Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Major Earthquake in Chicago

The press release announcing the forthcoming publication of Rising Stories is going out this week; I’ll paste it in below: "New Novel Brings to Life the Unimaginable—A Major Earthquake in Chicago." Those who have read the promotional descriptions of the book on the web or in the printed flyers that were sent out some weeks ago may be taken aback by the way the book is described here. Earthquake? Those other descriptions make no mention of an earthquake. Is this the same book?

The short answer is yes. The descriptions in the advance promotional materials for Rising Stories follow the conventions of copy written to promote literary fiction. Among those conventions is an understanding that one should never be sensationalistic in describing a work of literary fiction. Even if the story contains sensational elements, the emphasis—both in the way the work is written and in the way it is described in the promotional materials—should be on the way it reveals character, or evokes particular sorts of feeling, or gives rise to certain ideas.

That is very much the case with the promotional copy for Rising Stories, and the way it describes the book is, to my mind, quite accurate. But Rising Stories is also a novel with a powerful narrative drive as it approaches its climax, and on that score the “literary novel” descriptions leave out one vitally important thing. That’s right—the earthquake.

A reluctance to emphasize sensational aspects of a story’s conclusion in promoting literary fiction is not simply a matter of wanting to avoid the whiff of sensationalism. It’s also a matter of not wanting to give away the ending. I’m sure it was in part for this reason that we decided to make no mention in the promotional materials for Rising Stories of the event that is at the heart of the novel’s long, climactic scene. Such reticence is understandable; a certain sort of reader feels a good deal of justified resentment if the outcome of a story is given away in the description of the book (or, as happens often with editions of classics, in the introduction). But to “give away” the fact that an earthquake occurs near the end of Rising Stories is no more to “give away” the outcome of the novel than reading that Pierre and Prince Andrei find themselves in the midst of the Battle of Borodino is to “give away” what happens in War and Peace. (If we were told that Pierre survives the Battle of Borodino but that Prince Andrei is seriously wounded, that would be a very different thing—just as it would be a very different thing to give away what happens to any of the characters in Rising Stories as a result of the earthquake.)

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the decision as to what was included and what omitted in the Rising Stories promotional materials, we decided that a different approach would be appropriate for the press release. A press release, of course, is typically sent to a range of people in the media who don’t normally pore over advance promotional materials for literary novels. For this audience, it’s simply more newsworthy to draw attention (as the novel does) to the far-from-negligible risk that earthquakes may occur in areas not known as earthquake zones. Rising Stories is certainly a novel about characters, and about ideas, about skyscrapers and about Chicago. But it's also a novel about how and where the unexpected can occur—and in particular, it's about an earthquake.

____________________________________________ Press Forward/ Broadview Press

Press Release:

New Novel Brings to Life the Unimaginable—A Major Earthquake in Chicago

What if an earthquake were to occur where almost no one has thought such a thing to be possible? That’s a large part of the premise of Rising Stories, a soon-to-be published novel about the people and the skyscrapers of Chicago.

In this case, it’s not quite true that no one has thought a major earthquake affecting Chicago to be possible; some seismologists have suggested there is in fact a reasonable chance of a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake in Southern Illinois occurring in this century. Back in 1811-12 there are thought to have been as many as seven earthquakes of this magnitude or higher in the region—one of them registering 8.1 on the Richter scale. Then, of course, there were no skyscrapers; the damage in St. Louis and Chicago today could be extremely serious in the (admittedly unlikely) event of an earthquake that strong occurring.

That’s the geological background to Rising Stories. The historical background is, for most of the novel, the early years of the Obama administration; much of the story takes place in 2011, with the scene in Grant Park on election night in 2008 vividly recalled.

