March 2012

The Stock Market with French Flaps

The Blue Light Project has been nominated for a CBC Bookie Award. Thanks to the CBC producers who included me on a list with Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyen, Brian Francis and Elizabeth Hay. Those are amazing writers! I’m truly honored.

That said, it’s fascinating that this particular novel would be nominated for this particular prize.

The Blue Light Project is the story of a lone street artist, Rabbit, who pulls off a city-scale installation so beautiful that it stops chaos in its tracks. The chaos in question is a hostage crisis. A man storms a TV studio where they’re taping a cynical reality show called Kiddiefame. The man has a bomb. He seals the studio with a bunch of kids inside. The surrounding city descends into bedlam as confusion mounts. The power of Rabbit’s installation is that it umbrellas the city in a moment of intense splendor. But the work also mesmerizes people by magnificently opting out of the intense rivalries that animate shows like Kiddiefame and the broader culture the show reflects.

Rabbit’s art rises above. And dazzled by the vision of it, people are moved and changed.

Obviously, Kiddiefame wasn’t an arbitrary choice. It represent entertainment in our era. What television show isn’t “reality” now? Check out food TV. Five years ago Mario Batalli was sharing recipes. Now he’s battling to the death in Kitchen Stadium. But the whole television product has shifted that way, as television critic John Doyle recently lamented. Everything on the tube now seems to be about people getting chopped and eliminated and dragon-denned into submission.

Literature used to stand aloof from all this mano-a-mano action. At the Giller Prize ceremony with Stanley Park, I recall feeling real sympathy for my fellow nominees. We were all in the same boat, tossed together on the seas of fate. Competition between us was purely abstract since there was nothing we could individually do about anything.

Online voting competitions change that dynamic completely. You can choose not to self-promote (more on that in a minute). But candidates can absolutely influence results. If a vote is your objective, the Tweetiest and most Facebookie candidate can indeed win. Klout = clout.

The Bookies are precisely tuned to the cultural moment, in other words. And their impact will compliment other developments which now extend the writer’s job far past merely writing the book. Post-publication is now the busiest season, where the author needs to be out there working the networks, pumping hands and kissing babies, on the stump, looking for love.

In all of that activity, however, it’s worth pausing to reflect that literature in a contest for votes is just the stock market with French flaps. Art might save us, as it promises in the conflicted world of my novel. But there aren’t very many people left in our real and conflicted world who think the stock market can save us now.

None of which should be taken to mean that I feel above it all. I set up a Facebook page for Blue Light. I’ve been nominated for Canada Reads, previously. I Tweet (@Timothy_Taylor_). I’m part of the phenomenon.

Do I sit this one out, then? Well, I won’t email the universe. I won’t Facebook or Tweet anything other than this post. Not because I don’t want to win. Of course I want to win (although I’m pretty sure Patrick will nick the prize for his wonderful book). But it’s academic, because you can’t very well ask people to make you the most popular for a book that ruthlessly criticizes that very social impulse.

I could vote for myself, of course. I have already. I discovered that by opening and closing Firefox I can vote for myself endlessly. I could probably squeeze in several thousand votes for myself before the month end. I could RoboCall my way to a win!

And I was tempted, I confess. After all, I’ve been nominated for book prizes and never won. A favorite magazine editor once said to me: dude, you better win one of these soon or you’re going to go down as the Susan Lucci of Canadian letters.

But I won’t. I promise. I will vote only as many times as there are days remaining in the contest, as per the rules. I’ll enjoy the irony and go on to what I now think of as the blissful part of the publishing cycle. I’ll just get busy on this next book.

It’s going to be a winner.

Posted: Monday, Mar. 12, 2012 4:31pm

Creative Chaos Now Available in Paperback

Two things are happening right now that have an intense and resonant connection.

1. The Blue Light Project is published in paperback at the same time as being selected as a contestant for a reality-television-styled vote-based Bookie Award.

2. The Red Gate artists' collective has found a potential new home, but needs City of Vancouver approval to move in as the City owns the property.

The connection is forged by my knowledge that The Blue Light Project might never have been written were it not for the Red Gate.

This is the piece of art that started my whole creative process.

It's called Rise Fly Land and the day I first saw it, I stood in that alley for a good twenty minutes staring at it. At that point in my exposure to graff and street art, I didn't know enough to recognize that signature at the bottom, which is that of the legendary Canadian graff writer (and almost equally legendary train-rider) Take5. All I knew was that there was something mysterious and entire in the image. Rise. Fly. Land. There is a echo of eternity in the phrase. A bass note of wisdom, of peace.

I had only very recently seen Les Blank's oddly captivating film Werner Herzog Eats his shoe in which Herzog makes the following slightly enigmatic statement: "We need adequate images. If mankind doesn't develop adequate images, we're going to die out like the dinosaurs."

Somehow standing in that alley off Hastings Street, I felt like I was confronted with an authentic attempt at an adequate image. It was a moment both warming and chilling, if that makes any sense.

Of course, like I said, I had no idea who had made the piece. Until I talked to Jim Carrico at the Red Gate, that is. And he introduced me to Take5 who then told me that he and the artist OTHER had made Rise Fly Land. Take5 also gave me my first glimpse into the world of the street artist in a long and fascinating conversation in the original Red Gate location. From there, literally branching out from the Red Gate and into this hidden community of artists, my interest in the area and my ideas for the book began to surge and take shape.

The Red Gate always was a chaotic place, with no particular central plan or manifesto. But it was from that environment that came the sparks of original idea.

When the Red Gate was threatened with shut-down last year, I lamented the prospect in a Vancouver Review essay called Chaos and Planning. In that piece I argued that the Red Gate was the source of creative chaos that all cities need. Kill these sorts of institutions - out of some hyper-vigilant sense that everything has to be planned centrally in coordination with official messages - and you kill the organic creativity on which all cities depend.

My article didn't help. The Red Gate lost it's fight and were evicted. It was a real loss to the city.

Now we come to another turn in the story. The Red Gate has a chance to reopen. The building they want to use is empty. They're willing to pay rent. And the whole situation is in the hands of the City of Vancouver, as they own the building.

Is it possible that our civic leaders will miss for a second time the contribution that the Red Gates of this world make to the cities where they're found?

On the cover of the paperback Blue Light are three eyes, by the artist Rich S. For awhile prior to the Olympics in Vancouver, these could be found widely through the downtown east side. I loved those eyes. What a lot they managed to say in one image about the hovering reality, good and ill, of our governments and leaders.

What will our leaders in Vancouver do now?

Posted: Monday, Mar. 19, 2012 11:41am