Sunday, March 25, 2012

Interview: Douglas Glover

[See also the original 2001 TDR interview with DG.]


I must start with, what's up with the title?

The title of the book is also the title of one of the essays which is about writing sentences, especially paying attention to verbs.

I found a while ago that if I could circle all the instances of the verb to be on a page of student writing and connect them up in a spider diagram (copula spiders), then I could teach the student something concrete about improving the prose by showing him how to rewrite some of those sentences using active, interesting verbs.

I quote from some of letters to students (acerbic, comic). I think I actually manage to make writing sentences sound exciting.

Can you please provide a summary of the book's content?

The book is a sequence of essays beginning with two pieces on novel and short story structure. These are followed by a couple of essays on sentences that gradually lead to larger issues of form (its complexity, formality, artificiality).

Then I segue into a series of essays that are meant to show readers how to read good writers for technique and structure. "How to Read a Mark Anthony Jarman Short Story" or "The Mind of Alice Munro." Also novels by Leon Rooke, Thomas Bernhard, Cees Nooteboom, Juan Rulfo, and more.

I close with a couple of essays about novels in a larger, more philosophical context. One explores the relationship between novels and history and truth, the other talks about endings and what I call the comforting lie of art (which the best writers try to reveal).

The second essay in the book is called "How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise." Besides discussing plot, image patterning, thematic passages and time control, I also give an exercise that offers a stripped-down short story paradigm. It often seems to help student writers get their bearings inside the mysteries of the craft.

Does the book outline your personal approach to reading, re-reading, or whatever we now call the act of criticism or engagement with literary production?

On a certain level this book is about the act of reading. Really what I am pushing is a critical aesthetic that is a bit like New Criticism and a bit like Formalist criticism but to my mind as a writer just seems reasonable and immeasurably expands comprehension. You read the book or story and pay some attention to how it's put together and, beyond the illusion of story, you suddenly engage with the text on a whole other, rather exciting, level of rhythm and meaning. You begin to SEE connections that hitherto you vaguely passed over supplying your own dreamy connotations (as you're taught to do in high school). We're at a moment in our culture when differences in the ability to read and comprehend a text are crucial.

And I can't remember the moment when I invented the phrase copula spiders, only vaguely remember circling over and over again all the to be verbs and then NOTICING that I could really make a diagram out of this and the diagram could look like a spider (with far more legs than it should have). The real issue, the shocking point, is that when you teach writing you are basically teaching the same student over and over again. It doesn't matter whether the student is writing nonfiction or fiction or that the student thinks the burning piece of paper in your hand is the next War and Peace because he has put his heart into it and it comes out of his own original personal thoughts and is DIFFERENT (he believes) from anything ever written before (or in the future). The shocking thing is the uniformity of mediocrity. The shocking thing is that intelligent adults can't think of another verb to use (actually most students jog along with a verb repertoire of about five: to be, to look, to sit, to stand, to see--absolutely the most popular verb choices).

The crucial connector here is to realize that part of the reason proto-writers don't notice they are doing this is because they don't know how to read. Eighty percent of what I do every semester is teach students how to read like writers, that is, with attention to structure and the intensities of well-written prose. So the two aspects of my book are necessarily joined: you can't teach people to write simply by telling them what they are doing wrong; you have to show them where it is done right, that is, you have to show them how to read.

What have you been up to recently? What are some short stories (either singles or collections) that you've particularly enjoyed recently?

Last week I was in New York at the Center for Fiction to give a reading and a craft class. The craft class was on novel writing, based on my essay "How to Write a Novel" in Attack of the Copula Spiders. It's on Youtube.



Also at the Center for Fiction, I gave a little 5-minute reading, micro-stories. That's on Youtube as well.



Right now I am working mostly on a novel. The stories I am reading are mostly re-readings. Isaac Babel, Mark Anthony Jarman, Chekhov (I just went through "The Duel").

See also Numéro Cinq.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fiction #34

Here is new fiction, issue #34:

Submissions now open for #35.

Fiction #34: Leila Marshy

Ladies, This Article Could Save Your Life!

This article was written for you! And millions just like you – women who want to take control of their lives, who want to put an end to negative thoughts and cellulite. Who want to slice through the clutter and botox their secrets forever. Ladies, we know who you are.

Take Sunira, for example. She is at a crossroads, her husband works hard, her children wear keys around their necks. Sunira, like most women – no, like all working, thinking, harried women – is neglecting her family. Two words: self-esteem. Or make-up.

When Sunira leaves for work at 5:30 in the morning does she remember her smile lotion? her happiness foundation? her positive outlook? We don’t think so, because her husband has started verbalizing his dissatisfaction. For “verbalizing” read “thrashing.” Sunira feels unloved. She feels ugly inside. You’d almost think her husband was betting on it!

Sunira’s oldest daughter – 8 going on 18! – reads her mother our checklist. Number one: Ten Ab Crunches a Day Go a Long, Long Way! If Sunira could only lose that expanding tire around her waist, a certain Mr Sunira might find a certain Mrs Sunira hotter than a chapatti stove in the middle of August.

