Edward Willett

My Government House history book lauded as “a masterful work of art”

government-house-coverA very nice review of Government House, Regina, Saskatchewan: An Illustrated History (Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing) has appeared on the Saskatchewan Publishers’ Group’s SPG Book Reviews website. Keith Foster writes, in part:

Government House, Regina, Saskatchewan: An Illustrated History by Regina author Edward Willett is a masterful work of art in both narrative and illustration, solid in structure, and powerful in its rendition…

“Overflowing with photos of Government House and its inhabitants over the decades, this highly visual coffee table book is stunning in its beauty…

“This is a book that not only belongs on every bookshelf in Canada, it’s a book Saskatchewan residents, and in particular Regina residents, would be proud to have gracing their coffee table.”

 

Read the whole thing!

And buy the book! It’s available through the Government House Historical Society, from the publisher, or at Chapters/Indigo in Regina or online.

A long, in-depth interview with…moi! (Trigger warning: includes questions about religion and politics)

Recently Everitt Foster over the blog A Natural Reaction asked me to answer some questions for an online interview, one of a series he’s been conducting with authors who have been early adopters of the new social media platform Gab, a would-be Twitter rival. (My handle over there is ewillett.)

You can read the interview over there, or you can read it right here, if you want to know more about me than you probably actually want to know about me. I even talk about religion and politics. Quelle horreur!

  1. Tell me a little about how you were raised. What was your family like? Did they encourage reading, writing and artistic pursuits from a young age or we’re you the odd kid of the family always with a book?

I was born in Silver City, New Mexico (Billy the Kid territory)—my father was preaching for the church of Christ in the small town of Bayard at the time. When I was two we moved to Lubbock, Texas, where my Dad taught at Lubbock Christian High School. We moved to Tulia, Texas, when I was six: I started school there (and skipped Grade 1 because I’d learned to read in kindergarten—which, combined with a summer birthday, meant I was usually a year and a half younger than everyone else in my class through the rest of my school years). In 1967 we moved to Canada, but it had nothing to do with the draft: my father had been teaching in the public school system and wanted to teach in a Christian school again, and an old college friend of his came through Tulia and recruited him to come to Western Christian College in North Weyburn, Saskatchewan. My parents had moved a lot since they were first married, but they finally settled at Western, and so that’s where I really grew up.

My parents were readers and my two older brothers were readers, so our house was full of books. My mother, who worked as a secretary, never wrote fiction, but for decades she wrote hundreds of letters a year to friends and family and missionaries—she probably wrote more words in her life than I will in mine. My father was a preacher and teacher (his bachelor’s degree was in English), and good writer in his own right. He also directed choruses (his master’s degree was in Music Education) and coached the school’s boys’ basketball team to multiple provincial championships. I was only the odd one out of us three brothers in that I never really took to athletics very much—we all read, but they played sports and I rarely did, although I did play one year of high school football and actually enjoyed it very much. I was also interested in art (I took correspondence art classes in high school) and music (I sang in my Dad’s choir, and also played French horn, trumpet, electric bass and piano) and acting (I was in my first play in junior high and took every opportunity to be on stage I could get), but writing became my first love. I had a friend named (honestly) John Smith, and we would get together in an empty classroom after school and write, then read to each other what we had written, alternating sentences for the occasional humorous effect. I wrote longer and longer stories, and in Grades 10, 11 and 12 wrote a novel every year—and shared them with my classmates, which revealed to me that I could tell stories other people would enjoy reading.

  1. Every writer I know was a reader first, and probably still is. What were some of the books that influenced you as a young man? What types of stories did you gravitate to?

Both of my older brothers read science fiction, so those were the kinds of books around the house and I gravitated to them very early on. I read tons of other stuff, too, of course: animal stories (Call of the WildWhite Fang, the Black Stallion books), ghost stories, adventure stories (The Incredible Journey), and so forth, but the writers who really influenced me the most were science fiction and fantasy writers: Robert A. Heinlein (his juveniles—Have Space Suit Will TravelThe Rolling Stones, etc.), Isaac Asimov (especially I, Robot), Robert Silverberg (his very early novel Revolt on Alpha C was one I read over and over), Marion Zimmer Bradley (specifically a very early book called The Colors of Space), everything by Andre Norton (Moon of Three Rings was one I read multiple times), Madeleine L’Engle. The other book I was thoroughly steeped in because of being the son of a preacher man was The Bible. I found sermons boring, so I read the Bible while the preacher was droning on (well, probably not when my father was preaching), start to finish. And of course I studied it at church, in high school at Western Christian College, and at university (Harding University in Searcy, AR, where my parents went to college and met, and which, like Western, is affiliated with the churches of Christ.)

  1. Were your parents nervous or worried for you when you told them you wanted to be an author? Or did they support your decision without hesitation?

They were fully supportive of my decision to write, although Mom never read very many of my books—she was a very down-to-earth person and she found SF and fantasy a little too weird for her taste. My Dad read some, although he died before most of my novels were published. Also, I didn’t just launch into being an author: I knew, even in high school, how difficult it is to be a fulltime writer and that that didn’t happen just because you wanted it to happen. I deliberately went into journalism (which is what my B.A. is in) because I figured at least it would be writing, and would pay the bills while I wrote novels on the side. I think my folks were a little worried when I decided to become a fulltime freelancer, quitting my job at the Saskatchewan Science Centre (where I was communications officer for five years after spending the first eight years out of college as a reporter/photographer/columnist/cartoonist at, and eventually news editor of, the weekly Weyburn Review), but they supported me even then—including financially, loaning me money so I didn’t have to sell my car when funds were very short in my first year or two freelancing. Actually, Dad was more worried about my continued interest in acting and singing—he didn’t think much of the typical actor’s lifestyle or morals, and didn’t want me to get sucked into that world.

