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Finding That Middle Place: Writing The Lizard and Other Stories

Michael Bryson

By Michael Bryson

How did The Lizard and Other Stories (Chaudière Books, 2009) come together? How do I feel about it, now that it’s out? What is the behind-the-scenes story of the book?

Well, the 16 stories in The Lizard were written largely between 2001 and 2006, though there are some bits as old as 1995 – and I was tweaking right up until the month before publication.

So it came together – slowly.

The book is a follow-up to my previous two collections: Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press, 1999) and Only a Lower Paradise (Boheme Press, 2000). The earlier books were loosely constructed, and I wanted this book to be more cohesive. I also wanted it to be optimistic and fun.

The Lizard represents the completion of a trilogy of books that share a common set of concerns: the process of growing up, the tension between order and chaos, interpersonal relationships and the backdrop of contemporary Toronto.

It seemed to me that a lot of my stories were about the lives of boys and men, and I wanted to dig as deep as I could into that theme. That’s how it started, anyway.

Perhaps, fortunately, I’ve never been good at keeping my writing aligned with a plan. It always has a way of pushing me off course and reminding me that the world is full of complications and any attempt to simplify is doomed.

This might be the true big theme in the book, actually; that unpredictable disruptions are often the key elements that shape our lives. Of course, September 11, 2001 is a huge metaphor for this type of event, and the final three stories in The Lizard all have that day as a central plot element.

Other stories address that theme of chaos in a more personal way. For example, in “Sandwich Factory,” a husband finds himself abandoned at home after the birth of his child. His wife takes the baby and moves back home with her parents, an action that surprises everyone.

In “Hit,” one character tries to right himself after his wife’s affair. He re-connects with a high school buddy and tells him, “The world is fucked up.” His life-long friend replies, “It has always been fucked up.” In other words, why are you so surprised? Did you think that everything that happens makes sense?

In contrast to this sense of the unpredictable ruling our lives, many of the stories explore “love” as the saving force. Some of the characters even asking outright: What is love? Why do we work so hard to get it? Why is it so painful and hard to find?

In “Live Bait,” a young man is struggling to deal with the suicide of his sister and the subsequent depression of his father, when the old man suddenly announces that he’s in love with the memory of a 16-year-old girl he met a half-century earlier.

Yes, this might be a book about finding the balance between craziness and bliss.

There’s a lot of humour in this book, too. A peculiar kind of humour maybe, but humour all the same. Laughter, of course, is another saving grace. Humour often results from the collision of contrasting incongruous things. When all else fails, and life doesn’t make sense, laugh it off.

So the book drifted from its origins as a collection of tales about the lives of boys and men. Yet, it is possible to still read it that way; the structure of the book, for example, is linked by four vignettes about an unnamed boy. The first vignette captures him as a two-year-old. In each of the others, he gets progressively older – and his world becomes more complex.

The book isn’t above penis jokes either. I count at least two.

How did the book come together? Haphazardly, is the most truthful answer. I kept writing in the direction that seemed correct, then realizing I couldn’t go that way any more. Then I would try something else until I got stuck again.

Many of the stories in my earlier books are what I call “heartbreakers.” Ten year ago, I often found myself writing little odes to sadness. It was about the only thing I was half-good at, capturing a kind of Keatsean tragic beauty, even though my stories have always had funny bits.

These new stories, however, often end on up-beats. The story “Hercules,” even, was a self-conscious attempt to write a happy story. Martin Amis said only Tolstoy made happiness interesting, but I gave it a shot.

The new stories are also longer than my previous ones. There’s more plot development, but my style still tends toward minimalism. I like to suggest, rather than explain. I like short sentences. It’s not an approach agreeable to everyone, but I prefer to trust readers to work out the stories for themselves. (I even wrote an essay, “Fiction is Mystery.” A spark from Douglas Glover provided the basis for this piece.)

I worked on the endings of the stories most diligently. (They’re hard, man!) Some endings changed over and over. Some are even different from the endings of the same stories when they were previously published in literary magazines. For the book, I wanted to make sure that the fit together the best way. So some of the stories needed to be modified to make the relationships between the stories either closer or more distant, depending on what seemed right.

The manuscript also evolved over the years, as I submitted it to publisher after publisher. Each time, after the book was rejected, I wrote some more and re-arranged the stories. Finally, I got to a point where I couldn’t write any more. I knew I had to abandon this book and move on to a new project. At that point, Chaudière accepted it.

Even then, I dropped two stories from the manuscript, rewrote a number of passages, and re-arranged the order of the stories to what it is now.

