1. What do you want to talk about—which question do you wish interviewers would ask, and what is your answer?
I’m usually asked about my influences (regarding Cosmo), and it’s kind of boring and embarrassing to just rattle off some names. I’d like an interviewer to be more specific—to isolate a particular story or section, a particular passage, and ask about what (or who) motivated its construction. To show that an interviewer has not only read my book, but done some research before firing me some generic questions. I was really knocked out by Rob Benvie’s discussion of David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction” (1993) in his review of Cosmo for HTMLGIANT, not only because it [the essay] was an incredibly important piece of thinking and writing for me, but because the reviewer was perceptive and well-read enough to identify it. I would love an interviewer to bring up specific names and/or literary works—especially my American influences, since they’re more numerous and more significant for the creation of Cosmo than their Canadian counterparts—and ask me how these went into the formation of the book (as all books are influenced by a multitude of sources, literary and otherwise). I’d be excited by questions about theory, too: not the general, “what theories influence you?” kind of question, but (again) the type that narrow the field. Cosmo benefitted from a study of a whole whack of thinkers—Allan Bloom, Christopher Lasch, Charles Taylor, Pierre Bourdieau, and dozens more—and it would be excellent and exciting to have an interview wander and expand from the source text in creative and surprising ways.
2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take your writing seriously?
“Poets are mean and they will try to kill you.” Or, “Don’t suck up to other poets. Well, OK, you will do so, of course, like all poets do, but when you do, feel it in your bones. Take this self-knowledge and turn it into a weapon you wield without mercy.” Both of these are from ‘asshole’ and ‘parasitic’ poet Kent Johnson.
3. What is wrong with the publishing industry, and what are they getting right?
I don’t really know enough about the publishing industry to comment. I’d imagine the main problems involve mismanaging or misinterpreting audience and demand.
4. How will technology change writing?
The typewriter replaces the pen; the computer replaces the typewriter. New technologies will no doubt make writing exciting and necessary for a different generation of practitioners. I am old enough to have begun writing with pen and paper, to move to an electric typewriter, and then to a word processor (all within the span of six years or so—I’m still fresh). It’s exciting to imagine another way to compose blocks of prose, how things might evolve, as I get older and balder and fatter.
One notion that I like to challenge is the idea that one cannot get proper writing done when surrounded by technological distractions. Franzen talks about this. He says you’ve got to disable your Internet connection. I completely understand what he means, but I think it’s a last gasp type of scenario, a holdover from another era. I’d like to imagine texts that cannot be produced without an Internet connection, what those might look like. I think that’s a more exciting notion than the conventional, albeit stable, ideas of solemn, undisturbed focus. I tried to do this (at least partially) with the story “Frankie+Hilary+Romeo+Abigail+Helen: An Intermission” in Cosmo.
To change topics slightly, if I may—reading is increasingly transgressive, and at least in part due to changes in technology. I see this as an educator and as a person still in his twenties. I don’t know if this is statistically, verifiably true, but whatever; I have the feeling that young people are reading less and less. The comportment with which one must attend a difficult text is nearly extinct among students (or at least my students). Basic proficiency—in comprehension, composition, analysis—is evaporating. And while young people may be reading constantly, frantically, it’s not the type of reading that engenders genuine literacy. What I mean by reading is a turning inward; a silencing; a carving of space from the gymnastic stridency of urban, smart-phone living. It’s what any lucky child remembers as his or her best, and often earliest, experiences with books. To read with comportment and attention and discipline is to push aside, to make room, and to say no: retreating and refusing the charms of capital and power. Nothing about our power structures, our conservative majority (which exists in politics and education as well as in literary institutions) encourages this movement. But who knows. The pendulum may careen back, too.
5. What is your process for a typical piece of writing, from idea to publication? (Give a specific example.)
Stories start somewhere weird—usually a brief scene, a stirring, an emotion—and then sit somewhere in my brain for a very long time, completely unattended. Once one of these flashes becomes pervasive, recurring, and I realize I’m becoming slightly obsessed, I know that fiction must be the result, at least one day. I don’t try to rush this process. I let the story or novella ferment and stew. There’s a moment of commitment, after which I begin researching locations, set pieces, actors, models, and so forth. This is terribly exciting. Then I start plunking down words. This is awfully terrifying because the first words are always so bad. It’s difficult. I hurt. I roll around. I drink a lot. Finally, some order begins to arise from the confusion. Suddenly it’s done. Then the putting away and the editing begins, which can take years.
