The Danforth Review, January 2005
The first question that comes to mind about your new novel Bedlam, is why did you choose to write this story at this time?
I’d been wanting to do something gritty and eighteenth- or nineteenth-century for some time, and I’d also been wanting to do something using eighteenth-century language, which is not only perfect for longer narratives but would enable me to tap into a pre-Romantic and pre-Freudian consciousness, so I’d be free of the back story. As a scholar, my field is eighteenth-century English literature. I spent five years in the early 70s reading eighteenth-century poetry and nonfiction prose, and another twenty years teaching eighteenth-century texts.
When I started work on Bedlam, which was in early 1999, I’d been feeling out of touch with the eighteenth century for a while, since after I won the Governor General’s for fiction in 1995, I was teaching most creative writing. I just love Swift, Defoe, Fielding, and Sterne in particular, and I figured that it really wouldn’t be much more work making good eighteenth-century sentences than it always has been making good twenty-first-century sentences.
To me, Bedlam seemed a departure from your previous work, though someone remarked to me that your work shared the concerns of Michel Foucault, which he cited as sexuality, power and mental illness. Without asking you directly about that comment, I wonder what kind of departures or similarities you see between Bedlam and your previous work.
I think the real departure for me was The Healer, where I got myself into an American-style mode that I hadn’t attempted before, in which the humour is so dark and lowdown that most readers don’t pick up on it. Writing Bedlam felt more like going back to The Roaring Girl, which is to say back to thinking in scenes and with a kind of epigrammatic wit.
As for the concerns and the subject matter, they’re closer to Spin Dry, where you have issues of madness and power too, though treated, obviously, in a broadly comic way. What Foucault says about the eighteenth century is more accurately applied to the nineteenth. He is talking about the sort of institution that by the end of Bedlam is replacing the sort of one where the novel is mostly set. My main guide in these matters, and a man I was writing the book in part for, though he died before it was done, was Roy Porter, a more hands-on and empirical scholar of medicine than Foucault ever was.
I noted that on your website you had a comment about the state of the short story. You won the Governor General’s Award for a short story collection. I wonder what you think about short story collections and the current publishing climate. It seems fairly evident that story collections aren’t getting a fair shake. Do you agree with that, and do you think anything can be done to improve the situation?
Short story collections never have and probably never will get a “fair shake” because they usually don’t sell particularly well. The heyday of the short story was in the glossy magazines. That said, big presses often now pick up short story collections because it’s a way to get hold of a hot new author (with a two-book contract, the second book specified as a novel) before she gets tied up the same way with a small press.
The cultural niche that the short story occupied sixty years ago has been filled by TV and more lately by the Internet. Only the novel still has a place in the culture that nothing else remotely threatens.
The short story problem of course is exacerbated by the fact that the many creative writing seminars around North America and in Britain are teaching people mainly how to write short stories, since they’re easier to teach. So we have all these good stories and insufficient markets. Not a situation likely to change soon, if you ask me. I’d only add that there are some very interesting short story writers on the Internet these days.
This is the non sequitur question. I started reading Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream recently. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve read any Hemingway, but immediately from the rhythm of the sentences, the subject matter, etc., I knew I was reading Hemingway. My question is this, it was once said that Hemingway influenced the English language in the 20th century more than any other writer. How do you feel his reputation has held up? Is he as good as, as important as he once seemed to be?
Because certain of Hemingway’s concerns and attitudes have become dated, his reputation has suffered. Nowadays the ideology, if that is the word, definitely gets in the way with some of his work. But he’s an extraordinarily accomplished writer in many ways, and just going back to his Collected Stories can teach any young writer a tremendous amount.
I think it was Carver who mainly received the Hemingway torch, and he remains much more “accessible” today, but that damaged, traumatized voice has been very much the voice of literary modernism. With the women it’s madness and sexual abuse, with the men it’s war and addiction. Hemingway was a major figure in that history and a complex writer who crossed the barrier into a mass readership. He’ll be worth reading for a long time yet.
You teach at the University of Alberta and help train writers at the Banff Centre. Is there such a thing as a “proper literary education”? Such as, a mix of technique and literary knowledge? What are the kinds of things you think it is important for writers to know as they are starting their writing life?
Some academic training in reading literature might still be a good suggestion for a young writer, though with university English departments over the last twenty years caught up in a politicized, thematic approach as opposed to an artistic one, the benefits are possibly more limited than they once were. I do believe in the value of the writing workshop, at least in the early stages of a writer’s development, and of course in the kind of one-on-one editorial feedback available at places like the Banff Centre.
The important thing otherwise is to follow your literary interests and pay close attention to why the works you love are working for you, i.e., to technique. Otherwise, the important thing to know is that the chances that you will ever be sufficiently rewarded for this work–other than by the pleasure and the understanding that come of doing it–are infinitely small. So you’d better like doing it, or, as for most writers who keep at it, emotionally you have no choice. If you’re doing it just to “be a writer” or to have published a book or a story, then you’re coming at it as a consumer, not an artist.
Are you working on anything now? What’s next for Greg Hollingshead?
I’m thinking vaguely about, and vaguely starting to make notes for, a contemporary first-person comic novel.
Michael Bryson conducted this interview with Greg Hollingshead by email in January 2005.