Gimli Film Festival: Bloodflowers3

Life is filled with disappointments, near misses and, sometimes, lucky breaks.

The short story, “Bloodflowers”, was like that. I worked on it while in graduate school. Borrowed a cottage in Gimli from my grandparents during the summer between the two years of my MFA in Creative Writing, and spent the entire three months working on nothing but the short story.

Sent it to The New Yorker. Every student’s dream at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in those days was to publish in The New Yorker. They kept it for months, fueling my hopes and dreams, then returned it with a hand written note. I sent the story to Tamarack Review. TR was considered the top literary magazine in the country with the top editor, Robert Weaver. There was a long wait but, finally, I got a note saying that he was going to publish it. Nice. But it didn’t change my life. Not then, at least.

It won the President’s Medal and my wife and I were flown to the University of Western Ontario for an elegant supper and the presentation of the medal. Sitting beside me, as luck would have it, was the brilliant editor of Oberon Press, Michael Macklem. He’d won the gold medal in non-fiction. He said he liked the story and asked if I had any more stories. I’d been writing like crazy all through graduate school and I did have more stories. I sent them in and he published the collection of stories called Bloodflowers.

That’s how writing works. Crazy connections. Serendipitous meetings. Strange happenings. BUT, but, but, you’ve got to be ready. That’s where the hard work comes in. When someone you meet at dinner, an awards ceremony, over a drink at David Arnason’s cottage,  and that person says “I liked your last story in X. Have you any more? , you have to be ready to say yes, how many should I send?

You’ve also got to be prepared to say yes. Saying yes is critically important. My lucky break in the adaptation of fiction to drama didn’t come in film. It came in radio drama. I’d grown up listening to radio drama. I used to listen to some CBC radio dramas in abject terror as doors creaked open, the footsteps of a psychopath crunched across the snow. I loved radio drama.

I got a call one day from John Juliani, a radio drama producer in Vancouver. He asked me if I’d be interested in writing a radio drama. I hemmed and hawed a bit, then he said that the job would pay fifteen hundred dollars. Yes, I said. That’s a lot of money when you are used to publishing in literary magazines and getting two copies of the magazine as payment.

It’s one thing to be a consume of drama. It’s another to be a producer of drama. There was a tremendous amount of learning to do. I already had written a couple of one act plays and had them produced locally. I’d taught plays as literature. But creating drama is quite different from any of these other things.

First, I had to learn to set up the ms. in CBC style. John helped by sending me some sample pages to follow. He also said that the BBC produced the best radio drama in the world. I went to the University of Victoria library and discovered that they had anthologies of radio drama from the BBC. What a boon! I read them and reread them.

The hard work of learning a new craft had begun.

Instead of thinking of words on a page, I had to think in terms of voices, sound effects, music, silence. One advantage of adapting for radio drama, I discovered, is that you don’t have to externalize everything. You can internalize. You can include people’s thoughts.

I asked if I could be at the studio when the play was produced. I promised to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the way. John agreed and I spent a couple of days of intense learning as I watched actors and a producer struggling to bring my words to life.

From there, I began to adapt some of my short stories and, finally, my novel, The Girl With The Botticelli Face, for radio. I worked with some producers other than John as well. I sat in on productions on a regular basis and even played very minor roles. The producers, the actors, the musicians, the technicians were magicians. My code of silence was eased and I got to interact with the production teams. I still only spoke when spoken to but I was able to say to a musician, “His feet would make the sound of someone running in sand if running in sand made a sound.” And watched and listened in amazement and wonder as the musician worked on his keyboard to create perfectly a sound that only existed in my head.

I also learned to rewrite during the night when all others slept so that scenes with problems were changed so as to overcome the problems. There was only so much money for studio time. The rewritten scenes needed to be ready for the next production day. I loved it. There’s nothing quite like being alone in the hotel manager’s office during the night, slurping up coffee, using the manager’s typewriter, being creative under pressure, giving the producer the rewritten scenes at breakfast. Here is where all the craft I’d been learning came to my rescue. The more craft one knows, the greater the chance that  creativity will solve the problems.

I loved the process. I loved being part of a team of brilliant people I loved the challenges. I also loved the money. In Canada, the rights to a short story pays peanuts. The adaptation pays in the thousands of dollars. One adaptation I did paid $15,000.00 with another $7,500.00 for a foreign purchase of the production. Go ahead, tell me that you’re above concerning yourself with such a mundane thing as how much you make from your work and I’ll tell you that you are full of crap. I’ll also sell you some underwater lots in a Florida swamp.

My radio dramas and readings are:

Beyond Normal Requirements, Anthology, Toronto, CBC

The Burning, CBC Radio, Vancouver

Bloodflowers, Stereo Sound Stage, CBC radio, Toronto,

Bloodflowers, Sunday Matinee, Toronto, CBC radio

Granite Point, Saturday Stereo Theatre, Toronto, CBC radio

The Cave Vanishing Point, Toronto CBC Radio

An Unacceptable Standard of Cockpit Practice, Disasters, CBC radio, Vancouver

Seiche, State of the Arts, CBC Radio

Bloðrot, Icelandic National Radio, Reykjavik, Iceland

Sæli eru einfaldir, Icelandic National Radio, Reykjavik, Iceland

Carpenter of Dreams, Sextet, Sunday Matinee

Ukrainian Journey Morningside, CBC Radio, 5 parts

The Man From Snaefellsness Stereo Theatre, CBC Radio, (2 hour drama)

Wrinkles Arts Encounters, CBC Radio

The Girl With The Botticelli Face Between The Covers, CBC, Toronto

The Man Who Was Always Running Out of Toilet Paper Icelandic National Radio, Reykjavik, Iceland, trans Solveig Jonsdóttir

The Girl With The Botticelli Face The Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Ingibjorg’s Christmas Gift performed by the Inuvik Choral and Theatrical Society, CBC North Radio

A Matter of Balance CBC Radio, Toronto