Friday, November 27, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Mark Sinnett

I grew up in Oxford, England, and moved to Canada in 1980. I've written two collections of poetry, The Landing (which won the Lampert) and Some Late Adventure of the Feelings (which won nothing, but which is better), a collection of stories, Bull, and two novels, The Border Guards (shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award) and now The Carnivore. I live in Kingston with Sam, and our wonderful kids Lucian and Willa.

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

My first book was The Landing, a collection of poetry. I don't think I left the house without a copy of that book stashed somewhere on my person for about a year. There's no denying the power of that first publication. The validation it seems to represent. And it does change the way your friends look at you, I think. "'Writer" isn't just some idle, fantastic claim you make for yourself, it becomes something you can actually put on your passport. So yes, it's a moment that changes everything, even though you come to realise quite soon that it's changed nothing at all. You're still broke, you're still struggling. That book did well, as far as a collection of poetry can do well, but a dozen years later I'm still trying to earn out the advance, which was only a few hundred bucks. It's not a lucrative business.

The new book, The Carnivore, was just as exciting. It's a serious literary novel (my last was a thriller), it's hardcover, it's beautiful to look at, the reviews have been mostly very good. It feels different because I know what to expect, I know how quickly books fade from attention. But it's different also because I'm better now. It's a good book, I feel it deserves attention. With that first book of poems I had no idea. I trusted every word written about the book. This time it's different. The Quill slammed it and that reviewer was dead wrong. I know it. A bad review becomes a frustration rather than a hammer blow. And later notices have backed me up. I also do other work now to pay the mortgage etc and I'm not as consumed by the writer's life. It makes me an easier person to live with. A happier guy.

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

The fabulous poet Victor Coleman was writer-in-residence at Queen's back in the mid-eighties and I think everyone in his class was a poet. I don't think any of us even considered writing prose. He's a very cool man and I think we all wanted to produce something he would appreciate. When I look back I wrote a lot of awful poems back then, but he encouraged and indulged us and guided us. It was a heady time. I have some very fond memories of those years, even the rejection slips were something you could pin to your chest.

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?

It takes me a long time to get going. Mostly I write prose now. Next will be another novel but I think it will be months before I put pen to paper. It's all in my head for now. I'm trying simply to decide if there's a good story in X, a publishable book in Y. I'm trying to decide what point of view I want to write from, where I want to set the book, how much of my own experience to put in there, how much of a research project I want. Slowly these questions will separate some of the wheat from the chaff and then I'll start to jot things down. Maybe run something by my partner, or my editor, Michael Holmes. Then, once, I've decided, I'll write notes for a few weeks, try to get a handle on the story. Once I start a first draft I can expect to write about 1500 to 2000 words per day. So two or three months and I have something to work with. That first draft will look nothing like the finished book. I think Michael and I went through a dozen drafts of The Carnivore.

4 - Where does a poem or 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?

With prose, it's always a book from the very beginning. I'm not a collage artist. And I start at the beginning and work through to the end. I read somewhere that Michael Ondaatje writes sections for a novel with no idea where they will fit into the finished book. I'm not like that.

Poems are different. I can fiddle with lines and images for months, and a poem can change direction many times, material can be scrounged from many sources. But as I said, I don't write much poetry these days and that's a sadness for me. The last really good poems I wrote were around the birth of my son, and none of those have seen the light of day yet. I need another half a book, or perhaps I should work on a chapbook of those. I became a bit discouraged by something another poet did, or didn't do, a long time ago, and I've never quite gotten over it. I moved away from the form rather than face it head-on. Which is terrifically vague of me, and so unfair, but that's all I'll say.

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

I really enjoy readings. More and more, in fact. Some of that has to do with believing the work will stand up to scrutiny. And I guess I like the attention it gets for the book, and maybe for me too. I don't want to toil away forever in obscurity. Having people know who I am, and saying positive things about me, takes me one step closer to being able to concentrate full-time on the writing again. A reading is bald-faced promotion, I know, but if you take it seriously, it's also an art show. I think it can be real entertainment. Not enough writers take this part of it seriously. Most readings are boring and if the writing is good that's a real shame.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kind of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

As I get older I become more interested in how to construct a narrative that is capable of immersing the reader totally. And so I do study voice and characterization and plot etc more seriously than I used to. James Wood's The Art of Fiction (I think that's the title) is a marvelous primer for that sort of thing. I am experimenting all the time, but I'm not as interested in experimental prose as I used to be.

I set challenges for myself. With this book I wanted to try to write half the book in the first person from a woman's point of view, for instance. Could I pull that off? Could I write in that person's voice when she is in her twenties and then make her believable when she's in her seventies? Would I lose the reader by alternating between her voice and her husband's every few pages? Would the reader pick sides and end up bored half the time? So there are these risks I take. Hurdles I want to put in front of myself.

But the two paragraphs above are at odds with each other, I realise. I want to write immersive prose but also set myself challenges and put obstacles in the way, I said. Perhaps the way I reconcile those ideas is by seeing each book as a preparation for the next. I take what I have learned from this book -- about my own capabilities and shortcomings, as well as the readers' willingness to indulge me -- and apply them to the next project. One day I'll write the world's perfect dream.

I've also been reading lately about the different ways we read when we read from a computer screen or some sort of e-reader. I'm concerned about what those devices will do to our ways of reading, and to the choices we will make, but there's nothing yet that makes me want to change the way I write. I think writing for an audience, or for a device, is the surest way I know to abject failure.

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 don't, in most instances, think the writer has much of a role. If any person with a voice chooses not to speak out in the presence of atrocity, or horror, or simple injustice, then I think that represents a failure. But that sentiment doesn't just apply to writers. There's nothing special about us. And I don't really want the airwaves to be filled with the wafflings of bad writers either.

