Writer in Residence

You Pays Your Money & You Takes Your Chances

By Stuart Ross

A ticker-tape parade broke out in my home the other day, when my basement excavations revealed a box of old paperbacks that contained my treasured copy of Robert Sheckley’s 1975 science-fiction novel Options. I placed the novel upon my shoulder (the middle one) and paraded it through the living room, while my dog, Lily, showered me with gold pieces. In the distance, Cathy Berberian was singing “Eleanor Rigby” and my Kootenays friend Ashley was dressed as a glamorous dancing frog, weaving through giant toy castles.

Options blew me away when I was nineteen or twenty. It was the first novel I ever read whose narrative stuttered, fragmented and then exploded, sending pages drifting throughout my bedroom. It was a mass-market paperback (only $1.25!) and it was avant-garde. I’d soon stumble across another such creature: Snow White, by Donald Barthelme (see the third-shoulder reference above), which had appeared about a decade earlier but took me a little longer to discover.

Lately I’ve been thinking about writing some science-fiction stories. It’s something I’ve never done before. But on separate visits this summer with Lauren Hearnden and Brandon Crilly — both young writers who I met when I was writer-in-residence at Queen’s University in 2010 — science-fiction dominated the conversations. They are both really, really, really into science-fiction. Me, I’ve read a bunch of Sheckley and Philip K. Dick, as well as the brilliant Thomas Disch (isn’t White Fang Goes Dingo a great title!), Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterful The Left Hand of Darkness and John Brunner’s bazongo Stand On Zanzibar. I even read Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat. And some others — J. G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, John Wyndham. But I don’t think I’ve read anything much published in the last few decades. I’m like one of those people who says they’re into literature and then starts doing Geoffrey Chaucer impersonations while balancing ocelots on their nose.

Anyway, I dug right into Options again. It is a wacky, smart, surprising anti-novel. Tom Mishkin’s spaceship runs into mechanical trouble and he lands on a planet called Harmonia, where he is to await shipment of Part L-1223A, in the company of his trusty robot. He doesn’t do much, but increasingly weird things keep happening to him as he’s killing time. It’s a picaresque novel on acid. And Sheckley makes a few appearances himself — I remember how much that excited me when I first read the book: I’d only ever seen it done before in British writer B. S. Johnson’s stunning 1973 anti-novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry.

So I was talking with Lauren and talking with Brandon, and I decided I should try writing some science-fiction stories. Maybe I am not qualified to do that since I haven’t read anything new, but I don’t care. I might time-travel back to the 1970s and submit it to magazines then. When I read Sheckley’s Options, and some of Dick and Disch, I can see that some science-fiction has a distinct overlap with surrealism and literary experimentalism. So I think I can do it. I’m even considering attending a little sci-fi convention in Ottawa next month. It’s not one of those ones where you wear costumes, which is good because I hate wearing costumes (though I did dress up as Bob Dylan for a costume party a few years ago here in Cobourg, to appease Laurie — she made an awesome Frida Kahlo).

Can a fifty-seven-year-old two-bit small-press racketeer from Bathurst Manor make it in the glitzy, commercial, jet-setting, cutthroat world of science-fiction? Stay tuned and find out.

In closing, I give you Chapter 47 of Robert Sheckley’s greatest triumph, Options:

Mishkin sat in the Memory Theater and scratched his crotch. On the stage, brilliantly lighted, a tableau appeared: a woman holding a baby. Mishkin recognized them as his own. A great voice called out, “What do you feel, Mishkin?” And Mishkin replied, “I feel an itch in my crotch. Also, I have a feeling that I forgot to file this year’s income tax.”

Acid is an intensifier. Soap is an emulsifier. Take your choice.

If you don’t dig chromosome damage buy better chromosomes.

I used to be afraid that I was going out of my mind. Now I am afraid that I am not going out of my mind.

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: Toronto.

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.

Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, and writing teacher living in Cobourg, Ontario. The acclaimed author of 20 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, Stuart got his start selling his chapbooks on Toronto’s Yonge Street during the 1980s. His recent books include Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press, 2014), A Hamburger in a Gallery (DC Books, 2015), (Anvil Press), and A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). He is the co-translator or Marie-Ève Comtois’s My Planet of Kites (Mansfield Press, 2015). You Exist. Details Follow. (Anvil Press, 2012) won the sole award given to an anglophone writer by the Montreal-based l’Académie de la vie litteraire au tournant du 21e siècle; Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009) won the 2010 ReLit Prize for Short Fiction; and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew was co-winner of the 2012 Mona Elaine Adilman Award for Fiction on a Jewish Theme. Stuart has taught writing workshops across the country, and was the 2010 Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. Since 2007, he has had his own imprint at Toronto’s Mansfield Press. Stuart is currently working on several poetry and fiction projects, as well as a memoir.

You can write to Stuart throughout the month of August at writer@openbooktoronto.com