The Novel Idea

I’ll spare you my Ted Baxter ‘It all started in a little 5,000-watt radio station in Fresno’ origin story about how I came to be writing fiction over the past six years except to say, mid-way through 2016, I was wholly dissatisfied with the state of the city and this blog I’d been operating since 2010. Toronto had been seized by status quo maintenance, a return to normal, normal being relentless lip service paid to growing problems of unaffordability, inequality, crumbling infrastructure, malignant, mis-policing, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Never mind all that, we were told. What about our low property tax rates and all those cranes in the sky!

And my little contribution to the ongoing discourse? An empty howling into the void of this misguided political smugness.

So what’s a disenchanted blogger to do?

Write a novel of course.

And not just any old novel. A magnum opus, no less, envisioned as three books, built around the idea of – and anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with the content of this site will in no way be surprised – the corrosive effects of driving on society, past, present and future. By the time I was finished, it would have it all. Monster trucks! Hollywood razzle-dazzle! Homeowners’ Associations! Geoffrey Chaucer! The history of freeway building! Vehicular manslaughter! Bus riding! A meeting of minds at the Ritz-Carelton between Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand!

Thus was born Peter Witt Buys A Car, a sprawling, 125,000 word manuscript, scrawled out over the course of a couple years and run up smack dab into the desperate need of much merciless blue-pencilling. A start, I told myself, possibly even a good one although in more my frank moments, I’d settle on ‘perfectly adequate’. Lots of words, words, ideas, some even interesting, but all-in-all, flabby and formless.

After some months of futile and frustrating editing, I changed course and began sketching out a more modest piece of fiction, heavy on character and less concept driven. Within about 18 months, I completed a first draft of what I called Undone By Affluence. Much happier with the end result, I passed around a copy to a small coterie of willing readers, friends and family, but trusted to be straight up with their opinions. At this stage in my life, it would benefit no one to blow smoke up my ass. Honest appraisals only.

Buoyed by the feedback, I decided to try it out on a wider audience, agents and publishing houses open to unsolicited submissions. Query letters, pitch document, bio sketches and CVs, sample chapters. Polished and personalized. The drill.

Unleashed, in early February 2020. That February. That 2020. Our first Covid winter. When the world came to a standstill.

The upside, I realized, was that I could pin the lack of response from everyone I’d contacted over the course of February and March on Covid. It wasn’t me and my manuscript being ignored, garnering not so much as a second glance or thought. No. Covid was the culprit. Nobody, at least nobody lacking any track record or name recognition, would be finding their work at the top of anyone’s slush pile for the foreseeable future. The matter of flogging the book was out of my hands for the moment. At the mercy of the elements.

A consoling thought, probably leaning more to fantasy, that enabled me to get on with creating the next one while the dust settled.

Once more, as I had done with the first manuscript, I bit off more than I could chew on my initial foray into writing in the Covid Age. All Big Tech, detective novels, Wittgenstein and The Pixies, only one of which I really knew anything about. (For the… record, The Pixies aren’t The Pixies without Kim Deal, OK?) This time I realized my misstep roughly a quarter of the way through, set the pages aside pending further research and decided on a more intimate, direct story about living and dying with Covid.

Hey. Maybe I’m not much of a Big Idea kind of writer. No shame in that, I tell myself.

So it was ĭn-tûr′stĭsēz′ emerged earlier this spring to, so far, limited but largely positive reviews from the regular set of readers. A satisfactory second book under my belt with something of a pattern developing. The ineffectual male protagonist. What, me leaning heavily autobiographical?

No, no. These fictional men are successful in their chosen fields of endeavour, television production, urban planning. Entirely different from their creator. But they sense their professional accomplishments are due, at least in part, to unearned circumstances. Where and when they were born. Their race. Their gender. The disproportionate worth society assigns to those wholly contingent factors.

Such recognition, though, isn’t followed by any resolve to contribute to redressing prevailing social imbalances. In an era antithetical to the idea of personal sacrifice toward the greater good, especially from those whose gains have come at slender cost to them, equivocation becomes their main mode of participation, doing little good by doing as little as possible. Don’t call them ‘Yes Men’. They are ‘Yes but… Men’. In favour, in theory, of change for the better as long as it requires no perceptible, meaningful change in their circumstances.

Or so it strikes me in the first blush of completed first drafts.

Two of them now, raising me from the ‘one off’ category, the writer who finally got around to writing that one novel they’d always wanted to write, thank you, and good night. In fact, I’m sensing something of a thematic trilogy in the offing. ‘Made Men’. Firmly established. Deeply entrenched. Complacent in the face of turbulent times. Yes but, sure but, What about the inevitable march of progress? It always turns out for the best in the end. At least, that’s been my experience.

And you say none of this is at all autobiographical? the skeptical voice asks. Again.

Sir, I assure him, it’s always a ‘sir’ with these know-it-all types. I am but a modest chronicler of these times we live in. I leave autobiography to those who lead much more interesting lives than I.

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