Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Ten Rules - Part Two

Before heading off to Bouchercon this year I started to write a bit of fiction about the trip.

Here is Part Two.

Remember, it's fiction. It's all made up. All of it.

Part One is below.

Declan stood by the door with the other smokers, his the only hand rolled, reading the headlines in the newspapers lined up in the boxes and I went inside to get us a place in line. Every hundred kilometres or so on the 401 there’s a rest stop.
They’re all the same; a gas station and a couple of fast food places. The names are different at each stop, a Petro Canada and a McDonalds, an Esso and a Wendy’s, a Shell and a Burger King – they all have Tim Hortons.

And they all have line-ups. I’ve been back and forth down the 401 from Toronto to Montreal every month of the year and every hour of the day and night and there’s always a line. So, standing in this one I thought about how I was going to steer the conversation to robbery. I’d been thinking about it for a while, here I am at home all day, drop my kids off at school and sit down and write. What if I just popped out once in a while and pulled a robbery? No one would notice and the money would just look like it came from my writing. Wouldn't be too much money, just a few grand here and there, but it would really take the edge off.

The idea never went anywhere because it wasn't something I could do by myself. I needed a partner.

In my head, of course, I was the laid-back, cool, ex-con Ernest Stickley, call me Stick. In reality, of course, I’m the weasely, talking-too-much car salesman Frank.

Oh, I’d thought about being both, doing it all myself, but I didn’t think I could. I’d written a flash fiction, a thousand word short story called The Book Club (it was on the website Shred of Evidence about two women who leave their book club and start robbing guys going into strip clubs. It’s kind of a housewife Swag. My friend Alan Taylor made a short film out of it, The Armed Book Club. He’d make a good partner, except he lives in Montreal. And we’d be known right away as the Black and White Bandits or something stupid like that. Alan’s black.

Back when I was at Concordia, ten years of part-time night classes to get a lousy English Lit BA, my buddy Bobby Jones and I were filling out applications to med school and law school and teacher’s college and getting turned down everywhere, so we decided – one night in the Rymark Tavern on Peel after four or five pitchers of Molson Ex – that if we didn’t get in anywhere we’d start a life o’ crime. That’s what we called it, life o’ crime, and laughed and figured out how we’d get pilot’s liscences, lease a plane, set up a front business and bring in drugs from South America. The next day it didn’t sound so stupid. Just like Frank and Ernest in Swag we worked out some details, made up some rules. We figured we’d be successful because we’d be smart. We would never DO drugs, because, as Bobby says to this day, dope is for dopes. We wouldn’t flash money around and we wouldn’t be greedy. We’d get a stake, start a business, maybe buy up some duplexes in NDG in Montreal where we both lived.

Bobby’s black, too, so we would’ve been the Black and White Bandits again, but then he went and got into teacher’s college and then went to teach in Yellowknife. He’s got the balls for armed robbery, that’s for sure, but now he lives in Nova Scotia and is making too much money and having too much fun to think about a life o’ crime.

Another friend still in Montreal, Randy McIlwaine also has the balls for it, no doubt. He’s big and strong, huge shoulders and broad chest and can make his eyes look insane when he wants to. Randy walks into a bar with a sawed off shotgun and says put the money in the bag, they’d put it in the fucking bag.

Except he’s a cartoonist, you can see his stuff at his website , it’s really funny. If I mentioned this plan to him he’d get a big laugh out of it.

Still, it seemed like such a good plan, I couldn’t let it go so I thought about a few more possible partners; Michel Basilieres is living in Toronto now, his first novel, Black Bird, won the Books in Canada /Amazon award and got fantastic reviews but now he’s teaching at U of T and spending all his spare time with his son. Families really do get in the way of careers.

Families made me think of my cousin Joe, he and I got arrested in Calgary together at the Sears, something I fictionalized in Dirty Sweet, and he might have been game back then, but he’s also in Nova Scotia now, taking it easy, blasting Deep Purple and working in a greenhouse.

But now here I was on the road with Declan, a guy who obviously thought about armed robbery because he wrote a fucking great book about it. I just didn’t know how to go from talking about writing novels to actually doing it.

I was next in line when Declan came in and stood beside me, saying, “Couldn’t do it here, though, have to stand in line so long there’d be miles of footage,” and he motioned to the camera on the wall behind the cash.

I said, “Yeah, and these places are always crowded.”

