Monday, May 12, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Greg Bechtel

Greg Bechtel [photo credit: Amanda Allen]’s occasionally prize-winning stories have appeared in several journals and anthologies, including The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, On Spec, Qwerty, and the Tesseracts anthologies of Canadian speculative fiction. Originally from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Greg has lived at various times in Toronto, Deep River, Jamaica, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Fredericton while working (among other things) as a lifeguard, technical writer, mover, visual basic programmer, camp counsellor, semi¬conductor laser labtech, cab driver, tutor, and teacher. Currently, he lives and writes in Edmonton, where he teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Alberta whenever they let him. Boundary Problems is his first book.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
In one sense, it hasn't (yet) changed my life at all. Teaching, working, writing, and all the rest continue as before, more or less undisturbed. But I suppose it changes things the way any publication changes things, in that it makes the next one seem that much more possible. And that can be a pretty significant motivator, to feel like you're not just writing into a void, that there are actual readers who are going to experience the work, engage with it, love it or hate it or whatever. I want someone to read these words, since otherwise I feel like they're only living a sort of half-life. Plus, now when I give readings, I can tell people where to find the rest of the story.

So there's that. A book may open up a lot of doors, depending how it lands with readers and audiences and critics. But that's all such a gamble, it's hard to say that changes anything, exactly. I mean, it raises the stakes… but all of that's still in the future. And in that sense, it feels like an odd cusp, almost a heightened version of sending the book out to publishers in the first place, still waiting to see what happens. And hoping something does.

As to recent versus previous work: what's recent, and what's previous? I mean, I've got this novel I'm working on, so that's my most "recent" work in some senses. But I wrote the first 80 pages of that (which I later threw away to restart from scratch) long before I started writing any of the stories in this collection. Or wait. No, that's not quite true either, since there are probably still few lines in the title story of the collection that were originally part of a poem I wrote for an undergrad workshop in 1995. But that story has never been published before, so in some senses it’s one of the "newest" pieces in the collection. I guess, given the years of writing, rewriting, and so on that have gone into my various projects (including the stories in this book, but others too), I sometimes find it hard to distinguish between "new" and "old." Right now, the whole first-book thing feels pretty new, and that's kind of drowning out everything else in my mind. Ask me again in six months, and I might have a clearer sense of that. Or I might not.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
The simplest answer is that fiction is what I read most voraciously for years. Usually science fiction and fantasy at first (and still, though perhaps a bit more selectively now), which naturally led me towards more experimental writing, surrealism, postmodernism, and so on. I always read for the bang, the strange, the previously unimaginable (by me, at least) articulated into existence. Mind-blowing stories were my thing, the weirder the better. Stories were like magic, whole new worlds out of words. Poetry and modernists and all the more canonically "literary" stuff—the scare quotes here representing how I thought of "literary" writing at the time, a bit dry and vaguely medicinal—came later, when I started studying English in a University setting. And though I got over the scare-quotes, I kind of came to poetry late, so I never quite internalized it in the same way. I mean, sure, I wrote lots of bad poetry in my late teens and early twenties (didn't we all?) but I never really followed up on it enough to hone that particular craft.

I've got at least one friend who keeps telling me I should write poetry, and maybe he's right. Maybe I should give it another shot one of these times. But to be honest, I think I may still be a little intimidated by the idea of poetry. Maybe if I could get over that—by which I mean get over myself—I might eventually be able to write something not half-bad. But I suspect there would still probably be a lot of bad writing left to wade through before I reached that point. (That was the case with fiction, anyway.) Steep learning curve, you know?

As to nonfiction, it never really occurred to me as an option until later. I've written a bit, though. "The Concept of a Photon" was originally published as nonfiction, for example. But I tend to think of creative nonfiction—at least the way I write it—as a very specialized form of fiction. That is, like fiction, it's telling a story, but in this case it's the story of something that "really" happened. Sort of. But even then (at the risk of stating the obvious), no matter how faithful to "reality" one tries to be, nonfictional stories are still always—necessarily, through narrative compression, editing, selection of what to tell and what to omit, and so on—on some levels imaginary as well. These are stories one chooses to tell about a particular set of events. After the fact and edited. Like all memory.

Long story short? I was immersed in fiction (first), so that's what I wrote (first).

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?

In one sense, starting a new project takes no time at all. I sit down and start writing crap—and by crap, I mean whatever comes into my head, no matter how trite or bad or whatever—and away we go. Blather it all onto the page, no editing, as little thinking as possible, often devolving into point form if the prose starts to feel like it's getting sidetracked.

