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Susan Swan

Why don’t more Canadians know about Constance Beresford-Howe?

Critics have called Constance Beresford-Howe’s The Book of Eve (1973) a Canadian classic. Photo from CHRISTINA HARDING/HANDOUT

When you think of the giants in Canadian literature, chances are you think of writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood. Few readers these days remember Constance Beresford-Howe, who wrote ground-breaking novels about the struggle of women to be autonomous.

You may not know about her because she was shy. Or because, unlike some of these household names, she never won a Giller or the Man Booker Prize. But only a few decades ago, she wrote 10 feminist novels including The Book of Eve (1973), which critics have called a Canadian classic. And, recently, a dedicated band of her readers unveiled a beautiful bronze plaque in her honour in the Writers’ Chapel at St. Jax church in Montreal.

She is the 11th author to receive such a plaque, and I attended its unveiling because Constance Beresford-Howe was an encouraging mentor who taught me creative writing at McGill University. Back then, almost no Canadian colleges offered such a course.

Her colleague was Hugh MacLennan, whose workshops were known as Uncle Hughie’s bedtime stories since he was fond of long rambling conversations about American politicians and fellow authors such as Morley Callaghan. It was Beresford-Howe who could be counted on for tips on the craft of writing. She excelled at discussions of plot and character development. And she admired my writing, although she told me with a wry smile that my sex scenes were too graphic. Hugh MacLennan agreed.

As students of the sixties, we naturally felt we knew far more about sex and real life than our dignified mentors and we used to joke about being the first to write the toilet-bowl novel — a coup in literary naturalism that thankfully has never materialized. Later, I was startled out of my youthful arrogance when I read The Book of Eve and realized Beresford-Howe deeply understood the intimate relationships between men and women. Its saucy account of a 65-year-old woman walking out on an aging and crabby husband still stands up.

At the end of our undergraduate course, she wanted me to write a novel as my MA thesis. It was the chance of a lifetime to do graduate work with her. Yet, I turned down her generous offer because an ex-boyfriend had been stalking me on campus.

In 1967, I took a job as a reporter at a daily newspaper in Toronto. Two years later, Beresford-Howe moved to Toronto herself. Disturbed by the rising separatism in Quebec, she came with her husband, French teacher Christopher Pressnell, and their young son, Jeremy. When she applied for a teaching job at the University of Toronto, they turned her down. Jeremy thinks it was because she had taught at McGill, a rival university. For two long years, she had no teaching work and that’s when she wrote The Book of Eve.

Eventually, she took a teaching position at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University). And she went on to write novels such as The Marriage Bed and A Population of One. Her last novel, A Serious Widow, was published in 1991. Beresford-Howe couldn’t find a publisher for her next book. So she and her husband retired to the Suffolk village of Lavenham, where they lived for 25 years. She died in 2016 and her husband died two weeks later from cancer and a broken heart, her son says.

A writer’s legacy is an elusive thing. A few writers are so famous their work turns into memes, such as George Orwell‘s 1984 or Atwood’s handmaids, while some are known for influencing other writers. And then there is Beresford-Howe, whose readers are honouring her work and that of other deceased Canadian writers. The volunteers who install the plaques are led by retired English professor, Michael Gnarowski. His former student Karl Feige makes the plaques at a foundry outside Ottawa.

Coming back from the unveiling, I wondered what Beresford-Howe would say about a writer’s legacy. I bet she would give me one of her wry smiles.

Meet The Lizard Man

No matter what he says, he believes what he says when he says it

An Unpublished Short Story from The Dead Celebrities Club.

Originally Published in Now Magazine, November 26, 2019.

 

He was called lizard man at school but he didn’t let it bother him. He isn’t really scaly. The look of his skin is closer to a mild case of psoriasis. Red, blotchy – sometimes inflamed. Definitely not scales, although he knows some lizards don’t have scales as such. They have leathery skin, and a leathery sensation is what you would feel if you touched him intimately.

