The Odyssey odyssey, part 3

The Odyssey odyssey by Paul VitolsFor better or for worse, the work for which I am still best known is The Odyssey, the fantasy TV series which I created and wrote with my writing partner and longtime friend Warren Easton. In it, an 11-year-old boy, Jay Ziegler, falls out of a treehouse and ends up in a coma, which somehow has transported him to an unsettling world where children rule because adults have never been heard of. The Odyssey starred Illya Woloshyn, Tony Sampson, and the late Ashleigh Aston Moore, and provided many other local kid actors, such as Ryan Reynolds, with their career starts. The show was produced here in Vancouver and initially aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with 39 episodes appearing between 1992 and 1995.

In Canadian terms our show was a hit, with a peak audience of over 1 million viewers, and many more than that when you look at other countries. It was also a huge critical success, drawing praise for its intelligent, hard-hitting material aimed at kids without talking down to them. Many, perhaps most, of the show’s fans were adults, intrigued to find mythological, psychological, and political themes entwined in a kids’ adventure story. The series was a darling of festivals, winning awards such as a Top Ten World Program at the Cologne Conference—that is, selection as one of the 10 best TV shows ever made.

The Odyssey was a successful story, but the creation of the series, its writing and production, was a perilous ordeal for the inexperienced writers whose brainchild it was. In February 2008 I started to tell the story of its creation in a series of posts at my old blog, Genesis of a Historical Novel. I have decided to repost the series here on my new site for readers new and old. You’ll find a new episode here every Wednesday.

Below is part 3 of The Odyssey Odyssey—enjoy! And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


In 1987 I got away from scriptwriting. I was back at the Insurance Corporation; I became a Buddhist and took up meditation; Kimmie and I bought a townhouse together; and I was working on my New Age thriller novel, Truth of the Python.

I recall that Warren and I prepared more material for our would-be TV series Flash Dispatch, ideas for episodes for a first season, plus a description of how each episode would look and feel, and descriptions of the characters–material that in the TV world constitutes the “bible” of a series. Michael Chechik got the material in front of CBC drama executives in Vancouver, but their verdict was that the pilot script did not live up the potential in the accompanying material.

So there we sat.

But later that year, CBC headquarters in Toronto, no doubt responding to ongoing prodding and complaining by independent producers across the country, and making one of their occasional token efforts to give substance to their mandate to be a “national” broadcaster and not merely a Toronto broadcaster, came up with the idea of producing an anthology of one-off half-hour dramas from non-Toronto producers (that is, from “the regions”, in CBC-speak). The intent was to give producers in “the regions” a chance to get some experience in producing drama for the CBC, and, of course, to give voice to “regional” perspectives from across Canada. It will help Canadians learn more about each other! Just what the CBC is supposed to promote! Warm glows all round.

The anthology was to be called Family Pictures, and the theme was Canadian family life. CBC corporate ambassadors were sent out to meet with “regional” producers to explain the concept and give them documents describing what the network was looking for in the dramas. Michael was at the Vancouver meeting, and he called Warren and me up to suggest that we come up with an idea to pitch to the CBC. We said sure.

I came up with an idea. It was on 7 December 1987. I thought back to when I was in grade 7 at Brooksbank School here in North Vancouver, when I heard a rumor about a boy in another grade 7 class who had passed a love-note to a girl in the class, and the note had fallen into someone else’s hands and then been made public. I don’t know whether that actually happened, and I don’t recall the boy in question acting any differently than usual (strange in any case), but I thought: what if we wrote that story, and had our lover-boy feel, in his humiliation, that he can’t return to school ever again to face his peers?

When I pitched the idea to Warren he liked it right away; we knew it was a winner. And it was exactly the kind of thing we wanted to do: a comedy focused on kids. Thus was born the idea for “What’s Wrong with Neil?”: the story of a 12-year-old boy who passes a love-note to a girl in class, which is intercepted and read out loud by the class showoff, thus causing the boy to run home and pretend to be sick–so sick he could never go back to school…

We wrote up a couple of pages of material sketching the story and gave them to Michael. He sent them in to the CBC, and we waited.

A few months later (fast in TV-show-development time), probably early spring 1988, I got a call from Michael: the CBC liked our story and wanted to go to script.

Wahoo! I experienced the next big leap forward in “realness”: it wasn’t just a producer now who was interested in my work–it was a network, the people who would actually pay for it to be produced, and then broadcast it! Jubilation!

But I didn’t quit my job–not this time. This was only a one-off half-hour drama, and I had two mortgages now. Warren and I would have to write in our available off-job time, as when we’d written Flash Dispatch. But now we were not on conflicting shifts; I was on days and it would be a lot easier.

Michael held a meeting at Omni in which we met with Jana Veverka, the story editor contracted by the CBC to supervise the writing of the scripts for Family Pictures. (Later she’d go on to produce TV shows such as Bordertown and Airwolf.) As I recall, that first meeting was still in the Omni suite on the 11th floor of the Dominion Building. Jana was very positive about the story idea, and liked the fact that our hero was a nerdish love-sick 12-year-old. Her concern was that there might not be enough story there to fill a half-hour of TV.

“There’s plenty there,” we said. We saw some nice farce opportunities in the story.

There: we’d just had our first meeting with a network representative–our first “story meeting”. We were on our way.

