1 - How did your first book change your life?
I think that in a very real way it legitimized things for me as a writer. There was always a certain part of the process for me that was about producing books as opposed to shorter pieces in magazines. For me it was twenty seven years between picking up the pencil and the first book launch so that’s a lot of late nights to be spending if you’re not at some point achieving the goal you’ve set for yourself. I wanted to be able to hold something in my hands and have it represent my writing. It was also the point at which people I’d never met started to approach me and acknowledge what I do. That’s a nice pay off for twenty seven years of lost sleep. The time a woman said to me that her uncle thought I was a great writer and I didn’t know either of them personally. Or when people start quoting your work back to you. When people you’ve never met take the money they’ve worked to earn and use it to buy your work. My first book completed a long process and started another.
There’s the impact of all three to varying degrees. We’ve been at several houses in this area for seven or eight years and both of my novels ( one due with Coach House Books in Fall of 2008 tentatively titled “Haven and Chase” ) take place here in the early 1970’s. I’m not a writer who can research a place they haven’t been and then produce it in fiction. Of course any physical location in fiction is an amalgamation of the actual place, the place in the writer’s mind and the place in the reader’s mind. These three locations join together to make the setting but for me I like to be able to touch the place that this hypothetical location has sprung from. I daily walk and drive the locations in my books which allows me to live in them physically as well as emotionally and intellectually. That’s important to me. Race and gender are inescapable. They are very much a part of my voice as a poet since my voice as a poet is an only slightly modified version of my own. Often not modified at all. As a novelist I write from several character voices at a time. I love the task of assembling a story from a variety of viewpoints and seeing how they come together to produce the narrative arc. Many of these voices of mine are adolescent and fully half of them are female so it is easy for me to move around gender lines and, I think, do it convincingly. I don’t think I would presume to write from the voice of a race other than my own. That would feel presumptuous to me. At least I don’t see how I could assure myself that I was getting it right.
Aside from my first poetry collection everything else is part of a book project. Poems start from lines, individual lines which attach themselves usually to real life events and combine with other lines which seem unrelated at the time they arrive but eventually they find their ways together into one piece. It is quite seldom that I see the end of a poem from its beginning. I’ve just completed a poetry manuscript that traces the lives of Canadian poet Alden Nowlan and American singer Johnny Cash. That was a book from the get go. All the poetry is targeted now towards larger projects.
My novels all begin with a single image that appears and then has some staying power in my head and manages to stay put and return even though it faces strong competition. For my first novel this image was a young girl standing in a nightdress in the middle of a lawn covered with hundreds of dead and dying frogs. I had no idea at the time who the girl was or what was happening but the image would not go away and eventually it was two hundred pages. The novel I’m finishing now started with two boys carrying a cardboard box across a field. In many ways the writing of that story had to do with figuring out what they had in that box and where they were going with it. I didn’t know the answer to that until fully a third of the way through the book. Turns out it’s pretty interesting what they’ve got in there the buggers.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
I enjoy them. It’s an alternate way of getting the stuff out to the audience and I have received some very useful feedback from doing readings. Reading to large audiences is tremendous because you can feel the response in the room and it becomes like playing an instrument ( or what I imagine that must be like ) and having the audience respond in a visceral way. Plus it is a huge ego rush of course and there’s not a lot of that when you’re alone with the light of a laptop at two in the morning so it’s a nice change of pace.
My current questions are:
How do you write so that each word absolutely has to be there – the book would suffer from the loss of just one?
How do you write a book that makes the life of the reader in some way more tolerable?
How do you write a novel that is post modern, experimental and innovative and still have it rip the emotional heart out of the reader and leave it lying there on the floor?
What is the book that is a collaborative process between author and reader and where can I get my hands on that version of my work? That’s what I’d like to read.
Just how perverse is the process we call memory?
I think a big and ongoing question is the validity of the novel. I think the answer is yes. But I’d like to see more evidence of that on shelves and I don’t usually.
( though that thing White was pretty good)
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had the great good fortune of working with extremely fine editors both in magazine work and on my bigger projects ( Alana Wilcox at Coach House, Beth Follett and Emily Schultz at Pedlar Press, Mary Newberry from Descant with help on everything…). Maybe it stems from my work as a teacher but I’m very excited about collaborating on my work with someone who’s very good at doing that. To work with someone you trust and be able to see this thing you’ve worked for so long through someone else’s eyes and see it get better – that’s just really exciting.
