Friday, October 02, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Michael Turner

Michael Turner was born in North Vancouver in 1962, and raised in Vancouver. His books are available in different languages, different media, and have received awards. As a collaborator he has written scripts with artists such as Stan Douglas, as well as a libretto for an adaptation of Wilhem Busch's Max & Moritiz. Michael is also a prolific art critic, a contributor to books, catalogues and magazines the world over. He is this year's Ellen and Warren Tallman Simon Fraser University Writer-in-Residence. His latest book, 8x10, goes on sale today.

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

I wrote my first book, Company Town (1991), while playing in a busy and boisterous busking band called Hard Rock Miners -- touring the country, drinking, having fun -- the book being a quiet place, a world of my own through which I entered into an equally quiet culture of readers and writers.

Company Town, and the one that followed, Hard Core Logo (1993), are collagist in composition -- the ethnography meets the book of poems. Apart from that, my books differ from one to the next, voice being as much a material as time, place and locus. It seems where writing is taught, the focus is on finding one's voice, and keeping it that way. I find that limiting.

My new book, 8x10 (2009), is closer to Kingsway (1995) insofar as both have structural imperatives. In Kingsway, the single stanza poems approximate city blocks, while in 8x10 the events are set off by an 8x10 grid, each event corresponding to a blackened square. The prose in 8x10 is different from my other books, in particular the protracted exposition of The Pornographer's Poem (1999). The writing in 8x10 is sparer, having more in common with a Jack Zipes translation of Grimm's than the magazine-friendly short story.
But is that what you're asking? Maybe you're asking how it feels to be publishing a book of fiction eighteen years after my first one, and ten years since my last one. Obviously reading, writing, publishing and bookselling have changed since 1999, more so than they had between 1991 and 1999. I am fairly certain that within the next couple years my writing will consist mostly of blog entries, letters and making my own books in the garage. Of course I'll still be in need of editorial and design input, and as a result will come to know publishing more as a complex process than selling a manuscript to someone who'll take it to a printer and try to place it in the chains.

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

Until the early 1990s, poetry was Vancouver's dominant literary genre (like the medium of painting was to visual art, until the late-1980s). By dominant I mean poetry was the language we inherited as young people wild with ideas. Because poems and songs were how we organized our world, it made sense to organize my writing that way, especially with respect to the first two books, where the literature of work (Company Town) was "work writing" and the literature of music (Hard Core Logo) was song. As with voice, I treat genre as a material. I talk about this in the "Preface" to American Whiskey Bar (1997).

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?

Like Merle Haggard, I begin with the title. But even before that, an idea, one that I'll think about, research, talk over amongst friends, or in interviews like this. A commissioned essay usually has a due date, but books do not -- unless you sell them before they're written, as some do.

8x10 was devised as a book project I would contribute to while doing other writing. Trouble is, the time comes when in creating a world you have to live in it, so I set aside six months to finish it. I had to finish it before showing it to the publisher, because otherwise it wouldn't make sense.

4 - 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?

Company Town is unique in that it began with a series of poems I wrote after my last year working in a salmon cannery (the poems appear at the end of the book, and are attributed to one of the characters). After these poems (or from these poems) came an idea, a title.

Sometimes I think I'd like to have a writing project that backed into a book, became a book through editing, as opposed to writing. Michael Ondaatje talks about his books beginning with images that he writes from, concentrically, until they overlap, achieve overtone. I'm not sure I believe him.
Certain writers need their myths, and for some, myth is as much a material as genre. Ondaatje's Running In The Family (1982) is a good example of a writer who addresses his exoticism (read: otherness) by amplifying it in the name of autobiography -- and of course our racism has us believing every word. Unfortunately this was his last good book. In In The Skin of a Lion (1987) Ondaatje forsakes experiment for sentiment.

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

One of the reasons I left music was because I started to feel embarrassed on stage. A lot of it had to do with our success, which, for club owners, was our ability to sell booze. The drunker the audience, the more isolated I became. Literary audiences are the opposite; they tend to hang on words, sometimes reading along, reacting less with their bodies, as musical audiences do. Depending on my mood, this can be invasive, and sometimes I don't like it. With respect to performance, I would much rather sit around and talk about what I've done with a book than read from it. Certain literary organizations, like the Kootenay School of Writing, understand that.

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?

