Author Archives: Phil Dwyer

Revise, Revise, Revise is going on hiatus

HiatusI’m writing a book. But that’s not the reason for pulling out the tarps and wrapping this site in dust sheets for a while. Well, it is, a little bit. The fact is, I want to dedicate a blog to my book (which confusingly I’ve entitled Larry’s Book). The book is about one of Canada’s pioneers of palliative care, Larry Librach. It’s his last dispatches from the border between life and death. The final thoughts on the topic of a man who spent his working lifetime helping others to die well. So on the book’s blog I’m going to focusing on end-of-life care. Which means I’m probably not going to have the time to post anything here for a while. I’ve already redirected my own web address ( to the new site (which is at I’m not taking this blog down. I may return to it when the manuscript for Larry’s Book is finished (I’m supposed to deliver it by June 2015). But I’m not planning on updating it soon.

If you’re following this blog I’m going to switch your follows to the new blog. If it’s not a topic you find particularly interesting, feel free to unfollow — I won’t be offended. I’m the one switching things on you after all. If you don’t follow this blog maybe you’ll consider following the End Of Life Blog. How we look after the dying is one of the most important issues facing Canadians at the moment. In the next 20 years the size of our aging population (the over 80s demographic) is going to double. That’s going to put a huge strain on the health care system. We’d better be ready for it.

Thank you for your interest. Please turn out the lights when you leave. Goodnight.

Larry’s Book — Dundurn, Spring 2016


Goodbye My Friend

DannyReaders of this blog may remember something I posted back in February, about a certain homeless guy. That post was based on Danny. Danny haunted the spot outside the LCBO on Front Street, right next to The St. Lawrence Market. He had an unfortunate and often mutually abusive relationship with alcohol, so he wasn’t always exactly sober, and he had a habit, when a little oiled up, of shouting strange and often unintelligible things at the tourists who cluster around the market. He was always especially flustered on Saturday, when the neighbourhood is invaded by weekenders on the hunt for artisanal cheeses and breads, and fancy meats from Spain and Italy.

Danny was on my direct route to Starbuck’s, so I couldn’t avoid him on my daily coffee run. I generally tried to buy a paper from him every week, although sometimes his memory would fail him and he’d give me my money back and tell me I’d already bought one this week, which was never the case (my memory is pretty good about that stuff). On the other hand he often sold me a paper he’d sold me before, because his stock was a little ‘distressed’. Over the last seven years or so we’d struck up an odd kind of friendship. When I asked him his name, so I’d be able to use it, he said there was no point in exchanging names, as he’d never remember mine. He called me ‘lad’, ‘boss’ or ‘chief’ depending on his mood.

Danny died, ten days ago. Since then there has been a constant tribute to him on Danny’s corner. Sometimes this includes full cans of his favourite beer. The other evening, walking home, Natalie and I noticed a packaged apple pie on Danny’s chair. The next morning, Natalie tells me, it was gone.

To most people he was just some random homeless guy, selling the homeless guy rag outside the LCBO. But it’s clear to me, simply from the tributes and the response to his death that it has left a hole. As humble as Danny was, he was an important part of the community around here and he is badly missed by those (and there were a lot of us) who used to stop and chat, buy his paper, pet his many dogs (that was one of his jobs — dog sitting).

He leaves behind Tank, the old black lab that was always at his side. If anyone can give Tank a home you can call Animal Services on 311, as per the sign. Natalie and I would love to have him, but our condo is too small, and my allergies won’t allow it. Cruelly, the animals I love the most (dogs) are the animals I’m most allergic to.

I’m going to miss Danny. He’s an ever-present reminder that we don’t need to be rich, powerful or famous to touch people’s lives. We can even do it by standing rain, snow and shine, on a street corner, selling a homeless guy’s rag.

Larry’s Book: To be published April 2016

Eighteen months ago I set out to tell a story, a story I thought was important and becoming more so with every passing day; a story about palliative care. My idea for this story was to show palliative care physicians at work with their dying patients. I wanted to illustrate, in a piece of long-form journalism, the immense difference palliative care can make in the quality of life of dying patients. Because it’s one thing to be told that palliative care can make a difference, it’s quite another to see it demonstrated for yourself. That’s what I was hoping to do: demonstrate that difference, by showing readers that difference.

