In which I talk to myself, using real questions I’ve been asked… Okay, some of them are real questions.
“Who are you?” That’s pretty rude… Uh, I’m a modest, unassuming Canadian. I’m an air force brat who was born in Ottawa mumble-mumble-mumble years ago, but I’ve lived in Toronto for more than 30 years, which helps me recognize the “Toronto clues” in the Fantastic Toronto survey.
“When did you start reading science fiction/speculative fiction?” For fun, when I was 10. (Before that, I was reading fairy tales, Dr. Seuss, Winnie-the-Pooh, Thornton Burgess’s and Beatrix Potter’s animal stories, Peter Pan, Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables—the usual stuff.) My family had moved to Metz, France to a rented house “on the economy” (off-base) whose previous Canadian occupants had left behind a collection of SF pulp magazines and books such as a James Blish omnibus edition of his Cities in Flight series. (I remember the cover of another book but not its name: It featured drowned bodies of people, dead fish, and wrecked boats on a seashore after some catastrophe that engendered a tsunami. This collection had a lot of British apocalyptic fiction written in the 1950s.) As TV service in France was expensive and there were almost no English-language channels available, my parents decided not to have TV. (This was in antediluvian times: pre-cable, pre-Internet.) So there I was, with no friends, no TV—oh, and no telephone either—no family dog (Clancy had been left behind on my uncle’s farm in Easton’s Corners, eastern Ontario), no relatives except the four of us (I have an older brother) in our nuclear family, no familiar landscapes, and less-than-robust French-language skills.
And speaking of “nuclear,” this was during the Cold War and my father was serving on the Canadian base in Metz as part of Canada’s NATO forces overseas, so middle-of-the-night alerts called “snowballs,” where somebody banged on our house door and my dad jumped into his uniform and rushed over to the base, were common. When we were living on Rockcliffe air base in Ottawa, the air-raid siren would sound and we’d have to go down into the basement of our house—or whoever’s house we were visiting—till the drill was over. All of which worsened my insomnia problem, rendered me incredibly anxious at the sound of air-raid sirens, and made me hypervigilant and unable to relax.
I probably had untreated post-traumatic stress disorder—and my dad was only in a pretend-war. He was close to being in a real one, though; he was on alert to go to Korea while we were in Ottawa. (All of this is not to say “poor me,” but rather a means to recognize what things I have to work on and where they originated.) Untreated mental-health problems of military personnel and their families are a very serious and worsening issue.
I had to keep myself occupied and distracted. So I read—whatever was lying around. I discovered I liked SF—but the apocalyptic variety, not so much. SF helped me cope with the anxiety and the frequent change and the uncertainty of the future. I wrote stories. I became shy and perfectionistic (I remember reading a two-volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, from cover to cover for a grade-school essay, which was way more work than any of my schoolmates did). But I tended not to panic in a crisis because I was always internally ready for a crisis (hypervigilance again). I explored nature and made friends with every animal I could, including the bunnies kept in cages in the backyard. I was upset to learn that our French landlord was raising the rabbits to eat.
There’s a lot to be said for isolation, and especially lack of TV, as a means of forcing kids to develop inner resources. (Their outer resources—social skills—may not prosper, though.) When I lived in Europe, it felt like Canada had fallen off the edge of the world—or was laughably unimportant. (Of course, it really is laughably unimportant, I later realized.) But I loved France—except the rabbit- and snail-eating part—and I still do, and I’ve been back many times (here’s one) since my family returned to Canada in time for Expo ’67 in Montreal.
“Did you really read all those books in the Fantastic Toronto survey?” Yep, and a whole lot more.
“Are you some kind of masochist? Why did you start the survey?” Insanity? (I’ve been called “obsessive,” but I prefer “thorough.”)
In 2003, the 61st World Science Fiction Convention was held in Toronto; it was called Torcon 3. I was asked to write an article on SF set in Toronto—such as some of Tanya Huff’s novels—for the souvenir book. Once I started looking, I found all kinds of stuff, and being a thorough sort of person (ahem) I decided to cover short stories as well as novels. It appeared that nobody had done that kind of study before, and I wanted to make an original contribution to SF scholarship as well as support Torcon 3. I did what I could before the deadline in terms of assembling a bibliography, and also wrote an essay about the works of authors Robert Charles Wilson and Robert J. Sawyer that are set in Toronto.
In November 2006, a “Toronto in SF” panel was proposed for the March 2007 Ad Astra Convention in Toronto, and I re-started the research and writing so as to present the expanded survey. As it happened, I didn’t say much at the panel, being insufficiently assertive amidst so many robust male egos (I was one of five people on the panel). But I had a few hard copies of the survey to hand, and gave them out, and promised to get the survey on the Web ASAP.
