Here’s a few photographs I took of Jack Hodgins last week for an interview that ran in the Oak Bay News. I hadn’t seen Jack in a couple of years so it was great to have a few minutes to chat. His latest novel The Master Of Happy Endings is just out.
LP: You have a new book of essays coming out, a book you co-edited (with Jamie Dopp) on hockey called Now is the Winter. What can you tell us about this book?
RH: Let me sell it: if you want to think about hockey inside and outside the rink, inside and outside the arena, inside and outside the hockey world, this is a book for you. It’s a collection of essays about the game as a social, political, environmental and personal bellweather; the essayists here — historians, literary writers, sociologists from Canada and the U.S. (of course) but also from as far away as New Zealand — see in hockey a way of seeing globalization through world leagues, sexual politics in women’s shinny, environmental issues in the Stanley Cup, community identity (a Canadian obsession) in team play. And more. Reading the book is like being at one of those round-table discussions of the game that bring together not just the people you’d expect to be there finding new depths of discussion about the usual topics in hockey, but also unexpected guests with surprising ways of thinking about the game.
LP: Hockey is a big interest of yours. You even belong to a group of university profs who, what, teach courses on hockey writing? You have conventions with attendees from all around the world. What is the group all about, what do you do at the conventions? Where is the next one?
RH: The next one’s in Buffalo in June of 2010. I even have the title: “Hockey on the Border.” It’s going to be about the way that hockey is fed by and feeds the distinctions between self and other. That distinction is one that team games like hockey need, of course. But hockey, perhaps more than any other sport except perhaps soccer, another “people’s game”, is embedded in an international consciousness, so I think the distinction between self and other is a complex one for hockey. And that complexity is why it keeps getting talked about. For North Americans, sports like football and baseball are largely single-nation games that are occasionally played on an international level, so the rivalry between teams is the “friendly” rivalry of cities within the same country. But hockey’s rivalries are almost always at least two-nation affairs — not just Canadian/American teams, but French and English within Canada, and now, obviously, between teams that, by virtue of the international make-up of their rosters, somehow become “Russian” or “Swedish” according to the nationalities of their star players.
Soccer has a similar structure, of course, with Big Stars floating above their nationalities to join particular teams, but even so, within the British Premier League, for example, all the cities at play are English cities, so, as Kelly Hewson points out in her essay in Now is the Winter , “You Said You Didn’t Give a Fuck About Hockey,” the NHL, being, somewhat oddly, bi-national under the “National” banner, has a touch of the Olympic event in almost every match.
What we talk about at these conferences is everything we can talk about about the game. We’re there not just because we love the game, but because for us, there’s just so much to see in it. Perhaps that’s the definition of love. But for us, it’s true. Hockey continues to cast up images for the nation, excitement for the fans, metaphors for the so-called higher pursuits, anecdotes that amuse us, tragic situations that move us to pity. It’s the great spectator sport: part theatre, part home life, part battle, part love. All at top speed.
LP: Staying with hockey but straying away from the literary aspect. What did you think about Theoren Fleury’s attempted comeback with the Calgary Flames? For those who don’t follow hockey Fleury was a long time Flame and fan favourite who left the game six years ago and just tried a comeback this fall. He was cut one game before the regular season started.
RH: Well, there’s an example right there. To flesh out the story here, even as Theo himself is breaking open all the secrets in his just-released autobiography,
Fleury drank, drugged, and misbehaved himself out of the NHL. He’s open about this now, and about confirming the long-standing speculation that at least one of the demons that Fleury has been fighting by sacrificing his body (both by throwing it into the arena against much larger men, and throwing drugs and alcohol into it against his personal pain and secrets), at least one of those demons is either suffering sexual abuse himself at the hands of the same junior coach who molested Sheldon Kennedy, or his own helplessness in the face of knowledge of that abuse. Both things — what’s done to them and what they didn’t do — can stay within a person their whole life. And while Kennedy took the route of therapy and therapeutic public disclosure of the sins against him (and the guilt he felt for being sinned against), Fleury took the route common among many men of keeping things inside and trying to “man up” his way through the suffering. Whatever the reason, drink and drugs become their own need, and that both caught up and overtook him six years ago was inevitable. But we don’t always see the inevitable coming.
That’s what makes the Fleury comeback so intriguing, in that he tried to go BACK to the same place he went to before to redeem himself at the level of hockey player. The substance abuse that may have driven the pain from him for a while drove him from the League, at the time, it seemed, forever. Whatever else he needs to do from here on, I think that he needed to undo the damage of his previous behaviour in order to do it. It’s as if he needed to experience the height of his playing days in order to get on with dealing with both his past and future lives. And as much as it is possible to have done so, he did it. He’s able to say to himself, At least I didn’t lose everything. Whatever we all feel or felt about him as a person, that’s an admirable story.
From the stands, the fans loved him. When he skated off the ice for what ended up being the last time, it was to a standing ovation. That makes sense of his desire — as he agreed with Darryl Sutter — to either be a top 6 winger on the team or not on the team at all. He couldn’t find that sense of himself he wanted in a hockey player having the only the final years of his career that he’d lost: he wanted to feel that sensation of being great; he wanted to touch that greatness again — to feel it from the outside in order to know that it’s there within. Then he could let it go. We all wished him well. I wish him well. His story’s not over, and I’m very interested in seeing what he does now
LP: You’re also interested in comic books and have incorporated this into your work. How do comics fit in? And. You just presented as paper at the San Diego Comic-Con? What is a Comic-Con? Was your paper a scholarly one? How was it received?
RH: How about I take these two together? I grew up reading comics. Nothing extraordinary there. Millions of kids did from the late fifties, when I was born, right up to the mid-80s when their quality collapsed just as they were being challenged by video-games. The video-game challenge has only grown, but I’m pleased with the way that comics have regrouped and improved. Anyway: aside from the sense of the comic book producing what all art produces — an escape from reality and a mirror — I think the reason that the poet in me loves the comic book reader in me is that both are entranced by the way that images create the illusion of experience. Both poetry and comics are images (one made of words, the other made of drawings) plus language (one made of words, the other also made of words) combined. In poetry the combination of image-language and the rest is seamless; in comics you can see the two interacting. But both are art forms that offer something to focus on intently at the juncture of two ways of expressing information, and thus they are both, for me, very involving. When I’m thinking about comics, writing them, drawing, there’s nothing else in the world. When I’m writing poetry, listening to it, reading it alone, there’s nothing else in the world.
The paper I gave at Comic-Con was about the connection between the origin story of Superman — which everyone thinks they know and was written in one go — and the origin story of Batman, which everyone does know and was written, essentially in its entirety as the front three pages of a Batman comic in the 40s. The connection is that a key element of the Superman story — Superman’s awareness of himself as the last survivor of dead Krypton — was added to his story 11 years after Superman was introduced. And the man who wrote that essential element into the Superman story was Bill Finger, the same man who killed young Bruce Wayne’s parents right in front of him in order to provide the motivation for Batman’s life. Finger went even further in the Superman story, but (since we were talking about upcoming books) you’ll need to read the paper “The Dark Knight Origin of the Man of Steel” which will soon be published in the book of essays I’m co-authoring with my friend Lee Easton and which will be released in the fall of 2010 in The Secret Identity Reader.
Oh, and the essay, I’m very happy to tell you, was very well received. Comic-Con was amazing. 135,000 people who all love comics and things comicbook — movies, toys, video games, statues, costumes, all gathered for an extraordinarily peaceable conference to think from and about that love in detail.
LP: Do you get a hard time from colleagues who consider themselves more ‘literary’ about your hockey and comic passions?
RH: You know, the comic book connection constantly surprises me. I can’t believe how many academics come out of the comic book closet to talk about their love for the form, or their sense that they were alone in caring about it. Every time I push a boundary with my work with the comic book, I’m met well. My essay on Superman got great coverage from Mount Royal University; I’ve got colleagues all over the world because of it. I wrote a poem as part of the Calgary celebration of Christian Bök’s launch of the second edition of Eunoia (a remarkable achievement on many levels). The poem was my entry in a contest sponsored by FFWD magazine to take on the oulipian task of writing a poem without one of the vowels or a poem with only one. It tickled me in a way that knowledge of such things hadn’t in the past, so I wrote a series of dramatic monologues from the point of view of Batman’s villains, depriving each of them of a vowel. Then Batman answered using only words that had “a” in them. My poem about the Joker (he didn’t have an “I”) won, and so I read with Christian. The evening went tremendously, and my own little part was very well received. There’s something about these comic book figures, these tricksters and wish-fulfillment characters, these fantasy men and women who border between erudition and shame that really attracts the mind. In a sense they are empty figures, waiting for us to fill them; in a sense they make us feel small and humbled by the sheer extravagance of their stories.
