Friday, April 18, 2014

Antanas Sileika’s reviews This Great Escape on The Next Chapter


L
isten to Antanas Sileika’s report on Shelagh Rogers’ show The Next Chapter; you’ll get it that This Great Escape is not up his aesthetic alley and he very probably didn’t enjoy reading it. But Sileika still manages to make the book sound interesting to listeners who just might be into the kind of thing that This Great Escape is and means to be.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Down The Rabbit Hole: The Rover Review


Kit Jenkin reviews This Great Escape in Montreal's splendid Rover:

The form of the narrative is the book’s most compelling part. Steinmetz admits that he “planned to spit out the book chronologically, but as it is, my hard drive is crammed with research notes, transcriptions of family letters, photographs and multiple drafts of the endless permutations of my book so far.” As a result, major themes of this book are dislocation and alienation. Fittingly, the narrative is constructed around fragmented scenes and details of Paryla’s life, jumping from scene to detail and from narrative prose, to movie scripts, transcripts, lists, and emails, all in an attempt to piece his cousin’s life together.
The choice of abandoning normal linear memoir is important. One section of the book that beautifully illustrates the need to follow an unconventional form is a chapter that describes Steinmetz’s online research during his travels. Using an online search engine’s automatic translation feature for comments left on a German film review site, Steinmetz uncovers things that symbolize his whole project. One comment on The Great Escape translates into English from German as follows: “Class film, shot in the never get bored, despite the length. Even top performances by actors. As a teenager, I liked the film really happy, but when I look at it today, I find the humour inappropriate, especially the cheerful music theme.” In many ways, this literal translation with its disparate elements and non sequiturs is representative of the author’s holistic approach.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Selling The Big One (your first novel) : The Canadian Version

First published in Montreal in Hour or Mirror long enough ago (circa 1999) that it has slipped off the bottom end of my CV. Anyhow, for you all trying to sell (find a resting place for) your first novel, here is my tale of woe, writ wry: Selling The Big One. The novel became Eva's Threepenny Theatre (Gaspereau, 2008). Apologies to Grain and Cormorant (I was young).

***

            I finished my novel over two years ago.  After six drafts, it weighed in at one-hundred and seventy-two thousand type characters in all, including commas, colons, and periods.  A fly-weight.  I called the lug, Eva And Her Brother.

The setting is pre-war, post-war Germany.  A story about a young actress dragged through the theatrics of time and place.  Funny, sad, tragic, triumphant.  It has it all. 

Then how come I can’t convince the jury?

More difficult than writing a novel is pawning it off on a publishing house.  Finding a home for the thing.  A maison, as the French put it.  The problem is not that so few books are published, but that yours probably won’t be. 

Some say you need only to persist, that the difference between a published writer and a writer-turned-into-something-else, like a computer programmer, is merely stamina.  Robert M. Pirsig’s widely read philosophical odyssey, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was shot down 120 times by publishers before going to press.  That’s perseverance.  And so the myth develops: persevere and thy shall inherit a Pulitzer Prize. 




Others speculate that success is a function of sheer luck, chance, coincidence.  That there is no god, no method, no meaning, all you need is a certain je ne sais quoi.  Like French novelist Marie Darrieussecq whose debut novel, Pig Tales, sold to a publisher in under 24 hours, unsolicited.  This novel, about a prostitute who grows teats, gives birth to stillborn piglets, is sodomized, abused with dogs and nearly eaten, sold over 250 000 hardback copies and ran for over 28 weeks on the bestseller list.  In France, you say.  Yes, but still.

Last winter, I set out to sell my own novel, Eva and Her Brother.   There are many dead-ends to follow.   Here is a list of just a few.

False hope/strategy #1.  The friend of a friend who “knows somebody”. 

My friend in the UK gave two chapters of Eva to a reader at Faber & Faber.  The junior liked it and passed it on to a senior editor.  He liked it too.  They asked for more. 

Hurray!  Pass the Booker. 

Last I heard, junior and senior were sacked.  Let go because “their” books weren’t selling.  Defer that dream.

False hope/strategy #2.  A good Samaritan is moving to NYC to get into publishing. 

She loves my story and wants to paint the town with it.  I e-mail a copy to her account.  She can’t unzip my file.  Stop right there.