  1. You write in the YA (Young Adult) fantasy/sci-fi genre. What is the most challenging part of writing for younger (teens and young adults) people? Do you think that young people today are being sufficiently challenged by most of the books aimed at them?

I think the biggest challenge for any adult writing for younger readers is creating characters that are believably kids and not just adults in kid suits. In a story set in the here-and-now (like my Shards of Excalibur series) you’ve also go to worry about things like how kids interact in the world of smartphones and constant text messaging (I cheated and came up with good solid magic-related reasons why they couldn’t use smartphones), slang, current pop culture, and so on, but that’s all just a matter of research (and if you go too heavily in that direction your book will be dated before it’s published). The real challenge is to remember what it’s like to be young and to capture that in your characters.

Are young people being sufficiently challenged? The books written for young people today are way more challenging than the books written for young people when I was growing up, in terms of language, situations, sophistication of language, and on and on. It’s a golden age of young adult fiction. Which is not to say that a lot of it isn’t all that great, but then, remember Sturgeon’s Law about science fiction, paraphrased as, “Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crap, but ninety percent of everything is crap!”

  1. So what makes a book YA? Is YA a genre or a demographic, possibly both? How does an author or potential author, know their idea is best suited to a YA novel instead of say a “literary” novel?

If it’s a demographic, it’s not about the age of the readers, but of the characters. Many, many adults like to read YA books (I do myself, and not just because I also write them), so it’s not that YA is only read by the young. There are very few books considered YA in which the main characters aren’t teenagers, and I think that’s the most defining characteristic of the genre: young adult stories are all, ultimately, coming-of-age stories—stories about young people encountering the world, coming to grips (or failing to come to grips) with their world, creating (or destroying or crippling) their futures and their future adult selves.

Young adult characters are malleable and vulnerable in a way adult characters rarely are. We become set in our ways as we get older; just today I was talking to a retired university professor who gets together with other retired university professors for lunch on a regular basis. He said their conversations usually turn into shouting matches because none of them will change their minds. Teens will change their minds—and the way they dress, the way they talk, and everything else about themselves—far more readily. Which makes stories about teenagers, from both a reader’s and a writer’s viewpoint, fraught with suspense and possibility—and it’s that sense of possibility that sets YA fiction apart, and makes it appealing not only to young readers who are living that reality but to older readers who perhaps wish their worlds still offered the unlimited possibilities of the young.

  1. You’re an indie author, but your books are published by Coteau and DAW. What tips or advice do you have for writers who want to go with a publisher over self-publishing? And is self-publishing something you would consider in the future?

I’m not really an indie author: I’ve only done two books that way (both YA, The Haunted Horn and The Chosen), to precisely no fanfare or interest. I’ve also re-released a book from a defunct publisher (Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star) as an ebook, along with its never-published sequel (Andy Nebula: Double Trouble). Otherwise, everything I’ve written has been traditionally published.

It’s hard for me to offer tips or advice; it’s just the way my career has worked out. I like traditional publishing because, at least with larger publishers, I get money up front, and even with smaller publishers, don’t have to put any funds of my own into the publishing side of things (barring perhaps a bit of marketing or buying copies for resale at conventions); but indie publishing has allowed/will allow me to put out stories that have never found a home with a traditional publisher. I’m quite sure I’ll do more self-publishing in the future—I want to bring out an illustrated collection of a couple of dozen science fiction/fantasy/horror poems I wrote, for example, and there are other possibilities as well—but at the same time, I have two novels under contract to DAW I have yet to write which could launch an open-ended series, and I’m working on a new middle-grade novel on spec for my agent, and there are only so many hours in a life, so we’ll see.

  1. Lots of people want to write. How do you go from wanting to be a writer, to actually writing? Is it courage, is it discipline, tenacity, a good idea and a good bit of luck?

The only way to go from wanting to be a writer to being a writer is to write. A lot. Constantly. All the other things you mention play into it, sure, but to be a writer you have to write.

Courage? Well, it takes courage to let people read what you write, so yeah.

Discipline? Apply seat of pants to chair, write. Finish what you write (that’s the tougher part). Revise and polish, submit and forget (if you’re going the traditional route), rinse and repeat.

Tenacity? I believe Stephen King said, “Anyone who CAN be discouraged from writing SHOULD be.” The biggest difference between published writers and unpublished writers is that the published writers didn’t quit while they were still unpublished writers.

A good idea? Ideas are a dime a dozen and a mediocre idea can still result in a great story. Give me an hour and I’ll give you a dozen ideas.

A bit of luck? Becoming wildly successful usually means a lot of luck. Otherwise…well, sure, you’re lucky to be in the right place at the right time when someone needs something written, and you’re able to provide it. But you make that luck by all that discipline and tenacity stuff: by writing, writing, writing.

Having said all of that, and somewhat controversially, I must say this: I strongly believe there is a genetic component to the ability to use words effectively. As someone who has worked with a lot of wannabe writers as a writer-in-residence and instructor, I know there are plenty of people who write and write and write, who are as disciplined and courageous and tenacious as you please, and yet their prose never advances to the point where anyone much is going to want to read it—while there are others whose writing flows and fascinates from a very young age (my teenage daughter, if I may offer a small brag, already writes better than many of the adults whose work I saw as  writer-in-residence, some of whom had been writing for years).

  1. Where do ideas come from? What is your process for thinking things up and writing them down, as Neil Gaiman might say? And how does one know when they’ve got an idea worth chasing?