The hockey/academic connection has been a little tougher to negotiate. I’ve had a lot of good luck, perhaps because hockey players, in their outsized, padded bodies, their colourful costumes, their moving faster than the speed of the land creatures the rest of us are have superheroic qualities and create larger-than-life stories, are also subjects that attract many people inside and outside the academy. I’ve had some dismissal, but largely because hockey players, and the hockey world, is a real world. I’m less clearly writing about works of art (a proper subject for literary people) when I write about hockey. I’m writing about real people, people who are as often (it seems sometimes) as brutal as they are beautiful. And hockey is an ugly business. In writing about hockey through its images, I can and do reach people who live and love the game. I can and do reach people who dislike the game, yet still want to understand it. But I don’t really reach the game’s critics — critics of the game from both inside and out. My hockey work as a poet is more romantic than sociological, so I’ve found a level of acceptance that I never thought I would, and I’m very grateful for that. I’ve also met with the same criticisms that the game has met with. In a real way, now that I’ve written that out, I’m grateful for that, too.
LP: You’ve been a long time instructor at Mount Royal College in Calgary. Recently Mount Royal was given university status. Has this changed your life at all?
RH: It’s changed it in the sense that any change in the name of a relationship changes the relationship. College means one thing, university another. Being in a relationship means one thing, marriage another. And that pretty well sums it up. Everything has changed in exactly that way.
LP: You are married with kids, do any of your family members share your interests? Do they give you a special connection with your children? It must be kind of cool to have a Dad whose work includes studying and writing about comic books.
RH: Well, we were just talking about marriage and here it is again. My daughter is an intern animator at a Calgary studio, 15 Pound Pink. They’ve done some great work — Mr. Reaper’s Really Bad Morning, and (with film credits to my daughter) The Intergalactic Who’s Who. Animation is different from comics, the way, perhaps song lyrics differ from poems, but there’s a lot of overlap. She came with me to San Diego and had a wonderful time. My son is just getting into comics. We alternate between the Harry Potter series, single books for children like Safe As Houses, and (currently) Iron Man and Silver Surfer comics for his day or bed-time reading. (On his own he’s reading the sort-of-comic Diary of a Wimpy Kid series). I wrote Hero the Play, in large part, to explain to my then girl-friend, now wife, why I loved hockey. No poem goes into the world without her OK. So my family is always there in my work, in my consciousness about what I’m doing. I hope it’s cool. I haven’t asked.
LP: Family life, teaching and writing your own work must keep you very busy but you’ve also begun working as an editor for Frontenac House. How did that position come about? Will you be editing any particular genre of book for them?
RH: I’ll be editing Frontenac’s 2011 Quartet series. Frontenac, as you know, launches four books together every spring. For their 10th anniversary next year, they’re launching an incredible 10 books together. And then the publishers/editors are taking a well-earned break. They asked me to come in and do the job for the year; they’re wanting me to both bring a different editorial eye to the press — after 10 years, it’s time to broaden the approach — and perhaps be a new line of communication between the press and other poets. I’ve loved all the editing I’ve done for other houses in the past, and they’ve always liked my work. This is a chance to bring our approaches together, and, hopefully, help expand Frontenac’s offerings. And, of course, produce a suite of books that everyone is proud to see printed and happy to own.
LP: About your own writing. You’re primarily known as a poet. What are you working on these days?
RH: I’ve got new poems on the go. I’m really letting them come as they do. Three of my books (four if you count the 10th anniversary editon of Hero) are themed: Hockey, My daughter’s acquisition of language (which I was told the other day passed the test of being read by a linguist), and faith & violence. This one is a bit like a first book, a map of the world. I find most first books are like that, maps of the world that the young poet draws and then spends the rest of their writing filling in. Whatever the next book will be (and I don’t want to rush it, I’ve felt that at least some of the flaws in my earlier work has come from wanting poems made too fast), whatever that book will be, I’ll just keep writing till I find it. There’s a real mix of prose poems, rhyme, poems taken on, like that Batman series, on an impulse or a whim. I’m having fun.
LP: Do all your other activities connected to writing interfere with the poetry or fuel it?
RH: I think that a person’s art is always fueled by their life in the same way that their happiness, or lack of it, is fuelled by the lives they lead. I’ve had several “careers” or opportunities for the same. I could have been a biologist, or a philosopher, but I chose to go this way instead. There are times I wonder what behavioural biologist Richard Harrison is doing on his world that’s parallel to mine, or what lecture the philosopher I could have been is giving. And sometimes I regret not being either of those men, or someone else. But the moments of regret are few and shorter all the time. To me the poetry — and all that’s followed from my writing — is where everything I ever have been goes to live. I think that may be less a definition of art (though for me it’s art that defines my life) than it is of happiness with life itself. But in the end, they’re one thing — the life you choose and the life you want to be happy with.
And I think that, contrary to what a lot of people believe, it’s often the life that looks like it has too much interference in it that produces the artist’s greatest art. Look at Annabel Lyon: mother of two children writing The Golden Mean between naps, bathtimes, feeding, changing etc etc (any mother will tell you how much young children need from you). You’d think that would be a formula to bring creative work to a standstill. But there she is with a book about Aristotle and Alexander inspired by the attacks of September 11 and a great gnawing need to make sense of it all. I don’t think there’s an “interference” there; I think that Annabel’s life made writing that book necessary, even as she folded it up in tiny packages and sent it into the world. Likewise there are enormous numbers of examples of writers producing work as a way to balance the demands and pressures, the cacophony of the world: Melville writing Moby Dick when he had a bunch of kids to feed (someone can tell me how many), Balzac fighting off debtors, Dostoyevsky scribbling Notes From Underground in the gulag; domestically, Audrey Thomas writing her GG-nominated Mrs. Blood in the same spaces that Annabel wrote. And on and on. In my own little work, it’s the one I wrote about Emma learning to speak while I was the house-father that gained me the most critical attention for the way I was working with the language. I know there are opposites, even within these examples. Every one of these periods of intense involvement with “the world” that interferes with writing is balanced by a disciplined period of time away from it. But being able to use the time away comes AFTER the period of involvement. Honestly, I’ve never clutched a blank book and taken that kind of a break from My Life in order to write and had anything decent come of it; such a time only works when I’ve got to bring with me are pages choked with writing that I wrote during my involvment with the things that people say interfere with writing. Then I’ve got something to work with in that quiet space. I love the quiet space, but, here’s the thing: without the things that interfere with my writing, I’d have no writing.
LP: Who’ll win the Stanley Cup this year?
RH: The Cup Final will come down to whoever’s in 3rd place in the Western Conference (or Calgary) vs whoever’s in 2nd place in the Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference at the end of the season. The Cup will be won by whichever of those teams has the best record from February on. Or Calgary.
Listen to Richard Harrison read his poems here.
LP: You’ve got a new book out, a travel book, Beyond Belfast, published by Penguin. What’s it about?
WF: It’s about a two-month, 560 mile hike I did along the Ulster Way “the longest waymarked trail in the British Isles.” It was bogs, banshees and blood sausage. With sheer-drop coastlines, crumbling castles and many’s a pub.
LP: Why Northern Ireland?
WF: I was raised by the daughter of a Belfast orphan, and Northern Ireland has always been there, lurking in the background — not the least of which is due to family rumours of a lost inheritance and a possible castle of my own. My grandfather’s past is murky at the best of times, and a mystery lurks at the heart of the story.
LP: One of your first books was Hitching Rides with Buddha, where you hitchiked across Japan. As a slightly older person than you were then, were there any differences or challenges in the physical act of traveling?
WF: I’m certainly more creaky and less patient when it comes to bad meals and questionable sleeping arrangements. I camped on the trail several times in Northern Ireland, and I when I woke I always felt like I’d just come from the wrong end of a pummeling.
LP: What’s next? Are you working on another novel?
WF: The next book is a Christmas memoir with an illustrator. It’s a gift book about my own childhood in northern Alberta titled Coal Dust Kisses.
LP: Will we ever see another Canadian political/historical book from you?
WF: It may be a while. I really feel I’ve said my piece — and anyway, my Canadiana usual springs out of anger and outrage, and lately I haven’t been angry enough to launch into another extended harangue. Irked, yes. Annoyed, certainly, But not really angry.
LP: You’ll be on the road promoting this new book, do you bring reading material and if so, what for this trip?
WF: I’m reading a travel/political memoir titled Untapped. It’s about the scramble for Africa’s oil. It’s fascinating — and sobering. (Although I love writing fiction, I prefer reading nonfiction.)
