Showing posts with label Canada. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Canada. Show all posts

08 December 2019

Maple Syrup Heist eh?


In Ottawa we celebrate maple syrup season by trekking out to a sugar bush, watching the maple sap being collected and indulging in large stacks of pancakes smothered in maple syrup at one of our many sugar shacks.

So, when Leigh Lundin suggested I write about the Canadian maple syrup heist, I thought ‘heist’ was a strong word for people running through the maple grove stealing buckets of sap.

It turns out that I was wrong, a heist it was: over twelve months, 3,000 tons of syrup, worth $18.7 million, was stolen. None of this was done by stealing buckets collecting sap. Worse, learning about this heist ruined all my lovely and naive sugarbush experiences and I’ll never look at another bottle of maple syrup the same way again.

The heist was possible because of three important facts that blew my preconceived notions about maple syrup out of the water.

 First, "maple syrup comes only from the red- and sugar-maple forests found in the upper right-hand corner of North America, just where you’d sign your name if this were a test." This means that Canada, particularly the province of Quebec, produces 71% of the world’s maple syrup.

Second, since 1966 the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers has instituted quotas and rules that have increased the price of maple syrup to be, in 2016, "valued at just over $1,300 a barrel, 26 times more expensive than crude"’

Third, to control the supply of maple syrup, "members of the federation—Quebec’s bulk producers are required to join—give their harvest over to FPAQ… Some of it is sold immediately; the rest is stored in the Reserve…In this way, the federation steadies supply, filling the coffers in banner years, satisfying demand in fallow."


So, maple syrup production is not a cottage industry, adorably ensconced in sugar shacks dotting our maple groves. It’s a large profitable industry controlled and managed much like the oil industry. Total value of all maple products in 2018 was $384.4 million.

To give a visual recap:


The maple grove where I thought they stole maple syrup from:






The Reserve is in Laurierville, Quebec, where they actually stole maple syrup from:





A total of $18.7 million dollars of maple syrup was stolen from the Reserve in Laurierville. The  thieves used trucks to transport barrels, siphoned off the maple syrup, and refilled the barrels with water and returned them to the facility. Later the thieves siphoned syrup directly from the barrels in the Reserve and left them empty. The stolen syrup was then sold in the United States and in New Brunswick, Canada, to distributors, many of whom were unaware it was stolen.

When the theft was discovered in 2012, the Sûreté du Québec police began an extensive investigation aided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and U.S. Customs. The police arrested two alleged ringleaders and 24 other people. A large portion of the syrup would ultimately be recovered.

However, this not the end of the story because it raises interesting questions about the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.

One of the ring leaders was Étienne St-Pierre, a maple syrup buyer from Kedgwick, New Brunswick, who bought the stolen syrup.

"You can't prove what tree the syrup came from," St-Pierre told the jury.

“St-Pierre also admitted he had long been an opponent of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, and resented their control of the market.

“The Crown produced evidence suggesting St-Pierre considered the federation to be akin to the Mafia.”

Is the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers like a maple syrup mafia? It is “a powerful marketing board with almost absolute control over the provincial industry…all Quebec maple syrup must pass through the federation, which dictates how much each producer can sell, and penalizes unauthorized production and selling.”

So, not a mafia, but certainly restrictive.

Before his sentencing, this is what St. Pierre said: he’ll continue to ignore those rules. And he’ll keep buying maple syrup from Quebec’s scofflaw producers. “I will never stop. I didn’t steal nothing.”

Étienne St-Pierre was found guilty of fraud and trafficking in 2017 and sentenced to two years less a day to serve in the community, as well as a three-year probation.

11 August 2019

Canada responds to the U.S. on mass exportation of our drugs: Sorry.


Rarely does American primary politics impact Canada, but Senator Bernie Sanders’ ‘Insulin Caravan’ has certainly led to a situation that has ruffled Canadian feathers.

First, let’s be clear on why Sen. Sanders came: “By traveling to Canada, which has a single-payer, government-backed health care system, he was also making an implicit case for his "Medicare for All" plan, which would create a similar system in this country."

The people who came in the caravan didn’t come for political reasons but, rather, for heartbreakingly personal reasons: “Kathy Sego, who made a 7-hour trip from Indiana with her son, Hunter, who requires insulin and has rationed his intake, became emotional as she described choosing between paying a power bill or for the teen's medicine.”

What is the response in Canada? The average Canadian believes that healthcare is a human right and this compassion is best expressed by the Canadian mother of an eight-year-old Type 1 diabetic : "When I see headlines of people passing away because they're having to ration their insulin and they can't afford it [and] when you live with someone with Type 1, I can't imagine," she said. "What if it was your mother? Your brother? Any family member? I would give anything I could to afford the insulin to buy it — but we shouldn't need to do that.”

Then this happened: “[The Trump] administration said it was weighing plans to allow for the legal importation of prescription drugs from Canada to help Americans coping with skyrocketing drug prices in the United States.
The response from Canadians? Sorry, but back off.”

Why such a different response to the individuals coming for drugs and the American government promoting a mass importation of Canadian drugs? It is because Canada has a small population of 37M compared to the massive population of 325M. We already have drug shortages and cannot sustain a mass exodus of our life-saving drugs.

In fact, “the Canadian Medical Association and 14 other groups representing patients, health-care professionals, pharmacists and hospitals wrote last week to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor. The supply simply does not, and will not, exist within Canada to meet such demands…John Adams, the chair of the Best Medicines Coalition, an advocacy group for access to drugs that signed the letter last week to the health minister, said he’s not encouraged by the Canadian government’s “nonspecific” response to Trump’s proposal.
He called it “a clear and present danger” to the health of Canadians.
This is not the sort of thing that good neighbors do to each other.”

This is Canadian-speak for no, we won’t do that.

So, the consensus seems to be this: if you are in dire need, come here and we’ll share.

 If you want - as a nation - to pull drugs away from Canadians, then no. And no again. 

