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Racing With The Rain

CAN AN INDIVIDUAL MAKE A DIFFERENCE WHEN POWERFUL FORCES ARE ALIGNED AGAINST DEMOCRACY? CAN SOMEONE AVOID THE STIGMA OF HIS HERITAGE?

These questions are essential to the theme of Ken Puddicombe’s new novel JUNTA.

Expatriate Marcus Jacobson wants to make a difference on newly independent Saint Anglia where he is taking up a professorship but there are forces that will test his expectation. The military, under General Marks stages a coup, and Hurricane David is heading for the island.

Marcus also has skeletons in his closet. He’s descended from the Planter Class that once owned slaves on the island. He’s torn—does he have the right to get involved in the politics of the island or should he be a bystander?

The people Marcus encounters will determine his attitude to the Junta. These people include: Melanie, a student who thinks force should be used to restore democracy; Father Bert, a priest who believes in Liberation Theology; Clarence Baptiste, editor of the local newspaper who will use the media to oppose; The Reverend who runs a dirty tricks campaign for the Junta; Kentish, an islander who is a pacifist by nature and believes that events should run their course. Marcus finds himself being inexorably drawn towards Melanie and when she takes matters into her own hands, the decision is made. But, the Junta is determined to hold on to power at all cost.

Enrico Downer -Author

Rico Downer headshot

 

Enrico Downer was born in Barbados. In humble beginnings as his stories will attest. He attended multiple institutions of learning that began with elementary and secondary schooling on the island and continued to the University of Rio Piedras, P.R. and Ponce Technical as a recipient of a scholarship from the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) of the United States.

Rico immigrated to America in 1961 and did some courses at UWI (Univ of Wisconsin). He subsequently joined Value Line, an investment publishing firm in NYC and later was appointed International Correspondent with Airco International in NYC and Madison, Wisconsin.
From early, as an English major, he set about to explore the mystery and magic of literary expression, dabbling originally in poetry and later finding his niche in novels and short stories always steeped in historical fiction and drawn from his upbringing in a colonial society as well as from experiences living in New York, Wisconsin, Puerto Rico and from travels throughout the Far East.



Rico, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. In addition to your writing, I’d also like to focus on your book There once was a Little England, released in 2012.

Q. The title of your book, There Once was a Little England, is evocative of many things, including an island aspiring, once, to be like its colonial mother country, England. How did you arrive at the title?

A. Barbados has been known as Little England for reasons that could be linked to its topographical features but more significantly to the island’s strict adherence to British traditions. There is also the fact that Barbados, in contrast to other Caribbean islands, was never conquered and occupied by any other nation beside England.

Q. the word “once” in the title mean that Barbados is no longer aspiring to be a Little England?

A. I don’t think it was ever a case of Barbadians consciously aspiring to be a Little England. As a colonial possession of England, British traditions, ethos and cultural names and holidays, etc. were deliberated imbedded in the Barbadian psyche from early schooling. As I mentioned before, the island was never under the thumb of any other power but the English. Independence came along in 1966 and put a damper on those feelings of allegiance. Moreover, as I wrote in The Lure of America: In the faded light of Great Britain’s glory the children of colonialism have fallen in love with a younger and prettier face: America.

Q. Over two hundred thousand tourists from the UK, the largest segment of Barbados tourism industry, visit the island every year. Do you think this reflects a yearning for the old days by the British, and perhaps the reason for it is the acceptance of such a connection by Barbadians themselves?

A. No, I don’t believe it reflects a yearning on the part of the British for the old days but more of an affinity for customs, sights and settings that are familiar to the English. You would be hard pressed in Barbados to find a street or a parish or a building that doesn’t have a historical English name. And then add to that English familiarity the tourists’ taste of a tropical paradise.

On the part of Barbadians there is no particular preference for tourists from one country or another.

Q. In the novel, the character Ben Carson, who works for the Englishman Thorne as his stable hand, can’t bring himself to believe his master capable of shooting David Prince. Does this reflect the conflict in Barbadian colonial society on the whole, that Barbadians found it difficult to accept their white overlords as being capable of such a crime? Was this a sort of brainwashing, in some respects? Or was it a kind of awe and reverence for the white man, as was prevalent in many colonial societies?

A. In the case of Ben Carson it was a profound sense of gratitude that clouded his reasoning. As the stable hand for his master’s beloved horses, he was favoured by Thorne and afforded possessions and conveniences not available to other servants. Thorne rewarded him with living quarters equipped with electricity and running water on the Thorne estate. This indebtedness to his master is expressed in the following: How could Thorne be capable of committing such an act against a boy one-seventh of Ben’s age. He could not bring himself to believe that the Englishman had killed the boy.

But to address your question in a broader context, British colonialism in the early 20th century tended to be less brutal than other hegemonies, often seeing to it that her institutions were passed along to her subjects in the way of education, law and a parliamentary system that endure up to this day. In fact it is arguable that such benefits contributed to the undoing of British colonialism.

