Andrew Shenkman

A Serious Work

My name is Hector. I write fiction of medium quality and international popularity for young adults. The artfulness of my craft, I often think, is trying to slide in the right amount of sex and violence underneath the surface of the water. To be too direct is death. The goal, instead, is to seem innocuous and titillating at the same time. It’s a strange alchemy. I can admit that getting that mix just right has left me feeling exhilarated and/or pathetic, depending on the occasion. Young athletic women riding wild dragons in the rain. Descriptions of flesh and skin. Sword fights without stab wounds. I traffic in the sense that the obscene is hiding somewhere in the wings. Looking backwards I see that I have sometimes written my own story a little like this.

Twenty-two years ago, instead of stories for children, it was cocaine and small amounts of other narcotics. Both careers have been rewarding in their own way. The drug dealing ended when four Hell’s Angels beat me unconscious and dropped a small refrigerator on my chest in London, Ontario. That episode left me hooked up to a respirator with a collapsed lung. It’s an experience that has helped me keep perspective on occasions where I’ve received a ‘brutal beating’ from the press.

I wrote my first stories there in London, before it turned sour. I used a type-writer I inherited from my father. In the summer I would put on tapes by Santana and Run-DMC and sit on the porch of my old house with liquor bottles and blow bumpers and proceed to feel very romantic and verbose (for a small time thug). I can remember the sunset glinting off the hood of my car, the sound of occasional passersby. Sometimes I would keep a gun near my person to bask in the warmth of its presence. I wrote crime stuff mostly. Mostly trash. These are very fond memories for me.

After the Hell’s Angels broke my face, body and spirit, I spent a year in Buenos Aires, the place where my mother was born, failing to relearn Spanish. After that I travelled for a while in Europe and spent all my money. I was actually in Sarajevo a year before the war. By the time the siege had begun, I was back in Canada, caring for a sick mom and settling into a living as a short-order chef in Toronto. I dabbled a little bit in dealing weed, weed I purchased from Burt of all folks. Burt, of course, was one of the Angels who did me in so unkindly. He had broken my nose with the palm of his hand. These days he is working as mechanic and I count him as an old friend. It would have been impossible for me to imagine a future where Burt was a softie for German Shepherds surrounded by his two Grandkids. Back then, however, every time I’d meet with him I’d get terrible shakes.

The weed stuff ended up being too much bother for too little profit, so I let it fizzle out like the end of a soggy joint. Around the same time, a woman who worked in a kitchen with me confessed pridefully that she wrote romance novels on the side. She suggested I try the same and I took up her challenge. She helped to connect me with her publisher. In my time in the harlequin trenches I took on a nom de plume and wrote five books on a beige Dell PC in the corner of my single bedroom apartment. I listened to a lot of CDs of solo guitar music. Did you know John Williams, the classical guitarist, isn’t the same John Williams who scored the Star Wars movies? When I think about those days, I can hear freight trains rattling by, cutting through the centre of the city behind my window.

Recently, Universal Studios made a movie out of one of my children’s books and the sequel will start filming very soon, if I understand correctly. The first was directed by another ex-pat Argentine who no longer speaks Spanish, which I thought was a very nice touch. The money has been extraordinary and, in my opinion, wholly undeserved. They filmed the whole thing in Iceland, which was a nice excuse to go travel. Reykjav√≠k was flat and cold, and I suffered from freak nose bleeds my entire visit. It did little to dampen my spirits.

I have a memory of playing a board game from the UK (the rules of which I could not understand) against the young girl they cast as Stella. We sat in a hotel room with a big window and a great view as various cast and crew flittered around. I lost many times. This girl, half in costume, told me that she had been a fan of my series, that this was like a strange dream for her. They were going to film her favourite scene the next day, where she finds the magical sword ‘The Dayskreamr’. I stared out the window at the frozen landscape and recalled the Stella of my youth. Her name was Christine. Like Christine, a lot of people I once knew long ago end up trapped inside my stories, with their finger prints filed off and new names pinned on. They’ve been made to put on strange clothing, to fight monsters and demons and sometimes each other. Watching that patchwork world be willed to life in Iceland was like being submerged in fever.

Around the time I heard about the second film entering pre-production, I received an anonymous letter threatening blackmail. The wording was extremely vague, absent of a specific threat. It instructed me that there would be further contact soon. It was a kind of foreplay, I guess. My immediate response to reading the letter was to take an afternoon nap. In the evening I got down to the business of wondering what the hell it might be that was hovering over my head. What could it be and what would it do to me? The kid’s writer, he used to do coke, you know. He used to sell blow to high school kids. Would that hurt or help my sales? Would that be the end to this chapter?

For a period of my life, I used to provide a man who called himself Monk with cocaine. He paid no fee. The coke was a dividend gained from his lofty place in London’s criminal ecosystem. I’d end up at his place a couple times a month for three years or so. I saw a young girl OD off my shit there, she may have even died. I saw heroin thrust upon the unwilling. I saw cruel and unthinking violence. Sometimes I was disgusted, sometimes I laughed, and sometimes I colluded. Monk’s place was a vortex of calamity and madness. To enter his gates of your own free will was to forfeit your right to safety and security.

Of course, there were those swirling around in there who never had a choice. My Stella, Christine, was Monk’s daughter. The resolution to Christine’s story is less dramatic than the Stella in my stories, the future queen of a fantasy world. She is a mother of three and a social worker. Monk is still serving his prison sentence if I am recalling things correctly. If Christine has read my stories, to her children at bed time perhaps, I doubt she sees much of herself in Stella. Even the part where her father almost beat her to death for her transgressions in front of a gaggle of stunned party goers.

I’ve thought a lot about trying to break out of my genre and write a serious work, whatever that means. There’s a folder on my hard drive full of unfinished stories straining towards that lofty goal. They cannibalize even more blatantly from my life than my other writing. Stories stolen from my family and friends and acquaintances in detail. I usually begin writing them in bursts of exuberance and slink away in disgust. Later I arrive at some sort of grey, neutral emotion and the whole process becomes funny in retrospect. I don’t think that work is really for me. In many ways I have happily stunted my imagination, travelling no further than the realm of the little boy who learned English reading X-men comics under the covers. This is the constant that runs through my ill-conceived life that I cannot consolidate. The daydreams of a child. That’s what makes me write.

I’ve been dating a woman named Celeste, who I think decided some time ago that I’m not right for her. She has acted on this impulse to abandon ship with kindness and care, and I’ve enjoyed the slow uncoupling of our relationship more than I would have expected. Glacial slow, fascinating and quietly sad. We spent an evening drinking wine and reading my old romance novels, acting out the parts and trying on voices. My home here is small enough to give me comfort and large enough for nights like this, for pushing the furniture aside and gesturing drunkenly.

She called a cab in the small hours of the morning and left me wide awake and grinning. I put an unopened letter of blackmail correspondence through a paper shredder. If you ever have the opportunity to do something similar, I can report back that it is an enormously satisfying experience. My eyes were fixed on the way the envelope struggled to retain its shape as it was forced out the other side, on the tension in the slits of folded paper inside it. Let it come, I thought, I have no children in this world. I have no parents left to embarrass. There are no surprises left for my brother and sisters to discover. Let it come.

After the shredding, I dug through my old things in the basement. I ended up pulling out a stack of my old stories from the late-80s and putting on my glasses before retiring to read in the kitchen until the sun started jabbing angrily through my windows. I read one centring on a police investigation led by a dirty cop climaxing in gun fight with automatic weapons. Then I read a story about a small time drug dealer driving through the rain, drunk out of his mind and lost in the dark. He hits a dog. It takes him a half hour to drag himself, cowardly and shaking, out of car to survey the damage done. Ravaged by tears he tries to dig a grave by the roadside with a car scraper as a shovel. A truck rattles down the road with a single working headlight. It looks like a monstrous cyclops, a biblical terror. The dealer assumes he too will be struck and killed, but the truck passes by uneventfully. The morning comes and he wakes up shivering next to his patch of slightly disturbed earth, near the dog itself. Of course the dealer was me. A telegram from another life.

Andrew Schenkman is a U of T alumni and Toronto resident. He recently won the 2011 ‘This Magazine’ Great Canadian Lit Hunt for his story ‘Salt Water’. Andrew also plays in the band Crowns for Convoy and tries not to spend too much money on records and comic books.