Perhaps it’s time that Americans use the Canadian method of price regulation. “The reason for the discrepancy is because Canada regulates drug prices through the quasi-judicial Patented Medicine Prices Review Board designed to prevent gouging...In the U.S., market forces are the lay of the land.” 


In speaking to the character of Canada, I would like to thank the Canadian who invented insulin: “Banting famously sold his patent for $1 because he believed his discovery belonged to the world and not for profit.”

I hope America takes Banting’s message and actions to heart and creates a system where citizens can access drugs at a fair price. However, when it comes to pilfering Canadian drugs on a large scale, Canadians have clearly said, sorry but no.

In case our response is misunderstood, translated into American speak, the answer is, “Hell no.”

22 June 2019

Ten Minutes of Comedy at the Arthur Ellis Awards Gala (and they even let me stay on stage...)


The Crime Writers of Canada went loco, and asked me to emcee the Arthur Ellis Awards this year.  Somehow they learned I might have done standup in the past.  Or maybe not, because they even paid me.  It may be more than my royalties this quarter.

I dug back into my Sleuthsayer files to decide what might appeal to a hardened (read soused) group of crime writers en mass, with an open bar.  This is what resulted, and I’m happy to say the applause was generous.  You may remember some of this. 



Arts and Letters Club, Toronto, May 23, 2019, 9PM



Hello!  Mike said I could do a few minutes of comedy this evening as long as I apologized in advance.



My name is Melodie Campbell, and it’s my pleasure to welcome here tonight crime writers, friends and family of crime writers, sponsors, agents, and any publishers still left out there.



Tonight is that special night when the crime writing community in Canada meets to do that one thing we look forward to all year:  which is get together and bitch about the industry.



Many of you knew my late husband Dave.  He was a great supporter of my writing, and of our crime community in general.  But many times, he could be seen wandering through the house, shaking his head and muttering “Never Marry a crime writer.”



I’ve decided, here tonight, to list the reasons why.



Everybody knows they shouldn’t marry a crime writer.  Mothers the world over have made that obvious: “For Gawd Sake, never marry a marauding barbarian, a sex pervert, or a crime writer.” (Or a politician, but that is my own personal bias.  Ignore me.)



But for some reason, lots of innocent, unsuspecting people marry authors every year.  Obviously, they don’t know about the “Zone.”  (More obviously, they didn’t have the right mothers.)



Never mind: I’m here to help.



I think it pays to understand that crime writers aren’t normal humans: they write about people who don’t exist and things that never happened.  Their brains work differently.  They have different needs.  And in some cases, they live on different planets (at least, my characters do, which is kind of the same thing.)



Thing is, authors are sensitive creatures.  This can be attractive to some humans who think that they can ‘help’ poor writer-beings (in the way that one might rescue a stray dog.)  True, we are easy to feed and grateful for attention.  We respond well to praise.  And we can be adorable.  So there are many reasons you might wish to marry a crime writer, but here are 10 reasons why you shouldn’t:



The basics: 



1  Crime Writers are hoarders.  Your house will be filled with books.  And more books.  It will be a shrine to books.  The lost library of Alexandria will pale in comparison.



2  Crime Writers are addicts.  We mainline coffee.  We’ve also been known to drink other beverages in copious quantities, especially when together with other writers in places called ‘bars.’ 



3  Authors are weird.  Crime Writers are particularly weird (as weird as horror writers.) You will hear all sorts of gruesome research details at the dinner table.  When your parents are there.  Maybe even with your parents in mind.



4  Crime Writers are deaf.  We can’t hear you when we are in our offices, pounding away at keyboards. Even if you come in the room.  Even if you yell in our ears.



5  Crime Writers are single-minded.  We think that spending perfectly good vacation money to go to conferences like Bouchercon is a really good idea.  Especially if there are other writers there with whom to drink beverages.



 And here are some worse reasons why you shouldn’t marry a crime writer:



6  It may occasionally seem that we’d rather spend time with our characters than our family or friends. 



7  We rarely sleep through the night.  (It’s hard to sleep when you’re typing.  Also, all that coffee...)



8  Our Google Search history is a thing of nightmares.  (Don’t look.  No really – don’t.  And I’m not just talking about ways to avoid taxes… although if anyone knows a really fool-proof scheme, please email me.)



And the really bad reasons:



9  If we could have affairs with our beloved protagonists, we probably would. (No!  Did I say that out loud?)



10  And lastly, We know at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught.



RE that last one:  If you are married to a crime writer, don’t worry over-much.  Usually crime writers do not kill the hand that feeds them.  Most likely, we are way too focused on figuring out ways to kill our agents, editors, and particularly, reviewers. 

Finally, it seems appropriate to finish with the first joke I ever sold, way back in the 1990s:

Recent studies show that approximately 40% of writers are manic depressive.  The rest of us just drink.

Melodie Campbell can be found with a bottle of Southern Comfort in the True North.  You can follow her inane humour at www.melodiecampbell.com



10 March 2019

Canadian police are very good at NOT shooting people:
A Conversation with Darren Laur


by Mary Fernando

Like the rest of the world, I watched the events that unfolded in Toronto in April of 2018.

“There has been worldwide amazement that Toronto Police did not shoot the suspect in Monday’s vehicular attack.

He had left a street strewn with bodies and was wielding an object that he claimed was a firearm. Nevertheless, Const. Ken Lam not only arrested him without using lethal force, but did it without waiting for backup.

Seven months ago, when a 30-year-old man perpetrated a similar vehicular attack in downtown Edmonton — which injured four, in addition to the stabbing of a police officer — he too was apprehended without a single shot being fired.

Both events speak to a pattern: Canadian police are very good at not shooting people.

“Policing in Canada is not policing in America … the police in Canada use force with incredible infrequency,” said Joel Johnston, a veteran Vancouver Police officer and former use-of-force co-ordinator for the province of British Columbia.

The statistics back this up: The rate of police shooting in Canada is 11 times lower than in the U.S.