Q. Social Clubs like the Barbados Water Club, the Strathclyde area, and many other institutions in Barbados, were exclusive to whites only. Is there any trace of this on the island today?

A. No, those barriers have been toppled. The only restrictions now lie in whether one can afford financially to join those institutions or live in those exclusive communities. In the book the Barbados Water Club is really The Aquatic Club which exists today and which, like many other associations, may require member sponsorship but the colour barrier is today a thing of the past.

Q. In Curly’s barber shop, Henderson Cruthers, one of the characters in the novel, commented on the benefits of English colonization: Education and Rule of Law among other things. Slim, one of the other customers says: “Is independence we want, Mr. Caruthers.” To which Caruthers replies: “Bajans not ready for independence…we need England to protect us from weselves.” What did Caruthers mean?

A. The barbershop scene was meant to illustrate the differences in perception of Independence versus Colonialist rule, the perception that prevailed between the elders and the younger folk. Henderson Caruthers was from the old school and was quite content with the status quo in light of the benefits like the steady hand of education and the rule of law. He feared that the younger folk, once the island became independent and once they became controllers of their own destiny might one day weaken those institutions with which old man Caruthers had been familiar all his life. In his words, We need England to protect us from weselves.

Q. Harold Prince, at one time in the novel, says: “Bajans don’t take to the streets…we are not agitators.” Was this symptomatic of the belief that the English brought good order, or rather that Barbadians were taught to obey the colonial masters?

A. Neither. Harold was acknowledging that there was never a seminal insurrection on the island since the riots of 1937. He was explaining the passivity of Barbadians to Mickey Norris, the newly arrived from America, who had experienced firsthand the rebellious nature of African Americans in the civil rights struggles of the 60s.

Harold explained the reason Bajans were no longer agitators. When the riot was over, my old lady got a three-shilling raise from the plantation after cutting canes from the time she was a teenager. Barbados was different from Jamaica, British Guiana and Haiti in that regard. Their rebellions had resulted in more meaningful reforms.

Q. In an early episode, village boys refer to the landlord, Thorne I assume, as a “bullah man” and spread rumours about him. “Bullah man” is obviously a reference to homosexuality, (“as if the seeds of homophobia were already ingrained in their fertile minds.”) Was this homophobia really ingrained in Barbadian society back then, and is it still extant?

A. There was a certain degree of homophobia then, as it is today, in every society. But in Barbados it was always a subject for buffoonery and derision rather than for collective hostility towards homosexuals. In any case the suspicion that one was homosexual was rooted in ignorance more than anything else. The boys who threw stones at Thorne’s guard wall were ignorant of the Englishman’s sexual preference but were nevertheless eager to brand him because they needed any reason to ridicule him.

Q. What would have caused this homophobic tendency? Did religion play a part?

A. The Anglican Church (The Church of England), which was the dominant religion of the day, did not set about to espouse homophobia or any other phobia that would be divisive in the society. The Church was more concerned with keeping its flock in check.

Q. In the post independence period, like many of the Caribbean islands, tourism gained ascendency over manufacturing and processing in Barbados. Cane fields and factories became less important. Yet, tourism has its own dependency on the “new colonial masters” of Europe and North America. When these regions have an economic downturn, so does the Caribbean. Have the islands actually transferred their economic and perhaps political dependency from England to these new overlords?

A. That dependency is not unique to Barbados. Whether an island’s economy is agricultural in nature or bolstered by manufacturing or dependent on tourism, the reality is that they are all dependent on foreign exchange from Europe, Canada and America and are negatively affected when there is a downturn in those foreign economies. Barbados’ sugar industry which was at one time a gold mine ran into stiff competition from countries like Brazil and other third world sugar-producing countries. Without a ready-set manufacturing base the island had no choice but to turn to a service industry; hence the tourist trade which was always vulnerable as we witnessed in the global recession of late.

Q. The colour advantage is referred to often in the novel, in reference to the white colonial masters attitude to Barbadians of black descent. I read about a travel writer’s observation about the West Indies on the whole, where colour is stratified even up to today. Where pure whites still have an advantage over light or fair blacks (of mixed descent), who have an edge over dark blacks. He seemed to indicate that discrimination based on colour was still rampant. What do you think? And what is it symptomatic of?

A. In Barbados, skin colour is no longer the kind of hard factor that divided the society into layers as it did in the period of the book. But class discrimination may still be rampant. Blacks may still look down their noses at less advantaged blacks and whites at less advantaged whites. I describe this in the book as “the curse of classism”.

Q. The antagonist, Englishman Thorne is placed on trial for murder and the jury consists of six whites, four half-whites and two blacks. He’s found not guilty, despite overwhelming evidence. I can see that the six whites and even the half-whites were swayed by colour. But why would the two blacks have agreed to the verdict?

