john-eerkes-medrano 2

I received an email the other day from my friend Janice in St. John’s, NL., telling me than John Eerkes-Medrano had passed away. A heart-attack, she said. And I had to close the lid of my laptop, stop what I was working on.

John was my editor. I’d just finished working on a book with him: a new novel. He liked the title and also the least likable character. He told me it was, at 200, 000 words, a door-stopper and might intimidate some agents and publishers. But he worked with me on that beefy book. And, as editors and writers will do, we wrestled over a few key sections. He told the last line of the novel had to go. I ignored his suggestion. Twice. But, in the end, I saw he was right. The last line is gone now. The book is better for that small change, and for the thousands John suggested in line-level and substantive edits.

Editors are anal. They have to be. And they are also angels. Not the harpist aficionados we cartoon in our minds. But the kind that nearly crippled Jacob in the Old Testament, when Jacob wrestled with one until dawn. Writers wrestle with their editors, and we’re wounded when our weaknesses are pointed out – our pride gets hurt. But a writer who has a good editor will not let go of that editor because he knows that editor, like no other reader, can truly bless his work: make it better.

John was that kind of angel. Fierce, gentle, demanding, keen-eyed. He occasionally  “rolled his eyes” at me in his marginalia: told me I could do better. And so I wrote thinking often of what John might say, how I could keep his attention, make him laugh, make him sweat, make him love a character I was pretty sure (from our conversations online and in person) he’d hate.

Knowing John is no longer here means I’ve lost a friend, an elder. John and I both came from religious backgrounds, and though I do not think he considered himself religious still, to me he was an elder in a religious sense: a guide and confessor. I could talk to him about what my books were really about. He got my mythology, the ancient stories that haunt my contemporary tales. But he always made sure that the myths – the allusions and metaphors – translated well in the story’s own language. “It’s possible, with good writing, to get the angriest skeptic on your side, invested in your story.” And so he guided me in how to do this, and also (with his wry humor), how not to do this. He believed I had something to say. I lost confidence in that assertion with this last project and I emailed him about my concerns. As good elders do, he encouraged me without talking down to me or dismissing my concerns as angsty.

“I don’t think what you have here, in this manuscript, is good just because you pay me!” he joked. “I worked on this so I have skin in the game. It might be a slog, but you just need to keep going.”

I did that, and I’ll keep doing that. Though now without John. Without a man I considered my friend.

John took my first draft of Odin’s Eyes with him on a trip up north. His wife Laura was on a research trip and he was tagging along, he said. I sent him a Word doc. of my manuscript and he wrote back a week later, mid-trip, saying:

Laura’s research trip (my vacation) was wonderful. We spent one week in the village of Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island, just 30 miles off the east coast of Russia, and another week in Shaktoolik, on Norton Sound. The people in Gambell are Siberian Yupik, walrus and whale hunters who still manage to get most of their meat from the sea. And they are tough, heading out in their 12-foot aluminum skiffs to take on these magnificent beasts. Here are a few photos: two kids showing off their new pup (sorry, I couldn’t resist!), the elder Iyaaka telling me about the good old days of hunting on the Bering Sea (a lovely, cantankerous fellow), and a view of Gambell on a rare clear day (that’s a bowhead whale jawbone in the foreground). This visit will stay with me for a long time.

Here’s the picture of him sitting with Iyaaka, the elder.

John Eerkes-Medrano

I wonder if John knew that to me he was an elder. Not in a church, of course. But in that tribe of writers Margaret Laurence once famously spoke of – the CanLit tribe. He welcomed me, let me share his fire – his keen-eyed insights, his brilliance. He celebrated with me when our book was nominated for an award. (What would other editors say if they saw how many exclamation points he used in that email?)

At meals my son Liam grabs my hand and my wife’s hand and squints at me harshly until I pray. This morning, John, I said a prayer for you. I hope that’s okay.


My wife Samantha and my son Liam hijacked my latest novel.

In 2013 I got a summer writing grant to work on a novel set in Newfoundland. The money (almost) covered my flights between Iowa and Newfoundland, where Samantha and I lived for just under 4 years while I completed a Ph.D. in English at Memorial University. So the trip, when I wrote my original grant application, was supposed to be this nostalgic return to a place we both had come to love, and I was going to get my doctoral cap and gown, and then stay on in St. John’s for 3 more weeks to work on this new novel project.

