THE LEON ROARED: Remembering Leon Spinks

One of the strangest experiences I had as a magazine writer was the time I spent with the onetime World Heavyweight Champion Leon Spinks who has died far too young at the age of 67.

When I met up with him, Leon had, to the vast disbelief of everyone, defeated Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight Championship. Now he was training for a rematch. In September of 1978, the Chicago Tribune’s magazine dispatched writers to report on both camps. Lucky me, I got Leon.

He was training at a Kutsher’s Country Club, at the time the longest running so-called Borscht-Belt resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The resort hotel was, to say the least, an odd choice. For the mostly white Jewish clientele, it was as if Leon had landed from another planet (“That guy’s an animal,” snarled one vacationer). For Leon, it was as if he had arrived on another planet.

Any sort of mutual understanding was not helped by Leon’s reticence and downright unfriendliness. His entourage was making half-hearted efforts to polish his image so that he was a more user- friendly heavyweight champion than the uncommunicative, unpredictable kid from the St. Louis projects with a noticeable chip on his shoulder.

There were problems with this attempt at refurbishment so close to the second fight. For one thing, the presence of a pack of sports writers did not make Leon happy—he yelled at and then threw out a disliked hometown reporter from one event, causing outrage among the gathered press.

Everyone assigned to cover him was having difficulty understanding what Leon said even when he did choose to say something. Leon had lost his two front teeth in sparing bouts, causing his speech to slur. Mostly he refused to wear the false teeth that would have made him easier to understand.

We would all gather on Adirondack chairs on the lawn behind the hotel following one of Leon’s press conferences, trying to agree on what it was exactly he had said.

Another problem was simply that Leon refused to listen to anyone. He freely admitted that he was enjoying the money he had finally earned following an impoverished childhood. It was generally believed, he was much more interested in enjoying his wealth than he was in training to win his upcoming fight with Ali—he was being paid over four million dollars, big money in 1978.

Leon, it seemed, was doomed to be Leon, him not liking anyone and everyone not liking him. Still, at barely six feet and weighing in at 195 pounds, he hardly struck an observer as a fearsome heavyweight fighter. Watching him trying to adjust to fame trapped in the foreign culture at Kutsher’s, you couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for a twenty-five-year-old seemingly in way over his head.

There was a vulnerable quality about him that was touching. You could see the loneliness in his eyes and a sadness that on occasion displaced the suspicion and mistrust. He would lean against a doorframe staring forlornly at the swirling crowd in front of him, nuzzling Champ, his tiny poodle, and he was a kid lost in an alien land.

One morning he did manage to inadvertently make a simple human connection. At his improvised gym one morning, in front of a group of hotel guests, Leon was skipping rope, his boom box blasting out, skipping in time to the music, picking up speed as he went along. Leon skipping rope was something to see.

He picked up more speed, skipping faster so that his rope was a blurring arch. Now Leon was dancing to the music as he skipped, a superb show of coordination. Suddenly, a little man in a Budweiser sun hat cried out, “All right! All right!” And the next thing, the late-middle-age white audience was into this, calling out, clapping along in rhythm with the music and Leon’s dancing. Unbelievably Leon began dancing even faster, the audience clapping away with him.

Finally, Leon came to a stop. As he did, onlookers broke into delighted applause, having witnessed a remarkable performance by a superb athlete. Leon, caught in the magic of the moment, was all smiles as he shook hands and posed for pictures. No one around him could believe what they were seeing. Fleetingly, he was not such a stranger in a strange land.

As the lore of boxing records, it did not end well for Leon. Muhammad Ali beat him handily a couple of weeks later in New Orleans. Ali became legend while Leon faded into a footnote until last weekend when his death was reported (his brother Michael did much better, becoming heavyweight champion in 1985, successfully defending his title three times).

As for Kutsher’s, it too faded, and finally closed in 2013. Since then, the hotel itself has been demolished.

A young, angry fighter and the alien landscape upon which he briefly skipped rope, both gone forever.