Above the neck he is normal, more or less – aside from the bulb at the base of his throat that he prefers not to mention. He wears shirts buttoned up to his neck so it’s covered over. The other part of him, the nether part, is bound up tightly against his back. It hurts when he sits in a chair but not always. Some days the tissue is softer than others. He has learned to live with that fact.

He gets angry if anyone mentions the bulge under the back of his suit jacket. “So I have put on a few pounds,” he snaps. “What’s your problem?” It’s not the only bit of him that is tucked up. He’s a tucked-up kind of guy. Nothing wrong with that, although he is older now, and horrible things could be happening to his insides.

His ticker, for instance. He scoffed when his doctor told him to take it easy with the campaigning. He never phones it in. That’s his genius. No matter what he says, he believes what he says when he says it. A real liar doesn’t believe his lies, right?

He will give it his best shot today although his handlers want him to wear a body shield that fits over him like a plastic bubble. Who the fuck do they think he is? Darth Vader? The body shield with its metal mouthpiece is going to make him look weak. But they insist. They say there have been bomb threats, and worse.

There will also be security drones flying around the ones with gizmos like radar that help them dodge obstacles.

It will be hot inside the plastic dome. He sweated like crazy when he tried it on. And his sweat stung because his skin is so dry. His condition is worse. His condition. Is it something in the water? Now there are more and more people like him. Mostly men, of course, although he isn’t sure why he added “of course.” A subliminal prejudice against his gender, maybe.

People mimic his mannerisms, even his posture. There’s no mistaking his ability to attract women and intimidate his rivals. It took him years to develop the display structures that befit a man like himself.

He heads for the stage, moving from side to side in characteristic fashion. His slender, dignified wife smiles encouragingly. She advised him to obey his handlers and wear the plastic body shield. So he’s doing it for her. Staying safe so she feels safe.

The crowd’s eager voices, their flailing arms fill him with satisfaction. This is a righteous thing. Enjoying the admiration of thousands, the way he basks in the afternoon sun at his oceanfront retreat. Free from prying eyes, he sprawls in a lounger, sliding his tongue in and out, savouring the salty breeze.

Will there be air in that goddamn thing? He doesn’t want to suffocate. When he reaches the stage, he jokes that his handlers are turning him into a Russian babushka doll. The crowd roars with pleasure. They’re an easy laugh.

But not all of them are laughing. Some goofs in the row behind his wife are scowling. He flicks his tongue at them once, twice. Then he hitches up his pants and stands like an American war hero as his handlers lower the thing over his head. He thinks he hears frightened shrieks although he can’t hear as well as other people. He looks out through the klieg lights, trying to see what is making them crazy.

There is nothing to fear. He has command of the room. He takes several good sniffs inside his dome. The air tastes slightly bitter, like the kale smoothies his wife makes. It’s all good. He is safe and sound inside his full-body shield.

He feels as dangerous as a Komodo dragon. He loves their ugly snouts, beaded with shiny scales. Above his head, hundreds of security drones are gliding back and forth. They are protecting him. Nobody can hurt him now. He says hello to the crowd through his mouthpiece.

His fans shout back but something is wrong. The drones have convulsed in a ball around him, and he is falling backward against the plastic shield, his jaws oozing a weird greenish froth. The security guards lift off the plastic dome and he crumples to the floor. He hears a ripping sound as his dewlap bursts through his collar. There’s a light pulsing in his fracture planes, followed by a louder ripping noise, and a sudden weightless sensation at the back of him. He smiles sheepishly. A writhing snake-like object lies twitching on the stage. The crowd utters a horrified cry while the thing jerks and quivers in a puddle of body fluids.

It is what it is, he thinks, as the voices in the crowd grow fainter and fainter until the noise sounds far off, like the distant thunder of surf on the Florida shore.

Susan Swan is a Toronto-based writer. Her latest novel is The Dead ­Celebrities Club.

@swanscribe

Literary Review Of Canada: Double Or Nothing

The Literary Review of Canada wrote an article about my new novel, The Dead Celebrities Club, and it’s deconstruction of the marketed, monetary value first language and society we have developed in the 21st century. Examining the way Stéphane Larue and I look at financial characters and stories, the article talks about how our novels look at the human capital versus human character question in the modern world.

To read the article, follow this link:

http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2019/09/double-or-nothing/

Writers & Fraudsters: We Dream Big and We Believe Our Lies

Post Media Columnist Praises The Dead Celebrities Club:

To read an excerpt from the novel,

Click Here.

Read An Excerpt

Off to Jail Excerpt: The Dead Celebrities Club

Anxiously, I follow the C.O. into a room the size of my walk-in closet in the Receiving and Discharging Building. I have purposefully worn an old, double-breasted suit, and when the C.O. asks if he should mail my clothes home, I suggest he burn them. The man doesn’t crack a smile. Instead he asks me to undress and then he searches my orifices; his latex-sheathed fingers inside my rectum feel thick and unpleasantly warm.

I receive the standard prison issue: two large-sized khaki uniforms called “browns,” two blankets, two sheets, and a pillow. I am also given undershirts, socks, and undergarments. I can buy sweat pants at the commissary shop. Then the guard marches me out into the yard and leaves me standing dizzy and frightened like a prison mole blinking up at the light.

Unfortunately, the dope has left me feeling light-headed. If you aren’t subject to spells of dizziness, it’s hard to fathom a sensation akin to a window opening behind your eyes, a porthole that lets in air where coil upon coil of your brain matter should be. As soon as my dizziness kicks in, my heart begins beating too quickly. The sinus node, the body’s natural pacemaker, is sending the wrong electrical impulses through the right
atrium, increasing my heart rate. Because I make a crash when I fall, because a large falling man changes the environment no matter how much I might wish otherwise, because I will end up a creature of ridicule, I have no interest in fainting on my first day in my new home.

The tang of male sweat drifts my way. I force myself to turn around. Nothing anyone has said prepared me for the sight in the prison yard. I may as well have stepped into a scene from the television show Oz. Most of the ne’er-do-wells are black or Latino, while the beefy guards are white-skinned, and they all stand waiting for me to play my role in the tawdry prison melodrama to which I’ve been consigned against my will.

Over by the gate, an imposing black man wearing a Vandyke is heading
my way followed by three guards who are each restraining a German shepherd. The man’s closely shaved head rests like a black bowling ball on his shoulders. As he comes closer, I see he is wearing rimless glasses and a dark business suit. His stiff military bearing and the way the other men look at him suggest I am about to meet the warden.

Nathan Rickard, the warden says, extending his hand. The tremor in his voice suggests my presence is having an impact. Celebrity has a habit of doing that, although you could chop up my Midas-like traits, along with the traits of other celebrities, and feed the parts into a blender and out would come some variation of a well-known financier and nobody would notice the difference. I was once mistaken for Wolf Kruger, the head of the securities commission. Wolf and I don’t even look alike. Yet there is something there—a grave facial expression—a knowing gleam in the eye. The gold dust of celebrity does the rest.

Behind the warden, some of the prisoners are clapping and calling my name while others are yelling the same insults the journalists had used earlier: Fraudster! Crook! You get the gist. The warden ignores the men and steers me forward, his large dark eyes behind the lens of his glasses darting warily around the yard. We have almost reached the prison buildings when three men step into our path. Is one of the miscreants about to stick me with a knife? They could be bubble-wrapped for all the good my ability to read my fellow humans does me this morning. While I try to quiet the arterial flutters of my heart, one of the scofflaws shouts, Make us rich, Dale Paul!

With your money and my ideas, we’ll go far! I execute a mock bow.

The scofflaws call out enthusiastic hurrahs. The German shepherds begin to bark, standing on their hind legs, straining against their leashes; the guards appear to be marshalling all their strength to keep the dogs under control. A whistle shrills; the dogs drop to all fours, stop barking, and the cries die away. By the time the warden and I reach my dormitory, the place has assumed a churchy quiet.

If you figure out how to make money in here, let me know. The warden smiles an odd, secretive smile.

You have my word, good sir, I reply.

Heck, you sound just like you do on television. He chuckles.

