author biography ; extended biography ; author page

Saturday, February 02, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jason Dickson

Jason Dickson is an antiquarian bookseller and writer who lives and works in London, Ontario. He is the author of three titles, Clearance, The Hunt, and Glenn Piano by Gladys Priddis, all published by Bookthug. His work has appeared in Geist, Quill and Quire, Rue Morgue, Fine Books & Collections, Kotaku, Open Letter, and Broken Pencil.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It changed things internally. It was very important just to think, “I’ve published a book.” Before that happened, of course, I thought all sorts of things were going to change that didn’t. So it was subtle, confidence-wise, but it had lasting and far-reaching consequences, I am very happy to say.

My latest book, Glenn Piano by Gladys Priddis, is much smaller and more focused than the previous, The Hunt. With The Hunt, I wanted to blast out into all directions. It was raw and bare. In contrast, I wanted Glenn Piano to be tiny and precious. Its miniature size is part of its story too. Its scope is meant to represent and incriminate the narrator. The Hunt means to describe and create, to build something, to bleed.

I want each book to seem very different from the others. I’d like it, actually, if each book had its own shape and spirit, even weight, not just be another product from a writer. I’d like it best if I wasn’t in the picture at all. Obviously that is impossible. But I do try very hard to have each one feel like its own thing, both as a story and as a book object.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Well, honestly, it was the hip thing to do. Friends of mine in high school and I would smoke, drink, and write. I loved it. I loved drugs, so that helped. However, before that I always wrote. Horror stories, mostly. Stephen King stuff. I always wanted to be a writer. And even when I wanted to be a filmmaker, or rock star, or whatever, I was writing all sorts of stories, mostly for myself, but always with the hope that I’d have an audience to write for.

Also, I’m blind in one eye, grew up in rural Ontario, and am brainy. My language could not describe my experience, and I needed it described. Poetry helped me do that. I was sick a lot as a kid and that messes with you. Add to that a need to draw comics, create things – I don’t know, it has always felt like I’m just one word ahead of a cryptic interior. So I built the road as I ran, verbally. For me it has been about survival, making sense of things. Because the sense offered by others never worked.

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?
It starts very, very slowly. Glenn Piano started as a group of old men meeting at an historical society, like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, where one of them is a sinister doctor who operates illegally on his patients. So I enjoyed that conceit. I wrote stories for all of the characters. But Piano was the most interesting. So I introduced Gladys. And she fell in love with him, not meaning to. And then it started. But that whole part took a year, at least. The Hunt began with a ghost adopting two orphans and telling them the story of his life.

I really enjoy this part of the process, because I begin as the audience. I just let my brain tell me stories. And I don’t care whether they’re good or bad, it is just nice to listen. Then I get interested, and dissatisfied, and start to ask questions and pick away. Soon it takes a shape, and I have desires to make it this or that, but mostly approach it as a reader. Soon I sense the book I want to write. And then I begin teasing out all of the pieces that aren’t there, sort of exploring the house a bit, renovating. And that’s the leg work, the foundation, of the final product.

4 - Where does a poem or prose 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?
Like I said, I like working on all of the background stuff. I don’t see it as a manuscript at that point. Much of my time writing is spent doing this ephemeral stuff. I write it out of interest, fascination and devotion to an idea and world that, ultimately, I will try to shape into a work of art. That world building is very special to me. However, I don’t hold back. I let it rip. And I indulge this part of the process for all its glory. But when I get started on the real work, the manuscript, I am devoted and obsessed. Then I pretty much don’t stop until it is down.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I really like doing readings. I get all bent out of shape and nervous – Jay Millar at Bookthug says I’m a prima donna - but when I get up there a feeling comes over me that I don't find anywhere else. So I protect it and feel it as I can. I like being there.

Unfortunately readings are also a major way to find out that what I think is good is not good at all. And so that’s embarrassing. I’ve been up there reading and thinking to myself, “Ugh, this is really crap.” People are nice afterwards, so that helps. And ultimately it helps the work get better. But that part doesn’t feel very good at all. I don’t avoid it though.

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?
Not really. Nothing I would dare articulate at this point.

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 can’t speak for anyone else, but I personally feel dedicated to literacy and the capacity of words to clarify or confuse. I agree very much with George Orwell’sPolitics and the English Language.” I don’t think that all thought is verbal but I do think that much vital thought is verbal. There are things that only words can do. Just trying to write a challenging work and reading adventurously advances the mind and frankly makes things better. It is that simple for me. There are all sorts of problems with this assumption, I know, but essentially language needs to be used or it will die. So I use it, often. Every day.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. With Glenn Piano I hired an editor to tear it to pieces, which she did. I love it. I love the violence. I get this corpse handed back to me and like a mad scientist I have to stitch it all together. They you get a zombie manuscript, which is always so much better than what was there before.

