I had planned to end this year’s blog with a more general update on things. What’s going on in my life. What movies I’ve seen. What books I read. The TV I watched, the music I listened to. I’ve also been waylaid a bit, both with family obligations, and with a banger of a head cold that’s kept me out of the loop for a bit. Frankly, I’ve been in a state of near exhaustion for the last month. So I was going to just let 2017 sputter out on its own without me.
Then my sister forwarded the obit.
Let me tell you about John Alexander Ballachey. “JB” as he was known to we students of Brockville Collegiate Institute. JB taught history. He was, I believe, head of the department, but I may be mistaken in that regard. He’d taught at our school since the late 1960s, even teaching history to the parents of some of the kids in my class.
He was an institution.
It sounds cliché to speak of a teacher who inspired you, but in JB’s case this was all true. I’m a huge history buff today and that’s largely due to him. He made learning fun. He didn’t care about dates and events that occurred on them. He wanted you to see the connections. Many times our classes were about what could have happened at certain junctures, as opposed to what ended up happening. What if Hitler hadn’t invaded the Soviet Union. What if the French hadn’t lost the Plains of Abraham? What if the 1980 Sovereignty Referendum had swung in the Parti Quebecois’ favor? It was, in essence, storytelling, based on historical fact. You needed to know your facts with JB and he wouldn’t hesitate to call you out for it. And the thing was, you wanted his approval, that wry grin and winning smile that told you “good job” without his having to say it. I was a fair-to-average student in many regards, but for two subjects; English, and History. I succeeded in history class because JB made it an adventure to learn.
JB wasn’t just a teacher though. He was also a longstanding member of the Brockville Operatic Society, appearing in dozens of musical productions. I appeared with him in late 1989, sharing a scene with him as a reporter in the BOS production of Damn Yankees (with JB playing the team owner). We all had a hoot – him especially. For the week leading up to the performance he’d grill me mercilessly, asking if I remembered my lines (I had, I think, three). But he clearly enjoyed making me nervous, just like he enjoyed all his students. If you encountered him on the street he’d always grin, and ask how you were, even though he knew how you were doing in his class.
He was also encouraging in my burgeoning career as a filmmaker and storyteller. In Grade 12 he happily agreed (despite being busy with teaching) to perform a small role in a 1-act play I directed based on a Woody Allen comedy bit. Despite having only a couple lines he hammed them up like crazy and got the biggest laughs of the show. There was something of a performer in JB, beyond the stage, beyond the classroom. I always felt after the fact that he had no real aspirations for the stage – he really just enjoyed being in front of and around people, be it an audience, be it a classroom of students. Despite having a mild stutter he didn’t blanch, even when he fought for the words on the tip of his tongue.
I don’t think I saw him at all after high school – maybe around graduation or shortly after though I did get to tell him I’d been accepted into film school, which earned hearty, friendly punch to the arm in that guy-ish way. I don’t remember what he said, but I like to think he was proud that I was going out into the world to make history of my own – just one of many kids he taught. I think he was proud of all the kids who passed through his classroom. To teach for so long you found yourself teaching the children of former students might have made you feel your age, but not JB.
JB never left Brockville. I’m told that while he embraced world travel in his later years Brockville was always home. He remained involved in the community, in theatre, and the choir, and made animal welfare his passion after he’d hung up his teaching shoes. I am told though, second-hand, that he did know I was making a name for myself as a writer in the film and Tv biz, and thought that was fantastic news. I’m sure he felt that way about all his former students – the lawyers and doctors, and the ones who went on to teach history themselves.
Looking through his memorial page, I saw a lot of names I hadn’t thought of in more than 25 years. Students, colleagues, parents, children. All who were touched by an extraordinary teacher. You realize now, in adulthood, what an impact your teachers had on you. To me, teaching is one of the noblest of professions – the one that truly keeps the world spinning.
I never got to tell JB any of this, but I’m saying it now for all the teachers out there. I want to say how much you do matter, to every child you teach, to every parent whose child is entrusted to you. And know that, even after those kids graduate or advance a grade and move on, they never do forget how much you meant to them.
Godspeed and good-rest, Mr. Ballachey. You were one in a million.
