8-Ball Interview with Spencer Gordon

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.

8-Ball Interview: Sarah Pinder

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

How would you describe the relationship between nostalgia and anxiety?

I think nostalgia can sometimes be a coping mechanism for anxiety. I went to see Detropia a few weeks ago – which I didn’t actually think was a good film, but there’s a person interviewed in it who explores abandoned buildings in Detroit that has this beautiful comment about her relationship to the past. She talks about how she imagines a ghost-narrative for her city, from when it was economically booming, superimposed on top of the one that exists now. But at the same time, I think having that nostalgic narrative can generate a certain amount of stress as well as wonder. It can be really overwhelming to be standing in a very quiet, empty place and know it’s thick with dead narratives, and recognize a lot of those narratives, while historic, can’t fit neatly into the parameters of nostalgia.

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

Look after your physical health. Your drive and hunger to finish things can help you, but they can also harm you. Really. Take ergonomics seriously, exercise, stretch, take breaks. Sitting down for a long time is actually pretty rough on the body, and I’ve already got wrist, hand and repetitive strain problems at 28. All those things were definitely exacerbated from spending extended hours on the computer, incessantly typing.

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

I don’t know if the publishing industry has found its equivalent to the crowd-sourced album quite yet… I feel like musicians seem to be using social media to support the physical production of their work more successfully than writers and publishers often are.

4. How will technology change writing?

I’m a bit of a Luddite in some ways – I still don’t have a cell phone, even. The expectation of speed in technologically-mediated writing is difficult for me. Someone tweets me, and I respond a week later, which doesn’t really work.

I think I’m most interested in the ways we use technology to shape the size of the room we think we’re conversing in. I’m still really fascinated by quasi anonymous online spaces like Craigslist or cruising / hookup and dating websites and how people interact with them. What gets said when you feel like you’re in a vacuum?

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

Archipelagos – the last section in Cutting Room, was written as a long poem project last fall. I set up parameters for myself that I had to write every day for the month of November, all the writing had to belong to one poem, and I had to be more experimental with my line breaks and length than I usually am. I had a document on my computer that I’d come home every night to, open and work on, writing one continuous draft and editing in the document as I went. When that was finished, I edited the whole document, paired it with a photo of my messy bedroom, and put it together as a zine, which I made a small print run of. The zine text was distilled again and edited down with Kevin Connolly before it went into the book – sections were removed and the whole thing was relined significantly.

While I don’t always set up such stringent rules about what I’m doing – the idea of writing as a routine, having some kind of structure or puzzle I want to work out, editing simultaneously while writing, and making a very small print run of the work in zine format before other publications is often the route I go.

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

I read poetry constantly, but read multiple books in fits and starts, and like having them all around me at the same time. There are four books beside my bed right now, and three open beside my keyboard. It’s difficult for me to leave the house with just one book.

I also carry a notebook with me almost all the time, or just end up with a crumpled pocket full of receipts with notes scrawled on the back of them.

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

I want to write more books, but beyond that – I’m most interested in just trying new things. I want to do further film-making, and work on more collaborative projects, particularly if they’re experimenting with structure. I can find group work overwhelming at times – I’m interested in trying to find ways to work collaboratively that also suit or incorporate solitary tendencies. I also want to get better at critical / theoretical writing, and do more teaching.

8. Why don’t you quit?

I’m stubborn, or curious, or both. It depends on the day.

Sarah Pinder was born in Sault Ste Marie. Her poetry has appeared in various literary journals and small magazines, as well as the anthology She’s Shameless. She lives in Toronto.

8-Ball: kevin mcpherson eckhoff

kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s is the author of Rhapsodomancy (Coach House Books, 2010). His visual poetry has appeared in the anthology Boredom Fighters (Tightrope Books) and in such magazines as dandelion and filling Station. A winner of the Shaunt Basmajian Chapbook Award, he studied English literature at the University of Calgary. He recently traded his life for a house in Armstrong, British Columbia, and a job teaching literature at Okanagan College.

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

What was your best day this past week and why? Yesterday: I spent 2 hours in The Bookshop in Penticton with my bestfriend, then saw a double feature at the Starlight Drive-in in Enderby with my lady love. Btw, don’t ever watch The Expendables.

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

Persevere, and you don’t always have to be (or pretend to be) serious-like in the face and fingers and brain.

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

Not enough sex, but far too much procreation.

4. How will technology change writing?

The exact way that writing has changed technology.