Will Ferguson’s website is: www.willferguson.ca
Cat George finished her last shift as a journalist on Friday March 13 and tomorrow, Monday March 15, she starts work on her first novel.
LP: You’re writing a first book and at the same time a blog about that experience. Doesn’t that put a lot of pressure on you as a writer?
CG: Yes, I suppose – but I think that’s a good thing. If I’m just at home writing in a vacuum, I think there might be – for me at least – the feeling
that I can let myself off the hook, not work for a few days if I’m feeling a little blocked, just do other things. By inviting people to follow along
with me, keeping them up to date, I’ll know that someone’s keeping an eye on my progress and my work. Kind of like appointing the Internet readership as
my boss; I’m accountable to them.
LP: What can you tell us about the book, is it a novel, non – fiction, what is it about? Have you done any actual writing work on it already?
CG: It’s a novel; the idea comes from a short story I did a few years ago, during my BFA in Creative Writing at UBC. I’d been tinkering with reworking the story for a while and then suddenly realized it just couldn’t work as a short story because there was too much there. I’ve got a big outline, about15 pages, and a few pages worth of scenes written out. I’ve been jumping to get going for a bit now but decided I would hold off and commit to actually start writing on March 16, to treat it as if I was starting a new job. It’s about an older woman – she’s 75 – who’s volunteering in a museum that ends up featuring an exhibit that’s right out of her own childhood. She realizes that what the museum is presenting as history doesn’t mesh with what she remembers as happening, and from there it deals with her trying to determine how the past has shifted on her. That part of the book takes place in 1985.
The other part of the book, her memories of her teenage years, take place in the 1920s.
LP: What happens if it takes more than your self imposed deadline of a year to finish?
CG: Well, at this point I’m still optimistic, so I might have to come back to that question eight months from now with a better sense of whether that’s
how things will go. I like deadlines, I work better with them, so I knew I’d need to set one and a year was a nice, round choice. If it turns out that on
March 16, 2010, I haven’t finished a complete book, but that I’m well on the way to the finish, I’m not going to be too upset; I’ll just have to find some more
time and complete it, I guess. Financially it would be better if I was done within a year.
LP: Why a book, why now? You’re leaving a full time reporter job to do this. Isn’t that huge risk?
CG: Certainly I’ve heard that from other people; but, actually, I think that this was the time when it had to be done. I don’t have any kids, I don’t
have a mortgage, I’m pretty much finished with my student-loan debt from my school days; I’m not risking anybody else’s future or major financial havoc
by choosing to do this. I’ve been saying I’d write a book since I was 15 and the one element I’ve always felt holding me back is that I just didn’t have
the time. So I made the decision about a year ago that I would make the time, and that I would do that by setting aside money and then giving myself
a year for the project. I didn’t want to look back two decades from now and think, I could have written a novel then but I wasn’t willing to take the
risk. I want to look back two decades from now and think, good job on that first novel.
LP: Where can readers follow your writing adventures?
CG: I’m online at www.oneyearbook.wordpress.com.
LP: Your book Mavericks, An Incorrigible History of Alberta published in 2001, was transformed into a Glenbow Museum online exhibit in
2007. How did that come about?
When I wrote Mavericks, I was almost ambushed by my own interest in Alberta´s history. Like most Albertans, I don´t think of it as a place with a fascinating back story, but when Penguin asked me to write the popular history, I was utterly intrigued by the stories that I found. So I immersed myself in the province´s past with much more enthusiasm than I expected. When the Glenbow came to me and asked if they could use the book to frame their new western history exhibition, I readily agreed, since history is in the public domain–it doesn´t “belong” to anyone. I expected that they would just go ahead, but then they came back and asked me to get involved with the exhibition, which was both fun and
challenging. I wrote the text panels, which were excellent challenge for distilled narrative; I had to compress each life (of the 48 mavericks) into 88 words and the sectional descriptions into 111 words.
Once the material exhibition was up, the online exhibit, which is based on the real one, followed. I didn´t do the online exhibit, but I was completely involved with the real exhibit. I learned an enormous amount, I loved the writing challenge that was presented by making this information available to the public, and I was more and more immersed in Alberta´s history, which has now become a serious obsession for me. LP: How much input did you have in the transformation process?
I didn´t work on the online exhibit. I worked on the Glenbow´s concrete exhibit. While the Glenbow Mavericks used my history of Alberta (entitled Mavericks: an Incorrigible History of Alberta) as a model, the book, the Glenbow exhibit, and the online exhibit are separate and entirely different entities. First of all, the exhibit deals with southern Alberta, second of all it chooses a number of characters to tell the story of Alberta; third, the exhibition uses characters that I didn´t even mention in my book. So it is entirely different, and yet uses some of the tonality of the original book, which was tongue in cheek, humorous, and irreverent.
LP: What do you think the online exhibit has added to your original work?
The online exhibit takes the initiative and the tone of the exhibition, which takes the initiative and the tone of the irreverent history that I wrote. I wanted to ask questions about Alberta, to show that the whole province is a kind of leap of imagination, a place that refuses to be what people expect and in the process turns out to be interesting, unusual and very difficult to quantify.
LP: What feedback have you received on this project?
I’ve received endless comments, letters, messages and questions–and I enjoy all of their different perspectives, both positive and negative. Various people complain that their grandfather was not included; many want to add names to the mavericks that we chose. Overall, though, people have been generous in their responses; they love my version of Alberta (unorthodox as it is), and they only wish that the rest of Canada would acquaint itself with this crazy province, instead of accepting the cliches that are ascribed to us. That is an ongoing friction between Alberta and the rest of Canada, and it likely won’t change too soon.
LP: If you were updating the book, are there any new ‘mavericks, you would add?
There are dozens so I don’t want to list just one or two. I would add the women who did essential work but who got little recognition like the schoolteachers who came out to teach in the one room schools all across the province. I would add the landladies and the laundresses. And I would add more members of the settler community, who are overshadowed by the ranching tradition here in the west.
LP: Has this book to internet site metamorphosis made you think about how you might create online representations of any of your other work.
Yes, but I would have to work with people of the same calibre and level who mounted the Glenbow website–and for all that we are so technologically savvy, they aren’t easy to find!
LP: You’re a long time professor at the University of Calgary but are currently on a research leave. Can you talk about what you’re working on during the leave?
I am working on some projects related to history–a happy outcome of all of this background research. I am horribly superstitious, though, and won’t talk about their content.
LP: You’ve written fiction, non-fiction and criticism, any favourites among your books?
I am fond of Mavericks because it is a book that enabled me to make mistakes and to enjoy mistakes. Because I am not an historian, I knew that I was in a fraught position trying to write a history of Alberta, but despite that, I found it a challenging way to engage facts with my story-telling ability.
LP: As a teacher and department head you’ve taught and mentored a great number of young writers. What do you think of your role as a writing influence?
I have never been a department head; that’s a weird myth and incorrect. Mostly, I’ve stayed away from administration, aside from serving as the Coordinator for the Creative Writing area of English, which is mostly just making sure that those courses and those students at the University of Calgary continue to do well.
What is satisfying is the hundreds of writers I have mentored as a teacher of writing. Those who have gone on to publish books include Thomas Wharton, Anita Badami, Andrew Wedderburn, Joan Crate, and Jessica Grant–watch for her new novel out soon, entitled “Come, Thou Tortoise.” I’ve been fortunate to have gifted, talented, and engaged and engaging students, all of whom keep me interested in writing and in words.
LP: Calgary, your home, has experienced tremendous growth and change the past few decades. Your 1998 novel Restlessness incorporated a lot of the city into the narrative. Would a reader today, just a relatively short time after the book was published, have trouble finding some of the places in the book?
Actually, Restlessness is more apropos and germane right now than it was even before the boom–and most of the places that are mentioned in the novel are still there, or findable–I chose landmarks that don’t just vanish. Calgary changes quickly, but in a strange way, does not change at all, just grows (some would say like a cancer). But like the grasslands that surround the city, despite the sprawl of suburbs and the fingers of high rise buildings, Calgary is always and eternally itself. That is almost contradictory as an idea, but there is an element of Calgary’s character that is remarkably resilient and stable. But that element is the secret Calgary that only Calgarians know, and it is not evident to newcomers or outsiders. It is an aspect of the city’s character that is hard to quantify but present as a spirit, a breath, and borne only on the back of the chinook.
LP: How has Calgary’s growth affected the literary community?
There are more writers choosing to call this place home, but in a commodity-based town, culture is always crouched under the back porch. The literary community, the theatre community, the art community in Calgary are hardy and combative. They have to be. Calgary’s growth seduced a great number of people to move here, but only the ones who really fall in love with the city stay, although once people move to Calgary, they are intrigued and often do choose to stay. It’s a seductive place, although no one again can quite quantify why. The energy is good, and the community spirit strong; that makes all the difference.
