a mate to Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. From time to time, I also pick up Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. These two books contain some of the best short stories of our time, and I can always learn more from what they’ve done with the form. Plus, Johnson’s book is so small, I can read it on the streetcar on the way to a Jays’ game then put it in a pocket and not have to worry about lugging it around all night.

10. Do you have dry spells where you stop reading or read very little?
No. I sometimes wish I did, but I’m pretty steady: five books a month.

11. How do you organize your collection?
I have a small bookcase for drama, poetry, and non-fiction – most of it left over from university or high school – and two larger fiction cases: one for the books I’ve read and one for the unread. The small bookcase and the stuff I’ve read are alphabetical by author, while – aside from one shelf that’s restricted to short story collections – the unread bookcase is in no order whatsoever.   

12. Do you enjoy recommending books to others? What criteria do you use?
I do enjoy recommending books, and I try especially hard to think of what the person likes: similar authors, style, subject matter. I read somewhere that Scandinavian cultures consider a book the most thoughtful gift you can give – long winters, just like we have in Canada – and I can’t say that I disagree. Turning someone on to a given author is a pleasure, and it’s especially nice to have the favour returned: I’ve never been into SF, but a friend suggested China Miéville’s The City & the City to me recently, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last year. A great reco makes you feel honour-bound to do just as well by your friends.

13. You host a dinner party for five authors (dead or alive). Who’s invited?
Jorge Luis Borges, Henry Miller, Bill Bryson, Ernest Hemingway and… William Shakespeare… just to see if that famous portrait is actually his. (Yeah, I know. Boys’ club.)

14. Do you write? If so, how does reading influence your writing?
I do write, primarily short stories, so it’s almost the other way around: my writing has greatly influenced my reading, in the sense that I’ve probably read a thousand short stories in the last three years, and continue to be fascinated by them. There’s no one “right” way to do it, and I’ve come to like stories so disparate that (hopefully) no one influence is too discernible in my own work (except, probably, Alice Munro). What I find that reading does do is remind me how it feels to be a reader, and keeps fresh that feeling of disappointment when characters, scenes or (especially) sentences don’t pay out; I often catch myself revising as I read, saying “I’d have said it this way.” It’s like a passive(-aggressive?) form of writing practice, I guess.       

15. What are you reading right now?
I want to mention two books I recently finished, Canada by Richard Ford and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, because they’re two very accomplished contemporary novels, and big books that don’t feel at all unwieldy. And as I write this, it’s Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart – funny and clever story of a loveable loser, set in the new future. I’m enjoying it.  

Ravenous Reader is a regular series.

May 13, 2013

Ravenous Reader #3

Dan Murphy is author of The Amazing Adventures of the Dispatch Rider.

1.  Do you have an early memory of learning to read?
Yes, I'm at home, and my mother would ask me to read something and then quiz me on what I remembered about the story. And I couldn't tell her because I didn't know anything I had just read.

2.  Have you always been an avid reader?
No. My avid reading started in my early twenties.

3.  How do you decide what to read next?
I go to the book store or library. I will switch genres if I can, almost every time.

4.  Do you have any reading rituals that you follow? 
No, I read mostly on transit and would hate to think what would happen if I could afford a car. Ha!

5. What makes a great story or novel?
For me, it's leaving out a lot of detail because that just bogs me down and makes me tired. I like a fast paced story.

6.  Do you have a favourite genre?
No. I read all kinds of books.

7.  Who was the first author you fell in love with? The last?
That would have to be Hunter S. Thompson. The last would be J. K. Rowling.

8.  What classic or well-known book have you never been able to get through?
This is a bad one because I rode a motorcycle for seventeen years, but I could never finish Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I think I tried three times.

9.  What book or books do you reread?
Books that I read a long time ago and just can't remember. A book like W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe. Kinsella's words just went to the centre of my brain. I heard it, when I read it.

10. Do you have dry spells where you stop reading or read very little?
Rarely, but I almost always have something set up for the next one or go to the library if I don't. 

11. How do you organize your collection?
I don't; they're everywhere. I've always said that if I ever buy a house, I'll put them all on shelves. 

12. Do you enjoy recommending books to others? What criteria do you use?
I do like passing along a book, but usually I'll know the person and will already have a sense of what they like.

13. You host a dinner party for five authors (dead or alive). Who’s invited?
Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Paul Brickhill, Pierre Burton, and Charles Dickens. 

