A few reflections on living with silence. I’m sitting here in front of my computer, my husband has the hockey game on in another room, which in our open plan apartment might as well be right in front of me, and I have my phone right by me in case of an urgent beep from twitter, instagram or facebook. Or a bing from The New York Times or some advertiser I’ve unsubscribed from three times already, with critical information I need this very second. There’s traffic outside and because of where we live in Vancouver, if the front door is open on a fine day, we hear airplanes coming and going from the local airport. I’ve often noticed that even if I am in the country, walking in a forest or along a river, surrounded by birdsong, I am still never far from noise; a kind of background rumble of the modern world. Someone once described it to me as being on the holodeck. Even though you are in a seemingly in a quiet forest or glade, you can always hear the engines of the Enterprise working away somewhere nearby.
We live in a kind of ‘noise’ where connectedness seems critical at every moment, without realizing that this compelling need to be in touch is entirely specious. No one could be got at like that when I was a child. You had to phone someone, if they were ‘on the telephone’ or go over and see them in person. Or you could write a letter. That was in touch as it got. You could go days without hearing from anyone, and honestly, it was very peaceful.
Lane Winslow lives in a world I still remember, and anyone my age who lived outside an urban center will remember. It was a world where silence, that is to say, freedom from human racket, was still possible. I haven’t even allowed poor Lane a gramophone, or a radio yet, so anxious am I to preserve this remembered silence. I could lie on the wharf, now long gone, and listen to the wonderful green hollow lapping of the water through the cracks between the boards. I would not, as I do now, have to determinedly push away the sound of motorboats, planes, and trucks in order to hear the sound of just nature. It was just there, by the lake, in the garden on an afternoon, on my long exploring walks through the woods.
I never had to question the existence of silence. Human sounds were the interlopers, the exceptions. If a car was coming up the hill into the community, we heard it, and wondered where it was going. When the car stopped, the world reverted to silence, not just to less noise. Now, looking back, I see such long forgotten silence as one of the greatest losses in the world I live in. I remember it as being soothing on a hot afternoon, or terrifying on a thunderous night. I felt a personal relationship with the earth itself. I’m sure that in some mountain fastness, far from anywhere, or in the middle of a great sweep of desert, somewhere on the globe, silence is still to be found, but for most of us, it is a patrimony that is lost forever.
So, I’m sorry Lane. I know you love Beethoven, and would like to know what the weather forecast is, but for the time being I will not be supplying you with anything noisier than a coffee percolator. You’re lucky I’ve let you keep that phone!
On the eve of the release of my second book, Dark In The Darkening Mist I’ve been given, by an accidental question in a radio interview, a chance to look soberly what it might mean to have spies in the family. I have, like all writers, made use of experiences from my own life, and those of my family to enrich the lives of my characters. I have created a character in Lane Winslow who is somewhat modelled on my mother, because she was a phenomenal linguist and beautiful and charming. It was a bonus that she shared some of her stories about her brief episode of spying for the British when she and my father and my older brother lived in South Africa during the Second World War. She tended to describe her war time work as if the whole thing was a colossal lark, and she was comically incompetent.
Now looking back though, I see that there were two kinds of secrecy in my family. The one she employed, of just sharing selective stories that obscured the more difficult and dangerous part of the work, and the absolute silence that my grandfather maintained with his children. My mother, like Lane, was a situational spy. She wanted to help the war effort, and when it was over, was happy to get on with her life.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was what I described during the radio interview at Roundhouse Radio in Vancouver, as a ‘proper spy.’ Intrigued, the radio host asked me to share some stories about his exploits. In the too-long silence that followed, it came to me that she never told me one story about his life as a spy, except the final one, when he died in a Nazi prison during the war. And that was because she had never learned one story from him.
This sobering realization made me think about the impact on families of having someone who works in intelligence with a serious and long-term commitment. My grandfather was ostensibly a businessman, involved in the production of flax and linen. His family would never know anything about the other side of his double life. He would no doubt be away ‘on business’ a good deal, and unable to share even the smallest, insignificant detail of what he ever did.
