December 8, 2013 § 4 Comments
I met Susan Toy through the Humber School for Writers online program some years ago. The first thing I learned about her was that she was obsessed with food and books. I have since learned that cats are a close third. [They may well be first...]
The other quality that made her stand out was a need/desire/talent for sharing information. I used to call her our ‘clipping service’. [For readers of a younger vintage, I'll clarify: clipping service = google alerts with scissors and newsprint.]
We connected for all of the above reasons but also because she lived on an island in the Caribbean. And so had I for a short while. We traded some ex-pat joys and commiserations in between commiserations about our works in progress.
Her WIP eventually became Island in the Clouds, a murder mystery set on the island of Bequia, which Susan has called home for close to twenty years. It begins as all island mysteries should: with a dead body in the pool playing havoc with the pH balance. Toy writes with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, a pull no punches style that shows island life from an ex-pat perspective not afraid to laugh at itself while wringing its hands at the tribulations of island bureaucracy, customs and general shenanigans. The sounds, scents and sights of island life are always just there, not too far in the background. Ice-clinking is big here…
Her protagonist, like so many ex-pats, is running away from a bad deal back home, but no one asks questions on Bequia; this is part of its charm. Days are made up of food and drink and gossip and oh yeah! the need to make a living. But don’t be fooled by the palm trees and laissez faire vibe, there’s also a lot of nastiness going on and duplicitous friendships and, like any small town, everyone knows everyone else’s business, even if they don’t always talk about it. A lot of smiling through one’s teeth. Add island politics—and this is no small thing—and the result: when a murder is committed, the question is not so much who did it but who’s willing to admit who did it. Everyone’s scratching someone else’s back.
If you’ve ever lived on an island, you’ll smile and nod your way through familiar landmarks. If you have not, but think you’d like to, it’s a good eye-opener. If you read it while on an island, even better. The mystery element is a bonus in my view. For me, it’s all about the place.
As always, in my (at) eleven series, the Q&A is followed by a menu chosen by me of a meal the book most inspires. Or, put another way, the perfect nosh while reading, because food and books just go together…
“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book
And now, may I introduce… Susan Toy, island reporter, on-line pal and oh-so-generous clipping service…
1. What literary character did you most identify with as a child, or want to become?
ST—It’s a toss-up between Harry the Dirty Dog and Curious George.
2. At age fifteen, what were you reading?
ST—Everything I could get my hands on from the library about Down Syndrome, because the daughter of a family friend who played with my younger sister and me when they came to visit had me intrigued. I thought I might like to work with Down Syndrome children when I grew up. Then, that summer at the cottage, I read through an enormous stack of Harlequin romances with a babysitter the same age as me who had been hired to look after the neighbour’s children. I know … weird. I didn’t really discover real literature until after that year.
3. Do you find there are recurring themes in your work, generally, that surprise you?
ST—The main issue that comes up, and this is mainly in my short stories, is of being trapped in a situation and not being able to get out of it. Reconciliation is another.
4. What is a favourite passage from any book, and why…
ST—Finally! Someone has asked me this question, and now I can tell everyone about this wonderful passage from Ivan Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair:
“There in the gap, Herbert whoaed the horses.
What had halted him, and us, was a change of earth as abrupt as waking in the snow had been.
Ahead was where the planet greatened.
To the west now, the entire horizon was a sky-marching procession of mountains, suddenly much nearer and clearer than they were before we entered our morning’s maze of tilted hills. Peaks, cliffs, canyons, cite anything high or mighty and there it was up on that rough west brink of the world. Mountains with snow summits, mountains with jagged blue-grey faces. Mountains that were free-standing and separate as blades from the hundred crags around them; mountains that went among other mountains as flat palisades of stone miles long, like guardian reefs amid wild waves. The Rocky Mountains, simply and rightly named. Their double magnitude here startled and stunned a person, at least this one—how deep into the sky their motionless tumult reached, how far these Rockies columned across the earth.”
This is one of the best descriptive passages I’ve ever read, because Doig put the exact words to my feelings the very first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, when I moved to Calgary in 1978. This passage still causes goosebumps.
5. What is the writer’s role in society?
ST—I attended a seminar led by Aritha van Herk in which she said that the writer translates or interprets for the reader. That’s the way I think of writers—we are translators and interpreters of experience.
6. Island in the Clouds begins with a wonderfully candid description of, and introduction to, the ‘character’ of contemporary Bequia via the book’s narrator. In this way, we meet the island before we meet our protagonist. How important was ‘place’ to you in writing this story? And the accuracy of place… versus a fictitious island, for example.