But Sunira just tosses and turns at night. Albeit as slowly and inconspicuously as she can, because if the bed creaks or – worse! – if she accidently elbows Mr Sunira in the head, she’s in for a surprise. We all know that a man needs his sleep (if you don’t have a man yet, check out our 25 Tips to Bag the Beast!) and this one doesn’t like being woken up. Not one bit. So when that happens, which seems to be every night, she “gets it.” Sounds hot? It is! There are a few things Sunira can do when she gets it, and this is where we come in. Sunira, have you bought yourself that G-string yet? Black lacy underwear? Edible massage oil? Nair and tweezers? Please consider these purchases on your next trip to the hospital!

Let’s take a quick break here and have a look at Sunira’s name. Did you know that women whose names end in a have the most sex? Sunira, you sly thing!

Sunira’s days are full. After her ab crunches in the dark (you are crunching, right Sunira?), she makes sure to leave out breakfast and bagged lunches for the kids. Good for you, Sunira! Check out our recipes for French Crêpes, Belgian Waffles and Andalusian Eggs Over Easy. The kids will love it! But perhaps Mr Sunira could use something with a little more flava. There’s nothing like wearing a cute number at the breakfast table to whet a manly appetite. Get that dress on, Sunira. Pronto! Even better, have you thought about calling in sick? Life is all about turning that sweatshop into a sweets shop!

Ladies, time to get serious. We’re not going to lie to you, life is complicated. For example, can you really wear Ugg boots in the summer? Honey, if sweat = pheromones… Hello!

Another pressing question was asked by Sunira’s young son on our last visit: Can I hit my wife when I grow up too? Young man, if she’s as cute as your mother, you most certainly can hit on her!

Time for a poll!

Sunira, if it’s Saturday night, do you:
- Quickly take a hot bath.
- Put the kids to bed early.
- Text sweet nothings to Mr Sunira while he’s watching television.
- Call your mother.

Sunira, please don’t tell us you’d call your mother! What man likes to see his wife go crying to his mother in law every time something goes wrong? It just doesn’t inspire confidence, and you and I both know there’s nothing sexier confidence. So next time you see Mr Sunira touching your daughter in a way that makes you panic, remember our LadySita(TM) stress tips. It all starts with the breathing. In. Out. Concentrate on the nostrils. Practice positive visualization. What do you want to see here? Anything’s possible, Sunira.

This is probably a good time to tell you about our Pink Fake It(TM) line of body products. Remember Saturday night? Ladies, not every Saturday night is Saturday night, if you know what we mean. And when you just can’t be the life of the party, the belle of the ball, the diwali debutante, or dance the dance of the seven veils, we have the Pink Fake It(TM) body suit. Wear it just like you’d wear your smile and you’ll see how easily Saturday night becomes Sunday morning.

But before going to bed, Sunira makes sure to fill out another checklist: Do You Want What He Wants When He Wants You To Want It? And then she reads the heart warming story: How I Bounced Back from Brutality and Bought my Own Bandages.

When she’s done, the house is quiet. She folds and puts away and sweeps and lines up her makeup for the next morning (right?). The sweet noises of sleeping children fill her heart. Except, that’s a strange noise, that one. Yes it is. She takes a little peek in her son’s room and he’s sound asleep. She takes a little peak in her daughter’s room and, now, isn’t that funny. There’s Mr Sunira.

Suddenly a screaming Mr Sunira flies out of the room to chase Mrs Sunira, followed by a crying daughter. Sunira is in shock. She can’t find her PinkFakeIt suit and it’s really not the time for LadySita breathing, now is it. But those ten ab crunches a day went a long, long way and her stomach is very, very hard. Sunira runs as fast as she can to the kitchen. Mr Sunira is not far behind, his hand forming a manly fist.

Sunira looks quickly around and the first thing she grabs is that new Martha Stewart carving knife. Perfectly weighted, it makes a lovely arc in the air – we can almost hear it swoosh – and lands with a delicate pouff pastry right in Mr Sunira’s stomach. Quelle cirque du soleil! Talk about cutting to the chase!

Things quiet down after that. Who wants to eat in a messy kitchen, right?

It takes another moment or two before Sunira notices (1) the men in uniform, and (2) the. men. in. uniform. We sincerely hope that she’s read Three Signs He’s Putting You Under Arrest.

Sometimes we get emails asking us difficult questions, like, What is the point of all those polls? Well, we hope that if this story teaches you one thing at all, it’s that polls are the pulse of life. So when Mr Police Officer But You Can Call Me Mr July asks Sunira who she would like to call, she says her mother. And it’s not even Saturday night.

*

Leila Marshy has published in Canadian and American journals and a handful of anthologies. Currently, she is editor of The Rover, a Montreal arts and culture magazine. Mostly, though, she's a farmer with well worn billy boots and very dirty fingernails.

