An Autobiography of My Passions: Danila Botha In Conversation with Alix Ohlin

An Autobiography of My Passions

Danila Botha In Conversation with Alix Ohlin

 
Alix Ohlin is the author of three incredible novels, including 2012’s Giller and Roger’s Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize shortlisted  Inside , and two beautiful short story collections,  Babylon and Other Stories , and  Signs and Wonders . She is also the chair of the UBC Creative Writing program, where she is an associate professor who teaches fiction writing, screen writing and environmental writing. Her latest novel,  Dual Citizens  (House of Anansi) is emotionally acute, with brilliant characterization and unique descriptions. It was such a pleasure to interview her.

Alix Ohlin is the author of three incredible novels, including 2012’s Giller and Roger’s Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize shortlisted Inside, and two beautiful short story collections, Babylon and Other Stories, and Signs and Wonders. She is also the chair of the UBC Creative Writing program, where she is an associate professor who teaches fiction writing, screen writing and environmental writing. Her latest novel, Dual Citizens (House of Anansi) is emotionally acute, with brilliant characterization and unique descriptions. It was such a pleasure to interview her.

 
 
Alix Ohlin.  Dual Citizens . Knopf. $25.95, 288 pp., ISBN: 9780525521891

Alix Ohlin. Dual Citizens. Knopf. $25.95, 288 pp., ISBN: 9780525521891

Danila Botha: In an interview I read with you, when Inside was published, you said, “Everything I’ve ever written is the result of gradual, daily, slow and steady accumulation of words. I start something, I hold on to it, and I don’t let it go.”

Tell me about the writing process for Dual Citizens. It has such a beautiful fable like quality - the beautiful Montreal and rural Quebec imagery, the descriptions of small town college life and New York. Where did the story start when you started writing it? What were your influences, literary or otherwise?

Alix Ohlin: Thank you for the kind words. I usually start a book not knowing what it’s going to be about, and only through the process of writing multiple drafts does the story take shape. For Dual Citizens, I began with the idea of a love story between sisters. I wanted to write something that presented the relationship between two women as the major scaffolding for their identities and their lives, doing justice to the primacy and complexity of that bond. At the time I’d been reading the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which place a female friendship at the centre of a world with multiple intersections—the novels are about the friendship between Elena and Lila, yes, but also about politics, and class systems, intellectual and sexual coming of age. I was fascinated by Ferrante’s style, how expositional it is and how much time she covers so rapidly, sketching the backdrop of the times and then swooping into very specific, very emotional scenes. There’s so much energy in her work and I was drawn to respond to it in my own writing.

DB: That’s so interesting. I loved the opening scene, and the precariousness of the pregnancy and the sister dynamic. Music is always such a huge part of my process; when I read all your beautiful wolf imagery, I could hear the Neko Case song Star Witness as the soundtrack.

AO: It’s funny you mention Neko Case, because I listened to her album Middle Cyclone a lot during this time. The last track on that album, “Marais La Nuit,” is basically a twenty-minute long field recording outside her farm in Vermont featuring frogs and night sounds. The whole album is suffused with the natural world and I loved the wildness of it, crickets and birds and wind. When Robin plays piano in her barn in Dual Citizens, it’s an homage to that, as well as to the piano playing in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, one of the best stories about music and siblings and sorrow ever written. A lot of details in the book are homages to movies and music and art that have been important to me. It was fun to write a testament to those things, sort of an autobiography of my passions.

DB: “An autobiography of my passions”: I love that.

AO: On the way to writing about them, I wrote all kinds of detours and digressions in Lark’s and Robin’s lives—at one point there was a whole section in Robin’s voice, which I took out; at another point there was a lengthy exploration of the ethics of artificial intelligence—and then pared them back eventually to the form the book takes now.

DB: Your characterization is always so beautiful and so sensitive. In Dual Citizens, Lark and Robin are both such strong, interesting personalities, and have different responses to their childhood – Lark wanting to be as invisible and without need as possible, yet still being stable and dependable; Robin wanting to have the freedom to do whatever she wanted to, yet still remaining a mystery. It was amazing to be able to feel for both of them in every situation. Was it difficult to present the story from both sides, especially when their needs conflicted with each other? Was one easier to write than the other, or did you always conceive of every storyline with both of them connected?

