Writing is a business. Nothing more than that. It doesn’t matter how great the story is nor what a clever little wordsmith I might be. If I can’t pitch the idea, that’s it. It all boils down to the hook, the copy read by that deep-voiced movie trailer guy: Deirdre Sinclair must come to terms with a moment she cannot remember, a past she cannot forget. I think I did all right in the end, getting the interest of three out of four editors, each of them noting my spin: It’s The Happy Hooker meets Born Free in the style of Cormac McCarthy. I gave them a minute to think about that and then went back into it: “She was orphaned as a baby. She’s into performance sex. And she has an exotic cat! A serval! Do you know what that is?” As my coach pronounced, “Everyone loves a cat. Does he live? Whatever you do, don’t kill the cat!” I couldn’t. I love that crazy cat.
I’m off to another writing conference this weekend and have put together a first draft for a book jacket blurb on my bad side:
Deirdre Sinclair comes home late one night to find her sister’s drunken boyfriend armed and her prized exotic cat bleeding at his feet. She decides to shoot and asks questions, then fleeing the city to Canada. Dazed and injured, she remembers her tiny legs dangling from a high chair, her infant sister, Crystal, pulling cereal off the counter and their mother dead on the floor, pills scattered about her head. Deirdre’s journey with Apollo to the barren landscape of Newfoundland forces her to confront her fears and loneliness, bringing to mind her isolated childhood, her years at a boarding school and an aborted practice as a veterinarian before moving to New York in an attempt to reconnect with her sister. Immured in alcoholism, Crystal shuns her sister and keeps the world at bay with her boyfriend, Derek, a fire fighter who lost his company in 9/11, and who has developed a chronic obsession from working at the site. Deirdre makes a dramatic turn from working with abandoned animals to the escort industry and performance sex in her attempt to come to terms with her traumatic youth and a moment she cannot remember, a memory she cannot forget.
It looks like we might make a short film out of the opening scene of My Bad Side. Yesterday, I met with Mike, a filmmaker, to discuss this possibility. The opening scene (written in Blog #1 “The Beginning”) runs like this: Dee comes home in a cab, talks with the doorman and then confronts Derek in her apartment, and when she realizes that Derek has shot her exotic cat Apollo, she wrestles the gun from him, shoots him, and flees the building (and city) with her wounded serval.
It was a dynamic discussion, focusing on how to shoot each scene: cab, outside building, elevator and inside apartment. Is it a yellow cab? How old is the doorman? Is the TV on in the apartment? Exactly how does she get the gun? We also discussed how to light, costume and cast. One thing we decided immediately is that we will not be using a serval for the shoot (as exotic pets are illegal in the New York) and are considering my dog Biba instead.
I have a thing about animals. I wanted to be a zookeeper when I was a kid. I collected animal cards and magazines. I was obsessed with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, on every Sunday at 6:30pm. And I loved the nature programs of Walt Disney, both live action and animated. There was a familiarity to this world, a kindness, a safety. We got a dog when I was 5, even if it was miniature poodle. Celeste lived to be 13 years old; she was faithful and fun. I actually remember the moment she died more vividly than the death of my father. I sat on a bench and stared out at the street; she wasn’t coming home. I couldn’t get that to make sense.
Animals featured prominently in my first published work when I was Grade Three. (I say published because my teacher, Ms. Helliwell, typed and posted it for me). It is called A Trip in the Forest:
“One day I was walking in the forest with my dog when we saw a little cabin. It was fully lighted and there were shadows passing the windows. But all of a sudden the lights began flashing — my dog began to growl. So we both rammed the door. Then I got my flashlight out and flashed it on the cord for the light switch. And there was a chipmunk munching on the cord.
“Then I heard a voice…It said, ‘Come upstairs…then turn left and go into the room.’ I did it. In the room it was very dark. Then I heard the voice say ‘I will get you.” Then the light went on behind me…I turned round…and THERE was a giant white footed mouse saying, ‘Would you give me a nice home to sleep in like your house?’ I said, ‘Yes, you may…but you must stay in the basement.’ So he agreed. ‘I was that voice you heard.’ Then the white footed mouse said, ‘You are in Nature Land.’ ‘That’s good,’ I said, ‘because I am going to go home to get all my things and live here. I will bring 2,000,000 pounds of food with me.'”
Now I realize that there are some narrative flaws in this story, starting with the motivation of the main character in agreeing to take the white footed mouse (why the basement?) and then changing his mind and moving to Nature Land with 2 million pounds of food, and further, the question of the shadows, what the house is doing in Nature Land and why the chipmunk is chewing the cord, and just how big is this white footed mouse…but forgiving all of this, there certainly are a lot of animal characters, including my dog, the chipmunk, white footed mouse and all of these mysterious shadows. I not only converse with these creatures but also want to live with them. It comes across as a childlike nirvana to me, a simple place of chewing and eating and hanging out, no people problems…except for that electrical cord!
An animal also plays a major role in my latest novel, My Bad Side. One of the main characters is in fact a serval, an African Savannah cat. This exotic cat doesn’t speak or live in a magical land. He is a serval in a real sense of the word. He lives with the protagonist, Dee. He is her companion.
This image, from National Geographic Magazine (Michael Nichols), is of a serval captured at a water hole through a motion detector device. I remember first seeing this picture. I was sitting on a plane. I didn’t understand it. There was something about it that was indeed magical…although I still can’t say what that is. Perhaps it is something to do with how the creature looks back, its posture so straight and alert. Or perhaps it is something to do with its comic expression, a little unsure, maybe curious or surprised. Or perhaps it is something else, something pure serval, something just there, not captured at all but still a mystery, more than a wildlife picture, more than the anthropomorphism of Walt Disney or Wild Kingdom, and more than a 1,000 words, more than a 100,000…a 110,000 at least. That’s the word count of my novel at the moment.