is writing a novel like building a volkswagen?

Last month JL and I took a road trip from Toronto to Mexico. Or at least we started to take a road trip, until JL’s beloved 1971 VW “Skybus” broke down in Santa Maria, CA.

cutest breakdown ever

We were stressed and despondent at the prospect of cutting the trip short or paying big $$ to have some shady garageman vivisect little Skybus. But then JL (re) discovered, an old-school discussion board of ardent VW owners and mechanics. And it turns out that San Diego, CA is the epicenter of Samba expertise and generosity.

So we found ourselves parked in this guy Gary’s home garage for two days while Gary, JL and this other guy named Robbie completely rebuilt Skybus’ engine with a brand new core from yet another guy named Jeff up in Riverside.

The inestimable Gary, working on Skybus in his driveway

Meanwhile I tried to take advantage of the quiet, sunny backyard to catch up on schoolwork and do some writing.

My backyard view at Gary’s house in San Diego

Which got me to thinking: how is engine-building like writing a novel? Based on my research, which consisted of hovering around the garage doorway and eavesdropping, I believe there are some significant similarities…

Most straightforwardly, there’s the aspect of basic assembly, of getting all the parts into the right place, like a jigsaw puzzle. Really, though, with an air-cooled engine or with a novel you want the whole to be more than the sum of its parts. The engine should purr not rattle; the novel should do the same. This seems to be a matter of a) Luck, b) Experience, c) Research (For vintage Volkswagens, the Bible is John Muir’s 1969-78 How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. For writing, there are any number of creative writing courses, programs, workshops, manuals…I like Alan Watt’s The 90 Day Novel, for one).Muir

d) Willingness to innovate and experiment, e) Taking advice from those you’re working with who may be more experienced than you (your co-mechanics, other writers).

Also, both jobs–VW overhaul and novel-writing–are linear in nature. When (re)building a bus engine, the crankshaft is placed in its bearings between the engine case halves, then the connecting rods are attached to the crankshaft and the pistons to the rods’ other end. The cylinders are then mounted on the case over the pistons…and so on and so forth…until the valve train is bolded overtop and the valve covers are affixed by wire bales. The ancillary parts (fuel pump, distributor, alternator, etc.) have to be installed before the engine is mated to the transmission….you get the idea. When writing a novel, one word (obviously) has to hit the page before the next–even if you end up monkeying with the order later, in revision. (Also, will you just look at all that great vocabulary needed to build an engine? It’s pretty much the same with a novel).

And yet for both projects it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, this building endeavour. The bus will run with a clunking sound; it’ll run on two cylinders (like we did, limping into Santa Maria). I overheard Gary say, “Ugh, I really don’t like your breather hose,” and JL reply, “Okay, I guess now’s the time to do it,” knowing it’d cost a little more time and a little more cash but be worth it in the end. I surmised that they could have opted not to replace the breather hose this time around, and that that would have been okay too. With a novel you can always hone subplots and axe (or add) a character and streamline description later on–at least until publication, anyway. Not thinking too hard about the final result is a a vital strategy for moving forward with a first (or second, or tenth) draft.

Then there are the specialized tools of the trade, without which you may as well not even bother. Gary’s personal collection of tools was most impressive (turns out he’s an aerospace mechanic by training, too yet). Stephen King’s excellent memoir/manual On Writing has a chapter called “The Writing Toolbox,” in which he describes dialogue, grammar, and vocabulary as some of the many tools a writer should know how to use effectively.

And finally, all this hard work is so much less arduous in a group! Luckily for JL and me, these guys truly adore tinkering with vintage vehicles, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The long days at Gary’s are closed with takeout Italian food, beer, and good cheer, and we depart San Diego fit as a fiddle and buoyed by the sense of having found members of our tribe on the other side of the continent. A week later Robbie sends us a pic of Skybus snapped by a friend of his somewhere on the freeway; we feel surrounded and supported by an invisible community of helpers.

This is where writing a novel differs, despite the excellent feedback and advice from friends and editors: it’s fundamentally a solo enterprise, writing. You’re alone with the page, writing a novel–but that doesn’t mean you can’t set up a writing date with a friend and work together. I’ve written before (here) about the importance of writing buddies in my own practice, my need for accountability and company.

Our experience at Gary’s house was the ultimate coming-to-fruition of the these guys have figured out the joy of working together, on a (soft) deadline, on a project. even as strangers. Thanks Gary, Robbie, and Jeff!

not strangers anymore
...and Skybus made it to Mexico!
…and Skybus made it to Mexico!

