"Reads like a fine Russian novel, though Ivan is Ukrainian and one of our old staffers at the Star Weekly."
How nice to have had a job in the media, something of an unfair advantage, I suppose. It gets you the ear of fine top editors Like the late RG (Gerry) Anglin of Maclean's Magazine out of Toronto. And even famed Canadian critic Robert Fulford has had at least one peek at my work. The Black Icon has been out, in various editions, with various publishers, for thirty years. Recently, I have had a request from the Aurora Public Library to print some more copies, they would pay me for it, and since I still had the printing plates, it was the best way to go.
Odd, getting a "paycheque" from the Mayor of Aurora, Ontario, and not from a big New York publisher, but I'll take it, I'll take it!
The first chapter of the Icon was damn hard to write. Those who have seen it here will probably agree. There is a terseness to the style. What began in first draft as an elaborate attempt at literature soon ended up as a kind of cryptic journalism, cut to the bone, no word wasted. Seems to work better that way. I would recommend serious journalistic training to all novelists. If you've had journalistic training, you are very hard to pigeonhole, in your novels, as an amateur. No word wasted is bestseller style. The Black Icon was, in Canada at least, something of a best seller. I know for sure that 37,000 people read it. So add you to the list? Here is the second of The Black Icon.
Curious that life in Depression Era Ukraine was almost exactly as it is in today’s Africa.
Coincidence that I'd titled the work The Black Icon?
"Marry the carpenter”, Sophia's grandmother had insisted. "Marry Michael, for he has golden hands. You will never have to worry about a house and food. You don't know how lucky you are. You, an orphan, fortunate enough to interest the most well-to-do man in the village."
Sophia had been sitting in front of the adobe hearth; worried, confused. An attractive girl: Dark, small-boned, eyes often flashing under unnaturally long lashes; still a litle awkward at sixteen, knees together in a virgin pose, brown calves sloping out from under a yellowed home-spun skirt; soiled toes worrying the smooth earth floor of the hut. Across from Sophia, her work-bent shapeless old "Baba" sat in a wicker chair, veiny hands drooping over the edges. Horny sandpaper hands. Hands that had often beaten Sophia with whatever they could grasp, a broom, a birch switch, a broken axe handle. Like the time during Lent, when Sophia had surreptitiously sampled a little cheese; the bone-bending and hair pulling had gone on for two days. Now the old woman seemed almost gentle despite her fearsome appearance. She was hawk-nosed, squinty. Gray hair streaked with black rills; unnatural, stark, like that of a madwoman Sophia had once seen in Kolomya. The parchment lines of her face spiraled inwards into a whorl that threatened to pull in the whole uncertain mass. Still this old woman was family. All the family that Sophia had. At least the old babushka was predictable. There had always been a comforting, repentant hand on Sophia's heaving shoulders after the beating.
But Michael, this unknown, this male--how would Sophia fare with him? He was a mass of contradictions, so changeable. Moody as the Prut one day and happy as a child the next. And he never seemed to know how to act around her.
"He's so boorish, so nervous half the time," Sophia said out loud.
The old woman twitched in irritation. She scratched at a louse and then shook her head as if to get rid of the girl's nonsensical words.
Would you rather have one of those Pans who ride around on horses, princely as you please, while sucking our blood? Think, Sophia. Sure, he's no gentleman, but then who is in this village? All our people have is their land, and they work it until they get sick or hunchbacked. For what? Just to get enough food to last the season, or, at least, whatever the Poles leave them...
"And he's not such a bad looking man. He's well built. Shoulders that make even me take a second look. And with those brown eyes and that straight, foxy nose, he'd be a find for any woman. He plays the violin too, just like his father.
It had been three days since Michael's proposal and Sophia still wasn't sure. Marriage itself frightened her. Just last week, Olga Podhoretz had thrown herself into the Prut after staying with that oaf of a shoemaker for just two weeks. And Maria Paulyshyn still sneaks out to play marbles with the boys while her husband is out in the fields. Sophia considered how people were beginning to talk about Maria, about how she seemed to have lost her mind since marrying the farmer. She developed tics and even leered, it was said. Imagine playing marbles at fifteen!
But pressure from both families persisted. Sophia was soon persuaded.
* * * * *
Michael's family threw an enormous feast that lasted three days, guests pausing only for sleep between drinking and dancing bouts. Home brew ran like water. Food was shoved into everyone until surprised palates heaved up the unexpected richness. Liquor loosened tongues and wallets. After the wedding, Michel and Sophia counted the piles of Zlotys that would start them off building their house.
The wedding over, life began in earnest. Now came the building. Nothing but the finest material would do for Michael. Stout oaken beams were carted up, then stones and lime. The walls soon rose and adobe was mixed to fill them in.
Evenings would find Michael sitting in front of the project, smoking quietly, staring at his rising house. It was his very own; his by design and rising up under his own hands. "Come on, let's go to bed," Sophia would call. "It won't go away." Michael would wave her off to stay another hour and ponder his first mark.
And Sophia too felt her pulse rise with every stone and mortar she lugged to the house. Her own house, her own land, the birthright of every Galician no matter who ruled the region. Once you had it, no one could take your land, be he Austrian, Pole or Russian.
Michael worked fast and hard. In four months, the final crowning material, tile, arrived for the roof. "Look, Sophia, actual tile. That'll show them," Michael said, scornfully eyeing the straw roofs of surrounding houses.
Finally, the new house, a splendid, thick walled four-room structure stood new and white in its hilltop, shaming the neighbours' cottages. Only one other building surpassed Michael's, and that was the squire's. This one boasted a tin roof, the absolute standard of rank in a Galician town. "And someday we will have a tin roof too," Michael solemnly told Sophia as they went inside to do the finishing.
Well, well well, old background calling. Wrote the novella when I was 29.
Says best-selling Yorkshire author John Braine: Writing? Don't do much before thirty. You just wouldn't have had the life experience.
My own luck, I suppose, consisted of having stronger raw material than writing ability. I was writing about my mother and my father. Novelists, no matter what their ambitions in a genre, are probably best advised to begin with "I was born..."
Yeah, it's a quirky little fragment. But by the kindness of an American novelist named Tom Mayer and one Stirling Dickinson of the Institute Allende, Mexico, I was awarded a tuition scholarship on the strength of the Black Icon, leading to an MA in Creative Writing. I thought, initially, that I had failed, screwed the book, but American philanthropy in those days was high, and I benefited from it, even though I was a Canadian. Those days are unfortunately gone. You can not get university money on the strength of your first novel. It's just plain unheard of.
Much, much harder for the twenty-something novelist now. Rejection nearly always a sure thing.
But there were days, oh those were days!
And you really didn't have to be all that good.
Still some hope nowadays.
You could, I suppose, beat a path to the University of Iowa, but there are tornadoes there. If you can risk twisters, there might still be money there for your first book. There is no doubt the prof will be a famous writer.
Same for the University of California at Irvine. What a gas that would be. Sharing manuscripts among the palms and eucalyptus.
Like I shared mine among blooming Prickly Pears and Bogainvillea, reading my stuff to expatriate Prescotts, Roosevelts and other people, whose ancestors started the United States of America. To them, I was somehow an adopted son. "We like Canadian Hunkies."
Oh to have the America of forty years ago!
Even as a "Canadian Hunky."