14. Do you write? If so, how does reading influence your writing?
Yes. I think my writing is influenced (subconsciously) by just reading so much and hopefully learning structure that way. 

15. What are you reading right now?
I'm reading an autobiography by Rob Lowe who has some great stories to tell.

Ravenous Reader is a regular series.

April 25, 2013

Muriel Barbery

Excerpts from The Elegance of the Hedgehog:

The Great Work of Making Meaning

"There is always the easy way out, although I am loath to use it. I have no children, I do not watch television and I do not believe in God - all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease. Thus, as I have neither future nor progeny nor pixels to deaden the cosmic awareness of absurdity, and in the certainty of the end and the anticipation of the void, I believe I can affirm that I have not chosen the easy path."

Profound Thought No. 9

". . . this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what's worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy. . . . As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone."

Profound Thought No. 15

"You know what? I wonder if I haven't missed something. A bit like someone who's been hanging out with a bad crowd and then discovers another path through meeting a good person. . . . Sigh. I don't know. This story is a tragedy, after all. 'There are some worthy people out there, be glad!' is what I felt like telling myself, but in the end, so much sadness! They end up in the rain. I really don't know what to think. Briefly, I thought I had found my calling, I thought I'd understood that in order to heal, I could heal others, or at least the other "healable" people, the ones who can be saved - instead of moping because I can't save other people. So what does this mean - I'm supposed to become a doctor? Or a writer? It's a bit the same thing, no?"

April 9, 2013

Making Maple Syrup at Maplewood

My dad has been making maple syrup on the McArthur lot (in Ottawa) for the last twenty-five years. I visited in March and helped him make batch #4. During the day, I engaged my dad in a little Q&A about the maple syrup process.


How did you learn to make maple syrup?
I watched Walter (our neighbour) making it. He showed me how to drill the holes, and I read some articles about the process.

What makes a good maple syrup tree?
Good sap producers are at least 10" in diameter (the trunk) and have a large crown (upper part of the tree).

Collecting Sap

How do you know when it's time to tap the trees?
I don't keep track of dates but usually the end of March, earlier if there's a warm snap. This year I got started around the 10th. 

How many buckets do you hang?
I used 9 buckets in the beginning. This year, I'm up to 17 because it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.


How long does 1 batch (about 6 pints) take to make?
It's a day's work. I fill garbage pails full of sap, heat it up in two pots (on burners) in the garage, and then pour the warm sap into two pans on the firepit in the laneway. I just keep transfering from pail to pots to pans all day until I've run out o' sap. 

How many batches do you make in a typical year?
It all depends on the weather fluctuations, but usually three or four. I may cook up a fifth batch next week as it's supposed to go below freezing and back up again. It's been a productive year because I've persevered. (Batch #5 was made five days later.)

Pot to Pan

What do you enjoy most about the process?
It's fun to get out of the house, especially in the spring after you've been cooped up all winter. You get out in this beautiful sunshine - it's great.

Would you call this a one-man operation?

Sap to Syrup

What is most challenging about making maple syrup?
Well physically, it's chopping all the wood. But other than that, getting it off (the fire) at the right time so you don't overcook it.

Have you ever overcooked the syrup?
Yes - the day it all burned. It was almost ready, but I went inside and got side-tracked watching some crappy TV show, and when I came out the whole pan was just black. It had boiled down to the the point where the sugar caught fire, and the pan was like tar. It took a long time to clean that pan up, son of a bitch (laughs). We finally did and were back in business, but that was a whole day's work gone up in flames. No fun at all.

Filter Set-Up

How do you know when to stop cooking the syrup?
I can tell by the look of the bubbles in the pan; they should be a caramel colour. And by the thickness of the syrup. It's better to take it off a bit earlier than later, as I can always cook it a bit longer inside on the stove if I need to. 

What's next after it's off the fire?
Time to dump it through the filter, at least twice, usually three times to get rid of what your mum calls "sand". Another mess-up happened one year before we had these factory-made filters. Mum thought she could make a filter, and she already had some black felt. These white ones are even made out of felt. Well, when we poured the hot boiling syrup through the black one, all this dye got washed into the syrup and, lo and behold, we had black syrup - not very appetizing at all (laughs). That was bad news; another day gone. You spend all day - boiling, boiling, boiling, cutting wood, feeding the fire, and whatya got? Dead syrup. So that was a bad day... but today is going to be a good day.

