nathan dueck is the author of king’s(mère) (Turnstone Press, 2004) and he’ll (Pedlar Press, 2014). His book of prose fragments, he’ll, replaces the hyphen in Mennonite-Canadian with an apostrophe. He lives in Calgary, but Winkler, Manitoba is home.
I’m interested & invested in the variety of writing processes, so I enjoy reading interviews with writers. I usually identify with writers who acknowledge how “writing” is a strain, but show how the feeling of “having written” relieves that tension. Those kinds of responses sound honest to me. Alternately, writers who reply with confidence raise my hackles of suspicion – or jealousy.
Given those assumptions, I fear responding to “12 or 20 questions” in all honesty. I feel obliged to wryly comment on my own answers – or, I feel obligated to quote the answers of a suspiciously confident writer.
That’s why I decided to cite The Paris Review interview with Günter Grass from Summer 1991 < http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2191/the-art-of-fiction-no-124-gunter-grass >.
Frankly, I feel as though Grass owes me. In his 1968 novel, Dog Years, he characterizes the dialect spoken by Mennonites as “coarse,” “rough,” or, depending on the translation, “vulgar.” In her 2004 novel A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews takes exception to that portrayal by calling Grass a crass name. Like Toews, I’m a Mennonite; unlike Toews, I can’t quite reconcile myself to Grass’s dismissal. I’m proud of incorporating Plaut’dietsch – the Mennonite mother tongue – into my upcoming book of poetry, he’ll.
With the following interview, I engage Grass in an imaginary dialogue. We both answer the questionnaire to indicate the variety of our writing processes. This way, I alternate between baring my honest belly hair & my ironic canines.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
nath&ueck: I stopped writing poetry after publishing my first book, king’s(mère). I was intimidated & overwhelmed by reading for my Ph.D. course work – compared to the writers I was studying, my poetry just seemed naïve to me. A few years later, while I was working on my dissertation, I wanted to try my hand at a few of the ideas I was reading about. During my tryout, I desperately tried to remember the bravery of naivety – but without the cowardice of intimation. Also, I took the opportunity to research my Mennonite heritage & the Plaut’dietsch inheritance. As a result, my second book feels different from my first, while feeling similarly self-conscious.
Günter Grass: My first book was a book of poetry and drawings. Invariably the first drafts of my poems combine drawings and verse, sometimes taking off from an image, sometimes from words. Then, when I was twenty-five years old and could afford to buy a typewriter, I preferred to type with my two-finger system.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
GG: I can answer, only for myself, that poetry is the most important thing. The birth of a novel begins with a poem. I will not say it is ultimately more important, but I can’t do without it.
n&: I came to poetry first for the fun of writing about language for its own sake. As Günter said, I can’t do without it, without the expressive potential of poetry. Now, I can hardly help myself. I try to resist indulging myself in wordplay when I’m writing a letter, an email, a tweet, etc. Who needs to read me punning in a facebook update? Speaking of, you despise facebook, don’t you Herr Grass?
GG: < http://youtu.be/3p4aWJ3c__8 >.
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?
n&: I can’t seem to find enough time to write. I can become obsessed about the minutiae, so I want a lot of time to cross “t”s, dot “i”s, & stroke “k”s in my notes. &, because I’m far more comfortable rewriting than writing the first draft, the final shape of my work barely resembles its earlier forms.
GG: I write the first draft quickly. If there’s a hole, there’s a hole. The second version is generally very long, detailed, and complete. There are no more holes, but it’s a bit dry. In the third draft I try to regain the spontaneity of the first, and to retain what is essential from the second. This is very difficult.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
GG: At one time I was very old fashioned about writing poetry. I thought that when you have enough good poems, you should go out and look for a publisher, do some drawings and print a book. Then you’d have this marvelous volume of poetry . . .
n&: I’m with Günter, here. Although I’m “old fashioned,” as he puts it, I’m trying to work a different way. I want to try working on a “book,” or at least the idea for a book, from the very beginning.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
n&: I think public readings play a part of my creative process. I’m the sort of writer who enjoys the opportunity to read because I want to know how an audience will respond. I have an odd sense of humour – puns are probably too funny to me – so I’m never sure whether something I’ve written actually works until it receives merciful, or pitiful, laughs.
n&: You know what you are, Günter? An ass. Günter Ass.
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?
GG: I can only answer that books have been decisive for me. When I was young, after the war, one of the many books that were important for me was that little volume by Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus. The famous, mythological hero who is sentenced to roll a stone up a mountain, which inevitably rolls back down to the bottom—traditionally a genuinely tragic figure—was newly interpreted for me by Camus as being happy in his fate.
n&: I try to convey the possibilities for interpretation wherein reading invokes expression. In his 1984 essay “Note Book a Composition on Composition,” bpNichol puts it this way: “i need the readers who will perform the piece, who can play it, play with it as i’ve written it.” By interpretation, then, I mean a rhetorical performance, both in the sense of explaining the meaning of the text, & in the sense of reciting the text.
