Author Archives: Peter Darbyshire (Roman)

Venice is a state of imagination

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Lately I’ve been thinking about Venice. I visited it for the first time earlier this year, during a mini-tour of Italy. It was by far my favourite city out of the four I explored — the others being Trieste, Florence and Rome — because, well, it’s Venice. It’s a maddening labyrinth with a strange history and almost unreal nature — it’s a city that shouldn’t be possible yet is somehow there anyway. When you walk its streets, it’s like you’re walking through a mad dream. Perhaps that why it’s so popular. We have enough cities in the world, but how many dreams can we actually explore?

cryptThe whole time I was there, I kept wondering how Venice had even come about. A little Googling revealed that the city’s history is one of crazy ideas. A city founded by refugees who built it out of a swamp and transformed it into an influential city state thanks to a combination of shipping power and religious relics. The city continues to be a crazy idea today — imagine a city that sometimes still floods, and where parts of it are permanently flooded, like the Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria. A modern city where automobiles largely don’t seem to exist. A city that depends on tourism for its economic success but where tourists are told to go home for fear they may destroy the whole place, as if reality may sink the fragile foundation of the dream city.

Is there a real Venice that exists under the tourist façade? Even that is uncertain. I mean, obviously there is a Venice that physically exists there. But what is it exactly? Which parts make up what we think of as Venice?

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Is it the bridges crowded with tourists — the bridges that used to host bloody fistfight spectacles?

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Is it the island of the dead?

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The island of the fishermen?

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The various abandoned and forgotten islands?

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The picture here is my copy of Shawna Lemay’s Asking in the soil of the island of Torcello, an island home to an abandoned monastery turned tourist destination. An island that is on its way to being forgotten? Or transformed into some new form of Disneyesque attraction? I finished the book on my travels, and it’s one I’ll likely return to again, much like Lemay’s blog Calm Things. When I have time, I’ll also check out her book about Venice, Against Paradise.

I also read Sebastien de Castell’s Saint’s Blood during this trip, which turned out to be an appropriate choice. Right before I left, de Castell and I met up for lunch and he advised me to remember to experience the moment while in Italy. I think he’s right in saying too many of us spend too much time thinking about how to present the moment to others and not live it while it happens. I kept this thought in mind while travelling and it made a difference in the way I remember Venice. I think.

I can’t help but think of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities when I think of Venice. The book is like the city itself, something magical and indescribable. You have to experience it to understand it and everyone’s understanding of it will be their own. (A glimpse of it from a distance.) The book is a mythical travelogue of sorts, with the explorer Marco Polo describing 55 incredible, impossible cities to Kublai Khan, such as Octavia:

Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.

In trying to map out Venice in my mind, I came across this intriguing bit by Jeanette Winterson on Calvino’s book and Venice. Seems to fit here:

Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. The tourist Venice is a chimera, the historical Venice is a museum. The living Venice is the one where every canal and palazzo and sun-shy square, with its iron well and unlisted church, has been privately mapped. No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venice’s, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value.

Venice’s extremes – its Disneyishness and its invisibility, are not unique, they are the lesser experience of many cities. In Venice the experience is concentrated. There is nowhere less rewarding, nowhere more maddening. The secret Venice guidebooks are useless. This is not New York or Rome. Venice can only be read as fiction. Visiting Venice is to become a fiction yourself – at least if you want to get any sense of it. The facts tell you nothing. This is a cusp city, working at the intersection of art and life – where the best fiction works too.

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To return to Calvino, I think of Venice like I think of Calvino’s Tamara. “You leave Tamara without having discovered it.”

Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something — who knows what? — has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes — the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa — so that the worshiper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.

However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant. . . .

Yes, I would like to visit Venice again, and experience once more that joyous act of discovery where we encounter not only a strange and foreign place but also experience our own mad, impossible imagination.

Zen

This moment of zen brought to you by Qualicum Beach

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Adventures in History

I’ll be appearing at Word Vancouver, Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2:30 in the Suspension Bridge venue, as part of the Adventures in History session. I’ll be reading from The Apocalypse Ark or my teenage journal or something like that. I’ll be followed by Ronald Wright at 2:50, who will be reading from his book The Gold Eaters. Unless, of course, the time travel experiment goes awry, and then all schedules are off.

Set sail for the sea of imagination

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There are all numbers of things fantastic in my third Cross novel, The Apocalypse Ark. There are angels and a crazed Noah, sorcerous pirates and sunken cities, a vampire and a white whale, to name just a few. In one sense, the book is a stand-in for the ark of the title, which in Cross’s universe is not the ship that saved humanity but is instead the storage place for all of God’s misfit creations. There are many such misfits in the book. In another, more personal sense, The Apocalypse Ark is a return to some of the things that inspired me to begin writing when I was a child.

The cast of curious creatures is nothing new for the series. The first two Cross books, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice and The Dead Hamlets, also have their share of the mythological and wondrous. With those books, though, the fantastic was much more grounded in the real. I’ve always loved fantasy, but I really wanted to create a fantasy series that was about our world rather than some made-up realm — I wanted readers to feel a real-life connection to the characters and places in the books, even if the characters were immortals, faerie and the like.

In The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, the fantasy elements are very clearly tied to our world — the Gaudi church in Barcelona inspired much of the book (as I’ve written about before), the gorgon is linked to a statue in the Louvre and a glass skull in the British Museum, Cross’s love Penelope is enmeshed in the spiritualist movement, an abandoned factory in Detroit is the setting for a key scene and so forth. There’s even a real-life painting or two that play a role.

I continued to find the fantasy in the real with The Dead Hamlets, where the Tower of London plays a key role, as does the castle that likely inspired Hamlet. There are a few other things, such as a certain cemetery, a legendary historical text, Westminster Abbey, the church where Shakespeare is buried, a real-life haunted theatre and rumoured ghost, and so on. I let my imagination run a little more wild in The Dead Hamlets, creating settings and characters that are definitely out of this world, but for the most part I was working within pre-existing myths, legends and texts.

With The Apocalypse Ark, I set sail for the seas of the imagination instead of the real world, though. The novel originated in a mad fantasy rather than the real world, after all — the idea that Noah was God’s jailer rather than humanity’s saviour and had gone mad and sought to end the world. As with the other books, I wanted a wild assortment of mythic characters and magical settings, but rather than find their origins in real life I wanted to anchor them in books, movies, and other works of art that had meant something to me. (Some of you may say there is no difference between real life and art, but bear with me….)

In many ways, The Apocalypse Ark is a tribute to the works that inspired me as a youth and lit the fires of my imagination. Chief among them is the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, based on the Jules Verne novel. I remember seeing the movie in a school gymnasium right before the holidays when I was in elementary school. I sat on the floor in the dark with hundreds of other students and watched, mesmerized, as the secret submarine Nautilus emerged from the depths and its crew did battle with a giant squid. It was a dark, stylish film with more than a little moral ambiguity and complex ideas for a young child such as myself. It was a far cry from the usual Disney fare I was used to, and I was hooked immediately.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of those things that changed the way I thought about books and movies — Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Amber were a couple of other notable atomic texts for me. It wasn’t long after I saw the movie that I found myself reading HP Lovecraft’s books and devouring the Conan tales, which are every bit as dark and disturbing as Lovecraft. If I were to go back through my life, I could probably follow the wake of the Nautilus through all my younger, formative years, right into university, where I discovered Melville’s tale of Ahab and the white whale. Another work of art that changed everything for me.

There’s so much of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in The Apocalypse Ark — the Nautilus and Nemo are both present in more than a passing manner. There’s a bit of steampunk to it, which was deliberate as I see 20,000 Leagues as one of the early steampunk works — not only for its stylish vision but also for its critique of capitalism and industry. The whole Cross series follows an antihero, of which we have a couple examples in 20,000 Leagues. Jules Verne even makes an appearance in The Apocalypse Ark! And, of course, The Apocalypse Ark does have a memorable giant squid attack. I hope it’s memorable, anyway….

I also wrote in the other books that influenced me, the ones that Verne’s Nautilus led me toward. The Sunken City may remind you of a certain Lovecraft aquatic abode, and I tried to channel the madness of Moby Dick with my own version of Ahab and the white whale.

It’s not all echoes and homages, though — I like to think I managed to create my own dark and wondrous world populated by deranged angels, cunning vampires and crazed kraken and the like. I would love it if readers set sail into the sea of my imagination and find it as much a shock and inspiration as that moment I found myself huddled in the dark on a gymnasium floor, watching a strange new world come to life before me.

I hope The Apocalypse Ark carries you away, dear reader, much as 20,000 Leagues carried me away to a world I never could have imagined but can now never forget.

Keep the west weird!

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If you like my angel gunslinger weird westerns, then you may want to check out the Weird Western Story Bundle. It features a few books from my publisher ChiZine, including Kenneth Mark Hoover’s Haxan and Gemma Files’ Hexslinger, which is simply indescribable. Plus there’s a whole bunch of other titles — you can get the whole bundle for $14 right now.

Welcome to our Weird Western Bundle, where wide frontiers, flintlocks, whiskey and revenge meet swords, airships, terraforming, magic, myths, and dragons. You’ll find stories here set in the snows of old Alaska and the heat of contemporary Arizona, post-Civil War San Francisco and post-colonization planets, and places the seem as familiar as any wooded mountain or wind-swept desert… until tigers and dragons and horses that are so much more than you might assume burst into the scene. The different aspects of the Weird Western spirit in this bundle will give fans of the genre something they haven’t seen before, and folks new to Weird Westerns a wide sampling of its fantastic offerings.

If you’re new to the whole Story Bundle concept, here are the basics:

StoryBundle let’s you choose your own price, so you decide how you’d like to support these awesome writers and their work. For $5—or more if you’d like—you’ll receive the basic bundle of four great novels in DRM-free ebook format. For the bonus price of at least $14—or more if you’d like—you’ll receive all nine novels. If you choose, a portion of your payment will go toward supporting Mighty Writers and Girls Write Now.

The Weird Western Bundle is available for only three weeks. It’s a great opportunity to pick up the stories of nine wonderful writers, support independent authors who want to twist your assumptions about the West, and discover new writers with great stories along the way. – Blair MacGregor

The initial titles in The Weird Western Bundle (minimum $5 to purchase) are:

  • Haxan by Kenneth Mark Hoover
  • Dead West Vol 1.: West of Pale by J Patrick Allen
  • Idyll by James Derry
  • Spellsinger by Joseph J. Bailey

If you pay more than the bonus price of just $14, you get all four of the regular titles, plus five more:

  • Hexslinger Vol. 1: A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files
  • Horses of the Moon Vol. 1: Dragons in the Earth by Judith Tarr
  • Daughter of the Wildings Book. 1: Beneath the Canyons by Kyra Halland
  • The Flash Gold Chronicles I-III by Lindsay Buroker
  • New World Book 2: Hair of the Bear by Steven W. White

 

A couple of upcoming appearances

I’ll be appearing at Word Vancouver, Sunday, Sept. 25.

I’ll be appearing at VCON, which runs Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

More details to come when I have them.

How many whale vs. giant squid battles are taking place right now?

Every second of the day, sperm whales fight giant squids in the ocean depths to keep humanity safe from the Deep Ones. But how many battles are taking place each second? Atlas Obscura has the answer:

And you know out of all those battles, one of them must involve a white whale.

Let’s just see what the morning brings

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“Congratulations. You’re a Canadian now.”

That was what my wife said to me after the Tragically Hip concert in Vancouver Sunday night. Somehow, I had made it into my late 40s without ever seeing the Canuck rockers live. My wife had seen them at 16 at Ontario Place, which made her far more Canadian and far cooler than me.

I’ve been to a few concerts in my lifetime, but none of them have left me as emotionally moved as the Hip show, with the possible exception of Nick Cave. Because Nick Cave. And I wasn’t alone in this — the entire crowd was having a moment for the entire show. People were waving Canadian flags, men and women with grey hair were dancing in the aisles while the younger audience members were waving their smartphones in the air like lighters. Everyone was singing along to the lyrics and screaming enthusiastically whenever the big screens showed Hip singer Gord Downie’s face.

What is it about the Hip that causes such multi-generational love? If you’re Canadian, you just kind of get it even if you’re not really into their music. If you’re not a Canuck, it’s hard to explain. Sure, there’s the fact they’re a group of small-town boys from Kingston, Ontario, who did good. They seem to down to earth, as far as rock stars go. They started the Vancouver concert on time, after all! And I’ve never heard any stories of hotel room trashing or the usual rock and roll fables.

Maybe it’s our shared stories they sing about. Every Canadian knows what Downie is talking about when he sings “Twenty years for nothing, well, that’s nothing new / besides, no one is interested in something you didn’t do.” Or when they name a song Bobcaygeon: “It was in Bobcaygeon / I saw the constellations / reveal themselves one star at a time.” Or songs like The Hundredth Meridian, which marks various borders physical and otherwise in Canada, or Fifty Mission Cap about the Maple Leafs and hockey or I could go on and on but I don’t need to. If you’re Canadian, you just get the Hip.

Not that they sing strictly about Canadiana. They’ve got plenty of songs that don’t reference Canada at all. The crowd went nuts for Grace, Too at the show I saw — the line “I come from downtown, born ready for you” being the equivalent of a national anthem for some.

And what other band could make a hit song about poets: “Don’t tell me what the poets are doing / those Himalayas of the mind.” Poets, man. Poets.

If you’re Canadian, the Hip have been the soundtrack to your life — whether or not you’ve actually ever owned any of their albums. They’re just always playing somewhere wherever you go. I was having a flashback of my life during their show — listening to New Orleans is Sinking while working the night shift at a grocery store, dancing to Locked In the Trunk of a Car while in university, making a mess of a romance to Ahead by a Century. And so on. We all have our own stories.

The Hip played songs about those moments, places and people that became something more than what they were, that became part of the Canadian experience, part of our shared memory and identity. In doing so, they became the exact sort of thing they sang about – they went from being a bunch of guys in a Kingston band to being the Hip. Something that was indescribably Canadian. 

So when news came that Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it was like the entire country had been sucker punched in the gut. It was like finding out a family member was dying.

The Hip announced they were going to do another tour. Partially to support their new album, sure. But let’s face it, the tour was also about connecting with their fans one last time.

“What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection,” the Hip said in a letter on their website, “with each other; with music and its magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans.”

And that was what I felt in that concert in Vancouver: a connection to the band, to all the people around me, to the great country of Canada and its stories. I said on someone’s Facebook thread that it felt like a communion, and that seems as good a description as any.

“Enjoy those one-night moments,” Downie said in an interview with Strombo some time ago. “We’ll only be here tonight, this bunch of us in this room, doing this. That’s live performance. Let’s try and find some point of transcendence and leap together.”

I definitely felt that transcendence during the show, and I’m still feeling its lingering after-effects. And I’m having trouble imagining a Canada without the Tragically Hip. The band is like another province to us, the state of mind we all want to live in.

I suspect the Hip’s final show, which the CBC is going to broadcast live Aug. 20 from Kingston, the band’s hometown, will be a moment this country has never seen before.

And then?

Well, let’s just see what the morning brings.

(Grace, Too video from MsCrumbles on YouTube. Wheat Kings video from Whistlerskiboy on YouTube.)

Bookshelf: Bad Things Happen by Kris Bertin

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If you liked my first book, Please, you’ll probably enjoy this. Well, enjoy may not be the right word, as the stories in Bad Things Happen mainly focus on the characters’ lives coming apart. But there’s a certain brilliance and weird transcendence to be found in the cracks and wounds of their lives. These are stories where bad things do indeed happen — take that, CanLit — but the stories are less about the events the characters are caught up in and more about the quiet revelations found in the smoke break staring up at the stars, or the long drive into the night, waiting for the gas to run out. You know, the moments where we all think: This. This is my life.

Here’s the jacket copy:

The characters in Bad Things Happen—professors, janitors, webcam models, small-time criminals—are between things. Between jobs and marriages, states of sobriety, joy and anguish; between who they are and who they want to be. Kris Bertin’s unforgettable debut introduces us to people at the tenuous moment before everything in their lives change, for better or worse.

Bookshelf: Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson

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I enjoyed the hell out of this novella by Kelly Robson, who happens to be an amazing person as well an insanely gifted writer. You can read it for free at Tor or buy it through Kindle, etc. Here’s the blurb:

“Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson is a charming novella of court intrigue in 1738 Versailles as a clever former soldier makes his fortune by introducing a modern water system (and toilets) to the ladies of the palace. He does this with magical help that he may not be able to control.

It’s witty, charming, funny and surprisingly touching. Joy.