Month: April 2014

A Manifesto!

Mark Coker of Smashwords has created a manifesto for indie authors. While one should be cautious of things calling themselves manifestos, this one is hard to resist if you’ve ever slogged through the submissions process and found an antidote to it in publishing your own work.

Number 6 is my favourite. No more submission.


Playlists for the Herbert West Series

I thought this was a goofy idea when it first came to me, but recently I heard two of the authors from this year’s “Canada Reads” competition talking about playlists for their books — Joseph Boyden about The Orenda and Kathleen Winter about Annabel. What’s OK for these Can-Lit stalwarts is OK for me.

Certain pieces of music inspired me while I was writing the four novels of my Herbert West Series and some made their way into the plots of these books. Novels should create mind-movies for their readers, and these musical works could be the soundtracks.

While writing The Friendship of Mortals in the fall of 2000, I listened to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations — the two well-known recordings by Glenn Gould (1955 and 1981) and one by Murray Perahia from 2000. I had also discovered a version of this work transcribed for string trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky and performed by a group called Triskelion. This is the version that found its way into the book. Charles, Alma and Herbert hear it at a concert at Miskatonic University in the spring of 1911, at the very beginning of their complex three-cornered relationship. Charles also describes his impressions of a mass by Palestrina. (I have thought at times that music reached its peak in Renaissance polyphony and has been on a downhill course ever since).

As Herbert’s experiments begin to have dire consequences, and Charles begins to suspect what might be demanded of him in his role as Herbert’s friend and confidant, the gorgeous Miserere of Gregorio Allegri seemed like the perfect accompaniment for his dilemma, especially as I’m sure I read somewhere that the 51st Psalm is considered suitable for the funeral service of a suicide.

By the time I reached the climax and resolution of the story, I was listening repeatedly to Loreena McKennit’s CD The Mask and Mirror, especially her treatment of “The Dark Night of the Soul” by the mystic St. John of the Cross. It had a distinct effect on my outlook on Herbert and Charles and the denouement of their friendship.

Islands of the Gulf began life as one book in four parts, but ended up split into two volumes, now subtitled The Journey and The Treasure. Three musical works are associated with this book. In Volume 1, The Journey, while Francis Dexter and Margaret Bellgarde sail from Victoria to Bellefleur Island, Margaret mentions that Francis at one point sings “an old folk ballad about a false love and a deep-laden ship.” This, of course, is the song known as “The Water is Wide” or “O Waly, Waly.” The performance I was taken with at the time is by the wonderful Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor.

Islands of the Gulf is set on the west coast of Canada, specifically the Gulf Islands and Victoria. There are frequent references to boats and sailing. Part of a tone poem entitled Through the Lions’ Gate, written by Michael Conway Baker to celebrate the city of Vancouver, was a perfect accompaniment for the sailing scenes, especially those where Francis and Julian take off on adventures in Julian’s sailboat, the Flying Star. (Never mind that this section is called “The Mountains”).

Islands of the Gulf was actually written for the climactic scene (of Volume 2, The Treasure) inspired by the 40-part motet Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. This complex and glorious work employs eight choirs of five voices, and may have been intended for performance in a circular space. Listening to this music, I perceive a circular movement, like a storm growing in power and effecting a transformation. The transformation, of course, is that of the amoral rationalist Herbert West into Francis Dexter, who carries a healing power over which he has no control. The text of Spem in Alium is from the Book of Judith and, like that of Allegri’s Miserere, expresses a desire for absolution for sin, but with hope of attaining it.

I wrote the final book of the series, Hunting the Phoenix, because I felt I owed something to Alma Halsey, who was Charles’s romantic interest in The Friendship of Mortals. I wanted her out of the way while I dealt with Charles and Herbert, so I packed her off to Europe during World War I and left her there. That seemed rather shabby in retrospect, so I decided to make her the narrator of the final book. Once the three characters are reunited in Providence, R.I., they experience a good deal of music. There is a concert that corresponds to the one in the first book. It takes place on Midsummer’s Eve (actually the summer solstice), featuring (of course) the overture to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony Number 2, which to me sounds like an ocean voyage. Brahms’s violin concerto is also on the program and leads to a significant moment in the narrative. But the central music of this book is the Jazz Suite No. 2 by Shostakovich. I heard it on the radio driving home from work one day and instantly had a vision of the “waltz to the end of the world” scene in Chapter 29. The book had to include this scene. Now when I look at the lovely cover image designed for the book by Alisha at, I hear that music again.

Hunting the PhoenixD3_Ebook


Blue and Gold and Pink and Bronze

I think of April as the blue and gold month in my garden, as bluebells, forget-me-nots and the last of the rosemary blooms combine with gold tints of emerging foliage.

April 18, 2014

Fiddleheads behind Rosemary blooms

Fiddleheads behind Rosemary blooms

And pink and bronze? That delicious combination is found in the ornamental cherries planted as street trees nearby.

April 19, 2014


Lessons Re-Learned

Epimedium "Frohnleiten"

Epimedium “Frohnleiten”

Today was my first full day of gardening since last fall (not counting the pruning session in March). While generally happy with things in my little plot, I was reminded of a few truths for those who garden in small spaces (anything less than half an acre).

