8-Ball: Interview with rob mclennan

I’ve always been jealous of rob mclennan’s clever “12 or 20 questions” series, so I decided to steal the concept, and ask the same 8 questions to a wide variety of artists, questions that always interest me. The worst name for this project seemed to be “8-Ball,” since my last name is Ball and there are 8 questions. And like Michael Bay, I always aspire to do my worst. The most fitting test subject for the first 8-Ball interview is of course rob mclennan himself, so here goes:

8-Ball: rob mclennan

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Gifts (Talonbooks, 2009) and a compact of words (Salmon Publishing, Ireland, 2009), with another, kate street, forthcoming in 2009 with American publisher Moira, a further, wild horses, with the University of Alberta Press, and a second novel, missing persons, in the fall with The Mercury Press. An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry & poetics, The Garneau Review and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and will be spending much of the next year in Toronto. He regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

1. What do you want to talk about—which question do you wish interviewers would ask, and what is your answer?

I don’t know about interviews, but it sure would be nice for a reviewer to perhaps look at something larger of my work than the most recent individual poetry collection. In my mind, everything I do is part of some larger interconnected project. As my fiction moves in one direction, for example, it can’t help but send my poetry moving into another. I only seem to get every third book (at best) reviewed at all, though. Forest for the trees, I suppose.

I know an ongoing conversation over the past number of years has been about a potential selected. I think, since everything is pretty much still in print, it wouldn’t make much sense to publish a Canadian one right now, but I sure would be interested to see how a particular editor would shape such a book. How would Stephen Brockwell shape one, as opposed to derek beaulieu, or even Monty Reid, three people who have been quite aware of my work over the years? If Karl Siegler was to do such, would he focus only on the Talon collections, or head further out?

I often wonder why I don’t get asked more direct questions about the writing itself (as opposed to glossy views skimming an individual title), noticing the differences between the writing and the musicality between books. I often wonder, too, why I don’t get asked more questions about the range and sheer amount of my reviewing, interviewing, publishing and events organizing. I work hard for a pretty wide view of writing throughout North America, working my slow way further out. I’m not sure if any of that gets noticed, and it certainly influences my writing in pretty direct ways much of the time. I consider all of it to be essential to my practice; for years, book fairs, reading tours, attending the writers festival in Ottawa and running poetry workshops have helped enormously with renewing my energy, before jumping back into my various projects.

2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take your writing seriously?

I don’t know about advice; I really can’t think of anything. I think, in my own way, I’ve figured out what I’ve needed on my own, eventually, although some lessons were certainly long learned and hard won. I think there’s something better about taking the long route to some of where I’ve ended up, as opposed to shortcuts. I think it’s made me a more interested reader and, therefore, a more interesting writer, and one with a larger view than I otherwise could have had. What would have happened had I actually been accepted to Concordia University when I was nineteen, for example, despite my missing Grade 13 credit? I had already been accepted to the Creative Writing Program, thanks to Henry Beissel. Where would I have ended up then? Would it have been any different? What would have happened had I had that little novel accepted during the mid-1990s, in those first few forays into fiction?

3. What is wrong with the publishing industry, and what are they getting right?

The whole thing seems a mess right now. The big bookstores are selling books that already sell, and media tends to fixate on a small few, leaving the rest of us rather out in the cold. Arguably, it might have always been a mess, so what do I know. Chapters has done some serious damage to small Canadian publishers, knocking down what was already down during the mid-1990s General Distribution bankruptcy and federal funding fiasco. I don’t understand why every half decade or so someone comes along with money and claims that they’re to be the next big thing in Canadian fiction publishing, before shutting down after a few bare seasons. Wherefore art thou, Key Porter? What went wrong, Raincoast? Why was Nadine McInnis’ Quicksilver, garnering good reviews and worthy sales, allowed to slip out of print? It seems bad business. Financial returns take more than five years; one has to take the long view.

I’m encouraged by Freehand Books, but wary. I’ve been hurt so many times before.

4. How will technology change writing?

I think technology has already changed writing. I know Vancouver (former Ottawa) poet Rob Manery got a Canada Council grant about a decade ago to produce a hypertext project, although I’m not sure if it ever appeared. Obviously “flarf” is something that wouldn’t have existed without the internet, an electronic extension, perhaps, of the old “cut-up” process used by such as David Bowie and William Burroughs.

Technology allows influence and community to be wider, broader than mere accidents of geography and distribution. With so much writing online, as well as Abe.com and Amazon, writing has never been more accessible. There are kids in Prince George engaging with subversive poetics in a real way, for example, and sometimes far deeper than their counterparts in Toronto or Vancouver. Can you imagine, writers such as Andrew Suknaski, bpNichol and George Bowering engaging with communities in other countries throughout the 1960s and beyond through such an antiquated thing as post, publishing in journals in Mexico, the United States, England, Portugal and Australia?

5. What is your process for a typical piece of writing, from idea to publication? (Give a specific example.)

My process of writing any piece begins with a rough first draft or fragments thereof composed relatively quickly in my notebook, usually at the Second Cup at Bank and Somerset Streets here in Ottawa (but in a number of potential other locations as well) before notes get reworked on the computer screen. Once there, a draft is printed out, and reworked with pen the following day in the coffeeshop (or wherever I sit to do that day’s work), and another draft gets printed when I’m at the computer next.

For prose, whether fiction, essays or other non-fiction, this is potentially a long process of paragraphs, lines and fragments added, removed and reordered every time I dip in. My essay on Barry McKinnon took about eight months, and my second novel, missing persons, began in 2004 and only finally finished in spring of 2009, making it a five-year process. Some projects take days, some take months, some take years. Poems, individually, go through the same process, but over less time, although each poem works its way up into the book as my unit of composition, so none of my poems ever live alone.

Once I finally get the whole project to a point I think that it’s finished or very very near, I start sending it out to book publishers, to see what they think. Just before this, I do actually send the manuscript around to various friends, to see what they might think as well, if there are any suggestions, or essential corrections, that I might have missed. Is it an interesting manuscript, or a terrible idea? Some days it’s hard to tell. For poetry manuscripts, individual pieces are obviously sent out to journals and what-not as soon as the individual pieces are completed, well before the manuscript as a whole might come together. I have boxes of archival material of these multiple earlier drafts, most of which are well-marked with ink, scribbled on, altered, added on and corrected.

6. What are your daily habits as a writer, and as a reader?

I pick up my bag or two of books, notebook and paper (and laptop, possibly) and go out to the coffeeshop. I try to spend no more than thirty to sixty minutes online checking what I need to check, and spend the rest of the day living inside books, alternating between reading, writing and simply taking notes. Sometimes part of an essay, a new poem, an hour or two on fiction, a review or two as well as reading, perhaps, the new issue of Brick, or Grain and/or whatever poetry and/or fiction I received recently in my little mailbox. I also try to read as many of the daily newspapers that might be floating around in there, whether The Ottawa Citizen, The Ottawa Sun and/or The Globe and Mail. I always read my horoscope, and decide whether or not to follow such, depending on what it says.

Eventually, if I can, I get to my home computer by later afternoon (where I have deliberately never had internet access) to enter corrections, alterations and whatever else to what I worked on that day, and possibly print out new drafts of things to start over on, the next day. My evenings vary: sometimes they’re about going to an event, sometimes they’re just me crashed in front of the television, sometimes they’re about me hanging out with friends, and sometimes they’re about me niggling to catch up on work on the computer, sitting in my kitchen.

7. What is your ambition as a writer—what do you want to accomplish, personally and professionally?

My ambitions? A good question. jwcurry talks about how his goal throughout all the art he involves himself with is to “remain interested,” which I think is about the best goal of all. I wouldn’t mind living perhaps a bit more comfortably, but I’m certainly not going to sacrifice the movements of my interest just for the sake of coinage; if I’m to do that, I might as well get a job. Still, my ambition is in the challenge of trying different things. I’ve always been interested in history, and Ottawa specifically, so the challenge of working that travel/tourist book for Arsenal Pulp Press, Ottawa: The Unknown City (2008), was pretty interesting. I would like to move further out into those areas, working non-fiction histories, but I haven’t had the time to really explore such yet.

After years of working my way through the poem, I felt I was starting to get a handle on such, which allowed me to begin a focus on what I could do with the novel, moving further, more recently, into non-fiction, including literary essays, and a creative non-fiction manuscript I worked on my year in Edmonton. There are a number of things I’d really like to attempt in prose before I come back into poetry full-tilt, and turn what I’ve previously done on its head. I’m currently in the midst of what will hopefully be my third novel (among other projects), and its slow going, but at least going ahead.

I see no reason why I can’t get novels published in multiple countries and make me some coin, creating less stress, and being able to focus my energy into where I might just go next. I’m not going to pretend I’m ever going to be a best-seller; my prose goals are just non-linear and lyric enough that big North American publishers are probably not soon to be banging down my apartment door, seeking out manuscripts. But I’ve had various new prose projects floating around in the back of my head for a number of years now, unstarted, working on, working through, that I still think are worth exploring. It’s just a matter of time. Where else might I go?

I like George Bowering’s idea of writing, that he doesn’t map out his books because he too would like to be surprised at the result. This is art, so one has to remain fearless, yes? Fail, fail better, Beckett said, but part of that fear becomes getting out on that limb. The project might fail, but boy, if it doesn’t…

8. Why don’t you quit?

Why should I? I really like doing what I do, and know the further I go, the better I will do, and the better I will get. It helps that I’m not qualified to do much else.

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