The Puritan and the Toronto-based micro-press Ferno House. His own stories, articles and poems have been published in numerous periodicals and anthologies, and Coach House Books recently published his Cosmo (2012), a collection of short stories.
He blogs at dangerousliterature.blogspot.com and teaches writing at Humber College.
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 am now working harder than ever just to keep on top of things. That’s how Cosmo has most obviously ‘changed’ my life. As I’m completing this interview, I’m halfway through the book tour and teaching five classes at two separate schools. I’m also busy with other publishing projects, so to say I’m ‘busy’ might be an understatement.
Like most first-time authors, I feel that having the collection gives me more confidence to pursue other projects, especially as my next ‘book’ will no doubt involve years of work, multiple drafts, and other critical gambles. I feel like I can be more audacious, more ambitious. Simply being published by Coach House Books has done wonders for my self-esteem: they were my first and only choice for publisher, and I gambled huge on sending Cosmo to them exclusively. My rock ’n’ roll pact with Satan obviously paid off!
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I think I came to fiction first as a child, but as an adult, poetry and fiction have always been entangled. The first impulse to write came from the electric thrill of believable, fully rendered characters thrust into exciting, edge-of-your-seat narratives. I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction and historical thrillers. This changed when my boyish innocence turned to teen angst and sorrow and I began to write poems. I wrote poetry like an emo-boy possessed until about nineteen, when it all fell off again and I lost my touch. I turned to writing long-winded novellas and aborted novels that I assumed would somehow stand as mirrors to my empty millennial malaise. I had to climb back into fiction; I’d spent my undergraduate years largely wasting my time with nonsense ventures that didn’t amount to anything but time capsules, nostalgic snapshots; they were excuses more than practices, more than real training, so I could feel that my loneliness and romanticism were justified. Things began to click together once I turned my attentions back to short stories, but even then, it was hard. I got more removed from what was happening. Divorced the personality, stripped the ego. I’ve only recently (say, in the last four years) returned to writing poems. I feel no rush with regard to poetry and let them shuffle out when they want. I am more ambitious with my fiction and feel that this is more of a vocation.
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?
There is always an initial burst, which I allow to squirm and riff and overflow. You’ve gotta allow yourself the space to err and embarrass. But then things need to clamp down or you’ll be the most gregarious creep at the party. You don’t want people to think you’re on drugs. First drafts must change, and (more importantly) must be open to the idea of change, if you want to meet your goals. For Cosmo, because so many of the pieces are based on ‘real-life’ people, I was forced to keep notes. I don’t know if they were copious, but they kept me riveted to chronology and fact. As for plot notes, no. I don’t write in notebooks or chart out narrative events. I just think a great deal while doing other tasks (mind always on the plot, so to speak) and give everything time, time, time.
4 - Where does a poem or story 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?
Cosmo was never a book until, suddenly, it was. I was working on stories in a piecemeal, gradual, non-urgent manner, allowing them to transform and evolve (or die). Then I completed my creative writing MA and had some time to focus, to think about a larger body of work, but it was never a “book,” so to speak. That’s how I work on poems, too (and a poem for me begins in one of two ways: the first in some delight in chance and sound … maybe a pop-up ad or a commercial or a tweet, or maybe another poem … and the second is rage and disgust with poetry, its institutions and practices and knights). Nothing is specifically designed for publication or collection or print until, well, it clicks. Once there is enough, there’s enough. I realize this isn’t the only way to write a book, but that’s how the majority of Cosmo came together.
The project I’m working on now is what I’m calling a meta-memoir (see below). You could also call it a novel. So it has to be conceived of as a book from the very get-go or it will fall apart, like my clothing and dreams.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am haunted by William Gaddis’s assertion that one reads aloud only to children. I have spent countless hours daydreaming (daymaring?) through a multitude of writers’ live readings: fidgeting in discomfort, squirming in fear, drinking too much liquor, bumming cigarettes and bitching. And that’s because most writers just suck at reading IRL IMO. But then again, I realize that writers also want to be famous and loved, just like Carly Rae Jepsen (who is twenty-six) and Justin Trudeau (who is sixty-two). So we all have a turn at the mic. The ‘sort’ of writers who ‘don’t’ enjoy readings simply don’t read; if you see them reading at some god-awful live event they are being sell-out shits. Oh, you don’t like readings? And you’re lowering yourself to the level of the average desperate-to-be-loved writer to blow our little minds with your line breaks? Aren’t you sooooooo awesome!
I enjoy readings only when I feel in control, and when I can read something that will make people actually listen. I like to tell jokes, too. Sometimes readings make me feel like my work has an audience (which can be so lovely) and inspire me to write more. Sometimes it’s just a chance to kick it with the lit pricks.