That was the plan before Samantha found out she was pregnant: something that we’d been told by several doctors was an impossibility. Then it happened: she got pregnant. And everything changed. Not it a splitting-of-the-Red-Sea kind of way, but slowly, over time, irrevocably, everything changed.

That’s true, of course. But it’s also a lie.

It’s a lie because my travel plans did not change. Samantha had come along for the first part of the trip to spend time with old friends, to see a few old haunts, and to celebrate her putting me through grad. school. Then she had to return to Iowa because her summer camp season was starting, and, being the Assistant Camp Director, she kind of needed to be there. And I stayed in Newfoundland, rooming with our friends Janice and Javier for 2 weeks, writing 14-16 hours a day while in St. John’s. And then my buddy Marv gave me a lift to Central Newfoundland, and I caught the ferry to Fogo Island, just off Newfoundland’s northeast coast, where I spent my last week. All this was part of the original plan.

Except for Samantha being pregnant. Which meant that while I wore sweaters everyday, writing in Janice’s and Javier’s basement, enjoying Newfoundland’s springtime RDF (Rain, Drizzle, and Fog)weather I really do prefer to oppressive prairie sunshineSamantha was back on the prairies, working full time and coming home in 80+ F humidity to cook her own meals and mow the lawn every other day, all while she was 6-7 months pregnant. (To add insult to injury, when I finally got back home it was the heat of summer and the grass only needed mowing every other week or so).

In our late night phone talks while I was away, and in conversations since then, Samantha told me how truly lonely she felt in those months. I missed a good chunk of her pregnancy, a pregnancy that was not supposed to have happened but miraculously did. So why did I stay in Newfoundland? I guess the main reason was that I was worried that the chance to write that book in that place would not come around again. I didn’t want to miss out.

But I did.

I missed out on something bigger, more profound, and though the book is now done and I’m proud of it and it’s marked throughout with my son’s indelible infant fingerprints on my imagination, I know, when I’m honest with myself, that I missed out on something important.

That’s a regret I’ll live with. Samantha and I joke about the lawn mowing now, but I know that I should have changed plans and come home. Maybe given back some of the money. Maybe. But I didn’t. And that made me the self-obsessed sort of writer I’ve never wanted to be: the guy who chooses his art over his family.

That said, even half a continent apart, Samantha and my unborn son still managed to hijack my novel.

After a Skype call with Samantha, during which she tried to describe the feeling of the baby kicking (something I’d not yet felt with my own hand), I went downstairs to work on a scene in which one of my characters was switching out human ash, stowed in a funeral urn, for heroin. I knew this character would receive a call from his girlfriend after he’d performed the switch, which he’d done to keep from getting caught with the drugs. That was part of the original plot plan. He would get a call from his girlfriend, who he’d left behind after he’d been blackmailed to run the drugs across the island. I was expecting that fictional call, but Samantha’s Skype call sabotaged that scene. And, as a result, I wound up putting my character in my shoes: making him deal with the mess he was in while knowing that his girlfriend was pregnant: making him squirm with the knowledge that much more was at stake than his original, petty scheme.

I once heard Michael Winter say that writers shouldn’t write about writers’ writing, because it kills a scene: it’s inactive, there’s rarely dialogue, and there’s too much attention given to examining the act of writing, an act on which writers are naturally focused but which is not intrinsically interesting to a reader. A scene in which a writer muses on what he is writing is (most often) as boring as watching a guy pick lint from between his toes. I knew all that when I had my character step into my shoes at the end of that scene. I knew this novel couldn’t turn into writerly introspection and self-pity, even though that’s probably what I was tending toward that day.

But I also knew that in order not to miss more than I already was missing, I needed in some way, in the world of the novel, to turn my attention to Samantha and our unborn son. I needed to actually feel the separation between us, instead of trying not to think about it and to focus on my writing. I needed to acknowledge my regret in my writing and to try, in my own stupid, limited way, to imagine what Samantha might be feeling, alone as she was.

In writing that novel, that elaborate lie, I needed to try to tell the truth.