LP: You won a lucrative prize for your first novel Judith and, quite famously, used the money to buy yourself a Porsche. If you received an unexpected financial bonus today, what would you buy yourself?
I am not likely to receive any financial windfalls, since I write what I am interested in and without regard for the market. If I made a pile, I’d think about buying another Porsche–and probably decide not to. But whatever happens, I work by the creed that artists always give back, and I try to do that, by supporting other artists’ work when I have any spare money.
LP: What is your next writing project and when can we expect to read it?
I am working on another book that involves history, but that is all I am willing to say. It could change overnight.
LP: You have a novel coming out shortly? What can you tell us about it?
NM: OK, I’m not the greatest at speaking about my own books, but I’ll give this a whirl… Here’s what we came up with for the back blurb: Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot is a narrative of longing for self-creation, but also for self-destruction, restlessly twisting and turning through triangular friendships, teenage delinquents, Nazi killing hospitals for the disabled, the inane ex-boyfriend, a dying father’s sudden conversion to parenting, and fantastic tales of the Mormon Angel Moroni on estrogen.
It’s called Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot, partly because I liked the contrast between staunch zealotry and a cluttered scrapbook. But I also gave it that title to encompass the non-linear nature of the novel. The narrator goes through a childhood with European parents and indulges in her best friend’s Mormon religion as a way of feeling more North American. She ends up dating a “Jack” Mormon because, like her, he knows what it’s like to be involved with the church but also to leave it. As a grownup, she works with delinquent teenagers; and she has a complicated relationship with her mother, an atheist, and with two friends who never knew her as a Mormon but who find her a bit uptight because of her background. Now, everything I’ve said so far is just plot, though. Much of the book is about how the story doesn’t unfold from A to Z, but that scenes from different timelines appear next to each other. She tells the entire story, but still manages to present versions of what’s happening with other characters. So, for example, she longs to be closer to her mother, but only tries to get her mother to understand her; meanwhile, her mother has a tragic secret from which she wishes to shield her daughter. How characters related to each other, what they do or do not tell each other, was the focus of many of the scenes. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by religion and how believers fit themselves into the “rules” of their faith; on the other hand, I’m in love with the kind of language that accompanies wonder and obsession.
LP: This is your second novel. What changes did you notice in writing the second as compared to the first?
NM: When I wrote Yellow Pages, I couldn’t believe how much of the “story” I had to leave out, in order to properly get that story onto the page. For this novel, I used the idea of surreptitious lives and past secrets to put pressure on the idea that you can ever tell the “entire” story. In my first novel, I was trying to “expose” Alexander Graham Bell as the antagonist of Deaf culture. At the same time, I was gripped by the language of how one can try to tell a non-verbal story. So one of the biggest changes in Scrapbook is actual dialogue tags! But even though this book wasn’t written around a historical figure, I still had to do an enormous amount of research into the 70s and 80s. I didn’t just want to drop in a Madonna song, to easily signal where (or when) readers should understand the story now is); but rather, I turned to less famous, but possibly equally relevant details. So, for example, I mention Eddie the Eagle in one chapter. Partly to remind readers about the time of the 1988 Calgary Olympics, but also because he’s a figure that really captured Canadian’s hearts when he participated in the ski jump. Not because he won (and not even, I think, because he came last), but because he took on the spirit of competition for the sake of the sport, not the result.
LP: Much of your career has been devoted to poetry. Is there a big shift for you, in terms of writing, to go from poems to a novel?
NM: More like a constant shift! I’ve been alternating poetry and fiction since I started writing (and now squeeze in essays and formal talks and even a few web write-ups). And then when I do write a book in particular genre (I’m thinking of my first novel, Yellow Pages), readers claim it’s prose poetry (or that my poetry is narrative). But I hear your question: it is, always a shift to move between the kind of writing that develops characters or sets a scene or emotion to the kind of writing that zings the senses without necessarily presenting a story. I love how poetry can work at a dozen levels at once, prick the readers’ ears and sight and intellect. But I also love how fiction can get readers caught up in the narrative push, in the dynamics between characters and conflict and the materiality of the word and story. I guess I find it hard to settle in any one genre because I’m so passionate about all genres as a reader. I’m the type of reader who has several books going at once. I’ll read a poem for a while, then turn to a short story, and then delve into a literary essay. And then, of course, dive right into a film!
LP: You grew up in Calgary, and until very recently, were teaching at the University of Calgary. You’re now at the University of Windsor. As a writer what are the differences between the two cities/regions?
NM: I’ve been in southern Ontario now for two and a half years, and I seriously am still getting used to a different way of thinking. Not worse or better, but definitely different. For one thing, Windsor is across the river from Detroit, which not only makes it a border city, it also makes it a small city that is physically linked to a large city. People hear listen to US radio stations and watch US local television shows. This may not be so unusual in other parts of the country, but Calgary – despite being represented often as a pro-US city – is pretty physically isolated. And there’s so much going on in the history of this city! Just last week, I had a great conversation with my Creative Writing students about setting their fiction in Windsor. I was dismayed to hear that none of them thought Windsor was “interesting” enough to hold the interest of readers not from here. Meanwhile, I’ve been taking notes like crazy every since I moved here, because most of what I’ve learned is so fascinating: the first stop in Canada on the underground railroad, the origin of Canadian Club, the place where Michigan teenagers go to drink two years before they’re legal in the US, the booze runs across the river during prohibition, etc. etc. This is a fairly working class town, and one that’s been reliant on the auto industry for most employment. Meanwhile, people here are unbelievably optimistic about the future. And teaching at the University here makes me more and more aware of how much students want to learn and how much their parents want them to get a “higher” education.
LP: You’ve just spent a summer in Vancouver. Was the decision to spend time there strictly personal or was there a connection to your writing?
NM: Both. I find that I really spend all my hours from September until May on my teaching, as do most of my colleagues across the country. So getting into another city is one of the ways to make a sharp divide between teaching or administrative work and the writing I’m always trying to get to. But I also love the West and love getting back to the kind of city where you can buy all your fruits and vegetables organic (and I’m not even a health nut!), where you can read in a coffee shop at every block, where you can walk around and not have to own a car. Just as I can’t settle on one-only genre, I can’t seem to settle in any one place, without longing to be where I’m not. When I’m in Windsor, I miss the prairies and the coast, and when I’m in Vancouver, I miss Victoria and Ontario and Montréal. I’m not satisfied, ever, but in what I hope is a generative way, that makes me pay attention to what I’m missing and why. Pay attention to the friends I get to see in the now, and to remember that when I’m no longer with them.
LP: You rented the house of a well-known poet who was away from Vancouver for the summer, did you discover any new favourite books in his bookshelves?
NM: Both Fred Wah and Pauline Butling have enough books to last my lifetime, though that didn’t stop me from also making a trip to the public library every week! I reread a lot of George Bowering while I was there, as well as quite a few other Vancouver writers, such as Roy Miki and Sharon Thesen, and more recently emerged writers such as Jacqueline Turner and Nikki Reimer. It’s funny, I was heavily focused on prose last summer (finishing Scrapbook and getting a draft done of my next novel), but spent most of my time reading poetry…
LP: At one point you had your own press, publishing poetry chapbooks. Are you still doing that?
NM: Sort of. Not the best answer, I know, but as truthful as I can be. Maintaining a chapbook press through grad school was incredibly overwhelming, and I’m happy we managed that, but once I got a permanent job, that kind of editing got constantly pushed to the side. Then, right before I left Calgary (and to commemorate Fred Wah’s retirement from UofC), I published broadside of one poem. That got me all excited about small-press publishing again, and last year I put out a card-sized poem by Chus Pato, translated by Erin Mouré. My idea now is to produce a chapbook once a year, and if I get some momentum, then maybe even increase the number to two or three a year. I adore the publishing end of writing (when it’s other people’s poetry), and miss the excitement of producing some that’s just finished. As well, it’s so hard for newer writers to get published these days, I feel that a small press offers writers (and readers) avenues that don’t need the entire publishing and marketing system behind it.
LP: Are you doing any editing these days?
NM: Besides the above newish publishing venture, and besides editing for various writers who hand me complete manuscripts, I’m doing a lot of editing of graduate students who have chosen to write a book-length manuscript for their MA thesis, and editing for the undergraduate students in my Creative Writing classes.
LP: If you were to recommend books for your students to read (aside from what’s required for their courses with you) what would they be?