“You said you wrote stories. Has anything of yours been published?” Alas, nothing I can use as a publishing credit. Under Other Writing, I’ve posted two of my unpublished fiction articles, plus a host of the non-fiction pieces I’ve written (for free) for various newsletters over the years, and some humorous quizzes. I may not be a “professional writer,” but I surely am a writer.
From September 1994 to May 1997 I was the editor (and writer of most of the contents) of a newsletter called the Folk Dancer, published by the Ontario Folk Dance Association. After that, I contributed articles to, guest-edited or guest-produced the occasional issue until I was gently arm-twisted into taking back the editorship in 2012, as the then-editor was saying, “I’m done” (as volunteer editors have to do, whether there’s any natural successor or not), and there was no-one else remotely willing to take on the job. I couldn’t let the Folk Dancer die. I’ve been “working” for it, in various ways, since 1976, when I contributed my first article to it.
I collect books and dolls and ethnic costumes—which are gorgeous and vanishing. Like languages. The Manchu language is almost extinct—overwhelmed by Mandarin Chinese. I have Turkish costumes that were hand-made for trousseaus and never worn.
“Do you write poetry?” Not any more. But when I was 13, I composed an ode to a geranium!
“How, er… awesome. What happened to it?” It died.
“The poem?” The geranium.
“Where did you get the rocks in your Photo Gallery and Blog?” Online; eBay, mostly. I’ve been interested in rocks since I found quartz crystals shining like diamonds in the limestone at the family cottage on Manitoulin Island, northern Ontario. In the years since, Iâ€™ve taken a lot of photographs on trips there and back; see the Photo Gallery.
I recently dug out from the bottom of a chest the rock collection I had as a kid, and found a school project from grade 2 or 3. It once had a trilobite fossil taped to it (the tape eventually ceased to stick and the fossil was lost), but still visible was my drawing of some trilobites swimming in a prehistoric sea. Below them, in big, round handwriting, was: “I chose this fossil because I was interested on how trilobites first were formed and because I found it in the ground just out of Rockcliffe [air base]. I also like its shape and size.”
A number of years ago I was browsing on eBay and found sellers who auctioned rough rocks and minerals, and other people who cut them into cabochons, or “cabs” for short. I have a number of cabs as well. My favourite material turned out to be agate and jasper, especially “picture jasper,” from Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico and Australia (also viewable on the Photo Gallery; plus see TeePee Canyon Agate from South Dakota at the bottom of this page). I constructed a slide show with some of the SF-related rocks and presented it in April 2008 at the EerieCon convention in Niagara Falls, NY, and its reception was so enthusiastic that I did a second show in 2009.
“Are you selling any of this?” No. I’m a collector. C-O-L-L-E-C-T-O-R. And I’m trying to preserve the costumes. I’ve given away some cabs and thundereggs (a translation of what a Native American tribe called agates in the rough), though.
“I’ll bet you were a whiz at spelling bees and trivia games.” How did you know? And speaking of the English language, allow me to take this opportunity to thank all my grade- and high-school English teachers, who taught me how to parse a sentence and turned me on to Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas and stayed behind after class to critique my stories and point at my titles and say, “What’s that?”
“They didn’t know what the title was?” It’s all Mary Renault’s fault. (She wrote historical novels set in ancient Greece.) I was in my Greek phase at the time. That’s G-R-E-E-K, not G-E-E-K.
“Sure thing. Why do you collect stuff?” “Stuff”? Have I mentioned that another interest of mine is psychology (just don’t get me started on that quack Freud)?
“Oh, hell. I mean… No.” I think it’s important in itself to preserve the ethnic materials. I enjoy showing all my “stuff” to people and hoping I infect them with my enthusiasm for the same subjects. I lent Bulgarian costume books (and the book Pleasure of Ruins) to Toronto artist Alan Ho, and he found them inspirational.
Besides the intellectual interest of learning about something new, collecting serves a number of emotional needs. It’s something I can hold onto. It’s not beloved green space destroyed in the name of “development” or “progress.” It’s not a house I’d better not get attached to because we’re going to move. It’s not something that goes away because it dies.
“Why not write a misery memoir? I hear they sell well.” Oh, I could never do that. I’m a very private person.
