Being Santa

In late September, a friend asked if I would play Santa Claus for her three year old child. I said yes. Who could refuse a chance to bring  a little joy into a child’s life? Later, my friend casually told me that her mother in France had promised to send a Santa suit.

“Wonderful.” I said, thinking about an elaborate French costume sewn together by an old craftsman, a sweeping gown of the finest blood-red velvet trimmed with the soft fur of a dozen baby albino mink. The kind of costume that would incite the jealously of a Cardinal dressed for midnight-mass,

I didn’t start to worry until about a week before Christmas. That’s when the clouds rolled in.

First, was the logistics. How do you set up a casual encounter with Santa on his busiest night? I suggested I wait in the lobby next to the silver Christmas tree and they could accidentally come across me after walking the dog. I even had a story to go with that, Santa was taking a break while the reindeers scoffed grass on Mount Royal.

“No way,” the mother said. “If you say that, she’ll want to go up on the mountain with you to see Rudolph”.

The mother suggested I tell the child that I had just finished delivering toys to all the good children in the building and was taking a quick break.

“That way, she’ll go straight home to see her presents.”

Mothers have a knack of seeing deep into the avaricious hearts of their offspring, so the cover story was agreed.

The costume was delivered on December 23rd. Instead of the hand-crafted work of art by French artisans, it was a package from the French Dollarama,  the material was so thin, if you rubbed it between your fingers you’d find a hole. Holding it up to the light it was see-through, and in my soul I knew that if I passed close to a naked flame I’d be incinerated in a second.

I tried it on and looked in the mirror. Instead of every child’s dream of a larger than life Santa beaming out joy and happiness, I was looking at an emaciated, sad-eyed Santa, a skinny, pathetic imposter. I met his eyes again and he asked silently why I had agreed to such a mockery. What sane child would ever be deceived by sad Santa? He had a point, and I sat down and heard the unmistakable sound of a ripped seam in sad Santa’s pants.

By the morning of Christmas Eve I was having serious doubts.

For one, there was the stark realization that I was about to destroy a child’s entire belief system. No one, not even a sleep deprived three year old, would believe the skinny, sad-eyed character in the red costume was the real Santa Claus. I would be walking the child to the cliff edge of knowledge  that life is not all sunshine and roses. I would be responsible for replacing Santa Claus, flying reindeers, peace, love, joy, and loads of toys, with a dark understanding of life’s bitterness. I was dooming the poor child to becoming a nihilist, convinced that happiness is a delusion.

That’s a lot of responsibility to take on.

To make matters worse, I was imagining weeping Santa showing up as soon as the child arrived.  This last year has been difficult for me for a number of reasons, and a river of emotion is never far from the surface waiting to escape as uncontrollable tears. I had visions of being overcome by emotions and breaking down in tears. What child wants to look at a Santa weeping into his beard? Imagine the effect that would have on a child’s view of the world. Yet here I was, risking the emotional wellbeing of a young child, likely condemning her to a lifetime of therapy to overcome the shock of crossing paths with weeping Santa.

But it was too late to abandon. I pushed ahead. First I tried to beef up Santa with a pillow strapped to my belly. It was too obvious. The Dollarama costume was built with cheap in mind, not for the luxury of hiding pillows. I folded towels and tucked them into a pillowcase that I then tied the pillowcase around my chest. It was better and gave me a few extra inches of girth, but the towels moved around and stuck out at unusual angles like the Alien baby about to burst through  Sigourney Weaver’s chest. I could just about keep things under control providing I didn’t move. I rubbed flour on my eyebrows to whiten them and looked into the mirror. Not even close to the Coca-Cola Santa, but I was putting a little distance between me and the Steven King version.

I sat in the lobby waiting, practicing my best Santa laughs while keeping a keen eye out for candles. I couldn’t move because of the hole in the back of my pants and the shifting towels.

Then they appeared, mother, child, and a very suspicious dog. In seconds, it was clear the deception worked. The child’s eyes widened and she accepted the impossible. She was beaming like a cherub; there really was a Santa Claus and he was sitting in the lobby of her apartment building taking a break from a hard night’s work. She told me her name, introduced the dog and her mother, and then told me her modest wishes for Christmas. The dog looked a little less threatening.

Before they left, the child gave me a hug.