Fiction #34: Reed Stirling

Backtrack

STORM — SEIZE — BEHEAD
The Globe and Mail, June 7, 2006

The silhouette of the train flickers as it follows the contours of ties and gravel, signal boxes and track. My watch reads 10:45 AM. I sit in a comfortable seat, facing west, my back to the east and to the train’s direction, feeling as though time is allowing me to recede through space. The warning call of the diesel as it approaches level crossings, the periodic, unexpected jolt to the head, the pull of acceleration felt in the spine, all remind me that this space is specific and confined: Via Rail, Train 56, Car 5.

But then there is headspace. And tripartite time. I‘m going backwards and forwards simultaneously, relinquishing while experiencing, lurching in the present toward a future that exists in the past. Out west. Back east. Toronto. Montreal.

The large picture window against which my shoulder knocks gives a contiguous but fleeting view of fields, fences, trees, streets, platforms, and citizens; these drift by, framed for a moment in real time, then disappear, like so many phrases exhaled in thought or tagged on freight cars at rest in sidings. Such views of the natural world, though at times brief, confirm the season as one full of promise and renewal.

Or not.

The window also reflects the interior of the car with its wide, high backed seats and occupants and newspapers and muted, and sometimes not so muted, conversations. If I look out, I can also see in and, without staring, observe people like the two swarthy men sitting silently together across the isle, the bearded one in a tawny leather jacket playing with but not using his cellphone, the other, younger one in a dark suit and Toronto Argonauts ball cap, his brow constantly furrowed, not really reading the book open on his lap. Both boarded the train in Union Station at exactly 9:29, a minute before it pulled out. I get something of an angle shot in a jumpy piece of celluloid film running in reverse from present to past, but all that really registers in light of recent revelations is more uncertainty about the future. Concern is evident, and paranoia almost palpable. A subtext to headlines of the past two days has been etched into the brows of travellers: will a terrorist bomb prevent this train from reaching the next station?

A modicum of assurance comes with the announcement that we will be arriving in Belleville in approximately ten minutes. It is a bilingual announcement, signifying, for me at least, with my head full of inchoate thoughts and rushing impressions, and news reports and punditry, and kitchen table analysis from the night before at Patrick’s house in comfortable and secure Richmond Hill, that all is not threatened by this ridiculous outbreak of home blown terrorism. Albeit only a small, additional assurance: that although change is inevitable in any nation, some things in Canada remain constant. But how to comprehend a very real Islamist threat to our open, free, welcoming liberal democracy?

The news of the day, yesterday, and the day before that, and no doubt, our system being what it is with its cautionary alleges, the news of countless tomorrows: 17 arrested and charged with “knowingly participating” in terrorism. The hit list of these wannabe warriors of Allah includes CBC offices, the CN Tower, the TSE, a Toronto CSIS office, an unspecified Canadian Forces Base, the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, all culminating in a not-so-unspecified grand decapitation in the capital. When Patrick facetiously remarked over a healthy sized whiskey that it was a passively foolish way for the Prime Minister, whom he supports on a good number of policies, to get ahead in the poles, I was not too inclined to laugh.

“After all,” I said, “he’s not that unpopular.”

“Right! But what we’ve got here’s a made-in-Canada problem. Multiculturalism produces ghetto thinking!”

Patrick ’s disaffection was derisive and, being essentially Canadian, inclusive: he went on to mock how authorities above anything else attempt to avoid accusations of racial profiling.

“No violations, please, of the charter of rights and freedoms! Koran sensitivity training for police! Clean prayer mats for jail cells!”

“Lest we offend?”

“PC, we stand on guard for thee!” This he sings out in a loud, husky voice, and downs his whiskey.

During the 9/11 crisis, my successful banker brother was stranded for over a week in England. I was not aware of that. I was also not aware of how much his attitudes reflect those of the redneck. While enjoying each other’s company over the past few days, I listened and learned a lot. Obvious ironies did not go unappreciated. When Patrick, who of course travels extensively, remonstrated against the very idea of contemporary air travel, particularly with increased terrorist threats, I talked of travel as essential metaphor. He said I was naïve. Still. Even after all these years. Travel as essential annoyance he corrected me. Having flown nowhere since well before 9/11, I deferred.

“Twenty-first century jet travel sucks,” he said, surrendering his mind at this point to infantile metaphor. “Metal detectors, excessive searching, the suspicion of simple gifts—”

“Exactly my point. You feel violated,” I countered, tracking progress in our game of sibling one-upmanship. I remembered a man ahead of me in line at Vancouver’s YVR, indignant but resigned, having to unpack and reveal the contents of an urn said to contain the ashes of his recently deceased mother. It brought him to tears.

“Okay, the terrorists cause inconvenience. So what?”

“But really, Patrick, the measures in place make you feel like a criminal.”

“Not at all. They make me think the other guy’s the criminal.”

Another point for Patrick! On the plane out of Victoria, I kept a dark complexioned guy, a swarthy in effect, constantly in sight. To what end? No idea, even now. I hoped he would not be connecting to Toronto, but he was. Same flight. I watched him through fitful napping till he deplaned ahead of me and disappeared into the Pearson crowd.