A. Good question! In describing the trial of the Englishman Thorne, I alluded to the captivating impression that Barrister Cunningham had on the two blacks on the jury. I can best describe it in the following passage:

Times were different now; the fracture was now blurred by the rise into the middle class of educated Bajans like Barrister Cunningham, who could cross over to defend the other side, if for no other reason than to proclaim himself a child of the new order in a society in the process of healing itself. The jurors were impressed. The two blacks on the jury were in awe of their ascendant black brother.

 Q. Was the writing profession something that struck you as something you wanted to do at an early age? If so at what age?

A. Yes, I began by dabbling in poetry which impressed no one else but one elementary teacher who encouraged me to keep reading and writing. My first attempt to join the Public Library in Bridgetown was declined by a very austere Chief Librarian who said I was much too young. (I don’t remember my age at the time). I persisted; so she placed a book under my nose and challenged me to read a whole page. In the end she relented. My first books included the British Bigglesworth series. There were no books by local authors at the time on the shelves of the Public Library.

Q. Many writers are influence by a particular period in their life. Is this how it is with you? If so, what period?

A. I am more influenced by remarkable historic events before or during my lifetime. All my stories were triggered by actual occurrences although I may stray from a true recounting of the events.

Q. Are the names of your characters in the book based on real people in the history of Barbados, or totally fictional?

A. It is interesting that you should ask this question. With a few exceptions, the characters in the book represent real people. I fictionalized the ones I considered unsavoury; but in a few cases I revealed real names. A few examples were Harry, the owner of the famed Harry’s Nitery on Lower Bay Street; Cyrus the motorcyclist patrolman, who would arrest his own mother for crossing the colour line in Strathclyde; also Piggott who owned the rum shop across from Gittens’s church. Brother Gittens was a fictional character, not to be confused with a Brother Gittens, known to me as an upright and honourable citizen in Barbados.

With regard to places in the book, I patterned The Barbados Chronicle after The Barbados Advocate. Also, as I said before, The Water Club is The Aquatic Club of those years. And of course there was no need to rename the streets and places of business.

Q. What is it in your life experience and career so far that has influenced your novel(s) and writing?

A. I would have to say my encounter with people along the way who rose up and conquered their limitations and the hurdles that lay in their way.

Q. In working on this novel, what was the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process?

A. The book is set in the decade between 1956 and 1966. I had to make a concerted effort to adhere to customs, places, and events that pertained only to that period of time.

The greatest difficulty for me was to kill off certain characters dear to me as the one who brought them to life; the ones I was sure my readers would regret their premature demise.

If your question, then, is why? Their deaths were germane to the theme of the story.

Q. How does a writer know he’s successful?

A. A writer measures his/her success by the degree by which readers grasp the significance and depth of the story. The reason that readers’ reviews are so important.

Q. Have you ever found yourself suffering from a lack of creativity, where you might have, perhaps stalled on a work in progress? If so, how did you overcome it?

A. Of course; it is the bane of every writer. I overcome it by immersing myself into a steady diet of reading. I reach out to the works of my favourite authors, even the ones I have read and reread a million times before.

Q. Is writing cathartic in any way for you?

A. The process of writing a book for me is indeed cathartic; but finishing the book is not. I often agonize over how I could have made it better.

Q. At what age did you start to read? Write? Were you a precocious reader?

A. As I mentioned before, I was at an age (which I don’t remember at the moment) when I was denied a library card at first to join the Public Library. I was thought by the Librarian to be much too young to borrow books responsibly. Precocious? Well, that might have been the opinion of the Librarian.

Q. Who’s your favourite West Indian author? What do you like most about him/ her?

A. Besides yourself of course it would have to be Caryl Phillips, a Kittitian. I like that he has lived and worked alternately in the West Indies, England, Canada and America and brings to his stories the multifarious experiences of having spent significant portions of his writing career in different cultures.

Q. What brought you to write There once was a Little England?

A. The story was influenced by a true 1950s incident in Barbados when a small boy from a working-class community was shot and killed when he trespassed on the private property of a white farmer in St. Peter. The farmer’s name was George Swayne. His defence in Her Majesty’s Court was that he mistook the boy for a monkey, whereupon the whole island erupted. The people were even more enraged when a brilliant Bajan barrister stepped forward to defend the farmer and advancing the same dehumanizing defence. That barrister was none other than Grantley Adams (later Sir Grantley Adams) who eventually became the prime minister of the West Indies Federation and ultimately one of Barbados National Heroes.
There once was a Little England is far from an actual recounting of that incident or an attempt to re-litigate the trial but is instead an allegorical fiction that borrows key elements from that historic case. The story also seeks to examine the conflict that might arise from a lawyer’s duty to a client who diminishes and denigrates his race.

But on the whole I wanted to write about the island’s travails along the road to Independence.

Q. How long did it take to write?

A. It took me nine months from cover to cover and before then three months or so to complete the research.

Q. Is there a message in the book, to the reader?

A. I was once chided by a fellow writer for not ending the story at the point of denouement where the killer was revealed to the reader. But the story was not intended to be a “whodunnit” but a story about the social ills that led up to the independence of a British colony which I covered in the final few pages.

