The quality of the failure.

Any opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of

The old vaudeville comic W. C. Fields started as a juggler. For his best trick, he’d toss a silk hat (on the rim of which lay a lighted cigar) from his foot, balancing the hat on his nose as it fell, while he caught the cigar and went on smoking.

“Half the time I fail to do it on the first trial, but by means of a lot of little extra comedy turns following the failure, I usually succeed in making my audience believe my failure is intentional. Though my regular time is 21 minutes, I rarely get through in less than 25 minutes. The additional time is taken up with laughter.”

  Like W.C. Fields, Will Rogers started talking to cover his screw-ups onstage. He was a good roper, but even a well-thrown lasso misses about a quarter of the time, and tangles around the thrower’s legs, which takes time to undo. Better have a good line in patter.

When I was in acting school one of my teachers said, with the usual penetrating glare of the maestro, “Of course you fail. It is the quality of the failure that is interesting.”

In the early thirties, vaudeville failed. The brightest lights in the world were snuffed out in a couple of years, without warning.

But vaudeville didn’t die—it transmogrified. People who’d raised their families in vaudeville were quick on their feet to move into the new forms that vaudeville spawned. Frances Gumm, the youngest of the Gumm Sisters, a sister-trio-harmony act like the Belle Auroras, went straight to the movies and became Judy Garland. (You can see her with her sisters below). Buster Keaton (the model for Nando Dent in The Little Shadows) left his knockabout family act and made a new career as a solo performer. The Marx Brothers (below) embraced the movies with all eight arms waving, and Will Rogers (above) carved out a varied career as a wit, with a syndicated newspaper column, radio appearances, and dozens of movies. And then there was television. The true manifestation of vaudeville’s ghost is the t.v. remote, which allows you to choose a cascade of entertainment in short snips, without leaving your seat.

“If vaudeville is dead, television is the box they put it in.” That was Larry Gelbart, who wrote the long-running comedy M*A*S*H—which might as well have been a vaudeville troupe (complete with wise-guy pair of comics, the Snively Whiplash melodrama villain, a bevy of nursely beauties, and the requisite female impersonator) stuck out on the road in amusingly bad circumstances.

They transmogrified, those old vaudevillians; those who didn’t stay flexible, who weren’t willing to find other forms for their art, went under.

When people shriek about the end of books and reading, I am slightly comforted by vaudeville’s renaissance in television, movies, performance festivals like the Fringe, even on YouTube. Just as we’re not using quill pens to write with any more, as the IBM Displaywriter was succeeded by the lovely Mac Airbook I’m now writing on, new ways of reading don’t mean the end of reading, they mean more reading, wider and more widely available. I believe the book, both as a beautiful artifact and a deeply-satisfying way to read, will remain—and, in glorious new forms like The Wasteland iPad app, will transmogrify and survive.

So will bookshops, the best place to find eccentric and like-minded people whose knowledge is greater than yours, who can push you to books you’d never have considered. I’m more sanguine for the survival of independent bookshops, if they can hang on by the skin of their teeth through this transition, than for the big-box stores like Barnes & Noble or Chapters, whose function is almost the same, but discount not as deep, as Amazon’s.

I’m coming to London in a couple of weeks, bringing my 16 year old daughter. I’ll show her the London I came to in 1984—when Orwell’s dire prognostications and the cabbagey smell of failure hung in the grey air. London was a hard city to be a stranger in, back then, dirty and grim and poor, at least for a struggling actor, with tantalizing gleams of unattainable beauty, like jewels in Bond Street shop windows. We’ll walk up Portobello Road and down Oxford Gardens to my old street, St Quintin’s Avenue—but I can’t really show her what London was like when I walked those streets sobbing or cursing or lost, and more alone than I’d ever be again. She’ll have to find her own city to go bust in, one of these days.

I failed to make a dent in the theatre in England—but what a good thing that turned out to be! While I was failing at auditions, I started talking to myself to bridge the empty time, and writing stories as I temped, and came upon the work I ought to be doing.

The act of imagining starts as a way to fill the empty hours or to avoid thinking of worries and bills, and burgeons into a world you can walk around in. Through failure I found that there is no better remedy for quotidian woe than a novel that’s built up some momentum. Those problems you have some hope of solving.

