Monthly Archives: May 2016

Gord Downie

Last week we got the news that Gord Downie has brain cancer. For those who don’t know, Downie is the lead singer and songwriter for The Tragically Hip, one of Canada’s most popular band. Downie’s cancer was announced as being terminal, and the Hip are doing one last tour this summer to give fans a chance to say goodbye and, I presume, themselves a chance to say goodbye to the fans and to give Downie a fitting end to a great career.

I wanted to write something immediately when the announcement dropped, but it took a while before I was ready. I think I am ready now, and so here we go.

A friend of mine wrote on Facebook that he was surprised to realize how much different times of his life were associated with Tragically Hip songs, and for people who grew up at the right time (and, I guess, liked that kind of music) I imagine the story is much the same. It certainly is for me. The first dorm room I lived in, the first place that I lived in outside of my parents’ house, looked out at a huge ad for the Hip album Fully Completely painted on the wall of a nearby record store. That album will probably always make me think of being a fairly clueless young dude trying to figure out who the heck I was outside of my small town for the first time. (It took a while. I’m very nearly finished.)

Phantom Power came out at at time when I was figuring out that, yes, I really was crazy enough to give this medieval history thing a go. Music at Work had just released when I was going overseas to study in England for a year, and that album became my little dose of Canada in a faraway place when I needed it. In Violet Light came out as I was trying to reinvent myself from ‘student’ into ‘teacher’, to whatever degree of success. And so it goes.

So, yes, I’ve been a fan of the Hip and their music for a big chunk of my life and I expect I’ll be listening to it for a very very long time yet. People who understand music and its history better than me have written praise for the band, for Downie, and his lyrics and I’m not going to try to do better than them. I will say that yes, part of the appeal has always been (as a Canadian) hearing such very Canadian things being referenced and weaved into the songs the band does. A lot of Canadian artists try to excise all the evidence of their origins, and I think it’s wonderful that the Hip have never done that, and that Canada has always been the foundation of so much of what they do. As a writer, Downie’s skill at crafting a memorable image or phrase is astounding and if I am ever a tenth as good with words as he is I’ll be doing very well indeed. So I like the Hip on several levels.

The thing is that the relationship is a little more complicated than that, because I would also admit that I don’t like all their stuff equally. If you listen to their collection of work, there’s a lot of variation, and not all of it has really worked for me. There are some albums that I just haven’t liked very much, to my great disappointment as a fan. The thing that I do greatly respect, though, is that this is a band that has continued to do these different and creative things throughout their career. They could probably have just continued to churn out albums that sounded more or less exactly like Fully Completely and sold a lot of them, but it’s clear that Downie and the Tragically Hip were and are interested in exploring artistically and doing things they hadn’t done before and creating something genuinely new with each album.

I think, as an artist, that no-one is going to like everything you create equally, unless what you create is always the same. I don’t know Gord Downie, but I suspect he’s not the least bit interested in doing the same song twice, or creating the same experience from album to album. To me that’s how you can tell that this is an artist who is deeply in love with his art, and even though not all of it works for me in the same way, I can only deeply admire the man and his process.

I hope he and the rest of the Hip have a great tour this summer and step off the stage in the way they’d like to. Thanks for the tunes and thanks for the words, guys, I’m keeping them forever.


I wanted to weigh in briefly on the Captain America thing. I’m going to preface this by saying that I haven’t read the comic, which may be where some of you get off (which is fair), but it’s the broad strokes of what has just been published by Marvel that I want to touch on today.

Again, for those who don’t know, last week it was revealed that in the first issue of his new comic run, the original, Steve Rogers Captain America reveals an allegiance to the fascist organization Hydra. This kind of Shocking and Unbelievable Plot Twist is far from out of character for the comics industry, that has been boosting sales and grabbing attention by killing Superman and breaking Bruce Wayne’s back and having Doctor Octopus steal Peter Parker’s body ‘forever’ and oh yes Steve Rogers even got killed a while back.

This kind of thing is (I presume) good business practice for comics publishers to pull in readers and sell a bunch of issues and get their titles in the headlines for a while. Heck, I remember when Spider-Man got married, well before the superhero fad we are currently experiencing, that made all the papers. So it obviously works for them and so they keep doing it, and the second truth of most of these Shocking and Unbelievable Plot Twists is that they get undone in the end and things get put back as they were. Superman comes back to life. Bruce Wayne isn’t really retired as Batman. Steve Rogers wasn’t dead either. And so on.

