Sunday, October 16, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Leo Brent Robillard

Leo Brent Robillard’s most recent novel is entitled, Drift.  Set in South Africa during the Second Boer War, it raises questions about why and how we come to fight wars in far flung places – be it in defense of ideals or in quest for economic gain. These issues – all too relevant today -- are handled intimately through the journey of two prairie boys, an Australian nurse, and a South African balloonist, as they drift together in the blast furnace of the Great Karoo.  Robillard is also the author of Leaving Wyoming and Houdini’s Shadow. The former was listed in Bartley’s Top Five in the Globe & Mail for Best First Fiction of 2005.  The latter was eventually translated into Spanish.  His work has appeared in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies at home and abroad, including CV2, The Fiddlehead, Grain, Prairie Fire, Queen’s Quarterly, and Verge.  He lives on Lake Eloida in south-eastern Ontario with his wife and two children.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Although I was wrong to think this, I did not consider myself as a “writer” until the first book was published.  In reality, I see now that I was a writer as early as the of ten.  My most recent novel is the most accessible work I’ve done.  It does not take the narrative risks evident in my first two boos; but that is simply due to the particular demands of the story, and not to any purposeful shift in aesthetic.  The style too – though still concerned with poetry and language – is more direct and urgent.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I came to fiction through poetry, in the way that so many Canadian writers have.  I think of Ondaatje or Steven Heighton.  I was publishing poetry in the literary press a decade before my novel was released.  But if you read those poems, they are essentially narrative in structure.  I view that period as an apprenticeship with language.  I was telling very short stories, cloaked in a thin veil of poetry.

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?
At any given moment I am at work on a number of different projects – toiling obsessively over one until I am exhausted with it; resting; and then throwing myself into another.  I am definitely a “fits and starts” writer.  I have a series of notebooks carefully kept in frightening disarray which are essentially a catalogue of everything I have done for the last fifteen years.

4 - Where does 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?
Book.  For sure.  Although many of these books are the end result of a single scene or image.  Leaving Wyoming was the result of a five-minute freewrite that lay dormant in one of my notebooks for years.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Today I only read from finished work.   So I cannot say that readings are part of my creative process.  But I love them.  A favourable audience reaction makes the years of crafting worthwhile.  Writing has to be about the sharing.

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?
Stylistically, I believe in the adage “express yourself beautifully.” But language must work for the story and not the other way around.  A story must compel; language drives the compulsion.  Philosophically, all three of my novels to date, and others that I am tackling now, all deal in some way with fate, desire, obsession, and free will.  People are often at the mercy of their history, but I see room even here for individual determination.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I look to other writers.  I pull books off the bookshelf and read random passages.  This gives me the confidence to return to work.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Peppermint lifesavers.  A cold winter jacket.

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 have at one time or another influenced my work.  However, hiking in the mountains (the Adirondacks, in particular), or in the forest of the Canadian shield, or even just a long quiet walk...nothing compares to these things.  People don’t experience enough quiet these days; reflection, thought.

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

This could easily become a list without end.  Lately, however, I am learning something altogether new from the work of Cormac McCarthy.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Hike the Chilkoot Trail.

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 am a teacher, and I always will be.

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

Was there a choice?

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: Blood Meridian.  Film: No country For Old Men.  Was that cheating?

20 - What are you currently working on?
World Peace.  Along with a couple of novels.

Robillard launches his new novel on Saturday, October 22, 7:00 pm at the Joshua Bates Centre, 1 Main Street West, Athens, ON; he appears at the ottawa small press book fair on November 5, 2011.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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