André Narbonne is the author of Twelve Miles to Midnight (Black Moss) and You Were Here (Flat Singles Press). His writing has been widely published in North American journals and has won the Atlantic Writing Competition, the FreeFall Prose Contest, the James DeMille Prize, the Clare Murray Fooshee Contest, and the David Adams Richards Prize. His story, “The Advancements,” was anthologized in Best Canadian Stories. He teaches at the University of Windsor.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
How did it change my life? I wish I knew!
My son, Simon, was born a few months after the April launch of my short story collection, Twelve Miles to Midnight. My youngest daughter, Pearl, was 15-months at the time. Now my collection of poetry, You Were Here, is out and Pearl’s two and Simon’s seven months. That’s really what’s happening at our house, and as important and I know the books are, I don’t think I’ll be able to assess the impact of the publications until I get a full night’s sleep. I don’t mean that to sound flip. I am aware that I am mindful of audiences in a different way, and I think that’s good. Publication has made my self-evaluations about where I’m “going” with my writing a lot easier. I think I have a lot to learn from this experience, but I think that will come later, at a distance.
The books are very different but their politics are the same. Twelve Miles is a series of linked stories following the lives of two sailors. You Were Here focuses on the felt reality of early childhood. Both are sentimental – I’m not afraid of that word – because both are engaged in the politics of inclusion. Both are about value, especially how we create value through our ability to perceive it.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
It was the other way. I was always writing. I tried to write my first novel in grade three – something Hardy Boysish. I tried to write my own version of The Lord of the Rings in grade eight, my own version of Star Wars in grade nine. Kid’s stuff, except I was doing that when I should have been doing other kid’s stuff like playing football. That changed in grade eleven. My English teacher was Peter Baltensperger, owner of Moonstone Press. He brought poets into the classroom (I’m thinking Penny Kemp might have spoken to the class but I’m not sure because I didn’t know who anyone was back then – poets of her quality), got me interested in Carl Jung, Margaret Atwood, Ezra Pound, and Tom Wayman. From the time I read “Wayman in Love” I was a poet.
Wayman, whom I’ve never met, showed me the power of the line over the sentence, showed me the beautiful work that can be done by ironically naïve speakers. This was the first time I realized how much pleasure I could get from reading a poem. That same year I bought a copy of Fiddlehead. It was something of a random purchase. I don’t know who the authors were in the issue I read, but they inspired me greatly. (I’ve always read the journals and my teachers have been largely unknown to me – they could be living next door, which is how I like it.) I was kicking around St. Catharines, spending weekends at the public library to get out of the house and poetry spoke to me. On weekends I lay on my bedroom floor rearranging line breaks and spacing, seeing if I could pull off the same tricks. Again, not doing teenager stuff, but that didn’t make me lonely. I felt empowered.
Having decided to be a poet I took the next logical step and became a marine engineer. I wrote poetry from Thunder Bay to Texas. I moved to Halifax to be closer to my ship and while living there I served as chair of the Halifax Chapter of the Canadian Poetry Association. That’s what I was doing, by the way, when I first heard of rob mclennan. You judged one of our contests, I think in 1989. I’ll have to look it up. I have a complete library of the BS Poetry Society, as we called ourselves.
A few of the poems in You Were Here date back to my Halifax days (“My Brother,” “In Love,” “Beowulf on Wings”). The book that Flat Singles Press published is consistent with the book I started writing 30 years ago.
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?
My best ideas come while I’m jogging and they present themselves abstractly. My wife finds folded-up notes in coats, jeans, laundry. My backpack is about two inches deep in scribbles I’ll get back to whenever. I don’t know whether I’m thinking poetry or prose at first. I don’t think lines or sentences. In the end, I write as many short stories as poems. If I’m writing a story, the plot is pretty much the last thing I come up with. The argument is the spine. For fiction, I keep to a 3-day first-draft writing schedule. I might think about a story for a month before I write the first draft in three days, which is my practice. Get it down as quickly as possible. Spend as much time as necessary on either side, planning and then revising, but make sure to have an authentic first draft that isn’t constantly looking over its shoulder. I do something similar with poetry. Perhaps this is the result of being an engineer. I’m into system. I admire a good blueprint. Time-wise this is the opposite of how Alistair MacLeod wrote stories, although his expression was “measure twice, cut once,” and that’s close to what I do. I measure twice, cut once, and then I file.
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?
The first part I’ve inadvertently answered above. In answer to the second, because You Were Here replicates the felt reality of childhood, I intended from the start that it be cumulative in effect. Not all the poetry I’ve written over the past years has been for this collection, but I’ve known when it was. I see the book spatially. I see the reality getting larger, more involved with each poem. Think of a room that keeps expanding. The room of childhood is meant to be as large as any room in which you would find an adult. This from a writer whose favourite book is Under the Volcano.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am a very nervous reader. Readings are too important for me not to be very, very serious about them, and no-one catastrophizes like I do. My imaginings of possibilities are endless. How will this sound? Should this come next or will that throw off the whole impression I’m trying to make? Will people hear my voice as I do?
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?
No. I mean everyone writes with theories. But theories are not my muse. The two most pressing issues for me are completeness and pleasure. I’m more into readers. A poem can be true to a theory, it can be bang on and still be a drag. That said, I think my answer to question four is suggestive of a theory, the idea that poetry can be cumulative in effect, that poems can have a spatial relationship to each other.
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 there are many cultures happening in the same space. Every day I walk by people who will cancel out my vote at the next election. The writer has a definite role in some of those cultures; less in others. I mean, we’re still here. If we were easily done away with, we’d be gone.
