In our May 2011 issue, The Walrus is pleased to publish “We Come in Peace,” a new story by Zsuzsi Gartner that also appears in her new collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, published this month by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin (Canada). I recently emailed with Zsuzsi about the story, the collection, and the direction of both her own writing and Canadian fiction more generally.
Jared Bland Last year, you edited an anthology called Darwin’s Bastards that featured some of the country’s finest writers offering tales of strange, dystopic futures. What is the relationship between the direction of that collection and this new book of your own stories? How did working with so many different visions of the world change the way you look at the worlds you create?
Zsuzsi Gartner Realism and I have finally parted ways — amicably but irrevocably. That’s the most direct relationship between the fictions in Darwin’s Bastards and the fictions in Better Living Through Plastic Explosives — they all eschew literary realism for more “imaginative” writing, as J.G. Ballard called it, all the while being deeply interested in language, in the way something is written, in order to convey meaning. And plot. For Darwin’s I wanted stories with plots in addition to narrative arcs, and I’ve tried to do the same with the stories in Better Living. I wanted external movement in addition to internal movement. I wanted things to happen, protagonists with missions. (A film producer trying to save his latest project and his best friend; a motivational speaker on the run from hit men and trying to find a cure for her severely autistic daughter; five angels on an earthly mission to discover the zenith of human sensory perception.) I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded with that. (more…)
In our April 2011 issue, The Walrus is pleased to offer its readers a sneak peek at David Bezmozgis’s long-awaited first novel, The Free World. Set in Rome in 1978, the book follows two generations of the Krasnansky family as they flee Russia and attempt to find their way to America or Canada. It’s markedly different from the book with which David made his name, Natasha and Other Stories (2004), yet it is equally remarkable, a novel of tremendous beauty, generosity, and sadness. “Rome, 1978,” the portion of the book which appears in the magazine, follows Samuil Krasnansky, the family’s patriarch. An excerpt also ran in The New Yorker last year, when David was selected as part of the “20 under 40” summer fiction showcase. We corresponded over email about the book and the process of adapting it for excerpt.
Jared Bland As this excerpt focuses on Samuil, perhaps we can begin by you telling us a bit about his character. How did he develop for you?
David Bezmozgis Samuil is part of a generation that is dying out. These are people who were born at the dawn of the Bolshevik Revolution and who still would have suffered from tsarist repressions. They are people who would have experienced every bloody episode of Russia’s twentieth century. And if they were Jewish, as Samuil is, they would have experienced it at a level even more brutal than the average Soviet citizen. My grandparents were of this generation and it still astounds me to think of everything they saw and everything they lost. When I conceived of the book, I felt it was essential that there be someone like Samuil, someone who could attest to this complicated, terrible history. In the book — and in this excerpt — he serves as a fierce, severe counterpoint to his modern, free-spirited children. (more…)
Everybody knows book prizes are wonderful things — but so are wonderful books
One of my great anxieties in this age of the dominance of literary prizes is that most of the good novels that don’t win a major award will somehow cease to exist for readers. What happens, for instance, to Andrea Levy’s The Long Song in the wake of its failure to win the Giller Prize? Is Michael Winter’s The Death of Donna Whalen somehow unworthy of your time if it’s not selected for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize? Such honours are inarguably positive things: they raise the profile of many books — and the “longlist” contrivance is designed to bring more titles into the warm ring of light cast by these shining awards — and the authors who win them receive much-needed and often very large amounts of money. But they inevitably create a culture wherein people gradually become less inclined to think about books and more inclined to think about the select few that bear the imprimatur of juried success.
