(Scroll down to read the three essays.)

On Writing

There was a funny movie made some years ago called "Throw Momma from the Train"--a catchy title if there ever was one. The character played by Billy Crystal is a
writer who is "blocked"; he hasn't penned a word in a long time. By the end of the story, owing to certain dramatic experiences involving the Danny DeVito character and his
deeply obnoxious mother, the writer has become "unblocked". Relieved and happy, he sits down at a desk with an old typewriter, to the left of which is a foot-high pile of
blank paper. Crystal rolls a sheet into the typewriter and begins to pound away merrily on the keys. As time passes, the pile of paper diminishes while a corresponding stack
of neatly typed sheets rises to the right of the typewriter. At last, Billy Crystal types THE END, slips the final piece of paper from the machine, adds it to the stack, puts
the whole lot into an envelope and mails it to his publisher. The book is done.
I have met many people who think that writing goes like that--smoothly, almost effortlessly and without fault. I have never met a writer (or heard of one, or read one)
who didn't describe writing as frustrating, arduous, frightening, messy, painful and fraught with revision. On the contrary, we can all point to manuscripts, every page of
which shows a blizzard of slashes, underlines, over-writes, arrows and other untidy ministrations. We can usually remember how many drafts each of our books consumed.
(No Signature took eight, Zack took around six, Forbidden City?--don't ask.)
The thing of it is, creative endeavor in general is almost always messy, full of false starts, changes of mind, restarts and, we hope, improvements. Writing in particular is
messy, a continuous and desperate battle against mediocrity and imperfection; and every "finished" novel or drama, poem or screenplay isn't finished at all, because there's
always the feeling it can be made better.
I've talked to many, many students from all over Canada about writing and most of them assume that their writing process is somehow different from mine. But when
you think about it, how could it be? All right, granted, much of the time students are working on projects that their teachers have assigned. But even so, once a writer
(student or published) begins a piece, the process is pretty much the same. When you're writing, you're a writer, whether your work is assigned in school or assigned by
that nagging little voice in your mind that some people call the creative imagination. And a writer is a struggler, searching for just the right word or image, cutting out
extraneous words or phrases (or, heaven help us, chapters), revising and polishing.
It's hard work, but listen. A sculptor starts with a lump of clay, a pile of sheet metal, a block of granite. A painter has colours and canvas or panel or glass. Think what
we start with: nothing. Making something out of nothing is always worth it.

a picture, a church, and a song

One day, when I was in elementary school, I was leafing through a Social Studies book (probably when I should have been paying attention to the teacher), and I came a cross a picture that was both interesting and confusing.
That was a long time ago, and my memory is a bit hazy, but I recall a European explorer standing on the rocky shore of a vast body of water. He was wearing long leather boots with wide tops that came to the middle of his thighs, and a broad cavalier-type hat with a big, showy feather stuck in the brim. He gazed out over the waves, looking manly and pleased with himself. The caption under the image said, So-and-so Discovers the Pacific. There was another figure in the frame, the explorer’s Indian guide, who sat on a rock, looking a little bored. How, I wondered, could someone “discover” something if other people knew it was there all along?
I’m not taking anything away from the explorers. Their achievements were heroic and sometimes breathtaking. But I knew something was wrong with the picture. The explorer’s name was there below it; the Indian’s name was not.
When I studied history in school, I never wondered who decided which people and events got into the history books we had to read. The story of Canada was about the important people, I learned: prime ministers, queens and kings, generals, business tycoons. The significant events were wars and constitution-writing and treaties. You know what I mean. The owner of a factory might have his statue in the park; the workers do not. The folks who labour on the farm are faceless. The people who built the railways across Canada, if they appear in the photos at all, are in the background and their names--Chinese and Irish and Dutch and more--are missing. In the forefront are the well-dressed company executives, bankers, and politicians. The explorer is in; the guide is out.
Near the town of Orillia, where I live, there’s a little country church sitting at a crossroads. It’s constructed of wood and surrounded by a grassy area graced by a tiny flower garden. Below the ground are buried the men and women and children who worshipped there. Every one of them was of African descent. There are no headstones because these were not wealthy people whose graves were indicated by marble monuments; their markers were made of wood and eventually decomposed.
The church was built in 1849 by Africans who settled in the area as pioneers in the early 1800’s, when there were few roads and the land was covered with forest. In southern Ontario a pioneer had to chop down thousands of trees and burn or pull out the stumps to make a field, then spend years gathering the rocks and stones from the field, piling them to make fences. Just thinking about the backbreaking work they did--wives and husbands and children--makes me want to go and lie down for a while. In this case, the Africans weren’t escaped slaves who arrived via the underground railway; they were ex-soldiers, workers, and farmers, many of them from Ohio. By 1900, all but one family had left the area. There were lots of men and women of African descent in southern Ontario back then; but they were never mentioned in the history books I read at school.
Another African I learned about long after I had grown up was named Richard Pierpoint (known also as “Pawpine”). He was born in Senegambia in 1744, captured at sixteen years of age, sold into slavery, and brought to North America. Pawpine fought in the American Revolution (for the British side) and, later, the War of 1812 as part of a company of “coloured men.” He ended his days on a farm he cleared out of the bush, near Fergus, Ontario. I learned about Pawpine in a song. He wasn’t in any of my school books, either. The African church in Oro, which was designated as a national historic site two years ago, symbolizes for me the “little people” of history, the ones who never got their names in the paper, the ones who tilled the land and sweated in the factories and filled the ranks of the armed forces and ran the households and fished the seas. And before that, the ones who walked the forest trails.
It may seem strange that a modest little building built by Protestant Africans is (probably permanently) lodged in my mind as a symbol; after all, I’m not Christian, I’m not African, and I was born in a big city, not the township or Oro-Medonte. Nor am I a farmer, much less a pioneer. So what’s the connection between me and those who worshipped at that church?
I grew up in a factory town. My mother and all my friends’ mothers worked at home, running the household and taking care of the children. Except inside their families, they seldom got any credit for that. My father and all my friends’ fathers worked in factories, some of them skilled, like my father, who was a tool-and-die maker; some unskilled. My uncles were factory labourers. When there was work, they got paid; when there wasn’t, they were laid off. Three of my uncles, and my paternal grandfather, fought in World War Two--in the ranks of air force, navy and army. Other relatives who still lived in Europe fought also. There were no officers among them.
As I got older I realized that our country (and everybody else’s) was built by the little people, and that the true heroes in battles and factories, on farms and in households, are the ones not mentioned in the books, the ones who went to work and raised their kids and paid their taxes and tried to leave the world just a molecule or two better than the way they found it. They’re the kind of folks who lived in the New Toronto of my youth, the type who built the Oro African church.
History books have improved a lot since I was a kid, but what I’ve been trying to say to you here is still true. I often drive past the African church; I listen to Pawpine’s song, and, if no one’s around, I get out my guitar and sing it. I wish I could find the picture I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. I could imagine myself shaking hands with the explorer and congratulating him, then I’d go out and have a beer with the guide and talk about the lacrosse game.