I like what William Dean Howells had to say in Harpers Magazine in 1903 about the transmogrification he desired for vaudeville, disdained as a low and trivial art-form. It’s the evolution I want for the novel:

I would like to see the vaudeville stunt fully developed… that lovely wild growth delicately nurtured into drama as limitless and lawless as life itself, owning no allegiance to plot, submitting to no rule or canon, but going gaily on to nothingness as human existence does, full of gleaming lights, and dark with inconsequent glooms, musical, merry, melancholy, mad, but never-ending as the race itself.

Thanks for inviting me to the Hive.

Twitter: @marinaendicott

Writing about WWI.

Any opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of

After my last novel, a semi-doleful book about a woman dying of cancer (Good to a Fault), I intended the The Little Shadows to be a vaudeville romp. I wanted to sashay around onstage and make jokes and have a good time for a change.

I planned the book’s five year span to start in 1909 and end before the First World War began, but discovered that the vaudeville circuits I wanted to talk about only expanded west in 1912, when old makeshift theatres were torn down and beautiful brick opera houses were built throughout the prairies. That pushed the timeline through to 1917, halfway through the war.

Researching vaudeville was an unalloyed pleasure—poring over hilarious accounts of performance and charming early photographs of gawky girls in silly costumes; quiet days spent reading other people’s letters (one of my favourite things to do!) and going through fonds boxes in archives, finding hidden treasure. One wonderful day, giving up on the dearth of vaudeville material in the Alberta provincial archive, I decided to look up prairie boarding houses. The first fonds box I opened was from a boarding house in Edmonton that catered exclusively to vaudeville artistes, each of whom had left the landlady a photo or postcard with heartfelt thanks for her good cooking scrawled across the back.

Researching the First World War was—alloyed, if that’s the opposite of unalloyed, to put it mildly. During the summer while I worked on the sections of The Little Shadows that are set in London from 1915-17, my teenage son kept racing upstairs to find out why I was crying.

It was the letters that got to me. The ordinary voices, the uncomplaining sense of duty or fate.

When one writer is subjected to chlorine gas—his own gas, blown back over the lines—there is no sense of injustice, just ill luck. In the hospital the dying work to make things gay, to keep their comrades’ spirits up. The wounded are scheduled to arrive home from the Front at midnight when the streets are quiet, not for ease of transport but so that the general populace will not be subjected to worry.

In the early letters and newspaper articles I saw a willingness, an eagerness for war that seems to rise from time to time in all of us. I wish I could believe that it’s connected to oppression, to a corresponding tide of evil which must be beaten back, but I am afraid it is not so rational. And I am afraid of its rise again, after the prolonged period of prosperity the western world has luxuriated in. Because I have a son, and a daughter; because I’ve read those firsthand accounts that make the dailiness of war hideously vivid.

Researching the war, I was looking for the small things of everyday life that would have mattered most to the girls in The Little Shadows: the long line of ambulances waiting at night for the soldiers coming in from France, the way the soldiers looked on the street in London, gossipy rumours of zeppelin sightings. Incremental changes back in Canada, in a small town on the prairie, as the bright banners go up in church and the boys are reported killed, by twos and threes, and some sense of the war’s huge appetite comes home to those far from the Front.

Books were a great help—among them of course the officially-indispensable Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell—but soldiers’ letters were better for my purposes, both unpublished letters in archives and an almost-unbearable book called Diary Kid, the Canadian soldier John Teahan’s diaries, published by Oberon in 1999.

What brought my son galloping up the stairs most often, though, was a letter I found in a small-town museum, a soldier’s letter sent home not through the post but with a friend, and therefore uncensored. Here he is talking about a German high explosive shell called a coal-box:

“Take one of your milk creamer cans, for size, only make it an inch thick of steel. Put about five hundred pounds of gun cotton, cordite or lyddite, then fill it up with bolts, burrs, rivets, anything and everything that will kill—shoot this thru the air at the rate of 2000 feet per minute and when directly overhead, about 10, 20 or 30 yards from you, let it burst! Goodnight! Talk of thunder, nothing to it. And it is not the explosion of the cursed coal-box that gets one’s nerves, it’s the whining, groaning noise it makes as it speeds thru the air towards its victims. Rifle fire is bad—when you hear a bullet go zip! past your head, or one buries itself in a sandbag an inch from you upper story is not at all healthy, and when bullets are coming thick like hail—it is not nice at all, but give me the rifle fire all day, every day, instead of one of those hellish coal-boxes.