Ideas can come from anything. Idea-generation is a muscle you exercise by generating ideas. It can be an image, a news story, a scientific breakthrough, an overheard phrase, a person you pass on the street—literally anything. If it doesn’t give you a story right away, you might need another idea to rub up against it, creating story sparks. My process of developing an idea into a story is one of asking questions. So, for my Shards of Excalibur series, the inciting image was the mysterious look of our local lake on a foggy morning. It looked like something out of a fantasy novel. “Anything could be in that lake,” I thought. As it happens, I’ve always been a fan of Arthurian stories, and so the word “lake” triggered in my mind a particular character: the Lady of the Lake. There was the starting point: the Lady of the Lake shows up in Wascana Lake in Regina, Saskatchewan. I began asking myself questions, the first one of which was, of course, “Why?” I was already thinking in terms of fantasies and quests, so I thought, “What quest might she send some local kids on? Of course, to find the pieces of Excalibur!” Then still more questions: “Why is Excalibur broken? What kids? Who’s trying to stop them (because you a need an antagonist as well as a protagonist)?” Etc., etc. The end result: a five-book series about a teenage girl who is heir to the magical power of the Lady of the Lake, and a boy who has his own unsuspected connection to Arthur, who must find the scattered shards of Excalibur before Merlin, freed from his long magical confinement and now in the guise of a Steve Jobs/Bill Gates-like computer magnate, can reassemble the blade and use it to take over the world and launch an invasion of his own world of Faerie. But it all started with me walking around the lake on a foggy morning.

An idea is worth pursuing if I think it will hold my interest (and hopefully that of readers) to the end of a novel; or it’s worth pursuing if my editor says, “I’ll buy that” or my agent says “I could try selling that.” Not very artsy, those last two, but that’s the reality of being a professional writer.

  1. What is your process like? Do you wait for the muse to descend or do you take matters into your own hands trusting she’ll show up when you do?

No muse has ever descended upon me. Sounds uncomfortable. I suspect muses are rather heavy, and I wouldn’t want one looking over my shoulder while I write, anyway.

I write a rough synopsis of a few pages, start at the beginning, and write to the end, often departing my own synopsis as characters and situations evolve or pop up out of nothing. (I usually get to something like the end I foresaw, though, or close enough.) Once the book is written, I go back to the beginning and revise it, then I send it to my editor, and then I revise it again based on her/his comments. Then it goes off to be published and I’m working on the next thing.

When things are going well, I can write quite fast—the fastest I’ve ever written was during a self-guided residency at the Banff Centre, where I wrote 50,000 words of my fantasy novel Magebane(written as Lee Arthur Chane) in a week. I wrote the 100,000-word first draft of Shadows, Book 2 in The Masks of Aygrima, in a month; and the 60,000-word final book in The Shards of ExcaliburDoor into Faerie, in about two weeks. It seems to work out to about 1,000 to 1,500 words an hour, but the number of hours I put into it in a day can vary enormously depending on how many different projects I’m working on at once.

  1. Your novels are often praised for their characters. In your opinion what makes a good character, and what advice do you have to others about creating good characters?

A good character is one that does interesting things for interesting reasons, in a manner consistent with the way actual living people do things. The reader may not have anything in common with the character, but if the character is well-written, the reader should be able to imagine being that character, and find the character’s actions both believable and justifiable—perhaps not justifiable in the larger moral sense, but justifiable within the mind of the character.

I have no advice to offer about creating good characters beyond read lots and pay attention to what people do and the reasons they give for doing it. Oh, and you might try actually meeting and perhaps even socializing with some real people now and then, no matter how much you might prefer the ones that live inside your head.

  1. I often ask people about their faith, and the role of faith (or unbelief) in their work and in their lives. Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you came to where you are in a religious sense? And how do your views on faith manifest themselves in your work?

I was raised in the church of Christ, which arose out of a movement known as the Restoration, which grew out of the Enlightenment and the focus on rationality it engendered. A core principle I heard often when I was growing up (and I went to church three times a week, Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night) was “We speak where the Bible speaks, and where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” The movement was based on the idea that any rational human being could read the Bible and understand it, and that a straightforward reading of the Bible provided clear and unambiguous guidance on matters of church organization, worship practices, the plan of salvation, etc. (Essentially, the same approach to the Bible that staunch Constitutionalists apply to the Constitution.) In practice, that meant self-governing churches, with no hierarchy beyond the individual congregation, led by elders and deacons. Worship was simple: congregational a cappella singing, the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, a sermon, prayers, giving. Both adults and children attended Sunday classes focused on Bible study; Wednesday night services, in fact, were usually called Bible Study. We read the Bible, discussed the Bible, memorized the Bible.

The finest people I have ever known were the Christians I grew up with and were raised by, and while I’m not attending church regularly today, and my personal beliefs are too complicated and occasionally self-contradictory to even attempt to explain here, there is no question that my upbringing in the church of Christ has been an enormous influence on who I am today as a person and a writer. I value honesty and integrity. I believe in right and wrong. I believe in simplicity. I believe in personal responsibility. And I believe, as I was taught from the very beginning, that a person can use their own intellect to reason a way to an understanding of anything.

Religion has played an overt role in some of my books (I’ve created some quite nasty false religions). I’ve made a point in other books set in the far future of making it clear that religion hasn’t gone away, that even within a spacefaring society the ancient beliefs continue to bind people together. But on the non-overt side, I believe the themes of my books reflect a Christian mindset: that we each must make decisions, day by day, about doing the right thing, or the wrong thing; that as often as not, we will choose poorly, but that does not mean we cannot choose better the next time and make right our mistakes; and that ultimately, even though we can never be perfect, striving to be perfect—as Christians are all sinners, yet strive to be as like the perfect Christ as possible—is the only way to make our world a better place. My protagonists fail a lot, and make stupid mistakes, but they’re always striving to do the right thing, and that, I think, bears the unmistakable stamp of my Christian upbringing.