Sent from iPad
In case you missed the news, 40 years ago today a little movie called Star Wars arrived in theaters. it was not expected to do well. In fact, George Lucas was so convinced it would be a disaster he fled Los Angeles for Hawaii to build sand-castles with his buddy Steven Spielberg, where they ended up hashing out what would become Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But of course Star Wars did not flop. Star Wars became STAR WARS, and we’ve been living with it for four decades now. In the last two years we’ve seen two new Star Wars movies, and this Christmas we’ll see another. It’s not inconceivable for Star Wars to outlive the generation that grew up with it. It’s a piece of modern myth-making writ large.
Scads of words have been written on its cultural significance but ever person has a different story about the role Star Wars played in their lives. For me it began in 1977 as a 4 year-old whose father took him to an evening show to see some movie a co-worker had told him I would enjoy. He bought me a bag of popcorn and cup of cola and apparently when the Star Destroyer flew overhead in the famous opening shot the popcorn hit the floor untouched and I stared, open-mouthed at the screen for the entire two hours.
I was captivated. And as a child who lived in four different cities by the time Return of the Jedi arrived six years later, Star Wars had become the constant friend in a childhood with not many of the real kind.
After Jedi, Star Wars faded from the landscape and my life. There was a brief resurgence on the 10th anniversary when I picked up a special issue of Starlog magazine, but Star Wars was pretty much dead by 1987, through the early 90s. Then the Timothy Zahn series of Star Wars books arrived. then the Dark Empire comic book series from Dark Horse. the Power of the Force toy line made its debut in 1995 and I was on my second Star Wars kick, which lasted all the way to 1999, and the release of The Phantom Menace.
I have not come to bury the prequels or to praise them either. What I will say once Revenge of the Sith hit theaters that it was pretty much a given Star Wars was finished. there would be the Clone Wars TV series which, despite a rough start, became a genuinely wonderfully realized story. But Star Wars on the big screen; that was done, right?
So we’re living through the third Star Wars cycle and its unlikely to end anytime soon. Sure, a few consecutively crappy films could happen, but if 007 could survive nearly sixty years, Star Wars could last at least to 2037.
For me Star Wars will not end. That’s because my child, who turns two this July, is approaching the age I was when I first saw Star Wars. I’ve gone back and forth on how to introduce him to the series. By the time he’s four, Episode IX will have come and gone, so he’ll have the entire Skywalker saga at his fingertips. Do we run the series in order – 1-9 – with Rogue One and the hitherto untitled Han Solo movie (and if it’s NOT called Han: Solo they suck)? Do I show him Episodes 4-9 and pretend the Prequels don’t exist? What about Clone Wars and its spin-off, Rebels?
No, I need a plan of attack … and think I’ve found one.
On the day he’s ready, I’m going to ask him if he wants to watch a movie. I’ll put on Star Wars and hopefully he’ll be dazzled by it. But rather than segue right into The Empire Strikes Back, I’m going to let him live with Episode IV for a little while. Let him engage with the story, the characters, let him play with the toys and imagine their own future adventures. Then, when his interest in it starts to wane, I’ll show him The Empire Strikes Back, and we’ll repeat the process. I want him to be re-introduced to Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids. I want him to gasp at the revelation of what happened to Luke’s father. Then when that’s run its course, Return Of The Jedi.
I want to let him live with those movies as long as he wants to. Then, when he’s losing interest, I’ll ask him if he’d like to see how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
We’ll watch the prequels in quicker succession, not because they aren’t as good (I like parts of them I don’t like other parts, and am well outside the demographic when they were released anyway), but because they’re too interconnected.
After that we’ll dive into Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels which, buy the time that wraps up, should segue into Rogue One. By then the current trilogy will have concluded, and with the weight of the entire saga behind us, we can watch those however we want to.
As you can probably tell, I’ve given this a lot of thought.
But as far back as I can remember, my life has been one where stories were shared in a multitude of ways. From bedtime stories read to me by my parents, to my father taking me to see one of his favorite movies 2001: A Space Odyssey when it played as part of a roadshow re-release in the 1980s.
I want to pass these movies on to my child because how stories are told matter as much as what they tell. I want him to cherish these stories, but to also cherish the way he was introduced to a galaxy far, far away.
And because I want him to know that many years before, his dad discovered them at the same age.