Another account of the incident in Toronto of April 2018:  “From the video, it appears the suspect was yelling for the police officer to shoot him. He dropped his arm to his side and brought it back up again as if pointing a weapon at the police officer. Again, it was not a typical shooting stance. This officer clearly had de-escalation in mind. He recognized his car siren was on and went back to turn it off. This shows that he did not have tunnel vision or hearing. With the siren off, clearer communications were possible.

With a good visual of the subject, the actions of the suspect, his calls to be shot and the artificial manner in which he was standing and threatening, the police officer clearly made a decision that the use of deadly force, while authorized, was not immediately needed.”



This story fascinated me and brought up a lot of questions. Why are Canadian police so good at not shooting people? So, when I was interviewing Darren Laur, a 30 year veteran of the Victoria police force, I asked him why Canadian police are so good at not shooting people. 


His answer surprised me: “My best weapon is tongue-fu”

“If I can get them to talk, in most cases I can get them to walk,” says Darren. “Unfortunately in some rare cases officers may have to resort to using deadly force to protect themselves and/or other form death or grievous bodily injury. However, what makes Canadian policing stand out is our humanistic approach. I spent most of my career in the downtown city core of Victoria where I built rapport so I could de-escalate situations.”

Instead of looking at the rougher inhabitants of the street as potential problems, he always saw them as people. Darren explains, “I have never met a drug addict who said ‘I want to be a drug addict for the rest of my life.’  They all got there somehow and I like to get to know them.”

This is the core of the humanistic approach: everyone was once young and full of dreams. They got to where they are by taking a path they hadn’t envisioned.


There are a few interesting facts about the Canadian police that also help explain some differences from the police force in the United Staes. First, the “biggest difference between American and Canadian police is that Canadian police enact the single Canadian federal criminal code, whereas in the United States different states have their own criminal code, which in some cases differs from the American federal criminal code. In Canada the enforcement of the federal criminal code is the same throughout all provinces and territories. Therefore police training, police practices, and investigative policies are standardized regardless of a police officer’s location in the country.”

Finally, police in Canada are public servants and “Americans are used to hearing about a "police force" being called out to deal with an emergency, catch a robber or track a suspect. Canadians, however, are protected by a "police service."


Perhaps the best summary of what happened was the now famous tweet by Inspector Chris Boddy of the Toronto Police:

07 October 2018

Talking Turkey


Tomorrow Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving and, in case you wondered, Liberia celebrates Thanksgiving the first Thursday in November. The time or place matters little to bachelors who celebrate the holiday much the same no matter when or where.

A Bachelor Thanksgiving
in honour of the Canadian holiday
arrangement in ironic pentameter
by deservedly anonymous


Thanksgiving cornucopia
I think I shall never sniff
A poem as lovely as a whiff
Of turkey and mashed po—
tatoes and frozen snow–

Peas in vast disproportion
As I gulp another portion.
Cranberry sauce, count me a fan,
Maintains the shape of the can.

Cheap beer and cheaper whiskey
Makes the shallow heart grow frisky.
Three litre jugs of screw-capped wine
First tastes horrible, then tastes fine.

Deli turkey, cellophane wrapped.
Processed ham and all that crap.
Sherbet, ice cream, anything frozen,
Packaged cupcakes by the dozen,

Ruffled chips and onion dip,
Reddi-Wip and Miracle Whip,
Maple frosting found in tins
Hide the worst culinary sins.

Seven-fifty millilitres of
Grain vodka labeled Scruitov,
Cheap brandy and cheaper beer
First smells awful, then tastes queer.

Pumpkin pie and store-bought cake,
Anything I need not bake.
If it’s boxed, if it’s canned,
I’m no gourmet, only gourmand.

Chorus    

Baseball, football on the TV.
One spilt bowl of poutine gravy.
This little poem with each verse,
I give thanks if it grows no worse.
vintage post card wreath turkey

vintage post card children, turkey, pumpkin

We admit nothing except Happy Thanksgiving. Graphics courtesy of Antique Images, The Holiday Spot, and Spruce Crafts.

Talking Turkey


Tomorrow Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving and, in case you wondered, Liberia celebrates Thanksgiving the first Thursday in November. The time or place matters little to bachelors who celebrate the holiday much the same no matter when or where.

A Bachelor Thanksgiving
in honour of the Canadian holiday
arrangement in ironic pentameter
by deservedly anonymous



I think I shall never sniff
A poem as lovely as a whiff
Of turkey and mashed po—
tatoes and frozen snow–

Peas in vast disproportion
As I gulp another portion.
Cranberry sauce, count me fan,
Maintains the shape of the can.

Cheap beer and cheaper whiskey
Makes the shallow heart grow frisky.
Three litre jugs of screw-capped wine
First tastes horrible, then tastes fine.

Deli turkey, cellophane wrapped.
Processed ham and all that crap.
Sherbet, ice cream, anything frozen,
Packaged cupcakes by the dozen,

Ruffled chips and onion dip,
Reddi-Wip and Miracle Whip,
Maple frosting found in tins
Hide the worst culinary sins.

Seven-fifty millilitres of
Grain vodka labled Scruitov,
Cheap brandy and cheaper beer
First tastes horrible, then tastes queer.

Pumpkin pie and store-bought cake,
Anything I need not bake.
If it’s boxed, if it’s canned,
I’m no gourmet, only gourmand.

Chorus    

Baseball, football on the TV.
One spilt bowl of poutine gravy.
This little poem with each verse,
I give thanks it grows no worse.


We admit nothing except Happy Thanksgiving.

25 August 2018

It Gets Harder (Praise and Imposter Syndrome)


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl...in which we admit that praise comes with a nasty side dish)

"the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake" EQMM, Sept-Oct 2018 issue
How the HELL will I ever live up to this?



A while back, I was on a panel where the moderator asked the question,
"Does it get harder or easier, with each successive book?"

"Easier," said one cozy writer, a woman I respect and know well.  "Because I know what I'm doing now."

I stared at her in surprise.

"Harder.  Definitely harder," said my pal Linwood Barclay, sitting beside me.

