JOEL YANOFSKY is the author of the essay collection Homo Erectus ... And Other Popular Tales of True Romance, the novel Jacob's Ladder, and the memoir Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, Chatelaine, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, the National Post, and The Walrus. He is a regular book reviewer for The Montreal Gazette, where he also writes a business column. His most recent book is the non-fiction title, Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
A: My first book, a collection of humourous essays called Homo Erectus and Other Popular Tales of Romance, did not change my life except to serve notice that writing a book wasn’t going to change my life. Too bad about that. My books have tended to be in different genres – the first essays, the second a novel (Jacob’s Ladder), the third a biography/memoir and the latest a straight memoir (Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism). But what they have in common, I suppose, is that all of them are personal and all of them seem to come back to the same theme about an unrealistic desire to maintain the status quo, a time before things changed, became more complicated, more filled with sorrow and regret.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
A: I suppose I did come to fiction first. I suppose it was from studying all those novels as a student and then reviewing them as a critic. But while I still enjoy writing fiction when I can, I’ve come to prefer the intimacy and immediacy of memoir. Memoirs also seem to be more marketable these days, which is, alas, a consideration.
3 - 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?
A: It usually takes me a long time. The process is invariably slow, probably because my first drafts tend to be worked at over and over again so they really aren’t first drafts. So yes first drafts are close to final shape, but it all depends on how you define your terms.
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?
A: Well since my new book, Bad Animals, is non-fiction, I'll speak about the process for it. I did want to write a book from the beginning but I didn't know how to tackle the whole thing so it was important to break it down. I compare it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You work on one section -- the border, the sky -- all at once and then see how they fit together with the other sections of the puzzle. In the case of Bad Animals, I started by writing very short pieces and getting the tone right and then extending it from there.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
A: I don't see how they could be counter to the process since I generally do them once the creative work is over. Then again if people asked me to read and paid me I would do them more often. And, yes, I enjoy reading except no one wants you to read any more they just want you to chat about your book. I like to do a little of both and I like having the spotlight on me after a long time hidden away in the basement working. I am an occasional ham.
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?
A: Theory is generally death to any creative work. I've seen that in universities where academics have tried to prove that their analysis of a work of art is as important as a work of art. This is nonsense. And it's also destructive because it has undermined a whole generation of readers who have been taught that books aren't meant to entertain them but confuse them. I have no idea what the current questions are and I could care less. The only question I try to answer when I write is can I make this interesting and entertaining, can I make other people care about what I care about? Can I make them laugh and cry and preferably both at the same time?
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?
A: The role of the writer is diminishing for a simple reason; people read less. At least they read serious fiction and nonfiction -- and needless to say, poetry -- less. Part of the onus for this is on the writer. He or she has to work harder to be accessible without dumbing down his or her work.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A: I don't find it difficult. I don't know if it's essential but in my experience it has always been valuable. And my editors on all my books have helped make the books better, more organized, tighter etc.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A: A colleague read an early chapter of Bad Animals a couple of years ago and liked it a lot, going to some length to say why and then he said, "Now, just don't fuck it up!" which was good advice. I also like the E.L. Doctorow quote about writing a book is like driving a car at night. You can't see much further than your headlights but if you stay focused you can make the whole trip that way. That's a paraphrase, by the way.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to critical/journalistic prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
A: This has never been an issue. I believe there are only two kinds of writing: good and bad and that applies across the board. I don't make much distinction between the reviews I write and the books I write at least in terms of the effort I put into the writing.
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?
A: I try to write every day for a few hours. That is an ideal, however. it doesn't always work out. I work in the morning and then an hour or two in the afternoon on a good day.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
A: I've found it's useful to just switch to writing something else. Perhaps something very different. Something shorter. Fiction if you're writing nonfiction or visa versa.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
A: I have no idea.
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?
A: My books do tend to come from other books, that's true. But TV and movies have been great influences, often in ways I don't always recognize.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
A: The writers whose work has meant the most to me include Philip Roth, John Updike, Carol Shields, Peter de Vries, Stanley Elkin, Richard Ford, Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, Phillip Lopate, Geoffrey Dyer.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
A: If you mean as a writer, I can't think of anything. A second novel feels like something new so I'd like to try that.
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?
A: No idea. I became a writer because I didn't want to do anything else. Maybe, shrink or mime.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A: As I said, it's all I really ever wanted to do. I think it helped that it was something I was good at when I wasn't very good at anything else, at least in school. I remember I won some minor prize in grade six for a composition I wrote about brotherhood and that made me think I could do something different than my friends and classmates, which is what I wanted.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
A: The last great book I read was probably Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin. I also loved Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage and Paul Collins' book about his autistic son, Not Even Wrong.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A: Not sure yet. I have a writing job job, which may turn out to be more interesting than it first appeared.
Joel Yanofsky reads at the ottawa international writers festival on Saturday, April 30, 2011;
12 or 20 (second series) questions;