Saturday, 19 December 2015


The coolest cities, to my mind, are the ones that care least about the little rules, that bend convention to so everyone can get along. That's what cities are, after all -- vital experiments in mutual tolerance. 

Take traffic lights. This picture is of Manhattan, where the idea is to pretty much ignore lights along with all other signs, which suits the pace of the place and is strangely sensible, given pedestrian volume.  The idea of 50 people waiting on a corner for a single light to change so they can cross a near-empty street makes no sense, given that 50 more people are going to arrive every few seconds.

In Vancouver, on the other hand, the idea seems to be that rules are rules.  Lights are there FOR A REASON and you cross against them AT YOUR PERIL.  Not that you'll get run down -- drivers are mostly polite and attentive -- but you will be JUDGED by fellow pedestrians.  I have received dozens of outraged sniffs and head tosses from Vancouverites who stood next to empty streets waiting for the light the tell them to cross, while I walked towards them against the light. There'd be a large red J on my forehead if they had their way.

Maybe I'm doing them a disservice.  Maybe they want to jaywalk but lack courage -- like Chuchundra the muskrat in "Rikki Tikki Tavi," who longs to run out into the center of the room but can't bring himself to do it.  But they don't look scared.  Mostly they look accusatory.

Like the blonde lady with the baby carriage.  This was last week.  She stood opposite the Dufferin Mall, frowning at me as I ran towards her.

"The light's red!" she hissed. 
Dufferin can be busy so I'd waited for a break in traffic before hustling across the four lanes.
"Sure is," I said.
Then I got it. She was judging me for jaywalking.  This is not a usual attitude here. Toronto is mostly full of folks trying to get from A to B as fast as possible.
She looked into the stroller in front of her, then back to me.  Big dark eyes in a well made-up pretty face.  One of those zippy moms.
"But -- the children!" she said. As if this invoking of our most precious resource would make me break down and promise to sin no more. "If they see you crossing illegally, they'll get the wrong idea.  I don't want my --"  she said her baby's name here but I confess I've forgotten it "-- to cross against a light someday and get run over."
I should have laughed and moved on.  But I had a fast reply, and the words were on my tongue before I thought them through (and if I had a nickel for every time that's happened...).

"What do you think is more likely to hurt your baby in the long run?" I said. "Me jaywalking or you smoking cigarettes?"

Yeah.  I know.  I walked off, feeling not at all like a hero.  Now I was a judge too.  And, you know, I didn't like it. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

rare day in the life

So it's official.  For the first time in I don't know how long my in basket is empty.  After an eternity of struggle, catching up to demand of editors, students, teacher librarians, I am looking at a blank screen.

I am reminded of the moments when my young children were all in good places.  There was usually someone in some kind of need.  But not always.  Every now and then I would look up in the middle of my day, run through the list, and realize that all four of them were okay. Healthy and happy, up-to-date in terms of shots, cavities, homework, haircuts, clothes, and birthday presents. (Yes, I know.  No one was starving or drowning, abused or at war.  No one had cancer.  These are healthy first-worlder concerns. I was and am aware of the little-league aspect of my worry life.) 

I remember feeling - for those few hours - off the parental hook. As I do now, workwise. 

How long will this state last?  Not very.  There's manuscripts due back any day now, students to ment, and Christmas is coming.  So I must make a point of enjoying it.


Saturday, 12 September 2015

Lucky Jonah

Blogging is like exercise. I know I should get to it -- but there's always something more pressing, or fun, or ... anyway, here we are again.  Puff puff, pant.

Summer was long - amn't I right?  Long and hot, least it seemed so to me in my un-airconditioned apartment.  I had a couple of mss hovering over my desk for most of it.  The one I'll talk about now was a substantive edit that was really more of a re-write. 

I decided to tweak the hero's issue.  In this draft, Jonah (that's his name) would have a growing awareness of his gayness.  I'm always keen to write from a point of view I know and don't know.  I like to surprise myself when I write.

