Thursday, June 18, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with J. R. Carpenter

J. R. Carpenter is an author of short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction and electronic literature based in Montreal. She is winner of the QWF Carte Blanche Quebec Award 2009, the CBC Quebec Short Story Competition 2003 & 2005, and the Expozine Alternative Press Award for Best English Book for her first novel, Words the Dog Knows (Conundrum, 2008). Her electronic literature has been presented internationally. For more information please visit:

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I made my first chapbook at the age of five and tried to sell it to my parents for twenty-five cents. They refused to pay, on grounds that I'd used their paper to make the the book, and argued that I ought to be paying them. What truly changed my life was the photocopier. I started producing photocopied zines in 1992 and started using the internet to create and disseminate non-linear, inter-textual narratives in 1993. Taking a low-tech, do-it-yourself approach to creation and distribution left me free to develop my own forms of writing and electronic literature, without having to ask for permission or wait for approval from anyone. My most recent works have been much larger than anything I'd produced before, and much more collaborative. After a lifetime of independent production it was a revelation to discover that depending on other people could result in a work much greater than the sum of its parts. My first novel, Words the Dog Knows, was published by Conundrum Press in 2008. It builds on smaller, independently produced works, linking together and expanding upon stories started in four zines, three web projects and an assortment of short texts previously published in other forms. All of these small things became one big thing thanks to the editorial insight and creative generosity of Andy Brown and Maya Merrick. They saw things I didn't, made connections I couldn't, set deadlines I wouldn't - they taught me how to write a novel, then published it, and now they're selling it for me! This teamwork thing is great. Asking for help in my new favorite thing to do.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I didn't set out to be a writer at all. It didn't occur to me. I started off studying classical guitar. Then I went to art school, where I mostly wrote poetry and made chapbooks. I did some spoken word stuff, but I thought of it as performance art. When I got my first UNIX account in 1993, the internet was a totally textual world. I learned a lot about writing by positing fictional interjections to USENET newsgroups and by posing as improbable characters in MUDs and MOOs; I thought of that as performance art too. My first print publications were art reviews and catalogue essays. I wrote scripts for Radio Canada International for a while. And then, in the late 1990s, I stumbled into a web design contract at a multi-national software company and somehow wound up managing their corporate web development team. That was definitely performance art! And/or an undercover operation of some kind. At first I was terrified that someone would figure out that I had no idea what I was doing. After a while I noticed that most of the people I worked with were also winging it, just making it up as they went along. It finally dawned on me that much of the world is, in fact, performance art - an on-going performance of live-fiction. Stories are happening all the time. People are dialogue generating machines, and all writers have to do is decide which parts to write down. I quit my high-paying corporate job in 2001 and have been writing fiction ever since.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I used to think that I was working really quickly making lots of small things. Then I realized that I was actually working really slowly on a few huge things made of many small parts. I often don't notice that I've started working on something new because I'm usually working on a number of different things at once, in a number of different media. Some long-finished small things suddenly resurface as the kernel of some new huge thing. Some huge things spawn small offshoots. Fiction often starts suddenly, with a sentence let's say. Then builds very slowly toward the final word count. It can take me years to write a 1200 word story. I wrote my first novel in 10 months. But that was only because I had an impossible deadline. I had to put everything else aside. Including bathing. And wearing pants.

4 - 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?

The best way to never write a book is to walk around telling people you're writing a book. Everyday I work on whatever it is possible for me to work on that day and try to put off thinking, for as long as possible, about what the end form of the work will be. This could be called a bottom up approach. I like to think of it as trying to sneak up on myself. My favorite thing in the world is to stumble upon an unfamiliar file in my computer, open it, and discover the underpinnings of a story I have no recollection of starting. This happens alarmingly often.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love doing readings. I always learn a lot from them. The first time I did a reading, for example, an audience member came up to me after and told me that I should be a comedian. Until that moment I hadn't had even the slightest inkling that there was even the remotest possibility that one day in the future I might aspire to be funny. On purpose, I mean.

6 - 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?

