As writers. you all debuted with short stories – which is surprising to me as an English author. In Canada, is it easier to publish short stories or this an exceptional occurrence?
Deborah: It does happen very often that writers debut with short stories, with the expectation that they’ll follow with a novel.
Michael: I’m currently writing a novel but no one believes me that it’s my decision; not my agent’s or publisher’s.
Alexander: Canada, like Ireland; many of our literary greats and literary exports are short story writer. It’s an advantage in our literary market place; you can make a go of it, not much of a go of it, but a go of it all the same; with more leeway than in England or the States.
Did writing short stories give you a certain amount of freedom that wouldn’t have been possible if you’d written a novel?
Deborah: I believe it did give me more freedom; I got the chance to explore a lot more voices.
Michael: My book is set in Vancouver; it’s very urban book, although it does extend beyond the city; and so there was a sense that I was breaking the rules. Canadian literature (CanLit as we call it) is very rural and all about women trying to escape the past…
It’s interesting that the urban setting would be seen as so out of the norm…
Michael: it is interesting seeing as most people live in the city and most of our literature is not based there.
Do you know why this is?
Alexander: Canada is the second or third most urbanised place on earth and there’s an amazing separation between Canadian lived experience and Canadian art – it comes from our artistic past. Sometimes people say Canada has too much geography and not enough history; people have been gathered in the city and gathered a garrison type ideology. But this is changing now.
Michael, your stories are interlinked; can you talk a little about this structure and how this helped you to portray Vancouver?
Michael: My father’s favourite book was the Dubliners and he put it on a pedestal; so my linked collection was very much an aim from the start. A linked collection can portray a city in the way that a novel cannot. Vancouver City is jaw-droppingly beautiful, cosmopolitan, but then it also houses the worst neighbourhood for poverty, drug abuse etc; it’s right next to where the movie stars live and frolic on the beaches. It’s an incredibly paradoxical place and the short story form allowed me to investigate that, in a way that a novel wouldn’t have let me tackle that situation.
Deborah, talk a bit about the structure of your stories; how much you think about structure?
Deborah: I do think about structure a lot and so this could be another example of how writing short stories may give more freedom. I think of the story in pictures; I believe stories can be a circle or it can travel backwards – but then I do think about it abstractly as well. In the story with my main character, Tabatha, I started somewhere else but then thought about what might happen in the future; and that’s when it became a story that could be told. That’s the thing I love about short stories; they can encompass a whole live or a just a moment.
Alexander, violence pervades the stories, but it’s very different to you; can you talk about why that appears in your work and what your intention with that is.
Alexander: I’m interested in the various ways that violence functions; I don’t think they’re ever gratuitous but they’re sometimes surprising. I was interested in the way that physical events arise; they arrive and usually arise very quickly. If you go out every night and drink nine pints and get in a bar fight three nights a week, then that’s almost not violent – it’s just the norm. If you have a very strenuous physical job, things happen that are considered just part of their work. I think I was more interested in fragility or contingency; where everything seems to be domestic or seems to be in control but a violent event is always a millimetre away. There’s a veneer where most polite conversation and life is journeying along but there’s always this ‘other’. I liken it to sunburn; how if you’re not paying attention you’ve suddenly got a third degree burn and you’re in pain, but it seems accidental. It’s that kind of violence, or contingency or fragility that I used to structure plots. I was interested in the moment where an event suddenly became significant and lead to a physically violent reaction.
Peter Murphy asks: “I love it when anyone writers outside of the university; I wonder what, aside from personal interests, leads you to write about something that would seem to have nothing to do with your everyday life.”
Deborah: I work in a bookstore so I don’t tend to write about that very often; I tend to put books on shelves then take them off and sometimes put them back on again… I don’t know what compels me to write a certain story except for, maybe, a character will draw me; an unusual encounter or the idea of someone doing something. It doesn’t have to be something I’ve physically seen.
Michael: I’ve thought about this a little bit and I can trace back in myself a kind of interest in the human mind and the cracked perspectives on the world, including my own. That’s at the heart of my book; many different voices, some from a very ill place; they all share a very unique view of themselves and their events. I guess it’s something that I’ve always been obsessed with; the fact that everyone in the world believes that they’re doing the right thing and that their own version of life is true. I guess it’s because I know my own understanding is so limited. Fiction is capable of showing that lack of understanding in a beautiful way.
Alexander: I feel more out of place inside the university than I do in other places. When you teach in university, there are fabulously strange combination of people wandering the halls and working behind the doors; but they’re all only held there temporarily. There’s nothing more boring than the plot of the department meeting; then there’s this issue of middle class and suburban angst and these sorts of dramas which writers can do a great job with – but it’s not something I can work with in a useful way. What do I look at? Love, ambition, frustration, children; just trying to follow these universal themes and how to pull the resulting story off in style – it’s about how it’s done rather than what they’re writing about.
Deborah: I try to write about anything other than myself; its very much a way to escape from who I am and what i do – its the opposite of “write what you know.” For me, using my imagination is a very central part of fiction.
How difficult or is it possible for you to read other works without analysing them?
Deborah: I think it becomes increasingly difficult. One of my teachers said it’s a loss of innocence and you can’t read again like when you were a kid. I find that this way of reading happens rarely now but when it does I savour it; this just happened with a recent translation of Madame Bovary. It’s magical now. I really appreciate it when it happens.
Michael: I have an uncle who works in construction and every time he walks into somewhere new I can see him seizing up the beams and kicking the walls; when I’m reading I become my uncle in that way.
Alexander: I don’t have any problem reading; my students all want to be writers but they don’t read. I ask – do you see the problem here? I love listening to music because it’s not my field. No one is going to win music; no one is going to kick the ass of music with a song. You just try to get in the stream; and that’s all I’m trying to do with my stories. So when I read, most of the time I’m interested in how something is working but I’m also just looking for something that hits me in a way that only literature can do. As a reader, I’m looking for the same moments I’m trying to produce as a writer.
And how mindful are you of the reader?
Alexander: Henry James – said he had one job; and that was to be interesting. If you’re writing something good then the audience will stay there. You don’t have to worry about, say Shakespeare; you have to worry about Facebook. Is your story better than Facebook? When writers get self indulgent then I say ‘what is your reader getting from this? If you’re delivering, then they’re sitting. If not; they’re free to wander’.
Deborah: I didn’t think about readers; because I felt slightly hopeless about getting published. After my book came out I got a feeling of self-important pressure for a while but now I’ve gone back; I realised people don’t often care and you have to make them care. In the later stages when I think about pacing or about when things are being revealed I might consider the audience.
Michael: I tend to please myself because I often grow bored; so I use that as my measure.