10 Brilliant Retellings of Classical Myths

I read a lot of mythology while writing The Red Word (which has an Iliad-type of thing going on in it). Here’s a list I made for (click to view):


Confessions of a Bystander

An essay/memoir piece I wrote for (click image to read):


The Red Word book launch, The Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, March 2018



First sighting in the wild… The Red Word spotted at Queen Books in Toronto. Thanks for sending the pic, Heidi!

book launch: THE RED WORD

tarot cards and storytelling

This is a piece I wrote for Plenty Magazine a while back on the relationship between reading tarot cards and storytelling. You can read the original essay here.


Wonders and curiosities. I adore Plenty’s theme for this month, because wonder and curiosity are the primary drivers for my work as a fiction writer. In my experience, “What if..?” is the question behind all storytelling.

My curiosity leads me into musty archives and libraries. It tempts me to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations and copy them into my notebook. It prompts me to ask people questions for which I don’t need the answers—I just want to know more, to hear the details, to hear their voices as they talk and to figure out how they feel about the topic. And it’s my sense of wonder that keeps me writing, once I’ve begun a new novel: I want to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery of the story until I discover its secret magic.

Wonder is also what led me to my first deck of tarot cards. I was 14 years old, and I’d already exhausted the “Occult” section in the local library, mostly because my Christian school teachers had warned us that it was dangerous to dabble in such things. I’d already learned how to read my friends’ palms, horoscopes and tea leaves, and I’d memorized whole sections of the Dictionary of Dreams (I knew, for example, that if you dreamed your teeth were falling out, it meant you were worried about money).

The tarot for me was a major step up from all these other methods of divination. There are 78 cards in a tarot deck. There are multiple options for laying them out and ordering them. And each card has dozens of different readings, depending on which tarot tradition you prefer.


I bought my first Rider-Waite tarot deck in a vintage clothing store in my hometown of London, Ontario. Right from the start I loved how each brightly inked illustration was so distinct from the others, how each image seemed to belong to a different story, even if I wasn’t sure what that story was.

I studied lots of tarot books back then but never really tried to read anyone’s cards—I was shy about the stigma of tarot seeming flaky, when what I really wanted was to seem smart. After a few months I tucked the cards into my bookshelf and forgot about them.

Recently, though, I’ve fallen in love with the tarot all over again. I dug out my old deck of cards. I read some more books, and made notes on each card in my own tarot notebook. I took a couple of tarot workshops. And I’m no longer shy about doing readings for anyone who’ll let me.

As a grownup, as a professor of English literature, as a fan of folklore and myth, and most of all as a writer, what delights me now about the tarot is its beauty and power as a storytelling tool. The tarot deck is a great method for telling stories to ourselves about ourselves, stories about our lives and the way our lives are interconnected. Tarot makes connections between ideas–even ideas that seem at first completely unrelated–and this allows us to think about things in new and surprising ways.

Here is a card I’ve been drawing a lot lately in my readings when I’m thinking about the novel that I’m currently revising: The Fool.


The Fool represents the young hero leaving home for the first time, setting out on a journey into the unknown, trusting to luck. According to Sally Nichols’ book Jung and the Tarot, the Fool represents the trickster archetype across cultures, a playful, deregulating force that produces wisdom in surprising, non-rational ways.

So what might this mean for me, for the next phase of work on my novel? Maybe it suggests I should cultivate a beginner’s mind and not be too married to my preconceived ideas about the story I’m crafting. Maybe it means I can approach it playfully and allow myself to experiment without worrying that I’ll make a terrible mess of it.

Do I believe in tarot? Like, believe believe? People ask me this question sometimes. Well, I believe that a tarot reading allows us to contemplate alternative ways of seeing our problems. I believe it offers clarity when our emotions and thoughts are cloudy.  I believe it creates a conversation between two people (even strangers) that cuts through small talk and dives deep into storytelling, the exploration and interpretation of tales. And I believe its insights have unique staying power–we remember them–thanks to the visual reinforcement of its symbols and illustrations.

I believe in the tarot the same way I believe in great novels. Reading tarot cards and reading a great novel both have the power to shift our thinking and make us see things in a new light. They can renew our sense of curiosity about the world. They can fill even the most ordinary situations with wonder. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.