Choyce, Lesley 1951-
CHOYCE, Lesley 1951-
PERSONAL: Born March 21, 1951, in Riverside, NJ; son of George (a mechanic) and Norma (a homemaker; maiden name, Willis) Choyce; married Terry Paul (a teacher); children: Sunyata, Pamela. Education: Rutgers University, B.A., 1972; Montclair State College, M.A. (American literature), 1974; City University of New York, M.A. (English literature), 1983.
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CAREER: Writer, publisher, professor, television show host, film director, music performer, and surfer. Referrals Workshop, Denville, NJ, rehabilitation counselor, 1973-74; Bloomfield College, Bloomfield, NJ, coordinator of writing tutorial program, 1974; Montclair State College, Upper Montclair, NJ, instructor in English, 1974-78; Alternate Energy Consultants, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, writer and consultant to Energy, Mines and Resources Canada, 1979-80; Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1981—, began as instructor, became professor of English. Founder of Pottersfield Press. Creative writing instructor, City of Halifax continuing education program, 1978-83; instructor at St. Mary's University, 1978-82, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1981, and Mount St. Vincent University, 1982. Participant in creative writing workshops; public reader and lecturer; freelance broadcaster, 1972—; host of television talk show Choyce Words and Off the Page, beginning 1985.
MEMBER: International PEN, Atlantic Publishers Association, Canadian Periodical Publishers Association, Association of Canadian Publishers, Literary Press Group, Canadian Poetry Association, Writers' Union of Canada, Writers Federation of Nova Scotia.
AWARDS, HONORS: Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Award finalist, 1981; recipient, Order of St. John Award of Merit, 1986; shortlist, Stephen Leacock Medal, 1987; Dartmouth Book Award, 1990, 1995, shortlist, 1991-93; Event magazine Creative Nonfiction winner, 1990; Canadian National Surfing Champion, 1993; Ann Connor Brimer Award for Children's Literature, 1994; Manitoba Young Reader's Choice Award finalist, 1994; Authors Award, Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters, co-winner, 1995; finalist, Hackmatack Children's Book Award, 2000, for children's writing; Landmark East Literacy Award, 2000; poet laureate, Peter Gzowski Invitational Golf Tournament, 2000.
Eastern Sure, Nimbus Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1981.
Billy Botzweiler's Last Dance (stories), Blewointment Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1984.
Downwind, Creative Publishers (St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada), 1984.
Conventional Emotions (stories), Creative Publishers (St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada), 1985.
Coming up for Air, Creative Publishers (St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada), 1988.
The Second Season of Jonas MacPherson, Thistledown (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1989.
Magnificent Obsessions (photo-novel), Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1991.
The Ecstasy Conspiracy, Nuage Editions (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 1992.
The Republic of Nothing, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1994.
Dance the Rocks Ashore, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1997.
World Enough: A Novel, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1998.
Cold Clear Morning, Porcepic Books (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 2002.
Sea of Tranquility, Dunduin Publishing (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.
for young adults
Skateboard Shakedown, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1989.
Hungry Lizards, Collier-Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990.
Wave Watch, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1990.
Some Kind of Hero, Maxwell-Macmillan, 1991.
Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1991.
Margin of Error (stories), Borealis Press (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
Clearcut Danger, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1992.
Full Tilt, Maxwell-Macmillan, 1993.
Good Idea Gone Bad, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1993.
Dark End of Dream Street, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1994.
Big Burn, Thistledown Press (Saskatoon, Saskatechwan, Canada), 1995.
The Trap Door to Heaven (science fiction), Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1996.
Falling through the Cracks, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1996.
Couleurs Troubles, [Saint-Laurent, Quebec, Canada], 1997.
The Summer of Apartment X, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1999.
Roid Rage, Harbour Publishing (Madeira Park, British Columbia, Canada), 1999.
Shoulder the Sky, Broadwalk Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Refuge Cove, Orca Book Publishers (Custer, WA), 2002.
Go for It, Carrie, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1997.
Famous at Last, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1998.
Carrie's Crowd, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1999.
Far Enough Island, Pottersfield (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 2000.
Carrie's Camping Adventure, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 2001.
Carrie Loses Her Nerve, Formac Publishing (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 2003.
Reinventing the Wheel, Fiddle Head Poetry Books (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1980.
Fast Living, Fiddle Head Poetry Books (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1982.
The End of Ice, Fiddle Head Poetry Books (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1982.
The Top of the Heart, Thistledown Press (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1986.
The Man Who Borrowed the Bay of Fundy, Brandon University (Brandon, Manitoba, Canada), 1988.
The Coastline of Forgetting, Pottersfield Press (Lawerencetown Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1995.
Beautiful Sadness, Ekstasis Editions (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), 1998.
Caution to the Wind, Ekstasis Editions (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), 2000.
Typographical Errors, Gaspereau Press (Kentville, Nova Scotia, Canada), 2003.
Edible Wild Plants of the Maritimes, Wooden Anchor Press (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1977.
An Avalanche of Ocean (autobiography), Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1987.
December Six/The Halifax Solution, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown), Nova Scotia, Canada), 1988.
Transcendental Anarchy (autobiography), Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
Nova Scotia: Shaped by the Sea, Penguin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996.
The Coasts of Canada: A History, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 2002.
The Pottersfield Portfolio, Volumes 1-7, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1971-1985.
Alternating Current: Renewable Energy for AtlanticCanada, Wooden Anchor Press (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1977.
Chezzetocook: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Fiction from Atlantic Canada (fiction and poetry), Wooden Anchor Press (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1977.
(With Phil Thompson) ACCESS: Atlantic CanadaCommunity Energy Strategy Sourcebook, Potters-field Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1979.
(With John Bell) Visions from the Edge: An Anthology of Atlantic Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1981.
The Cape Breton Collection, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1984, new edition, 1989.
(With Andy Wainwright) Charles Bruce, The MulgraveRoad, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1985.
Ark of Ice: Canadian Futurefiction, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1985.
(With Rita Joe) The Mi'kmaq Anthology, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1997.
Atlantica: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland, Goose Lane (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 2001.
Contributor to more than one hundred magazines and anthologies. Writer/performer on two sound recordings with the Surf Poets, Long Lost Planet, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1996, and Sea Level, Pottersfield Press (East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, Canada), 1998.
ADAPTATIONS: The Republic of Nothing and Cold Clear Morning are being developed as feature-length films.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Driving Minnie's Piano, a memoir.
SIDELIGHTS: Lesley Choyce is a prolific and versatile author who incorporates some of his many passions—including nature and the environment, surfing, and music—into his fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Born in New Jersey, Choyce worked for a time in New York before becoming disillusioned with the greed and indifference he saw as the driving forces behind the city. Attracted in part by the great surf on the north Atlantic coast, he and his wife eventually moved to Nova Scotia and became Canadian citizens.
Many of Choyce's books appeal to young-adult readers. In his debut novel Skateboard Shakedown, for example, a group of young skateboard enthusiasts take on a corrupt city government when their favorite skate park is scheduled for development into a shopping area. Writing in Quill & Quire, reviewer Norene Smiley said that "this fast-paced novel marks the entrance of a new and refreshing voice for young readers." Hungry Lizards features a sixteen-year-old rock band leader who finds that the advantages of winning a performing contract at a local club can be outweighed by the realities of the entertainment business, the conflicting time demands of school and work, and the temptations of a questionable lifestyle. The book is designed for reluctant teen readers, and reviewer Kenneth Oppel concluded in Quill & Quire that the book's "tempered view of teenage street life and the rock 'n' roll underworld should appeal to young readers."
Wrong Time, Wrong Place explores racial tensions and social injustice through the story of Corey, a young man with one parent who is black and one who is white. Corey first becomes aware of his status as a biracial youth when he is branded as a troublemaker and rebel and begins to notice how both students and faculty treat lighter-skinned students differently. Through his Uncle Larry's good example and Larry's stories of a black community in Halifax called Africville, Corey comes to identify with his black forebears. As described by Canadian Children's Literature reviewer Heidi Petersen, Corey "realizes that he must face injustices himself, and embraces a form of social activism which begins by keeping the past, the truth, alive."