So there’s some reason to expect than after a certain space of time, Captain America, HYDRA agent, will be undone or revealed to be untrue in some fashion. As a result, some say, there’s no reason to be more upset about this than any other Shocking and Unbelievable Plot Twist that appears in comics.

I disagree, and here’s why. The thing about HYDRA is that they’re Nazis. Yeah, I know it’s not a 1:1 relationship but the fictional organization has been written as a Nazi analogue, with actual Nazi members, for long enough that you can’t effectively separate the two. It’s part of what makes HYDRA effective villains, because ‘Nazis, I hate these guys’. Nazis are great villains because they’re genuinely reprehensible (of course) so you don’t have to work very hard to get your reader on board to root against a Nazi villain. You also don’t have to worry about offending people by having a Nazi villain – the number of people who will come out and explain that you’re actually being quite unfair in portraying Nazis in a negative light is (fortunately) vanishingly small.

So Nazis work great as villains and writers and movie makers use them all the time. Having a good character turn bad is the sort of Shocking and Unbelievable Plot Twist that also happens all the time in serialized fiction (not just comics!) and so in a way, having Cap join HYDRA (or always having been HYDRA or whatever) seems like an obvious gambit. I can see, kind of, where someone thought it was a great plan.

Here’s the problem. We often forget that the Nazis aren’t just great, convenient fictional villains. They were (and to some extent are) a real movement with real members and who did awful, horrific things to real people on a scope and scale never before seen in human history. Their (real) ideology was (and is) vitriolically hateful and racist towards people who really exist. The pain they inflicted in the real world continues to impact many cultures and families right up to the present day.

With this in mind, it’s maybe a little questionable that we use Nazis as fictional villains at all, or that we don’t use them with more care than we sometimes do. (That’s a topic for another blog, perhaps) What isn’t questionable, though, is that you they aren’t like other, fully fictional villains for these reasons. And so making Captain America a HYDRA member isn’t like making him join up with Dr. Doom or Magneto or some completely fictional villain. You’ve aligned him with a real-world ideology that caused real-world harm to a great many people. Marvel has said that they wanted to create a situation where Cap is still acting as a hero but now has this secret agenda, which is a neat concept but they haven’t just given him any villainous or immoral secret agenda, they’ve given him the agenda of racists and fascists who really existed. There’s no take-backs on that one.

I wrote a while ago (about Atticus Finch) about the need to use our characters with care, especially the ones that our readers have gotten invested in, and not abuse the trust that readers have placed in us. I feel like making a beloved character a surprise Nazi falls under that category. I know Captain America will eventually be restored to his heroic status quo, but it kind of doesn’t matter. Being a Nazi is unforgivable and irredeemable in the eyes of a lot of readers, with some justification. If Captain America quits HYDRA next issue, it really doesn’t matter if he’s been a Nazi all this time. You can’t bring a character back from that. (Sure, he *used to be* a Nazi, but…)

I can actually think of a couple of ways that Marvel can write themselves out of this situation with a character who you could still call a hero. Maybe that’s what they’re going to do. The problem for them is that the damage has already been done for a lot of people who were invested in their character and their fiction, and they may not get those people back.

It’s amazing the power that fiction has over its readers and the times I’ve had people tell me that one of my characters touched something in them mean a lot to me. It also means we need to be careful as writers. People let us way inside them, and while we have a lot of freedom to do what we want with our art, I think there’s an element of trust there that we mustn’t abuse. For what it’s worth, I think Marvel is over the line with Nazi Captain America.


Ooof, that went long, huh? Ok, one quick thing and I’m done: I will be at Prose in the Park here in Ottawa this weekend! It’s my first chance to attend as an author and I’m very excited. Unfortunately space is pretty tight and we haven’t yet finalized exactly when I’ll be at the Renaissance Press table through the day on June 4, but once I know I’ll update on Twitter on Facebook. If you’re in the city you should definitely come out as it promises to be a fantastic day of books and authors in a beautiful setting. Hope to see you there!

This is also the last week of my fundraising for Fort McMurray relief; if you buy The King in Darkness I am donating my cut to the Red Cross. Details of how it works here.