This might seem like quite a leap, but the compulsion to tell the truth in my writing, even when doing so involves confessing that I’m self-obsessed, is similar to the compulsion I feel to practice my faith as a Christian. Christianity, after all, when it tells the truth about us humans, isn’t complimentary: it’s brutally honest. We fail and in our failure we hurt ourselves and other people, causing us and them to suffer.

I realized that being away from Samantha hurt me as much as it hurt her. I was lonely, as was she. When I realized that, I knew I needed to acknowledge that hurt in the novel: in that story the creation of which was causing much of our pain. And so writing became a kind of fictional confession.

This confession, by the way, is not what I set out to write today. I wanted to be funny, like I tried to be in the last post. But what I intended to say was altered when I read an interview with author Nathan Poole at the Fiction Writers Review this morning, in which Poole talks about suffering, writing, and religious faith:

Religious faith will always be a crisis of praxis for me. It is both a theory of suffering and a way to suffer. Marx is famously quoted out of context as saying that religion was an opiate for the masses, a drug wishful people could take to make themselves feel better, feel safer, but anyone who has had a religious experience knows it’s the opposite. Marx himself, in the same statement, didn’t seem to intend that interpretation. He called religion the ‘heart of a heartless world’ both referring to it as a life-giving thing and a contrivance at once. If you do that math, that equates to a logical crisis, to tremendous intellectual suffering. My faith asks me to know and suffer the paradoxes of the self and doubt unto joy, to pass through suffering with others and with God, not out of it. Writing is a way to do that, a form of suffering that leads to joy. Related is something Simone Weil once said: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ This kind of consummate attention is what I feel called to as a fiction writer—it can be called empathy, of course, and it is that, but it also transcends that category. It is empathy and response, a kind of longing in language toward meaning.

Writing honestly, like living honestly (with or without faith), involves seeking to know, experience, and express “the paradoxes of the self and doubt unto joy.” That joy isn’t an opiate; it’s not a numbing drug. And it isn’t an escape or a turning away from life. That kind of joy comes only with empathy and response and an openness to the unexpected.

It’s returning home and telling your wife you should have come home sooner.

It’s giving up your original story plan for a thicker, more complicated plot.

It’s saying to your toddler, when he’s kneeling on his red plastic table, his face pressed against the living room window, watching robins flit in the lush, spring Iowan grass: “I didn’t feel your first kick, and I’m sorry for that. I was writing a novel, which seems silly now. If you ever read it, though, I hope you’ll see how you kept kicking my hands as I wrote with you in mind.”

I say this to my son in all seriousness, of course. And then Liam, not knowing why I’m so sad, goes and gets his favorite pop-up book of deep sea creatures and crawls into my lap and claps his hands for me to read to him.

standards.wroughtSo this photo hit my Facebook feed this morning, approximately twenty min. before the proverbial sh** hit the fan. It was a busy morning to begin with, my get-crap-done hump-day; and, because it’s the end of term, that means grading, tutorial meetings, and grudgingly extending deadlines to students who are struggling to survive various apocalypses in which all their technology has exploded (laptops, iPhones, and coffee makers) and all seventeen of their grandmothers have become seriously, seriously ill … “Like, maybe even dead.” And, on top of my regular Wednesday to-do list, I also had an eight-item addendum list that Samantha had me scrawl at breakfast on a newspaper page listing local yard sales to visit on my lunch hour, because our son Liam is nearing his second birthday and who in their right mind buys new stuff for toddlers when you can get next-to-new stuff at yard sales?

And all the like-minded, frugal parents out there said, “Well, duh.”

I don’t have a particular problem with said parents, just that they descend on such yard sales the night before they open and scoop up all the good stuff like so many Death Eaters at a Harry Potter convention. This year, however, Samantha decided we were going to beat them at their game, and by we she meant me; meaning my lunch hour today was to be spent flying around town and scooping up all the good stuff. (Wizarding Wars, a.k.a. Yard Sales in our town, start at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays, to give stay-at-home parents the edge, I think. But I work in town and have a lunch break midday, so, according to Samantha, there’s no reason I can’t practice this dark art of Wed. Yard Sale-ing. Which of course means I’ve been training, practicing my own brand of parent-vs.-parent sorcery: my Soccer-Parent Slide-Tackle, in case things get crazy.)

