A Digger After Daylight: In Conversation with Mike Barnes

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Mike Barnes, poet, short story writer, novelist, and author of The Adjustment League, a fascinating work of psychological noir fiction that touches on power, privilege, retribution, mental illness, caregiving, and more. In this interview, he reflects on the genesis of his new novel, living and writing with mental illness, and the formative years he spent in Hamilton.

 Mike Barnes.  The Adjustment League . Biblioasis. $19.95, 352 pp., ISBN: 9781771960823

Mike Barnes. The Adjustment League. Biblioasis. $19.95, 352 pp., ISBN: 9781771960823

Hamilton Review of Books: How did you come to write The Adjustment League? What was the starting point for the novel?

Mike Barnes: How The Adjustment League found its final form, I can’t say — all the surprising paths imagination takes — but I remember clearly how it began. I’d been immersed in taking care of my seriously ill parents for two years when my publisher, Dan Wells, suggested I write a book on caregiving. I think he was trying to help me keep my hand in. So, although I was very burned-out, I started scribbling notes in stolen minutes. Soon, to my surprise, I had the opposite of writer’s block: so much pouring out, and no idea how to shape it. Also, I kept bumping into an emotion I couldn’t find a place for: rage. Rage and outrage. On behalf of my parents, but also on behalf of all the mostly-neglected suffering I was seeing: in hospitals, care homes, hospices. And it spiralled me back into my own long history as a mental patient — in hospital, on disability, in roominghouses and subsidized menial work...I couldn’t fit it all into a caregiving memoir. So I asked myself if there was a genre suited to that sense of scraped-nerve living and the rage (among other emotions) it spawns. And the answer was right there waiting, I’d read it often: noir.

In the same instant, it seemed, the character walked into my head of a pissed-off superintendent who dedicates himself to adjusting a broken world in ways analogous to the ways he unplugs toilets, unclogs drains, sweeps up litter, evicts undesirables. The idea made me laugh. And that laughter — black, jagged — was really the start of it.

HRB: Your novel has been described as a noir thriller. Is this is an accurate description? If so, why did you choose this genre for your story?

MB: Genre can only be a rough reckoning. If a story has life and texture and depth, as you hope, it will always resonate past the confines of genre. That said, I think The Adjustment League fulfills the requirements of a noir thriller. The genre chose me more than I chose it. That is, I knew I wanted to write about the oppressed, the down-and-out, and about a character who is working on their behalf but is also one of them. That’s already noir territory. And my character would feel outrage against oppressors of various kinds, and have the aggression to act on his outrage. Noir again. The genre was built in to the fabric of what I was imagining. The twist that came in the writing is that the suspenseful journey towards a final reckoning goes out into the world and, simultaneously, deep into himself. He peels back layers of victims and oppressors in both directions, inward and outward. Which adds another word to the genre: psychological noir thriller.

HRB: The protagonist of The Adjustment League is known simply as the Super. Why did you decide not to give your character a name?

MB: With every other character I’ve imagined, a name has come early on, sometimes before I knew anything else (as happens often in real life). This time was different. He was just what he was, what he did — an apartment superintendent. The Super. No other name came, and none seemed needed either. I wondered when I started writing if it would seem artificial, and hard to avoid a name in conversations. But to my surprise, it wasn’t. And I started to notice that in real life people say names much less than they do in novels or movies. You’re in a situation with a person, you both know why you’re there — often, you just start talking. Since it seemed so natural, I used it elsewhere in the novel too: the Owner, the Face, the Mayor, the Empress. 

HRB: During brief windows of “hyper-time” prior to mental collapse, the Super performs “adjustments” on behalf of others who have been somehow wronged. Would you explain what an adjustment is, what compels the Super to undertake them, and whether or not you consider the Super heroic in his actions? 

MB: The Super himself describes adjustments in repairman’s terms: “When you see something wildly out of whack…and when a few good raps, sometimes just a tap, will set the whole thing tumbling.” So it’s not big, systemic change he tries for, but rather local interventions on behalf of the powerless. These are most obvious when done with aggression or violence, but that’s not his only way. For example, one of his adjustments is ongoing tutoring of a learning-disabled boy. Another is hiring homeless people at decent wages—$10/hour, a four-hour minimum — to help him “bring the world” to privileged bullies. That fair-practice hiring is itself an adjustment — an adjustment within an adjustment. I can’t say if the Super is heroic, but I certainly admire his large sympathies. Also his drive for greater justice, and his tenacity and scorn for personal risk along the way.

HRB: While mental health and the care of vulnerable members of our society are core concerns in this novel, there are many other important themes that develop in the story, including the divide between rich and poor, between those with means and privilege and those without. What did you want the book to say about this divide?

MB: There are a lot of images and phrases in the novel about exposing truths that many would prefer to keep hidden: bringing things to light, turning over rocks to see what’s slithering under them — lots of those kinds of motifs. And the Super is someone who feels to his marrow all the levels of power, and abuses of power, that are built into our society. And while he sometimes takes action against the abusers, his most constant effort is to bring abuse to people’s attention, force awareness of it. He’s a digger after daylight. He’s driven to smash through the layers of secrecy and deception that screen off knowledge of the crimes, big and small, that go on all around us every day. I don’t have the Super’s aggression, or his laser focus, but I think his project is a worthwhile one. 
 
HRB: You have been very open about living and writing with mental illness. In an essay you wrote for Maclean’s magazine, you said that mental illness has helped you as a writer. Would you tell us how it has helped you?

MB: Not to be perverse, but I should start by acknowledging the ways it’s hurt me. Not just by impairing my functioning for long stretches, but by dealing heavy blows to body and mind and sense of self — blows which, I think it has to be admitted, do take some kind of permanent toll. Who would expect a boxer to get off scot-free from multiple knockdowns and knockouts? Human resilience is amazing, but it’s not unlimited. Yes, you can come back — but the coming back takes time, a lot of precious time, and you’re left with the question of whether you’ve come back all the way.

