[photo credit: Mandy Heyens] Jonathan Ball is a writer, filmmaker, teacher, and scholar, with three books of poetry forthcoming: Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009); Clockfire (Coach House, 2010); and The Words of the Book (also BookThug, co-written with kevin mcpherson eckhoff). His film Spoony B has appeared on The Comedy Network, and he is completing a PhD in English literature at the University of Calgary.
How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I felt like I was becoming part of a national conversation, rather than just talking to my friends or to myself. I refuse to adopt a particular style, so it is difficult to discuss my “work” as something with any sort of unity, even at one particular moment. In general, I’ve lost interest in expressing myself. Instead, I explore ideas, and if I express myself it is a byproduct rather than the purpose of the writing.
How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve taken an odd, convoluted route as a writer. My first love is music, and when I was young, I used to transcribe song lyrics when I was bored. I would later discover the lyrics I transcribed were full of errors. Most of the time, I preferred my erroneous lyrics to the actual lyrics. From there it was a short step to writing replacement lyrics, and then original song lyrics, and then bad poems. My first published poems were actually song lyrics, from my time in the band PROST, which were published in a music-themed issue of CV2. By that point I was singing songs with little rhyme and no choruses. You can see why my music career fizzled. I won some small awards writing lyrical poems, then gave it up because it seemed like there was just a formula for the lyric that I had managed to uncover. Not to write a stunning lyric, but to write a serviceable lyric. I became more interested in fiction, which I always preferred to read, and always planned to make my main pursuit, but kept with poetry because all my fiction efforts were bland. I started doing stranger things with my poetry, and found myself writing more prose poetry. Now, after focusing on poetry for years, I’ve returned to fiction. There are very few writers in Canada doing strange things with fiction, compared to poetry, so I can make more of an impact in this arena.
How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I don’t start working on a project for years after I get the initial idea. If I still like the idea after a few years, if I haven’t forgotten about it, if I have been turning my thoughts to it now and again and making mental notes, then maybe it’s worth doing. I sometimes take notes but in general the first draft is the notes. I’ve rewritten the same short story over and over again for years before sending it out, still making major changes in the seventh year, and then for other stories I’ve done one quick second draft a week after the first, and sent that out. Instead of developing consistent methods, I approach everything on a case-by-case basis.
Where does a poem 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?
It’s very random. I often get an idea for a title, or a line, and then problem-solve to try and use it. Here’s a typical example: years ago I had the thought that a clock on fire would be an interesting visual image. So I started to think about how I might use that, what would be the most interesting setting. Later on, I attended a lecture on drama as a teaching assistant, and wondered why I wasn’t interested in the theatre. Then I thought about my burning clock, how it would look in a theatre. I liked that setting, I decided, because it seemed like a response to the two problems I have with the theatre: one, the theatre is so sanitary and bloodless, it has excised the conceptual violence that Artaud once attempted to inject; two, the theatre refuses to engage with its status as a thing in the world, aside from cursory, ham-fisted political “engagement” or the occasional, lame attempt to “engage the audience” that always comes across as insipid. So I wrote a play, a prose poem really, instructions for mounting a performance where the audience is watching a large clock onstage, which displays the correct time. While they are watching the clock advance the time, the actors set the theatre on fire. Exeunt. It seemed not unlike those scores for Fluxus art, only not the hippie nonsense of most Fluxus performance. I like the poem/play enough to write a book of them, plays that would be impossible to produce due to the violence necessary or the laws of physics that would have to be violated or whatever. Plays that might make the theatre relevant for me. I called the poem/play Clockfire and that became the name of the manuscript. This will be my second book, out of Coach House.
I rarely combine short, disparate pieces into a larger project. I think in terms of books. Even when I do a standalone thing, I often have an idea for a book I might put together later on, although I sometimes abandon the idea and end up with fragmentary pieces that were once intended for a book. I’m not interested in collecting work together. Why collect work? I might as well just put it all online. If it’s not a book, why publish it as a book? I hate collections of poems that have no coherence, even if the individual poems are excellent. The conventional collection should take the form of an archive. It bothers me that they are published as codices simply because this is the traditional method. If you are producing a codex then the work should be composed as a codex, from day one, not shunted into the form as an afterthought because “that’s how things are done,” with random section breaks, a little epigraph for each section, all the crap we’re used to seeing nowadays.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I hate public readings. I just don’t care about how my work sounds out loud. I try to care, but I don’t. When I am around other people I like to argue and make jokes, not read aloud from papers. I recognize that I need to become a better performer, if only to please publishers. That’s how you sell books. But it’s hard to motivate myself to improve. When I do perform I just try to entertain, I don’t try to be artistic.
