A little Valentine schmaltz

A late offering for Valentine’s Day, to share with a Special Pal, human or canine: a song of friendship and love, The Wind Beneath My Wings.

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Footprints

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Where do stories ‘come from’?

It’s a question I often get asked when visiting schools. I usually say something like – they come from all around you, from the lives of your friends and family and people you read about, and from things you hear about at home and in the news, locally and in the wider world, and from things you witness.

And above all from things that happen to you.

The thing to do is be aware of them, and receive them, and store them up. They might – or might not – become part of a story, or the essence of a story.

I’d been walking and photographing – windblown patterns in the sand, patterns made by drying seaweed, textures of rocks – on a favourite beach, which was overlooked by some fairly exclusive homes. I’d walked to the end of the beach and was standing beside the parking area, looking back at the rising tide.

A car with tinted windows drove in. One of the windows slid down a crack. I thought I glimpsed two men inside. Suits and sunglasses. An air of menace. Intended or imagined? One of them watching me.

At the same time a small plane appeared over the trees and waggled its wings as it flew low over where I was standing.  Was it some kind of sign? A warning? To me or to the men in the car? The window slid closed and the car cruised silently out of the parking area and disappeared up the beach road.

Leaving me thinking – there’s a story here!

After many false starts and rewrites, only the car with the tinted windows and the men inside, who became security guards, were left from that incident. The scene – the ‘real’ scene – formed the basis of the opening of Footprints (Jesperson/Breakwater 2008), a tight thriller about the seeds of terrorism with the best last line I think I’ve ever come up with. Here’s the opening:

When the long black car with the tinted windows stops at the end of the Old Beach Road, Drumgold ignores it, Isora gives it the finger, and Harper pretends he hasn’t seen it. Already he has that cold, sweaty feeling, knowing something bad is going to happen. His friends walk on. He follows, sneaking a glance back at the car. The window slides down a crack. He knows it will be one of Anderson’s men watching them as he radios to the cottage: Kids on the beach.

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Maine comes on like an old dog, familiar, comfortable, relaxed, welcoming, laid back, hey wanna hang out a while?

It’s so like New Brunswick there really shouldn’t be a border, Maine just bigger, with more snow, more forests, more highways, more cities, more lakes, more people, more ski-ing, more everything.

Heading down the Airline (so called either because it carries so many people to getaways from Bangor Airport or because in its old state it was a series of roller coaster hills) (story draft running through my head despite not wanting it there but I can’t stop it) you think nothing’s really changed in all the years you’ve been travelling it, although it’s no longer quite the adventure it once was, mainly because of a bit of road straightening and levelling and the fact that now you can overtake, courtesy of regularly spaced overtaking lanes, not like the old days when the logging truck you were behind as you turned from the Irving outside Calais on to Route 9 was likely to be the same you were following as you drove in to Bangor, but you still pass the same old places, Lord’s Drilling, the Hilltop Diner, the Skyline Motel, the Cloud 9 Motel, P. and J.’s Variety.

Past Bangor to Freeport, one of those places you feel you should hate but which survives being the apotheosis of the outlet store scene because it retains a small town Maine feel even on its busiest days and because of the folksy enthusiasm of the L.L. Bean floor staff which seems to infect the staff in other stores.

Destination Portland, biggest city in Maine, fresh snow and saltcaked sidewalks, quiet Saturday morning streets, runners, lone and in pairs and in groups, all in (tight) running gear (is the wearing of it obligatory?), elegant old houses, charming Old Port, more restaurants and independent coffee shops surely than anywhere of comparable size.

And in between and among all that, nearly 10,000 words drafted, despite intending nothing.

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I have this thing about novels being labelled ‘literary’.

What does it mean – ‘literary’? Critics and commentators and publicists and publishers and book blurbs use the term all the time but I can’t find a definitive definition of it. The most succinct I’ve come across (delivered with a metaphorical disdainful sniff) has been – ‘Not commercial’.

So, assuming ‘literary’ is not used pejoratively, it’s – er – good if a book isn’t commercial, so doesn’t sell? Which I suppose means it’s ‘good’ if it’s not popular.

Well a book can be as literary as all get out but if it’s not entertaining it’s not going to get read except by people who are paid to do so or by kind and long suffering family and friends of the author or by people susceptible to Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome.

I know I know. So called ‘literary’ novels do sell, at least some of them, which of course makes them both ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’, but that just reinforces my original question: What does ‘literary’ mean? Why bother to use the label? Is it some kind of literary snobbishness that makes it necessary for a book to be ‘literary’ for it to be ‘good’?

Sad thing is – I lay no claim to anything I write being ‘literary’, therefore it should fall into the ‘commercial’ category, which would imply that it sells prolifically, which it doesn’t, which makes it neither literary nor commercial, which means it’s consigned to a third category.

The Junk Heap of No Name Books by No Name Authors that Hardly Anyone Reads.