There are authors for whom this doesn’t so much matter. Philip Roth became no less relevant this past month in being again overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature that so many people think is due. And a writer like Tom McCarthy, whose new novel, C, didn’t win this year’s Man Booker Prize, is assured some measure of success because of the cult following for his last work, Remainder. Which brings us to my favourite novel of the year: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
When the Booker longlist was released, Mitchell was an oddsmaker’s favourite, a man who had made three previous longlists and two previous shortlists (and who’d only published four novels), generally considered among the best and most exciting writers of his generation. But then Thousand Autumns proved unable to squeeze into the cramped waiting room of the shortlist, and everyone seemed to stop talking about it. Or, rather, everyone who talks about books for a living seemed to stop talking about it. Mitchell, like Roth or McCarthy, had readers well before this current period of awards eligibility and will continue to have them well after. (more…)
Author Stephen Marche discusses his interactive novel for walrusmagazine.com
Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period is an interactive novel, created exclusively for walrusmagazine.com, with hundreds of possible storylines and multiple outcomes. It uses a web format to capture the reality of a young woman in Toronto in the early 2000s, allowing the reader to explore different aspects of Lucy’s life and times and the city in which she lives, while following her through the labyrinth of her various futures. Lucy’s fate, like our own, is up in the air, open to negotiation and sudden change. Author Stephen Marche (Raymond and Hannah, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea) spoke to The Walrus’s managing editor about the development of the idea.
Jared Bland How did this project start for you? How did it evolve, both over the course of the drafts, and once it began to live in an electronic environment?
Stephen Marche The project began with Lucy, with her character. I was trying to get at the reality of a thirty-year-old woman living in Toronto, the kind of woman that I have more or less been surrounded by my whole life — urban, bookish, conflicted. It seemed to me that the fundamental lie behind any fictional character is the conclusion and the idea of a single continuous course to their existence. That’s not how people are. They contain, at any given moment, many possible futures. So I wanted to find a way to express that plural reality. Everything really flowed from that idea.
What is the relationship between this novel’s subject — a precarious moment in the life of a young woman — and its form?
I think Lucy, who’s thirty, would have remembered Choose Your Own Adventure books. And of course she would live online like the rest of us. So the form is particularly appropriate to both her past and her present reality. (more…)
An interview with J. Robert Lennon, author of Castles and Pieces for the Left Hand
J. Robert Lennon, the American writer, teacher, critic, and blogger who marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Handmaid’s Tale with a consideration of Margaret Atwood’s late career in the October edition of The Walrus, has recently published two books: a chilling novel, Castle, about a man named Eric Loesch who moves to upstate New York and finds a mysterious hidden castle in the woods behind his house, and Pieces for the Left Hand, a virtuosic collection of 100 extremely short and strange stories that all involve the citizens of an unnamed upstate New York town. Both books are published by Graywolf Press.
Lennon lives near Ithaca, New York and teaches creative writing at Cornell University. He and I talked last summer in the kitchen of his rambling farmhouse while chickens milled about the front yard.
You’ve lectured about the benefit of Oulipo-inspired limitation exercises, which use lipograms, palindromes, and other constraints to trigger ideas for creative writing. I wonder if Pieces for the Left Hand works as a grand example of just that kind of project: instead of writing Queneau’s one simple scene again and again, you wrote the broader scene — the sort of existential climate or predicament — of a community again and again. It feels as though each story in Pieces can be construed as a variation on a theme, an exercise in theme. The book exists as a kind of shadowbox — so intricately done.
That’s a good way to think about it. You might have read that the genesis of the project came from my sons. My older son was two or three at the time; he only would take naps for about twenty minutes, and I would want to accomplish something while he slept. In those days, in the afternoons, my wife had her writing time or was teaching, and I was on kid duty. I need to be accomplishing something all the time, otherwise I get antsy. It’s hard for me to even sit and read a book. So for a month or two, whenever I had the chance, I’d write one of these little stories. Once you’ve got twenty of something, you begin to think, okay, this is turning into a whole. What is the whole? I thought about what I was interested in, in writing these stories, and I began to follow that more closely. I also began to realize that the narrator wasn’t me — he started out as someone kind of like me, but he aged about fifteen years, and he’s much more of a recluse. The crazy thing is that the characters are basically living in the house I live in now. Except that I didn’t even know about this house at the time! (more…)
An interview with Sarah Selecky, author of the collection This Cake is for the Party
Sarah Selecky, whose short story “Paul Farenbacher’s Yard Sale” appeared in the March 2010 issue of The Walrus, has recently published her first book of stories, This Cake is for the Party, with Thomas Allen and Sons. Sarah’s stories are beautiful and unusual — she writes about very real people and very real things in a way that captures the delicacy and strangeness of contemporary life. She is also a noted teacher of creative writing, a practice that informs and inspires her own work. I asked Sarah about the intersection of her teaching and her stories, putting her first book together, and the story behind her Walrus story, which is one of my favourite pieces we’ve published this year.
