Brent van Staalduinen lives, works, and finds his voice in Hamilton. SAINTS, UNEXPECTED, his novel of urban magical realism, will be published by Invisible Publishing in the spring of 2016. His stories appear or are forthcoming in The Sycamore Review, Prairie Fire Magazine, The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, The Prairie Journal, EVENT Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, The New Quarterly, Litro Magazine, The Nottingham Review, and Urban Graffiti. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, he also holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and teaches writing at Redeemer University College.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m at a very interesting point in the release schedule for SAINTS, UNEXPECTED, which will be released on April 15. I’ve sold the book, done all the major revisions, and am just now choosing a final design for the cover. So the short answer is that I’m almost able to hold the final version of my debut novel in my hands, which is the culmination of my writing aspirations thus far, and so incredibly exciting I sometimes have trouble believing that my novel, my words, sweat, and tears, will soon be out there in the wild.
The longer answer is that on a day-by-day, practical level my life hasn’t changed much at all: I still have family to care for, writing to create, my library job to show up at, and life to grab hold of, and I’m finding that those things, those regular efforts and joys, are really the things that are changing my life in measurable quantities. From a writing standpoint, too, I’m seeing real fruits from the overall ground campaign that is my writing life—winning the Bristol Short Story Prize, getting a nod for the Journey Prize, landing regular publications, and so on—and am being changed as an artist as I find success and get better at the “smaller” tasks we work towards. So, yes, life changes, and I’m seeing some success, but at this point the novel’s release feels like another piece—a big piece, of course—of the individual efforts that go into everything else.
That said, ask me again in six months, a year—maybe I’ll have a different perspective when the book has been out there for a little while.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
For me, my first love is fiction, although I’ve been having some remarkable success with my creative nonfiction. In his comments towards my undergrad independent study portfolio fifteen years ago, Hugh Cook, novelist and my former writing instructor (now colleague) at Redeemer, noted in his comments that he had a feeling I’d be finding more success in my fiction than in poetry. He was right. I enjoy poetry, but as an oft-confounded but loyal spectator with cracked binoculars: with prose, I’m staring to realize that I have some skills to offer the team down on the field, and even find myself occasionally in the starting lineup.
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?
In terms of starting, I start when the words start flowing, and this can be immediately or begin, in the case of a few projects, years after conception. Once I’m writing, my pace feels slow, but the more I encounter the writing processes of other writers, it’s actually pretty quick. Mechanically and structurally, I think my drafts hold up well to their final form, although the elements within always, always, always need development and nudging before I can call a draft ready to submit. Like many writers, I have difficulty with calling any of my work finished—some of the better drafts have found some great literary homes, yet the barest sense of self-control keeps me from endlessly monkeying with all of them.
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?
I’m often inspired at odd moments by an image or a phrase, or I find myself reading something that makes me want to get back to my own craft. Unless I abandon them mid-way, which only happens occasionally, products always become what I set out to create: stories become stories, novel manuscripts become novel manuscripts. There’s a shared root, though, to be sure: SAINTS, for example, first appeared in a short story, but the novel’s premise and conflict was created on their own, and it was drafted as a novel from day 1 (as a NaNoWriMo project, incidentally).
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. For three reasons: first, although I’m an introvert, I’m comfortable speaking with people, and my Fanshawe College radio broadcasting training ensures that my voice is moderated and that I measure what I say; second, I don’t write just for myself and love sharing my work with others; and third, it’s a universal truth that we all love having stories read to us—it’s a privilege to do so.
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 love it when my readers talk about the themes they identify in my work, and I’m frequently surprised by what gets found in the characters and conflicts I create. I think this is because I always start with story: discovering what is desired or struggled against, and exploring how those elemental concerns impact the characters. The more tangible and concrete I make the situations and settings, the more meaning can emerge through the experience of the story. I won’t say that I’m never aware of the themes and larger issues as they appear, but I try not to be swayed by them as they’re created. I grew up with morality tales and fables and the didactic tripe that can get passed off as “religious” fiction and have discovered—like many of us—that truths are rarely laid out so neatly. It can go other extreme ways, of course, with writing that is oppressively dark or obscene, so mired against a particular philosophy or issue that only those steeped in that reality can understand it, or so unconventional it becomes opaque. I hope readers find truths in my work, although I refuse to tell them what they are: good writing will always reveal what’s deepest and most meaningful, most often in a mucky and twisted way.
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?
Tell good stories well. Stories matter. Words matter.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. Although in an overall sense I’m an effective self-editor, my blindness to certain tics and flinches in my writing is almost total.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Try to notice and make record of meaningful things. Then put your ass in the chair and write about them.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Between fiction and nonfiction the transition has been steady, if not seamless: good craft and good story translate well to both genres.
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?
Morning is my best creative time, but right now, with a new baby and a toddler in the house, I write when (if) I can.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It’s probably too easy to say good literature, but for me that’s a given: I love seeing what others are doing with words. Specifically to my situation, though, my involvement in projects can be all-consuming, so when I have the chance to breathe and look around, I try to do so as intentionally as possible, and absorb inspiration from life going on around me. So much of what gives my stories colour comes from what gives life its colour.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Frying onions. The smell of simmering spaghetti sauce. Earl Grey tea. Good coffee.
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?
While I avoid overtly including spirituality in my creative work, I’d be a fool if I didn’t acknowledge that my faith informs a large part of who I am and what I do. In my old age, I’ve come to love the liturgical and meditative side of my Christianity: paying attention to the words of belief and the rhythms they inspire. Also, I suppose by extension, I’m drawn to what some might call the supernatural or speculative, but what I’d call the powers that move just beyond our sensory perception: there is a lot happening in the world that isn’t guided by human intent. It’s fascinating to imagine, for example, the machinations of angels, demons, djinn as they move and live in dimensions other than the actual, and what echoes here in the real as a result.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I lean most on contemporary writers for my inspiration, and for the satisfaction I get from how we are writing now (as opposed to how Donne, Bronte, or Dickens wrote, by example), for the muscularity and simplicity we’re seeing in the best new literature.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Make, from scratch, the perfect Thai green curry.
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’d be a jet fighter pilot, no question. But one that lived in the earlier days of flight, when flying and air combat was personal and face to face. Or a Zen garden designer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
At this point, my writing is part of who I am as a whole, which includes family life and responsibilities, working at the Hamilton Public Library, teaching writing at Redeemer University College, attending church and being a part of community, and so on. So I guess there is no “as opposed to” because I love that all my facets reflect and mirror all the others: I’m not sure I’d enjoy life as much if all I did was write.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m 2/3rds of the way through Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis—pure genius—and dread getting to the end. Before that, my top 2015 reads were All True, Not a Lie In It, a novel by Alix Hawley, and Debris, Kevin Hardcastle’s heart-stopping collection of short fiction. Film-wise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has re-ignited the Star Wars geek inside me.
20 - What are you currently working on?
My main project is husbandhood and parenthood these days, so there can’t be enough of that: more time with my girls, soaking in the ineffable and exhausting miracle of Daddyhood. Writing-wise, I actually finished a draft of a short story the other day, which because of editing SAINTS and life getting full, full, full, is my first real new creative output in about six months. Feels divine. I also have BOY, a novel manuscript, to flog to agents and publishers. One of these days I should also put together a short fiction manuscript and capitalize on my recent publishing successes. Write more stories, for sure.
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