I sat back with relief.  The why was easy.  I answered that.

"Harder for two reasons," I said.  "First, you've already used up a lot of good ideas.  I've written 40 short stories and 18 novels.  That's nearly 60 plot ideas.  It gets harder to be original."

Linwood nodded along with me.

"Second, you've already established a reputation with your previous books.  If they were funny, people expect the next one to be even funnier.  It gets harder and harder to meet people's expectations."

"The bar is higher with each book," said Linwood.

This conversation came back to me this week, when I got a very nice surprise (thanks, Barb Goffman, for pointing me to it!)  Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviewed my latest book, and called me "the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake."

At first, I was ecstatic, and so very very grateful.  Donald Westlake was a huge influence on me.  I still think his book where everyone on the heist team spoke a different language to be one of the zaniest plots of all time.  To be considered in his class is a wonderful thing.

And then, the doubts started.  I'm now looking at my work in progress with different eyes.  Is this plot fresh?  Is it as clever as I thought it was?  Am I still writing funny?

Would Donald Westlake fans like it?

Or am I the world's worst imposter?

So many authors on Sleuthsayers are award-winning.  All of you will, I'm sure, relate to this a little bit.  Was that award win a one-off?  Okay, so you have more than one award.  Were those stories exceptions?  You haven't won an award in two years.  Have you lost it?

Will I ever write anything as good as that last book?

I'm dealing hugely with imposter syndrome right now.  It's a blasted roller coaster.  I know I should be spreading that EQMM quote far and wide, on Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, etc.  Possibly, I should be buying ads.  And at the same time, I'm stalling in my WIP, with the feeling of 'never good enough.'

Luckily, the publisher deadline will keep me honest.  I work pretty well under pressure.  Next week, for sure, I'll get back to the book.

This week, I'll smile in public and suffer a little in silence.

What about you, authors?  Do you find imposter syndrome creeps into your life at times when you should be celebrating?  Tell us below. 



The book causing all this grief:  on Amazon

23 June 2018

CANADA DAY - Pass the Hootch


by Melodie Campbell  (Digressing from crime, for this post only.  Bad Girl gets paid for writing humour, which come to think of it, may be a crime.)


July 1 is Canada Day.  This is the holiday in which we celebrate the birth of Canada by getting stuck in cottage traffic for hours and hours and throwing firecrackers at each other.  Canadians are a hardy lot.

I want to be serious for a moment and give some thought as to how this country was born (definitely a breech birth with lots of screaming.)

Canada became a country in 1867.  I wasn't at the original Fathers of Confederation gig in PEI.  But I suspect it went something like this.

Father 1 of Confederation:  "So.  Do we all want to band together as one country and get ourselves universal healthcare?  Pass the hootch."

Father 2 of Confederation:  "Yeah, okay, eh.  Sounds good.  Pass the hootch."

Father 3 of Confederation:  "Snore..."

Meanwhile, the Mothers of Confederation were busy doing useful things like making bannock and throwing venison on the barbie.  And when they found out...well, let me just say there was hell to pay.

"You bozos didn't include a Caribbean Island??  Come on Mildred...Abigail.  We're buying a trailer in Florida."

Because you see: Canada is cold.  It is particularly cold during the months of winter, which can fiendishly usurp months from autumn and spring and hold them ransom until summer.

And then, just to be contrary, the guys with the hootch made Ottawa the capital of Canada.

Why did they choose Ottawa?  Apparently they were afraid you Yanks might capture the capital if they put it in some desirable place like Toronto.  (Too close to the border, with great shopping and restaurants.)

I'm told that Ottawa and Moscow are considered the worst places to be posted if you are an ambassador.  This is because they are the two most northern capitals in the world...well, capitals of any country to which humans might actually want to go.

Personally, I think this is a great exaggeration.  No one wants to go to Ottawa and Moscow.

Okay, okay.  Ottawa can be a pretty place in summer.  Thing is, it is held hostage by Jack Frost most of the rest of the year.  Look at a map.  Ottawa is dangerously close to the Arctic Circle.  (In actual fact, so are Aurora and Newmarket.  If you're wondering why that commute into Toronto takes so long...)

In hindsight, I figure the Fathers of Confederation did a pretty good job.  We have universal healthcare and the best beer in the world.  We get rid of our politicians by sending them to Ottawa every year.  Talk about punishment.

And since 1867, Canada has never been invaded by Americans.  Of course, that may change this fall, after the midterms...

Two things, if you like this sort of humour:
Check out Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN for my guest blog this Wednesday https://somethingisgoingtohappen.net/
and
Check out the Derringer and Arthur Ellis award-winning crime series, The Goddaughter.  Sold at all
the usual suspects. 


10 October 2017

Dietrich Kalteis and the Process of Writing


One of the things I really enjoy in the writing game is the process of writing. Both my own and other people’s. Everyone seems to do it just a little bit differently. Of course, there’s the big stuff like pantsters vs. outliners, but there’s also things like whether you try to write a specific number of words a day. And, whether I’m on a panel or reading a blog, I always find these little subtleties in the way various writers work interesting. I also often pick up pointers, so I might change how I do something or at least try something new. If it works fine, if not that’s fine too. But there’s always room to learn and grow.

To that end, I thought I’d talk to Canadian author Dietrich Kalteis about his process and his new book. Dieter’s fourth novel House of Blazes won this year’s silver medal for historical fiction in the Independent Publishers Awards. Kirkus Reviews hailed it a cinematic adventure. And Publishers Weekly called his third novel Triggerfish high-octane action that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Crimespree Magazine said it satisfies the need for all things dark and leaves the reader breathless. The National Post called The Deadbeat Club a breakout for Kalteis, and his debut novel Ride the Lightning won a bronze medal for best regional fiction in the Independent Publishers Awards, and was hailed as one of Vancouver’s best crime novels. Nearly fifty of his short stories have been published internationally, and his screenplay Between Jobs is a past-finalist in the Los Angeles Screenplay Festival. He lives with his family in West Vancouver, British Columbia, and is currently working on his next novel. His upcoming novel Zero Avenue was released just this week through ECW Press.

