Breadspreads

Breadspreads is the dive of a restaurant that serves as a snowboarder hangout in Whistler in the book.  There was a real Breadspreads, and it was a sandwich place, just not in Whistler, and it closed before Godblog came out.  It might even have closed before I finished writing it.  Breadspreads was in downtown Toronto, spitting distance off Yonge St. on a tiny side street and it was the gathering place for bike couriers working in the city core.  It had a big patio, with bikes all leaning on the railing, and couriers overflowing it. 

When I needed a snowboarder gathering place in the book for Jefferoo and his tribe to hang out, Breadspreads seemed to have the same kind of ambiance I was looking for. 

Did I ever go in?  No freaking way.  Beyond the fact that there was a gauntlet of couriers just to get to the door, the place exuded scruffy, effortless-cooler-than-thou.  The closest I got to contact was stares from that direction if I happened to be walking down Yonge in a skirt.

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The genesis of the Cancer Anger Kit

In Godblog, Dag hears about a young woman with cancer, the admin assistant of one of his regular corporate executive customers.  We don’t know his personal past experience with anyone with cancer, (though there is some).  Even though he hasn’t any apparent personal connection with this young woman, suddenly, the Hero of the Teeming Masses comes up with the Cancer Anger Kit, a package he describes in a post:

Contents:

1.  A box of black crayons.  To those who are asking the obvious question:  Yes, this means you will have to buy 8 boxes in order to put it together and Yes, you will have 56 other colored crayons left over.  Spend the bucks at the dollar store, dickweed, and let this be the first of many opportunities you take to be thankful it isn’t you that has cancer.  Give the leftover crayons to a day care, or a kid you know.  Maybe give them (plus an apology) to that nice little girl you paid the dollars to for the dirty words.  Yes, the Hero knows you went and did that.  Shame on you.  That was a test.  You failed.  The Hero sayeth thou shalt not do every fucking thing you’re told.

2.  A pad or wadge of paper to draw on.  Make it *big*, to allow for big, wild, angry strokes.

3.  A CD of your head-bangingest music, be it Tool or the 1812 Overture, to encourage venting.  It doesn’t have to be good, just loud enough to drown out the recipient’s shouted fury at the unfairness of the world.  Better her neighbors think she’s inexplicably become a metalhead than hear every word of her personal rant against the fates through the wall.

4.  Something smashable.  It has to go in one good hurl.  A piece of crockery, something mechanical, anything that breaks just so long as it will be rendered useless and come apart into smithereens when it is heaved at the wall or floor in rage.  People hate busting up their own stuff.  And don’t make it too heavy or too sturdy an item, because some of these people don’t have their usual strength and maybe don’t have the energy to keep bashing away at it. 

5.  A stuffed animal (any type) that can be ripped to bits.  Make sure this intent is made clear in the note (yes, you will include a note with the Cancer Anger Kit), or the entire point of this item will be lost and you will be in unoriginal pink-ribboned teddy-bear territory.

6.  A calendar for at least the next two months with the days circled that you will be calling this person to listen to them rant.  They do not have to want to rant on those days, but it is important to let them know that you will be calling and you will be available, and they do not have to be hopeful or brave or inspiring.  Then fucking DO IT.

Now you’re a Hero to somebody.  Was that so damn hard?

 

In an e-mail exchange with a friend yesterday about Barbara Ehrenreich, I suddenly remember exactly what the insipration for the Cancer Anger Kit was from.  Journalist/author Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 or thereabouts, and wrote about it for Harper’s Magazine.  But not the usual uplifting survivor’s journey.  That’s not her, nor Harper’s style.  She wrote “Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch” and took issue with, (among other things) the infantalizing culture of pink ribbons and teddy bears around breast cancer.  She describes one item she received:

 

“A tote bag distributed to breast cancer patients by the Libby Ross Foundation (through places such as the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center) contains, among other items, a tube of Estee Lauder Perfumed Body Creme, a hot-pink satin pillowcase. an audiotape “Meditation to Help You with Chemotherapy,” a small tin of peppermint pastilles, a set of three small inexpensive rhinestone bracelets, a pink striped “journal and sketch book,” and-somewhat jarringly - a small box of crayons. Marla Willner, one of the founders of the Libby Ross Foundation, told me that the crayons “go with the journal-for people to express different moods, different thoughts …” though she admitted she has never tried to write with crayons herself.” *

 

This really struck me and I started thinking of how angry I’d be if I got cancer and how pink doesn’t really go with my primary colors, skull and crossbones, dark sensibilities.  And maybe relentlessly “brave” and “uplifting” attitudes just can’t be borne by some people.  So Dag created a kit that reflected the right to be angry, not serene about the condition.  He kept the crayons, but he made them all black.  He kept the stuffed animal, but only for ripping to shreds.  But the rest of his box is about the right and permission to rant at the fates that bring these things upon us. 

