From Leaves to Devils: The Inspiration of a Writing Teacher

(Picture Above, Mr. Ron Basarab – Photo Credit: Sparwood Secondary School Yearbook, 1988)

I’ve been asked a few times now how long it took for my first novel – All the Devils Are Here, due out this September 2016 – to get published from a blank page to finally being sold online and on the shelves.  My answer is 25 years, and I’m only being partly facetious.

It all started in 1991, as a student in Mr. Ron Basarab’s Writing 11 class.  One of our projects that year was to write a short story, or some sort of creative piece of fiction.  Sticking to the short story format, I wrote a tale about a terrified 10 year boy who idolized his father so much that he would worry himself sick whenever his father went away for long periods of time, or would get so wasted he would get ill or become violent.  The problem, or the crux of the story, as Mr. Basarab called it, was that the boy’s father was a drug dealer, and got himself into a lot of trouble.

The story, of course, would ultimately (and, by that, I mean 25 years later ‘ultimately’…) become the manuscript for All the Devils Are Here.  Without delving too much into the plot of the actual novel it would become, the story left my 10 year old boy, named Radley, with quite the crux.  Does he continue to live a life of constant, unbearable anxiety, or does he turn his father into police, in a desperate attempt to get his father help?  Does the child thus become a pseudo-parent, essentially making the decision to protect his father by turning him into the authorities, getting him arrested, and sending him to jail?

When I wrote that story, at the time called “Leaves,” I disliked it.  I thought it was phony.  I felt like Radley was too mature for his age, too focused into his thoughts for a prepubescent, and was utterly unbelievable as a character.  Handing the story in only because I spent a full day writing it (a full day, in my Grade 11 year, Holy Crap – that took my whole life away back then!) and it was all I had.  I had written other stories for various classes before, never really remembering them except for a select few (I’ll probably be blogging about those some day soon, I’m certain), this one was destined to be something I would surely forget about the day, if not the quarter century, after I handed it in.

Only it wasn’t.  Mr. Basarab – who was very old school and peculiar about concise, crisp writing, staying on topic, and was always one to barrage your paper or essay with red ink correcting your punctuation, spelling, or run-on sentences – actually hand-wrote a personal message at the end of my story, “This is quite good.  Go further.  What repercussions would this boy face?  I want to know.”

I could have just stopped at ‘This is quite good’ because, as I reflect now at that moment, 25 years later on the eve of getting the novel out in print, I realize that was the key – dare I call it a crux – that Mr. Basarab put me into.  First of all, he liked it.  That may sound ridiculously simple, and it was, but wouldn’t you know it, for a hormone-laced teenager growing up in small town Sparwood to read those words for the first time for virtually any piece of fiction I had EVER written up to that point, they were the bomb.

Second of all, and here’s where the crux comes in – he challenged me.  What were the repercussions Radley would face, whatever the decision was that he made? (you can see, I’m working hard on the ‘no spoilers’ angle for the actual novel).  I didn’t know the answer to his question, of course.  Hey, I had just spent the whole day on the story and I finished it, and had other things to worry about, like the hot, older girls in my class and the fact that my hockey team of the past 13 years, the Minnesota North Stars, was on the verge of defeating the best team in the NHL that season, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the first round of the ’91 playoffs (the Stars would wind up making it to the Stanley Cup Final that year, but I digress…’stay on topic, Saad!’).  In truth, I just never thought that deep about my characters before, certainly not when my sole intention was just handing in that story so that I didn’t fail Writing 11.

As I compose this blog, I am about to partake in my seventh year as MC and Chair of my current school district’s annual Wall of Fame ceremony, where our entire district honors and celebrates the achievements of former alumni of our schools who have gone on to lead distinguished careers and lives in their chosen academic or career fields.  Often these inductees, and we’ve had 37 to date spanning well over the 50+ years of our school division’s history, mention the contribution, advice, or mentorship of ‘that one teacher’ – that one kindred spirit who guided them when they were struggling, or sat down with them on the hallway floor to talk about their goals, hopes and dreams.  They’re all great, feel-good, inspirational stories, and fun to listen to year-after-year (I did mention I’m entering my seventh year of doing this, right?  I really do enjoy it, despite the extra work at the beginning of the school year, already busy enough).  Unfortunately, my story with Mr. Basarab isn’t so feel-good, inspirational, or dare I say  ‘sappy,’ – it may even come off as a bit cantankerous, but here goes (Be concise with your writing, and no more tangents, Saad! I can indeed hear his voice bark at me right now as I compose this … ) …

He was bloody persistent.  Probably the most persistent man I’ll ever know.  Those of us blessed enough to have been taught by him know what I mean.  The same jokes over again, corny jokes, so bad they became endearing, growing on you like freckles or dimples.  If someone sneezed in class, “come on you guys, it’s SNOT funny.”  “All right, class, if you guys REALLY think the ONLY reason I’m giving you an in-class exam before your final is so that you are forced to study for the departmental, then I’ve got this to say to you … You’re probably right!  Bahhhhahahhhaa!”  (Yes, I hate to admit, I do steal this line, AND his delivery, with my own students – it’s so much more fun when you’re on the other side as the teacher…). And that was just his jokes.  He was also persistent in his marking and assessment, knowing, almost as if he had a modern-day computerized Gradebook inserted into his brain, exactly what overdue assignment you had owing, and what your mark was on the last one you handed in.  I try to repeat that as an educator, but I flop, and get students mixed up whenever I try.  I need the print-out in front of me.  How he did it, I’ll never know.

