Crime Fiction Reviewer Bill Selnes: After finishing my review of Livingsky by Anthony Bidulka and my post on its sleuth, Merry Bell, I wrote Anthouy. My letter and his reply are below. I always appreciate his candour and prompt response to inquiries. I believe the book is going to sell well.
Thank you for forwarding the ARC for Livingsky. I put up my review today. A post about Merry will be posted in a couple of days. They are below. This letter and, hopefully your reply will be posted early next week.
All the time I was reading Livingsky I was wondering why you changed the name of the city from Saskatoon to Livingsky. There can be no doubt from all sorts of references that it is Saskatoon. Other books, especially the Russell Quant series and Going to Beautiful were set in Saskatoon.
Thanks so much for your time and interest in reading and reviewing Livingsky.
You wondered about why I set the novel in the fictional city of Livingsky, Saskatchewan instead of Saskatoon where I’ve set many of my previous books. The reasoning is complex and I hope I do them justice in these few words.
First, the simple answer is this: Freedom.
Let me preface the rest of my explanation by saying my decision to write about a fictionalized version of Saskatoon has been wonderful for me and given me great joy in the writing process.
One of the nice things about being a writer of fiction is that you get to be creative as you build characters. Whether they are based on someone you know, an amalgamation, or completely drawn from thin air, they remain fictional, entirely under your control, and you do not risk hurting anyone’s feelings. Imagine writing a character that is unabashedly meant to be based upon a real person. A tweek of description, an untoward adjustment to character or personality, an unappreciated physical description, and suddenly there exists potential to sour your subject’s reception and your relationship with them. The same can be said for place, most especially when you are a writer, as I am, who thinks of place as another character. It is simply safer to keep characters as purely fictional.
Let me share two examples. In one of my first books an early draft contained a passage about a Saskatchewan lakeside resort described in a way that was not entirely positive. I believe my words may have been along the lines of “…mosquito-infested bog…”. I thought I was creating atmosphere with a visual, auditory and olfactory component. An early reader thought otherwise. They felt I’d maligned their beloved getaway destination. Some years later, I’d painstakingly researched a Saskatoon building I wanted to use as the locale for a murder in order to change the details (apartment number, room orientation) just enough to avoid identifying a specific apartment as a murder site. Apparently my description of what the victim saw from the window in the seconds before they were slain was enough for the real-life occupant of that apartment (who it just so happened was a reader of my books) to identify it. I know this because they confronted me at a book launch. Fortunately, they were thrilled. But it might have gone another way.
By all of this I mean to say that there is a certain level of restriction that an author faces when writing about real things, be they people or places. You are not entirely free to be creative. Over many books I have greatly enjoyed writing about Saskatoon. Doing so has helped me in my goal as a writer to tell stories of underrepresented people and places. Creating and writing about Livingsky (a city in Saskatchewan that in many ways mirrors Saskatoon, but isn’t) has allowed me many freedoms while still giving me the opportunity to write about my home province and aspects of a place that I feel are underrepresented in Canadian genre writing.
Additionally, it allows me to stretch my muscles as a writer. I’m the kind of writer who does not want to be or do the same thing throughout my career. If I was, I would still be writing the Russel Quant books. In writing about Livingsky I can delve into a level of world-building that I haven’t done before. It’s fun, it’s a bit strange, challenging, and wildly freeing. I can write anything good, bad, complimentary or derogatory about Livingsky in a way that I simply cannot about Saskatoon. The fact that some readers might conclude (right or wrong, that’s up to them to decide) that Livingsky is a faintly shrouded Saskatoon is, I think, a good thing and maybe a little fun in the process.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time considering the pronunciation of the surname of Merry Bell’s office landlord, Alvin Smallinsky. Is it the Ukrainian version where “sky” is pronounced “ski” or is it the Anglo “sky”? Were you playing with a name based on the title or were you drawing on your Ukrainian heritage? I did not notice a hint in the book. It should not matter but the pronunciation has become a verbal burr.
I know a thing or two about verbal burrs. A classic for me is the pronunciation of Beauvoir in Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries. I had high hopes with the TV series and maybe it’s my ears but I never heard a clear version of his last name being said out loud in any of the episodes. Cool side note: I’ve only just learned the actor who played the character (well cast I thought) is a son of Donald Sutherland. As to your verbal burr, Smallinsky, despite the similarity to Livingsky, is pronounced with a -ski not -sky.
