Raymond Holmes was born and raised in the east end of Toronto and lives in Brampton, Ontario. Following careers in Industry he started writing upon retirement.
Ray started by writing plays and met with some success. Boris and Herman, The Pooman and The Lonely Vigil Of Emily Baxter were performed at the South Simcoe Theatre in Cookstown, Ontario each earning a modest honorarium. The last play listed went on to greater success, winning third prize plus a performance in the 2013
Ottawa Little Theatre playwriting contest.
He is the author of Witnesses And Other Short Stories published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2019 and A Barber’s Son, Recollections Of Growing Up In 1950’s Toronto published by Eleventh Street Press in 2020. He has had work published in The Northern Appeal, a bi-annual Simcoe County literary journal, Meet Me At The Four Corners, an anthology published by the Brampton Writer’s Guild and Unleashed Ink II, an anthology of short stories and poetry published by the Barrie Writers Club.
He has been happily married to Mary for over thirty-two years and has maintained a lifetime love of classical music and wood working.
Ray, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. I’d like to talk about your writing and your books Witnesses and A Barber’s Son.
KP A Barber’s Son is clearly autobiographical in scope but how did you arrive at all the recollections? Did you have notes from way back then? Any research done about the era? Did you tap into the memory of any of the people mentioned?
A. I experienced all the things written about in the book and remember them clearly in spite of the incidents happening so many years ago. The only notes are in my head. A number of the events I wrote about were formative or dramatic enough to make a great impression upon me and I thought the recollections and the era of the 1950’s might be of interest to others. The challenge from a writer’s standpoint was to make them interesting and I hope I have achieved that since I am not a famous or well-known person. I did ask my mother, sister and brother questions about our family history and their own lives, but out of curiosity at the time and not for literary purposes. I researched the family genealogy as much as I could, but there are many gaps, particularly with respect to my father’s life and family, and my mother’s ancestors. This has been frustrating. I wish I’d asked my mother many more questions when she was alive. I did research on the era mainly to ensure some dates mentioned were correct and on my childhood neighbourhood to ensure details I remembered about the area were accurate. I also referred to family records in my possession. Aside from family members I had no contact with any of my friends, neighbours or acquaintances from those days. I expect the majority of them are gone now and since some references to characters mentioned in the recollections may be unflattering, I changed many of their names to prevent embarrassment to them, or their descendants.
KP. Witnesses and Other Stories is a departure from an autobiography and is sci-fi and futuristic in plot and theme. What made you want to write stories like the ones in this book?
A. Only five of the twelve stories are what could be called sci-fi or futuristic in plot, but they do form almost half of the total. The others are a mix of slice-of-life and fiction taken from personal experience or derived from other ideas. I have always enjoyed the sci-fi and futuristic genres. Sci-fi movies, horror films, and programs such as The Twilight Zone were favourites of mine as a young person so I tend to gravitate to the abnormal and supernatural. I like stories with mysterious, perhaps unexplained endings leaving the reader to think. After all, life itself is a mystery and there is still much to learn about the world and universe we live in.
KP. At what age did you start to read? Write? Were you a precocious reader?
A. The first reading I recall with any clarity is the primary grade readers featuring Dick and Jane, and a history book titled Breastplates and Buckskins. We didn’t have many books at home and my mother didn’t read to me so my other early reading included theme cards sold in packages with bubble gum and comic books of all sorts from ones with cartoon characters to the Classics Series telling stories like Last Of The Mohicans, Moby Dick and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Later, I patronized the library to read books on science, history and some classics. I wouldn’t call myself a precocious reader, but I did read regularly and enjoyed it. Aside from writing for work purposes, I didn’t attempt any of my own until I retired in 2012.
KP. Growing up in the Toronto of the 50’s was a far cry from what it is today, with its multicultural and ethnic make-up. How do you feel about this massive change in the composition of the city?
A. I think it’s wonderful. Back then, Toronto was culturally bland with Chinatown the standout exception for cuisine other than meat, fish and potatoes. The overwhelming majority of the population was white Anglo-Saxon protestant or catholic and there was widespread overt and covert racial, cultural and ethnic prejudice. I grew up immersed in it. Things started to change with the influx of European immigrants after the Second World War and to state that the Italians built much of post 1950 Toronto might not be too much of an exaggeration. Subsequent streams of immigrants from the Caribbean, India, other parts of Asia and numerous other countries have enriched the life of the city with their food, talents, art and energy. I love Indonesian and East Indian cuisine. Toronto is a totally different place from that of my childhood and better for it.
KP. What authors and books have influenced your work? Any Canadian authors in there?