Pot to Jars

After filtering, what's left to do?
The syrup is pretty well ready to bottle after that. I sterilize the jars in the oven and boil the rings and lids on the stove. The trick is to keep the syrup warm for easy pouring. 

Where do you store maple syrup?
Well, I used to keep it in the cold cellar in the basement, but your mum didn't like that, so any batches from years past are now in the freezer in the garage.

Batch #4

What determines the colour variations from batch to batch?
Depends on how long it's cookin' on the fire. The longer it's cooked, the darker it is. But also, each batch in a season becomes a bit darker than the last.

How would you rate this year's syrup?
Most excellent. I think batch #3 is the best I've ever made.

Happy Sap

It was a great day, and I was able to bring some of the #4 Julie Dad batch back to Toronto for syrup loving friends. 

March 16, 2013

Ravenous Reader #2

Carolyn reads voraciously in Ottawa.

1.  Do you have an early memory of learning to read?
No, not really, but once I got my first library card around the age of eight, I never looked back. My mother told me I was reading words from the newspaper at age four, and of course, my parents read stories to me. 

2.  Have you always been an avid reader?
Extremely so! I was an only child, very shy, and books were always a comfort to me. In public school (grade eight) students were required to read a minimum of five books per year and give a book report on each during class. Every student had a page in the teacher's notebook, recording the book title and date read. By the end of the school year, I'd read fifty-three books and the teacher said I needed a notebook just for my books. Obsessive, or what?

3.  How do you decide what to read next?
It depends on my mood or how I physically feel. If I'm not feeling well, I'll read a book that doesn't require a lot of concentration (a pocketbook I can finish in a couple of hours). When I feel really well, I'll read historical trilogies or complicated murder mysteries.

4.  Do you have any reading rituals that you follow? 
I like to go to bed by 9 or 10pm and read fiction books every night until 1 or 2am, although I have been known to read until 4am (not recommended!) I only read non-fiction or magazines during the day. My bedroom is my sanctuary, and I can't sleep without reading first. The norm is to fall asleep with the light on, glasses on my nose, and the book upside down on my chest.

5. What makes a great story or novel?
It should have a great plot, amazing characters, be fast paced, and grab your attention during the first few pages. Continually falling asleep over a book means it's boring boring boring, or badly written and not worth my valuable reading time. I usually return such books to the library the next day. I should point out that quite a few of my rejects have been Giller Prize winners!

6.  Do you have a favourite genre?
Absolutely not! I read just about anything that catches my eye, mainly historical fiction but also erotica, thrillers, adventure and even vampire stories. As far as non-fiction goes, I own a lot of cookbooks, gardening, and how-to books as well as obscure books on things like ancient Egypt, medieval Great Britain, archeology, and the Roman Empire. I think I see a pattern here! I do love historical facts and I do learn a great deal, even from fiction books. At the oddest times, I seem to pull strange snippets of information from my brain during a conversation with someone.

7.  Who was the first author you fell in love with? The last?
Zane Grey, when I was very young, and the last authors I loved were Diana Gabaldon, Manda Scott, Jack Whyte, Lora Leigh, Nora Roberts (J.D. Robb), and Clive Cussler.

8.  What classic or well-known book have you never been able to get through?
The Sentimentalist because I spent all my time going back and forth to figure out the storyline. I even kept reading to the halfway mark but finally gave up and took it back to the library. I dislike Margaret Atwood books, although I may be in the minority.

9.  What book or books do you reread?
Very few fiction. I do plan, however, to reread Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, Manda Scott's Boudica series and Jack Whyte's King Arthur series. I mainly reread non-fiction such as history, cookbooks, and reference books.

10. Do you have dry spells where you stop reading or read very little?
Never, never, never! I would have to be dead, and I do hope there's a great library when I reach the pearly gates. To make sure I never run out of books, I have boxes and boxes of them under the bed, in the basement, and in multiple bookcases around the house. I guess I really am addicted.

11. How do you organize your collection?
I don't (see question 10). My family tells me constantly that I am totally disorganized, which I am, but I do seem to be able to find certain books when I want them. My cookbooks, gardening, how-to, and medical books are grouped together on the bookshelves by type, but fiction is impossible. I only read these once and then donate them to a thrift shop. I do need to thin out some of my over 100 cookbooks, and I would use typed labels on shelves if I ever get motivated enough.