  1. Since you’re Canadian I’ll not ask you about specific American policies, instead I’ll ask you about the tone of politics in the West in general. What do you think of the mass Islamic immigration into Europe and now into Canada?

It all comes down individuals, for me. I try very hard not to judge people based on whatever demographic group they might belong to: after all, I’m me, not a generic expatriate American in Canada, and I, too, am a first-generation immigrant to a country not of my birth. So I’m thrilled people from war-torn regions are finding a safe haven in the west, and often moved by their individual stories. Any individuals who want to build a new life in the West based on freedom and security are welcome additions.

But at the same time, there is a reason, rooted in centuries of religion and philosophy, that western countries are more peaceful and free and thus the destination of choice for refugees, and we must guard against losing both peace and freedom by allowing them to be wiped away by those who violently reject those ideals even as they take advantage of them. So by all means, let us continue to welcome refugees—but let us also be very careful about the attitudes and cultural and religious practices, or dangerous hidden agendas, some individuals among those refugees bring with them, and stand strong against any erosion of our freedoms in a vain effort to accommodate philosophies that will never change to try to accommodate ours.

  1. How would you define yourself politically? Liberal, libertarian, conservative, other? Complex a la carte politics? What issues are most important to you now?

I’m conservative-ish when it comes to matters of culture; libertarian-ish when it comes to individual rights and morality; leftish-ish when it comes to health care (without Canada’s government-run health care, my parents would have either been financially ruined or suffered far more healthy issues than they did; on the other hand, lots of Canadians take advantage of the U.S. system, if they can afford it, when they’re stuck on a waiting list or want the latest and greatest technology); and authoritarian-ish when it comes to certain specific things, like smoking. (We hates it, my precious, and the further into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth smoking can be banished from anywhere I have to breath the air, the better.) Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson famously said.

The one issue that is always of the most importance to me is freedom of speech: the idiocy on display on college campuses everywhere, the shouting down or de-platforming of speakers, the trigger warnings, all of that stuff, drives me up the wall.

  1. What are you working on next?

At the moment, these are my projects:

The 60th-anniversary history of J.D. Mollard and Associates, a local engineering firm founded by a very early pioneer in the use of aerial photography (and later satellite images and other remote sensing systems) for engineering purposes (road routing, dam siting, terrain analysis, etc.). It’s fascinating and I’m enjoying it a lot.

So Much More We Can Be. This is retrospective on Saskatchewan politics in the decade from 1981 to 1991, when the province was governed by the Progressive Conservatives under Grant Devine, a startling lurch to the right at the time for the birthplace of democratic socialism in North America. The book will also include several academic papers. It’s being published by a conservative think-tank, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

The Cityborn. This is my next (eighth!) novel for DAW Books, out in hardcover July 4, 2017. It’s a science fiction novel under set in a giant self-contained multi-tiered City, which has crouched for centuries above a canyon now choked to the brim with its rubbish and garbage. The story gets rolling when a girl from the elite Twelfth Tier suddenly finds herself in the Middens, the giant garbage heap beneath the City, thrown into the company of a young man who has far more in common with her than either of them guess, a secret that will determine the fate of The City and everyone who lives there.

After The Cityborn, I’ll be working on the first two books in a new series for DAW, called Worldshapers. It’s a fantasy series that will take place in many different sorts of worlds. I imagine we’re looking at 2018 for the first one.

I’m also going to be writing, on spec, a middle-grade horror/suspense novel, tentatively titled Fireboy, for my agent, Ethan Ellenberg, to offer to major publishers.

On the self-publishing side, there’s the poetry collection I mentioned; I’ve also got a couple of old YA novels I hope to polish up and put out myself.

I’m keeping busy.

  1. What inspires you?

Science, human achievement, nature, great art, great music, and my amazing daughter, Alice.

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The Space-Time Continuum: Maxims and proverbs and saws, oh my!

pages-from-freelance-oct-nov-2016-for-web-2Here’s my latest Space-Time Continuum column for Freelance, the magazine of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild:

Writers love to write about writing, probably because writing about writing is a great way to avoid actually, you know, writing.

Sometimes writing about writing takes the form of a long essay or (ahem) column; sometimes it takes the form of a sage saw, witty aphorism, clever epigram, or wise maxim (another way to procrastinate is to spend several minutes poking around a thesaurus).

Science fiction and fantasy writers have coined a number of these over the years, only some of which relate to writing. Some are more general observations, such Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” or some of Larry Niven’s Laws, such as “never fire a laser at a mirror” and (an observation which those of a political bent should always keep in mind), “there exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently.”

Niven’s six laws specifically for writers were first collected in his 1989 short-story collection N-Space. My favorite of these: “It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.” But the others hold water, too:

“Writers who write for other writers should write letters.”

“Never be embarrassed or ashamed about anything you choose to write. (Think of this before you send it to a market.)”

“Stories to end all stories on a given topic, don’t.”

“Everybody talks first draft.”

And this one: “If you’ve nothing to say, say it any way you like. Stylistic innovations, contorted story lines or none, exotic or genderless pronouns, internal inconsistencies, the recipe for preparing your lover as a cannibal banquet: feel free. If what you have to say is important and/or difficult to follow, use the simplest language possible. If the reader doesn’t get it then, let it not be your fault.”

S.M. Stirling quotes an additional “Niven’s Law” in the acknowledgments of his 2003 novel Conquistador!: “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.’”

The king of aphorisms in the science fiction field was Robert A. Heinlein. In his 1973 novel Time Enough for Love, about an extremely long-lived individual named Lazarus Long, he included two “Intermissions,” collections of maxims purportedly drawn from Lazarus Long’s notebooks. You can find them all at http://www.angelfire.com/or/sociologyshop/lazlong.html. (I almost guarantee some will offend you, which, if you ask me, is an excellent reason to read them!)