A. Wow. Where to start. I think I’ve been influenced at least to a small extent by everything I’ve read and I admit my interests are wide, perhaps too much so, because I don’t read as much fiction as I should for a person who wants to write fiction. Stephen King would be near the top of my list for the originality of his ideas and scope of his imagination. In younger years I read Ray Bradbury and Issac Assimov. I like the fiction of Dennis Lehane and Ken Follett. I read a lot of history and like Eric Larson. I find the special interest books of Bill Bryson pure enjoyment and recommend The Body and A Short History Of Nearly Everything. For Canadian authors, I like Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry, Margaret Lawrence and Carol Shields to name a few. I just finished Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom and A Crack In Creation by Jennifer Doudna which have influenced a futuristic novel I am working on.
KP. When did you first realize that you wanted to write?
A. When I retired in 2012. I spent my working life in technical sales and technology and did a lot of writing for business, but didn’t engage in any form of artistic expression aside from some wood-working. Upon retiring I decided to do different things. I took violin lessons, and delved into furniture making. My entry into writing was via playwriting, of all things. I have always enjoyed the theatre and one day a “what if” idea hit me out of the blue and after researching how to write a play from the structural/manuscript formatting aspects, I wrote it. A community theatre took it up and I wrote several additional plays, two of which were performed. It is difficult to get plays staged so I turned to other writing. Starting with the oft-repeated advice “write what you know,” I began writing the recollections of my childhood in the 1950’s which eventually became A Barber’s Son years later. At the same time I started writing other standalone short stories a number of which ended up in Witnesses. I have adapted several of the plays to short stories.
KP. How long did it take you to write the stories in Witnesses and how long for A Barber’s Son? How long to get them published? Has writing gotten any faster and easier for you since writing those books?
A. I wrote the stories in Witnesses, over a period of about six years. A couple are condensed and adapted from pieces which form A Barber’s Son. The published process took from the early spring of 2018 to the early summer of 2019. The recollections in A Barber’s Son were mainly written over a period of seven years. Adding some chapters, re-writing, revising, editing and self-publishing under the banner of Eleventh Street Press was my Covid 19 Project and took eight months. I don’t think writing these books has made the process any easier or faster, but studying the craft and working at it hopefully has improved the quality.
KP. Is there a favourite among all the stories in Witnesses? Why is that?
A. There are several I have a soft spot for and it is difficult to pick just one. I like Gaba’s Violin and Witnesses because the idea of objects taking on essences of their owner’s spirits fascinates me. I guess if I have to choose one it would be Death’s Door. This started off as my second play titled The Lonely Vigil Of Emily Baxter and was a prize winner. I adapted it to the story Death’s Door. I like imagining “what if’s” as ideas for stories and the idea of a person locking themselves away because they are obsessed with death waiting to take them intrigued me.
KP. What was the hardest story in Witnesses to write? Why was that?
The hardest one to write was A Few Minutes To Eternity. The idea came from an article I read about Ronald Turpin, one of the last of two men to be executed in Canada. It was difficult to write as I had to imagine what waiting to be put to death would be like for a person from an emotional standpoint and the thoughts that would go through their mind. A person in that position would be frightened of course, but would a murderer facing death have regrets about the life they’d lived and the things they’d done to bring them to this point? Would their early life have made them what they were? I think the answer to the last question likely would be yes, and I wanted to explore that aspect. I also had to find a balance between creating a unlikeable character, yet one whom a reader might find some sympathy for. It too, started as a play. I thought it would make a great, intensely emotional play with a simple stage set, but no theatre dramaturge agreed. Disappointing, but se la vie. Rejection—the author’s lot.
KP. What is your work schedule like when you’re writing? Do you have a fixed routine, or do you wait for the muse to strike you, like many writers? Do you set goals?
A. I don’t have a fixed routine. It depends upon what else is going on and how excited I am about an idea. It’s a hobby and I don’t sweat it. Mostly I write in the evening, but have been doing more during the day in these times because going out is limited and I have been working on larger pieces. I don’t sit down to stare at a blank screen if I have nothing in my head for new work so I guess the answer is I wait for the muse to strike. When ideas and inspiration come to me I let them gestate in my head. By the time I sit to write they are more or less fully formed, but I do spend a lot of time revising and polishing. I like to set finished work aside from time to time to let the characters and story line talk to me. Sometimes this suggests new angles, twists or holes and confirms if the story “works” and makes sense. I do not set any goals re words/pages per day/week or target dates for publication. I don’t write for my bread and beans so I’m not concerned about output.