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Chasing Plummer

The news of Christopher Plummer’s sad and tragic death from a fall at the age of 91 has been heart-breaking to those of us who have long admired him. I wrote the following appreciation in August of 2012 as Plummer made what turned out to be his final appearance on the Stratford stage–perhaps on any stage…

CHASING PLUMMER: I’m not certain exactly when I became so fascinated with Christopher Plummer.
It may have been as a teenager when I got up at six one morning and drove to Stratford to line up at the Festival Theatre for rush seating to see Plummer in Antony and Cleopatra. I lined up for three hours before the announcement came that all the tickets for the day’s performance were gone–Plummer vanished in a puff of smoke and a closed box office.


I’ve been chasing him around ever since.

Curiously enough, in a life spent (misspent?) talking to celebrities, I never interviewed him. I would see him at a distance from time to time, atop the CN Tower for some event or other, hurrying across the street loaded down with shopping bags in my old Yorkville neighbourhood. Maybe it is just as well we didn’t meet, since in those days he was known for his arrogance and his unwillingness to suffer fools from the press, or anyone else, gladly.

I ran into him again last year at the annual cocktail party hosted by the veteran Hollywood journalist George Christy, a long-running tradition at the Toronto International Film Festival. But he remained at an elusive distance.

By that time, however, attempting to make up for that long-ago lost opportunity, I had seen him onstage a number of times: as John Barrymore in Barrymore; Julius Caesar in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at (finally) Stratford; as Prospero in The Tempest, again at Stratford.

And the other day, I witnessed his brilliant star turn in A Word or Two, the one-man show he has created and written, as mesmerizing and memorable an hour and a half inside a theatre as one is likely to spend.

Here then for our entertainment is the last of the great, flamboyantly romantic actors in a starry lineup that once included Olivier and Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, O’Toole and Burton. These were larger than life men of the theatre, their personal lives often as turbulent and memorable (sometimes, in the case of Burton, more so) than the characters they played onstage.

They are all gone now–O’Toole announced his retirement earlier this summer–leaving only Plummer to bestride the world. To watch him at the Avon Theatre is to witness something we will not see again: an eighty-three-year-old legend, at the top of his game, commanding the stage with humor and eloquence, and incandescent star power–the last of the breed, making a final bow.

Or is it?

After all, I started rushing to see Plummer fourteen years ago thinking this was the last, the end, the finale. Yet he’s still on a stage, blissfully unaware that he has to exit anywhere any time soon.

A Word or Two is not traditionally autobiographical (“And then I made…”)–if you were not already aware of it, you might be forgiven for missing the fact that Plummer took up acting as a career. It is, rather, a carefully constructed piece built around the literature young Christopher was weaned on growing up in Montreal’s Westmount, the stories, the plays, the poetry that enchanted him.

Those stories and the poetry, he proposes, have lately provided a path through the vexations of age, beginning–and ending–with Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Aged Aged Man (“Who are you aged man, and how do you live? And his answer trickled through my head like water from a sieve”).

The middle years, the years of The Sound of Music, years of floundering in too much drink and too few good film roles, are frankly discussed in his beautifully written autobiography, In Spite of Myself. They are not part of Plummer onstage at the Avon. Of his contemporaries, only Richard Burton gets a passing mention.

Good author that he is, though, Plummer continues to promote In Spite of Myself, giving himself over to a book signing following a recent performance.

The lineup snaked around the Avon’s lobby. Plummer arrived dressed in a black pullover, apologizing for being late, the soul of charm. The kid who couldn’t get into Antony and Cleopatra lined up for an autographed book, fearing that as it was so many years ago, he would get to the front of the line and Plummer would once again disappear in that puff of smoke.

However, this time the kid brought along some insurance in the form of friends, Hans Gerhardt and his wife, Helga.

