Monday, September 28, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Chris Ewart

Chris Ewart is currently completing a PhD in English at Simon Fraser University and working on a second novel. His first novel, Miss Lamp, was shortlisted for a 2007 ReLitAward and is one of the Top 30 Books of 2006 as chosen by Pages on Kensington in Calgary. He has taught at the University of Calgary and the Alberta College of Art and Design. His critical and creative work (fiction, plays, poetry) often interrogates disability and normalcy in narrative and popular culture.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Miss Lamp lets me call myself an author. A friend taught it a while ago and gave me some anonymous student essays about it. I’ve kept those papers. Even a few years on, the actual of “book” seems surreal – a ripening representation of and detachment from myself. In some ways Miss Lamp allows me to question my writing less while giving me more narrative room to explore the possible with storytelling. I like to have fun with the ways words exploit our senses (and sensibilities) and with how situations play out when characters surprise us, make us scratch our heads, laugh a little, or even mist up. My new work follows a girl who wears a dress made of living flowers. In the course of her travels, she enters a town where much of what one may associate with a sunny day (picnics, music, ice cream, kites, etc.) is forbidden. Colours do peek through the greyscale of clouds and placards there, but Miss Lamp is more Technicolor throughout.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I didn’t. Well, unless I count grade school. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories – from rotten apples to traffic lights – and narrative often hinges upon my poems too. I wrote some crappy “burnt orange sunset” poetry early on and a few travel narrative things as well. It wasn’t until my later 20s that I realized I could take this banal poetry and burnish it into an elevation of the mundane!

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 take a while to write drafts, I think. I often write skeletal bits (a sticky phrase, a brief scene or some dialogue, etc.) and then in subsequent edits I decide whether to remove or add meat to those bits and where to spend time chewing. Ideas don’t take long to arrive – whether from a news headline that day or a memory I want to characterize, or fit within a chapter – but where they might go (and why, within the story’s logic) takes time. Sometimes writing towards an event or a situation characters/places find themselves in becomes the story itself, but lots of scribbles and moments from first drafts do make it through to the letting go.

4 - Where does a piece 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?

Often, my fiction moves in near sustainable vignette-style chunks. In other words, chapters satisfy their own internal narrative(s). As small chapters add up, characters and events start to collide. This interconnectivity becomes a book for me. What I write (and read) in other genres – a character or voice or image from a poem or a short story – can overlap and become significant to larger narratives. Delano from Miss Lamp works like that. He is from a poem. Before that he was an irksome character from a Melville short story. I guess his “fiction” began when I asked “what can I do with this guy?”

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I like readings a lot. They usually provide forgiving places to try new work and to find what works best for fresh and not so fresh stuff. I can also get a good sense of a piece’s pacing and how it “reads” through a reading. There are a lot of sentences full of marbles out there.

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?

I want to show much in few words. I believe in concise use of language. I want to visit characters who exhibit uniqueness under everyday conditions. How do I challenge notions of bodily and behavioural normalcy? Are we represented by our quirks, subtle (or not so subtle) differences or by the stuff we wear, say and identify with? I also enjoy elevating the seemingly mundane through characters who occupy (and are sometimes named by) their jobs. Before moving on, I like to extract the possible sense (and sensory) from words – in all their pauses, clanks, flashes and rushes. I don’t believe fiction and poetry are so far apart.

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?

Writing should offer an escape – a less invasive, more imaginative perspective – from the barrage of too-often-bad-news or useless news or hyper-contemporary, saleable noise in mediums of information delivery. If my writing puts readers into places where they can find some shine in the humdrum of life or stop to take in a line to reframe or consider ideas in a new way, that’s good. How characters deal with tension and what narrative(s) zoom in upon will arguably imbue commentary and from time to time create allegories out of font. Writers need to put enough hearty shit, rain and sunlight down so that readers can pluck a flower or a weed along the way – a grass whistle or two beside the smokestacks.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I think editors are great and I think great editors are even better. Working with an editor makes me eager to anticipate what gets caught and reeled in or cut and thrown back. An editor’s slight remove from the immediate of the text often brings a welcome objectivity – a thimble for the needle.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Narratives often work against their own declarations.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

It can be difficult to write creatively when so much of our time is devoted to different labours and loves. When I can get more or less freer-thought-space – sometimes early morning, sometimes late at night or a block of a couple days – I write to a quota (a page or three) during each period (or I revise earlier sections).

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

I go to a different page of the draft to see if there is something to hook onto or continue from – maybe in a different direction. Failing that, I go through notes and other sources I’ve stored up. Sometimes music greater than 72 beats per-minute can loosen the jam. Going for a bike ride can help too.

12 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie? Drive or fly (or sail)? Laptop or desktop?

Or Snoopy on his doghouse with a typewriter?

13 - 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?

Music, I think, mostly. It’s prevalent in my writing. From a drunken flute quartet serenading an apple orchard to characters who miss tuning pianos or who hum fiery, tasty musical scales. There’s always a marching band in there somewhere. My dad is a big fan of that southern California marching band sound (I was born down there). The Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life” jumps to mind, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and the horns of Blood, Sweat and Tears via aural osmosis. Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite motivates me these days. Visual art in a visually-biased culture is also important. I’m writing a lot about billboards lately.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I’m lucky to have a group of friends who write and write about writing and talk about writing to people on the radio and teach writing. We share, critique and at times collaborate. I also have supportive teachers, supervisors and editors. Writing becomes important for me when it defies my expectations or turns those expectations sideways. Beckett always baffles me.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to convince someone to put on my one act play. My honeymoon will also be fun.

16 - 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 enjoy teaching and writing for different audiences. If that wasn’t so, I might have been a semi-rock-star-turned-furniture-mover or perhaps a secret travel agent. I still play guitar a bit. Music still itches me. Maybe I’d be a dishwasher-sommelier. I enjoy cooking and food enters my stories quite a bit. I’d probably run a sandwich shop as I write about sandwiches often. At the very least I’d brave most types of weather to wear a sandwich-board proclaiming


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

I played and studied music pretty seriously and travelled with it for a few years. I think writing provides a compatible extension of practice – of getting my thoughts down – but I get to keep the same address and phone number now.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: David Markson’s The Last Novel.
Film: Delicatessen

19 - What are you currently working on?

A manuscript entitled Sunny Day and a PhD in English at SFU.

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