Friday, November 16, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Sean Johnston

Sean Johnston is the author of A Day Does Not Go By (Nightwood, 2002), which won the 2003 ReLit Award for short fiction, and the novel All This Town Remembers (Gaspereau, 2006). He’s also published two chapbooks: A Long Day Inside the Buildings (with Drew Kennickel; JackPine Press, 2004) and Bull Island (Gaspereau, 2004). He lives in Kelowna where he teaches Literature and Creative Writing at Okanagan College.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It did a couple of things that kind of counter each other. It legitimized my work somehow and gave me more confidence. It also made me realize how much luck is involved. The manuscript Nightwood liked was the same one that had been rejected everywhere else. So it helped me to feel like someone was interested in my work, but reinforced the resolve that this interest cannot be all I am working for.

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

I started teaching at Okanagan College in Kelowna this semester, and moved here for this job, so not long. Geography is important in my work, but mainly the Saskatchewan landscape I grew up in and go home to. For me there is prairie and not-prairie. I suppose it’s like that for everyone who leaves home. There is home and not home. And the prairie landscape is in my work in its stripped down description I think, in the space it allows for the reader’s imagination.
Race and gender are a part of my work too, but not necessarily in obvious form. Some young writers seem to think only their personal experience is “authentic.” One I read, I think in your 20 questions interviews, called using a narrator that is not your gender or race, or any narrator that has a point of view outside your own experience, “pretentious bullshit.” God forbid a writer should use his imagination. This kind of sentiment is ridiculous and short-sighted. There are people and situations in this world that are far outside my experience and if writing is to be human at all it must acknowledge the greater world and not just be a little paper representation of the author’s limited world. So I do like to interrogate power relationships of all kinds, including those informed by gender and race. It’s easy to ignore these questions but ignoring them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

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?

I am not sure where poems and stories begin. I usually write small scenes until a character, or the speaker of a poem, is silenced by some kind of desire, then I begin from that desire and work it backward or forward, trying to figure out, like in the Talking Heads song, “Well, how did I get here?

Except for the novel I have written and the one I’m working on now, I definitely work on short pieces, not books. I love assembling the pieces into a manuscript later, but it does often feel a bit forced in the beginning, until it begins to work and then it’s really heartening to see the way these stories and poems work together.

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

For poetry they are really a big part of it. I cannot write poems without imagining them spoken. I have little aptitude for creating work that exists first on the page. I suppose that’s the same with the stories.

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?

The central question in all work, I think, is what does it take to be human? I suppose I believe Flannery O’Connor’s notion that violence reveals what is essential about being human, but I don’t think the violence must be physical. I like to explore the emotional and spiritual violence that is a result of certain social situations. I like to question the assumptions that underpin the violent situations. Why is it so easy to sell the notion that capitalism is Christian and Christians are capitalist, for example? I think if you make people question their perception in your writing, you may help them question their perception when they look at other narrative forms, like 90 second news stories, which for some reason are accepted as natural. I think it’s the artist’s job to make the artificiality of accepted narrative forms obvious. Pretending forms are neutral is dangerous.

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

This kind of works on a case-by-case basis. Some stories seem more finished than others by the time they get to an editor and I don’t know why. But I definitely appreciate another sensitive reader. It’s never been difficult for me. I’ve had good editors everywhere. No bad experiences or even difficult ones. Kate Kennedy at Gaspereau was especially helpful because by the time she read the ms. I was so close to it there was no way I could see it truly. I was still reading things into it that I had deleted three drafts ago. So for the novel, an editor is essential, I think.

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

It hasn’t changed. I still write the same way and worry about how it makes a book later.

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

That was a long time ago. Things used to be simple. There were pears in a basket hanging in my parents’ kitchen. I bumped my head into the basket, so I ate a pear.

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

I think I learned most of what I’ve learned from Journalism school. I don’t know if anyone ever said it in so many words, but what I heard was Shut up and tell the story. Keep yourself out of it, which is impossible, but is the ideal, I think. Keep your ego out of it.

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

The biggest thing moving between genres does for me is give me something to work on when the main project gets more difficult. Sometimes a novel project is very discouraging while you work your way out of some problem. It feels like it cannot be done. So to be able to switch to poetry, which is not easier but calls for a different kind of focus, is encouraging and energizing.

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 do have a routine which I stick to whenever possible, especially in the summers (or the winters when I was in construction). I get up early, put the coffee on, walk the dog, come home, pour the coffee and sit at the computer and type out what I’ve written in a notebook the night before and/or what I have printed out the day before and edited. Then that leads to more writing directly on the computer. In the afternoon or late evening I will return to this and write in my notebook again. I’ll type that the next morning. I can usually stick to this routine for a couple of months and then I need a break.

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

I usually read poetry to get back on track, even if what I am working on is prose. I read Jorie Graham most times, or Karen Solie. Sometimes, Donald Barthelme or Faulkner, or Kundera or Marquez.

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

My most recent book is my first novel, so the size is an obvious difference. Maybe a bigger difference than for a lot of short story writers who write novels, since my short fiction tends to be quite short. It’s quite different stylistically from anything I had done before because of its interiority. Everything I had written up until this book was written from a much greater distance, even when it was first person. In the novel every awkward stutter of the main character’s mind is there. He’s a deeply flawed man and the reader is closer to him than any other character I’ve written, I think.

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?

I think I am an anomaly in this way. Most writers I know have some talent in other arts or an incredible appetite for scientific knowledge of some kind. I don’t have any aptitude for another art form and no special desire to know physics or biology or anything. I think the only thing outside of books that influences me is overheard conversations, gestures, facial expressions, those kinds of things.

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

Too many. These I return to when I should be reading new books, but . . .

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

As far as writing, I like what I’m doing right now. I don’t look ahead too far. In the rest of my life there are too many things to mention. I will not play in the NHL. Since I got over that, I don’t really set goals except simple ones – finish the story or poem that’s in front of me right now.

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?

Well, I teach Literature and Creative Writing, but those are related to writing and reading, so . . . I would be an engineering surveyor, as I was for many years, building roads up north somewhere, living in motels and camps, writing on days when it rained.

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

This is the most difficult question to answer. I have no idea. It’s something I have always done and it’s always been the centre of my identity. I feel incredibly lucky in this, to know what I am supposed to do. I would feel luckier if it was a thing that made me money, but that’s okay.

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

The last great book I read was Beloved by Toni Morrison. I just finished teaching it and I am just amazed each time I read it how rich it is, how beautifully written it is, how difficult and how moving. I don’t watch a lot of movies for some reason. The last one I thought was great was Stranger Than Fiction.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I recently finished an introduction for an enthralling book by Robert Kroetsch and John Lent. The book is called Abundance and it’s and entertaining and enlightening kind of guide book for writers that takes the form of a five-day conversation. It’s a really marvelous and instructive book and working on the introduction, and rereading some of Lent’s books and Kroetsch’s books really energized me to get back to work on my main projects: I am working on a novel called Listen All You Bullets, revising and editing a short story ms. called What About How Blue the Sky Is? and a group of poems without a particular book in mind.

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