ST—Place was the most important aspect of this novel. It was suggested by early readers that the setting be fictitious, because I was perhaps a little too accurate—and honest—about the island. But I knew the greatest appeal of this story was that it was about Bequia, so I never considered telling the story any other way.
7. Some elements of island life, especially local politics, are not always shown in the best light. Islands are small places… how was the book received by locals?
ST—I’ve received mixed reviews, but mainly positive comments, mostly from foreign tourists and ex-pats who say that I’ve nailed the place and what goes on here. I believe I portrayed the general local population in a generally favourable light. I know a few (very few) local people have read the book, but no one has criticized me for what I’ve written. I was told that one foreigner thought I had been too harsh in my depiction of the police – until she was robbed and had to deal with them herself. Then she said I had not been harsh enough. (I gave a signed copy to one of the gardeners who works for Dennis, and he said, “Sue, I will cherish this for the rest of my life!” That choked me up!)
8. What brought you to Bequia?
ST—We first came to Bequia as tourists in 1989 after a customer at the Calgary bookstore where I was working suggested it as a possibly vacation spot. We were hooked from that very first time, kept coming back every year, and before we knew it we bought land, built a house, and moved here permanently in 1996.
9. Any challenges/differences writing a male protagonist?
ST—No. Geoff’s was the first voice that came to me when I began writing this novel and that seemed quite natural for the story I wanted to tell. The second novel in the series is about a woman, and I really don’t notice that much difference writing in her voice from writing in the voice of a man in the first novel.
10. Your background is almost entirely industry-related so you were not unfamiliar with the process of editing, publishing and marketing. You also developed your own imprint and chose the self pub route. I’d like to think you knew the ropes so well there were no surprises…[ but I’m guessing there were surprises]. Would you share a few?
ST—No real surprises as far as publishing, editing and marketing were concerned. In fact, I discovered that I enjoyed the publishing end of the business so much that I set up a new imprint, IslandShorts, and am now ePublishing short fiction, poetry and novellas by other authors. I will likely only ePublish from now on, with a limited edition print run to pre-sell, so I won’t be stuck with unsold stock, as I still am with the first novel.
I have to say though that the biggest surprise of all was how little support I received from colleagues in the business. NO ONE came forward to say, Here, let me help you promote and sell your book like you’ve done for me. All the promotion ideas were my own; all the attempts to get publicity were my own; trying to get distribution in bookstores and setting up events were as a result of my own efforts. That was extremely disappointing, especially as I had been promoting and assisting so many other authors all along (and still do), and numbered many authors, booksellers and librarians among my personal friends. The reason I didn’t receive equal support was clear to me in hindsight—I’d gone the self-publishing route, and there’s still a lot of prejudice about self-published books and their quality … even though everyone knew I’d done a very professional job on this book. Other self-published authors I met along the way have supported me, but not the traditionally published authors. So that was the biggest surprise of all, and I’ve kept quiet about it until now, but since you’ve asked … A big disappointment for me.
Vanilla or Chocolate? Chocolate
Ocean or lake? Both. I’m a swimmer.
Atwood or Munro? Ummm … Neither. Joan Barfoot
Pen or keyboard? Keyboard
Poetry or song? Song, because I have a musical background, but I do prefer the poet songwriters, like Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon
Mango or papaya? Banana
eBook or Paper? eBook
Matilda’s Suggested Menu for Island in the Clouds:
Turtle soup, goat stew, tropical fruit salad and anything in a glass with ice.
Lots of ice.
And don’t be shy with the anything.
Susan M. Toy has been a bookseller, award-winning publishers’ sales rep, author impresario and publishing consultant. She has recently begun ePublishing short fiction, long-form creative nonfiction, and poetry under the imprint IslandShorts. Her eBook, That Last Summer, a novella set in Ontario cottage country in 1965, has just been released. She divides her time between Canada and the Caribbean island of Bequia and blogs at Island Editions.
December 6, 2013 § 8 Comments
So the other day I was repairing clothespins.
Because, yes, I hang my clothes on a line. Two lines, actually. In good weather, outside, on a circular thingy. And in bad weather, or in winter [for everything but sheets, which go outside year-round], a line in the basement. The clothespins I use are wooden, held together with an ingenious metal squiggly [there may be an even more technical name for it that I'm unaware of]. It delights me to what is probably an unusual degree that somewhere there is a factory making these tiny works of art, that they are still necessary and that [while they're also made in plastic] for the most part they haven’t become scientifically enhanced, engineered or in some other way ‘improved’.
There are the dolly peg kind as well but I never got the hang of using them. As a child I was taught the art of laundry, using the wooden/metal squiggly kind and it would be like breaking rank… plus, to be honest, they annoy me because once they break it’s finito la musica… They can’t be repaired.