Hans is something of a legend himself, the former general manager of the Sutton Place Hotel–“the hotelier to the stars,” as TV personality Robin Leach called him. Hans has known Plummer since the days back in the eighties when the actor stayed at the Sutton Place, often tinkling the ivories on the house piano into the wee small hours. Plummer in fact provided an admiring blurb when Hans published his autobiography, HotelBiz:A Memoir. If anyone could get me to Plummer, it was Hans.

Sure enough, as soon as Plummer spotted Hans and Helga he lit up. They shook hands, exchanged warm greetings, and then Hans did what he was supposed to do: “I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ron Base.”
Plummer acknowledged me with a vague smile. Ah, well, at least he didn’t disappear in a puff of smoke.

As I left the theatre, I stopped for one final look back at Plummer, still patiently signing away. Longevity never turns out to be all that long. Any way you cut it, this is the end of something. The final curtain is not down yet, but you can’t help but think it’s on its way, and when that happens, that’s it. There are no more Christopher Plummers out there waiting in the wings.

I keep thinking we will replace the fallen legends that so informed our lives, but they don’t get replaced. They simply disappear and are irreplaceable, and we are the poorer for their absence.

For the moment, thankfully, we still have Plummer, the aged aged man defying the deities that have made us all aged aged men. I know he won’t, but I hope he goes on forever.

With me chasing, still trying to get into the theatre.

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Some Secrets Can Get You Killed…A New Novella



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Walking In New Orleans: Uneasy in the Big Easy

If the young men (and a couple of women) displaying Confederate flags, outfitted in what is best described as biker-militia casual, are to be believed, the South Will Rise Again.

At least that’s what the banners sprinkled among the Confederate flags announce. However, on a bright Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, the South isn’t so much rising as it is reclining on a lawn across the street from a line of stone-faced police officers.

Behind the police line and surrounded by a makeshift fence, is a is statue of Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the Confederacy, the conglomeration of eleven slave states that broke away from the Union in 1861, precipitating the American Civil War. The dark echoes of that war continue to reverberate through this city of three hundred and eighty-four thousand (down about ninety thousand post-Hurricane Katrina) more than one hundred and fifty years after the South lost.

The city plans to tear down the Davis statue, one of four memorials to the South’s Confederate past the mayor and his council have earmarked for removal. That it’s taken so long to do this in a community that is sixty per cent African-American comes as a surprise. What is not so surprising is that these guys with the Confederate flags want the memorials to stay where they are.

“That statue has been here since 1908—this same exact spot since June 3, 1908,” one of the sons of the South explains. “All of a sudden they want to tear it down? It’s part of our heritage,”

Never mind that our southern son is actually from Tulsa, Oklahoma and that the statue was erected in 1911 not 1908.

“I’m from here,” assures his friend, standing nearby.

“We’re all in this together,” adds the guy from Oklahoma.

The Big Easy these days is decidedly uneasy, although for the first-time visitor, New Orleans, as it always has, puts on a fine, if slightly edgy, show, part history, part lesson in the failings of man confronted by nature, but mostly a reminder of the town’s dedication to ensuring that a good time is had by all.

Street musicians are everywhere along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. Artists showing their work ring historic Jackson Square, and the palm readers in front of St. Louis Cathedral are out in force, anxious to tell you your future—a subject the first-time visitor would just as soon avoid.

There are lineups outside the Cafe du Monde, tourists anxious to savor the chicory coffee and beignets, a local favorite, basically deep-fried donuts drenched in powdered sugar. The fried oysters at Lűke, the upscale brasserie that features Creole cooking, are delicious. The dress code at the city’s most famous restaurant, Commander’s Palace, remains firmly in place: no jeans or shorts, collared shirts required, jackets preferred.

You can board the jam-packed St. Charles Avenue trolley, imaging how it inspired Tennessee Williams to write A Streetcar Named Desire. On a Saturday night along Frenchmen Street, the party never stops as mostly youthful revelers spill onto the roadway, moving from club to club. Good luck finding the sort of Dixieland Jazz that made the city famous (Dude, Al Hirt is dead), but there is plenty of great funk and blues.