So here goes, and maybe there’s something new here that will help your writing too:


Paul D. Marks: Did your new novel Zero Avenue end up as the book you anticipated writing from the start?

Dietrich Kalteis: I started with an early scene where the main character Frankie del Rey walks into Johnny Falco’s club. We learn she’s an aspiring rock star who runs dope for a dealer named Marty Sayles, and that Johnny’s club’s in financial trouble. Sparks fly between Johnny and Frankie which leads to a major conflict between them and Marty Sayles. From there, the first draft just flowed out scene by scene.

I don’t plot a story out ahead of time, so during the early chapters I never know where the whole thing will end up. As I’m writing and the story takes shape, ideas drift in for what’s ahead, and those ideas are better than anything I could come up with if I plotted the whole story ahead of time. Working this way makes writing more of an organic process for me. And these ideas can come from something I’ve experienced, or something I read or saw somewhere, and with just the right twist they find their way into the story.

It’s not the only way to write a story, but it works for me. Once I’m through a first draft, I create a timeline to make sure the sequence of events makes sense. I guess it’s a little like outlining in reverse.


Zero Avenue is your fifth standalone novel. Have you ever considered writing a series?

I love a good series, but I haven’t come up with one that I want to write. Right now I’m working on a story set in the dustbowl days of Kansas, and I have a first draft for the one after that: a present-day story about a guy on the run up in the Yukon. Usually by the time I finish one novel, I have the next one in my head, ready to go. I love creating new characters and dropping them in different settings and situations. Having said that, I did borrow a minor character from my first novel, and she became a main character for my second story, The Deadbeat Club, although I wouldn’t call that a series.


Your characters often come from the wrong side of the tracks, do you like taking an outlaw’s perspective? 

My characters have been bounty hunters, cops, ex-cops, criminals, ex-cons and then some. They often end up in that gray area — not all good and not all bad  — no matter what side of the tracks they’re from. Some don’t follow any rules while others bend them to get what they want, or catch who they’re after. I find this helps make the characters less predictable and somewhat more realistic.

Just like in real life, nobody is all one thing. And when I drop characters in a scene, I let them take their own course and develop as the story progresses, and I try not to interfere by imposing my own values or principles.


Being a prolific writer, do you set a daily word count?

I never have a word count in mind. Typically, I pick up where I left off the day before. Sometimes I back up and rework some of the chapter I was working on the previous day, and by the end of it I may only have written a couple hundred new words. Other days I charge through a couple thousand words. The only thing that matters is that the words that end up on the page are good ones.


Do you cut and save your unpublished gems? 

I used to keep a file for scenes and ideas I cut, thinking I might be able to use them down the road. That’s never happened so far, so I stopped keeping the file. Sometimes when I’m doing a second or third pass through a story, I find something that isn’t working and needs to be cut, and it’s not always easy to throw something out, but I’ve come to realize there are always fresh ideas coming.


You’ve written crime novels set in present time and some that are historical. What determines the setting?   

It comes down to what suits the story. For Zero Avenue I liked the anger of the punk rock scene, and Vancouver was this sleepy backwater town back in the late seventies. And that combination just seemed the perfect setting for the story I had in mind. Also the late seventies was a time before Google Earth and satellite imagery, making it easier to hide some pot fields, which was necessary to the story.

I’ve written stories set in present-day Vancouver, and I like the setting since it hasn’t been overused in crime fiction. Also, the city’s a major seaport sitting on the U.S. border, and that’s just begging for a crime story.

For House of Blazes I set the story in San Francisco in 1906 at the time of the big earthquake. It was a time of debauchery and corruption, and it also had a wild west meets a modern city feel to it. Some people rode into town on horseback carrying sidearms while others drove cars wearing three-piece suits. After the earthquake hit, the fires that swept the city for three days took on a character feel as they raged and forced people to run for their lives.


What’s coming next?

I’m pleased to have a story included in the upcoming Vancouver Noir, part of Akashic Books’ Noir Series, edited by Sam Wiebe.

The next novel to be released is Poughkeepsie Shuffle, due out next year from ECW Press. It’s set in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the Don Jail. When he lands a job at a used-car lot, he finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, a guy who lives by the motto ‘why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.’

Thanks for stopping by, Dieter. And good luck with the new book.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

Please check out the interview Laura Brennan, writer, producer and consultant, did with me for her podcast, where we talk about everything from Raymond Chandler and John Fante to the time I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. Find it here: http://destinationmystery.com/episode-52-paul-d-marks/


31 August 2017

Racial Profiling, or Why Joe Arpaio Would Have Locked Me Up


I am not, in any way, a fan of Joe Arpaio's pardon.  The former Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona (which includes Phoenix) was a racist power-mad S.o.B.  (I know, I know, I should tell you how I really feel.)

Arpaio apparently believed that anyone Hispanic - or looked Hispanic - had to be illegal (NOTE: they're not.)  Arpaio and his deputies specifically targeted people with brown skin, and would simply pull over people who looked Hispanic.  "About a fifth of traffic stops, most of which involved Latino drivers, violated Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable seizures. "

Image result for maricopa az county jail
Maricopa Co. Jail -
Tent City
It is important to remember that Arpaio ran a jail, not a prison. Nonetheless, Arpaio referred to his jail as a concentration camp, and called all detainees (60% of whom had only been arrested, and had not yet arraigned, tried, or convicted) criminals.

NOTE:  Coffin v. United States 1895 established "presumption of innocence" as the bedrock of our criminal justice system.  But not, apparently, in Maricopa County.