So, all that taken into account, when Samantha left for work, I was geared up for a busy day. And, like most people preparing for such a day, I poured myself a cup of coffee and did that modern form of mental yoga known as “checking Facebook,” which is where I found this photo by Toronto-based photographer Jonathan Castellino, titled “standards.wrought.”

Busy as I felt, thinking about my day before it actually got started, everything inside me stilled for one blessed moment when I saw Castellino’s photograph. It was iconic for me, the image: like a religious icon, because as I stared at it, I felt like I passed out of my own chaotic kitchen (I still hadn’t put the dishes away from the night before), and I passed into that quiet, vacant sanctuary. When I was a kid in grade school, we performed our Christmas concerts in a church with a choir loft, and, oftentimes, I would sneak away from the busyness below – rehearsals, sword fights with mop handles and shepherd crooks, petty arguments over which of the wise men’s turbans was the coolest – and I’d just watch the craziness, as if from a clifftop.

I’ve often been told, when something or someone is really getting to me, to “rise above” the situation. That expression has bothered me, though, because it seems escapist – detached, platonic, privileged. And, as a maxim, “rising above” a given situation connotes, in some way, removing yourself from that situation, either by rapture or refusing to get involved further. When people talk about rising above something or someone, I cringe because such talk, to me, smacks of a holier-than-thou superiority complex: people who can’t be bothered dealing with things as they are.

Don’t “rise above,” I think: get involved. Engage.

Yet I found myself this morning wanting to slip into that photograph, those old memories, and just watch the day unfold: observe the drama without getting stressed about it or caught up in it.

Then I got a call from our plumber who this week had dug up a section of our sewer line. He said that when he got down there he saw that the line – the whole line – was in bad shape and would need to be replaced. All 50+ feet of it, connecting the house next door to our house to the main line beneath the street on the far side of our other neighbor’s yard.

Have you ever felt fish-hooked by a dollar sign in your head?

For a second I’d been above it all, looking down at the day’s busyness just beginning to thrum, my boy beginning to stir and cry in the next room. Then the plumber’s call, the panicked calculation of what’s in our bank account, and Liam beginning to wail because Daddy wasn’t heading in right away to get him up. And I remembered this past summer, in that small apartment in Sioux City, writing that novel; I recalled those days when Liam, no matter what I did, just would not nap and fussed away: in my lap, in his pack n’ play, in the bathtub, outside, anywhere. Nonstop.

And I was supposed to be writing, especially during those sacred daily nap times.

As I stared dumbfounded at that Castellino photo, the plumber’s news seeming sh***ier the longer I thought about it, I remembered those days when all I wanted was a quiet loft somewhere in which to write, an empty balcony to which I could escape: a cabin in the words, a writer’s studio, an Italian mountaintop villa. But this morning, like those days in the summer when Liam just would not nap, I couldn’t escape. I could not “rise above” it all. Not literally, at least.

But I remembered this morning what I realized this past summer: I can still work (creatively or otherwise) while immersed in chaotic, less-than-ideal, everyday-life circumstances. It takes intentional focus, what monks call contemplation. But it can be done. And it doesn’t involve a physical retreat from my life, which is what I crave in stressful situations: the holy monastic cell of my bed. When things get chaotic, I get exhausted, and my default reaction is to just want to sleep until everything smooths out. This drives Samantha wild, of course. And when I once pointed out that Jesus did the same thing when he fell asleep in the back of a boat after a stressful day of feeding five thousand people, Samantha pointedly informed me that I wasn’t Christ, in case I hadn’t noticed, and supper still needed to be made.

Samantha keeps me grounded, and I love her for that (and for so much more). She more-or-less reminded me this morning, when I called her to tell her about our sewer line, that I needed “get my head around this” (i.e. practice this sort of contemplation while not retreating from or “rising above” my responsibilities. There were still phone calls to be made, after all). Seeing Castellino’s photo this morning, I thought of a new term for that kind of real-world contemplation, the kind that allows me to write mentally even when I’m not at my desk.