AO: In my mind, despite their very different personalities and ways of seeing the world, Lark and Robin represent two sides of the same coin. They both grow up with a mother who rebels against the conventions and expectations of her era, even though they don’t respond to her example in the same fashion. They’re both drawn to forms of artistic expression—Lark to film editing, and Robin to music—and they both chafe against a similar set of impossible demands and conditions that the world imposes upon women. Lark has some formative experiences with dominating and intellectually extroverted men and she retreats from that dynamic, preferring to be invisible and to express her creativity behind the scenes, in the editing room. Robin hates performance, which she associates with being looked at and controlled by other people, and she walks away from a career as a pianist that would have felt to her like ceding autonomy. They both wind up choosing to be outsiders. They don’t always agree with each other’s perceptions and actions but the wellsprings are the same, and this is part of what keeps them connected throughout their lives.

DB: That’s beautiful. I was moved to tears when I was reading (your books always have that effect on me, especially this one) particularly the scene after her accident where Lark thinks that she hallucinated seeing Robin because their lives were so separate. Their relationship is so engaging and so intense, both in its intimacy and in its distance. Was it hard to keep them apart when their dynamic was so special?

AO: I’m not a big outliner of novels, preferring to allow the characters and themes to emerge organically. That said, the one structural idea I had for this book was that it would imitate and subvert the three acts of an old-fashioned love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But instead of boy and girl it would be a love story between sisters, and their relationship would rupture and then resume. The loss of Robin in the middle part of the book is the hardest for Lark to bear, because her sister is the companion of her soul. Without Robin she is completely alone in the world. But it’s perhaps necessary for them to be apart for a while in order to come back together on terms that work better for each of them. Another thing that interests me in art, and in life, is the idea of pattern—how we find meaning in the repetition and reversal of things that have happened before. In growing apart and then knitting their lives back together, Lark and Robin reverse the pattern of their childhood—the sister who used to be the caretaker finds herself in need of care—but they also repeat it too, as they make a family together. The combination of both patterns at once was emotionally and thematically satisfying to me and I hoped it would be satisfying for the reader, too.

DB: That’s so insightful and fascinating. I’m very interested in the way that mothers are presented in the novel, from their mother Marianne, who is fascinating and independent and larger than life, but also self -absorbed, to Olga, Robin’s professor, who was cold but inspired Robin artistically, to Robin’s piano teacher Mrs. Gasparian, who made both sisters feel safe and talked to them like they were adults. There’s a certain emotional distance about all of them, sometimes a sense that they’ve sometimes disappointed her, but yet they give her things to think about or to define herself in opposition to, they give her insights and push her out of her comfort zone. Was this a conscious commentary about our expectations of our mothers/mother figures? I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

AO: Certainly I’m invested in the idea that there are all kinds of ways to be a mother and to be mothered, that many different people can care for us and fulfill our variegated needs and none of this caring is limited to biology or to the containers of our families of origin. I liked the idea of opening up the concept of mothering to a wider range of experiences and personalities. When I was an English major in school I was assigned to read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, a touchstone of literary criticism which theorizes that poets grapple with their complex and fraught relationships with the writers who came before them. A feminist critique of this book was that all the writers he cites are male and that the relationships he charts are fully patriarchal.

Ever since I encountered both the original book and the critique, I’ve wondered what an anxiety of influence would look for women. What do women writers and artists take from the generations before them, what do they learn from and rebel against and so forth? How do they define themselves as artists in a culture that even today often glosses genius and eccentricity and artistic achievement as male? We still see a privileging of male identities in all kinds of art forms, including in film, where the director (a position dominated by men) is treated as the auteur of the work while the contributions of others (including editors, positions historically more welcoming to women) are downplayed or ignored.

A lot of these ideas about women and art are in play in the novel. For Robin, it’s Mrs. Gasparian’s early recognition of her talent that sets her on the path to music. Lark’s decision to become an editor in film and television, and her feeling that this work is worthwhile and well-suited to her, is inextricable from the women who serve as intellectual and emotional guides in her life.

