Monday, March 24, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Michael Bryson

Born in Toronto in 1968, Michael Bryson turns 40 this year, the age at which life starts over, or so John Lennon sang. Michael attended public school in East York and later earned English degrees from the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto. He spent two years in Saskatoon in the mid-1990s and has worked for most of the past decade for the Ontario government.

Michael’s books are THIRTEEN SHADES OF BLACK AND WHITE (Turnstone Press, 1999) and ONLY A LOWER PARADISE AND OTHER STORIES (Boheme Press, 2000). He has a chapbook, FLIGHT (Mercutio Press, 2006) and his story “Six Million Million Miles” was included in 05: BEST CANADIAN STORIES (Oberon Press, 2005), selected by Douglas Glover.

Michael’s latest short story collection is tentatively titled THE LIZARD AND OTHER STORIES. It is scheduled for publication by Chaudiere Books in 2009.

Michael’s fiction probes hearts in conflict – following William Faulkner’s advice that literature is about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” The stories showcase absurdity and humour and trace the connections between tragedy and hope. Love and the frailties of existence are his obsessions.

Michael is also the founding editor and publisher of THE DANFORTH REVIEW ( Since 1999, the online journal has published 22 issues of short fiction, interviewed over 100 authors and published dozens of book reviews and other features. The primary focus of the magazine is the Canadian small press scene. Work published in the magazine has been included in Oberon’s BEST CANADIAN STORIES series (2006) and a Best of the Web anthology (2008).

Michael lives in Toronto with his wife and step-children.

His website is


1 - How did your first book change your life?

It made me very happy. It was a tremendous validation. Of course it was also a tremendous disappointment because I hoped more people would read it. At the time (1999), I thought, Oh, well, at least things will get easier from here. I thought I would just keep writing and publishing books. That hasn't happened. I've kept writing, but it's been slow and laborious, and publishers haven't been exactly keen on what I'm doing.

At the same time, I have met many people because that first book. A friend who teaches high school English used one of my stories in his class. His students wrote essays on it. I met a number of these students later, and they were probably my most passionate readers.

I've always seen THIRTEEN SHADES OF BLACK AND WHITE as a book "about growing up." My sense is that the book resonates with teenage readers really well. Unfortunately, teenagers aren't the market for literary fiction in this country.

(Though, incidentally, I try to keep that eager teenage reader in mind when I post content to Too often the literary culture just seems to be speaking to itself. I think it should be always inviting others into the tent.)

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

I was born in Toronto. I’ve lived here 40 years minus the years I was away at university and two years in mid-1990s when I was in Saskatoon.

The urban landscape is the geography of my imagination. However, it’s more of a mental landscape than a physical one. I've always wanted to capture my experience of Toronto in my writing, but I don't think I've managed it yet. The specifics elude me. So - from that point of view - geography has impacted my writing: I have produced many failed attempts at capturing my Toronto.

I should probably add that my Toronto is the east-end. Geography in Toronto is neighbourhood by neighbourhood. My public school had dozens of ethnicities in its student population. I'm WASP, but my whole school experience was influenced by multicultural immigration. I haven't written about this. I haven't figured out how.

Race and gender? Sure, my writing is influenced by them. By class, too. I'm aware that I haven't addressed race much in my writing. As per above, I haven't figured out how to write about the multiplicity of race that was my experience. Race is often captured as a binary issue: white versus other, or other versus white. My experience is race is a rainbow issue. I had kids in my classes who were refugees from Vietnam and Romania, Lebanon, many working-class Italians, Greeks, blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans. You name it. How do you capture that?

My writing tends to illustrate conflicts of emotion or psyche (internal conflicts). I’m interested in conflicts of perception: How each of us filters the world, creates our own worlds, and yet we interact with others and experience their worlds, too. Mental health issues and additions are two themes that recur in my work. Not exactly sure why.

I'm not an "identity writer”; I don’t think identity is fixed or fixable; life is too topsy-turvy for that! My stories tend to be about men trying to sort out the chaos of existence. When I read Raymond Carver many years ago, I said: A-ha, that's what I'm trying to do. I tended to write stories within which nothing happened. I read Carver and found out that "making something happen" isn't what makes a story interesting.

3 - Where does a 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?

Short stories begin with an image or a character or a single line. The first book was just a collection of the different stories I had. Since then, I've tried to imagine the larger whole of the book as I'm in the process of working on individual pieces. But the "book" keeps changing. Currently, I'm working on a novel which is whole unto itself. Though it, too, keeps changing course on me. I don’t know any anyone can plot out in advance. It’s never worked for me. I find writing an intense battle between planning and spontaneity.

