November 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
Zoe Whittall is the author of two literary novels: the Lambda award-winning Holding Still For As Long As Possible and Bottle Rocket Hearts, which was named a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year, made the CBC Canada Reads Top Ten Essential Novels of the decade, translated into French and optioned for film. Holding Still for as Long as Possible was shortlisted for the Relit Award, and named an American Library Association Stonewall honor book. Her poetry books include The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life, The Emily Valentine Poems and Precordial Thump.
Does this mean I can write but not read what I’ve written? That would be the worst. First drafts are always awful, and that would mean I’d only be able to write wretched first drafts for the rest of my days? So I suppose I would choose reading, and then I’d make someone transcribe my stories for me as I spoke them out loud. Is that cheating? I think it is.
What’s your third R?
Riding my bike.
November 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last night the winner of the Cole Foundation Prize for Translation (for which I had the honour of serving as a juror) was announced. Congratulations to Donald Winkler, who won the prize for his translation of Pierre Nepveu’s poetry collection The Major Verbs. Winkler also won this year’s Governor General’s Award for translation for The Major Verbs.
November 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve been meaning to post for a very long time indeed about Hawthorn & Child, which I bought in the UK edition a year ago. Now that the North American publishing date has been and gone it seems only appropriate to jot down some random thoughts and send them belatedly out to the internet with no timely hook whatsoever.
One of the first things I liked about this book was the cover, which reminded me of one of my favourite albums (Earth Vs The Wildhearts). Possibly this resemblance, which, upon actually looking at the two images next to one another, turned out to be not as strong as I might have hoped, was heightened for me because until recently I thought that the large brown insect was in fact a sausage and therefore much more closely related to the fruit on the Ridgway cover. What can I say; I bought this album on cassette tape: the picture was tiny. In addition, my love of sausages is all-conquering.
Hawthorn and Child are a pair of detectives living and working in London. When the book opens with a possible drive-by shooting, it seems fairly certain that we’re on reliable detective fiction ground. The victim claims to have been shot from a vintage car, despite the fact that no nearby witnesses saw any vehicle matching this description. When Hawthorn starts to obsess over this, it feels like the first clue, or the first clue-hunt. But soon this story is dropped, just as we’re keen to find out what really happened, and we’re shunted over to other voices, other close-up third-person perspectives. It’s a bit like reality TV—highly edited, highly crafted fragmented narratives that purport to be fly-on-the-wall. And yet if this truly was reality TV there’d be a much stronger sense of narrative as boss, of the need for conflict and obstacles, conclusion and resolution and final answers.
Hawthorn and Child, it turns out, are much more human than other police detectives, in the sense that they seem about as acclimatised to the job—its boredoms and its horrors—as any random person off the street, which is to say, not very. Not for them the strict separation of work and life. Child is just about done with the job; Hawthorn should perhaps never have started in the first place. There’s very little of the hardboiled about either of them, which could have made them farcical but doesn’t.
I’ve seen suggestions that this book, described by the publishers (Granta in the UK, New Directions in the US) as a novel, is really a collection of short stories. I partially sympathise with this position, but to describe Hawthorn and Child as short stories fundamentally alters the way you read it and think about it, and a considerable part of the pleasure of this book comes from the subconscious’s attempts to sort things into patterns, make the numbers add up, and solve the mystery. This is, however, really not the point of Hawthorn & Child. Mysteries are not solved so much as set aside to join the random pile of questions floating around in the ether and sometimes overlapping with all the unanswered questions filling—and yet ignored by—our own individual brains. Those black and white images that could be vases and could be human faces, depending on the precise location our eyes rest on as well as on the information our brains so desperately want to fill in, might be a good way of thinking about Hawthorn & Child.
Reading it is as much as experiment on one’s own mind about how we read, and about the yearning for structure and closure that sends our minds zipping off into frenzies of connection-making. It reminds me of the experience of reading The Unfortunates, BS Johnson’s 1969 book in a box. There, the fact that the story is in randomly ordered bound sections is supposed to derail the linear narrative, but behind the scenes my (clearly very conventional) brain was keen to solve the puzzle—if not going as far as to demand a precise order, at least assigning each new section to a vague period of time. Apart from this, The Unfortunates is a fairly conventional novel, but both it and Hawthorn & Child create, in their respective ways, a reading experience that is much closer to our lived experience of reality. People don’t tell you their life history in neat chronological order, they dole out random episodes at irregular intervals. As you go about your business, the business of the rest of the world comes in and out of focus, raising questions which are rarely resolved.
As I was writing about Hawthorn & Child, I thought of another great book that might also fit into some vague category of subversive detective fiction. John Goldbach’s The Devil and the Detective, set in Montreal, is an intriguing tale about a private detective hired to investigate the death of a beautiful woman’s husband. Bob James, the incompetent, or perhaps altogether too competent and this aware of his limitations, detective assigned to investigate a man’s murder starts off on the wrong foot by having sex with the not-particularly-grieving widow within hours of his death.
It’s all completely improbable buffoonery and great fun, written in what might best be described as a second-guessing, double-bluffing stream-of-consciousness style. The extended ruminations and the endless self- and universe-questioning reminded me of Simon Okotie’s fascinating Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? Both of these books and Hawthorn & Child do something well that Alex Estes, in his detailed and extensive review of Hawthorn & Child in Quarterly Conversation, describes thus:
Books are published all the time that rely on the classic novelistic tropes that guarantee a satisfying emotional experience. Alternatively, plenty of books rely on the “non-traditional” tropes of experimental literature that guarantee a satisfying intellectual experience. Somehow, Ridgway has written a book that accomplishes both.