I read theory because I am interested in the way thought is organized. Plus you have to read theory to write about contemporary art -- theory and art history being a material as well as a mode of production. A lot of contemporary writing -- writing that is written today, for today's audiences -- is written without an interest in how the literature has evolved -- so much so that a lot of what the bigger houses are publishing comes off as diffident, reactionary and ultimately regressive. Conversely, the visual art that is being made and read today is both referential and critical, in dialogue with the art historical past (conceptualism of the 1970s, Minimalism of the 1960s, post-painterly abstraction of the 1950s, and earlier), as well as social, formal and technological shifts that have occurred over time. The audience for today's art is aware of where their art comes from, what it is, how it is made, and what it can mean. It is one of the best conversations going.
With respect to writing, we live at a time when grand theory, party politics, economic models have atomized. Yet if you look at literature, at least the majority of what gets published by the bigger houses and promoted by the Globe and Mail and the CBC, you would think the world has not changed since the 1950s -- a good yarn (a lot of Maritime writing) or gorgeous prose (Ondaatje, Anne Michaels) being the measure of what's good about a book. In that sense, literature has become a retreat, a vacation from the larger world, as opposed to a conversation with(in) it. Just the other day I read Steven Galloway's response to Barbara Kay's provocation (directed at Lisa Moore), where he spends most of his time upholding the limits of genre ("neither a novel nor literature") and medium ("Novels are not Twitter"). Galloway's barely in his thirties and already he's in the watchtower, guarding the gates.
Thankfully things are changing. That which once threatened books has become that which could save writing. Given the traditional media's emphasis on entertainment over art, publicity over critique, the internet is now criticism's new home, and I'm glad for it. I feel fortunate to have found people to converse with, to have enough interest in the work I’m doing that I can afford to keep making it.

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?

This is a popular topic, though not in the way we are accustomed to talking about it (the writer as a public intellectual). Today, publishers are expecting more of their authors, encouraging them to get out there, do stuff (and they've done so without raising royalty rates). Much of this new work is geared at social networking, like Facebook and Twitter, which publishers have turned to to promote our books. Another aspect of this new work is authors expanding their practices beyond book writing and interviews. Hence Margaret Atwood travelling with singers and Ian Rankin DJing in London clubs. I think this is a good thing for writers. Not just participating in the larger culture, but engaging in new forms, and how those engagements can influence the writing, take it to new places, new forms. But it is the way that it is happening -- at the urging of the traditional publisher -- that is ironic. In many ways, the traditional publishers inability to foresee our current moment tells me they might not be the people to take us to these new places, support us in our effort to explore these new forms.
With respect to the more traditional role -- the writer as public intellectual -- I enjoyed Mordecai Richler's reading of Quebec politics, and I miss his voice. Of course I would like to see writers more active in the political process. It is very French to be living in a country where the leader of the opposition is a novelist. Ah, but it is the kind of novels this man writes that tells us more about his policies than anything he's been told tell us.

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

An editor is a professional reader. The best editors read our manuscripts on the terms they've set out for themselves and respond accordingly. Writing that comes out of a conversation is always of interest to me. Very often those conversations involve an editor.

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

The best advice I've received lately is dietary. But on writing, it would be a variation on what Terrence Malick said when asked why it took him twenty years between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998): "There is something to be said about not making a movie."

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

As I said, genre is a material, one that brings with it its own assumptions, expectations. I think I know enough about the genres to make something meaningful with them.

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 don't have one, though my mind is freshest in the morning. I write a bit in the morning then poke at it over the course of the day.

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

I read.

13 - Have you have a lucky charm?

A small polished stone I found on Downes Point, Hornby Island.

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?

When I read I want to write. Sometimes I add or subtract from what's before me. Other forms? Yes. All of them. The prose style I used to write The Pornogapher's Poem was based on courtroom transcripts, the way people spoke on the stand when asked to account for what happened, why they did something.

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

My tastes are eclectic. I find as much inspiration in a well-composed piece of ad copy as I do a poem. As for writers, I'm interested in Vancouver's younger writers and enjoy conversing with them -- writers such as Lee Henderson, Aaron Peck, Nikki Reimer...
Seems today there are many more writers coming from Creative Writing programs. This might explain why a lot of what is published is less inclined to mix genres, stretch out, hyphenate. I have no problem with Creative Writing programs, only their curriculae, which tend to be genre-based. The University of Calgary has an impressive Creative Writing program.

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

In writing? I think I would like to develop my computer skills, especially since I'm interested in making my own books.

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 grew up in the fishing industry, and had it not crashed, I probably would have continued working there. The salmon and herring seasons were ideal: four months on, take the rest of the year off. But then in my off-time would probably be writing. I loved my last "real" job, which was working with autistic adults.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Reading made me write.

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

The last great book I read was Herbert Read's The Green Child (1935). The last great film, Gomorra (2008).

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am this year's Ellen and Warren Tallman SFU Writer-In-Residence, which means I'm supposed to be writing my next book, in addition to hosting events. To that end, I am curating an exhibition at the SFU Gallery related to an essay I wrote for this, as well as a film night at the Pacific Cinematheque, where I will show the first film to be both shot and set in Vancouver, called The Sweet and the Bitter (1967). I am also programming an art bar for the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, based on Theo Simm's Candahar installation, where the artist remakes a Northern Irish pub. Much of the Candahar programming will involve writers not reading from their work but showing their research (via power-point), with the hope that they might generate new narratives, some of which could run counter to their finished work, these things we make called books.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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