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

Not part of. Not counter to. They are a separate solar system.

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 don't have any theoretical concerns, in the sense that I understand "theoretical concerns." I've read some Derrida, et al, but I don't think about any of that when I'm writing. I try to write a good sentence, then a good paragraph. I try to be an honest witness and make it interesting.

My work integrates realist and absurdist traditions. The work of J.G. Ballard and Terry Southern were influential in showing me how to integrate two impulses that tend to be characterized as opposites. Douglas Glover's work was helpful too. "Theory" too often creates camps of writers who view each other with suspicion. I prefer to read everybody and borrow the best that I find, wherever I find it.

If my work is trying answer any questions, they're probably existential queries. What are we doing here? I don't think that question ever goes out of style. I may also be a bit old fashioned. I think that rendering experience honestly is a theoretical question. Especially when the theorists are so skeptical about the ability of language to render anything or to refer to anything but itself.

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


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


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


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

Buy low, sell high.

Don't write what you know; write what you're passionate about. Barbara Gowdy said that.

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

It's not hard. It's all part of the same swirl of thinking that goes on in my brain.

Writing reviews helps me to think about what I like and what I don't. It also forces me to justify myself. I think readers are largely impulsive; they know right away whether they like something or not. A reviewer has to justify this impulse. When I'm writing, I need to decide whether to go in one direction or another. I need to trust my impulse, but also minimize bad decisions. It's a harrowing process.

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 tended to write when I "feel inspired." I have a day job, and now a family, so writing time is hard to come by. I've never been highly prolific. Even when I had great gobs of time, I only wrote a little a day. I can write a great deal when I'm in an inspired burst. But I also rely on the passage of time to inform my editing process. Reading something a year later has often led me to new discoveries about a piece and enabled me to improve it, or just finish it. (There are no typical days.)

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

I just wait for the desire to return. It always does. Also, I try to keep life simple. Unsolved problems in life take away time and energy to solve the problems posed by the writing.

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

It feels the same, except I'm getting older.

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 read McLuhan when I was in high school in the 1980s and it's always seemed to me that we're all multi-media. Probably always have been. That said, book culture can be very insular. The literature profs didn't like McLuhan, despite the fact that he was one of their own.

What I'm trying to say here is I'm influenced by everything. But also, a book is a book is a book. Form determines meaning, McLuhan said: medium is message. I'm interested in understanding the form of the short story, but also writing stories that subvert or challenge that form.

For example, a lot of my stories are impressionistic, rather than narrative. Some readers have complained that the stories don’t resolve a central problem of the protagonist. That’s the traditional narrative model and the expectation of many readers. My stories are sometimes like pop songs (this is a stretch, but it will illustrate the point): They present a character and a situation and, hopefully, leave the reader with a powerful image (or hook). I think there are many ways to write a successful short story. I’m trying to investigate as many as I can – and other art forms are helpful to that investigation, yes.

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

Oh, there are too many to mention. I’m just going to name writers that have been good to me over the years, in no particular order. I’ve already names J.G. Ballard, Terry Southern, Raymond Carver and Douglas Glover. Here’s more: Mordecai Richler, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Margaret Lawrence, Flannery O’Connor, Matthew Firth [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulker, James Joyce, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Gowdy, Lynn Coady [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Ken Sparling, Mark Anthony Jarman, Greg Hollingshead [see his 12 or 20 question], John Lavery [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Leon Rooke, Michael Ondattje, Haruki Murakami, Saul Bellow, Don Delillo, Martin Amis, Nabakov, Salinger. I’m forgetting others… That’s a taste, anyway.

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

Watch the Maples Leafs win the Stanley Cup.

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?

Since I have a day job, I guess my true occupation is bureaucrat, though I write a lot there, too. I think I've "ended up" a bureaucrat, while also continuing my inner calling of writing fiction and attempting literature. This inner calling refuses to be denied and I can't imagine life without it.

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

[See answer to #17 above]

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

Film: There Will Be Blood.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel. It’s in the early stages. The protagonist is a judge. I’m curious about what he has to do: Make decisions, arbitrate “justice,” provide resolution in situations where no resolution is possible. (He’s working on a murder trial.) Again I find myself working on a story about the human heart in conflict with itself. Wanting the impossible. Settling for the best of what’s left.

Michael Bryson – March 24, 2008

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