In Clearcut Danger, as in Skateboard Shakedown, two teenage protagonists take on adult greed, this time in the form of a joint government-business project to build a pollution-prone pulp and paper mill in a jobstarved town. Praising Choyce's "strong and interesting" characterization and "good, strong story," reviewer Patty Lawlor concluded in Quill & Quire that "booksellers, teachers, and librarians should talk this one up."
In Dark End of Dream Street, Choyce takes up the problem of homeless youth in the person of Tara. Tara always considered her friend Janet to be the troubled one, until her own life began spinning out of control. Quill & Quire reviewer Fred Boer found the author's subplots—about Tara's friendship with an elderly woman, and both Tara's and Janet's problems with their boyfriends—somewhat distracting, and the absence of swearing oddly cautious. Boer nevertheless praised the book for being "entertaining and readable."
While some of Choyce's young-adult novels are in the high interest/low vocabulary category, Big Burn appeals to a more sophisticated audience. Nevertheless, the main plot—two teens against a new incinerator that threatens to poison the atmosphere—is familiar Choyce terrain. In Quill & Quire, reviewer Maureen Garvie especially praised the "infectious" quality of the "outrage the author and his characters feel." Other strengths include the portrayal of John's "adolescent darknesses" and the death of a parent.
Downwind is an ecological thriller for a more mature audience. "Choyce's ecological concern is clearly expressed" in this book, according to Allan Weiss in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Set in an unspecified near-future, the novel depicts a severe energy crisis and accompanying attempts to establish nuclear power plants in unsafe, environmentally sensitive areas such as Nova Scotia. Weiss called the story "somewhat melodramatic," and added that "its characters are twodimensional; but it is a well-researched cautionary tale about the dangers of reliance on nuclear power." He concluded that Downwind "is at its best when it portrays the landscape and people of Nova Scotia—there are vivid descriptive passages during Warren's periodic hang-gliding excursions."
Discussing An Avalanche of Ocean and Transcendental Anarchy, his two autobiographies, Choyce once told CA: "[Although writing mostly fiction], as time went on I found that some of the facts of my own life were more revealing than the fictional truths I create. This came as a surprise and a shock to me. . . . When I grew into my skin as a writer, I pretended for a while that what I had to say really was of importance. After a time, I started believing in the myth, and this convinced me to abandon fiction for awhile and get autobiographical.
"Since my life story would be exceedingly boring, I was forced to edit my personal history ruthlessly until there was something left worth sharing. My first fragmented history of the self came out as An Avalanche of Ocean, and I almost thought that I was done with autobiography. What more could I possibly say once I'd written about winter surfing, transcendental wood-splitting, and getting strip-searched for cod tongues in a Labrador airport? But then something happened to me that I can't quite explain. Avalanche had set off something in me—a kind of manic, magical couple of years where I felt like I was living on the edge of some important breakthrough. It was a time of greater compressed euphoria and despair than I'd ever felt before. Stuff was happening to me, images of the past were flooding through the doors, and I needed to get it all down. Some of it was funny, some of it was not. Dead writers were hovering over my shoulder, saying, 'Dig deep; follow it through. Don't let any of it go.' And I didn't.
"So again I have the audacity to say that these things that happened to me are worth your attention. . . . In Transcendental Anarchy I celebrated the uncompromising passages of a midthirties male, admitting that I would never be an astronaut or a president, and instead finding satisfaction in building with wood, arguing a good cause, or even undergoing a successful vasectomy. Write about what makes you feel the most uncomfortable, a voice in my head told me. So I tackled fear and my own male anger and my biggest failures. And, even more dangerous, I tried writing about the most ordinary of things: a morning in Woolco, an unexceptional day, the thread of things that keeps a life together."
About his writing, Choyce further told CA: "Throughout it all, there is, I hope, a record of a search for love and meaning fraught with failure and recovery. Maybe
I've developed a basic mistrust of the rational, logical conclusions. I've only had the briefest glimpses beyond the surface, but I've seen enough to know that sometimes facts are not enough. There are times to make the leap, to get metaphysical, and suppose that we all live larger lives than appearances would suggest."
Weiss concluded: "For all its diversity, Choyce's fiction expresses a unified vision of concern for the environment and a need for all people to rediscover their ties to nature. He uses the rationalist genre of science fiction, as well as surrealism, fantasy, and satire, to encourage his readers to see the world in nonscientific ways. For Choyce, humans have suffered—and made their world suffer-–for their limited perspective: their utilitarian, selfish, rationalist approach. To be healthy, and to regain the health of the world, they need a more holistic vision, one that recognizes they are part of a larger human and natural universe."
Lesley Choyce contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
I was born on the first day of spring, March 21, 1951, the year J. D. Salinger published Catcher in the Rye. War was still raging in Korea but at least peace talks had begun towards a cease-fire. The hospital that brought me into the world was in Riverside, New Jersey, and my mother's name was Norma. My father, George Choyce, known as Sonny, drove us all home a few days later to Cinnaminson in his 1946 black Chevy coupe that he had bought when he came home from World War II. It was a pretty snazzy car in its day but by the time I was fourteen, my father was still driving me to the school dances in it and I was scrunched down in the seat, not wanting to be seen in an old rattletrap like that.
I had a brother, Gordon, three years older than me and we all lived in a tiny rounded house trailer that sat up on cinder blocks in a grove of black locust trees, a wedge of land between two country roads that would become virtual highways by the time I became an adult. The world of my youth was exotic rural South Jersey and in the fifties it was a beautiful natural wonderland of fields, streams, forests, farms, and swamps where skunk cabbage bloomed in the spring. As I grew, houses, concrete, shopping centers and asphalt highways swallowed all that good stuff. As my innocence slipped away, bit by bit, so did the pristine natural beauty of South Jersey. Once gone, it never could be resurrected.
I was pretty happy in the trailer, as far as I can tell, and so were Gordy, Norma, and Sonny. My father was a truck mechanic, as he had been during the war. My mother's wartime service had been as a Coast Guard WAC and both had come through the war with few complaints. During my earliest years we didn't have much money. Wages were low but work was steady for my father. He worked for a Ford dealership and, for a long tenure, fixed milk trucks for Millside Farms—those old boxes on wheels where the driver stood up while he drove, no seat belt, no seat, side door wide open so that if he took a turn too fast, he'd fly out onto the curb and the truck would careen into a tree smashing up a hundred glass bottles of nonhomogenized milk.
I wore my brother's hand-me-down clothes or something my mother had cobbled out of chicken feed bags. We kept twenty or thirty hens in an old shed my father built and my mom was a whiz at making things out of the white muslin chicken feed bags while my father was off toiling over a milk truck carburetor. Gordy and I rooted around our yard, digging holes with broken shovels, beneath the forty-foot tall locust trees that dropped fragrant, tiny white flowers in the early summer. I don't know why we did so much digging but we did. Maybe we were expecting to find gold or dead bodies. We had a couple of tricycles, I think, and a wagon and sometimes we'd haul the things we'd dug up from one part of the property to another. It didn't get any better than that.
My father and mother were saving every penny as they prepared to build a house for us on the property. Taking the lead from Gordy and me, my dad actually began by digging the basement by hand, one shovelful at a time. He soon grew discouraged of this and blew much of his hard earned money hiring a guy with a bulldozer to finish off excavating the basement so he could get on with the house. Concrete was poured and the whole thing was built from cinder blocks—a substance that puzzled and fascinated me for years to come.
We lived in the trailer all the while my father and mother worked at building the house. Gordy and I had a lot of scrap lumber, nails, and pieces of cinder block to fool around with and that kept us occupied. My mom made a few extra cents by selling chicken eggs. A few years later, when I had entered into the public education system, I actually stole quarters from the chicken egg money to give to a girl named June that I liked very much. I was caught and punished and I believe it was the chicken egg money incident that curtailed any thoughts I might have developed towards a life of crime. When the chickens became slow producers of eggs, my father chopped their heads off with a hand axe and Gordy and I would watch the headless chickens, spurting blood, continue to run frantically around in circles until they gave up on mortality.