KP. All writers bring something of their life to their stories, whether consciously or not. What period of YOUR life do you think has influenced your writing most of all—child, teenager, young adult, adult? Can you expand and tell us more…
I would say adult. Youth is carefree and absorbed, so the influence for writing about larger issues, which is my main interest, wasn’t there. Adulthood is the time when one becomes aware of the world, the people in it and how they act. We start to think about the big picture and question things: why we are here, the mystery of life, our relationship with other humans, our responsibilities, etc. There is beauty in this world, but also a great deal of evil and suffering and everyone suffers to some extent in their life either from natural events or as the result of actions by others. As an adult, the awareness of two things has influenced my writing: the idea that we are put here to suffer and have to strive to rise above it, and the fact that there is an infinite amount that we don’t know about life, our world and the universe.
KP. Do you think it will reach the point where ideas for new plots and books will start to tax your creativity? If not, can you share your secret in avoiding this? If you think you might reach that point in future, how do you plan on overcoming this?
A. I’m sure of it. All writers will experience this at some point. I don’t rely on having new writing ideas for making a living so the issue may be more immediate for someone who needs to earn money from writing. I don’t have any deep secrets to avoid that contingency. What I do, and think it’s all any writer can do, is read as much as possible, observe the world and people around them and play “what if” to uncover ideas for plots. Talk to a variety of people from different backgrounds and cultures about their life experiences. Perhaps there are stories there. Balance these activities with time away from the keyboard to exercise or do something else which can let “the boys in the basement,” as James Scott Bell calls them, throw up ideas from your subconscious. There are all kinds of other exercises and activities that a writer can do to foster creativity. Open the dictionary to a random page, pick a word and riff on it. Find writing prompts on line. Let a stream of consciousness flow from your mind and write it down, gibberish or otherwise. You might be surprised at what comes out.
KP. Some authors link their characters’ names with their role in the book. How do YOU arrive at the names for your characters?
A. An interesting question. I don’t get obsessed with finding the perfect name, but use a variety of techniques and do try to select ones compatible with the characters role as I see it. Examples from Witnesses would be Earl in Under Siege From Biodiversity or Sidney in Red Suitcase; names a little nerdy and ordinary for these characters in humorous situations. For Gaba’s Violin I selected Armin Negossian. Armin was the name of an actual professional violinist and Negossian had an exotic Armenian sound I thought might be appropriate for someone in that profession. Growing up, I knew a kid called Alvin. The name was more popular in the fifties and I thought it would be a good one for the boy in Mister Polio. For historical fiction I research names in use at the time setting of the story. I used the name Gurd for a protagonist in a story set in thirteenth century England, one common during this period. Futuristic fiction poses more of a challenge for name selection. I tend to pick exotic names that have meanings or origins in other cultural roots. An example is the all-knowing and capable android Anahita in the story of the same name in the Witnesses collection which means goddess of wisdom. In the past I have also used the telephone book to search names and the internet for lists of baby names. The latter is also useful for researching names in use in previous generations.
KP. We all like to read about heroes. Tell us about some of the protagonists in your books. Is there real-life inspiration behind them? How about antagonists?
A. In A Barber’s Son the protagonist and main character in the stories is myself as they are my childhood recollections. Definitely real-life inspiration, but I’m not very heroic in some of them I’m afraid. Childish self-absorption is more typical. My mother often represented the antagonist as she was a parent controlling my life. All the other antagonists are based on real people, but most of the names have been changed for privacy reasons. There were certainly some memorable, unique characters among them, God rest their souls.
The inspiration for the protagonist in Gaba’s Violin aside from my own pathetic scratching on the instrument are the various virtuosos I have listened to and enjoyed over the years. The antagonist in this story is the hellish experiences of Europe’s holocaust victims. In Going Home, the protagonist was inspired by my part time work as a cab driven from 1969 to 1971. The protagonist in A Few Minutes To Eternity was inspired by the experience of Ronald Turpin, one of the last men to hang in Canada and his antagonists were his father, justice and the system. Under Siege From Biodiversity was based on my experiences owning a rural home near Barrie, Ontario. The Valley Of Lost Yesterdays is based on my encounter with a real aboriginal person who was the antagonist. The experience opened my eyes to the racial prejudice and inequality rife in society at the time.
KP. What is the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process in completing the cycle for one of your stories?
A. Without question it is re-writing, revising and editing. Authors are too close to their work to be objective and even repeated readings can miss grammar, spelling and punctuation blunders. Good editing is invaluable and mandatory for quality, but having said that, I’m not prepared to spend hundreds of dollars for a return which will likely be meagre. I was fortunate to have thorough, competent editing for Witnesses.
