John Owens - Author
 
In late October, my second novel, The Sixth String, saw the light of day. Picked up by General Store Publishing House – a small but thriving publisher helmed by all-round good guy Tim Gordon – the book came off the presses two whole days before a launch party scheduled for October 24. Perhaps fittingly, the launch was held in one of Ottawa’s finest bars – Local Heroes – wherein much beer and chicken wings were consumed and a bunch of laughs enjoyed. Big thanks to Glenn Torresan, Mike Hicks, Kim Tytler, Theresa Whelan, Chad Nesrallah, and my darlin’ Maggie for doing all the stuff to make it happen.

Signing copies and reading a bit out loud were great experiences but – as these social outings usually go – I was sorry not to have had the time to chat more with all my old and new friends (and some complete strangers) who made the effort to turn up and to buy. I remarked at the time – and still feel – that the whole event and, indeed, marketing the thing from now on felt and feels like staging a Tupperware party.  I am humbled and genuinely touched by the good will and kindness of people who are supporting this venture for no other reason than I asked them to.

I know that the only small way I can partially repay them is to have delivered a book they like, one that moves them and makes them feel it was worth the time and money they invested in it.

As hokey as this may sound, what’s a true fact for me is that the accumulation of positive comments on this book and On the Rails somehow compensates for the years I spent writing them, the years spent peddling them to every publisher and agent with a vowel in their name and the months spent prepping them for publication. Not to mention the days my bruised ego spent getting over all the Fuck Off letters I’ve received.

Frankly, I’d like nothing better than for my writing to sustain me until I undertake a bit bucket kicking, largely because it would’ve meant that an awfully large group of people read the thing.  Which has become the point, after all. I didn’t set out with a “get rich slowly” plan. I was going to write these books anyway; I realize I didn’t have much choice in that matter. But, once done, I understand how much it means to me to get them into the hands of as many people as possible.

I suspect that it’ll be a months- or even years-long process to finally know how well The Sixth String does.  That’s the nature of the biz.

But, in the meantime, we gots us another book. A book I’m very proud of. A book I hope its readers enjoy.

 
 
Off the top, without the slightest trace of irony and all evidence to the contrary, let me tell you that I find talking about myself or even the book to be difficult.

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.

OR

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.”

 
 
So sang Mssrs. Henley and Frey on “Desperado”, the massively underappreciated Eagles album (yeah, that’s right: I said album) from 1973. I’ve always liked that line. It came screaming back to me the first time I sat down to record On the Rails as a downloadable audio book (available at fine bookstores everywhere. OK, OK, it’s only available from my website – johnowens.ca) 

While I’ve got a middlin’ speaking voice and about zero dramatic training, I figured - perhaps in harmony with the above quoted Eagles song – that an audio version of the novel might be attractive to some people who like being read to.

There’s this alarming tendency I have when confronting any task I haven’t tried before. It’s neatly summarized in a single question: “So how hard can it be?”

As with a whole bunch of other times I asked myself that question, I found out exactly how hard it can be when I first stared into the microphone at Hangar 13 Art & Design where its owner, Glenn Torresan, had settled in at the keyboard to supervise the recording. Glenn is a good friend, a sterling lad and an astonishing guitar player and songwriter, but I don’t think he had any idea either about how challenging this would turn out to be.

I had read aloud several of the longer descriptive prose sections as I wrote them to get a sense of the cadence I wanted, but I hadn’t put voice to any of the conversational bits (some of which go on for pages) or the connecting bits. So it was a revelation when I began to hear the thing “live”. It was more of a revelation to realize that I had to read it right. The stumbles and pauses you have in your brain when you read to yourself just don’t cut it. The computer-based recording doesn’t lie.

There were also quite a number of physical, auditory and meteorological challenges. We recorded after work hours in the evenings, mostly during the particularly hot August and then the particularly wet September of 2010 in Ottawa.  In August, the temperature outside was frequently over 100 Fahrenheit. Because we had to turn off the humming air conditioning and shut the windows in Glenn’s cavernous building to dampen the ambient noise, the place had that “Brazilian-rainforest-in-summer” feel where clothes stick to you and there’s a little bead of sweat at the end of your nose.

Then came the thunderstorms. Many, many thunderstorms, so we had to start over again after each crack and rumble. Oh, did I mention that Hangar 13 is in an industrial park near the Ottawa Airport and obviously on a flight path? But we just couldn’t pretend they were deliberately inserted sound effects. My adlibbing over the weather or the aircraft wasn’t exactly seamless. “Michael listened to the thunder as he...etc, etc,” or “Staring at the jet plane passing over head, Michael....etc, etc...” just didn’t work.

Glenn’s something of a storm trooper when it comes to getting the sound right, nothing dramatic, just a curt “Stop!” when I mangled something. Then he would play it back so there could no question. Most times, I would stop myself when I blew a line. It was a humbling experience as he gleefully (and repeatedly) pointed out my vocal idiosyncrasies – often adding an annoying “mm” grunt sound at the end of sentences, pronouncing “p” with a grating pop, that sort of a thing.  

Fuelled by beer and cigarettes, the longer sessions (made longer by my stumbling over real simple words) produced a difference you can sometimes hear chapter to chapter. Some chapters end with a raspy, deeper tone in my voice to be followed by a new chapter recorded on a different night where I start out sounding all eager and crisp.