Appearance and reality, a universal theme in human affairs, lauded in the ancient world and just as viable today: heroes under sheepskins, crusaders behind red crosses, jihadists in everyday duds. Difficult to evaluate jeans, school jackets, and funky runners on a bearded stranger or someone speaking with an unfamiliar accent. Who exactly is hitting the keys of that laptop? That phone? A terrorist sporting a familiar logo? If incentives were offered — virgins, raisins, greenbacks — would he reveal the reality behind the appearance? Observing individuals like the two swarthy gentlemen across the aisle, even casually, predicates their inherent mystery. In the contemporary world, informal wear can mask education, wealth, and, more significantly on a day like today, malicious intent. A bomb taking out this train would cause considerable damage and take many lives, but it would not compare in effect with what happened in New York. Feeling comparatively hassle-free in climbing aboard, one only presumes train travel is safer than air travel because of its more plebeian profile.

The story of the Toronto terrorists is out there, and thanks to incessant media coverage, the main facts of the case are well known as in who the “alleged” terrorists are, and how they got to be “alleged” terrorists, and who is responsible for thwarting them in their “alleged” plot to blow things up. Patrick rambled on heatedly about the National Security Enforcement Team. Now, in perusing the newspapers I picked up before boarding the train, I can seek at least a semblance of objectivity.

On the up-side: my visit evinced no obvious resentment on Patrick’s part for how our lives had evolved separately; he laid no guilt trips on me concerning elderly parents and unattended family obligations in the GTA — he was always the more responsible one anyway. Besides, his whiskey was plentiful. Before we retired last night, in my attempts to outdo his performance of our childhood game called Jimmy-Jimmy-Jump-up-Jim, I knocked a bottle of Bush Mills off the kitchen counter. It exploded in the sink. Patrick shrugged, insisting our game was called Jiggy-Jimmy-Jimjams. I argued. He explained, ironically shaking the glass in his hand, the connection between unrequited love, our bachelor-uncle’s excessive drinking, delirium tremens, and jimjams. I deferred. Again.

The seat next to me is empty. Opposite is an elderly woman and, judging from what I’ve overheard of their muted conversation, her granddaughter, who is well along in her pregnancy. Were it not for a strong scent of lavender, I would hardly know they were there. Very circumspect they are, like waifs burdened with worry.

Across the aisle by the window, a Gary Cooper look-alike. Opposite him, two youths, one on a laptop, the other with a wire sticking out of his ear attached to a small device which rests in a breast pocket; when he unplugs to do a high-five with his companion over I-don’t-know-what, I hear bits of music, not all of it unfamiliar. The rattle and rhythms of the train makes listening difficult, but as deceleration occurs for one reason or another, ambient noise abates and from time to time the listening gets easier. At one such interval I hear the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time, a song that appeals to my sense of history. The aisle seat in this quadrangle arrangement remains empty except for the computer guy’s big black boots which the old fellow, twice now, has asked him to remove so he can get out and go to the w/c. Ahead of these, the swarthy beard and swarthy book facing my way, and opposite them, a couple of preteens connected to a Sikh family that seems to dominate the middle section of the car. Ahead of us, a girl with an active cell phone, and ahead of her, the young Quebecois couple whose affectionate behaviour seemed, before they switched seats with the Sikh preteens, to annoy the beard and the book.

I watch Gary Cooper negotiate his way back to his seat, then wait for the boots to move. Impossible to interpret the old guy’s eyes. The quickened play of dark and light is disconcerting at times, the frantic dance of a million ones and zeros, making and unmaking of a man’s face a skeletal shadow. How to read that? Reading newspapers is challenge enough.

My thoughts are interrupted, not by the chimes of a Via Rail announcement, but by the half-ditty, half-ditz intrusion of the girl’s cellphone. Over the heads of the women in front of me, a voice without restraint or modulation draws us all into the narcissistic vacuity of modern communication. As the girl’s conversation unfolds in this public space, her right to free expression is asserted yet again even as it impinges on the privacy of others. Hers is an attitude without malice, however; and there is comfort knowing that though she is talking in code, it is not a code only some militant contact understands. Though unwilling, we still manage to eavesdrop.

“I’m on my way…totally… As if… Via…well, maybe…” and after a long pause, “…are you sure it was the same guy as in the news? Not cavorting, he said converting to Allan… Whatever… Football guy… Slower…and way boring…two hours…”

Or not.

When virtual silence returns, the swarthy book, at this point without his Argos cap on, looks across the aisle. I am fascinated by the action of his Adam’s apple and the knot that is his furrowed brow.

As the train begins to slow down in its approach to the Belleville station, the grandmother and pregnant granddaughter opposite prepare to disembark. The swarthy beard stands, pockets his phone, and then fumbles around in a tote bag stashed in the overhead bin.

For what?

Nothing more sinister than a pack of cigarettes. He heads towards the exit, the other following, cap on, book in hand. Smiling, the women ease by me and they too make their way off the train. I stretch across the aisle to watch the swarthies on the platform hurrying their cigarettes.