NM: That’s a tricky question. Not because I don’t have an answer, but because the answer changes with every single student who asks me the question! I often give students specific books to read because of what they’re handing in, or to expand on the kind of writing they’re interested in but don’t yet have a handle on. Often students protest that they don’t want to read anything that relates to what they’re writing because they don’t want to be unduly influence! I explain to them that they’re already influenced, and what the need is a wider knowledge of their subject matter and writing impact. So: the list is infinite and specific to who’s interested in what, and why. Having said that, there are certain books I love forever, and constantly tell all sorts of people to read – such as Zsuzsi Gartner’s All the Anxious Girls on Earth, Tom King’s Green Grass, Running Water, Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes, Suzette Mayr’s Venous Hum, Rosemary Nixon’s Cock’s Egg, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Aritha van Herk’s Restlessness, and Fred Wah’s Waiting for Saskatchwan.
LP: Last, the old standby, what are you reading yourself right now?
NM: That’s always the worst question because, as a Creative Writing teacher, I’m mostly reading student manuscript drafts! But the books I have on the go right now include: Sentenced to Light by Fred Wah (an amazing collection of his collaborative poetry projects), Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Hesser (a fabulous YA novel about a girl with OCD), Gerbil Mother by Dawn Bryan (an exquisitely demented “tall-tale” narrative told from the point-of-view of a nasty-spirited, foetus), a book of essays about the role of fairytales in contemporary culture, The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble, Blindsight by poet Rosemarie Waldrop, and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, which is either a picture book or a graphic novel, depending who you talk to (I’m finding the lack of any text whatsoever deliciously troubling).
LP: John, you’re a visual chronicler of Ottawa, do you see Ottawa as a documentary project?
JWM: I guess I see myself as photographer who happens to live in Ottawa. I don’t necessarily think of myself documenting Ottawa as a project. That would imply that I have a vision and a plan which I don’t. Not at the moment anyway. We shall see what body of work I come up within 25 years or so. Lately I find myself wanting to visit more cities and do the same thing in other places. Though I am sure the same stuff goes on there. Money and my current family duties dictate otherwise at the moment.
Gustave Morin performs a poem on the streets of Ottawa at a Book Thug poetry reading in 2006.
LP: Do you support yourself by working as a photographer or are the images supported by another career?
JWM: It started off as the latter and then I was laid off in 2006. Now, I call myself a freelance photographer instead of calling myself unemployed. Sounds better. My web blog serves as a host for my photos and people can buy prints or request a headshot session which I am very happy to do. I have shot some family reunions and have a wedding coming up. I love event photography. It’s enjoyable to see the results come up on the monitor. I want to make photography a means to make a living. That’s my goal.
HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex photographed during a special public event which celebrated Queen Victoria’s decision to nominate Ottawa as the Capital of Canada 150 years ago, 2007.
LP: A lot of your images are taken at literary events in the Canadian capital, why so many images of writers?
JWM: I am a book lover and started off as a book collector. I started going to the local literary events to get my books signed by the authors. It was that simple. I started a blog and wrote about my experiences on the literary scene. Then I started taking pictures for kicks, then got a better camera and started to photograph the authors and poets I saw in a more serious way. Then it suddenly became all about just getting the photograph and forgetting about the autograph.
A candid photo of Yann Martel just before a reading in Ottawa at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts & Humanities.
LP: What can you tell us about the literary community in Ottawa?
JWM: I think it’s very supportive. People know each other and many get out to each other’s readings and book launches. It’s very sincere I feel. It’s not just about the networking. There’s a friendly and inclusive vibe. Here I am – not even a writer per se – and I can mingle and chat with a great core group of writers and poets. That’s why I still go out to all these readings. There really is something new to experience each time out. What I love about the events are all the visiting authors and poets who come here to read. I know it takes money and time for these people to visit and market their work. Therefore I feel that supporting this, if only by posting a photo, is my way of making a contribution and awareness. I wish more people would step outside their living rooms to attend a literary festival or reading. Arts and festival funding here in Ottawa is in jeopardy it seems on an annual basis. This is not a good thing.
LP: If a traveler with a literary bent were visiting, where would you tell them to go?
JWM: I was going to say Beechwood Cemetery to see some graves of writers but that may not be one’s cup-of-tea. A visit to a used bookstore might be in order. I like the feel of Patrick McGahern Books. Similarly, I love the Canadiana stock at Argosy Books, and Book Bazaar. I would also tell someone to check out Bywords.ca and see what literary event is happening that night and get out to a reading. If you happen to be near the Rideau Canal near Dows Lake, you just might bump into 2007 Giller Prize Winner Liz Hay out for a stroll. If you’re near Preston Street step on over to Pubwells; you might see poet rob mclennan doing some writing. Hungry for some classy pub food? Check out the Manx Pub on Elgin Street and have award-winning poet David O’Meara serve you a pint or two of Guinness on tap or choose from a huge selection of their Scotch Whisky menu. The Manx too crowded? Then head just next door to the Elgin Street Diner and chat it up with author, editor John Metcalf, whose wife runs the place. It’s open 24 hours a day, you can’t go wrong.
John Metcalf launched his latest memoir Shut Up He Explained at the Manx Pub in Ottawa, 2007.
Victorious poet rob mclennan gives the nasty Nathaniel G. Moore a pummeling with a folding chair. Smack! Spencer Gordon lays motionless after a vicious unwarranted attack by Moore, now bloodied. This is Canadian poetry at its finest.
LP: Tell us about some of your favourite photographs of writers.
Ahhh! An open-ended question. I could spend all day chewing your ear off about this. I assume you want me to talk about photos that were taken by other photographers. I think of Yousuf Karsh’s photos. Hemingway’s stark portrait comes immediately to mind. Pretty much anything done by Alfred Eisenstaedt. He is my main inspiration for the kind of photos I want to make. As for my own favourite photographs, well each one is a favourite otherwise I wouldn’t post it online. But if I were pressed I would tell you it’s always an interesting experience to have a camera at the ready when jwcurry’s around. I swear I can almost publish a book of photos just of him. He has such an amazingly comprehensive collection of bpNichol’s work, it boggles the mind. What’s more is that he is one of the most creative individuals I have ever met. People should buy more books from him just so you get the chance to talk to this guy in person.
jwcurry caught in the camera lens at a poetry reading at the University of Ottawa in 2008.
LP: Most photographers are rejected by a potential subject from time to time, any writer (or other person) you really wanted to photograph who just said no?
JWM: That’s the great thing about being a candid photographer. Your subject can never say no. Thankfully, I have very few negative experiences thus far. When rebuffed I always respect the person’s wish not to be photographed. It’s just common sense. However, I did have this one experience earlier this year where I asked for a posed photo of a visiting author who was doing a reading at a local bar. He agreed and we went outside for the brief shoot. And when I say brief shoot, it’s like, okay stand here, some chitchat then click, click, click. Done. I took three or four photos. I eventually posted one of them on my blog. It turned out rather nice I thought. Five months later he sent me an email to ask me to remove the photo. I happened to like the portrait very much and convinced him to let me to keep it online. He did – thankfully. But what is especially gratifying is when that same scenario gets played out, and I get an email from the person wanting to buy prints or have the photo used for an author photo or for promotional use. That’s a great feeling of accomplishment and a sense of approval for me as a photographer.
LP: What writer(s) do you really, really want to photograph?
JWM: I’ll keep this one simple. Someone with gobs of cash and who wants a new photo done every other month or so. Know of anyone interested? Seriously though, my wish list is very long and never ending. Chief among the tops are J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, and J.K. Rowling. I would have loved to photograph Morley Callaghan in his youth and the late Canadian author, Hugh Hood.
LP: Your photographs have a really finely detailed look and while it appears you light some subjects, many are shot in available light. Describe your work techniques.
JWM: I always say that if a photo is worth taking, it is worth taking well. While I realize that we live in an image-driven society and people have access to all sorts of cheap cameras and camera phones, I personally want to have a camera that can be as flexible as possible and deliver the best image in a portable format: wide-angle, telephoto, macro, etc. I am a stickler for quality. I need a camera designed to take the best possible photo in any lighting situation. The quality really comes from using the best lenses available. ‘Fast glass’ as they say. As most (literary) events are in the evening and/or in basements, the lighting is usually sub-par. Lenses that are rated f/1.4 are in order for a ‘proper’ exposure in my experience.
I have almost entirely given up on using flash because I don’t think it lends itself to the photograph I want to make. It’s also intrusive. Not just to the audience members and the subject being photographed, but into the photo. You are putting light into a situation that’s not there to begin with. In a sense, the photographer is putting their footprints or presence into the subject matter of the photo. But if it is absolutely needed I see nothing wrong with on-camera-flash. It’s a tool like anything else. Now, if they can just make my D-SLR shutter quieter, that would be amazing! At times the shutter clicks are just as, if not, more annoying at a literary reading. Oh well. Sorry!