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 am completing a PhD and one of my specializations (my minor field candidacy exam) was in Literary Theory. So, I am interested in theory, but does that have anything to do with my writing? I don’t think the work should answer questions. Literature is not the proper form for answering questions or explicating theory. If I want to answer questions, or engage with theory, I will write an article or an essay. I am much more influenced by Franz Kafka than any theorist. Insofar as literary theory can be considered a distinct branch of literature, it influences my writing, in the way any other literary writings influence me. Not the ideas, but the form and the style, the poetic imagery, etc. There is a persistent metaphor that crops up in post-structuralist thought, the metaphor of the literary text as a living organism that possesses its own desires, drives, etc. This metaphor, in itself, has been more influential than any of the actual theoretical edifices this metaphor is employed to explain.
What are the current questions? The most pressing questions, for me, concern the role of technology and new media in the production and dissemination of literary work. If anybody cares about my initial, perhaps temporary views, they can read my essay “The Archive and the Future of the Novel” in The International Journal of the Book. Also, how can literature reclaim a significant role in public life? First and foremost, it has to stop coming to us in diluted forms. The music industry developed and supported a singles-oriented format and then reeled in shock when people stopped buying albums the moment they could just download the two songs they heard on the radio. The newspaper industry lowered its standards to the point where there is no difference between what I read in the newspaper and what I can read on Wikipedia (a few days ago the Winnipeg Free Press cited Wikipedia’s opinions on Canada-US relations), and now are reeling in shock because people stopped paying for the same crap they can read for free on their buddy’s blog. The book industry is in a similar position. They published so much garbage for so long, focused their attentions on people who will only buy and read twenty books in their entire lives. They dumbed everything down so they didn’t alienate the “mainstream reader” and all those people bought the same twenty books. Now their little bookshelves are full, and they’re done, the mainstream reader is done buying books. And the industry is shocked. Why don’t people want to read anymore? Well, why would they? Why would they continue to read? Reading never meant anything to them. It was just a way to pass the time, and now there’s YouTube. The books weren’t good enough to inspire any passion in them, they were just disposable entertainment. So they never taught their kids about reading, because it wasn’t important to them.
What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I believe that artists in general should adopt an oppositional stance, to regard the audience as an enemy, and the larger social world a thing to be challenged. The artist should work to disrupt or unveil the invisible processes that support the current culture, if only in microcosmic ways, should occupy a fundamentally violent, antagonistic position. I don’t mean to attach an exaggerated importance to art which in fact it does not publicly hold. But there is a radical value to artistic work that I believe is at once an impossible ideal and one to which the artist should strive. The great moment of death for an artist is when s/he begins to stand for something.
Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t really started the editorial process for any of my trade books. But the value of a fresh set of eyes cannot be underestimated. I don’t share my early drafts with many people, but now and again will approach specific people for specific types of feedback. The editor I have worked with the most is Suzette Mayr, author of an exceptional but underrated novel called Venous Hum (and some other fine books). I developed a novel called Kanada with Suzette which is on the back burner for the moment, and I’m completing a novel called The Crow Murders with her as my editor/supervisor in the PhD program at the University of Calgary.
The process of working with Suzette is basically this: I hand Suzette my drafts, and she hands them back to me with comments like “this part is fine, except that it is indescribably boring.” It is very frustrating because she is never wrong. With other editors I’ve worked with, people at magazines or just people I know, they are usually right about many things and wrong about others. I assess the comments. Are they right or wrong? Should I clarify, or are they not paying enough attention? I will ignore the misguided comments and focus on the valuable ones. I have held out and refused to make changes even as I’ve given in to other changes willingly. I don’t think the work is precious or that I’m a genius, but in some instances I am correct and the editor is wrong. Suzette tends to be right about everything, so it is easy to work with her because I don’t have to spend as much time assessing her comments.