And he didn’t let up.  And he never forgot.  Anything.  Especially when it came to teaching, or his students.  Even with all of the annoying jokes, which I now find not only nostalgic but also a fond memory, and even with the four other courses I took from him in subsequent years, including two I adored (English & English Literature) one I dreaded like the Plague (Journalism), and one I dropped because it was the Plague (French, en francais) he never forgot Radley’s story…and the fact that I had never given him an answer.  “So what happens with Radley, Saad?”  As aforementioned, the North Stars in the Cup Final that year quashed me from having to think about that decision, the hot, older girls in my class only got hotter, and then came the Grade 12 year, and the focus on scholarships, graduation, more girls, and the North Stars (or worse, the Minnesota Stars) poised to rebound from their Cinderella Cup run to seal the deal the following year (yeah, that didn’t happen, but don’t try telling me during the 1991-1992 season!) – all of this stuff was too dynamic for my 18-year old mind to concentrate on much else.  These happenstances allowed me to conveniently dodge the answer to Radley’s predicament and stick the whole thing on the shelf, where it gathered dust as I ventured onto newer, exciting things in University.

But oh did it haunt me.  Virtually any news-story that occurred in the mid 90s involving drugs or violent crime, I thought of Radley and his dilemma.  During those years, in encountering Mr. Basarab in the oddball of places I did, in the Sparwood Library as a summer student, in the Post Office, the bookstores in the Lethbridge malls, he would ask me about Radley’s fate, often telling me that story should have been longer.  It was meant to be longer, and that Radley was a character as real as he or I, and that he hoped he would one day see ‘Leaves’ between covers.

In 2006, I began in earnest to attempt to answer that question – I hadn’t seen Mr. Basarab in well over ten years by that point (I think he was seconded to the Education Ministry in BC, presumably never to step foot in the East Kootenays again, or so it was thought), but his inquiry about Radley’s fate still followed me, even after all those years.  So I began to explore.  I made contact with a friend of mine from university – the late John Gill, who was working as a Crown Prosecutor in Alberta, and barraged him with all kinds of ‘hypothetical scenarios.’  ‘So John, if a guy, hypothetically speaking, was soliciting drugs and selling them to kids, could he get put away for life…?”  Ever the patient, eager to help anyone kind of a guy, John must have thought I was up to no good – I finally confessed I was writing a story, and (thankfully) he guided me, in much the same vein Mr. Basarab would have, into helping me discover what happened to Radley and, in this new story I was creating, Radley’s entire biological family.  I owe just as much to John, I now realize, as I do to Mr. Basarab – while the latter was my inspiration to keep the story alive and answer the question of Radley’s fate, John was very much my tour guide through the mucky and intimidating world of Canadian crime & legalities that was so crucial in that all important, make or break, first draft of the novel.

Completed in 2008, A Swinger of Birches, the novella version of Radley’s story was ready to go, and one year later I finished the full novel.  And then it sat on the shelf for various reasons I need not delve into here (in short, I was busy teaching, and composing other short stories, as well as bringing babies into the world with my wonderful, supportive wife Jodi [be concise, Saad and stay on topic!])  Then in 2013, I made the conscious decision to take Radley’s story off of the shelf and fine tune it (and by fine tune it, I mean completely rip it apart, change the ending, change key characters, and revamp entire passages of it…)  Why did I un-shelve it?  Because, after well over a decade, I ran into Mr. Basarab again. He had defied all rumours, and returned to Sparwood, proving (to me, anyways) his affinity for Sparwood Secondary, the community, and its students.  Older, graying, he appeared tired – I realize this now but didn’t quite catch onto it at the time.  Regardless, we had a grand conversation. Mostly about life and education.  He never brought up my story, or Radley’s fate.  I did that, and he remembered it, telling me he was still waiting to hear the answer to his question.  I told him it was ‘in development’. It was all the motivation I needed at that point.  “You’ll get your answer soon, Mr. Basarab.” (I never could call him, Ron, despite being, at that point, a fellow ‘veteran’ high school teacher myself).  How soon, I couldn’t say, but like most writers, I promised it would be sooner than later, knowing full well that with the publishing world in the state that it currently is, it would probably wind up being later than sooner.

On October 23rd, 2014, the published online version of the novella became available, or at least I became aware that it was available. Radley’s story, and the answer to the question, had been partially answered.  I didn’t think to send it to Mr. Basarab right away, but it was in the back of my mind – I had sent him copies of my previously published stories and articles.  I would get to it soon, certainly before the month would end, I didn’t feel like there was any rush.  Only there was.  And I was too late.

In some twisted, cruel, bizarre, gut-wrenching coincidence, Mr. Basarab passed away on October 23rd, 2014.   It was a shock.  Thankfully, I’m proud to say, I thought only of him – the man, the teacher, and the great legacy he left behind.  I didn’t want to wallow in regret, or pout about him not getting to read my story, and have him discover the answer to his question – I knew he was a far greater man than that.  One who cared about all of his students, and go the extra mile to help them in whatever way he could.  People need only read his online obituary and guestbook to see how endearing and committed he was to so many of his colleagues and former students.  I did, of course, wind up dedicating the novella to him, but in doing so, understood that I hadn’t really, completely answered his question. Only the full-fledged novel would do that.  The novel (I know now) that he was really steering me towards.

That novel is, of course, All the Devils are Here, the title a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear that I knew Mr. Basarab would appreciate.  I set off to work on it throughout early 2015, and finally got it ‘between covers’ with the gracious help of Doug Owen and his team at Tumbleweed Books.  It, too, is dedicated to Mr. Basarab.  I hope it answers his question regarding Radley’s fate.  I only wish I could have thanked him in person for inspiring me to figure it out.