On Friday, February 26, 2017, I delivered the final edit of Magicians Impossible to St. Martins Press. It is finally, FINALLY finished, and it has been the most difficult, most lengthy, and most rewarding project I have ever undertaken. The stats on that: I first sat down with editor Brendan Deneen to talk about the book in April of 2014. Now, three years less a month later, the journey is over.
Well, not OVER over. There’s still the the matter of the release of the book on September 12, and all that comes with it. Magicians is going to keep me busy through the fall and probably into next year, especially when the paperback is released. But the writing journey is over. I’m on the next project already, and have pages to deliver to my agent this month so she can run with them, which will be a journey in itself.
Now, with “journey” on your tongue, a pop quiz. What do …
Along with …
And let’s not forget …
And, finally …
All have in common?
They’re all places I’ve been to, and they all feature prominently in Magicians (which you haven’t read yet), but they do figure into the story, some in very significant ways. I bring them all up because they’re all part of what I believe is the key to good writing, or at least the authentic kind.
Joe R. Lansdale, one of my favorite writers, once said (and I paraphrase) that “you can tell when a virgin’s writing a sex scene.” Likewise, you can tell when someone’s writing a story with no idea what they’re actually writing about. Like they never experienced the place, the feelings, the emotions of what they’re describing. To me, that is one of the most important aspects of writing; the part most writers fail to mention.
Travel. Adventure. The whole “step away from your desk and experience life” thing.
A lot of writers go on about their word counts, or their endless rewrites, or writer’s block. I don’t see many going on about an adventure (or misadventure) they had. Some object d’art that inspired them. Some unexpected journey that gave them an idea they nurtured into a story. Some wrong turn that ended up being the best mistake they ever made.
I first visited Paris in 2011, as part of a post Fresh Meat victory lap. My wife and I spent our Christmas there, renting a charming flat in Montmartre, and spending the entire week in the city. We hit Versailles, the Catacombs, stumbled upon Francois Truffaut’s grave in Montmartre Cemetery, shopped the Galleries du Lafayette, ate lots of cheese and drank an alarming amount of wine … and visited the Louvre, where we fell in love with its beautiful sculpture garden …
And this statue in particular.
Not to spoil anything, but a central portion of Magicians takes place within the walls of the Louvre, and this sculpture garden in particular. Now, it goes without saying I never would have conceived the idea if I hadn’t gone to Paris and to the Louvre. But the idea of staging something in the Louvre was born that day in late 2011 – five years ago, and two years before I began Magicians.
This is another example. All characters need to come from someplace, and when I was developing the backstory of Jason Bishop, Magicians’ protagonist, I knew I wanted him to have grown up in the village of Cold Spring, NY, which is an hour and a bit by train north of NYC. My wife and I spent a wedding anniversary weekend up there back in 2012. We saw the sights, we hiked, we ate very well, and it was on one of those walks that I first glimpsed Storm King Mountain, just across the river and a little further north. Something about the name Storm King just stuck; it made me think of the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney’s Fantasia, and an image of a wizard’s battle on the road that winds along its side popped into my mind. So, when I was trying to find a place for Jason Bishop to have spent his childhood, Cold Spring was a perfect fit. Had I never visited, it would have been someplace else. But over drafts of the novel I realized just how important Cold Spring was to the story. In the end it is probably the most important locale (and I ended up getting my wizard’s battle on Storm King after all).
Ditto Jason’s place of work. The location of The Locksmith bar in the book is just below Dyckman Street on Broadway, a spot occupied currently by the Tryon Public House. But the layout of the place is actually based on a bar further north once called The Piper’s Kilt (now the Tubby Hook), and takes its name from a bar further south that used to be called the Locksmith. I picked the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan to park Jason at his job because it’s a neighborhood I’m familiar with. Any time I needed a refresher on some detail all I needed to do was go for a walk.
There are other real-life places that figure into the book, but those are the major ones. So to me, anyway, travelling is the most important thing I don’t hear a lot of writers talk about. It’s authenticity. The idea of experiencing things off the beaten path, to use a cliché. It doesn’t even have to be an overseas trip; sometimes just walking down a different street in your city or town can give you an idea.