What I’ve noticed is that editors, whether they realize this or not, want to normalize the work. There are exceptions, but in general editors (especially fiction editors) want you to make the work more like the work they’re used to seeing. You have to be careful. You have to walk a fine line between making good use of their feedback, which is valuable, while refusing their efforts to normalize the work. I probably make 95% of the changes an editor recommends. But that last 5% is not negotiable. That last 5% is why I wrote the thing and they did not. Suzette has not yet asked me to make a change to normalize the work, and on more than one occasion she’s told me to preserve something odd I was thinking I might discard.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best advice for writers are the “rules” of the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold. As long as you rephrase 3 as “You must not fiddle endlessly with your writing,” then there is no better practical advice for a writer. The best non-practical advice came from Chris Ewart (author of the underrated novel Miss Lamp): “It’s a marathon, not a race.” Wise words for those times when the work is slow and recognition slower. One must focus on the process, on putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. All related concerns are secondary.
How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to filmmaking)? What do you see as the appeal?
The main appeal of having some facility with more than one discipline is the possibility for interdisciplinary work, which I’m just starting to explore. It also helps to avoid falling into a routine or the shackles of a personal style. There is a simple appeal to being able to write some poetry on a day when you feel bored of fiction, and vice versa. I can take a break from novel-writing or from fiction altogether without wasting time. That’s the appeal. How easy is it to switch focus? There is really no difficulty. Unless you are neurotic, and require some special tea, and a ritual cleansing, or some such nonsense, I don’t see why it would be difficult to switch from writing poetry to writing fiction. You close the poetry file and open the fiction one. It’s only difficult to shift focus to filmmaking, because of the technology and the money involved, and the need for other people. I do very little filmmaking as a result.
What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
When I don’t have other daily commitments (meetings, teaching, etc.), I write from 8-12. Then I have lunch and work on something else from 1-4. The “something else” could be a mix of things, like job hunting or freelancing, or might even be more writing. If I’m not spending time with my girlfriend or friends in the evening, I work from 6-10 as well. This is what I try to do every day. Mostly it is more chaotic. Last week I go up at 6 each day, worked until 9, taught 9-12, and wrote or did other work, including errands, from lunch until midnight. I try to write a little bit every workday, even if I end up being too busy to do any real writing. It’s important to keep a schedule but it’s often impossible. When I’m busy I just set quotas. So I’ll commit to, say, 1500 words of creative writing plus 500 words of critical writing and then reading 100 pages, and do a series of smaller tasks around those larger ones. Some days I’ll write one paragraph and spend the rest of the day marking. Life is messy, but when I have the option I stick to a rigid schedule. Studies have shown that even if you only write for one half hour each day, at the same time every day, you will produce much more work and have more creative ideas than those writing in longer, unscheduled bursts. I approach writing as a professional. There is no waiting for inspiration and there are no neurotic rituals.
When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t believe in inspiration, and I don’t believe in writer’s block. Ideas can be generated in any number of ways. If I’m not writing, it’s because I am lazy or sick or depressed. I have such a backlog of ideas and partially finished manuscripts that even if I never had another idea past this moment, I could still publish a book every year until my death. I work on a lot of different projects at once, although I try to stick to two main projects. If I’m having problems with one project, I just work on another, or I write a short story or something. In the last two years I completed work on six different manuscripts, and am almost through number seven (my thesis-novel). Two are accepted by BookThug (although one still needs serious work), one is accepted by Coach House, two are floating around, and one I threw in the trash. It’s something of a false industry, because I don’t really work that fast. Most of these books were started between 2003 and 2005, one started back in 2000. I decided a few years ago that I wasn’t allowed to work on anything new until I finished up some of these old projects that were past the halfway point.
What did your favourite teacher teach you?
My favourite teacher was George Toles, who is the co-writer for Guy Maddin’s films. Mostly he taught me that it was not only acceptable but desirable to do something unusual, and that you could be experimental without being boring. He also impressed upon me the importance of jokes. Even if you’re writing the bleakest horror, you can always find room for a few jokes.
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 come to writing through music. (This might imply I was once a good musician. Let me assure you that is not true, even though my picture appeared in Rolling Stone through a series of accidents.) I am heavily in debt to music in two basic ways: (1) I take an architectural approach to composition, influenced by bands like Pink Floyd, The Mars Volta, and Opeth; and (2) I desire to make immediate visceral or emotional impact, or delay or withhold this impact for effect. My greatest complaint about most writing, especially poetry, is that it is often so polished and precise it is bloodless. Either bloodless, or lacking any coherent or inventive structure. I would rather walk through a ruin than a preserved historic site, or a messy house for that matter.
