Thursday, July 07, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with William Mark Giles

William Mark Giles: I live on Turtle Island, on the traditional territory of the the Kainai, Piikani, and Siksika Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and also the traditional territory of the Tsuu T’ina and Stoney Nakoda First Nations. It’s more convenient to say I live in the neighbourhood of Fairview, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, North America — but people were here a long time before I showed up, and the land sustained and taught them. Treaty 7 was signed at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877 and now encompasses the traditional lands of these first nations. That’s where Calgary is now. My (his)story of colonial settlement cannot overwrite the(ir) story of continuous habitation. It is our story now. In The Making Treaty 7 project, the late Narcisse Blood and the late Michael Green shared the belief the “We are all treaty people.”

I offer acknowledgement to the original dwellers, and my gratitude. I hope I can learn to learn from this land too.

I have written two books of fiction, Knucklehead and Seep, both published by the amazing Brian Kaufman and his gang at Anvil Press in Vancouver. Knucklehead won the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Award, and was nominated for the Howard O’Hagan Award. About Seep, E.H. of Kelowna, B.C., had this to say: “I read the scene with the dog on an airplane and got the stink eye from my seat partner.” I have published stories and poems, presented visual poetry, and performed theatre in venues in Canada and the U.S.A.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m not sure my own first book changed my life much — it almost came as a relief, as a kind of material evidence that yes, I can do this thing called writing; and doing so I can engage in a conversation with the world. I had a long and slow approach — into middle age when the first book came out. In terms of recent work feeling different — I think I am more comfortable (confident?) with writing the long scene, letting story take its time.

The book that actually changed my life was Samuel R. Delany’ Dhalgren. I read pretty much nothing but science fiction as a teen and young man. I had finished high school, was three years into a working life at a blue collar job, in a ramshackle house with a bunch of guys. I was a pothead, and flirting with alcohol (we eventually ended up going steady for a while, alcohol and me). And I get Delany’s sf book in which a guy has sex with a woman who turns into a tree and then he goes into a blasted city and has sex with a man, all in the first 30 pages. Isaac Asimov this ain’t. Then the book spends the next 800 pages taking itself apart and putting itself together, only to lead me back its beginning. And really, that reading experience blew my mind. I discovered that there was a whole tradition of experimental novels and big thick narratives that wrestled with the intricacies of the human condition. And then I figured out out Delany was African American and gay and I had to rethink the whole book over again in terms of race and queerness, though I didn’t have the vocabulary to use words like that and to really wrap my head around it. So I went in search of that vocabulary. That’s the book that changed the trajectory I was on.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I come from a family of readers, and we read prose in our house. My mother could recite great gouts of Coleridge and Tennyson from memory, but I don’t recall a lot of books of poetry lying around. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion puts it — and narrative, for me at least, is a way of ordering that spectacle of human behaviour unfolding before my very eyes.

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?
Yikes! What a question. I have some pieces of writing that fall like pennies from heaven. I am working on finishing a story right now that came to me more or less that way (at least the first half did). I also have a series of “micro-fictions” that develop more or less whole — though I’m not sure how to publish stories that are 35 or 120 or 215 words long. But other pieces can take years to find their form. I often struggle with openings — so I will have a lot of false starts as I search for that elusive “voice” — not my voice, but what I call the necessary voice (sometimes plural) that will establish the narrative positioning of the work. Not just p.o.v. or tense or retrospection, but a feel for how close and at what angle the telling of the story is in relation to the story being told. So yeah, sometimes that means reams of notes and false starts and abandoned bits. You can see the process at work in my novel Seep, which kinda has four openings in sequence as it establishes the multiple voices that create a meaning matrix for the book. It took a while to figure out those four angles.

4 - Where does a poem or 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?
I would say both. I have a sense that my micro-fiction practice will accumulate into something bigger. But I also have some other projects that seem book length. It’s interesting that in last year or so I’ve stumbled across a couple of Stephen King interviews. I’ve never been a gung-ho fanboy — the horror-gothic thing was never my genre of choice. But I’ve read a half dozen of his books and recognize his mastery of craft. To read his take on writing, or to listen to him talk about his creative practice, is fascinating. When he starts with an idea, he really doesn’t know if he’s going to write a short story or a door-stop. And he really rejects the idea of “plot” as a kind of prefab structure. I actually just re-read his On Writing today.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like reading in public — indeed I enjoy it. But I don’t crave the footlights.
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?

The theoretical concerns behind my writing tend to relate to narratology — how are stories shaped, produced, delivered, and received? What is the connection between narrative and memory, and writing and experience? Is language a material? In terms of current questions, one that I have been thinking about and reading about for the last couple of years has to do with irony and affect. I am interested in creative productions that resist the emotional manipulation inherent in many traditional representational or literary practices — that resistance is the irony part — but which nonetheless move people to feeling and empathy — that’s the affect part.