To be continued…


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words are made to be heard

It’s always interesting to hear someone else read what I’ve written. Novelwritingfestival.com runs a recurring competition for novels and short stories. The short stories are actually short-short stories—under 400 words. Xera Rondlings, festival director at the Monthly Novel Writing Festival in Beverly Hills, sent me a message on LinkedIn to invite me to submit something.

At first I thought that I didn’t have anything that qualified. But then I remembered my new work in progress, Sparkles on the Inlet, which is a collection of memoir sketches from my earliest childhood. Perhaps one of them would fit the bill.

I wound up choosing “Moving Day,” just 315 words. The good people at the festival selected it for production, and created a video of the story, read by actress Val Cole. Take a look (it’s under 2 minutes long) and see what you think.

Moving Day, a short story by Paul Vitols

 

As for the book, that will be appearing before long. How far back in your own life do you remember? And how do you feel about those earliest memories? To me, all memories have a bittersweet flavor; but the memories I’ll be presenting in my book are basically good. Watch this space.

PS If you agree that words are made to be heard, you may be interested in getting two free  audiobooks from Audible:

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 2

The Odyssey odyssey by Paul VitolsFor better or for worse, the work for which I am still best known is The Odyssey, the fantasy TV series which I created and wrote with my writing partner and longtime friend Warren Easton. In it, an 11-year-old boy, Jay Ziegler, falls out of a treehouse and ends up in a coma, which somehow has transported him to an unsettling world where children rule because adults have never been heard of. The Odyssey starred Illya Woloshyn, Tony Sampson, and the late Ashleigh Aston Moore, and provided many other local kid actors, such as Ryan Reynolds, with their career starts. The show was produced here in Vancouver and initially aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with 39 episodes appearing between 1992 and 1995.

In Canadian terms our show was a hit, with a peak audience of over 1 million viewers, and many more than that when you look at other countries. It was also a huge critical success, drawing praise for its intelligent, hard-hitting material aimed at kids without talking down to them. Many, perhaps most, of the show’s fans were adults, intrigued to find mythological, psychological, and political themes entwined in a kids’ adventure story. The series was a darling of festivals, winning awards such as a Top Ten World Program at the Cologne Conference—that is, selection as one of the 10 best TV shows ever made.

The Odyssey was a successful story, but the creation of the series, its writing and production, was a perilous ordeal for the inexperienced writers whose brainchild it was. In February 2008 I started to tell the story of its creation in a series of posts at my old blog, Genesis of a Historical Novel. I have decided to repost the series here on my new site for readers new and old. You’ll find a new episode here every Wednesday.

Below is part 2 of The Odyssey Odyssey—enjoy! And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


In December 1985 the Vancouver film producer Michael Chechik called me up to express interest in producing Flash Dispatch, the half-hour pilot script that Warren Easton and I had written about bicycle couriers. I recall driving through snow to meet Michael at La Bodega in the West End, not wanting to postpone the meeting merely because of the weather. I’d met Michael before of course, but things were different when the issue of a project of my own creation was on the table: I was moving to the inside of the industry, I felt.

Michael’s enthusiasm was genuine, and this is a huge boost for any writer, who toils mostly in obscurity and self-doubt, and very often in failure. In the world of filmmaking, the highest compliment any producer can give a writer is to form a sincere desire to produce his work. Verbal expressions of praise are only icing on the cake. So, on that cold dark night, in the dim and rather deserted atmosphere of the tapas bar, I basked in the feeling of becoming “real” (sort of like that excellent children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit, if you’ve ever read that: in the story, becoming “real” is the dream and goal of every plush-toy).

Michael, with his electric-blue eyes, neatly trimmed beard, and rather high-pitched, fast-talking voice, expressed his eagerness to make the pilot–but of course there was the matter of getting a broadcaster interested, and funding the production. Indeed, he didn’t have the resources even to buy an option on the script, a normal step in the big time when a producer wants to lock down the rights to a particular project so he can see about raising funding to produce it.

That was OK with me. I knew that Michael so far had not produced any drama; he and his two partners at Omni-Films were documentary producers, and in fact had won a Genie Award for their documentary Greenpeace: Voyages to Save the Whales. (Michael’s involvement in the movie Walls was more that of a silent partner, as I understood it, rather than as a primary producer of it.) Producing a drama from scratch would be something new for them–as it would be for me and Warren. Michael’s newness was one thing that made him open to looking at our work, so I was more than willing for us all to be newbies together.

Michael set the wheels in motion, and had us write (I think) another draft or two of the script, along with supporting material discussing and selling the concept for the TV series. Warren and I were invited in to meet the people at Omni-Films, a small cadre of 20- and 30-somethings operating out of a suite of offices near the top of the Dominion Building, a picturesque 1910 office tower at Hastings and Cambie that was briefly the tallest building in the British Empire (13 stories). We used the Omni word-processor to prepare final drafts of the material.

Now that we were in show business, Warren and I of course had to quit whatever pesky jobs we had and set up as full-time TV and movie writers. I quit my job at ICBC, and Warren and I took to meeting every day, first of all in a spare room at my mother’s house, but then soon at our own office in the Dominion Building–a place where, it turned out, you could rent a one-room office with its own sink for $80 a month. We took an 8th-floor terrazzo-floored office facing west over roof parking-lots and looking into the walls of downtown high-rises, furnished it with a friend’s old desk and a couple of mismatched chairs, chose the whimsical business name The Megavolt Script Factory, which the landlady put on the building directory down in the marble-floored lobby, and got to work.