William Gibson book launch at an event hosted by the Ottawa International Writers Festival, 2007.
LP: You photograph a quite a number of political events. Do you photograph as a dispassionate observer or are you involved in events?
JWM: Being in a government town, it’s difficult to avoid *not* photographing these types of events. I would like to say that if I am wearing my photographer’s hat I can be quite dispassionate. I don’t like wearing stickers or labels or pins, save for a poppy. Some people might think that if I post a photo of a person who happens to be affiliated with a particular government party or cause that I am endorsing it. I don’t necessarily believe that this is so. I think my photos are done in a photo-journalistic, observational style. I photograph interesting things that happen around town and that which happens to catch my attention. If I am interested and engaged in in the subject matter, I feel that someone else might share in the visual experience, too.
LP: You and your wife have a son and have just been blessed with twin girls. How is that affecting the photo life?
JWM: I thought that with the birth of my son that my time for photo outings would be over. But you just find the time. It’s what I do. I am about to turn 41 and I still can’t believe the powerful feelings a parent can have for a child. It truly is a blessing to have children in your life. I know that some people can’t have this experience for one reason or another, and I am extremely proud to be a dad. But we all know it gives one an excuse to take more pictures.
LP: What do you read for pleasure?
JWM: Books are expensive and a luxury nowadays. They seriously cut into the diaper budget. I read blogs for pleasure. Mainly photo blogs. I just counted my RSS feeds. I have 114 of them I read on a daily basis, providing they are updated, of course. About 98 of them are photo-related (the rest are mainly other writer’s blogs.) I read these photo blogs for pure visual eye-candy appeal, and to keep current on what’s going on in the photography world at large. I keep thinking I should write a newspaper column on just the subject of photo blogs. I think the market is absolutely huge for people interested in reading about photography. It’s just not enough to be taking photos but to people like to read about other people’s photographic experiences. It’s quite fascinating.
John W. MacDonald self portrait
LP: Are you available for work, and if so, where/how can clients contact you?
JWM: Yes, I am available. I am willing to fly, take the train, bus, or boat to get to you. Does that sound too desperate? You can contact me via my web site http://johnwmacdonald.com. If you’re on facebook, send me a request. I’ll add you to my awesome group of friends.
Stephen Rowntree is subjected to my bookish torture in the name of getting a cool photograph.
Dr. Maria Tippett at the podium responding to audience questions from her book THE LIFE OF YOUSUF KARSH at the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, 2007.
Scott Griffin and his wife were in Ottawa for the International Writers Festival. Taken during a photo-op at Rockcliffe Airport 18 April 2006, he’s pictured at Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Airport in a CF-WMJ, his Cessna 180.
tk: I have a curious and undisciplined mind. I’m interested in the details of a place, a time, the layers that make up a particular history – geological, regional, human, natural; and how they fit together. I’m interested in long meditative lines that I somehow couldn’t make work in poetry, lines that take their inspiration from roads, the shape of hills against a wide sky, how a formation of sandhill cranes scribbles its name over Nicola Lake on a late September day. And the essay form is generous and flexible, capacious enough to hold everything that comes to mind, to heart.
LP: How do you these pieces start, do you keep detailed journals/notes?
tk: Something will agitate for my attention – a fragment of song, a building, a phrase, a moment in which I sense a particular potency. And then I follow this to wherever it might lead. Often I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m looking for but I know when I’ve found it. A name might speak from a page, a plant will appear with the most evocative family tree, or a photograph will show me a place, or a family, or a moment in history, and then I’ll get out my maps, my field-guides, and try to put something together to give a shape to what has until then been a series of notations, maybe, that I hope will accumulate until I have the critical mass that acts as a first draft. I used to keep journals but don’t any longer. I always have a notebook, though, and use it to make little cryptic notes that I have trouble deciphering afterwards.
LP: Many of the essays have history and historical events woven into them. Do you have to do much research for those pieces or that information?
tk: I am devoted to research, though as I confessed in my answer to your first question, I am not very disciplined. I think I begin with the best of intentions and am sidetracked by interesting details, like a magpie taking bright objects back to its nest. I do build my work from an accurate or actual ground, though, and think of this as a kind of anchor, or ballast. And we find ourselves in history, don’t we? We see aspects of ourselves as the past shifts slightly to accommodate our presence there. Reading letters in an archival collection, we suddenly hear our story. Or looking intently at old photographs, we see a familiar cheekbone, the ghost of a smile.
LP: While the writing in both books covers everything from travel to personal reflection ultimately they form a personal history of your family. We see your children grow etc. Any thoughts on that?
tk: Years ago I read something by Annie Dillard that has served almost as a raison d’être for me. Writing about her journals and notebooks, she said that when looking at them, she has the sense that time has not simply passed but rather it has accumulated. I think of my essays in the same way. Although they can’t be read exactly as a precise record of our lives here on the Sechelt Peninsula, they contain much of what has been significant – the shifting seasons, the passages, our pleasures, and some of the sorrows too. The other day John and I were walking over by Ruby Creek and we saw the dark forms of fish in the water. These are one of only two known fall-spawning populations of cutthroat trout on the Coast. One year our older son conducted a census of the spawning trout as a science fair project – he was 12 that year – and every day for about a month we’d go over to the creek after school and count fish. So of course the shadow of that boy was present at the creek the other day, the shadows of those earlier days, when we were accompanied by a dog now long dead. And that boy is now about to defend his PhD dissertation in Canadian History so how time does accumulate!
LP: The details of the natural world really jump out in the work. Do you feel particularly close to the environment/landscape?
tk: I’m enraptured by the natural world, constantly in thrall to what I find there. It’s important to me to be able to “read” the landscape, its intricate narratives. And those change, as anything changes; new versions or idioms emerge just as older ones surface too. I’ve become fascinated by the fossils of the Tranquille Shale, between Kamloops and Cache Creek, and the amazing stories that are told in those layers. Tiny pre-salmon, sequoias, maple samara: the quotidian details of a lake bed 51 million years old!
LP: A few of the essays, especially those dealing with death, The Road to Bella Coola and Phantom Limb, are intensely personal. They must have been difficult to write and possibly even more difficult for you to re-read.
tk: Language and form allow us to shape our grief and lend a formality to what might otherwise be wild and chaotic. “The Road To Bella Coola” has as its epigraph a line from a poem by Stanley Kunitz: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” That’s the central paradox, isn’t it? That we are nourished in some deep way by the rituals and ceremonies associated with death. It’s the way human beings can attend their dead with respect and dignity.
LP: You also write about the loss of things, Erasing The Maps (places) and Autumn Coho In Haskins Creek (salmon) are two that come to mind. Do you think writing is a way to make sure those things don’t disappear completely?
tk: Writing is an act of commemoration. Think of what we know because someone has written it down! So I try to pay an attention to what matters to me and to explore it, adore it, praise it. And sometimes that attention takes the form of elegy, I suppose, or threnody. It conspires to remember. Memory itself is such a complicated entity. I’ve been reading Cicero with reference to his Method of Loci and am intrigued by his system for the ordering of memory. In some ways I think of my work in this way — the attachment of a particular body of imagery to a specific locus as a way of remembering.
LP: Are the essays something you work on all the time or do you write a series all at once?
tk: I’ve always written essays along with other things. While working on a novel, I might find myself wanting to explore something that I’ve come across in research or on a trip or as a result of reading or some unresolved personal issue. It’s a wonderful luxury to break away from an extended work, a novel, to write an essay. (I’m reminded of the pleasure of taking an unexpected side-road while travelling!) I usually have several in various stages of completion and some of them never really find their true shape, remaining as drafts for years. Working with an editor tends to help me identify particular thematic connections and so I’ll shape a manuscript by concentrating on a specific group of pieces, leaving others out. I’m currently at work on a book-length series of connected essays. Right now each one is discrete, devoted to a particular set of materials. When I’ve finished the whole series, I may in fact decide to create a kind of connective tissue to draw them together into a single body. I’m not sure yet and don’t want to second guess not only myself but the material I’m immersed in by predicting the final form this work will take.
LP: You’ve had several books of poetry (six) and two novels published. Can we look forward to a new book in either of those genres soon?
tk: I’ve recently completed a novel, The Age of Water Lilies, which I hope will be published next year. It’s set partly in the community of Walhachin on the Thompson River just before the Great War and partly in Victoria in the years just after. And I’m at work on a memoir called Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I’d love to write poetry again but haven’t been able to find that voice, that concentrated sense of language, for some years.