Unlike the avec metal-squiggly version.
Which brings me back to my point.
I was sitting at the kitchen table, fixing a basket of broken clothespins and thinking: well, this is pathetic. Shouldn’t I be doing something grander than this?? Shouldn’t I be at work on that next great novel, the one that will allow the world to continue turning? Shouldn’t I be penning brilliance of a poetic or opinionated nature, blazing trails in form and incomprehensible voices with short fiction, or hammering away at something entirely made up, like creative non? Shouldn’t I be painting? Or compiling something? At the very least, shouldn’t I move that bag of leaves to the compost?
And as much as logic wanted to say damn right, another part, much brighter than logic, kept insisting that, no, these clothespins were where it was at right now and that these few moments of tending to something so mundane were to be relished, that there was a gift in the seemingly ‘backwardness’ of this kind of work. I thought of my dad, a master of fixing things; he’d prefer that route any day to buying new, and it had nothing to do with saving money. It just pleased him to take the time to repair something. There was the satisfaction with the end product of course, but it occurred to me as I mended those pins that part of what he enjoyed may well have been the meditative quality of mindless but worthwhile tasks… the sort of thing we’ve gotten out of the habit of doing in our never-ending search for faster, better, easier, more—as we get sucked into thinking we don’t have time for this sort of thing in our clever-clever Jetson world—but if we’re honest we waste more than mere minutes doing a lot less of value… it’s just that we do it with things shinier than clothespins.
Anyway, the point [at last] is this: what a difference I felt once I allowed myself the luxury—a sliver of time to do this wee job—once I allowed myself the odd and simple pleasure of it rather than feeling I must always and forever be getting on to something more important…
December 4, 2013 § 23 Comments
December 2, 2013 § 18 Comments
Begin in Kingston.
Go to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in the middle of beautiful Queens University campus. [Outside, marvel at those fresh faces and wonder what the lucky buggers will aspire to.] Inside marvel at the opening installations by Fastwurms and then continue marvelling as you enter the Ruth Soloway collection—
—which itself is worth the trip. If you pick as your favourite, Jean Paul Lemieux’s Beautiful People, you won’t be alone. Prepare to zip through the sombre colours and dead pheasants of the Old Masters room, then be slowed down by the intricacy of lace, the Rembrandts, et al. Be grateful for the brains behind the short histories and various other details posted beside each painting, which increase enjoyment levels immensely. There is a room of African treasures, another of letters written in code and yet another of French street scenes.
Take a walk. Preferably by the water.
Have lunch at Dianne’s Fish Bar. Order the seafood poutine.
Avoid the 401 at all costs. Get on the scenic #33 and make your way toward the Glenora Ferry, a free service for cars, bikes, and pedestrians that runs every half hour off season [and every 15 minutes during the season]. Enjoy watching the fishing boats launch or just stretch your legs—the scenery’s delightful and the waiting time goes all too fast. The trip itself is five minutes, landing you, as if by magic, in Prince Edward County.
Make mental notes to come back and visit a thousand and one places you pass but don’t have time to visit today.
Stop to take a photograph of a toilet on someone’s driveway and discover the owner of the driveway also taking photos. She tells you that the thing appeared overnight with a note explaining how ”You’ve Just Been Tanked” is part of a fund-raising campaign. Laugh merrily but know you will be thankful for every day you wake up and find there is not a toilet on your driveway. Ask for directions to Milford and realize you are on the right road.
Stop at the County Farm Centre where you can get anything you like: appetizers, socks, winches, neon orange road crew uniforms, helmets, strawberries, steaks, slippers, train sets, bird seed, clothes lines, sweaters, boots, apples, cheese, a garden hose, note paper, sunglasses, eyeglasses, frozen shrimp, hammers…
Stop at the general store. Buy some chips.
Arrive at Jackson’s Falls Country Inn and be welcomed by Lee and Paul and a dog named Shelby. Have a glass of wine, beer or cider in the front room. Or by the fireplace. Or on the porch. Or in colourful chairs overlooking fields and forest. Listen for the sound of the falls…
Drive a few minutes down the road to the Milford Bistro for dinner… or, on a fine evening, walk. When the Chef asks if, instead of ordering from the menu, you’d like him to just bring you food… say yes, yes, YES!! He will bring you wondrous things in exactly the right amounts at precisely the correct moments, including a dollop of chocolate ice cream, cherries and slices of roasted marshmallow between courses. You will wonder how it’s possible to enjoy marshmallow. You will be amazed and delighted.
