Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Michael Blouin's Chase & Haven

One of the benefits of writing is that you can be considered a young author for quite some time. It’s a fortunate thing for Ottawa-area writer Michael Blouin, in his late forties and publishing his first novel, Chase & Haven (Coach House Books, 2008), on the heels of his first poetry collection, I’m not going to lie to you (Pedlar Press, 2007). Written in fragments that appear to leap across the entirety of the story, the novel works through siblings Chase and Haven (a last name appears but once in the book) who end up escaping an abusive household when they are nine and ten, are raised by their maternal aunt, Mary, and work to make it on their own: Chase, with girlfriend Ivy, and Haven, with a young marriage and baby, April, and before long, single with a child, reappearing on her aunt’s doorstep. This might be a lot to take in as a sentence, but this is the story as it works its way through page after page, given out quite early and moving easily back and forth from their Kemptville trailer to North York to Ottawa. How do you work the action of a book when the ending comes well before the novel ends? Blouin easily knows the difference between fact and knowledge, and the difference between endings, and this novel, however dark, still manages to end with that slight lift at the end. No matter what else happens. With a wonderful lyric quality, Chase & Haven is a beautifully written and darkly-moving novel.

rm: How long did it take you to write this novel? And I know you’ve already finished another; are there advantages to having a first novel out when you’re already started a third?

MB: The date on the original draft of this novel suggests that it was started sometime in 2004 so about four years to take it to a final edited manuscript. Of course during that time I was working on the second novel and getting the poetry manuscript ready for publication and going through final edits for that so it wasn't constant work. It's been particularly busy over the last six months of the process as Coach House is very dedicated to the quality of the final result. I am hoping that having a first novel out will make it easier to interest an agent or publisher in the second, although doing the touring and publicity for the first is currently making it difficult to work on the third!

rm: I like how the story is told through fragments that move across time and geography, from the time the main characters are children, teenagers and adults. As you were writing, did you find it difficult to keep track of where you had already been?

MB: I wanted to follow a traditional narrative structure but also have the freedom to go wherever I wanted in the story arc through time and place – to follow trails that were not necessarily sequential, at least in the sense of the passage of time. In the end this turned out to be somewhat more complicated than I had anticipated and required an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of. I know it created a lot of additional work for my editor as well but Alana Wilcox is both gifted and patient. The story was planned as a series of polished stones strung in a line with anything extraneous chipped away. I think what I wanted was this; when I pick up a book I expect to be captured within a few lines - ideally I would like a reader to be able to pick this book up, open it to any page, and be hooked. That’s a tall order I know, for myself as well as the reader but that was the idea. Also the book is organized into three sections as opposed to chapters. The first section is comprised of all events in the story which take place in the morning, the second section is all the events which take place in the day and the third is all the events which take place at night. Needless to say maintaining order as well as a story arc proved a little demanding particularly as the story spans approximately thirty years but I think we did okay.

So – it was easy for me to keep track of while writing because whatever I finished had to fit in the puzzle in a certain way – it obviously had to fit into one of the three sections according to time of day and secondly it had to fit into a general sequence frame in that it didn’t give away information which had to be withheld due to the nature of the narrative arc. As you can imagine though this became more complex the further I went and required the attention of a scrupulous editor with a narrative timeline in hand (and, I’m told, there was a certain reliance on chocolate as a stress reliever…)

rm: Why did you decide on the three-part format of dawn, day and dusk?

MB: Part of the reason was also to work within a traditional structure but to subvert it. This places demands on both the writer and the reader (not to mention the editor). I also wanted the book to cover two lives but also to, in a sense, take place within the structure of one day. These are just types of things I like to play around with in addition to telling a story. I find it interesting to place constraints on what I do. I also wanted to create a claustrophobic environment in which the reader is able to watch what is unfolding but feels a helplessness about it at the same time, almost like a nightmare in which you are unable to move quickly enough. Squeezing or compressing things into the “day” structure seemed to help with this.

rm: You locate the action of the two as children very early in the novel, placing their trailer just outside of Kemptville, Ontario, close to where you live. Why is this important? Do you think it would have been any different had you placed them in Perth, Bells Corners or Cornwall?