The silence she maintained about her father was a great dark void in my family history. I knew that he was handsome, had won my grandmother away from a fiancé who was kind and loved her until the end of his life. And I learned that my grandfather was a hard man, and though he may have loved his wife and children in his own way, was hard on them. We know from studies about what makes a good spy that besides the obvious traits such as being good at languages, sharpened survival skills, sang froid, a fluid intelligence, there has to be an ability to tolerate ambivalence, secrecy, dishonesty. A willingness to give up the intimacy of normal family life in return for the clandestine life. Often these traits are honed and developed as survival mechanisms in difficult and unloving childhood lives.
Lane Winslow, we learn in Death In The Darkening Mist, has never gotten on with her father, and finds she must come to terms with what his silence and secrecy mean to her.
A place like King’s Cove, Part 2
The King’s Cove of my stories is modelled on a place from a long distant time. In fact, when I came on the scene, it was already lost in a backwater of time, swirling in the gentle eddy of its early decades while the rest of the world barrelled into modernity. I remember it as a place that was designed entirely to feed the inner life of a small child. It was sunny, free from parental supervision, (have I mentioned how, in a mistake no one can adequately explain, I lit a fire in my crib?) and had plenty of cake. In one way, my early childhood home by Kootenay Lake was ideal… aside from being punctured by tetanus-laden nails or burned in piles of hot ashes, it was a remarkably safe place for any child who survived these early threats. I was welcomed at every house I turned up at by kindly old people who wanted to give me things to eat. And I turned up nearly every day, unless it was raining hard.
Every morning after my boiled egg and burned toast, I was let loose into the world. I took up my stick to whack at the bushes, and set off at a trot along the grassy paths of my community. I never remember wearing shoes at that age. Something that must have been remarked upon privately by our neighbours, because I remember sitting many times on the front porches of people’s houses with my feet in a tin basin of warm water. I expect it was the price of being allowed inside.
So there I’d be, looking in the screen door of our nearest neighbour the post mistress, my white blond hair floating, un-brushed around my head like a ragamuffin halo. “Come in, dear,” she’d say, and though she was already a venerable and elderly lady, she could always think of something amusing. Some days I would go into the unused sitting room and be allowed unsupervised to look and look. My favourite place was the glass cabinet full of tiny figures, thimbles, sepia photographs of laughing people from another world, tiny dishes and snuff boxes, buttons and medals, and hanging right down from the top to the bottom, a regimental sword with red tassels hanging off the guard. Once I was allowed into her bedroom, for a nap, and then taught how to use her nail buffer, because I wanted beautiful pearly nails like hers.
A favourite day was always the day she was bluing her hair. I would sit in her tiny kitchen and watch as she filled her sink with water and put a little brilliant deep sky blue cloth ball into it. The water would become a dazzling blue and she would rinse her hair and wrap it up in a towel, and then she would patiently explain, again, because I would ceremoniously ask her each time, that it was to keep her hair a brilliant white. The little ball of bluing always sat by her sink in a soap dish.
Pestering neighbours further afield was an afternoon’s work, though I am sure I didn’t bother knowing what the time was, there was a certainty that at the very time after lunch when I was beginning to get hungry, someone, somewhere, would be putting on the kettle. I couldn’t even say I favoured some houses over others. Everyone made scrummy cakes and cookies and no one got fat. Some homes had the amusement of chickens or berry picking to keep me occupied, and some had a bird, or old tractors and abandoned machinery covered in rust and sharp edges to play on.
It is very possible that my belief in my safety was entirely illusory. Several times when I was a little older and waiting at the bottom of the road for the school bus, cougars passed by. I believe that nowadays they generally try to eat children, but I never was troubled by them. And we certainly had bears. You could see them outside the window eating your apples right off the tree and then pooping on the lawn to show you who’s boss. When I was older and realized they might be a danger, I never went anywhere without a can of stones to rattle. Looking back, I wonder if a bear, annoyed at what she imagined was the profligate way I might be looking at her cubs, would have been at all impressed by my can of stones.
Every now and then there’d be a proper tea at the weekend. My best friend whose grandmother was one of my benefactors, would come out to stay, and I’d sleep over and on Sunday afternoon the table would come out onto the grass, and be covered in tiny sandwiches and chocolate and walnut cake, and we were allowed cups of tea with as much sugar as we’d like. The grown ups sat on rattan chairs and we lounged on blankets on the grass. And I’ll tell you something, having miraculously survived my early days, never was tea so fragrant or cake so good.
Now I have created King’s Cove, which like the Oxford of Pullman’s great trilogy, His Dark Materials, is a darker, fictional mirror image of the original, where I have borrowed some houses, and a few of the characteristics of people I loved the most, and filled the rest with unhappy invented people and a few dead bodies. I suppose, on reflection it is scant thanks for a place that provided me with so much excellent cake.
I spent a good part of beginning around the age of three, in a place just like King’s Cove. When my parents first came to this country they lived in mining camps. I spent my early years in these close communities. There were company teas and drinks parties, company swimming pool and the company store. You could not escape the company. And then my mother, a loner in her own right, must have tired of it. How she found the house in this tiny out of the way community along Kootenay Lake, I’ll never know.
For a child with a brother almost ten years older, it was a solitary life. There was one other family with children, all boys, the one closest to my age three years older than me, so I spent most of my time entertaining myself.
I would wake up to my mother’s sing-song ‘upsy upsy’, be given a nourishing breakfast of burnt toast from one of those flip side toasters, and a boiled egg and then I was shooed outside, and I was away onto the paths. There was a road that ran between each homestead, but more excitingly for a child, you could get from any place in the community to any other place on a network of paths. Up hills, through meadows or a stretch of forest, through an orchard or someone’s garden.
By the time I was five I already knew all the paths to the people nearest us. I think about children today, constantly overseen by an anxious adult, probably for good enough reasons, but if any of my adults was anxious, I never heard about it. My father was away and my mother wrote. My older brother disappeared somewhere every day on a horse, and, presaging his future as an academic, eventually moved into the barn to conduct science experiments…I assume…I was never allowed in, but it always smelled like he was boiling road kill in turpentine. Consequently, once I was out, time and the world were mine. I spent a millennia of my childhood hours on those paths. They were my ‘secret’ way of getting around.
There were paths that led to places that were already decayed and haunted. The collapsed remnants of the old school house, log cabins of distant early settlers who came, and must have struggled, and left again, trunks of books left behind, mildewed stacks of paper from the early 1900s on farming, and machinery, and sometimes music hall sheets. There were one or two houses, now abandoned and listing, still equipped with pots and spoons, old tins of salt or baking powder. Paths led to old garbage dumps, full of ancient rubble from the teens and twenties and thirties. For a five year old archaeologist, it was heaven. When I tired of wandering about outside, I would go to the cottage post office to sit on the porch overlooking the garden and eat cookies.
I was always barefoot, a fact that led to my two great childhood accidents. Once I walked into a beautiful, soft grey pile of ashes emptied out of a wood stove only to find they were an inferno of hot coals, and was burned badly enough to be rushed to the hospital thirty miles away, my feet wrapped in the burn gloves my father had kept from his war-time kit as a bomber pilot. Another time when I was visiting the chicken coops at house up the hill, I stepped full onto a board with a nail protruding that went right through my small foot. If that sort of thing happens today there’s a panicked trip to get tetanus shots, but all I was given to dry my tears was a home-made mint patty. I still have all my feet, so it must have worked. I can see now that couple of anxious adults would have come in handy during large parts of my youth, but I think people just thought life-threatening mishaps were the price of childhood. I think my mother just assumed we’d always turn up at dinner time. Lucky for her, we did. Lucky for us, she only made toast at breakfast.
This is a vintage Dinky Toy. It is a 1947, or so, Oldsmobile, which I fell in love with the minute I saw it. I love old cars…the early years of the automobile industry were like the early epochs of life on earth when nature was experimenting with every and all weird life forms before the big meteor put a stop to all that unregulated invention.
By1947 the varieties of cars were much more standardized, but look at this thing! It has a kind of panther silence and elegance that no modern car can boast. I saw a beautiful Dodge from the same period in the parking lot of a garage in Ashland the other day, and I just wanted to put a white silk scarf around it’s neck, and give it a top hat. It looked ready for a night out in Manhattan. For me a car like this blue Oldsmobile exemplifies something about the primacy of appearances during the times I write about.
In the 1940s you had to look dressed if you went out of your house. You wore a hat, and stockings, and placed a handbag on your wrist that snapped shut with a smart report, and you always had a clean handkerchief. None of your schlepping to the supermarket in your flip flops and sweat pants with a shapeless beat up leather bag slung across your chest. (In the winter? Flip flops? Really, Vancouver??) Of course, you had time making sure you were seen at your best in those days because you weren’t frittering away your life with selfies and liking things on social media.
One of my characters in Death In The Darkening Mist drives one of these beauties…blue too, funnily enough. I bought this Dinky Toy several years ago, before I started my Lane Winslow series, because I’d started a bit of a vintage dinky toy collection. These are the only cars from the era I can afford. My mother always thought I was completely nuts. She was born in 1912, and her whole life she strained and reached ahead towards modernity, while I spent my life with my back to it all trying to imagine the world before these often tiresome, noisy, isolating times.
My childhood home was full of the latest understated sleek Danish furniture, and she always drove the latest model anything. She loved new cars, and even after she was too old to drive and we’d be out walking, she would stop and purr with happiness if we encountered a sleek new Audi sports car. She’d walk around it and stroke it and then turn and say
to me, "What the hell is wrong with you?"
She despised nostalgia, and never engaged in it. Even her own childhood world held little appeal to her. For her it was the glory and the promise of modernity, of now. She’d say, “absolute rubbish” whenever I talked about the past. Of course she was there, so I suppose she’d know. But I was not to be dissuaded.
It has been seventeen years since she went to the great Audi showroom in the sky, but I’ve only now started writing about her world, and I started by imbuing Lane Winslow with the only thing my mother was really sorry not to have been able to carry out of the past: her own extraordinary beauty. Too bad I’m making her drive a second hand car!
If you've read A Killer In King's Cove, you've seen Lane Winslow, her face tilted up to reach the horn, inviting Angela to come down the hers for a drink, or contacting the Nelson Police about a body she's found lying around in a local creek. This (and thank you Nancy in Queens Bay) is the phone. It is most likely a Kellogg box wall phone, probably made some time in the 1920s. Now, the funny thing about that is by the 1920s rotary dial phones were already widely in use but companies were still producing this elemental model consisting of a crank, a horn to talk into and an earpiece.
In a community like King’s Cove in the 1940s, you didn’t need much more phone. If you wanted to phone somebody you turned the crank and got an operator, who would put you through to someone local, or even across the pond to the old country. I know that when I was a toddler, we had to count the number of rings before we picked up. In the world of party lines you were supposed to only pick up when the call was for you, because you didn’t want to listen to other people’s conversations. Well, you did, of course. But it was considered quite bad form.
Today we wouldn’t consider walking across the street to the drug store without our cellphones, in case something catastrophic happened in the five minutes it takes to pick up blue nail polish, but it is remarkable that in some parts of rural BC some places weren’t ‘on the phone’ until the early 1950s. In these early post war years, even some homes in small towns didn’t have telephones, because there were public phones on the street. Quite restful, really.
But at the same time, if you were stuck somewhere in the snow, or had a flat on a rural road, or had just been kidnapped by an evil-doer, and left on the side of a mountain you’d been driven to blindfolded, you pretty well had to have sensible shoes and be able to figure out where north was. It was likely a long walk to find someone who had a phone.
Luckily for Lane, and for us, the denizens of King’s Cove are busy and nosy, and all on the telephone…they wouldn’t dream of being out of the loop for a single second, at the rate that Lane Winslow, is finding bodies.
I am often asked how I wrote my first book. It really began in 2012, when, knowing I was going to retire in two years, I nervously read up on what retirees ought to know about their new lives. Nearly the first thing I read said “don’t plan to write a book.” It went on to say that most people never get around to writing books, and only end up feeling bad about it. Get on to the golf course instead. Play a round, have a gin and tonic.
I’m easily rattled by experts who have data to back them up. It turns out most people don’t write books, (though as you can see on your local bookstore shelves, quite a few seem to manage it). I did see that after years of not writing, a person leaping into an unfamiliar practice, like a couch potato suddenly undertaking a marathon, could hurt themselves, so one evening, fortified by a gin and tonic, I sketched out a program of gradual training like a proper athlete. I decided that every day I would write 400 words before I set off for work. I had two natural advantages; I am awake by five in the morning, and I am not wholly unfamiliar with writing, having wanted since an early age to become a writer.
