A Few Thoughts on the Life and Legacy of Jack Layton

August 22, 2011

As a rule, I don’t blog about daily events. Things that seem important in the heat of the moment so often fade and blur with the healing balms of time and distance, and I want these posts to have longevity and relevance beyond the moments of creation. I doubt I’m violating that principle now: The world is a little dimmer and darker than it was yesterday, and I suspect a void has been created in Canadian public discourse that will never be truly filled.

This morning shortly before 9 a.m. I read on Twitter that Jack Layton had passed away. I felt like a stone had hit me between the eyes. I’ve spent the last twelve hours in a daze, reading obituaries and an outpouring of grief from Canadians across the political spectrum. Friends and foes alike, no one can ignore the dull thud of sad fact being committed to unchangeable history. Canada lost a giant today, a lion cut down in his prime after an incredible life-long story of struggle and hard work and perseverance.

I ache that Pierre Berton died almost seven years ago: Jack was his kind of character; Berton’s unwritten words of off-hand admiration –the wry twist on a matter-of-fact retelling of the improbable-but-true– would have formed a lasting tribute worthy of commemorating that remarkable breed of Canadian politician, neither boring nor crazy nor insincere.

I appreciate that many of my readers are not Canadian, so perhaps I should take a moment to give a little context: When people say that all politicians are crooks and cheats and liars who will say or do anything to get elected, somewhere deep inside of you exists a belief that there are exceptions, even polar opposites to that statement. The Honourable Jack Layton was that sterling example of what you always hoped a politican would be, could be, should be. Jack really was a dedicated public servant. He really did work incredibly hard to make things better. I didn’t agree with his entire party platform –even members of his caucus often quibbled with some of his decisions– but no one ever said he wasn’t the genuine article. No one ever said he was in it for himself. He wore his heart on a sleeve rolled-up to allow for serious effort, and he did his best to make friends and neighbours and total strangers happier through a combination of optimism, seeking the middle ground, and never letting a lesser politician get a superior quotation in the media.

Thousands of people better qualified than I have spent today talking about his life and his politics and his contribution to Canadian history. I have little to add to that, except to say that I met Jack somewhere between a dozen and a score of times, and I was always impressed that he really did care. I spent three semesters going to school in his riding, and I lived there for a year and a half some years later, at least in part because I admired him as a man and as a representative of the people: He never missed an opportunity to participate in the things that mattered to his constituents, and he never played politics with the things that shouldn’t matter but political handlers agonize over.

The first time I met him he was wearing one of those hand-knit sweaters that even Annie Liebovitz couldn’t make look flattering. A little starstruck, I complimented the woolen wonder for lack of anything better to say, and without missing a beat he said, “Well, I knew it would be cold in here.” I remember reading once that shortly after becoming leader of the NDP someone in the party ran a survey to see whether voters liked his mustache. When he found out, he called over a media scrum and said something to the effect of, “The only person who gets an opinion about my mustache is my wife, and she likes it!”

He was a straight-shooter, and when he shook your hand and made small-talk, you really had the sense that in that minute or two he cared about whatever you had to say. The only politician I ever gave my email to was Jack. Again, I’m not a party member. He was that good.

It occurs to me I keep calling him Jack. I’ve shaken Stephen Harper’s hand. I’ve met Bob Rae half a dozen times or more. I admire them both in their way, but I wouldn’t dream of calling them by their first name, let alone the familiar diminutive of John Gilbert Layton, the man the majority of Canadians would have liked to have a beer with and perhaps see as Prime Minister one day –whether they liked his politics or not.

When Jack announced he was taking a leave of absence –when he looked so drawn and thin and weary– I strongly suspected it would come to this. Maybe not in four weeks, but I worried I would never hear from him again. When Jack had prostrate cancer he said so and wore a blue tie, and he fought the good fight and he beat that damned disease into the dust; then he campaigned across the second-largest country in the world with a strut and swagger only embellished by a cane. This ‘new cancer’ was never labelled, and I’m sure that was a mercy: Jack knew he was going to go, and he didn’t want his name attached to a fatal prognosis in the mind of other Canadians suffering the same dreaded illness. I don’t know if he died of lymphoma or liver cancer or lung cancer, and I hope we never learn what finally laid him low. Fighting cancer is a life and death struggle, and Jack made the conscious decision to throw himself on the grenade and keep his death sentence a private matter, even when you could see it written on his face, hear the quaver in his voice.