Sheriff Arpaio dressed his detainees in black-and-white striped uniforms and pink underwear because it gave him a good laugh.  He fed the prisoners rotten food - green bologna was a favorite - because they didn't deserve any better. He housed detainees outdoors, under Army-surplus tents, without any cooling measures and inadequate water - the temperatures in the tents could easily reach 140 degrees. “I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant.” Sheriff’s department officers punished Latino inmates who had difficulty understanding orders in English by locking down their pods, putting them in solitary confinement, and refusing to replace their soiled sheets and clothes. The investigation found that sheriff’s department officers addressed Latino inmates as “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” “f***ing Mexicans,” and “stupid Mexicans.”   (The New Yorker)

But wait, there's more!  Arpaio was a real piece of work. He was (and is) one of the most prominent and persistent "birthers" around, to the point where he used Maricopa County funds to send a 5 man deputy squad to Hawaii to investigate then-President Obama's birth certificate.  He set up a fake assassination attempt to boost his reelection.  He tried to get a grand jury to indict a number of Maricopa County judges, supervisors, and employees.  (The grand jury rejected all the claims.)  His office improperly cleared - i.e., claimed to have solved - up to 75% of cases without investigations or arrests, and simply ignored hundreds of rape cases.  He claimed that he lacked enough detectives to do the job - and when he was given $600,000 for more detectives, none were hired and the money vanished.  Along with almost $100 million of Maricopa funds.  (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Arpaio, and The Atlantic)

But wait, there's more!  Back in 1995, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic named Richard Post needed help to urinate; well, that was asking too much, so the jailers strapped him into a restraint chair, tightened the straps as tight as they would go, and left him there for six hours. And broke his neck. In case you're wondering, he'd been arrested for possession of a joint.  And no, he hadn't even been tried yet.  Presumption of innocence...  And no, this wasn't the only mauling, maiming, and even death that occurred under Arpaio's rule, in Arpaio's jail, where, remember, over 60% of his "criminals" were simply awaiting trial, often stuck because they couldn't afford cash bail. (Phoenix New Times)

What finally began the end of Arpaio's career was when a Mexican man holding a "valid tourist's visa" was stopped in Maricopa County, arrested, and detained for 9 hours in 2007. The man sued Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, alleging racial profiling. Four years later, in December, 2011, a federal judge in Phoenix ordered Arpaio to stop detaining anyone not suspected of a state or federal crime, reminding him that simply being in the U.S. illegally is not a crime, only a civil violation. Arpaio's response was to let everyone know that after "they went after me, we arrested 500 more just for spite." He was voted out of office in November of 2016.  He was finally convicted July 31, 2017, of criminal contempt of court. He was pardoned by President Trump August 25, 2017, before he was even officially sentenced.

Okay.  So what do I care?  Aside from the multiple violations of basic human rights, the United States legal system, and the United States Constitution?

After all, I'm not black.  I'm not Hispanic.  I'm not Jewish.  I'm not Native American.  However, I've been mistaken for all of these.  I'm 100% Greek, born there, orphaned there, adopted from there.  (All right, my genome, according to National Geographic, is 50% Greek, 25% Tuscan Italian, and 25% Northern Asian Indian.)

But I know something that blonds don't know.  I learned, very young, that WASP Americans - even those who aren't racist / bigots - are very ignorant of the possibilities of ethnic differences in a group of people who all have brown eyes, black hair, and a slightly darker shade of skin.  To many WASPS, we all look alike.

I was shipped to this country when I was 2 1/2 years old - here's a picture of me from the orphanage. That curly hair, those big dark eyes, led some people in our Arlington, VA world to assume that my parents had (for reasons passing understanding) adopted a child who might have "a touch of the tar brush" as it was so politely put back in the 1950's.  There were also whispers about me in my grandmother's small town in Kentucky. Nothing overt.  Just whispers, enough so that I was aware, early on, that not everyone was as pleased to have me around as my parents and grandparents.

Since then, I've had the privilege of explaining who I am, i.e., where I'm from, to an endless stream of people.  When I travel internationally, I'm the one taken aside for questioning.  I have a passport that says I was born in Athens, Greece, for one thing, and that makes people wonder.  It's only gotten worse since 9/11, and I have had long chats with uniformed personnel in many an airport.  The one exception is Athens, Greece, where the guy looked at my passport and waved me through without even a baggage check.
"Συνεχίστε!" "ευχαριστώ!"  ("Go on through!" "Thanks!")

But even when I don't have to have a passport, such as crossing the border into Canada - and they are always very polite - I'm the one who has to get out of the car and talk directly to the border guard so that s/he can make sure I'm not...  someone else...  something else...  That I really am "American".

I don't mind that.  Well, I do mind, but I can live with it.  But there's more.

In 1960 we moved from Arlington, VA to southern California.  In the '60s, when the California image was blonde, tan, and thin.  I had the tan.

NOTE:  It's all right - I figured if you can't join 'em, beat 'em, and (in the world of mini-skirts and gogo boots) came to school wearing my grandmother's 1930's suits (see illustrations on the right) and an armload of books.  If you're going to stand out, stand out with style.

Moved down South.

A little profiling, here and there.  A  a lot of, "Greece?" said by someone with an extremely puzzled face.  And some other things, like the time a KKK type followed me through the stacks in the public library saying "oink, oink", "Jew pig", "Jew bitch", etc.

And then we came to South Dakota, where I have been taken for Native American.  In a small town West River, my husband and I stopped late one summer night to get a motel room.  Back then, I had long hair, down to my waist, and, since it was summer, a pretty good tan.  I was told they had no vacancies.  I went back to the car and we sat (windows open) to figure out where the next closest town was, and another car pulled up.  A nice blond man got out, went in - I could hear the entire conversation - asked if they had a room, and was told "Yes, sir.  Sign right here." I told some friends about it, and they said, "Oh, yeah.  They're pretty racist up there."

And more.