12. Do you enjoy recommending books to others? What criteria do you use?
Sometimes, if I really feel strongly about a book, but I don't do it very often as everybody has their own favourites.

13. You host a dinner party for five authors (dead or alive). Who’s invited?
Would never happen. I prefer to worship my favourite authors from afar. Besides they are too numerous to count.

14. Do you write? If so, how does reading influence your writing?
No. I do, however, recognize great writing when I read it! There are many published novels that never should have seen the light of day. Tip to writers: check your grammar and punctuation thoroughly, and get a good editor!

15. What are you reading right now?
Until the Night by Giles Blunt. 

Ravenous Reader is a regular series.

February 18, 2013

Ravenous Reader #1

David is a freelance writer in Toronto.

1.  Do you have an early memory of learning to read?
In my earliest memory of reading I wasn’t even reading at all. I was still too young to know how, but I loved my earliest books so much that, if no one was around to read them to me, I would pretend I knew how to read them to myself.

2.  Have you always been an avid reader?
Always, but it took until I was 18 and moved to the city before I began to appreciate anything that wasn’t genre. 

3.  How do you decide what to read next?
There’s only one way to choose which book to read next: I listen for the one that calls out to me. A book might sometimes sit on my shelf for years before it does so. Or more than one book may call out at once, in which case I test them all until I have a winner (one will have to shout the loudest).

4.  Do you have any reading rituals that you follow? 
Once I reach the halfway point of what I'm reading, I always have my next book lined up.  

5. What makes a great story or novel?
The old standbys: character, plot, craft.

6.  Do you have a favourite genre?
I’ll read anything, from Tolstoy to Crichton, depending on my mood.

7.  Who was the first author you fell in love with? The last?
Stephen King was the first. Hillary Mantel is the most recent.

8.  What classic or well-known book have you never been able to get through?
Catch-22. I can’t remember how many times I tried to read it and was never able to get past the halfway point. I had the same experience with Moby Dick.

9.  What book or books do you reread?
Each year I reread one book that I read and loved in the past. Each year it’s different, and I only allow myself the time for one (too many unread books to read!)

10. Do you have dry spells where you stop reading or read very little?
The only time I can’t read is when I’m in the middle of a writing project. Reading other writers’ great books depresses me when I’m trying to write my own.

11. How do you organize your collection?
I’m very anal about organizing my books. I don’t go as far as alphabetical, but I break them down by fiction and non-fiction. Within non-fiction I have as many different categories as you’d find in a bookstore; with fiction I group authors, plus I have desert island categories. I could go on…

12. Do you enjoy recommending books to others? What criteria do you use?
Recommendations are easy once you’ve had some success with any given recommendee – they’ll read just about anything I toss their way. If it’s a first-timer, it takes a bit of trial and error to nail down what they might like. But I never stop trying.

13. You host a dinner party for five authors (dead or alive). Who’s invited?
Salman Rushdie, John Irving, Peter Carey, Martin Amis, and Jonathan Franzen.

14. Do you write? If so, how does reading influence your writing?
Reading inspires me to write, but once I start writing… see question 10.

15. What are you reading right now?
Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel and The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.

Ravenous Reader will be a regular series of posts.

February 12, 2013

Reading Paralysis

Not only do I suffer from writing paralysis, but also from reading paralysis - long stretches where I am unable to read anything of substantial length that requires focus and memory.

This past year I wasn't able to make it through novels. I kept short story collections by my bedside but even these were only read every so often.

It's frustrating and somewhat embarrassing as a writer and editor to have trouble engaging in longer manuscripts. It's happened throughout my life, but so has the opposite where I've found myself ravenously reading book after book.

What accompanies these dry spells makes matters worse. When I can't read; I can't write. At least not in any great capacity. I write first drafts like I read chapters, losing concentration quickly.

Recently wondering when and if this drought would break, I met a writer who is a voracious reader and a collector of first editions. I knew he admired Salman Rushdie, so I asked what book he would recommend to a first time reader of his work.

Instead of just offering a Rushdie title, he sent me a beautiful letter that expressed his gratitude and excitement for being asked. Then he went into detail why The Satanic Verses may not be the best place to start, and that most people recommend Midnight's Children, but why he thought it wasn't quite right either. He wrote about Rushdie's craft of story and style, suggested two books, and ended with...
"...try it, and if you don't like it, I always believe life's too short to chug through books you're not enjoying. There are too many others to read..."
His generous response to my simple question not only made an impression, but also gave me the courage to get reading again. He lent me The Ground Beneath Her Feet and I was nervous because I thought, what if I can't get through it.

