"My old man used to say we're all the carpenters of our own cross..."
Manuscript notes: This chapter begun 1/19/98 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Continued enroute Boston-Chicago, Lancaster, PA, enroute Boston-LA December 22, 1998, Fresno, CA. Margin notes include, "we're the carpenters of our own cross", "Dec 23 Fresno Cal. Holiday Inn. Merry Christmas Terry, Beck(star) Sabby & Allie!"
You never know where you'll come up with a line of dialogue. The sentence that begins this chapter, "My old man used to say we're all the carpenters of our own cross..." came from Michael Lydon, whose father, he once told me, used the phrase frequently. I am always writing down phrases and expressions that strike me as off-beat or unique. Once in Las Vegas, sitting at a blackjack table, a man turned to me and said, "I know a guy who came to America across the Pacific in a wooden crate." In Portland, Oregon, I overheard a guy tell the bartender, "Hey, Jeff the deaf mute told me to say Hi." In Ripon, Wisconsin, a worker turned to me and blurted, "Did five years for blowing up a gas station, you know."
I was with co-worker Paul Frigo in Missouri when he uttered the familiar 'Didn't have a pot to piss in' phrase, except he added another line I'd never heard: "I didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of." The line made it into this book. Sitting on a curb one evening in rural Indiana with co-worker Harvey Shankman, watching a small town mid-summers festival with a couple of Budweisers in hand, he remarked that someone had once "threw up everything but the bones in his right leg." Wrote it down as soon as I was back in my room, and now a member of the vaunted Ottawa Silver Seven, celebrating Ottawa's first Stanley Cup, now throws up everything but the bones in his right leg in a snow bank on Sandy Hill.
No matter how you come by the words and sentences and paragraphs and pages that ultimately result in your novel, there will be no universal agreement as to their quality. Already I've had several people tell me that '...or a window to throw it out of' is common, and well known, and not so unique as I believed it to be. For an official look at the conflicting results words may have, consider the two paragraphs below, both from reviews of Dawson City Seven:
CANADIAN BOOK REVIEW ANNUAL
"Mason's story is told in one lengthy flashback that tells of a life filled with adventure and danger. The heady blend of historical fact and invention keeps the story moving at a steady clip. The author has a gift for dialogue, especially for the rhythms of Canadian speech."
CANADIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY OF SPORT
"It is a story well told. Its only weakness to me is the author's strained use of dialogue among characters when he tries to re-create scenes from his narrator's recollections in 1962."
Who's right? Who cares? Writing a novel is a long, arduous process, and when you finally let it go, you let it go. You've labored over it for days and months and sometimes years, defended it against the onslaught of editors, combed over it with a magnifying glass again and again to eliminate errors, mistakes, triteness and anachronisms, until finally you just sort of shrug and say the hell with it. It then goes to the printer, gets printed, bound, and delivered. And then, hopefully, it is purchased and read, and reviewed. You take the reviews and thoughts of friends and professional colleagues, and never look back. You only learn forward.
This chapter documents a truly historic hockey game. It is one of the greatest games ever played, and is historic for more than one reason. Not only was it the dethroning of the hated Ottawa Silver Seven, it was Frank McGee's last game in Senior hockey. For years McGee had threatened to retire due to the constant possibility of losing the sight in his good eye. It seems apparent - there is no record or testimony to this - that he simply could not bring himself to retire before the Cup was lost. This must be considered a tribute to the man, that, in true Victorian fashion, he could not let his teammates down until the run of Cups was over. But the game was significant for another reason - it is the absolute worst game ever played by a team who won a Stanley Cup as a result.
This was only made possible, of course, by the by-gone era option of a total-goals series. The Montreal Wanderers were up by eight goals entering the game, meaning Ottawa had to win by nine goals to retain the Stanley Cup. Nine goals! To read the newspaper reports of the game, furnished to me by Paul Kitchen from the Ottawa archives (see Notes from the Underground after Chapter 13), one is transported into a hysterical, heart-wrenching scene. The early score by the Wanderers, and then the incredible assault on the Wanderer goalie is marvelous to imagine. Goal after goal after goal Ottawa scored, until tying the series total-goals. And then - can you just imagine?! - Ottawa scoring the goal to put them ahead, only to have it called back... I cannot imagine the scene this must have produced, a pounding, delirious, eruption of noise at the goal, only to be followed by stunned silence when it was disallowed... I can only hope I did the game justice in my description.
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
At long last, though, the holidays allowed me the time to finish reading McGee and to have a good, peaceful think over whether Goose Lane could offer to publish it. I am very sorry to have to report that we're not going to be able to do it. McGee's story is fascinating, and your idea of braiding his story and Kinnear's, hockey history and World War I is brilliant. Your braiding technique is at its best towards the end of the book, when the reader finds out what went wrong with Kinnear's romance in the midst of his experience in France. The book is very moving at the end, where the stories come together at the Sugar Factory...