Now all this happened, but not daily.  (Well, not since my school days - no, you could not pay me enough money to be a child again.)  Just often enough to give me a hint of what it must be like to be truly a minority in this country.  But I'm still officially white, part of the white majority, and I do have privileges. There are all sorts of things I can do without getting arrested, or even stopped by the police:
  • I can change lanes without signaling.
  • I can walk around the neighborhood wearing a hoodie.
  • I can reach for my car registration and proof of insurance in the glove compartment.
  • I can stand on a street corner, looking confused and anxious.
  • I can forget my keys and use a coat hanger to get into my locked car.  Or open a window to get into my locked house. 
  • I can sit on my front porch and watch whatever street show's on offer.  I can even talk to people on the street or make comments to my husband about what's going on.  
  • I can stand in an alley with a group of friends. 
  • I can talk on a cell phone. 
  • I can, and have, driven around with a broken tail light, and for a while, without a front license plate (which wasn't required in the South). 
    • (NOTE:  In the last few years, people have been stopped, arrested, jailed, and even killed for doing each and every one of these things in the United States of America.)  

(Wikipedia)
But, for me, any and all of the above would have been risky behavior in Maricopa County under Joe Arpaio.  Maybe not for you, but for me.  Because of how I look.  

Pardon Joe Arpaio?  I wouldn't have, but what's worse is that he was convicted and then pardoned for a misdemeanor.

Did I mention his "special forces" that led a botched raid in which they firebombed a home to ashes and burned a puppy alive?  (See here.)  And found nothing?

Did I mention that Joe Arpaio was/is one of the founders of the The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA, for short) that believes that sheriffs are "the highest executive authority in a county and therefore constitutionally empowered to be able to keep federal agents out of the county"? And, as such, are not responsible to any federal law, agent, or judge? (See CSPOA and/or Southern Poverty Law Center on the movement.)

After all of that, a misdemeanor?  Unpardoned, the most he would have served would have been six months, maximum, and - sadly, tragically - it wouldn't have been in the Arpaio Maricopa County Jail.

Pardon him?  I sure as hell wouldn't have.  But then, I have skin in the game.
PS - Next week, back to quacks, radium and murder.

01 August 2017

The Writer and the Dragon


I don’t want to write.

It’s a strange thing for me to say. I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil. I remember transcribing stories for my friends in grade one, in self-taught cursive. When the teacher realized what I was doing, she said, “I don’t know what I’m going to teach you,” and walked away.

I realize that my reluctance to write at the moment is largely dependent on my energy levels. On Saturday, I penned an unexpectedly popular Facebook post about how doctors are getting cut to the bone. For example, on any money I manage to save for my own retirement (because I have to fund my own maternity leave, sick leave, retirement, the whole shebang), the Canadian government now wants to increase its taxation rate to 38%. After that post, I wrote 500 words, did a bit of yoga, and popped in to the ER for my day shift.

When I came home, I was so tired that my daughter was reading me interesting facts about bugs, and I fell asleep. It was the first time that my six-year-old read me to sleep.

On Sunday, I didn’t write, procrastinating for hours, until finally I described a fictionalized case I'd seen, and then I shut my computer down and asked who wanted to come with me to see a gigantic dragon-horse and a spider battle in the streets of downtown Ottawa.

“I don’t want to drive for two hours,” said my son. Actually, it’s more like three.


“I want to mow the lawn and get my motorcycle put back together,” said my husband.

“After I eat,” said my daughter. Score!

We were super late, and the real battle was finding parking and trying to wade through thousands of people streaming in the opposite direction while Anastasia and I held on to each other, a stuffed sheep, a lunch bag, and my purse. 

When we finally caught up to Long Ma, the dragon-horse, we were walking its wake, in the hot sun, while bathing in its exhaust.

It was nice to see it spread its wings and bawl and emit smoke from its head, but I was pretty sure Anastasia was hot and tired and couldn’t see much of anything. (“Do you see the wings?” “No. Oh. Oh, yeah.”)

Unfortunate. I was stoked about witnessing the North American debut of La Machine, the street artists from Nantes, France, headed by François Delarozière, but we ended up hot and tired and facing the exhaust from its hind end.


So we stopped, and Anastasia drank her milk, and it turned out the Library and Archives Canada was open, in all its air-conditioned glory, so we could refill our water bottles, use the facilities, and listen to recordings of “Sweet Canada” and “Jack Canuck.”

Mostly, Anastasia hid in a crevice and played with a magnetic board game, but it made me realize why tourists love coming to Canada: it’s safe, it’s clean, and so many things are free. I relaxed, sitting with her, playing her game, instead of worrying about writing. Anastasia had plenty of stories of her own. After about five minutes of playing the game the prescribed way, she called one of the peg people Donald Trump and booted him into the ocean.

Then she wanted to eat at Tim Horton’s. I found one on Queen Street that was open 24 hours, and I people-watched the entire time, from little kids running in the street to a homeless-looking man buying food and giving it to someone else.

I realized that this whole trip was a metaphor for the writing life. You launch your books/stories/articles. You’re hoping for something like La Machine’s crowds, where 750,000 people cheer you on. This is unlikely.

But you try. You keep building. And in the meantime, you try to enjoy the small pieces and pauses around your art, like your daughter pretending to punch Long Ma in the face. Because there are no guarantees in writing, or in life in general, so you might as well relish the ride.

28 March 2017

How to be a Hero: Debra Komar


Trigger warning: sensitive souls should not read this. [NSFW. NSFL.]

Dr. Debra Komar spent over two decades investigating war crimes as a forensic scientist for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights. She testified as an expert witness in The Hague.
In other words, she’s a smart, hard-working, funny and unflinching real-life hero who now writes historical crime fiction.
Capital Crime Writers featured her as a speaker this Fall. I wrote as fast as I could, but I still couldn’t get everything down. I recreated it as best I could, in an interview format, to give you three simple lessons on how you can be a hero too.