My stories were notoriously (well, in my own mind) unpublishable by the larger magazines. Probably because they were too odd and broken, but part of me always sighed in despair seeing the lame-ass pieces that beat mine for space. I sent out early drafts of all ten stories in Cosmo to major literary journals multiple times; every one of them was rejected, often without a note. So my only real experience with publication was having Coach House say yes to the manuscript. As you can imagine, it made me feel like I was just asked to prom by the prettiest creature in school (well, maybe not the prettiest, but at least the coolest, the one with the best taste, the one way beyond the other kids …).
Poetry is different. I’ve published lots of poems. I don’t care as much. Maybe that means my fiction isn’t as good. Or it means that my poetry is actually serving the needs of The Literary Conservative Majority and my fiction isn’t. I’m not sure. All I know is that both acts of writing make me happy and I’m not really upset by being ignored (i.e., rejected) anymore because I know my fiction is too badass for them haters (and Con. Maj. Reps) to process.
6. What are your daily habits as a writer, and as a reader?
My daily habits as a writer are nonexistent. I write intermittently and when I feel most positive about my life and skillz (and when time and work allow; I am not wealthy [obviously] and I am a social animal [i.e., I lack the sociopathic and narcissistic tendencies required to eliminate responsibilities to other people and to effectively ‘shut the door,’ as many other writers do, and yes, I’m jelly]). I’m not sure how I’m doing this now. When did life become so full and busy?
In more positive terms, I write when it feels right. Like Palahniuk’s shitting analogy—don’t jump on the john unless you have to. Never force one. Something might tear, or worse.
As a reader, I sniff around books of fiction suspiciously. I hate finding ‘scaffolding’ in literary fiction. I hate seeing devices, transitions, techniques to bridge, attempts to incorporate backstory, etc., even while doing so I feel all smart and perceptive. I want to get lost and be thrilled by the surety of a voice or the empty-glass clarity of a writer’s mechanics. Once I’m not picking at structure, I read voraciously and gleefully. As for poetry, everything depends on withholding judgment. I work to become slow and methodical and empty of expectation.
But god, I don’t read enough. I’m constantly amazed by how happy I am to have a great collection or novel near me as I move through the sludge of life—amazed that it’s happening this way and amazed that I don’t indulge and escape more often. Remember those days when you first found that the life in books seemed to mend the wounds of ‘real’ life? That literature was the most exciting and important thing about life? I used to stay up late talking on the phone to a friend about books. I was fourteen. We don’t really talk about books anymore, but nothing quite as grand and mesmerizing has taken their place …
7. What is your ambition as a writer—what do you want to accomplish, personally and professionally?
To borrow a quotation from 2Pac’s “Unconditional Love”:
Driven by my ambitions, desire higher positions,
so I proceed to make Gs eternally in my mission
is to be more than just a rap musician—
the elevation of today’s generation
if I could make ’em listen …
My ambitions are, for now, to outdo myself with each project, to avoid lateral movement and pursue forward momentum. I am starting to realize that whatever I do must be a personal victory; I cannot expect congratulations or praise or cultural credit in any form. This may sound naïve or obvious, but it’s a sharp pill to swallow.
I see a small river shooting from the main channel. It may not be a river at all; it might be more like a dirty creek. But I’ve started down this little stream, pushing my paddle in the murky water, following its twists and turns as the sounds of the primary course begin to fade. Where am I going? Is anyone watching? Who will know I’m gone? Who will be waiting at the end? Is there an end?
Sometimes I fear that this river is only one that roils inward; that there is no physical destination; that we are all curling up like drying, dying leaves, into ourselves, before we disappear. Let’s be fearless and happy like autumn.
8. Why don’t you quit?
Seriously? You’ve gotta believe that there’s more to say. And only you can say it in the precise way that it demands to be said.
In other words, have faith in the way you spit. Know that others can’t shine like that.
In other words: can’t stop, won’t stop.
Spencer Gordon holds an MA from the University of Toronto. He is co-editor of the online literary journal The Puritan and the Toronto-based micro-press Ferno House. His own stories, articles and poems have been published in numerous periodicals and anthologies. He blogs at dangerousliterature.blogspot.com and teaches writing at Humber College.