No wonder to hear of men and see them go plumb loony, nutty—you read of such cases in the papers, how men suffer from breakdown. Don’t think they are nervous or weak or anything like that; pity them rather, for the whine and sizzle of the shell in the air, and the awful suspense of waiting for the explosion to come is what does the trick. —Enough of this—it is getting on to dusk, so with love to all and to Jessie for the pansies, I’ll close…”

This was the first war that ordinary people wrote about, that their families read about. Letters and reports from the Front detailed the unimaginable, beginning-to-be-imagined horrors.

During the Great War not just the officers (some of them the greatest literary lights of the time) but the enlisted men were able to read and write, and could send home accounts of the truth of war. The same kind of change we’re seeing again in the uprisings of the last few months, now that everyone has a cellphone and can text or send home instantaneously the video of what is happening in the streets.

I hope somehow those texts and videos are kept, so that a hundred years from now someone else’s mother, seeing them, can break down in helpless fury against the thought of war.

More tomorrow…

Twitter: @marinaendicott

Razzle Dazzle

Any opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of

I’ve been living in vaudeville for some time now. Not the sleazy American dying vaudeville that word might conjure up for you, but the pinkish gaslight gleam of early vaudeville, known as Polite Vaudeville.

I spent eight years, on and off (the last three intensively), researching and thinking and dreaming about that old artform, which grew from Tony Pastor and B.F. Keith’s brain-wave in the 1880s that if they washed the floors and kept the booze and swearing out of their theatres, women and children would come and quadruple the audience. Keith posted rules backstage:

Don’t say ‘slob’ or ‘son-of-a-gun’ or ‘hully gee’ on Mr Keith’s stage unless you want to be cancelled peremptorily. Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would be an insult to a patron. If you are in doubt as to the character of your act, consult the manager, for if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or suggestive, you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theatre where Mr. Keith is in authority.

His managers policed those rules ferociously. Any artiste who let a Damn slip the lip, or pushed an innuendo a whistle too far, received a blue envelope with a warning to remove the offending material or get the axe. That’s why risqué stuff is still called blue.

Movies, recorded music, radio were all in the future, and there weren’t enough bookshops around; nobody had anything else to do but plunk down their ten cents for a seat at the front. Polite Vaudeville flourished into the fin de siècle and grew through the teens and twenties—for about thirty years vaude was the biggest entertainment industry in the world.

To enter that lost life, I read everything on vaudeville I could get my hands on. One of my favourite books was Curtain Time, by
Ruth Walker Harvey, the daughter of C.P. Walker, a Winnipeg theatre manager who plays a minor role in The Little Shadows. (Ruth herself has a walk-on part in the book, wearing the Persian lamb coat she had as a little girl.) Ruth’s account is that of an observer, a child peeking around the curtain and remembering the pleasure of the backstage. Another great find was John Orrell’s Fallen Empires: Lost Theatres of Edmonton, which details the hair-raising accidents and disasters that were commonplace in the construction boom of the early teens.

But it’s the letters that bring everything home, that give a sense of the daily struggle of living in vaudeville. From an aging actress, E.J. Phillips, in 1894:

In view of my going to Boston, I went to see Palmer about an allowance for extra board.  He did not say he would not allow me anything, but thought he could arrange for someone else to play my part in Boston, and I remain here to play with E.S. Willard. Business is bad, and he is ugly in consequence… I had taken a little nap when Hattie appeared at the door saying, “Mama, here is a telegram for you to go back and play at Palmer’s on Monday night.” Well!  My feelings may be better imagined than described.  Waking up and receiving such news put me in a state of Razzle Dazzle that I could not realize where I was or what I was doing, but it ended in my leaving Hattie a little after 5 and taking 6 PM train back.  Leaving poor Hattie crying, and Jack very much astonished… I do not mind any part of the matter, but being brought back from Phila so suddenly, that was a great annoyance, and I have not recovered from it yet.

[letters of E.J. Philips can be found here]

And from Will Rogers (who came to fame as a trick roper on the vaudeville stage, and only began his famous monologues to fill in the gaps when his rope tricks failed):

Now you must take good care of yourself and take your medicine all the time and you will stay well. Well things are pretty dull in my line right now as most of the Theatres are closing up for the Summer and I did not work last week and do not work this week but next week I work again and think I can keep busy from then on and I have a good contract offered me for next year and I think I can work the biggest part of the summer.

Now write me a few lines when you can and when you feel real well and want to take a trip why just bundle up and come on to me and spend a few weeks.

