So you wanna be a rock and roll (or literary) star?

When I think about the ups and downs and close calls in my writing career, my thoughts naturally turn to Rory Storm and Keef Hartley.


Rory Storm, leader of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and Keef Hartley, former drummer with Rory’s band who went on to found the Keef Hartley Band. Jeez, don’t you know anything about rock music?

Storm led a skiffle group in Liverpool in the late 1950s, played in the bars in Hamburg around the same time as The Beatles, and later hired Hartley as his band’s new drummer, replacing another Liverpool-skin-basher named Richard Starkey (who had departed to take Pete Best’s job in The Beatles and changed his stage name to Ringo Starr). Though popular in the Liverpool scene of the early ‘60s, Rory Storm and Hurricanes never made it on record, releasing only a couple of singles that failed to catch on during the British Invasion of 1964.

Half a decade later, though, drummer Hartley had his own shot at the big time, when the Keef Hartley Band played Woodstock. In a festival line-up studded with superstars – Hendrix, Joplin, The Who, Santana, The Band, the Grateful Dead and more – the name Keef Hartley stands out as one of the very few that you haven’t heard of.

Obviously, I’ve never stood as close to literary stardom and Storm and Hartley did to music stardom, but stories like theirs make me think of the close calls in my own artistic life.

One came through a play of mine, a philosophical comedy called Noble Savage, Savage Noble. An absurd, dark comedy in which the 18th century philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau have been stranded in the Canadian wilderness, where they debate their ideas about “man in a state of nature,” NS,SN was my first professionally produced play and received rave reviews when it was produced by Theatre Projects Manitoba in 2003. A kind of Waiting for Godot with canoes, it was published in a Playwrights Canada Press anthology of new western Canadian plays in 2004.

The key challenge for any playwright is not so much to have a play produced (though that’s tough), but to get a second production. My timing wasn’t ideal in this endeavour. My play was produced by Theatre Projects during a lull for that company, when it didn’t have any media sponsorship or staff support to draw much of an audience.

I sent the play off to companies across Canada and the US, attaching the glowing reviews and mentioning the play’s runner-up status in two national playwriting competitions and I managed a pair of close calls, including one in which I received my nicest rejection letter ever, from the influential Tarragon Theatre artistic director Urjo Kareda. I received another nice rejection letter from an artistic director who enjoyed the play but didn’t think there were enough theatre goers in Montreal familiar with the French Enlightenment to fill up a three-week run in a theatre.

A few years later, I was invited to New York University’s hotInk International Playreading Festival for a workshop and staged reading of the play. I was one of two Canadian playwrights featured – the other being Nicolas Billon, an Ontario playwright who went on to win the Governor General’s Award. At the time I was a bit put out by the fact that Billon’s reading, but not mine, was attended by a cultural attaché from the Canadian consulate in New York.

What made these close calls especially painful was that just a couple years later, Canada’s best-known comedic playwright, Morris Panych, premiered a new play that seemed almost identical in theme and setting. His play What Lies Before Us featured bickering 19th century railway surveyors lost in the Rocky Mountains, with their Chinese labourer keeping them alive, just as my play had a French Canadian coureur de bois keeping Rousseau and Voltaire from starving. And like mine, his play took inspiration from Godot while reflecting on exploration and colonization of the new world. Panych’s play was featured on stages across Canada, effectively killing any shot I might still have had at a second production for mine.

Close call number two:

In 2007, a play of mine at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival drew a five-star review and my first-ever Fringe sellouts. One of the reviewers wrote “writing so fine it should be between covers in a book,” which got me thinking about expanding the story – a comedy about a personal crisis in the life of a stay-at-home father – into a novel. After I’d done a few drafts of the novel, I discussed it with Winnipeg writer Daria Salamon, who’d recently had her own domestic comedy, The Prairie Bridesmaid, published by Key Porter Books. Daria referred me to her agent and, after I wrote a new draft, her agent agreed to represent me. (The agent in question has gone on to become one of biggest literary agents in Canada.) A little later, I was thrilled to hear that, following her pitches to the Canadian operations of what were then the Big Five publishing houses (this was before Penguin and Random House merged), four of the big publishers requested copies of the manuscript. This was my shot at the big time!