The French founded New Orleans in 1718. Then the Spanish took over before the French came back long enough to sell Louisiana off to the Americans for fifteen million dollars. No matter who was in charge, the town always has had a reputation as a good place for a great time. A city born in sin, says Troy Taylor in his book Wicked New Orleans: The Dark Side of the Big Easy.

“From the original charters that were based on fraud to the emptying of French prisoners to provide settlers to the region,” writes Taylor, “widespread government corruption, gaudy social functions, rampant prostitution and frequent lapses in any civilized moral code, New Orleans has a long and very colorful history of crime and vice.”

A topless woman in the early evening on Bourbon Street is about as close to vice as a first-time visitor gets, although what exactly passes for vice these days is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s just that the rest of America has pretty much caught up with New Orleans. You don’t have to leave home to be bad anymore.


Too old to be too bad, even on Bourbon Street, the first-tine visitor retreats to the oak-shaded magnolia-scented gentility of the Garden District. Fine old Victorian houses, complete with Doric columns, are intersected every so often by intricate ironwork, reminding that the Spanish are long gone but not completely forgotten. The actor John Goodman lives in the district; Nicholas Cage owned a number of homes around here before he went bankrupt. Sandra Bullock occasionally occupies a weird Swiss-style creation that would look better on the side of an alp.

The area’s best-known resident, Interview with the Vampire novelist Anne Rice, gets the prize for the most ingenious celebrity use of the neighborhood. A native of the city, she acquired a number of houses in the area over the years and then set parts of her bestselling books in the them, thus sharply increasing their resale value.

The Lower Ninth Ward, poor and predominately African-American, was hardest hit by flooding during Hurricane Katrina. Given what this neighborhood has suffered, the first-time visitor crosses the St. Claude Avenue Bridge and descends onto a flat landscape crisscrossed by neatly laid-out streets, unable to shake the feeling that he is stepping onto hallowed ground, certainly ground zero for the immense tragedy of Katrina.

Nearly twelve years after some of the worst flooding in U.S. history (eighty per cent of the city was underwater), the Lower Ninth looks better than expected, although abandoned houses remain and there are plenty of cement foundations on empty plots of land to mark where homes once stood.

But there are also impressive numbers of new and refurbished brick and frame structures, built off the ground this time so that hopefully they can survive the next flood. The locals tell you that privately funded efforts had as much to do with the revival of the neighborhood as any government aid. The best known—and most colorful—of the rebuilt houses are those financed by the actor Brad Pitt. You can spot the ones he is responsible for by the solar panels mounted on their roofs.

Only thirty-seven per cent of the pre-Katrina population has returned to the Lower Ninth. What strikes the visitor is the silence of the empty streets, a few people sitting on their porches, the odd stroller along banks of levees that have been rebuilt and strengthened, but which still look awfully vulnerable to an untrained eye.

The visitor departs, uncertain whether he has seen a community better off than it was or found an impoverished neighborhood still struggling to survive. Maybe a bit of both.

The iconic New Orleans the first-time visitor imagined throughout the lifetime it has taken him to get here, endures, but then so does the New Orleans of disastrous news reports, the town still conflicted about race and heritage.

A couple of days later, the statute of Davis is gone. Masked workmen with a crane make it disappear early one morning just before daybreak. If the South is ever to rise again as the Confederate flag wavers who stood vigil so fervently hope, it will not do it under the gaze of Jeff Davis.

Perhaps the Big Easy lies a little less uneasy as a result.


Grateful thanks to New Orleans resident Alan Markfield and his partner, Barbara Roston, for their generosity and hospitality showing my wife Kathy and me around town. They made a first visit to this complex, endlessly fascinating city a joy.

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Which Way to the Bathroom–And Other Tales From A Book Tour

Depending on where I am, a good part of my day is spent telling people where the bathrooms are. Again, depending on the location, I also tell them where they can find the post office (next door to where I am standing).

I help elderly ladies to their cars, direct visitors to local restaurants (not my strong suit), and regularly provide a table where passersby can rest their purchases while they borrow my pen so they can fill out the addresses on the postcards they intend to mail at the post office which I then direct them to.

