MY LIFE SO FAR

I was born in Durham, North Carolina in 1947 graduating from Durham High School in 1964. In between, favourite memories include getting kicked off the air for a controversial radio club broadcast about a rodent invasion of the cafeteria, road racing across town in a '59 Triumph TR3A (purchased used, for 900$), and working every weekend and summer at my father's dump truck factory.

My plan, if I had a plan, was simple: to stay in Durham and work in the family business. With no other special interests, and assuming that service in the Army was inevitable, I opted for the opportunity to do it as an officer rather than an enlisted man, and attended Virginia Military Institute from 1964 - 1968. Joining the fencing team, and eventually becoming captain in my final year, meant special meals and the chance to travel outside the walls of the Institute. More importantly I took a special interest in writing. I was on the staff of the newspaper, layout editor of the class yearbook, and editor of VMI's literary magazine. Despite being within two demerits of dismissal on three separate occasions, I graduated June of 1968 with a B.A. in History, a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the artillery, recipient of the Col. William Couper Award for Excellence in Publications, and I was accepted to the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing program.

What began as a two-year quest for an M.A., turned into a life.

At UBC my thesis was a series of short stories set in a fictional Southern Faulknerian dream town. It was dramatic but not very good. My faculty advisor was the great Jake Zilber. He seduced me into re-writing a story 17 times until I realized it bore no resemblance to my initial idea. That was a good little sheaf of lessons that Jake taught me – about my commitment to the root idea of a story, and about the lengths that you can go to if you think you’re on the brink of success.

I changed my thesis to a novel soon after that. The result was a very dark and utterly surreal story about a young man adrift in Europe who realizes that he’s in an alternate universe, doesn’t know why, and from which there is no escape. Very much influenced by Robbe-Grillet and Borges. The Digger it was called because the hero spends a lot of time in an archaeological site. It’s my version of Nausea. At least that’s what everyone who’s read it has experienced. There are only four copies – one is in the UBC library somewhere. That’s probably one too many.

Soon after I got my M.A in 1970, a red-tape miracle occurred. I was plucked from the ranks of active-duty lieutenants and ordered to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma for advanced artillery training. Effectively this put me in the Reserves and saved me from a tour in Vietnam.

I joined with a group of students to start Tamahnous Theatre Workshop in 1971, and while the theatre began to take over my life, I never stopped writing. Portions of a collage-style novel I wrote called 2407 Yew St. were published in literary magazines in Canada and New Zealand. Also, since our theatre company was a collective and we were creating original work, I was contributing to almost all of these plays. During a lot of our improvisation we were essentially writing, going through a physical and emotional approach that resulted in scenes. This was such a wonderful school for me and I realize how much it has paid off. It also makes a great many things easier. Dialogue is not so much a challenge for me as it is an opportunity. I spend time trying to have honest motivations from my characters, and I’ve learned about structure from my time on stage.

I only “wrote” one full play during my years with Tamahnous, A State of Grace, a musical based on the life and career of B.C. politician Grace McCarthy. It was a gruelling but completely absorbing experience. The tunes were great and I had unceasing help from the company, including Bruce Greenwood and Alana Shields, who won the first “Jessie” given by Vancouver’s theatre community for her portrayal of “Gracie”.

In 1990 I won the 12th Annual International Three-Day Novel contest with Wastefall, the story of a man who is marooned for life in a massive garbage dump. I was acting in the Canadian television series Bordertown when I got the news. Wastefall led to my association with literary agent, Helen Heller.



Left to right: William Deverell, Lonnie Propas, Stephen, Warren Dunford, and Juris Jurjevics at Vancouver International Writers and Readers
Festival. Photo by Susan Ogul

Helen, who was representing a friend at the time, agreed to “negotiate” the Wastefall contract over the phone, then she asked if I had anything else. I sent along a novel I had written and a week later when I timidly phoned to ask what she thought, she said she liked it and sent it along to Knopf, Random House, and Penguin in New York. As an actor I knew that if you can’t get the audition, you can’t get the job, so I was impressed. She’s been representing me ever since, and is a constant source of ideas and solutions.

My next novel was The Woman in the Yard, published by Picador USA. The book is a thriller set in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1954 just as racial integration was beginning to threaten the old order in the South. I’d visited Wilmington as a child with my family, and this time I went back and visited the old jail, Thalian Hall, and all of the locations except a fictional cotton mill. The challenge was to set a story in that volatile historical period while writing with some honesty. This time I got the news that it had been bought while on the set of the series Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

I worked for documentary film maker Jim Monro on a pair of CD-ROMs that were partially financed by the National Film Board of Canada. I ended up being the “head” of Jim’s writing department. By the end I had three wonderful co-workers, all far more qualified than I was; one was a constitutional lawyer, the other two were historians. We were doing the history of Louis Riel and the Northwest Rebellion, the other was a sort of Civics course for high school audiences. Throughout the entire process Jim was unstinting in his pursuit of quality. The technology was changing daily and we probably re-did everything at least twice, because just as we finished something some new and better way of doing it was available. Everybody at Monro Multimedia did a great job and I remain proud of both of those projects.

I was asked by Paul Delany to contribute to Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City, a book of essays about Vancouver as a post-modern city, and I added my two-cents worth with The Grid – Living in Hollywood North. (in Delany, Paul ed. – Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 1994 ISBN 1-55152-002-8) I was trying to describe the way the character of a city is affected when a large part of its economy is built around its ability to masquerade either for Seattle or an anonymous US metropolitan area.

I wrote a few game proposals for groups who were getting into gaming production. It’s something that still intrigues me and I hope to get back into it one day. My experiences with Jim’s company and with all the gaming proposals I worked on resulted in a paper that I gave in Rijeka, Croatia in 1996 on the role of the writer in multimedia and hypermedia. I was trying to speak out to all the gear heads and elbow out some room for empowering the writers, and trusting them to do what they do best. Going to the conference was my first trip to Europe since 1973 and my first trip behind what had been the forbidden Iron Curtain. Everyone at the conference was great and I had an absolutely wonderful time.


Stephen in Red Square

After The Woman in the Yard came out I started working on a proposed series of novels set in Russia. The cycle was intended to start the year before the Great War and move on through the 20th century to the Cold War. The first book was published by HarperCollins UK as A Game of Soldiers and by Penguin Group Canada as Field of Mars, and introduced Okhrana inspector Pyotr Ryzhkov. It required a huge amount of research which I loved doing. I was scheduled to travel to St. Petersburg on three different occasions but each trip was interrupted. In the end, I had finished the book and finally got to Russia in between books. I was relieved to see that I hadn’t made too many mistakes; I had people using pews in the Orthodox church and they don’t have pews, and I invented a hill on a street in Petersburg that is perfectly flat, but nothing too embarassing. A significant amount of the first Ryzhkov book was written waiting in my trailer on various movie sets.

The second of the Ryzhkov books, The Last Train to Kazan has just been released by HarperCollins in the UK territories. The Penguin paperback of Field of Mars is scheduled for release in Canada at Christmas, and I’ve been told The Last Train to Kazan will follow in the spring of ‘08.

Of course, I am busily working on the next novel, which may or may not be a third Ryzhkov. There are some other times and places that I am eager to explore.

When not on stage or on camera, I am happiest in a good library, very much enjoy my opportunities to travel for research, appreciate a nice bottle of wine and a fine performance of almost anything, and am addicted to Formula 1 racing. I like my solitude and I like to write, but maybe most importantly, I am happiest in the company of family and good friends, enjoying a quiet day in British Columbia.