Page of Faves compiled by Leo.
The five books without which I might never have become a writer.
Cathedral, by Raymond Carver
The year was 1988. I was studying Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. I went into Duthie Books in downtown Vancouver and picked Cathedral off the shelf. There was a vogue for Carver at the time, something that made my inner curmudgeon want to avoid his work. I had read one or two stories from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, but they had not struck a chord.
But Cathedral was different from word one. I remember so vividly the power of the first few sentences of the first story: “Feathers.” I read those words in the bookstore and felt my pulse quicken. I bought the book. When I got it home, I re-read the opening of “Feathers,” set the book aside, and like automatic writing, I wrote the first draft of what would become the title story of my first book: Like This.
Cathedral remains the only book I’ve read that, upon finishing it for the first time, I turned immediately back to the start and began re-reading. In subsequent years I studied this book the way devout Christians go at The Bible. I wanted to understand its power.
Rock Springs by Richard Ford
Richard Ford is superb. He writes too few stories. This book is a sort of logical extension of Cathedral. Rock Springs is what happens when a slightly younger, slighty smarter, much less hard-bitten man reads Carver and picks up where he left off.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Campbell was a scholar: an expert in mythology. This book explains how stories work by looking at recurring patterns in myth. I have no idea how anyone who has never read this book could write fiction. Though Campbell dissects the human impulse to shape stories in a thorough and systematic way, he manages never to render the process pat or to rob it of its magic.
The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner.
John Gardner was Raymond Carver’s Creative Writing teacher. For years this man helped shepherd many through the apprenticeship of becoming a writer. He put all that experience and wisdom into these two volumes. The Art of Fiction is a very nuts-and-bolts series of specific suggestions and considerations. On Becoming a Novelist is much more a companion, a comfort, a guide.
Other Favorite Books
The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe
An ambitious, hilarious, frightening, haunting poke square in the eye of Coe’s homeland’s recent history. Gripping, full of amazing characters, chock-a-block with incident. Crawling, absolutely crawling with life. Unforgettable.
Contains my favorite odd Britishism for sex: ‘rumpy-pumpy.’ That alone is worth the cover price.
A masterful dualogy by “Britain’s Greatest Novelist to be Unknown in North America.” I’ve only re-read Cathedral more.
Saturday and Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
I have read not quite all of McEwan’s books. They are all brilliant. But these two strike me as the most complete and satisfying. No one but McEwan writes with such enormous intelligence, yet is not afraid at the same time to be heart-stoppingly dramatic and generously and thoroughly entertaining.
Canada’s Most Unjustly Ignored Novel
Big White Knuckles by Brian Tucker
I was introduced to this book a few years ago when the publisher asked me to do a blurb. I winced and asked for a month in which to do it. A few days later, when the book arrived by courier, I cracked it open and could not put it down. I had it finished before going to bed that night. I had an enthusiastic blurb written by the next day at noon.
In some ways this book is a typical first novel: It’s a coming of age story about a sensitive artist in a rough milieu. But it’s done with such great humour and with such a wonderful command of the vernacular tongue that it is irresistible.
Four copies of this got stolen from my classroom: one after the other. Everyone to whom I ever recommended this book has come back laughing and telling me they bought a half-dozen and gave them as gifts.
Big White Knuckles is now available, and at a very reasonable price, as an ebook: Click this link to check it out at Kobo.
I want to make clear, I have never met and have no personal connection to the author whatsoever. This book has just not gotten its due.
Secret gem: Set in Cape Breton, the book contains a recipe for a bacon and bean dish called The Tar Ponds.
This American Life
Almost as good as This American Life.
All CBC Radio 3 Podcasts
Hours of free music every week. All Canadian. All independent. Held together by funny and smart on-air personalities.
Favorite Writing Tools
Make no mistake: Writing is a physical activity (take the 30 second challenge: Do not move a muscle. Okay, now write), and the mechanics of how it is done matter greatly.
I write all first drafts long-hand, in blue or black ink. Because I’m left-handed, and because I press HARD on the paper as I write, I require a pen with a bold line and a smooth rolling ball.
Falling in love with a pen is a bit like being a rock star groupie: You’ve got to understand that the relationship is not permanent. Pen companies are restless and capricious. They are bound to move on from the model you’ve grown fond of. So when you find the perfect pen for you, make a small, non-obsessive hoard of them and brace yourself for the day, coming soon, when that pen will no longer be available to purchase.
Gel Ink Pens
I’ve been led to believe that gel ink pens are constructed differently to regular ball point pens. They have a tiny spring under the ball that allows ink to flow when the pen presses the paper, but that cuts off the flow when the pressure is released.
Whether this is true or not is immaterial. Ball pens work really well for right-handed people because the ball gets pulled behind the pen. Left-handers, however, push the pen forward, which means that most comfortable roller pens get jammed and rendered useless, pretty well immediately upon commencing to write.
Gel pens somehow avoid this and remain loose and comfortable right up until the ink runs out.
My current favorite is the Pentel EnerGel 0.7 mm ball. It makes a consistent, bold line. I write in black until I get bored with that. Then I switch to blue for a while.
3-hole loose leaf
I write all fiction first drafts, plus notes and additions to subsequent drafts, on good old 3-hole loose leaf. It’s readily available, easily interchangeable (you can shuffle words around in some ways more easily than you can electronically), and importantly for work that I’m going to be coming back to typically over a period of years, it is all the same size (which makes it easily handled). You can clip it into a binder when that’s convenient and unclip it when that is what makes sense.
The zippered binders that have become a school supply staple in the last decade are the single greatest writing tool since the invention of the cave wall. First, as a school teacher, I get these things for free every June when students discard an entire year of learning in the trash before fleeing the building.
Because they zipper shut, I can put reference books and papers relevant to what I’m working on inside, and there’s no chance of their slipping out. I print hard copies of novel drafts on 3-hole printer paper, scribble all over them for months, insert additions and questions on sheets of looseleaf that I can clamp into place.
These things amount to portable writing studios that can be bundled full of all the relevant tools and materials for any given project and carried to any quiet location to get some work done. Amazing!
Pencils and Notebooks
For jotting notes on the fly, I prefer to write in pencil. I use mechanical pencils. 0.9 or 0.7 mm lead (to withstand my hard pressing as I write). The design of the Pentel Techniclik is the best, but it does not come in a 0.9 lead, so I use the Staedtler Mars micro.
I carry a Moleskine pocket-sized notebook everywhere I go. I’ve tried many pocket notebooks over the years, and though the Moleskines are pretty expensive, they outlast everything else by a longshot. (My current Moleskine has been in my pocket for more than three years, and has held up perfectly with only a single application of heavy tape on the binding about a year ago.) The cover is sturdy. The binding is strong. The paper is of a high quality. Cheaper notebooks tend to disintegrate long before the pages are full, putting the lie to the idea that they are a bargain.
I use these for song lyrics (I’m a half-baked songwriter), snippets of description or dialogue that occur to me in situ (a latin expression I use without knowing what it means), half-cracked business ideas that occur to me regularly and never amount to anything, and even for short-term and long-term planning and to-do lists. This very website was originally about six pages of almost indecipherable scrawl in a Moleskine notebook.