Oh, yes. And once in a while I sell a book .

The Sanibel Sunset Detective novels I write are set in and around Sanibel and Captiva, two barrier islands off the west coast of Florida hugely popular with visitors, particularly visitors from the American Midwest (I am certain Minnesota empties out in February).

Every year, once I have finished a new novel, I hit the road to promote it. Now in a bygone era, authors were escorted from town to town by attentive publicists to sit in hotel rooms entertaining the local press, appear on local TV and radio, and perhaps visit a bookstore or two to meet readers before moving on.

As a teenager I read accounts of the rigors of book tours described by famous authors like Pierre Berton and Margaret Atwood. As a young reporter I visited many hotel suites containing authors such as Irving Stone, Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins, Leon Uris, and Stephen King to name a few, everyone seated on a sofa sipping morning coffee and perhaps nibbling a sticky bun, at peace with the world, safe in the knowledge that they did not have to direct anyone to the bathroom.

Not to say that sort of traditional book tour doesn’t still happen, but most working authors—and I am certainly one of those—have to get out there, book in hand, plastering on a hopeful grin, ready to give ’em a little razzle dazzle in venues ranging from independent bookstores and farmer’s markets to airports and supermarkets, to—well, you name it and I’ll probably show up.

On the one hand, this is roll-up-your-sleeves, working-in-the-salt-mines bookselling. Conversely, it is also the best way in the world to meet readers, new and old. I have met hundreds if not thousands of people over the past three months at sixty-seven different book events.

Tim Sample the well-known humorist and TV personality (he used to do Postcards From Maine on CBS News Sunday Morning) actually bought a book..

Randy Wayne White, the bestselling literary icon around these parts, so famous that three local restaurants bear the name of his fictional hero, Doc Ford, stopped by to say he’d heard great things about the Sanibel Sunset Detective. He sounded pretty convincing.

Why Mike Pence, the vice president of the United States, even waved at me on his way to get a haircut next door to MacIntosh Books on Sanibel Island where I was doing a book signing. Alas, the veep didn’t buy a book. Maybe just as well.

I’m always amazed at the interesting people I meet. An assistant attorney general from Pennsylvania on Sanibel with her girlfriend who runs a trucking company; a French diplomat, recently posted to Washington; a brave mother on one last vacation with her daughter dying of brain cancer; a psychiatrist excited because she’d just finished writing a dissertation on Norma Bates of TV’s The Bates Motel; Warren who claimed to be the only Bedouin in Fort Myers, Florida, born in Saudi Arabia (his father was in the oil business), who ended up a devout Jehovah’s Witness.

Dorothy Jore reminded me of one of my favorite reader stories when we met again at Annette’s Book Nook on Fort Myers Beach. She and her husband, Jerry Dahlberg, were Chicago police officers on patrol together. She thought he was a good partner but no more than that until one day they confronted a wanted gun runner.

The guy was driving a car filled with guns. When they trapped him in an alley, he opened fire. Jerry leapt in front of Dorothy, taking the bullet intended for her, and then, despite being badly wounded, returning fire, killing the gun runner.

Dorothy stayed by Jerry’s side while he recovered in hospital. Sitting there with him hour after hour, she began to think that anyone who would risk his life for her might make a pretty good husband. Twenty-seven years later, they are still married.

None of these fascinating reader interactions would be possible sitting in a TV studio or a hotel room. Still, I’m always of two minds about the hard business of flogging books. There are moments when I do wonder what I am doing with my life.

Here I am in my late sixties lugging around a folding table, yanking books out of the trunk of my car, on my (increasingly sore) feet for hours (sitting doesn’t work for me) noting the truth of Leonard Cohen’s admonition about aching in the places where one used to play, trying not to look a fool when hour after hour no one pays the least bit of attention.

At these times, any ego boost that enthusiastic readers might have provided evaporates. I am constantly made humble by the passing multitudes who don’t seem the least bit interested in Sanibel Sunset Detective novels or their author.

