Andrew Forbes was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and attended Carleton University. He has written film and music criticism, liner notes, sports columns, and short fiction. His work has been nominated for the Journey Prize, and has appeared in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, The Journey Prize Stories 25, This Magazine, Hobart, The Puritan, All Lit Up, The Classical, and Vice Sports. What You Need, his debut collection of fiction, is available from Invisible Publishing. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well, as this is my first book, I suppose whatever changes it’s to bring are currently underway, and I won’t be able to view them fully except in hindsight. Can I take a raincheck on this question?
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I think I came to fiction because it was the form that gave the most to me as a reader. I write non-fiction too, though not, as yet, in book form. Poetry is another language, the faculty for which I seem to lack entirely.
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?
I always have something on the go, usually many things. Stories, essays, baseball writing. If something isn’t working I move onto something else. Some stories happen all at once, while some take two or five or seven years of effort, then abandonment, then effort, etc. When things are really working, I’m a pretty fast writer, I think. As for the differences between first and final drafts, I’d say that I’m a prodigious tinkerer, always fiddling with the smallest things until finally walking away. My starts are quick, generally. I make a few notes and sit on an idea for a period of time, and then leap in. Essays are like that, too. Once I’m rolling the thing seems to unfurl itself out in front of me. That’s a nice feeling.
4 - Where does a work of 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?
For me a work of fiction often begins with an image, or a setting. Occasionally it’s a line, which generally ends up being the first line, though it has also become the last, in a few instances. I am a big believer in using past failures as stock material, stripping them for parts -- scenes, settings, dialogue -- for newer, hopefully more successful things I’m working on. It’s a way to convince myself I wasn’t wasting my time.
In the case of this, a book of short stories, each piece is built on its own, though I’d say that for several years I had been aware that I was putting together a collection. That meant that certain stories were left out, not because they weren’t “good enough,” but because they simply didn’t fit.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are a peculiar thing, seemingly at complete odds with the impulse which drove me to writing in the first place, as a very young person: I’d always seen writing as a way for me -- a pretty shy kid, prone to mild social anxiety -- to say things I couldn’t say aloud. Flash forward a decade or two and see me being asked to stand in front of a roomful of people and read those things. Seems like a bit of a cruel joke, doesn’t it? But I’m getting better at them, I think. A bit more comfortable.
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 form is theory, then I’m certainly concerned with that, insofar as I’m interested in using the constraints of the short story form to my advantage. As for questions, they remain specific to each piece, for now, though I suppose that if you were to view them all in macro you’d see the same questions repeating: what does this person want? what are the forces which prevent them from getting it? etc. The broad human questions. What am I doing? What’s the point? That sort of thing.
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?
On the one hand, I think there’s some danger to anointing ourselves spokespeople for a culture, assuming that our concerns are in any way universal. Writing is a privileged act, when you get down to it. But on the other hand, yes, I think we can strive to be sentinels, loudspeakers, canaries in the coalmine, squeaky wheels. Writers can and should say difficult things in the hopes that those things become easier for everyone to say.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think I’ve been lucky with editors, overall. I’ve been edited by a few people at the magazine or journal level who were obviously interested in bringing out the best in a piece. I have been largely spared the horror of a personality clash with an editor. And while I had extreme trepidation over handing over my book to an editor, the experience turned out to be uniformly rewarding. I had a great working relationship with Michelle Sterling, and there’s no question that she made the book better than it was when it was given to her.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Read, write, push.” That’s the mantra of Rick Taylor, writer and teacher, and friend, and it pretty much sums up the whole thing for me.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve done a fair bit of non-fiction work now, mostly writing about sports, and music, and movies, and I enjoy those things. Fiction steps in when the precise truth of a thing is in some way narratively inconvenient to me, but for a lot of stories--the way Ichiro Suzuki goes about his business, say, or the circumstances of Albert Ayler’s life--the truth is simply so much better than what I could come up with, so I deal with the material in a non-fictional manner. The subjects have a way of telling you whether they’re best suited for one treatment or 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?