People have been reading Lyrical Ballads this past two hundred years but that didn’t change the American election.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Patricia Young very graciously agreed to be my editor for You Were Here and her input was essential. I needed to know other possibilities: both in terms or writing and also in terms of being read. Three years ago, I helped my dad write his memoir. My father is a francophone and a retired French teacher. I saw my role as keeping the tone of his voice – its Frenchness – while removing his exclamation marks. I think that’s what Patricia did for me. (I think that our exclamations marks are often invisible to us.) Another important thing she did was to tell me not to throw poems out when I wasn’t certain about them. “A building is an idea” is one of the poems she said to keep, and I’m glad I did. She told me what to keep in. So did Joe LaBine. Patricia and I edited over Skype. I’m not a Skyper. I don’t know where to look. I loved every minute of it. It was another classroom and I’m someone who loves school.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Read everything. I’ve heard that a lot.
Another good piece of advice came from Kay Tudor, owner of Roseway Press. I was in a creative writing class she taught at St. Mary’s and I wrote a story about an elderly couple who feared death. Kay called me on it. Why did I assume they feared death just because they were old? Maybe the elderly welcome death. What I got from that was the importance of fully evaluating people’s motivations. I’m told that’s what I write: stories and poems about motivation.
To change the question, were I to offer advice to other writers it would be to memorize poems. What you learn from memorizing poems is equally useful to writers of prose. I suggest starting with Paul Celan’s “Your Hand Full of Hours.” Maybe follow that with “Batter My Heart Three-Personed God.” I find Donne extraordinarily difficult. He’s taught me a lot.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories)? What do you see as the appeal?
Whether an idea becomes a poem or a story has a good deal to do with how the ironies in it operate. Some ideas need the irony of the line to complete them. Also, poetry is harder. I’m far more critical of my poetry. It seems to me that I can be more objective about my short stories: this character is round, this is a meaningful turn, a good bit of anagnorisis that sides with what I want my argument to do etc.
Sometimes a poem just doesn’t work, and who gets to decide?
Although a good portion of the poems in You Were Here had already been published and some had won prizes, had either Patricia or Joe LaBine, the series editor at Flat Singles Press, told me the book was no good I would have taken their word for it and written a different book. Alexander MacLeod says in an interview I watched recently that you don’t get to decide if your work is any good. Somebody else has to say that. I guess that’s off topic, but I’ll leave it in.
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 teach. I’m a sessional lecturer. I have two very young children and an almost adult child who lives in Ottawa. My schedule involves working whenever I can. Creative work I almost always do in the morning, when there’s less clutter in the foreground of my mind. Whenever possible I reserve the time spent drinking the first cup of coffee for creative work. Nighttime is for notes not paragraphs.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I just keep working. By working I don’t mean writing but reading with a purpose. Listening with a purpose. Almost everything I’ve learned I’ve learned through imitation. Also, I’m not someone who sits at the computer waiting for the muse. I chart. I plan.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I have a poem about this in You Were Here. Lilacs. Our lilac bushes formed a small wall on one side of the driveway, and I would come home from school and smell them on my way to the house. I have many memories of doing that – going to the lilacs and sniffing them.
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?
Politics. Family. Memory. Arguments with family over whose memory is right. Nightmares. Nature. Other people’s conversations. But definitely books. When I wrote You Were Here I had a small library of books in mind including, Archy and Mehitabel and Spoon River Anthology. My interest in those two books wasn’t because they were written a hundred years ago. I was interested in what the authors did with voice. You Were Here is very much about voice. I imitate, inhabit, reproduce the voice of a child, essentially a cockroach in an adult world, the child I nearly was, whose voice is now lost like the lost voices in Edgar Lee Masters’ graveyard.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There’s so many, but I would highlight magazine culture because people complain about it so much and it’s been good to me. That’s pretty much how I found Patricia Young. I read her short story collection, Airstream, and afterwards I kept finding her in the journals.
Other than that there is no science to my reading. I read everything. Alice Munro, of course, but also Mein Kampf. The Bible. I was a teenager when I caught my first ship. I packed The Tin Drum, Steppenwolf, The Complete Works of Kafka, and The Painted Bird. It took me a month to realize I’d have to get interested in sports if I was going to talk to people without coming across as weird.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Move to Iceland.
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?
Reading that, the first thought that came to mind was drug addict. I was very unhappy in high school. Poetry and engineering got me out of my funk. I had no real vocation. When I left engineering to study English my plan was to get into law. I stuck with English because I was thirty and it seemed to me that I could change my life once only and for that reason I should do the hardest thing and getting a PhD was harder than getting a law degree. I don’t regret the choice. My wife is becoming a lawyer. She can look after that.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
An interest in beauty. I wanted to make something beautiful. I was a pretty decent cartoonist but I would never be good enough.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Two books I’m really sold on are All Saints by K.D. Miller and The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise. As for films, I’m “one of those.” I rarely go to movies and I’ve turned off my TV. The movies that interest me are black and whites. My favourite film is a silent movie: The General. It’s my “disaster movie.” I put in on when I’m depressed and it helps.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a study of Canadian educator, critic, writer, Archibald MacMechan. From 1906 until his death in 1933 he wrote a regular column for the Montreal Star, the same paper in which Leacock published Sunshine Sketches of aLittle Town. I have microfilm sent to me from a number of university libraries. Calgary, for some reason, has the Montreal Star. Windsor, where I work, does not. I’ve been copying and transcribing my way through his articles. I’m fascinated by Archy. (I feel I know him well enough to call him that.) The world is exploding and he’s focused on the task at hand: being the last Carlylean, as he tells his students at Dalhousie. He occasionally mentions WWI, but doesn’t notice the sinking of the Titanic. The North End of Halifax is blown to smithereens. He’s in the South End. Still makes his deadlines. Archy has already worked his way into my fiction, but I’m not finished editing the story in which he appears, so I won’t say anything about it.