I decided to call it “choir-lofting creativity”: the kind of imaginative contemplation that allows you to both attend to the world you find yourself in – soothing fussy kids, getting daily crap done, arranging to have whole sewer lines replaced – while imagining what all that madness might look like from a reader’s balcony perspective. Practicing choir-lofting creativity, this past summer and today, helps me read the life I have, to see the humor in it, the petty drama, the sometimes farcical beauty of these crazy times. Every stinking moment.

The craziness, after all, won’t go away. Life doesn’t stop. Not for writers, stay-at-home parents, academics, or anyone. And to be honest, I don’t want to escape. I want to write all this down, somehow. I want to pay attention. I want to be a better reader of my own life.

crow in flight

I’ve always been intrigued by myths, particularly ancient Norse myths, probably because when I first started hearing and reading Norse mythology, I’d already read The Lord of the Rings, and so stories of Odin and Thor were like Gandalf and Aragorn fan fiction. Except, of course, that those fan fictions, collected in The Poetic Edda (12th or 13th c.), pre-dated Tolkien by roughly 7 or 8 centuries. But, for a kid who thought Rich Mullins (a contemporary Christian singer/songwriter) wrote the Apostles’ Creed because I’d memorized Mullins’ ’93 hit “Creed” before I ever stepped foot in Anglo-Catholic church, making these backwards discoveries, slowly discovering my own modern blind spots, was kind of mind-blowing.

I grew up a first wave Mellenial (b. 1983), raised Pentecostal, which is a modern, evangelical form of Christianity, which is itself an ancient faith. So growing up in such a religious tradition always involved discovering the ancient roots of our contemporary practices. And, as I grew up and went to college and learned more and more history, this involved (painfully) realizing that some connections to ancient practices were more tenuous than others. Even from a young age, however, I was interested in ancient stories in which the characters seemed, well, modern: at least in their desires and scheming, their betrayals and hatred, their bravery and love.

When I started reading Tolkien and, later, Norse myths, I was enchanted by characters who seemed legitimately old and of another world, but also recognizable and human. Even the elves, like Legolas, whose banter with Gimli during the siege of Helm’s Deep showed me an early image of friendship between two people of different ages, from different races, and with profoundly different worldviews. So, I’ve found it odd recently, with the HBO-hyped Game of Thrones fever, that critics often shorthand the difference been George R. R. Martin and J. R. R. Tolkien as Martin writing “real human characters” and Tolkien writing “mythic archetypes,” as if these are two different things instead of unique artistic ways of writing the same thing.

I’m ultimately not at all interested in a Marvel/D.C.-esque throw-down debate between GOT vs. LOTR. I’m an eager reader of both writers’ worlds. I find both worlds populated by human characters with human motivations, including elves and dwarves, as I’ve said. As a writer, and not a fantasy writer but a so-called “realist” (cue Ursula K. Le Guin’s rhetorical eye-roll at that term), I am interested in what myths might look like in modern stories: realist fictions, not urban fantasies or Potter-esque tales or even works of magical realism. This is not because I’m opposed to or even disinterested in these genres; I read them all widely and teach them all in my lit. and writing classes. But each writer needs to know their area: that kind of writing, that genre, to which they are most drawn. Some writers are multi-genre masters (think Le Guin, Atwood, Ishiguro), others find their field and work only it, trying to coax their own creative seeds to take root and produce fruit: new stories.

My particular field is realism, but a realism that wrestles with old myths: that finds in old myths new ways in which to understand the contemporary world I find myself in. As I point out above, this interest comes from my religious upbringing, a heritage I cannot nor wish to shrug off, any more than I wish to live unthinkingly within it. My own journey involves trying to understand my world as it is now, and ancient stories, both of my faith and not of my faith, are as much a part of that lived whirlwind as are contemporary stories: stories of my faith, other faiths, those on the fringes of faith, and those who profess no faith or who are opposed to faith.

These stories are the clashing, conjoining, and changing weather patterns of my world.

So what’s the relation back to old Norse myths?

The “Voluspo,” one of the tales collected in The Poetic Edda, tells how Odin foresaw Ragnarok, the destruction of the gods, beginning with his beloved son Baldr’s death. Though the dating of this tale is contested by scholars, Henry Adam Bellows has proposed a 10th c. authorship by “a pagan Icelander with knowledge of Christianity.” In other words, a poet or writer living in a clash of tales who set about both telling and re-telling the stories that shaped his or her contemporary world.