Criminality is other according to Patrick, and with that thought, I contemplate how, presuming an explosion and presuming my survival, I would describe the moustache and face of the swarthy, bookish man, and the intensity of his dark eyes as he draws long on his cigarette while scanning the crowded platform, and in particular the absolute incongruity of his wearing a suit and an Argonauts ball cap. And in the tawny leather jacket, his companion, with the prominent nose and beard, the phone in his hand like a nervous habit.

Of Jason and the Argonauts I remember very little but the pursuit of a golden fleece in foreign territories. Was the enterprise divinely sanctioned? Just? Righteous? Or was Jason merely a terrorist in, or seeking, sheep’s clothing? Was he swarthy complexioned? And did he wear a casque of double blue before being draped in violet or drowned in scarlet?

An elderly woman on a cane wobbles by and unknowingly bumps me on my head with her handbag. Quickly, efficiently for someone all hat and handbag, she finds suitable accommodation opposite the Sikh kids in seats vacated by the smokers, one for herself, and one for her handbag, her cane in between like a line of defence.

Madame, je vous en prie,” says the bearded swarthy on his return, pointing to the markers the conductor attached to the overhead bin. I do not recognize the accent.

“Let me get my glasses,” she says, fussing first with her cane, and then her handbag. “Dear or dear, where could they possibly be?”

I intervene. Introductions follow.

By the time the train has got up to speed, Charlotte Webber sits in a seat across from me, her very large and very flowery handbag in the seat adjacent. I’m surprised that bees and butterflies haven’t followed her on board. She’s returning home to Kingston, she tells me, having spent a week in Belleville with her sister, also a widow, whose granddaughter was killed in a Friday night crash on the 401.

Informative as well as inquisitive is pink cheeked Charlotte Webber, and stylish in her big bowed, black crepe sunhat. Me? I’m travelling to Montreal to visit the old neighbourhood. I briefly describe le plateau Mont-Royal. She listens intently, studiously, as though watching every word uttered, and then nods. When I jokingly add the bit about returning from the west coast to recapture lost innocence, Charlotte Webber giggles. She asks me if back in the day I had run out on some girl.

“No remembrance of that, Charlotte,” I answer, aware now of a new scent about, a strange mélange of lilac and cut grass. But inspired likely by Charlotte’s innocent little jibe, the image of Donna Haywood arises before me from out of the mists of the sixties, and then vanishes.

“One never remembers clearly, though, does one?”

“Just meeting up with old friends.”

“One’s old friends are often hard to find no matter how far one travels. Many are dead. Like ever-returning ghosts, they are.” And rummaging around in her handbag, Charlotte asks, “Would you care for some fruit juice, Mr. Burke?”

“Thank you, no.” I pick up on her previous point about outlasting old relationships.

“Even if connections aren’t made, travel can still be rewarding, allowing yourself, in view of recent events, to ignore all the add-on inconveniences and concerns.”

“One feels nervous, even on this train,” she replies, with a barely perceptible tilting of her head in the direction of the two swarthy gentlemen. “Threats, I imagine, could be anywhere.” Then removing her hat, and drawing back her head, she lets her eyelids fall for a few seconds, as though to make imagined threats disappear, whereupon she begins scatting ever so faintly in concert with the rhythmic rumblings of the railcar. Again she rummages around in her handbag and, with a grateful sigh, pulls out a pair of glasses. A glamour magazine comes out next.
I return to my newspapers. Among the many articles on Toronto’s young jihadists, I search out those that delve into the psychology of terrorism. Themes vary, as do points of view.

“Pity about those poor boys,” Charlotte observes over the top of her glasses, but she does not elaborate.

I’m into an article about the Internet, radical Islam, and terror when the train slows down to a complete stop that proves to be excessively long. During this time the girl’s cellphone goes off.

“When I get there,” she says, beginning an abridged description of our situation. “A delay…west of Kingston…really sucks…as if…completely stopped… SOL…can’t tell …maybe something the terrorists planned…totally...”

I sneak a look at the two swarthies. They appear to be as miffed about our delay as the rest of us.

“Waiting for the track to clear is one thing,” I hear the big black boots say to his unplugged companion, “but this is taking way too much time. Something’s up.”

“Oh, dear! Oh, dear!” Charlotte says, and begins her scatting again.

Outside, by a stone fence on the other side of the tracks, a couple of cows look over curiously as they ruminate, but most of the herd is given to complete bovine indifference. The time is 11:28 AM.

Then it happens, a sudden, noisy burst, and the railcar shudders. The rumble and the stroboscopic effects take all of twenty seconds.

“Tanker cars heading west,” the big black boots explains to Gary Cooper who has bolted out of his old man’s slumber.

“That was, Mister Burke, as though one were travelling through a tunnel of light,” Charlotte says to me when normal train speed resumes. ”Now it’s the same old clickety-click, clickety-clickety-clack.”

