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