What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The most important touchstone for my fiction is the work of Franz Kafka. I don’t think the novel has learned the lessons of Kafka, and I think it will continue to stagnate without a return, so to speak, to the Kafkan, which has been misrepresented through mythomania passing as criticism. I would refer interested readers to Milan Kundera’s discussions of the Kafkan in the books The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, and The Curtain. The second most important touchstone, you may be surprised to hear, is H.P. Lovecraft. The list of other writers could go on forever. A handful: Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Robert Walser, Paul Celan, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Lisa Robertson, bpNichol, Dan Farrell, Robert Majzels, Nicole Brossard, Nathalie Stephens, Neil Gaiman, Richard Matheson… it goes on.
What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
There are a lot of things I haven’t done, I’m new to this whole game. I want to do a graphic novel, and I have plans for this. I already have a fifth draft of the “words” and after I do a few more drafts (and he can find the time) my friend Gregory Chomichuk will get to work on the “pictures.”
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?
For a while, as I said, I wanted to be a musician. I just don’t have the necessary talent and I find it difficult to be in a band, it’s a strange network of relationships that have to be negotiated. Instead, I think I would end up as a comedian. I see comedians as writers, essentially, so maybe this isn’t a fair answer to your question. Being a comedian is something I always wanted to do. Now and again I write stand-up material which sits useless in my files, and I write a humour column called Haiku Horoscopes that is popular in Winnipeg.
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I hate everything else. I wish I had the talent and motivation to be something else. Being a writer is hard and thankless and the hours are long, but (as Christian Bök often remarks), at least it is a form of “unalienated labour.” The only thing that seems to fit my temperament, other than writing and the occasional dip into film or music, is teaching.
What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read (or rather, re-read) was David Markson’s The Last Novel, which is composed almost entirely of trivia about historical figures and quotations from same. Through all of these fragments, and a few sprinkles of statements about “Novelist,” a whole narrative is implied, the character of Novelist is developed, and the book propels the reader forward toward an emotionally draining climax. Critics have derided this work as too difficult, but I taught this book to a class of non-majors with no real background in English. Many of them spoke English as their second language and were not adept at reading in English, and almost without exception the students praised the book and preferred it to more conventional works on the reading list.
The last great film I watched was the Orson Welles adaptation of The Trial. The film is a terrible adaptation of the Kafka book in the sense that it betrays everything interesting about Kafka’s style, but it is a triumph as a discrete art object, masterfully composed, as Welles re-imagines the story in a non-Kafkaesque manner to stunning effect. I wish more film adaptations of books would jettison the author and actually do something creative with the text. The film Pontypool did a great job in this regard, a true credit to Tony Burgess, who authored both the book and the screenplay—I don’t think many writers would have the skill or the guts to take such a loose approach to adapting their own books. There are some very fine, relatively faithful adaptations (like No Country for Old Men), but in general unless the directors throw the book away and proceed instead from some core concept, all we get are diluted books, filmed limply.
What are you currently working on?
I am revising my thesis, a novel called The Crow Murders. The “elevator pitch” is that it’s a horror novel in which the book itself is the monster, its characters its victims. I’m also waiting for Jay MillAr’s edits on Ex Machina, and Kevin Connolly’s edits on Clockfire, and kevin mcpherson eckhoff and I will be doing a rewrite of The Words of the Book at the prompting of MillAr and Stephen Cain. I’m writing short stories to complete a fiction collection called The Lightning of Possible Storms, the stories are all planned out, and I’m doing a novella for that too. Ryan Fitzpatrick and I are going to enter the three-day novel contest this year, with a novella we will call In Defence of My Father, Who Shot Me with a Crossbow Last Spring. I’m also writing a novella called The Caleb Zimmerman Fiasco which will be paired up with a novella my friend Caleb Zimmerman is writing, and that will be a book manuscript, the two together. We are each writing a novella in which the other is the main character and we are the villains. You’ve got to build up your own mythology: this is something Guy Maddin taught me. And I have two other poetry manuscripts I am sending to publishers, which I already mentioned, Inbox and The Politics of Knives. I mentioned that graphic novel I want to do: it’s called The Eye Collector and is an adaptation of my MA thesis, The Sandman, which in turn is an adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann short story “The Sand-Man.” I am writing a short film script called “A Real Job” about a writer who attempts to get a real job, and there is a short story by Natalee Caple, “The Trouble with Killing Someone You Know,” which I hope to produce as a short film. I am applying for teaching jobs, getting ready for my thesis defence, preparing to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship, and planning to approach the National Film Board about a documentary on Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment (see my recent interview with Bök in The Believer for more on this project). I keep busy.
12 or 20 questions archive (second series);