Sunday, September 30, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Chris Robinson

Chris Robinson is an Ottawa-based author and the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF). A noted animation commentator, curator, and historian, Robinson has become a leading expert on Canadian and international independent animation. In May 2004, Robinson was the recipient of the President's Award given by the New York chapter of animators for contributions to the promotion of independent animation. He is also a frequent contributor to The Ottawa Citizen and The Ottawa Xpress. His writings on animation, hockey, and all facets of culture have appeared in many international publications including, Animation World Magazine, Stop Smiling, Take One, and Cinemascope. His books include: Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation(2003/republished in 2006), Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHL's First Dynasty (2004), Unsung Heroes of Animation (2005), Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze (2005), Great Left Wingers of Hockey's Golden Era (2006) and The Animation Pimp (2007).

Robinson lives in Ottawa with his wife Kelly and their sons Jarvis and Harrison.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It gave me a bit of confidence. Before the first one (which was a book on the popular topic of Estonian animation!), I was scared of the idea of writing a book and didn't think I had the energy or focus (since I'm ADD) to do it...but I did it.

2 - How long have you lived in Ottawa, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

Ottawa is all over my work because I've lived her my whole life (40 years). It's especially present in Stole This From a Hockey Card and The Animation Pimp because I write very personal experiences..and they can't help but come from Ottawa. As for race and gender, they definitely come into play on the two books I mentioned above. Stole This delves into masculinity and some Pimp columns talk bluntly about sexuality, gender and race--and how they are portrayed and mishandled in many animation features (notably Disney films). And naturally my own race and gender can't help put inform my views!

3 - Where does a piece of fiction or non-fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I think that with the exception of Stole This and my two hired gun hockey books (Ottawa Senators, Great Left Wingers), my other books started as smaller pieces. The Animation Pimp was just a series of columns. I would write one a month never knowing if it would be the last. I certainly never thought they'd be a book...but in the end it made sense that they were a book because they formed a view by a person of a specific time and place.

Stole This From a Hockey Card was a book from the get-go, but I was never sure what path it was going to take. Would it be straight biography? That was initially the plan until I learned that there was a biography of Doug Harvey being published. That turned out to be the best thing that ever happened because it forced me to come up with a new approach. I think that saved my ass from writing some generic hockey bio.

But you know Stole This went way back to the late 1990s and a desire to write about another hockey player Ted Lindsay. I loved Nick Tosches' biographies and wanted to take his approach to hockey players...mix it up with fact/fiction (but with the fiction saying more truth than the fiction)... But then I found that Lindsay wasn't so interesting off the ice. At the same time, I grabbed some files on Doug Harvey and boom...instant connection.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Boy...I'd say they are counter to a degree although in the case of The Animation Pimp, I'd written many of the columns to be read aloud. I always read each one to myself to check the rhythm and tone... So it's been really nice to get a chance to read from the book.

Stole This was more awkward. It's such a personal book that deals--among many things-- with addiction and alcoholism-- and my first reading was at a bar. That was pretty damn strange. It was also somewhat painful to read Stole This aloud to strangers. In general, I don't like readings. I find most of them quite dull and tedious. But I guess it's necessary for book signings/sales.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I'm in a constant state --whether I'm writing a hired fluff book about the Ottawa Senators (which I've done) or with more personal books-- of finding myself...of trying to figure out just what the heck I'm doing here and what I think of what I experience around me. I'm also so fascinated with the people I write about...with animators I'm less concerned with their work then with what kind of people they are..BUT I have to find a connection...a door that I can enter..something that I recognize about them. So, with Stole This, I'm basically using Doug Harvey's life to sort my own shit out. So, really, identity is a common theme throughout my writing. How do we define ourselves? How do others define us? Is identity even possible? It seems to me that it's a constantly moving entity that's always changing. Who I was last week, I am not this week.

Heraclitus, my fave philosopher once simply said, "I am as I am not." I love that contradiction.. the idea that the world is not black and white..that it all flows from the same vat. People are not THIS or THAT..they are THIS and THAT... We can all be good and evil.. BUT it's up to us to choose which will guide our life. In that sense, I think it all comes down to taking responsibility for your self, your life (This is a theme I'm exploring deeply in my next book)

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I've had all sort of different scenarios here. With Stole This and The Animation Pimp, I had great editors and there was always constructive dialogue going on, give and take on both ends. With the hockey fluff books, I had to write in a house style and just didn't give a shit what they did to the writing. With Unsung Heroes of Animation and Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: Estonian Animation, I had no editor! That was a pain in the ass because I can't edit/proof my own work. I need someone to really challenge me --even if I get pissed off occasionally. Fortunately, I did find a friend to edit/proof the books...but in happiest experiences has been working with editors on Stole This and The Pimp. You're working with people who like you're writing and support your work. They're on your side so it really helps knowing that and keeps me from taking things too personally.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Creating the book always seems easier than actually getting the damn thing published. That being said, I've been pretty damn lucky because I've attained a bit of a status in animation and found publishers...publishers who let me get away with writing books that are and are not about animation (like The Animation Pimp). But, I do feel I'm getting pigeonholed into the animation corner and I will put an end to that soonish.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Hmm...well I just bought pears today--but havent eaten one. Hold on...okay...I'm currently eating a pear.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Richard Meltzer once told me that writing is for dogs. There's nothing romantic about it. So many people (including myself at one point) love to believe that writing is some drunken romantic adventure. It aint. And one of my favourite lines is from William Faulkner where he said something like "I don't want know what I think about something until I read what I wrote about it."