Once, the family legend goes, I climbed a ladder and crawled way out on a beam of wood, a joist high above the concrete floor of the unfinished house. I think I was three. My mother and father saw this and were terrified. It was a narrow beam and a long drop below but it was where I wanted to be and my face must have betrayed how proud I was. My mother did not scream (fortunately for me) and my father ascended the ladder and, like a tightrope walker, walked the narrow beam to save me from my ambitions. Ever since they told me this tale and it stuck, I've enjoyed that image of me out there and still like to think that this is who I am. I've climbed the ladder and gone far out on a narrow beam of wood. I'm feeling pretty good about myself and unaware of the dangers. I either stay here, playing intently and happily at whatever childish fantasy fills my head or I lose my balance, fall, and split my head on a hard surface below. Or I await rescue. Whichever comes first.
My grandfather on the Choyce side was a George as well (which is why George Jr., was known to everyone as Sonny). He was a World War I vet who fixed farm machinery and he was married to Gertrude, a kind, gentle woman who had raised seven kids through the Depression. Gordy and I called them Mom Mom and Pop Pop. My mother had been a Willis. My grandparents on her side were Eva and Avery, dubbed early on by Gordy as Minnie and Gaga. The two childish names stuck like glue and everyone ended up calling them by those monikers. Minnie worked in Philadelphia as a secretary for Merck Sharpe and Dohme, taking a train into the city each day. Gaga was a carpenter with a hankering to be a gentleman farmer. He bought some farmland in Cinnaminson and set about planting corn and beans and tomatoes and undertaking Herculean battles with farm machinery, baling wire and irrigation piping, all of which refused to operate under the normal parameters of physics.
My father completed building our cinder-block house and we moved in. I found a hand drill and immediately drilled several clever holes in the new linoleum kitchen floor, another feat accomplished with great skill and candor but unappreciated by the adult world. I began going to Sunday school each Sunday at the Palmyra Moravian Church and would eventually receive various certificates and pins for my attendance. I had a hard time with much of the logic of the Old Testament, wherein God seemed to operate somewhat along the same principles as my father dealing with the old hens who had stopped laying eggs. There were not a lot of satisfying answers to my blasphemous questions at Sunday school but it was good place to meet girls.
My earliest girlfriend, met in kindergarten, was Janine Evans. We had a pretty steady thing going and I don't ever really remember breaking up, just becoming more interested in Cub Scouts, where I learned to tie knots, deal with snake bites, and make long-tubed blowguns that shot spit balls across the room. My charm in kindergarten did not go unnoticed and at least one of my contemporaries, Cheryl Lowden, fell off the monkey bars while trying to gain my attention. She broke her arm but continued to have a strong interest in me, yet I never could find the initiative to injure myself in any way as a tribute to her.
I was good at school and had a best friend in Bobby Carr who had several impressive scars from falling out of trees or landing on sharp objects when jumping from the roofs of sheds. He taught me how to jump from garage roofs and together we tied long ropes to high trees to make "Tarzan swings," launching ourselves out over streams and ponds and sometimes roadways. I remember becoming a big fan of rifles and handguns too—all toys, I admit, but there were so many things being killed on television and all the TV ads for toy cowboy six-shooters were so seductive that I soon became part of American gun culture in my youth.
One of my all-time favorite heroes was the Disney version of Davy Crockett. The theme music played over and over in my head. I had a plastic musket and Minnie ripped up part of her 1920s racoon coat to make me a coonskin cap that quickly became my prized possession.
Cinnaminson was changing. Housing developments were being built and people pouring out of Philadelphia into the newly minted suburbs. The wilderness
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around me was vanishing and I knew life would never be the same. I built underground forts with my friends and climbed trees and spent as much time in the dwindling forest as I could. Bobby Carr swung down out of an ill-conceived Tarzan swing onto the windshield of a car passing by but only his pride was injured. We tried smoking the seedpods from catalpa trees—called johnny smokers—with no great satisfaction.
My bicycle gave me considerable freedom. There were pop bottles collected for returns money (two cents each) and nails to be collected from the work site of new homes. Pretty soon, I had a great gaggle of new, mostly unwanted, neighbors and their kids were in my classes at Memorial Elementary School.
In school I discovered I liked to write, and I was weak in math. Teachers taught us all kinds of misleading information about American history and there were American flags everywhere. We saluted one in the morning. One blew in the warm breeze above the school and eventually the largest American flag of all would fly above the liquor store built on a parcel of land where my friends and I had once played baseball. I raised pigeons, too, in those days and liked everything about them. Pigeons seemed to make more sense to me than people did. Years later I would still keep a few pigeons even though the hawks of Nova Scotia were ruthless to these gentle birds of beauty.
I can't seem to come up with any significant complaint about my childhood. We didn't have a telephone until I was twelve, I think. My mother always cut my hair in the basement with electric barber shears. She cut it too short and gave no good explanation as to why hair was supposed to be mowed like someone's lawn. By 1972, the pendulum had swung far the other way, and my hair was down to the middle of my back, which will show you what short hair can do to a kid. But no big complaints about my early years. Stewed tomatoes maybe. I was required according to our household rules to eat stewed tomatoes. It seemed pretty cruel at the time but I'm over it now.
Fresh tomatoes were another matter. My father, deep down, was a farmer and we had large gardens where he grew amazing, succulent South Jersey tomatoes and great golden ears of corn. When I was twelve, I would eat a one-pound fresh ripe tomato, picked off the vine in the morning dew. I ate it like religion. Years later, living at Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia, near the shores of the cold North Atlantic, I would grieve over the fact that you couldn't grow a decent tomato here right through to its red intentions. That was my one sacrifice in moving to Canada.
Boy Scouts was a big deal to me. I was a patrol leader, I earned merit badges, did good deeds, tied knots (even taught them to the local Girl Scout troop), went on camping trips into the Jersey Pines. My father took the family to the Jersey Shore in the summer and we all acquired major sunburns. At church camps I made friends and girlfriends with kids from South Philadelphia, a world apart from Cinnaminson.
There was money to be made—big money, relatively speaking—by delivering newspapers. First it was the Camden Courier Post, then the Philadelphia Bulletin. I delivered all the news to suburban doorsteps—John
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Glenn orbiting the earth, Kennedy assassinated, Johnson bombing North Vietnam, riots in Newark, the Tet offensive, Martin Luther King assassinated, then Bobby Kennedy. If you wanted death and disaster slapped down on your doorstep in Cinnaminson, for over a decade I was your man. Or boy.
Things started to get a little weird around junior high, I think. I lost my naive youthful self-confidence. I didn't like school as much. It was harder to impress girls. Where once, riding my English racer bike downhill without holding onto the handlebars was enough to cause girls to swoon, now, well, something more was required. Merit badges were not enough. I was a Boy Scout, a paperboy, and a kid who raised pigeons. Also, I did not live in a snazzy new suburban home. And my father was still driving me around in his '46 Chevy with significant rust. It all took its toll on my self-esteem.
I survived junior high by the skin of my teeth and then was thrown like a helpless victim into Cinnaminson High School. I was a top-notch English student, even receiving an award from the American Cancer Society (my first writing award; all the awards before that were for pigeons at the farm fair) for an essay I wrote about curing cancer. I muddled through math and science even though my dream was to be a marine biologist.
Through junior and senior high, my salvation was books. I read voraciously—the World Book Encyclopedia cover to cover (well, almost), books about reptiles, books about the sea, but most of all, novels. I was New Jersey's biggest fan of Jules Verne and traveled with him to the center of the earth and to the moon. And I read anything I was told I shouldn't read. Catcher in the Rye was de rigor. Most books offered up in school were too tame: A Separate Peace, Shakespeare, and Kim by Rudyard Kipling, for God's sakes. I decided somewhere in my brainpan that maybe I would be a writer if the marine biology plan didn't pan out.