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?
Let’s have a beer and talk about this one.
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?
I asked my Introduction to Creative Writing class at the Ontario College of Art and Design if they could name five living Canadian poets. They could not, obviously. So I asked them if they could name five living American poets. They could not. So I asked them if they could name five living poets. Nope. And these are (mostly; not all) eager, curious, and creative students who read. The poet has no role in larger culture today. I can imagine no sadder role than a poet who can’t accept this.
Fiction is a different kettle of sharks. People still read novels. They even read some short story collections. But we are, increasingly, in the business of consuming dead things. Don DeLillo said that novelists (and all writers, I suppose) are “the ghouls of literature.” I feel this keenly. It is painful to accept. But once you do, you can go on ghouling in your own little graveyard, smacking your lips on the unearthed carrion and not giving a shit about who is—or who isn’t—watching.
If I let myself think of the books that do captivate the larger culture, I would plummet into depression and jealousy and confusion. So I work at what I enjoy and happily eat the dead.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Nothing is essential in writing. Working with an editor you trust is very helpful if you want to transform your work in new and exciting ways. Any revision is difficult if you are attached to the original product. I worked with so many people on Cosmo and I thanked most of the prime time players heartily in the book. Alana Wilcox was my official editor and she worked some damn-fine magic.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One was “poems are dumb; have fun,” which was said to Mat Laporte and me by Ray McLaghlan, Jr., an Etobicoke writer, in 2011. Another was “don’t stop writing,” given to me by my high school English teacher. These aren’t fantastic words of wisdom but they’ve seen me through some stupid shit. Donald Barthelme’s dictum of “break their hearts” ranks up there as some top-notch stuff. “Excedrin is really good for hangover headaches,” from Michaëlle Jean, who also informed me that 85 percent of headaches, in general, are caused by dehydration: a pearl of wisdom that has changed my life.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Nothing is easy for me, save for (and I’m really stretching it here) bodily functions, boredom, staring at screens, lust, cruelly laughing at my enemies’ misfortunes, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Art offers a million searing coals to traverse (to ordeal, literally). The appeal, if one can call it that, of moving between fiction and poetry, is in relishing what the opposite genre lacks. It’s like having two lovers—one weird and gelatinous, the other rigid and spine-like—to hop between; you always want what you don’t have. But who said there were two distinct genres, anyway?
For fiction, I put on my very serious brain and think extremely hard. I want to touch on big and vital issues and coax emotion from my characters. I am a sincere, honest-to-Glen realist. For poetry, I let myself dissolve back down into the muck of my buried worm-brain and retrieve the various albino nodes of my headspace, letting them burst, wetly, in the mauve sunlight. I also like to play and be flippant. I do not want to wear plate mail in this country. I want to run free and be happy. I am imagining the Conservative Majority and the grumpiest dudes in the universe. We have our power structures, and if we criticize them, we face erasure. So my poetry is doomed.
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?
In fear and trembling; a sense that the world was put there, so to speak; a vague and general sense of horror at patterns, associations, immutable laws. Why is there something and not nothing? Once these feelings dissipate—faintly—I get on with the business of my day. This ‘business’ means playing catch up with correspondence and prepping for my classes (I ‘teach’ [read: gesticulate, prance] at OCAD University and Humber College). I could spend all day marking and lecturing, preparing notes and slinging student emails. But I carve out wedges of time to attend to other matters, like picking at myself and editing other people’s work and sometimes sighing, in huge and heaving and melancholy interpretations of my ennui. Then it’s back to YouTube and watching my email inbox fill up with condolences. Occasionally, my partner Stephanie gives me a withering look of contempt.
Then, rob, I sometimes write. I do not have a writing routine. I abhor routine, as my life is already filled with mechanical routines. Writing releases me, provides a blank and glorious rift in schedule and shame. If I scheduled writing and stuck to some demanding ledger, it would feel like forced, dry, and unwanted intercourse, and I already receive enough of that.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
You just have to wait, to linger in the quotidian. You have to become bored. There is really no point in working at something that does not sustain your interest and excitement. If you are stalled in writing, walk away. Inspiration will find you another day, perhaps when you’ve eaten properly or you’re not so bogged down by the doldrums of rejection and menial labour. God—just write something else. Watch YouTube. Catch up on that soap opera you like. Make a living, for god’s sake. In the intervening time, and when you get a chance, think long and hard about what you are doing, and why. If the interest and excitement do not return, forget about it; any readers you might have will thank you (especially if you read before a live audience).