How do I feel about it? Both exhilarated and exhausted. I think the book has finally achieved its best form, and I’m glad that readers will now be able to see it. I’m exhausted that it took so long. It was a tough journey, and I wish it had been easier.

Over the course of time to write this book, I had a number of significant changes in my life, went through a number of significant relationships.

Most significant is the fact that two years ago I married and became a step-father to two wonderful kids. This stage of my life isn’t represented in the book, though there are male characters in the book with children. That is, all of the stories were initially drafted before I got married, before I met my wife even.

Perhaps this is why many of the stories are about characters anxious to settle down. They are only too aware of the disruptions of life. They are not grounded by family, though some of them want to be. The protagonist of the story “Flight,” however, clearly doesn’t want to be tied down. His life is all about process, perpetually moving on.

My feelings about the book, therefore, tend to be nostalgic. The book is a (metaphoric) record of a time in my life that has passed. At the same time, it’s a book that is new to the rest of the world, which is funny/strange to me.

I just hope readers find the stories to be fun, interesting, entertaining, and memorable.

What is the behind-the-scenes story of the book? I think I’ve covered this off in my ramblings above. Maybe I could just add that the story “Six Million Million Miles” appeared in Best Canadian Stories 2005 (Oberon) and two other stories in the book won writing contests.

Six million million miles, if anyone is wondering, is the speed of light. One of the known limits of our universe and that rarest of things, an absolute.

The stories in The Lizard sometimes playfully reference silly ideas of this sort. It’s one of my tics, which may either please readers or dissuade them from proceeding further. I’ve been drawn to different schools of story writing in the past 15 years – everything from the absurdist realism of Raymond Carver to the absurdist fabulism of J. G. Ballard.

Actually, there’s call outs in the book to Mordecai Richler, Saul Bellow, Milan Kundera, Richard Van Camp, and of course Hemingway. The final story is called “Isn’t It Pretty To Think So,” which is the final line from The Sun Also Rises. Believe it or not, I was trying to write that story in such a way that I could legitimately use that line as the last line of the story, but I couldn’t pull it off. I thought it worked okay as a title, though.

I’d also like to point to the work of Mark Anthony Jarman, Douglas Glover, John Lavery and Greg Hollingshead as being strongly encouraging to me. I also want to thank Richard Van Camp and Harold Hoefle for being early readers.

The title story first appeared in Grunt & Groan (Boheme Press, 2000), a fiction anthology about “work and sex” edited by Matthew Firth and Max Maccari. Firth asked me to submit something, and I didn’t have anything that fit that theme, so I tried to write something, and it turned into “The Lizard,” which is still a strange, funny, and subtle little story after all these years. Readers should pay attention to the line about dogs being comfortable in cages.

Another story written on a dare is “The Book of Job.” Richard Van Camp challenged me to do a re-write of the biblical tale (he was going to do one, too). Mine brings back the trickster Crow, who appeared in my collection Only A Lower Paradise, where he taught “City Boy” a few tricks. In this story, Crow learns about the limits of love. What it has to do with the Bible story, I’m not clear about, but that is the honest origin of the story, and I thought the title should stay. The challenge happened because Van Camp and I were discussing how Yahweh in the Book of Job is trickster. He offers Satan a chance to torture his disciple. It’s also interesting to note that Borges called the Book of Job an early precursor of Kafka. My story doesn’t end as a “heartbreaker,” though.

The story “Flight” was first published as a chapbook and contains what one early reader told me was his favorite hand-job scene in literature. This is the book’s Philip Roth moment, though more generous to the woman than Roth would be. There are actually two hand-jobs in that story, though: one for him, and one for her.

The attempt to find balance, reciprocity, and fun is at the core of this book. Maybe Aristotle (and Annabel Lyon!) had it right, talking about The Golden Mean. In any case, I’ve always been interested in trying to find that middle place, the shades that exist between black and white.

The middle is a challenging (and therefore interesting) place to be, which may be why the lizard says grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. On the other hand, one of my characters asks, “Is that all there is to it?”

The answer? “You bet.”

The Lizard – The Cover

Here’s the real cover of The Lizard.

(Previously I’d posted a couple of the prototypes.)

I took this photograph, using Owen’s skateboard and plastic lizard. So, thanks, Owen!

I took about five dozen images until I got this one, which balanced the angle, light, and depth of field.

I wasn’t sure how the font would work out, though, and I’m very pleased at how the designer has made this work.

A compelling introduction to the book!