“How did you know what to write?” I am asked. I didn’t. I remember that first morning. I was a bit panic stricken and the minutes of the precious hour were ticking away while my fingers hovered over the keyboard, when I suddenly thought about what it must have been like when my mother first saw the house she bought for our family in the BC interior when I was a tiny child. My mother was obsessed with houses because in her life, and in ours as a family as well, we moved incessantly, so losing houses was habitual. But she loved that house over all of the many other houses we lived in, and it became mythical…the shining white house forever on a dappled green sunlit lawn with a view of a lake…the Eden we lost. That is the moment when Lane Winslow was born.
I had in mind that I wanted to capture that moment, and in a way to counter Thomas Wolfe’s assertion that you can’t go home again, and perhaps allow the character to stay there, to make it her home. I spent most of my childhood years longing to stay in one place, and wondering what the lives of other people who never moved must be like. Here was a chance.
And so it began. Every morning I would read the output from the day before, thought about what kind of neighbours she might have, what she could see out her windows, and finally, one day, what she would do if she discovered a body. I carried on like this for the final two years of my life as a high school principal, and then one beautiful June morning, I looked at my word count and discovered I had amassed 80,000 words. I was pretty sure that was about the size of the average book. I knew, at last, that I could write a book, and furthermore, that it was very likely that I would write some more.
Just a quick note to say Happy 2017, and a special thanks to Seattle, Washington readers who have kept A Killer In King's Cove at number 2 on the trade paperback bestseller list for two months in a row!
I'd also like to thank readers who have sent me such kind notes saying you have enjoyed the book, or asking questions. As an author it is a special privilege to hear directly from readers. Please feel free to use the "contact" link on this website!
There is something magical about firsts in the world I now live in...the world of the author. This book is the first in my series about my character Lane Winslow. It was lovely to work with my publisher, TouchWood Editions, in bringing the book into being, both in the editing and the gorgeous cover design. In the summer I was invited to be an Author for Indies at Hagar books in Vancouver and this weekend I had my first invite to a bookstore to sign books in Seattle, the lovely long standing Seattle Mystery Bookstore. And this weekend, while I was away and hadn't seen the paper, I got excited texts from friends that they had seen the first review of my book ... in the Globe and Mail!
I think of these firsts, because I savour and love them after decades of being a writer, but not an 'author'. Now as an author I have the privilege of having a 'reading public'. I have heard already from many kind readers who have taken the trouble to send me a note saying they have enjoyed my book, and telling me they are looking forward to the next one. I feel a great deal of gratitude to my readers and I love the idea that I, like all the authors I have admired are read over the years, may also provide some moments of pleasure and escape in a sometimes trying world. Thank you for including me in your reading life!
When people ask me where I got my idea for the book A Killer In King's Cove, to be released in October, I tell them that it began with a place. The fictional King's Cove is loosely based on a real place in British Columbia where I lived as a child. It was, and is, a place of idyllic beauty. There is a tiny community above the lake, as in my stories, and a beautiful bay with cottages dotting the edge. If you are lucky enough to be alone on the beach, you are surrounded by the whispering of the forest behind you and the gentle lapping of the water. Sunlight sparkles off the lake, and the colours have a purity and intensity of the colours of your childhood. Of course as children we never left anyone in that kind of peace. We played noisily there all day, and often stayed with our parents late into the night with an enormous beach fire, they chattering and drinking wine, and we burning everything we'd brought to eat on the end of a stick.
I write to capture a sense of the place at an earlier time when it was really new, and the settlers struggled hard each year to produce the fruit for which the region is justly famous. It was a time before it was discovered by new-agers, and back-to-the-landers during the 60s and 70s. I recently visited and I was delighted to discover that so powerful is the physical hold of the place, that rather than all of the new people, who've come to live there over the last fifty years changing it forever, they have been changed by it, and it has remained the beautiful place it always was. Mail, of course, is now delivered to crisp Canada Post boxes at a fork in the road, so it lacks the unifying effect that having a little post office for people to gather at gave it in the early years. Now perhaps retired people live there, tending gardens and going on holiday to bigger places, and the apple trees have quietly become bent and old, long outliving their purpose and the original settlers who planted them.
I was amazed to learn recently that there is a plan afoot to move a ferry terminal into that peaceful little bay from a nearby location. While change is constant and inevitable, it is difficult to imagine that any of its peaceful and beautiful character can survive a massive metal and concrete structure with added access roads and commercial development. I for one, am gladder than ever to be able to take refuge in King's Cove. I hope, as my books come out, the first in the fall, and second in the spring, that you will join me there!