“You’re on the Web, for the love of… Hey, what artist painted the cool graphic you use in your site header?” You think itâ€™s cool? So do I! I’ve infected you! Um… Mother Nature painted it millions of years ago (with subsequent tweaking of the colour-balance in Photoshop by me). It’s a slice of semi-precious stone called Ocean Jasper, mined in Madagascar. When I was building my site using stones from my rock collection, it was difficult to choose among all the wonderful jaspers, including Blue Mountain and Noreena. Oh, and Apache Sage jasper, which is really a rhyolite rather than a jasper—
“Okay, professor. Do you do any of this stuff for a living?” All of it’s for fun. And I’m trying to keep the old grey cells from turning to mush. In my day job, I’m an editor working for the Ontario government. I got there by a circuitous educational route. First I obtained a Library Techniques diploma from Seneca College, then I took English and History courses at night at the University of Toronto (without getting a degree), and not-quite-finally I obtained an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Ryerson University. When I was a freelancer with my own editing business, I took a number of seminars with the Editors’ Association of Canada, of which I was a member. (Non-members can take seminars too, but for more money.) Graphic design and web design courses are what I’ve taken most recently, in the main from George Brown College.
“So you’re a librarian! I bet you keep cats, too.” Stereotypes are denied admittance to this interview. A librarian has a degree in library science. I’m a library technician with a diploma. But, yes, I do have cats: Emma (pictured left), Georgie, and Marcus. I named Marcus after a Roman centurion in a classic young-adult historical novel called The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff.
If I had my druthers, I’d have a dog and a horse or two as well. Darn condo by-laws… There’s plenty of room in the roof garden to keep a horse…
“Who are your heroes?” Besides my family, too many people to list. Some historical figures: Alfred the Great, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard III, Oliver Cromwell (read Antonia Fraser’s biography Cromwell: Our Chief of Men), and Prince Albert. Among writers, William Shakespeare, natch. SF writer James Tiptree, Jr.—a.k.a. Alice B. Sheldon and Raccoona Sheldon. I loved the multi-award-winning biography of her by Julie Phillips (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). Some long-gone Toronto Blue Jays—Rance Mulliniks, Joe Carter and Dave Winfield. All talented team players, none of them prima donnas. Among other things, Dave taught Toronto how to make a proper hullabaloo in support of the home team. It just broke my heart when, for some asinine reason, he wasn’t signed for a second year. He wanted to come back. He loved Toronto and we loved him.
I almost forgot Charlotte Whitton. She was the legendary and disputatious mayor of Ottawa when I was a kid. The notion of a woman as a municipal leader was a revelation to me. I didn’t find out till I was a grown-up that Charlotte’s ideas on women’s rights were contradictory. For example, although she advocated women’s equality in politics and the workplace, she didn’t think married women should work, and she opposed more liberal divorce laws.
And permit me to point out the huge difference in the last name.
“What difference?” Mine has two—count ’em; two—”t’s.”
“Oh, yeah. I hadn’t noticed. I seem to remember a saying about consistency being the hobgoblin of…” Clichés are also denied admittance to this interview!
“I’m sure you’re turning a very interesting shade of red right now. Or fuchsia? Chartreuse, perhaps? And, to get back to ‘to t or not to t‘: What an attentive editor you must be.” You made a P&P joke! And a Shakespeare joke! What are you doing after work?
“I have to hang with some friends so we can tweet one another. And what’s your fave guilty pleasure?” It used to be the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Not only was it funny ha-ha, it was funny-stupid. (In the fifth season, it just got stupid—as well as melodramatic, so I stopped watching.) The lead character of Meredith Grey is a doctor at a Seattle hospital. Meredith’s colleagues say “clear” and pretend to shock hearts back to life in episode after episode. If you’re flatlining, the defibrillator is useless. Your heart has to be beating irregularly, not stopped. The shock is to get the heart to resume its normal rhythm. And this goes on in every “medical” show I’ve ever seen. Don’t these people know any real first aid?
“You do first aid too?” I could, if somebody would just have an emergency. I’m Red Cross-certified and everything.
“Is there anything you don’t do?” (Another actual question.) Hmm. Oh, there must be something.
Okay. I don’t play hockey (but you can bet I watch the Canadian women’s hockey team during the Winter Olympics). I don’t wear a tuque. I’ve given up chopping wood, although I haul water when I have to (such as during the Great Blackout of 2003). I don’t eat Kraft dinner. I hardly ever say “eh.”
“Are you sure you’re a real Canadian? … Hello?”
Sorry. I just stepped out for a sec. Every day I leap the CN Tower in a single bound.
Are you there? Do you need a Band-aid? Are you in shock? Tilt your head, raise your left elbow, extend your right foot and hand parallel to the floor, cross your fingers and cough! Now sneeze! Where are my latex gloves? Where’s the defibrillator? Let’s apply some science!