Demons begin to crawl across the landscape of my memory, reminding me of all my shortcomings, my many failings in life, the finiteness of the time I have left on this earth, and the futility of what I am doing with that time.

Then, someone approaches, and the demons disappear. I slap on a welcoming smile. Another opportunity to win a new reader presents itself.  “Excuse me,” the new arrival says as I gird myself, preparing to tell about the endless delights contained in my novels, the page-turning excitement, the unforgettable characters. “Can you tell me where the restrooms are?”

Straight down to the back and then right through the double doors, answers the author, keeping his smile rigidly in place.


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Welcome to the Dark Edge


Dear Reader

An exciting new series of novellas and novels has just been launched that I want to tell you about. The series is titled The Dark Edge. The stories are a little sexier and a trifle edgier than we have previously published

The idea behind the series remains the same, however: to entertain you, the reader, keep you turning pages, and wondering what’s going to happen next.

To launch the series we have just published, as an eBook, The White Island. It’s a thriller, a mystery, a love story set against the backdrop of Ibiza, one of the world’s most exotic islands, located off the coast of Spain.

Here an international cast of shady characters gathers beneath the hot Mediterranean sun: a beautiful young woman being blackmailed; a multi-millionaire and his glamorous wife aboard a luxury yacht, on the run; a pair of quarreling CIA agents; an Iranian government official who may or may not be trying to buy parts for a nuclear device from the Russians; a crafty Mossad agent out to stop the sale.

I hope you’re intrigued enough to check out The White Island at Amazon. You can access the novella by clicking HERE. Or by clicking on the cover below.  If you prefer, The White Island soon will be available on Amazon in a print edition. I’ll be updating you as to its availability.

In the meantime, welcome to The White Island. It’s located in that mysterious place full of shadows and secrets known as The Dark Edge.


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So you’re writing or thinking about writing a novel.

To put it mildly, you are not alone. The questions I’m asked most in the course of meeting hundreds of people promoting the Sanibel Sunset Detective mysteries have to do with the novel that appears to be bubbling in just about everyone.

Amazing. I would not have thought there were that many readers, let alone writers.

A great deal of this interest has to do with the revolution in technology and the new attitude it has produced. What used to be a highly restricted and difficult process has been democratized and opened up to everyone. Now you don’t have to interest a publisher in order to have your novel published. You can do it yourself—and hundreds, if not thousands, are doing just that, including large numbers of professional writers tired of banging their heads against the wall of traditional publishing.


The rise of Amazon has certainly helped.  The scourge of traditional publishers, Amazon is the best thing that ever happened to authors. Now there exists a platform where everyone can sell their books to a worldwide audience. You get the same Amazon page to showcase your work as Stephen King or Nora Roberts. All you have to do is figure out how to sell your masterpiece, and Amazon will even help you do that.

What follows over the course of the next weeks and months is an attempt to address the questions and concerns I’ve heard expressed by fledgling authors. I should emphasize from the outset that these observations and suggestions are merely one writer’s point of view, drawn from sometimes painful personal publishing experiences.

I have been writing professionally since I was fifteen. Almost every day for the past five decades I have sat down to write something. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines. I’ve written scripts for television and movies. I’ve written nonfiction books and I’ve written novels.

Often I have been poorly paid, occasionally I have been extraordinarily well paid, and once in a while I haven’t been paid at all. None of it matters. Whatever the circumstances, I’ve just kept writing. It is what I do. It’s about the only thing I can do with any facility.

All along the fight has been to do it better, to keep learning, to keep trying to figure it out, not just by writing but also by talking to other writers, endeavoring (without great success I might add) to unlock their secrets. The writers include Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Peter Maas, Theodore H. White, Margaret Lawrence, Pierre Berton, David Halberstam, Irving Stone, Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Irving Wallace, Jerzy Kosinski, Leon Uris, William Goldman. To name a few.

