May 19, 2013
I was introduced to Samantha Bernstein once at an event at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore not long before her memoir Here We Are Among the Living came into the world. When her book was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, one of just three books written by women on a long-list of ten, I knew I had to read it, and it turned out to be one of my favourite books of 2012.
Yes, this is a memoir written by Irving Layton’s daughter, but Bernstein’s literary lineage was less interesting to me than the Toronto she writes about, and her stories of what it was to come of age at the turn of the millennium. I came away from the book wanting to expand on the questions it posed, and so I was very pleased when Bernstein agreed to engage in an email conversation with me.
The following interview was conducted over the past five months, which seems like a long time, but considering it took place between two pregnant women with rich and busy lives, it’s really a wonder that we pulled it off at all.
KC: Did you always know that your memoir was going to be in epistolary format? Why was it important that it was? And were the emails in your book based on actual correspondence?
SB: Yes, I knew from pretty early on that the book would be in emails. I first started working on it during my undergrad in creative writing at York, and my prose assignments started coming out as emails. The idea of writing a book was like a pair of sunglasses I couldn’t take off, but which I felt quite stupid about wearing—Who am I trying to be? and all that. My world at the time was completely tinted by those damn glasses (which, as my mom would tell you, I was super pissed off about much of the time). That need to transcribe everything got funneled into my correspondence with my friends Eshe and Joe; so writing in emails was at first just a less intimidating way to write, because it was familiar and because they presuppose an interested audience.
In my last year of university I read The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s epistolary novel that sparked rebellion in the hearts of his contemporaries. Werther’s letters, at first, just seem ridiculously whiny and self-indulgent (as twenty-somethings are apt to sound…), but as we discussed the book, the self-narration began to take on a broader significance. The intensity behind Werther’s writing is fueled by the fears of youth, fears of being turned into something you despise, of betraying ideals, of failing to properly appreciate or capture the beauty you are experiencing. And as I learned more about the epistolary form, I liked its history of social engagement and criticism, its continual probing of moral and ethical questions. I felt like it would make sense for this book to be in that tradition. Especially because, as it appeared the book would have to be a memoir, I thought that the epistolary concern with subjectivity—its political implications, its distortions and narcissism—would at least be a formal recognition of the problem of writing about one’s self.
The book is based on actual correspondence, but the letters are almost entirely made up. Some lines are direct from emails I’d sent to Joe and Eshe, and certainly the correspondence we’d had helped me to remember what was going on at the time, and what we’d been thinking about. Thoughts and images from our emails got reworked into the book. I’d also been gathering moments and things people said in notebooks for years. I’ve been surprised, though, at how many people think I just printed out my hotmail folder. If only! But I’m glad the emails are believable. It was hard, sometimes, to keep my late-twenties self from editing my early-twenties self into a less obnoxiously naive/enraged person than I was.
KC: How does email change the epistolary format? Granted, your emails aren’t so cyberish—no emoticons and LOLs. But I imagine the immediacy makes a difference. Does email offer the epistle a boost or does it reduce it?
SB: Oh, that’s a good question! I think it could do both, depending on the correspondents. It would be an interesting study to compare the language in classic epistolary and in what Michael Helm cleverly called e-pistolary novels. Both email and traditional letters express a captivation with the present moment, a need to communicate it to someone who will understand. When the first epistolary novels were being written, the postal system was the amazing new technology! But the immediacy of email does heighten the sense of youthful urgency so often present in the epistolary form; I wanted to capture the intensity of letting those thoughts spill out, usually late at night, knowing my friend would wake to see them, and that I might have a reply by the next night. An email correspondence can feel more like a conversation, I think, which opens interesting possibilities.
When I was twenty, in 2001, email was still a relatively new thing. I don’t think the word emoticon existed yet. We got our first computer when I was fifteen, and I got my hotmail account when I was about eighteen (the one I still have, whose stupid address can be explained by this fact). I’ve often mused with people my age about being the last generation to remember life before the internet, and it may be that our emails reflect this, and cling to the conventions of letter-writing. I also tend to be kind of stodgy about language —I feel like words, not pictures or acronyms, should be doing the work (although I’m not against a smiley face now and again…) But I’m sure there are people are using txt speak and such in creative and interesting ways that will ultimately help to perpetuate the epistle.
KC: What are the connections between your academic self and your writer self? Do your projects tend to overlap and how do they inform one another?
SB: In some ways I feel that academic and non-academic creativity support each other—for instance, I read the wonderful poet Gwendolyn Brooks for a course, and then wrote a sonnet cycle to her. I really felt this interaction as I was editing the book. My doctoral dissertation deals with the ethics of aestheticizing poverty, which is also a strain of the memoir, and the academic thinking helped to structure my edits and bring that theme out more clearly.
As a middle-class person interested in social justice, it’s important, I think, to be aware of how we approach and express our desires to help. When I was younger, this idea was tied up with a lot of frustration around whether my ideals or my friends’ were in any way useful or if they were simply aesthetic choices. I was especially racked by this question because of being raised in the residue of the Baby Boomers’ youth culture, which was a social revolution largely enacted through identity—now a profoundly commercialized aesthetic of “personal freedom,” “rebellion” etc. That was really the question that spawned Here We Are—what happened to the anti-materialist, egalitarian youth movements of the sixties? Were they ever really that? Or was there something inherent in those movements that resulted in the present culture that sells cars with Jimi Hendrix songs (or more recently, Keith Richards hocking Louis Vuitton)? So I did a Master’s at York that allowed me to research youth subcultures, to see how European and North American youth have historically expressed their dissent, and how these traditions intersect with epistolary and life writing. That program at York was amazing luck—I got grants, and so was able to spend the second year of the Master’s basically just writing. A dream, really.
I do feel sometimes, though, that I should choose between academia and literature. Although there are amazing people like Priscila Uppal who gracefully balance the two worlds (and I owe a lot to her teaching), you often hear that it’s one or the other. There are writers like, for instance, Camilla Gibb, who I heard was accepted into some amazing doctoral program and turned it down to write full-time. I worry there won’t be time to do it all, especially now as Michael and I are expecting our first child in the summer. That said, I know I’m not the big-time academic type. I’m not going to be moving around the country for the next ten years in search of tenure. I love teaching—I really still do (most of the time) believe that if you can incite some curiosity in a couple of students, you’ve done a valuable thing. There are so many good and important jobs that help people, for which I am in no way qualified, and teaching is one of the very few professions in which the skills I have can be put to good use. So I just hope to have the privilege of doing that, and continuing to research stuff— because I really like sitting down with a book and a pen, and underlining sentences, and thinking about what I might say about them. And I’m hoping that sometimes that saying will come out in a literary way.
KC: Speaking of youth cultures, that early-twenties self that you document in your book is actually quite a fashionable figure in our pop-culture at the moment, though what I really appreciate about your book is that the young self is a starting point, something to grow (up) from rather than to fetishize in and of itself. Youth is certainly worth examining (and I remember how profound everything seemed when I was 21, how strong was the urge to record every atom as it fell) but for many women, our early twenties are also ourselves at our worst, our most loopy and unhappy. So much gets figured out in the decade that follows, no matter how confused we remain into our 30s. And so I wonder what kind of a feminist gesture is it that society (I’m thinking books and TV shows lately—primarily the show Girls which I can’t bear to watch, fearing it will strike too close to home, reminding me of a self whose existence wasn’t as profound as she imagined she was…) is so focused on the moments before women finally get it together? Can this really be useful?
SB: This is a super interesting question, Kerry. I think it’s really true and important to point out that one’s twenties, exciting as they can be in many ways, are also this weird half-formed time in which one feels far more mature than a few years earlier (high school feels like elementary school in its contained simplicity) but is still essentially blundering around in a miasma of unexplained desires and fears (like, a thicker miasma than in later life…). I was just talking with Joe about this yesterday: how we didn’t know anything in our twenties—and yet, and yet… thinking of how we knew enough to hold onto this friendship despite geographical distance and all the uncertainty of those years, I said we were starting to know something about what we needed to be what we wanted to be.
And maybe that’s what makes this moment such a rich one to represent: we want to capture the sense of self germinating. We’re developing into some form of ourselves that can actually be carried forward, consciously, into our future lives. We are, in many cases, expressing our beliefs very strongly and at least trying to understand them, which, I think, differentiates this process from what happens in our teens, when we start believing things passionately, or identifying with things passionately, but utterly uncritically. In our twenties we start adhering—sometimes just as absurdly—to a critical framework for our actions. The blunders and insights this generates often make for good art.
There was an article in the January 13 New Yorker by Nathan Heller, which I thought was rather lovely on the topic of the twenty-something. He observes the basic continuity of depictions of this age despite recent studies on how current social and economic factors are determining the ways people experience their twenties. He compares a bit of dialogue from Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise with a bit from our present Girls, which amazingly demonstrates the continual concern with one’s own mind, with anxiety and self-doubt and how we navigate these in our relationships. Reading Heller’s article made me both happy and slightly sheepish about my book. Sheepish because I am yet another “[a]ble-bodied, middle-class [North] American” (67) documenting the “thrilling sense of nowness” (71) that characterizes the twenties for so many people in that category. Happy, though, to be in this tradition of youths of the modern world—to have documented coming of age in this particular corner of the world that hasn’t been much documented yet, and is interesting in its specificity and its connection to other times and places. And because I captured the wonder of those years as best I could, and am glad to have those moments stashed away.
