Interview of Greg Hollingshead by rob mclennan, December 31, 2007
1. How did your first book change your life?
It taught me that there would likely continue to be a distance between my estimation of my work and other people’s estimation of it but that the situation was not necessarily hopeless.
2. How long have you lived in Edmonton, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I have lived in Edmonton since August 1975. About a third of that time I have spent, in descending order of amount of time, in rural Ontario, Montreal, Paris, and London. The three sorts of geography that affect my work most are tract development and strip mall suburbia, the open prairies, and the Canadian Shield. Race and gender questions have been coming up in the novel I’m working on now. My interest has always been in marginalized people but usually for class or age or psychological reasons, not race or gender.
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?
It can be anything: a mood, the rhythm of a phrase, an image, a scene, a story, a character. With a novel I spend from a couple of years to ten or more gathering pieces of everything—words, phrases, images, aphorism, titles, characters, story ideas, thematic ideas—until I’m ready to start, at the beginning. But with this latest novel, I’ve written most of it out of sequence.
4. Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Part of. Giving a voice to what you’ve written in a public space while watching the faces of your audience is a chance to hear very clearly what’s wrong with it—sentiment, rhythm, tone—in a way that isn’t available in private.
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?
Two mainly, with the novel. First, maintaining a complexity-in-simplicity of texture in the prose that pleases me aesthetically but doesn’t tire my reader. Two, finding non-banal ways to exert the pull of the narrative from start to finish. Morally, my central concern is the gulf between what our brains know and what the structure of our selves normally limits us to knowing.
The current public questions are mainly — as a reflection, I would say, of the atmosphere of helplessness and despair that has gripped the West — political, as if short-term, patchwork answers are the only ones possible, yet nobody really even believes this. I don’t know how long we can continue to pretend that knowing ourselves is not the first principle of everything. It’s the only way to begin to understand that human society needs to be built on obligations not rights.
6. Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or
essential (or both)?
Essential, not difficult. By the time an editor sees my work I know what I’m trying to do well enough so that I know which suggestions to accept and which to reject. Having a good editor is a joyous experience, because it’s having a fresh mind as good as, or better than, your own, inside your work doing what it can to improve it. A writer suffers a disability who can’t hear what is true in what an editor is saying. A big part of learning how to write is learning how to distinguish good advice about it from bad.
7. After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do
you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Harder. With age and fatigue, inspiration can come and go. Also, you don’t want to be doing the same thing again, so you’re always starting from what feels like scratch, at the same time as you’re setting your aim higher. This is necessary, but it doesn’t get easier.
8. When was the last time you ate a pear?
A couple of weeks ago. There are some in the bowl right now. A good pear is really something, but the skin bruises easily, they rot suddenly and fast, and they’re often grainy. I recommend slicing them at right angles to the core, lifting the slices free of it and of the fibres that connect the core to the stem. That way, working down the fruit from the stem, you lift off slices with a hole at the centre of each in the star shape of the core. Our back yard when I was growing up was filled with vines and fruit trees: apples, cherries, grapes, pears. I still associate pears with wasps. A friend says the forbidden fruit was really a pear: sexier and more dangerous.
9. What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10. How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
As long as it’s narrative I find the move easy enough. Writing nonfiction narrative can teach, or remind, a writer a lot about what is needed to create realism in fiction. A true story will often be a wealth of strange detail that puts most fiction, with its conventional imaginings, to shame.
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 get up at six. After breakfast and a look at the paper, I start writing shortly after seven. I write for four hours, longhand, starting with correcting the clean copy I made the day before. Later in the afternoon, about four or so, I make the clean copy for the next day. That takes an hour or more. I do this weekdays. On Saturday I finish the clean copy by noon. Sunday is my day off. Working on a novel, I’m usually working on 20 to 40 pages each day, adding new material at a page a day at best and retiring pages as finished “first draft” as I go. Taking Sunday off means I’m not fully back on track till Wednesday. By Friday I’m getting tired. I probably have about four terrific writing hours a month. I probably need to change or at least vary my method.
12. When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading (fiction, nonfiction, poetry). Music (pop). Nature.
13. How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
As I said above, the current one seems, so far, to be more about race and gender (as well as age) than the previous ones. Also, this time I’m working from autobiographical circumstances in a way that I have only in the short stories. And it’s coming together—if it is—in a very haphazard way. I’m trying to make a certain comic-realistic tone work in a novel and plot it in a way that particularly satisfies at the end. Also, I’m not paying as much attention to setting and its atmosphere as I have with my other novels. The focus is very much on the six characters.
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?
Yes, all of the above. I read a lot of popular science. And for a while I was collaborating with the visual and installation artist Blair Brennan, here in Edmonton. For a while we worked on an Enlightenment Machine, based on the machine in Kafka’s “The Penal Colony.” We stopped when we found out that Janet Cardiff and George Burs Miller have already done a terrific one. Different but terrific. Ours would have written on the body what you as an individual needed to know before you died.
15. What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
At crucial stages of my life, certain writers have been very important to me: Laurence Sterne, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Emily Bronte, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, W.G. Sebald, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy. The usual suspects, for writers, most of them. Some I come back to again and again: Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov.
16. What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Spend time in India and Bhutan. Live in New York and Berlin for a while.
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?
The only thing I wanted to be as a child, after fireman, was a stuntman. Now my alternative occupation would be stand-up comedy. It’s a writer’s profession.
18. What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The greatest challenge I could think of—and the greatest fun—was communicating the “truth” of the contents of my imagination. And I liked the idea of working alone and the lack of complicated or expensive gear. When I started, there was no talk of readings or promotional tours. Also, I soon learned that I’m happiest when I have a mental project developing, preferably a big one. It helps me to organize the experiences that come in. Otherwise, as the song says, it all “blows right through me like a ball and chain.”
19. What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I don’t find many books “great.” The last for sure would be Middlemarch, which I finally got to only a couple of years ago. But from more recently, I thought Coetzee’s Disgrace could fit that description. I’ve read it a few times now. I find it amazing how he can do something so powerful with such ordinary, even banal, language. I just didn’t think it was possible, making something like that work so well for a reader like me. As for a film, again, time will tell if it’s “great,” but it’s pretty damn good: the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men. They did full justice to Cormac McCarthy’s smarts.
20. What are you currently working on?
I’ve talked about this a lot already. It’s set mostly in a small town just north of Toronto. It still has only a working title and keeps threatening to collapse on itself, so I won’t say any more.