Thursday, October 20, 2011

Name that Story

Here's the first 900 words of a new book for me coming out in the spring with my new publisher Lorimer. The book was originally called The Forty-First Hour, because it's structured around the forty compulsory hours of volunteer work Sonja aka Sunny must do in order to graduate.  She comes an extra hour of her own free will to visit a woman in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and when the woman chokes to death, the administrator of the longterm care unit has Sunny charged with manslaughter.  The story crisscrosses three strands, the trial, Sunny's volunteer journal to her teacher and then her own first person narration.  The ending will give the verdict but I hope the reader will question not only what was alleged to have happened but also the notion of judicial vs moral guilt.  If you want something to happen but you didn't plan it but maybe you didn't go out of your way to stop it, are you guilty legally?   And what if the victim had told everyone she wanted to die. Are you guilty morally?

I like A Reasonable Doubt but my good friends at the publishing house want a title that plays up the trial and the character of Sunny--she's a strong character who places a high value on appearance. She wants to pursue a career in hairstyling.  She has deceived in the past but struggles to become a better person in the story.   If you choose the title the editors agree on, I'll send you the first copy I get.


“Sonja Anna Ehret, you stand accused of manslaughter.  How do you
It’s been a year since it happened and now, here I stand, front row centre of a courtroom. Four windowless beige walls surround me and I find it hard to breathe let alone answer. Silence hangs heavy and musty.
A couple of clerks watch me from behind a long desk. Dressed in black robes they’re like crows on a wire between me and an eagle, the judge.  He trains his eyes on me from a higher perch, a throne-like desk flanked on either side by a flag. 
Two people sit on the other side of the aisle from me. The pouffy-haired business woman is Mrs. Johnson from Paradise Manor, the one who had me charged. The guy beside her is a reporter judging by the steno pad in his hand.  Everyone’s waiting for my answer. The clock on the wall ticks slowly forward.
I want to plead guilty.  Immediately the trial would end and the sentence would be lighter, probation and a few thousand hours of community service. But it would kill my parents especially Mom.
She sits in back of me, tall, pale and thin with her chin held high. She’s a proud woman and I’m already the Big Disappointment of the family not at all like my older brother Wolfgang who is minding the condo management company so she and Dad can be here. Next to Mom sits Dad, slightly shorter but square shouldered and strong. He and Wolfgang look alike, guys you can instantly trust and lean on.
My family is the only reason I’m considering this dragged out process and I know they’ll stand behind me no matter what.  Still what happens if I am found guilty?  The sentence will be way worse, a couple of years in a correctional youth centre at least.
Twelve jury members stare vacantly at me from the left side of the courtroom waiting for my answer. They’re going to decide my fate. Really?
My lawyer told me to dress in smart casual but I’m guessing no one instructed the jury.  The best-dressed one wears a kiwi-coloured sweatsuit, the worst, relaxed-fit jeans and a long-sleeved red plaid shirt.  Then there’s the lady in the front with a stained top, a fat guy wearing a polo shirt with horizontal stripes, a guy with broken horn-rimmed glasses that make his head look tilted in a question. Two young guys with identical goatees fidget at the back. One is multiply pierced as though the rings in his eyebrows and lips are the only things holding him together.  The other scratches his beard a lot.  Five more jurors look like they’ve just left the bowling alley or their jobs as greeters in a box store. 
That jury doesn’t know that I took a half an hour to press my clothes and maybe that’s good. Maybe they’d hold it against me—excessive neatness, signs of a serial killer in the making. I’m wearing a dark grey skirt, a pale rose shirt and low-heeled pumps. A subdued look except for the pink streaks in my hair.
The guy in the glasses yawns, checks his watch then glances over at me.  Still waiting.
“Sunny?” Brendan McNeil, my lawyer prompts. I look down to the right where he stands. Another crow in a black robe.  Or maybe a raven. His hair is dark and closely cropped and everything about him seems sharper than those clerks at the front. His brown eyes measure me.
 Guilty, guilty, guilty.  My heart flip flops. This is it, I’m going to say it. Who cares what the lawyer told me to say? Can he honestly believe this jury will acquit me?
 I face the unsmiling bald judge.  He’s wearing a jaunty red sash across his robe.  I focus on that diagonal slash of red. Guilty, I say in my mind, and tell my mouth to follow.  But for some reason, that stripe of colour gives me hope.   Instead I speak out as clearly as I can:   
“Not Guilty.”
The judge raises his eyebrows at me.  Oh really? “Very well,” he says out loud. “Mr. Dougal, are you prepared to make the opening statement?”
The Crown prosecutor nods and approaches his stand like a large vulture, his robe floating behind him. His skin and hair look white against the blackness of the robe, his eyes are a window cleaner blue.  “Your honour, members of the jury,” he stares their way till all of them pay attention, “we will prove that on February 14, 2011, the defendant entered the Paradise Court Longterm Care residence and willfully fed hard candy to Helen Demers, a known diabetic who had difficulty swallowing due to her Alzheimer’s.”  The jurors squirm under his stare and he swivels to focus on me instead. “Not only was the candy full of sugar and therefore toxic to her, it was also in a format that would cause her to choke.” He looks towards the judge now. “Evidence will show Sonja had a relationship with Cole, the victim’s grandson, and that she carried out his pact with his grandmother to assist her in suicide so that when the victim began to asphyxiate, the defendant walked away purposely failing to provide medical assistance.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Twenty-four Hours in Ottawa

It was a grey drizzly afternoon when we arrived in Ottawa but I hiked from the hotel to Parliament Hill immediately.  Just the sight of these buildings inspires me into belting out "Oh Canada" and I wanted to get that nationalistic feeling for when we broke bread with MPs next morning.  I felt a little depressed at the desertion of the hill worrying that it foreshadowed attendance.  When I saw the statue of the lady listening to the man I thought it might prove a metaphor (me begging for someone to listen to us).
I'm happy to say this was not the case.  Ten people attended.  I won't list the MPs but my table included Burlington's Mike Wallace and Dufferin/Calidon's David Tilson.  I had a simple mission, to explain how a writer earned her living, to talk about what copyright means in terms of income and to talk about how the educational fair dealing exception  would negatively impact my earning stream.  This while we ate, always conscious that politicians had other places to be.  I thought it might be hard to squeeze it all in without madly ranting non stop but when Mr. Wallace, conversationally, asked if I earned a living at writing, it was easy to dive in.

Carolyn Wood, my publisher partner, spoke more on the business sides of the problem.  Mr. Wallace and Mr. Tilson asked questions and I believe they were sympathetic.

Next I headed to parliament to hear the discussion of the bill. Wow.  All the arguments seemed more to be about the digi locks that the educational exemption.  The example of the mom who buys a dvd and wants to put it on her Ipod for her child to watch on a long trip was cited over and over. We don't want to fine her 5 to 20 thou do we?  Another problem that was discussed was Distance Education.  According to discussions, after 30 days students are required to erase/destroy notes.  This was like book burning, according to the MPs.  Really.  Can't they just pay for the usage they actually need.  Remember when we used to have to buy text books?

At the end, however, one politician whom Kelly Duffin had spoken too, actually suggested including the three step Berne test. Fair dealing won't mean free chunks of our work then.  Hurray for Kelly.

Was the trip a success?  Yes, because we said what we wanted to.  Just like writing books, you have to celebrate the effort and process. If things don't go our way in the end, we know we did our utmost.