When you return to the Inn, look up. You’ll see a sky that doesn’t exist where you live.
Sleep well in the absolute silence of your perfect room.
Talk to Lee about start of The County’s food, wine and arts culture. She grew up there. She’s one of the original food, wine and arts movers, shakers and founders. She is also Mohawk and enthusiastically shares plans for putting up a few tepees on a separate piece of property for those that might like that experience [although she adds that longhouses are traditionally Mohawk, not tepees, but they're tougher logistically]. More enthusiasm as she explains the various themes, group events and dinners she loves to cater. Notice the art in every room. Notice the energy, the calm that presides even when the place is bustling with diners.
On the way home, stop at Long Dog Winery; stock up on some excellent chardonnay and pinot noir.
Stop also at Keint-He Winery where you will kick yourself for not purchasing a book on Frances Anne Hopkins, a wonderful 19th century painter of Canadian history who more or less got overlooked in favour of all the boy painters of that era. Hard to believe, I know. Order a copy from your bookseller on your return home and send Thomas Schultze and Penumbra Press a note of thanks for publishing something so clever.
Head home before the sun gets too low and blinds you.
But first, one last thing en route… because you need gas, and also because you feel like doing something corny—stop by The Big Apple for the first time in your life. Ask about the bunny paraphernalia everywhere and find out the place used to be over-run with wild rabbits. Buy a pie for the neighbour that’s scooping kitty litter while you’re away.
And one for yourself.
November 27, 2013 § 24 Comments
November 25, 2013 § 2 Comments
“As you value your life or your reason keep away from the moor.”
So reads a note received by Sir Henry, heir to the estate [worth millions] called Baskerville Hall. He’s arrived back in England after spending most of his adult life in North America. If all goes well he aims to take up residence at his new digs on the more than usually weird moors. However Mortimer [the friend who introduced him to Holmes] is worried about a big black dog suspected of killing the uncle from whom Henry inherited this delightful country home. It’s rumoured he died of fright from simply having ‘seen’ this beast. Once dead the thing began chomping on his remains. Nice neighbourhood. Who wouldn’t want to live there?
Part One can be read here.
Onward with Part Two…
“What in thunder is the meaning of that?”
This is Sir Henry asking about the above-mentioned note, which, it’s worth mentioning, is made up of words cut out from The Times. Sherlock has of course not only determined it’s from The Times but which edition of the paper… and has had waste bins in all twenty-three area hotels searched for remnants. To no avail. The only word not cut from newsprint is moor. This is in the villain’s handwriting… and will be his downfall. If indeed it is a villain at work. Or, for that matter, a he. There’s some thought to it being a do-gooder who knows of evil lurking and doesn’t want dear Sir Henry to come to harm.
More clues are the paper it’s written on [although Sherlock is pretending this is insignificant]. Ditto Sir Henry’s missing boots. One brown, one black, on consecutive days. Then the brown one is returned. Not the black. Again, Sherlock is playing casual but, being sharp as a tack, I’m taking note of all this. As for Sir Henry—he appears to be a bit of a dolt and possibly materialistic. His greatest concern is that the tan boots were new. And he can’t figure out why the thief would want only one. Oh, Henry…
Still, he’s smart enough to at least worry a little about showing up at Baskerville Hall.
Here’s how he puts it: “It’s a big thing for a man to have to understand and to decide at one sitting. I should like to have a quiet hour by myself to make up my mind. Now, look here, Mr. Holmes, it’s half-past eleven now and I am going back right away to my hotel. Suppose you and your friend, Dr. Watson, come round and lunch with us at two. I’ll be able to tell you more clearly then how this thing strikes me.”
Now isn’t that a civilized way to come to a decision? Take a quiet hour, meet for lunch, have a chat over a chicken Caesar and fries… So much better than I’ll text you.
In the end, Henry decides to risk it if Watson will go with him [Sherlock's too busy at the moment; he is Sherlock Holmes after all]. Plus, Henry’s friend, Mortimer, lives nearby somewhere on the moor. And there’s staff at the estate, Barrymore and his wife. So it’s not like he’ll be alone.
Instead of taking a cab back to the hotel, Sir Henry says… “I’d prefer to walk, for this affair has flurried me rather.”
Naturally, a cab follows Henry and Mortimer [Sherlock notices this because he is secretly following them also]. The passenger of the cab has a big black beard, which Watson sees as a clue but Sherlock says it’s probably a fake beard “… a clever man upon so delicate an errand has no use for a beard save to conceal his features.”
As Watson sets off to accompany Sir Henry, Sherlock advises: “Keep your revolver near you night and day, and never relax your precautions.”