Being gay has never been a big deal to me.  My best friend at uni was gay.  I've spent my adult life in the restaurant business and in publishing. I am totally used to gay company.  But I wonder how I'd feel if I was gay myself?  That's what I wanted to write about -- the growing realization that there was this fundamental area of yourself that was, well, different.

I didn't have much trouble with the rewrite.  You have to find a piece of yourself to put into a character and give it conviction.  Jonah is a loser with a sense of humour, and things happen to him in the course of the story that are, well, hilarious. Jonah spends a fair amount of time thinking, Holy crap, now what do I do?  This is very much like me. 

But was gay Jonah credible? That was my fear.  I've shared time and space and intimacy with gay men and women, but I'm straight. And I grew up a generation ago.  My best gay friends are old or dead.  Being gay is still a struggle but it's easier now -- at least in the urban secular 1st world.  I needed someone young and gay to vet the story.

So I did what any parent would do.  I asked my kids for help.  Thea put me in touch with one of her best friends (whom I remember as a cute 6 year old).  Mack is still pretty cute but he's now 20-something, towering over me, formidably well read. He let me buy him a beer and said he'd read the ms and offer comment.

Good news!  He likes Jonah and the story.  Bad news! A couple scenes are really wrong. 

I just don't see why you've got him running away from the best friend, Mack told me, over the phone.  He's got a thing for the guy, he's got a chance to kiss him, and he runs away.

But Jonah's a girl now, I said.  (Lucky Jonah is nothing like the Bible.  I don't know why uploaded the picture except it made me smile.  In my story there's a magic camera that turns you into people, and Jonah has become the best friend's girlfriend.)

Girl, boy, so what? said Mack.  You get a chance to smooch your hottie best friend, you go for it.

Would you? I asked.

In a heartbeat.

So I got a chance to write my first sort-of gay sex scene.  It looks hetero, but the girl is really a guy.  (Wow, maybe I am venturing into transgender territory.)  Anyway it is a middle-school novel. The sex is pretty tame.  The only toys involved are from Mattel and Lego.

That was last month.  Now summer is over and the book is off at the publisher's, ready for the line edit and copy edit and ARC and second ARC and - finally -  maybe - with luck - the Indigo / Amazon warehouses, and the indie bookstores, and classrooms.  Keep your eyes open for Lucky Jonah.

Hey, anyone going to be at the Telling Tales Festival?  I'll be there, tagging along with a stellar line up.  It's in Westfield heritage Village, Rockton Ontario on the 20th - a cool time guaranteed.  Heres the website:

 Ok, I feel fitter now. See you next time I feel the need to exercise.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

can't see the forest for the trees...

The last months of the school year went through me like green corn.  Travelling all over Ontario (well, southern Ontario) thanks to the Forest Of Reading.  There were festivals in Thunder Bay, London, Toronto, Mississauga, and Oshawa, and I was there for each one, smiling, nodding, signing books, and making speeches and presentations.  That picture was taken in Peel, I think. You can't see me but I'm there in the front row.  Did I have fun?  Yes.  Would I do it again?  Totally.  Next month?  Well, maybe I'd wait a bit.

A Forest Of Reading nom does more for book sales than just about anything else in Canadian kid lit.  So many schools are on board, so many librarians order your book ...  it's like a Scholastic Book Fair times 500 schools, and you actually make some money. I'm pleased that the selection committee liked Zomboy enough to include it this year. 

You don't have to win the award -- the winner doesn't make any money or sell many more copies.  Simply being on the short list is a victory.  Which is just as well.

Winning any award is a bit of a crap shoot.  The right judges, the right timing, the right book.  People's choice awards are an even purer crap shoot because the judges are regular folks instead of professionals.  Denominators are lower, emotions are higher.