What takes a long time is actually picking something to finish. I've got this huge file of half-written stories and ideas, and I can keep starting things indefinitely. But always, eventually, I have to pick something to finish, and that's when the procrastination kicks in. Because as soon as I pick something to finish, I have to actually force myself to write it through to some sort of ending, no matter how bad that ending may be. Just get it on the page first. Then I print it out, scribble notes all over it, throw it away (metaphorically, that is, since I electronically archive all my drafts) and write the whole thing again from scratch—by which I mean typing it all into a new document, working from my notes and retyping occasional passages from the first draft. In rare cases, there may be a finished piece that has a similar structure and a lot of material from the first draft in it, but yeah, there are generally lots of notes, jottings, scribblings, and straight up rewritings involved in anything that gets "finished."

And there are those scare quotes again. Point being, in my experience, nothing's ever quite "finished" in any final sense. I'm generally able to call things finished at a certain point (usually after they've been published), but even then there are always a few more tweaks and edits that crop up later, when I do readings or whatever. A few of the stories I thought were "finished" before they went into this collection—published, prizewinning stuff, in a few cases—got substantially rewritten for the book.

So yeah. Starting is fast. Finishing takes forever. And even then, it's… provisional.

4 - Where does a 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?
Depends on the story and the project, I guess. Stories can come from anywhere, and usually start there lives as a random note I wrote down when something caught my attention or rose up from memory as something worth writing down. It could be a strange interaction in the world, something I saw or heard, an image, or even a random abstract idea. But there's really no rhyme or reason to it that I've noticed. Whatever I come back to later, or can't seem to let go of in the first place, or happens to be on my mind when I decide to "finish" something from the copious-random-notes file is whatever I work on next. That's with stories, anyway. (Novels may be different. Then again, I'm still not "finished" my first one, so it's hard to say if that's a consistent pattern.)

In the case of Boundary Problems, there was a certain point about half-way through where I realized there was something tying all of these stories together—a certain set of obsessions that kept popping up—and that's when it became a "book" in my mind. (This also happened to coincide with having to propose a book-length manuscript to get into the Banff Writing Studio, so that may or may not have had something to do with the particular moment of coalescence.) But even after that, I tended to trust my internal compass and gut inclinations to keep the rest of the stories in line with that collection of internal themes and feel. Then once I had all the stories, I started playing around with how to weave them into one another as a collection, and that was a lot of fun, noticing the connections, where one story could bleed into another (or already did), how I could punch up those bits of cross-story bleed-through to make it all hold together as a book.

So yeah, with this collection at least, I think I just trusted the connections to happen organically in the writing, and then later I played with the book-ness of it. Were those connections all there before I started playing that book-ness? Hell if I know. But it feels like a book to me now.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am most certainly the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings. They scare the shit out of me almost every time, but I love seeing how the work lands with an actual, live audience. Of course, I like it better when it lands well, but the process itself is useful for testing out new material. That, and I suspect that I do some of my best editing while preparing for a reading of something new. The potential embarrassment of performing a crappy line in front of a live audience can be a great motivator to do some serious polishing for language and rhythm. On occasion, I've even written (or started) a new story specifically tailored to—or at least in response to—an invitation to read something in public. The Smut Story was one of those. I wrote the first draft of Part III for Hermen's Press Conference night, and then Parts II and I grew out of that. That's pretty rare, though.

So yeah, I guess public readings are a part of my creative process. Not always, but sometimes. Definitely not counter to it, in any case.

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?
If by theoretical you mean literary theory, then no, not really. Or at least, I try not to. That stuff creeps in sometimes, but I try to keep it on as subconscious a level as possible when I'm writing fiction. On the other hand, if you mean theoretical concerns in the sense of craft and aesthetics, then sure, absolutely. I have a pretty strong sense of the type of stories I like to read (stories that engage and confuse me, that sort of resonate in the mind and won't let me go, that draw me in, pull me through, and spit me out on the other side feeling like, "Wow, that was one hell of a ride"), and those are the sorts of stories that I want to write. Don't get me wrong. I've got lots of theories about my writing. But those aren't behind the writing so much as invented (or discovered) after the fact.

It might be fair to say I'm not so much trying to answer questions as to ask them. Or maybe to express them? Or simply to raise them in interesting (and hopefully compelling) ways. But I'm not sure there is a nameable collection of "current questions" in any general sense. We've all got our own obsessive lines of questioning, right? And it's up to each of us to follow those.