So to answer your question… I think all good writing is potentially useful and all bad writing potentially harmful. I think art that depicts women in their twenties as hot messes might contribute to dialogues about everything from mental and sexual health to career choice and motherhood. I think, though, that there is a fascination with the seamy and the broken in this society, and that stories about women in harmful circumstances are perhaps more common than is quite helpful. This fascination is a central aspect of my doctoral work, because there’s an old and very interesting aesthetic tradition to our desire to make degradation and suffering into art. We should, I think, look carefully at this desire, because I do believe that art has moral implications, and if we’re satisfied with only the messed-up twenty-something girls, without signs of their growth (See Nussbaum on “Girls” ) that just indicates that we, as a society, have a lot more growing up to do.
KC: With that “thrilling sense of newness” you document, you were on to something though, and it wasn’t all in your head. Reading your book, I was struck by how you’d documented a really pivotal time in the history of Toronto, a burgeoning sense of urbanism and civic awareness among a certain class/demographic of downtowners who were made to feel as though they had a say (or deserved one) in how the city was being shaped around them. (Edward Keenan documents the same thing through a less personal filter in his new book Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto.) Did you have a sense as you wrote Here We Are Among the Living that you were writing a Toronto book? What role does the city play as a character in your story?
SB: I’m glad that my book brought something out for you about the changes that have been happening in Toronto. From the beginning I wanted to write about this city, which still, in the early years of the millennium, had a kind of stigma around it. It had never been and would never be as cool as Montreal. You couldn’t go hiking or skiing the way you could if you lived in Vancouver, and the weed was more expensive. The sense that Toronto was Hogtown with a sheen of Bay St. lawyers was why, in 2002 when Samba Elegua went marching alongside a spontaneous parade through the Financial District, it felt so incendiary. That youthful feeling of “nowness” that Heller describes—the acute, almost overwhelming awareness of the singular moment being experienced—was intensified by the newness of what we were doing.
As the decade progressed, we also developed a sense of being in a kind of precious time before gentrification entered full swing. I felt a tremendous poignancy about the east end. Ty’s loft on Eastern Ave. was across a waste lot from what is now the Distillery District. It was a ghost town when he moved in, one that we could traipse through and wonder what would become of the beautiful red bricks, the wood shutters and cobblestones. The Canary, on Cherry St., was still a functioning diner where we ate cheap breakfasts, discovering over those smokes-and-eggs that I was fetishising a certain aesthetic that was very indicative of where I came from and the kind of life I desired. So our twenties were largely about learning the city, and what kind of city we wanted—in part by assessing the gentrification rumbling toward Kensington and Leslieville. Knowing that the qualities for which we loved these places would threaten them later. There’s a petition going right now to keep Loblaws out of Kensington. I have nothing against Loblaws, but that would seriously alter the nature of the neighborhood. (On an amazingly happy note, I discovered last night that Casa Acoreana, the iconic coffee shop at the corner of Augusta and Baldwin, is not going to be gentrified out of business. The landlord was going to raise the rent, but the outcry from the neighborhood and in local newspapers was so impassioned that he rethought the increase, and the shop gets to stay. A rare and inspiring bit of beauty, that.)
Michael tried to convince me yesterday that the Starbucks on Logan has been there for ten years. Oh no it hasn’t, I said, and I’ll tell you why I know; when we used to walk to the Tango Palace [a coffee shop at Queen and Jones where we'd do our homework on the weekends] I’d say, there will be a Starbucks in this area within three years. And the year after you moved out [in 2006],
there was one.
I think the city in my story is a kind of muse. Certainly it made me want to write about it all the time. And it generates creativity and joy by bringing people together—Joe, for instance, comes to Toronto from England intending to go on to Vancouver, but changes his mind and stays because he likes it. A desire for the city to be a community inspires Streets Are For People!, the collective which creates Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington. And you’re right, that’s not just about dancing in the streets, or playing giant chess on the asphalt while eating empanadas; it’s about people being involved in the shape this city takes, and feeling like we have a responsibility and a right to advocate for things that will make life good here.
Street festivals like Taste of the Danforth, which has something like a million attendees now, engender a similar spirit, if perhaps in less direct ways. Even though there’s more of a consumerist bent to these bigger festivals, they still promote independent businesses and bring people together—and that’s good for the city as a whole. I love, too, that this discussion is coming to places outside the downtown core. I don’t know as much about this as I’d like to, but I’m really hopeful that street festivals, bike lanes and farmer’s markets aren’t just going to remain the purview of 416-ers.
Keenan’s book is definitely on my summer reading list. The changes in Toronto aren’t entirely great, but we’re getting a lot right and it’s nice that people are paying attention to what those things are, so we can keep ‘em coming.
KC: Growing up in Toronto, did you have a sense of its literary landscape, which has been underlined by recent projects such as Amy Lavender Harris’ Imagining Toronto book and Project Bookmark installations? What Toronto books contributed to your own literary landscape?
SB: Honestly, growing up in Toronto I felt like this city wasn’t on any literary map at all. In part, that’s probably because when I started seriously reading, in my late teens and early twenties, I was doing the young person thing of reading about everywhere else. So it was The Famished Road, by Ben Okri, and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Beats, of course. And trying to catch up on “the classics”—you know, The Great Gatsby, Dostoyevsky, Balzac…
So all through my early twenties, as I was thinking of writing this book, and scribbling notes for it, I was motivated in part by my love for a city that seemed undocumented. It was something we talked about, my friends, my mom and I—how no work of art had yet made Toronto “cool,” or even interesting. There was no romance about it at all. To some extent I still think that’s the case. Everyone I know was pretty darned excited when the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World came out, and we could recognize Bloor St., and there’s that scene where they’re CD shopping in Honest Ed’s.
It wasn’t until I was in the first year of my PhD, and TA’d for Modern Canadian Fiction, that I read a bunch of books set in Toronto: Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown, which, despite now being unfashionable (its stodgy realism and blatant social agenda) I truly enjoyed. Austin Clarke’s excellent novel The Meeting Point was the first—and remains the only, come to think of it—depiction I’d read of Forest Hill. Barbara Gowdy’s labyrinthine Don Mills streets in Falling Angels were a revelation that Toronto’s suburbs had been made into art (which I hope to see a lot more of).
For me, best of all was Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For. That novel evokes the Toronto that I know and love: the youth of the four main characters capture the city’s restless, growing heart, its striving for beauty. The students loved that book, too. Our outstanding prof, Cheryl Cowdy, introduced us to the idea of psychogeography (now such a buzz word, thanks to Shawn Micallef’s 2011 book), and the concept just took off for students when we studied What We All Long For–I think because it was current, and the city so recognizable. The class got a lot of pleasure from looking at how characters were responding to their environments, and there are so many different Toronto environments depicted in Brand’s book that students were both learning about and identifying with; it made the fictional world very real to them, and I think made the city more real to them at the same time.
I’m excited that so much more art is being made in and about Toronto. I’d love to see more renderings of Toronto in the 1960s, or the 1980s, when I think a lot was changing. I’m working on a story set then; I’m hoping to include something about Operation Soap, the bathhouse raids on Richmond Street in 1981.
KC: So now I’m excited that you’re making more art in and about Toronto. Anything else exciting that you’re working on? And what are you reading right now?
SB: Well, there’s the short stories; the one that’s finished is a very long story called “The Optimists.” I’ve also got a lot of poems—many of which involve Toronto—that I’d like to turn into a book.
I’ve just started The Golden Bowl, by Henry James, who I love because he can make thinking the central action of a novel. I’m also reading a book called Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty, which I’m hoping is going to help me make a case for the social utility of liberal guilt and self
October 2, 2012
The Giller shortlist was announced yesterday, the nominees for the Governor General’s Awards announced today. Writers Trust last week too, and in general, I’m not so grumpy anymore. I love that The Juliet Stories is getting props. I don’t love that Malarky still isn’t, but I’m confident that it’s a book that will hold its own. Its enthusiastic readers will do its propping for it. I look forward to reading some of the other nominees.
Last week I read the Giller longlisted My Life Among the Apes by Cary Fagan, which I enjoyed a lot. Also was pleased to interview Fagan on 49thShelf, and I hope you’ll check it out because I’m really proud of this one. I’ve also been inspired to create a list of books with monkeys on their cover–a most worthwhile endeavour, I think.
May 6, 2012
In February 2008, I spent one of the most perfect days of my entire life sitting on the grass in San Francisco’s Dolores Park, reading the journal Hobart in Canada/America, which I’d purchased the day before at the legendary City Lights Bookstore. And it was in that journal that I first encountered the work of Heather Birrell with the short story “My Friend Taisie”. Later on the next year, Heather turned up in the also-legendary “Salon de Refuses” issue of The New Quarterly, and I made a note on my blog that her story “Impossible to Die In Your Dreams” had been my favourite of the collection. (I also attended a panel discussion about the Salon of which Heather was a part. You can go here to see amusing pictures of Stuart and I looking extraordinarily bored).
Heather emailed me after I’d mentioned her work on my blog. At the time she had a newborn daughter, and I was newly pregnant, and of motherhood she advised me: “time does shrivel, but it also expands in marvellous ways.” Which was true, but also a very kind lesson in restraint, I note in retrospect. Heather and I finally met in person in Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s kitchen one day about two years ago, and I’ve adored her steadily ever since.
Heather Birrell is the author of the story collections Mad Hope and I know you are but what am I? Her work has been honoured with the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, and has been shortlisted for both National and Western Magazine Awards. Birrell’s stories have appeared in many North American journals and anthologies, including Prism International, The New Quarterly, Descant, Matrix and Toronto Noir. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters where she also teaches high school English.
Heather’s new book Mad Hope is mind-blowingly excellent. She very kindly answered my questions via email throughout this past April, beginning on a very sunny Easter weekend when both of us were ill.
I: “Where do you get your ideas” is a profoundly uninteresting question, but I want to come at it from a different angle. As I’m reading Mad Hope, I keep encountering these moments of profound identification where I want to write “Exactly” in the margins and underline it twice. And it’s for really oddly specific details, like the expressionless Iranian midwife, or following up a trip to the abortion clinic with Swiss Chalet. Or Jordan’s gait: “His hip dipped and his arm swung like a creature who had chosen– righteously– to remain less evolved.”
And I know exactly who or what you’re talking about. I’ve probably even seen it, or read it– your stories also reference magazine articles I’ve encountered, email-forwards I was receiving as recently as last summer. Part of it is because so often you’re writing about– and so effectively too– the very city I live in, so of course I find it all familiar. But I’m still intrigued by how you employ the stuff of the world in your fiction, by your command of the material. And am I right to suppose that this very stuff– email forwards, post-abortion dipping sauces– is where you get your ideas from? Can you talk about your process?
HB: Oh, I’m so glad you had the ‘Exactly’ reaction! I love that sensation of somehow being known by the author as I read. I think those descriptions, expressions, shards of ‘true’ story you reference definitely serve as starting points for me but they don’t mean much until I’ve actually got some kind of more amorphous/abstract driving force in mind. Annie Dillard talks about ‘writing your own astonishment’ — I love that. There is such a range of issues, incidents, images that have the power to astonish — and they are different for everyone. I tend to think of my astonishments in the same way I might consider arguments if I were writing an essay — in other words, there’s something I’m trying not to prove but perhaps to convey in the best possible way, but my tools are less logical than metaphorical, narratorial.
In the story ‘Drowning…’ I wanted badly to write about suffocating mother-love, how the weight of mothering can be crushing at times… Then there were other bits and pieces preoccupying me: the time my husband nearly died of an asthma attack; an article I read about sole survivors of terrible catastrophes — that loneliness; what it means to teach kids with backgrounds very different from my own; and the email forward of the title of course! (This all sounds quite autobiographical, doesn’t it? But it isn’t always, and I’m not sure it even is here.)
So all these disparate threads, all these astonishments, somehow came together… How? I’m not being coy when I say I’m not really certain. It really does often feel that once a story is finished or near-finished I wiggle out of it like an old skin and it feels quite separate– an artifact unrelated to me.
I: These stories give the sense that you must read a lot, and widely. I could be wrong, but then I can’t imagine any way but reading for someone to learn, to know, as much about the world as your stories seem to convey you do. You mention elements of the autobiographical, yes, and I also see startling powers of observation at work (in particular in your portrayal of teenagers), but mostly Mad Hope seems to be the work of an author who reads widely. Is that true? What is the connection between your reading and your writing? What do you like to read?
HB: I am a reader, I am a reader, she intones quietly to herself. It has seemed for so long that my reading habits have been patchy and piecemeal. I have two small children; my sleep has been ragged for the last four years, so I suppose I have become more discriminating in some ways, but also hungry for narrative in any form as a means of escape from the more mundane aspects of motherhood. Because I often read in snatches, periodicals have been perfect lately — so I’ve been reading a lot of The New Yorker and The New Quarterly, and recently Brain, Child (which I discovered through your blog) — and big fat page turners that can be picked up, put down, and easily abandoned if need be.
Having said that, there are writers I return to (writers I could never abandon), writers I think of as unofficial mentors. Deborah Eisenberg. I adore her writing– it’s intricate, it’s smart, it’s funny, it’s city, it’s political. And her stories are long, which is more my rhythm when it comes to story reading and making. I tend to gravitate towards stories whose narrators are crouched in close to their characters, whose characters are complex, layered. I like unconventional story shapes too– stories that bulge out of themselves a little bit. Alice Munro, because her stories are masterful and mysterious. Anne Enright is a more recent discovery. I loved The Gathering, a novel that reads like a short story, and The Forgotten Waltz and her fabulous memoir Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. Mary Gaitskill’s most recent collection, Don’t Cry, blew me away. It is so very fierce and wise. I find reading all of these writers incredibly permission-giving — ‘You can do that?’ they make me exclaim. It’s a wonderful and daunting feeling to have as a writer, to have the gauntlet thrown down in that way…
I am also incredibly inspired by the filmmaker Mike Leigh. I love how he manages moments of connection between his characters. His is a kitchen sink realism that recognizes the gritty, grimy, but also the gleaming moments that occur between people. And he does family dynamics — the secrets, the sadness, the omissions, the overwhelming love and sense of duty, the guilt, the fun, the fatigue — so very well. The way he builds to peaks of drama is so subtle and genuine — it’s really impressive. I also find him a very ‘moral’ artist, for want of a better term. He has such integrity, and his convictions are so present in his work but he is very seldom didactic. I think he’s a genius.
I: With what would you recommend your readers follow up Mad Hope? This is not a rhetorical question. In fact, this isn’t even really an interview question. But all I know is that I finished your book last weekend and the two short story collections I’ve read since (Other People We Married by Emma Straub and The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender) have paled in comparison. Have you ruined reading for me, Heather Birrell? What would you advise me to do? (And I promise, we’re going to get back to talking about your book with the next question. Or that’s the plan, at least.)
HB: You are kind. And too smart and voracious a reader to be stymied by the likes of me. I’m pretty picky with short story collections now. I know what I like and don’t have a lot of patience for what I don’t. Plus I really do like to feel challenged. Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway is pretty great — the man goes to crazy, faraway places in his fiction and creates amazingly authentic worlds. And Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out is the work of a writer who really understands people and acknowledges their mystery. She’s a taboo buster too, which I like. So I would advise you to have a cup a tea and a scone and keep on truckin’, Ms Kerry Clare.
I: I want to talk about your story ‘No One Else Really Wants to Listen’, which is structured as a series of posts on an online pregnancy forum. And the structure is so interesting because it allows for such a variety of points of view, believable absurdity and for clashes between characters that would happen nowhere else in the actual world. One of your characters writes, “And as for the internet—we have both been busy with it.” Do you think the internet and online forms of communication represent similar opportunity for writers using it in their fiction? What’s its potential?
HB: Short answer: Yes. People talk to each other through e-mail, online forums, texting, tweeting. And writers have always been interested in how we talk to and at each other. Having said that, the story you’re referring to didn’t start out as a ‘pregnancy forum’ story. One of the characters, Wings, arrived pretty fully formed on the page, and I wasn’t really sure what to do with her. She’s kind of obnoxious and over-the-top and I felt she needed someone or something to temper her in some way. At the time, I had been experimenting with using multiple points-of-view in my stories and simultaneously reading a lot of pregnancy/baby forums, so adding these voices seemed like a natural move. But it took me a while — and the nudging of my editor — to figure out that I didn’t have to represent everyone in my story just because everyone showed up in a free-for-all forum. I had to locate the story in the cacophony and then winnow it down a bit. And we decided we didn’t want the story to be too cluttered up by some of the formatting you find online — that in the end, it was the words that were important. But you’re right that the potential of this form is that it brings together people (characters) who might not otherwise meet, and that is terribly exciting.
As for the possibilities of the internet as a story making and delivery system — I think they are myriad. There are opportunities for a loose and nimble kind of creation — pass the story type stuff — online workshopping, and of course more traditional online publishing (Joyland). And there are apps out there right now, I’m thinking of Storyville in particular, that will deliver stories to your device in very readable formats. And I’m sure the possibilities will only increase as the technology changes and people change and grow with it. (I will confess here that my engagement with technology is sometimes reluctant, and I can only create new work using old school pen and paper. I think the world of the internets can be difficult to navigate and there are times I need to completely disengage from it in order to maintain any semblance of personal equilibrium.) (more…)
March 5, 2012
I read Carrie Snyder’s first book Hair Hat in 2010 when it was one of five books selected for Canada Reads Independently, and had started reading her blog Obscure CanLit Mama around the same time. In the two years since, I’ve enjoyed getting to know Carrie through her blog and following her Juliet stories on their path to becoming The Juliet Stories.