And Nick Tosches has repeatedly told me to keep fighting and not let the bastards get to me. --but that's my approach to life in general.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Very easy because I don't even consider the two genres. I just freely move back and forth between the two. Sometimes I think my non-fiction is better fiction than any fiction I could devise.

What I love about fiction --within this creative non-fiction genre- is that it can convey more truths about a subject than any amount of facts can. That's what I adored about Nick Tosche's Dino (about Dean Martin)...the fictional dialogue that Tosches wrote for Dino said so much more about the essence of the man than any standard fact tomb could.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I've got no routine. I do get most of my writing done during the morning...but then sometimes it'll happen later in the day. I used to get so frustrated because I couldn't get focused...but I just learned to incorporate that into the process. So when I'm making coffee, watching Columbo or going for a jog, it's all part of the's the period where the ideas are percolating. I find that jogging is amazingly helpful. I can write pages in my head or solve problems. Running really helps me get the muck out of my system and see more clearly. But beyond that I'm a lazy sod. I've written about six books in 4 years (and have contracts for 4 more books) and I don't know how the fuck I've done it. Granted, being sober helps a lot!

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I think I answered this above. Running, boxing, xbox, tv... Just something to clear the head for a bit. Even a good dump can generate a satori.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

This was much looser. The Pimp pieces were done with a smile...but I really had fun writing them. I remember that there were one column where I spent hours reading Immanuel Kant and Pierre Bourdieu just so I could write a 'gonzo' thing about taste and write it in everyday language. In other cases I just fucked around with formatting. I was bringing in dada, beat, gonzo, concrete poetry... Just testing out all these new things. It wasn't all that original but within animation --a surprisingly conservative world-- it was all quite radical and different... Anyway, it was just so much fun writing these pieces.

Stole This was certainly not fun. I was writing about my addiction, my childhood, my fears...I was bashing Canada's beloved sport..and I was writing a very different kind of hockey book. It was all very intimidating...and really Stole This was my first REAL book...something written for the literary crowd....

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer are the two biggest influences. I love the writing they did in the 1970s...this crazy music criticism that stood out from all the generic stuff being written. William Faulkner is another one. I just love that guy's run on sentences. Absalom Absalom has some of the most mouth watering passages I've ever come across in writing. There are others like Hubert Selby, Paul Auster, Philip Roth, but Tosches, Meltzer and Faulkner are my big three. Someone who read my Pimp pieces said that I was doing gonzo writing. I knew of gonzo and Hunter Thompson, but hadn't really read any of it. I have now and I yeah, I guess I've got some of those gonzo and beat (Kerouac in particular) genes. Oh so typical guy stuff.

Outside of literature, the philosophy of Heraclitus ...and the Gospel of Thomas have really helped me shape my life. I really want to be a philosopher when I grow up. I'd say though that music is all over what I do. I grew up loving music, playing in local bands, wanting to be a it makes sense that music touches my writing. These days Robert Pollard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan (I used to hate him as a youngster), and, yes, Ol' Dirty Bastard are what I listen to obsessively. Jackson Pollack is another distant influence and hell, animation is around me all the fucking time whether I want it or not. There are many animators who've had a big influence on me...

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Meet my half brother who is 4 months younger than me.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Hmm... A cab driver (cause I could then drive like an asshole and get away with it) or homicide detective.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Boy...i was just's just an itch that had to be scratched. It's so strange to me that animation (I never cared for cartoons) led me back to writing (something I did have a love for when I was a kid). I still don't even always believe that I am a writer. But the fucker just wont go away..wont let me be. I just have to. I'm a bit of awkward person socially and this is the only way I know how to communicate with the world..and maybe even myself.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Last great film was an animation short from japan called Kafka's A Country Doctor. It deservedly won the Grand Prix at the Ottawa Animation Festival this year (my other job). Stunningly original adaptation of the Kafka short story. Beyond that most of the great films today are television shows. Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire and Deadwood. Great stuff.

As for books... Boy.. Great ones... Been a while since I read a book that I really wanted to read again. Maybe Elaine Pagels' book on The Birth of Satan. She's written a number of books about religion and I find her take on things quite rational and fascinating.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a handful of projects including a script for a short animation being produced by the National film Board of Canada. It's inspired by the rather somber of life of experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Again, it's a story where I've worked my own shit into the equation. Basically it's about mental illness/suicide and identity.

I've also started on a second script about marriage and relationships and how twisted, tragic, absurd and hilarious they can be. Both of these projects are in collaboration with Montreal animator, Theodore Ushev.

Looking for a Place to Happen: On The Road with Canadian animators is a consciously gonzo take on the current state of Canadian animation. I traveled the country earlier this year and interviewed many Canadian animators. The book will fuse these casual interviews with my travel diary. And again...all the usual themes reappear in it. The book will be ready for Fall 2008

Ballad of a Thin Man: animation, fathers and Ryan is a project I've worked on for a few years now. It's a bit of a sequel to Stole This From a Hockey Card in that instead of dealing with my childhood and my parents...this time I recount my encounters with my biological father--who I met the same week I met the troubled late animator Ryan Larkin (who went from star animator to drunk living on the streets of Montreal). Through these two figures I explore issues of certainty, saviours and responsibility. Also entering the story are Bob Dylan (who was seen as a bit of a saviour himself in the 1960s--an era that informed my biopops and Ryan Larkin) and Jesus (through the Gospels of Thomas and Philip). It'll be a crazy book but I think it could be the best thing I've done. This should be out next summer???

There are also a couple of other more 'normal' animation books, but let's not think about those for the moment.

There we have it. Thanks for asking.

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