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?
n&: I’m convinced that the writer plays a role in the larger culture, but I can’t muster the confidence to say so. So, Günter? What must be said?
GG: There are so many seminars and conferences on the subject “can literature change the world”! I think literature has the power to effect change. So does art.
n&: I’ll say the current role of the Mennonite writer is important. For generations, Mennonites living in North America isolated themselves from the “world” outside. In the last 50 years or so, Mennonite writers have allowed readers access into a cloistered culture. I wrote he’ll for a comparable reason – to give imaginative access to a community which operated through separation. I’m not talking about providing a vicarious experience of life as a Mennonite, but an idea of living in a Mennonite village toward the end of the 20th Century. I hope he’ll finds those readers who are curious to know about people who presented a dour & devout appearance. I also hope that readers will experience the odd, often dark, humour under that pious, stern performance.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
GG: The book is done when I am exhausted.
n&: Working with an outsider editor was essential to the process of writing he’ll. Jeramy Dodds is my ideal reader. Without him gently suggesting I let go, I’d probably be rewriting he’ll right now.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
n&: I’ll defer to Günter.
GG: If this word doesn’t exist in your language, create it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
GG: Alfred Döblin had such an effect on me that I wrote an essay on him entitled “On My Teacher Döblin.” You can learn from Döblin without the risk of imitating him. . . . But I am still learning, and there are many others who have taught me.
n&: I don’t find it easy to move between poetry & critical prose. I can hardly draw the line between the genres. That’s why I’m drawn to the writers who make that move with fluidity & fluency – e.g., Anne Carson, Lisa Robertson, or Jan Zwicky.
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?
n&: I’m always committing to a writing routine, only to lose the courage of my conviction. One reason is that I’m a sessional instructor at a small university for eight months of the year, so teaching takes up the daylight hours. For the four months of the summer, I, like Günter, try to write as soon as the sun rises.
GG: Between nine and ten o’clock I have a long breakfast with reading and music. After breakfast I work, and then take a break for coffee in the afternoon. I start again and finish at seven o’clock in the evening.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
GG: I often turn to drawing to recover from the writing.
n&: I jog. To sweat. & think.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
n&: Vinegar. The chore I hated most when I was a kid was washing the kitchen floor with vinegar. Oddly, it made the whole house smell a little like supper.
GG: Terrible breath of poison.
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?
GG: Dürer’s engraving Melencholia I.
n&: Movies, mostly. I can’t get enough Lynch or Malick. That, & ‘80s cartoons.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
n&: Let’s name some Mennonite names: David Bergen, Sandra Birdsell, Di Brandt, Jeff Derksen, Patrick Friesen, Hildi Froese Tiessen, Sarah Klassen, Andreas Schroeder, Vern Thiessen, Miriam Toews, David Waltner-Toews, Rudy Wiebe.
GG: James Joyce’s introduction of the interior monologue in Ulysses has affected the complexity of our understanding of existence. It’s just that the changes that literature can affect are not measurable. The intercourse between a book and its reader is peaceful, anonymous.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
n&: Learn High German. I’d also like to grow a variety of sod that matures to a brunette hue. I’d either call it “Günter’s Stache” or “Schnäuzer Grass”: < http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1999/ >
GG: You dog.
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?
n&: Postal worker in my hometown, Winkler, Manitoba, circa 1979.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
GG: Writers are involved not only with their inner, intellectual lives, but also with the process of daily life. For me, writing, drawing, and political activism are three separate pursuits; each has its own intensity. I happen to be especially attuned to and engaged with the society in which I live.
n&: Danke, Günter. I guess that explains why you’re a Nobel Laureate. Not sure how to follow that.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
n&: The last great book I read was Susan Downe’s novel Juanita Wildrose: My True Life. I could write my whole true life & never come up anything nearly as affecting. E.g., “Is God a long, handed-down story?” A close friend recommended I watch Peter Mettler’s 1994 documentary Picture of Light, & I’m going to pass along the recommendation. I’ve never enjoyed staring at the Northern Lights that much.
GG: Melville has always been my favorite . . .
20 - What are you currently working on?
GG: What else do you want?
n&: I’m working on a project I’ve titled “CRTC.” I’m interested in writing about the transition analog to digital technology by making reference to the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission. Also, I just finished a script for an episode of The Raccoons – it was my favourite show when I was a kid.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;