Dennis E. Bolen is a novelist, editor, teacher and journalist, first published in 1975 (Canadian Fiction Magazine). He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria (1977) and an MFA (Writing) from the University of British Columbia (1989), and taught introductory Creative Writing at UBC from 1995 to 1997.
In 1989 Mr. Bolen helped establish the international literary journal sub-TERRAIN, and served there as fiction editor for ten years. He has acted as a community editorial board member at The Vancouver Sun, sat on the boards of a literacy advocacy organization, a literary collective and a theatre company. He has written criticism, social commentary, arts advocacy and editorial opinion for numerous journals and newspapers in Canada.
Anticipated Results, short fiction, Arsenal/Pulp, Vancouver, 2011.
Kaspoit!, novel, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2009.
Toy Gun, novel, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2005.
Gas Tank and Other Stories, short fiction, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 1998.
Krekshuns, novel, Random House, Toronto, 1997.
Stand In Hell, novel, Random House, Toronto, 1995.
Stupid Crimes (revised), novel, Vintage, Toronto, 1995.
Stupid Crimes, novel, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 1992.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It wasn’t my first book that changed anything—they just sat there in their boxes, staring up at me—it was the first review of my first book that had an impact. Eve Drobot in the G&M loved Stupid Crimes and made it Editor’s Choice the third week of June, 1992. Within minutes I had an agent, a film deal, a three-book contract at Random House (limo’s from the airport!). Life was good, not that I never made enough money to live on but life was good.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My first writing was poetry, first publication was a poem in my high school graduation year annual. There are poetic elements to my prose—passages in my most recent book have been described as ‘poetic’—and I have never not felt that poetics go to the root of story-telling. These days I work largely in poetry; spent a wonderful ten days this summer in a workshop at Sage Hill; working on a book-length verse chronicle of my youth in the 1960’s.
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 ruminate for years before I put finger to keyboard. Then I write daily and do not stop until I have a first draft (for a novel, 3-6 months). I never throw anything out; if the many subsequent edits require excision I save the discards to use in their inevitable place later/elsewhere in my work. Normally, first drafts are 80% representative of my completed work.
4 - Where does fiction or a poem 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?
Components of things present themselves frequently and it’s been years since anything I did didn’t fit into a larger structure. My latest book Anticipated Results is, to my mind, solidly a novel, though made up of self contained, independently structured short stories. My current poetry compendium pops out of my mind in no particular order.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy reading but suffer the mental-emotional crush of preparation—it’s like writing, I grind through it and enjoy the fact of having done it—and it assists my writing by making manifest the verbal-communicative qualities I strive to create.
I rehearse and prepare my readings with great care. I read immediately upon arrival at the podium; I never introduce/explain a piece; I know my material and understand the moments within; I insure my reading transmits faith in my own words. I often perform with electronic musical accompaniment by my wife, Soressa Gardner; we are a popular hit with the Pandora’s Dream summer fest and the Poetic Justice/Poetry in the Park New Westminster reading series.
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 strive to create entertainment above all; my writing is laden with irony, layered meaning and social activism. I particularly seem to like hammering away at the schism I see between the media–invented world and the way things truly are.
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?
Writers have never been more important and their lives have never been more difficult. Even with grants (I’ve never had one) it’s nigh on impossible to make a living for even the well known odd person who scores a hit early on. And this amid a country which cries out for cultural definition. But nevertheless, writers must soldier on; chronicling, reflecting, discussing and debating life as we experience it, art as we enjoy it, culture as we develop it. Humans need this, whether they pay for it or not.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I wish I could find a book editor who is better than me at book editing. The job doesn't pay much, so it’s unlikely. I was elated recently after an absence of thirty years to be working again in the theatre, and the privilege of working with a masterful dramaturge. Such a pleasure to be able to just listen and make notes, knowing you are in the hands of a talent who will gracefully add to yours.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Joni Mitchell: Don’t ever let anybody make you change your art to fit their conception of what it should be... (paraphrased)
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have from the beginning and of necessity shifted between practice in fiction, journalism, editing, teaching, drama and poetry. I’ve even been a publisher. It’s all of a piece; a true artist can adapt if it suits their purpose. It’s fun not to have to, though.
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?
When I’m writing I get it out of the way as early in the day as possible.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I ignore snags, go and do something else and seldom give it much thought. A day can make such a difference. I’m a big believer in the power of the unconscious, it has so much more oomph than the conscious; overnight it can show you the way.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Fresh sawn wood, any kind.
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?
Modern art. I once sat a whole afternoon—often alone—in the Rothko room at the old Tate Modern, absorbing the vibes. I was an unofficial docent at Peggy Guggenheim's collection in Venice the winter of 2000-01, gave tours of Max Ernst and Kandinsky and Klee etcetera to my Japanese travel friends. I particularly admire the Dada movement, the Impressionists and all the Surrealists. A richly composed painting is equivalent to a novel in my opinion, you just have to look long enough.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I attend as many readings and read as many writings as I can, searching for the perfect practitioner. Presently there are few alive who transcend; but the American novelists still impress: Pete Dexter and Don DeLillo (early works), Ron Hansen, McCarthy, Elroy; one Canadian, Tom Rachman.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Russia to see the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
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?
Dang, I’m just so happy being who I am now, can’t think of anything for this question.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing chooses you, not the other way around.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
A Farewell To Arms changed my thinking about what literature could do. Woody’s Manhattan did the same re film.
20 - What are you currently working on?
The above mentioned poetry saga of my growing up on the west coast during the uptight sixties (as yet untitled); plus, through the wonderful aegis of the Playwrights Theatre Centre on Granville Island, a stage adaptation of my Missing Women novel Kaspoit!.
12 or 20 (second series) questions: