Haunting and Macabre Tales
About the Book:
Roses in December is a short story collection which defies categorisation. Some of the stories are haunting – others are deeply troubling.
A man receives a religious vision in his ordinary back garden; a nuclear physicist in Australia experiences a great surprise where he least expects it; a duct-tape salesman unsettles his faithful customer; Voltaire does not put his best foot forward; someone makes a grim discovery upon waking up in a prison; a psychiatrist does his best to treat a political extremist; a nineteenth-century photographer goes about his usual (and highly unusual) business; and a wealthy neighbourhood in Montreal becomes the scene of an immense and avoidable tragedy.
In twenty-two short (and extremely short) stories and fables, Matthew de Lacey Davidson cuts close to the unintended poetry and grimness of every-day existence, while at the same time enabling the reader to have compassion for those described therein.
1: Tell us a little about yourself and what got you in to writing?
I am multicultural: I was born in Toronto, Canada; grew up in Wellington, New Zealand; lived in Illinois, USA for sixteen years; moved to Montreal for 11 years; and am now resident in Nova Scotia. The house in which I grew up (in New Zealand) had more books than you could shake a stick at, so in that respect, I was fortunate. Most likely, this set the stage for my interest in writing.
I started drawing cartoons when I was a six-year-old and have had cartoons published in all three countries. At one point, I was earning the monumental sum of $40 a cartoon! My favourites were B. Kliban, George Herriman, and Charles M. Schultz, but, for the most part, I created single panel cartoons, usually with an extremely verbose caption. I’m no Vincent van Gogh, so the cartoons were largely conceptual, and the words were probably better realised than the images.
My father was a professional actor for ten years, and I’m sure his love of Shakespeare affected me – I certainly grew up with a lot of ten-dollar-words flying around. While doing my Bachelor’s degree in Music, I wrote, produced, and directed two plays. I think the act of doing these productions at the age of 16 and 17 will always be more impressive than the “works” themselves could ever be. I also did amateur theatricals as a student: I played Will Roper in A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt; McKyle in The Ruling Class by Peter Barnes; and I played the Real Inspector Hound in the eponymous play by Tom Stoppard. All these experiences made me sensitive to the world of script writing and having an ear for dialogue.
The mother and father of my best friend from high school were, respectively, a film editor and a film director. When I went over to their house to watch television, I would often get a running commentary (long before the days of the Director’s commentary we find on many DVDs today) on the technique of any given film. While watching a heavily censored version (for New Zealand television) of Hitchcock’s Psycho, I remember seeing a scene where Anthony Perkins leans over the guest book of the Bates’ Hotel to make a comment on an entry. Half of his face was obscured due to the lack of light, and the camera was looking upwards from the ground, underneath his neck and face. My friend exclaimed, “What a brilliant shot!” It was at that point that I started to appreciate the skill involved in good filmmaking, and the necessity of interesting camera angles.
My “writing,” such as it was for most of my life, consisted mostly of song lyrics, greatly influenced by Stephen Sondheim, and the occasional comic verse. I also wrote several “comic essays” along the same lines as S. J. Perelman, but only one of them ever got published, in 1989 (“Reluctance”). That story, and two others written in that year, are now part of the collection entitled, Roses in December: Haunting and Macabre Tales. I also wrote the notes for the twelve compact discs, which I recorded and commercially released between 1994 and 2008.
Until 2015, music composition and piano performance had been my central interest. I also have a degree in Social Work. These experiences, I believe, have added to the depth of what I write.
I never had any intention of doing any “serious” writing, until, with my wife’s encouragement; I enrolled in a single-term poetry-writing course at McGill University in 2015. It was taught by Sue Sinclair. I wasn’t even interested in writing poetry, per se, I just wanted to become more skillful at writing song lyrics, so I could do a better job writing a libretto for an opera I had planned. However, as the course progressed, I found, to my surprise, that I had a knack for writing metered, rhyming poetry. While in the class, for the most part, I wrote what might be loosely termed, “light verse” but became adept at writing more serious works as well. One of my earliest poems was one about the brief life of the photographer Francesca Woodman, which was modelled after Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. Eventually, three collections came about as the result of this experience. I edited the poems non-stop for about two years, and threw out a lot of them, finally releasing two collections: Please Don’t Forget Me, and What Souls Might Bear. The best bit of writing advice I ever got was from Ms. Sinclair, to wit, “Show, but don’t tell.”
2: Do you have a favourite time and place where you write?