Yes: work. What to write? We came up with and submitted show ideas for Canadian series running at that time, like Night Heat (our favorite) and Danger Bay. We started working on a screenplay, The Panda Gap, a Cold War comedy that featured the abduction of politically sensitive panda-bears. And, because we had a telephone and therefore a Yellow Pages listing, we fielded inquiries from young would-be scriptwriters who wanted to join our company. Our gross earnings for the first half of 1986: $0.

Meanwhile, Michael kept pressing to finance Flash Dispatch. There were some exciting moments. I recall him showing us a letter of intent from Jan Rofekamp, at that time a Montreal film distributor, expressing enthusiasm for the script and assuring us that if we could deliver the show, he could certainly find buyers for it internationally. We were feeling more and more “real”.

An office in the Omni suite became available, and, in exchange for a continuing “option” on Flash Dispatch, Michael let us have it gratis. The Megavolt Script Factory moved up to the 11th floor, now looking east over the more picturesque Downtown East Side. It was a smaller room, and I think the sink didn’t work here, but we were closer to the heart of the action. The people at Omni said that they heard us laughing all day long from the office down the hall. I don’t think that that was much of an exaggeration.

As 1986 started drawing to a close, Warren and I were forced to ask ourselves whether we could afford to be professional film and TV writers. Although we did actually earn some scriptwriting income that year–we split $1,000 paid to us by a director who liked our work, and who wanted us to write a sitcom pilot for him about an old-folks’ home–the writing contracts were not flooding in as we’d hoped. There was the odd producer or director who wanted us to write something for free–sorry: on “spec”–but these projects were always terrible, and we felt that if we were going to write for free, we might as well do our own material, or at least something we liked.

In short, I was going broke. I also wanted to devote more time to writing a novel I’d started, Truth of the Python, about a Vancouver hypnotherapist who accidentally regresses a client to a past life as the philosopher Pythagoras. Feeling chastened after a year as a “real” TV and movie writer, I returned to my job at ICBC in December 1986, a month before my 28th birthday. Warren stayed on for a time as the lone representative of The Megavolt Script Factory, but eventually he too had to give up the office and find gainful employment.

As for Michael, he hadn’t given up on Flash Dispatch. It’s just that these things take time…

And as 1987 came in, I had returned to corporate life, and the dream of scriptwriting was apparently a bust, at least for the time being.

To be continued…


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 1

The Odyssey odyssey

For better or for worse, the work for which I am still best known is The Odyssey, the fantasy TV series which I created and wrote with my writing partner and longtime friend Warren Easton. In it, an 11-year-old boy, Jay Ziegler, falls out of a treehouse and ends up in a coma, which somehow has transported him to an unsettling world where children rule because adults have never been heard of. The Odyssey starred Illya Woloshyn, Tony Sampson, and the late Ashleigh Aston Moore, and provided many other local kid actors, such as Ryan Reynolds, with their career starts. The show was produced here in Vancouver and initially aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with 39 episodes appearing between 1992 and 1995.

In Canadian terms our show was a hit, with a peak audience of over 1 million viewers, and many more than that when you look at other countries. It was also a huge critical success, drawing praise for its intelligent, hard-hitting material aimed at kids without talking down to them. Many, perhaps most, of the show’s fans were adults, intrigued to find mythological, psychological, and political themes entwined in a kids’ adventure story. The series was a darling of festivals, winning awards such as a Top Ten World Program at the Cologne Conference—that is, selection as one of the 10 best TV shows ever made.

The Odyssey was a successful story, but the creation of the series, its writing and production, was a perilous ordeal for the inexperienced writers whose brainchild it was. In February 2008 I started to tell the story of its creation in a series of posts at my old blog, Genesis of a Historical Novel. I have decided to repost the series here on my new site for readers new and old. You’ll find a new episode here every Wednesday.

Below is part 1 of The Odyssey Odyssey—enjoy! And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


Fans of The Odyssey have expressed curiosity about how the show came to be, and I have meant to say more about that. Maybe I’ll start now.

Warren Easton and I had been friends from childhood, as far back as grade 3 in North Vancouver. Along with other friends we had an interest in creative and dramatic things such as writing and acting. After leaving high school 1977 we lost the nurturing environment for following these things, but were still interested in these creative pursuits, even if it wasn’t clear how to follow these now.

After some time spent (mainly separately) working, traveling, and dropping out of higher education, we agreed in spring 1982 to write a script together–a made-for-TV movie.

Well, we never quite finished that, but over the next few years, while varying between unemployment and working at various jobs, we kept chipping away at script projects. At the same time, I was a stringer for a small Montreal-based magazine called Cinema Canada, writing articles and then columns about happenings in the film and TV industry in Vancouver. This got me meeting people in the industry (and getting them willing to talk to me!). One of the people I met was Michael Chechik, a local producer whose company, Omni-Films, was involved in making the feature film Walls, a true-life prison story starring Winston Rekert, who went on to star in the TV series Neon Rider.

When my father, Al Vitols, who was a current-affairs producer for CBC-TV in Vancouver, told me that the long-running, locally produced TV series The Beachcombers was going to come to an end before long, and that the CBC may well be looking for something to replace it, Warren and I put our heads together and came up with what we thought was a similar adventure-comedy idea, but more urban in tone and therefore (we assumed) also cheaper to produce, maybe. It was a show about bicycle couriers, which we called Flash Dispatch. (At that time, 1983-84, bicycle couriers were everywhere in Vancouver; the fax machine had not yet arrived, still less the Internet.)

After studying a couple of half-hour CBC scripts that my father furnished us, Warren and I set to work writing a pilot script for our half-hour would-be TV series. (Like many proto-TV writers, we looked at the scripts and thought, “Cripes, we can do better than that.”) Warren and I had both recently ended periods of poverty and unemployment by getting jobs, he as a messenger at a securities firm downtown; I soft-landed as a clerk at the Insurance Corporation of B.C.–a cushy unionized job. He worked days and I worked evenings, so we got together at midnight each night in his little apartment over a bagel shop at 16th and Oak in Vancouver. With a typewriter set up on something like an upended box (he had no furniture), I typed while he paced or lounged, and the traffic zoomed noisily past just below.

This was in the winter of 1984. After a few grueling weeks of working like this, we had a pilot script for our show. Entitled “The Old Switcheroo”, the episode had one of our young couriers involved in mistakenly picking up a pack filled with the proceeds of a bank robbery, with farcical results. It was a comedy with fast-moving, outdoor, West Coast action: we thought it was good, and we started trying to get it read–first of all by sending it to the CBC.

Nothing. No response. Not yes, not no–nothing. Gradually we realized that we’d probably have to start showing it to other people, producers. At the same time, we tried to come up with other ideas, while also keeping body and soul together by holding down regular jobs.

I forget now exactly how it happened, but at some point, late in 1985, I sent some material to Michael Chechik at Omni-Films–Flash Dispatch and a story treatment for a TV movie that Warren and I had worked up about ice dancing, called Dancing on Ice. Well, one evening, I think in early December 1985, I got a call at home from Michael, saying he really liked the Flash Dispatch script and wanted to see about getting it produced.

Yahoo! I thought. I’m in show business!

We agreed to meet at La Bodega, a tapas bar downtown, to talk about it. How exciting! We were going to be produced!

There were plenty of twists and turns yet to come. But that will be for future installments…


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The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith: the black heart of politics

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good PoliticsThe Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Finally! Someone has figured out why politics works the way it does.

I first heard about this book in a Quora answer in 2016 or 2017. It sounded intriguing enough that I put it on my “to read” list and eventually bought myself a copy. Now I’ve read it, and I feel that I have received the best, most coherent, and most consistent explanation for political behavior that I have ever encountered.

I say this as someone who has devoted some energy to trying to understand politics. To that end, I have read a number of Great Books, such as Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s The Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and Marx’s Capital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, as well as more modern works, such as The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek and The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer, among others. They all have valuable things to say, but only now, with The Dictator’s Handbook, do I feel that I have been shown the beating heart at the center of politics.

These authors maintain that all political behavior is ultimately selfish and has a single aim: to gain and hold power. This sounds banal, since we already know that politicians eagerly desire to gain and hold power, and that many of them, perhaps most, maybe even all, will lie, cheat, bend rules, and break laws to achieve this aim. The observation of political life inevitably breeds cynicism. But, cynical though we may be, we still think of the business of politics as being fundamentally about holding ideological views and seeking to implement policies and programs on the basis of these once one gains power; we think of politics as being about governing. Yes, politicians may be ruthless about gaining and holding office, but, once they do, they have a job to do—their real job, which is running things as best they can according to their own lights. And here Messrs. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith disagree: gaining and holding power is the job, the only job, of the politician. Everything else is window dressing or a means to getting and staying in power. For a politician who lost this focus would soon be replaced by another whose focus was clearer.

Now this sounds like Machiavelli, and, indeed, of the great political theorists Machiavelli is most clearly the closest in outlook to these authors. Machiavelli sought to teach statecraft to princes, and he saw that gaining and holding power was the primary task of the prince, one to which everything else had to be subordinated. Morality, integrity, justice—all these had to be sacrificed at the altar of power; the prince is necessarily the most ruthless hypocrite in any room he enters, because if he’s not, then he will soon lose his office to the man who is. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith acknowledge this, but they bring a more theoretically worked-out explanation of exactly how rulers gain and hold power. In their view, the chemistry of political power operates between 4 categories of people:

  1. the ruler (king, president, chairman, CEO) himself
  2. the “essentials”: those lesser powers around the ruler whose support keeps him in power
  3. the “influentials”: a wider group from whom the essentials are drawn and who have a say in installing the ruler, such as members of the ruler’s political party
  4. the “interchangeables”: everyone else—people whose opinion and welfare make no difference to the ruler’s hold on power

It is the interactions between these 4 categories of people that constitutes the political behavior of a society or organization, and it is their relative size that determines the kind of society it is, that is, whether the society is one we would label “democratic” or “autocratic.” For it turns out that the societies that we call autocratic all share the trait of being led by rulers who are backed by relatively small cliques of essential supporters, while those we call democratic are led by rulers supported by large groups of essential supporters. There are definite, specific reasons for this that the authors explain at length. But it boils down to a single principle: rulers gain and hold power by bestowing benefits on their essential supporters—and by no other means. The wealth that the ruler can get his hands on is shared out to these essential supporters, with any excess being kept by himself, or, optionally, spent on public welfare. When the number of essential backers is large, then the ruler cannot enrich them very much individually, and is obliged to gratify them in other ways, by enacting public policies that benefit them. And now we have a society that we call “democratic.”

