My husband can go in and out of an office supply store in 5 minutes. Not me. Yesterday I had the luxury of time, and I walked all the aisles, lingering. I did have a list: printer inkers, storage boxes (for packing away Mistress of the Sun notes), stick-on dots (for coding the research books on my shelves), but most importantly, a signing pen to use when signing my books.
When my first book was published, my husband gave me a beautiful Waterman fountain pen, which I treasure. But it proved challenging to use as a signing pen: it sometimes blotched, stained my fingers, and it could leak in-flight. Also, and most importantly, I had to carefully blot the signed title page before closing the book. In the beginning, when I had only few books to sign, I welcomed a time-consuming process. Now, when I’m signing as many as 40 books, I need to be more efficient.
What to look for in a signing pen
Recently, I stopped into a Chapters/Indigo store in Toronto, and offered to sign my books. I did not have a pen with me, and I was quickly offered a Sharpie. Well. Not that elegant, but— “They don’t blot,” the clerk told me. “Which is why we use them.” The other nice thing about a felt-tip marker, I later thought, is that you are given notice when it’s drying up—not like a fountain or ball-point pen that can quit mid-signature. Making a mess in a $30 book is not a good thing.
So I lingered long at the felt-tip marker section. It wasn’t an independent office supply store—the wonderful type of store where you can test the pens on a scrap of paper provided—so I purchased a selection, and headed north, to Petawawa Stables, where I had my horse to visit … and a book to sign.
I’ve known Dawn and her mother Yvonne since before I began writing Mistress of the Sun. I used to take riding lessons there, and my horse, Finnegan, is wonderfully looked after there during the winter.
I was delighted to sign Yvonne’s book, a gift to her from Dawn. I had tested the markers in the car: the Sharpies, a medium tip, were too fat—a fine-point would be a better choice—but the blue Staedtler (1.0 Medium) worked quite nicely … if only I didn’t have to buy a set of eight in assorted colors to get that one blue.
I’ll be in New York soon, with time, I hope, for one of my favorite past-times: lingering in the aisles of an office supply store.
Afternote: I will have more to report on picking out a signing pen soon. Stay posted.
Photo: Finnegan and me, taken by Dawn Townshend at Petawawa Stables.
James Macgowan has published an article in the Ottawa Citizen, “After the End,” asking writers what they do after a novel is finished. I’m in that space now (and starting to feel a bit too much at home in it). I was somewhat pained by Alan Cumyn’s claim that the novel is never really over, reassured by Andrew Pyper‘s “cut adrift” feeling, and totally related to Scott Gardiner‘s getting onto all the chores that were ignored in that all-consuming last push to finish. Gail Anderson-Dargatz‘s answer was romantic and charming:
I have a confession to make: I have an “affair” with my next project before I finish the first, just so I avoid many of the feelings of separation that come when I “divorce” my main novel project and move on. And I do go through real separation at the end of a project, with many of the accompanying feelings of grief, anger, exhaustion and general stress, before finally coming to an acceptance that yes, the relationship is over and it’s time to move on. After all, I’ve spent the better part of five years with this novel. Moving on to that new project before the old “marriage” is over means I have something exciting to look forward to, a place to redirect my focus, so I don’t stay in the doldrums as long. So a little fling is a good thing. I think those feelings of separation as we move out of a project are necessary in giving us distance from it, so we can move into the editing process with a new perspective. It’s very much like that moment when you see your old love on the street (after the divorce is over) and you can see the guy for who he really is, and can judge him accordingly, without the fuzz of love to distort your perceptions.
It took me a moment to realize that this is exactly what had happened with Mistress of the Sun. I’d finished The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., and decided to have “an affair” with Louise de la Vallière‘s story before returning to the very long marriage of the Trilogy. After finishing the Trilogy and writing an early draft of Mistress, I took a detour into the life of La Grande Mademoiselle—whose story I may well write about now. It reminds me that writing is more of a meandering journey where nothing really is wasted.
According to an article in the Guardian today (see link below), biographer Veronica Buckley, in her book Madame de Maintenon: The Secret Wife of Louis XIV, quotes from French historian François Bluche‘s Le Journal Secret de Louis XIV throughout, assuming that the journals are real. They are not, and although at first I read them with the excitement of discovery, it didn’t take me long to deduce that they had to be fiction, so I’m surprised by her costly and embarrassing error. Buckley is the author of Christina, Queen of Sweden, a respected biography, and I can only imagine how painful this must be.
However, to be fair, she’s not the only one. I’ve read an academic thesis that cited Le Journal Secret as a primary source. Even so, how could this have happened, especially given that Le Journal Secret has tell-tale factual errors? Was Buckley’s work not being checked by historians?