I don’t profess to know more than anyone else, and certainly I have experienced as much failure as success. But I have learned a few lessons along the way that might be helpful to someone starting out. The great thing about the creative process is that there really are no rules; if you can make it work, then it works. The mysteries of creation resist discovery with a handy set of instructions.

So, with all that said, let’s get started.


I’m often asked how you write a novel and the answer is dauntingly simple:

You write it.

There is no way of getting around that reality. At some point you must sit down and start writing.

“Writing is work,” says Margaret Atwood. “It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

The good news is that it has never been easier to get your words, if not on paper, onto a computer screen. When I started, back in the dark ages, I thumped away on my trusty manual typewriter. If you made a mistake or decided you had headed down the wrong path, then you had to start over again, an arduous, often frustrating process not helped much by deciding to write in long hand, the only option of great writers from Tolstoy to Dickens.

There is controversy over whether the personal computer helps or hinders the writing process—John le Carré, for example, still writes his novels in long hand—but for the novice faced with the task of composing thousands of words and afraid those words might not be the right ones, technology is a godsend. You can make mistakes to your heart’s content and then correct them again and again with the click of a mouse.

Make yourself write at least page a day. At the end of a year you will have 365 pages—a novel!


Once you have completed your word dump, you can see what you have and then edit and rewrite at your leisure, armed with the satisfaction that at least you have produced something.

Whether to outline a novel first is the subject of much discussion. In the days before computers, I would have said yes, by all means; the outline saved a lot of aggravation and hair pulling when working on a typewriter. But nowadays your first draft dumped into the computer can serve as an outline.

However, I do write a few general notes more or less laying out the beginnings of a plot so that there is some indication as to the plot and where I plan to move it.

Having done that, I take the journey as first reader, creating characters and plot twists as I go along. The writing becomes an adventure, an expedition deep into the unknown—cushioned by the failsafe of understanding that whatever you write not only can be changed but probably will be.

When I finish that journey, i.e. completer the novel, and look back, I realize only one thing: that everything I started out with, I ended up changing.

When you understand this, you are on your way to becoming a writer.


 Ron Base talks about writing a novel at Milton Public Library, Wednesday, Jan. 25,  7 p.m.

Admission is free.

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Rogue One: Spinning On Bill Marshall’s Shoulders

Bill Marshall, employing the look of skepticism he adopted whenever I put my arm around him…

Recovering from the shock of his death, the image that keeps reoccurring was the night—the very late night— Bill Marshall, movie producer, Toronto International Film Festival co-founder, and (much) larger-than-life rogue warrior, lifted me up, hefted me across his shoulders, and spun me around.

This occurred during the wilder and woolier early days of the film festival when such shenanigans were not uncommon after a few of us retreated to the festival’s hospitality suite for an after-hours drink, and you could end up getting tossed around by one of the founders.

1297510088643_original1I used to watch Bill, somewhat enviously I must admit, holding court at what was then Club 22—the two-two, as the regulars called it—a darkened, somewhat elegant watering hole nestled inside Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel.

It was the place to see and be seen in the midst of the fleeting glitz of what was dubbed Hollywood North, when everyone seemed to be coming to Canada to make a movie. You could find Donald Sutherland at one of the tables, James Coburn huddled at another, Peter Fonda not far away.

But almost always you could find Bill Marshall at his corner banquette adjacent to the bar, seeming to dominate the room. He usually was seated with his friend Henk Van der Kolk, the writer Tom Hedley, and, on occasion, the lawyer, Dusty Cohl.

Back then he was known as a movie producer. He’d actually made a film people heard of, Outrageous, and as a result he seemed to be everywhere, momentarily the town’s highest profile producer.

There was something magnetic about him that drew everyone. The movers and the shakers, not to mention the stars, all stopped by Bill’s table for a handshake and a few wryly delivered words.

Bill often played with the establishment—he orchestrated three mayoral campaigns, and worked at city hall—but there was always an outlaw quality about him, a sense that he was outside it all, barely containing his disdain for the games the adults played, particularly when it came to the arcane and mostly impenetrable weirdness involved in the making of movies.

