Harold Macy is an eloquent and gifted writer who captures the soul of a person, animal or the landscape in a sentence or two or even less.
His most recent book, a collection of short stories titled All the Bears Sing, is inhabited by a range of coastal characters ranging from gentle souls to those who find themselves standing on the outskirts of mainstream society either by choice or circumstance.
And, no matter which lens the author is looking through, each personality is explored from the inside out, becoming as real as your next-door neighbour.
I met Harold 36 years ago at a writing conference at Strathcona Park Lodge. We were wanna be writers thrilled to be sharing meals and conversation with real authors and even a publisher. I remember sitting on the floor of Harold’s cabin one afternoon reading pages from his manuscript while he pounded away on an old electric typewriter.
San Josef, the novel he was working on, remains close to my heart, both for the intrigue and insight into the story of Danes attempting to settle the northern tip of Vancouver Island, as well as the beginning of a friendship that has lasted decades.
Like most writers, working and raising a family meant Harold juggled commitments with writing time. Now he balances the challenges of Parkinson’s with words on the page.
But writing has remained a steady companion. Over the years, a series of notebooks have resided in Harold’s pocket and on his bedside table ready to capture random thoughts. When words coalesce into a story, he turns them over to Judy, his wife and trusted first reader.
Harold’s award-winning short stories have appeared in Prism International, Malahat Review, Orion and other literary publications. His first book, The Four Storey Forest, As Grow the Trees, So Too the Heart, was published in 2011.
All the Bears Sing is the culmination of a lifetime of living and working in the woods on the BC coast, often with a big dog by his side. Harold is an astute observer of people, animals and the natural world. His words come from a deep place; his stories are evocative and thought-provoking.
The first time I hiked into San Josef Bay I was worried about bears. Didn’t even see a track. The second time, I woke up one morning and groggily wondered why Rick was making so much noise outside the tent.
Turns out, Rick had gone to investigate the sea stacks and a bear was wandering through camp. Luckily, all our food and toiletries were safely stowed in an improvised bear-hang.
I’ve explored San Josef two other times via the printed page. The first was at a week-long writing workshop at Strathcona Park Lodge. That’s where I met another wanna be writer, Harold Macy.
One afternoon, while Harold’s wife and two young sons went for a walk, I sat on the floor of their suite next to a stack of paper. Harold pounded away on an old IBM Selectric typewriter (computers were few and far between in 1986) as I read a draft of his work-in-progress.
I remember the evocative language and the strong sense of a wild, wet landscape and the haunted, hopeful characters that inhabited it. The manuscript began with a man in an oilskin coat rowing. For thirty some years I pondered the U.S. civil war deserter’s fate once he reached the struggling Danish settlement on northern Vancouver Island in Canada.
This summer I found out when Tidewater Press asked if I’d write a blurb for the back of San Josef. Harold’s story ignited memories of my visits to the remote bay and of the writing retreat that launched my career.
But most of all, I was struck by the development of the plot and personalities. Both had matured like a bodacious red wine. Within three pages, Harold captures the soul of a man and the landscape he finds himself in.
San Josef is a deep and sometimes dark novel where hope goes astray but is never lost. The characters are as complex as a spider’s web, the language poetic and the environment a tangible force.
On Saturday, Oct. 26 Tidewater Press and Harold Macy will launch San Josef at the Courtenay and District Museum at 2 pm. in downtown Courtenay, BC.
Admission is free; stories will be filled with Harold’s trademark humour and the history that inspired this novel.
Whatever the occasion, going to town requires thought as to dress, or could require thought if one was given to care. A quick run to the feed store or Central Builders is pretty straightforward. But for such an event as a book launch, especially if it is one’s own book launch, may call for a bit additional consideration.
If it is a high-brow literary event, would I wear the tried and true tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, possibly over a sweater vest? — how timeless is that combo? Or is it so dated to be pathetic. Or perhaps I could try the po-mo look — lots of black, maybe even a fake piercing and a temp ‘tat.’
My criteria are not driven by the whims and caprice of the Style Section of the Globe and Mailwhich we buy each Saturday, but rather by necessity. Something that doesn’t show dog hair is high on the list. There is enough black hair in the seat crevices and cranny’s of my truck to knit a new hound. Something that relates to the weather, usually waterproof, reinforces the gumboot archetype.
But really, I don’t care. I take lessons from my Grandpa. His long legs were perpetually clad in blue denim overalls. Annually, upon Grandma’s urging, he bought a new pair, stiff as boards, which he initially saved for church. After a few months, they became his town and house pair. Eventually they were worn in the shop, on the tractors and in the calving barn doing the chores he loved. After a year or so on this duty, they were fit only for wipe rags. Grandma made quilt squares from any section that was not threadbare, grease stained or soiled by the wet but messy miracles of animals, but there were only few.