1. Work hard.
Melissa Yi: I’m an emergency doctor, so I know how to work hard. But I have no idea what it’s like to do a genocide investigation. What does it involve?
Debra Komar: “Start with witnesses and aerial photos. Go in. Exhume. Take photos. Identify the remains. Return them to families. Create the narrative.”
So when you’re on the ground, what is your day-to-day life like?
“In Iraq, there were shipping containers around us, 75 people in a room. Only eight of them were the scientific team, but you need that many to get you out safely and back in. For six months, you work twenty hours a day, in the desert, with people shooting at you, emptying graves and doing autopsies all night.”
That sounds…
“Soul-destroying.”
I’m not sure  I could do that.
“It was the same 19 of us who’ve shown up for the past 20 years. You’re considered retired after ten missions. I did 18.”
Debra Komar and Melissa Yi. Photo by Patricia Filteau.
2. Learn how to laugh.
How did you deal with it?
“A lot of people in my industry drink too much. My way was to turn off emotion…and [use] morgue humour.”
Komar teaches forensic science, and she has some popular sessions like Museum (autopsy lockers full of interesting specimens. One of them was filled exclusively with rectal foreign bodies, i.e. items pulled exclusively from a rectum).
They also played Spot the B.S. They’d play a clip from TV, and students would call out the errors.

3. Learn how to leave.
How did you become a writer?
“I always wanted to write. I had a quiet agreement to myself: I’d do this work as long as I could, and then retire.”
So you’re retired now?
“It’s hard to retire. I still have students, and I appear in court.”
Was it hard to make the transition from genocide investigation to writing?
“When you work in a morgue, you realize life is short. I was prepared to fall on my face and fail, but I wasn’t willing not to try.”

When Komar started writing true crime books, she chose to write historical crime. Which doesn’t mean she pulls her punches.

For example, in The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, she describes the Nova Scotia case of 14-year-old Annie Kempton in 1896: someone clubbed Annie with a piece of firewood and slit her throat three times with a kitchen knife, then sat down and ate a jar of homemade jam, leaving a spoon covered in bloody fingerprints, before abandoning her body.
Peter Wheeler, a “coloured” man, found her body when he came to the house to buy milk in the morning. In this book, Komar explains why Wheeler was innocent and how racism, the court system, primitive forensics and the media played a role in convicting and hanging him. {Publisher link; Amazon link}
In her most recent book, Black River Road, Komar follows teenaged berry pickers in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1869, to discover the decomposing body of Maggie Vail and her child. The accused? John Munroe, an architect, the lover of Maggie Vail and father of her child, who claimed he was innocent because his character would not permit him to commit such a heinous act. Komar explores the role of character in the court of law in a world before forensic science became the star witness. {Publisher link; Amazon link}
*
After I met her at CCW, Komar generously agreed to read an excerpt of my novel, Human Remains. In the second chapter, Dr. Hope Sze and her boyfriend Ryan confront a dead man, thanks to a Rottweiler named Roxy.
Komar wrote, “It's clear you are a doctor, not in a bad way.  You keep it simple and define terms were necessary - all very good.  You also do a great job of capturing the naïve enthusiasm of a resident - wanting to help, even in the face of a clearly deceased individual.  We've all seen (and been) overanxious eager residents that think they can bring people back to life.”
She explained that Hope shouldn’t disturb the scene and the forensic evidence, but the operator would defer to Hope’s medical expertise in resuscitating, because saving a life takes precedence over preserving evidence.
I should mention that she said the operator wouldn’t normally put Ryan on hold to debate the point, but I kept that bit in as creative license. All this to say that Komar was exceedingly generous with her time, and I am grateful to Capital Crime Writers for the opportunity.
*
Komar recently completed a writer-in-residence position at Pierre Burton House in Dawson City, Yukon, in preparation for her next book. If you follow her on Twitter, you can see some photos of dogsledding and a thermometer hitting almost -40 in both Celsius and Farenheit.
In other words, when you’re a hero, you may never stop creating adventures for yourself and your readers.

Long may she reign.

Melissa Yi is an emergency physician and award-winning writer. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
Dr. Debra Komar is on Twitter.

14 February 2017

Do You Do Artist Dates?


“The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore
something that interests you.” Julia Cameron

An artist date is permission to play. Every week, you are supposed to explore something that makes you smile.

When I first heard about them, I was excited, but I circled around the idea cautiously, like an animal scenting something new. What is this thing called play? Am I allowed to indulge in it, or do I have to spend every waking moment working as a doctor, a writer, and a mother?

For me, because I live in the country, one of the barriers is physically getting to something that interests me. It takes me an hour to drive to Montreal, 1.5 hours to drive to Ottawa, and more if there’s snow or traffic.

And yet, it’s almost always worth it.

I think this is why writers love conferences. You go from isolation to a collective army of smart, funny people who love the same things you do (reading, writing, and Riesling). You can get some of the same vibe online, but it’s not as fun as in person.

Steve Steinbock & Melissa Yi at Bloody Words 2014
“It’s Brigadoon!” said Steve Steinbock, of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, who suggested I come to Bloody Words, the former Canadian crime conference.

“Huh? What’s Brigadoon?”

He explained that it’s a town that materializes out of nowhere, and then it’s gone. “Brigadoon!”


“Brigadoon,” I repeated, still a bit confused, but enjoying his enthusiasm.

Another barrier for me is that I hate spending money. I went to Left Coast Crime last year, felt guilty about spending money, and quizzed other authors in attendance if they felt guilty, too. The answer: no, with the unspoken corollary of "Why are you wasting your time here worrying about it?" Stacy Allen was kind enough to answer in detail. She said something to the effect of, “You have a gift. Everyone here has a gift. It’s a crime not to use it.”
With thanks to Lisa de Nikolits for the photo!

I just spent a long, long weekend in Toronto. The main goal was speaking at OLA, the Ontario Library Association superconference, through Crime Writers of Canada, on the Friday. I spent my two minutes explaining the genesis of Stockholm Syndrome (chasing after an escaped prisoner, as I explained in my interview with CBC Radio's Robyn Bresnahan here), connected with new readers, learned of literary conferences in Renfrew and Kingston, met James Wigmore, an author who’s a retired forensic toxicologist, and Judy Penz Sheluk invited me to post on her blog.

I stayed extra-long so that I could sing in a mass choir with MILCK, my favourite new singer--a brave, talented, risk-taker whom I'd like to emulate in many ways.

How about you? Do you do artist dates? Do you spend money on your art, and on your writing career?