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

I think of some words or an image; I write it down on a scrap of paper; I lose the paper; I try to remember it into a Word document; I misplace the file because I’ve named it something inappropriate… in the end, I usually just steal some words from someone else, rearrange them, and send it all to magazines and publishers, less than half of which prove half-interested.

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

Sucky. Inconsistent. Nonchalant. Unappreciative.

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

I want to connect with human beings by sharing the experience of exploring, enjoying and being surprised by language.

8. Why don’t you quit?

Why don’t YOU quit? I might quit one day. Right now, I don’t quit because I’m stubborn.

8-Ball: Rob Budde

Rob Budde teaches creative writing at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. He has published seven books (poetry, novels, interviews, and short fiction), his most recent books being Finding Ft. George, a book of poetry from Caitlin Press and declining america from BookThug. Find him at writingwaynorth.blogspot.com.

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

I like it when interviewers 1) ask a specific question about a passage or element to one of my books just b/c it means they read the darn thing or 2) like it when they ask me what I am working on now b/c frankly once a book is out it is old and I have a hard time getting in that mindspace again. What I am working on now is far more ‘on my mind’ obviously. So, glad you asked! I am working on a book about a plant called (variously) Devil’s Club, Hoolhghulh, or Oplopanax Horridus. I don’t know if you know Laurie Ricou’s recent work but I am guessing what I am doing is along those lines: a study that includes science, visuals, poetry, personal essay, etc. Hoolhghulh is a distinctly west-coast plant (though apparently there are some patches in Michigan) that shocked me when I came from Winnipeg. It was definitely NOT a prairie plant. It’s big and fierce and hurt me the first time I met one. There was something about the plant that caught me (other than the thorns) and I have been studying it now for a good two years. I took a Carrier (Nak’azdli First Nation) language course to learn its local name. It has extensive uses in First Nations’ medicine/spirituality across the province. The book so far is called Panax. Also working on a science fiction novel called The Overcode. The best way to describe it (even though it seems a contradiction in terms) is a utopian cyberpunk novel. And just finished (I think) a book of poems called Poem’s Poems which is a series of poems about a character called Poem.

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

Well, this was advice I think I received but didn’t listen to: take care of your body. My mentor now is Ken Belford and he has taught me a lot about health and how a poet should think like an athlete and how a fit body thinks better. It sounds simple but the brain is, after all, part of our body. When I was a new writer I thought writers had to drink themselves into a stupor.

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

I don’t know if there is anything ‘wrong’ with publishing in Canada—it’s just a tough go because of shifts in culture and a lack of government support. I think it will swing back and times will get better. I think Canadian small presses are brilliantly diverse and making fabulous books that are admired world-wide. I especially like all the under-the-radar chapbook presses and stuff like that. That’s where the real work is getting done.

4. How will technology change writing?

Not as much as we think. I think there is great energy and potential in online writing (i.e. writing form-fitted to html and animation etc) but it will be one kind of writing, not a replacement. I can’t read very much/long online and, even though I think screens will get more eye-friendly, we will still read in a variety of forms.

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

The last book, declining america (BookThug) began as a title: “my american movie.” I was reading Baudrillard’s America and jotting down notes, his ideas, lines of poetry off his ideas, etc. It turned into a long poem by that name that became a wink chapbook (my chapbook press). I had envisioned the series as a string of shouted rants but when I read them to an audience they didn’t work that way and I had to revisit them. I was travelling quite a bit in the states at this time a couple more longer poems started that focused on various aspects of “america”: a poem about airports and security (“Cramped O’Hare Writing”), a poem about illnesses and broken bodies (“Software Tracks”) . . . The last two poems that came out of this time of thinking were about economics (“Indices”) and torture (“KUBARK”) and they solidified the sense of the collection as a book—they provided enough unity that I began to save the separate pieces in a folder (that I titled for a long while as “my american movie”—I don’t know maybe that should have been the title of the book after all!). I had been in conversation with Jay MillAr at BookThug for various reasons (including a couple readings he did in Prince George). I told him I had this odd manuscript and, well, you know how he likes odd manuscripts! He had Stephen Cain edit it and that really helped catch some of the sloppy or lazy bits. I came up with the cover and then it was a book. We launched it here in PG and in Toronto via video feed.

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

I’ve been asked this before and don’t have a really interesting answer. I am all over the place and have no routine. I find routines can stultify my writing. I like trying to write in new places and new times. The only place a write reliably is airports and airplanes. I have four kids and it is really hard to just block off a regular time to write. I just squeeze it in here and there and that seems to work for me. I remember watching Dennis Cooley writing a poem at a university meeting of some sort and I think I just adopted that flexibility he has. I read haphazardly too—picking up what happens to fall in front of me or randomly from the library. I understand it might not work for others though so don’t recommend it necessarily.

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

I want to write until I am 110 years old. I hope I can keep sharp and keep moving (physically and mentally) when I am older. He is still a spry crow, but I love the way Kroetsch has stayed open-minded and fluid in his thinking. I admire that. I also don’t want to write the same book twice—I want each book to almost be by another author.

8. Why don’t you quit?

I couldn’t quit writing. I would die. Sounds melodramatic but it’s true. I could stop publishing and I think I would be fine with that. As long as I could send poems to Belford and a few others friends, I’d be happy. Writing is part of how I think now. You can’t just stop thinking can you?

8-Ball: Jenny Sampirisi

Jenny Sampirisi is a poet and a fiction writer. She is the Managing Editor of BookThug and the co-director of the Toronto New School of Writing, a series of workshops focusing on avant garde writing practices, which she founded with Jay Millar in 2009. She is currently the Associate Director of the Scream Literary Festival and a professor of contemporary literature at Ryerson University. Her first book is/was was published in 2008 with Insomniac Press. She is currently at work on Croak, a collection of poems about frogs, disappearing and deformed, and the girls who love them.

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

I’d love to be asked more directly about the tensions and vulnerabilities I set up in my work. I play with sound a lot but am actually a very timid sound poet. I write poetry that people take for prose, prose that people take for poetry, I fight against all my urges to tell a complete story with a tidy bow and end up often with a very disturbing piece of work. I’m also a very happy, generally good-natured person, but I can’t stop my writing from becoming deeply dark and emotionally hard on my audience. I think these tensions are actually vulnerabilities in my work that I’m invested in and play out for readers and listeners. That risk is very important to what I’m doing. I’ve always been very comfortable with ideas of the constructed self/constructed voice/constructed text and really, I have a lot of fun with that at the heart of all I do.

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

I got a lot of good advice that I did take and a lot that i’m still not yet ready to take. I was constantly advised to clear the space I’d need for my practice. I tend to take organizational and/or supportive roles on a bit too readily and haven’t yet loosened that grip since I was about 22. It’s good advice and I’ll pass it on, though I’ve still not learned it.

The advice i’d like to have received at some point is that my ideas were worth vocalizing and executing. I have a great mistrust of entering the public sphere with either my work or my ideas, so I spent a lot of time practicing silence. It makes it difficult to speak when the time comes (notably, I’ve heard this experience echoed mostly by women writers time and again).

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

I’m not sure “right” and “wrong” are the best or only terms for what’s happening in publishing right now. It also depends how we’re applying the terms and to what aspects of the industry; the industry that publishes poetry (the range of things that fall under that broad flag) an

8-Ball: William Neil Scott

William Neil Scott was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, but spent the majority of his life in Calgary, Alberta. Scott completed a BA Honours Degree in English, with a Concentration in Creative Writing, at the University of Calgary. Wonderfull is his debut novel, and winner of the Trade Fiction of the Year Award at the 2008 Alberta Book Publishing Awards, and the 2008-09 London Reads Competition. It was also shortlisted for the 2008 Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Scott lives and writes in Calgary with his family, which includes a beautiful wife and two rambunctious little dogs who have little to no shame. He is hard at work on a number of projects, including The Illustrator, a magic realist account of the Great March of the North West Mounted Police in the late 19th century.

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

The question I wish most interviewers would ask but don’t wouldn’t be to me. The thing I’d most like to see interviewers tackle is what’s important to readers. How they see stories. What moves them. I know what moves me. I know what I love about stories. But my view of the reader’s perspective is really uninformed. It can be great and informative to read an interview of a writer discussing their work, but I’d really like to dig into the people who read our books. What they think of all stuff we jabber about to ourselves. What their concerns are. It just seems to be a part of the discourse that’s poorly served.

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

All the advice I wish I received I got. I just wish I’d taken it. Would have saved me time.

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

I’m not sure I pay enough attention to the mechanics of the publishing industry to comment on this with any authority, but what I’ve seen suggests that some houses are making a go of adapting to the changes brought by the Internet and some… aren’t. Personally I see a greater problem coming from authors who feel that this change doesn’t include them. Our job description has changed. Our parameters. We have to start doing more. And like the houses, some authors are doing that and some… aren’t.

4. How will technology change writing?

I think it’ll change writing in two ways. The first is in the delivery system. More ways to get writing quicker. The second is the short hand we use in description. I heard an author once give this great explanation of how language in description is contracting the further we go along because through television and the internet we have a much more comprehensive visual library. Back when Melville was writing Moby Dick nobody had seen a whale, so he had to describe that. Now you can cut that description off at the knees and get to the story. I assume that’ll become more and more prevalent the further we go along.

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

I don’t really have one. I wish I did. Most of my energy is devoted to trying to get momentum going. Once that happens, if that happens, the work will eventually be finished. But it’s getting that first momentum. Sometimes it takes hours. Other times weeks or months. More often than not it doesn’t come at all. It’s something I’m working on.

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

Again, I don’t really have any. That’s part of the problem. Trying to develop some now. Reading more, writing more. I’ll let you know how it goes, but so far no pattern is set in stone.


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

I think we all want the same thing when it comes to what we want to accomplish. We want to do good-if-not-great work. We want to have that recognized and rewarded. We want it to matter. I go forward and back on which of these three things matter the most, but for the last long while it’s been the first. I want to do good-if-not-great work. I want to have an idea and I want to realize it as perfectly as I can. If it sells, it sells. But the perfectly realized idea is the goal right now, not the books sold.

8. Why don’t you quit?

Because I can’t. I could quit trying to write and trying to get published (sometimes that feels very attractive) but I can’t get away from wanting to tell stories. It’s in me. Doesn’t mean it’s award-winning or worth reading, but it’s there.

8-Ball: Interview with Ariel Gordon

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor. Her first full collection of poetry is slated for publication with Palimpsest Press in spring 2010. She is a regular contributor to the Winnipeg Free Press’ books section and, each September, is Blogger-in-Chief of HOT AIR, the official blog of THIN AIR (i.e. the Winnipeg International Writers Festival). She also works part-time as Events Coordinator at Aqua Books. When not being bookish, Ariel likes tromping through the woods and taking macro photographs of mushrooms.

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

Most of the interviews I’ve done so far have been with other poets, who mostly ask congenial questions.

Once the necessary biographical information has been conveyed, I’m most interested in perceptions/linkages/ideas about and around the work that hadn’t occurred to me… in the form of questions.

The only downside to these kinds of questions (having attempted to ask them of other writers) is that when they’re posed to you, it takes time to absorb the implications, to shift your thinking on something you’re so dreadfully intimate with. So most of the answers tend to be along the lines of “Oh. Really?”

Which doesn’t make for good copy.

So if I can’t be knocked on my ass by interviewers and their pesky questions, I’d like to be flattered heaps. And have the wherewithal to respond meaningfully to said flattery.

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

I can’t think of anything. Advice is for suckers! (I also don’t do resolutions.)

Seriously, most of the advice I heard when I first started to take my writing seriously was either insulting (“Read. Write.” Um. Yeah.) or very obviously the very specific result of one writer’s negotiation with the rest of their life and their work habits (“Write in the mornings when you’re freshest.”).

Unfortunately, everyone’s mostly got to figure it out for themselves…

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

I couldn’t tell you, given my relative newness to the whole game. Except that I fervently hope print literary magazines in some form exist in ten years, given that they’re an essential proving ground.

4. How will technology change writing?

The writing of it, not a whit. I compose directly on a computer about half the time now but still rely heavily on a notebook and pencil. (And not even a mechanical pencil – hateful things!)

While I prefer not to think of myself as typical, I think I’m probably representative of most working writers today.

The reading of it… well, I’m not sure. I read my first book on a device this year (for the record, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, on a hotel pull-out in Montreal), gulping it down. But I’m not sure I’d read anything I wanted to inhabit for longer than an evening electronically…

Besides the fact that poetry apparently doesn’t yet work on e-readers, paper-and-glue books are also such wonderful artifacts. It’d be a REAL shame if we were to give them up…

That said, technology, as you put it, has also greatly facilitated the connecting of writers/writing to readers and even to other writers, both of which I think are useful.

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

This feels like a fairly precious excavation, but the process is typical of many of my recent poems. And I enjoyed the process of writing so specifically about my process, so…

I wrote a 28-line/171 word poem sometime in the summer of 2005. I know I was working on it when I was a fellow at the International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in June, because I remember a fellow Fellow seeing a print out of it on my desk and asking to read it. (I only really remember because I was a really REALLY junior Fellow and she said nice things…)

I think the poem had its beginning one hot night when I couldn’t sleep because M was snoring. And my eyes felt like they’d been salted and the sheets were rumpled and gritty and I hated the buzz of the streetlight outside and the person that was honking their horn halfway down the block instead of getting out of their g-d car and knocking to say, ‘hello, I’m here…’ but somehow in the midst of all my hating-the-world-and-especially-M my brain switched on. And so I turned on my bedside light and started to write.

The poem continues the tradition of love poems I’ve written to M, in that it looks like a love poem but is really about how he snores.

Anyways, I posted the poem to my blog in August 2005 with the title Bedding, which is later than I usually write/post poems – it’s usually the same day if at all. I think I was anxious about having no content AT ALL on the blog during the month of July, post-Hawthornden, and so put it up.

That fall, I submitted it in response to a call for submissions by Lantzville, BC-based publisher Leaf Press for a love-themed anthology they were doing. It was accepted and published by them in December 2005 with very few changes… except that the editor asked me to add either punctuation or line breaks in order to clarify a few lines. Since that book was restricted to poems of 30 lines or less, I regretfully punctuated.

In September 2008, it was published in a chapbook called The navel gaze by Kingsville, ON-based Palimpsest Press. Since the chappie was exclusively pregnancy poems, each of which had a date stamp as well as a title (i.e. Seven months: the navel gaze), the poem became known as Pre-conception: bedding.

The poem was written before I was knocked up, unlike the later preggers poems which were written because I had committed to a daily writing/posting schedule as a part of the May Day Poetry Project when I was 8 months along. Being heavily pregnant was all I could talk about and so all I could write about too. But when I was putting together the chapbook manuscript, I felt the need somehow to preface the swelling lump of poems. And Bedding (now Pre-conception: bedding, remember) seemed to do the trick. By this point, the poem was 26 lines and 182 words.

Finally, the poem will appear in my forthcoming collection of poetry, Hump, also with Palimpsest. As I recall, Jeanette Lynes (my editor) didn’t have very much to say about this one. I prefer to think she liked it enough not to say that she disliked it, which she did for a very few poems in the ms. The final version is 27 lines and 177 words.

(The poem isn’t promiscuous! I swear!)

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

It depends what season it is, what holiday is coming up, and if we’re moving house. But if all my deadlines have aligned, I have two days a week to myself to write/edit and several scrounged evenings to read.

Given the fact that I have a small child around and about, I think I’m doing okay.

Which is not to say that I write every day or even every week, but I recently realized that I get more writing done at home, when the routine is singing, than on retreat or at workshops like the Sage Hill Writing Experience or The Banff Centre.

Which is not to say that I won’t continue to retreat (RETREAT!) if only for the brisk shake-up of ideas that comes with a new location, if only for the kindred souls you gather to yourself… because there’s writing and then there’s the writing life.

Getting to know other young-ish writers – and, more recently, other young-ish writers with kids – have kept me from getting too reliant on the community in Winnipeg. Which is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t like being dependent.

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

I see books – and individual units of writing such as poems, poem sequences, short stories, and novels – as records of human endeavour. We natter to ourselves, we natter to our readers. Something changes.

As someone whose first book is coming out this year, I’m greatly anticipating being part of the larger conversation…

Beyond that, I mostly want to be able to negotiate a relatively secure insecurity for myself, which translates into time and space in which to write the next thing and the thing after that, always reaching for what I’m not currently capable of.

The rest of it I have very little control over, so I won’t speculate.

8. Why don’t you quit?

You first.

8-Ball: Interview with Evie Christie

Evie Christie’s first book Gutted was published by ECW Press. Her novel, The Bourgeois Empire is out in Fall, 2010 with ECW Press. She’s currently working on an adaptation of Racine’s Andromache for Graham McLaren and Necessary Angel Theatre Company which will premiere at Luminato. Her work can (very rarely) be found in magazines and the anthologies Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Biblioasis, 2008) and IV Lounge Nights (Tightrope, 2008).

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

I don’t get interviewed very often and I don’t talk about my writing very much.

These questions, they are lovely.

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

Slow down, maybe. But that doesn’t work in your early 20’s anyway.

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

I know almost nothing about the publishing industry.

4. How will technology change writing?

I don’t know. I like technology so I’m going to guess it will do some good and inevitably some bad. Like anything else.

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

I don’t set out to write poems or stories. Something comes to me over days and weeks, I write notes everywhere. It takes me a while to get to the writing and when I do I stay up for weeks or months until it’s done.

I’m not good about publishing unfortunately, I so rarely send work to journals but if someone asks me for a poem I’ll always happily send something. When I stumbled into writing prose I really wanted to be in Joyland, it was a lit crush so I was truly excited when it was accepted. And e-mail submissions are so much nicer–consider the technology question answered!

I sent my first book, Gutted to Michael Holmes and he was very good to me, I’d only had a few poems in small magazines at that time and I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I sent my novella to Mr. Holmes as soon as it was done, I’ve yet to complete edits.

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

I’m working on an adaptation of Racine’s Andromache right now for Graham McLaren and Necessary Angel Theatre Company. I work on new drafts every day. This means I spend time researching and working on new drafts every night. There’s a lot of ‘dicking around’ involved as well (I jacked this perfectly fitting phrase from Andrew Hood’s Desk Space interview). Almost everything I’ve written involves equal parts staring at the wall, googling, wishing I still smoked, writing and playing youtube deejay.

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

I don’t have a truly lofty ambition as a writer, I try to write something I want to read and something that reads true. I hope to write something small and beautiful in my lifetime.

8. Why don’t you quit?

I think about it and not in any melodramatic sense. Sometimes it comes down to a cumpulsion, writing as a behavioural disorder! I did quit for a while when I considered the fact that I would never write like Larkin, Hughes, Faulkner or DeLillo, never. I try not to take it all so seriously.

There’s no good answer. I just may.

8-Ball: Interview with Zachariah Wells

Zachariah Wells is a writer, editor and sometime passenger train attendant living in Halifax. His most recent collection of poems is Track & Trace (Biblioasis, 2009) and The Essential Kenneth Leslie, which he edited, will be published in March by The Porcupine’s Quill. His website is zachariahwells.com and he blogs at Career Limiting Moves.

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

Q: Is it true what they say about bald men being more virile?

A: Yes, Kate Winslet, yes it is.

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

Don’t try to publish that shit–you’ll regret it.

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

Lots of things are wrong with the publishing industry, but the thing that’s bugging me most these days is the union-type rules related to Canada Council block grant disbursements, whereby really enterprising, energetic and talented junior publishers receive smaller grants than sluggish, attenuated, mediocre relics–no matter what the jury recommends. These grants should be going to the houses making the most significant contributions–now–to publishing, not to those whose main claims to fame are their backlist and the fact of their survival. But then, survival’s what Canadian literature’s all about, ain’t it.

I think there are a lot of really dynamic small presses producing worthwhile books and in many cases making those books into beautiful objects. I think a few players on the small press scene have really raised the bar over the last decade, which has spurred some presses to up their game and has provided inspiration and a positive example to upstart publishers. Good design is so important, I think. What’s the point of making something few people are going to buy if you make it cheap and ugly? There are enough cheap and ugly things in the world. So kudos to presses like Gaspereau, Biblioasis, Coach House and the Porcupine’s Quill, to name a few, for giving words durable and stylish homes.

4. How will technology change writing?

It can only be changed so much. Writing’s a time-based art form. One word, then another.

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

For poems, there is no process, nor are there typical pieces. Each one happens on its own terms and turns out how it turns out. A poem is only interesting insofar as it’s atypical. Once I’ve got a draft I’m reasonably happy with, I publish it on my blog. If an editor asks me for poems, I’ll send them, but I very rarely submit unsolicited poems. Can’t be bothered. When I’ve got enough good poems that seem to go together, I assemble a manuscript and give it to my publisher. Then I work on the ms. with an editor. Then a book comes out.

As far as a specific example goes, for anyone who’s interested, I recommend checking out my essay, “A Muddled, Duller Place,” published in the Frog Hollow Press anthology Approaches to Poetry: The Pre-Poem Moment. It’s way too long to reproduce here.

For reviews, it usually involves someone asking me to write something and giving me a deadline by which it’s to be received. I get the book in the mail, read it once, more or less right away, out loud. This reading is to give me a sense of how it sounds, more than what it says. Then I put it away until closer to the deadline and read it again, silently, taking notes, often re-reading individual poems several times. Then I try to articulate my thoughts and feelings about the book as cogently and succinctly as possible. Once I’ve finished a couple of drafts, I read it aloud to myself to try and catch any boggy bits and infelicities of grammar and syntax. There’s no shit-detector like an out-loud reading, I find. Then I hand it in and do any revisions the editor requires. It bugs me a bit when someone says, based on nebulous ideas about what my aesthetic predilections are, that my reviews are skewed by a priori judgments of books, because I put quite a lot of work into them and often wind up surprising myself. A specific recent example being my long review of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Found in Arc Poetry Magazine.

I go thru a similar process for essays, but the idea for an essay is more often mine than a magazine editor’s, so I’ll pitch it before I write it.

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

My life’s far too erratic for daily habits. I write when I feel like it and read when I can.

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

Personally, all I want to do is write the best poems I’m capable of writing. Professionally–more like amateurly, in the non-pejorative sense of the word–I hope that a few, or even one, of those poems are read by strangers long after I’m dead.

As a reviewer, my principal desire is to spark discussion.

8. Why don’t you quit?

Because if I quit, then all the stupid lifestyle decisions I’ve made over the last dozen years will have been for nothing. It’s a MacBeth-type thang.

8-Ball: Interview with Natalee Caple

Natalee Caple is the author of four books of fiction and poetry. She is co-editor with Michelle Berry of an anthology, The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers (Doubleday Canada). Her short story collection, The Heart is its Own Reason, was reviewed positively by the New York Times. Her first novel, The Plight of the Happy People in an Ordinary World, was optioned for film, and her book of poetry, A More Tender Ocean, was nominated for a Gerald Lampert Award. Her latest novel, Mackerel Sky, about a mother-daughter conterfeiting team operating out of the Upper Laurentians, was published in Canada (Thomas Allen Books), and in the United States (St. Martin’s Press).

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

That’s a really hard question to answer unless I have just finished a specific book and then I usually want to be asked about my secret codes, the films that I watched while I was writing it, what the end moral is — things like that. Now (as in today) I think I would like someone to ask me if I ever think about quitting and why and what makes me return to writing. I’d also like to be asked about my process and maybe about the effect that having kids has had on me as a writer and as a human being. I used to ask writers what their greater project was, what they wanted to accomplish with their books if they could only accomplish one thing. I have a tendency to ask for those sort of distillations. I would always say that I wanted to create a series of memorable female characters who defied gender and genre expectations and who opened up to other writers a universe of possible women, tough, difficult, sexy, brilliant, whatever — but new images of women for women. And maybe I have always wanted to find a way to make women heroes. Although I don’t know if I believe in heroes and I don’t know if women can surrender themselves (or should) enough to become legendary figures or if that’s just too kitsch (to paraphrase Milan Kundera — too lacking in shit) to be real for us.

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

I think if I could go back and talk to my twenty-two-year-old self I would say, don’t worry so much. Don’t make it the measure of your life. It’s part of who you are and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s less good. Don’t read the rags about who is making what and don’t answer questions like, how many books did you sell, or how much is that prize/contract/anything worth. Protect the part of your life where you write as dearly as you protect the part where you sleep. You have a right to your preferences. When you are writing you are being human, nothing more or less. It is, at once, very special and not special at all. This is The Plight of Happy People in an Ordinary World, that your experiences are so immediate and important regardless of how many people before or after you have gone through similar losses or triumphs. Love is better than money and happiness is better than fame. Happiness is in fact your greatest responsibility. Never ever become the kind of writer who needs to be unhappy.

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

The problem with the publishing industry is that they are concerned with a market that doesn’t really exist or at least changes so often that it can’t actually be predicted. It’s like we are all in love and want to be romanced on the deck of the Titanic so we keep looking at each other thinking are you the one? And then we get mad because most often we are on this really old boat that only ever had a few people on it but it’s a sunny day and it’s really quiet here and it smells clean and it’s not so bad and the lake isn’t that deep and we all figured out how to swim to shore before we got on. You know, we thought everything would change when our name appeared on the spine of a book but we were wrong to think that because you know, super-crap, I’m still me. And OK we’re really hungry and there is one Smartie in the stupid boat but did we come here for dinner or to sail a little bit before the moon rises? Do you know what I mean at all? The real problem is we know when they are lying about how important we are but we don’t know when they are lying about how important our peers are.

4. How will technology change writing?

I will stop losing files when I change platforms. I feel like all my books are packed in valises that get left behind at train stations when my memory fills up and my passport is about to expire.

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

I usually start by telling a joke about the next thing I will do. With Mackerel Sky I was at Banff with Susan Swan and Patrick Crean after Wordfest. I was kind of excited about having appeared on a panel with real crime writers and Susan was kind of offended by it. She said, Natalee your work is literary fiction it’s not genre fiction. Susan is very protective of me. And I said I thought it was both. She argued that crime fiction was all about plot and I said well, Albert Camus’s The Stranger is a court room drama, a kind of crime fiction. Same with Nabokov’s Lolita, isn’t it a confession? I always want to keep all the tools, even when I don’t know how to use them. I said, as a joke, maybe I’ll be the one to write the young feminist western out of Alberta that responds to French theory. We all laughed and went our separate ways and then at dinner I said, I’ve been thinking about it all day — do you know anything about Calamity Jane? And Susan said, I’ve been thinking about it too. I get shivers. And that’s how the idea was born for the new book. So, often it starts with me thinking broadly about what I haven’t done. I do this a lot with short stories, as you know because of our short story club. I kind of start by saying, oh crap I have to do something what are other people doing and what do I think is fun or even funny about that? Or else I think, well I like science fiction and I haven’t written any science fiction — what is the Natalee version of a Philip K. Dick story? What do I like about the things I like? I recently wrote my first ever ghost story. I had never been interested in ghosts or ghost stories before the recent deaths of three friends and three family members. My friends died and my family died and I understood the trace in a new way and it’s importance. So I wrote a funny happy ghost story and I gave myself permission to fantasize about some impossible return. It really excited me to find something new in my own mind. I have also been trying out fables and fairy tales. It’s really about me thinking outside myself, thinking about things I have enjoyed as a spectator and finding a way to engage as an author.

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

My habits change based on where I am in a project. At the beginning I spend a lot of time casting about and reading widely and watching films and brainstorming. Then when something starts to take hold I research other works that I might find inspiring. When I’m in the real heat of writing a long project I have, in the past, watched about three or four movies a day that I think have a tone or an idea in common with the work. I will, at that point, read voraciously but only with the hope of masticating ideas and finding a way to nourish the book. I’m not a big talker about projects except when I’ve shown part of it to someone. I’m afraid of accomplishing something by talking about it that I should accomplish in the writing of it. I regularly review what I have and list the things I want to accomplish with the book, even though those change or have to be discarded when they don’t seem — ugh —  organic or natural or something in the body of the final work. It’s hard to saw off a favourite vestigial organ and I have a soft spot for the digression but sometimes the bloody thing has got to go. In the final stages I start reading and editing for specific things so one day I might only look at one character throughout the novel or I might only look at the quality of language or only at setting or only at dialogue. I change or note other things as well but I find for continuity it works best for me to do many many passes where I focus on different things. Then I ask myself if there is anything I need to do before I let it go because after this the book won’t belong to me anymore in the same way — it will belong to everyone and they will all read it differently and I do want it to belong to readers but that last goodbye is hard. When I finished writing the first draft of my first novel I was living with my first husband in an apartment in the Annex in Toronto and I didn’t want to wake him up but I had so much crazy energy that I ran around the living room in circles until I exhausted myself and fell asleep. I was so happy, but when I woke up I was so sad because I would never write another new scene as part of that first life with those characters. It’s funny how I come to see them as companions and I miss them when we are done with each other.

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

I want to be happy. I want to enjoy writing like I did in the beginning when everything seemed possible and I didn’t know if I could do it but I just wanted to try. I want writing to be part of my regular everyday life and to feel great about that. I want a real life, a private life with my kids and my husband and my family and my friends that doesn’t get publicly examined. I want to get better at what I do with every book and I want to write things that people read and feel affected by. I know that all sounds trite. But I really worry about happiness and how to be a good person and how to be fulfilled. Ideally, I would never have to think about money in terms of my writing or my family. Ideally, I would be able to make decisions based on what would be best for me for my writing, for my kids, and not what we can afford. Ideally, I would show them the world and they could pursue all of their interests. I don’t think I need a lot of money for this. I just would like to make enough that I never had to feel that anything was impossible for us just because of money. Money isn’t real, you know. I want to feel really happy with my books and like I challenged myself with each one and that each one represents a different part of me and my living brain. I want to feel free to move between genres and I guess I want to feel recognized for my efforts and my accomplishments. I would most like to empower readers and other writers and to give them a sense of how yes, writing is hard, but it is a mark of human living and not a superhuman accomplishment. I’d like people to take themselves seriously and to feel joy as well as pain when they read my works. I’d like to know that I made a connection even though I wasn’t there. I’d like to leave a legacy for my kids and grandkids about the things I thought and what I valued. For me writing is being.

8. Why don’t you quit?

Oh my god you did ask it. I’ll answer it tomorrow — my daughter is coughing and I’m not sure how maudlin I have been already. Wine.