So it turns out that even the most enlightened and just democratic societies are powered by this same political dynamic; it’s just that the ruler, in order to gain and hold power, is obliged to gratify a larger constituency; he has to deliver actual public goods. A democracy is a society in which the interests of the ruler are more closely aligned with the interests of a large share of the public. Autocracies, on the other hand, are run purely for the benefit of the ruler and his supporting clique. The authors show how corruption always serves those in power; that is why it exists, and why it is always worst in the most autocratic regimes. According to Transparency International, the most corrupt country on Earth is North Korea, and it is ruled by the world’s closest approximation of an absolute monarch, Kim Jong-un.

The Dictator’s Handbook has drawn much critical praise, but almost all reviewers and readers say that they find the book depressing. I understand how they feel, but I don’t share that feeling. I found the book exhilarating to read. Why? Because I felt I was finally reading the truth about politics. I became convinced that this really is how politics works. And if we want to improve politics and make any political system more responsive and more accountable to the people who are being ruled, then we need an accurate idea of what is actually going on. As in medicine, you need an accurate diagnosis before you can develop an effective treatment. The authors have a number of suggestions in their final chapter, “What Is to Be Done?”, about how to improve political systems. Those who want to make rulers more responsive and more accountable could start there. The United States, for example, could become more democratic by abolishing the electoral college and by having intelligent software draw its electoral districts, instead of leaving it to gerrymandering incumbents in power.

There are a lot of insights in this book. It is well written and it moves right along. I venture to guess that it may be one of the most politically empowering books you could read. That being the case, I heartily recommend it. If you read only one political book in your life, make it this one. Then, when you see a chance to help expand the size of the group that the leader needs to keep himself in power, you will push for it, and thus push your society in the direction of accountability and good governance.


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art is like life: scary

So much of the writing life—as with the rest of life—is about managing fear. Maybe managing is not the right word, since it seems to imply competence and control. But fear plays a big part in our lives, shaping the things we do and the paths we choose in life. When Thoreau wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, he was really pointing to the effect of fear (well, also of self-knowledge, perhaps). We all desire safety in one way or another, and that desire is itself a silent killer.

Lost Kings: a short story by Paul Vitols

Dead at present

My gosh, I didn’t expect to launch this post on such a dark note. My aim here is, at least in theory, a joyous one: to announce the publication of my latest short story, Lost Kings. The story is out on Amazon and Smashwords, and is snaking its way through Smashwords’ distribution network to other retailers (I see it’s up on the iBooks Store, so maybe it has finished its snaking), so I am enjoying some of the “birth” quality of that. I’m really pleased with the story and I think it’s worked out well. But I had a hard time getting myself to face the task of looking at it again to finish it. I procrastinated the task out of fear.

I wrote the first draft toward the end of 1992, in the burst of creative effort that I experienced after finishing season 1 of my TV series The Odyssey. It was so lovely and liberating to be working on something of my own again, where I didn’t have to submit my work under deadline pressure to critical eyes, and attend story meetings to listen to nonwriters tell me what was wrong with it. In that time I rediscovered the joy of writing, and sat at the Ikea pine coffee table in my living room, covering lined notepaper with my longhand script. I drafted two and a half stories that way, leaving off in January 1993 when I left for Vermont to attend a month-long meditation retreat.

I had never really regarded myself as a short-story writer; my interests and abilities seemed to point me toward longer forms. But now I had an idea of writing a series of stories based on my own life. It’s a well-known tip to writers to write material based on their own experience, and ultimately all creative writing necessarily is based on one’s own experience, at some level, but in my case I had never found inspiration in the events of my own life. I was excited by bigger, more exotic ideas; I was and am an epic writer at heart. And I did not see anything epic about my own life.

I can’t exactly say that in 1992 I discovered that epic quality in my life, but I did feel that I discerned in it something of an epic myth: that of the Holy Grail. I had always been excited by the tales of Arthur’s knights and their quest for the Grail. In the 1980s, when I first read Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God series about how human societies have been shaped by the power of myth, I was fascinated to learn our own modern Western Civilization has been spiritually centered, according to Campbell, on the myth of the Waste Land and its redemption by discovery of the Holy Grail. In Campbell’s view, we Westerners are all, whether we realize it or not, Grail seekers: we wander a land left waste by the death of God. Yes, we lead lives of quiet desperation, thirsting for spiritual life.

Things are bleak, futile, as depicted, for example, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But that’s not the whole story. The myth of the Waste Land has its complement in the myth of the Grail, which Campbell terms “the symbol of supreme spiritual value.” And the greatest expression of that myth is the epic poem Parzifal, written by the German knight Wolfram von Eschenbach in the early 13th century. In it, the world’s greatest knight, the ignorant bumpkin Parzifal, inspired by love of a woman, sets out to find the Holy Grail or to die trying. It won’t be easy, since one of the rules attached to the Grail by God himself is that it cannot be found by anyone who intentionally seeks it. Indeed, it is a task of maximum difficulty.