I’d prefer to answer as to the last time I didn’t eat a pear. That was just today in fact. In fact I don’t eat pears. Now that I’m with a big time publisher I have the services of an excellent publicist. I’d prefer to refer any further pear questions his way.
It goes something like: the best ending to a story is a half open door you can only see part way out of
That was Michael Ondaatje, not personally to me, but very true.
The other ( you asked for two didn’t you? ) was:
Keep writing it and mailing it out. That was Timothy Findley personally to me I’m happy to say and I have it on paper stored away. It was great advice because it kept me writing through ten years of zero publication.
Also don’t mix your alcohol and be respectful to your elders. Those are good ones.
Canvas size. I’ve always written both. My first published piece was a short story about a guy writing a poem. It was the first good fiction I’d written and the poem was the first poem good or otherwise ( it wasn’t very ). It was the first thing I ever mailed out and it got picked up by Queen’s Quarterly. That wrecked me for a while.
The appeal of the poem is you can get it done pretty quickly. The appeal of the novel is you can spend a long time with it. Although I’ve almost died or been killed seven times now so I’m always worried that I won’t get time to finish the novel.
A typical day begins at 5:00 a.m. in a house with a wife, three teenaged kids a dog and a cat. So writing happens somewhere down the line. I write where, when and whenever I can. For the last several years I write every time I sit down at the keyboard. I’m really very grateful for that. I like to write to music. Most of the time it’s Miles Davis. Sometimes it’s Matt Good. Usually it’s the same song over and over and over. I used to dream of having a place to write. I never have had one though. So I just go ahead where I am. And of course I get a lot done by avoiding writing.
It doesn’t get stalled. But I don’t talk about that for fear that it will. In fact I’d better just say that it does. I eat a lot of pears.
My most recent book is a novel I’m completing which plays with ideas of structuring a narrative but in slightly different ways that my first. Also it’s predominantly in a male voice where the first was predominantly female so in many ways it seems a lot easier. Plus there’s a gunfight and an explosion and a really bad guy so it’s kind of fun to write. And it’s not as dark as my first book. Only half dark.
I certainly agree that books come from books but certainly jazz influences my work as well. I get tired easily of most music but Miles Davis, Matthew Good and Buck 65 I could hear over and over from now ‘till I’m a mall walker. Miles more than any one musician in the choices that he makes. He plays the way that I like to think that I write. John Ford westerns. That’s rhythm and pacing. Old war movies where the boys are pinned down and there’s no way out. Most things in Modern Painters magazine.
People ( the people, not the magazine ).
Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Billy The Kid. Should be required reading for anyone who wants to write. Or read. Or breathe. Tintin comics. Joyce. Kin Platt. Lolita.
Eat a pear.
Live in peace.
Also when I signed a contract with Coach House I realized I had to come up with a new Big Picture game plan. That one went on for 27 years. Haven’t quite formulated the new one yet.
I’d like to see my kids become fulfilled adults. That would be very nice.
I teach high school. Aside from writing, my marriage and my children it’s the best thing that I do. I teach at a great school with great kids and I get up every morning and look forward to doing it. I’m very lucky that way.
I also would have liked to have an office around an area like the Market say. A modern office in an old building with a nice big window and a really nice desk with just a few things on it. And I’d have a few art objects and maybe some obscure cartoon figurines. But I have no idea what I’d actually do there. Go out for coffee I suppose.
I was never presented with the option of not writing. I worked in film production for a while and found there was too much of the extraneous about it. I worked in visual arts a bit. But I wasn’t any good at it so there you go. When I’m writing I’m often achieving exactly what I want.
I just saw the French film Angela. Very good. And Juno. I liked that just like everyone else. And I just saw Babel. Apparently I’m only watching films with one word titles.
I’m almost finished my second novel. I have finished the poetry manuscript about Cash and Nowlan that I mentioned and I’m quite hopeful that someone might publish it. I’m also working with Coach House on the edits for that novel as well as cover designs etc. I’m really working hard on appreciating my blessings. That’s a good project.