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 am not sure I can make a pronouncement of the role of the writer. I know what I believe and incorporate as part of a personal manifesto for my own work: the curiosity-driven practice of making and exchanging sustains compassionate communities, moves people to feeling and empathy, and creates the future.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Hooray for editors! And if they seem to be difficult — well, either change their approach (hah!) or change the editor . . .

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
This is hard — but the best writing advice for me came from Edna Alford. I had stopped writing for a number of years, then began again in a desultory fashion. And she looked at my assemblage of stories and near-stories and told me to “imagine your book.” Not just a hazy abstract concept, but actually imagine the book object. Draw a picture of it, complete with a cover design. Give it a title. Imagine the flap copy. Make a table of contents. It was only when I did that — and really, it took a couple of hours doodling — that I realized I could have a book — and gave me a clue of the stories which I had yet to write. This eventually led to my first book Knucklehead.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Hmmmm. I see it all as writing — engaging in those pieces of language, and in the process of making. I sometimes become aware of the limitations I may have in terms of sheer exposure to these other genres, and to the conventions around their production. I read poetry — but not like many of my poet colleagues: they _read_ poetry by the bushel. And in terms of nonfiction — I actually do read bushels of nonfiction; but there seems to be a nonfiction production cycle related to market access, pitching, and deliverables that I haven’t fully grokked (if you’ll excuse a legacy of my sf reading days).

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’d call myself a binge writer. When possessed of the exigent moment, I crank it out. I remember hearing Richard Ford answer a question kinda like this is a interview once. And if I recall it correctly, he basically said when he is in a project, he writes all the time; but in between he’ll go months without writing a word. This allowed me to validate my own propensity to “block.” I can get distracted very easily by other things — job, reading, travel, wikipedia. I joke that when I’m cooking a lot and filling the freezer it’s a sign that I’m avoiding other things.

I try to follow — though I fall in and out of the pattern — a kind of 4-stage routine: 1) Do something for well-being; 2) Do basic life maintenance; 3) Knock something off the to-do list; 4) Do creative practice. Repeat. I sometimes shuffle things around, especially 3 and 4. I sometimes use a timer so I don’t get stuck, or abandon work. I sometimes let myself watch netflix after number 4 before I start number 1 again.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
There is no such thing as inspiration. There is curiosity, and attention, and practice. When I get stalled, I actually have a few straightforward writing exercises that I follow. Some are prompt-based: “Write a sentence with a wall.” Some are process based: noun lists. I sometimes develop “word hoards” around a project — words, fragments, sentences; if I’m stuck: insert word hoard excerpt here and make it work.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Where is home? My home today: coffee. The home where I grew up: madeleines — no, no — maybe a combination of nicotine and beef broth — the odors of my mother’s kitchen.

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?
I am a sponge for cultural productions. Yes, books. Films. I am an autodidact when it comes to art and art history — I love visiting museums and galleries and installations. There have been times in my life when I’ve seen a lot of theatre — theatre has such a presence and a relationship with structure. I’m very keen on the built environment — architecture, urban planning, communication networks.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is a really hard thing to answer, as these things change. I finally got around to reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch a couple of years ago. Wow. Over the last three or four years I’ve read a lot of Margaret Atwood. I had thought I was indifferent to her — it seemed to have a certain cachet to be a bit dismissive of Atwood. But as I read deeply into her work, especially her narratives, but also a lot of her poetry, I developed a kind of awe for the deftness of her prose. What I said earlier about narrative positioning? I marvel at Atwood’s control of that — how subtly she shifts it with diction, the pronoun, sentence length. Others: Kroetsch, McCarthy, Proust. And Ta-Nehisi Coates is the most compelling rhetorician of race and culture right now — I try to read everything he writes.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Surf. I know, how first-world of me.

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 think I should have been a librarian. They are some of my favourite people.

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

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Oooh! I get to repeat my love of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It has such keen and unsentimental insight. And terrific sentences. This little passage is just one of many I copied into my Notes app on my phone:
“She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving--perhaps the shepherd with his dog.  Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance.  She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.”
Film: Bela Tarr’s Satantango. I’m not even sure I liked it. It floored me with its audaciousness in length, in imagery, in enigma.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a historical novel thing-y that I haven’t really found my way into yet — it’s a project I have copious notes for, have done research in the field and in archives across Canada, and have sections written that may never be used. I also have this wacky little short narrative film I’m trying to figure out a way to produce — I call it a ficto-memoir, featuring a character who is not-I gets to surf.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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