12 or 20 questions: with Ted Bishop
Ted Bishop’s literary nonfiction has appeared in Cycle Canada, Enroute, Prairie Fire, Rider, Word Carving: The Craft of Literary Journalism, and What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men. His Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (Penguin 2005 /Norton 2006), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Writers’ Trust Award, won the City of Edmonton Book Prize and the MAX Award (Motorcycle Awards of Excellence), and has been translated into Korean; it was also named a Best Book by the Globe and Mail, CBC’s Talking Books, and Playboy magazine, where he appeared (in textual contiguity) with Pamela Anderson. He is at work on a new book for Penguin, “The Social Life of Ink.”
(Edward Bishop, Professor, Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, has published articles in Joyce Studies Annual, Woolf Studies Annual, Modern Fiction Studies, and other periodicals, and has produced five books in the field of modernism: the Shakespeare Head critical edition of Jacob’s Room (2004), Virginia Woolf’s JACOB’S ROOM: The Holograph Draft (Pace, 1998), The Bloomsbury Group (Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1992), Virginia Woolf (Macmillan, 1991), and A Virginia Woolf Chronology (Macmillan, 1989).
1 - How did your first book change your life?
I’ve had two first books: my first academic book was a hired project, a chronology of Virginia Woolf’s working life; my first book for a general audience was Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books.
The former got me a job, the latter got me a GG nomination, a mention in Playboy magazine, and the use of a Ducati to ride to Texas – but the real thrill with Riding with Rilke was finding a readership among bikers and book people, when I’d wondered if it would be scorned by both camps.
2 - How long have you lived in Edmonton, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I was born in Edmonton and lived here most of my life except for six years in Kingston, Ontario, which made me realize I had taken space for granted. It’s something I’d still like to figure out in writing, not how to describe a landscape but how to capture the feel of space.
I don’t think race or gender have an impact on my work, except for Hsing, my Chinese girlfriend.
3 - Where does a piece of non-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?
I am actually working on a “book” from the beginning but that’s too daunting to admit so I fool myself by doing shorter pieces and telling myself I’m content with that.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
I think of the contact with real live readers as completing the process, but until that point, no.
Having written that I realize I lied, reading short pieces along the way to a bigger project gives me a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and often gives me the confidence to go on.
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?
No theoretical concerns and no big questions. I like Bruce Chatwin’s books because it seems to me he starts not with a theory or a question but a notion, and then follows it where it takes him, both into the library and across the landscape. I want there to be at least one point where my reader laughs out loud, at least one point where his or her pulse quickens – in short to get a response that is positive but visceral and involuntary.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. I’ve had good, bad, and indifferent editors. The good ones are golden, and you have to find one because as you head into publication there will be the Pre-Partum Panic where you want to thrash around and change all sorts of things, and you have to deny your own instincts and trust, really trust, your editor.
I once had a copy editor that I didn’t get along with at all, but we divorced by mutual consent early in the project.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Easier, in a sense. You never manage to circumvent the Slough of Despond, the point at which the project seems complete crap, yourself a fraud and a moron, and the only honorable thing to do is drown yourself. But now at least I know it’s coming.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
In a salad, in Shangri-La Hut, in Jasper on a back-country ski tour in March.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“You think you’ll die, but you won’t” – this can apply to everything from bad reviews to bad relationships to bungee jumping (though in fact I thought I would, so didn’t jump).
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (creative non-fiction to more academic works)? What do you see as the appeal?
At first it was hugely difficult to write creative non-fiction – not the narrative scenes but the sections in which I was weaving in research material or trying to make a point: I kept wanting to explain, and I realized I had to trust the reader more. Writing without footnotes was like working without a safety net.
Then once I got used to it, it seemed impossible to adopt the more formal academic voice. Now I think I can move more easily between the voices and the work cross-pollinates. We’ll see how it works in my ink project.
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?
There’s a wonderful passage in Amy Tan’s Bonesetter’s Daughter where the grandmother says,
“Good ink cannot be the quick kind, ready to pour out of a bottle.… You simply write what is swimming on top of your brain. And the top is nothing but pond scum, dead leaves, and mosquito spawn. But when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart.”
I only write in the morning, and I always begin writing with a fountain pen, because if I start on the computer I only get pond scum and mosquito eggs. After about 20 minutes my brain is up to speed and I can shift to the computer. I am a slow writer – 500 words is a decent day, 1,000 words a fabulous day. By noon I’m done; my brain is useless between 1 and 4 in the afternoon.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Seamus Heaney, for the way he gives words heft, solidity. If I’m stalled it’s usually because I’m drifting into the abstract.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Riding with Rilke looks like a complete departure from my academic work, but such things as the wild ride up through Harlem in an Alfa Romeo grew out of a conference paper for a Virginia Woolf conference, so there was some continuity. It allowed me to make central the things that were pushed to the margins or written out of my other work, both in the motorcycle articles and the academic articles, each of which had their own conventions and audience expectations.
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’ve decided that the unsung genre is trade manuals. Sometimes you come across passages as spare and lucid as William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, because the writing has to put the thing there solidly before the reader. When Cennino Cennini writes about how to mix pigments or how to apply gold leaf to a painting the writing leaps across six centuries to make you feel the motions and the textures.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Orhan Pamuk, Italo Calvino.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Hike the Annapurna Circuit, go back to Herat in Afghanistan, learn to play a Charlie Christian guitar solo.
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 already picked the alternative; I’m still hoping to be a writer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I can’t draw and I’m a terrible dancer.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve read Pamuk’s My Name is Red 4 or 5 times now, and I always get impatient in the middle and at the end am always glad I hung on. Even in translation it’s a book that can envelope you.
I don’t know if it’s ‘great’ but the film that made a strong impression on me recently is the 10-minute “Submission” (available on youtube) that got director Theo Van Gogh murdered.
20 - What are you currently working on?
“The Social Life of Ink,” from Chinese ink sticks to the ballpoint to tattoos, with stops along the way at printers’ ink, the rise of the indigo trade, ink and Islam, and an investigation of whether the story that farmers in West Bengal force-fed mangoes to their oxen in order to get the bright urine necessary for the yellow pigment favoured by British painters is in fact true.
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