My most recent book is My Life and Other Lies: Tales from the Writer’s List. It is a collection of humorous short stories that originally appeared as casual e-mails on the writer list-serves of PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada) and TWUC (The Writers Union of Canada). Writing can be a lonely profession so our list-servs act as cyber-watercoolers where we trade favourite recipes, personal triumphs or tragedies, what our dumb pets are doing and occasionally we even talk about writing. I found a niche for myself by telling stories from what some might call my checkered past. On my office wall I’ve got a diploma in Chef Training, a certificate in Basic Combat Shooting, two black belts in tae kwon do, a Master of Divinity degree and a cheque stub from Playboy Magazine that says Steven Pitt: Walrus Penis. As a result, my stories range in subject matter from sending a Toronto police cadet into apoplectic rage because I wouldn’t open the door of my armoured truck when he wanted to give me a traffic ticket, to cooking a 45 pound turkey for Christmas, to the time my sister-in-law’s six pound Chihuahua got me into a road rage incident with a ‘roid raged body builder.
Tell us something about yourself.
I was born in the middle of a hurricane (Hazel) which have something to do with my unlimited supply of hot air. Hurricanes also travel in circles which seems to be a pretty good description of my career trajectory. Besides being a professional writer for more than three decades, I have also worked as a movie extra, militia soldier, radio station copywriter, dishwasher, truck driver, Yukon gold prospector, goose rancher, private investigator, student minister, armored truck guard, men’s hostel manager, bar bouncer, martial arts instructor, resort chef and stay-at-home-dad.
What inspired you to write this book?
A whole lot of nudging from my fellow writers at PWAC and TWUC. For the most part I write articles about history, food and travel and I’ve published five non-fiction books and a novel for young readers. The market for funny stories is so depressed in Canada I had given up writing humour back in the mid eighties even though I had won a national award for it in 1980. I posted my stories on the writer list servs for just light entertainment but my fellow writers took my humour seriously. They kept telling me to send them out to magazines. I cut and pasted several stories and they ended up being published in magazines like Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Toronto Life and Canadian Family. Eventually I had more than enough material for a book of short stories. I’ve sold more than 100 books just to other professional writers.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I grew up believing that I would be anything but a writer. I have a reading disability that dogged me all through school. In those days teachers didn’t care about style, all they cared about was exact grammar and spelling so I emerged from high school convinced I had absolutely no writing ability. Fortunately, went into a radio and television program with the idea of becoming a camera person and found myself topping the writing classes because suddenly being able to tell a good story counted for more than knowing where the apostrophe belongs. By the way, there is a deliberately misplaced apostrophe on the cover of my book as nod to my high school years – I hope at least one of my old high school English teachers sees it and my name, grabs a fist full of hair in each hand and screams “Aaaaaargh!”
The grammar gods always have the last laugh, though. When I applied to chef school back in 2003 Humber College demanded my high school grades, not my post secondary marks. I got this letter from the Registrar stating that, according to my 1973 English marks, Humber College didn’t think I had the English language skills to be a cook. I called the Registrar (who hadn’t even been born yet when I was in high school) and pointed out that since high school I had earned two university degrees and published hundreds of magazine articles. She said that didn’t matter a baked bean to Humber College, if I wanted to go to cook school, I had to prove I could read by taking Humber’s English Comprehension test. I guess I passed because they let me in but bureaucrats, you gotta love ’em.
What are you reading now?
I tend to read a lot of non-fiction because there is constant little voice running through my head asking “Why? When? Where?” Right now I’m reading Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and The History of Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque by Gomer Williams. I like Cooks Illustrated because it skips all the food porn photos and silly food fads and concentrates on proving or debunking cooking myths such as whether searing the side of a steak at high heat really seals in the juices (it doesn’t). I find books like The Liverpool privateers book fascinating because they reveal little known facts such as Penny Lane, the Liverpool street featured in the sentimental Beatles song, is actually named after one of the most evil slave traders in British History.
Who are your favorite authors? Why?
My favourite humour writers are Saki (H.H. Munro), Kyril Bonfiglioli, Henry Fielding, Peter De Vries and Brendan O’Carroll. Saki was a master of the tiny perfect dark humour story – there isn’t a single false word in a Saki story and every sentence sparkles at you like the malice in a mad budgie’s stare. Brendan O’Carroll’s work is similar to Frank McCourt about growing up poor in Ireland except that O’Carroll’s books are gut-splittingly funny. McCourt’s characters make me want to give them all a slap up against the side of the head while O’Carroll’s make me cry with laughter and empathy. Henry Fielding is a comic genius to me because his books are still fresh and funny after 250 years – how many writers can say that? Bonfiglioli wrote a couple of very funny short novels about a slightly shady art dealer on Jersey Island who solves crime mysteries. Bonfiglionli had a very dry wit, too bad he killed himself with drink. Like me, De Vries has a theology background (I call us both recovering seminarians) and he puts real life rage into his humour. One of De Vries’ children died of leukemia and he incorporated that loss into his book Blood of the Lamb; it is a masterful example of how humour is often just the reverse side of tears. One of the stories in my book touches on my mother’s horrible death from throat cancer and believe it or not, it’s still funny. One of my PWAC friends said that I am the only writer who ever made her laugh out loud, cry real tears and then laugh out loud again in just 900 words.
I’m also addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” series O’Brian combines history, humour and a rippin’ good read in every novel. I’m on book sixteen and I’m dreading the day I finish the last book in the series.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I’ve got enough backed-up emails for at least two more books so I’m working on a sequel to My Life and Other Lies. I’ll likely call it More Lies.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Never lose faith in yourself and think of other writers as comrades, not competitors. I’ve found that whenever I helped a fellow writer with advice or information, something good happens to me in return. Maybe it doesn’t come from the same writer (it often does) but if you have a reputation of being generous people tend to treat you generously in return.
What are you doing to promote your latest book?
I’m trying to learn the secrets of this new-fangled cyber media. I’m a bit of a luddite by nature so I’m sort of edging into the 21st century one timid toe dip at a time. Fortunately, my publisher Marvin Ross is a lot more cyber-savvy than I am so he has a page for me up on Facebook and other links.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
My Amazon.ca listing has some short reviews
I’ve also received some very nice reviews