Among the passengers in my immediate vicinity that disembark at Kingston are the young men across the aisle, the girl with the cellphone, and, of course, Charlotte Webber, who proves to be less elaborate in saying goodbye than I anticipated. Her relief seems larger than what you might express when simply arriving at your destination. I could be wrong. The swarthy gentlemen exit for another smoke break and return to their seats just before the first jolt of the train pushes us onward. Joining Gary Cooper are two gentlemen with whom he appears to be familiar, judging by greetings exchanged. The Gary Cooper look-alike, I learn, is Jarvey. The more vocal of his friends is Duprey. Then Walker, with the hearty laugh and the leather-bound mickey, who sits, like me, facing west. I had thought of taking a seat opposite mine to get a better view, but directly ahead is the blank wall of the bulkhead. Besides, an oriental youth slides into the opposing window seat having quickly secured his tote bag in the overhead bin before I had time enough to change my mind or the position of my feet. After a subtle acknowledgement of my being there, he opens his laptop and virtually disappears. Shortly after, another youth, having worked his way up the car from the far end, plops down in the adjacent aisle seat; he removes his multi-coloured beanie, and opens The DaVinci Code. Not so much as a nod!

For a short spell I drift, as we all rattle along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield: ideas and reflections dash or float through my mind depending on where my eyes alight as I look out the window. Things in foreground, railway signs and country roads, an outcropping of rock, a murder of crows, all whip by; they come and go like a breath or a heartbeat or an imagined threat. Things further afield, a silo, a stand of trees, a memory evoked, an eighteen-wheeler on the 401, a childhood regret stay in play longer and then fade into distant horizons. Framing the whole is the notion of travel as essential metaphor that Patrick dismissed as simplistic. Fine! Going back to retrieve the past is simply a way of accepting the present, and the inevitable, and the realities of the contemporary world. It matters little which way your seat faces. Besides, all you get in life is a one-way ticket. Periodically, from across the aisle, the gravelly voices of the old codgers bring me back to the here and now of the news of the day and our collective response to it.

They discuss Zionist plots, osteoporosis, the grand reunion of the old gang that evening in Cornwall and who (Rest in Peace!) won’t be attending, prostate cancer, cross-border shopping, Islamism and concepts of sin, colonoscopies, the neo-conservative agenda, shitty NHL officiating, the Saturday evening inanities of Dobby Cerise, the hockey commentator known affectionately as Knuckles, and Canadian smugness in the last few days getting “a damn good kick in the ass.” Changes in direction and flow are rapid. Conspiracy theories get tossed about as readily as the leather bound mickey.

“The best possible world,” I hear Walker claim along the way, “is the one you imagine yourself creating, but you know what, the imagining is easier than the creating.”

“So, no to human perfectibility and redemption then,” Duprey counters, after consuming what he refers to as a wee, wee dram.

"Certainly not in your lifetime,” Walker replies. He laughs good naturedly, and goes on. “It’s very late in the third period for the likes of us. As flawed beings, and old ones at that, we have to accept our liabilities, like pissing a lot. Pass it here.”

“Agreed,” Jarvey says. “We’re screwed. Doomed.”

Duprey’s counter-argument: “Insatiable humanity forfeited innocence. What followed? Diseases of mind and body, sin, suffering, wars and rumours of wars, terrorist threats, and the likelihood, as prophesized, of direst termination. But redemption is possible!”

I sneak a look over at Duprey with his gesticulations and wee drams of superior knowledge. I resist the impulse to hurl old Terry Burke into the discussion, not Terry Burke of the here and now on the eastbound train out of Toronto, aware of the existential malady plaguing humanity that no subtle theology of the absurd or not-so-subtle prophecy can explain away. No, not that Terry, with his hang-ups, insecurities, and biases, and enduring still a species of spiritual hangover, but Terry from way back in le plateau, who learned early the nature of guilt. Fine! Fine! Just don’t get me going about redemption in times of heavenly sanctioned terror! I turn back and, without too much agitation, open my newspaper to the opinion page.

The editorial is informative, and letters-to-the-editor regarding terrorism are as forthright as they are entertaining. One writer is concerned about cognitive dissonance, fear mongering, and collective paranoia. Another argues that recent events make him wonder about all those sacrifices of the war years — Italy, Normandy. Another quips: “Want to make Canadians apologize, just step on their heels; and today, in June of 2006, just threaten to blow up their parliament.”

“Too much of that crap about,” Duprey ‘s voice cuts in. He’s pointing his chin in the direction of The DaVinci Code lying in plain view on the seat vacated by the young man.

How do you know it’s crap?” Jarvey asks.

“It’s what I hear. Also, my grandson recommended the book. He’s a palaeontologist! Fossils, for God’s sake! I just don’t understand time and money spent on digging up bones. I’ll cut him off! Education!”

When the young man returns and picks up his book again, I am well into a letter-to-editor about the radicalization of second generation Muslims in which the writer calls these individuals born-agains. Like born-again Christians, they embrace a form of religion that is personal, emotional, and anti-intellectual. Angry young men manipulated by angry old men.