A few relate specifically to writing. For example:

“A ‘critic’ is a man who creates nothing and thereby feels qualified to judge the work of creative men. There is logic in this; he is unbiased—he hates all creative people equally.”

More constructively:

“If you happen to be one of the fretful who can do creative work, never force an idea; you’ll abort it if you do. Be patient and you’ll give birth to it when the time is ripe. Learn to wait.”

One of my favorites (which I try manfully—but largely unsuccessfully—not to quote every time I attend a poetry reading, is, “A poet who reads his verse in public may have other nasty habits.”

But temper your indignation, oh poets, with this quote which applies as much to Heinlein himself as to the rest of us: “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of—but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

Here are some other writing-related aphorisms from science fiction and fantasy writers I like:

C.J. Cherryh advises, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”

Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote, “I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.” (One could wish many more took that approach.)

From Harlan Ellison: “People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”

Should you find it difficult to “sit in back of the typewriter” and work, remember this from Sir Terry Pratchett: “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

I often say that writing is, appearances to the contrary, a collaborative art. Ursula K. Le Guin agrees: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

Have I convinced you all these science fiction writers are smart people who know whereof their speak? Then perhaps it is best to let Philip K. Dick have the final word:

“Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything.”

Google Translate AI reminds me of GigaText, a blast from Saskatchewan’s past

This story, “Google Translate AI invents its own language to translate with” caught my eye for an odd reason.

Long-time Saskatchewan residents will recognize the word “GigaText.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m working on a book about the Progressive Conservative government of Grant Devine, which held power in Saskatchewan from 1982 to 1991. One of the boondoggles that government mistakenly invested in was a company called GigaText, which claimed it could use computers to translate Saskatchewan laws into French.

The government had to comply with a ruling by the Supreme Court that Section 221 of the Northwest Territories Act contained French-language guarantees that were still valid in Saskatchewan, and thus had to be either respected or repealed. As a result, The Court stated, all of Saskatchewan’s English-only laws were invalid, and the provincial government had to either translate all laws into French within a reasonable time, or invalidate, as soon as possible, the right to French-language laws. The government chose to do both: invalidating the right to French-language laws, but voluntarily translating some key laws into French as well.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-11-56-29-pmIn all the stories I’d ever read about GigaText (and I was a newspaper editor at the the time), nobody had ever bothered to explain the technology behind it. Clearly there had to be something real there, even though the company never managed to do what it said it could (and had a principal investor, a Montreal businessman named Guy Monpetit, who it turned out was as shady as they come.)

I wanted to put something in MY book about the actual GigaText technology. A little Internet digging scared up an old paper that described the theoretical underpinning of it.

If I may quote myself from the book’s current draft, at the heart of GigaText was:

“…a computer translation system being developed in Winnipeg by Dr. Douglas A. Young, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Manitoba…In 1983 Dr. Young published a theory that he believed could be the basis for effective computerized language translation—something that did not yet exist. Having noted that much of our knowledge is acquired through our senses and actions, rather than in the form of words, he theorized that the meanings of words and sentences, no matter what language they originated in, could be represented by something he called Cognitive Modalities (CM). He and his research team developed a system to define any given word in the English language using about 10 “modal codes,” each represented by three or six characters: an English-to-CM dictionary. In principle, if you then developed similar CM dictionaries for other languages, such as French, a computer should be able to translate between any two languages simply by matching the CM codes from one language’s dictionary with the CM codes in another language’s dictionary…

“Dr. Young set up a small company to develop machine translation based on his theory, and produced a demonstrator that could translate a specific sample of legal text from English into French via the CM codes at an average speed of about one word every 15 milliseconds, with reasonable accuracy (which in practice meant “only” about half the text did not require editing). The programs were written in a language called Zeta Lisp, the preferred language of artificial intelligence researchers at the time, and ran on specialized Lambda computers, made by a company called Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI), which was formed in 1979 by Richard Greenblatt of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.”

It looks to me like Dr. Young’s GigaText technology was similar to what is described in the article above. It just came 30 years too soon.

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The magazine article version of my interview with Atom Egoyan…

…has appeared in Refined Regina. Click on the image below to get a larger look at how it appeared.

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An interview with Atom Egoyan

egoyanLast week I interviewed world-renowned film (and stage and opera) director Atom Egoyan, in connection with the first North American showing of his art installation “Steenbeckett” at Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery. The 750-word article I wrote will appear in the next issue of Refined Lifestyles Magazine, but I thought I’d take advantage of my blog to post a lightly-edited (for clarity and continuity) transcript of our entire conversation. He was a pleasure to talk to and I highly recommend taking in the installation (and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, one of Canada’s best) if you’re in Regina.

You can read much more about it on the “Egoyan at the MacKenzie” website, from which allow me to quote the information about “Steenbeckett” you probably should know to make sense of the transcript.

“Steenbeckett (2002) is the extraordinary result of an Artangel commission that saw the artist Atom Egoyan transform space in the former Museum of Mankind in London (UK). For the installation, Egoyan used excerpts of 35mm footage from his film version of the Samuel Beckett play Krapp’s Last Tape, which he had made for the project Beckett on Film (2001). In the film, a haunted sexagenarian (played by John Hurt) reviews reel-to-reel tape recordings which he made on previous birthdays that capture his self-important reflections on events of the past year. The piece immerses the viewer in Krapp’s reverie on the pain of hubris and memories of lost love through a dense aesthetic layering of technologies in space. Two thousand feet of celluloid travels around the darkened room on a system of pulley-suspended rollers, propelled through a Steenbeck editing table, whose small screen also serves as our fittingly obscure and distanced window onto Krapp and his story. With the wear and tear produced by each rotation of the celluloid through the system, the whole work edges, like Krapp himself, inexorably toward extinction.