What happens when you live in the midst of competing mythologies that in their uniqueness and difference shape the way you see yourself and your world?

That question will have varying answers depending on the creative project. My new novel Odin’s Eyes (no yet published), has specific answers to this question, dealing with a mesh of various mythologies.

One of those myths, though – one of the stories that shaped the book – was becoming a father partway through drafting it. And, as I was living, thinking, and imagining my way into fatherhood (which involved changing diapers, thinking about changing diapers, and dreaming about changing diapers), I was struck, as I’m sure most parents are, by how my love for my son (despite and because of all that diaper changing) germinated, grew, and bloomed in new and surprising ways.

And this strange, shape-shifting, evolving love made me wonder about stories I knew, ancient stories about fathers who loved their sons: God the Father loving Christ, the cosmic story at the heart of Christianity; Odin loving his beautiful son Baldr, whose death begins the apocalypse of the gods. In the “Voluspo” that story goes like this:

32. I saw for Baldr, | the bleeding god,
The son of Odin, | his destiny set:
Famous and fair | in the lofty fields,
Full grown in strength | the mistletoe stood.

Fuller versions of the tale say that Frigg, Baldr’s mother, had demanded that all created things, save mistletoe, not harm her son. Being a god, I guess creation listened up. She left mistletoe out, though, because it was a wimpy plant, not a possible threat. But then it became a sport to hurl things at Baldr, who could not be hurt by anything, and Loki, out of spite, handed Baldr’s blind brother Hoth a sprig of mistletoe, which Hoth hurled at his brother, killing him and bringing grief on all the gods. That’s the fuller version, told by Snorri, writer of The Prose Edda. But the “Voluspo” is told as a story, a vision, related to Odin by a seer. Odin, the allfather, in that version, has to imagine his own son’s death.

And we don’t know Odin’s emotional response to the tale, his fear. Unless you read into his rage his great fear of losing his son and see in that fear itself an incarnation of love. (There’s also the frustrating question of why the frig Frigg’s love for her son isn’t mentioned. What does that look and feel like?)

As I wrote this newest novel, I thought a lot about this story, and wondered, if my child was ever in danger, what extremes would I go to in order to keep him from harm, from a Baldr-like demise, whatever that might look like in our modern world? That question drove the story line involving Gerry Malone, who first appeared in A Blessed Snarl.

Seeing my son play everyday in the room where I wrote made me realize that college campus apartment in Sioux City, for all it’s strange smells and scuzziness, was a kind of paradise. And outside it, the world – filled with mistletoe and other dangers. And I realized, as all parents do, that my son will have to live in that world, flooded with competing mythologies. And, when he enters that world, I want him to know that I love him, and fear for him, and hope the best for him. Always.

And so the book, dark as it is, became a kind of love letter to my son.

Last summer (2014), my wife Samantha and I moved to Sioux City, Iowa, for 4 months so Samantha would be closer to her work at Camp High Hopes, a state-of-the-art camp for people with disabilities. My wife is my hero, and her work is important and life-changing for the campers with whom she works. But she usually makes a 2 hour round trip commute each day during the school year. The move was to take some of the commuter stress out of her day, allowing her to focus more fully on summer camps and to be closer to Liam and I.

The perk of the move, for me, was that we got put up in college apartments close to the camp. A quiet, (surprisingly clean!) two room place with a desk by a window, a full kitchen, and air conditioning. The perfect little writing space for four months, where I could work on my novel-in-progress. No household distractions like cleaning gutters, mowing the lawn, gardening, etc.

No distractions, that is, except for my nearly one-year-old boy Liam who was then crawling around at a quicker clip and beginning to pull himself up on the furniture.

Many of my good friends are stay-at-home parents and full-time writers of various stripes. Any frustrations or poop-on-the-manuscript stories I could tell would likely pale in comparison to these friends who somehow manage to run households and create original work and make it all seem par for the course. There was a time, writing my last book, A Blessed Snarl, before I became a father, when I romanticized these friends and writers like them. Sure, I thought then, they have all the time in the world to write, like when the kids are napping or playing quietly.