I’d like raise yet another question: how could Bluche himself have made so many errors? He is prominent in the field, a respected historian. My suspicion is that he didn’t have his usual army of fact-checkers for a work of fiction. To give only one example, he claims that the King is present at a wedding on April 15, 1661. The bride in question had left Paris two days before, having been married on the 10th. Because I record facts to a detailed timeline, I caught a number of errors with respect to dates in the work: a wrong day here, a wrong month there, even, in one instance, a wrong year.
For more on this, see Helen Pidd‘s article in The Guardian, “Find of Sun King’s secret diaries sounded almost too good to be true. And it was.. ”
I talked with a friend last night at a party. She confessed that she had always wanted to write, but that she’s given up. “Now it’s too late.” She is in her early fifties.
Of course I said, It’s never too late … and I believe that to be true. I told her that even one-half hour a day is all it takes … and I believe that to be true, as well.
I woke up this morning thinking of this conversation: thinking, as well, that it came down to process versus product. It’s never too late to engage in the process of writing. But the product: this is what stops people, and I don’t believe that it should.
By product, people think agent, publishing house, editors, production, promotion … all of that. They also assume—although it’s not always the case—that there is profit involved, money to be earned by the writer. Somehow this confers legitimacy. And it does—I’m not going to argue that—but it’s not the only legitimacy.
I think of a book that once meant a great deal to me, in my teens: To Paint is to Love Again, by Henry Miller. (Miller’s full quote is, “To paint is to love again, and to love is to live life to its fullest.”) Although I don’t know for sure, I believe this was initially a self-publication. No doubt I could have an entire blog dedicated to wonderful books that were self-published. Margaret Atwood and friends started a magazine in order to be able to publish their work. Today, self-publishing is an art form: you can have so much control, and it doesn’t cost very much. It’s no longer “vanity publishing” but rather more like an indie movie. And however it’s viewed, it’s a legitimate creation.
Which led me to think of my own long-time dream of “Log Cabin Press.” I can immediately think of a number of titles—all my own, for I have no desire to be applied to by others, to have to accept or reject, to edit the work of others. That becomes work, and this is all about process, and the creative culmination of that process.
The first title that comes to mind is Bone Magic, the short story that became Mistress of the Sun.
Another is The Book of Books, a compendium of essays about my mother, illustrated with her paintings and other creative work.
Another is The Clown’s Mother, a book of memories about my mother’s mother, my grandmother May.
And the last would be Confessions of an Airhead, my own autobiography.
Vanity press? Yes, in a way, because these would all be intensely personal works, but all the more legitimate, for that.
I think, ultimately (and not a little sadly), of the opening lines of a poem, “Undid in the Land of Undone” by Lee Upton:
All the things I wanted to do and didn’t
took so long.
It was years of not doing.
I began writing because I imagined my tombstone with the words, She never got around to it. So: I must ask myself, What’s next? I do want to write at least one more Sun Court novel, but I also want to complete these Log Cabin Press creations … not for profit, not for fame, but for myself, and for those near and dear.
The painting Pegasus by William Blake is an evocative image, I think, for Mistress of the Sun: I see Petite in the clouds, handsome Louis, and, of course, an enchanting white horse. (I would be thrilled if this image was used by a publisher for the cover.)
I didn’t come across this beautiful painting until Mistress was in production; otherwise, I would have pinned a print above my computer. I have always regarded this novel as something of a fable, and that’s the feeling that this painting gives.
Another painting, also of a white horse “Tête de cheval blanc by Géricault“ was pinned above my desk, and for all those years that I was working on Mistress, I imagined that this image would be the cover.
“Cover” image, working title, the story itself invariably change, but they are important to me while writing. I write a dedication first thing, as well. This, too, will change over time, but I need to feel that what I’m writing is, in fact, a book, and the more I can approximate one visually, even in the very messy early stages, the more ardently I apply myself to the task at hand.
This image of a white horse was important in other ways; I felt it was my “key” into the novel. I discovered it on a postcard in the Louvre gift shop. I was on my last research trip for The Last Great Dance on Earth. I dreaded finishing that novel, knowing that my long-term and intimate relationship with Josephine and her world would come to an end. I was in tears leaving the room where David‘s magnificent painting of the Coronation of Empress Josephine was displayed at the Louvre.
This painting has to be seen to be experienced. It appears life-size. “One walks into it,” Napoleon said. I knew all the characters so well, I felt I was there with them. I also knew that when I returned – if I returned. I would view it as an outsider: hence the tears. As I left the museum, I stopped in the gift shop, needing time to collect before facing the bustling world. I spotted the postcard of Tête de cheval blanc and latched onto it, seeing in it the lifeline to my next novel, my next world.