I was born on the right side of the tracks in Ottawa, Ontario, though it was a thin line. We could hear the trains and watch them at a distance through our kitchen window. As I was growing up, we were lower middle class; sometimes it felt like more, most times it felt like less, but there was always love despite the roving blackouts and shutoffs of cable and hot water. I was a difficult child—a royal pain in the ass, you might say. No amount of Ritalin was able to contain me. I would punch holes in the walls, set indoor fires, and terrorize my sisters. One day, when I was with my mom in a sports store, I jumped on the bow of a sailboat model, and the mast went through the ceiling.
I think I was a writer before I knew what a writer was. I remember the first reaction I got from a story I had written. It was from a substitute teacher in grade 4, Ms. Pekaree. Dear Ms. Pekaree, where are you now? She picked the story up off my desk, read it right there in front of me, and then with a tear rolling down her cheek asked me if I was okay. Had I just made my teacher cry? Perhaps I was too young to understand what made her cry, or maybe she just had allergies. But there in a flash I remember my first story, and it had an impact. I can’t recall what I wrote or why I wrote it. Who knows what travails the nine-year-old me was experiencing at the time. Maybe it was a painful unrequited crush or a broken truck on my skateboard. Perhaps it was a lost baseball glove or nail in my bicycle tire. Maybe it was purely my imagination, or perhaps I had scribbled down a bloody tableau into my homework assignment that caused that reaction from Ms. P. But something was there, and we both knew it.
The day I decided to become a writer, I was living in Toronto. Of course, there were birds fluttering, and the sun was glinting through the leaves, and there was a beautiful breeze and all that. But it’s true. For the record, I do remember it being a lovely day. I had just moved to the city and was living in a cheaply converted rooming house in the Annex. There was no kitchen, so I had a hot plate on top of my mini-fridge and a dish rack over my bathroom sink. My next-door neighbor was schizophrenic, and I could easily hear her conversations with herself through the paper-thin walls, then her derailments, and then her screaming and the blowing of her whistle at all hours. After a while, I just had to accept that there were cockroaches, because there was no beating them. I tried everything: sprays, traps, and even a powder that got all over my shoes and clothes. So, I was living in this squalor and reading Papillon by Henri Charrière at the time, wondering how I would become a great writer without a typewriter or computer, when I realized that Papillion did it, and he was on Devil’s Island. Well, to get off my own Devil’s Island, it seemed I needed to write…to become a writer. I charged down to the store, bought a spiral notepad, and headed back up to the parkette near my decrepit building. It was there with my penknife that I carved my initials into the picnic table and began writing what would eventually be my first novel in longhand.
No one ever expected anything of me. Teachers, principals, and even Ms. P.—scratch that; especially Ms. P.—all might have guessed I’d be a middle-of-the-roader, ne’er-do-well, or someone condemned to a life of menial work. They wouldn’t be far off. I remember my first job delivering the Sunday Herald in the winter at 4AM with my old man. You’d think he, too, would have gotten paid for schlepping me around between deliveries as I got out of his warm car and ran up every icy laneway. In my time, I’ve been a mover, busboy, back-bacon–on-a-bun slinger, tree planter, dish washer, cow milker, banana tree pruner, window washer, and pickle and olive sorter. It’s surprising that I haven’t got into septic just yet, but I’m sure that day is coming. I was a meat-package salesperson, a clearance-store person, and the guy who sells spa packages outside malls and events. I was on fryers at A&W during the great high school strike. And then finally, one day after college, the glorious gates of corporate America opened up, and I somehow got hired at IBM and then UPS. I had proved all my teachers and critics wrong. Hah!
Through it all, writing has always been my passion and constant. It was the one thing that towed me along and gave me purpose. I never wanted it to be just a phase, and I never wanted to say I’d once been a writer and had to face the world humbled, beaten, and terrified. I wanted to bare-knuckle it in the street with writing to make it clear to myself that this one is non-negotiable. It was a decision I made that whatever city, whatever hardship, or whatever job—if I were a rich man or a poor man—I would be writing. It would be like an iron cage match or fight to the death. Now with a few more gray whiskers, I can say it’s all been worth it. With so many distractions, it can be hard to hitch your wagon to one thing. In a world that begs for immediate gratification, there is something to be said about tilling the soil, planting the seed, and watering it every day. What are ten or twenty years—a lifetime, even—in the pursuit of a worthy goal?
For me, launching my debut novel is like being born or breaking the curse of the unread. I’m no longer bottled up or constipated with words and stories, rainbows and country fairs. God knows I’ve spent enough time hiding under rocks and down dark alleys, and now, to open up and share my work is truly a great honor. Who knows what else I might have done with all those countless hours I’ve dedicated to the craft. But now I have something that I hope, dear reader, you will enjoy in good health and circumstance. Perhaps you will be on a beach or in your bed, maybe in a hammock or in a tent. I hope it’ll be somewhere where the wine is flowing, the fruit is fresh, and the seafood is to die for. Wherever you are, I hope somewhere down the road you will hear a sound or track a scent, and it will remind you of the time and place you read The Endless Mile.