Friday, June 27, 2008

Launched

I awoke a bit more bleary-eyed than usual this morning. The coffeemaker was switched on just as soon as I could make my way out to it, but it is early afternoon and its life-enhancing effect is only just beginning to kick in.

The occasion was the Toronto launch of Lake Erie Stories at the Victory Cafe last night. And what a night it was; we had about forty people show up, sold a bunch of books (though many attendees, sweetly, came with their own copies), and I got to take a crack at doing a reading, my first one, before moving on to hors d'oeuvres and imported beer. All in all, a successful evening.

A book launch is in many ways like a wedding. Speeches are made, glasses clink together in celebration. And then, of course, there is the interesting mix of people; as I surveyed the room, I noticed (and eavesdropped on) lots of curious conversations: my editor chatting up my parents, my coworkers hanging out with my wife Amy's family. My real-estate agent chatting with, well, everybody.

And at the core of it all, when you get right down to it, is good food and drink. Both were available in abundance, thanks to the good folks at the Vic.

The last few stragglers (us) bled out onto the street around eleven. After stuffing the fridge with leftover pakoras and mini-hamburgers, we collapsed onto the bed, utterly spent. Hence our current state.

So chalk up yet another promotional event on the unofficial author tour. What's next? There are more ideas currently in the hopper for southern Ontario (stay tuned for more on those), hopefully a few reviews, and maybe even a media interview or two.

But for now, I'll settle for another cup of coffee.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The drive

The stretch of Highway 3 that runs from St. Thomas to my hometown of Leamington is a study in contrasts. When making the run from Toronto, as we did a couple weeks ago, we're usually sick of the monotony of the 401 by the time we hit London. So, after a delicious chickenburger at the Flying M Truck Stop, we often divert to Highway 3 and embark on what my folks quaintly call "the old way."

And in many ways, it is. Before superhighways found their way to southern Ontario, this lonely two-lane slog along the shores of Lake Erie was the main thoroughfare connecting communities like Kingsville, Leamington, and Windsor to London and points east. But when the 401 went in just to the north, the dollars followed, leaving a host of decrepit farms, motor inns, and restaurants in their wake. But all is far from lost in this part of the Ontario hinterland.

Well, perhaps here all is lost. This farmhouse, near Talbotville, was standing only a short while ago. I noticed last spring that it had crumbled into this still-dignified looking ruin. Highway 3 is dotted with many such places. They're a haunting reminder of the difficulties of farm life, and many, long abandoned, have been knocked down, perhaps because the landowners fear they would be liable if anyone were to wander in and injure themselves.

Dealtown, not far from Chatham, possesses my favourite Ontario town name. The origin of the name eludes me, but there is not much space in Dealtown in which to make a deal. The back of the sign announcing to motorists coming in the other direction that they, too, are entering Dealtown is a stone's throw from this one.

The past meets the future near Port Crewe, about thirty kilometres east of Wheatley. This is probably the most desolate stretch of the route, with the whitecaps of Lake Erie crashing against the high cliffs that drop down not far from the highway's edge. The wind really whips through here, making the area a perfect spot for a wind farm. The completion of the massive project will give the old highway a look that its designers, in their wildest dreams, could never have imagined.

As we neared my parents' home on Point Pelee, we noticed that the locals were to be entertained by a "Jet Event" on this particular weekend. When I was little, these were known as "airshows," but perhaps the language has since evolved. In any case, these little signs, lovingly hand cut by someone, lined the various corners of the last part of the route. The stiff winds that weekend would have made any type of air event challenging, but this would've been music to the ears of the wind farmers.

I guess that along Highway 3, as with many other places, there are clear winners and losers.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Zippety-zap!

This phrase, often used by a family member of mine, is an apt description of my signing at BookExpo here in Toronto last Sunday.

For those who are unfamiliar, BookExpo is an annual industry trade show. It's open to those in the publishing biz, as well as librarians, booksellers of both the chain and independent varieties, educators, and pretty well anyone else who derives at least part of their living from the making, selling, or reading of books. The idea is for publishers to set out their latest wares, for authors to show up and sign, and for general buzz to be created. Most attendees go home with a bagload of free books, and the hope is that they'll order more to display in their various shops.

So imagine my surprise when I rolled up to the Dundurn booth for my 11:30 a.m. signing last Sunday, coffee in hand, to find, of all things, a small lineup for Lake Erie Stories. At first I thought the crowd was waiting on another author. One with, I dunno, a body of work. But alas, no. The publicist informed me that they were indeed there for me. And so we got down to business.

In less than a half-hour, we blew through all the books we had available (I'm going to say around 25 copies), and even had to turn a few people away at the end. And they were an informed bunch; most had actually sought out the book, and made sure they were there in time to get a copy. (One bookseller was planning a special display in her southern Ontario store. Two librarians were going to give it away as a prize for a fundraising drive.)

It was a great sign, not only for the future of one little book, but for the appetite that clearly exists out there for regional histories like this one.

Next stop, the Victory Cafe on June 26 for the Toronto launch. And then, well, who knows?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The "holy grail"

Shipwreck hunters Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville are at it again, this time uncovering the wreck of HMS Ontario, a British warship that went down on Lake Ontario way back in 1780, at the height of the American Revolution.

The Ontario was on its way from Fort Niagara to Oswego, New York, when she disappeared in a sudden storm on October 31, 1780. About 130 people, including her crew, some British soldiers, and even around thirty American prisoners went to the bottom with the ill-fated Ontario that day.

"It's the holy grail of Great Lakes wrecks," Kennard told a reporter this week.

At 228 years of age, the Ontario is certainly the oldest identified wreck on the Great Lakes. She lies in complete darkness and bone-chilling cold about 150 metres below the surface of Lake Ontario. Kennard and Scoville were shocked at her state of preservation when they first found her a few months ago. She rests on the muddy bottom at about a 45-degree angle with her masts upright and, reportedly, even intact glass in some of her windows.

Kennard and Scoville are experienced divers who hunt Great Lakes shipwrecks as a hobby. They spent three years searching for the Ontario.

You can read the full story, from today's Toronto Star, here.

I've written about two other Kennard-Scoville finds, the Orcadian and the Milan, previously. Click on the ship names to read these posts.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Freshwater Father's Day

Lake Erie Stories is leading off Dundurn Press's list of gift suggestions for Father's Day this Sunday. (My stepdad already got a copy, which conveniently got me off the hook this year.)

If you're still wondering what to give, you can see the complete list by clicking here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Back to the Bay

Georgian Bay port towns have a wide range of personalities. Some, like Honey Harbour, have a neat, clean, almost obsessively regimented feel to them. Like little bridges between the big city that lurks to the south and the quiet cottages that line the many small islands beyond.

But most, like Bayfield Inlet, where Amy and I found ourselves last weekend, are much more rustic, and owe their existence to some long-gone industry, like forestry or the railway. Today, many still cling to a precarious existence along the Bay's rocky shores, with gas, groceries, cigarettes and other cottage necessities now driving their tiny economies. But despite (and perhaps because of) the relentless march of time, they retain a subtle coziness. And you never know just what you might stumble across.

The Blue Bastard, demon scourge of the Great Lakes, sits partially submerged at her dock in Bayfield Inlet. Her last beer run complete, she waits to be reclaimed by nature. Or at least her hull does. That's a pretty nice outboard that probably won't stay hooked to her transom for too much longer.

A couple hours' paddle out of Bayfield Inlet delivers you to the outer islands, which shelter the inlet from the crashing waters of the open bay. Some of these rocky atolls only barely break the water's surface, but others, like this one, make excellent spots to set up camp for a couple days of exploring.