In addition to writing, you teach the craft to students. What is the relationship between your own work and the work that you help others with?
I work with beginning writers and well-practiced writers — online, in person, and over the telephone. Different writers have different needs, so I work with them in different ways, depending on where they are and what they want to focus on. And now Skype and wikis and Twitter are allowing me to teach abroad — I have students all across Canada, in Europe, in the US, and in South America. It’s amazing! I couldn’t do that ten years ago.
So much of the work is about learning how to stay in that receptive, precarious, dream-like state of mind while you’re writing. You need to know how to cultivate that state of mind so you can recognize what an idea feels like, know when something is important to write down, and how to not think about it too much when you write it. It takes a lot of faith to create something out of nothing in this way.
For some reason, it’s scary for writers to go there. Let me say it another way: at worst, it’s frightening to go there. At best, it’s avoidable. It’s so easy to resist doing it. The resistance is strong. I include myself in this — I am a terrible procrastinator. So a lot of what I teach is about understanding what the creative state of mind feels like, and how to train yourself to go there regularly. This makes the work of writing much more sustainable, much more pleasurable. And I teach this simply because I know it’s something I need to do myself. I developed a series of courses that would be my ideal writing classes.
No matter where you are as a writer, it’s good to know the benefit of sitting down regularly to follow your pen across the page. It’s an important practice for all writers. As a teacher, I feel like the captain of a big flying airship. But we’re all in the airship together. We all need to do the work together to keep the thing from falling. (more…)
An interview with debut novelist (and Summer Reading 2010 contributor) Miguel Syjuco
At just thirty-two, Miguel Syjuco — who contributed a new short story, “Stet,” to The Walrus’s Summer Reading issue — has written one of the most inventive, challenging, and entertaining novels of recent years, Ilustrado. And now it’s a bestseller, too. He spoke with The Walrus in Toronto this spring, a few weeks before the book’s publication.
To start, can you tell me about how Ilustrado formed, and how it’s developed over the years you’ve been working on it?
The book came to be, in my head, when I was doing some fact-checking at The Paris Review and living in New York. They were putting their Writers at Work series online, so they wanted to make sure whatever was in their archive was right. They had us freelancers hitting the library stacks, and I was looking at all sorts of different sources — literary biographies, interviews, profiles, articles, introductions to the authors’ books. Say for example I was doing Jack Kerouac, and I was finding out all these really interesting things about him, from the factual — where he was born, when he died — to his writing style, everything. And I thought, that’s a really interesting way of getting a portrait of an artist. It struck me as a method that was really organic, because our way of grasping reality today is precisely through fragments of sources. When you find out about, say, the Icelandic volcano, you hear from friends, someone text messages you, newspaper articles, internet, blogs, whatever. So I wanted to write a book that did this, in a sense. But I didn’t know how — it’s my first novel.
I was writing Ilustrado as part of a PhD at the University of Adelaide — it’s the creative component. So I thought, I’ll make this portrait of an artist, Crispin Salvador. I’ll create all his work the best I can, and I just did it linearly; it wasn’t as fragmented as it was now. But I couldn’t crack it — it was thick, it was difficult to get through, and it was 200,000 words. I pity my poor PhD supervisor. I didn’t know how to do it. I just kept writing, and writing, and writing. It didn’t feel right. (more…)
An interview with Walrus contributor Steven Heighton, author of Every Lost Country and Patient Frame
This spring, Steven Heighton has released two books, Patient Frame, a collection of poems, one of which appeared in The Walrus last year, and a novel, Every Lost Country, which was excerpted in the magazine’s April 2010 issue. I’ve written in this space before about the process of excerpting the exceptional new text, but after revisiting the finished book I found myself with more questions for Steven. He was kind enough to email back and forth with me over the last month.
This novel begins with a fictionalization of a real incident. How did you come across the story that you used to begin Every Lost Country, and how did it shape your writing as you moved ahead?
In September 2006 a group of Tibetan refugees, fleeing up a glacier toward the China-Nepal border in hopes of joining the Tibetan expat community in India, was pursued and attacked by Chinese border guards. At least two Tibetans — both of them young Buddhist nuns — were shot dead. A group of Western mountaineers at a base camp along the border, preparing to climb the Himalayan peak Cho Oyu, witnessed the event, and a Romanian climber caught images of it on his cellphone camera.