Q. We all need a hero! Tell us about your protagonist(s)? Was there a real-life inspiration behind him or her?

A. Harold Prince and his woman Cissy Brathwaite were the principal protagonists, all victims of the racial, class and socioeconomic disparities that prevailed prior to Independence … and to some degree afterwards. Barrister Cunningham was symptomatic of the black man aspiring to rise into the realm of the privileged whites by hook or crook, even to the extent of joining with his own oppressors to negate the rights of his own people.

Q. A good villain is hard to write. How did you get in touch with your inner villain(s) to write this book? Was there a real-life inspiration for him/her/it?

A. It was easy. I drew on the true story of farmer George Swayne as mentioned earlier and the vengeful murder of a young boy from a working-class community. Rightly or wrongly, Thorne was perceived in the book as the devil incarnate. That was the way Mr. Swayne was perceived by most Barbadians of that day.

Q. What kind of research did you do for this novel and how much time did it take? What were your sources?

A. Three or four months of the year that it took to write the book were devoted to research. I consulted a number of historical references including the works of Sir Hilary Beckles, FA Hoyos, Dr. Karl Watson and Andrea Stuart, among other historians. Also the writings of Barbadians George Lamming and Austin Clarke were instrumental.

 Q. If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer, what would it be?

A. My first advice would be to write for the love of writing and not necessarily for monetary gain.

Q. 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)?

      A. Via Email: r.downer@rocketmail.com

 

There Once was a Little England
by Enrico Downer
Link: http://a.co/8PJMrQu


Rico, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Here’s wishing you all the best in your future writing and other endeavours.

Thanks, Ken. I appreciate the offer to do the interview. It was a pleasure.

Michael Joll

MJoll New Background for CS

Author Michael Joll

Born in England during the Late Pleistocene Age, Michael Joll has called Canada home since shortly after Confederation. He has held many jobs, from selling Continental Delicatessen in Selfridges on Oxford Street in London, to temporary part time deck hand and purser on a car ferry plying the North Reach of the Bay of Quinte. In between he was gainfully employed for forty years too many. Retired since 2004 (“The hours are great, the pay not so much”) he has spent most of that time writing fiction. He has been a Brampton, Ontario since the mid-1970s with a wife (his own) and the memories of the dogs with whom he has been privileged to share his life.


Michael, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. First I’d like to talk about your new book Perfect Execution and Other Stories, released this year, 2017.

Q: How long did it take you to assemble this collection of stories?

A: About seven years. I wrote the first story in the collection, “Officially Old”,  in early 2010 to commemorate my 65th birthday. The last, “The Darling Buds of May I wrote in the spring of 2016.

Q:: Is there a favourite, for you, among all the fifteen stories in Perfect Execution?

A: They are all different, in content, theme and style, so there is no discernable common thread running through the collection. Perhaps my favourite is, “The Summer I Turned Eleven.”

Q: Why is this one your favourite?

A: There are a number of reasons. First of all, I chose to set part of the story in Brampton, Ontario, where I live. I placed the narrator, Tiiu, in the house next to mine and Warren living a couple of streets over, a short walk. Then there was the subject matter – a coming of age story of a young girl becoming a young woman during the summer she turned eleven, a particularly difficult time in a girl’s life. I chose to set the story fifty years in the past – long enough ago for the angst to have died down but with the memories still sharp. Finally, I could contrast the emotions of the girl with the 61 year old woman recounting them over a cold beer on a hot afternoon.

Q: What was the most difficult story to write and why?

A: Some of the stories I wrote in one sitting, at least the first drafts. “A Handsome Woman” came to me while walking the dog. Two hours later it was on ‘paper’ in my laptop. The first drafts of, “With Regret,” “Untitled”, and “Wilma” did not take long to complete.  Others took years before I was semi-satisfied. “Death of the Bus to Lucknow” was probably the most difficult to write. It has been 70 years since I left India, and I have no memories of my brief time there. It was important to get the ‘Indianness’ right; not too much, not too little. I had real difficulty in bringing the character of Chanti, the protagonist, to the page, making her real, three dimensional, and not a stock cardboard cutout of a beaten Indian wife. I toyed with various combinations of Reshmi, Chanti’s friend, before settling on the one in the book after ‘pointed discussions’ with my editor! I think this story took me four or five years of tinkering, revision and total rewrites, including a sea change in the point of view.

Q:We all need a hero! Tell us about your favourite protagonist in Perfect Execution and why you like him or her so much.

A: I am of an age where I can empathize with older people more than the young. Martin is a weak man, fearful of violence, but makes his one life-altering decision in the face of great physical and moral danger. The unnamed Mother Superior of the Ursuline convent stands out as my favourite character in the story – strong, determined, a woman of faith and moral rectitude but with a possible flaw. She could be accused of passive acquiescence in her ‘turn a blind eye’ attitude to Germany and the war, but for reasons never disclosed she had a change of heart in helping the allies in the manner in which she did.