Have you ever been hugged by a three year old? Hugs from three year olds are always wonderful, but imagine being hugged as Santa Claus by a three year old who believes in Santa Claus. It’s the purest, distilled love there is. It touched me deeply.

I watched as they left, waving backwards over their shoulders, and I realized how very lucky I was. Lucky to have been invited to play Santa Claus, and lucky to have been hugged as Santa Claus.

Later in the evening, there was a knock on the door and mother, child and dog were outside waiting to tell me the news. I did a lightening-fast cleanup of the apartment to remove all traces of Santa and went to the door, just as I remembered about the bushy eyebrows full of self-rising flour. I dashed to the bathroom and began to ladle water onto the bushes of hair filled with flour. Do you know what happens when you mix flour and water? I looked into the mirror and saw two gigantic pretzel sticks over my eyes. I yelled “J’arrive” at the door and turned the tap to produce hotter and hotter water. Didn’t work. The pretzels were beginning to bake.

I answered the door. The dog was suspicious again. The mother was staring at my eyebrows, and the child was busy telling me everything that had happened. The mother handed me a China bowl with the most delicious lamb stew. It was magic.

I smiled, was amazed at the child’s stories, said thank you for the lamb stew, and petted Sam on the head. He seemed to accept that.

I closed the door, put the lamb stew in the kitchen, and sat down on the couch listening to the furthest thing from Christmas music I could find, Ben Webster from 1950. I was thinking about how lucky I was to have been invited to play Santa Claus, how lucky to have been hugged as Santa Claus, and how lucky to have someone knock on your door on Christmas Eve to deliver a lamb stew and wish you Merry Christmas.

I’m Back.

I’m Back

It’s been a while.

I am now coming out of the most brutal and challenging periods of my life. The pandemic was just the icing on the cake.

I’ve  been suffering chronic pain for over two years, the kind of pain that has you flat on you back for days on end. With sustained, chronic pain comes depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and tears, lots of tears. Your brain is no longer your friend.

But with two operations since January, my pain level has subsided to tolerable. I am gradually  rebuilding my life, and it needs rebuilding from the ground up. I stopped writing when I couldn’t focus, then I stopped reading when I couldn’t finish a paragraph without getting distracted.

So now that I feel like I am recovering, I will begin with the small stuff, the occasional blog post to show myself that I can still write.

Bear with me.

Open Season in Bookstores on September 12, 2015

That’s it. It’s finished. The third novel in the Luc Vanier series will finally hit the bookstores on September 12, 2015.

Open Season has Vanier and Saint Jacques solving a kidnapping with no ransom demand, and little information to go on. The victim, Sophia Luna, a Guatemalan journalist went into hiding to avoid deportation after her refugee claim was rejected. To save her, Vanier and Saint Jacques set about reconstructing her life, picking up threads that lead them through a Montreal of refugees hiding from the authorities, of sex traffickers, corrupt businessmen and venal politicians. While the investigation moves forward,

Vanier continues to struggle to hold things together in his private life. His relationship with Anjili Segal has reached a point where he had to make hard decisions, while his son Alex continues the struggle to recover from PTSD. When his private and work lives collide in a brutal attempt to shut down the investigation, Vanier throws away the rule book and goes after the villains with a vengeance.

I had great fun writing Open Season, and I hope you will enjoy reading it. I would love to hear your thoughts.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my publisher, the wonderful Linda Leith, and my editor, Katia Grubisic, the tough-love champion of struggling writers.

Linda is unflappable, a requirement for any publisher when an author looks you in the eye and mumbles that the manuscript is ‘almost done’, when he really means ‘I’ve come up with an idea, but I still need to flesh it out’.

Katia’s input and insights were invaluable. Sure, we fought, and she didn’t always win, but she always made me think. Katia’s work ethic would put a Scottish Presbyterian to shame. She finished editing while she was giving birth to her first child. That wasn’t necessary. I specifically told her she could take the day off.

I am one lucky guy to have people like Linda and Katia on my side.

On the Death of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney died today and we are all poorer for that.