I heard about the shooting when the story broke a few days later. I also heard that there had been some debate among the climbers at base camp about whether to go on with the climb or instead stop and get the video and testimony out to international media, as soon as possible. Several of the climbers decided that exposing the crime was their priority. So the story got out and spread, despite the Chinese government’s efforts to hush it up and then, later, ludicrously, to maintain that the guards had shot down the nuns in “self-defence.”
For the last decade or so, I’ve been obsessed with the ethics of intervention — when is it necessary to get involved, to cross the border that separates my problems from yours? As soon as I heard about the Nangpa La shootings, I knew my next novel would start with a fictionalized version of the atrocity. I saw that it could be a powerful way of exploring the ethics of intervention while at the same time testing my characters to the limit. (more…)
Like both of his prior novels, Sam Lipsyte’s new book, The Ask, is not embarrassed by its preoccupations. Consider its opening paragraphs, a blast of violent prose that declares, in the exaggerated voice of one of the more charmingly silly characters, what it understands to be the United States’ current predicament:
America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.
“We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.
Sam Lipsyte’s America, then, is in a bit of trouble. But for all the country’s woes, these sentences declare that the author’s art, at least, is well and thriving. The Ask is his first novel since Home Land (which seems more destined for cult classic status with each passing year, as word of its savage, hilarious, and addictive pleasures spread alongside the fantastic story of its rejection-filled road to publication) and it’s his bleakest, funniest, and saddest book, his most pitiless and essential work to date.
Quickly sketched, The Ask concerns the peregrinations of Milo Burke, a relatively unsuccessful advancement officer at an East Coast university, whose life is doubly disrupted by a fracture in his marriage and the reintroduction of an old friend, Purdy Stuart, whose wealth and status as a potential university donor have serious implications for Milo. Professionally indebted to Purdy, Milo becomes ensnared in a web of their old college pals and the sad life of Don, a double amputee Iraq war veteran who refers to his prosthetics as “his girls,” and who takes pleasure in discomfiting others by repeatedly massaging his stumps in their presence. (more…)
To begin, a disclosure: the following is not meant as a proper review of Guy Gavriel Kay‘s new novel, Under Heaven. I know Guy, and will be interviewing him on stage this Thursday evening at the Toronto Reference Library for the public launch of the book; that relationship means I cannot be expected to offer an objective opinion on it. Yet it is a book that I adore in my entirely un-objective way. While I can make no claim to write disinterestedly, I hope to do so passionately.
Simply put, Under Heaven is one of the most exhilarating novels I’ve read. But what makes it so exhilarating is in large part its majestic plot, and, in deference to Guy’s documented preference for plot details remaining secrets for the reader to discover, I will refrain from revealing them. (Something I’m happy to do — the reviews I’ve read so far have been universally positive, but they’ve also demonstrated how difficult and unsatisfying it is to reduce such a complex web of characters and destinies to the requisite outline.) Suffice it to say that the novel records the movings about of a large cast of characters in a country called Kitai, inspired by Tang Dynasty China.
Under Heaven will be praised as an epic novel, and understandably so. It’s a sweeping adventure about emperors and generals, rivalries and dynasties. But if historical epics are often the accounts of great men doing important things, this one represents a democratization of the form, arguing through its comprehensiveness that any point in space and time is the sum of far more than the will of the empowered. It is about small moments, too — the love a brother feels for his lost sister, the life of a crippled alleyway beggar, a poet yearning for the moon. This breadth of scope, this inclusive impulse, is part of the book’s effort to take the measure of an entire society, from the glittering sheen of the Ta-Ming Palace to the coarse fabric in which a lowly soldier drapes himself. (more…)
Steven Heighton’s new novel, Every Lost Country, will be referred to as his Tibetan book, for understandable reasons: it opens with a 2006 incident on the China-Tibet border, and the ensuing action traces the reverberations of that event across both countries. But like all of Steven’s work, it will be remembered in a much more complex way than such simple epithets allow, cherished for its characters, who are numerous, challenging, and deeply alive; for its precise and beautiful language; and for its ambitious (and successful) effort to grapple with issues that are central to the way we live in a world of ever-increasing moral ambiguity.
