Tuesday, June 30, 2020

today would have been my mother's eightieth birthday

and I recently found this book while working through sorting and cleaning the homestead. A photograph of their wedding, September 1967, that I hadn't seen before; held at the church right across the street from where we currently live (this is not why we live here, promise; that is just a happy accident).

Monday, June 29, 2020

Black Lives Matter : above/ground press chapbook give-away,

I thought it would be interesting to select a handful of titles from the above/ground press backlist for a Black Lives Matter chapbook giveaway, as a way to use our resources to provide our support in tangible ways (we have also donated monies, as we’ve been able), and to help further amplify the work of some writers of colour the press has produced over the years. So, read up on resources to donate to in the link: https://linktr.ee/NationalResourcesList (thanks to Khashayar Mohammadi for providing the original link); and, after donating (no proof required) $5 or more, I’ll send you a chapbook of your choice from the list below; if you donate $25 or more, I’ll send you a handful of titles, if you wish.

Poetry chapbook give-away titles in this give-away include: Solitude is an Acrobatic Act (2020) by Khashayar Mohammadi; Furigraphic Horizons (2019) by Hawad, translated from the French by Jake Syersak; from The Book of Bramah (2019) by Renée Sarojini Saklikar; After the Battle of Kingsway, the bees— (second printing, 2019) by Renée Sarojini Saklikar; Open Island, three poems (2017) by Faizal Deen; CONCEALED WEAPONS / ANIMAL SURVIVORS (2018) by natalie hanna; dark ecologies (2017) by natalie hanna; G U E S T [a journal of guest editors] #9 (2020), edited by natalie hanna; and ANGELTONGUE / LENGUA DE ÁNGEL (2018) by Miguel E. Ortiz Rodríguez.

First come, first served! And while supplies last, obviously. I’ve twenty or more of all but natalie hanna’s earlier chapbook on hand for this give-away. I had hoped, as well, to be able to include copies of either of Jordan Abel’s above/ground press titles, or either of George Elliott Clarke’s above/ground press titles, but I simply haven’t enough copies of any of those. If you are able to donate and wish to let me know, send me an email to rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com with your mailing address, and your requested title(s). I will keep running this until all of the chapbooks in this box by my desk is empty!

Could above/ground press be better at producing works by writers of colour? Oh, certainly. There’s plenty of room for improvement. I will do my best to do better.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Morgan Murray

Morgan Murray was born and raised on a farm near the same backwoods west-central Alberta village (Caroline) as figure-skating legend Kurt Browning. He now dads, works, plays, writes, and builds all sorts of crooked furniture on a farm in the backwoods of Cape Breton, where he lives with his wife, cartoonist Kate Beaton, their daughter, Mary, Agnes the dog, and Reggie the cat. In between, he has been a farmer, a rancher, a roustabout, a secretary, a reporter, a designer, a Tweeter, a schemer, a variety show host, and a student in Caroline, Calgary, Paris, Prague, Montreal, Chicoutimi, and St. John’s. He pieces of paper attesting to his competence from the University of Calgary, the University of Economics, Prague, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and a participation ribbon for beef calf showmanship (incomplete) from the Little Britches 4-H Club, Caroline, Alberta. His writing has showed up in The Scope, The Walrus, Newfoundland Quarterly, Echolocation, and some other places. His short story "KC Accidental" was a winner of the Broken Social Scene Story Contest in 2013, and was anthologized in Racket: New Writing from Newfoundland in 2015. His first novel, Dirty Birds was published by Breakwater Books in May 2020. He made a website to mark the occasion where you can find out more, morganmurray.ca.

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

This is my first book so I can’t say for sure, but I assume this will make me super rich and famous and allow me to buy a super yacht and a private island and an NBA team. That is what writers do with their winnings, right?

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

I did and I didn’t start with fiction. I read and was read to a lot as a kid. All kinds of stuff, poetry, fiction, non-fiction (a lot of ghost-written hockey player autobiographies). The first thing I wrote that anyone ever said was okay was fiction, a story that won a contest in grade two “Chester, Harry, Dong and Jack Get the Bulldog Bullies” (real title, I swear). The first thing I ever published was a poorly written French article about the history of the Canadian Air Force between the world wars (I purposely picked the most boring period as a flimsy protest against the military industrial comp ex, rawr!) for an Air Force Base newspaper in Northern Quebec where I worked one summer. The first creative thing I published was a “poem” called “Zapf Dingbats,” which was literally just a list of fonts from my computer in the U of T’s literary journal (I sent them real poems too, but they only liked the font one). Since then I’ve published academic papers, performed poetry and stand-up, was a journalist for a couple years, live-tweeted hockey games for a while (which is a great writing exercises, I swear), made a smell map of St. John’s, wrote a novel in a weekend for fun (it wasn’t), wrote a pile of book reviews, wrote a series of open letters to politicians, wrote an absurdist political play, and had one short story anthologized twice. So, my writing has all over the place and most of it hasn’t been fiction. But, even though I’ve started off madly writing in all directions, and probably will continue that way, long fiction, I think, has potentially the most powerful of all forms. In another interview once upon a time I somehow came up with the nugget that a good essay can change your mind, but a good story can change your life, and I really believe that.