Thanks for reading.

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This past weekend was a long weekend in Canada and between the weather cooperating and a bloc of available time, I finally had the chance to do my spring gardening. I swear this is not going to become Evan’s Hobby Blog, but with writing at kind of a standstill the past while (not permanently, but I’m still struggling to find a time to write that’s going to work) I thought I’d share some reflections on digging in the dirt today.

Wait, where are you going?

For those of you who stayed, I have always enjoyed messing around with plants. My Mum gave me a little corner of her garden when I was quite little (I believe I successfully grew carrots) and whenever I have had a place with a little space to grow a plant or two, I have. When I spent a year in England for my MA I got a little cactus for my dorm room; this turned out to be a rather fraught relationship as I had a singular talent for knocking the poor thing off the windowsill and it retaliated by leaving evil little spines imbedded in my flesh. The cactus stayed behind when I returned to Canada and I hope it found someone to take care of it.

Most of the times plants and I get along pretty well though. Some years I have done vegetables, some, (like this one) the garden is mostly flowers. Both have their charms. You can’t do much better than a vegetable fresh from your own garden, and having a little oasis of colour to step outside and enjoy is a wonderful antidote to stress. So I enjoy the results of gardening.

I also enjoy the process. I like digging in the earth and getting my hands dirty, planting seeds or little plantlings, and then the day-to-day care of tending to the garden – watering, getting rid of weeds, picking off the dead blossoms, and so on. Obviously lots of people have written about the meditative qualities of gardening and I’m not going to try to do better than them. I do also think that the practicality and tangibility of working in the garden is part of the attraction for me. Most of us probably have some problems in our lives that we’re not sure how to solve, if they even can be solved, or that we struggle to make progress with. Gardening has a very nice immediacy to it; you can spend some time pulling weeds and very clearly have Done A Thing, and step back and look at what you just accomplished. Really the whole garden works that way; you can see the results of your efforts very clearly and without wondering ‘well, is all the work I’m doing really making a difference?’ In the garden, it clearly is.

There is (I guess obviously) some connection to writing, or at least I think there is. It is very satisfactory, in I think a similar way, to spend time writing and then look at all the words on the page and realize that you’ve created A Thing, something that people may even enjoy in a somewhat similar way as they may enjoy looking at your garden. I suppose writing takes the process a little further in that when we write, we create something wholly unique and new out of ourselves, whereas the snapdragons in my garden are basically the same snapdragons you’d see anywhere.

I wouldn’t say I’m much of an artist at gardening (although some people certainly are), but it’s something I enjoy and that I think improves my mental health and that I like to think nourishes the parts of my makeup that also help me to write things. So perhaps working in the garden will help me get past this writing standstill.

I have an ancient geranium that is now in its 15th year. It has been through four moves and, perhaps more difficult for the plant, many winters. Winters are hard because the geranium has to move indoors, and I’ve never had a place that has windows that face the right direction to give full sun through the day. As a result the geranium dies back each winter, waiting for spring so it can go back out in the sun and start to grow again.

I mention the geranium because I’m trying to take it as an example for my writing, at the moment. Sometimes it isn’t a very good season for creativity, and productivity dies back. I think that’s ok, and for most people probably inevitable. I also think for most artistic people, as soon as conditions are better, the art will come back, just like the geranium always gets green and leafy and flowery as soon as it can go back outside in the springtime. Right now my writing is kind of in ‘winter geranium’ mode, but I’m sure ‘spring’ can’t be far away.

For now I’m going to water my garden before the day gets too warm, enjoy the flowers, and trust that my writing will have some new growth as well before long.

Thanks for reading.


My friend Su Sokol is doing a reading from her novel Cycling to Asylum in Ottawa on Sunday, May 29th. It will be at Perfect Books on Elgin St. and gets started at 2:30 pm. The event is free (yay!) and Su will do a brief Q&A afterwards. This is a great chance to come out and meet an exciting Canadian author in a lovely venue and if you’re a fan of SFF you should come on down.

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Running with my Grandfather

If (god help you) you are a long-time reader of this blog, you will know that one of the things I do in addition to writing is distance running. I started running for pure recreation (it being a kind of fitness activity that is incredibly easy to get started on) and over time this worked its way up to doing some organized races of various distances. I’m certainly nothing remarkable as a runner, but I enjoy challenging myself to do a little better and seeing if I can improve my own performances over time.

