12 or 20 questions: with Andrew Pyper
Andrew Pyper is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories, Kiss Me. His first novel, Lost Girls, won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, was an international bestseller and a Notable Book selection in the New York Times Book Review, London Evening Standard and The Globe and Mail. His follow-up, The Trade Mission, was called “remarkable and compelling” by the Times (UK) and was selected as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The Toronto Star. His third novel, The Wildfire Season, was a national bestseller and acclaimed in Canada, the US and UK. The Killing Circle is forthcoming internationally in the fall of 2008. He lives in Toronto.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
I recall a whole slew of pleasant post-publication side effects: name in the paper, invitations to give and hear readings, travel to burgs I’d never been to, meeting one’s scattershot readers. More than any of this, though, I think it was the legitimization of my work that the book offered, the turn from hobbyist to professional. Confidence, in short. And in this racket, without confidence – no matter how blind – it’s hard to keep moving forward.
2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
For me, the idea of “place” as the dominant influence on or way “into” writing is overstated. I’m a first generation Canadian of Northern Irish parents who grew up in a small town, has lived in cities, a college town, in a cabin with a shotgun by the door – yes, this is all me, it’s all indirectly significant, but none of it determines anything in a given novel, story, or sentence. Perhaps this is only because I have never lived in – or through – anything dramatic enough to have had it take over whatever hemisphere of the brain that’s in charge of making things up.
In any case, I see my geography as a psychological landscape first, and a location on a map distantly second.
3 - Where does a 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?
My novels are fourteen thousand ideas, observations, character tics, must-have scenes, funny bits, notebook metaphors, plot turns, all stitched together (after another twenty-seven thousand other bits have been discarded). These elements arrive slowly over time, usually in the five or so years prior to the day I actually begin to write the thing, before I know that these particles belong to a book. At the same time, however, I know my book before I begin work on it, I’m not one of those find-the-story-as-you-write types. I’m an outliner, a mapmaker. So when all the fourteen thousand bits come together, I essentially have my book before the “Once upon a time…”
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Neither. At best, they’re excuses to meet readers and colleagues and get drunk. At worst, they’re boring.
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?
A sprawling question, rob. Not sure I can even have a go at it.
What I will say is that, as the books I’ve published slowly pile up, certain patterns – or interests, obsessions even – begin to show themselves. Most of the time I don’t see them, as it takes readers or reviewers to point them out. But the leading themes/preoccupations seem to include the shape morality might take in a post-religious, virtual age (or, more accurately, for a post-religious, virtual generation). What is right, if there is no god to tell us? What is the difference between satisfying our wants, and satisfying our consciences?
A close second to these questions, I think, is the problem of The Real in the context of increasing virtuality. The physical vs. the digital. Experience vs. hypothesis. To demonstrate these conflicts, the novels generally involve a test of some kind, a dramatic pulling of its character(s) out of their protected places and into a context without Escape or Delete keys. To see what happens when they encounter The Real, I have them first encounter fear.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential, and sometimes difficult. Essential, because over the time it takes to write a book, I become (at least partly) blind to its weak links, its indulgences. A good editor alerts you to these, to the work yet to be done. And I like to get as many editors and readers to have a go at a manuscript as there are volunteers I can entrust with the task. There is a phase in the writing of each book where I become the masochist: “Read it again! Hurt me! Tell me the ending still doesn’t work! And again!” Things have to get pretty dark before you find the one thing – often little more than a line, a dropped paragraph, a revealed secret – that “solves” the whole book.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Can it be both?
Harder, in the sense that there is the same self-doubt, the feeling of fighting a battle alone, of being misunderstood. Harder in that the job of making 300 pages that tell a story that might be of interest to a stranger still seems paralyzingly difficult on Day One.
Easier, perhaps, in that there is a precedent. Look: those books on the shelf there. Those are mine. I can do just one more, can’t I?
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
A part of a pear? Three days ago. I stole a slice from my sixteen month-old.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t let the bastards get you down.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Over the last few years, I have limited the amount of non-fiction work I’ve taken on. Articles, profiles, essays – they take up a lot of mental space and at-desk time. For the time being, it’s work I can afford to avoid, so I’m really choosy about it. For me, journalism (even in its broadest applications) is simply less pleasurable than made-up storytelling (though it does occassionally offer the bonus of getting me out of the basement on someone else’s coin).
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?
Pull on track pants and t-shirt. Kiss loved ones. Coffee. Basement.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other writers. Quick hits from favourite stylists. Often just a paragraph can do the trick. Amis, Updike, Munro, Roth, DeLillo, Ford, Conrad, Fowles. Pull one of them off the shelf, open randomly, taste, return to keyboard.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Not that I set out to accomplish this, but I think The Killing Circle is the most flat-out entertaining of all my novels. This is not to say – he hastens to add – that I regard it as less ambitious, less thoughtful or “literary.” I simply mean that the story happened to offer me so many juicy opportunities to do fun things on the page – tell a joke, draw a caricature, pull the rug out, shout “Boo!” – and I was able to leave the best and most organic of these in.
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?
Books come from books, yes. But in a way, this is like saying eggs come from chickens. What remains to be determined: How does the chicken make the egg?
Not to avoid the question, but everything influences me. Conversations I have with cab drivers, barroom revelations, shitty movies, good movies, the madman on the corner screaming “It wasn’t me!” – they have all played their parts.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Books that make me wonder “How did she do that?”
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a stage play. One that makes you laugh. Then cry. Then leave the theatre humming a song.
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 honestly have no serious answer to the first question. As to the second: a depressed lawyer or alcoholic waiter.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing, as hard as it is, gives me immense pleasure.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Road. No Country for Old Men. (Hey, Cormac McCarthy!)
20 - What are you currently working on?
The outline for my next novel. So far, this is what I’ve got: “Small town. A haunted house in which the ghosts are living people.”
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