“In the original presentation of Steenbeckett, as well as in subsequent presentations at the Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester, UK), The Clinton Centre (Enniskillen, Ireland), and mac birmingham (Birmingham, UK), two adjacent rooms complete the commentary on temporal divides. In one room a jumbled collection of old furniture, cabinets and film equipment nostalgically evokes film’s history; the other room, clean and well-lit, looks forward to the digital age with a DVD version of Krapp’s Last Tape playing on a flat panel monitor or projected onto a screen. For the MacKenzie installation, Egoyan takes advantage of a new technology, noise cancelling headphones, to project a digitally remastered version of the film within the same space as the meandering 35mm film loop. Steenbeckett masterfully contemplates the nature of memory and its recording while foregrounding Egoyan’s fascination with new and obsolescent technologies and the analogue/digital divide.”

And now, the transcript:

What drew you to Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape?

In junior high there was a drama teacher who introduced me to it—and it just blew my mind. It blew my mind because my father kept a diary every day of his life, still does, I guess, but there was a period where he was transcribing it onto a reel-to-reel tape recorder, so suddenly I was dealing with this character who could have been a projection of who my father would become, and I was dealing with this notion of this legacy of tapes that I knew I would inherit at some point, and what does it all mean? What does it mean to have this all these recorded memories if there’s no one there to kind of bother listening to the tapes, and threading it and cataloguing it? Suddenly here was a play about a 69-year-old man who on his birthday ritualistically listens to some recording he made of his birthday some year before. This particular evening he listens to a recording of himself when he’s 39, reflecting on himself in his late 20s. This ability of this one character to move around in these three different periods of his life, in a linear form, was just so succinct and so provocative.

Sometimes a play doesn’t translate well to film because it’s so static, trapped in a single set. This sounds like something that would translate well, though.

As I’m recording the performance I’m very aware that I’m bringing in another recording element, besides the tape: my camera is a very conscious recording element. It creates a very particular alchemy. We’re also setting the play in a room that’s quite naturalistic, so I don’t think it feels theatrical at such. That being said, you’re really aware it’s all being played out in a proscenium way. You’re not seeing the whole room. There’s still a theatrical element.

How did “Steenbeckett” come about?

There’s a Steenbeck (editing machine) which powers the machine, and that’s my Steenbeck. It’s huge. It’s also powering the film around the gallery, through the room.

The piece came about because when I was editing it on this machine I was delighted by the fact that here was a film about an old man with a reel-to-reel tape recorder: we see these reels very visibly in the frame, but they somehow mirrored the reels on my editing machine. As I turned the machine backward and forward, the reels on the machine on the screen were also turning backwards and forwards, and that seemed really delightful. I felt like a child, playing with this toy.

I think we’re fascinated by this idea of movement of reels, it’s just something that connects us to the process of laying down memories and taking time. It suggests that there’s an anxiety that we’re going to run out of material to record, or that there might be something that breaks or gets scratched or is somehow compromised, and we don’t really think about that with digital, it’s quite abstract. This is a meditation on that moment when we were still dealing with a technology that mirrored aspects of our own body.

One of the interesting things is that the film is continually degrading, just like the character in the play is continually degrading. Do you use a fresh print at the start of each installation?

That’s part of the piece. There’s a new print that is presented, and then at the end of the installation that print is discarded. It’s usually in terrible shape.

How quickly does it degrade?

It depends on the conditions of the space. If the space is dusty, it will degrade much quicker, because the dust will accumulate on the print, and it will begin to create scratches. It’s probably going to last longer here.

Each time you install it, it’s different.

When you came to look at the space it was going to be in at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, how did you decide how to change it?

This is the largest space it’s been in. It was originally shown in London at the Museum of Mankind. It was shown in two adjacent abandoned cinemas—they were connected. In each place it’s shown, Birmingham and Manchester and Ireland, it’s always reacted to the space that it was presented in, and sometimes they weren’t traditional gallery spaces. This is the first time it’s actually been in a more traditional gallery, but also a really large space, and so we’ve been able to do things that have never been presented before, in particular this large-screen projection of the actual film, and also the installation of the editing bench that I brought from Toronto that the film was actually made on. So, those interact with the “Steenbeckett” machine in a unique way.

The film was always shown in a separate room, or on a smaller screen. It’s also high-def, so that gives it a sense of detail. It’s really quite remarkable to be listening to the soundtrack coming from the Steenbeck, as it’s playing this film loop, and see the image, silent. (You can hear if you put on the headphones.) There’s a disparity between the synchronization of the image and the sound you’re hearing, and I love that idea, too, because it feeds into this idea of the editing bench, between the two, because that is the space where you would synchronize sound and picture.

Both the film and the installation are things you created several years ago. As a novelist, when I go back to books I wrote several years ago, I find things I would have done differently. Some things I don’t even remember writing. Do you find that when you revisit a work like this?

The beautiful thing is you can reinterpret it. This is a major reinterpretation from other versions of it, and using my own machine, which I’ve never been able to do, gives it a more personal element, I think. It feels fresh. Watching an old film, you can’t change that, the film is fixed.

Though I had a really interesting experience this summer. I met some younger people who said, “Oh, my God, you’re the person who made…”, and usually it’s either Exotica or Sweet Hereafter, but it was Where the Truth Lies, which I don’t think of as being one of my better-known films. I went (with them) and saw an Italian-dubbed DVD. It was a completely different movie. The dubbing was done so well, it created a very different energy.

So sometimes you can see an old work and someone else has reinterpreted it. I don’t think that happens to a writer if it’s in a different font. The novelty of that probably wears off pretty quickly. But when you’re hearing a dubbed version it really does change the complexion.