False hope/strategy #3.  A Harvard Professor requests a copy.  Met him at the marriage of my UK friend.  He came across an early draft in London and “quite liked my voice”. 

I e-mail, he unzips, and takes a peak through Windows.  It’s a high-tech striptease.  Promises are made.  But late semester term paper correcting will keep him busy into summer.  And the whole next six months, from what I can gather.

False hope/strategy #4.  Aim small, small fish.  Try the local presses.

Cormorant Press, Ontario.  It has a rural route address.  I send the first fifty pages as per guidelines.  A six month wait.  What are they doing out there, rotating crops?  No communication.  Then I get the letter.  Not suited for us, good luck, try elsewhere. 

Time to get serious.  So I pick up some literature on how to sell literature.  Market guides.  That stuff sells.  One each for Canada, the US, and the UK. 

I do research, build a database, buy bond paper, envelopes, stamps.  Then I write a cover letter, an elegant synopsis, and assemble sample material.

False hope/strategy #5.  Aim big, you got nothing to lose.  Use the buck-shot approach.  Hit ‘em all and see who falls down.  40 maisons.  Alfred A. Knopf.  McClelland & Stewart.  Granta.  Jonathan Cape.  HarperCollins.  Viking.  Penguin.  All the majors.

Rejections come fast and furious.  I’m overwhelmed.  But at least I’m getting mail.

Some rejections include a personal touch.  One Dr. Philipp Blom, editor of Harvill Press, thinks I’m “vivid and touching”, but Harvill isn’t “taking on any new fiction at the moment”. 

Then what are they doing, if not accepting fiction?  Taking on circus acts? 

Other houses are plain boring.  Macmillan condescends, using the popular line, “you might find THE WRITER’S HANDBOOK useful”.

The problem with the majors is half of them won’t accept unsolicited material in the first place, and I’m nothing if not unsolicited.  While the other half will only deal with “agented” writers, read: fixed or neutered artists.

That leads me to false hope/strategy #6.  I need an agent. A champion.  A Don King.  Sure.  Wake up Balzac, that’s been your problem all along.

Another day, another mail-out.  I launch my packages from the Zoubris Papeterie on Park Avenue.  Overnight, I hit London, Toronto, San Francisco, and NYC.  One, two, three weeks pass.  Then a squadron of self-addressed stamped envelopes land in my mailbox. 

No agent will represent me.  Eva is flawed.  I need more dialogue.  Add characters, preaches another.  Perhaps water, and eggs, too.  At this rate, I need another part-time job to afford another offensive.  And I need a psychiatrist to put Humpty Dumpty  back together again.

***

I get counselling from friends. 

Be more aggressive, they say.  Do-it-yourself.  Self-publish.  No, I say.  You don’t understand.  There are no Fugazzis or Ani Difrancos of the novel. 



Then do spoken word, they taunt me.  No. I. do. not. like. spo. ken. word., I retort.

Send to literary magazines, build a portfolio from the bottom up!  I know that scene, friends.  Mail out , wait eight weeks, and receive an acknowledgement of reception along with a subscription coupon.  That’s the killer.  As they hold your first born for ransom, they hint that you should subscribe.  It’s a good market strategy on their part.  Because who else but a desperate poet or prose writer would hook up with a magazine from Regina, called Grain, with a quarterly circulation of 2,000?

Then, there are those friends who really care about you, who encourage you to do something crazy to get attention.  But I’m an author, not a stunt artist.  I don’t want to hunger strike under the desk of the editor of The Paris Review.


That would be George Plimpton’s desk. 

***

To demonstrate against the injustice of the publishing machine, I stop reading “other people”.  I read only Le petit cahier des sports in La Presse. 

I can’t suffer anymore Proust or Proulx.  Those rats.  What do they have that I don’t?

Talent, maybe.  But I’m a writer.  I don’t need talent.  To survive every writer makes an inductive leap early in their career.  Despite critics, they assume they’re great, good, or a great good to society.  They lord a moral tenure over the talent scouts.

Unpublished writers amount to great pretenders, their self-actualisation depends on print.  The ultimate responsibility of these writers is the manufacturing of the belief that he or she is a writer, which, in many cases, amounts to a considerable work of the imagination – a powerful fiction, in of itself.  Every day that these writers sit down to work, they are in essence composing parallel fictions: one they write, and one that they live.  Sometimes the writer’s life is the better story, and biography eclipses any narrative  committed to paper. 