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My e-book, Inca, is now live on Smashwords

August 14, 2011

Hello everyone,

In addition to Amazon’s Kindle store, My e-book is now also available through Smashwords.

For those of you with Kobo, Nook, Diesel, or Sony E-Readers, this should now work without any issues. Some of the formatting may be simplified during the conversion process, but all the prose is still there.

For those of you who are just running a search on Smashwords, apparently my book is being censored off the list for having adult situations. There’s enough sex and violence in the story that I ticked the box when they asked, but now that I know it limits my visibility I’m going to review the terms and conditions tomorrow to see if I can opt out of it.

I’ll have further updates and details on this soon. In the meantime, happy reading!

Addendum: As of September 30th, 2012, I’ve decided not to publish on Smashwords, focusing instead on Amazon.com. Cheers!

Further Addendum: As of December 30th, 2012, this novel is also available as a trade paperback at CreateSpace!

A note on my choice of spelling Quechua words in my e-book, Inca

August 8, 2011

Hello again everyone,

I thought I’d blog a little today about some of the choices I made when it comes to spelling the Quechua words, names, and places in my e-book, Inca.

Let me start off with a simple example: The holiest temple in Cuzco in the time of the Inca was called the Golden Enclosure or the Golden Courtyard; that can be spelled in Quechua as either Coricancha or Qorikancha. The first –which I use in my book– is how the Spanish Chroniclers spell the name; the second is how many modern Quechua speakers have chosen to spell it. Both are correct, of course, but I chose the first for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the premise of my novel is that the prose is being written in Spanish by a friar in roughly 1540, so I’d prefer the 16th Century spelling. For another, I find a Q without a U a jarring experience.

Before anyone jumps all over that anglophone phobia, let me give you another word: Accountant –literally ‘Quipu Master’– can be rendered Quipucamayoc or Khipukamayoq. One is the spelling preferred by Spaniards at the time of my novel’s events, and the other is a modern rendition that asks readers to use both k and q interchangeably when both are already a hard C.

To further muddy the waters of choosing a modern spelling, Quechua as a modern language is fragmented and still evolving. A standard alphabet was set in 1975 and then a major revision was made in 1985. This has been applied across a number of distinct dialects in an uneven way. If my work of fiction really had been composed in period-authentic vocabulary it would be in a language known today as Proto-Quechua. The Inca called it Runa Simi, The Language of the People, and they imposed it as a lingua franca over at least eighty tribes. With their fall, that language splintered and in many cases merged with the accents and vocabulary of earlier tribal tongues.

Look at the English language in 1500 versus today: Is Australian versus American versus British versus South African any more or less correct? Well, if I had chosen to forsake all original Spanish spellings in favour of their ‘correct’ modern option I would have had to further pick one dialect and vet all of my spelling decisions to conform to my favourite drift from the original. That would have been a lot of work for me with very little real benefit to my prose. To take a particularly glaring case as a reason to highlight and ignore a number of quibble-worthy examples, should I refer to Cuzco as Qusqu or Qozko? Isn’t that taking things at least a little too far for the sake of the good work being done to modernize the language?

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A High-Resolution Copy of the Map from Inca, My E-Book

August 7, 2011

(Click to enlarge.)

One of the drawbacks to e-publishing is that graphics do not always scale properly across all platforms. For anyone who wanted a better look at the map included in my e-book, Inca, please enjoy this high-resolution copy. It’s not an exhaustive cartographical representation of the Inca Empire, but it does include all the places and peoples visited by my novel’s protagonist over the course of his life. For anyone interested in a near-definitive map, I encourage you to hunt down a copy of the map that came in National Geographic’s May 2002 issue. It isn’t available online in a readable format, and of course I don’t have the rights to it even if it was, but it will not disappoint anyone looking to learn more about Tahuantinsuyu.

Now Available at Amazon.com and Smashwords.com!

