Monday, December 3, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Mark McCawley

Mark McCawley is a fiction writer, editor, poet, and small press publisher. Since founding Greensleeve Editions in 1988, he has published over fifty chapbooks. Since 1993, he has edited the litzine Urban Graffiti. From 1986 to 1993, Mark taught poetry and fiction as a creative writing instructor for Continuing Education (now Metro College). He has given readings of his own work across Canada: in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton. He is the author of eight chapbooks of poetry and short fiction, most recently, Stories For People With Brief Attention Spans (1993) and Just Another Asshole: short stories (1994), both from Greensleeve Editions. His short fiction has also appeared in the anthologies: Burning Ambitions: The Anthology of Short-Shorts, edited by Debbie James (Toronto: Rush Hour Revisions, 1998) and Grunt & Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex, edited by Matthew Firth and Max Maccari (Toronto: Boheme Press, 2002). Mark McCawley can be contacted via email:

By Mark McCawley:

Fragile Harvest - Fragile Lives (Edmonton: Greensleeve Editions, 1988)
The Deadman's Dance (Edmonton: Greensleeve Editions, 1989)
Last Minute Instructions (Toronto: Unfinished Monument Press, 1989)
Voices from earth: selected poems/ with R. Kurt (Calgary: Prairie Journal Press, 1990)
Scars and Other Signatures : prose poems (Edmonton: Greensleeve Editions, 1991)
Thorns Without the Rose: fictions & prose poems (Edmonton: Greensleeve Editions, 1991)
Stories for People with Brief Attention Spans : fictions (Edmonton: Greensleeve Editions, 1992)
Just Another Asshole : short stories (Edmonton: Greensleeve Editions, 1994)

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book was a twenty-four page poetry chapbook entitled, Fragile Harvest--Fragile Lives, which I self-published in July, 1988. It did not 'change' my life, per se, but rather was a decision which altered my writing and publishing future from that point onward. No longer would I alter my writing in any way in order to be published by others, now that I had the means to publish myself (and in this way, I feel my writing has been more free to take risks, as well as the writings of others that I have published over the last nineteen years). To date, all of my collections, both poetry and short fiction, have been small press/micro-press publications.
2 - How long have you lived in Edmonton, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I am a born and raised Edmontonian. The city is very much an element in my writing. One cannot help but write about where one lives. Especially as a writer, that city becomes your city. In my short fiction, Edmonton is often the setting when not functioning as a character itself. Gender impacts on my work insofar as the majority of my work is told from the male perspective, and often deals with the darker side of male sexual identity.
3 - Where does a poem or piece of 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?
For the most part, because my writing is largely autobiographical, it begins with personal experience, moves into the realm of memory where it merges with imagination. This way, all of my writings are connected in a sort of conceptual continuity, each poem and work of fiction and non-fiction blend together into one lifelong work (somewhat akin to Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'). For this reason, I'm not so much working on a 'book' from the very beginning, but individual episodes and chapters of a life: mine. To this end, the chapbook format has proven ideal.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
That largely depends on the public reading series itself, the venue, and the audience. Reading one's work at a car dealership to an audience that does not appreciate what you are attempting to accomplish is counterproductive. On the other hand, the Canada Council sponsored reading I gave in Toronto in 1990 at the Partisan Gallery, along with the week I spent there with my host, has added much to my growth as a writer. It's important for a writer to step out of their comfort zone and risk everything if they wish to grow and expand. Public readings can help in that regard. Then again, some reading series have the bad habit of becoming insular communities onto themselves.
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 thinkthe current questions are?
I consider myself a transgressive, post-realist writer. Anti-academic. Working in opposition to the great culture machine (of which academia, the literary establishment, and corporate media are all a part). To paraphrase a piece from Ronald Sukenick's seminal book, Suburban Ambush, 'the form of the Great Narrative is a metaphor for a society that no longer exists.' Myself, and writers like me are providing metaphors for a society that does exist now. Raymond Federman, in his book, Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow, gives the best definition I have thus far found for post-realism: 'a kind of writing, a kind of discourse whose shape will be an interrogation, and endless interrogation of what it is doing while it is doing it, and endless denunciation of its fraudulence, of what it really is: an illusion (a fiction).' These are questions I attempt to answer in my work. Only time will tell if I am successful or not.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have run the entire gamut of experiences working with outside editors, from positive to negative. However, the best editors of all are those that remain invisible. It's their job to make the writer look good, not the other way around.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Very little has changed since I first began small press publishing. The great culture machine is still very much alive and well. There are still very few Canadian produced titles I find worth reading, let alone buying. Perhaps three really innovative small presses. There are a handful of fantastic writers emerging now, but if micro-presses didn't publish their work, you'd probably never hear about them. As for the process of chapbook making, it is still a joy.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
Do you mean a fresh pear? In season? Hmmmm. I saw a picture of a pear once. On the outside of the can. When was the last time you ate a pear, rob?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Shut up.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between writer (poetry to fiction) and publisher? What do you see as the appeal?
Since no one else was about to publish my work, I took it upon myself to do so. A very liberating experience. There is something to be said about following the creative process from its first spark to its final form and having complete control of every step in between. Electronic publishing is just a further step along this continuum.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even haveone? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I've never had a writing routine. I don't have a specific writing time, either. I write whenever I write, eat when I'm hungry, drink when I'm thirsty, sleep when I'm tired. I've never forced it, yet neither have I ever experienced such a thing as writer's block (I've got boxes full of notebooks to attest to that fact). A typical day begins like any other. When I do write, I start with whatever it is that I am working on, then move outward from there to other unfinished works (I'm known to spend years on individual works, while days, or just hours on others).
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled, I simply move on to something else. Very few pieces come 'all at once.' Time and distance have been my greatest allies as a writer. An impatient writer isn't going to last too long.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
If one were to look at all of my published works, they would come to one conclusion: a steady movement and evolution from short poetic works to longer and longer works of fiction. They all, however, are part of the same extended allegory which I try to work into all of my writing (see question #5).
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
While McFadden's statement is true, it is also true that books come from a multitude of influences and forms, which also influence my work: popular culture, music, performance and visual art, science, multimedia. Writers do not exist in a vacuum.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Various writers and writings have influenced my work at different stages in my writing life (Lowry, Burroughs, Genet, Celine, and Selby Jr.). My present work is most heavily influenced by the writings of the Blank Generation post-realist writers (Dennis Cooper, Gary Indiana, Bob Flanagan, David Wojnarowicz, Cookie Mueller, Bart Plantegna, etc.) and the critical writings of Raymond Federman, Robert Siegel, and Michel Foucault.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to extend my small press/micro-press publications onto the internet.
17 - 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?
If I could have picked any other occupation besides writing, I would've picked any other occupation. The definition of futility is being a writer in a post-literate age. I write because I have to: it's as necessary as breathing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is my way of putting order to a chaotic universe, and understanding my place in it. We are the stories we tell.

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

The last great book: Suburban Pornography by Matthew Firth (Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2006). Last great movie: V for Vendetta.
20 - What are you currently working on?

I am presently working on several short stories which deal with themes of alcoholism, familial dysfunction, and perceptions of madness. As the publisher of the micro-press Greensleeve Editions, I am in the process of guiding the first issue of the zine, SPLURGE, to publication in 2008.

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