Watson and Henry take the train, during which journey Watson notices that Sir Henry has “sensitive nostrils”. Once on the moor they travel by wagonette and are advised by police in the area that the Notting Hill murderer has escaped prison and is suspected to be somewhere on the moor. Oh crap [or the genteel equivalent]… just what they need.
Turns out that Barrymore, the butler at Baskerville Hall, has a black beard. And he’s acting weird. And his wife keeps crying in the night. And the local naturalist with a very pretty unmarried sister takes Watson out on the moor where they hear a “low, long moan, indescribably sad… the peasants say it is the hound of the Baskervilles calling for its prey.” The naturalist, Stapleton, says it could also be a bird, or maybe be the bog. “…the mud settling, or the water rising, or something.” Those naturalists, eh? Takes a lot to ruffle their feathers. The bog, by the way, is called Grimpen Mire… a dangerous place, filled with something like mossy quicksand. Horses are forever getting sucked into oblivion there.
Beryl Stapleton, beautiful sister of the naturalist, mistakes Watson for Henry and begs him to leave Baskerville Hall for his own safety. When she realizes her mistake she pretty much says oh, well, then, never mind. There’s a weird tension between brother and sister. He’s clearly pissed off that she’s ‘said something’ and even more pissed off that he didn’t hear what it was.
A problem of inbreeding… or are these two actually in the know?
Next up: Watson reports to Sherlock by letter. And the big question: Will this prompt a visit to nutsville by the great one himself??
November 22, 2013 § 7 Comments
The Hounds of the Baskervilles, right?
At least that’s what I think of every single time it’s foggy. But don’t go by me. Having never read a word of Sherlock Holmes, all I know of the sleuth and Conan Doyle’s stories, generally, are bits I’ve gleaned through… I’m not sure what means… eavesdropping? It’s how I learn most things. And somewhere along the line the Baskervilles and fog got united in my mind.
This may be a sad admission but it’s a happy day for today I am reading my first Sherlockian tale and the reason is, yes, fog, which, for years I’ve referred to as being Hounds of the Baskerville weather [no idea how this came to be]. So this foggy morning when, once again I said: Whoa, it’s all Hounds of the Baskervilles out there… I decided it was time to find out if indeed there is in fact any fog at all among these mythic puppies.
Though never cracked open, I have a The Complete Sherlock Holmes in two volumes and—on cracking it open today—the first thing I learn is that the story in question is not a story. It’s a book. News to me. There are fifteen chapters. Of which I have so far read four. I will read the rest over the weekend and report accordingly. I do this sort of thing rarely, report a reading in real time… the last being from a garret.
Right then. Off we go.
[By the way, the first thing I learn is that it's Hound not Hounds as I've been saying for eons like a great pillock. Although in the context of weather, I still prefer the plural.]
Hound begins, as most doggish things do, with a stick. In this case a walking stick. And because this is a mystery, there are questions about said stick. Watson makes a few good guesses but Sherlock pooh-poohs them for reasons he makes obvious. Watson, the ideal straight man, likes to flatter Sherlock, which begs the question: does he do this because he [being DR. Watson to Sherlock's MR. status] is privately convinced he’s the smarter of the two, or is he just a merry old soul who doesn’t like to keep score? I’m hoping it’s a combination of both.
“Some people, without possessing genius, have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”
This is Sherlock to Watson. I submit it as Exhibit ‘A’ in my case that Watson is indeed a pretty decent pal to take stuff like that on the chin.
The owner of the stick, Mortimer, has a problem. He’s to pick up Henry Baskerville, last of the [seemingly] doomed Baskervilles, and doesn’t know how to tell him the grounds of the swanky family home he’s inherited are possibly under siege by a giant black dog that renders those who see it catatonic. And then it tears your throat out. [The stick, it is worth mentioning I think, has tooth marks along its middle, as if carried by some sort of pup. Sherlock feels it's larger than a terrier but smaller than a mastiff.]
Once again, Sherlock is flattered. This time by Mortimer who says: “It is not my intention to be fulsome but I admit that I covet your skull.”
Which goes to show how our conversational skills have changed and, I daresay, declined in the last century or so… Go ahead and covet a stranger’s skull today and see where it gets you.
Another line that wouldn’t make you super popular today:
“I observe from your forefinger that you make your own cigarettes.” [Sherlock to Mortimer]
Later, once Sherlock has agreed to help Mortimer with the Baskerville problem but not yet sure how… and Mortimer has set off to pick up the clueless heir… Sherlock settles down to work out the situation, but first shuts the window to create a “concentration of atmosphere” which he believes “helps a concentration of thought”.
So that’s his secret. I always keep my windows open.