MB: I don’t think those specific locations would have made much difference to the story but anything further than that might have. I think I’m the type of writer who writes about wherever I happen to be living at the time, at least that’s been true so far. Although when I finish my third novel (all three take place in or around Kemptville) I do have a desire to set one in India perhaps. Currently I feel secure setting my writing in a location I can be sure of, one I can see and verify on a daily basis. I also very much enjoy the fact that daily I walk or drive through the locations in which my stories are set. That helps for both consistency and inspiration. I know the trailer Chase and Haven live in, the house Ray in my second novel lives in with his dad (I pass that often) and my new character whose name is Walter lives with the ghost of his sister and an Uncle who doesn’t actually exist (in the story I mean, though that’s true of the real world as well) in a house about five minutes from where I am now. Although the novels are set in the Seventies and I was not in the Kemptville area at that time. I think location is important for texture but it’s true that the location is inside my head and I feel free to play a bit with that. I haven’t done any real research to make sure that all aspects of my 1970’s Kemptville descriptions are fully accurate, I don’t feel in the final result that that’s all that important, certainly for most readers. The global details have been checked though – when they sit down to watch Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In for example it’s on the right night and time slot for that show, and The Monkees lunchbox is accurately placed for time. I could reference Mannix but not Cannon and had to be sure that Mannix was available without cable (it aired on CBS through WWNY Watertown and could be picked up fairly well by rabbit ears). I think those details are important because getting them wrong might place a block between certain readers and the story. Knowing that Cannon was not airing in that time period could completely remove a reader from the internal reality of the story and I can’t afford that. I guess all details provide flavour and some have a higher expectation for accuracy in my mind.

rm: On the back cover, Emily Schultz compares your prose style to that of Toronto novelist Barbara Gowdy. Do you agree with this? Who would you cite as your influences?

MB: I wouldn’t cite Barbara Gowdy as an influence just due to the fact that I haven’t read her yet (though mean to) but others have agreed with the comparison. As far as influences go I just know who has made an impact on me, more specifically books or poems that have made an impact; the last paragraph of Running in the Family, the last several pages (all the pages really) of Coming Through Slaughter, all of Billy The Kid (so most of early Ondaatje then), Sinbad and Me (a much overlooked children’s classic by the American author Kin Platt who is acknowledged in my book, unfortunately only available now through places like E-Bay), Patrick Lane’s memoir, Carver, Herge (Tintin), Salinger, just about every movie I saw as a kid, Ian Fleming, Ray Souster, it would be a long list…

rm: Did you find it difficult moving back and forth between poetry and fiction? Do you approach one any differently than you approach the other?

MB: I seem to do both simultaneously without problem but I’m always focusing a bit more on one or the other. If a novel’s taking precedence the poetry seems to slide into the background and vice versa. But I will continue to jot down poetry notes when writing a novel and novel ideas when working on a poem. The process for writing for me though is fairly different. Most of my poetry comes as independent lines which I’ll write down over a span of several days or weeks and eventually they coalesce into a piece the purpose of which has become apparent in the process. This is fairly different from the process of a novel, it’s a much bigger jigsaw and I’ll recognize the targeted place for each piece as it arrives. I’ll know right away where the piece fits and what other pieces it’s connected to and why, unlike the more random and mysterious (for me) process of poetry. Also my poetry is almost completely autobiographical with little disguise and the fiction is not. Any situations in the fiction which are based on my own experience have been heavily altered. The slashed artery in Chase and Haven for example happened to me but in a context fairly unlike that of the book, likewise the jeep roll over in my second novel. Poetry, for me, is a more direct interpretation of my lived reality than fiction.

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