On a recent trip to read from my new book in Vancouver—my second trip there, the last being more than 12 years ago—I found myself in conversation with Heraclitus.
Best known, according to Plato, for saying that you can’t step in the same river twice, Heraclitus comes to mind in Toronto, too, when I take the streetcar across the River Street Bridge and read the inscription up top: “This river I step in is not the river I stand in”.
I didn’t study philosophy in university—I’m from a small town in Southwestern Ontario, so literature was enough of gamble, and I like to think what intelligence I have is of the pragmatic kind.
…So the river is never the same because the water flows, right?
I saw an entirely different Vancouver this time than during my previous visit; on December 31, 2005, I was ringing in the new year downtown on an evening that happened to also be my twenty-third birthday. If you do the math, that makes me thirty-five now. A lot of water has flown in a lot of rivers—or if you prefer, under a lot of bridges. I got married last year and, just like in that Barenaked Ladies song, my wife and I bought an old house on the Danforth (okay, Woodbine, but I’m, hap-py, here!). This time, in the cab to YVR on our way home, I didn’t hesitate to take up the driver’s first conversational parry, our respective cities’ sky-high house prices.
No, I’m not tricking you into reading yet more fretting about Canada’s unsustainable real estate market. I’m actually getting back to Heraclitus. Of course Vancouver’s different than it was 12 years ago, and so’s Toronto, but I realized I wasn’t thinking at all about how the city had changed—I was thinking about how I had. And beyond 12-years-ago me, I was thinking about 2010-ish me who, newly serious about writing and having actually been to Vancouver once, thought he could set fiction there.
If you’ve read Heraclitus, of course, you know what I found when I looked a little further into his purported words—“purported” because what he said might be a little more complex than Plato's summary. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry explains, the fragment that’s most likely the most authentic translates more like, “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow”, which is syntactically ambiguous; do the rivers stay the same, or do the people? Think of it as though there’s a repeated “same” in the sentence: “The same person can’t step in the same river twice”.
In January 2006, Vancouver (the river) was challenging the record for consecutive days of rain, though it fell one day short of equalling the 28 in a row of 1953. As for me, the person, I was cutting off my infamous long hair for the penultimate time (R.I.P, 2011) and more-or-less successfully quitting smoking, too. I would return to London (Ontario) at the end of my stay and complete my undergraduate degree, then choose Toronto “for good” for a master’s degree, and a Ph. D., and a long career as a professor…
Well. I did stay in Toronto for good. Eventually, I enrolled in a night course at George Brown College, and a couple of the first drafts I wrote there grew into stories published in my new collection.
Some other drafts, however, have been left to die slow, lonely deaths in file folders in my desk—including that Vancouver story in which Lucas, a busker-turned-grifter no longer able to perform his sword-juggling act because he lost two fingers a while back (and his girlfriend broke up with him, too), gets into the habit of setting up in the street just as rain is rolling in, drawing a large crowd and performing his warm-up tricks then stopping, blaming the weather and passing the hat regardless. He’s been run out of town in Dublin, Halifax and a few other cities, and has now settled on Vancouver as the ideal place to ply his trade. It goes all right for a while, and then one day he has to go through with the trick when it doesn’t rain (and he pulls it off, and he gets his girlfriend back, too).
The story was actually called “The Day It Didn’t Rain”, and though I briefly thought it was good enough to send to a couple of literary magazines (who thankfully didn’t publish it—as though that was really a risk!), I’m pretty sure now that it was horrible.
What I remember most about writing it, though, is my (failed) attempt to get the city right.
Lucas the grifter lived in a crappy apartment at the Coal Harbour end of Robson, like the one I stayed in back then; he didn’t get near where I stayed this year, south of downtown and just off Main Street, a strip as bustling and varied as its name implies it should be. He didn’t get to Granville Island Market or Gastown or Kitsilano or East Hastings Street like I did this year, either—the whole story took place in the little bit of the city I had seen in 2006, the clean, generic commercial stretch from Stanley Park to Granville Street. I made a long list of books set in Vancouver to get from the library—I read Stanley Park and Taxi!—and I spent hours poring over Google Maps and the still fairly new Street View, again and again, thinking “What would Lucas see if he turned right onto this street, or waited out a rain shower in that coffee shop?”, all to no avail.
It’s pretty clear to me now that this is how I killed the story: by trying to wring meaning out of a setting I actually knew nothing about—really, nothing other than that it tended to get a lot of rain.
As this draft withered, others developed into the linked stories that would eventually become Nobody Looks That Young Here—a collection set in small towns like the ones where I grew up. The manuscript was first finished in 2013, the contract to publish signed the next year, and the book just got printed this spring; if I count those very first drafts in that night class, it’s a collection nearly nine years in the making, though for most of the final three years it sat largely untouched, waiting to be edited with the publisher. When it was finally time to get to work last fall, I felt as though a different writer had written them.
The same person can’t step into the same river twice.
My options were, one, rebuild the whole book as the older, wiser, more developed writer I must be now, or two, do only what felt absolutely necessary, so as not to undo what that years-ago writer had thought and written that had worked at the time.
I chose the latter; the years-ago guy isn’t me anymore, but I do still like his stuff.
(This new writer, on the other hand, has his work cut out for him with that Vancouver story…)
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Daniel Perry’s first short fiction collection, Hamburger, was published in 2016. His stories have been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize and appeared in publications in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and the Czech Republic. He has lived in Toronto since 2006. Nobody Looks That Young Here, a collection of linked stories, is his second book.