“Now I gotta go,” Duprey says, and heads for the w/c.

By the time I get to the obituaries, somewhere between Brockville and Cornwall, with the odour of cheap aftershave, rye whiskey, and fabric filtered urine sufficiently familiar to seem almost diffused, I’ve had enough of terror and the reasons for its popularity. Only death remains.

The introductory Sebastian Keyes-Black Remembers Jay Sheridan at the top of the page grabs my attention. I know who Sebastian Keyes-Black is; Jay Sheridan, not so much. The tribute, more memoir than memorial, while providing a number of facts about his life, focuses mainly on the deceased’s connection to the underground band called Orpheus Strained, which I recollect from the late 60’s in Montreal. Orpheus Strained would have remained a struggling underground band had it not been for Jay Sheridan’s continued support, both financial and moral, his creative input, and the keen interest of his then wife, Jeanne Medais. Thanks to her efforts, the celebrated Circe Balmgarten joined the band. “From jingles to mega singles, and then some,” writes Keyes-Black. The piece ends with reference to several memorable North American and European concerts after A Reinvention of the Self came out, the group’s most successful album.

Emotion flutters through me, from joyous recognition to nostalgic regret. I knew the group. Keyes-Black was lyricist and drummer. “Cauldron of Good Cheer” became the signature, big hit single. I hear echoes of its refrain. I feel its bass line reverberating in my finger tips in concert with the clickity-clack of the train. Circe Balmgarten was the intoxicating lead vocalist that I might have fallen in love with had I not already fallen in love with somebody else. I recall attending a couple of performances in one of the Stanley Street show bars. After happily arranging the various sections of my newspapers into a pile on the seat beside me, I continue to muse. But then I discover the young swarthy in the Argos ball cap eyeballing me across the aisle; though tempted for some reason to think otherwise, I take it merely as a vague kind of noticing, my noisy activity with the papers, for instance, my finger tapping, my silly grin, nothing more. When I catch his eye, he looks away, and then down at his book, leaving me free to drift off again, this time into a semi-euphoric episode out of 1969: Circe Balmgarten belting out the vocals, Donna Haywood bopping beside me, two or three quart bottles of Export Ale on our table.

Somewhere east of Cornwall, the activities of our conductor awaken me. Yes, he informs me, the train is on time. Meanwhile, the kid with the computer has disappeared. I have no idea if the swarthies hit the last platform for yet another butt, although a lingering odour of cigarette smoke overlays that of talc. Across the aisle a young couple given to coddling their goo-goo eyed, tow-headed toddler has replaced the old geezers. I notice that the lad in the beanie has taken himself and his DaVinci Code to a seat further up the car.

I look out once again at the day. The rural world flows by in tune with its own rhythms, its own lyrics, unmindful of potential human terror. It serves its own memory. Before long we are into Quebec and passing through Dorion. Ile Perrault comes and goes, and then we’re across the river at Ste Anne and onto the Island of Montreal. Parallel to the 2 and 20, the train rumbles along, familiar West Island municipalities revealing their identities in ordered sequence.

Quickly off the train at Dorval is the beanied young man; he makes his way to the parking lot where he is embraced by a leggy girl in shorts. The young family is met by a middle-aged couple; baby and parents get packed off in a big sedan. I move across the aisle into a seat facing east to get a better view as the train, over the next twenty minutes, approaches the downtown core. When I draw back from looking through the window, I see a face reflected in it. I know it belongs to me, but I hardly recognize it.

Oddly, I start humming a phrase from another half-remembered Keyes-Black lyric. “Glorious Disorder” was a hit back then that I took at face value. Today I’m compelled to question the juxtaposition of disorder and glorious. Is it like saying magnificent explosion, or does it carry a more sinister intent along the lines of conscientious murder and benign terror? I take a final glance at The Globe and Mail headlines — Storm — Seize — Behead; then grabbing my bag from the overhead bin, I prepare to disembark, wondering how news of the Toronto 17 is playing out in the various media of this city. Is there lurking in a Montreal North apartment an underground cell, hopped-up on religion or some such hallucinogen, abiding its time, or a band of disillusioned youth in a Rosemont neighbourhood, playing the appearance and reality game, dissatisfied with their accommodation because it is not reasonable enough for their persuasive elders? Montrealers have long been aware of what tragedy results when terror becomes tactical.

As the train nears its destination, the track back takes me over the canal, around The Pointe, and through what was once Griffintown. Farine Five Roses is one of several landmarks I take note of before shadows herald us into the underworld. Ahead of me heading to the exit, the two swarthies, then the Quebecois couple. Behind me, the Sikh family. Prior to the last few hesitant forward urges of the train, a voice over the PA announces Montréal, Gare Centrale. The time is 2:15 PM.

I read relief on the faces of the swarthies when they ease past me on the crowded concourse. They brace themselves when surrounded by a troop of excited children and lovely women wearing colourful scarves. A boy of about twelve grabs the Argonauts ball cap from the younger swarthy and puts it on his own head. A strange sensation overcomes me when I observe them all break out in laughter. Gratitude? Possibly. Something cathartic at any rate.