We ordered, me explaining that a double-double is coffee with two cream and two sugar and Declan saying, “There’s still room for the coffee, then,” and asking for it black with sugar. We also got a box of Timbits.

Walking back through the parking lot to the car I said, “I wonder sometimes what Tim Horton would have thought about Timbits,” and Declan said, “There’s really a Tim Horton?”

“People think he’s like Ronald McDonald. No, he was a hockey player. Started the first one of these places with a cop in Hamilton.”

Back on the road, Declan said, “But there are some places you don’t have to stand in line?”

“Not on the highway,” I said. “Have to turn off into one of these small towns.”

“These small towns have banks?”

“Not much anymore, the banks are closing branches all the time, setting up kiosks in grocery stores, forcing people to use ATM’s, online banking and those cheque cashing places.”

“You’ve got that scene,” Declan said, “in Everybody Knows..., where the guy robs one of those places.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s right.”

“That’s a good scene, it really works.”

I said, thanks, but I don’t know, it’s a pretty straightforward scene. J.T., a biker back from serving in the army in Afghanistan waits at the back door of a cheque cashing place and when the woman comes out for a smoke he shoves a gun in her face, forces her inside and cleans out the till.

“These little towns, they have these cheque cashing places?”

“Yeah,” I said. “They do.”

We pulled off the 401 into Trenton, past the fighter jet that looks like it has a pole up its ass, and into town. We were just going to take a look around, see what was what. Trenton is really just a big air force base with a little town attatched.

I said, “The thing is, for armed robbery, you need arms.”

“Right,” Declan said, “guns.”

“This isn’t like a book, just put in a convenient character, some guy we know who can get his hands on a gun.” I laughed then, said, “Like Rossi in The Big O, worried he can’t go to Sicily with the .22, a woman’s gun.”

“Wants his .44 back from Karen.”

“Too bad we don’t know a Karen.”

Declan pointed to a road sign and said, “Bridge to USA, could find something there.”

“Yeah, well, regardless of what people say, they don’t have guns in the corner stores.”


There was some tension in the car, we were both nervous, getting serious.

I said, “Like Homer Simpson said, ‘Wait three days? But I’m mad now.’”

No laugh.

“In my story about the housewives robbing guys going into strip clubs they use a toy gun they bought at Wal-Mart.”

Decland said, “A toy? Right.”

“Because I don’t think it’s the gun, really, I think it’s the setting.”


“Yeah. A kid’s playing with it in his back yard, it’s a toy, a grown man is carrying it in a back alley at night, it’s a gun.”

“Or a back alley in the day?” He pointed to a Mr. Cheque Cashing place at the end of a strip mall and I saw the Wal-Mart up ahead.

It went just like the scene in the book. I parked my car behind the big trash bins behind the store and we waited. After about half an hour a guy came out the back door and used a piece of two by four to prop it open.

Before I could say anything about how it looked like it really would've worked, Declan jumped out of the car and left the door open. We’d bought the gun at the Wal-Mart, looked just like a real gun, it’s true, especially when we painted it black with some of that model paint in the little square jars and scratched it up. I wrapped a big elastic band around the handle a few times and Declan said, what's that for and I said, I don't know, “I saw it in Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy,” and Declan said, oh, okay then, but till that moment when I saw him point it at the guy’s head I didn't think we’d really do it.

They went inside the Mr. Cheque place and less than a minute later Declan came out carrying a big manilla envelope and jumped into the car.

He looked at me and said, “So, are we going, then, or should we just sit here and get arrested?”

I hadn’t even started the car, so I did, and drove back around the strip mall and out onto Division street. We went a couple blocks and made the turn up Sidney Street to the 401. No sirens, no one chased after us, nothing.

“What the hell did you do in there?”

He said, cashed a cheque, and for a second I thought that’s what he really did and I was so relieved. Then he laughed and said, “Holy fuck, there’s ten grand in here,” pulling money out of the envelope.

“Some of that’s American.”

“Good we’ll need it tomorrow in the states.” He looked at me and I think he winked and then he said, “We are going to the states, aren’t we?” and I realized we were taking the on ramp to the 401 heading west for Toronto. It’s like I just wanted to get home.

We only drove a couple miles on the 401, took the Wooler Road exit, crossed over the highway and got right back on heading east, the sign saying, Kingston 100 kilometres.

Declan said, “Holy shit, man. I thought about a little side-line to the writing, just something to take the egde off, you know,” and I said, yeah, I know.

He said, “Just a little extra income, I thought about maybe dealing a little dope, a few regulars, nothing big, but fuck, ten grand in ten minutes – that's a bit of all right.”