Parzifal’s career sketches the path of the would-be Grail seeker. And by 1992 I had realized that I was such a seeker myself, and that therefore Parzifal’s story could serve, at a deep level, as a template for my own life. Could I discern moments in my life that were parallels of the turning points of Parzifal’s quest? I thought I could. And once I saw that, the idea of a series of life-based short stories dawned on me: a suite of stories connected by this theme, this thread, as by the electrically charged third rail of a subway train. I was excited by this idea. I was inspired.

The first turning point emerged as The Thought Dial; the next one as Lost Kings. Whether it’s visible to the reader or not, these stories echo with motifs from Parzifal’s life and quest. Indeed you could say that his quest is their energy source, what gives them their sense of mission. With the stories serving this higher purpose, I set to work with gusto and drafted them relatively quickly.

Things came crashing down when I returned from my retreat to discover that I had been fired from The Odyssey, and my life took a new turn. The third story in my series was giving me trouble and I began to doubt the viability of my project. Plus there weren’t many places to publish short stories, unless I could finish a whole set and bring them out as a book. The drafts went into a file folder, and there they stayed until a couple of years ago, when I started trying to think of things to publish as e-books. I already had these stories as drafts—perfect! I could just take them through succeeding drafts (always easier than the first draft) and publish.

I experienced some fear in facing The Thought Dial after all these years, but I recalled that I had always liked the story and liked the draft that I had. So I was able to pull it out and work on it without too much resistance. Lost Kings was a different case. My last encounter with it, so to speak, had not been so pleasant. My impression was that it was an ungainly story that did not really know what it was trying to do. What was it really about? Did it really hang together? Did anything really happen in it? It was sort of like having a bad date with someone and deciding you don’t need to see them anymore.

That’s what was sitting in the file folder. I was afraid that if I looked at it, I would be reminded of why I decided to abandon this short-story project all those years ago. I think I was afraid of being embarrassed by that early effort. And beyond that was the fear that I wouldn’t know how to make it better. For a work of fiction is like life in this respect too: it’s not always clear what’s wrong with it or how to fix it.

At some point I took courage, for I did want to get my works published, and this was the next on my list. Did I really want to just forget about it and try coming up with something else from scratch? A keen desire to save labor drove me to print off a fresh copy of the story and read it again.

It had some problems, but overall it was better than I expected it to be. Indeed, I was quite pleased with it and actually eager to see what I could make of it. Having studied the art of storytelling in the years since I drafted it, I was able to bring some definite technique to bear on the story. I broke it down scene by scene and figured out what was going on in it. printed off a story-analysis form of my own devising and completed that; I started marking up pages of the story with handwritten notes; I consulted various reference and research books. In short, I got into my story and lavished some TLC on it. I also came up with a design concept for the cover and got some help in realizing that.

Now it’s published. Lost Kings has something to say; there are depths, too, beneath its still pools for the curious reader to dive into. It’s one more collaboration between the author in his early 30s and himself in his late 50s. Both of them stand by it, and they welcome you to give it a read if you feel so inclined.

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reading as theater

When I was little, I loved being read to. My mother was good about this, and would often bring library books home and read them to my sister Mara and me. I also had some books of my own, and I never tired of hearing them. My favorites were The World of Pooh by A. A. Milne and Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. I’ve still got them, and I note that I received both of them on my sixth birthday—Pooh from my friends the Burts and the fairy tales from my dad. They were well chosen, and perhaps even formative in making me a writer. Who knows how many times I listened to the adventures of Pooh and his plush-toy posse?

Insert story here

Language was a spoken phenomenon long before it was a written one; we learn how to listen and to speak long before we learn how to read and to write. I remember seeing a documentary showing how babies in the womb become accustomed to the language spoken by their mother; on birth our brains are already significantly prewired to adopt the language spoken around us. There is something primal and emotional about the spoken word as against the written word, which is processed via the eyes (or via touch for those who read Braille).

All of this being the case, I can’t say I’m surprised that audiobooks are doing so well. According to an article in Forbes, audiobook sales are climbing, while print-book sales are flat and e-book sales are declining.  People are apparently rediscovering the joy of being read to.

For my own part, though, I have not been a part of this phenomenon, either as a consumer or a producer. I don’t listen to audiobooks. In part this is due to habit. My day is already structured to include reading—lots of it—and I’m perfectly happy to read from books, mostly print but sometimes e-books. There aren’t any obvious slots in my day in which to insert audiobooks: I don’t commute to work, I don’t ride an exercise cycle or jog while listening to things, I don’t take languorous baths where I might listen to someone spin a yarn for me. In part, too, it’s because I don’t read much fiction. I do always have a fictional work on the go (right now I’m reading Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, translated by John E. Woods), but most of my reading is nonfiction, and I like to highlight these books as I go. So I don’t feel like I’m a real fit with audiobooks.

But I can understand why people are. For one thing, audiobook narrators tend to be good readers with pleasant voices, and it’s pleasurable to listen to a good voice. There is a feeling of human contact, of connection, even though it’s a recording. A narrated text also takes the work out of reading. Decoding words from a page and making sense of them takes effort. A narrator makes this effort and provides you, the listener, with the result. My wife Kim says that when I read to her, she understands the material better than when she reads it herself. A good reader passes his powers of comprehension on to the listener, which is a delightful benefit.

