While it may no longer be fashionable in some literary circles, I am a member in good standing of the “write what you know” school. There are pieces of me strewn about my three novels, though not in an autobiographical sense. I just find I write more easily and with more authority and conviction when I’m writing about things I’ve done, things I love, or things I’m curious about.
My first two novels, The Best Laid Plans and The High Road, political satires both, reveal much about my past and passions. I worked in politics for several years on Parliament Hill and at the Ontario Legislature. I’m a grammar aficionado. I play chess. I have an engineering degree. My late grandmother suffered with Parkinson’s disease. As a 15-year-old, a classmate and I designed and built a full-sized hovercraft. To those unfamiliar with my first two novels, and by that I mean the vast majority of Canadians, these seem like non sequiturs. In fact, it’s possible that they’re puzzling to those who have actually read my first two books, though I hope not. But all of these bits and pieces of my life are splayed out for all to see in The Best Laid Plans and The High Road. The other great benefit of this approach to writing is that it dramatically cuts down on the need for hard core research, the bane of many a novelist’s existence.
Fortunately, I figure there are still enough of my experiences and interests untouched in the first two novels to fuel at least a few more. So what about my new novel, Up and Down? It’s the tale of a public relations consultant trying to rekindle public interest in the space program so his client, NASA, will be able to wring a few more dollars from Congress to keep the dream of galactic voyaging alive. Where did I come up with that? Well, I think it may have started in the summer of 1969, that infamous “toss your inhibitions to the wind summer of love.” Or, if you were nine years old at the time, as I was, it was more like the “sew name tags in your underwear summer of camp.” My twin brother Tim, who, yes, was also nine years old, and I were on a remote 20 acre island in the southwest arm of Lake Temagami, about an hour’s drive north of North Bay, Ontario. We were at Camp White Bear, an idyllic place that looms large in our memories. One night towards the end of July, a special “quiet campfire” was organized in the main lodge. The younger campers were encouraged to wear their pyjamas and bring their sleeping bags. So we did. We sang camp songs and enjoyed a few Robert Service tales read aloud in the dim light as the fire crackled. Then at 10:45, when many of the younger campers were asleep, though not I, a portable black and white television belonging to Jim and Flo, the ancient camp cooks, was produced. Rabbit ears were painstakingly adjusted and a couple of rolls of tin foil were strategically added until the snow on the screen receded and an unmistakable image appeared. I was utterly transfixed. Neil Armstrong was just heading down the nine-rung ladder of the Lunar Module. As he completed each step, I would turn my head and look out the window of the main lodge to stare at the moon hanging in the night sky above Lake Temagami. Then I would whip my head back to the TV. At nearly 11:00, Neil Armstrong actually set his foot on another heavenly body. It blew my little mind.
Something turned in me that night. Something shifted. From that day, from that instant, my fascination with space has been with me, through school, university, jobs, nearly 25 years of happy marriage, two sons, and three novels. It’s always there, not usually visible to those around me. But were you to scan my YouTube viewing history, you’d see lots of space documentaries popping up.
As for the public relations professional who narrates Up and Down, well, I’ve worked in the PR agency world for nearly 25 years (ouch). So it was perhaps inevitable that my professional life would find its way into a novel. As well, one of my great literary heroes, Sherlock Holmes, also figures in this novel when the two main characters discover a mutual interest in the Victorian detective. So you see, my habit of leaning on personal experiences and interests to drive my writing is alive and well in Up and Down. Speaking of personal experiences, a highlight for me in the writing process this time around was meeting twice with Canada’s first astronaut, Marc Garneau. I was barely able to construct complete sentences in his presence. He must be used to that because he was very kind and actually proofread the entire manuscript, catching several typos and other little mistakes that I’d looked at hundreds of times and never noticed. He also gave me a great “blurb” that now graces the cover of the novel. (More about Marc in my next post.)
Before I get too carried away with the “write what you know” stuff, I should point out that I knew nothing about S&M before conceiving a particular leather-laden scene that plays out in my first novel. But isn’t that what the Internet is for?
Photo by Bre Pettis