Love to all the folks, your loving son,


c/o White Rats Club, 47th and Broadway NY

The people who lived in vaudeville loved it. Their accounts, however clumsy or bald, describe a world I’ve been happy to inhabit vicariously.

In the last stretch of finishing The Little Shadows I tried to put Vaudeville as city of residence on my Facebook page. Facebook insisted on finishing it as Vaudeville-le-haut, Lorraine, so I left it. Now, instead of Alberta-based sidebar ads for oilrigs and anoraks, I get glamorous French ads for lingerie and perfume, much more in the vaudeville line.

More tomorrow…

Twitter: @marinaendicott

Life into art.

Any opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of

In my twenties I lived in London, trying to break into theatre. I’d come over from Canada with a couple of friends, full of passionate intensity. Strangely believe it, the English theatre lacked all conviction that it ought to be impressed by three Canadians. My stake had not been large, and London was expensive. Finally, on my last legs, with no money left at all, I took a job as a temporary word processor operator. At least I’d be able to write stories, I thought, or even just letters.

To last till I got paid, I had to borrow money from my impoverished friends—all very painful. About that time, the movie Withnail & I came out. My brother telephoned to say, “Hey, they’ve made a movie of your life.”

The weeks went by, and at last I got my cheque for £300. (A lot of money in those days, as the oldsters always say.) I went straight to the bank and cashed the whole thing, to pay my friends back and have £50 to go on with. I was so happy as I rode along on the top of the number 9 bus, perched in the very front seat. A perfect day. London was glowing, narcissus and daffodils heaped on every street corner flower stall, the February air sweet with almost-spring.

The Ladbroke Grove library was still open, I could get a book! I hopped off the bus, went into the library, found a few books and sat for a while—then they were closing. I took my coat from the back of my chair. But there was no purse hanging there. I searched the library, frantic: no good. I left my address and phone with library staff, and walked out onto library steps, in despair. I stood there staring into an abyss of moneylessness and the prospect of borrowing more money to get through the next two weeks, let alone the horrors of replacing my bus pass and ID.

Along came a number 9 bus. But of course I didn’t have my bus pass any more, so I would have to walk home.

On my side of the street, going the other way, another number 9 came trundling to a stop. Standing on the library steps I idly thought (my subconscious mind sliding the notion up like a note passed in school), maybe that’s the one I was on, on its way back around.

I hopped on, ran up the stairs—and there was my purse sitting on the front seat. All the money still there.
In my novel The Little Shadows, Clover, the middle sister, follows her eccentric beloved to London. Of course I used my own recollection of London in the 80s to imagine Clover in the London of the First World War. Unlike me, Clover manages to get a job on the tatty fringe of the theatre world, dancing in a revue at the Tivoli. She writes to her sister Aurora, back in Canada:

The manager at the Tivoli has the dirtiest fingernails I have ever seen—I cannot imagine that he has ever washed. He wears a black cape and is Melancholy. He made us wait til Monday morning for our pay, I suppose because they are in straits themselves—that week I’d got a note from Victor at the Front, saying he had to wait for his too! ‘The Paymaster is an—interesting study in humanity’ he said. I’ll have to ask about the Paymaster’s fingernails.

On Monday I went down at noon for my pay packet (and opened it quick to check, you’d better believe), and there it was, my lovely lolly. (Do I sound like an English girl? No roses in my cheeks, though.) Twenty-two shillings, enough to buy coal & food for a fortnight, maybe even a bottle of wine for supper. I can’t get used to their stewed tea.

So I hopped onto the number 9 bus and ran up to the top. I took the front seat, and sat enjoying myself for the first time in a long time. The corner flowerstalls still burst with yellow and white and blue—so pretty that a couple of stops before Ladbroke Grove I got off and spent a pleasant few minutes bargaining with a flower-seller for a bunch of daffodils called Soleil d’Or, with enough scent to knock you down, or to put a tired soldier back on his feet, if only Victor could get leave.

I reached for my purse, and did not have it. It had everything in the world in it. Nothing—I had not a penny without it. I put the flowers down and must have looked quite sick. The woman put out an arm to catch me if I fell, but I did not fall. I stood on the pavement with my knees trembling from the loss, and trying to think where—what—and along trundled the number 9 bus, and stopped in front of me. I thought, ‘Perhaps that’s the same bus, come back on the circuit’ and without any more thought than that I jumped on and ran up the curving stairs helter-pelter, down to the front seat and—

There was my purse. And the money still in it.