Then there’s the performance itself. A good narrator has a sense of drama and timing, has an instinct for storytelling, and may even be a decent (possibly professional) actor, and thus able to bring characters to life from the page. These skills help turn a reading into something more like a theatrical performance, or perhaps into a unique hybrid between a pure reading experience and attending a play—but all at your convenience, thanks to today’s delivery technologies.

So I want to get more into audiobooks, possibly as a consumer but certainly as a producer. I’ve always been a good reader aloud, so I seem like a natural and cost-effective choice to narrate my own audiobooks. I’m also seriously considering taking a shot at narrating the work of other writers, if they’ll let me. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, July 16 is Amazon Prime Day. From now until July 17, Amazon is offering special deals, including discounts for Audible, Amazon’s audiobook service. You could choose 66% off a general subscription

…or sign up for a free trial of the new romance package.

If you’re curious, you might check it out (just click on the links above, or the relevant graphic), and as an Amazon Associate, your humble narrator would get a small piece of the action if you went there from this website and took the plunge.

Happy reading and happy listening.

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Forgiveness by Sidney B. Simon and Suzanne Simon: help for the walking wounded

Forgiveness: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Get on With Your LifeForgiveness: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Get on With Your Life by Sidney B. Simon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A straightforward, authoritative guide to the path of self-healing—which we all need more than we think.

This book, published in 1990, is the product of a husband-wife team; the Simons led seminars in forgiveness and healing throughout the United States in the 1980s. Indeed, it comes out in the book that it was at one of these seminars, then led only by Sidney Simon, that the pair met: for Suzanne had suffered sexual abuse as a little girl, and had finally taken definite steps to heal herself. She went on to marry the seminar’s facilitator and to coteach the seminar with him.

Suzanne’s story becomes the central case study in the book. There are also about half a dozen others: the stories of men and women who suffered emotional wounding and went on to heal it and live more fully. Not all the wounds are necessarily inflicted in childhood; one woman was traumatized to learn of her husband’s affair. The authors point out that we can be hurt by spouses, lovers, siblings, and employers as much as by our parents—although our early caregivers are in a position to do the most harm, since at that time of life we are small and helpless and at their mercy. Certainly this was the case with Suzanne, who was molested by her own father.

The notion of people being wounded or damaged, and working with their “inner child” and haunting support groups, has been in popular culture for some time. Beavis and Butthead made taunts about each other’s inner child, and the popular writer on healing, Caroline Myss, is critical of the phenomenon of “woundology”–of people identifying with their wounds and thereby never getting past them. She sees support groups as being, at least sometimes, enablers of this kind of thinking. But I got a sense from reading the Simons’ book that this getting stuck at a stage in the healing process is normal and inevitable. And, true, a person can stay stuck there a long time, maybe his whole life, but the problem is one of being stuck, and not of paying attention to one’s woundedness. For we must pay attention to it if we are to heal. But we need to pay attention to it in the right way.

This is where the Simons’ book comes in. They clearly outline the healing process and how to proceed with it. For each of us, it unfolds as a series of 6 stages, which they name:

1. Denial
2. Self-Blame
3. Victim
4. Indignation
5. Survivor
6. Integration

We all start in the Denial stage, and we may linger there a good long time, since it’s something that naturally goes away by itself. The authors describe it thus:

This is the stage in which we attempt to play down the impact or importance of painful past experiences and bury our thoughts and feelings about those experiences.

It’s easy to see why this creates a “stuck” situation, since, when confronted with evidence of a problem, we respond: “Problem? What problem? I’m okay, that’s all ancient history. Heck, it’s made me stronger!” But the evidence of unhealed wounds lies in our lives and how we manage them. Do we engage in self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors? Do we repeatedly find ourselves enacting similar unpleasant dramas in our lives? Do we feel unfulfilled or dead inside? Do we feel that life is just something to be got through—and maybe got over with as soon as possible?

One of the most striking things for me in reading this book was to see how the behaviors associated with unhealed wounds describe so much of human life around me—as well as my own life. To some extent, we are all, each of us, the walking wounded. For, as the Simons observe, everybody gets hurt. We don’t all get hurt equally badly, but it’s not a contest; and if our wounds are causing unpleasant symptoms to appear in our lives, then this is a problem we need to deal with.

The book is called Forgiveness, but the path they describe is one of healing. I don’t know whether I’ve ever associated those things before. But, according to these authors, forgiveness happens spontaneously as a byproduct of healing. We cannot forgive by an act of will; the words “I forgive” have no magic power to bring about the mental and emotional closure that true forgiveness brings. According to the Simons, we must go through all the steps of healing—every one of them—in order for the magic of forgiveness to take place. The level of our actual forgiveness is revealed in how we live and behave: if we are living fully, enjoying our lives, and actualizing ourselves, then we have forgiven.

The authors are at pains to make clear that forgiveness is not the same thing as condoning or excusing cruelty or injustice. Our ignorance of this point can be a serious obstacle to progressing on the path of healing. Forgiveness means putting things in perspective, and seeing that life is more than just the harms that have been done to us, and that those who have done the harming are more than just their worst moments.