(William Bell wrote about the church in Stones and about Richard Pierpoint in Zack. The song he refers to can be found on the Tamarack CD, On the Grand.)


Here, after I argue briefly that history, fiction, autobiography and biography are qualitatively similar endeavors, and that historical fiction belongs in the spectrum formed by
those modes of writing, I describe the primary challenges I faced while writing my award-winning novel, Forbidden City, an account of a young Canadian's experiences when he
is caught up in the events that precede and include the Beijing Massacre in Tian An Men Square in June, 1989.]

In the third of six radio lectures that make up The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye suggests that the historian tells us "what happened" whereas literature presents "what happens"--the universal and recurrent themes and characters found in experience and embellished by the imagination. But, while good history entails impersonal examination of objectively acquired data, the mantle of the scientist does not rest comfortably on the historian's shoulders, for as soon as she moves from the hard data (a treaty, the household records of a medieval king) toward exposition that will make clear to her reader the significance of this information, she must analyze, draw
conclusions, suggest alternatives, attribute motive and assess the impact of events on persons and populations. She employs not just analysis and synthesis but her
imagination; she moves toward the realm of the literary writer. In developing argument, she employs rhetoric (imagining the result of one's statements on the reader); in
bringing to life historical personages, she becomes, at least in part, a novelist. Personal histories (biography and autobiography), often assumed to be compendia of fact and
nothing else, make no less use of the imagination, for even basic decisions like what to include in and what to leave out of one's own or another's life story are often based
on the relative dramatic effect on the reader. Here, too rhetoric has its place. Biographers are notoriously and understandably sympathetic towards their subjects. Of the
influence of rhetoric on autobiography little needs to be said.
To me, then, history, biography, autobiography and fiction are not discrete disciplines, not qualitatively different; and historical fiction is neither an oxymoron nor a hybrid
grafting two disparate disciplines. These four modes of writing form a spectrum, all four employing and requiring the creative imagination to a greater or lesser degree.
I have written two novels based on contemporary events. In Speak to the Earth I used as a backdrop the "Clayaquot Summer" on Vancouver Island in 1993 for a story of
a fifteen-year-old boy caught up, much against his will, in the clear-cut logging dispute that divided his community and his family. I kept close to real events without being
bound by them; I included real organizations and real towns, but renamed them. I did not feel bound by a particular set of facts.
Forbidden City, a novel of the Beijing Massacre in Tian An Men Square in June, 1989, was inspired by rage, then sadness, then a deep desire to get the story out in an
accurate and lasting manner. I have lived and taught in China for two years, first in Harbin (1982-3), then in Beijing (1985-6). I, like my main character Alex, with map,
compass and guide book, explored the city by bicycle over the course of a year. I have walked and biked many times across the vast expanse of Tian An Men Square, where
the People's Liberation Army opened fire on the students and citizens; I am familiar with the streets where tanks overran barricades and ground bicycles and enraged
protesters beneath their tracks. When the accounts of the massacre began to come in (some even as the assault on the square was going on), I was able picture what was
happening with vivid clarity.
Before the month of June had expired, I had decided to write a novel about the massacre. Why a novel? Because relatively few people read history and because, as
Koestler (in Darkness at Noon) and Malraux (in La Condition Humaine) have shown, the novel has greater power to help the reader feel she was there and viscerally understand
the events. Why write at all? I did not know at the time whether or Liu Si (June 4) would remain long in the public mind once it fell from the pages of newspapers whose
attention would inevitably move elsewhere, and I wanted to capture the events in a more lasting form. Since the "historical record" was not yet history, my research relied on fresh reports. Each day, I pored over newspapers, hunting for and recording any new scrap of information. I watched any TV coverage I could find, note-pad in hand. I ransacked magazines and listened to radio, especially "As It Happens". Since none of these media is an unimpeachable source of information, careful cross-checking of all data was a necessity. No detail was too tiny.
The challenges I faced when writing Forbidden City were, I expect, typical of the historical novel. The bedrock of any story is composed of setting, plot and character, and
