Monday, August 03, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan is the author of three novels, three short story collections, two books of essays, one travel book, one work of academic literary criticism and one co-authored textbook. He has lived for a few years each in the Ottawa Valley, Montreal, England and southern Ontario, and has travelled widely in Europe, the Americas and Africa. Visit him at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book changed my life by disabusing me of the illusion, which I’d nurtured since early adolescence, that I had only to publish in order to be hailed as a major writer. In the usual perverse way, though, the commercial failure and mixed critical reception of Other Americas made me ten times as determined to persist. Also, being the author of a published novel, albeit one that almost nobody had heard of, gave me the credibility to write book reviews and journalism that got my name into slightly wider circulation.

My recent work feels different because it is better. If you continue writing, applying some sort of relatively merciless assessment to the strengths and weaknesses –especially the weaknesses—of what you’ve done before, then, over time and with more experience of life, you get better. You don’t necessarily find many more readers, but those who do come across your books may go away more satisfied than before.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I came to fiction through reading. I seem to have spent about half my life curled up in a corner somewhere reading a novel. From an early age, I worshipped the novel as the form that could be greater than life itself, that could displace life by creating a reality as complex and multidimensional as the reality I lived in, yet which, unlike the chaos of daily life, could have an emotionally fulfilling shape and be haunted by echoes and resonances that had a meaningful symmetry. From my mid-teens onward, I wrote various novels, some of them completed and others abandoned, which I wisely made no effort to publish. In my mid-twenties I did a creative writing M.A. at Concordia; it was the 1980s –the reign of Raymond Carver—and everyone was writing short stories, so I started writing them, too. I continue to write short stories today, when it’s much harder to publish a short story collection. But I always come back to the novel.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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’m a fast writer, but it always takes me a long time to finish a book. I edit every morning before I start writing new material, so my first drafts get tightened up as I go along. Even so, they are definitely not ready to go when I get to the end. The fever of writing invariably blinds me to gaping flaws, or mismatches between style and material. If I send a story or novel out soon after finishing it, I end up writhing with embarrassment. I need to put a manuscript aside for a few weeks or months, then come back to it with more distance and perspective to do the polishing. So far as taking notes goes, I don’t do it for short stories; I’ll make a couple of pages of notes in the early stages of writing a novel, but most of it just comes out of my head as I write.

4 - 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?

I usually know, from the moment in which a cluster of connected events and images begin to coalesce in my head, whether the result will be a novel or a short story. Where I get taken by surprise is in finding that I’ve written short stories with related themes that have some claim to living together in a book. Once I’ve identified the theme, I usually become more focused and think of other stories that could be part of this book. My three short story collections are all clustered around related themes. The stories in Nights in the Yungas are about foreigners travelling in Latin America; North of Tourism is about long-term expatriates in various countries; and the stories in A Grave in the Air all have German and Eastern European themes, even though some of them take place in Canada. Of course this approach means that I’ve written and published stories that have never made it into any of my collections because they don’t fit with these themes.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy readings. I’ll go anywhere and read to anyone. Just invite me! I don’t think, though, that readings are part of my creative process. I certainly don’t write scenes with any consideration of whether they’re good public reading material. Readings are part of my publicity process. A few people are usually kind enough to buy books, and signing those copies is certainly more gratifying than finding one copy of your book turned spine-out at the back of Chapters and knowing that in three months’ time it will be returned to the publisher.

6 - 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?

My theoretical concerns have changed a lot over the course of my career, which makes me wonder whether they were ever all that central to my writing. I’ve battled with questions such as point of view and creating a Canadian literary language, but these considerations usually get washed away in the rush of narrative. In recent years I’ve waged a kind of guerrilla campaign against the predominance of metaphor-laden historical blockbusters among Canadian novels and have argued for the need to be more attentive to contemporary Canadian reality. A few reviewers and critics have taken up these ideas and developed them in their own ways. I’ve had less impact on other writers, however.

7 – 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?

There’s a conflict between the traditional role of the writer, which was forged in a print-based culture where the writer’s role often approached that of a secular priest, and the contemporary reality, in which culture is based on transient visual images and intellectual authority is simply one more fleeting impression on the viewer’s retina. I think most writers feel a little uncertain as to how to proceed in this environment. You can try to sustain the traditional role, but obviously, at least in English-speaking societies, unless you do this in a somewhat playful, self-mocking way, you risk coming across as pompous and self-important. This may be a risk worth taking, but it’s understandable that many writers prefer to limit their role to that of a specialist in or guardian of the language.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both?)

I’ve had some very good experiences with editors. Seán Virgo edited four of my books for Thistledown Press, and was brilliant at assimilating the books’ voices and characters in ways that made clear to me what I had to do to make them truer. My novel The Streets of Winter, in particular, would have been a mess without his intervention. Seán was also instrumental in helping me to reimagine the ending of another novel, The Places Where Names Vanish. I also had good experiences with the late Robert Allen, who supervised my M.A. thesis, a short story collection. I’ve had some great editors for my journalism, too, like Mark Abley and Bryan Demchinsky at the Montreal Gazette, Terry Byrnes when he was at Matrix, Lindsay Duguid at the Times Literary Supplement, Mary Schedlinger at Geist, and Daniel Baird at The Walrus. But the fiction is always more prickly and sensitive to edit. The writer has to learn to be totally immersed in the work as a writer, then separate from it and see it as though from a distance as an editor. It’s hard, but unless you can cultivate this double consciousness, no editor is going to be able to help you.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Graham Greene: reread at night, and write as soon as you wake up in the morning.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to critical prose to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I retain the belief (in spite of some of what I said in question 7) that the writer is obliged to comment on the environment in which he or she works. In most of the literary cultures I’m familiar with outside the English-speaking one, it’s normal for a writer of novels and stories to publish occasional books of essays or journalism that take a stand on questions of the day. My biggest struggle with the Canadian milieu has been with the way in which the comparatively large amount of attention accorded my essay collection When Words Deny the World erased the public perception of my career as a writer of novels and short stories. Even though North of Tourism, which preceded When Words…, had got more attention than my other books and sold better than anyone expected, suddenly I was “the critic Stephen Henighan.” I got a couple of reviews for A Grave in the Air that opened with comments like, “Isn’t this weird? The critic Henighan has started to write fiction.” The fact that the book’s cover copy made clear that this was my sixth book of fiction made no dent in these preconceptions. The answer to your question is that I find it relatively natural to move back and forth between say, short stories and the occasional book review or article, or to include a creative non-fiction book like Lost Province: Adventures in a Moldovan Family between short story collections like North of Tourism and A Grave in the Air (with which it shares thematic interests), but that our critical and media culture has a hard time accepting this kind of career, and is uneasy with writers who can’t be slotted in a single category.

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 wake up early and I write for two or three hours. Then I go out and do things to pay the mortgage. I come home late at night and read and maybe edit a bit. As long as I can write five or six mornings a week and read for two or three hours a day, I feel that my life is not a waste and belongs to me, not to my employer.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Brian Moore once said that the people who get stalled are people who’ve had to interrupt their writing to do other work. The doubts set in when you’ve been away from writing for a while. As long as it’s part of your daily reality, the words keep flowing. My substitute for inspiration is never to stop writing.

13 - What fairy tale character do you resonate with most?

As a writer, the tortoise in “The Tortoise and the Hare”. As a person, though, I relate to the hare.

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 enjoy music and visual art, but I don’t think they have much influence on my fiction. Nature does, in so far as it’s part of the world I move through, and I often evoke nature in my fiction. I see extended travel, preferably on rather limited means, as an art form that complements and enriches my writing.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Of course there are far too many to mention. I will say that the novelists of 19th-century Russia, 19th-century France, 20th-century Latin America and, maybe to a slightly lesser extent, early 20th-century Britain, have struck particularly close to my heart because they combine comprehensive portraits of changing societies with moments of startling literary innovation. Shadows of these novels escort me every day, which means that they’re especially present when I’m writing.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Write ten good novels. Have a novel published in hardcover by a major press. Have a novel translated into various languages so that I can return to some of the countries I’ve trailed through as a vagabond in the role of a foreign writer. Drive from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego. Make an overland trip from Luanda, Angola to Namibia. Learn three or four more languages so that I can read more and different literatures in the original and perhaps translate from them into English…. The list is endless. There will never be enough time to do all that I want to do.

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?

If I hadn’t been writer, I would have ended up as backroom operative for an obscure, possibly underground political movement. Either that or an unskilled manual labourer. Neither thought is particularly appealing, and in the end I don’t really want to be anything other than a writer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

All I really want to do in life is read, write and travel. The other two don’t pay. Neither does writing, of course, but I didn’t know that when I started.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last two great books I read were The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford and My Apprenticeship by Maxim Gorky. I’m including the last two since I see fewer films than most people and I’m not sure I’d trust myself to recognize a great one.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a novel about a footloose Canadian in Europe in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I’m also putting together a new collection of short stories set all around the Americas, except in the United States. I keep writing, the clock keeps ticking. Some day all this will end.

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