Q; The stories in this collection run the gamut of international locations, from India, the Caribbean, Italy, Canada, America and England of course. Are these stories all based on your visits to these settings or was there extensive research done to arrive at the background, or both?

A: I was born and mostly raised in the south of England but spent several of my youngest years in Calcutta, which I don’t remember, and in Karachi, Pakistan, of which I retain fond memories. I have visited or lived in many of the other locations in the stories. All, however, required extensive research to bring me up to date with the places I used as settings, particularly those I have never visited except through the National Geographic Channel. Thank goodness for the computer and its search engine, the Brampton Public Library, my own collection of books, magazines and videos, and for the input of so many people whom I know or have met over the past several years who have first hand knowledge of the places I have never been to.

Q: Could you tell us something briefly, about the title story Perfect Execution?

A: The elevator pitch? It is September 1943, and the allies are making their way slowly north through Italy. A section of German army clerks under Corporal Martin Hartmann is sent to a convent in Tuscany to check out its suitability as a possible army Headquarters should the Wehrmacht be forced to retreat further. A Nazi officer shows up and takes over. They discover that the convent is sheltering downed American airmen. The officer orders the nuns be executed immediately for aiding the enemy. Faced with the dilemma of shooting the nuns, and risk eternal damnation, or refusing to carry out orders and be shot himself, Hartmann takes it upon himself to shoot the Nazi officer instead.

Q: How did you arrive at the title for this story?

A: It was a play on words, ‘Perfect’ being a description of the lives of the nuns in the Ursuline convent, and ‘Execution’ for the order given to Corporal Hartmann which he refused to carry out. ‘Perfect Execution’ does not in any way refer to my writing style but rather the execution of the perfect.

Okay, I’d like to move on to your writing.

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

A: At age 6, but I quickly gave up the idea when I discovered it meant putting pencil to paper and actually writing something. I disliked it all through school, but the courses I took were all writing intensive (no multiple choice, check off the box questions in those days).  And I was, and still am, a lousy speller. I spent a working lifetime writing dry reports, legal briefs and the like before retiring at age 59. I took up writing then as a hobby. It devolved into a passion. It has yet to reach the obsessive compulsive stage, although my wife might beg to differ.

Q: Most writers bring something of their own life to their writing. What period of your life do you think has influenced your writing most of all—child, teenager, young adult, adult?

A: Most of my stories involve adults as protagonist and antagonist, some quite elderly. I still remember the days of my childhood, not necessarily always fondly, my early tween and teenage years at boarding school, followed by the years of finding my way as an adult, first as a young man, then through several decades of expensive parenthood. I hope I have learned from all the experiences which have allowed me to take bits from here and there to weave into my stories. But I’m not saying which ones!

Q: How about your working experience. What aspect of it has insinuated itself into your writing most of all?

A: Note taking and report writing as a police officer taught me the three most important words in paperwork – Full, Complete, and Accurate. The narrative must be full with nothing left out that is relevant to the story. It must be complete in itself – no loose ends and unresolved sub-plots. And descriptions need to be accurate to be believable, from clothing, to furniture to blood spatters.

Q: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

A: I usually write, revise, rewrite, edit and repeat the process umpteen times six days a week, Sunday through Friday. I like to spend anywhere from two to six hours a day at my computer, more if I’m on a roll. On Saturdays I do important things, like the cryptic crossword in the Globe & Mail, and grocery shopping, and watching Hockey Night in Canada.

Q: How do you develop your plot and characters?

A: I’m bad at the former and not much better at the latter. When I hear, “I don’t have a strong feeling for what the story’s about,” I know it’s time to go back to the drawing board and work on plot and structure, more clearly defining the narrative arc and focusing on both the big picture, especially within the context of history, if applicable, as well as the smaller details which bring a story to life.

  I draw many of my characters from my real life experiences, though the character who ends up in the story will almost certainly be an amalgam of several people whom I know, at least in passing. Others simply reside in my imagination until it comes time to flesh them out with warts and foibles, speech characteristics, clothing choices and annoying habits.

Q: Did you learn anything from writing the short stories in Perfect Execution, if so, what?

A: Writing these stories was a journey. I started with “Officially Old,” and kept writing. I haven’t reached my destination yet. I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t know where it is. I do know that the plane hasn’t run out of fuel and crash landed yet. And most of all I learned that, even with the best will in the world, I’m incapable of writing the perfect story. But I keep trying. Is that one of the definitions of insanity?

Q: We all have our favourite authors and books. What books have most influenced your life and writing?

A: I love Chaucer, but I can’t say he has had a shred of influence on my writing. Although his style of storytelling is sadly out of favour these days, Wm. Somerset Maugham, the prolific short story writer of the 1920s and 1930s has profoundly influenced me as a writer of short fiction. So too has Rudyard Kipling and the French author, Guy de Maupassant.