The historical research in McGee is wonderful. It looks to me as if you've caught all the details of hockey life and trench life and done a splendid job of recreating the times and places of the stories. If there are imperfections, they're not noticeable to me, and you know what a pill I am about anachronisms and "facts" that don't add up (though you might want to check pp 120-121; I think peccavi is Latin for "I have sinned"). The Sackville chapters work well now, too.
Unfortunately, in spite of its excellent qualities, I have three problems with McGee. The first is that Kinnear's back story is kept on hold until Chapter 10; therefore his character isn't well developed enough, nor his predicament interesting enough, to keep a reader absorbed in the repartee among him and his comrades before they get to the front.
I find, too, that Alf Smith's chapters are overly ruminative, a quality that impedes development of plot and character. He tells a consecutive story overall, but from page to page, he interrupts himself with repetitions, tangents, diatribes, philosophizing, and the like to the point that it's hard to stay on track with him. Unlike the hockey research people, I feel that a reader who doesn't already know what happened won't be able to follow the Ottawa story readily. Readers who aren't particularly interested in hockey history need to be seduced into the fleeting passion that makes us love novels about unfamiliar subjects, and I'm afraid that Alf's mental wheel-spinning will not stimulate or hold this interest strongly enough. It's possible that, if he had a designated listener (a hockey historian, say, planning a book on him), he might tell a more linear story.
Finally, even if Alf Smith's chapters conformed more closely to my preferences (which I'm not sure would be an improvement - see below), we'd have a tough time finding a sufficient market for a book so intensely focused on hockey history. Without Ray, Goose Lane has no hockey expertise or contacts, and it's unlikely that our new person will fill that gap. We discovered how hard it is to make a book succeed in the hockey history market with Ray on board, and without him, we just can't make that commitment.
It looks to me as if Goose Lane simply isn't the right publisher for McGee. For instance, to make it a successful literary novel, Alf Smith would need to become a character so absorbing for his own sake that, say, a middle-aged lady intellectual could become temporarily fascinated by the history of hockey in Ottawa. As the MS stands, however, the main interest of these chapters is the detailed and intricate history. I don't know much about historical fiction; what you've done may be just the thing for a publisher with a more commercial list. In this case, a publisher of commercial historical fiction would do a much better job for you at both the editorial and the marketing ends. Alternatively, you might think of Vanwell (particulars enclosed). They specialize in military history and military fiction. I know an author (Marc Milner) who has published both genres with Vanwell, and it's my impression that he's been well satisfied.
I'm very sorry not to have better news for you, and sorry to begin 2000 with bad news; I'll return the MS to you separately. Let me know how you get along with finding another publisher. There's a lot of good work in McGee, and it deserves to find a worthy home.
All the best to you, Terry and the girls.
"We rise from our mud lair in the Brickfields, the rustle of thousands shouldering rifles..."
Manuscript notes: : This chapter begun 1/9/97 at McGee's Inn, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, continued in Greencastle, PA. Margin notes include, "McGee's Inn, Ottawa, Ont (can you believe this?)"
I've been blessed in my writing career with experiencing a couple of remarkable situations. One was actually reliving the great journey from Dawson City, Yukon across Canada to Ottawa via snow machine, dogsled, ferry, and train about which I had written in Dawson City Seven; the other was writing a portion of this novel in the very house in which Frank McGee lived his entire life.
On a research trip to Ottawa, after I had ascertained the McGee homestead at 180 Daily Avenue up on the Sandy Hill section of Ottawa, I determined to drive across the Rideau and take a first hand look at the old place. I remember meandering along the street checking the numbers, formulating a plan where, once I located the house, I would knock on the door and politely ask the current inhabitants if I could enter for a moment just to have a look around. Noticing a house coming up in just about the right location with a long, green awning over the front door walkway, I craned my neck to see the number. And sure enough, this was it, 180 Daily Avenue, and for a moment I thought my luck unbounded in that it might be a restaurant, until the words 'McGee's Inn' came to view, and I pulled in front, ecstatic at my fortune that not only was it a house I could get into, but could stay in! I jumped from the car, raced to the front door and was met by one of the foreign help.
"Do you realize who lived here?!" I blurted, the poor girl staring at me, confounded by the gibbering, excited American before her.
I went inside and looked about, ranting and raving like a lunatic. And so, every time I again went to Ottawa I would stay at McGee's. In January, shortly before the great Dawson reenactment, I stayed there, where I wrote the first nine pages of this chapter. And what an amazing feeling this was, to sit upstairs in a room which, for all I knew, could have been Frank's bedroom, scribbling away just above the long front room with the fireplace and rosewood pillars, the very room the poor McGee parents received the incredible, heart-wrenching news of their children's demise.
