Redux, Composing, 28/04/2014

I was revisiting my old manuscript for A Small Man’s Town this weekend, thinking about turning this sprawling, plot-light, disjointed narrative about life in St. John’s in the 2000s into a series of short stories. As I got to know the conventions of the publishing industry, I’ve realized that I could have more success with the manuscript if I were to edit the loosely connected scenes of the narrative into linked short stories. It would have helped if I had bothered to research the conventions of the publishing industry before I started writing the thing in 2007, but we all have our regrets in life. 

I grew up in this strange, beautiful town.
So here’s roughly how the novel would look as a group of short stories. I’m not sure what order they would go in for the final version of A Small Man’s Town: The Collection, but here, they roughly follow how each storyline starts in the novel version. All of these are very provisional titles, of course.

Stop The War, Please. In Fall of 2003, student activist Laurie is the lead organizer of a protest at the university campus against the American invasion of Iraq. The rally is a disaster because their first speaker is a local left-wing activist-for-hire who uses her speech to praise Islamist militants, suicide bombers, and al-Qaeda for bravely resisting the growth of Western imperialism. I actually wrote this draft in 2007, long before my recent fights over the politics of today’s Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts. Nadia, a child of Palestinian immigrants, tries to save the rally with her own speech, but she gets stagefright and runs away. Laurie and Nadia reconcile at a party that night over hash.

When Joseph Met Laurie. Joseph was the original protagonist of the novel, a quiet guy who seems basically kind, but mostly observes the world around him. By the end of the novel, you realize that he’s actually sort of a jerk as well. But this would basically be the story of his awkward meet-cute with Laurie, as they become friends through the campus newspaper and activist organizations, and he gets over just enough of his late-teenage anxiety to ask her out. She kisses him first.

But I Thought She Loved Me. This is a longer story, told in several scenes. Nadia, whose father works for an engineering firm in rural Newfoundland, comes to Memorial for university, living in St. John’s for the first time. Joseph and Laurie are her first, and best, friends in the city, and also the first people to whom she comes out as a lesbian. She then engages in a tumultuous relationship with Jen, a beautiful white woman who essentially uses Nadia for an experimental six-month fling, during which she continually cheats on her with men. Laurie, Joseph, and their friend Sanjay spread a humiliating story about one of Jen’s sexual encounters out of revenge for her treatment of Nadia. After they break up, Jen continues to display her promiscuity specifically in front of Nadia to upset her. 

Gone. A minor, but loveable, character in several of the university-centric stories is suddenly killed in a car crash shortly after graduation. Joseph has two awkward conversations at the funeral. First, a brief exchange with his gruff, Bayman father that reveals how ashamed Joseph is of his own rural Newfoundland heritage. Second, a walk with his ex-girlfriend Laurie.

Now Hit Me! Several years after the university stories, Joseph is picked up in a bar by a headstrong woman who, during sex, demands to be beaten and choked. Lucy later calls Joseph to apologize for making him uncomfortable, and they end up in a long-term relationship.

Come Near at Your Peril, Canadian Wolf. By force of personal charisma, Lucy becomes the provincial Conservative Party nominee in her Western Newfoundland district during Danny Williams’ 2007 electoral sweep. She adopts several propaganda techniques from Triumph of the Will to organize cross-province rallies to maintain popular support for Williams. She later picks a public fight with the CBC over their national network running a television news story about a stroke victim whose slurred speech vaguely resembles a stereotypical Newfoundland accent. Lucy's popularity comes to rival Williams, and he views her with suspicion.

Literary Ambition. Joseph works as a submissions editor at a St. John’s publishing company run by the eccentric Mr. Bradley. Bradley hires a new employee, a Newfoundlander returning from a decade in Argentina, to run international submissions, part of a plan to turn his small company into a globally famous publishing house. Arlena Gutierrez (born Arlene Parsons) is incredibly pretentious, and waxes on about the beauty of Argentina and her deep feelings for her former lover, Juan Garcia Rubenstein. Joseph better connects with her easygoing, English-deficient husband Hector. 

Unreadable. Another longer story. Joseph and Lucy keep trying to help his old university friend Bernie get his life together. He’s held down a series of mediocre, go-nowhere office jobs while trying to start a career as a novelist. But the manuscript he sends Joseph is terrible, an awful collision of James Dean clichés and mawkish romance set in the 1970 FLQ crisis. Bernie joins Joseph and Lucy on a night out with their old friend Sanjay, who has returned to St. John’s from his home in Toronto to marry his happily pregnant girlfriend Sarah. After Bernie lands a job answering phones for the city’s Arts Council, he meets Deidre, the sister of a local celebrity actor, with whom he becomes infatuated. Because Bernie is neurotic as hell and can’t just ask a girl out to coffee, he talks Joseph and Lucy into being his wingmen at a dinner party with several folks from the Arts Council. Smoking a joint with his host in the upstairs library, Joseph learns that his boss Mr. Bradley has been the kept man of one of Newfoundland’s richest men, and that his company was formed as a vanity project and sinkhole for the accounting of losses in other parts of the corporate empire. While he’s away, Bernie reveals his feelings for Deidre in a way that creeps her out and ultimately costs him his job.

My Secret Life. Joseph gets a manuscript from a local author on his desk: it’s about a young female adjunct literature professor who discovers her sexuality and self-confidence through an affair with one of her students, who is suddenly killed in a car crash shortly after graduation. Joseph is shocked to realize that this is actually a thinly veiled story of his own friend’s actual affair with their first-year literature professor. Joseph remembers a party they attended at another professor’s house where they showed up, seemingly on a date. At the time, he was preoccupied by accidentally seeing his friend Nadia’s ex Jen having a gymnastic threesome with the slimy professor Elias Farkas and his wife, while on his way to an upstairs bathroom. Lucy calls the manuscript creepy and obsessive, and on her advice, Joseph rejects it. Two years later, he finds the book in a local store, heavily revised and published by Random House.

Was It All About Me? Joseph visits Toronto for the first time at age 29, replacing an ill Mr. Bradley at a publishers’ conference. While there, he meets his old girlfriend Laurie, who moved to Toronto six years earlier and now works for PEN International. They have dinner that night at the hotel and talk about their past and current lives: Laurie has had no serious relationships, having dived into her political activism, while Joseph and Lucy are engaged and planning a family. Laurie realizes that Joseph never held any very strong political or even ethical beliefs of his own. He changes his politics and morals to suit those of his romantic partner. He briefly visits Sanjay, Sarah, and their toddler before happily returning to the comfort of home.

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