Spring here has been (and continues to be) very reluctant in really arriving properly, but it has (mostly) gotten warm enough that I’m back to running outdoors and getting ready for my first race of the season in a few weeks. I think I’ve mentioned before on here that I do a lot of thinking while running; I write things in my head and my brain wanders all sorts of places.

One of the things I think of most often is my grandfather.

My grandfather was way more of an athlete than I could ever hope to be; he did (and won) competitive bicycle races and canoe races and snowshoe races, as well as being a runner and speed walker himself. I remember when we would visit his farm in the summertime, sometimes on the drive in we would meet him on the road training. No gym or workout program for him, just hard miles on the road. I keep meaning to try using a bandana instead of a headband myself, sometime.

Sometimes on a difficult run I will think about my granddad and things from his athletic career and somehow whatever I’m doing doesn’t seem like such a big deal any more. Sometimes if I’m doing well that day I’ll also think about him and wonder if, somehow, a little bit of my performance has come down, through the slot machine of DNA, from him. I like to think Granddad might have been interested in some of the runs I’ve done.

He lived a very different kind of life than I have. He raised his family on a farm with no electricity and no running water, supporting them with his own hard labour. The last house he lived in, he built himself, from cutting the trees right through to the finishing touches. He went to war and came home. My grandfather was never wealthy, never had much in the way of luxuries or Stuff, but he lived a long, full, remarkable life surrounded by people who respected him (he held several local government offices) and cared about him.

I am constantly in danger of feeling hard-done-by in life and thinking that I’m not enough of a success and haven’t, I guess, racked up enough of a high score in life. My grandfather reminds me that basically none of it matters if you have what you need (and you need a lot less than you may think you do, and certainly less than you’ve been told you do) and that life probably doesn’t need to be as complicated as we are often determined to make it. I’m doing all right, and more than all right by most standards. I shouldn’t let other people’s standards and the loud, loud world take that from me. Granddad never did.

I keep thinking I should write a book about it all, except for one problem.

The thing I regret is that despite everything I’ve just written, I never knew my grandfather as well as I would like. When we visited, I remember him being very quiet. He would sit with us all (when not working), but usually silently, watching much more than he spoke. Every so often he would, quietly, share a story or a memory and then let the conversation slide away from him again. He had a broad smile that appeared infrequently.

I didn’t understand until much, much later that the thing was that Granddad was shy around people he didn’t know very well, and he certainly didn’t know me well, seeing me a couple times a summer. I’m not surprised, thinking about it now, that he wouldn’t have known how to relate to me, coming from a very different lifestyle than he had ever led, interested in all the weird things that have always interested me, and of course being shy and quiet myself, and so unlikely to reach out from the other direction. I hope that he was nevertheless happy to have us kick around the farm on our visits; certainly those visits will always be part of my treasured storehouse of memories and, I suspect, they continue to affect the kind of person I am today.

I do wish that we’d known each other better. I wish I had made a really good try to engage with him, once I was old enough to know what was going on, although perhaps that wouldn’t have worked out. Working out that Granddad had some of the same issues with people that I do made me feel a little closer to him, in the end, even if it maybe kept us from knowing each other real well in actuality.

I’m not sure where this particular entry is going except that I’m grateful to have known my grandfather as well as I did and to have had his example to draw on from time to time. I suppose I’ll always have some regrets about lost opportunities in the past, but I also have treasured memories that never fail to make me smile and glad I was there.

Thanks, Granddad. I’ll see you on the road.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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I think I’ve written something like this before, but I’ve been thinking a lot the past couple days about how very unlike a fictional story the real world is, most of the time. This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation, but hang with me. Thinking (again? still?) of the wildfire in Alberta, if this was something in a story we would reach a point where there was Stirring Music and then some character or other would figure out a solution to the problem, or a character would suddenly realize What It All Means and come away with some key lesson that would change them forever. In the real world, it’s not really the case; there are lots of stories coming out of Fort McMurray, but it’s also pretty clear that there is no dramatic solution to the problem. The people there just have to wait for it all to be over and the rest of us can try to help if we are able.

