12 or 20 questions: with Jacob Wren
Jacob Wren is a writer and theatre director who divides his time between Toronto and Montreal. Recent published books include: Unrehearsed Beauty (Coach House Books) and Families Are Formed Through Copulation (Pedlar Press.) As well, he is currently working on a novel entitled Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. Over the next three years, all three of these books will be translated into French and published by Le Quartanier in Quebec. He also writes about contemporary visual art for C Magazine. In theatre, he co-founded Candid Stammer Theatre in Toronto in 1988 and in 2002 became co-artistic director of the Montreal-based theatre company PME. His performance work attempts to find ways of speaking to the audience casually – through both words and movement – that are ironic and sincere in acknowledging the fact that communication is often uncomfortable. In recent years, he has also frequently chosen to work in languages he doesn’t speak or understand (French, Norwegian, German) in order to give the performers a greater degree of autonomy over their own performances. Within PME he has created En français comme en anglais, it's easy to criticize (1998), Unrehearsed Beauty / Le Génie des autres (2002) and Families Are Formed Through Copulation (2005). During the same period he also collaborated with Nadia Ross and her company STO Union. Together they have co-written and co-directed Recent Experiences (2000) and Revolutions in Therapy (2004). In 2007 he was commissioned by Sophiensæle in Berlin to direct his own stage adaptation of the 1954 German novel Der Tod in Rom by Wolfgang Koeppen. Jacob’s performance and theatre works have been seen in Norway, the Czech Republic, Germany, Portugal, France, England, Wales, Scotland, Croatia, Sweden, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Japan, Ireland and the Netherlands as well as in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Calgary, Quebec City, Halifax and Montreal. His theatre texts have been translated into French, Dutch, German, Norwegian and Japanese.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
My first book was My Tongue, My Teeth, Your Voice in 1992. At the time I was 21 and working under the pseudonym Death Waits (a fact I sometimes now regret though I suppose it was all in good fun.) I feel, in some ways, that first book (and the stupid pseudonym that went along with it) got more attention then anything I have done since, or at least a fair bit of attention for a book of poetry at that time. In some ways that book, along with the considerably publicity I got for some of the theatre projects I was also doing at that time, has made me feel that everything I have done since is a bit of a failure. (Perhaps an experience akin to ‘child star syndrome.’) I received a little bit of heat just out of the gate and it’s been a long, cold road ever since. But I suppose all of that might still change…
2 - How long have you lived in Montreal, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I have been working in Montreal pretty consistently for the past ten years and have been living there more or less full time for the past five or six years. Since I don’t understand or speak French, while at the same time serving as the Co-Artistic Director for the French theatre company PME (it seems I always like to do things the easy way), the language aspect of Montreal has played a considerable role in my recent theatre practice. Working in a language I don’t speak or understand as a method for activating other, more emancipatory, forms of collaboration has been one consistent thematic and theoretical interest over the past ten years, and a question I have continued to explore in Norway and more recently Germany. Montreal is such a warmly charming city and yet it is clear that I will never really feel at home there. In this sense it gives me a tacked-on, artificial - but still somehow convincing - explanation for the deep sense of almost pernicious alienation that I have in fact felt wherever I have lived. An alienation that in many ways is the engine of my practice. I have also worked in Europe a great deal over the past eight years and the more aggressive, critical style they have there when speaking about art has done a great deal to help me overcome some aspects of my gentle Canadian nature. Perhaps the past few overly-Adorno-influenced summers spent in Berlin have also done their part in increasing my life long generalized sense of negativity.
3 - Where does a play or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Each project begins from a question, idea or title. I am always working on a book from the beginning. I find it almost impossible to complete anything if I don’t have a deadline. Usually I will hold a question, idea or title quietly in the back of my mind for several years before actually beginning to work on it. If it is something that stays with me then I figure it is probably worth dedicating a few years of my life towards.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
There is something deeply melancholy for me about a public reading. I always feel the audience (which of course mainly consists of other writers) would prefer to be at home watching a DVD, or at the very least be left to their drinking in peace. I don’t see any great benefit for my creative process but it doesn’t really seem to do any harm either. Occasionally I get to meet another writer I don’t already know. Even more rarely I get to meet someone who is not a writer but nonetheless appears to be somewhat interested in literature.
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I would say my work is mainly about theoretical concerns and there are certainly no shortage of questions. For example… How might it be possible for people to overcome our societies over-emphasis on individualism and work together in order to combat the pernicious and destructive path corporate capitalism is currently jettisoning us along? Is art progressive, reactionary or simply self-absorbed? What would an emancipatory art actually look and feel like? What are the limitations of science and why do we so rarely perceive them? Is science our religion? Where might one find sources for hope or optimism within the strictures of our current global predicament? Why do people apparently take pleasure from mistreating or lording power over others? Is humanity like a cancer on the planet? Why don’t I have a more pleasant or upbeat outlook on life?