But it is not your clothes that are noticed at a book launch. It’s your fingernails.
I gave a talk recently and was setting up to sell and sign books to the good folks in line, money in hand. I glanced down at my hands and saw the half-moon of cargo delineating each and every nail. Not only that but there was a stubborn smear of chainsaw oil giving the edge of my hand a delicate blush of purple, not unlike a fresh bruise. Various scratches. Enough grit in my fingertips to make cop prints and a dusting of Merville Silt, apparently a particular noxious element according to the Sears Carpet Cleaning Technician who does our rugs once a year.
So, as the first pink-fingered, smooth-handed lady passed me my book to sign, I almost felt the urge to make some glottal grunt to match what really mattered, my hands there on the page. Now her page. Soiled. She glanced down at the virginal page, at my stubborn grime and made a small silent “Oh” with her mouth. I felt her gaze, looked up, and gave a wan smile.
Don’t worry about the clothes, check your fingernails first.
Paula’s note: Harold originally sent the above in as a comment to Preparing to Launch, a guest blog by Susan Ketchen. It’s so well written — and funny — that I decided to run it as Preparing to Lauch Part 2.
The subject of clothes, fingernails and potentially embarrassing moments that happen to authors at book signings seems to have struck a chord for many writers. Check back in a couple of weeks for Preparing to Launch Part 3&4.
So here I was — proud as a new parent — with a finished manuscript in a tidy stack on my desk. Virginal white paper, appropriate font, neat margins, properly paginated and oh so vulnerable.
But now I faced that big jump from personal writing to potential exposure to the whole wide world. And, like many a new parent, I wondered how this baby of mine would ever walk on its own.
To take that first step the old school method says to look for publishers who specialize in your particular genre — fiction, poetry, memoir or essay — and write a letter of inquiry hoping that one of them will be interested and request a sample chapter or two which may then lead to a contract. Ah, hope, the writers favourite drug.
When I was through the second draft of The Four Storey Forest I did just that — found publishers who promoted West Coast and Vancouver Island writers. I sent out letters of inquiry and anxiously walked to the mailbox every day in anticipation. Out of the ten letters I wrote, I got not one response.
Refusing to be discouraged, I carried on re-writing, searching for a publisher and following suggestions from published authors.
Simultaneously, I began exploring the world of self-publishing. I was leery of this due to the stigma associated with the term “vanity press” and the pure drivel it often spawns. I thought if my writing made it through the scrutiny of a publisher, it would surely be better. I learned there are editorial contributions and there is publishing and while I thought the two were inextricable, they are not!
Nearing what I thought was a completed book, I sought out freelance editors. You get what you pay for so I’d advise anyone taking this route to shop around and check references thoroughly. My first “editor” seemed a little too interested in signing me up for production services as he heaped unearned praise on my raw and truly un-publishable work.
At the same time, I looked into self-publishing. Two sources of good information were the Vancouver Desktop Publishing Centre and Printorium Bookworks. The first is connected with the wonderful magazine Geist, which is a great read in itself. The second is a print shop that has an excellent how-to guide for self-publishing. However, I was not yet convinced.
In self-publishing, the author retains full responsibility for and control of content, cover design, and distribution/promotion. This obviously means a lot more work. It is an odd paradox; writing is a solitary anti-social act, yet merchandising the finished self-published work requires one to stand up and become a shameless hustler. Some can do this, others cannot.
Another factor is that many literary contests do not accept self-published books simply because of my original fear — so much dross on paper. Nor are self-published works eligible for the most of the few grants available.
So the choice is: sell your soul to a publishing house and in return for the pittance earned, gain professional editorial support and wider publicity, sales and distribution but relinquish a certain amount of income and control; or buy what proofreading and critiquing you need and opt for self-publishing, accepting the joys and sorrows it may bring.
For The Four Storey Forest I was fortunate enough to discover a third way. Through a network of other writers I found a Comox Valley “mom and pop” publishing company who had put out a few books of scholarly note and who were interested in branching out to niche markets with new writers.
So Poplar Publishing did the layout, final proofing, some editing and worked with the printer. The real nuts and bolts stuff. Collectively we created the cover design. Promotion and publicity are my responsibility as is shipping. My publisher has a web page with a PayPal service which means my book has an e‑life. My book baby has taken its first steps out into the world.
I recently started working on a novel, breathing life into the second draft of a manuscript that has been collecting dust for longer than I care to admit. However, it is still a good story and, when finished, I’ll go back to Poplar Publishing and hope they’ll take it on. There’s that word again. Hope.