Steven and I started talking about the possibility of running a section of it in The Walrus last summer, when we were working on his story “Noughts & Crosses: An Unsent Reply,” which ran in our November 2009 issue. Editing fiction for the magazine means reading an incredible number of stories each month, so I leapt at the change of pace of Steven’s manuscript. I read Every Lost Country while travelling in Turkey, and, as I told Steven on my return, the highest compliment I can give the book is that it gripped me so much that I stayed put for an entire day to finish it.
I knew we had to excerpt this truly exceptional novel, but wasn’t sure of the best way to do so. Every Lost Country follows several different main characters, and is told in a sort of third-person limited omniscience that alternates among them. So to isolate one section of the book is necessarily to cut off many voices; viewing something through the eyes of just one of them fails to represent the nuance with which the novel constructs events. The opening scene, for instance, is viewed repeatedly from different perspectives. It’s only after seeing it these many times that the reader begins to understand the complexity of what’s happening, an interconnectedness that subtly suggests the way in which we all become, to some degree, dependent on those around us as co-builders of our lives.
I originally wanted to use a section of the novel in which Lew Book, the Toronto doctor whose minor heroics are seen at the end of “Bystanders,” plays a Nepalese strategy game called bagh chal with Kaljang, a sherpa. For me, it contained so many layers, and stood alone as a wonderful set piece. But it occurs too far into the novel to make sense on its own. In the end, we settled on a slightly adapted version of the novel’s opening, in which we see the border event for the first time through the eyes of Sophie, Lew’s daughter. I love the clarity of her perspective, the way in which she dissects this deeply confusing event, parsing its component parts and attempting to make sense of it. I felt that it resonated with the experience of the reader (and thus is a clever way to open a book). And I loved the section that followed, in which we return to the past and to Toronto as we recall through Sophie her father’s intervention with the high school kids. For me, Lew’s assertion that “there’s no such thing” as bystanders speaks not only to the preceding section, but addresses the major dilemma of the novel that’s to come.
Every Lost Country will be released in early May from Knopf Canada. Hopefully you’ll pick up in the book where we left off in the magazine. Watch this space — we’ll be giving away a few signed copies in this space to help with the transition.
(Illustration by Benbo George)
P.K. Page, an extraordinary poet, prose writer, and painter, one of our most individual talents, died yesterday at home in Victoria, B.C. It is a loss not only for the world of Canadian poetry, over which she loomed large in her unusual way, but for Canada itself.
While I had read poems of hers before, I first encountered the enormity of her contribution in Ottawa in 2003, when Prof. Zailig Pollock, now named Page’s literary executor, spoke to a conference I attended. Pollock’s presentation was about the possibilities of hypertext poetry, and he used his ongoing work on Page as an example. After that day, I began to seek her poems out, and my reading of her has been a universally satisfying experience. (For an artist with such a wide range, she was unbelievably consistent.) The Walrus was fortunate to publish her work a few times over the years, most recently in June 2008, when we featured her poem “Each Mortal Thing,” illustrated by a pair of P.K.’s wonderful drawings.
While her passing is a considerable loss, especially given how productive she was in old age, there is some good news. As Quill & Quire reported yesterday, Pollock will be working with Tim Inkster and his excellent Porcupine’s Quill Press to publish a ten-volume edition of Page’s complete works. Additionally, Pollock and Dalhousie professor Dean Irvine will be preparing a hypermedia archive of her work. Thanks to these efforts, she will live on.
Last June, P.K. published a poem called “Cullen in the Afterlife” in Poetry. On this day after her passing, quoting its closing lines seems to me a very good way of saying goodbye:
So he must start once more. He had begun
how many times? Faint glimmerings and dim
memories of pasts behind the past
recently lived — the animal pasts and vague
vegetable pasts — those climbing vines and fruits;
and mineral pasts (a slower pulse) the shine
of gold and silver and the gray of iron.
The “upward anguish.”
What a rush of wings
above him as he thought the phrase and knew
angels were overhead, and over them
a million suns and moons.
(Drawing by P.K. Page. Click here to read more of her poetry in The Walrus.)