DB: I love the way you play with nominative determinism, and the idea that Lark and Robin feel that they were given the wrong names. (The scene where Lark talks about Robin’s musical gifts and their names is so revealing.) I found them both, but especially Lark so remarkable. I’d love to hear about how their names came about.

AO: I wanted the two characters to have a taxonomy that would show them as two of a kind, permanently related, even when their paths diverge. So the bird names were part of that.

I had written a long piece, in a book of essays that was never published, about birds in Shakespeare, called “Ariel and Audubon.” It was about the charisma of birds, how they serve as stand-ins for all kinds of values we assign to art and artifice. So as emblems, birds seemed appropriate. I’m also drawn to irony and I thought it was sort of funny for shy Lark, who isn’t a lark of a person at all, to be saddled with a name that doesn’t suit her by a teenage mother who thought it sounded cool and rebellious and artsy. In terms of cultural backdrop, I think the names are generationally accurate, as Lark and Robin are born at a time when names were starting to become less traditional. For Marianne, their mother, giving two girls non-church names probably felt almost scandalous, whereas nowadays, people name their kids from all kinds of traditions or no traditions at all. I know kids named Fox and Oak and, I don’t know, Blue Ivy. Lark and Robin grow up in the space between those ends of the spectrum.

DB: I love way that the women’s narratives are always centred in the story, so that the men, from their fathers, who we never actually see, to Gordon (who I found hilarious) to Wheelock (who even in Lark’s mind, she never refers to by his first name) and Bernard, who sort of floats in and out of Robin’s life (along with other undefined relationships) are just part of it, and not the whole story. Was this always conscious?

AO: Keeping the women’s stories and relationships in the foreground was definitely a conscious choice for me. I was thinking a lot about the connection between the history of the novel and the marriage plot, a narrative that follows the progression of a romantic relationship through various stages of turbulence and ends with a wedding that represents some kind of consummation and the presumed formation of a new family unit. It’s such an influential set of tropes. And I wanted to write a story in which it’s the women whose bond takes precedence, who experience rupture and turbulence, who form a new family unit by the end. I fully enjoyed writing the male characters in the book—Gordon in particular is dear to me, I’m so glad you thought he was funny—and I hoped to make clear that Robin and Lark would have important connections with those characters, but that the fact of their finding male partners was never going to represent completion for them or the end of their story. Their story is about something else.

DB: What are you working on these days? I love your short fiction so much, too. More short fiction? Another novel?

AO: I’ve been finishing up a collection of short stories, which will hopefully be published by House of Anansi in 2020, and just starting to daydream my way into a new novel.

DB: Oh, that’s great news. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. I’ve been such a huge fan for years.

AO: Thanks for all the thoughtful questions, Danila! I really appreciate your attention to the novel. It was a pleasure to do this interview with you.

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Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets was published in 2010, and was named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories). Her first novel, Too Much on the Inside was shortlisted for the 2016 Relit Award and won a Book Excellence Award for Contemporary Novel. Her most recent collection of short stories, For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known was a finalist for the 2017 Trillium Book Awards and was  shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature, and most recently, the ReLit Awards. Danila teaches Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, and at Humber College’s School for Writers. She is currently working on her second novel and on a new collection of short stories.

Intuitive Surrender: Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer Interviews Sally Cooper

Intuitive Surrender

Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer in conversation with Sally Cooper

 
Sally Cooper’s third novel,  With My Back to the World , published by Wolsak &Wynn, was released in spring 2019. She is the author of the story collection  Smells Like Heaven  (ARP Books, 2017) as well as two acclaimed novels. Sally is a senior editor with  Hamilton Review of Books .

Sally Cooper’s third novel, With My Back to the World, published by Wolsak &Wynn, was released in spring 2019. She is the author of the story collection Smells Like Heaven (ARP Books, 2017) as well as two acclaimed novels. Sally is a senior editor with Hamilton Review of Books.

 
 
Sally Cooper.  With My Back to the World . James Street North Books. $22.00, 376 pp., ISBN: 9781928088806

Sally Cooper. With My Back to the World. James Street North Books. $22.00, 376 pp., ISBN: 9781928088806

Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer: Sally, thank you for the opportunity to read and immerse in your compelling new novel, With My Back to the World. I have a lot of questions about the subject matter and the impulses that drew you to it. My first one is about art-making and motherhood. I loved reading about Agnes Martin’s art—and Rudie’s documentary filmmaking—processes.  Is there, do you think, an analogy to be made between the urgency of art-making for Martin and the willful desire toward motherhood for Rudie?

SC: I love this first question as it touches the heart of what’s driving these two women and what draws Rudie to Agnes. For Agnes, the impetus to make art is at the core of who she is. She shapes her life around making room for new paintings to the point of walking away from a successful career and choosing not to have children nor to live with a full-time partner. Her mental illness (she had schizophrenia, undisclosed in her lifetime) shapes some of her choices but her art-making comes from some place different. Rudie’s desire to become a mother seems to define her more than her art-making, though it may be that as we meet her in the final hours before she meets her daughter at the end of a harrowing adoption journey. Like Agnes with her painting, Rudie cannot talk herself out of wanting to be a mother, and because she is adopting, her path has been about as deliberate as one can get. With both art-making and motherhood, there is that delicious blend of conscious planning (think Agnes’s grid) and intuitive surrender.

KWK: The psychoanalyst and artist, Marion Milner, writes about the act of art-making as a “dangerous plunge” (On Not Being Able to Paint, 1950) and I think when you use a term like “intuitive surrender” you are aiming at the same idea. Milner, like you and like Martin, also felt that structure was necessary to making this plunge into the egoless space of art creation. Can you talk about your own experience of the delicious blend?

SC: I like to fool myself that the idea for With My Back to the World came to me fully formed, for in a sense it did—the characters and their situations were there at the beginning—but mostly I started with a vision of the kind of book I wanted to write. It wasn’t until I imposed restrictions and tasks for myself that I could start writing. In my own life, I had the structure of new motherhood, being home full time with a two-year-old and a one- year-old. Every morning from seven to eight, I wrote at a local greasy spoon. As my children grew older, I wrote during the two hours they went to pre-school, falling right into the story with one eye on the clock, a feeling I hadn’t experienced before motherhood, with all of my unspoken-for time. Despite averaging five or six hours a week, I was writing more than I had in years. Then there were structures I imposed on the narrative: Agnes’s, Ellen’s, and Rudie’s stories each unfold during the course of one day, and their chapters have mirroring moments and objects. Working this way allowed me to strike that exquisite balance. With such constraints, life-imposed and self-imposed, I could surrender.  

KWK: You have two strong women artists in your novel but there is a third woman. I wonder to what extent this third character – a black woman homesteading in Canada in the 19th century — was a formal artistic and structural decision? I ask because, while important to the way the plot torques, Ellen is not an artist, but a mother (an ambivalent and tragic one). How did Ellen come about in the envisioning of With My Back to the World?

SC: Ellen’s presence in the novel is intuitive, her character part of my original vision for the novel, perhaps a bit subconscious. She is young, in her early twenties, has survived tragic loss and has journeyed north to make a life in the woods. In different circumstances or later in life, Ellen might have become an artist, but in With My Back to the World she is more of a life alchemist, thinking quickly on her feet when faced with death and change. Telling her singular story echoes the presence of the much-anticipated Haitian child in Rudie’s narrative, a black child who doesn’t have a voice in the novel, but whose life is every bit as uprooted as Ellen’s, if not more.

KWK: The story of Haiti and the ethical dilemma of a white couple adopting a black child is a question that With My Back to the World poses. Who is saving whom?

SC: The answer to this is not that simple. There is a popular narrative that adoptive parents save the child, especially when a child is adopted from foster care or an orphanage. “Well-meaning” people will often comment that an adopted child is lucky to have found parents, should be grateful. I’m an adoptive mom. People have made similar remarks to me. If anyone is lucky or grateful, it is the adult who has the wished-for chance to parent a child. All adoptions have loss at their base. For a Haitian child adopted by white Canadian parents, that loss is especially profound as it is the loss of an identity, a culture, and a homeland. Yet life in an orphanage is no substitute for the love of a parent. So it’s tricky. It is on the parents to build bridges to the child’s culture, an issue Rudie grapples with insofar as the earthquake has thwarted her plan to meet her child in Haiti. Rudie will have to step outside her comfort zone to make connections with black and Caribbean organizations for her daughter. To answer the question, I think both are saved by a love fired in trauma and loss, but I think personally that we would do well to build fewer orphanages and focus on supporting families in countries like Haiti.

KWK: I know we are trained as writers to eschew speaking of the personal but I want to go outside the box here (in part because I think that the act of writing is at its core unconsciously intimate) and probe a bit into where things may have surprised you as an adoptive parent as you wrote these sections. How did your adoption process inform this novel?

SC: I suppose only the writer knows just how intimate their work is, and mine is always surprising me with what it reveals. My adoption process was astonishingly fast: seven weeks after we were approved, we received a match. We’d been told we’d have to wait two years. My older daughter was two when we adopted her, the same age as Roselore in the novel — a deliberate creative choice. Like Rudie, I keenly felt the difference between anticipating a newborn and scrambling to prepare for a toddler. Rudie’s father complains about not having enough time to prepare himself for the baby. Adoption placement is very exciting, challenging, and all-encompassing. There was so much I wanted to write about: how you fall in love with your child immediately, what it’s like to have institutional involvement and to not be your child’s first mother, how it feels to not have others’ stories to support you. This last piece may have motivated me the most. The story of adopting a toddler is not often told, at least it wasn’t ten years ago, and I was starved to read about others’ experiences. I’ve written essays about adopting but wanted to make something up, too, to connect Rudie’s experience to those of other women, to open up and elevate what we assume about making families and making art.

KWK: I’m also curious about the idea of loss, especially as an analogue for the creative process. Does creativity emerge from or integrate in loss? How does loss inform the other women in your novel? How is loss fundamental to creation: of family, of art, of the past (as you create it in Ellen’s sections)?

SC: Though there are very real losses in the novel (in Ellen’s story especially), the loss of an idea or an object of desire intrigues me. Rudie lives with the loss that infertility brings (the inability to have a biological child) and of a passionate love. While Agnes has lost her friend, she has also lost her sense of self and her ability to trust reality, as a result of mental illness. In Agnes’s case, the losses have seared everything but pure intent, her mind like a mesa, a washed canvas, free and ready for experience, for creation. What gets created— the family, the art—is merely everything that hasn’t been lost—the dreams, the lovers, the embryos, the places, the self not chosen. As writers, choosing which story to tell means a constant falling away, of the parts we don’t show, the parts we infer, the parts we change and shape to bring it all together. It is what we all do with the past.

KWK: This novel is a triptych with threads of one story being elliptically picked up in one or the other sections. It’s a fascinating study of womanhood, independence but also maneuvering. Rudie’s situation is most fraught in the fictive present of her story as she manages an old passion against her marital stability but each woman has a battle to wage between these two polarities. Can you talk more about this?

SC: The struggle between passion and stability plays a part in Ellen’s and Agnes’s stories, only more subtly so. Each story involves physical death. Ellen’s is almost the inverse of Rudie’s: Ellen’s husband, her stability, has died, possibly as the result of foul play. She’s faced with more limited choices given the constraints of time and place, but what she chooses will determine who she is for the rest of her life. You mention maneuvering. Ellen, the youngest of the characters, does skillfully move herself into the most desirable and true situation, the way we must when faced with great, sudden change. Agnes mourns lost passion and struggles to push herself out of stability and routine into exceptional creativity. She, too, is constantly trying to maneuver herself into place: routines, materials, light, timing, solitude—all are key in her mind—but she is thrown off course by regular life. I love and am inspired by books like Cloud Atlas and The Hours that show the delicate connections that unite vastly different lives.

KWK: I love to think of these delicate connections as uniting—as a web that somehow supersedes the complexities and pain of that intimacy I asked after earlier. Can human striving—the pain and complication that ensues through a life lived—be elevated to art through these connections?

SC: I wonder, because art is made, no matter how intuitive the artist. Art can pull forth truths that elude us in life because of its sheer onslaught and mundaneness. I think there is a commonality in our pain, despite its convolutedness, that art speaks to and that stories reveal. For Agnes Martin, art was about beauty and joy, she’d been an abstract expressionist but was also a classicist influenced by Eastern philosophy. She writes about artists (classicists) as “people that look out with their back to the world” and art as “something that isn’t possible in the world.” (Writings, 1992) I love that artwork as deceptively simple as an Agnes Martin painting, can resonate long after one observes it.