My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Colleen McCullough

August 7, 2011

Hello everyone,

Here’s my fourth selection for my 11-part series on my favourite authors of historical fiction.

#4 – Colleen McCullough

I would like to begin by saying I have a tremendous respect for Colleen McCullough’s work, and I use that word deliberately: When I think of Colleen McCullough’s books, I always envision her work as a feat of sheer effort, a supreme focus of will and intellect and time and knowledge directed down onto the printed page, distilled and purified and refined until it is as clear and as right as a human can make it. I find myself exhausted at the obvious labour involved in her creations, and I suspect that’s how she applies herself to everything she does.

When she was a young woman in Australia she was training to be a doctor, but she developed an allergy to medical soap, so she had to switch to neuroscience. She wrote her first three books as a researcher and lecturer at Yale, and then gave up her medical career to write full time on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. She has been writing ever since, even though she is now going blind in her old age. Her life has been a series of hard choices, and I know that’s where some of her most driven characters have found their strength.

There are many other writers who have a greater dash and verve with their prose, and I wouldn’t include her among my top tier of character-driven authors, but when you read a novel of Colleen McCullough’s, at the end you have to set the book down in quiet awe that it came to be at all, and feel a warmth of admiration for the person who could make it so. If she would let me –and had I the means to do so– I would fly to her quiet home on the remote Norfolk Island and sit at her feet for a spell. I would gladly let her lecture me about her process, and though I probably wouldn’t be able to imitate a word of it I would be much richer for the experience.

Her Masters of Rome series are a revelation to a student of Roman history: Each a perfect jewel of scholarship that walks the tightrope of historical fiction with such conviction and purpose that I am left weak at the thought of it; my heart is in my throat at how much continuous effort and thought must have gone into each one. Beginning with Sulla and Marius and going through four generations to end with Octavian Augustus and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony, as he is more famously known), her series of epics –each worthy of the title of opus– encompass absolutely everything we know about what really happened during the eight decades from before Gaius Julius Caesar’s birth up to the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire. The staggering research involved in this feat includes the entire Loeb Classical Library as source material, and that is just to start! Fiction is only introduced to fill in the understandable gaps, and each work includes a lengthy disertation at its end explaining why she felt it necessary to invent someone, or explain a character’s choice as she did. For her works she was awarded a richly deserved Doctor of Letters from Macquarie University, and at one point the Prime Minister of Australia called her to personally plead with her for another book in the series. I find I cannot stomach most historical fiction set in this period any longer: She got it so close to what really happened, so very realistic and believable, that to read lesser work almost feels like an insult to the story there to be told.

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My e-book, Inca, is now for sale through Amazon’s Kindle Store

August 6, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to say we now have a working link. My book is currently the 155,423rd most popular e-book for sale in the Kindle Store. With your help, I hope to reduce that by at least an order of magnitude. There will be tons of updates and additional information in short order, but for the time being I’m just going to say that this is a big day for me. I feel about ten feet tall. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please tell a friend.

Cheers and happy reading!

Now Available at Amazon.com and CreateSpace!

My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Gary Jennings

August 6, 2011

Hello everyone,

My e-book is still ‘Publishing’ according to Amazon. I imagine later today I’ll have some good news to announce. While we wait, here’s my third selection for my 11-part series on my favourite authors of historical fiction.

#3 – Gary Jennings

Gary Jennings has been mentioned on this blog several times in the last few days. My first exposure to Jennings was at the age of ten or eleven. My father saw I was taking an interest in historical fiction, and he pulled a paperback of Aztec off the shelf and told me to read it. I refused, I’m sorry to say. At the time, I had no interest in New World civilizations. It was three or four years before I eventually read it to humour him, and I remember being stunned that my father had ever suggested I read this thing.

I should preface the following observation with the disclaimer that I love Gary Jennings’ work and I will passionately advocate any adult read it, but the author has a  peccadillo that really must be mentioned front and centre: If his characters go fifty pages without having sex, he gets bored. When you consider that his books are all over a thousand pages long, that can get pretty kinky pretty quickly. Aztec starts off with an incestuous pre-teen drug trip, and throughout the course of that book I learned more about what was possible between two or more consenting or non-consenting adults and/or children than I would have believed possible. It was an eye-opening read for a thirteen-year-old, I can tell you. At the same time, Aztec is not written from the perspective of Christian morality, and there is a lot of scandalously fun back and forth between the Mexicatl narrator and the Spaniards he is speaking to on that point. It works amazingly well. The whole story does.