Our stories often tend to follow a general pattern – there is a stretch where things look not so good, but then there is Stirring Music and the solution is discovered, people end up in the right relationships, and lessons are learned. There’s a very good reason for this, and as much as I’m putting this in a flippant way, this is how I tend to like my stories these days too. It feels good, as a reader, to see that at the end of the story, things are better, in some fashion, than they were at the beginning. I think it especially feels good because it is so often not that way in the real world; there are plenty of times when things don’t work out for the best and I like to see the opposite when I’m taking time off from reality.

I think that’s also part of the joy of being an author; you get to decide how things are going to work out for your characters. You can create that good ending if you want one (and I do sometimes hear Stirring Music while I’m writing, a little) and have things in the story you create end up just as you would have it, a satisfaction that you will basically never have in the real world. I haven’t consciously done it myself, but I know that some authors also enjoy taking people who have annoyed or upset them in their real lives, dropping them as characters into a story, and taking authorial revenge.

Both things sound more than slightly Dr. Doom-ish, I guess, but I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally different in how authors enjoy getting to create the endings they want to see and how readers enjoy experiencing those endings, except for the level of control over the process. The chance to take a step away from reality and check out an imaginary world where things work a little differently is the attraction.

Of course one of the good parts about there being no scripts or storylines in the real world is precisely that there are no endings pre-written for us. We can each decide how our own story is going to end; obviously not to an unlimited extent, but to a significant one. If there is an author of our personal story, it is us, and that’s pretty cool.

I hope your story this week is a good one.


I’m looking forward to Ottawa ComicCon this weekend; as I mentioned last week I will be at the Renaissance Press table all day Sunday, but you can drop by any time through the weekend (in between doing all the other rad stuff at this year’s con) to pick up something to read, and I’d be delighted if you chose The King in Darkness.

I am counting purchases at the con towards my contributions to the Red Cross for Ft. McMurray relief as well (details in the previous blog entry) so you’ll even be providing aid to victims of a terrible disaster at the same time as you grab something new for your bookshelf. I have had a lovely response to this initiative so far, and I’d love to see it continue right through the month. Although the worst threat of fire to the city seems to be over, it will be weeks until they even start to make a plan to get people back in their homes, and then of course there will still be lots of clean up to do. On top of that, far too many lost everything they had and have nothing to go back to. Everything we can do helps.

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In the past, I’ve written about post-apocalypse and disaster fiction and why we like to read stories where asteroids hit the Earth or zombies rampage everywhere or some similarly awful thing happens. There’s a new series on TV right now about a plague striking the United States.  (It’s kind of all right)

In part I think this is because you can tell compelling stories about these kind of scenario, and there is also a strange kind of thrill you get from experiencing danger when you know you’re really safe. That’s kind of what the horror genre subsists on, and part of why (I think) people in so many times and places have enjoyed scary stories.

Right now, though, there are people here in Canada experiencing a real life disaster movie. The city of Fort McMurray, in Alberta, has been evacuated due to a massive wildfire. You may have seen the footage of people driving out of the city with towering flames on both sides of the road, and glowing cinders raining down from the sky. Some people got evacuated twice, when the place they were first sent to turned out to be in danger as well.

It’s a truly terrifying scenario, and I say that watching it from a safe distance. Far too many people are living in doubt and danger and facing up to the prospect of perhaps losing everything they had and was dear to them. If this was a movie, this is exactly the kind of situation when our fictional heroes would swing into action and fix everything with superpowers or a cunning plan. Unfortunately, this isn’t a movie.

There are, of course, real life heroes at work. The first responders who are fighting the fire and caring for the evacuees could not be more heroic. There was also a lovely story this morning about families in Calgary who just arrived in Canada as refugees from Syria who are now donating to help the people of Fort McMurray. They say Canada gave them everything. I say no: Canada gained people like them.

Anyway, all of this is to say that while lots of people are doing everything they can to help others who are living through a real life disaster, there is more to be done, and will be for a long time. Anything we can do to help will be very gratefully received.

Here’s what I’m doing, and the real reason I wrote this blog. For the next month (at least), I’m donating my cut of every copy of The King in Darkness to the Red Cross to help the people of Fort McMurray. You’ll get a story that I’m really very proud of, and you’ll help people in need at the same time. If you buy the book from Renaissance Press this will happen automatically, and my publishers have committed to matching my donation out of their own profits. If you buy via Amazon or other online retailer, send me a screenshot of your purchase via Twitter or Facebook or however and I’ll do the donation myself. If you get the book ordered into your local bookstore, take a picture of the receipt and send that.