I fell in and out of semi-relationships with girls. The ones who liked me were of no great interest to me. The ones I fell madly for were interested in someone else—Tim Stack or some other jock. I mooned and moaned privately and honed a great angst like that of other writers before me. My Sunday school attendance diminished, my math grades slipped further, I began to worry about the truth behind those headlines I was delivering in newsprint day after day. Why the hell were we in Vietnam? Why were we building more and more nuclear weapons to blow up the world several times over? The harsher realities of politics and war hit me in a personal way when the brother of Cherie Devlin was killed in Vietnam. I was just beginning a serious relationship with Cherie and didn't quite know how to help her with her grief. Our relationship never did get back on track.
Somewhere in the middle of all that angst, my guess is 1966 or 1967, I was listening to Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys on the radio and decided that I wanted to learn to surf. And did. The Jersey Shore was not the North Shore of Oahu but it was satisfactory for my needs. Surfing carried with it a dream, a vision, a complete mythology and a cachet. I tried bleaching my hair and it turned orange but I bought some baggies, a board, some wax, and I re-imagined myself into a surfer—120 pounds at sixteen years old, pale as a noodle wearing huaraches. I mastered the art of wave riding and began to transform myself into a new me. Surfing and music mixed well, like 7 UP and ice cream, and I paired up with Jack Parry to learn to play music. We faked it at first. We were just Jack and Les, not much to attract a record label. But then we formed a band, a surf band at first: the Wipeouts. We could play "Wipeout," "Pipeline," "House of the Rising Sun," and the requisite "Louie Louie." Dan Stosuy, Mark Hemphill, and Peter Maerz fleshed out the whole band and there were block parties, school dances, and golden moments of pure heaven when we performed. I played a so-so lead guitar and sang into a mike plugged into my old Silvertone amp. We wrote some of our own material and once even opened the season at a movie drive-in in the distant industrial swampland of South Philadelphia.
The year I graduated from high school was 1969. Nixon was president. Kids were smoking marijuana. The music was changing and the Wipeouts and their spin-off groups had tried to keep up. Not long after my graduation, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, much to the pleasure of my father, who had been reading about space travel in Popular Science for the last thirty years. I don't particularly remember being impressed by it all. The world around me was going to hell. American troops were massacring innocent people in Southeast Asia. I had come to despise so much of what America stood for. Who cared about marine biology if people could be so cruel and if the planet was about to turn into a radioactive cinder?
That summer of 1969 I did not go to Woodstock, though a ride or two was offered. Instead, I worked as a janitor in a nursing home and loved it. I became friends with old people and sick people and women who hallucinated as an escape from the ravages of aging and confinement. In the middle of that summer I met a younger girl named Sharon Green and we fell very much in love.
By fall, however, I was slotted to go away to East Carolina University, three hundred miles to the south. I would study marine biology there; I hadn't planned on falling in love. It was painful to go, but I did and then hitchhiked home every other weekend to continue my relationship with Sharon. At ECU, I read and studied and surfed on occasion, hitchhiking with my friend Steve Mitchell and my surfboard to Nags Head or Atlantic Beach. I wrote folk songs and I had a show on the on-air campus station, WECU, getting beat up one legendary night while I was on the air. I was giving a long rap about an upcoming war protest when some drunk redneck jocks broke into the station where I was alone. They gave me a lesson in patriotism while my small but loyal listening audience heard them beating the crap out of me.
While in the South, I took part in a major antiwar demonstration at Fort Bragg, where protesters had gone marching inside the army base, led by Jane Fonda. We stood there with our signs, chanting, surrounded by hundreds of soldiers with rifles and I felt a powerful sense of unity with my fellow protesters. I was both scared and proud at the same time to be doing something I believed in.
When I wasn't getting flack for my antiwar sentiments, I loved North Carolina but I felt things were a bit too complacent. Some time around the killing of four Kent State students by Nixon's national guard, I knew I had to get more fully involved. I needed to be back home in the north, both to be near Sharon and also to get closer to the action of shutting down the war and partaking in whatever this revolution was that would change the world forever—or so I believed.
At ECU, John Donne's "Valediction, Forbidding Mourning" interested me more than all the chemistry and biology lab work and I knew I would not be a scientist or get to become the next Jacques Cousteau. Hitchhiking up and down I-95 from Jersey to Carolina and back gave me an even better education and no harm ever came my way.
The summer of 1970 I worked the night shift loading trucks at North Penn Transfer where my father landed me a job. From ten at night until seven in the morning, I hefted everything from light bulbs to 200-gallon barrels of toxic chemicals onto trucks. I was ill-equipped for the job but suffered through until fall. Sometimes after work, at 7 am while some of the boys were headed off to "normalize" their weird work schedule by going to a bar to drink, I would instead join a buddy and head to Long Beach Island to surf. In my spare time I wrote science-fiction short stories, bad poetry, and angst-ridden, politically charged prose about who I was and what I believed.
That fall I went to Livingston College, part of Rutgers University, situated on the old WWII Camp Kilmer (named for the NJ poet who had thought he'd never seen anything as lovely as a tree). I felt out of place at first but soon became supercharged by the atmosphere of radical professors, no grades, creative everything, music and drug-inspired culture. I wrote my brains out—everything and anything. On weekends I went home to work at the nursing home but Livingston radicalized me and I attended major antiwar demonstrations in downtown Manhattan—where I was shoved against the glass walls of the Time Life Building by NYC police horses—and later, attended a massive protest at the Washington Monument in D.C.
At Livingston I met Terry Paul in my human sexuality course and she and I began a tentative relationship that would grow more intense and permanent as the years went by. I read voraciously all the prerequisite authors of the day: Kesey, Hesse, Tolkien, Jung, Baba Ram Dass, Alan Watts and others. Much to my mother's chagrin, my hair just kept getting longer and longer. I applied for conscientious objector status but was turned down. When the draft lottery came into effect I had a lucky number but my brother was at risk. I counseled him on draft dodging if need be—possibly a vacation to Canada. But he never got called.
When school was out, I joined my brother and parents on a journey by truck and camper to Alaska. It was a tough decision because I wanted to move on into my own world but this family odyssey had been in the works for so long. This new month-long absence tested, then severed my relationship with Sharon Green who felt, I think, betrayed by my leaving her yet again. It was a long dusty road from Cinnaminson to Fair-banks and back but I breathed in a good dose of Canada along the way. I read Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass while wandering around, lonelier than Wordsworth's cloud, on a snowy June day in Mt. McKinley National Park. I was enthralled with the north.
Back at school in the fall, Terry and I began a lifetime relationship. We hitchhiked, went to concerts, attended demonstrations, and ended up living in a dorm room together. Surrounded by some totally wonderful and insane fellow students at our experimental college, we probably thought we were the only two normal people in the world. We made art films together—one involving a stuffed alligator and a moose bone I had brought home from Anchorage. Ever restless, though, I decided to leave school and hitchhike around Europe that December of 1972. I flew to Iceland and got stuck there due to an airline strike. Eventually, I made it to Belgium and caught a ride with some other longhair guys and girls headed to Morocco. I made it as far as Ceuta on Africa's northern coast when it hit me like a ton of bricks that adventuring around the world (I planned to hitchhike across North Africa and on toward India) was something I needed less than what I had left behind—mainly my relationship with Terry.
When I was refused entry into Morocco twice, I took it as sign to go home and I retreated to Luxembourg by train and back to New York by plane, arriving late one night at the Livingston College dorm to surprise Terry, who took me back with no questions asked.
Back in school, I hunkered down to finish up, somehow getting a four-year B.A. in three years, thanks to some independent studies: credits for writing about hitchhiking and working with old people. I had accumulated enough credits to have a major in English. The war had ended while I was writing about my exploits and reading textbooks on abnormal psychology and I think it made me believe that anything—anything at all, was possible. All of our protests had stopped the war. We were on the verge of a glorious future. I wanted to continue to change the world and so did Terry. We had few inhibitions, bold visions, and the psychological tools to do just about anything. One thing was clear to us: we were not motivated by career or money. There is a bluegrass music soundtrack running through that time that had replaced acid rock. Hendrix's "Purple Haze" was overdubbed with Earl Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
I was a bit confused as to exactly how to change the world, apparently, because I decided to go to graduate school at Montclair State College, not far from Livingston. The college offered me a chance to be a teaching assistant to some English classes and I needed something to do while Terry finished her final year at Livingston. So I took a one-room apartment in Montclair in the same building with some drunk and doped-up neighbors and a young man who punched holes in his walls at night. One evening I tried to defend a disorderly guy from downstairs as the cops battered him around the hallway. High on aftershave, he was whirling a razor blade around him, but I believed him to be a gentle soul becaise he had loaned me his Hank Snow songbooks. I couldn't talk him out of the razor blade waving so the Montclair police hauled him away and the next morning I read in theNewark Ledger that he was an escaped convict from a North Carolina prison. His conviction had been for murder.
