This guy in the audience had two questions and his first one was a beauty, a dazzler. Smith answered with gusto. The guy with the question grinned ear-to-ear because he had asked a Good Question.
Then he came to question two. He was a writer too, he said. He’d been plugging away for a number of years and had never shown his work to anyone. “Would you mind,” he said, “having a look at it and telling me what you think?”
The audience, formerly eating out of the man’s hand, started booing. Smith looked discomfited.
On the chesterfield, in my living room, I writhed in embarrassment.
I had done exactly the same thing.
Not to Kevin Smith, of course, but to Terry Fallis, an award-winning Canadian author, the winner of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and 2011 Canada Reads, no less.
(Cringing as I’m writing this.)
Obviously I’m not the only doofus on this planet to seek validation at the expense of one’s dignity. Knowing there are others like me is not, in any way, comforting. It just makes me feel like a regular doofus. Not a special doofus.
I did my doofusying about a month ago at the North Words Literary Festival here in Muskoka. As well as fawning all over Margaret Atwood on the Friday night, I fawned all over three of the authors at an appropriately named Authors’ Forum on the Saturday night. The forum included a veritable who’s who of Canadian writers, including Richard B. Wright (Clara Callan), Claudia Dey (How to be a Bush Pilot), Charles Foran (Mordecai Richler, Mordecai: The Life and Times won the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction), Dr. Vincent Lam (2006 Giller prize winner for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures), Gill Deacon (There’s Lead in Your Lipstick) and Terry Fallis.
The event was called “The Stories Behind The Books,” meant to give us mere mortals insight into how award-winning, successful authors get things done. So I was all about wanting to hear how they write because I am apparently challenged in that department.
I also wanted to do some fawning. Specifically, I wanted to fawn all over Richard B. Wright. We had a connection, you see. When my marriage fell apart a bazillion years ago, my good friend Mark treated me to a weekend in Toronto meant to cheer me up. Which it did. Unfortunately when his marriage fell apart a few years later, he wasn’t interested in a weekend in the country. (Can you blame him?) Anyway, while I was in The Big Smoke, I popped into a bookstore and saw a book called Adultery, written by an author I previously was unaware of, the afore-mentioned Mr. Wright. I snapped it up because my own marriage had suffered at the hands of my ex’s adultery so the topic was hot with me, to say the least.
The book was fabulous. Even though adultery turned out to be the least of the main character’s problems, and offered no insight whatsoever to my own predicament, I did enjoy the book and became a big fan of Mr. Wright who, I discovered, was FAMOUS and I didn’t realize it. His Clara Callan won him both the prestigious Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. That’s what happens in Canada, by the way. You can win the country’s top literary prizes and people still don’t know who the heck you are. When I was bragging that I had tickets to go see Margaret Atwood, for example, there were plenty of people I work with who had no idea who Margaret Atwood was. Which slayed me. Knocked me over completely dead. One of Canada’s Grand Dames of literature and they didn’t know who she was. They know all about Charlie Sheen and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, though. Makes me wonder if there’s any hope for future generations.
The point is (yes, there is one), I was all set to fawn all over Mr. Wright. I lined up after the forum, with a dozen or so other fawners, waiting to meet him. When it was my turn I described, in bated breath, how much his novel meant to me when I was recently separated. I guess I was hoping he’d be as interested and excited as I was.
“Uh huh,” he said. “That’s nice. What would you like me to say in the autograph?”
I felt like Fred Flintstone, you know, when all the wind blew out of his sails and the tuba made a funny rumbling noise and he shrank to a mere kewpie doll size.
Oh well. I had other fish to fry. I also wanted to talk to Dr. Lam because I liked the answers he gave during the forum. He seemed approachable and he was. But when I told him I had spent all my available cash on Mr. Wright’s books and wanted to buy his but couldn’t afford it, he got a dazed, scared look in his eye and suggested the public library. No, no, I said, I’m not poor, even though I am, sort of. Things got even more awkward so I excused my self before he called security.
The other person I wanted to fawn over was Terry Fallis. I hate to admit this but I had never heard of Mr. Fallis before. After hearing what I told you about Margaret Atwood, are you really surprised? But Mr. Fallis (from here on in I’m going to call him Terry because he’s too nice for Mister) really caught my eye during the forum.
He wrote a book a few years back called The Best Laid Plans. He shopped it around traditional publishers for a year and it was thoroughly and completely ignored. Not one to be discouraged, Terry recorded himself reading the novel and released it, chapter by chapter, as a podcast. People liked it. They really, really liked it. Encouraged by their reaction, he self-published the book. Again, folks liked it.
One day he decided to enter the book in one of Canada’s top literary contests for humour – The Stephen Leacock Award. This is one of the few literary contests that allow self-published books. One of the stipulations, however, is that 10 books be sent in with the entry form. Terry counted the books he had left in his garage. He had exactly 10.
He told me at the forum that, if he had nine, he would gave up right then and there, not having the further chutzpah and will to publish more books. But he had 10 books and he had the chutzpah and he entered the contest before he could talk himself out of it.
Well guess what.
He won! Beating out major authors from major publishing houses. He won, he won, he won!