Life, as it often does, had other plans for me, and other plans for my story. Continue reading

Charity begins… well perhaps it doesn’t

There’s this one guy, drunk old rummy, sells the homeless rag outside the LCBO. He’s a local character. Shouts at most everyone walking by. Shouted at me too, until I stopped one day and bought one of his papers. Now he simply nods and smiles, shares a joke: “Some days you get the elevator, some you just get the shaft.” Continue reading

Giving something back – one person at a time

We change the world one person at a time. And, to my mind there’s no better way to change one person than to give them the gift of literacy. It is, after all, the mark of civilization. It’s one of the first things archeologists ask themselves when studying a culture: did they have writing?

Back in April, Natalie (my wife) and I were visiting the tiny Caribbean island of Bequia. (In case you’re wondering, it’s about nine miles south of St. Vincent, and about 90 miles due west of Barbados). On our third day we visited The Fig Tree for dinner, because its Friday Fish Fry is legendary on the island, we were told. Our server, Tiny, asked us if it was our first time on Bequia. When I said yes, it is, she dropped her pad on the table and threw her arms around me, saying “Welcome to Bequia”. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by a server before. Natalie received her hug, gracefully if a little reluctantly (she’s not normally a hugger).

It had been a long day. A lot of walking. A few beers. Natalie popped to the loo. While she was gone I wondered why there was a bookcase on the restaurant’s back wall, full of books. Mostly, from what I could see at a distance, YA and children’s books. When she got back to the table she said: “I wonder who Ms. Johnson is?”

“Why,” I asked.

“Because the bathroom walls are papered with notes from children, thanking her for helping them with their reading.”

“Ask Tiny,” I said. We did. It turns out Ms. Johnson is the restaurant’s owner, and she runs a Saturday reading club on the terrace. She roped us in to help, which we were glad to do.Image

We already knew there was a problem with literacy on Bequia, because before we arrived we’d contacted a couple of ex-pat Americans who had just set up an after-school teaching facility (Bequia Learning Centre) in Port Elizabeth (Bequia’s capital) to help kids graduate, so they could go to High School in St. Vincent. We’d spent a few hours one afternoon with the kids there chatting and handing over some supplies we’d bought with us from Canada. The kids were shy, the way kids everywhere once were around adults, but keen to learn. And grateful, so grateful, for the few simple boxes of pens, pencils and packets of stickers we’d brought with us.

Which got us thinking. We were planning to set up a writer’s retreat on Bequia, a plan which has since come to fruition. In our preliminary research we’d noticed that these retreats typically offer yoga, along with writing. Why not, we asked ourselves, offer something a little different? Why not give something back to the community we were visiting? And, if we had assembled a room full of writers, why not make it about literacy? Because if we could manage to touch these children’s lives with a few boxes of coloured pens and some bags of stickers, imagine what we might do with stories. Imagine what we might do if we helped them tell their own stories. How amazing would that be?


Ten alternative New Year’s resolutions

I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. To my mind, the best time to fix something that isn’t working in your life is when you realize it isn’t working. If you decide you’re overweight in April, why not work on it then? Why wait to the randomly determined January 1st (when gyms will be packed in any case). But then I saw a stat.  that said more people who make resolutions in January carry through with them. So this year I’ve decided to break with old habits and attitudes, take a look at myself, and determine what needs to change. This, then, is my top ten list of things I will work on in the new year, in no particular order.