I read the book last week and I promise you, it’s one of the best Canadian books you’re going to read this year.
Carrie was generous enough to answer my questions about her book via email from her home in Waterloo. The Juliet Stories was published by House of Anansi Press and is in stores now.
I: Although The Juliet Stories is fiction, it has roots in your own biography. As a reader, I tend to engage very little with these connections because they tend to limit the text rather than broaden it, but I know that most audiences find them interesting. How do you feel about this? Are you comfortable with such an engagement? Do you think your book is richer for these connections to your own story?
CS: First, thank you for opening with the elephant-in-the-room question. Without a doubt, “Is this real?” or “Did this really happen?” are questions asked most often about The Juliet Stories. Complicating my answer is the fact that yes, standing behind the scenes is my own family’s story. I did live as a child in Nicaragua, while the contra war was underway, and my parents were peace activists; further, one of my brothers had cancer as a child.
As a reader, I completely understand the fascination and desire to link the writer’s story to the story the writer has written. I’m reading Mordecai Richler’s biography now, almost through it, and there have been plenty of aha! moments of recognition. Humans like piecing together puzzles — in this case, the puzzle of how a writer takes an image or a moment or a place and weaves it into a story.
And there are so many different ways that the real can be used in fiction. An incident that remains mysterious and will never be answered — that could make an excellent starting place for a story. Personally, I often use settings that are familiar and likely recognizable, mainly because I can’t seem to imagine space/place in the same way that I can imagine plot or character. So a reader who recognizes a place might be fooled into believing the story is real simply because the setting is real. In that case, making biographical connections between me and The Juliet Stories would be entirely unhelpful.
I could pick apart The Juliet Stories crumb by crumb, identifying where various fragments arrived from (and it would no doubt be surprising and probably disappointing and not at all what readers might expect), but the question is: would the exercise get us anywhere very interesting? For purely critical purposes, I doubt the links add depth. After all, the whole point of creating a story is to build a fictional world replete with its own codes and themes and particular beauty and logic. And none of that actually exists in my real life. Which is at the core of why I write (and read): in order to create symmetry and wholeness.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t dismiss biographical connections altogether. There must be some deeper psychological reason we, as readers, find these links compelling — that’s what interests me. Why do we want it to be real? Why do we want to know what experiences are sleeping under the surface?
I: I suspect readers’ interest is piqued by the rich texture of your narrative—even without the biographical elements, there is so much sleeping beneath the surface here. I’m halfway through the book now and sensing so many gaps—what Juliet doesn’t notice, wasn’t privy to notice or chooses not to notice from her childhood perspective, and also the circumstances of her life as an adult, from which this story is being told. How did you come to this particular point of view, a strange omniscience that straddles then and now? That point-of-view is so important in the spell your book casts for its reader, but I imagine it must have been difficult to navigate as a writer, to finally achieve that balance. Or did it come naturally as you were writing?
CS: The voice seems so natural to me now that I’m struggling to remember its creation. Once the voice arrived, it didn’t feel created, it felt found. That said, this was not a book that got written overnight, and in fact it began life as a novel from the perspective of the mother (whose name has always been Gloria), and then tried to be a memoir (a very short-lived attempt of no more than 10,000 words), and finally, at last, along came Juliet’s telling (her name was Mary in earlier manuscripts). But as soon as it became Juliet’s story, the voice came too. And once the voice came, the technically aspects of the story-telling style flowed naturally.
That said, there was a still a lot of finicky, tedious work to be done, finessing the voice. I completely trusted my editor’s wise and kind eye on the manuscript. I trusted her to tell me when the voice was too authorial. Too writerly. Too self-conscious. With her guidance, I removed many passages that I’d originally loved writing. But the secret to the voice and the point of view is that not much is needed in order for it to work. Those moments when we’re slipping forward in time, or we understand that there is an older Juliet looking over what is happening—those are like salt. Too much would spoil the meal; but just the right amount adds flavour.
As a reader and as a writer, I’m drawn toward the mysterious, toward those gaps you mention. So much of life is unknown to us, unregarded, or misunderstood, or lost in the moment. As you probably know from reading my first book, Hair Hat, I have an ongoing fascination with the individual’s interpretation of a shared experience. I think I’ll always be puzzling out the mystery of memory and perspective, exploring what’s missing, and leaving gaps for the reader to fill in. I don’t think the writer needs to tell the reader what to think. I think the writer needs to leave room for the reader to make her own connections. Here’s my writing philosophy: It changes the reading experience to be part of what’s happening.
I: Do you ever think about the kinds of readers who don’t like those gaps, don’t know what to do with that kind of responsibility? I’m thinking about a comment Lynn Coady made (which I’m paraphrasing because I think I only heard of it via a live-tweet from the Giller Prize gala) about it being the writer’s job to do the work of a book, not the reader’s. How do you respond to that?
CS: Hmmmmm. A long hmmmm. I guess I’ll respond by saying that it’s not my intention to make work for the reader, or to make the reader do the work. Rather, I’d say that I trust the reader. And I hope we’re going somewhere together, and I hope that it’s interesting to both of us. It’s not that I don’t think about that kind of reader, it’s just that I’m not that kind of writer. If I tried to connect all the dots I’d gum the whole thing up, it would look and sound artificial because that’s not my talent or my gift. In writing, as in life, I’ve had to accept what I’m good at, and what I’m not. It’s humbling, frankly. But also quite freeing.
I: There are points in the book where it seems so obvious that Gloria is the place from where these stories spring. It’s subtle, but there is a real attentiveness to Gloria’s point of view which shows us that Juliet has spent years putting herself in her mother’s shoes, imagining her mother’s experience. And I love these tracks in your writing, which have not quite been covered over in the finished book. (more…)
December 11, 2011
When I fell in love with Kristen den Hartog’s novel And Me Among Them last spring, it really felt like a spring, because it was the first novel I’d loved in ages after a long cold winter. The magical elements of her story about a girl who grows to be seven feet tall and is blessed with a strange omniscience were so perfectly countered with a realism that kept the story’s feet on the ground, and the entire effect delighted me, which is remarkable when one notes my aversion to books about freakish sorts (confession: I am of the handful of people who hated Geek Love).
But it’s because den Hartog’s novel is not about freakishness at all that the story so resonated; instead of staring at the giant girl, we’re given the gift of the world through her eyes, and the view is extraordinary. And the novel is so rich that when I finished it, I wanted to know more.
One Thursday morning in mid-November, Kristen den Hartog came over to my house for some conversation, cheese and baked goods. We tried not to be distracted by the toddler in our midst who decimated the cheese plate and sang made-up songs. What follows is an edited version of our talk, the toddler-centric bits edited out completely (and you probably won’t even notice that at one point here, I was in the other room changing a diaper).
Kristen den Hartog is a novelist, memoir writer, mom, sister, wife, daughter and incredible kids’ book blogger. And Me Among Them is due out soon in the U.S. as The Girl Giant. Her previous novels are Water Wings, The Perpetual Ending, and Origin of Haloes. The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-torn Holland, was written with her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, and they are now at work on another collaboration. She lives in Toronto with her husband, visual artist Jeff Winch, and their daughter.
Kdh: At first it was a short story about parents whose son is a giant and dies of complications from his condition. Much of that early draft focused on their loss and how they tried to get over it. Then I decided I wanted the boy to be a girl, because it presented more complicated body issues. It isn’t easy to be a teenage girl, even with a normal sized body, so I was interested in exploring that, and the more I did it, the more I realized I couldn’t have her die. I didn’t want her to be a victim. I wanted her to be powerful and strong, which is why I told the story as if she was looking down on her life from above, seeing things she couldn’t possibly see. I kept thinking, I know it can’t be that way, but I’m just going to plow through and do it because it feels right. I’m so glad I persisted, because that unusual perspective seems to me the very core of the novel.
KD: I’ve known about that photo for a long time. What I love about it is how ordinary the background is and how ordinary the parents are, but he’s just rising up and changing everything by being there.
The image inspired me because of the sheer size of the boy in relation to his parents. But also I thought, when our daughter Nellie was born, in a way her presence was like that too. She was this massive force. Even though she was a normal-sized child, everything changes when you have a baby.
I: The novel literalizes so many things that I’ve only ever seen in metaphor—I’m thinking of “bird’s eye view”, “head in the clouds”, even the image of a child’s fumbling fingers playing with a dollhouse, sentences like, “After she arrived, the roof of our house came off.” It occupies this strange space between awake and dreaming, between plausible and otherwise, between metaphor and concrete. And it’s kind of a constraint to be writing in a space like that. Or did you think so?
KD: It just came really naturally. It felt like the right way to tell the story. I knew that because I was writing about an actual medical condition, there were things I needed to get right, like how it feels to inhabit a body like that, to hold a pencil, or to walk down stairs when your feet are so huge; and what can be done medically for such a person. But there had to be this playful, magical quality too, so the reader could embrace the idea of Ruth telling the story from above, and watch with her as her life unfolds.
I ended up reading other accounts like that written by people who knew a giant. So that’s how I got to understand what it’s like to be in a body like that, because they’d talk about the size of the hands and the difficulty of walking down stairs.
I: Did you come across any accounts written by giants themselves?
KdH: I came across some interviews with a woman called Sandy Allen who just died recently, actually, and her life story was very useful to me because she was born around the same time as Ruth. But mostly I read accounts by people writing about a brother or an uncle.
I: Which makes sense, actually, considering how much your story is about the family dynamics. Which was part of the reason it reminded me of a Carol Shields book, how you illuminate the ordinary in the same way she does. Your book is rife with allusions to children’s books, and the stories about giants you mentioned, but I wonder if it has any less overt antecedents?
KdH: I tend to stay away from things that feel too familiar to the project I’m working on. So for instance, when I was writing Water Wings, I read a lot about bugs and butterflies, gathering the facts I needed to create my characters’ world. This time it was the fact side of being a giant that I was looking for, and also the details I could mine from fairy-tales. I didn’t want to read novels about close family relationships and the connections between people. Those things needed to come from inside me or be the sparks I notice in my daily life.
But also, books creep in. There’s a book I read with Nellie, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg. It’s about a donkey named Sylvester who has a magic pebble and wishes himself into a rock because a lion is nearby. And he can’t wish his way out again, so he’s gone missing and his donkey parents are terrified and can’t find him anywhere.
It’s a heartbreaking story to read to a child, because every parent has had those terrifying thoughts. So those kinds of books are always in my head, since they explore what I write about as well—family, relationships, and the things that pull us together, as well as the things that threaten to pull us apart.
I: How has reading with your daughter and a focus on children’s books changed you as a reader and as a writer?
KdH: It’s been amazing to either rediscover or find new stories with her. It’s such a moving thing. And blogging about what we read together is wonderful because it means the stories stay with me longer. I have to put my thoughts about them into words, so I appreciate them more. As with a book club. When you sit and discuss a book with others, you get so much more out of it. I: What’s different about reading with kids too is that as an adult, you don’t very often read with people. But as a family, we’ve found ourselves talking about characters in books as a kind of shorthand, connected with ordinary life.
KdH: We’ve just gone through the whole Harry Potter series, which had us all three reading together. We got up in the morning and read at the breakfast table and then as soon as we were all together again, we would read. And in fact, that has stuck with us, because we did it so regularly with those books. The first thing Nellie says when she gets up is, “Don’t forget the book, Mom!”
I: Something else that interests me, because you talk about things creeping into books, is that I found that in your book, the outside world didn’t appear to creep in so often. There were a couple of references to songs on the radio, but we never know the song. The one exception to this is when Iris says that “women have finally had enough and they’re beginning to fight back,” and I guess this is around 1960. But otherwise, we don’t get a sense of the popular culture, and I wondered if that was a deliberate omission and what role did it play?
KdH: I wanted to keep specific reference pulls you out of that, and makes you flip to your own experience.
I: And also makes you measure the plausibility of what’s going on.
KdH: It pulls the reader up off the page, I think. It can be very effective, but in this story, I felt their world needed to be contained, closed off like the parents were as people, and that certain things needed to be blurred.
I: Which is unusual with writers writing about that time because the popular culture is such an easy reference point.
KdH: Yes. But to be honest I’m usually put off by that as a reader.
I: But there was one way the world did creep in. I reread this book around Remembrance Day, and what I noticed that I hadn’t the first time is that it’s such a war novel. It’s a domestic novel, so much about motherhood, but war is always in the background. And one of Elpeth’s aunts makes the point that “the world needs war”. Did your novel need war as well?
KdH: I think so, though that happened organically. Before this book, I had been writing The Occupied Garden with my sister so we were steeped in war research for a long time. It took me ages to move on to a new project because the work on that book had affected me so deeply. And when I finally did, I made Ruth’s mom an English warbride and her father a soldier, because it fit with the era I had chosen. At the time, it wasn’t something I thought about a lot. Then as the story progressed and I began to focus on making Ruth powerful and not a victim, I wanted to underscore the fact that James and Elspeth had brought their own baggage into their relationship from separate places. The problems didn’t all come from Ruth and the difficulty of having a misfit child. The more James and Elspeth fail to talk about their pasts and how the war affected them, the greater the distance grows between them. I love that point in the book where James is trying to decide whether or not to tell Elspeth about his affair with Iris. He absolutely wants to do the right thing, and he decides that his confession needs to be about his experience on the beach at Dieppe that day rather than about his infidelity. His guilt and despair about that day is what’s always been in the way of them growing closer. And Elspeth has her own confession in that sense too.
I: It’s interesting because the way that so many writers deal with the 1950s and 1960s and their focus on popular culture gives the illusion that the war was really far away by that point. I guess that’s what people were trying to do, to get on with things, but it really was so close, and your book shows that.
KdH: The children who were born in that time were born into this new world, and yet their parents had experienced all that tragedy and didn’t know how to talk about it.
I: But even if they didn’t talk about it, it was there.
KdH: And that was something that I went back and refined so that it was mentioned consistently, because I realized how much the war had really become part of the story.
I: But motherhood is also part of the story. You write about it so brilliantly. In fact, the first piece I ever read by you was “Draw Crying” in The New Quarterly.
KdH: Which was written when Nellie was Harriet’s age.
I: And Harriet wasn’t even born. I was pregnant. I remember being so struck by the piece. And then rereading it again later and realizing I didn’t even get it the first time.
KdH: Because you can’t, right? Until you go through it yourself.
I: Which you write about in And Me Among Them. That excerpt from when the baby was born—the feeding, the crying. It’s such a small part of the novel, just a paragraph. And if I hadn’t have experienced it, I might have just skipped over that part and not realized the weight of it.
KdH: I’ve always written about families. I never set out to create a body of work about families and relationships but I can see how that’s become a constant thread that runs through my work. And in the beginning, I was often taking the child’s point of view. It’s a really natural place for me to go. Even though I can’t really remember a lot of my childhood very clearly, I remember the feeling so I can write about that very effectively and I enjoy doing it.
But what’s newer to me, and what started to come after I had Nellie, was writing about the parents’ point of view in contrast to the child’s. And I just love that. I think I began to really get it when I was working on The Occupied Garden. The book is about my dad’s family in Holland in WW2, and there’s a point in the story when a bomb landed in my dad’s backyard. He and his brother were outside playing, and they were both very badly wounded—my dad lost his leg and my uncle lost his arm.
My grandfather at that time was inside the house and had heard the plane coming. He didn’t have time to run out and he called out the window to them to run, but of course it was too late, and I remember collecting the information for the book and asking my dad about that day, which he’d always downplayed as being no big deal. But this time I asked him, “What do you think it would have felt like for you were in Opa’s place? If you were inside the house and you were the father and you were calling to us and there was a plane coming?” And when he wrote back, he said, “I can’t believe this. I’m sitting here with tears running down my face because I’ve never thought of it that way. I always thought about it from my perspective, never my dad’s.”
And hopefully I would have thought of asking him that question even if I’d never had Nellie, because as a good writer you should be able to imagine all kinds of things without having to live through it—
I: Like how you imagined being 7 feet tall.
KdH: Yeah, but it does sort of open things up once you’re actually living it, once you’re actually being a parent.
I: In a way, all the characters in the novel are set apart from one another, and yet, you have so firmly demonstrated that we’re not so far apart in that you’ve imagined what it’s like to Ruth. You’ve allowed us to understand it. There’s such connection there. I mean, at one point, very briefly, you write from the point of view of a strawberry. You show that we really can cross these lines.
KdH: It’s the connections that are really important to me. The connections between people and the natural world around them are more important to me than the story. The connections are the story. And some people love that and totally get that, and some people want something more straightforward. But I can’t do it any other way. I can only do it my way.
I: At some point in the book, you write about giants needing to be seen to be believed. I think it’s in regards to a book that Elspeth was reading about giants. But you managed to show us Ruth without us having to see her. And you make what she sees even more important than how she looks. Was that always the more interesting question to you?
KdH: Yes. I was interested in how she saw her parents, and people like Suzy and Patrick too, and those descriptions of their dusty, sandy, sun-kissed look; when she looks down at Suzy’s part line with the bug bites. When we do see Ruth, it’s because she’s imagining what Suzy sees, and then she decides that she doesn’t want to spoil the moment of her imagining by seeing herself that way, and she puts the cloth over her mirror. It was more important for me to imagine inhabiting her body than to imagine looking at her. If we saw her too much from the outside, there would be too much distance while reading her story. I wanted to get across her sense of compassion, and empathy, and how she’s so set apart from people but able to understand them in a lovely way, even if they can’t return the gesture.
I: She’s a curiously unreliable narrator though. I love it when she talks about how the story is “her truth”, if not the truth.
KdH: Whenever anybody tells a story, it’s their version. That’s one thing my sister and I learned while working on The Occupied Garden, and interviewing my dad and his siblings about their lives. They would often tell contradicting stories. For instance, in the story about my dad and my uncle being outside when the bomb dropped, one version says that my youngest uncle (who was a baby) was asleep in his crib and didn’t wake up until after it was all over, but he remembers walking through the house and crunching over the broken glass, and coming down and seeing what had happened. It’s just a flicker of a memory and he doesn’t know if it’s real or something he created from the facts he got later. That was one of the most gratifying things about writing nonfiction – figuring out how to incorporate the various versions, and still tell a “true” story.