I just know that I often find the world confusing, strange, and fairly vibrating with untethered, proliferating somethings that remain just beyond reach. The world is strange. And I find that invigorating. So if I can add to that strangeness in a way that makes the world more interesting or magical or questionable or whatever, then that's what I'm aiming for. Not answers, but the sense of an answer lying just beyond reach. I hope my stories don't answer anything. Or rather, if there's a question that I'm trying to answer, it's simply, "How does one tell the kind of story I find most compelling?" And the stories are not so much answers as continuing attempts to, you know, do that.

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?

Well, I'm biased, but in a lot of ways I'd say that right now, in contemporary North America and a lot of other parts of the world as well, the writer kind of is larger culture. Literacy rates are higher than ever, the internet is exploding, and text is ubiquitous. Even movies, TV, ads, and all the rest are generated by a whole bunch of writers, from the most venal and petty to the most profound or insightful, plus everything in between. Of course, that's an oversimplification, and I'm also an English prof—in the colloquial sense, not the tenured one—who's been (literally) indoctrinated to "read" culture as a collection of "texts." To a man with a hammer and all that.

But okay, does the writer have a role in larger culture (as in one role)? No, I don't think so. I think the writer has about a million roles, from entertaining to inventing to manipulating to mocking to commenting to exposing to storytelling to theorizing to… well, to anything language can do. Ideally, I think the role of the writer is simply to write as well as possible. To take care with words, to realize and recognize that they matter (deeply), and that they can be both wondrous and terrible tools for inventing and reinventing the world. And to write accordingly.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Very difficult and incredibly valuable. I don't know if I'd say it's essential, exactly, but it's a tremendous gift to have someone both willing and able to read and give perceptive and careful feedback on the work. It helps me to get outside of the story in my head, to get a sense of what's actually there on the page for a reader, as opposed to what I want to be there. That alone is valuable. And then when an editor—as mine was for this book—is also not afraid to push in new directions, to hammer down on spots that aren't working yet and make articulate suggestions for what could be done to fix that…

I mean, that can be the most difficult part, being pushed in a direction that you know you don't want to go. But I find that valuable too, in that it forces me to articulate—sometimes for the first time on a conscious level—why it is that I don't want to go in a particular direction with a particular piece. And that in turn can reveal new facets of the story, a possible third path, or something I always wanted to be there but somehow never quite got onto the page. For me, writing is often a (deliberately) subconscious process, a matter of following vague intuitions to see what happens. And being forced to articulate (or excavate) some of that for an outside reader—though challenging—can help to find the missing heart of the story, the thing I didn't yet know was needed. Then I put that in, and it gets better.

So yeah, working with an outside editor is hard. But definitely worth it.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do you like what you're doing? (No, not really.) If you could do anything else—anything at all—what you be doing instead? (I would be writing.) Well why not do that, then?

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (literary to speculative fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don't really see literary and speculative fiction (SF for short) as mutually exclusive categories. To suggest, for example, that Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delany, or Candas Jane Dorsey are not "literary" writers just because they happen to write SF seems absurd to me. Likewise, to say that Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, or Cormac McCarthy don't write SF simply because they are "literary" writers seems equally silly. But hey, I'm also an SF scholar (and writer) so it might be fair to say I've got a bit of a chip on my shoulder on that account. Many of us do.

Realism and SF? Sure, those are different. And there is a bit of realism in this collection. But even then, it's still all fiction, so guess I don't see myself as moving between genres in that sense. I just write stories, and they come out the way they come out. It's a funny thing, in the sense that some of my favourite "literary" writers—Eden Robinson springs to mind—have said that when they started out, they were aiming (or expecting) to write popular genre fiction. So I don't really see myself as moving across a definitive literary/popular divide. I just want to incorporate the best of both worlds. I want to write stories that grab readers and pull them through (like popular fiction, the page-turner effect), but which also reward repeated reading (like "literary" fiction). My favourite writers have always felt to me like they do both of those things, and I want to do that too.

But okay, what about critical prose? I'd like to be able to say that it's all just writing, and I do believe that critical prose is just as "creative" as fiction or poetry or anything else. In fiction, I make up a story and tell it as effectively as possible. In critical work, I also make up a story (a hypothesis of some sort), and then try to tell that story as effectively as possible. And in both cases, while I may start out by simply making something up—out of my subconscious, ideas, experiences, reading, or whatever—by the time I'm done, I've usually convinced myself that I'm not just making something up. Rather, in the process of trying to convince my reader—and carefully crafting my critical prose or fiction to do that as effectively as possible—I end up convincing myself. And once that conviction's there, that's pretty much when I know I've got something.