He doesn’t realize I am serious. In the parking lot this morning, while my friend Nugent stood chatting with the guard, the idea of betting on the death of aging celebrities popped into my befuddled brain like the ping of an email dropping into my inbox. To qualify, you must be in the news and about to die.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Well, all in good time.

To read about the writing process for this novel,
Click Here.

Can someone like Dale Paul be forgiven?

In Susan Swan’s new novel, The Dead Celebrities Club, Dale Paul isn’t just looking for legal redemption but also forgiveness from those he claims to love. So we asked – Can someone convicted of financial crimes be redeemed?

Thank you to our video participants!
Cher Jones Cher Jones Social Media Trainer
Stephen Thomas Halo Advisory
Francina Grazette Necesse Naturals
Zoe Share Schmooz
Kevin Huhn
Alan Gruda

Could you be like Dale Paul?

Susan Swan’s new novel, The Dead Celebrities Club, chronicles a Toronto-born financial tycoon’s imprisonment for fraud and shows the lengths people go to for paydays. So we asked – Do you think most people would throw someone under the bus for $1 million dollars?

Thank you to our video participants!
Cher Jones Cher Jones Social Media Trainer
Stephen Thomas Halo Advisory
Kevin Huhn Kevin Huhn – Business Growth Strategist, Results Coach
Zoe Share Schmooz
and Alan Gruda, Be Your Best Today

BOAT TROUBLE Podcast

Row Boat on Water

It’s been two years since I wrote a blog here. My excuse? I’ve been down a rabbit hole with my new novel, The Dead Celebrities Club, and I am only now coming up for air. This website is getting a face lift in October and I will start posting about Anxiety Pancakes: Life at the End of the Novel.

But right now I wanted to let you know that Accessible Media is airing a podcast this Sunday of my short story in the Walrus titled, Boat Trouble. AM is also broadcasting a short interview with me talking about the real life incident that inspired the story. That is, the summer night, my partner and I were out in an old wooden boat without a moon or proper running lights, lost like cijits (short for city idiots) in the Open, as the locals call the wide open water of the Georgian Bay.

Here is the pertinent info about the podcast:

The broadcast is this Sunday July 30 at 7pm Eastern time. It will be available on AMI-audio’s audio-only cable television channel (Rogers 196, Bell 49, Telus 889, etc) as well as on our online livestream at www.ami.ca/listenlive

This group also puts the shows up online as a podcast: you can search for “the Walrus with Lloyd Robertson” on iTunes or any other podcast program.

Read BOAT TROUBLE (published by The Walrus, summer 2017) BoatTrouble-WalrusPub

Anxiety Pancakes: Writing a Novel is like Building a House (Or Something)

Open Book

1024px-Wood-framed_house

“Wood-framed house” by Jaksmata – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons 

It’s back to the drawing board for me. My knowledgeable readers have spoken and said that the story in my novel doesn’t start moving early enough. I accept their views because I did what I said was necessary in my last post: I listened to them and I reread a good chunk of my manuscript myself.

Some writers have to complete each page perfectly before they move on to the next. But for me, writing a novel is like building a house. I do it in stages. First, the note making and research, and filling a large page with the names of some of the characters and a list of some of the scenes. Then I do the first draft on a tape recorder so I have something to work with–a blurt, as I call it. You get the gist. Down goes the floor but oops maybe I’ve forgotten to dig the foundations. And how about that missing roof?

A crucial stage is finding the voice. It took me almost a year to find the right voice for The Dead Celebrities Club. Now it seems I have been confusing the theme of my novel with the story and I need to go back, and streamline my prose so the story isn’t lost in my descriptions. That means throwing out some chapters and extraneous pages, something I find hard to do because I am the loyal type. If I’ve worked on passages until they glisten it breaks my heart to say good-bye although saying good-bye is what I must do.

I’ll put my discarded sections in a file so I can bring them out if I need them. That way these passages aren’t banished forever.

So I’m picking up my hammer and saw and possibly a wrecking ball. It’s time to get down to work.