LP: You operate High Ground Press with your husband, the poet John Pass. Can you tell us about that endeavor?
tk: John and I bought a late 19th c. Chandler and Price platen press in 1980 and we use it to print mostly poetry broadsides. This is letterpress printing in which we hand-set the work and then print in very limited editions. We’re presently working our third series of broadsheets; this one we call the Companions Series. We’ve asked a number of Canadian poets to respond to another poem – preferably one for which we don’t need to get permission to reprint – and we print the two poems on a single sheet. So far we’ve printed work by Bill New (responding to John Clare), Maleea Acker and Wallace Stevens, Sue Wheeler and Don McKay, Joe Denham and John Thompson, a version I did of a recently discovered poem by Sappho, George McWhirter and John Donne, Russell Thornton’s bow to Juan Ramon Jimenez, and John is just setting Chris Patton’s response to a passage of Ezra Pound. Several more are planned for this series. We’ve also printed a couple of chapbooks over the years as well as ephemera – Christmas cards, keepsakes for the Alcuin Society Wayzgoose, etc. To be honest, John does most of the work because when we began to learn to print, we had a baby, quickly followed by two more, so he was able to go out to the print shop – it’s a building of its own, away from the house – more than I could. But we plan the projects together and design them together and I think we both see the work as a congenial adjunct to our writing lives.
LP: Did you ever buy yourself a pair of red Laredo boots?
tk: I did. A few months after I’d written the title essay for Red Laredo Boots, I sold a different essay to the Vancouver Sun. The payment was exactly the price of those boots. So the next time I was in the Nicola Valley, I went to the Quilchena Store and bought them. I still love them. There was never any discussion of an author shot for that book. The boots went to Vancouver for their own photo shoot, packed in their box with a coyote yipping at the moon, and came home with soft blue flannel from someone’s old shirt (maybe even Gary Fiegehen’s as he was their photographer) tucked into them to give them the demure shape they have on the back cover of the book.
When I first began my project photographing writers, in Calgary in the late 90’s, Bob Stallworthy was my first subject. The photo above is from that shoot. The photograph is included in my first book of portraits First Chapter published by the Banff Centre Press.
BS: In Silhouette began as a series of profiles written for the Writers Guild of Alberta’s magazine, WestWord. As the number of profiles written for WestWord grew, I started to think about what else I might do with the material. I made some very informal inquiries to several publishers in Alberta about turning the profiles into a conventional book. There was interest but the conversation always ended with the comment, “You should put these on a website.” I don’t have and didn’t have a website of my own.
I was talking with Rose Scollard, publisher of Frontenac House Ltd. and told her about the profiles and what I was getting as a response. Her initial response was similar. In frustration I said, “well, would you put them on your website?” To my surprise she said yes! From that point on In Silhouette began to take shape. To be fair to every publisher I talked to, including Frontenac House, I think the main concern was whether or not there would be a strong enough and prolonged enough market for a conventional book to make it viable.
LP: Will the collection eventually be printed?
BS: In the Frequently Asked Question section permission for use of the material has been given provided the specified conditions are met. Permission includes the downloading and printing off of a hard copy of the e-book. At the moment, there are no plans to publish In Silhouette as a conventional book. If I would ever consider this, I would negotiate with Frontenac House Ltd.
LP: What criteria do you use to establish someone as an Alberta writer? You’ve recently added an interview with Tom Wayman and one could say, despite the fact that he’s now teaching at the University of Calgary, he is considered a B.C. writer.
BS: There is no real firm criteria for determining who or who is not an Alberta writer. In my mind a person has to be a resident of Alberta for at least a full year before I would consider them an Alberta writer. Having said that, there are several writers who no longer live in Alberta who will be included in the e-book because they built the majority of their career in this province. I can make a strong case for each of those writers to be included in the e-book. In any event, the decision would always be on a case by case basis.
LP: Do you conduct your interviews, in person, by phone, email?
BS: The majority of the interviews have been done in person. A few have been done over the phone. I went out and bought a tape recorder that would plug into my phone line in order to be able to do interviews this way. So far, I’ve done one by e-mail. I much prefer the face to face interview but that isn’t always possible or practical.
LP: How often do you add profiles to the collection?
BS: There is no set schedule for the addition of profiles to the e-book. Because adding to In Silhouette means shutting the website down while making the changes, I only add profiles when I have a number of them done. When I’m ready I contact the web master and arrange to have them posted to the website.
LP: How much research do you find yourself doing before you conduct an interview?
BS: I’ve been around the writing community in Alberta for 23 years so I have come to know a lot of writers in that time. To date, all of the people I’ve profiled are people I’ve known well so the amount of hard research I’ve had to do is minimal. If I’m unsure of the titles of books or the number of books I will do a search to make sure I’ve got that kind of thing correct. Similarly, I will check on what awards may have been won, especially if I think I want to talk about a specific one. However, so far I’ve found that not knowing a lot about a person allows me to follow the conversation where ever it will go without having to impose my own knowledge on it.
LP: Have you or the publisher considered expanding the series to other provinces?
BS: There have been no formal discussions about expanding the e-book beyond the borders of Alberta. Obviously, I’ve fantasied about it. This is an ongoing project that could keep me writing until I get too old or too forgetful to do it any more.
LP: The profiles are wide ranging covering everything from biography to writing habits. As a writer yourself what do you enjoy hearing about the most?
BS: As a writer, hearing about the writing habits of others is obviously interesting. But, I must confess, I’m more interested in the person’s biography. It is the biography that tells me who that person is. I like knowing what issues each writer feels are really important in their lives and how or if those things influence their writing.
LP: During interviews people can sometimes reveal unexpected facets of their lives. Any moments like these that stand out for you?
BS: I think the most unexpected finding of doing these profiles is how many people who I’ve looked up to as writers have all of the same fears about their careers that I have about mine. Many of them have now over come those fears but when they started out, they were just as unsure of whether they could get the stories out there that they wanted to tell as I was about whether I could tell the stories I wanted to tell.
A second revelation is the sudden contrast between those writers who’ve had support from their families from the very beginning and those who have had to work at their craft with little or no emotional support from those closest to them. Part of the reason for this to stand out for me is that I’ve had total support from my wife since the very beginning. It is somewhat amazing to me that those who have not had any support have continued to work hard at their writing and have turned a tough situation into a successful one.
LP: Do you have any personal favourites among the profiles?
BS: As with my poetry, my favourite profile is usually the one that I’m working on at the time. There are some which have been a bit easier to do than others, simply because I knew that individual better than others. But no, in the end there isn’t one that I could pick out as being a favourite.
LP: Who can we look for in the future?
BS: I have such a long list of people who I would like to include in the e-book, I’m not prepared to give specific names right now. It might be a surprise to the individual to find their name mentioned here before I have had a chance to talk to them about being in the e-book. I can say that I have been in touch with some well known Alberta writers who have yet to appear in the e-book. I hope to include their profiles in the e-book as soon as possible.
LP: Give us a brief profile of Bob Stallworthy.
After working as a social worker for a number of years, Bob left that field and began writing professionally at the age of 37. His poetry has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies in Canada. He has self-published two chapbooks of poetry, had a nonfiction chapbook on the history of the Old Y Community Center in Calgary and three full-length books of poetry published. His fourth book of poetry will be launched in April 2009. His work has been read on both CBC1 and CBC 2. He performed his poetry at the first Spoken Word International Writers Festival in Calgary in August 2004. His third book, Optics, Frontenac House Ltd., 2004 was short-listed for the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize, 2004.
Bob has been active in many areas of the writing community in Alberta over the last 23 years; participating on the Executives of several writers organizations, as a member of the Literary Festival Committee for the 1988 Winter Olympics, as a member of the Steering Committee for the first Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival, as the first Writers Guild of Alberta’s Regional Co-ordinator for the Southern Alberta Region, and the founding co-chair of the Calgary Freedom to Read Week Committee. In 2002 he was the co-recipient of the Calgary Freedom of Expression Award.
He has given workshops and readings in schools all over Alberta as well as readings in Sackville, NB, Halifax, NS and Toronto, ON. He was the Writer-in-Residence at the Drumheller Public Library in February 2005.
Bob is a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, a Lifetime member of the Writers Guild of Alberta and a member of Young Alberta Book Society.
LP: What, apart from the profiles, are you writing now?
BS: I’ve put aside writing the profiles in order to complete my 4th book of poetry entitled, Things That Matter Now. This book will be launched by Frontenac House in April 2009. Once I’ve finished working on it I’ll return to writing profiles.
LP: You’ve been involved in the Alberta writing world for a long time, any general thoughts on the state of the Alberta writing community?
BS: When I worked for the Writers Guild of Alberta in the late 1980s as Book Display Co-ordinator I was often asked, “Are there writers in Alberta?” And, of course, the answer was, “ Yes, there are a lot.” Back then I believe the display that I took around the province had less than 100 books in it. When I stopped traveling with the display after five years, in 1990, the number of books was well over 200. At that time, Alberta’s writers were just beginning to garner some real national attention, albeit that attention was still a bit hit and miss.