Graduate school was fairly uninspiring. I liked the teaching part though and had a good friend in Anthony Perna, an intense fellow poet who had once had a shot at being a singer in the Four Seasons. I muddled through graduate school and, while ignoring serious scholarly work on John Milton's Paradise Lost or John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, I was writing fiction and poetry because I wanted to create literature, not just read it.
Tired of living in a rented room in a rooming house, my dream was to live on a farm—to get back to the land. The plan was to gather together some friends and rent an old farm somewhere in north Jersey. Terry and I drove around Morris County, New Jersey, until we found an empty farmhouse with a barn. On the barn was painted the words "La Hacienda." A neighbor was kind enough to tell us who owned it, a man named Sabal who was vice president of a chemical company. What the hell. I called him, said I'd like to rent La Hacienda and would be willing to fix it up if he could keep the rent low. We met and when he saw I was a longhair freak, he showed me a hidden photo of himself and Fidel Castro, arm in arm. He and Castro had been good friends before Mr. Sabal sold his soul to capitalism. The farm had been his wife's dream but now they were safely back living in Manhattan, the farm having tested their marriage.
We had a kind of commune I suppose; those of us living there shared expenses and food and La Hacienda became a focal point for parties and music. I remember wasting away far too much time talking about why country life was preferable to city life. I grew some corn and tomatoes in the rocky soil. We bought a male goat and named it Bilbo after Bilbo Baggins. The goat was ornery, but sometimes relaxed by lying down on an old vinyl sofa on the front porch. Someone saw the goat eating an American flag while lounging on the front porch, took offence and sent the police over to check us out. The police held no grudge against us until Bilbo took off one day and walked inside the local high school where summer classes were in session. A teacher got the goat upset by trying to drag it from the school so the Randolph Township police were called in. The goat didn't like the cop and butted him in the leg a few times, prompting him to pull his gun. Bilbo then attacked the police car, denting in the front fender. The goat would have met his death had not a summer school student recognized Bilbo and come out to smooth things over.
That summer of 1974, I worked as a rehabilitation counselor with people who had various disabilities. I taught a totally blind teenager to drive my VW bug around the parking lot. I learned how to make copper and silver jewelry from Milt Naham, who claimed to have apprenticed with Salvador Dali. I discovered that I liked deaf, blind, and even brain-damaged people more than I liked most academics. It was a grand time until Referrals Workshop went bankrupt, the checks bounced, the farm geese flew away, and a couple of our farm family got arrested for shoplifting.
Although Terry and I stayed with the farm, others moved on and I went back to Montclair State for more graduate school, this time, however, teaching my own English classes. Restless to get on with writing, I also started selling articles to a New York City Tabloid called the Aquarian. I wrote long free-form articles about edible wild plants, civil disobedience, hitchhiking, hang gliding, nuclear energy protests, and Timothy Leary's proposal to have his own space station in orbit. I fiddled with writing a novel or two, and created reams of edgy poetry and folk songs. Things were damned good in my life. The only elements lacking were an ocean and a chance to really hunker down and become a writer. I was in denial that surfing and writing were not central to my existence. That must be why we didn't run from New Jersey. Instead, I fumbled my way through my M.A. and logged on for more graduate work at CUNY Grad School—the University of 42nd street as I called it. CUNY gave me a chance to teach at Queens College while doing other part-time teaching work at Montclair, Bloomfield College, and William Patterson College.
Graduate school in the middle of Manhattan took me to the center of something I was trying to avoid: cities. Between seminars on Alexander Pope and Restoration comedy (why was I doing this to myself?) I rambled around the city, a far better education. I was in a book store while it was robbed, attended a free lecture by the Moonies, talked jazz with a street saxophonist, ate my lunch beside a junkie shooting up on the bench beside me in Bryant Park, and chatted with hookers who gave me advice on what to do with my long pony tail. I hauled a derelict that I presumed to be dead out of the sidewalk traffic and sat with him for a while, talking to him until he came back to life and cursed me for trying to help him. One day outside the Port Authority bus terminal, someone shoved me onto a shopping cart full of money being loaded into a Brinks' truck. Guns were pulled and I stared down mortality. Still a little shaken, I had a hard time giving my oral presentation back at the grad school on Jonathan Swift's anal vision.
I convinced Terry that we should spend the summer in Nova Scotia. I'd been there once before with my friend Jack Parry and it had seemed like paradise. We left the farm and headed north in my Volkswagen van. Most of the summer was spent in Inverness, Cape Breton, where Fulty MacPherson had ushered us into a low rent ($40 for the summer) abandoned farmhouse sitting high on a hill above the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We put in some polyethylene windows, gathered some firewood and settled in as bagpipe music drifted our way at sunset. The local community of both fishermen and resident hippies—draft dodgers and meditators and herbal experts—adopted us. I read Moby Dick upstairs in an empty room, worked on a novel called Gypsy Joe and the Silent Rose Man, and taught Fulty to surf during a major storm at the mouth of the Margaree River. Terry and I became so disconnected from the rest of the world that we refused to believe the gossip that Nixon had resigned back in the States.
Cape Breton Island was a gift to us but we knew we could not live there despite the fact that we had bought a hundred acres of forest land near Alistair MacLeod's hometown of Dunvegan. We began to commute to where the good waves were—Lawrencetown Beach on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. Here we became friends with other surfers and discovered a genuine sense of community. When we found another abandoned house on Petit Lac in West Chezzetcook, for sale for a mere $1500, we bought it and began to fix it up. All this domesticity and good luck must have prompted Terry and me to think about getting married. We'd been living together for a few years and felt a strong commitment but we didn't want a big ceremony and all that complication. A judge in Halifax would do. We had also adopted a puppy and when the van broke down driving to Halifax, we hitchhiked the rest of the way, the three of us, to the Courthouse on Agricola
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Street. It had been built on the ground of the old Mayflower Curling Rink, famed as the place where they stored the bodies gathered up from the sinking of the Titanic.
We returned to New Jersey and I held down a gaggle of part-time teaching jobs through the fall and winter at colleges and even at Brookfield Academy, a private high school for rich kids who had been kicked out of other schools. I loved all forms of teaching although I had doubts whether I was succeeding at changing the world or in fact doing anything of significance. I kept writing for The Aquarian as I grew more and more discouraged with politics and materialism. I worried that if I stayed put too long, I would be infected by it all, ultimately losing my idealism and my own dreams. I was looking for a way out. Around that time, I went to a small press fair in New York City where I was startled and excited by the endless possibilities of independent publishing—making things happen with words and print.
I had dabbled in self-publishing by producing Edible Wild Plants of Nova Scotia, run off on my mother's old Moravian church mimeograph machine. Living in West Chezzetcook during the summer of 1977, I somehow pulled together an anthology of Atlantic Canadian writing called Chezzetcook, that included such notables as Alden Nowlan, Harry Thurston, and Gregory Cook. I audaciously included some of my own stuff, even though I clearly only had part-time status. A local bookseller, Elizabeth Eve funded that project and another, Alternating Currents, a nonfiction book about solar and wind energy. The world demanded a second edition of Edible Wild Plants, whose pages were collated in a backyard shed by volunteers from the community. We called the publishing house Wooden Anchor Press. The vague dream before me was coming into focus: living in Nova Scotia, near waves and wonderful people and all that wilderness, growing a literary press—like all those other wonderfully demented independent presses.
I had published some oddball poems and a sci-fi story or two in small, reckless publications and had even finished Gypsy Joe, which kicked off my long career of getting rejected by reputable publishers across North America.
By 1978, I was tired of New Jersey, graduate school, and traffic jams outside Yankee Stadium while I tried to get to class. Terry and I would move either to Oregon or British Columbia or best yet, Nova Scotia, where we already had established some roots. I petitioned the Canadian consulate in New York for landed immigrant status and was turned down (just like in publishing) several times until the Canadian bureaucrats grew weary of answering my letters and filing my documents. To avoid further paperwork, they said we could move to Canada and live happily ever after. Which we did.
We packed up as much as we could into the Ford van my brother had turned into a camper and a U-haul trailer, drove north and crossed the border at Calais, Maine. We rented an old house in Seaforth for a few months before discovering an even older house on Leslie Road right at Lawrencetown Beach. No plumbing, minimal electricity, and floors with holes through to the basement—that and a view of the waves I longed to surf. All for $15,000. A dream come true. We moved in and prepared for our first long and intensely demanding Canadian winter. Phil Thompson, a local poet who had been in my Chezzetcook anthology, gave me a job as an alternative energy consultant. Before the federal government pulled the plug on low-tech solar and wind energy development, we were working the grassroots with backyard wizards of passive solar and wind generators.
I dug a well by hand, scavenged for firewood, wrote feverishly in a cold, dark room—a novel that would be called Downwind, not a particularly good mix of pop thriller and environmental literary novel.
Sunyata, our first daughter, was born October 9, 1979, a month which had coincided with the launching of The Pottersfield Portfolio, an annual of writing by Atlantic Canadian writers. Not long after, the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia held a gala event where the new immigrants presented to the world our beautiful new baby and an ongoing literary extravaganza.
Clearly, for me this was the beginning of a golden age. I had decided to abandon my Ph.D. thesis and let City University give me a second M.A. for my work. I had a family, a publishing company, and a head full of books I wanted to write in my cold, dark room. I used to refer to myself as the third or fourth happiest man on the east coast of North America. Even though I still wanted to rail against the bad stuff—nuclear energy, right-wing politics, apathy for the poor—I had somehow wrestled my young, angry, cynical, reckless, loner self into a mid-twenties, starry-eyed surfer poet with a pen in one hand, a wood-splitting axe in the other, and a surfboard tucked under my arm. Add wife and baby and I was truly aware that I had carved out a small republic of euphoria amidst the chaotic clutter of the North American urban wasteland.
I jammed as much of that euphoria as I could (spliced with fragments of the leftover cynic) into a poetry book that Fred Cogswell of Fiddlehead books chose to publish in a moment of weakness. Later, Fred would introduce me to an audience, saying that "Lesley Choyce was not a very good poet but I thought he deserved encouragement." He was referring to that volume called Re-inventing the Wheel, published in 1980. My love affair with the crazy, eccentric, and generous people of the Eastern Shore was consummated with the publication of my first collection of short stories, Eastern Sure, published by Elizabeth Eve of Nimbus Publishing.
There was part-time teaching to be had over the next few years at St. Mary's University, Mount St. Vincent University, and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, as well as the occasional night continuing-ed class where I sometimes carried Sunyata if the responsibilities of motherhood had overwhelmed her mother.
Probably, despite my aversion to people obsessed with their careers and climbing of corporate ladders, I had been infected with a kind of American ambition that I could not shake. It took the form of writing and publishing and I threw myself into both. The Portfolio continued and, in 1981, John Bell of Halifax and I had pulled together the second-ever anthology of Canadian science fiction, ours known as Visions from the Edge, exclusive to Atlantic writers and including such unlikely luminaries as Spider Robinson, Hugh MacLennan, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, among others.
I landed a part-time teaching gig at Dalhousie University in 1981 and this became a bit more permanent in 1986 when I was honored with a "half time" appointment that included an Intro to Lit class and teaching the English course for the Transition Year Program (TYP) for Black and Native students. TYP proved to be a near-constant source of both frustration and delight for years to come. At Dal, I also made friends with Dr. Malcolm Ross, a man who had helped usher Canadian literature into prominence through his editorial work for McClelland and Stewart and his tutelage of such notable Canadian writers as Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman. Malcolm and I could create a wonderful chorus together as we railed against the absurdity and injustices of the world at large. He was a generous and honest critic of my work, suggesting sometimes what to keep and what to throw away. Malcolm and I remained good buddies right up to his death at ninety-one in November of 2002. Having him as a close friend gave me a good intellectual and personal link to a generation well before my time and I needed that.
Fast Living, my second book of poetry, came out with Fiddlehead in 1982 and, after a round of seemingly brutal rejections, Downwind found a Newfoundland publisher called Creative whose editors failed to see the inherent flaws but had the generosity to usher it into print. I saw it as a spinach-and-vodka kind of book—something that's good for you and something that has a kick too.
Terry began a preschool in the community and we traded child-raising tasks. We prided ourselves on living on very little money and we were good at it. We traveled a few times each year to New Jersey and I always breathed a sigh of relief when we passed back into Canada, headed home to the Republic of Leslie Road, a road NOT named after me but the family who had once lived in our two hundred-year-old house.
In 1984 Blewointment Press published a new collection of my stories called Billy Botzweiler's Last Dance. The title story drew upon my high school rock-and-roll career. (The motto of the Wipeouts was,"If you can't be good, be loud.") The Pottersfield Portfolio had evolved into Pottersfield Press and I edited another anthology, this one of Cape Breton writers (The Cape Breton Anthology) as a sort of gift to those incredible people who had nurtured us a few years back. It included Alistair MacLeod and Farley Mowat among others. I was writing a lot of short fiction and poetry, sending them around for literary periodicals and that resulted in another volume of short stories, Conventional Emotions, and one of poetry, The End of Ice, both in 1985. The Dream Auditor, my first collection of science fiction, appeared in 1986, The Top of the Heart (poetry) the same year. I think I truly wanted to follow in the footsteps of the SF greats—Verne, Wells, Asimov, Heinlein—but didn't have a clue as to how to fit into the genre I so loved. I would never give up writing SF but never could find my way into the commercial side of it.
Tales of my personal golden age came together in my first autobiographical book, An Avalanche of Ocean. I had written about New York and hitchhiking and discovering fool's gold in the backyard where I dug my well. I wrote about winter surfing in Nova Scotia and transcendental wood splitting. And I think I nailed it down—why life was so good and sweet and amazing despite the troubles in the world. It was for this book that the rest of Canada took at least a little notice of me. Peter Gzowski had me on CBC's national radio program, Morningside and introduced me as "Nova Scotia's answer to the renaissance man," a term that immediately went to my head.
While most readers reveled in my tongue-in-cheek tales of coastal Canadian life (the book was short-listed for the Stephen Leacock Award), for some there was a mistrust of someone so seemingly productive, happy, self-satisfied, and willing to brave the onslaught of January snowstorms to surf the Atlantic waves. At home in Nova Scotia, I received tremendous support from the Writers Federation of NS, thanks to Gregory Cook and a score of other writers whose own ambitions threaded with my own. We were at the center of our own "renaissance" of Atlantic Canadian writing godfathered, perhaps, by Alistair MacLeod and Thomas Raddall but revved up by younger writers schooled in the sixties and seventies who believed like me that the only way to deal with the world was to make it up as you go along and ignore the naysayers.
I must have been feeling guilty about all the good things in my life and my darker (more responsible) self started chastising the eclectic Whitmanesque surfer-poet to get serious and get back to fixing the world. While driving to New Jersey with Terry and Sunyata, I looked down at the battle grey military ships parked in the river at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, many of them carrying lethal nuclear weapons, and I grew scared. I had read voraciously about how well armed the planet was and was dead certain we were on the road to destroying ourselves, accidentally if not otherwise, with the nuclear arsenals of the East and West. I threw myself into writing a little book called December Six/The Halifax Solution. I published it through Pottersfield, breaking my self-imposed rule about not publishing my own books.
Halifax had seen the largest manmade explosion of its day on December 6, 1917, when an ammunition ship blew up in the harbor. Today, Halifax Harbour was the only port in Canada that hosted nuclear-armed ships—Brits and American. Here was my chance to begin cleaning up the planet, one bomb at a time, starting in Nova Scotia and getting others everywhere inspired to join me. In my book, I envisioned living through a nuclear attack on Halifax from my home, twenty-five miles away. In relentless detail, I described what Terry and I would do—hunkered down in our basement with dog and child. I described how we would die. I asked all readers to envision their personal version of this horror and imagine how they would feel. And then they should look up from my book and realize, although nearly imminent, the catastrophe has not happened yet. Now go and dedicate part of your life to make sure it won't happen, I insisted. I offered solutions, including every possible aspect of international cooperation in sports, literature, education, and massive voluntary population displacement between North America and the Soviet Union. (It's bad politics to drop bombs on your own people.) I promoted the idea of passive resistance, protest, and creative alternatives towards disarmament.
I may not have changed the world but I found my way into every niche of the Canadian media with my quixotic quest. Some people still tell me the basement scenario in the book shook them to their roots. By the time the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet Russia began to change forever, my book was becoming hopelessly and happily out of date. But the nuclear arsenals remained. Before the demise of the old Soviet Union, I had been planning a goodwill surfing-literature trip to help foster kinship between Canada and Russia. With the help of the Soviet government's sports offices and a retired pro-disarmament Soviet general, I would have taken some Canadian surfers to the Kamchatka Peninsula on the Pacific to introduce the sport there, garner international media attention, and help promote peace therein. But, before I could get there, the world changed—for the better for once—and I never got to surf Russia.
Coming up for Air pulled together more of my short stories in 1988 and a little volume called The Man Who Borrowed the Bay of Fundy came out from Brandon University in 1989. More importantly, Formac published my first young adult novel, Skateboard Shakedown in 1989. It was clear to me that books changed people's lives in their early teens more than at any other age, and I wanted to be instigating change in those lives. By 1990 I had three other novels in that genre coming out: Wavewatch (about surfing, natch) and Hungry Lizards from Collier-Macmillan, a story about a teen rock band of that name. A Danish publisher came out with Skatefreaks og Graesrodder, a translation of Skateboard Shakedown.
But some kind of literary breakthrough happened for me (at least in my own head) with the publication of my novel The Second Season of Jonas MacPherson, published by Thistledown Press in Saskatoon. My narrator was a sixty-nine-year-old coast dweller whose wife had died and he was pitted in a psychological battle with death. I was trying to pull into one book my personal battles with global nuclear death, my experiences with old and dying people, my passion for the coast of Nova Scotia, and an ambitious literary quest to write something deeper and more emotionally profound than what had come before.
I was also trying to heal some psychological scars left on me after an attempt to save a woman from drowning at nearby Stoney Beach. On Dominion Day, July 1 of 1984, I had received a call that someone was caught in the river current nearby and being pulled to sea. I arrived on the scene, saw the woman face down, swam out and retrieved her, and began to attempt to revive her with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until relieved by lifeguards who arrived from a nearby beach. The woman, a mother of three small kids, did not survive, and I took it all very personally. I undertook a very public battle with the province to provide lifeguards at this dangerous beach and made some headway but not enough. For me, as it would be for my fictional Jonas, it was a very real psychological battle against death.
The failed rescue attempt haunted me for many years and the spell wasn't broken until on another occasion, in the year 2000, at the same place, a young fellow surfer and I rescued two kayakers who had swamped in big waves and were caught in the deathtrap of outgoing river current/incoming waves. We paddled them ashore and I felt a weight lifted off my chest.
Jonas won the Dartmouth Book Award. I've always had a love-hate relationship with all the darned literary awards out there and, years later, after sitting on numerous juries including the Governor General's Award, realized that it's the personal taste (and prejudices) of the jurors that determine who wins and why. The award allowed Jonas to find a few more readers, however, and that was a blessing so who's to complain?
In 1990 Terry and I adopted a second child, Pamela, who was then four years old and in need of a home. An adopted child presented a whole new range of challenges. I loved being a father, taking my kids to the beach or on hikes in the dense spruce forest behind the house. The world was full of miracles aplenty and Nova Scotia had proven to be the Promised Land. I had built a couple of additions onto my old farmhouse so there was room enough for everybody and for the growth of Pottersfield Press, which produced four to seven books per year—poetry, literary fiction, SF, history, and biography. My publishing ambitions had given me the opportunity to work with a number of writers I greatly admired, including Thomas Raddall, Harry Thurston, Greg Cook, H. R. Percy, Harold Horwood, Susan Kerslake. I published what I believe to be the first screenplay ever to appear in book form in Canada—The Bay Boy, by Daniel Petrie, a noted Hollywood director originally from Cape Breton. Nova Scotia has a dynamic black community and I tapped into that large reservoir of talent, producing the first volumes of poetry by George Elliott Clarke, Maxine Tynes, and David Woods.
Mary Jo Anderson and I conspired to produce a TV talk show called East Coast Authors and later, Choyce Words, for local cable. Mike Boyd at Channel 10 in Halifax put us on air. I was the host and over the years something like three hundred half-hour shows were produced, allowing me to interview in depth regional writers as well as outsiders like William Golding, Allen Ginsberg, prime minister Kim Campbell, John Shelby Spong, Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, and Timothy Findley. We ran for a while on PBS in Maine and later, nationally on Vision TV. The Vision connection allowed us to continue when cable lost interest so we emerged as an independent production called Off the Page, which survived into the next century.
Through the 1990s I juggled (sometimes gracefully, sometimes not) family life with running a publishing company, teaching two courses at university, hosting a weekly TV show, and of course writing. Never able to explain why I was so "ambitious," I was at least happy in my frenetic life, which was rich in diversity and stimulation although not without moments of sheer panic that it would be impossible for me to keep all the balls in the air at once.
I traveled with family to places like Florida, Barbados, California, Ireland, and Portugal, and back to New Jersey and on book tours (some glamorous, some not) to such diverse destinations as Vancouver Island, Labrador, Sudbury, Santa Monica, and Tokyo. Once the YA novels kicked in, there were dozens of school visits a year across Canada and a few in Japan and Scotland.
At home there was hiking, surfing, and pulling the weeds out of my marshland garden in summer to soothe the nerves and plug me back into the planet for rejuvenation. Terry ran her preschool for many years until she decided to move on from that, creating workshops for personal growth for women, a field in which she has proven to be a huge success.
Jonas MacPherson, my attempt at a truly serious literary novel, was followed by its opposite: Magnificent Obsessions, a photo-novel that was a spoof autobiography based on a found set of photographs. In 1991 and 1992 three YA novels came out—I was on a roll and loving it, the best of which was probably Clearcut Danger, an environmental story about kids up against big forestry business in Nova Scotia. In '92 I pulled together Ark of Ice: Canadian Future Fiction, an anthology of Canadian writers whose stories were set in our future. Atwood and Findley were in it, as were W. P. Kinsella, whom I greatly admired, and an array of Canadian SF writers. Judith Merill provided an afterword.
The Ecstasy Conspiracy was my second attempt to produce a novel that was both cerebral yet "popular." It was a murder mystery of sorts about a novelist-English prof. named DeMille. I admired John Fowles' The Magus and this was my own attempt to play that sort of complex mind game on a reader. The book came out very late in the publishing season and handily missed its mark.
Transcendental Anarchy was my second autobiographical book, similar in vein to Avalanche. In it I told tales of my life of creative anarchy. I wrote about fear, anger, and metaphysical encounters. There were chapters on fights against streetlights, sixties demonstrations, my recent vasectomy, subliminal learning, and love. I also used the book to document the Stoney Beach drowning incident of 1984.
The YA novels Good Idea Gone Bad and Dark End of Dream Street allowed me to dig a bit deeper into issues like teenage violence and the despair of street kids. The Ann Connor Brimer Award came my way despite the fact I was sure adults would be offended by my Good Idea Gone Bad protagonist—a homophobic high school bully who plays drums in an alternative rock band.