Each step of the process is discussed in detail, but the book moves along briskly. The authors give us exercises to do to help bring us along, and illustrate each phase with their handful of case studies. I bought this book in order to do research for one of my fictional characters, but found that I was learning about myself and my own life. Now I would recommend this book to just about everyone: both those who are limping from day to day on “painkillers and emptiness-fillers,” and those who are mostly happy, unaware that their unhealed wounds are keeping the true riches of life out of reach.


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The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger: then and now

The Catcher in the Rye by JD salingerThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was younger than Holden Caulfield when I first read this book; now I’m several multiples of his age. It’s still a brilliant and thought-provoking work, and must surely be a darling of contemporary editors and agents with their mania for “voice.” One thought as I read this time is that Holden’s journey home has certain affinities with the Odyssey of Homer. It’s an adventure plot. Yes, I enjoyed it very much.

 

 

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Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come by Norman Cohn: the cosmic carrot on the stick

Cosmos Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic FaithCosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith by Norman Cohn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A dense, authoritative survey of the development of the myth of the millennium and a future paradise. Awaiters of the Rapture take note.

I have long been fascinated by millenarianism, and have felt inspired to build stories around this idea. The notion of a profound revolution resulting in a permanent utopia is hypnotically seductive to many of us. When I learned back in 1986 that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a millenarian cult of this kind, I was actually attracted to their organization. In Switzerland a young JW pressed a little book into my hand: Survival into a New Earth, published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, and I read it while making a train journey to visit CERN, the nuclear research facility outside Geneva. According to the book’s copyright page, its first edition ran to 4 million copies, and I bet they were all put into somebody’s hands. I really enjoyed the book. If you accept its premises of the reality of Jehovah as God and the infallibility of the Bible, then the book makes a strong case. We are at the threshold of a massive revolution in Earthly life that will culminate in a paradisiacal existence for a blessed and immortal elite—an elite that anyone can join by professing this faith.

The book was logical and well written, but what made it seductive was that it addresses itself forthrightly to the most important questions, and answers them confidently and authoritatively. We all want to be happy, and we all fear death. We also want to understand a confusing world, and to lead a good life within it. We want to feel that our life has meaning, and that living it has been worthwhile. This book addresses all of these things head on. If I accept the book’s teaching, then I will have all the things I seek: happiness, freedom from death, a good and meaningful life. I will enjoy peace and love permanently, and I will do that very soon, for the upheavals that are to bring these things about are imminent. Indeed, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the change will happen before the generation that was alive in 1914 has passed away—and the number of people over 104 years old is dwindling fast.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are just one flavor of millenarian cult; there have been countless others. And a respected longtime student of that field was Norman Cohn (he died in 2007). His book Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages appeared for years in the bibliography of any book that made mention of millenarianism. I remember getting his book out of the Vancouver Public Library when I was in my 20s, and starting to read it, but I never got through. I think it was, in part, because I found his writing style dry.

I’m afraid I still think that. Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come is an excellent and authoritative book, but the author’s prose style, while perfectly serviceable and readable, is calmly factual rather than exciting or interesting. It was this fact that caused me to leave off reading the book when I first picked it up in 2007 (gosh, I realize that Mr. Cohn was still alive when I started reading his book). Now, 11 years later, I had reason to dive back in, my researches having returned me to this fascinating topic of millenarianism, and the book too being a key reference for Harold Bloom’s intriguing Omens of the Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams & Resurrection. The fact that a scholar of Bloom’s standing regarded Cohn as such an authority boosted Cohn’s stock in my eyes. In fact, I thought, “I must get that book,” and came to my computer to buy it, but something niggled at the back of my mind. I made a scan of my shelves and found that I already had it. Whew!

Cohn’s book is not long, but he covers a tremendous amount of ground. This, to me, is a sign of the depth of his knowledge. The book’s title is a summary of how he develops the topic, for the author starts out by showing how ancient civilizations, beginning with Egypt, conceived of the world as an orderly place, a cosmos, made that way by powerful gods who then had the task of preserving that order against forces that would disrupt it—the forces of chaos. He goes on to show how similar ideas were developed in ancient Mesopotamia and Vedic India. In doing this he demonstrates great knowledge of these disparate ancient cultures, but presents and emphasizes only what is germane to his theme.

A turning point came with the rise of the sage Zoroaster and the revolution he brought to Iranian religion. For he was apparently the first to see the world in terms of an ongoing struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, a struggle not just between gods but one involving every living thing, and most especially every human being, regardless of nationality, gender, or station. He prophesied that good would eventually triumph, and that the world would be transformed into a wonderful, bounteous, and peaceful place, where the victors over evil would enjoy endless happiness. This beatific future paradise is the world to come; it’s the future we can look forward to if we sign up with the prophet’s program.

Cohn shows how this idea percolated out to suffuse Canaanite, Jewish, and finally Christian thinking. Indeed it goes beyond that, underlying any kind of future-oriented utopian program, such as that of Marxism. Whoever envisions a bright, utopian future, especially one that comes about through an abrupt cataclysm, and most especially one that is reserved for the good and the pious, is living out this ancient Zoroastrian myth. It’s a vision that offers solace and inspiration to the persecuted and the martyred.

I found that this book kept getting better as it progressed and as the author’s grand scheme came more clearly into view. He offers a clear and penetrating story of how this fascinating and seductive idea made its way into the spiritual tradition of the West, where it has formed such an important component of the way we look at the world.


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