Interview by Mark Young. Blood + Aphorisms, 22 (Spring 1996). Pp. 39-42.
1. You recently won the Governor General’s Award for fiction, Canada’s highest distinction in literature. I’d like your thoughts on the Canadian literary tradition from this perspective: in what ways do you consider yourself a Canadian writer?
Mostly through voice and sensibility. I got to know how Canadian I am by living in England for five years in the early ’70s. I might have stayed, except that I wanted to write and I knew that for me it would have to be in the Canadian way. more personally, I have strong emotional connections to my father’s voice and sensibility, his way of telling a story, which was a Southern Ontario way, half rural, half suburban. I think of Canada as about 90% rural and suburban. Of course the countryside is still everywhere, and so are the suburbs, everywhere and nowhere. The sensibility that informed me growing up I think of as a national one, with some regional variation. It’s the sense of humour, a loser’s, really, chipping away at pretension. It’s the spaces left for mystery. The assumption of darkness.
2 Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer or did that idea emerge gradually?
I decided fairly young, not long after I started to read, which was fairly late. By ten or eleven, as I remember it, I wanted to be a writer. I was a poet through my teens. I had poems in one of the first books from the House of Anansi, T.O. Now, edited by Dennis Lee. They were pretty sweaty. I had written three unpublishable novels by the time I came to the U of Alberta, in 1975. That year Matt Cohen was the first Writer-in-Residence here, and in the spring of 1996 we drove back to Ontario together. As soon as I got back I started writing stories. I’d really been impressed by his collection Columbus and the Fat Lady.
3. Is there anything about writing you did better thirteen years ago when your first selection of short stories came out?
I wrote faster.
4. Have you ever published an earlier draft of a story rather than a later one?
No. Possibly bits and pieces of stories, but rarely. Earlier tends to be worse for me, and when it’s not it was bad anyway.
5. How did you select and organize the stories of The Roaring Girl? Is it coincidental, for example, that in both The Roaring Girl and White Buick the second story is first person narrative by a woman?
Yes, coincidental. White Buick sat with the publisher for three years after they accepted it, and during that time I wrote more stories that seemed to fit it better than a couple of the more comic ones originally intended for it, namely “The Side of the Elements” and “Rat With Tangerine.” So I took them out. Meanwhile I was finishing others that promised to work together, for example, “The People of the Sudan” and “Rose Cottage.” I sent eleven or twelve of these to Patrick Crean at Somerville House in the summer of ’94. Over ’94-95 while I was in Paris we dropped one, and he got me to go back and largely rework two–“The Death of Brule” and “How Happy They Were”. About the same time I went back to rewrite two older stories that promised to fit, “The Roaring Girl” and “The Naked Man,” first published in very different form and with different titles, in 1992 and 1978, respectively. And I spent about three months trying to get “A Night at the Palace” under control. It was the newest and the only story not previously published in any form and the only one unrealized when Patrick accepted the collection. Altogether, selection was an aesthetic not a thematic matter: they had to feel right together. The order Patrick and I conferred about and debated. One reviewer said The Roaring Girl has the unity of a good rock album, and that was the way I was thinking of it too.
6. I noticed that you retitled several of the stories collected in White Buick and The Roaring girl. What do you want the title to establish?
Interest. Appropriateness. I’m terrible at titles, and they usually come late.
7. Why do you write about the things you do?
Because they interest me. In fact they obsess me. I still have the idea that if I can tell the story the right way, then everybody will assent to the mystery that I have found in it. That it will not be dismissed.
8. I particularly enjoyed the intertextuality of “The Age of Reason” and Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” What elements in Carver’s story appealed to you?
I’d been meaning to do a “What We Talk About” but with other material, a group of men talking, and the Carver story had faded from my conscious mind by the time I wrote “The Age of Reason.” I knew I was doing that kind of story, but I didn’t go back to the Carver. At one point earlier I did go back to it and was struck by how working-class the tone of it is. I knew I would be doing a middle-class conversation. What appealed to me in the Carver is the apparent nakedness of the sentiments. It sounds like a real conversation, doesn’t it?
9. There is an interesting moment at the end of “The Age of Reason.” A couple is making love, the wife is tied to the bed-posts, their child wakes up from a nightmare. The father “throws a dressing-gown over what he was wearing” and leaves to comfort his son. Your technique of merely suggesting what the husband is wearing under the dressing-gown is characteristic of the structuring of The Roaring Girl: the ideas and emotions are draped, circumscribed. Why do you think our sensibilities are so engaged by nuance and recoil from the explicit?
Conrad said art is indirectness. Explicitness kills art. I think it must be because telling someone what to do or think is the essence of unintelligence, if not the source of all evil, and our hearts naturally shut down in the face of that. I think all literary technique is finally about letting the reader into the text. Nuance opens the door; explicitness slams it. Reading is a game we play with the author; he lets us know the rules, but he doesn’t play for us. If you want vividness it has to happen in the reader’s own mind.
10. Jim, the young boy in the title story of The Roaring Girl, experiences the following: “Between what the boy felt and what he was able to say there existed a gap.” How do you try to bridge that gap?