Then I spent a summer trying to write full time while being a full-time stay-at-home parent.

I hazily recall finally getting Liam to go down for a nap, tip-toeing out of his room while trying to avoid the three squeaky spots in the floor, making coffee, settling into my chair at my desk in front of my laptop (internet clicked off, manuscript Word doc. open) and feeling absolutely exhausted. All I wanted to do was have a nap, but  I knew that would be an hour of precious writing time wasted on beauty sleep, and because I know for a fact that sleep does not make me more beautiful, I’d push through and try to get in-scene: try to make my characters move through the tired fog I myself was lost in.

Thank God for editing functions like cut & paste. Most of those sleep-deprived scenes have been either heavily re-worked or scrapped altogether.

But I learned something on those days when I’d try to force characters through a room, try to imagine what they’d do or say or think, all while essentially intoxicated with lack of sleep. (Driving tired is the same as driving drunk, they say; I assume it’s the same for writing). I learned that forcing myself to write while exhausted made me both a half-assed writer and parent. My scenes were clunky and I was no good to my boy when he woke up and wanted to play.

I also learned I didn’t need to sacrifice one for the other. (Don’t worry, you parents reading this, if it had come to that I’d have sacrificed my writing for my son. I’m not some egocentric American male writer, circa 1970, who thinks my art is worth more than my family). I learned I could strike a balance, and that to do so I had to listen to my body and my boy. So, I learned to take short naps right when I put Liam to bed. 15 min. or so: enough to reboot, essentially. Then I could do household chores like laundry, dishes, and general clean-up (living in the apartment made these tasks more minimal than at home). And then, in the remaining time of Liam’s nap, I could read over what I’d written the day before and block out scenes in a notebook, scrawl dialogue exchanges on shopping receipts I kept on my desk. Read a bit.

Then Liam would scream that he was awake and it was time for him.

All those notes I kept and the mental writing I did during the day (when I was alert and not dopey) guided my evening writing sprees after Liam went to bed and before Samantha got home late from camp. Between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., five days a week, I hammered out the rest of that rough draft.

Once I found that rhythm, that balance, both writing and parenting became invigorating. Which meant I was alert enough to remember all the crazy and beautiful things I saw my son do that summer: that time I took him to Bacon Creek Park and lounged beneath a tall tree while he crawled off the picnic blanket and found pine cones to show me, his face dappled in the late afternoon sun.

In moments like that I knew he’d hijack my novel in the best way possible. And he did. (But more on that later …)


It was pretty freakin’ cool to find out in November 2013 that A Blessed Snarl was one of 11 Canadian novels nominated to the long-list of 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award along with internationally known authors like Colm Toibin, Louise Erdrich, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, and John Irving. 

The shortlist will be announced on 9th April and the winner on 12th June.

You can read the award press release here. And you can read Quill & Quire‘s reviews of most of the Canadian novels here.

Here’s a little peak at Image‘s March 2013 Artist of the Month feature. To read more, click here.

Samuel Thomas Martin is possessed of the ability to spin a good yarn—and also to plumb the depths. In his novels and short fiction he marries canny and satisfying storytelling with a rich and sympathetic investigation of his characters’ interior worlds, all lovingly and convincingly grounded in the land- and seascapes of his native Canada. His critically acclaimed first novel, A Blessed Snarl, is a family saga worthy of the Old Testament. It explores the unraveling of a man driven to the edge of a continent, back to his childhood home on a spare, demanding island of Newfoundland, where he wrestles with matters of marriage, forgiveness, religious calling, and faithfulness. He wants to live the kind of life his grandparents had; his wife finds their new life in a remote community stifling, and eventually reacts calamitously. It’s to Martin’s credit as a writer that while we find the main character’s ambition sympathetic, even admirable, her response to their isolation feels no less understandable. Martin’s short stories, collected in This Ramshackle Tabernacle, are also populated with men on the verge. His currency is the tension between the past and the future, loyalty and ambition, courage and desperation, art and pragmatism. Over and over, what draws him is the clash of the old world and the modern one—a war played out through technologies, values, manners, and landscapes.

You can read an excerpt from “Running the Whale’s Back,” part of Samuel’s new book A Blessed Snarl, featured in IMAGE issue 72 here.