Those outlaw qualities were shared, at least to some extent, by his pals Henk and Dusty. They were all rogues in their way. But Bill was Rogue One.

Maybe these characters could get a movie made; it was a business of crazies after all. But no one in their right mind was ever going to let them loose to do something like start a film festival. Who would ever support a ridiculous idea like that?

Years later, after the festival was a well-established part of the Toronto cultural scene, and was on its way to becoming an international phenomenon, I would look at Bill and Henk and Dusty—all of whom were friends at that point—and shake my head considering the sheer audacity of what the rogues had pulled off.

But pull it off they did, and today the fact that they succeeded so well is part of much-repeated local lore. Bill took it all in stride, never getting too ruffled, viewing the landscape around him with a skeptical eye and a gruff, barely-contained sarcasm.

He never stopped working the room, hustling the next wildly envisioned dream. I would encounter him in the darnedest places. Jogging along Santa Monica Boulevard one morning when I was living in Los Angeles, there was Bill, sauntering toward me. I expressed surprise at seeing him; he acted as if the two of us had run into each other yesterday. Of course he was living in L.A. Where else would he be? Come to lunch. We can talk.

\When I drove to the address he had given me, I thought there was a mistake. Most of the Canadians I knew who had arrived in Los Angeles to reinvent themselves—myself included—occupied apartments, usually over the hill in the San Fernando Valley.

Not Bill Marshall.

Bill was holed up in the newcomer’s fantasy of Hollywood, a mansion in Beverly Hills, complete with a lake-size swimming pool Esther Williams would be at home in, featuring a pair of marble lions resting at either end. One half expected Jay Gatsby or Monroe Stahr from The Last Tycoon to stroll out and ask you if you’d like a drink before lunch.

Instead it was Bill pouring the wine and leading me into a vast dining room where he presided at the head of a long table. What he was doing in La La Land is anyone’s guess. Probably trying to make movies. Certainly that’s what we talked about into the afternoon. But then there was always this enigmatic quality to Bill, the holding of cards close to his chest, never giving too much away.

Out of the palm of his hand...

Out of the palm of his hand…

Years later, Bill and I more or less reconnected and I got to know his wife Sari Ruda. Bill still had not stopped. There was talk of producing more movies, and, oh yes, a film festival in the Niagara-on-the-Lake region that would combine film with the fine wines and dining to be found at the local wineries.

I couldn’t help thinking to myself, Yeah, sure, but what are the chances of that ever happening? I should have known better. The next thing, I was arriving at a party launching the Niagara Integrated Film Festival. The event was held in a historic old house outside of town, the rooms filled with the local establishment types Bill always seemed to be able to draw in.

He looked frail, but as soon as Sari introduced him, Bill had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Bill never gave a speech as such, he talked to a crowd, reasonable, witty, self-deprecating conversation that you might be able to resist, but could never help but admire.

The guests that night couldn’t resist. The Niagara Integrated Film Festival became a reality. One of the last times I saw Bill was on a sparkling summer evening at the Trius Winery. The festival was honoring the Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, an outdoor event that attracted the usual dignitaries, including the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

Bill looked even frailer but once again rallied to chat up his audience, in his element but somehow removed from it at the same time. Listening to him, I marveled all over again at his perseverance, his unwillingness to give up, his quiet belief that the next hand was the winning hand, all he had to do was talk a few people around to his way of thinking.

So much had changed since the days when I used to glance enviously at that corner where Bill Marshall held court. There is no more Club 22, the hospitality suite at the film festival long ago closed down, and the festival itself has become so big and well-oiled that everyone involved pretty much behaves themselves.

But watching Bill do his thing at the Niagara Film Festival, he remained for me a touchstone of sorts, a reminder of earlier wilder days when, late at night, a fellow could get spun around on the shoulders of a delightful rogue, and life would go on forever.

Now the rogue is gone, his brightness vanished. The lights are dimmer.



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