  1. Dare to fail
    I read the following quote from Michael Jordan back in October: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occassions I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and I missed. I have failed over and over again in my life… that is how I have succeeded.”
    Fear of failure is paralyzing. It will prevent us from participating at all. Yes, rejection hurts. Yes, it dents our fragile egos. And it’s a lot easier to remain within our cozy den, away from all that hurt and rejection. But I won’t get better until I participate. That’s what Jordan was saying: you can’t make the shot until you miss it a couple of times (or a hundred, or a thousand) first. Every rejection contributes to success.
  2. Give up
    Yes, I know this seems at odds with the previous resolution. But I don’t mean stop trying. I mean stop pressing forward in the face of inevitable failure. Sometimes a story just isn’t working, and no amount of tinkering is going to make it work. Sometimes it’s better just to abandon it and move on. I learned this lesson in business twenty some years ago. I was running the newsletter division of a magazine publisher in London. My boss, an accountant by profession, taught me that it’s OK to give up on a title that just isn’t working. Shut it down and move on to something that’s easier and more successful. There are always new opportunities somewhere. Why waste your efforts pushing against a closed and locked door?
    Also (on this same general theme) sometimes the book you’re reading is just awful, and won’t get any better. I’ve wasted too many hours with books I hated just because of my obsessive compulsive need to finish every book I start. It’s time for that to stop. Enough. From now on I’ll give a book fifty pages to capture my attention. If I’m not engaged at that point, I’m putting it aside and picking up another one.
  3. Embrace my inner slob
    There’s one in all of us. The person who would rather hang around in the house all day in our PJs, playing solitaire on the computer, and reading trashy novels. Anything, rather than write. Wikipedia is a tremendous resource for procrastinating writers. You can waste hours on it, and chalk it down to research. The Internet in general, and email in particular are tremendous time sinks. Whole days just disappear down their gullets. Why would I embrace such behaviour? Arent’ we supposed to fight it? Confront it, and stare it down, until it turns and stalks away, its tail between its legs? Well, that’s what we’re told. But not all procrastination is bad. If you’re hesitating to get back to the writing, there’s probably a reason for it. You might be stuck, not knowing where the story goes next. You might be scared to ruin the great start you’ve made. We’ve all had stories unravel on us: fall apart under our fingertips. You might actually (imagine this) be tapped out and tired, your imagination exhausted by a crazy schedule. So I’m giving myself the permission to slack off every now and again, if that’s what my brain tells me it needs. Sometimes all it needs is the time and space to work out its next move, and bothering it with your need for the next sentence is not going to help. So get out of the way and let it think.
  4. Stop working so hard
    This is one my mother-in-law is convinced I’ve already embraced. Largely because she doesn’t see writing as work (especially as Imagenobody pays me to do it). The fact is, writing IS work. It’s hard, challenging work, that drains you, both emotionally and (surprisingly) physically. That’s the way I generally write. But it doesn’t have to be. Not always. Sometimes it can be pure fun. Human beings, I’m told, learn best through play. So I’m going to devote a bit more of my time this year to playful writing. Writing that I do for the fun of it.
  5. Abandon my goals
    This is related to resolution four. One of the things that makes writing work and not play is those pernicious goals: there’s a contest we’re entering, a journal we want to get our work into. Nothing wrong with that, of course. If we don’t have goals in life we’ll never achieve anything. But if I’m to write playfully, I’ve got to stop focusing on these goals — something somebody else determines is a measure of success, and focus instead on the rewards of the writing itself. The fun that can be had in exploring different styles, voices, genres.
  6. Break the rules
    I’ve spent the last several years working hard on my craft. I’m now at the point of diminishing returns: each book on I read on the craft of writing teaches me less and less, and reinforces old lessons more and more. Nothing wrong with that. It’s good to remind ourselves of what we already think we know, because it’s pretty easy to get slack and lazy, let’s face it. But the more literary journals I read, the more obvious it becomes that there are herds of writers out there, accomplished craftspeople, who work entirely within ‘the rules’. They colour within the lines. Their work is consistently good, but rarely really interesting. So I think I’m ready (now that I know them) to break the rules now and again. Not badly (at least not at first). Just for the hell of it, and to see what emerges.
  7. Savour rejection
    This is somewhat related to resolution one, but it’s subtly different. Someone (I forget who) once said that the writers who are truly blessed are those who haven’t been published yet. Because they’re free. Free of expectations, critical shackles, the need to match their former achievements. They can write what they want. They can enjoy total and unshackled liberty. True, that’s because nobody’s heard of them, or still less, cares about what they write. But it’s still liberating to think that, with every rejection, that freedom is extended a little while longer. Just as long as it doesn’t last forever.
  8. Stop deferring pleasures
    This year I’m actually going to do  with the things I’ve long wanted to, but haven’t because “I’ve got to get the book finished/the story collection done/a few pieces in journals” first. Forget that. If I want to walk the length of Yonge Street (1178 miles) to raise money for Toronto Rehab (who got me back on my feet after my heart attack) and blog about it, I’m going ahead and doing it.
  9. Laugh more
    This is self-explanatory, and health-promoting. Particularly, I want to laugh more at what I write: I’m hoping I’ll be laughing because it’s genuinely funny, but I’m prepared to poke fun at it too, if it’s that bad.
  10. Relax
    It’s better for my blood pressure. So much is out of our control in this world. It’s pointless contorting ourselves about outcomes we can have no influence or control over. I’m going to focus on the things I can change, and let the rest go.