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have never really worked with an outside editor. I would actually like to give it a try some day.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
I have always found the process of writing books fairly easy (though I do work on them obsessively, off and on, for years on end.) And here I will share something a bit too personal that I should probably have the good sense to keep to myself. All of the books I have written so far have been turned down by many publishers before someone finally said yes. This has resulted in a rather unbecoming pattern in which, when each book is finally published, I experience this accumulated sense of rejection as a kind of bitterness that ever-so-slightly poisons the positive feelings that might normally accompany having a new book out. I would very much like to let go of this bitterness but find I cannot. If anyone has any suggestions as to how I might do so I would absolutely like to hear them. Many of my all time favourite books were rejected many, many times before they were finally published. I feel this fact should give me solace but for some reason it does not. I also feel fairly certain that this particular condition signals a certain lack of maturity on my part. (Upon further consideration, I realize that perhaps the cure for such frustration might be feelings of gratitude, gratitude for the things I actually have received and accomplished, but it seems, so far at least, that gratitude is not really my strong suit.) As well, I often wonder where exactly I find the confidence (or arrogance) to keep sending out a manuscript that is being continuously rejected. I suppose somewhere I must believe that ‘out there’ there is in fact a publisher for everything. I am not sure whether to find such a sentiment reassuring or depressing.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
Some time in the past six months. It was good.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was in my early twenties I made many attempts to write a first novel. I was deeply dissatisfied with each of them. While the first twenty or thirty pages were often quite strong, afterwards there was a considerable and undeniable drop in quality and it really seemed like I was unable to maintain any narrative momentum. After the fourth or fifth failed attempt I was reading an interview with Milan Kundera in which he said that it was impossible to write a good novel before you were thirty, one simply did not yet have the proper breadth of life experience. Though at the time I hardly ever listened to anyone concerning artistic matters (I like to believe I am a little bit more open nowadays), I was sufficiently frustrated with my novel-writing attempts to stop trying for a while and see if he was right. About three years ago, when I was 33, I once again thought about trying to write a novel and, though I am not yet completely finished, I have to say that it has been much, much easier this time around. I feel, so far, that the energy of the work sustains well over the first hundred pages. (I am knocking on wood as I type this.) I’ll be curious to see if there will be more novels to follow.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to theatre to dance)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t really see any significant barriers between different genres or forms. I think over-specialization in the arts is killing art. I would like to see the Canada Council for the Arts re-organized into a non-genre specific structure, so that each jury would consist of artists from many different fields and they would also look at applications from many different fields. This would not only relieve the monotony of sitting on a jury, it would force artists of every stripe to expand their knowledge and expertise considerably. If I think only of contemporary literature, or only of contemporary dance, I get very, very depressed. However, if I allow myself to think of art and culture in some larger sense, if I think about all the works that have moved me deeply in literature, dance, music, theory, visual art, performance, etc. then there are moments when I have at least a little bit of hope in the ongoing value of culture and art.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t really have a routine. I work in relatively short, rather violent bursts of frenetic activity after which I feel drained and exhausted. Some years there is almost no writing at all while other years there is quite a lot. In the morning, if I don’t have to be anywhere, I will lie in bed for several hours and read.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled I stop and wait for it to come back. A few times it has taken several years but, for whatever reason, I never try to force it.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
My most recent book Families Are Formed Through Copulation seems to be the bleakest, darkest thing I have ever written (though some people have also told me that they find it at the same time hopeful and enlivening, I suppose in part because it ‘tells it like it is’.) I attribute this darkening of tone to the current state of global politics, especially the situation in the United States. I think a lot about trying to write something that is not bleak and wonder whether I will ever again find it possible. The novel I am currently working on is equally bleak in its worldview but is somehow more lively in tone with a lot more narrative force that I feel gives it a strange kind of off kilter optimism. But what I think of as optimism might not really pass for most others.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I am influenced by almost everything but literature and theatre. Visual art, and more specifically writing about visual art, has been a particularly strong influence on my work over the past ten years. Especially the art writers: Dave Hickey, Boris Groys, Sven Lütticken, David Levi Strauss and David Batchelor.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Just to name a few, I think the literary writers who have influenced me most are Nicholas Mosley, Chris Kraus, Alvaro Mutis, David Markson, Ricardo Piglia, Wolfgang Koeppen, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the literary journalist Lawrence Weschler.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’m thinking of trying my hand at curating contemporary art. I often feel I have a kind of ‘visual art envy’. It seems to me that there is so much openness, freedom and criticality in visual art when compared to either theatre or literature. However, at the same time I feel that mainly what I am working towards is how to generate a strong, ongoing sense of freedom for myself in whatever field I happen to be working in.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I believe I began writing because I had very severe insomnia when I was younger and needed to find something to fill the endless empty nights. And I began making theatre because I found writing too lonely and wanted to work with other people. If I were to do it all over again I like to think that I would have the good sense to do something different but most likely I would not.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis
Film: Tropical Malady by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel entitled Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, a performance project possibly entitled either Hospitality or Individualism Was A Mistake and a project in Brussels entitled An Anthology of Optimism.
Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed is a book about a group of activists who – in the very near future – meet once a week to discuss how the left might re-invent itself. These meetings they attend have one very specific and over-riding rule: they are there only to talk and, both within the meetings and during the rest of their daily lives, they are to do nothing that exceeds the boundaries of dialog for fear that if they were to actually engage in any activism or direct action they would be arrested, tortured and killed. They have collectively agreed that the time for action is not now, and it would be better to take all the time required to re-group in order to be completely prepared for the inevitable moment when the current near-fascist government either starts to crumble or lets down it’s guard.
Hospitality (or Individualism Was A Mistake) might be a series of performances, interventions, events and conferences that will take place in venues as varied as bars, theatres, art galleries, dance festivals, restaurants and perhaps even peoples homes and offices. While the precise nature of individual Hospitality undertakings can vary wildly, all Hospitality activities will focus on questions and strategies surrounding how friends and strangers alike can interact in a manner that is at the same time useful, critical, hospitable and surprising.
An Anthology of Optimism is a collaboration with the Flemish playwright and director Pieter De Buysser.
12 or 20 questions archive