Even if Sci-Fi or Fantasy is your thing, you can still benefit from travelling outside your comfort zone. Go to a place where they speak a language different than your own. Try and sample the local cuisine. Get lost. You don’t even have to go far; even the next town or state over can reveal wonders. It’s amazing how many people rarely venture outside their home town or city or state or province. Only 36% of Americans even own a passport; they’ve never set foot outside of their country.
So, if you’re a writer, aspiring or otherwise, I strongly encourage you to step away from the desk, step outside your life, and see what’s out there. Your next story could be waiting for you as close as the next street over. All you need to do is find it.
To call 2016 challenging is to undersell it. It was certainly the most difficult year I’ve endured, and that’s just on a personal level. Caring for a 1 year-old while managing a career as a writer is no easy task. There have been frayed nerves, sleepless nights, and the ever-present worry that this is pretty much it for me and my career; that I can’t do both those things without failing at one of them. And yet, I’m still here, you’re still here, and we need to be because 2017 will probably be worse. It’ll take away people and things we love, the bad guys will keep winning. This is the beginning of the winter George RR Martin’s Stark family keeps telling us is coming.
But it’s important not to give into that despair. You have to fight, you have to strive, you have to marshal resources and press on. Because capitulation is not victory. It will feel like it for a while, but those things you’re trying to hide from will find you eventually.
Think of it this way; we all have some sort of comfort food. Some meal that you love, less because of what it is than what it represents. For me, it’s the traditional roast beef diner my grandmother used to make. The roast was always a little dry, the gravy a little starchy, but I’ve spent the last twenty-three years trying to re-create. But that really isn’t the point; the point is when I do make it, I get a minor taste of what that meal represented; the closeness of family, the smiles, the laughter of people now long gone. There’s warmth to it, and sadness. It’s nostalgic, the comfort meal.
As Michel Houllebecq wrote;
Nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics — it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we’ve lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful.
That’s comfort food; and art can be comfort food for the soul. Books, movies, TV, music … those perennial works you return to over and over again, not because they remind you of happier times, but because they remind you of a time in your life that you survived. So in the spirit of the season, here are some of my artistic comfort foods.
- Bond. James Bond.
I grew up with James Bond; the Roger Moore ones specifically, because they were the first ones I saw. I remember how a Bond movie would often be the ABC Saturday night movie; the World Premiere of Moonraker or something Over the last month and a bit my wife and I watched (in reverse order for some reason) the Moore Bond series, and the Dalton ones. We’re now into the Brosnan era. There’s just something about them that gives me a warm feeling, and that, I think, has been their success; by offering us what we want while tweaking the formulas ever so much. From Octopussy on I saw every Bond in the theater, including Never Say Never Again, though I shamefully confess I missed Spectre, being a newly minted parent my movie watching was pretty much impossible. To this day remains difficult – last I saw in the theater was … actually, I legit can’t remember. It was summer, I know that. Maybe X-Men Apocalypse (which was terrible by the way). Did I mention the year that was has been rough? Well, yeah. No time for movies.
2. High. Degrassi Jr. High.
Not much time for TV either, though one seminal series turns 30(!) next year. Yes, on January 18, 1987 a little Canadian TV series called Degrassi Jr. High made its debut on CBC. My friends and I all mocked it, for its cheesiness, for its obviously plotted by adults for kids aesthetic, for the Canadian-ness of it (growing up in Canada in the 1980s it was anything but cool). But we still watched it – I know I did, mostly because it was filmed in, and set in Toronto, which I loved, and I would just groove on the scenery. When the final TV movie “School’s Out” aired five years later, I think everyone in school must have watched it because the next day all people could say was “You fucked Tessa Campinelli?” Over the following years it aired in reruns, was relaunched as an enormously successful show called Degrassi that’s still going strong. But now, 30 years on, it’s become comfort TV, for me anyway, because of the cheesiness, because of the plots, because of the amateurish nature of using non-actors. It even makes a brief cameo appearance in my next novel. Those kids are all in their 40s now – and I’m sure the ones who grew up not watching it but actually watching in secret still remember the theme song.