But yeah, there's a difference too. Specifically, critical prose and fiction manifest—for me, at least—in diametrically opposed thought processes. In critical prose, I get to be hyper-logical, to craft careful, linear chains of reasoning, almost like math. And while I may start with a vague intuition, the challenge in critical prose is to excavate my reasoning and make it as crystal clear, linear, and logical as I possibly can. Of course that's not the only way of writing critical prose—Derrida, anyone? Cixous? Irigaray, Deleuze, Kristeva… the list goes on—but that's the way I tend to do it. In fiction, on the other hand, I may start from a similar place (a vague intuition), but the challenge in that case is to avoid that sort of hyper-linear thinking in favour of exploring the details, narrative arc, and characters of a story. In stories, the attention (for me, at least) is on language, rhythm, storytelling, and narrative craft. And in fiction—or at least in mine—didactic lecturing on Big Abstract Ideas is strictly verboten unless it's in the service of the story.

It's kind of like exercising different muscles. If I work on just one thing all the time, I find it easy to get burnt out. But when I switch back and forth, I'm constantly re-energized, taking a break from one thing by tackling the other. I guess I've always been like that. Back when I was double-majoring in Physics and English, I absolutely loved that switch. There was something luxurious about being able to say, "I can't do that calculus right now, because I have to read this novel." Or alternatively—and this may seem strange—to be able to say, "Screw it, this essay isn't working. I'm going to do some calculus." So for me, that's the appeal of switching back and forth. Each one feels like a break from the other, and I enjoy them both (for a while), but eventually, I always need to switch, to rest one set of mental muscles while still getting to use the other.

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?
When I'm in a writing phase—which I'm not always—I tend to have a pretty standard routine. Basically, I'll spend an hour or two waking up, then jump into the writing for an hour or two. Typically, morning is when I write new material. Then when I run out of steam, I'll pack up and head to a café. Then I work there for another couple of hours, or as long as it takes before I run out of steam again. And repeat one more time, new venue. As to the work itself, I've got a fairly elaborate system, rotating between writing new material, annotating first drafts, writing second drafts from scratch in new documents (while also consulting annotated first drafts), annotating and editing second and subsequent drafts, and so on. Then typically, I'll cap off the day with a workout or social time or whatever sort of relaxation strikes my fancy in the evening.

Thing is, it's pretty rare that I get to live that routine, which generally depends on getting a writing grant to really churn the stuff out full time (or having somehow saved up enough cash to take a term off under my own steam). More typically, I make my money as a contract instructor at the University of Alberta, and each term has a new teaching schedule that I have to work around. In those cases, I carve out regular, scheduled chunks of time for writing, and that's when I do it. The process is about the same as I've described above… just a lot slower, because what would be one day of work during a full-time writing routine might be more like a week's worth when I'm teaching. So it's always a bit of a juggling act. Though teaching can also be a great way to get that mental switch I was talking about above, so that can work well when I get the balance right.

But yeah, I'm a routine-writer. If I didn't come up with a routine of some sort and stick to it, I suspect I might never write at all. Or at least, I'd never finish anything.

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

I'm pretty dogged that way, in the sense that when the writing gets stalled, I usually just push through it. So if it's a writing day, and I'm feeling stuck on a first draft, I'll just keep going. And the writing at that point is slow and painful and anything but fun. But there's this funny thing I've noticed. When I go back and look at the crap I wrote—and at the time, on those days, I'm giving myself permission to write total, utter crap if necessary, so long as there are still words going onto the page—I often find that the "crap" I wrote isn't nearly so bad as I thought. While by contrast, the first-draft material written in a blaze of white heat, which is effortless and painless to produce in the moment, is often some of the very worst material when I go back to look at it later.

So that's the usual strategy. Just keep writing. Other strategies? Sometimes I'll switch to point form and just throw ideas at the page until one of them takes off. Other times, I'll go back to my idea file and see if anything there catches my attention. The important part, I find, is to keep putting things into that idea file. So I always carry around a pen and a piece of paper to jot down anything that comes up. Then I'll transfer those jottings to the idea file at the end of the day. And the more regularly I do that, the more ideas I have. And the process continues.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of a deciduous forest in summer. That mix of living greenery (probably chlorophyll, I'm guessing) with the musty, slow decay of underbrush and built up humus on the forest floor. Along with the occasional breath of sun-heated leaves—which is different than just leaves—drifting down from the canopy above.