Well, I did read the book and loved Rushdie's playful use of language as well as his beautiful storytelling narrative. I travelled through decades of rock 'n roll alongside three characters caught in a love triangle, with the Orpheus myth threaded throughout. Highly recommended!

Finishing the book, I felt excited to work on my own fiction and to continue reading. The two are always intertwined. My new friend also inspired me to start a series of blog posts called Ravenous Reader which will ask avid readers to answer questions about their fondness for the written word, book collections, favourite authors, reading rituals, and yes, dry spells.

January 21, 2013

Dive Bars: 10 Quintessential Quirks

The classic dive bar is dying. Alas, there are still a few of these fine establishments around for barflies and the curious to enjoy. Dive bars share traits that set them apart, and dare I say above other watering holes.

1. Moody Ambience

The dive bar is often a dark, dank, windowless affair. From the outside you'll have no idea what lay in wait until you push open that door. If it's your first venture in, the regulars may scowl as you look around, and you'll wonder what you've gotten yourself into (gone but not forgotten, Tennessee Bar & Grill.)

2. Unique Decor

Neon beer signs are classic decor for these bars. Most dives don't get fancy with interior design, preferring to decorate with oddities and meaningful mementos. Special touches might include a plaque mounted above Old Jimmy's favourite urinal' (still in my heart, Le Sportif.)

3. Devoted Regulars

Who wants to go out to a fancy restaurant, line up, and sit in a room full of strangers? Dive bars welcome regulars of all ages who have specific drinking times. You know who you're going to see in the morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, and early to late evening. Ah... predictability at it's best (cheers, Harry's.) Having your beer on the table before you sit down says - you've made it!

4. Cool Bartenders

The classic dive will have wait staff and bartenders with extreme personalities. There's the ones who listen to you rant and rave while offering advice, and there's the equally charming curmudgeons who after twenty years (these folk are loyal), still haven't cracked a smile. Dive bartenders don't take shit. They've seen it all and are not afraid to bar a customer, even a reg for bad behaviour. Note: you have to do something pretty awful to get the boot.

5. Cheap Booze

This lends itself to a wide variety of clientele - from the down-on-their-luck imbibers to this-is-my-last-two-bucks regs. Don't expect fancy cocktails like chocolate ocelots or gwailo flutes. Domestic pints and basic liquor are the staples. Quarts (thank you, Dominion Tavern) and frosty juice glasses are a nice touch.

6. Tasty Treats

A real dive bar doesn't have a kitchen, but it may have a giant jar of pickled eggs or pig's feet on offer. Maybe a chip truck next door or a strip club upstairs that delivers cheeseburgers and fries (thanks again, Dominion Tavern.) A spectacular dive will have a freezer full of McCain Deep 'n' Delicious cakes ready to pull out for regulars' birthdays (shout out to Georgia from the Duke of Connaught.)

7. Antique Jukebox

Every good dive bar has an old juke with a large selection (country to classic rock to punk to metal) that aims to please or piss off. An added touch... you pick a song, and it plays the wrong one. This technical surprise only adds to the charm. Some dives will book live bands - nothing like taking a spin on the floor to a cover of "Brown Eyed Girl" (sweet memories, Lockmaster Tavern.)

8. Pool Table

Great dives will own a beat up coin-operated pool table. You may not be able to find a straight cue or one with a good tip, but it's there to play. And if you're lucky, you'll witness a guy at the end of the night dancing on the table with his pants around his ankles or a bar fight where cue balls are being hurled across the room (tip to the Duke.)

9. Back Alley 

The smokers' haven. This is where you make the great escape when needed, or slink in when you don't want to be noticed returning for a little hair of the dog (good times, Beverly Tavern.)

10. Threat of Closure

This is worrisome for the devoted regulars who have not only poured their life's savings into a bar but who also depend on their home away from home for social stability (miss you, Crazy Horse Lounge.) The big guys are always looking to buy out dives to turn them into fandangle spots that resemble every other craptastic bar in the vicinity. Dive owners struggle to pay rent and with the old man (ladies included) perma-regs dying off, so do their profits.