When Jay Millar edited my chapbook Clearance, he massacred it. It was amazing. He sent it back basically with every third word stroked out. I took every edit, all of them, and had this weird manuscript – a mystery really – left over. The next draft was basically figuring out what it meant. I started writing all sorts of amazing bridge material and the book came to life.

I owe him everything for that.

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

No one cares.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
In Glenn Piano, it was good to be able to cram that poetry section in the centre. It gave the book a cryptic heart. A dark beating heart. I really liked that. And I also like how each section – the prose vs. the poetry – represents its world-view, and collaborates to impeach the main characters. Just having those two styles rub up against each other increased the interest for me.

I think the divisions between prose styles are driven more by market forces, to be honest. Which is fine. Whatever. But my sense is that the future of literature will rely partly on a writer’s ability to jump from one to the other, just as painting in the early 20th Century had all sorts of artists doing everything. We’re at an interesting point in the printed word, and my guess is that writers of books will have to strut their stuff a little more aggressively.

Working at a bookstore has really stamped this into me, especially an antiquarian bookstore. When you work in a market like that, and are faced with finding the saleability of a 400-year-old work, you really begin to ask what it is about a book that gives it life that many centuries later. Why do people still care? And as a writer I look to that whole history – all genres, all styles – to give myself any chance to make something good. The whole of printed literature is there to use.

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 make my living as a bookseller, so my writing is supplemental. Most days I’m at the shop. But always, I am thinking and adding. Like I said, it all helps. This way, much of the structure and tone of the first draft is written in my head before I begin. But I write nearly every day. I write something – articles, sketches. I write a lot of auxiliary material. All of Gladys’ quotes, for example, were taken from her own manuscript, which I wrote over a period of time and used as a “primary source.”

My typical day begins with breakfast cereal.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I let myself suck. Actually, that part of it I like a lot. My first drafts are always so terrible. I spare no expense. There’s everything in the world in them. My current manuscript has a UFO, for example. That’ll go. My first drafts are all about enjoying it. So they’re stupid. And I find that liberating. My block is only as big as my sense of sacredness and infallibility. So when I smash that, and let the blood and bile flow, it always gets me started again.

These crap pieces are very exciting. Or course only about 10% of them ever get used in the final work, so there’s tonnes left over for future projects. The Hunt, for example, has scads of scenes and places and weird ideas that didn’t make it in. I’d love to write another book from that world. There are some amazing things – especially in Northern Ontario and the Rocky Mountains – that never made it into the final piece. There’s a cave and green water and a magician and monsters with red eyes.

I’m laughing as I write this.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The Bruce Peninsula – the stones and water of Georgian Bay.

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?
Christ, all sorts of things. Television, video games. I’m really interested lately in the influence video games have had on me. I want my books to be as interesting as video games are to me. I want them to be less “manuscripty”. I don’t like that anymore. I don’t think any of my books have really been like that, hopefully.

I don’t want it to seem like I wrote my books at a desk, or on a road trip, or something like that. I want them to seem like fully realized media. A world. Or a document from a world. This is straight from my video game playing and obsessive movie watching. Literacy means a lot to me. So does sequence. But honestly a book can be so much more than just a place to dump a series of words.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Non-fiction is important. I get more inspired reading a history of the Great Lakes then a work of fiction set on the Great Lakes. Primary sources, diaries, local histories, biographies…books that describe things for the first time, like The Natural History of Selborne, really interest me. I like it when language works at its edges, has to make a shape out of the undescribed. Often this happens outside of fiction, and it is an inspiring place to be.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I don’t even know if I could do what I want…but I feel that I could still work towards something really cool – that is a book that completely utilizes all of its bookness to a story or poem’s end – footnotes, paper choice, typography, binding, marginalia, weight, etc. Each part would facilitate the work, and explore the power of the book as an object. When photography replaced painting as the central interpreter of the visual world, painting exploded. After that came Impressionism, Dada and so on. I think this can happen to books.

I want to publish stories that use every part of the beast, so to speak. Whether I can do it remains to be seen. But I’m trying.

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?
Parapsychologist or charlatan, easily.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Again, as I am blind in one eye, and the three dimensional world is an irritating, cryptic mystery, I was drawn to flat things. Flat information. Books, drawings, video games. Girls were an exception. But since simply navigating a room is always a work in progress, I feel most comfortable seeing a confined object working its magic through my monocular head. I didn’t have much hope, really. But I take the limitation as a call to arms, to blow its edges up and see where the pieces fly. So far, they’ve flown into some very interesting directions.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Moominpoppa at Sea. Seriously. It is amazing. And the movie would be Cabin in the Woods. That part at the end when all of the monsters blast out of the elevators…I’m getting excited just thinking about it. That scene made the eight-year-old in me very happy.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Something awesome.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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