the historical novelist must decide to what extent he will "play with" these basic elements. Keeping in mind that the foremost goal of every novel must be to tell a good
story, I had to decide how tightly I would be bound by my research. Setting (place, atmosphere, time, context) was a given. It was extremely important to me that no one should be able to say that what happens in the book is inaccurate or exaggerated, so I decided early on that the actual events would drive the narrative. With one minor exception--the shooting actually began at Muxidi, down the road from Tian An Men, not in the square as reported in the novel--the events culminating in the assault on the square and the attack itself are given exactly as and when they occurred, up
to the point where Alex, wounded in the leg by a stray AK-47 bullet, escapes from the melee, aided by several university students.
From there on, I allowed myself a little more flexibility. In the days following the massacre, what I present are things that happened (the PLA holding citizens at gun-point
while checking their papers, the deployment of tanks and troops), but now they are subservient to the story of Alex's odyssey as he tries, with Xin-hua's help, to get to the
Canadian embassy, then the airport. Invented but reflecting actual events are the shooting of the cyclist near the Foreign Affairs College and of the young men at the road
block. The assassination of an elderly woman who shouted "Fascists!" to a truck-load of soldiers is true, taken from an eye-witness report from a reporter interviewed from
Beijing on As It Happens.
It is common in the historical novel to take real persons and invent personalities for them. For many reasons, I could not do that. Barring a few students who thrust
themselves forward as leaders, most of the actors in this drama were faceless young women and men attacked by equally faceless soldiers, both groups manipulated by
faceless women and men in the Communist Party structure. I lacked the luxury of the calm and dispassionate analysis that the distance of centuries can bring. So, although
real people are mentioned and seen, my characters are all invented.
A second decision about character has to do with their depth. Like comedy, historical fiction occasionally uses flat characters. Young Alex Jackson (Shanda), an avid
reader of history and military history in particular, is the means through which I tried to portray the visceral effect of the events, so he had to be a fully developed
personality. As most of my readers would not be Chinese, I made my main character a foreigner who, through his own courage and concern for his father's safety, finds
himself in the square when the PLA pile out of the trucks, form a line and start shooting. He has little knowledge of what exactly is going on in Beijing for the few months he
is there, and less awareness of the significance of the events.
Thus, one of my most difficult tasks (if rewriting and that most hated act, cutting, are any measure) was the addition of enough cultural and historical background to
provide a sense of authenticity and context without burdening the story with exposition. Alex, the story's point of view, is a true cultural innocent. Like most of my
anticipated readers, he knows little or nothing about Chinese culture, traditions, customs or attitudes, and, to understand, he must learn. My primary vehicle for his
education is Lao Xu, the middle-aged scholar who serves as interpreter for the CBC news team of Eddie and Alex's father, Ted, and who, as part of his job, reports back to
his Party bosses on the Canadians' activities. Lao Xu becomes Alex's friend, explains things to him (and thus the reader), takes him on tourist excursions, invites him to a
Beijing tea-house where story-tellers recount tales from classical novels. Later, after Lao Xu is shot down in the square, Xin-hua continues Alex's guidance.
I said above that Forbidden City was inspired by emotion. I love to write stories, and the writing of a few of my books can best be describes as fun. This one, though
important and meaningful and rewarding to me, was not. During those awful days, a refrain could be heard time and time again from the students and citizens of Beijing: Tell
the world what has happened. Aside from recounting an event that took place in a city and country where I had and still have close friends, I felt a deep responsibility to get
the story right, and to tell it well enough that people outside China would know what really happened, for my friends and I knew that the government would lie. China's is a
government which does not so much break human rights as refuse even to acknowledge them, and her official line, trade with Canada and the granting of an honourary degree
to a Chinese government official by a Canadian university notwithstanding, remains that no one died in the Tian An Men Square on the night of June 4, 1989. But Forbidden
City is published in ten countries outside Canada, and in eight languages other than English. Like Alex I have tried to tell the world, to honour the citizens and students, and
the blood-stained radiance of their cause.