  When it comes to the novel, I wish I could write as well as the late English author, John Masters, or even come close. He set many of his novels in India, mostly in the days of the British Raj, delicate eggshells on which to tread these days, but he never praised the British rulers or their rule. His characters, British and Indian, lived there, suffered there and for the most part died there.

Q: What is the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process in completing a short story?

A: No question: editing, revision and rewriting. I have little difficulty in coming up with story ideas. I take them as far as I can in my head to see if they have legs. If not, I discard them, at least mentally, perhaps to be picked up again some day as a potential sub-plot, character study or as an idea I can infuse into a longer work. Cutting out my ‘darlings’, the sentences, paragraphs, episodes and even whole chapters that I have spent months, sometimes years trying to make perfect, I find particularly damaging to my delicate psyche. But when an editor says to me, “As beautifully written as this passage is, it fails to advance the story. Get rid of it,” I do as I’m told by those who have forgotten more about writing and editing than I will ever learn.  

Q: What do you feel are the common traps that upcoming writers encounter and how could/ should they overcome them?

A: I suspect we all want to write a novel, even The Greatest Novel Ever Told. Beethoven didn’t begin his career as a composer by writing his 9th Symphony any more than Mozart started with the ‘Jupiter.’ Like they did, start small. Write it well. Then write it better. Length will come, but excellence takes a long apprenticeship. Write what you know? Perhaps, if you have no other ideas. But why not write what’s in your imagination? Give the horse its head and see where it carries you. Don’t tell me J.R.R. Tolkien “knew” Middle Earth before he started ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Q: Do you think someone could be a writer if they can’t feel the emotions of their characters?

A: Absolutely! As a man, how can I experience the emotions that are peculiar to a woman? Or as a young person, how can I get inside the head of a pensioner? Use your imagination. Read. Ask people how they might react in a given set of circumstances, physically and emotionally. Write down their answers. Massage them. Use them, a bit here, a bit there. But if you don’t know how it feels to suffer a spousal assault, or go through a messy divorce, or lose your child to cancer or an abduction, do the research. Read about PTSD. Addiction. Mental illness. Ask, ask, ask. A Psychology degree with a specialty in deviant psychology will probably stand the aspiring fiction writer in better stead than an English degree. Something to think about.

Q: Assuming you always think there’s room for improvement, what’s your approach to becoming a better writer?

A: Number one – read. But I don’t take my advice as seriously as I should. I spend too much time writing.

  Number two – study. This mostly comes down to reading books on the craft of writing. See Number one above.

  Number three – go back to the basics. Learn from what doesn’t, or didn’t work – a flat lead character; a hackneyed plot; an uninspired opening paragraph which only leads to a weak ending; a lack of surprise in plot or character; a unrealistic plot twist that comes out of the blue; happy people without conflict in their lives. Some are merely irritants. Others story killers.

Q: What’s the most difficult stumbling block for you in writing characters of the opposite sex?

A: I love writing women, particularly strong women, but often ordinary women who become victims of events they may not always be able to avoid no matter how strong, or weak, they might be. Chanti in ‘Death on the Bus to Lucknow,’ Anna-Lise Jaeger in ‘Anschluss’, and Wilma in ‘Wilma’ are examples of women, two old, one young, who find themselves swept up in events they cannot control and who must find their own solutions. Auntie Tillie in the story of the same name, Sue Lewicki in ‘Snowfall’ and the Mother Superior in ‘Perfect Execution,’ are all stronger women who still find themselves in over their heads and have to deal with the consequences of their actions.

  I find the complexity of women fascinating, which is partly their attraction in writing about them. I find men tend to be more predictable and less capable of caprice or surprise. Maybe that’s just the way we are. Besides, women are prettier and generally smell nicer.

Q: Is writing cathartic in any way for you?

A: Not at all. Not even remotely. I simply enjoy writing for its own sake.

Q: Did you hide any secrets in this book that only a few people would find?

A: Very occasionally, someone who knows me well will find something as short as a sentence or as long as an episode and say, “That’s you, isn’t it?” If it happens to fit into the story and doesn’t libel or slander anyone else, I might use it. The closest I came in ‘Perfect Execution & Other Stories’, is Hugh in ‘Officially Old’. It started as a short piece for the Globe & Mail’s ‘Facts and Arguments’ column several years ago. I decided to turn it into a short story, fictionalizing almost everything about it except for Hugh’s occupation as an Marine Insurance Average Adjuster (I worked for one early in my career), his hobby of writing bodice-ripping genre Romances, and his abhorrence of walk-in bath tubs.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: I have a second collection of short stories currently being reviewed by a potential publisher, and a third collection gathering dust in my laptop’s hard drive waiting for the publisher to beg me to send them to him. I have just had a professional Second Draft Critique completed of a novel, tentatively titled, ‘For Valour’ and have been busy making corrections, killing my darlings, and generally doing as he strongly suggested to make the story better. The next step is to find a publisher. A second novel, something of a follow-up to ‘For Valour’, is in first draft and I have just started going over it again after leaving it fallow for a few months. And a genre Romance is ready to go as soon as Harlequin asks me for it!