If you know me this will come as a shock, but I grew up listening to Queen. First instance was when we moved to Scarborough Ontario in 1982, and at my new school, had to participate daily in a thing called the Health Hustle. Let me back up; by Age nine I was used to starting over in a new school. I’d lived in Mississauga, in Vancouver, in Edmonton, and now Scarborough. First days in a new school were always weird. Being the new kid, for one, being the kid who had no idea in hell what he was in for was another. So on my first day at North Bridlewood public School, around 11am an announcement came over the PA telling the children it was time for today’s Health Hustle. This was an initiative from the Ontario Public School board dating back to the early 70s, to include mandatory physical activity for school children (recess twice a day was not enough apparently). So when the announcement came we were marched to the gym, where a teacher led us through the health hustle routine of jumping jacks and running in place. I had no idea what or why it was, but there was music on the PA, and that year the music was Queen. We Are the Champions, and We Will Rock you in particular (along with some other songs and bands I’ve forgotten, though I think bad Leroy Brown was one of them). That was my intro to Queen, though they would pop up periodically through my life in the next decade, especially as Much Music arrived on the airwaves. I even remember the day Freddie Mercury passed away. They were always bigger in Canada than they were in the US, which is why when Mike Meyers paid tribute to them in Wayne’s World the next year, Bohemian Rhapsody climbed the charts once again. Incidentally Meyers grew up in that same Scarborough neighborhood, and was a friend of one of my friends’ sisters. To this day a Queen song takes me back to those years and memories.
Just don’t ask me to do the Health Hustle.
People ask me who my favorite author is, I typically say Joe R. Lansdale because he’s awesome and everyone should read his books. But for various reasons Stephen King holds a special place in my heart and it was seeing Stand by Me in the theater that summer that prompted me to seek out Stephen King’s books – specifically the novella The Body, which the film was based on. I remember the surprised gasp that tremored through the theater when “Based on a novella by Stephen king” appeared on screen as the end credits rolled. That Stephen King? It bore some investigating, and I did, scoring a used paperback of Different Seasons the novella collection containing The Body (and Apt Pupil, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and the lesser-known The Breathing Method). I read The Body first, and was shocked by how dark it was. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was mournful in a way the movie wasn’t. The sadness at lost friends, and lost years, suffuses every page of The Body, and in the years since I think I may have read it every year or two. I get older with each read, but Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio remain the same age I was when I saw Stand by Me. As a father to a young boy, it resonates even deeper now. Revisiting The Body is like revisiting old friends; ones you’ll never forget.
5. The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of …
Of course I can’t leave 2016 without mentioning comic books. My career as a comic book creator has been on hold ever since our child was born, and I descended into the world of Magicians Impossible, but I hope to get back into making comics in 2017. To prepare for that I’ve been rereading several seminal titles, the greatest of which, to me, remains Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Everything’s been written about Sandman, its influence, its importance, over the last twenty-five, almost thirty years so what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Nothing. But for me it’s as unique as it was when it first appeared; both cosmic in its scope and intimate in its reach. I’d read periodic issues of it when they first came out, but it wasn’t until 1999, when I became a screenwriter by trade, that I had the money and the time to collect the trade paperbacks, and read them from start to finish. Maybe it’s the fact that it told a complete story. Maybe because every turn of the page felt strangely familiar. Reading it now it’s like an artifact from an earlier age, where my career as a writer was just beginning. But mostly because this story, like all stories, mattered to me, and had the power to change myworld, starting from the smallest speck of dust.
So, as we close up shop on 2016, I encourage each and every one of you to indulge in a little comfort food over the holidays. Listen to that album. Watch that movie. Re-read that book. Get some rest, see some family and friends. And when 2017 arrives, be prepared to fight your hardest for those people and things that mean the most to you.
January 12, 2017 (Addendum)
There’s one more bit of comfort food I have to add, and it’s this …
Netflix has every Star Trek series available to stream, and I’ve begun what looks to be an epic re-watch of the Original Series. It’s been years since I watched any of these episodes, and i’m reasonably certain that, despite it being my favorite of the Trek series, I actually haven’t run the entire series. There’s episodes I’ve seen, ones I remember vividly (working a summer at a Star Trek exhibit in the mid 90s will do that to you), but many I have never seen or have no recollection of – mostly season 3 episodes, natch. So It’s going to be a fun little ride the next while. Lord knows I’m going to need the distraction.