I’ve always considered two o’clock in the afternoon to be a “magical time.” But seriously, I’m usually so busy, that I grab a minute here; catch a second there, during commutes, during lunch breaks, on weekends, whenever a small window of opportunity presents itself.
3: Where do your ideas come from?
Usually from real life. I find doing so adds greater realism, because, I believe, truth is stranger than fiction. However, I am not a great fiction reader, preferring non-fiction and history. Stories I have heard from others often are a source, but in addition, news stories give great suggestions. Apparently, I choose very controversial topics, although I’ve never felt that they were controversial in any way, at least, not to me. For instance, one of my short stories, The Road to Hell, is the result of hearing news stories about racism that educated women of colour experience on airplanes in North America.
A serendipitous trip to Kingston, Ontario, resulted in a long poem, Shine Out, Fair Sun. ViaRail, Canada’s cross-country train system, once cancelled a train, which my wife and I had booked to Ottawa, Ontario. This resulted in a truncated trip, and a complaint to the company. After an hour of complaining, they finally agreed to a free return ticket to Kingston. While walking in the historic downtown area of Kingston, my wife and I saw an advertisement for a “Haunted Tour.” We thought it might be fun. On this tour, there was a story regarding some “resurrectionists” – or grave robbers. I had never heard of such a thing. I did extensive research and discovered that grave-robbing was one of the most lucrative and rapidly-expanding trades in the English-speaking world in the late 18th and early 19th century, due to the increased demand for cadavers in the medical community, for the purpose of anatomy classes. I originally wanted to write a novel, but ultimately decided to compose a “long poem” using this as a topic. Apparently, an epic poem can only be the product of a “great nation,” and according to the classicists, North America cannot be defined as a “great nation.” In deference to the opinion of the classicists, I gave the poem the sub-title of “an Almost-Epic Poem.”
The novel that I am currently in the process of editing and publishing, Precept, is a fictional account of the four months that 19th century civil rights leader Frederick Douglass spent in Ireland. The story behind what suggested this to me is a little more convoluted. While watching a DVD of the film Lincoln, directed by Stephen Spielberg, I started to ask myself, “Where are all the black people?” I mean, I saw a couple of nameless soldiers, and a butler, and a maid, but nobody else. Then I started to ask, “Where is Frederick Douglass?” Now, you cannot discuss American history, Civil War history, the history of slavery, or history in general without acknowledging Frederick Douglass. He was probably the most eloquent Orator of all time, and of paramount importance in the fight to abolish slavery. Nonetheless, what I saw in Lincoln made me feel so upset, that I started to read up on Frederick Douglass myself, and found an interesting little historical tidbit, to wit, that he spent four months in Ireland when escaping possible recapture as a “fugitive” slave. Also, that the country had almost as much of a profound impact upon him, as he did upon it. I thought, “What a marvelous idea for an historical novel.” Then I thought, “How could I accomplish such a thing successfully?” So, I chose the narrator to be a young Irish boy who witnesses and observes Mr. Douglass. And much of what he sees goes unexplained, as children don’t understand everything that goes on around them.
The short answer to your question is – I don’t find subjects to write about; they find me!
4: Do you have a plan in your head of where the story is going before you start writing or do you let it carry you along as you go?
What was interesting to me is that when I started to write seriously, I realised many of the same concepts discussed in the composing music are transferable to creative writing. In both instances, I need an overall plan. I structure everything very clearly before writing a word. I think about everything first, including diction and dialogue; then I commit words to “paper” and it all comes together very quickly.
For instance, the structure of Precept is loosely based on that of The Great Gatsby. There are a small number of long chapters. In my book, however, the first three chapters are an exposition; the second three chapters are a “development” of sorts, but they are all epistolic in nature; and the final three chapters are the conclusion and dénouement. This creates a sort of “mirror shape.”
5: What genre are your books and what drew you to that genre?
That is a good question and difficult to answer. My creative writing does not fit neatly into any category, and that makes my work very difficult to market. My poems are somewhat influenced by Allen Ginsberg and New Zealand poet James K. Baxter, so there is a social-consciousness element attached to most of them. My short stories might be loosely termed, “Sort-of-but-not-quite-Urban-or-Suburban-Gothic” and all of them deal with individuals who are confronted with difficult or impossible life situations which leave them little to no choice in their lives. True ghost or “horror” stories do not interest me. My novel, Precept, is an historical novel. While it does not mince words about the truly appalling conditions found in, and the nature of, 19th century slavery, I’m not so sure that there is anything truly “Gothic” about that – it is just realistic. In fact, quite a lot of the dialogue uses direct (that is, public domain) quotes from Douglass’ letters and speeches.
6: What dream cast would you like to see playing the characters in your latest book?
Having staged my own student theatricals in the past, my experience has shown me that it is always best to cross that bridge if and when I come to it.
7: Do you read much and if so who are your favourite authors?
A good writer, in my opinion, must read widely. That’s how you learn. Shakespeare is definitely my favourite, not just for the technical skill and wide vocabulary, but for the profundity of the characters he created in his plays. Similar to the composers whose work I enjoy, I find it difficult to say “I like so-and-so” because quite often authors wrote only a small number of truly great works. I like a number of poems by Philip Larkin, Elisabeth Bishop, John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Kenneth Rexroth, Edmond Rostand, Emily Dickinson, Countee Cullen, John Keats, W. B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Jacques Prévert, and James K. Baxter. I enjoyed Danté’s Inferno, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. There are too many good poets to name them all. For short stories, I prefer some of the works by Truman Capote, Bernard Malamud, Katherine Mansfield, F. Scott Fitzgerald (not the ones published in his lifetime, but the posthumous ones), Somerset Maugham, and Nikolai Gogol. I like Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess, but not A Clockwork Orange; some of the novels by Jane Austen; A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh; and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but not 1984. My favourite biographer is Claire Tomalin, whose books, I believe, set the standard by which all others may and should be judged; I enjoy some of John Kenneth Galbraith’s books; and some of David Sedaris’ stories make me laugh out loud.
8: What book/s are you reading at present?
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I am also struggling to read Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin and English, but it is slow going.
9: What is your favourite book and why?
My favourite book when I was growing up was Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, by Joseph Adamson. I read it over and over again during those years. It is a great example of how to write wittily and well. And by using quotes from famous authors throughout the book, he makes the point that comedy, like literature, can aspire to high Art. I would struggle to name a current favourite book, but certainly one that fascinates me the most right now is Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn. The best reason I can come up with is that it challenges the reader to confront his or her own prejudices.
10: What advice would you give for someone thinking about becoming a writer?
If memory serves, I believe that poet Mary Oliver says in one her books, something along the lines that if you have a choice between doing your own writing or reading another writer, one should choose to read someone else’s writing first. In my opinion, preferably, the classics. Too many writers are not aware of what has been done in the past, and as a result, one encounters no cultural, sociological, nor historical context; and further, no one benefits by re-inventing the wheel. In addition, if someone is going to try and be socially conscious in what they write, they need to be aware that there is a very fine line between making socially conscious artistic statements, and creating propaganda – or just plain preaching. I stand to be corrected, but I believe it was Alice Walker who once wrote that if you are going to write political treatises, you should probably stay away from fiction writing.
In the 19th century, creative writing was deemed to be worthwhile only if there was a strong, judgmental, purported “moral” to be gleaned. This was the reason why homosexual characters (or women who have extra-marital affairs) in the novels of that era, always come to no good end. Even Oscar Wilde, who was gay himself, was not immune from this sort of thing as one sees in The Picture of Dorian Gray, an obvious allegory for someone like Wilde, who leads a “secret life”. My strongest hope is that everyone should find that attitude towards writing perverse. “Moral ambiguity” and not openly judging the characters is always more interesting, and a more artistically sound method of story telling, in my opinion. In other words, let me think for myself. Stories that let the reader decide what is right from wrong will stand the test of time. It is the advantage a truly great film like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing will always have over obviously silly films, like certain Westerns or Police/Action movies where there are excessively-clearly defined “Goodies” and “Baddies.”
11: What are the best Social Media Sites for people to find out about you and your work?
Amazon Page: www.mazon.com/author/matthewdelaceydavidson
About the Author:
Matthew de Lacey Davidson is the author of two poetry collections and a play in verse. In addition, he is a composer and pianist and has released 12 compact discs. His poetry and short stories have been published by Grammateion, and the online literary journal, Danse Macabre; music analyses by SCI; cartoons and reviews by TOM Magazine; and cartoons by Canadian Science News. He has written the music, libretto, and lyrics for a chamber opera, The Singing Lesson, based on three short stories by New Zealand author, Katherine Mansfield. He lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, with his wife, Shayna, and a plethora of Siamese and Tonkinese cats.