I: As a writer, does fiction or nonfiction feel like the more natural fit for you?
KdH: Fiction still feels more natural, because it’s more familiar; it’s what I’ve done for so long. But I like the constraints of nonfiction. It’s kind of like cooking, when you say, I can’t go out and buy anything, I have to use what’s here, and I have to make something really delicious. That to me is like nonfiction, and fiction is when you can go out and get whatever you want. It’s up to you, it’s a blank slate.
I: But sometimes a blank slate can be as intimidating as a stocked pantry.
KdH: So true.
I: Who are some of your favourite writers?
KdH: I think I answer this question differently every time it’s asked. Today, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Carson McCullers come to mind. For children, Roald Dahl and William Steig.
I: What one book would you recommend that your readers read, in addition to your own?
KdH: Do you mean in conjunction with? That would be an interesting question to flip to readers. Two friends told me they read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn after reading my book, and loved the fit. What comes to mind for me is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I’m stunned to think she was only 23 when she wrote that book.
I: Who were the writers who made you want to write?
KdH: Hmm. I wanted to write before I could read. Then as an older child, I was as curious about L.M. Montgomery as I was about Anne. I was well into my 20s when I finally figured out what I wanted to write about. I suppose Alice Munro had a hand in that, because she wrote about characters and places that were familiar to me.
I: What are you reading right now?
KdH: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
October 29, 2011
I was disappointed to have to decline the opportunity to have an interview in person with Johanna Skibsrud as part of her IFOA appearances in Toronto, and grateful when Skibsrud and her publishers agreed to an email interview instead. Though upon rereading her latest book This Will Be Difficult and Other Stories in preparation, I found myself discovering new depths to the stories that I hadn’t even glimpsed, which made me think that an interview might not even be necessary, that the answers to all my questions would be found within these stories themselves if I just looked hard enough…
Johanna Skibsrud was born in Nova Scotia, and is currently completing her PhD in English Literature at the Université de Montréal, with a focus on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Her first book of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, was published in 2008 and shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first book of poetry by a Canadian poet. A second book of poetry, I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being, was published in April, 2010 and was short-listed for the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Her debut novel, The Sentimentalists, was awarded the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, making her the youngest writer to ever win Canada’s most prestigious literary prize. You can read my review of her latest book This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories here.
I: So many of your stories are constructed around questions of theoretical concerns, around ideas of aesthetics, epistemology, language, time and place. When you sit down to a blank page, do you begin with these questions or with narrative? And how does fiction prove useful in generating answers?
JS: All my stories start from some small narrative kernel – an interesting anecdote (told to me or overheard), an image that begs a story, a memory. The ideas the stories encounter and engage with grow from that starting point. I am concerned with ideas, aesthetics, epistemology, language, time and place—very much so–but only because I am interested in people, and history; of the reality and intricacies of our relationships and every-day lives. I think it is impossible to separate philosophy and epistemology from the everyday—even though we often try. On a social, political and environmental level this impulse can be very dangerous.
I: Your prose style has divided your critics, and much attention has been paid to the construction of your sentences. Does this surprise you? How would you advise that a sentence be constructed? And echoing the words of Annie Dillard, do you like sentences? Does being a poet shape the way your make yours?
JS: I am flattered that so much attention has been paid to my language construction, but I often think too much is made of it. My writing style—especially in the stories—is not particularly complex, and hardly avant-garde. It is certainly meant to be read slowly and carefully, however, and according to a rhythm that reflects the difficulties and necessities of articulating the writing’s content. My ambition is not to offer the fact of the writing or of language itself, but it is certainly to pay attention to the implications of rhythm, style and language.
My advice regarding the writing of sentences would always be for the writer to follow their own inner sense of logic and rhythm while at the same time never failing to convey their meaning in the most direct possible way. Sometimes meaning is difficult—this takes more difficult sentences. I don’t mind it when sentences are complicated or difficult if they need to be, but I certainly don’t set out to make them that way. Just the opposite. A lot of (what I see as) the misunderstanding regarding the “difficulty” of my sentences stems from an unhealthy misconception as to the supposed “autonomy” of what people think of as “straight prose.” Prose is always as constructed as poetry is and often even more so because of how deeply invested it is in recreating the biases and blindnesses of everyday culture and language-use.
The idea that “poetry” is something that can be isolated, and stuck on the back shelf of the bookstore or library is disturbing to me. That said, the last thing that I would aspire to is what in Canada often gets called “poetic fiction”—the term is often synonymous with loose, floppy, or decorative language. Good poetry is the farthest thing from this: it is devastatingly crisp and succinct. It can say (what feels sometimes like) everything in just a single brief image, a single well-placed word. I think that all literature should be poetic in this sense. It should pay attention not only to the limitations but also to the inherent possibilities of its form.
I: What’s the genesis of the stories in This Will be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories? Were they written with an eye toward collection? Have some of these been published elsewhere, and where?
JS: The stories were all written between 2004 and 2007. I revised them after that incessantly. I tried to tighten them and bring out what I thought was most important to each. In 2008 I put them together as a collection and began to think of them more consciously in that way. The characters in all nine stories are united by the desire to push past—and overcome, when possible—the “limits” of perception, communication and understanding. The stories “belong together” in this way—each confronting what is “difficult to explain” in its different way. But the stories are certainly not intended to come together seamlessly in a comprehensive whole. Although some of the stories are explicitly connected and share a cast of characters (a network of American ex-patriates living in Paris), many are not. There are questions that get asked, or ideas that get introduced that remain—for the characters, just as they do for me—unanswered, unresolved.
Four of the stories were published previously. The first to be published was “The Electric Man.” It was brought out as a limited edition chapbook by Montreal’s Delirium Press, edited by Heather Jessup and Kate Hall. “The Limit” won The Stickman Review short story contest in 2005, and was published in their on-line journal. “This will be difficult to explain” (originally titled “This will be difficult to explain, and other stories”) was runner-up in a Glimmertrain Magazine contest and published in 2009. Finally, “French Lessons” appeared in Zoetrope: All Story in 2011. All of the stories that were previously published (except “French Lessons”) went through extensive overhauls before appearing in the book.
I: What do the stories in this book tell us about your preoccupations as a writer?
JS: Like me, the stories are preoccupied with the relationship between the abstract and concrete, the personal and the collective, the infinite and the everyday. Also, with limitations—both personal and historical. There is a desire to move past them in the stories, but also an awareness of the inevitable adherence, or return, to the limiting structures of culture and language.
I: In both “Angus’s Bull” and “Cleats”, there are moments in which mothers become disturbingly aware of their own children’s disturbing awareness of what’s going on in the world around them, to their openness to experience. The mothers seem to fear both their power and powerlessness at once. Which one do you imagine is most real and most terrifying?
JS: I think the two things cannot actually be separated. Just like with language. The moment you say something—the moment you settle on a single word to stand in for something that the word is not—you assert power over that named thing, but you also open it up to a (far greater) powerlessness: what it cannot say. It becomes instantly impossible for the named thing to speak for, or even directly to, what exceeds it, but at the same time that which exceeds it is afforded (against the newly circumscribed space of the word) a certain definition and form. It is possible that, at this point, genuine contact becomes more, rather than less possible. I think this must be true for parenting—and for politics, too, though I don’t have any personal experience practising either. We are constantly, in so many areas of life, forced to confront the limitations that arise due to our concentrated efforts to avoid, or move past, them. What is most terrifying is when powerlessness is not acknowledged; when power is asserted without recognition of its blind-spots, prejudices and limitations.
I: How does geography and topography influence how your characters think of place and themselves within that place? Is it like Daniel in “The Limit” who thinks that living in a place where the limits are clearly demarked enables you to better situate yourself, or like Martha in “Signac’s Boats” who is disappointed to find that limited perspectives are decidedly portable, and that she’d brought hers halfway across the world to Paris? Are limitations real or imposed/imagined?
JS: Again, both. Limitations are real because we imagine them that way. Reality and the imagination (just as Wallace Stevens spent his twin careers—as both poet and as insurance salesman—investigating) are inextricably intertwined. Art and literature can expand our personal, as well as our collective, imaginations. It can open up a space of empathy, and from this space can open the possibility of genuine action and change.
I: Setting is so essential to your work. Is it necessary for you to have experienced a place in order to set a story there?
JS: Not necessarily—though I do like to have some sense of the territory familiar to my characters. I haven’t been to Red Deer, Alberta, but I have been nearby. I think I have been almost everywhere else that I mention in the collection. I think that a writer can’t possibly avoid writing “from life” but should never feel, or be, limited by that. The material that any one of us draws from can be almost infinitely expanded, reinvented and reimagined, by combining our “real life” experiences in different ways.
I: For me, the definition of growing up lies in Martha’s revelation of love as a simplifying force, “when she’d thought it would have made her at the same time more integral, and more complex.” Do you think this is maturity? Is it a compromise?