On Sunday, we picked our way through the labyrinth of the outer islands, occasionally braving the open water. Out here, you never lose the sense that a new mystery lurks around every corner, just waiting to be uncovered. Here is one of the lesser ones; an old Piper floatplane, lovingly restored and docked at a remote cottage. Not much wider than a human body, she was capable of holding a pilot and exactly one passenger. Later, we saw her proud owner looping low over our campsite, no doubt taking in a pretty awesome view.

A slightly more harrowing mystery waited on an island quite near our camp. As we looped back for a nice dinner and a long night's slumber, we came upon him, feasting on weeds and grubs. I can tell I'm getting more comfortable with the presence of bears on the bay. Paddling to within a respectful distance, I held up the camera and made a "tst, tst, tst" sound, like one does when one calls the family cat. Later, I thought: "Did I really do that? There's no way that was smart." But it resulted in a pretty great picture, nonetheless.

I've never slept more deeply than I did during those two nights out on Bayfield Inlet, lulled as I was by the symphony of bugs and the long, echoing wail of a nearby pair of loons. It has been a long, dark winter indeed, but Georgian Bay sure wasn't slow to remind us what a special place she truly is.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Defining Lake Erie

A number of weeks ago, I did a Q&A with my publisher, Dundurn Press for their blog, definingcanada.ca. With tomorrow being the "official" publication date for Lake Erie Stories, they decided to post it today.

If you're at all interested in what makes oddball Great Lakes authors tick, you can read the full interview by clicking here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Reader response

While checking the mail a couple days back, I was surprised when a small envelope stamped "Air Mail" from Arizona poked its way out from between the usual coupon booklets and real-estate flyers. Not knowing anyone from Arizona, I rushed upstairs and opened it.

Inside was a little card adorned with a black-and-white image of a small bird standing next to a cactus. I opened it, revealing a handwritten message from a descendant of Amund Eidsmoe, who had been aboard the ill-fated steamer Atlantic when it sank after a collision with another ship in 1852. The Atlantic is one of the four wrecks I wrote about in Lake Erie Stories. The note was from one of Eidsmoe's descendants (you can read more about them here) whom, I belatedly remembered, I had sent a free copy for his help with my research. He had received the book, he wrote, and had quickly flipped to his forebear's story.

"You did well with the story of the Atlantic, and Amund Eidsmoe's family. I will treasure this book."

When those who trusted me with their family's history are moved to make such gracious comments, everything else is gravy, really. And I'm delighted that I could play a small part in helping Eidsmoe's story find new life. In the end, I guess, it is why we go to all the trouble of writing these books in the first place.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sales pitch

This past weekend marked the unofficial promotional kickoff for Lake Erie Stories.

Saturday was the first stop; an afternoon at the Ontario Genealogical Society conference in London. Dundurn had a booth set up there, and it was a tough room full of serious historians, to be sure. Still, the book got a warm reception, and I got to road-test my pitch, which essentially boils down to: "Hi. I'm here signing my new book. It's my first one."

A bunch of green balloons were placed on the table, indicating that an author was indeed present. Another factor that worked in my favour was the booth's location. We were next to the door leading to the washroom, which allowed me to periodically lunge at startled passersby.

In the end, it went well. I personally moved around six books, some to people who didn't know much at all about Lake Erie.

From there it was on to a much easier event at my folks' place on the beaches of Point Pelee. It was a stellar day on Sunday, the lake was sparkling in that tropical way that only Erie can, and kind people popped in from all over the neighbourhood. (Some family members even chipped in this fancy Lake Erie Stories labelled wine. Pelee Island, no less.)

An astounding number of people came with their own copies, which was really touching. Still, I managed to sell over twenty more as my tired wrist (and brain) strained to come up with unique messages to write in each book. Some people were even organized enough to come with their own messages scratched on little pieces of paper, which was unbelievably helpful.

So we are officially off and running. Next stop, BookExpo in Toronto on
June 15 (click here for more on that) and the Toronto launch for the book at the Victory Cafe in the Annex neighbourhood on the 26th. And there will be much more to come, I'm sure.

Phew.