 
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Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and teaches creative writing at Colorado College.

Myra Bloom Interviews Catriona Wright

Tough Forms:

Myra Bloom In Conversation with Catriona Wright

 
Catriona Wright is the author of the poetry collection     Table Manners       (Véhicule Press, 2017) and the short story collection     Difficult People     (Nightwood Editions, 2018). She is the poetry editor for     The Puritan       and a co-founder of    Desert Pets Press   .

Catriona Wright is the author of the poetry collection Table Manners (Véhicule Press, 2017) and the short story collection Difficult People (Nightwood Editions, 2018). She is the poetry editor for The Puritan and a co-founder of Desert Pets Press.

 
Catriona Wright.  Difficult People: Stories . Nightwood Editions. $19.95, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-0-88971-339-0

Catriona Wright. Difficult People: Stories. Nightwood Editions. $19.95, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-0-88971-339-0

Myra Bloom: Talk to me about the genesis of this collection. Did you write the stories with the concept of “difficult people” in mind, or did that idea come later?

Catriona Wright: I wrote these stories over a period of eight years. One of them—“The Emilies”—appeared in a much earlier, worse form in my MA in Creative Writing thesis, which I completed at the University of Toronto with Barbara Gowdy as my mentor. That original short fiction manuscript had the cringeworthy title of ‘Exhale.’ Not too sure what I was thinking. Fortunately no one had any interest in it (rejection can be a blessing, friends).

After I finished my MA, I sent out stories, got rejected, rewrote, workshopped with friends, sent out stories, got rejected, raged against the philistinism of CanLit, got a story accepted, felt a fleeting sense of satisfaction, got rejected, got rejected, wrote and wrote and wrote. One of the first stories from the collection to be accepted was the title story “Difficult People” which appeared in Joyland, an excellent online magazine. That was in 2014. Even then, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a collection yet. Honestly I was learning how to write. Editors frequently told me the stories were “strange” or “not really a short story” or “populated by extremely unlikeable characters.” Often the feedback was helpful, but sometimes I knew I had to trust my instincts, that I wasn’t interested in writing stories about plucky protagonists whose paths to redemption imparted moral lessons for the reader. Nothing wrong with that kind of thing, it’s just not the type of story I wanted to—or could—write.

In 2016, Amber McMillan from Nightwood Editions asked if I had a manuscript of short fiction that I could show them (well, she actually asked if I had a poetry manuscript to show them, but I’d already sent that off to another publisher). I scrambled to put together my best stories, and not really knowing what title to give the collection, I settled on “Difficult People”, which I assumed would be a placeholder. Between signing the contract and the time of publication, the manuscript changed a great deal, particularly as I began working with Amber McMillan and Silas White, with stories going in, stories undergoing extensive rewrites, and stories being cut. But despite all these changes and revisions I couldn’t shake that title—it seemed the only way to connect what I see as fairly disparate stories. I polled friends for alternative names: Assholes, Dirtbags, etc. But none of them seemed right. I love my characters (well, most of them, with a few notable exceptions), even if they can on occasion, like all of us, make the wrong decision or say the wrong—or the absolute worst—thing. ‘Difficult’ is such a suggestive adjective, at first glance it seems negative, a euphemism for ‘awful’ perhaps, but look harder, work harder, and it can suggest something immensely gratifying, even pleasurable. Maybe difficult people are an acquired taste, but aren’t acquired tastes the things we come to love the most?

MB: A lot of the stories feature characters who are not so much difficult as deeply alienated: a woman longing desperately for a friend; a single man who spends his days tending a calculator museum; an aspiring academic working a soul-crushing job removing offensive online content. Is this a coincidence, or a commentary on modern alienation?

CW: When I’m writing a story, I don’t set out to make a grand statement about the ills of the modern world. I follow a voice and a character and see where they take me. Besides, who wants to read about healthy, well-adjusted, happy people? What do they talk about? Their fitness routines? Vacations? How much they love their children?

MB: Difficult People is wonderfully eclectic in terms of subject matter and tone, but “The Copy Editors” – which details the rivalry between a group of extreme copy editors and a band of radical experimental poets – takes some of the collection’s latent absurdism and dials it up to 100. Where did this story come from?

CW: That’s one of the earliest stories in the collection. It’s about these two copy editors – twin brothers, who go around correcting incorrect signage in Toronto – and their nemeses, the conceptual poets, who purposely perform lobotomies on each other to mess with their language production skills. I wrote the story while I was taking a copyediting class at Ryerson University. I loved that class because it made me appreciate the obsessive precision it takes to excel as a copy editor. I tried to look at the city through the eyes of a copy editor—a particularly pedantic one—and began seeing errors everywhere, on storefronts and billboards and menus (all the examples in the story are real, ‘found’ errors). Part of me—the smug, boring part—wanted to go and correct everything, which is the primary motivation of the twin copy editors in the story. Their life is in shambles and yet they get to feel superior to others simply because they are addicted to grammar and usage rules. I wanted to contrast this prescriptivist approach to language with its extreme opposite: a conscious abandoning, even shunning, of all rules. Enter the conceptual poets! I also write poetry, though more of the lyric variety, and I’ve attended many poetry readings, so I amped up the occasional absurdity of conceptual poetry for comic effect. It’s more of a good-natured ribbing than a takedown (I hope!). When I was writing this story, I was also reading a lot of George Saunders, so that’s mixed in there too, along with some stuff I learned in an Introduction to Linguistics class I took during my undergrad.

MB: Do you approach writing prose and poetry the same way? And do they come from the same place?

CW: I find writing fiction much more difficult than writing poetry. In poetry I can let myself go all the way into another dimension, but people expect fiction to have at least some relationship to reality. I find plot and structure challenging, and most of my stories go through many, many drafts.  

My poetry comes out of an interest with language, all its idiosyncrasies and rhythms. Often a poem will start as a riff on a word or sound. My fiction is more inspired by a particular relationship or shifting power dynamic that I find intriguing or confusing. I like to play with reader expectations about who’s holding the power in a relationship and to make them question their own relationship to the characters (I think readers tend to identify with first-person narrators even when maybe they shouldn’t).

MB: Are there stories other than “The Copy Editors” that came directly out of experiences you were having at the time of writing?

CW: The first story in the collection, “Content Moderator”, is partially inspired by my ongoing precarious employment as a Sessional Lecturer. I was interested in exploring the psychological impacts of continuous career uncertainty. As a result, I gravitated towards news items about labour practices in other fields. There were recurring articles around this time about working conditions at some technology companies (here’s an example: https://www.wired.com/2014/10/content-moderation/). I merged these two worlds—academia and the tech industry—to create “Content Moderator.”

“The Emilies” and “Difficult People” both take place in office environments, and I’ve worked in a few of those over the years. I don’t write directly autobiographical fiction, but most of the emotional material in the stories is a kind of warped, mistranslated version of my own feelings with a lag of several years so the content doesn’t feel so personal anymore.

MB: Conversely, I know that you worked with a sensitivity reader for the story “Them,” which features a woman trying to come to terms with her friend’s transition. Why did you think that was important to do, and what did you get out of the process?

CW: That story is about a troubled friendship between a cisgendered character and a character who is non-binary and uses the pronoun ‘they.’ I wanted a sensitivity reader who could comment on the representation of a non-binary or trans character because although I know and work with many people who are non-binary and trans I believe that lived experience provides a unique and essential perspective. The sensitivity reader offered insights about word usage and gave excellent advice on how to improve several scenes (above and beyond issues of representation). The key piece of advice was to make sure the character’s entire identity doesn’t become consumed by or reduced to their gender identity. A writer should give trans and non-binary characters their full humanity, should allow them to be kind and loving and also to fuck up just like any cisgender character (see Vito Russo test: https://www.glaad.org/sri/2014/vitorusso). I mean, this sounds obvious, and I naively thought I was already doing this, but a thorough sensitivity read helped refine, clarify and improve the story. I know some alarmists are concerned that sensitivity readers will dilute or sanitize fiction, but I find that fear ridiculous. How does knowing more about someone’s lived experience do anything but strengthen and complicate fiction? On the other hand, I think some people believe they can hire a sensitivity reader to somehow protect themselves against any criticisms, which is also ridiculous. In the end, writers need to take responsibility for their writing, and if they fuck up, own it and do better next time.

MB: You talked earlier about raging against “Canadian philistinism.” It’s true that your stories depart from the realism that has historically typified Canlit, so it doesn’t surprise me that you initially had trouble placing them. Lately, though, it seems like we’re seeing an increasing number of experimental or non-realist books getting mainstream buzz: Paige Cooper’s Zolitude, Catherine Leroux’s Madame Victoria, Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, etc. Do you think Canadian literary sensibilities are changing (for the better)?

CW: I was mostly joking about “Canadian philistinism” and trying to point to my own shallow reading habits at the time (and my use of self-defense mechanisms to deal with rejection). Some of that type of thing exists of course, but it’s also a boring, reductive overgeneralization that was never really true. I mean, Marian Engel’s Bear, a novel which features a graphic human-bear cunnilingus scene, won the Governor General’s Award in 1976! Barbara Gowdy wrote a best-selling novel from the point of view of an elephant (White Bone) and a haunting, romantic short story about a necrophiliac (“We So Seldom Look on Love”), so anything’s possible. I don’t really understand how people (my earlier self included) can go around bemoaning some perceived narrowness in CanLit having only read a tiny slice of the literature in Canada. The strange, the weird and the uncanny have always been there. All the books you’ve mentioned are wonderful examples of the diversity available, and I think they draw on various lineages that already existed within our national literature(s).

MB: Absolutely. The notes of Gowdy (your former mentor) are definitely detectable in Difficult People. I was also reminded of Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist – not just because the characters are morally questionable, but also because much of the collection is set in the non-place of their imaginations. What’s your relationship to setting? Do you always have specific locations in your mind, even if they aren’t central to the plot?

CW: Several stories—“Copyeditors”, “Difficult People” and “Major Prude”—take place in Toronto, and I picture “Them” and “The Emilies” taking place in Ottawa (where I grew up), but I’m not sure every reader would pick up on those hints. It’s true—though I hadn’t considered it before—that many stories don’t specify locations. I suspect this can partly be explained by my preferences as a writer and reader. I’m definitely more invested in character than I am in setting, though of course the two interact with each other in meaningful ways. To be honest, when I’m reading prose, I frequently skip long descriptive passages. I’m more interested in human relationships than in what kinds of clouds are in the sky.

I also find it strange when every character in a novel or short story collection has an extremely precise knowledge of the flora and fauna around them. If you asked me to identify an elm in a tree lineup I’m not sure I could. Because many of these stories are first-person narratives, the setting is filtered through a narrator’s consciousness. And these characters are, like me, often not very mindful of their surroundings. It might also be that I sometimes feel disconnected from my surroundings. So much of my life is spent on the internet or reading books that I don’t always feel grounded in a particular place.  

MB: It’s funny you say that because your collection of poetry, Table Manners, is full of esoteric details, such as the regional delicacies of Iceland.

CW: Interesting point! As you mentioned earlier, the characters in Difficult People are alienated from society and themselves, which sometimes translates into a disengagement with their surroundings. I think the speakers in the poems from Table Manners are trying to break from that kind of alienation, that numbness, by engaging in a mindful, visceral way with their senses. That book is also all about food, which is intrinsically linked to place and culture, so it required sensory precision. I actually like poems that are almost pure description, so I guess I just have different preferences for different forms.  

MB: Can I ask what you’re working on now?

CW: I’m working on not feeling too bad about my lack of productivity. I’ve been writing a few poems based around themes of precarity, both in terms of employment and environmental destruction. But it’s been a slow process. After two books in two years, I’m enjoying reading and experimenting. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World are two recent books that blew my mind and made me excited to write again. I’ve become very interested in genre fiction, particularly speculative fiction and sci-fi, as a way to understand our current world, so I’d like to write more in these modes. Also, I’m taking a stand-up comedy class. I’m learning a lot about precision and concision from the feedback I’m getting. It’s a tough form.

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Myra Bloom is a Montreal-based critic and the reviews editor of The Puritan. She teaches in the English Department at Concordia University.