 

Dag, as a character has anger issues.  He has to be nice in the coffee shop every day to people and he created the Heroblog to have a place to vent his negative thoughts that he had to keep bottled up while he was “on” all day.  So it’s natural that he would want to create a way for someone in a bad situation to give their own negative feelings an outlet.

 

Later, of course, he fucks it all up.  But it was a really good idea.  I’ve even though that in real life, the Cancer Anger Kit would be a great thing to make and sell, but I’m not into small business entrepreneurship.  I think it could be popular, though.

 

* Barbara Ehrenreich, “Welcome to Cancerland”, Harper’s Magazine, New York: November 2001.

The fancypants brunch at the hotel

There are a couple of things in Heathen and Grace’s fancy hotel brunch on Stewie’s dime that I cribbed from real life. 

The idea of items on the gourmet dessert buffet being the same cakes that the coffee shop served came from my first year university residence roommate.  Yes, I’ve been saving this one up for a while.  My roommate, Ilana, was vegetarian (and incidentally, loved pastry), so she took her vegetables seriously.  She ate in the dining hall, like all of us residents, which was run by an outside food service.  One Saturday, a she and a friend decided to treat themselves to a fine night out to the theatre and up to the CN Tower revolving restaurant for dinner (this was before its current incarnation as 360, but still supposedly a highfalutin’ meal).   She got her plate and was struck by something.  The carrots, she said, were way too orange.  She knew that orange.  She made some inquiries afterward, and discovered that the CN Tower’s food service was provided by, you got it, the same one that fed the residence kids.  She’d paid forty bucks for not-particularly-good Rill Food Service vegetables in her vegetarian meal.  So, in that spirit, I had Grace wind up with the same dessert she’d find at the coffee shop on the dessert buffet at the hotel.

Grace dumping a salt shaker out on the desserts she’s sampled but doesn’t want to finish, so she won’t keep picking at them and overeat is something I stole from Carnie Wilson, the singer.  She underwent gastric bypass surgery, which means you can’t eat a lot of food in any sitting.  It was in a celebrity magazine article that she would order a dessert when she ate out, take one bite just to taste it, then pour salt on it from the salt shaker on the table so she wouldn’t want more.  I actually did this in a restaurant myself one time when I shared a dessert with a then-boyfriend.  He ate his share, then prompted me to finish my half.  I’d had enough, though, and he figured he would have to finish it, even though he said didn’t really want or need it so it wouldn’t go to waste.  Instead, I unscrewed the salt-shaker cap and poured salt over it to spare him the guilt and the calories.  He cried out, horrified I would do that to a piece of cake, and told on me to the waitress.  It was wonderfully amusing and dramatic.  How could I not write that into something?

First, apologies. Second, Godblog the e-book! Third, the Swedish Mafia.

First and foremost.  Apologies to anyone who has visited here (not the Russian spammers) and not found new content in what can only be described as an embarrassingly, and abysmally long time.  I resolve to be more diligent, if anyone hasn’t forgotten all about this space (and I don’t blame you if you have).

Secondly, for those people with e-readers, Godblog is now available as an e-book, one of the first few from my publisher.  Here’s the link to it on Kobo.

Here’s the link to it on Kobo:
http://www.kobobooks.com/search/search.html?q=godblog&

Third, in keeping with my plan of writing about “where your ideas came from”, I’ll shed some light on the “Swedish Mafia” T-shirt Dag receives as a gift from some of his customers in the book.

Swedish Mafia shirt as described in Godblog

Swedish Mafia shirt as described in Godblog

It’s a real shirt, available from Glarkware.com, a real site.  The business is Toronto-based, and I’ve bought cool shirts from them before.  I happened upon the Swedish Mafia shirt (available at this link  http://www.glarkware.com/adult/swedish-mafia ) before I wrote Godblog, and for the sole reason that it said Swedish on it, and Dag’s background was Swedish, I found a way to stick it in the book.  The shirt is really meant as a bit of a mockery of Ikea, when you read the description. 