I think in retrospect we will see that writers reflect the concerns of the world in their art, just as films do (all the UFO flicks in the 50s, etc), but you can't bring that knowledge to bear on the work. The only responsibility a writer has is to his/her own work. If it's no good, make it better.

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

I've worked with Michael Holmes on three books now and it's always been a delight.We're good friends too, and that helps. But I trust him. He cares about the work and so I want to hear what he has to say. I hang on his every word. The book is his as well as mine.

I had a different sort of experience with another of my books and that made the process much less enjoyable. There are turns in that book that mystify me to this day. I allowed myself to lose control, to lose sight of what was important. I didn't in the end feel as if I'd written my own book. And at other places in the same book I feel I was allowed to get away with crappy writing.

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

I have to think about this one.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

There is more money in prose, of course, and I won't deny that that is part of the appeal. If I'm going to labour for a few years on a project I'd like to get reimbursed for that work. And there is a readership for prose that just isn't there for poetry.

These are shallow, awful answers. But they do go into the mix. I think I might be better at prose. I enjoy them equally, but as I said earlier I lost a bit of interest in the publication of my poetry a while back and while I hope that will change, for now I'm happy to concentrate on the next novel. I know there are others who can keep doing both very well. Steven Heighton springs to mind. He has another amazing novel coming out next spring as well as a collection of poetry that I am convince will turn out to be quite formidable. I don't know how he does that. I don't have enough time to get dressed some mornings, let alone ponder for three days the perfect rhyme. And I'm not being facetious here. I think we desperately need men and women crafting awesome poems. They create the light we need to see. I believe that.

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?

Right now I don't have a writing routine. The Carnivore is out and I'm still reading from that, responding to questions about that book. I also sell real estate full time now, and so there's not much time left over. In the new year my plan is to carve out three or four hours a day (or night) to draft the next book. When I am writing I usually get down to it by nine or ten in the morning, then fiddle around with emails and news sites for a while. But eventually I'll hit my stride and go for three more hours or so. Then I think about whatever I've made for the rest of the day and night, then start again. Because of the real estate job and the two small children I have now, I think this next project will get written to a much more random schedule. That frightens and excites me.

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

I don't tend to stall, once I've got the engine running. I do head down a lot of blind alleys, but I'm okay with that. When I was writing The Carnivore I was offered a house on Martha's Vineyard for a couple of weeks. I wrote my heart out but barely a word made it into the book. It was heartbreaking because the time was so precious and the place so lovely. But you know, it's a better book because I was able to digress and then rein the book in again. (There's a lot of metaphor mixing going on here, so I'm going to stop. That happens when I tire I think. I lean on metaphor and florid prose that doesn't impress anyone very much).

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

As a kid growing up in England I had a gym teacher who would have us run by a pig farm every week, and I've never forgotten that smell or that ritual. I have a strong nostalgic attachment to those times, but it's not the most poetic of reminiscences, is it?

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 the above, yes. I actually read less than I used to. I see patterns everywhere now. The arrangment of tree limbs from trunk to tip is remarkably similar to the way blood flows into a kidney, for instance--from major artery into a thousand increasingly small capillaries; the blood blooms in the organ. And I think it's making those connections that is imprtant to the writing. Anything that makes me think, feel intensely, can be marshalled for inspiration. David is right of course, but I don't think he would claim that it was true every time. And you know, thinking on the fly here, I doubt that it is true for very many poems at all.

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

Michael Holmes. I've talked about him. But his own writing is marvelous. Steve Heighton. His last novel Afterlands might be the finest Canadian novel I've read. Period. A lot of post-war British writers: Amis and McEwen and Parks and Barnes. (I actually leaned on Julian Barnes "Talking it Over" for the structure of The Carnivore. Richard Ford. DeLillo, Ted Hughes. Older Ondaatje. All guys, I know and I'm sorry about that, but these are the names that float fastest to the surface.

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

Corny, but I need to travel more. I haven't seen nearly enough of the world. I don't want my children to be able to say the same thing.

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?

Well I sell houses now and I'm okay with that. I don't know if I ever expected to save the world, or rule it, and now I've found something that allows me to stay out of an office, and lets me listen to my music in a nice (not too big) car, and also to think freely and to pay my bills. It's really not a bad way to make a living if practiced with integrity and hard work. And I think I can carve out enough time soon to write another book as well. And I can't ask for much more than that. Or I can, but it'll just make me bitter and angry, and my partner has had enough of that from my years as a singleminded poet.

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

I don't know.

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

I'm reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City right now, and that's pretty great. As are poetry collections I have on the go by David O'Meara and by Damian Rogers. And I was talking yesterday to someone about Vinterberberg's The Celebration, which is a fantastic film, and the talk made me want to see that again soon. But I'm halfway through watching Star Trek and hey, that's pretty damn good too, in it's own way and on its own terms. It's not the answer a film major's supposed to give maybe, but there you have it.

20 - What are you currently working on?

As I said, I'm trying to decide what the next novel will be about. I've been thinking about a fictional tell-all. Reading about Andre Agassi's hair pieces and meth experiments has got me intrigued. Not so much about him but about what it is in us that craves so much these lurid details. Do these details have to be attached to a public figure, and stand in contrast to what we knew before the confessions, or can anyone create a wild history for themselves and have that catch the public's eye. Hmm. I don't know.

That or a real estate novel. But Richard Ford's books will put me to shame in that department and so I'll have to devise a new angle. I'm also editing a short story I quite like, and this interview has got me thinking again about those poems I wrote for my son, so I might go back to those too.

[Mark Sinnett reads in Ottawa on Saturday afternoon, 5pm, at the Manx Pub as part of the Plan 99 Reading Series]

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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