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?
Since you mention it, sure, science plays a role, and I've got a bit of a thing about physics. Partly, that's the SF thing, but it's also just something that's always fascinated me. There's something compelling about it, and quantum in particular has always struck me as wonderful extrusion of the strange into the everyday. It feels symptomatic of the way that—even at the very most basic levels of physical reality—if you look at anything closely enough it becomes both very strange and utterly surreal. And I do like to play with that in some of my stories.

Similarly, though in a different vein, I guess film can be an influence too. Or it might be more accurate to say that I feel an aesthetic kinship with certain directors, like David Lynch or Tarsem Singh. I watch their movies, and I think, "Yeah, that's it. That's the effect I'm aiming for." They're both great storytellers who also portray strange worlds fairly vibrating with… something. Something more that I can't quite put my finger on. But it's there.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
A full answer to this could go on forever, as it seems like every time I reread a book or a story, I rediscover another influence I see reflected in my own work. So the list changes from day to day. Today, since I've been teaching them recently, I would say Borges "The Garden of Forking Paths" is feeling pretty substantial, as are Eric McCormack's Inspecting the Vaults and much of Barbara Gowdy's early work. Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine is a huge influence, as are several of Sean Stewart's books—which is an interesting coincidence, given the Edmonton connection. Who else? Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, Samuel R. Delaney's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. All of these writers are important to my work (and life) in the sense any time I find a writer doing brilliant, sophisticated work that incorporates both "popular" and "literary" elements, it feels like another piece of ammunition to say, Yes, that is possible. Or to put it differently, these are just a few of the sophisticated SF writers who have kept me coming back for more.

In a broader sense, every time I stumble across a new (to me) writer who draws me in and pulls me through to yet another new world (whether "realistic" or SF or whatever), I feel like the "real" world becomes just a little better. There is so much bad writing and general nastiness out there, it makes me happy to know there's always more great writing too, just waiting for me to find it.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish and publish my first novel? Just kidding. (But not really.)

I don't know. Skydiving? Climb a mountain? Spend a month in a place—preferably somewhere warm—where I would never hear a single mechanized sound for that whole time. Learn Spanish by spending at least a year living in a country where I would have no choice but to speak the language on a daily basis. Write (and publish) something really short.

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?
Ha! I'm still attempting this one! I don't know if I've exactly turned it—writing, I mean—into an "occupation" just yet. (I still need a day job to pay the rent, after all.) But okay, I'll play. The second iteration of the question is easier, so I'll go with that.

If I hadn't gone in this direction, I probably would have stayed in physics and gone on to grad school for that. Or maybe I would have just worked for Nortel after graduating until they folded. But who am I kidding? The lab stuff was never my thing, and I was never particularly good at it. So yeah, it would have probably eventually been grad school for the weirdest, most bizarre, surreal, and obscure branch of physics I could find. Quantum computing, maybe. Now that would be cool.

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

Remember that advice from question #9? I took it.

Also, I discovered (belatedly) that if I really wanted to study theoretical physics, I should have probably started with a degree in applied math. Oops.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I'm so glad you said last and not best. I'm no good at picking bests.

The last great book I finished (re)reading was Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine. Now that it's back in print—which makes me pretty damn happy—I'm teaching it to my Histories of Speculative Fiction class. (I'm also rereading China Miéville's Embassytown, also to teach it. Also great.) And the last great film? Hm. I consume a lot of bad movies, and the great ones only pop up occasionally, so I'm trying to remember what the last one would have been… I want to say Rust and Bone? But I feel like there was another since then… Oh wait, that's right. I also saw The Lesser Blessed. Also based on a great book.

20 - What are you currently working on?
The novel I mentioned above. It's kind of a literary/fantasy blend—or at least that's how I describe it to those prone to thinking of fantasy as by default not-literary—set in Kitchener-Waterloo in 1999. It's lighter on the physics than this one (though it does have a lengthy scene involving tesseracts), heavier on the queer, cross-cultural, and historical elements. Also, lots of tricksters. It still needs a fair bit of revision, but I'm not in a writing phase right now (too busy with teaching and job applications at the moment). I'm planning on diving back into it this summer, see if I can wrap it up, start shopping it around.

[Greg Bechtel reads in Ottawa with Tom Cho at Venus Envy Bookstore on May 15]

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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