The people who founded Glarkware were also some of the original founders (since moved on) of Television Without Pity, a site with hilariously- and snarkily-written TV show recaps I enjoyed immensely, before the ownership changed hands.  That site also helped inspired me to a new narrative writing style I used in the next manuscript I wrote (currently being shopped around by my agent).   I thought they deserved a shoutout, so I had Dag actually mention where it come from.  I hope it netted them a few sales if people were curious enough to investigate the site to see if it was real.  Only after I wrote it into the book did I actually buy a Swedish Mafia shirt for myself, because I just thought I ought to have one.  And when I ordered it, I put in the notes field on the online order form that I’d put it into my novel.  When I got the shirt, someone named Dave had handwritten, “Coooooool!” on the packing slip.  That made my day.

Here’s me in my shirt.

me in the Swedish Mafia shirt from Godblog

me in the Swedish Mafia shirt from Godblog

Edited on April 9/10 to add:  I forgot when I wrote this a couple of days ago that I also gave Television Without Pity a shoutout in Godblog.  When people start dropping off cans for a food drive at the BlackArts in Whistler, Heathen goes to an internet cafe to see where she might have seen mention of a food drive.  She checks some of her favourite sites, including Television Without Pity.

The BlackArts corporate memos

The corporate memos from BlackArts became part of the book out of frustration.  I was on a commuter train, with 45 minutes to kill.  I’d brought my laptop to work on Godblog and was determined to be disciplined about using this as writing time, and not just read.  I couldn’t get any purchase on an idea for a new scene, and made some lame starts that were really clunky.  After about 15 minutes of this, I despaired of not just wasting this time, but the ability to do great prose at all.  My day job is in labor relations, and the writing I do there includes things like grievance letters, drafting for collective agreements, and so on.  I began to think that all I really knew how to write was business correspondence and legalese.

“Fine!” I thought to myself, all irritated.  “I’ll write some damn business correspondence into the book, then.”   And that stuff really knows how to fly out my fingertips.  By the time I got where I was going, I had the first of the BlackArts internal memos.    It turned out to be really quite fun to subvert the business form of communication to add another layer to the story, since you can see the behind-the-storefront machinations it gets up to firsthand.  It made BlackArts corporate a character in itself, speaking with its own voice. 

Now the fact that Godblog is a mix of regular prose, blog posts AND corporate memos is something that makes it sound more interesting when I describe it to potential readers.

The writer in the coffeeshop

So, yeah, people will think this bit character is me.  It half-is and half-isn’t.  I did write a bunch of Godblog in coffee shops, soaking up atmosphere, and the smell of coffee in my clothes.  Which is ironic, because I don’t drink coffee, let alone triple espressos.

 When trying to think up some customers to populate a scene with one day, I decided to poke a little fun at myself and threw a lady writer (Philippa) in there with her laptop.  She’s writing a screenplay, though, which is not me, nor is the short, spiky magenta hair (mine’s long and red).  But I often wondered if the coffee shop staff thought about writers like me who camp out in coffee shops the way Heathen does about the woman writer taking up space every day.  I left this character a very minor one, who only appears in maybe three scenes, because I have no real desire to write about writers in my fiction.  I think too many authors do that already.  I want to tell them, “Quit wanking about your own profession and go learn about someone else’s!”

The reason Philippa is writing a screenplay is because I also used her to poke a little fun at the industry I work in, which is the Canadian film industry.  It’s got more than its fair share of self-important people, of which she’s one.  Heathen correctly pegs her as too convinced of her own intensity.  This writer is also plunked into the story, finishing her screenplay, about a month or so ahead of the Whistler Film Festival, a real film festival, where she’ll no doubt pitch her script to producers and distributors.  Heathen mentions the film festival to Dag, telling him that it’s good for tips. 

Unlike the writer in the book, I never went home with any of the baristas in the coffeeshops I wrote in.  But I did have one really surreal experience.  I had gone to Vancouver for a few days vacation, still working on Godblog, and was staying in the Wedgewood Hotel (which is mentioned in the final scenes of the book, located on Robson Square).  And on the Saturday morning, I went to the big Chapters (chain) bookstore a block away, also on Robson Square.  This store is also mentioned in the climax of the book, its third-floor windows (where the in-store Starbucks is) a vantage point for news cameras looking down on the street below.

It’s about 10 a.m., I’m in a comfy chair with my laptop, Starbucks pastry and juice, and into the scene walks a tall, blond, young man barista.  He’s in the black outfit, arrives (apparently late) at the coffee kiosk to join the barista already on duty, and puts on the green apron.  He has the look of someone who’s been out late the night before, partying, or sexcapading, and starts guzzling coffee himself to become a little less bleary.  I was completely gobsmacked and couldn’t stop looking at him.

Did I say anything?  No.  But it was quite remarkable that some version of Dag walked in while I was writing about him, on the very block in Vancouver where his story comes to a head.

Amazing Grace

Grace Rhoswen Dundonald is pretty fucking amazing.  All the good parts of her are inspired by a friend’s daughter.  Straight A student, beautiful, part-time model, basketball player, actress in school productions–all this are attributes of the real young lady.  I would tell my friend “She’s too good to be true!”  and “If I wrote her into a novel, no one would think it credible.”  So, because I like a challenge, (or maybe because I was lazy in thinking up a new character the day I needed one) I did.  But no character is without their fatal flaws, so I bestowed upon Grace her terrible choice in men (i.e. Robert — whose name  comes from a lecherous teacher at my high school).    She seemed ripe for a bad decision, the perfectly good girl, the parents’ wet dream kid who finds one path to a little rebellion in her very structured high school life.

But we meet her as a university freshman.  Like Dag, Grace is reinventing herself in Godblog.  Having toed the line and done all the right things to get to the school she wants to be in, she’s determined to shed her goody-two-shoes self and become (in her eyes) more worldly.  A piercing, a tattoo, clubbing and a wacky hair color are all on her agenda.  The real shakeups in her life become internal, though, when Dag moves in.  Suddenly she has to walk the walk of someone she really isn’t yet, someone who can cope with what Dag’s presence injects into her formerly insular life.  Dag brings unsettling things, romantic and moral complications she isn’t entirely prepared for, as much as she wishes she was.  Grace hopes that by faking it, she’ll make it so.  Some of the time, it seems to work.

Being Dag

One of the issues with being a writer is that people often mistakenly think you’ve written yourself into your works.  I’ve written many female characters, including some fiesty redheads that friends or family have thought were based on me.  In fact, six-foot, blond, single-parented, snowboarder Dag has more in common with me than any of them.

Dag sees his friends doing well in snowsports.  He watches Heathen’s skiing star rise as he’s had to turn his back on his snowboarding.  He feels the frustration and conflicted emotions of cheering his friend’s accomplishments while feeling deep envy and discouragement. 

I have writer friends.  Some of them do very well.  In the years of literary slogging preceding the publication of Godblog, I’ve been in the position of cheering their massive output, book deals, prizes and film options, being genuinely glad (for most of them) while at the same time wanting to kill them.  Every time Dag is confronted with more evidence of Heathen’s growing success in her field, that’s right out of my gut. 

The rants on Dag’s blog, well, I’ve never actually posted those myself, but I’ll cop to a number of them being my personal feelings as well.  Which ones?  I’m not telling.  I don’t have the anonymity of the Heroblog.

“Where do you get your ideas?” and the genesis of Dag.

That’s the purpose for this blog.  A window into the creative process that culminates in a novel.  I couldn’t possibly tell people how to write, I can only talk about how I write, and more specifically, what kinds of things inspire me to the point that I actually put something down on the page that harks back to it, however circuitously.

The simple answer to the question “Where do you get your ideas?” is “Everywhere”.  Some writers I know have dissed the movie “Neverland”, about J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, for not getting the creative process right.  I found that in ways, it did speak to mine.  The scene where Barrie sees a woman brandishing the curved handle of her umbrella at someone, and it becomes Captain Hook’s hook, resonated with me (though I have no idea if it’s historically accurate or not).

The concept of Godblog’s protagonist Dag as a character came to me in a similar brief moment.  I walk to my day job through Toronto’s financial district.  In bad weather, I use the underground concourse beneath the bank towers, which is filled with shops and services.  One day I was passing a coffee shop and crossing my path were two or three women in business attire, clearly from the bank tower above, walking up to the coffee bar.  In a flirty singsong, they chorused “Hi, Mmmmike!”  (That’s actually not his real name, but you get the idea.)  Without breaking stride, I still had to look back, and saw a tall, blonde, handsome young barista greeting them.

Wow, I thought.  He must be a real charmer to the ladies.  As I carried on walking, I started thinking about the pressure on a guy to be the charmer and the focus of attraction to all these women, all day, at the coffee bar.  And what about when he’s not feeling so charming?  If he had a darker side, where would he let that out?

The barista with the blog was born.