I like to forget about my writing completely from time to time. All claims that writing is about daily labour and constant suffering is weird protestant work-ethic stuff, and I’m not buying it! Sure—one must write and read a whole lot to get good at it. But people sometimes forget the most important thing: writing is pleasure. It’s about magical worlds and insane fantasies. It’s where you get to indulge the delusions of the heart and hold people enthralled in worlds of your own dastardly creation. Isn’t that beautiful? And given the fact that most writers must work at some other gig just to make rent and sew up their hideous shoes, that beautiful thing that you love to do gets knocked down your list of urgent, worldly priorities. So why are you making it so hard?
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I usually sniff people’s garages and sheds. This is my lacklustre search for a certain smell that conjures my late grandfather’s old carport: a mix of gasoline, wood, leaves, paper, lawn clippings, and (perhaps) illegal immigrants. I can never find the right mixture, but the search keeps me thinking about the past, in all its fire and passion. Oh, and wax, as many of my ‘boy boxes’ are covered in spilled wax. Oh, yes, and some paints. Superglue. Toxic things.
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?
Dude, I like, look out the window, and, uh, like, look at nature. Rad.
Everything is an influence. Books come from books come from movies come from rap albums come from theme parks come from parking lots come from classrooms come from the interwebs come from drugs come from mortality come from your sister, wiggling. Everything is an influence.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
While writing Cosmo I was dimly aware of a number of writers and writings that were haunting me. I owe anything of merit in the book to the following authors, and I’ll stick to fiction to keep things short. Denis Johnson, Lynn Crosbie, David Foster Wallace, Roberto Bolano, Douglas Glover, RiFF RaFF (aka Jody Highroller), Bret Easton Ellis, Don DeLillo, George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, Martin Amis, Alice Munro, Nathaniel G. Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Tony Burgess, William T. Vollmann, Jim Wenderoth, Jonathan Franzen, Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme, Joan Didion, Vince McMahon, Mark Leyner. Shout outs to my teachers Jeff Parker and Trevor Cole.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
How can I answer this question without talking to you all day? I got hoop dreams, rob, and I got ’em bad.
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 pursued a world of physicality, I would become a professional wrestler. If I pursued a world of ethics, I would become a politician. If I pursued a world of spirituality, I would be working for a charity. But what did I do? I pursued a world of half-hearted academia and part-time literature, and so I am a half-hearted teacher and sometimes writer.
Why? Because I am a pussy.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
But I do other things! I do other things! I also don’t have the financial luxury to be a writer first and not do something else (somethings: legion, merciless).
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just watched The Comedy last night, directed by Rick Alverson and starring Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! fame (also starring the legendary comic Neil Hamburger and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem). I don’t know if it was ‘great,’ but it was pretty damn good. I don’t watch a lot of ‘great’ movies; I’d rather watch trash or horror.
The last great book I read was 2666 by Roberto Bolano. If there is a greater book produced in the next decade I will be immensely surprised.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am ‘working on’ (i.e., poking, cursing at, sweating and weeping over) a sort of memoir, tracing a year of my life (June 2011–June 2012) wherein I was the subject of much media speculation and tabloid controversy for my (unwanted and unintended) involvement with numerous Canadian celebrities, including Avril Lavigne*, Drake, Celine Dion, Ryan Gosling, Sid ‘The Kid’ Crosby, Alanis Morissette, and many others. It was, to put it mildly, a very tumultuous year, and it has been extremely difficult transcribing these events into readable prose as they were so intoxicating and damaging to my psyche as a morose, pessimistic person with grand delusions of conspiracy and resolutely middle-class, bourgeois ambitions to ‘be’ an ‘artist.’ It is called Leave Me Alone, both as homage to the Michael Jackson single of the same name and to what I invariably found myself muttering under my breath during the entirety of that strange and wretched year. I can assure you that everything in Leave Me Alone is real, exactly how it happened, and that it features a cast of real people: my friends, my family, members of the literary community—maybe even you, rob! It is my Confessions of a Pretty Lady, my Old Custer, my A Million Little Pieces … and it will be my greatest work.
*Note that I wish Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger (known by some cultural elitists as “Chavril”) a happy and loving marriage, and I in no way intend for this memoir to besmirch or discredit their nuptial promises or real affection for one another. That the Avril portrayed within the memoir was a pre-Kroeger version, and, in fact, still romantically entangled with MTV’s Brody Jenner, to whom I also express nothing but good will, salutations, and a hearty thumbs up
[Spencer Gordon participates in the ottawa small press book fair on Saturday, November 17, and reads on Sunday, November 18 with Mark Goldstein at The Dusty Owl Reading Series]
12 or 20 (second series) questions;