I find it easy to fall into the trap of thinking that I’ll never be able to change the set patterns and habits of my life, even if I want to. It’s just not true, and a cursory review of events from my life proves it. I used to be single, for a long time, and now I’m married; I used to be a sporadic churchgoer at best, and now my life seems to revolve around church; it used to feel like I would never finish graduate school, and then I came out the other side with a PhD… and so on. I’ve been writing stories constantly since elementary school, but haven’t published anything except a handful of poems, years ago as an undergraduate. It was easy to feel that this was another pattern that might endure, even though I didn’t want it to.
Last year, I put the finishing touches on a novel that I’m proud of, that I feel expresses in a mature way many things I want to say. I’m actually glad, in retrospect, that I didn’t send much of anything else out into the world before this, because I can see now how much I have learned and grown as a writer. But there’s still the question of publication. It used to be that this was not really within an author’s control; you didn’t just decide to publish, you could only decide to try to publish. But as I was finishing From All False Doctrine, a sea-change was happening that has made it possible for writers to approach publication in a new way. The timing couldn’t be better for me. The confidence I’ve gained from decades of writing for a small audience of friends makes me feel ready to take on the challenge of putting my work out on my own. Gradually I began to make up my mind to do it.
The novel will come out later this summer, but in the meantime, I’m revisiting a series of stories that I had set aside a few years ago. At the time I didn’t know what to do with them: too long and interconnected for most short-story markets, they were not yet numerous enough to combine into a collection, which would be difficult to sell to a publisher anyway. Ebooks, which hadn’t hit the scene when I began writing this series, offer the perfect distribution method. As I looked into options for False Doctrine, I began to get excited about the potential for revisiting my unfinished series.
The stories are urban fantasies set in Toronto, centring on a group of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery in Kensington Market. The series is called Heaven & Earth, after the name of the bakery. The first story, “The Tenants of 7C,” introduces the setting and the characters, and you can now find it for sale on Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. I plan to make the sequel available in a few weeks. It’s the beginning of a new era for me; I’m starting small, but I’m very excited!
In support of these new endeavours, I have a new site, at alicedegan.com. You may want to follow me there.
The other day I listened to a podcast in which several writers discuss death in fiction—or, more specifically, “killing” their characters. This reminded me of something I have thought about in the past, and it’s this:
Writers introduce all kinds of evil into their stories. They do this because they are imitating the real world, which contains all kinds of evil, and because they are part of the world, and sinful—and so they enjoy some types of evil, too (we all do). But the aim of any artist must be to make the creation good; sometimes that involves introducing evil. That’s kind of odd, but it’s true. It’s a fact, for instance, that stories would be uninteresting without conflict, without characters being unable to get what they want, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, without at least some small problem that can’t immediately be solved. They wouldn’t even really be stories; they would lack the shape that is necessary to make a story. Sometimes the good shape of a story does demand that a character die tragically. In this respect the artist is godlike in relation to her work; she can seen the shape of the whole, and how parts that are ugly in themselves contribute to the beauty of that shape.
It’s easy to come up with examples of tragedies where suffering and death produce a satisfyingly shaped story. I’m generally a fan of happy endings, but Hamlet has always been my favourite Shakespeare play. Even a well constructed murder mystery—especially the kind where the detective tracks down the murderer and then wishes he hadn’t—can have some of this quality. It’s also easy to think of examples of stories where the writer doesn’t pull this off, and instead ends up looking like a despotic and arbitrary god in relation to his created world. (I felt Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a prime example of this when I read it years ago.) Mostly I think this comes about because the author’s idea of a good shape is just different from yours. Or the author’s aim might be to communicate, through harsh and arbitrary events, the message that life is harsh and arbitrary. You can write a formless story deliberately, and you can do so as a deliberate reflection of a life that looks formless and without meaning. But if you do, it is likely that most people—whatever they believe about the shape of our actual story and the existence or benevolence of its Author—will hate it. People tend to like stories with a satisfying shape, because we can’t see the shape of our own; well, you wouldn’t expect one of the characters in the story to be able to.
Except of course that sometimes they do. That’s another great thing about fiction: not only can you see the shape of the whole from the outside, but the individual parts can have an awareness of that whole too. Historical characters can reflect presciently on their legacy or the importance of their actions; tragic characters can be resigned to their fates. And, in fact, there have been lots of real people who have lived with such an apparently clear sense of their own role and purpose that they have been able to risk and endure things that the average person would do anything to avoid.