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Writer's process: A dose of reality in every work of fiction

Kim Blank, a professor at the University of Victoria, has just published a novel, The Watcher’s Club. The Times Colonist asked Blank to tell us about how the work came to be.

Kim Blank, a professor at the University of Victoria, has just published a novel, The Watchers’ Club. The Times Colonist asked Blank to tell us about how the work came to be.

The Watchers’ Club
by G. Kim Blank
Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, June 2023
234 pages

One third is true; one third is not true; and one third falls somewhere in between.

No, this is not a description of the news, though, in these divisive days of media manipulation, it could be. Instead, maybe it approximates the makeup of fiction.

Now, admittedly, I’m one of those persons who makes a living thinking and talking about literature, rather than producing it. But if you’ve read enough fiction, at some point you’re bound to think, “Heck, I should write a novel, too. Can’t be that hard, can it?”

Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. After all, we’ve all got stories, right? How much trouble is it to just remember and then write down a bunch of cool stuff — and make up the rest?

Stir imagination into recollection; dump in a few juicy adjectives. When it doubt, exaggerate. Or, these days, just assign ChatGPT to do the whole darn thing. In the end, Amazon and Instagram and X will take care of the rest, right? (Note to Elon: dumb name change.)

Anything else?

Posing as a suffering artist might help, but with weeding the garden and searching for organic kitty litter, there might not be enough time.

There is, of course, slightly more to the story of how I fell into fiction. And this is the real part.

It begins with my dear ol’ mum handing over a box of stuff from my very early school days. She kept everything. I mean everything. “You have it,” she said. “To pass on to your kids.” Then she added, “Life is not a map.”

Well, it’s not a novel, either. Not yet, anyway.

Mum’s box held all kinds of things. Birthday cards. A few lame drawings. Ribbons from sports day. Old report cards. Certificates. Crests. Class photos. A few random newspaper clippings, not all of which were tied to my tiny life in the hub, pub and tub capital of the world.

It was, in fact, these last two — a certain elementary school class photo and a clipping tucked into a tiny brown envelope — that set me on my way toward fashioning two stories.

First, the elementary school photo: it captures a pack of kids, some of whom I had known quite well. A few faces in the photo I couldn’t remember at all — mystery kids.

Staring out of the class photo, most of us looked frozen by the moment. Now, through adult eyes, a few appear awkward or uncertain, as if they were somehow out of place. Maybe they were. Well, I now know for sure a few were.

Memories flood back — some very specific. What we did. Where we did it. And when, on occasion, a few of us got up to no good out there in the bushes and backyards. Some of these faces, places and occasions would be wholly drawn into the brewing stories.

Second, one newspaper clipping gave me serious pause — an account of a chilling moment completely forgotten: the double murder of two teenagers at their local lovers’ lane.

I won’t say much more, except that, in the name of fiction, I would change a baker into a butcher, change a neighbourhood’s name slightly, creatively falsify the details and outcomes of the crime, call upon other stories, and then move the whole thing sideways into an adventure on one October night, where some innocent kids find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Someone will figure out what I’m talking about.

So one night, well before COVID made a grab for both our bodies and our sanity, with the kids safely tucked away in bed (having been read bedtime stories that, almost certainly, are today on someone’s “cancel” list), connected plots emerged for two stories set six years apart.

After getting started, and now armed with a laptop, coffee shops offered inspirational space, acting as both a haven and a viewing post from which to take field notes on the comings-and-goings of my fellow creatures who gathered to prattle and to hydrate with caffeine.

It wasn’t long, though, that instead of gabbing gleefully with each other, they began to prefer the company of their phones. In the competition for addiction, coffee seemed to be losing out to connectivity — nomophobia, I think they call it. Smart phones; dumb people?

The moment with mum’s box in fact opens the first novel, The Watchers’ Club. Thanks, mum (and that’s why she gets the dedication).

Anyway, these true elements — of time, place, circumstance, persons — were eventually massaged into something between the true and the not true, to that place in-between, to, one hopes, the profitable co-mingling of memory and imagination. Mystery; suspense; coming-of-age.

On the practical end: getting fiction published is a longshot. Publishers can take a year to get back to you, or they just don’t respond. Many publishers won’t look at your manuscript unless represented by an agent, which can take another year of fishing around.

Initially, I was lucky to get a decent agent. But things fell apart over a very long wait involving, it seems, agency economics. A few Canadian publishers were then sent one or the other novel. Not a whisper, never mind feedback. Publishing houses are these days overwhelmed with submissions — as many as 5,000 a year. Publication odds: One or two per cent.

Then, alas, there’s always the creeping possibility that what you wrote is simply not very good. Gulp.

Life moves on. More kiddies and kitty litter. The two manuscripts were shoved into one of those stiff lower drawers where you stockpile things like parking fines, Canadian Tire receipts and broken staplers.

But the uncertain lull of COVID made me fish them out, clean them up, radically change one, and try again. And modestly, one of them now appears. The second — the prequel, called The Fisherman’s Secret — will appear early next year. The same narrator. Same neighbourhood. Six years earlier. And one unforgettable kid who witnesses his family fall apart, ending with a nasty event.

And, once more, one third will be fully true.

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