Surprisingly to me, the dialogue sections where I had to do different accents turned out quite well I think, with the least amount of stopping and starting. There were screw-ups, to be sure. Michael’s RCMP drill instructor in Regina, for example, can’t seem to make his mind up whether he’s Scottish or Irish.

Above all, what made the recording arduous was the time it took to record all 648 pages. We agreed to a pace of two chapters a session. Sometimes, that meant four hours, never less than three. So all in, maybe 80 hours were needed to produce about 20 hours of book. Commercial plug: that works out to 75 cents an hour!

Then, as further punishment, I had to listen for any major gaffes in what I had just recorded on the half-hour drive home each night so that we could fix them at the next session. Sometimes, I cringed and sometimes I thought: “Geez, ya know, this old bastard tells a pretty good story”.

Glenn and I wrapped up recording on September 27 and there was the oddest sense of emptiness as I finished the Acknowledgements at the end. We eventually had developed an easy, irreverent way of working together and both of us, I think, enjoyed the process, not just recording but shooting the shit about all sorts of things. I intend to keep the piece of paper he would sometimes wave under my nose when he had pressing, paying, work-related things to do. “Read faster!” it said. He’s also promised me a CD compilation of all the obscenity-laced outtakes.

On the whole, I’m pleased with the final result, endlessly grateful to Glenn, and hopeful that people will like hearing the words coming from this “certain kinda fool”.
 
 
While much of On the Rails was completed by the end of 2005, here we are - 5 years later - and I’m on the verge of finally seeing a finished product. Despite a handful of complimentary or, at least, polite rejection letters and the heroic efforts of Globe & Mail national columnist - and friend - Roy MacGregor to get me to the point where I could receive those “Please Fuck Off” notes, time just passed. If I had been 25, perhaps not a big deal but, firmly embedded in my 50s as I was, my impatience became an issue. Then, in a rare Zen Johnny moment, I put the thing aside to write another novel – which became The Sixth String. 

Several years later, an article in the aforementioned Globe & Mail described how Terry Fallis, an old PR buddy of mine, had taken the self-publishing route which led to his much-deserved winning of the Leacock Award for Humour in 2008 for his hilarious The Best Laid Plans. I spoke with Terry a couple of times, wrote a couple of more times and settled on Terry’s best laid plans to use Bloomington-based iUniverse. That was late 2009 when I signed the contract and started the post-writing phase. iUniverse has a very precise process in which you are passed along to a series of people depending on the stage of the book’s production. All swell people and all conscientious as hell. They also offer a series of marketing services (booth space at AARP conventions, videotaped interviews, e-mail blasts, etc) some or all of which might be valuable and none of which I could afford. But they also supplied a detailed and very perceptive evaluation of all 700 pages which commented on what they liked about On the Rails and what they thought blew.

Back to the proverbial drawing board on where I thought they were right. That led to a re-organization of sections and chopping about 50 pages. They also suggested the book had much promise in the States and so persuaded me to go with American spellings and grammar – something I had not thought a lot about.

While a year has passed, I can only fault myself for what seems like an unnecessary passage of time. Simply: Proofreading ‘R NOT US. Armed with the Chicago Manual of Style and Webster’s US Dictionary, we (my burdened wife, Maggie, and I) went at it. I was appalled at the crap I let through – mostly of the “what the fuck was I thinking when I wrote that word?” variety. There were also some historical inaccuracies, stupidly made and easily corrected. E.g. George VI was King of England in WWII, not George V. Or RCMP crossed rifle patches are on the sleeve, not the shoulder. In either case, I’m convinced that some objective distance from the book which had consumed me for years (plus, blowing up the pages to 200%) was handy in having me cast a colder eye on the work.

There were other things to consider, such as the website and, of course, the url of the website. The dotcom version of my name is a Massachusetts-based commercial photographer, so that was out. Google ‘John Owens’ today and you also get a reserve tight end for my beloved Oakland Raiders, a 19th century British merchant or Australian politician, and a present day, California-based Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. In the same ‘hood are Johnny Owens, a Toronto rock drummer and John Owen, a 17th century Puritan theologian with whom I should never be confused!

A Google ad gets you to Alibris which offers a list of books to buy, one of whose titles is Understanding and Controlling the German Cockroach. Great title and it’s edited by a John M. Owens (also my middle initial). As much as I’d like to both understand and control the German cockroach, it also ain’t me.

We settled on johnowens.ca which at least identifies the Canadianess of it all. By ‘we’, I mean me and McGillBuckley, the wonderful marketing firm who did my website. The McGill part of the company (that would be my old and slightly less cantankerous friend Stephen) handled the marketing end, while the Buckley part – Nadine - she of unrelenting taste and talent - put together the website and the cover design. Gosh, I hope people will, at first anyway, judge this book by its cover!

Both Steve and Nadine are in the painful process of teaching me to add my own goddamned content to site, reminding me of the great Far Side cartoon about what a dog hears of its master’s instructions: “Blah, blah, blah, Fido. Blah, blah, blah, blah, Fido.”  For an old fart like myself, who does not own a cell phone, cannot do anything meaningful with a PVR and is still of the belief that computer screens can somehow capture your spirit, it’s an uphill battle.
 
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    THE AUTHOR

    Born in Liverpool, England and raised  in Ottawa, Canada, John Owens obtained an MA in English Literature from Queen’s. He spent two years in the Bahamas then returned to Ottawa and a 36-year career in marketing and public relations.  Since 2003, he has written two novels (with a third in progress) and more than 30 short stories while operating his communications business where he has written millions of words for clients.


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