JS: I do think that Martha’s revelation indicates the process of maturation that takes place over the story–and I don’t think it’s a compromise. So much of learning to live in the world is, I think, about learning to appreciate relationships and experience in “simple form.” To not will them into being something else, or a preparation for something else. Art helps us look at things in this way, I think—helps us learn how to look. It can help teach us how to appreciate things from a little distance, by thinking of them in relation to a wider frame of reference. The trick—and this is what Martha struggles with—is to not let this “simplicity” depreciate the value of the thing. To, instead, like a good poem or a painting (think of Frank O’Hara, or Georgia O’Keefe), allow that achieved simplicity to open the experience up—to reveal its inner richness, and complexity.
I: What books have been most formative in your experiences both as reader and as writer?
JS: The books that made me re-think what writing was capable of were (in order of their appearance in my life): Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Also, the work of the poets Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery and Lyn Hejinian. And you brought up Annie Dillard—I should mention also, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and For the Time Being.
I: What are you reading right now?
JS: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum and David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster.
September 26, 2011
I’m excited to be part of the Jon Klassen blog tour for I Want My Hat Back. At our house, we first discovered Klassen’s work with Cat’s Night Out, which not only won the Governor General’s Award for Illustration, but also received the enormous honour of being our Best Book of Library Haul on July 25th 2011. I also enjoyed his interview at the fabulous kids’ book blog 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Clearly, Klassen is an interesting guy (check out his blog for some proof) and I’d love to know more about the trajectory of his career, why he’s so fixated on oblong shapes, what his own hat looks like (and if he’s ever lost it), but I am not going to ask.
Most of the writers I interview on my blog write chapter books (for adults) instead of picture books, and I have strong feelings about these interviews focusing on the works themselves rather than their creators, and just because the work in question here is 250 words in length shouldn’t make it an exception. I Want My Hat Back is also good enough that it doesn’t have to be an exception. In these 250 words and the drawings, even with all the understatement in both, there is a whole lot going on, between the lines in particular.
Klassen is an Ontario-born illustrator now living in Los Angeles. He was kind enough to answer my questions via email.
I: So, is this a book whose words accompany the drawings, or is it the other way around? Was it from images or words that this story originated? If it was from images, was the story implicit in the pictures, or did you have to go searching for a plot?
JK: I’m not sure it’s either one or the other, as far as what accompanies what. The story came from just the idea of a book with the title “I Want My Hat Back”, and a character on the cover who wasn’t wearing a hat. It was done being written before the pictures, but the writing had the notes about the pictures in it. I wanted a story where the characters didn’t have to do very much physically, so knowing that helped in the writing, but it wasn’t a case of having the characters first and then looking for something for them to do.
I: The bear’s character is rife with contradiction: he has a single-minded fixation upon locating his hat, yet he misses the hat when it’s right before his eyes. When the situation has never been more urgent and he fears never seeing his hat again, his response is to lie down on the ground in despair. When we read him aloud at our house, he speaks in a monotone. How do you read the bear?
JK: I read the whole thing in monotone too. I wanted to try to and make it like the animals were given lines to read off of cue cards. That’s why, at the beginning, the animals are looking at us and not each other. The bear doesn’t see the hat initially because he’s sort of in the play by then and is just waiting for that scene to be done, so he’s not really paying attention. When he realises later what the rabbit has done, it’s like he forgets he’s in the play and becomes a bear again and does what a bear would do if he learned that this had been done to him.
I: I can understand the bear’s limited perspective though. Don’t tell anybody, but the first time I read your book, I completely missed the twist on the last page, the “hat on the rabbit’s head”, to speak in metaphoric terms. One man’s obvious is another man’s subtle, or maybe it depends how fast one man is reading. How do you draw the line? (I’m speaking in metaphoric terms again re. line-drawing)
JK: Keeping that last thing sort of subtle has turned out to be pretty handy when people wonder if the story is too mean for kids. Visually, the problem the book started with is solved at the end, and younger kids, I think, might stop there. That what actually happened is kind of easy to miss sort of saves it for older kids who are reading it to themselves, or are at least paying more attention to the words. I don’t want the book to come off as antagonistic or especially cynical or anything, and I hope that by stashing it away in that last paragraph that we’ve already heard earlier, it gets excused from that.
I: The key to this story’s success is its really simple language, and repetition. Were these a limitation or an aid to you as wrote the story? Similarly with the basic nature of the drawings (ie that the animals are devoid of facial expression). Can limits have an expansive quality?
JK: I think they definitely can. I’d never written a book before, so the formality of narration was really intimidating and I kept feeling like a fake. When the idea came up of doing the whole thing in dialogue I got a lot more comfortable with it. The stiffness of the language was really the only way I felt comfortable getting the facts across, and the drawings of the animals are kind of the same way. The feeling I wanted to get into the illustrations of them was the same expression you get from a pet that you dress up. They look kind of surprised, they don’t want to move, and they are just generally unimpressed. I think they all have better things they could be doing, but I have this story I want to do, so just hold still for a minute.
I: Is this a story about lying? About complacency? About carnivores? About hats? How do you explain it?
JK: I like to think that it’s just a story about itself. It came together so randomly that I can’t really claim a big message. The only abstract idea I had when it was being made was about the rabbit being indifferent, and how threatening indifference can feel. When the bear comes back to him and accuses him of something he’s pretty obviously guilty of, the rabbit doesn’t have a reaction. And when it becomes clearer what the punishment is going to be for this, he still doesn’t really react. He’s silent and unapologetic for this thing he did, and there really isn’t any way you can think of dealing with such indifference. There’s no reasoning with it, so the bear does what he does.
I: Until the story’s conclusion, the bear takes real action just once, when he helps out the turtle and lifts him atop the stone he’s been struggling to climb all day. But then the turtle is stranded there, isn’t he? Isn’t that kind of terrifying? What happens to the turtle??
JK: I think the turtle’s going to be fine. I wanted the bear to do something like that to remind us that even though he’s polite and sad and everything, he is still physically capable of picking most of these guys up off the ground, which is an important thing to keep in mind.
It sounds strange to say given that the turtle only has one line in the book, but I think I “get” him more than most of the other characters in the story, so I’m hoping there will be a book just about him some day.
August 9, 2011
Until I read The Odious Child, Carolyn Black existed foremost in my mind as being the woman who looks exactly like a girl I worked with at McDonalds when I was seventeen, and then I read the book and discovered she was also brilliant. I’ve met her twice, we have several mutual friends, and I’ve never met anyone as well-talked-about behind her back as Carolyn. For good reason, as I discovered when she was kind enough to conduct the following interview with me over a week last month via email.
Carolyn Black’s stories have appeared in literary journals across Canada. “Serial Love” was published in the prestigious Journey Prize anthology, and “At World’s End, Falling Off” won Honourable Mention at the National Magazine Awards. The Odious Child (Nightwood Editions, 2011) is her first collection of short stories.
I: I will begin rereading The Odious Child today, and have been looking forward to it. And I want to begin our interview by asking you the question that has been perplexing me since reading your book for the first time– where did you come from? (As a writer, I mean.) None of the standard equation “Author A meets Author X” lazy reviewer staples quite fits with your style. What writers do you regard as your influences?
CB: Writers I enjoyed reading while writing the collection, who seemed to enter below the ribcage, were Kazuo Ishiguro, AM Homes, and Sheila Heti. I read Muriel Spark throughout high school, and later Nathanael West, Eudora Welty, and Angela Carter. Sexuality, satire, and the surreal are the common elements. I read Miranda July and found her hilarious, but then had a reaction against her, so the first story in The Odious Child is almost a parody of her style, a musing about what would happen if I put a Miranda July character into a story about various degradations … would the childlike language be able to support the story? I am still waiting to have my grand passion, when it comes to influence, to tear out my hair at night because I cannot be a particular writer. I’d really like to have this, an influence whom I wanted to marry and kill, but it hasn’t happened yet although there have been some close calls. I remain optimistic, however, for I am a romantic.
I: See, this is why you’re tricky, Carolyn Black. I’ve never read Miranda July (I had a reaction against her too after seeing her movie, and decided I’d had enough Miranda July for one lifetime) so I missed the joke. I understood what you were up to though—your story is generous enough to contain its own “key” so to speak, as your narrator explains the work she does labelling exhibits at a museum:
“I pile the simple words on top of each other—like beads on a string or pennies in a roll of fetishes hoarded in a cabinet [!]—and connect them with a series of coordinating conjunctions.. The logic must surge forward, as it does when a child tells a story.”
Sometimes it’s not so much that logic surges forward when a child tells a story than the listener indulges the child in listening to a story without surges. There is reward to this of course, as there is with the spare prose of Ishiguro, Sheila Heti, and also you. But do you think that a bit of indulgence is also required on the part of a reader in order to appreciate writing like this? In addition to the usual close reading required of any literary fiction? Or do you think that all literary writers need to be indulged a little bit sometimes?