But Evan, what if I already bought your book? Well, of course I think what you should do is buy a copy for someone else, but if (for some reason) you don’t want to do that, I’ll also do this: send me a picture of yourself with your King in Darkness, and I’ll put another $2 on the donation pile.  If you bought the e-book, take a picture of your screen and that’ll work.

I’ll let you know how this whole thing goes. Thanks for your support, if you can give it. We can be heroes.

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Evan vs. Time

Last week I wrote about struggling to get my brain to decide which idea we’re going to work on through the summer. I, uh, haven’t really settled that one yet because of another issue. I have recently started a new job (which is good) but adding it to my schedule along with the other job and things like getting to the gym and other necessaries of life has meant that it’s been difficult over the past while to find time to get writing done on anything at all.

This is all basically all fine and I certainly have nothing to complain about, not really, but I do need to determine where I can rope off some parts of my days to devote to creating new work. Part of the problem is that I am a person who tends to like routines. I like to be able to move through a regular, predictable schedule and know in my mind that ‘it is now time to do X, and then after lunch, do Y’. I also know it’s not particularly realistic to expect life to be that way forever, when one of my established routines gets flipped over, I run around with my head on fire for a while trying to figure out where to put all the pieces again. During that time I’m not super productive.

It takes me a while to see the gaps in my schedule and then figure out what to stick in them, whether a particular chunk of time is going to make sense for going for a run or writing some junk or petting the cat. Because the whole thing is a bit stressful for me it’s very easy to give myself more ‘petting the cat’ time than is really necessary rather than fill time with something challenging. I need to consistently remind myself that although writing sure does take energy, it is a net positive in terms of my mental state and energy level, because of how good it feels to get a piece of it done and to have created something I think is pretty good.

(I scribbled off the skeleton of a little scene in between things yesterday, and I think it works pretty well, and that made me head off to work with a smile.)

Another part of the difficulty with just grabbing a spare hour here or there and getting some writing in is that it often seems to take a while for me to get into writing ‘mode’. I’ve written about this before. When I first sit down to write, I will often spend a significant chunk of time writing a few words, erasing them, writing a sentence, fretting about it, checking Twitter for a second, then coming back and erasing the sentence. Then, and I never know exactly when this is going to happen, there is an almost audible ‘thunk’ inside my brain as the mind-gears shift over into their creative writing configuration and I can start to produce something useful. I have never figured out what the trigger is, and if I ever do I will get immensely more productive. As it stands, it means that ‘just sit down and write for a half hour’ doesn’t always work out as well in practice as it does in theory, because I may spend most of that half hour waiting on the mind-gears.

Going back to the ‘routine’ issue, it does seem that if I have established a certain time as ‘writing time’, the mind-gears do their clunk more quickly. I rather doubt that this is anything particular about my brain and the way it works (although I’m the first to admit that it is a very odd little brain) and that somewhere out there is a very nice person who works in psychology or something screaming ‘OF COURSE’ at their screen.  I also know that finding time for art is something every creative person struggles with, and there’s nothing special happening with me, but this is, after all, my blog and so I guess I’m gonna write about me.

This entry is really just me fumbling through figuring out what works and doesn’t work for having me be a productive writer, as I continue to try to do that more consistently and more seriously than I have in the past. It’s useful for me to articulate all this in writing, as it usually is for me with whatever ideas I’m wrestling with currently, so you get this blog entry today. Maybe it was interesting or useful on some level. I hope so.


Down here below the line I have something rather more exciting for you – I can now confirm that I will be at Ottawa ComicCon later this month! Renaissance Press will have a table there through the whole weekend, which sounds like it will a super rad couple of days of SFF-y indulgence. I will be at the table on Sunday if you would like to say hi and get a copy of King in Darkness direct from my grubby wee paws. I’d love it if you did.

I also want to thank all of you who came to CAPE in Cornwall a couple weekends back; my spies tell me that a good number of you took my book home with you or had nice things to say about it and I’m very grateful for both. I hope to be able to make the trip down next summer.

As ever, thanks for reading.

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