And now, for old Terry Burke returned, it’s back to the beginning and forward to the end.

*

Reed Stirling lives in Cowichan Bay, BC, and writes when not painting landscapes, or traveling, or taking coffee at Bo’s, a local café where metaphor and metaphysics clash daily. Recent work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Nashwaak Review, The Valley Voice, Senior Living, Island Writer, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and Out Of The Warm Land II and III. StepAway Magazine will publish a piece in its next issue.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Interview: Carrie Snyder

Carrie Snyder's blog

Can you please name a short story collection (or a singular short story) that brings back fond memories for you (and why)? Something that maybe you return to as a model for your work, or something that you particularly admire or put you in a place of awe. You can name more than one, of course. (This is my greedy question to grow my reading list.)

I'm glad you said I could name more than just one. I love the short story form.

Collections that I consider formative to my own writing include anything by Mavis Gallant, though particularly her semi-autobiographical Linnet Muir stories. If you're looking for just one collection, The Moslem Wife, stories curated and introduced by Mordecai Richler would be a good starting place.

I admire Gallant for her precision, extreme particularity of place, and ability to be coolly heart-rending. And for her gaps. I like a good interior mystery within a story.

Another writer formative to my own direction is Alice Munro. Even at the level of sentence structure her writing is dynamic, loaded with unexpected turns. Her material is often dark, her characters next thing to amoral, yet somehow it is all so relatable, so human.

Who Do You Think You Are?
Lives of Girls and Women. Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You. The View From Castle Rock. I could go on.

A more recent collection that was pitch-perfect storytelling (linked stories, too): Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It won the Pulitzer Prize and might have made the linked story concept more accessible to readers. Here's hoping.

What is it about the short story form that attracts you? I'm not looking for a theoretical answer, but you've written two books of short stories that some might argue are actually novels because the stories are thematically or narratively linked. Do you think of each story as an individual entity? Or are you thinking about the composition of an imaginative universe?

I suppose really it's both: I did write each story to stand as an individual story, but the stories all belong to the same imaginative world; plus they're arranged chronologically, like chapters.

If a reader feels either of my books are novels, I am happy for that. I am equally happy to call them collections of stories. I've ceased worrying about falling into a specific genre. I'm aiming for strong writing, and well-paced story-telling.

That said, yes, the "chapters" in The Juliet Stories are each structured with an internal connective image or theme, and a nose-to-tail return from beginning to end. That's how I see a story operating at it's strongest -- that it returns the reader to a familiar starting place in a new way.

At the same time, both books tell an over-arching story, meant to pull the reader through from beginning to end. I think Juliet particularly can be read all in one gulp, like a novel.

My hope is that the reader feels compelled by the writing -- onward! more! -- whether they are identifying it as a series of linked stories or chapters that blend together.

The Juliet Stories. The book has a before- and after-Nicaragua structure. She was 10 years old in Nicaragua, and that age is a kind of pivot in the narrative. She keeps returning to Nicaragua, and the final story in the book is a kind of coda to her Nicaraguan experience. One on the linking themes (there are many) is the responsibility we each have for all others. Witnessing for peace is her parents' motivation for taking their children into a war zone. Later, Juliet intervenes, in a way, on behalf of single, poor women being evicted from rooming houses. Also, the book depicts multiple generations of women. They love each other, but they don't connect with each other well often. What I'm trying to say is, the central conflict in the book seems to be the self/other dynamic. Juliet is placed in catastrophic circumstances beyond her control at an early age. The catastrophes continue, some inflicted from without, some from within. Juliet moves towards resolutions of these conflicts, but many of them she just needs to leave behind so she can be her own person. Whew! What's the question? Not sure. What do you think of that reading of your book?

Every reader is going to find his or her unique connections to the story being told.

My sense is that you're attuned to the tragic randomness of Life. But I'll tell you honestly that I never saw Juliet as a survivor of catastrophe.

That isn't how I view her experience in Nicaragua -- which I hope comes across as not just steeped in potential danger, but also full of wild freedom and sensory delight. And it isn't how I view Juliet's life afterward either.

The stories in the second half mark occasions. That's what you're picking up on. I didn't tell the in-between boring bits of Juliet's life, I chose to leap from stepping stone to stepping stone. The big life events.

Many (most?) big life events occur despite us. Often these things arrive out of the blue. People we love get sick. Relationships fail. People we love get hurt. We hurt people we love. We don't automatically know how to help. Perhaps most critically, we don't know how we'll be changed by these major life events. We just don't know.

That is the greatest mystery of all, and probably what I personally find most compelling about exploring transitions of significance.

So that is the story of the second half of the book. I think of the first half as Juliet's own touchstone, the piece of her life she keeps in her pocket for when she needs comfort or explanation or return. That is the experience that keeps her whole, even when she feels lost. There is some magic in it that can never be taken away.

Don't we all have something like that?