Unfortunately, all four of them passed on it. I tell myself that bad timing played a role. This was the summer of 2009, when the world was in the depths of the recession triggered by the banking collapse of 2008. My agent dropped me as a client. I went on to find a publisher on my own, Winnipeg-based Turnstone Press, which published it in 2011. With only the promotional resources of tiny Turnstone to back it, my novel, titled Dadolescence, didn’t exactly take the literary world by storm. Reviews were good and I did a “book tour” to Calgary and Edmonton, but Canada’s bookstore behemoth Indigo only ordered copies for its “Local Interest” section in its Manitoba stores, rather than stocking it nationally or even regionally under “Fiction.” It sold around 500 copies.

For much of the next decade, I focused on freelance writing jobs that actually paid. I wrote several long, technical reports on the environmental impact of major hydro-electrical projects. I worked as the constituency communications person for a Winnipeg MP. But around 2017-2019 I also devoted time to a new novel: which I originally thought of as a YA superhero steampunk western about three youths with uncanny powers who converge on the gold rush boomtown of Deadwood in the 1870s. I tried every publisher I could think of in Canada, with no success and in 2019 I connected with Five Star Publishing, a division of the educational publisher Cengage/Gale, based in Maine. Five Star’s focus was specifically on western/frontier fiction. And they paid an advance in U.S. dollars.

I signed a contract and was assigned an editor, with the novel – titled Prodigies –   scheduled for publication in January 2021. Thanks to the pandemic, that was bumped to July 2021. But still, the book was published and I got a royalty payment to cover sales Five Star made to libraries, the main market for the company’s books. Unfortunately, Five Star, being a small U.S. publisher, didn’t have a regular distribution deal for sales to Canadian bookstores. So aside from in Winnipeg, where I stocked McNally Robinson Booksellers with my own author copies on consignment, the novel was hardly available at all in stores in the author’s own country. That meant that I wasn’t really able to capitalize on the fact that Prodigies won the 2022 Margaret Laurence Prize for Fiction in the Manitoba Book Awards.

Still, a legitimate award for my book! That was another close call, and it augured well for the sequel I was at that time working on. Except that later in 2022 Five Star announced that it was ceasing publication of new books. The company announced that it was going to focus on its other business publishing large print editions of existing books. As a result, my sequel was an orphan.

These aren’t the closest of close calls. I’m not the Canadian literary equivalent of Rory or Keef or Pete Best, fired from The Beatles to make way for Ringo. But they are reminders of the way quirks of timing, global economic circumstances, far-off business decisions and the presence or absence of a single champion can make all the difference in the world for a piece of art and for an artist.

Museum: from “seat of the Muses”

A chance encounter with a small-town museum volunteer last summer led me to an unexpected new writing project.

Like most small Manitoba museums, the Dairy Museum of Manitoba is only open in the summer months and is a labour of love for local volunteers. In addition to objects that tell the story of the dairy industry in and around St. Claude, Manitoba, it displays a variety of artifacts from local life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When my wife and I stopped there one afternoon last August, the volunteer who showed us around told us the stories behind a number of objects, one of which especially stuck in my mind. It was a bugle that had been carried during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and then brought to St. Claude after immigrants from eastern France founded the town. I was so captivated by the story behind the bugle that I wrote a very short story about it, my first foray into what’s known as “flash fiction.”

Before long I was seized by the idea of writing similarly short stories inspired by other artifacts at other museums. Looking through the gallery on my phone, I saw photos of old mining tools, flamboyant suits worn on stage by country singers, children’s shoes left as offerings at a pilgrimage site. Then, in the fall, when Rosemary and I travelled to Germany and the Czech Republic, I found myself pondering objects that we’d seen in well over a dozen museums and historic sites, from a Renaissance statue disfigured by fire in the last months of the Second World War to a beautiful, elegant dress once worn by Eva Braun.

The word museum comes to English from the Greek, via the Latin, for “seat of the Muses.” Those divine beings who inspire poetry, music, history and more whisper to us when we let a museum take us to some place new.

So in one of my newest projects, I’m listening to the Muses and letting them take my writing on a short journeys. Maybe it will lead to publication in some of the many literary magazines that feature flash fiction. Who knows? Maybe if I write enough of them I could collect them in a book. If nothing else, maybe I can justify writing off some museum admission fees on my taxes.