What kind of authors win readers' choice awards?  Cool ones.  Young ones.  Judges like to vote for people like themselves - which makes sense.  But more important than who you are is what you write.  Most kid authors are neither young nor cool, and some of them win.

So, what kind of stories win?  The tear-jerker about a tough kid making her way against the odds is a good bet - especially if her dog or sister dies.  The action-packed adventure might win, if the world is in jeopardy and our protagonist has a cool weapon.  Adventure and sentiment rule. 

Man, I wish I could write that kind of story.  But you have to believe and care about what you write, and I, well, I can't care about that stuff.  I don't mind reading it, but every time I imagine writing about a dog (or sister) gazing at me with liquid eyes as they breathe their last, I start to giggle.

Want to know what doesn't win, no matter how the dice roll?  I'll tell you.  What won't win is a story about zombies that is really a riff on racism and school bussing, where the overall tone is funny quirky and the ending is left kind of vague.  Don't write one of those.

Sadly, I did, and so I was not the winner of the Red Maple Award this year.  I didn't win in Thunder Bay.  Then I didn't win in London.  Then I didn't win in Toronto, Peel, Oshawa.  The picture up there does not show me winning.  It might have been one of the times Eric won (adventure, cool weapon) or Rona (dead children).  I spent the end of the school year not winning the award.

Sigh.  I got used to it.

Am I glad to have been on the short list?  Yes.  Would I do it again?  You bet. Will I write an easier-to-like book for next time?   I'll try, but I haven't written one of those yet.  Don't bet on me.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Snow Day!

Free day!  I was supposed to drive to Montreal to visit Ed who goes to school there, but scheduling and illness dropped from a great height and the cancelled the trip.  So I have - get this - NOTHING required of me today or tomorrow.

Ahhhh.  This is stolen time, time away from the world.  Fire from heaven.

Don't get me wrong -- I miss Ed immensely, would LOVE to see him.  And what with editing two books and writing a third, juggling irate editors like chainsaws, I have TONS of stuff to do.

How odd, then, that my response would not be regret at missing my son or grateful and diligent application to my legitimate tasks. No, I want straight to the kid place:  Snow day!  Woo hoo!

I wonder if this is a human thing or a Scrimger thing?  I remember way way back, slaving away on a project due the day after tomorrow, worrying like hell because I wasn't likely to finish in time, and when the deadline got extended by a week, my first action was to go to a movie.

Do prime ministers respond this way to unexpected gifts of time?  Do tycoons or saints or scientists?  Or is it only us irresponsible artist-kid types?

I'm not entirely stupid -- I know that time is never GIVEN but only loaned at interest.  There'll always be more stuff to do, and even less time to do it.  But I can't help my feeling of relief right now.

I should phone Ed (actually that'll be fun) and get back to my book.  I know I should.  But maybe I'll put on another pot of coffee and savour my freedom for another few minutes.

Monday, 23 March 2015

something different

I didn't ever come back to the time at the Sharjah International Book Fair last December, where I sat on a panel very much like the one in the picture, with the Minister of this and the Professor of that and a moderator with a frown you could build a temple on.  Serious moderator.   Our discussion was titled: The Nectar Of Meaning, a topic so, um open (that is to say, meaningless, not to say stupid and hilarious), that I spent no time in preparation.  There were TV cameras and translators and an actual audience, and the other panelists pulled out sheafs (or sheaves, like bringing in the sheaves?) of notes, and I sat there, mesmerised by the moderator's lowered mono brow and note taking which was in Arabic (duh) and backward - that is, right to left (also duh. I don't get out much).  I actually stared down at the hand and thought, Cool.  I am such a doofus.

The other panelists spoke first. They used the phrase nectar of meaning a couple of times.  The prof got especially worked up about it.  Thing is, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.  I had a translation, all right, but the concepts were so abstract, the sentences so laboriously constructed and hard to decipher that nothing registered in my ear.  They might as well have been saying blah blah blah blah nectar of meaning blah blah.  Half an hour later the darkness was still total.  Then it was my turn.  The moderator wanted to know what I could add to my fellow-panelists' analyses.

I started my own talk with the phrase, And now for something completely different.  Then I told some stories and hoped for one of those scene missing slides. 

The reason I remember this Sharjah moment now, months later, is that I went through a similar experience last week. 

I was part of a quarter of writers at a genre-type literary event.  Now, I have no issues with genre writing -- I read a lot of detective stories and fantasy.  But for all my metaphysical speculation I don't write genre (unless you figure that all writing is one genre or another - which I kind of believe.  The tropes of fantasy - elves and swords, quests and curses and magic rings -- are not much different than the tropes of serious literary fiction --  exotic older love interests, mentally troubled siblings, sexual secrets).  Anyway.  I listened to these talented folks reading about magic and the coming of the Star Cats, about fae and their non-human heroines, and I applauded along with the rest of the audience.  And then it was my turn, and I opened my spiel with:  And now for something pretty darn different.

Thursday, 5 February 2015


I am no longer going to apologize for blogging infrequently.  Yes, I could be more diligent.  I could also be taller, cuter, richer, and better groomed.  But I'm not so, well, what the hell?  Yeah, that's my defence: the WTH defence.  (I wonder if that would work on a murder charge?  Yeah, your honour, I killed him, but, you know, what the hell? )

Tons of stuff has happened.  Chanukah, Christmas,Kwanzaa, New Year's, Martin Luther King Day, my youngest's birthday.  Tons.  I can't remember New Year's -- I must have had too much fun.  (I can't remember MLK Day either.)  I've been to Florida to visit my dad.  I've been to a bunch of schools to talk about stories.  I've finished editing my magic camera book.  And I've had a haircut. 

Gonna talk briefly about humour today.  Kind of my bread and butter, since I tend to write funny-ish books (that's my story, anyway).   Is anything off limits for humour?  Off the top I'm going to answer, No.  You can tell a joke about anything.  Yes any subject.  But for me to find a joke funny, it can't be mean.  Tasteless, stupid, pointed - sure.  But not mean.  

I like to push boundaries a bit, to shock or surprise the reader or listener.  Without surprise there's no humour. The whole point of the joke is the unexpected element.  When the grasshopper hops up onto the stool and the bartender says, Hey there's a drink named after you, and the grasshopper goes, Really, there's a drink named Bob?  we laugh (maybe not anymore --  it's a pretty old joke) because we don't expect the bug to have a human name.

Shock can be funny -- Robin Williams' favorite joke features incest, and the shock is part of the humour. There's the one about the homicidal pedophile taking the little boy into the woods -- that's pretty funny too.  When I was a kid we'd roll on the ground laughing at dead baby humour. These jokes are not mean.  If some people find them offensive, that says more about the listener than the joke.  I'm happy to ignore any response that begins:  How dare you ... 

BUT is there a funny racist joke? Is there a funny joke that makes fun of the way some people speak? Not to me.  Because they're mean jokes.  I happen to think Leminy Snickett is a smart and talented guy, and I have tons of sympathy for an emcee trying to be funny and grabbing what he thinks is an easy laugh (I have done this myself - and got in trouble for it).  But that joke at Jacqueline Woodson's expense is a loser because it's kind of mean.  If Leminy were African-American it would still be a lousy joke because it makes fun of a stereotype, and that's not good. Mort Sahl standing up halfway through the premier of the (very long) movie Exodus and shouting at the director:  Otto, let my people go! is funny because he is making fun, not of a stereotype, but of something that happened to the Jews.  So, Holocaust humour - sure. But jokes based on how Jews, or any group of people, are perceived will be a harder sell.  That's victimizing.  You'll have to really surprise me.

Is there a funny Ghomeshi joke?  I'm going to say it's possible.  Because the only one you'd be victimizing is him, and he kind of deserves it.