Q: If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer, what would it be?

A: Don’t chase the latest trend. By the time you know what it is, it will be out of fashion. At the very best it will be a lame ‘Me too,’ story. It’s too easy to lose your integrity as a writer, so be true to yourself and your original goals. If you want to write commercial pulp fiction, write it. Sci-fi,fantasy, if that’s your thing, go for it. Westerns, Zombies, Vampires, mommy porn? Whatever. If you write it well, an audience will find you.

Q: What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you: Email: mbj691@gmail.com will reach me.

Facebook; I have a Facebook page under my name. Also the Brampton Writers Guild: https://www.facebook.com/BramptonWritersGuild/notifications/


CHECK OUT MICHAEL’S BOOK HERE

Stories
by Michael Joll
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London, England: QUEUES

As if there is not enough of a problem caused by British Rail on-again, off-again strike that has resulted in an unexpected crush of people in the Victoria terminus in London, I discover that the overnight coach to Penzance is two and a half hours late –something to do with battery trouble I’ve been told.
Somewhere deep down in my stomach, I can feel anxiety trying to raise its ugly head. What if, when they eventually get the coach going, it breaks down in the middle of nowhere. What if my contact at the other end did not receive my letter? I seek consolation by telling myself I am not the only one in this predicament and that tomorrow is the start of a weekend, so there’s no need to rush.  But first I have to go to the ticketing area, an enclosed room to the left where everyone seems to be heading. As I enter and see the enormous huddle of people, I take a few seconds to decide which queue to join. There are about ten lines, most of them stretched out of the building, losing semblance to a straight line somewhere beyond the rope guide that is about ten feet long. At the back of my mind is a notion of something I have read, about people’s propensity to gravitate towards the right whenever they join a queue. With this in mind, I join the one to the extreme left, the one furthest from the entrance to the terminus and I am pleased with myself, since this seems to be shortest one.
It’s a strange thing I have noticed about queues over the years; they can never quite retain the shape intended for them. Try as hard as they will, the people who contrive to keep control, whether by containing people in-between artificial barriers or by posting signs, can never manage to succeed, and before long order breaks down. Chaos can even result sometimes.  Perhaps it’s the natural inclination of the people far from the head of the line who lean to the right or left to see ahead, to determine why it is taking them so long to move up, and before long everyone has to lean further and further, breaking the natural rhythm of the line.
I am one of those people leaning to the left now, wondering why the only moving sensation I have experienced in the last five minutes is a shuffling over the same fifteen square inches or so of floor-space that my feet occupy. The guy ahead of me keeps looking at his watch, perhaps anxious that he might not make his coach; the lady behind is trying to calm her child who is fretting. I suspect, from the concerned looks on everyone’s face that they are all wondering, like me, why it is that the other queues are moving and ours is not. I am starting to doubt the wisdom of joining the shortest queue. I realize, too late, that it’s another strange thing about queues: the shortest one inevitably ends up taking the longest time; there’s simply a valid reason why people have been avoiding it in the first place.
There’s a commotion ahead, close to the wicket. A woman is demanding to see the supervisor who finally arrives only after she raises her voice several more octaves. She appears to have missed her coach and is trying to convert her ticket to another one which is now sold out. It means a three-hour wait for her. She is insistent that the supervisor do something about it and she is indignant that no one considers she is handicapped with a broken leg; and why is it that someone told me over the phone that there would be plenty of seats…and is it any wonder why this company is losing business to British Rail…
The supervisor has to be aware of the grumbling coming from our queue. Perhaps afraid of open revolt, he asks the lady to step aside and he leads her into the office to resolve the matter. The queue finally begins to move. I notice that the woman who joined the one to my right three minutes earlier, has already purchased her ticket.
Now that I have secured my ticket my fear of the unknown surfaces again and is about to reach paranoid proportions. Something tells me that I might end up boarding the wrong coach and find myself being let off in the middle of nowhere, or, if I am lucky enough to find the correct coach in all of the dozens departing for destinations all over the country, I might discover that there are not enough seats for all of the tickets sold. I check and recheck my ticket to confirm it’s the right time and correct destination, find my coach and decide to join my queue ahead of time. I discover I’m not alone in my obsession; the line is already twenty deep. Panic, it seems, is infectious.
From my position at the rear I can see what’s going on around me.
The people in my queue are all stationery: a man slumped over on his duffel bag on the ground; a woman’s face buried in an open magazine; a couple bracing each other for support. Not ten feet away from me, braced against the wall, is a Black man looking much older and worn for his number of years. A few minutes earlier, I had seen him rummaging through the garbage can where he had retrieved a foam cup and a cigarette butt. He sipped from the cup, tilting his head far back to drain its contents, and when he was satisfied that it was truly empty, he tossed it aside. He stood there, in white shoes now covered with a layer of grime and grease, his hair hanging in knotted curls right down to his long black coat, his beard disheveled and flecked with fluff. His entire body was suddenly wracked by an awful spasm, as if he had been bracing against a power line and had suddenly come into contact with it. And his eyes, I could not see his eyes –the eyeballs were both rolled back into their sockets, to the point where only the whites of his eyes showed.