Despite absorbing the gloomy news of the early nineties—the Persian Gulf War and the ensuing death of thousands of Iraqi children caused by "our" side, I must have been hatching the next conspiracy in the ragtag empire of my imagination—a mythical chunk of Nova Scotia, part real, part imagined, a separate country of its own that believed in no political ideal. And thus was born The Republic of Nothing, the novel that would elicit surprising responses and touch many people deeply. Set on a fictional island on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, it focuses on an idealistic fisherman and his psychic wife who have a son, Ian, born the same year and same day I was born. Part adventure, part parable, part political treatise, part tall tale, and part experiment, the book had some sparks. I received letters from people far away who said they had read it and had decided to move to Nova Scotia as a result. Years later I would hear from a young woman who said she had suffered an extended depression until she holed up with the Republic for three days and was cured. And there were other similar stories. It won the Dartmouth Book Award. The Toronto Globe and Mail called it "a triple-decker of a yarn shot through with mythic possibilities." The book would take on a life of its own. A film option was sold but the movie never happened. Although the book never made any bestseller list that I saw, I knew I had done my job well and it would be hard to top.
I hiked a thirty-mile section of coastline and wrote an extended poetic narrative called The Coastline of Forgetting, trying to get back to the meditative value of being alone in the wilderness and sitting down to write about it then and there. Thistledown published Big Burn, a YA windsurfing-environmental novel. Bob Hilderley of Quarry Press was generous enough to publish my way-out-there SF/fantasy novel, The Trap Door to Heaven. It was a time-travel/reincarnation story that begins at the end of humanity and then slips backwards into lives of the past. Bolstered by responses to The Republic of Nothing, I must have wanted to make an even more daring leap, but in Canada at least, the science-fiction aspect of the book was the kiss of death.
Cynthia Good at Penguin, having turned down several of my manuscripts, got it in her head that I should write a history of Nova Scotia. Reluctantly I agreed and undertook the dirty work of actual research (and paid a few researchers to help). I cursed myself for having to write facts instead of remaining in my comfortable world of fiction. But the deed was done and Nova Scotia: Shaped by the Sea came out in 1996. I was allowed my opinions, however, and raged against how our European ancestors and their descendants had ravaged this new world—decimating aboriginals and wildlife, plundering the seas and pouring toxins back in return.
As a blessed escape from the weight of history, music came to my rescue. Doug Barron and Stan Carew convinced me that what the world wanted was spoken word music and thus the Surf Poets were formed. At Deep Nine Recording Studio we produced two CDs with an array of talented performers, my words, and my own limited electric guitar work. We performed before thousands at Halifax's first Word on the Street event and we received some CBC air play. The recording aspect was both unnerving and satisfying. We borrowed heavily from everything: rock, folk, reggae, classical, experimental, hip-hop. On Long Lost Planet, we grieved for the loss of the beauty of the natural world and on Sea Level, we railed against apathy in a piece called "Best Minds," modeled after Ginsberg's "Howl."
I was lured into writing a series of books for even younger readers with a Black girl named Carrie at the center of the stories. She was a feisty I-can-do-anything girl and kids loved her. Some thought that I was on a cradle-to-grave readership campaign and that was fine by me.
The Surf Poets came in like the tide and moved back out, so I returned my poetry to page with Beautiful Sadness and Caution to the Wind, both published by a British Columbia publisher I had met at the Paris Book Fair, Richard Olafson at Ekstasis Editions.
World Enough appeared in 1998 as well, a novel about a soul-weary guy who worked at a rehab center quite similar to the one I had worked at years ago in New Jersey. I struggled to find a publisher for the novel that followed, Cold Clear Morning, but Beach Holme, another BC publisher, took it on and it finally saw print in 2002. A film option was soon in the works and high hopes running rampant.
Along with Lulu Keating, I produced a half-hour documentary titled The Skunk Whisperer, the true-life story of the sixteen skunks that once lived under our house and how I humanely caught them and shuttled them away, one by one, to a new forest home. It was sold to CBC-TV and Animal Planet, and I remain known by many simply as the Skunk Guy for my role in the shoot. Peter Bolkavic helped me do the post-partum on my band with a second mock documentary called Dead Surf Poet Society, a digital project shot on a shoestring budget.
Penguin had proposed I do a history of the coastline of Canada—east, north, and west—and I had taken the bait, but in the end it was Goose Lane in New Brunswick who published it in 2002. It had been six years in the works and it spanned several thousand years of history and some of my own trekking around the coast from Newfoundland and Labrador to the outer beaches of Vancouver Island where I kissed my first slug, surfed some fine Tofino waves, discovered my own private Northwest Passage of the heart, and stitched together the history of an enormous chunk of shoreline.
Shoulder the Sky was my attempt to write an unpublishable YA novel. I was getting weary of editors' advice about what I should do in my books. I had a protagonist who had a passion for eighteenth-century German philosophers, a shrink who promoted smoking, and enough hairpin turns of plot and character to dissuade any editor looking for a marketable book. But it was the book I wanted to write and ironically, it found a publisher (Dundurn) within three days of being submitted to them by e-mail.
I continue to write novels and poetry and publish other writers' work through Pottersfield Press, including such authors as Bruce Graham, Neil Peart, Budge Wilson, Sheree Fitch, and Joan Baxter.
At this writing, January of 2003, I await The Sea of Tranquility to be published in the spring and hope to carve out time to rewrite the rough draft of another novel, Raising Orion. Sunyata is twenty-three, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist who occasionally fills our house with orphaned baby racoons, injured blue jays, squirrels, and woodpeckers. Pamela is sixteen and going to Cole Harbour High School. Terry is a Unitarian chaplain and teaches courses on writing and creativity.
My friend Malcolm Ross died in the fall of 2002 and that clearly marked the end of an era in Canadian literature and also a turning point in my life. At fifty-two I feel that I've had a pretty good crack at the things I wanted to do. There will be, I hope, many more books to come. It is the love of writing that fuels the endeavor. I want to be every kind of writer that there is to be. I want to live all those lives of my characters young and old. There are fifty-six titles in print that bear my name. I like to think that I am more concerned with writing a book that has a powerful impact on lives—even a few lives—than one that is commercially successful or created merely for entertainment.
Since the wind is light out of the north and I can see the wispy tops of waves blowing high over the dunes, I will finish this task and put on my dry suit—it's winter, after all, here in Canada—and go surfing. As in writing, all I have to do is tap into the natural energy that is surging and work it. Dropping down the sparkling blue face of a North Atlantic winter wave, I will feel the power of the unseen forces, allow it to pick me up and set me on my harrowing but exhilarating path. Beyond that, it's up to my imagination as to what happens next.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Choyce, Lesley, An Avalanche of Ocean, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1987.
Choyce, Lesley, Transcendental Anarchy (autobiography), Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, second edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Van Belkom, Edo, Northern Dreamers: Interviews withFamous Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
Analog Science Fiction & Fact, June, 1993, Tom Easton, review of Ark of Ice: Canadian Futurefiction, p. 165; June, 1999, Tom Easton, review of Trap-door to Heaven, p. 134.
Beaver: Exploring Canada's History, February-March, 1997, Christopher Moore, review of Nova Scotia, Shaped by the Sea: A Living History, p. 39.
Books in Canada, October, 1995, pp. 49-50; October, 1996, Virigina Beaton, "Surfing the Genres," pp. 11-12.
Canadian Children's Literature, number 62, 1991, pp. 86-88; number 76, 1994, pp. 72-6.
Canadian Forum, December, 1996, review of NovaScotia, Shaped by the Sea: A Living History, p. 36.
Canadian Materials, January, 1991, p. 34; May, 1992, p. 165.
Maclean's, August 15, 1994, John De Mont, "The Surfer Poet," p. 44.
Quill & Quire, March, 1990, p. 22; August, 1990, p. 15; April, 1991, p. 18; May, 1993, pp. 33-34; March, 1995, p. 79; May, 1995, pp. 46-47.
School Library Journal, August, 1999, Cheryle Cufari, review of Carrie's Crowd, p. 124.
Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2001, Joel Baglole, "When the Surf's up in Nova Scotia, Who Cares If It's Four Below," p. A1.
Canadian Poets,http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/ (January 8, 2003), "Lesley Choyce."