I think it is safe to say that the number of writers now working in this province has increased phenomenally. And now national and international recognition of Alberta writers is a regular occurrence. To the point, there are five Alberta writers short-listed for the Governor General’s Awards for 2008.
The increase in the number of writers and the number of awards being won needs to be viewed against a backdrop of political disinterest with regard to culture in general and writing in particular during the 1990s. To be sure, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts was maintained by the government of the day but the lack of interest was demonstrated year after year by the lack of increased funding for the Arts. During the same period of time there was a dramatic increase in the desire to control what was being published by Alberta publishers by controlling the funding that they received. Thankfully, this never really came to fruition.
Since the last provincial Conservative leaders’ race and the last election, and with the huge increases in revenue due to the oil patch, there seems to be an increased interest in government support of the Arts in general. The current Minister of Community Spirit seems to be making a concerted effort to show support for the cultural industry in general and writing specifically in the province. In spite of the increase in optimism, unfortunately, for Alberta writers, over the last few years a number of Alberta publishers have moved out of the province or been swallowed up by bigger organizations. This does make getting published by an Alberta publisher that much more difficult.
Despite all of the problems that seem to still be associated with a genuine support of the Arts in general and writers specifically, I believe there is good reason to be optimistic. I certainly don’t expect the number of writers in the province to decrease nor the attention that they receive.
LP: You’ve just started a Writer in Residence gig at the Saskatoon Public Library. How long will you be there?
JOB: The position last nine months from the beginning of September 2008 to the end of May 2009.
LP: Why did you decide to go to Saskatoon?
JOB: I grew up on the prairies, in Calgary, but except for short visits to see members of my family, I have not spent any substantial time here since 1978. I saw coming to Saskatoon as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with prairie life—and, yes, prairie winters—and to live somewhere new. Though I have visited the city several times, I have not been in it since 1990. Also, there is a small ancestral connection, in that my maternal great-grandfather was part of the Northwest Field Force that came west from Ontario to suppress 1885 Rebellion—what they call the “resistance” here—at Batoche, an hour north. I did not realize it at the time I applied, but I think, subconsciously, I wanted to steep myself in my plains origins.
LP: How much time will be devoted to working with local writers?
JOB: Forty percent of my time—or two days per week—will be given to office hours at the library and the rest is for my own writing projects.
LP: As a student you studied with poets Garry Geddes, Robin Skeleton, and others. Is there anything you learned about working or teaching from your teachers that you’ll try to pass along?
JOB: One of the most important lessons any writer learn is how to write for the reader rather than for one’s self. Realizing how someone else reads and comprehends your work enables you to write in anticipation in order to have them more perfectly grasp your intentions. I learned this most fully in Robin Skelton’s classes and especially from my fellow students. Also, too many writers begin by believing that they have messages to impart. I feel that we are engaged in creating aesthetic experiences, where what is conveyed is visceral as well as cognitive, as sensory, emotive, and pleasurable.
LP: What will you be working on personally?
JOB: I have three major projects preoccupying me at present. The first is a book of poems constructed using traditional verse forms. In the same way that poets embraced vers libre a century ago, I want to see how set forms can open up and transform my voice. The second is a complex book-length project about three figures of the New York art world of the mid-twentieth century: Paul Cadmus (a painter), George Platt Lynes (a photographer), and Lincoln Kirstein (impresario and cofounder of the New York City Ballet). All three men were gay and knew each other as part of a loosely knit, emergent “queer” community; my interest is in how their different aesthetic concerns came to conceive of the (male) body. Third, I am also at a watershed moment as a poet in that the copyright of most of my earlier books has been returned to me. I can now more actively pursue putting together a new and selected poems as a retrospective glance back at nearly thirty years of work.
LP: Are there particular writers in Saskatoon that you’re looking forward to meeting or hanging out with?
JOB: The community is very large and I am looking forward to meeting many of the poets there, including Elizabeth Philips, whom I know slightly, and Sylvia LeGris, the new editor of Grain, Saskatchewan’s answer to The Malahat Review.
LP: You’ve been the editor of The Malahat Review now for almost five years. Will you be editing the magazine from Saskatoon or have you given up those duties?
JOB: I am taking a partial leave of absence, in that I will not be involved in the day-to-day editing and management of the magazine. When I left Victoria at the end of August, the fall and winter issues were almost fully in place. However, during the spring of 2009, I will be completing the annual funding applications of various provincial and national arts agencies—or, as Yann Martel said to me recently, the most unpleasant part of the job. I decided to complete them during my leave because I’m the one will have to live with the results of these applications upon my return to Victoria in June 2009. Also, I’m the one on staff most conversant with the application process, having completed such applications every year since 1989.
LP: What’s the best thing about being editor of the Review?
JOB: Before I became editor, I coedited Arc, a poetry journal in Ottawa. The Malahat allows me to work with fiction and creative nonfiction as well, which has expanded my scope. Also, because of the magazine’s reputation, the caliber of the writing I am able to publish is much finer. It’s long been Canada’s iconic literary magazine, and it shows in the writing we receive.
LP: What is coming up in future issues of the Review that we should be looking for?
JOB: In December, we are publishing a theme issue called The Green Imagination, which examines how writers engage aesthetically with environmental issues. It’s a longer issue than normal, 160 rather than 112 pages and shows Canadian writers to be very troubled about the long-term prognosis for the planet. It was originally conceived of as a sesquicentennial tribute to B.C., but is rather more cautionary than celebratory. Apart from this, there is no other theme issues planned. They are important to do on occasion, but I don’t believe that writers benefit from having too many of them on the horizon. General issues offer writers much more scope to publish a wider spectrum of work and are much more emphatically “participatory democracies.” There is nothing more alienating for writers than to be faced with endless back-to-back theme issues on topics that may not be relevant to them. The Malahat’s quartet of general issues in 2009 will nevertheless feature our usual annual contests: Long Poem, Far Horizons, and Creative Non-Fiction. Our preoccupation will remain one of excellence.
LP: You were Poetry Editor at Signature Editions until last spring. Are you continuing with any book editing duties on a freelance basis?
JOB: While I am in Saskatoon, I will not be taking on any freelance projects, but once I am back in Victoria, I will definitely accept any that might come my way. I enjoy this kind of work enormously and believe that I have a talent for it. It’s time-consuming work; on average it takes me about twelve to fifteen hours to work through a poetry manuscript. I charge $60 per hour, which might seem steep, but it is a competitive rate.
LP: As an editor you’re aware of what’s new on the publishing front. What books are you looking forward to seeing?
JOB: I see so much new writing that sometimes I get overwhelmed by it, but new books that I am looking forward to reading are by Ottawa poet, Craig Poile, one of Canada’s technically proficient writers. He’s got a new book coming out with Goose Lane next year. Also, Saskatoon’s Barbara Klar has a new book of poems with Brick called Cypress.
LP: You grew up in Alberta, lived and worked in Ottawa, have been in Victoria for several years and will be living in Saskatchewan for the next year. Any thoughts on how the cities are different for a writer?
JOB: What I liked most about Ottawa when I first moved there in 1986 is that its writing scene seemed entirely free of hierarchy. It was refreshing. Saskatoon reminds me of Ottawa in this regard; it’s the friendliest place that I have ever lived, and the writing community reflects this. Thistledown Press, which is located down the street from where I am living, recently launched four first books of poetry, with an audience of over 150. I cannot think of anywhere else where such a turn-out would occur, especially for first-time writers. A transplanted Vancouver poet whom I have just met told me that she’s had had a better chance to find an audience for her work in Saskatoon than she did in B.C., where she was one among so many writers and where the arts are too compromised by the politics of reputation-building. My experience of being in Victoria has been so coloured by my position as editor of The Malahat Review that I probably don’t have a terribly accurate view of what it is to be a writer there. Certainly, I felt welcomed when I arrived and realize I am in an enviable position—though I have lost count of how many writers across the country have introduced themselves by telling me that the magazine has rejected their work. Maybe a rejection by the Malahat is a mark of distinction or at least a rite of passage.
LP: Last question. That old standby. What are you reading now?
JOB: So much of what I read it is determined by the dictates of my Cadmus-Lynes-Kirstein project. Right now I am reading a short biography of George Balanchine, the founding artistic director of the New York City Ballet; a book of essays of Lincoln Kirstein; and George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. I have just finished Lorna Crozier’s The Bones in Their Wings, her lovely book of ghazals, with an explication of the rules of this form, and the Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. Yesterday, I just started Anne Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees.