Bill Brown’s work has appeared in Boheme Press’s Grunt and Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex, Urban Graffiti X, McGill University’s The Veg, Siren Song Publishing Writing at the Edge. In addition his stories and book reviews have appeared in Front&Centre, which he now co-edits with Matthew Firth. Firth also captains Black Bile Press, which in 2003 published Bill’s chapbook, Folly. Bill’s newest collection of stories, When Jupiter’s Aligned with Mars, has been published by Siren Song Publishing, 2009. It will be launched at the Manx, 5 pm on September 19, 2009. Bill and his husband, John, live in Ottawa.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My chapbook, Folly, (Black Bile Press, 2002) did two things: it gave me some idea of how stories can work together to enliven one another and, after selling out two printings (okay, mostly a hometown crowd) suggested that my stories were striking at least a thin chord. What, until then, had seemed like heightened masturbation, had, surprisingly gathered a crowd without losing the intimacy of scale, the limited scope and the freedom from commercial consideration, that fit so snugly with my intent in writing the stories.
When my husband John was asked to do the layout and design, the book became a family affair. And finally, Matthew Firth's editing, not only honed some of my writing skills, but cemented a new friendship and led to an invitation to co-edit Front&Centre.
Though my most recent collection, When Jupiter’s Aligned with Mars, (Siren Song Publishing, 2009) has a spine (I liked Marcus McCann’s take that, for most, if it’s got no friggin’ spine, it’s not a real book.) working with Zsolt Alapi at Siren Song has been a breeze.
We need some sort of anthem to those who continue to keep small presses going and continue to give many writers a first leg up. Yourself included, rob.
Changes in my work? If I’ve been successful, my most recent work should have a sparer feel to it. I’ve been inspired by others (Levine, Griggs, Metcalf, Carver) who have (more) successfully applied something like the implied line of the visual artist. If done well it serves to both clarify and deepen the experience for both reader and writer.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Poetry, though a longtime interest, intimidated me; non-fiction didn’t interest me. I quickly settled on the short story believing it has more in common with poetry than it does with the novel—including its loose boundaries. The short story would allow me to come at poetry through the side door.
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?
My writing projects are quickly started. And though the paths followed vary, for the most part my writing slows down almost at once. I’m not a writer with things worked out beforehand; my ideas spring, mingle and speak to each other through the act of writing. This will explain why my initial draft rarely looks anything like the final piece. Occasionally a story comes out in a rush, but it’s rare. My stories tend to be worked, maybe a few at a time, over months or years. Several stories may find themselves, over time, flowing into a single one. And though, from time to time I use notes, for the most part it’s simply a matter of spending time with the stories themselves.
4 - Where does 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?
For me, fiction can begin almost anywhere: eavesdropping, a poem, a painting, an anecdote. And though a single “event” may trigger a story, pretty soon other bits of this and that I’ve been gathering (many unknowingly) will muscle in.
I have never set out to write a book. I write stories. It happens that enough of them, at least so far, have enough of a common thread that they work as a book and might catch the eye of a publisher. A few of my completed stories don’t seem to work at all with the others; but then, that’s not why I wrote them.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Though it happens rarely, I like being read to. And since I read my stories aloud to myself, doing the same for others isn’t much of a stretch. Being relaxed with the cadence and intent of my stories I would much rather read them than talk about them.
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 don’t go much beyond taking the scraps of ideas, experiences, concerns, and puzzles that I have gathered over my life and refashioning them in ways that try to make some sense to me. I want to explore: how they might, like pieces of a puzzle fit together; how they might inform one another; how one facet might shed light on another; how I might draw the universal from the particular; or even how to shed my own light on a certain historical period. Given all this, it’s inevitable that you’ll find a gay thread through most of my stories: I am, in some of these, exploring the movement from deep inside the closet to being as out there as I wish. And yes, it’s an old story, but I hope it’s told with a new voice that might connect with the experiences of someone—anyone—who has found themselves marginalized, paralyzed, or doing stupid things.
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?
Speaking the truth(s) isn’t going out of style any time soon. Writers provide readers with the opportunity to step aside from the hubbub of their lives and through the experience of reading examine a truth that might otherwise have been passed by in the rush and noise. Having said this, I don’t see fiction writers as activists. Our stories need not directly protest anything; the very act of writing them is protest enough. And need I state the obvious: such writing is only rarely synonymous with commercial success.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I consider someone with the skill, interest and time to comment on my work, to be a blessing. Such people (my friend Liz, my husband John, my teacher Rita, my editor and friend Matthew) have all helped me with everything from digging deeper for the core of the story to stylistic changes that enliven or refine.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If you want to be a writer, then write. Only from that can the rest, in time, flow.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Most days my writing routine is the same: I rise around 5 am and after my first cup of tea, write for the next three hours or so. I might come back to it later in the day, but most often I don’t. I might use some of the afternoon to work on related tasks: reading manuscripts for Front&Centre, sending out my own work, reviewing books, administering Black Bile Press’s website and reading.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My first stop is poetry. But there are a few short story writers that I also turn to: Norman Levine, Charles Bukowski, Mavis Gallant, Raymond Carver, Terry Griggs, Elise Levine, Leon Rooke, Sherwood Anderson, John Metcalf. Though an eclectic list, I find something in each one whenever I go back.
12 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?
Rita Donovan, Ottawa’s most underrated novelist, through her astute comments and observations, taught me to have confidence in my work. She was the one who said: “Write, write, write.”
13 - 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?
The visual arts: with John and I collecting art for three decades, our apartment is awash in paintings, photos, drawings, and sculpture, providing a trove of material to reflect on. Alberto Manguel, in his excellent book, Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate, encourages us to “read” the visual world (including architecture—a longtime, untutored passion of mine) for its hidden stories and riddles. This sort of reading has occasionally broken one of my many logjams.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve already mentioned many of these. But at Humber School for Writers, Wayson Choy’s encouragement came at the right moment to keep me moving towards my chapbook, Folly, which came out in 2002. Working on the chapbook with Matthew Firth not only ended with us being friends, but my being introduced into a constellation of edgy writers: Sal Difalco, Mark SaFranko, Zsolt Alapi, Laura Hird, Matthew Firth, Tony O’Neil, Harold Hoeffle.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
16 - 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 spent 31 years teaching. And though teaching provided me with both stimulation and pleasure, in balance these were eventually overwhelmed by the strict regime of timetables, bells, clocks, paperwork, reports, and routines that for me sapped much of teaching’s joy.
Even though, as a young man, I chose the closet as both a queer and a writer, I’ve stopped beating myself up about it and now use that period to inform my life as both an out-there, married queer and a published writer.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
After 31 years of doing something I was only superficially suited to, what else was I going to do but follow my gut?
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: Thin Ice by Norman Levine. Film: Let the Right One In a 2008 Swedish vampire movie.
19 - What are you currently working on?
My next short story.
Doing what I can to help Siren Song Publication sell my newest collection, When Jupiter Aligns with Mars.
Weeding the garden and keeping various Bridgehead cafes afloat.
12 or 20 questions (second series);