In my post on Merry I was aghast that you had her wearing Christian Louboutin boots in a Saskatchewan winter. She was doubly fortunate when she slipped while wearing those stiletto heeled boots. She was saved from injury by falling into a snowbank. The quality craftsmanship of the boots kept the heels from breaking in the fall. I trust you will have her in some sturdy Sorel boots for her next winter on the prairies. She can reserve the Loboutins for her next trip to Vancouver.
Merry indeed takes her life in her own hands wearing Christian Louboutin boots in a prairie winter. But these are more than just boots to her or some misguided proclamation of womanhood. These were a gift from pre-transition Merry to the post-transition Merry. They are a symbol of change. The more she spent on the symbol, the more commitment and permanence she assigned it. They would not be easily given up, even when faced with the realities of a Saskatchewan winter. And still, Merry is a practical woman. She might have laid them aside after falling on her butt a time or two, but one other matter keeps her from it. Poverty. She simply could not afford another pair of good boots.
I was surprised that there were neither friends nor family awaiting Merry when she returned home to Livingsky. I have enjoyed the inclusion of family and friends in other books you have written. Whether the relationships are good or bad she would have connections in Livingsky. Are you saving those relationships for the next book or was there another reason for their absence in Livingsky?
You are correct that I enjoy writing about family and friends. I believe the presence – or absence – of family and friends, and who those people are, goes a long way in defining a character. I will say this about Merry’s situation in Livingsky. Merry Bell was not Merry Bell when she left Livingsky. She left for a reason. And she returns for a reason. That reason is not because she wanted to. Family and friends, keeping them, finding them, can be a complex matter for transgender people.
One of the challenges I have always faced when I write mysteries is finding the balance between development of characters and plot. I love writing characters and revealing backstory, but I also have a duty to present a mystery. Too much of one and you risk losing your reader. There is much to be revealed about Merry and her family background and I hope we have the opportunity to get there. In my plan, book one, Livingsky, revolves around the theme of coming home, book two, From Sweetgrass Bridge, the theme of loneliness, and book three moves into family. If we get there is up to the reading public.
As noted in my review I did not think the Vancouver murder added to the plot. Was it integral to your plot or was it added to make it easier for booksellers to classify it as a mystery? If you would like to pass on this question I understand.
I raise the issue as I had an email exchange with American author Paul J. Heald concerning his book Courting Death. The book was originally about law clerks for a U.S. Federal Court of Appeal Justice in Georgia. They spent long days and nights reviewing and researching, especially death penalty cases. He subsequently included an investigation by a clerk into the death of a former clerk. I equally thought that the investigation did not work well in the book. Heald advised “I could not find a publisher for a book that wasn’t genre driven. So, I added the plot and suddenly publishers knew where the book would go on the shelves of Barnes and Nobles and the rest is history. Sigh.”
As with Going to Beautiful I think you are at your best writing about the people of Saskatchewan, especially the under-represented.
Lastly, you mention feeling the Vancouver murder did not add to the plot. For me, one of the challenges in writing the first book of series is the amount of set-up one must do to introduce characters and place. At the same time I am keenly aware of paying heed to the fact that I’m also meant to be presenting a mystery. It’s that pesky balance thing again. Pulling out the Vancouver murder leaves a big hole at the front end of the book and too much time passes before we really get into the arson mystery. That being said, the murder plot is not plopped in there as filler. It provides what I hope for some readers is a pretty juicy did-she-or-didn’t-she scenario that sticks with you until the end. It also helps me present Merry in her Vancouver life, in her pre- and post-transition life, and in her pre-Livingsky professional life without actually having to spend a great number of pages on it. Additionally, the Vancouver scenes are vital in beginning to paint pictures of two very important relationships for Merry, with Nathan Sharpe and Sergeant Veronica Greyeyes.
All the best.
Bill, I hope I’ve addressed your questions sufficiently. I appreciate your interest in kicking the can and finding out what lurks in the minds of writers and their process.
Best to you and Sharon.