How many books about famous individuals have been written in their own home? Just a stunning, wonderful experience...which only got better. For it was at McGee's that I stayed the following year when I received the fighting McGee's military records, and finally discovered the truth about Frank's end...
I like this chapter. Make no mistake: it was written to build the tension, the excitement of what lay in store for all our characters. I particularly wanted to show the fear these men bore; in reading book after book on warfare, one of the most impressive realities is that war is nothing like the movies, or at least until The Deer Hunter and Saving Private Ryan were filmed. Growing up in the fifties and sixties my generation was showered with John Wayne-esque films where soldiers were emotionless tough guys who killed and died without flinching. We watched Hogan's Heroes. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. And it is this that I wanted to convey, the utter helplessness, the mounting fear when entering the trenches, the complete inconceivability of throwing oneself over the top of a trench, and assaulting entrenched machine-gun positions. And I got the phrase, 'Ducky', from my father.
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Officially released from Goose Lane Editions, Paul Kitchen and Jim McAuley provided me with some leads on potential publishers. One of them was General Store Publishing House, to whom I sent a manuscript which was then forwarded to their editor/reader John A. Stevens...
John A. Stevens:
I have read your manuscript with interest. I have a few comments that may be useful to you in preparing a final draft for publication.
You have employed a useful strategy in having the story told by two narrators, each of whom is plausibly knowledgeable about the events he is describing. However, Alf Smith is such a powerful character, and he knows so much more, that he has really stolen the limelight; Kinnear is a bit of a ghost in comparison, and McGee just a silhouette on the horizon. I don't know if this is intentional, or if it reflects a relative scarcity of facts and stories about Kinnear and McGee.
In your presentation of Alf Smith you certainly have the makings of a great portrait of a ferocious competitor, of a man who cannot comprehend anything but the fiercest will to win, who sees the world in raw, elemental terms, and feels his disadvantaged social position so keenly in dealing with the powers that control his world. His rage and hate and contempt for the weak and effete are marvelously vivid and convincing. I don't know if he was really like that, but your portrait is compelling. The kitten-drowning incident is perhaps a little overworked.
McGee remains at a distance, at arm's length (or more), throughout the story. As you have written it, he is not a protagonist, and I am not suggesting you make him one, but we need a more intimate view, if not directly of him, at least of how his importance is reflected in the other characters' experience. The numbers say he was an extraordinary hockey player, and therefore an extraordinary character, a hero. Some distance is legitimate, because that is how we look upon our heroes, but too much distance is making him vague and insubstantial. Selecting a couple of key moments that changed McGee in Smith's eyes from just another talented hockey player into the catalyst that would transform his dreams into reality, and really making those moments sing, would go a long way to solving this problem. It will also make Smith's grief at McGee's death more plausible.
Kinnear, as the alternate narrator, pales in comparison to Smith. He is ultimately precipitated into a contest far more horrific than the most brutal hockey game, but he fails to convey any powerful impression. (There is some opportunity here to make some subtle ironic comparison, although the fact that I have noted the connection may mean that the point has been successfully made.) He is just an observer, not a participant. He is eloquent but his descriptions are quite abstract; he says it is horrible, but I don't see it, feel it, smell it. A recurring image of the horror that won't go away might do the trick. His overlap with McGee is awfully tenuous, especially in comparison to Smith's.
As I read it, Kinnear is standing in as a witness to McGee's conduct on the battlefield, to his last moments of life. There seems to be so little eye witness material, and so little relevance otherwise in Kinnear's life, that I wonder if this side of the story is simply overdone. There may be a more efficient way to get the job done. Perhaps if you distilled it to the relatively few incidents that make the point and carry McGee to his death, it will be more successful. This is really a matter for you to decided. If you want to give the Kinnear material as much weight as it bulk implies, you will have to make it lead to something more compelling and more relevant. As it stands, it doesn't justify the space it takes up.
I have no other serious complaints. Your writing is fluent and your cutting back and forth from Smith to Kinnear works well. I enjoyed reading this manuscript. Smith's vocabulary sometimes seemed more polysyllabic than it should be, and occasionally anachronistic. I got a little lost in the chronology; what happened in Alf Smith's life between 1907 and 1916? He mentions the Renfrew Millionaires and their 1910 run for the Stanley Cup, but not much else seems to come from that time period, and it's not clear where he was or what he was doing. These things may be obvious to those in the know, but I don't think you can assume your readers are up on it.
I agree with you that this is a great story. I think it will be well worth your while to tackle the few problems I have pointed out. If you want to correspond with me about his, the best way to reach me is by email.
All the best,