So that’s it. My list for 2013. What are you going to change this year, and why?

The Next Big Thing: A blog chain of works in progress

Some weeks ago, my friend and writing circle buddy Laure Baudot invited me to be a part of The Next Big Thing blog chain. (Take a look at her posting here).

The idea’s pretty simple: talk about your work-in-progress by answering ten questions on it, and then link to the blogs of five other writers with their own works in progress. Kind of a sneak peek at what people are working on, and what may emerge in the next few years from our fertile, warped and often crazed imaginations. I agreed to take part. Then life intervened. My mother died (more on this below). I had to drop everything and travel to the UK for her funeral. Tim, my son and his beautiful wife Bea, came to stay for five weeks. Writeous Interruptus (Or is that blogeous interruptus?).

So I’m finally getting to it, some weeks late (apologies to all Laure’s followers who landed on my blog and were dead-ended). I’m breaking all the rules (of course) because two of the writers I’m linking to here are already linking to me (what is that, some kind of internet incest?), but who cares? I don’t think anyone is policing this. Also, I’m linking to one writer, Deepam Wadds, who I didn’t invite, but who has a Next Big Thing posting up. The more the merrier I say. So my five is actually six, but two of them don’t really count, because they’re really in someone else’s circle.

So here we go. These are the ten questions I’m supposed to answer:

1. What is the working title of your book?

Mother Of All Lies

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I didn’t have an idea for a book. I had time, a passion to do it, and (to some extent) desperation. It was 2001 and the Internet boom had bust. I was working in Amsterdam at the European headquarters of a US Internet company, when the entire staff was laid off. That was in August. Under the Dutch employment laws I knew I’d have a few months on full pay while I looked for work. I’d always talked about writing a novel, but, apart from a really, really bad novel I wrote when I was 17, I’d never even made a start. This was the first time in my working life where I actually had time to write. What emerged was a hodgepodge of a first draft that was a total mess. I liken the process of discovering the novel hidden inside that draft to the work of the John Harmon character in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. He made his fortune sifting through giant piles of dust and rubbish for treasure. That’s what it’s been like.


 3. What genre does your book fall under?

I have a healthy distrust of genre labels. They’re useful for the marketing people at publishing houses, but I’m not sure they do writers much good. They tend to ghettoize what we do. If I had to pin a label on it, it might be literary fiction. I’d like it to be literary. That’s what I aspire to, and mostly what I read, but that doesn’t mean it’s posh or snobby necessarily. In fact, it’s pretty strongly rooted in working class culture. There are no soirees in my book, and there is plenty of snot and tears.

 4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

The antagonist is a strong female character whose gambling addiction fractures and damages her children’s lives. Though she’s in her late 60s when the book opens, there are flashbacks to her in her 30s, 40s and 50s. If I had a time machine, I’d put Maggie Smith in it and get her to play the part at every age. She’d be perfect. She could switch between the Downton Abbey character and the woman she plays in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (I forget her name). The antagonist is pretty much a blend of the wit and attitude of those two women.

The protagonist is harder, because he is four, ten, twenty-two, and in his mid-thirties in different scenes. Someone earnest and intense. Like a young Ralph Finnes. Or possibly (in any world in which a literary novel were made into a full length cartoon) Charlie Brown.

 5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A working mother’s gambling habit spirals out of control, wreaking chaos in the lives of her young family.

 6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I really want to find an agent. I’m a firm believer in the traditional model of publishing, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. I would only self-publish it if I ran out of options. I suspect the same is probably true of many self-published authors (though certainly not all).

 7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

That messy, sprawling first draft was written pretty quickly. I think I finished it in early January 2002, when I was back living in London. It sat on my laptop’s hard drive for a further five years before I touched it. I knew it needed to be revised (actually, rewritten), but I moved to Canada in April 2002 and I was busy with a new job in a new country. I just didn’t have the time. I picked it up again in October 2007, after a heart attack. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve re-drafted it since then, but I’m saying it’s now in its 14th draft.

 8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s a tough question. To be honest, I find comparisons a little invidious. Especially since this is my first novel. I think others can make comparisons, but it feels a little presumptuous for me to do so. A lot of early readers have compared it with memoirs like The Glass Castle and Angela’s Ashes (I see why. Both books feature dysfunctional families, in which the children take on parental roles in order to save the family). But it’s not a memoir. I think my writing style is somewhere in the neighbourhood of Nick Hornby: accessible and not particularly dense and showy. But thematically it’s a million miles from Hornby.

 9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My mother. She was a gambler. An addict. A charming, beautiful liar, with a manipulative intelligence. As a young boy, I adored her. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. As I grew older and began to see her as she really was, I grew to hate her. The story arc of the protagonist, which is that of a love story in reverse, is pretty much the story arc of my relationship with my mother. Having said that, she was a huge influence upon me: she was a big reader, and she never once told any of her six children they couldn’t be exactly what they dreamed of being. Which is a gift I still cherish. She died at the end of October 2012.


Me and my twin sister Sally, age 3, with my mother.

10. What else about your book might pique your reader’s interest?

The editor I’ve been working with to polish the manuscript for submission calls it gritty. A gritty family drama. That’s because many of the scenes contain the kind of drama that happens in certain kinds of family (a teenaged son pulling a knife on his father, for example). There is at least one scene that my wife can no longer read in revision because it makes her cry every time she reads it.

But that makes it sound bleak and a little hopeless, and I hope it’s not that bad. It’s shot through with dark humour (which I find I can’t do without), but it’s a form of gallows humour. I hope it will make you laugh and cry, in somewhat equal measures.

I suspect it may be a woman’s book. I’ve had a few male readers, and by and large I get the impression they didn’t enjoy it as much as the women who’ve read it (in fact, I suspect that at least one of them hated it). I think that’s because it’s more focused on character development, and less driven by plot and big events. One reader complained there’s no sex and no important deaths. Not to give too much away, but there are five deaths. As to the no sex part, it’s a book about a boy’s relationship with his mother, so to my mind that’s probably a good thing.

Now that’s out of the way, here are the five, no six, no four (oh, you figure it out). Here are the writers whose works in progress sound worth exploring to me. I met all of them at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, which is the most awesome writing organization in the world.

The aforementioned Deepam Wadds: deepam wadds. A dancer, a massage therapist and a fine writer, who won the WCDR’s short story contest last year.

Dale Long: Dale and I worked together for the first time in the Autumn, on a workshop on the rendering of accents, because both our projects have characters who are afflicted by them. He’s funny, and tends to come at things from an unusual direction. His blog is called: Inkstroke’s Blog

Ruth E. Walker: Ruth is a past president of the WCDR, and her fine debut novel, Living Underground, was published in the autumn by Seraphim Editions.

Sue Reynolds: Sue was also a past president of the WCDR. Sue is a writing instructor, and a fabulous writer.

Noelle Bickle: Boundbytheword. Noelle is sassy and funny. I haven’t read her book (yet) but I’ve heard a few excerpts and I can’t wait to get the whole thing in my hands once it’s published.

Mel Cober: Melly Loves Orange. Mel’s just finished her debut novel. What’s it about? Why don’t you click the link and find out?