In theory, I am concerned about many things. I do a fair amount of critical and academic writing on various subjects in which theory plays a major role, but when writing fiction or electronic literature I try to save the theorizing until long after I'm done. For me, theory is a means to understand what exist already, not a mode of creation. Occasionally I write essays exploring the theoretical concerns behind my own writing, but only after the fact. Most recently, in April 2009, I presented an academic paper on my work at a conference at MIT. "A Book-ish Novel: Transmediation in Words the Dog Knows" explored the migration of certain texts across multiple media and argued that the novel is a highly elastic form that ought to be considered as one form in a continuum of forms. Now I'm working on a hypertext version of an essay on my web-based work Entre Ville, in which the form of the essay takes on the form of the piece.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Vaclav Havel once wrote that the thing that writers and politicians have in common is the ability to encapsulate in a few words what the majority of people are thinking. I try to articulate things that I think many of us have a hard time articulating, and bring to light small yet salient details that might otherwise be overlooked. I value courage over all else and try, in writing and in life, to do as Grace Paley and others have commanded: Speak truth to power.

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

A good editor is a rare and beautiful thing. Andy Brown is a brilliant editor and I'd work with him again in a heartbeat.

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

When I first started writing fiction I was a bad-advice magnet. People kept telling me that my short stories weren't technically short stories. Apparently there are rules about this sort of thing. I did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2003. Amy Hempel was there. She read four of the stories that everyone said weren't stories and said: You tell them what's a story. I've never worried about what is or isn't a story again.

10 - 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 wake up at eight. I think until nine. I work at my computer from nine until between four (if I have errands or reading to do) and six. Then it's time walk the dog, cook, eat and maybe talk on the phone for a while. Then either there's an event to go to or I do some more reading. I do this every day. Especially on weekends. As my friend the brilliant Montreal-based artist jake moore said to me recently, "The luxury of our labour is that we love it."

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

Online Scrabble.

12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

Laptop and dog. And now that you've put this horrible question into my head, I believe I will set about training my dog to fetch my laptop in case of fire..

13 - 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 pretty much constantly, but I don't buy that "books come from books" argument. It disavows orality, for one thing. Most of my stories start with something I've heard, or overheard, or miss-heard - a sentence, play on words, a conversation. Gertrude Stein once wrote, "Writing may be made between the ear and the eye and the ear will be well and the eye will be well." The interconnected yet discontinuous processes of speaking, listening, understanding and translating work together to transform transient exchanges of conversation into a writing that Derrida describes as already separated from life and community, a writing “displaced on the broken line between lost and promised speech.” That displacement is where books come from. I love this bit from Deleuze and Guattari's indispensable writing on the book as rhizome: “there is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made.” Words the Dog Knows talks about small details and is made from an assemblage of small pieces, fragments; previously discreet stories interlinked to form a whole.

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

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

Oh hundreds of things. Most that come to mind are small things - books I have yet to read, tricks I have yet to teach the dog. There have been some near misses involving far-away places and/or expensive food items that I'd like to rectify. I've been inside La Scala, but have yet to see an opera there. I've eaten truffles in Umbria, but have yet to personally hunt them down with a sniffer pig or dog or however it is that it's done these days. I wish we could still take steamer ships to Europe. I'd like to write a play one day. Possibly set on a steamer ship. I should probably read some plays. And learn the other half of French. Stuff like that.

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?

I've gone through quite a few of the other occupations already. I've worked as a baby sitter, a runway model, a calligrapher, a cashier, a receptionist, a librarian, a teacher, a set designer, a web designer, a web programmer, a programming coordinator... I've worked on fishing boats and on haying crews. I've picked fruit and piled hundreds of cords of firewood. I worked as a sandblaster for a year and a half. And I've done all sorts of odd jobs in wood shops. My name is Carpenter after all. I grew up on a farm and I studied sculpture. Pretty much everything in my history predisposes me to manual labour. If the writing career doesn't pan out at least I'll always have my degree in studio art to fall back on.

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

It took me a long time to realize that not everybody can write, that I can, that some things need to be written, that someone has to do that writing, and that, in some cases, if I don't do that writing it won't get done, at least not in the way I would like it to get done. Of all the things I do, writing is the thing that feels the most imperative.

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

I finally got around to reading Don Quixote in January. It totally lived up to the hype. Other books that have blown my mind lately include Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves; Gary Lutz, Stories in the Worst Way. I am addicted to the new NFB site. Amazing archive. Current favorite short: Arthur Lipsett, Very Nice Very Nice (1961).

19 - What are you currently working on?

Short Stories.


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