1. Never plant any shrub that suckers, no matter what sentimental associations it may have, or that it’s a native plant, or that some garden writer you admire spoke highly of it. This includes Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris). It also includes the woody perennial (not quite a shrub) Phygelius (also known as Cape figwort). I have all of these, and spend several unpleasant hours every year yanking, snipping and sawing their adventurous shoots. It’s an especially unrewarding task because I know most of the shoots will re-sprout and new ones will join them. It’s too late to remedy my unfortunate plant selection decisions, however, since the original shrubs, now huge and deeply rooted, would require immense labour or dynamite (or both) to dislodge them. Beware of rampaging groundcovers as well, such as ivy and Vinca major. Even the deceptively dainty-looking Vinca minor has thuggish tendencies.

2. If your garden looks like a hopeless mess at this time of the year, do three things before you give up on it:  mow the lawn, edge the beds and cut down last year’s old stalks. This will instantly impart the look of a managed garden and motivate you to make further improvements by weeding, loosening the soil, introducing new plants and mulching. Even if the plants occupying the beds are nothing special, this treatment will make them look better. (This applies to perennial and mixed ornamental beds; vegetable gardens are another thing altogether).

3. If your garden is mainly one of tough, drought- and tree-root-tolerant perennials and shrubs along with various bulbs, don’t expect plants with more exacting requirements to do well or even survive without a lot of special attention. They are already having to put up with less than ideal growing conditions and will be no match against tough, colonizing plants such as peach-leaf bellflower, lamb’s ears, toadflax and rose campion. If you can’t provide them with a separate bed, keep an eye out for their early spring growth and make sure they aren’t overwhelmed by their robust, faster-growing companions. I say this after rescuing Thalictrum delavayi “Hewitt’s Double” and even Geum chiloense “Mrs. Bradshaw” (which isn’t generally considered a delicate thing, but is treated like one in my rooty patch). As for my blue poppies (Meconopsis), they have their own slender slice of earth to dwell in, but I wonder if it’s too close to a rather hefty magnolia. They have sprouted out quite well, all seventeen of them, so I have hopes.

Henry Mitchell said, “The life so short, the craft so long to learn. This was said about literature, but it really fits gardening better.” Very true.

Fiddleheads of Dryopteris filix-mas

Fiddleheads of Dryopteris filix-mas

Garden Notes

I’ve kept a garden notebook for years. It contains monthly precipitation figures, comments on how well (or badly) things are going in the garden, a record of watering from June to September (so I can be sure of watering all areas equally) and lists of things to do. Turning to the notes written last summer or fall, I find: “Important Notes for 2014” in all caps and underlined. The first note is a list of plants to be netted against deer by certain points in the growing season, starting with bergenias and tulips, progressing to hostas, roses and sedums (yes, sedums, specifically the big ones such as “Autumn Joy”).

Well, so far this year I haven’t had to take any anti-deer measures. Either deer no longer find my place interesting, or there aren’t as many of them around. Of course, the tulips are pretty much gone as a result of their visits in 2012 and 2013, but bergenia blooms were untouched this spring. Last year they barely had time to sprout bloom stalks before they were nipped. I’m wondering if enough gardeners around here have fenced off their plants that the deer no longer find it worthwhile to visit the area. (In the meantime, the municipality is still entertaining the idea of a “cull”).

Note #2 says:  Introduce chicory to that patch of miserable lawn on the far side of the driveway. This is sort of interesting. I’ve observed this plant, with flowers about the size and shape of dandelion blooms, but a gorgeous sky blue, growing without any care at all on roadsides. It grows to 3 feet if left alone, but if mowed it blooms practically at ground level, much as dandelions do. I think it would be cool to see it in the scraggly lawn, looking like a bright blue dandelion, weedy but wonderful. So far, though, all I have is one seedling in a pot and seeds scattered in the lawn’s bare spots.

Notes #3 and #4 contain lists of plants to be pruned, both perennials and shrubs. Some perennials can be made to grow shorter and bloom later than they are inclined to by cutting them back halfway earlier in the season — asters, for example, and others such as Echinacea, fennel and sedums. Yes, those same tall sedums that got deer-nipped a couple of years ago. (Which makes me think — too bad deer can’t be employed as plant management experts, the way herds of goats are. But no — they’re too unreliable. Didn’t even show up this year).

As for shrubs — photinia, barberry, spirea and cotoneaster are all on the “to be pruned” list, and some of them can actually be crossed off. The photinia is done (totally — just bare stubs 3 weeks later). I whacked the cotoneaster back a couple of months ago, but decided to cancel the barberry job after I found a bushtit’s nest in it last fall, in case the birds decided to refurbish the nest this spring. I thought I was too late with the spirea, but Peter McHoy’s Pruning : a practical guide recommends “early to mid-spring,” which is where we are right now. Trouble is, the spirea is sprouting out with new little amber-coloured leaves, which makes it hard for me to even think about cutting it back. Well, maybe next year.

There’s always something else that needs to be done. Time to make a new list.