I think a person’s intelligence is normally vastly larger than their understanding, that they perceive and feel much more than they are able to comprehend or express. I often have a sense of an individual buried alive and speechless inside their self, capable of only brief flashes of expression. And I think the function of art, as of education beyond the merely technical, is to inform the whole person, to keep the possibility burning that the gap between feeling and expression is closable. I’m talking about coming into wisdom as opposed to knowledge.
11. What was most challenging in writing The Roaring Girl?
Three-quarters of the stories were difficult to write and took a long time and many drafts. But “A Night At the Palace” I had already been working on, off and on, for a year when I went back to it in Paris, with a deadline. It took me three more months’ work, during which time it got trimmed by thirty pages. Meanwhile its meaning kept changing and Patrick Crean kept telling me it wasn’t working. Looking at those months I would say it wasn’t the intractability of the material, which is normal enough for me, it was knowing I had a deadline, and having gone into that period thinking the story was nearly done, and watching it shrink, and also fearing I was losing perspective on whether what I was cutting should be cut.
12. How do the characters you write about continue to exist for you? Do you ever imagine them meeting one another–the naked man and the rat with tangerine?
No. They’re pretty well locked into their own narratives by the time the stories are finished. They aren’t free agents but constructions of details that emerge from all parts of the story: setting, tone, plot, etc. They are multiply determined in the place that they are. Fixed, as in memory.
13. Apart from completing a project, what is the most enjoyable part of writing for you?
Revision, which is 99% of it. Revision is discovery. Discovery is play. When my son plays by himself with his G.I. Joes or his stuffies I look at him and think how lucky I am to be still doing that.
14. What do you look for in reading fiction that you’re unable to find in non-fiction?
First I should say that I really like good non-fiction, of the sort Bill Buford was publishing in Granta. Generally I prefer it to nearly all big-magazine fiction, including Granta’s. Whoever said truth is stranger than fiction said something very obvious to a writer. What fiction can provide is a quality of poetic intensity, that glow of language that makes your hair stand on end. The language of good non-fiction narrative tends to operate, rather, like a windowpane. But for me the main thing is narrative. The story. Whether it’s “true” or not, the manner of the telling will determine whether there is truth in what it signifies.
15. Have you been influenced by a writer whose talent has been consistently under-valued?
Most of my writer heroes and heroines have been well-recognized: Samuel Beckett (the novels), Alice Munro, Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow), Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov (the stories), William Burroughs. One writer I like very much who nobody in this country seems to have heard of is Mary Robison, an American novelist and story writer (Days, Oh, Believe Them). She’s very good: dark, edgy, but essentially positive. I love Barbara Gowdy’s work for the same reasons.
16. In addition to being a writer, you are also a professor of English at the University of Alberta. How radical is the shift from one profession to the other?
I chose to do my PhD in the history of ideas and on a philosopher (George Berkeley) because I did not want to spend four years learning to think about literature like a critic. I ended up, I think, more a scholar than a critic. Literary criticism is about teaching people how to read, whereas a writer reads in order to learn how to write. But about the same time I started teaching, Jacques Derrida came into the academy, and the result of that has been the pervasive influence of deconstructionist thinking, which approaches literature more the way a writer does, turning readers into writers. This has opened the way for criticism to be more writerly, more admittedly subjective, more “creative,” which in turn has helped generally to break down the old wall between critical and creative work in the universities. In personal terms, I write two hours or so early in the morning then, about nine o’clock, I start my day. I wake up into my professorial role.
17. You also teach creative writing. What is the single most important piece of advice you repeat to your students?
Do this because you love to do it, because you can count on no other reward for the amount of work it is going to require to do it well.
18. You are presently working on your second novel. What of your short stories are you sacrificing?
Sixth novel. Only Spin Dry published. The novel and I have a long stormy history. The problem has mainly been not having large blocks of time to write as slowly and concentratedly as I need to do in order to make a novel work. I have written them too fast and had nothing worth revising, or else too slowly and in fragments and taken years polishing objects that never did hang together. The current one I’m writing in scenes, with gaps between, like a collection of sixty or seventy stories. This way, the plan goes, I can write in units without losing sight of the larger picture. So far what I’ve been sacrificing is a certain level of truth. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But the difficulty for me is that the centrifugal demands of the longer narrative interfere with the centripetal development of each scene in ways that seem to diminish the truth quotient. Another way of saying this is that novels tend to demand more fiction than short stories, and my imagination in coming up with story is not as strong as my judgment in making narrative use of actual incidents. Another way of saying this is that stories require a coordination of all components–style, tone, character, atmosphere, etc.–whereas novels tend, because they are longer and need a graspable forward momentum, to priorize characters, characters who want things, and my characters are not exactly about wanting things. Truth comes to them for other reasons, concerning other matters. So with the current novel I see very clearly that it needs to be turned inside out and shaken, and as soon as I can find the time to do that I will do it.
19. One last question: if you had the opportunity to interview one of your favourite authors, living or dead, what would you want to know?
I would ask Alice Munro what part of her brain she writes with.