“Twenty minutes don’t go by in a day when I don’t think, ‘I won the Stephen Leacock Award.’ It never gets old,” he told me.
Suddenly publishers wanted Terry Fallis. Not too much longer after he won the Leacock award, his book was picked up by McClelland & Stewart, one of this country’s most prestigious and oldest publishers.
The Best Laid Plans has done extremely well for Terry. In 2011 he won the Canada Reads contest put on by CBC. He has already published a second book, The High Road, and his star continues to rise. Just a week ago he announced he had finished another manuscript.
It’s funny, I went from never having heard of Terry to admiring him greatly. He did what the rest of us dream of doing. He wrote a book. He was ignored by publishers. He said, “to hell with you,” and did it himself. And now he has the what must be too-delicious knowledge of knowing they were wrong and he was right.
How cool is that?
He was definitely the coolest guy at the forum. And he was nice to me. We struck up quite a conversation, me fawning, him laughing and smiling and giving me really wonderful answers to sometimes silly questions.
After talking to him for a few minutes I summed up all my courage and asked him if he ever read newbie writers.
“Yes,” he said. I think his sunny smile dimmed a slight bit, or maybe it was just Deerhurst Resort hadn’t paid their electric bill.
There was a slight pause. I spit the words out before I could change my mind.
“Would you,” I asked, “read mine?”
“Sure!” he said, dissolving me into a heap of happy bubbles.
Anybody who knows me knows I suffer from perpetually low self-esteem, especially when it comes to writing. Yes, I’ve been writing all my life, as a reporter – but that’s a completely different kind of writing than fiction. I only started writing fiction less than two years ago when I was encouraged by a blog buddy named CJ. She wrote Friday Flash stories once in a while (really, really good stories) and she talked me into giving it a whirl. CJ changed my life. The stories changed my life. I discovered I liked writing fiction and I was kinda, sorta good at it. I joined a writers’ group here in Muskoka and started mingling with people who wrote novels and I began to think about writing a book. It was so scary, though. Me? Write a book? It was almost too ostentatious to even consider.
As time as moved on, and I have continued writing, I am beginning to accept that I am a writer. I am also plodding through my novel. It isn’t easy. If anything, it’s probably the hardest thing I have ever done and every day I wrestle with self-doubt.
Sure, my friends and colleagues who have seen my work are encouraging. But I wondered how much of what they were saying was because they are my friends.
I asked Terry, who didn’t know me from Adam, to give me honest feedback.
“I want you to tell me if I suck,” I said. “I have to know.”
He nodded. He promised to be completely honest. I went home that night with a happy heart. The next morning, I sent him the first chapter of my novel and waited, heart in throat, to hear back.
In the meantime, I started reading his book and fell in love with it. He. Is. So. Funny. I dropped him a quick e-mail to say how much I liked the book and how good he is.
And, this is what he sent back.
(Cue happy music.)
I’ve just read your chapter, and you’re good too! I really like Weezie. She’s my kind of heroine. You succeed in conveying a lot about her without just telling us. Funny too, and funny is hard. I’m a sucker for the kind of humour you’ve injected. The purple splotches on her face had me smiling and feeling for Weezie at the same time. I liked the finish too. I think you were right to end the chapter there. There’s not much more to say after the little guy loses his breakfast.
I don’t really have any criticism to impart. I quite liked what I read and think you’ve hit upon a wonderful voice. I think most readers will want to know more about Weezie and what sounds like a great ride.
My suggestion: keep writing and let Weezie do her thing...
Glad to have met you in Huntsville. Keep me posted…
I was squeeing all over the darn place when that e-mail came in. An award-winning author telling me to keep writing! My happiness ranneth over. It was just the inspiration I needed to buckle down and get my novel written. In fact, I have signed up for NaNoWriMo this year and for the month of November I will be immersed in novel-land. Forgive me if you don’t see me online much. I know this will be all-consuming. I don’t have much extra time in a day as it is and I’m going to have go give up some of my favourite things – including blogging, television, potato chips and sex – in order to find two hours a day for writing. (My kids never read my blog. They think I’m boring. Thank gawd.)
As for Terry Fallis, I am so impressed with this man. He is such a fine writer. As I’m reading, I laugh out loud – no mean trick, I can assure you. It takes a lot for me to laugh out loud at books. When he writes about his character, Daniel Addison, catching his wife with another man, I just about fell over laughing. Not usually a funny subject, but Terry made it hilarious.
I can relate to so many things he says in the book. Like this, for example: Addison lives in a boathouse. A BOATHOUSE! When my marriage fell apart, I moved into a boathouse! Who DOES that? Only me and Daniel Addison, obviously.
The other thing, one of his other main characters is named Angus. That’s my son’s name!
There are lots of other aha moments in the book but they’re not really what gets me going. It’s the writing that gets me going. The humour. The plot. The characters – all the characters are so well-written, so quirky, that they leap off the page.
This is how I want to write when I grow up.
Like Terry Fallis.
And until a month ago, I didn’t even know who he was.
I do now, though, and I’m singing his praises to the skies. Find the book. Read it. Or listen to his podcast. It’s still on iTunes and it’s still free. A bargain, for sure.
For links to his podcast and his book, you can visit Terry’s website here, http://terryfallis.com/
You really are the best.