In the other queues to the right and left of me there’s the usual shuffling of baggage as passengers move slowly to the coaches that are ready for boarding. To my right I notice a soldier with a large canvas bag on his back and he is three-passengers away from the head of the queue.  There is something incongruous about him. Not just the fact that he is East Indian, wearing a turban and standing out from the rest of the Anglo crowd; or that he has no ticket in hand like the rest of the people in the queue; or the way he is dressed: in ragged army fatigues, long sleeves shirt; a jacket with zippered pockets along the arms and chest; pants with folds frazzled and torn, heavy boots showing through the strips at the bottom. It is that as the line moves up closer and his turn comes up to board, he drops out and joins another queue a few feet away, as if someone had just whispered in his ear that he’s about to board the wrong coach. His posture is that of a soldier on parade, his shoulders held back, erect and stiff.  My curiosity intensifies when I notice that, as he reaches at the head of the next queue he again drops out and joins another.
By the time I finally start to move I have noticed that the Black man is rummaging through another garbage can and the Indian with the turban has repeated his exercise several times. It is my first experience with someone who joins queues for the love of it, and I marvel about how some habits seem to die hard in old military people.
At last I am aboard. I look at my watch and experience the impatience of those who are late, and having caught their train or coach, wonder why it’s taking so long to get going, blissfully ignorant or uncaring of those last minute passengers rushing to board. But it’s still fifteen minutes to go. Although I am entrenched in my seat, my baggage stowed safely on the rack on top, I am conscious that I am still clutching my ticket in my left hand, just in case. My breathing comes in quick gasps; I think that nothing is certain until the coach actually moves off.
There is a queue in the aisle and when it finally dwindles the coach fills up quickly. Couples pass me in my aisle seat, heading to the rear. A man comes in with his wife and small child dressed in a pink coat and they prepare to occupy the seats three rows up front. The child sees me looking at her and moves to snuggle next to her father while he is about to shove the baggage on the top, so he pushes the child aside roughly. She starts to cry. The mother has seen what he has done and calls the girl over to comfort her. The man and woman engage in a low-key conversation, the wife now looking irate, the man impassive, the child distraught. In the row across from me two teenage boys take up occupancy. They are carrying large backpacks. One of them pulls out a canister from his pack, takes off his shoes and proceeds to spray his dirty white socks, but not before the odour has wafted across to me. It is as if he has suddenly released a toxic fume that he’d been carrying around with him for a long time. I tell myself: it looks as if it is going to be that kind of a night.
And then an altercation breaks out up front.
The conductor refuses to allow the coach to depart. He appears to be invoking all the powers invested in him by the authorities, to deny passage to someone who is seated near the window in the fifth row, just where the shadow cast by the overhead light on the luggage rack, has left a pool of impenetrable darkness.
“You must leave the coach madam,” the conductor says firmly to the person.
“But why? I have a ticket, here is my ticket,” a female voice responds.
The conductor towers over the woman where she sits buried in her seat and he is silhouetted against the glare of the overhead light. Because of this she has to lean forward and tilt her head at an angle to look directly at him. This then creates a chain reaction since she wears glasses with an obvious bi-focal prescription, so now a hand and a head emerge from the shadow, the hand moving the glasses up and down.  It creates an eerie sensation, of seeing someone without a torso carry on a conversation.
“The coach will not depart until you get off, madam.”
I am amused he still address her in this fashion, but it seems so English: to keep it civil, perhaps right down to the end.
“But I am a passenger. I have my ticket like everyone else. I have a right to ride the coach.”
“I must insist that you leave madam.” This time he pronounces each word slowly, deliberately, with a slight trace of contempt creeping into his tone. “Or I will have to forcefully take you off.”
All the other passengers are looking on, some of them no doubt wondering, like me, whether this might prove yet another stumbling block and for heaven’s sake, what’s the big deal; why doesn’t he give the old lady a break?
The lady grows indignant over his attitude. “You can’t treat me like that. I have rights too. Why, you wouldn’t treat your dog the way you are handling me,” she cries out.
“My dog wouldn’t mess on the seat, madam.”
She ignores the remark. “How am I going to get home without the coach? Surely you can let me ride home, just this once?”
“The police said you cannot ride on National’s coaches madam. Leave or I’ll call the police.” The contempt in his voice has dissipated now; he is almost apologetic, but the damage has already been done. She says nothing, simply stands up, collects her several plastic bags, proceeds towards the exit up front, the ticket still protruding from the fingers of her left hand.
I don’t sit back until the coach pulls out and we’re several blocks away.
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