CB: Are your indulgent readers those readers whose patience is being tried in some way but, still, they persevere? I think this is what you mean. It is curious you would group writers as different as Ishiguro and Heti together, sharing a “spareness” that tried the patience. What would that shared spareness be? Inexplicability? Their works do contain dark matter. Even though Ishiguro writes from inside his characters’ heads, their perceptions of the outer world, to which we do not have direct access, are distorted. The author conceals. And Sheila Heti is not, perhaps, merely concealing, but writing a world where a hidden world does not exist. I remember reading The Middle Stories for the first time, trying to figure out what objects represented. What did the rubber doll mean? What did the flyaway curls mean? Why was a story told about a miserable dumpling that had fallen to the floor? What did it all mean? Why was the author not helping us! The writing was a big fuck you to the reader, which surprised me and made me laugh. I am so used to having everything, every motivation, explained while the plot grinds to a halt. For me, now, writing that explains everything requires a good deal of patience, if only because I’ve read so much of it; writing that resists explication seems beautiful and true. (more…)
November 15, 2010
Zoe Whittall is author of novels Holding Still For As Long As Possible and Bottle Rocket Hearts, which was named a Globe & Mail Best Book of 2007. She won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Award in 2008, was shortlisted for the 2010 ReLit Award, and is currently adapting both novels for screen. Her poetry books include The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life, The Emily Valentine Poems and Precordial Thump. She edited the anthology Geeks, Misfits & Outlaws in 2003. She lives in Toronto, where she works as a journalist.
When the clocks went back two weekends ago, I used my extra hour to devour Zoe Whittall’s latest novel. The Middle Ground is short, fast-paced and plot-driven, part of the Rapid Reads Series by Orca Book Publishers. I was particularly interested in the book as a tool for adults with low literacy, permitting them access to the bookish magic that so many of us are lucky to take for granted.
Zoe was kind enough to answer some of my questions about Rapid Reads, and writing a book like The Middle Ground.
I: Can you tell me about Rapid Reads? How did you come to be involved in writing for the series?
ZW: I learned about the Rapid Reads publishing program at Orca through my agent, Samantha Haywood at TLA. She knew they were looking for authors, and I had just finished writing HSFALAP and was taking a creative breather between big projects. I also knew I was about to start working on the script for the Bottle Rocket Hearts film. I was drawn to the idea of writing a short book that was straightforward and high on plot and suspense. I’ve never been that great at plot, so I figured this would be a really good exercise for me as a writer, and something that would help me when I started writing the script, because you always have to be mindful of action and conflict in every single scene. I read a whole bunch of mystery novels as research into how to craft suspense, and built on that. I’d spent years reading a lot of poetic prose, experimental narratives and literary novels, so switching gears this way was very helpful, I think, in the long run.
I: What direction were you given by the publisher?
ZW: I was given very specific direction by my publisher, and wrote several drafts of plot outlines before they approved it and we signed the contracts. Basically, the book had so be short, with simple vocabulary, employ no flashbacks, have no more than a handful of characters, and it had to move forward as fast as possible. It sounds easier than it was.
I: What challenges were surprising?
ZW: I only had a limited amount of pages in which to explore who Missy is and why she would decide to make so many unlikely or irrational choices. I read a fair amount about Stockholm syndrome and how different personalities might react to crisis or violence. I thought a lot about how she might feel about the three major aspects of her life – her job and financial stability, her love life, and her child and family – and if all three of those constants in her life were disrupted in one day, the same day that she is a victim of a crime, how would she deal?
I wrote the book while visiting the small town where my partner grew up, so I felt like the setting was easy to settle into it. I also spent my childhood on a farm, and identify with rural life, so that was comfortable. But Missy is about as different from me as you can imagine, so that was a challenge, but a great one. It’s like playing dress-up in a way.
It was challenging to orchestrate the crime scene as the end – I spoke with some police and former police to know how the cops would enter the space, and if Missy would be considered a victim or accomplice, all of those technical details. I drew a lot of diagrams, about things like “if his back is turned, and she’s by the garbage bins, and the people run towards the door, who would be able to see who, and how would they move fast in this short period of time? What could she say that would provoke him to shoot, where could she be shot so that she wouldn’t be die..” those kinds of details, etc.
ZW: Because I wrote this book in about three months, the bulk of it in a few weeks, I wasn’t as immersed in the story as I was with Bottle Rocket Hearts (ten years) and Holding Still (three years). I went about understanding her more methodically, strategically almost. All of my other characters generally appeared to me in those magical unconscious moments and, and then once I figured out some of their basic personality traits and personal histories, I slowly started making them do things. I knew Missy had to go through the story I’d decided ahead of time, so I got to know her in terms of what I know had to happen.
I: What is considered “simple” vocabulary? The vocabulary level didn’t seem terribly conspicuous as I read your book– did you have to work against your own writerly instincts to make it work, or did it come fairly naturally?
ZW: Sentences had to be shorter, and vocabulary had to be at a certain grade level. I can’t remember which one. When I handed in my first draft, the editor said they had to take it down a few notches with regards to some word choices, but that’s about it.
I: As a writer, what lessons did you learn about plot?
ZW: I had to insert some sort of conflict into each chapter, she always had to be making a decision or reacting somehow, so that it would move along. I suppose I learned not to be afraid of action, because it can be difficult to write in a way that is not cliche and television-like.
I: I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be an adult with low literacy, and having most learning resources at your level geared towards children or idiots. So what a wonderful novel The Middle Ground is, in addition to a riveting read for anyone. Have you had the opportunity to receive any reader feedback on your novel?
ZW: Yes, it must be very difficult. I have not had any opportunity to hear feedback yet. Because it was just nominated for a Golden Oak, I will be making some author appearances in libraries and I hope to meet some readers at that point. It’s an entirely new market to me, so I’m looking forward to connecting with potential new readers.
September 30, 2010
I met Alison Pick not through literary circles, but because last year she moved in across the street from one of my dearest friends, which was we how ended up attending a babies program at the library together in the depths of winter, and then I happened to run into her one day while I was buying swim diapers at Shoppers Drug Mart. (See, artists are everywhere, out in the world– it’s amazing).
I’d read her first novel The Sweet Edge, and many of her reviews in The Globe & Mail, and I was excited to learn she had a second novel coming out. I read Far To Go over a couple of days in August, and loved it, and it was a pleasure to read it once again in preparation for this interview. Alison and I met up over caffeine and sugar a few weeks ago to get our conversation started, and her little daughter was understanding when Harriet broke her tambourine. Our interview proper was conducted via email during the weeks that followed.
I: I am curious about the idea of adherence to facts in fiction, which becomes much more important in a historical novel than a contemporary one. What kind of factual truths were important for you to achieve in Far to Go as opposed to in your previous novel, The Sweet Edge?
AP: Writing Far to Go was different from writing The Sweet Edge in many ways, one of the primary ones being the need to “get it right” historically. There were two kinds of factual truths I was trying to achieve. Firstly, all the little details needed to line up. Street names, makes and models of cars, kitchen appliances, hair styles: I did a lot of googling, I admit, to ensure all of the above were properly situated in time and place. I wanted all of the small details to work in concert to create the second kind of “truth,’ which was an overall sense of historical aliveness. There’s a danger in historical fiction that the research appears too obvious, too self-conscious. I used hundreds of little facts, but tried to blend them into the background so the reader wouldn’t be conscious of them. Like stitches, I wanted the “facts” of my research, in effect, to disappear within the fabric of the narrative.
I: From a writer’s perspective, what is the relationship between historical aliveness and contemporary aliveness? Issues of period aside, do both kinds of literature “come true” in the same essential ways?
AP: Yes, I think that ideally they do, and that the desired goal is to make the one feel like the other. An historical book needs to be grounded in the small details of its own time and place, but the characters and their motivations should feel entirely contemporary.
I: It’s interesting though that in the present day passages of your novel, we don’t see the same attention to specific detail. Part of this, of course, is that your narrator is to be somewhat of a disembodied voice, but we do come to understand her and her environment even without knowing what shade of nail-polish she’s wearing, for example. So what kind of stitches would you say your narrative is constructed of in these parts of the story?
AP: Yes, good point. The present-day narrator is vague around the edges at the beginning of the story and basically remains so for the duration. Of course, I’m trying to conceal her identity for the purpose of narrative tension, hoping the reader will initially think she is the now-grown Pepik, and then, upon discovering her sex, have to revise. And her theorizing is also somewhat in keeping with her vocation – as a professor of Holocaust Studies focused on the Kindertransport she is uniquely situated to offer overall sweeping commentary on its themes (history, memory, dislocation).
Still, though, I did worry that her vagueness would wind up being a weakness, and tried in various revisions to make her more alive by way of nitty-gritty details. It just didn’t seem to work. At least not in any way I was happy with, and in the end I trusted my original intuition that she was meant to be a different kind of character from Pavel, Anneliese, or Marta. In the final pages Lisa acknowledges that she has chosen to withhold the bulk of her own story, fearing that by revealing too many specifics the overall scope might get lost. So, uh, I’m not sure how that translates in terms of fabric and stitches, but if we can switch to paint, her narrative is created with broad strokes rather than detailed brushwork! (more…)