I thought, well, when you put it like that.

An hour and a half later we were pulling up to the American border, looking at some very serious and well armed guys in uniforms.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bouchercon meta-fiction

Before heading off to Bouchercon this year I started to write a bit of fiction about the trip. I present the beginning of it here and will post the rest of it over the next few weeks.

Remember, it's fiction. It's all made up. All of it.

The Ten Rules

When I wrote my novel, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I used Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, and I’m pretty sure that Declan Burke used them when he wrote his novel, The Big O, so it was natural when we teamed up to pull armed robberies on our way to Bouchercon in Baltimore, we’d use Elmore’s Ten Rules for Success and Happiness from his novel Swag.

In both cases we had to make minor changes to the rules. For one thing, grocery stores and bars never have much cash on hand anymore and one exclamation point for every hundred thousand words? Come on, these are crime novels, people getting robbed and beaten up yell.

In Swag, Frank Ryan, a used car salesman from Detroit, meets Ernest ‘Stick’ Stickley, a car thief from Oklahoma and they team up to rob people. I knew a Frank when I lived in Calgary in the late 70’s, Frank Kloss, and he was a used car salesman. When I met him he was selling truck parts for the same company where I worked in the warehouse. Calgary at that time was a lot like the Detroit Elmore Leonard described in Swag -- full of young people moving in from somewhere else to make money. The apartment building the guys live in in the book was an awful lot like the townhouse complex I lived at in the Woodlands, in the southwest of Calgary. Young people, under thirty, thirty-five anyway, all making money and not thinking past the weekend. In fact, a band from Calgary at that time, Loverboy, had a hit with “Working for the Weekend.” In Swag the women sitting around the pool were stewardesses and models working the car shows and in Calgary they were hairdressers and oil company secretaries but they had the same kind of snotty attitude they thought was being independent and they didn’t mind trading up if a guy making more money moved in. Pretty much everybody living there was from somewhere else.

Frank, my Frank, didn’t live in the complex, he was married already and had a couple of kids, but he was a lot like the Frank in the book. He could see a car drive by and tell you within fifty bucks how much he could sell it for and you just knew he was right. Frank had his scrapes with the law, too, and I always wondered how far he’d go if he didn’t worry he’d get caught. Or if the pay-off looked big enough.

At the same time, My uncle John got out of jail in Nova Scotia and like so many maritimers came out to Alberta. He stayed with his sister, my aunt, Mary, just like I did when I first got to Alberta. And John was a lot like Ernest ‘Stick’ Stickley. Being from Nova Scotia is like being an Okie, especially if you can take cars apart and put them back together and you just got out of jail. We were driving around Calgary, trying to find work on construction sites and John said if things got really bad he was, “sitting on two grand,” and it took me a few minutes to realize he meant his Pontiac Parisienne. Frank might’ve been able to get two grand for it, but John never would’ve gotten more than a grand. Anyway, it was that way of thinking about his car that made me think of Stick. That, and the way he stood up to guys in bars and never raised his voice or lost his cool and you could tell he wasn’t going down without a fight. Well, I could tell because I knew what he went to jail for.

So it was easy for me to see Swag come to life, the characters were so real for me, they were people I knew.

Now, twenty years later, living in Toronto, I’m a successful Canadian novelist, which means I don’t really make any money form writing and I meet this Irish writer, Declan Burke, online. We have the same US publisher, Harcourt, and had the same editor, Stacia Decker, till the company merged or got bought or something, and she got laid off.

Declan and I’ve both had our Elmore Leonard comparisons – the Irish Mail on Sunday said he was, “Elmore Leonard with a harder Irish edge,” and Publishers Weekly said I was, “a clear disciple of Elmore Leonard... not a bad thing for a fun read.” Ken Bruen said nice things about both of us.

So, we came up with this plan to do a mini promo-tour together, driving from Toronto to Bouchercon in Baltimore, stopping at as many bookstores along the way as we could. The first night at Sleuth of Baker Street went well and the next day we hit the road. Driving the boring 401 from Toronto to Kingston, we got to talking about the Elmore Leonard comparisons and how, sure, it’s great, but pretty fucking hard to live up to.

I said, “The thing is, with these kinds of characters, crooks, but professionals – not insane serial killers or unrealistic James Bond stuff – we all want them to be as real and natural as possible, so that’s going to mean sounding a little like Elmore.”