I climbed downstairs very carefully on shaky legs and asked the conductor to let me off at the next stop, and walked through the streets and up our steps and in our door and gave Madame such a heart-felt kiss, she thought something dreadful had happened. Instead of something wonderful. I forgot to buy the flowers, so we had a dingy old fish-smelling room instead of the bower of Soleil d’Or I had planned. But a cold grey room with a purse safe in hand is not such a bad place to be.

The synthesis of remembered experience into fiction, the mysterious alamgam of imagining and memory and invention: I think that’s at the heart of our work. Putting Clover into my shoes lent her reality, and let me carry on writing.

But in the end, I cut that letter.

More tomorrow…

Twitter: @marinaendicott

Yes I do.

Any opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of

The Little Shadows

Hi everyone – I’m Marina Endicott. I’m a writer based in Canada, and my previous books include Open Arms and Good to a Fault. I’m very excited to say that my new novel The Little Shadows was published last week in the UK and you can find out more about me and my writing on my website here:  Thank you to Hive for asking me to do this guest blog. Over the coming week I’ll be talking about the processing of words—about letters and fiction, about how we talk about our lives and failures, and how we shape experience into art.

Last week I was steered (from Facebook, I think) to a site about the history of word processing. Matthew Kirschenbaum is researching and writing a book called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, which will come out from Harvard University Press in 2013.

He’s looking for the early adopters, “and how they thought about the new digital technology in relation to their writing practice. I am interested in both ‘highbrow’ and popular authors alike, fiction and non-fiction.” Early adopter! I love being one of those.

I wouldn’t be a writer at all if it weren’t for the IBM Displaywriter, a word-processing system used by the Canadian government in the early 80s. Working my way through acting school, I’d already spent one summer typing for the government temp agency, far better paid than waitressing. But when I went back the next summer they didn’t need any typists. As I turned away dejected, the manager asked, I don’t suppose you do word-processing? Yes, I do, I said, and he booked me for a test on the IBM Displaywriter the next day.

I’d never even seen a word processor. I went straight to the IBM store in Toronto and played around on the Displaywriter they had on the floor, talked to the nice guy selling them, had a quick peek at the manual.

The next day I did the qualifying test, and failed it miserably. I tried to put the floppy disk into the slot backwards, couldn’t do a mail merge: it all went downhill from there.

And yet, the next morning I got a phone call telling me to report to the Ministry of Education as a word processor operator. I did not argue. In a spacious room with the other, permanent word processor operator—what an unwieldy title!—I sat at the machine and screwed up royally, over and over. The other woman’s contempt for my ignorance was massive, but from time to time, when avoiding doing some other thing, she’d give me a pointer or two. And the manual was right there, in plain English.

A week later the manager of my branch came in to say that they’d called to tell him that I’d failed the Displaywriter test and should be drummed out in disgrace. He was laughing at their error: “But you’re an expert!” he said. The other woman despised him even more than me, and she deigned to give me half a grin. I stayed at that branch all summer, and came to like her very much.

As almost always in government offices, there was hardly any real work to do. We weren’t allowed to read, of course; we had to maintain the fiction that the administration of government requires constant effort. Learning the Displaywriter took up the hours very usefully, but once I’d mastered the system, I still had to look busy. At first I wrote letters; then, running out of real life to tell, I started writing stories to amuse myself.  Secretaries were still afraid of word processing in those days (they’d rather deal with the 9 colour-coded mistake-free carbon copies, for instance, required for a Minister’s official correspondence), so I was never out of temp work. Besides, being the master of the machine conveyed a certain prestige.

Yes, I do word processing. I have been processing words, one way or another, ever since. Computers have given me the freedom to write fast and revise relentlessly, the instant view of the printed page for cool assessment, and the capacity to hold a hundred thoughts at once in one’s external head.

More than the blessed facility and freedom, I’m grateful for the epiphany: that I could learn anything I wanted to learn—no need for a course or a teacher. When I later needed to, I learned Quark Xpress and Photoshop and InDesign with no more assistance than the manual and Necessity, the mother of the faked resume. I learned how to write a short story, and a longer story, and then a novel, with no training but the manual (myriad good books)—and I would have failed the qualifying test, if there’d been one.

Since then, whenever someone asks me if I can do something, I say yes. More or less, I can. Or at least, I’ll be able to in a week.

More tomorrow…

Twitter: @marinaendicott