Some readers insist that this is always an either/or scenario, in which formal experiment obliviously celebrates its Pyrrhic victory over content. But like Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (another BS Johnson novel), both Hawthorn & Child and The Devil and the Detective tell you real things about people via the medium of a novel that forces the realistic and the non-realistic into a head-on collision without producing writing that is difficult or inaccessible. The results are most pleasurable.
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November 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
When did you first know you wanted to write books?
By the year I got my braces on, I knew I wanted to write. But I didn’t see myself writing books until university. Filling notebooks was satisfaction enough. As for being a writer, I’m not much into the idea of writer as scarf-wearing, coffee-drinking, pen-sucking dilettante. If that’s the image of a writer, then it’s possible to write without being a writer.
November 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
November 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
My first job in Canada was a very lowly position that gave me access to a large number of case files relating to class action suits brought by former residential school students. It was quite the introduction to a side of Canada I knew very little about. The oddest part was that my job—in other words I—was considered so very lowly that nobody ever talked to me about the contents of the files or asked me to do anything more taxing than photocopying.
I relived some of that experience of becoming familiar with these horrific files as I read Meredith Quartermain’s new novel, Rupert’s Land, the story of two children whose freedom is limited by political and social contexts far beyond their control. Cora lives with her family in Depression-era Alberta, and Hunter lives on a reserve with his extended family until the Indian agent finally forces him and his sister Rose-Berry to go to school. The school sections are heartbreaking, with the portrayal of the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of the children adroitly managed by Quartermain.
Cora struggles against expectations, against gender limitations and societal norms. She’s intelligent, interested in science and profoundly bored by her friends’ fascination with boys. Cora’s position, so forcefully stated, tends to undermine Cora herself. Her romantic notions of how living with the Indians might make her life easier—or at least closer to what she wants it to be—are both poignant and annoying, as I think they are supposed to be. Cora is, after all, still a product of her time.
Where Cora is the mouthpiece for the social and socio-economic issues of her (and indeed our) era, Hunter is a fully living, breathing character, the subtle novel to Cora’s belligerent op ed. We first meet him quite far through the novel as he’s feeling pressure, yet again, to go to the residential school that his cousins have to attend. Although he’s fifteen, he’s escaped so far and has been able to stay with his loving, close-knit family (enjoying the kind of emotional stability Cora doesn’t even know exists) but now the rules are being tightened. He and Rose-Berry must go. Once institutionalised, he mentally escapes and survives by living as much as possible in his imagination and his grandmother’s tales.
Cora and Hunter meet rather late in the novel, after Hunter has escaped from the school without his sister. He needs to get home to his family, and Cora decides she is the one to help. They set off together on a journey doomed to disaster in a section that alternates between strong and less successful. Here Quartermain deals well with the balance of power, as Hunter often has to submit to Cora’s well-intentioned but clumsy help, in a direct but skilful echo of the colonial project writ large. The ending is disappointing in moral and storytelling terms, with Hunter submitting almost willingly to his forced return to school, believing that it is only a question of another year or so before he can enjoy his freedom. But perhaps this terrible irony is the only fitting ending, since we all know that “freedom” was not in sight for Hunter, or for any of his fellow residential school victims, for decades to come.
November 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
Andrew Lovett was born in Surrey and grew up in Hertfordshire. Career-wise, he has done filing, data-inputting, retailing, quantity surveying, teaching, company directoring and a host of jobs in between which fall under the general umbrella of menial. Everlasting Lane, his debut novel, was published by Galley Beggar Press in October, 2013.
When did you first know you wanted to write books?
My older – by nine years – brother used to recommend things for me to read and, by the age of about fourteen, I had fallen in love not only with books but also with the idea of being a writer. It seemed such a noble endeavour and I was as enthralled as much by the lives of Salinger, Camus, Isherwood, Steinbeck, Joyce and others as I was by their work. I thought writers and writing were every bit as cool as pop stars and footballers.
How does writing fit into your typical day?
Half the week I do my day job and no writing – at least not fiction. The other half I have a small private office a couple of miles from home where I sit (pretty much nine to five) and stare at a blank screen on the lap-top, occasionally tapping a key to relieve the monotony. In the early stages of writing Everlasting Lane, however, there were a lot of early mornings and late nights fortified by coffee, and biscuits with an orange-chocolate topping. I miss the biscuits.
Do you type or write by hand?
Mostly typing. I seem to think at the same speed as I type (which is not to say fast) so it suits me better than by hand. The downside is that I tend to type the same paragraph twenty times with minor variations which I then have to meld into one.
I do, however, always carry a notebook (although my wife says it ruins the line of my jeans) and pencil. They’re mostly deployed in the middle of the night when the lights are out and tend to render my blind scrawlings impervious to interpretation once the sun comes up. I’ve lost all my best work this way.
What have you read recently that you loved?
I don’t often read something that I think is really great so I’m always open to recommendations. Aimee Bender, who wrote The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and others, is, I think, a wonderful writer with a lightness of touch and a turn of phrase which makes me want to be better. On a recent holiday, I came across a worn, dog-eared copy of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things which is also beautifully written.
What are your all-time favourites?
I’ve mentioned some of my favourite writers in answering question 1. Others would include Harper Lee, Graham Greene, William Trevor, Anton Chekov, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Magnus Mills and, I dare say, a couple of dozen more who are refusing to come to mind right now. No one, I’m ashamed to say, particularly exotic. Non-fiction includes Chavs by Owen Jones and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein – very uncomfortable reading but compelling nonetheless.
You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?
Too easy. I read for pleasure so I would choose that eight days a week. I don’t know why I write but pleasure rarely comes into it.
What’s your third R, and why?
Rrrrrock ‘n’ roll (that is to say popular music) from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. To live without my music, as the song goes, would be impossible to do…