Aztec is the life story of a young commoner in a small town with poor eyesight who defies his parents and follows his dreams to eventually become a wealthy merchant who travels the known world. He is a flawed man who is constantly seeking to better himself, often with heartbreaking results. Every success is won upon the destruction of something he cherishes. When he can climb no higher, the Spaniards arrive and destroy everything he ever cared about. It’s a beautiful tragedy, a slow-motion trainwreck that leaves you gasping for relief. It humbles me as a writer.

Jennings spent twelve years in Mexico researching that book, learning Spanish and Nahuatl along the way. Absolutely everything there is to know about the Aztecs is in that book. I know, because I went to the library after reading it and there wasn’t anything else in all those works of non-fiction that he had not touched on in his novel. It is as clear and as perfect a rendition of the rise and fall of the Aztecs as any historical fiction can produce, and I stand in awe of what he achieved. The characters are all memorable and touching, and even as their world unravels, you want things to work out for them. Of course it doesn’t.I cannot say enough good things about Aztec. After Shogun, it’s probably my favourite work of historical fiction.

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My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Bernard Cornwell

August 5, 2011

Hello everyone,

My e-book has moved from ‘In Review’ to ‘Publishing,’ so I expect my next post will be the announcement that it is available for purchase. In the meantime, I thought I’d continue with the second entry in a new 11-part series I described in my last post.

#2 – Bernard Cornwell

I could not in good conscious put this list together without mentioning Bernard Cornwell close to the top. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog entry, that man inspires me. He’s prolific, he’s got his history to fiction ratio perfectly adjusted, and he’s having the time of his life doing exactly what he wants to do.

He writes smart, adventurous historical fiction in both stand-alone novels and long-running series, and he does so at a staggering rate: He has put out at least a book a year every year from 1981 up to the present; more often than not he’s written a couple, and in 1995, 2002 and 2003 he published three books inside of twelve months! Can you imagine if every author had this kind of work ethic? I can’t speak with great authority about Danielle Steel, but I suspect Cornwell has to be within an order of magnitude of her prodigious output, and that’s really saying something. It’s easy to get hooked on Bernard Cornwell, and it’s even easier to get your fix. Even if you can shoot through one of his novels in a single long day in an arm chair, his current book total stands at fifty-one. He also does a nice job of jumping between his several series and single passion projects. No matter what you’re reading of his, though, you can sense the author’s enthusiasm, intelligence, and general good humour. There are an awful lot of authors whose work I admire, but who I doubt very much I’d like as a person. I’d love to buy Bernard Cornwell whatever he’s drinking. It’s a standing invitation. One of my earliest tweets was regret that the man isn’t on Twitter yet.

I am the unusual Cornwell fan who didn’t discover him through the Sharpe series. My first Cornwell book was Stonehenge, and I doubt very much that we will see a better single work of historical fiction deal with that topic within our lifetime. At its core, it’s a family piece, and the stones rose and fell based on the power struggle between three brothers and the women they loved. What a perfect way to humanize something as ancient and incomprehensible as Stonehenge. I picked it up at Heathrow airport in the spring of 1999. I have rarely had as pleasant a read, despite the cramped airplane seat.

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My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: James Clavell

August 5, 2011

Hello everyone,

My e-book’s publication has been pushed back at least a day by a formatting error that I have now remedied. While I wait for Amazon to process the corrected version, I thought I would blog about my favourite authors of historical fiction. A writer is first and foremost a reader. Reading great books eventually inspires you to write one, and whenever I sit down at my computer I know I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

