Peter Learn is the most unlikely purveyor of strange, dark and twisted, but the retired elementary school principal’s first foray into the literary arts is just that.
His book is well worth the journey, but it makes you look somewhat askance at your own child’s school principal.
Learn, a retired educator and relatively new transplant to Canmore from the Edmonton area (three years), has just had his first attempt at writing more than report cards and admin reports published by Quattro Press out of Toronto, a novella entitled Surrender.
The book is aptly titled, as the reader must do just that – surrender to Learn’s disturbingly hilarious imagination – to follow the thread of a plot from the innocuous dismissal of a school’s beaver mascot to the gates of hell and back (more precisely, hell’s anteroom, with a bit of limbo thrown in for colour). Along the way, we are privy to the darker side of Learn’s dreams, a First Nations storyteller and some resurrected Nazi demons guarding the gates of heaven.
It’s a pretty wild ride and well worth the time for the numerous laugh-out-loud analogies and bizarre realities one encounters along his journey. With letters to the principal from parents excusing their child’s highly aberrant behaviour, observations on enforced ‘professional development’ and wry asides on humans in general, Learn shows a keen ability to find funny where none is readily apparent.
The novella, a long-ignored literary form that falls about mid-point between the short story and the novel at roughly 30,000 words, has been resurrected in recent years by Quattro Press, but it was certainly not where Learn started.
“It took me 15 minutes to write the book in the first place and four years to edit it,” he says. After a vivid dream about his own death in an elevator explosion, he started pouring words onto the paper.
He shortly had 60,000 words with little structure. Son Josh took his first crack at it, forcing his dad to remove extraneous ands, thes and thats. He pared, reconfigured and reworked.
A year or two into the experience, he entered it into a novella competition hosted by Quattro Books. He didn’t win, but did get a phone call from editor Luciano Iacobelli, indicating that despite the non-victory, they still wanted to publish him.
“He said, ‘You’re either insane or a genius’,” Learn said with a laugh.
Iocabelli, however, added back in a lot of stuff pared once, and removed a lot more added in later. The writing process was laborious, Learn admits.
Surrender, released this fall, will have its Canmore launch Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. at the Georgetown Inn, along with a reading by the University of Calgary’s 2011 Writer in Residence Jeramy Dodds’ new collection of poems Crab Wise to the Hounds. The evening is hosted by Canmore’s Migratory Words writing group.