That big caveat upfront, the more powerful an experience is, including a destructive one, the more potential it has to teach you. The experience of mental illness opens up windows and doors that, for a price, can show you a lot: alternative ways of being and perceiving, the fragility of not only wellness but reality as constructed, the utility and costs of social conventions, the omnipresence of smug power systems and the vulnerability of those under power’s thumb. All this and more. Going “away” mentally, going under, especially repeatedly, caves in complacency and opens up your psychic pores — you develop finer antennae and broader sympathies for your fellow creatures. You’re also forced — if you want to survive — to make a study of how your own system works: to keep it from breaking down so often or so badly, and to come back from the unavoidable breakdowns. This gives you insights into the working, for good or ill, of others’ systems, and systems of others.

None of this, it goes without saying, comes automatically or easily. You have, first of all, to be lucky enough to survive. And then the pieces of understanding come, if they come at all, from all the mini and major versions of crash + recovery + reflection—on long-term repeat.

HRB: In what ways does writing fiction about mental illness differ from writing about it in a work of nonfiction, such as your memoir The Lily Pond?

MB: You have more freedom in fiction, of course, to let your imagination roam, invent characters and situations that stray far from biographical fact. Sometimes — and this can be a surprise — this allows you to explore a subject at a deeper level than when you feel restricted by what actually occurred. I was surprised, for instance, when writing the fairy tales of The Reasonable Ogre, or this novel The Adjustment League, to discover that something I’d come at straight on in the memoir was actually expressed more sharply, or more deeply, from the oblique angle of fiction. “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” as Dickinson says. There’s a danger, though, in insisting too strongly on fiction/nonfiction distinctions. Imagination shapes and colours every telling, even of so-called “straight facts”; and everything, even the wildest-seeming invention, gets drawn up from the well of your own lived experience.

HRB: What is unique about your writing process? Has that process changed at all over time?

MB: I don’t know many other writers, but I doubt that anything about my process is unique. Or maybe it’s truer to say that every writing process is unique — a particular mesh of intention and ability and circumstance—but the methods that make up the process are shared. I know I use a greater variety of methods now than I used to. Trial and error have put more instruments in the toolbox, and I feel very free to pull out whatever seems like it might do the trick. One thing that’s definitely changed: I used to write a lot in public, in coffee shops and libraries and waiting rooms — not just snippets, but whole poems and scenes and even chapters and stories. I can’t do that now. I’ll write notes and sketches, jot things on scraps, but I need privacy and the quiet of the home space for extended work.

HRB: How important have books and reading been to your life? Do you have favourite writers whose works you turn to for inspiration, comfort, or entertainment? 

MB: Reading has been central to my life. Language (not just books but all words: signs, recipe cards, brochures, newspapers ... all of it) is this huge forest I wandered into in childhood and have stayed happily lost in, wandering this path, then that... Writing, to me, is a part of reading, a natural outgrowth or extension of it (I might be able to explain this better, but it would take more space than we’ve got here). In terms of favourite writers, I always have them, but they’re always changing — I find a companion, a guide, for whatever’s happening in my life at the moment. That’s the great thing about long and eclectic reading — the way something new, or something old rediscovered, will pop up and be exactly what you need, right here, right now.

HRB: The HRB is a Hamilton-focused publication, so we’re interested in hearing about writers’ connections to Hamilton. Would you tell us about your own connection to the city, and how it may have had (if it did) an influence on your writing?

MB: I grew up in Hamilton, lived there (apart from a couple of short spells away) from the ages of 8 to 31 — up on the mountain near Fennel, in a room near McMaster when I was going there, on the psych ward in St. Joe’s for eighteen months, then in various downtown apartments in the area from Herkimer down to Bold.

I worked at different jobs in the city, full-time, part-time, on-call-low-paying labour jobs, some of the longest being at Stelco (coke oven lidsman), Henderson Hospital (porter, dishwasher), and the Art Gallery of Hamilton (attendant).

Hamilton runs like a spine and nervous system right up through the center of my writing. It’s where I began reading and writing intensively — hunting down obscure books and literary magazines at the library and in The Book Cellar and Book Villa, writing dozens and eventually hundreds of poems in my walk-up on Herkimer and in coffee shops where I holed up on marathon tramps about the city. Settings and experiences from those years crop up in all kinds of my poems and stories and novels. And something else, harder to name — some spirit of the city as I knew it that seeped into me — something to do with grit and street-level living, but equally with joy and adventure, a kind of raw escape — has stayed with me all these years. Some essence of hard-won lightness (if that makes sense) penetrated me perhaps more deeply than Toronto has, though I’ve lived here for as long by now.

HRB: Are you working on anything new at the moment? Will we see more of the Super in future work?

MB: The Adjustment League is intended to be a trilogy, and I’ve got a fair bit of writing towards the second installment (plus some for the third). The Super has unfinished business, definitely, and I have unfinished business with him.  

HRB: Is there anything you have not been asked here or elsewhere about your novel that you would like to have been asked? What would you like your readers to know about your work that you may not have had a chance to tell them? 

MB: I’ve been surprised that, while several reviewers have appreciated the dark journey the Super undertakes, only one, Brian Bethune of Maclean’s, has commented on the humour of the Super’s outlook and voice. Readers find whatever they find in a book, but I certainly laughed a great deal while writing The Adjustment League — at the exuberance of the Super’s outrage, whether expressed in actions or acid one-liners. His willingness to confront power, to insult it to its face — that was refreshing to me, liberating. His voice has the kind of scrap that, for me, chews on black and spits it out, light.