Seamus Heaney

I’m not an intellectual, and don’t claim to understand great poetry. I can only feel it, and wonder in awe at the craft, and the intellect that created it. Over more years than I care to think, Seamus Heaney’s poetry has touched me deeply, again and again. Sometimes like a sledgehammer to the chest, and other times, prising open a long forgotten childhood memory of freshly caught mackerel pulled from the cold sea or a ripe blackberry already staining tiny fingers. He spoke to something deep within me, and gave me joy, solace, and lightening-bright insight in the commonplace.

Heaney was born in Co. Derry, deep in the Irish countryside. Here is an excerpt from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech describing his childhood:

In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.

You can read the full speech here:

I met him in 2002 when he came to Montreal to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Concordia, and I still treasure the memory. He was the man we should all strive to be, warm and gracious, and ready to share a story with anyone.

He was a man who saw and felt more than the rest of us, a man for whom everything was alive and connected, a man from whom we can all learn. We are lucky to have been alive when this man was writing poetry.

Vigilante Season, the second book in Luc Vanier series, is coming in Oct

Those Magic Words: “Vigilante Season has been sent to the printer.”

My publisher, Linda Leith, called last week to tell me that Vigilante Season, the second book in the Luc Vanier series, was finally on its way to the printer, marking the end of a long summer of hair-pulling revisions and re-writes. Writing Vigilante Season was great fun, but revising and editing it was less so. It’s a humbling experience to work with good editors and fact-checkers. Nobody’s perfect, and we all benefit from having someone pointing out the imperfections. Everyone did a great job, but I think the fact checker had the most fun, stopping people driving the wrong way up one-way streets and making sure the dead stayed dead, and didn’t reappear like zombies ten pages later.

So I am happy to see Vigilante Season go to print. It’s hard to let go, but it’s satisfying to get it finished at last.

In the novel, Inspector Luc Vanier is in Hochelaga investigating the brutal murder of a local drug dealer. Hochelaga is a blue collar neighbourhood in Montreal’s east end that has been all but abandoned by the political class, and a paramilitary group, the Société des Patriotes de Montréal, has stepped into the vacuum and begun flexing its muscle. The local police commander is proud of the declining crime statistics, but Vanier suspects the neighbourhood cleanup may involve murdering the unwanted. When Vanier is suspended for beating a young suspect, he’s on his own, fighting to prove his innocence and discover who really controls the streets, while struggling to help his son, Alex, back from Afghanistan and crippled by PTSD.

Vigilante Season will be published in October 2013, and Quill and Quire has listed Vigilante Season in their fall preview of the “most anticipated Canadian Fiction.”.

Donal Ryan – The Latest Candidate for Patron Saint of Unpublished Authors

Let’s hear it for Donal Ryan – The Latest Candidate for Patron Saint of Unpublished Authors

We’ve all got our favourite stories of authors that overcame crushing rejection to be finally vindicated by literary or commercial success. The website Literary Rejections documents hundreds of rejections that probably still keep publishers and agents up at night, pining for a second chance at Lolita (“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”), or even Chicken Soup for the Soul (“Anthologies don’t sell.”). Every aspiring author thinking about giving up should visit the site for solace and inspiration.

Now, into the Parthenon of the finally vindicated author, steps Irishman Donal Ryan, a 36 year old civil servant from Limerick who writes in his spare time. His manuscript for The Spinning Heart was rejected 47 times, and that was his second book, the first was probably filed away in a sock drawer somewhere. According to the Irish Independent, his manuscript was only noticed after an intern pulled it out of the slush pile at Dublin’s Lilliput Press and “raved about it” to the boss, Andrew Farrell. Farrell thought enough about it to make an offer, and, after Lilliput agreed to publish it, Doubleday Ireland wanted in on the action. Donal went from sitting by the window, waiting for the postman to arrive dragging the usual canvas sack of rejections and bills, to having a co-publishing deal with two respected publishers. In 2012, Lilliput published The Spinning Heart in hardback, and Doubleday did the same in paperback.

The Shining Heart went on to win Ireland’s Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year prize, and last month it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Longlist in this case is a bit of a misnomer, because the Mar Booker list has only 13 titles.

In an interview for last year’s Dublin Book Festival, Donal mused about the best and worst things about writing. He said, “The worst thing about writing, so far, is rejection. Months and years of unread manuscripts; unanswered letters; emails floating ignored in the ether; crushed hopes; politely delivered heartbreak.”

Now, doesn’t that ring a bell? If you’re not up to fifty rejections, you’re not even trying.