Could you please:
(a) describe your recent novel (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular passage that's a favorite?)
Inspired by a private and meticulous German immigrant who rented our family's basement apartment in the 1960s, Living Underground (Seraphim Editions, 2012) explores, among other things, the ambiguity of human nature.
This strange foreigner who moved into the apartment brought only his clothes and toiletries. I knew this because I helped my mom with weekly cleaning duties. His shoes were polished and lined up in a perfect row beneath his perfectly hung clothes. He had no books. No magazines. No photographs. Not even a newspaper. Nothing that spoke of a larger life and he left a few months later, without a forwarding address.
Even as a kid, I wondered who lives like that? And why?
I started a short story to figure out some of that mystery. The story got away from me and became a novella. The novella finally became a novel, set in Dresden, Germany in early 20th century, in Scarborough 1960s and finally, in Toronto in the early 2000s.
I've long puzzled over how we can enjoy ordinary lives, and then go out and do unspeakable things to others. We humans are so good at compartmentalizing aspects of ourselves – at disconnecting emotions at will – often for reasons of survival. I have several scenes that underscore that theme. A favourite is an exchange between a Holocaust survivor and the protagonist, Sheila.
(b) recommend a novel or short story collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)
This is such a difficult question because I have so many to recommend. I changed my answer to this question so many times but then I accepted that no matter what I write here, I can't begin to cover it all. And so:
I like a story that has a kind of slow striptease to it. I love Alice Munro's stories for that moment – that kind of revelation that sinks to your gut and makes a new sense of all that has gone before. Many of the stories in Allison Baggio's collection In the Body do that for me.
Any story – novel-length included – that takes me to that place of new understanding is such a worthwhile journey. It's a part of the craft that is not always fully realized by even good writers.
As to novels, Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, Jonathan Bennett's Entitlement and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time continue to stick with me for the same reason: that incredible moment of revelation.
(c) reflect on your future writing plans: what challenge have you set for yourself next?
I have a finished manuscript that needs to be put back into the blender. It's too safe right now. But I have to carve out enough time and space to get there. My current challenge is to put to bed all the other writing deadlines I've managed to accumulate, along with the business (and busyness) of being an author. It's a bit of a distraction -- a welcome distraction for the most part, but it is an element of what is keeping me from the important task of writing: revision.
Once that revision is done, I'll be in submission mode. Which means while I shop the novel around, I'll be working on my poetry manuscript and on completing my third novel manuscript which is a contemporary retelling of an old Breton tale.