The novel also includes extended flashbacks to the Chicago of the late 1930s—an era during which the Wrigley Building and the Mather Building and the Tribune Tower were still new. It was also the time in which the “Towertown” area surrounding the Water Tower on the Near North Side was a center of bohemian culture—and the time in which the “redlining” approach to segregation was taking a tighter and tighter hold on the city. Rising Stories brings together all these aspects of that Chicago of long ago—and links them to twenty-first century Chicago through a storyline that involves the death of an infant, missing art works, a suicidal painter, a marriage under strain, and, at the book’s center, an extraordinary relationship between a young child and a ninety-something grandparent.

Advance reviews for the novel have been glowing: “…the skyscrapers of Chicago reveal their various personalities as sites for intimate, sometimes harrowing, human stories. An elegant and affecting novel.” - Mark Kingwell, author of Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building

“Rising Stories manages to surprise, satisfy and delight all at the same time, as its protagonists—inhabitants of Chicago’s skyscrapers—recount their stories and those of the towering buildings that are integral to them. An original and compelling page turner.” - Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Marriage

________________________________________ Rising Stories: A Novel will be published in North America August 24, 2015; advance copies are available as of today.

Published by Press Forward, the novel is being distributed throughout North America by Broadview Press. (Rights for Europe and other markets remain available.)

For more information on sales and promotion, or to request an interview with the author, contact Christine Handley,

For additional product information, follow this link to the Rising Stories page on the Broadview Press site:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Skyscraper and the Naïve View

As a child I had a naïve, uncomplicated, untroubled view of skyscrapers. When we went to New York every Easter to visit my grandmother it could be summed up in one word: wow!

I think we may have gone up the Empire State Building only once; every year, though, we would go up to the Rockefeller Center Observation Deck, which my mother convinced me was a better vantage point, not least of all because you could see the Empire State. I suspect she really preferred it because if she had to take the child up some tall building or other, it was better to choose one close to Bloomingdales than one close to Macy’s. It’s hard to be sure. At any rate, I did agree with her that the Rockefeller had a better view.

Something of that naïve enthusiasm for the tall building has always stayed with me—though I have never lived in any building with more than three stories. (Perhaps if I had, I would find skyscrapers more mundane, less interesting.) And it was in a state informed by something of that spirit that I wrote much of the first draft of Rising Stories. At some level I must have been aware of the many ways in which the skyscraper can act as a metaphor and a symbol: as buildings grow up so too do people grow up; the taller the building the closer we are to God, or the closer we may think we are to God; the heights of skyscrapers mirror the heights of human ambition—and of human hopes and aspirations. But those sorts of symbolism entered into my conscious mind rarely if at all as I was actually writing the first draft.

I was much more aware as I was writing of great skyscrapers as emblems of capitalism--and of their strong association with inequality. But throughout the process, something of that naïve early enthusiasm stayed with me. I'm glad it did; without it, I can hardly imagine how one would begin to capture in imaginative form any sense of the tensions and outright contradictions that skyscrapers embody.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Fifty Years After Death? Surely That's Protection Enough

[The following appeared as a Commentary piece in The Globe and Mail, July 16]

Randy Bachman asked recently, in a Globe and Mail commentary (Taking Care of the Canadian Music Business), why Canada’s policy on the length of copyright protection has been to “lag behind, rather than lead.” In the 1990s Europe increased the duration of copyright to 70 years from 50 years after an author’s death; the United States and Australia soon followed suit. Canada has indeed been a laggard – but in this case, that is no bad thing.

Mr. Bachman argues that copyright protection allows creators to “make a living from their work” and “leave a legacy.” Sure, but how long should a legacy last? Is the knowledge that royalties will flow to one’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren really a strong motivator for creative artists? He confidently assumes there will be spoils to divide in the distant future. For creators such as Joni Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, it is likely that their work will remain in demand for generations to come. But for those whose reputations are even marginally less established, the future is far less promising.

I can attest to this from three angles. At Broadview Press, an important part of our publishing program (though not a very profitable one) is to bring back into print works that have been unavailable for an extended period. Setting aside the matter of royalties on these forgotten works, the job of tracing the copyright holders would be disincentive enough for the prospective publisher if the works still under copyright. A few moments on the Internet is enough to put you in touch with the estate of Bernard Shaw or Louis Armstrong. But with lesser-known writers, finding the copyright holder can be enormously time consuming and frustrating. Raising the barriers to reissuing work by forgotten writers of other eras would increase the likelihood that they will remain forgotten forever.

I also appreciate this situation as an author, and as literary executor for my father, Douglas LePan. During his lifetime, my father was a well-known author and poet, twice winning the Governor-General’s Award. Within five years of his death in 1998, however, his books were out of print and he was less frequently anthologized. That situation has now largely been turned around – not least because it is easy to communicate with the estate, and because little or nothing is charged in copyright permission fees.

Far from wanting to extend copyright protection for his work (in this case, from 2048 to 2068), I would like to see it reduced. And I would like the same for my own work. If I were to die in 2040, at the age of 86, I see no reason why my 2009 work Animals: A Novel should be controlled by my descendants until 50 years after my death, let alone 70 years.

And if my father’s (or my own) work enjoyed the same level of popularity as that of Joni Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, I would still have no concern about my grandchildren and great-grandchildren being shortchanged. Does anyone deserve a substantial income on the basis of their grandparent having been a hugely successful writer? Attitudes on such things are changing, and none too soon.

There are plenty of areas where the Canadian government should provide better copyright protection for living authors. Crucially, for example, it should end the confusion about how to interpret the “education” exception to copyright restrictions, under the cover of which authors are now routinely deprived of revenue when their work is distributed to students.

But to extend copyright restrictions to 70 years after an author’s death would be against the interests of most writers, as much as it would be against the interests of Canadians.

[It should perhaps be made clear that re-publishing the above on this blog does not constitute any breach of copyright. The Globe allows authors of Commentary pieces for which it has not paid any fee to retain copyright, with the Globe holding paper first-print rights and a non-exclusive right to reproduce in other forms.]

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Hohoff and Lee, Hurka and Me: Help in Writing Fiction

At one point in his very interesting long review of Go Set a Watchman, Lawrence Hill comments that the experience of reading the book can teach us a good deal about “the artistic and the editorial process.” Perhaps most notably, he suggests, “a novel about an adult who goes home and offers a number of flashbacks about her childhood is less dramatically immediate than a story that dives straight into the childhood itself” (Globe and Mail, July 18 2015). Famously, that was the suggestion made by Tay Hohoff, the editor at Lippincott who in 1957 advised Harper Lee to scrap the manuscript now published as Go Set a Watchman, and to expand the flashbacks in that manuscript into a different novel, told directly from the young person’s point of view. Much as many reviewers of Go Set a Watchman find the book interesting, everyone seems agreed that Hohoff gave Lee good advice—that To Kill a Mockingbird is a more dramatically immediate book (and a better one) than is Go Set a Watchman.

I was lucky enough to receive very similar advice a couple of years ago from an old high school friend (and now distinguished philosopher), Tom Hurka. He gave me several pieces of good advice after reading a draft of Rising Stories; the most important was to scrap a lot of second-hand recounting in summary form (by someone in old age) of events that had taken place in the late 1930s, and to tell them directly from the perspectives of the characters involved as the events were happening. Just as Tom had suggested it would, that had the effect of making the story more dramatically immediate—and the novel much better. Tom was not the only one to give me very good and very useful advice on how to improve the early drafts of Rising Stories; in all, well over a dozen people were kind enough to read a draft and offer helpful comments, suggestions, and criticisms; the final result is, as a result, tremendously improved.

I followed the same process with my first novel, Animals, and in that case too I am convinced that the final result is far, far better than it would have been had I tried to write entirely in isolation. I recognize, of course, that to think of good writing as to some degree a collaborative enterprise goes against the grain for many in the literary community. Shakespeare and Middleton and Jonson may often have collaborated with other playwrights, but since the Romantic period the presumption has taken root that the appropriate stance for a writer to take is to work in isolation—that to collaborate to any significant degree might somehow constitute a threat to the integrity or the originality of the work.

No doubt that model may work for some writers, but I certainly can’t imagine it working for me. And, ironically enough, it was not the approach that the most famous writers of the Romantic period took either. Coleridge and Wordsworth worked together in shaping Lyrical Ballads, Mary Shelley received helpful advice from Percy Shelley in writing Frankenstein—and so too did Percy Shelley receive helpful advice from her and from others, and so too did Keats, and so too did others of their group. (For those wishing to explore the topic, Jeffrey N. Cox’s Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School and Jack Stillinger’s Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius are good places to start.) In this respect, those who aspire to be solitary geniuses may be even more unusual than many of them imagine themselves to be.

PS As has almost always been the case in recent years with anything I have written, I received helpful advice from Maureen Okun in writing the above.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Rising Stories and Imaginary Worlds

Rising Stories began one Saturday morning in late 2010, when Maureen and I were reading The Globe and Mail in bed over coffee, as we do just about every Saturday morning. There was a letter to the editor about imaginary worlds, and we began to chat a bit about Alice in Wonderland and the Narnia Chronicles, and what imaginary worlds we might make for ourselves, and how we might get into them. In a moment or two a very simple idea had come to me—a child pushes some buttons in a skyscraper elevator, and suddenly numbers appear for a whole lot of floors at the top that weren’t there before.

At first I thought I might make that idea the basis for a very short children’s book—with pictures. I started to draft what is now Part 2 of Rising Stories, and gradually as I wrote the thing changed. The extra stories were discovered, and they seemed quite real, but at the base the whole story began to broaden and deepen—perhaps a larger foundation was needed to support all those extra stories.

It all ended up very differently—but I found myself still wanting there to be pictures. Hence the color insert of early postcards from roughly the time KP arrives in Chicago in the late 1930s.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Animal Who Can Choose Not to be Cruel

One article in last week’s Economist begins as follows:
Any truth, it is said, passes through three stages: first is it ridiculed, then violently opposed, and finally it is taken to be self-evident.
How long before the following comes to be taken as self-evident?
Alone among animals, humans possess both the biological capacity to live full and healthy lives without consuming the flesh or milk or eggs of other animals,* and the mental capacity to make an ethical choice not to eat those animals or what they have made—not to take their milk, their eggs, or their lives.
If, in the face of this truth, we choose to kill them and eat them anyway—routinely, for no better reason than that we like the taste of eating the flesh of the animals we have killed, or the taste of their milk and their eggs, or that it has become a habit we cannot bother to break—we are surely, as a species, the worst of all creatures.

Our capacity as humans for cruelty (as well as for sophistry and self-deception) has been evident in so many other areas for so long that some might argue we should just accept it; we are evil, and doing evil to other creatures every day of our lives is just part of what makes us human.

But if we truly believe that we have the capacity to choose to do good--free will, some call it--and that this capacity is central to what makes us human, let us choose to be fully human. All of us, every one of us. Let us give up the killing and the cruelty that we are responsible for. A whole foods, plant based diet; it's one way we can become fully human.

*It should be readily admitted that this is a generalization that admits of exceptions; some humans do experience health problems when they eat an entirely whole foods, plant-based diet—and should for that reason feel no compunction about eating animal products. But the evidence suggests that those who suffer such problems are a minority—and a tiny minority at that. Vegans typically require vitamin supplements (especially Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D) to be fully healthy—just as human carnivores and omnivores typically require vitamin supplements to be fully healthy. As and other authorities keep reporting, though, vegans are typically far, far healthier on a day-to-day basis than are humans who eat other animals’ flesh and eggs and drink other animals’ milk—and vegans are also far more resistant to a long list of diseases.