I’m up early, which is something I’ve done for a long time. The first house my wife and I owned, in rural eastern Ontario, had a sunroom on it which faced east. The whole thing was windows, basically. It was lovely and quiet. I had a chair out there, and I’d be up in time to get started before the sun came up, a pot of coffee close at hand. I could get a fair bit of work done before going to work-work, which at that time might have been in a music store, or it might have been an internet company which rented DVDs to subscribers by mail, depending on just when this historical vignette takes place. That schedule proved very productive for me. I produced, even if I produced little of value. I pumped out drafts, the necessary bad, early ones, which are prerequisite to better stuff. So getting up early has remained my preferred method. If I can get a couple of hours in before the first kid stirs, I’m happy.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I look to writers who are way, way better than me. I’ll go to the shelf and pull down a collection by Lorrie Moore or Alice Munro or Jim Shepard.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
A flowering lilac bush. That’s two-staged. My grandmother’s house in Pictou, Nova Scotia had a big old lilac tree outside, and the scent, alongside the damp earthen smell of the cellar, defined that place for me. Then that house in Eastern Ontario had a lilac bush on the property, and the smell of it in May or early June, when summer was just coming into its lush fullness, was about the most comforting thing in the world to me. Coming through an open window at night. Then I’d clip big bunches of it and put them in water on the table, but in a matter of hours they’d begin smelling rank. The scent of it on the breeze couldn’t be duplicated. There’s probably some deeper lesson in that.
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?
All of it, I suppose. Music, certainly. Whether through lyrics or melody or both, music has always fueled something. I often wish I possessed some musical ability, because it just seems like a much more direct route to whatever emotional truth I’m trying to tap with words. I use it when writing, usually instrumental, often John Coltrane. I’ve also had stories spring from songs -- Neko Case inspired one of the stories in the book, for example. Movies contribute too, as does photography. News items. Everything, really. As a writer you’re kind of a sieve of information, aren’t you? Nature is the calming force, the healer. If I can steal the opportunity to swim in a lake I’m recharged for whatever labours lie ahead.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Five years ago, when my twin boys were born prematurely, and they were housed in the hospital’s strange clear boxes, with ultraviolet lights trained on them and tubes running into them, computers hooked up to them, I would go in there at night, sit in a rocking chair, and read them Whitman.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Attend the World Series.
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?
I’d like to do something with clearer, more tangible results. A contractor, maybe. Something where, at the end of the day, I could point to the wall I’d put up and say, “That. That’s what I did today.” Paragraphs, word counts, they seem a little inconsequential as compared to a wall.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve shown very little aptitude for anything else. Once, deeply concerned for my prospects, my father sent me to a career coach guy, and footed the bill. This man was straight out of central casting -- cigarette-chomping, slicked-back greying hair, Italian suits. He had no idea what to do with me. At one of our meetings, he simply had nothing to say. He put his hands behind his head and his feet up on his desk, exhaled heavily, and then, nodding toward his feet, said, “Business tip: your socks should match your pants.” He subjected me to a battery of personality tests, and when the results came back he slid a folder across his desk to me and said, “It says you should be a writer.”
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just reread Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. Genius. And it was a few months back, but one night TCM was showing Smiles of a Summer Night. I turned it on and my daughter, who’s eight, came and sat with me, and she was engrossed. On the one hand it was a bit beyond her, I guess, this subtitled Bergmann film about sexual mores in turn-of-the-century Sweden, but though outside her frame of reference she seemed to relate to it, maybe most strongly to Anne, the sort of caged-bird character, that uncertainty over what the world’s offering you at a pivotal point in your life. She also really liked the costumes. Anyway, that movie, and the experience of watching it with my kid, was memorable.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Dinner. A bacon and broccoli rice bowl. Should be ready in about twenty minutes.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;