Now that On the Rails it is a real thing, a made thing that can’t be unmade, it will have the life it’s going to have. Already, it’s lived somewhat longer than the average fruit fly so that’s to the good. Anecdotally, there are some hopeful signs. For a while it sat at #50 on the Amazon literary fiction list, reports from the shipping and receiving front tell of both hardcover and paperbacks arriving 2 or 3 days after ordering which suggests somebody somewhere order a bunch pre-printed.
I don’t – and won’t – know how it’s actually selling until the end of the month but I remain steadfastly grateful to everyone who placed an order. A co-worker from my days at Systemhouse (about 25 years ago) ordered 7 and had me sign them over a beer-filled lunch. An English professor of mine from Trent (about 35 years ago) dropped me a line to say that he’d bought and enjoyed it. But then there’s the frustration. Workers at a store which rhymes with Shapters won’t return a call or e-mail. Newspapers won’t review it and most awards competitions won’t accept it because it’s self-published.
All that comes with the territory and there’s the simple fact that no firearms were involved in my decision to see On the Rails in book form.
With your indulgence, I’m going to ramble on a bit about something I hadn’t spent too much concerted time pondering. To wit: what to think about On the Rails. I don’t mean what readers may think of the book; that is, of course, up to them. I can hope all I want that every reader will find the book to be a well-written “big” read and they’ll come to care about the main character and root for him as he undergoes all sorts of physical and emotional and spiritual trials. But that’s all I can do: hope.
I can, however, wonder about my own feelings towards it now that it physically exists. In the beginning, (before the focused writing effort in the fall of 2003) I scribbled notes which I found years later and which rekindled my belief that I could make a pretty good novel out of the scraps I’d found.
One section for example - the chess bit in Chapter 28 - survived almost intact although I bet it was written more than 25 years ago without any characters or setting. There’s another bit towards the end where the Michael and his Inuit guide lie beside each other staring up at the night sky in search of the North Star to guide them. So far inside the Arctic Circle, finding the star at that time of year and using it are not easy tasks as it’s almost directly overhead. I jotted down that scene decades ago and it made its way into the final version as something of a key moment.
In the main, I believed and still believe On the Rails is a darn good novel. If this were a lie detector test, that belief would be the baseline. At other times, the machine ink would scribble madly as I felt one of two things:
A) On the Rails is a goddamned great novel. So good in fact that the editors at the 5 publishing houses who passed on it and the 3 agents who declined to represent it would feel exactly like the Decca Records executives who rejected the Beatles in 1962 for not having any commercial appeal. So goddamned good that CBC would pour all its resources into making it the definitive Canadian TV mini-series.
B) On the Rails was a complete waste of time and effort. That there was a special place for me in a David Suzuki-inspired hell because, with several printed versions in the drafting stages, I had wantonly and with complete disregard, depleted our forests for no good effect. Never mind the existential angst over the very real prospect that I had thoroughly wasted a good portion of a dwindling life and that, during that time, I had tricked myself into believing I had any talent at all for this sort of thing. And, of course, there has to be a feeling of betrayal and suspicion, of having been patronized by the people who told me they liked the bits they’d read. Kind, sweet people who had outrageously lied out of politeness and consideration.
After 5 years of obsessively studying literature in university and some 40-odd years regularly reading it, I’ll stick with my original assertion that On the Rails is a darn good novel.
Near as I can tell, my confidence in the book is based solely on the character of Michael Shutt – formerly Shymchuk - and the places he finds himself in and the things he does as he moves across Depression-era Canada. Michael isn’t me or anyone I know – although many of his experiences are similar to my father’s. As I got deeper and deeper into the writing, I would always ask: What would Michael do or say or think? And not what would I do or say or think? Creating and (I think) sustaining that character over 648 pages is something I’m proud of.
So why spend so much time and invest so heavily (emotionally as well as financially) in a venture to produce ‘darn good novel’? I would give worlds to know the true reason and can only guess that two factors were at play: some twisted sense of predetermination and ego.
On the pre-ordained point, I have primary school memories of writing stories (and some puerile samples of same) so it was early in the blood. Coupled with the passed-down love of the language from my mother, voracious reading and a youthful fascination with movies, I expect I had no choice but to, eventually, make stuff up on paper.
Indeed, when I was going through my longer bursts of writing On the Rails – whether it was a bad day or a good one – I remember thinking always that this was what I was supposed to be doing.
The ego front is a lot more complicated. While it can be disputed, I’m not given to much self-examination, but I must confess to being intrigued by the idea of ego during the writing of this – or anything else I’ve written before or since.
Creating something obviously satisfies the need to create something but doesn’t explain the further need to have other people see what you’ve created and then the further, further need to ask people to give you money to see it. The compulsion to make something and then show it and have it liked might be as simple as the feeling a kid gets (certainly this kid) when his childhood artwork was put up on the fridge door. Never mind that few moms brutally savage the artistic output of their offspring, it was enough that somebody else thought it was swell. So I could’ve done that - circulate a single printed version to a few people who - hopefully – would say: “Good book, John”.
But I didn’t do that, did I?
I paid to have it published, spent months revising it and now will spend months more trying to market it. So, obviously, I want as many people as possible to read the thing. Well, why? For the ego-driven reason that I feel most of the people who read On the Rails will extract some pleasure from the effort, maybe learn a few things they didn’t know, and come away comforted in the way only reading can comfort.
As to the matter of payment, I could have just got up a website and given the thing away as a free download.
But I didn’t do that, did I?
Here’s the real ego at work. I believe – I have to believe - that On the Rails can stand against books that have been published and did make money for the writers, agents, booksellers and publishers. I harbour no illusion that any financial success from On the Rails will be enough to let me live off royalties for the rest of my life (well, I do have that illusion but it’s in the same category as the likelihood of a lottery win or the big pay-off from putting everything I own on Blue Boy in the 5th at Rideau-Carleton Raceway).
Was it worth it?
You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?
The last word should go to my father. Mitch, who hadn’t read fiction for more than 70 years, said to me: “I liked it, even some of the made-up bullshit.”