Declan said, “You don’t call him Dutch?” and I said, no, I don’t.

At that time I was about halfway through writing a novel called either Tumbling Dice or Emotional Rescue, or maybe even Some Sing, Some Dance after the Michel Pagliaro song, and the car stereo was blasting out late 70’s top forty – Fleetwood Mac, Gerry Rafferty, - research I called it, the novel being about a late 70’s band called The High who reunite to play the casino circuit and rob a few along the way. Declan had an iPod and was fingering the headphones, trying to be polite and not just stick them in his ears.

Then I said, “And really, it’s hard not to follow those Ten Rules of Writing, they really do make for a good book.”

“Oh right, yeah.”

“Said is a shortcut for me. I pick up a book, I flip through it, if people are exclaiming, or announcing or demanding, I put it back on the shelf.”

“Or querying,” Declan said, “never heard anybody query in my life.”
To be totally honest, I’d been thinking about this for a while, so I started talking about Swag, how everybody says it was the real breakthrough for Elmore, took him from cult status to mainstream and Declan said, “Fantastic book.”

I said, yeah, fantastic. “And it had ten rules in it, too.”

“That’s right, the original title was Ryan’s Rules. What was it, Frank’s rules of robbery?”

“Frank Ryan’s Ten Rules for Success and Happiness.”

“Right,” Declan said, “written on bar napkins. Ten rules. Have you read Troy Cook’s 47 Rules of Successful Bank Robbers,” and I said, 47?

“Good book.”

We’d been driving an hour, we were finally out of Toronto, passing through Oshawa, it’d been city all the way but now there was some countryside, flat and bland. Traffic was still steady, three lanes in each direction. It was a dull October day, the leaves gone off the trees but no snow yet.

Declan said, “You’re right, though, 47 is a lot. I’d have to carry the book with me on robberies.”

“Right, ‘hang on, everybody stay on the floor, I’ve just got to look this up.’”

“Don’t see it working.”

“No,” I said. “But the general idea, the armed robbery.”

Declan said, “Yeah.”

“Like in The Big O. Karen pulling the stick ups.”

“Till she meets Ray. Did you notice,” Declan said, “we both have women with similar names, Karen, Sharon, both involved in illegal activities who both meet guys named Ray.”

Oh, I’d noticed. Our books also had exactly the same dedication, mine’s, “For Laurie, always,” and his is, “For Aileen, always.” It was freaky.

I said, “In my new book, Swap, I have three women pulling stick ups at spas.”


“There was an article in the paper, three women robbed some spas in Toronto. They got caught and one of them turned out to be a beauty queen. Miss Toronto Tourism, something like that.”

“Do they always just hand you the material in Canada, then?”

“Pretty much. Hand me all kinds of ideas.” I waited a moment, saw Declan looking at the miles of nothing we still had to drive, holding his earphones, and then I said, “You just have to follow the rules.”

“Right, back to Elmore. I can see he has a point about not opening with weather here, how long could you hold a reader talking about grey clouds?”

“I was thinking about the other ten rules,” I said. “Frank’s. Be polite, don’t say more than you have to, never call your partner by name – they all make sense.” Declan was looking bored and I was thinking the driving was longer and straighter than he’d imagined. I said, “You know, in Swag Frank gets the idea because he read an article in the paper, too. A couple guys who had a three or four year run doing exactly what he was talking about.”

Declan said, “Yeah.” He was still looking straight ahead at the highway, probably getting near the end of being polite.

I said, “Elmore must have read that article.”

Declan said, “You think?”

Yeah, his patience with the road was coming to an end, and probably his patience with me. I said, “You wan to stop for a coffee,” and he said he’d kill for a smoke.

Pulling into the gas station I said, “If you were going to take that kind of risk, wouldn’t you want a bigger score than a cigarette?”

(okay, that's it for part one)

Thursday, November 20, 2008


We haven't even finished raking the leaves and now the whole place is covered in snow! This is my front deck. It's too early, too early! It's not even December...

Luke likes it, though, and so do the kids, so that almost makes it worthwhile.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thanks Quill and Quire

Quill and Quire, "Canada's Magazine of Book News and Reviews," picked 15 books from 2008, "to remember," and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is one of them.

The article says, "Some are critical favourites, some are bookstore blockbusters. Some dive into difficult subjects, some are about pure pleasure."

About Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, they say it's, "a sprawling portrait of a city that's rare for any novel, genre or literary."

It's great to be noticed, thanks Q&Q!