I’ll confess I was originally going to put them all in one long post, but after the first four I was at 3800 words, and I didn’t think anyone would hang in there with me for a 10,000+ word blog post. Instead, you’ll get them a piece at at time. The list is by no means exhaustive. I decided to whittle my pantheon of authors down by a few simple criteria. First, the writer needs to be known predominately for historical fiction, and I am going to narrow the definition of historical fiction to include only novels set before the author’s own lifetime. Second, I am only included authors who have at least three books that I consider some of the best that I have ever read.  There are dozens of authors I admire for one or two works, but to make this list I am including only those who consistently produced triumphs of the written word. Third, I am only including authors who are either still alive or who have passed away within my lifetime. I take nothing away from the amazing writers who passed away before I was born, but I need this list to be of manageable proportions; taking that razor to my selection drops away dozens of worthy novelists whose work doesn’t need further praise from me. Finally, all of these authors are people who I know at least something about as individuals, either from biographies, interviews, or articles. Their work inspires me, but I also admire something about them as people.

With those conditions in place, I still couldn’t bring my list down to an even ten. I’m sorry about that, but eleven is just as good as ten. Better, in fact, because it’s one more! Let’s get started…

#1 – James Clavell

Any list of historical fiction authors, for me, has to begin with James Clavell. When I was nine years old I read Shogun, and it changed my life as a reader. I make a point of reading it at least once a year, and I always learn something new about the craft of writing. I have gone through easily seven paperback copies of that novel: They fall apart from reading and re-reading. Clavell says he came up with the idea while helping his daughter with her homework. She was reading a textbook that included a single sentence about an Englishman who washed ashore in Japan at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate and eventually became a samurai. “Wait a minute, go back. What happened to him?” Clavell asked, but there was nothing else about the man in the book. After a great deal of research, Clavell wrote a book that changed the way the West thought about Japan. I know it’s not hard historical fiction –Clavell changed names and dates and heavily fictionalized the true events to add apocryphal content that was more exciting– but the book is the definition of an opus for me. It has a cast of hundreds, and all of them are knowable individuals with their own perspectives, desires, motivations. At the end of that book I knew about fifty phrases of polite phonetic Japanese. It has love and war, politics and intrigue, characters in constant conflict with who they are and what they could be. People I care about die, and some who I hate in the beginning are redeemed as heroes and heroines at the end. My only complaint with Shogun is it is too short, and when you think that as a paperback it clocks in at between twelve- and fourteen hundred pages, that’s saying something.

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Why I wrote about the Inca

August 4, 2011

Hello again everyone,

Amazon is still processing my e-book, so while I wait for the big news I thought I’d blog a little on what drew me to write about the Inca.

I am wholeheartedly and unashamedly a history nerd. I love it. It’s the story of humankind, and there’s always something more to learn. The Inca are tucked away in a little-explored corner of the historical zeitgeist, and for most of my childhood and teens I had them grouped in with the Aztec and the Maya as New World civilizations that did not survive the arrival of Europeans. At some point I heard the improbable story of Francisco Pizarro’s one-upping Hernán Cortés in audacity and rapaciousness, but really the Inca meant nothing more to me than a source of the silver and gold that filled those galleons English pirates and privateers hunted throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Inca as a people were a blank to me, and I was on a Roman history kick that I’ve never really gotten over.

Sometimes it’s the little things that draw your attention to an idea that will consume years of your life. There’s a great exchange in Seinfeld where George Costanza tells Jerry that his favourite explorer was Hernando de Soto.

“De Soto? What did he do?” Jerry asks.

“He discovered the Mississippi,” George replies.

“Yeah, but they were going to find that anyway!” Jerry protests.

The delivery of that line always tickled me, and one day I decided to read a book about conquistadores to see what all the fuss was about.  It turns out before De Soto led his ill-fated expedition into Florida and across the American South he had already earned fame and fortune as the leader of Pizarro’s horsemen against the Inca. I flipped to the chapter on Pizarro, and I read two things that got my immediate attention: First, the Emperor Atauhuallpa (I should mention there are several different accepted ways to spell his name. I’m using the one that appears in my book) was the winner of a recent civil war and indeed had not yet undergone his coronation when Pizarro’s men seized him and demanded the largest ransom in history only to kill him after it was paid; second, smallpox had hit the Inca years before the arrival of the Spaniards, and a quarter of the population had died.

Right there, I knew there was something more to the Inca than just the drama of Pizarro’s improbable conquest.

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