Do you find something new in the film each time you look at it?

This particular piece you can’t help but find something new, because the text is just so beautiful, and the performance is so rich. I think the thing about Beckett’s writing is (and maybe it’s this particular interpretation), it’s very emotional. It’s not dry, it’s not abstract, it’s very specific and very poetic, full of so much resonance. I was just listening to it this morning, going, “Oh, my God, I’d forgotten how beautiful that is, how beautiful it is to listen to a great actor negotiate that text.”

Films are largely…well, not exactly passive, because you engage with them emotionally and intellectually, but you’re sitting in a room and you’re watching something on a screen. Something like this puts you inside a three-dimensional environment, of which the film is a part. How do you think that affects the viewer’s interaction with your film?

I think we’ll find out. I’m not sure how much people will watch the film, the high-definition version with the headphones (it’s an hour), how much people will watch that and still interact with the Steenbeckett, or what people’s experience will be. That’s always the big question, anytime you’re seeing a video in a gallery. Do people know when it begins, do they wait until the beginning time, do they actually sit down and watch the whole thing? I would think in this particular case people will make up their mind as to how intense the encounter will be, how much time they’ll spend with it.

What do you hope viewers will take away from “Steenbeckett”?

I think what you can’t help but take away from it is the idea that this piece of text has been really fetishized, that there’s something about what Beckett was trying to express that has really impressed itself on a lot of different artists, not just me. I think he’s had a huge influence on a lot of different people, but my particular obsession with this text is something that just seems to be able to renew itself.

I’ve done other Beckett projects, I did a production of his television play Eh Joe a few years ago, with Liam Neeson and Penelope Wilton at the Lincoln Centre, and it was one of the high points of my life. I just loved being in that world, and listening to that language. He is the line between James Joyce and Harold Pinter and David Mamet.

What I’ve taken the liberty of doing with some of the texts…his own direction for Krapp’s line reading is it should very fast and almost thrown away. In my two dealings with him, both Hey Joe and this one, I’ve allowed the actors to really luxuriate in the text, to find the words and to relish the poetry.

Do you distinguish between your work as a film director and your work as an artist, or is it all just one thing?

It really is all one thing. I mean, there are obviously different considerations, and I’m working for different audiences. My films have wildly different budgets, some are commercial and some are more personal, and I do opera and theatre, and each one has different expectations, and you have to be aware of that as you’re working with them.

The lovely thing about being in a gallery space is you can be quite hermetic in a way, your questions and your approach can be quite oddball, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be very eccentric—and this is a profoundly eccentric work.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about coming back and remounting it after this period of tme, but I’m really excited about what we have in that gallery right now.

 

 

A review of Line Dance. Apparently I have a sense of humour. Who knew?

Line DanceHere’s the first review I’ve seen of Line Dance, the collection of poems that resulted from…well, I’ll let the reviewer explain, because I’m tired of typing various versions of this:

Each weekday during Poetry Month in April, Hill [Poet Laureate Gerald Hill] e-mailed SK Writers’ Guild members a pair of first lines he’d selected from SK poetry books and invited folks to respond with poems of their own. Some, like professionals Brenda Schmidt and Ed Willett, sent poems every day. In the end, almost 500 pieces were submitted, and SK writing veteran-turned publisher, Byrna Barclay, bound what editor Hill deemed the best into a handsome package, featuring Saskatchewanian David Thauberger’s art on the cover.

I have six poems in the anthology, drawn from those I also posted online (start here), ably edited for length and other improvement. I get a shoutout in the review:

Ed Willett’s penned sci-fi/fantasy poems and showcases his sense of humour (“Please don’t think we’re prejudiced/against vampires” and “my husband hasn’t held a steady job/since he became a werewolf”), as does the ever-clever and perceptive Brenda Schmidt, ie: “I’ve always known the backroad/is the road less graveled”.

There’ll be a formal launch of the anthology at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon on the evening of November 24. There’ll be brief readings and, I fear, actual line-dancing. Come out if you’re nearby and interested!

 

Singing with the Prairie Chamber Choir

This year I’ve joined the Prairie Chamber Choir, directed by Melissa Morgan. I’ve missed singing with a high-quality choir, and this one definitely is that. We’re working toward our Christmas concert on December 18, but we did have a mini-concert recently, singing three songs by Winnipeg composer Sid Robinovitch in the Classical Showcase of Break Out West 2016 (a.k.a. the Western Canadian Music Awards). And here’s a video!

The first piece is part of the set of songs for which Sid was nominated, although, alas, he didn’t win.

You’ll find me second from the left (audience left, not stage left) on the back row.

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What does writing success mean to me?

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The Flames of Nevyana blog tour has wrapped up! The final two stops of note were this long review of the book from Jorie Loves a Story (too long and detailed to easily excerpt, so read it in situ), and an interview from Melissa Yaun-Innes’s blog, of which here’s a large chunk (Just in time for Hallowe’en, it’s headlined, “Crawl into Edward Willett’s mind”)…

Q. What does writing success mean to you? Awards, money, readers, all of the above?

To me, what feels like success varies depending on the day of the week.

Well, not quite, but almost.

When I receive an award (and I’ve received a few—a Saskatchewan Book Award for my YA fantasy Spirit Singer [Tyche Books]; an Aurora Award [the top award for Canadian science fiction and fantasy] for my science fiction novel Marseguro [DAW Books]; even a City of Regina Heritage Award for Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw [Red Deer Press]), then naturally it feels for that moment that awards are what writing success is all about.

When I sign a contract that means I will soon be receiving money with which I can a) pay the water bill; b) get the car serviced; c) pay off Visa, then money certainly seems like the best measure of writing success. Since I’m a full-time writer with no other source of income, this is certainly one kind of success I’m constantly seeking.