As for me, I need a break, that’s all.  In the meantime, my ego defences are holding the fortress.

***

By chance I pick up Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai, the latest offering from that group I call the Sri Lankan mafia.  In the credits, I read that the front cover photo was snapped by Michael Ondaatje.

I’m miffed.  That confirms everything.  It’s a clique.  To get in you have to know somebody.  Can I get Martin Amis to do my cover?  No chance.

The worst of it is I’m a Canadian writer.  Face it, there are only so many seats around the CanLit table.  And Anne Michaels just fit in with Fugitive Pieces.  I figure she nabbed Robertson Davies’ seat. 

***

            False hope/strategy #7.  Spot someone famous.  Roll up your novel and stuff it through their navel.

            Lucky me, last summer, I spotted Mordechai Richler twice in a matter of days. 


            The second time, he was loading groceries into a green Jaguar, on the corner of Green and de Maisonneuve.  He had come down the mountain, so I figured he was fair game.

            When Richler left his car to descend into that den of breast-feeding moms, otherwise known as Westmount Square, I pushed my 20 month old daughter down two doors and bought pen and paper in the pharmacy.

            Sitting outside Jean Coutu, my Sonya sucked her purple freezy, and I addressed a short note to the Absolut poster-boy.

            Mr. Richler, I wrote, would you consider reading the first chapters of my novel?  Then I added, sorry for these guerrilla tactics.  And that’s it.  Short.  Sweet.  Name.  Telephone number.

            I tucked it under the windshield and ran for cover.

            I never got the call.  He probably torched my number in an ashtray, in a Crescent Street bar.  Oh well.  I think I’ll escape this race and buy some land like Duddy did. 

            But that’s another story altogether.  A version of which I’ll have to sell to Sonya’s mother.

-circa 1999


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Randomesque: New Tab by Guillaume Morissette



Guillaume Morissette is launching his novel New Tab on April 24th at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal.  It begins well and easy, perfectly pitched for the randomesque 'now', kind of like this:


Stalking Brent on Facebook, I saw from his profile picture that he was tall and had sloppy bed hair that randomly looked excellent and that he owned a Macbook and a t-shirt that said, “RIP DJ Screw.” I looked for a birth year but there was no year specified, just a month and a day. I didn’t know if he was younger than me or maybe my age. I wanted him to be my age. I wanted him to be ten thousand years older than me. I wanted him to be ten thousand years older than me and still a mess and still thinking things like, “I am the shittiest person alive” on a regular basis.

Jonathan Goldstein has called New Tab "Weird, poetic, funny, and original." And Goldstein knows weird. New Tab is the last book I selected and edited for the Esplanade Imprint at Vehicule Press. It's a great way to bow out -- on a high note -- with a book that is unseriously-serious, and just a bit more angst-ridden than Schmidt-Rottluff's oeuvre. 



Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Stardust Memories - The Brooklyn Rail Review




Noah Isenberg has contributed quite a nice review of This Great Escape, in The Brooklyn Rail, calling the thing "strange, elegiac, and intoxicating " :


"Throughout his idiosyncratic mix of travelogue, family memoir, and elliptical musings, Steinmetz entertains the thought that there might be some kind of hidden, causal connection between his cousin’s ironic, possibly ill-advised choice to play a Gestapo agent in The Great Escape and his premature death. “Michael Paryla as a Nazi, on the map,” he writes, “not 30 years after his parents fled by train through the same neck of the woods: who catches this on film?” (In truth, it wasn’t totally uncommon for actors once persecuted by Hitler to play Nazis on screen—think of Conrad Veidt in Casablanca or Otto Preminger in Stalag 17.) Oddly enough, the film becomes the final resting place for his cousin: “57 seconds all counting—before we lose sight of him for good, on-screen and off, stardust to rust, so it goes and so it must.” Or, as Steinmetz remarks of his cousin elsewhere, almost suggesting the docu-fantasia mode of fellow Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s work: “Alive but not living, stranded in the no-man’s-land of a motion picture.”


Full review here.



Monday, December 16, 2013

High Rise & Pinball

I'm calling this High Rise. And the other view Pinball. Made from slides. Something to look at. Can you write something like this? Perhaps, G. Perec's Life: A User's Manual. One of my favourite novels.