KP. How many unpublished and partially completed books/ stories do you have in the back burner? When will they published?
A. I probably have enough completed short stories for another collection, but no target date to publish. Right now I am working to complete the first draft of a futuristic, sci-fi piece, which will either be a short novel or novella depending on the final word count. I don’t have a firm target date for publishing because it depends on the length. I have drafts completed for three other novellas. If the sci-fi piece is a novel, it could be out by the end of 2021. Otherwise I will publish it with one or two other novellas early in 2022.
KP. Is your approach to writing one that encompasses a formula that might meet your reader’s expectation, or do you write to suit yourself?
A. I don’t write to a formula, chase the flavour of the month or try to cater to the taste or expectation of readers. I write what interests me as a subject/plot to the best of my ability and have no patience with the concepts of political correctness and cultural appropriation which may put some readers off. I hope readers find some merit in what I write, but my satisfaction with the work is the first priority.
KP. Your working career, I believe, had no connection with being an author. What was it and how, if in any way, did it influence your writing today?
A. My career was in technology and sales. I did a lot of business correspondence and technical writing, but no other types until I retired. My work taught me attention to detail and to communicate clearly, honestly and accurately.
KP. Do you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, why not?
A. No. I put my best effort into the work and am proud to have my real name attached to it. That’s the point, isn’t it?
KP. What do you think are the most important magazines/journals for aspiring writers to subscribe to?
A. I don’t subscribe to any as monthly issues, but look at tips and articles of interest on Writer’s Digest and other web sites. I find good books on the subject more valuable for developing writing skills. I have several books by James Scott Bell. They are reasonably priced, cover a variety of subjects and are written in a straight-forward, informative, commonsense style I like. There are many others. It seems that one way to make money by writing is to write books about writing.
KP. Do you believe authors should go on literary pilgrimages? Why or why not? Have you been on any? Were you inspired? What did you learn?
A. It’s not for me to suggest to anyone what they should or should not do regarding their writing lives, but my view is why spend all that time and money when I can read their works in the comfort of my easy chair. If their writing on the page won’t inspire me, I don’t think looking at their gravestones, residences or the places they frequented in life will uncover something from within me that wasn’t there before. I haven’t made a trip for the specific purpose of a writer’s pilgrimage, but did visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and Hemingway’s house in Cuba in connection with vacation trips. The visit to the Frank house was a moving experience, but I didn’t come away from it, or Hemingway’s place inspired with respect to my own writing.
KP. Have you ever read a book that made you cry? If so, which?
Yes—Night, by Elie Wiesel. The book is anguish and suffering made into art. Reading it would move anyone unless they have a heart made of iron.
KP. What’s the most difficult stumbling block for you in writing characters of the opposite sex?
A. Getting the emotions right on paper. Females are more complex emotionally than men and see things differently. In my experience they are more compassionate, interact with their friends in a different way and have different values. They bear children and are more connected with raising them than men. The history of women has been filled with poor treatment and devaluation and I think, at least in some cases, this has left an imprint on the female psyche. I have seen and heard first hand of my mother’s difficult life experiences and I know how seriously they affected her. She suffered and I tried to show that and her emotions in A Barber’s Son. In a way it is as much her story as mine.
KP. Do you think someone could become a writer if they can’t feel the emotions of their characters?
A. I don’t think they can be a good writer. Feeling character emotions is the first step to writing them down. If a writer can’t get inside the heads of his or her characters where their feelings and emotions reside and convey them, the characters will be flat, colourless and in the end, unappealing to readers who won’t connect with them. We all want to “feel” characters as real people when we read about them. Show, don’t tell is good advice to show emotions to provide a more intimate experience for their readers.
KP. Assuming you always think there’s room for improvement, what’s YOUR approach to becoming a better writer?
A. As a fiction writer, I try to read books by good authors of fiction to see how they develop their work with respect to concept, characters, theme, structure, scenes and voice. I read non-fiction as well and these have triggered ideas. I read books on the subject of writing and there are numerous good ones available at reasonable prices. I try to get feedback on my writing and keep a dictionary, thesaurus and grammar reference book handy.
KP. Is there a central theme in your books so far? Is there a common message to the reader?
A. In A Barber’s Son I think there are two themes: first, the challenges facing a young person growing up and trying to find their way in the world; second, the importance of having love and someone who cares about you. The stories in Witnesses are diverse and although there is not a single theme that runs through them all, if I had to pick a dominant one appearing in a few, it is that life entails suffering.
KP. What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
OTHER: Invite me out for a drink.