When I find a glowing review of one of my books, particularly if it appears in a prominent publication whose reviews are influential, then the getting of good reviews seems to me the perfect measure of writing success. In the immortal words of Sally Field receiving an Academy Award, “You like me, you really like me!”

When I write a sentence or a scene or even, if I’m lucky, a whole chapter with which I am utterly and completely satisfied, then that seems like a good measure of writing success. I have pleased my most persnickety critic, myself. (To paraphrase Sally Field, “I like me, I really like me!”)

But thinking long and hard on this question over the years, particularly when doubts as to the wisdom of my chosen career arise, I’ve come to the conclusion that what meaningfully defines writing success is readers. Writing is, ultimately, a form of communication. As writers, we strive to transplant the ideas, characters, situations, and entire worlds we imagine into the imaginations of other people. It’s a monumental task. When it works, your writing is successful —it’s that simple, and that hard.

Alas, we don’t always know when we’ve succeeded. Most readers never bother to reach out an author whose work has entertained, enlightened, challenged, or changed them. If you become a bestseller you can assume you’ve reached a lot of readers, so perhaps that is a measure of success, but the truth is, every writer is successful whenever he or she manages to bridge that gap between his or her mind and the readers, to open up a new world of imagination. I like awards, I like money, I like reviews, and I’d love to be a bestseller. But ultimately, I think every book I write is a success—and therefore I am a success—so long as somewhere there is a reader who loves it.

A Q&A at Chapter by Chapter

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Yesterday’s stop in the Flames of Nevyana blog tour was at the host site, Chapter by Chapter, and featured a Q&A (plus an excerpt and link to the giveaway!) 

Describe your book in 140 characters or less (like a Tweet)

Three teenagers must overcome their mutual mistrust to save their land when the sacred secrets of Blue Fire are stolen and turned to evil.

What was your inspiration for writing this book?  Was it in a dream? A thought while taking a walk?

I was driving from my home town of Regina, Saskatchewan, to Meadow Lake, about 500 kilometres further north, to do a reading at the library. Whenever I’m on my own in the car on a long trip I do a lot of thinking about writing, and on this occasion I deliberately set myself the task of coming up with a new idea for a YA fantasy novel. I got to thinking about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and that led me to think that our mastery of electricity would certainly seem like magic to someone from the Middle Ages. From there it was a short leap to the idea of a magic system based on electricity. In my book, Blue Fire is still magic, and is controlled through magical means, but it’s clearly electricity, too. With that idea in mind, I began my usual process of asking myself questions about the world: how would Blue Fire be used? How did the people learn to harness it? Who might be harmed or benefit from it? By the time I got to Meadow Lake, I had the broad outlines of the story sketched out in my head. I think I even talked about it in my presentation that night.

Tell us about the main character(s).

There are three viewpoint characters in flames of Nevyana, each a member of one of the three very different cultures within the Kingdom of Nevyana. They’re all of an age: about sixteen. Petra is a Priest-Apprentice of Vekrin, God of the Earth, one of the three surviving Gods of Nevyana. He’s also the son of the First Keeper of the Temple of Primaxis—the top priest in the Kingdom. Amlinn is the granddaughter of the leader of Clan Therra of the Freefolk, nomadic people who travel the wilderness from City to City, and a devout follower of Arrica, Goddess of the Sun. The people of Vekrin and the people of Arrica mistrust each other, the former seeing the latter as nothing more than lazy, shiftless vagabonds, the latter seeing the former as dull and conceited. And then there’s Jin. Jin is a Nightdweller. They follow Ell, Goddess of the Moon, and long ago she changed them into furred, almost feline, nocturnal dwellers who cannot bear the light of day—and who for centuries have hunted and killed any of the followers of Vekrin or Arrica they find in their forests at night. Because of the threat of the Nightdwellers, Petra and the other followers of Vekrin lock themselves behind city walls at night. Only the followers of Arrica, Amlinn’s people, dare to stay in the forest at night, and only because they have the magic of the Fence, a barrier of Blue Fire that Nightdwellers cannot pass. It is not infallible, however, and when she was little, Nightdwellers killed Amlinn’s parents. Petra, Arrica, and Jin are the most unlikely of allies…and yet allies they become.

Do you have a favorite quote or specific part in the book that you really love?

I like this quote, which is central to the book: “The fact the Gods have not been heard from for five hundred years does not prove they will not return tomorrow. But it seems a thin thread on which to hang the living of your life, and little reason to accept death, suffering, and the slow decline of our civilization.”

Was there a specific part in the book that you had an especially difficult time writing?  If so, why?

Each of the characters suffers, at one time or another, what might be called a crisis of faith, as they question the will, and even the existence, of the Gods each of them has sworn to follow. Since I’m the son of a preacher and the finest people I know are people of faith, I found writing scenes in which characters renounce their faith a little uncomfortable. However, I hasten to add that the Gods of Nevyana have no counterparts in the real world and the characters’ renouncing of their faith in them is totally the right thing to do, and no reflection on anyone’s faith in the real world.

What sort of projects do you have going on right now.  Any new books coming out?

I’m currently working on two non-fiction projects—a book about Saskatchewan politics in the 1980s and a history of a local engineering firm. On the fiction side, I’m about to plunge into revisions for my next science fiction novel, The Cityborn, which will be coming out from DAW Books in July 2017. After that, I’ll be writing the first two books in a new fantasy series I’ve sold to DAW, tentatively titled Worldshapers. I’m also working toward bringing out an illustrated collection of science fiction/fantasy/horror poetry I wrote earlier this year. I have a middle-grade fantasy/horror proposal with my agent, Ethan Ellenberg, and feelers out for some other novels. Never a dull moment!