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?

The writing part, the actual putting words on a page, usually comes pretty quickly. The first draft of Dirty Birds came together in a few months of evenings and weekends in Fall 2018. But that was mostly just typing interspersed with a bit of hand-wringing when I wrote myself into a corner. But, sadly, and something no one tells you on career day in junior high, writing isn’t just typing. It includes all the other stuff before, during and after the typing. So, writing Dirty Birds, a book about a foolish bumpkin who wants to be a poet in Montreal began when I myself was a foolish bumpkin wanting to be a poet in Montreal a dozen years ago. Then it took years to get to the point where I had enough to say about it to fill a book, and years to find the courage and permission to write a book, and then years to figure out what and who a book could be about, then figure out who those made-up people are, and then figuring out what things might happen to those made-up people, and then the typing, and then the editing… The neverending editing. I’m sure there is a more efficient way to do it, but that’s how it sort of worked out for me. This all makes it sound like writing is an impossible hard thing. But it’s not. It’s actually a lot of fun making stuff up. It’s feeling brave without risk. It’s just that a novel, for me anyway, is a big thing to hold in your head at one time for a long time.

4 - Where does a 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?

Most of my short stories begin with a line or a gimmick of some kind (“KC was hit by a bus...”) and riff on that until arriving at some kind of punch line, maybe. Other times they’re bits of longer things that I pick up off the cutting room floor and make into their own thing. Dirty Birds though was meant to be a book from the very beginning, as much as a newb like me could have meant it to be. I had no idea how to write a book, but I was in a writing group (Port Authority FTW!) and it demanded I write regularly, so, because it was based on a lot of my own experiences, I made a list of like 40 things that happened to me in Montreal that might be bookable and started writing those as scenes. I did maybe a dozen, in first person, including a few that were stolen from contemporaneous blog posts I wrote in real time back in 2007-08, when blogs were sort of a thing people sort of did. Then I didn’t know what the heck I had. Then I went through a hideous break up and didn’t write a word for over a year. Then a publisher asked if I had a novel and I foolishly said yes. Then I had to come up with a novel. Then I met with Lisa Moore. She had a coffee, I had all of her wisdom and encouragement. Then my sister came to visit me in Newfoundland and we went to St. Pierre, the tiny French Island, for a three days, but found out there were only two days’ worth of things to see and do there (totally worth it, btw), so on the third day I dug out the notebook I carried with me everywhere for years and we sat by a lighthouse and spit-balled ideas and came up with a very basic plot for a very silly book. Then I wrote a play, fell in love, quit my job, moved away, got another job, and did everything but write a book. But the publisher kept calling and asking about this novel, so I finally agreed to publish it and said I’d have the manuscript in a few months. Then I did more of everything but write a book. Then panicked. Then sat down and read what I had already written, and it wasn’t very good, and it certainly wasn’t a book. So, instead of trying to figure out polish that turd, I just sat down and started writing from the beginning to the end. And that took a few months in between working and babies and life and here we are.

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

Readings are really weird when you think about them too hard (but what isn’t?). A thing is made by someone alone in a room, put out in the world hidden between two covers, people pick it up and read it, usually alone in a room, and then every so often they all get together to perform this secret thing. It’s like a special kind of introvert hell. But they can be a lot of fun (or not), and I’ve always enjoyed them and thought that the sort of immediate response to the material was an important sort of feedback. Plus, I try and write in a certain way and with a certain cadence to come close to well spoken words, poetry even. Plus, plus, I talk/read aloud to myself a lot as I write and edit. So yeah, I guess readings fit with all that. I hope we can have them again once the world is done ending and we can leave our homes again.

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 pretty much only have theoretical concerns behind my writing. 

How much time do you got? 

For the most part, everything swirls around trying to figure out how to become and be a decent human being in the world. Not in a prescriptive way, I don’t care if you make your bed or not, but more of an account of my own muddling through.

With Dirty Birds in particular, it's basically that, but with a particular focus on the question of what it means to become an adult these days—such as I am trying to accomplish, here, still, 37 years into the project. 

My brother is secretly a great philosopher, and he says he was 17 for 17 years, and calls those 17 years his “shithead years.” Those years when you’re young and dumb and do whatever you want and shirk any and all responsibility. From what I can tell, the shithead years used to be the weekend between high school graduation and having your first kid. But now it drags on through most of your twenties, through university, through a year abroad, through grad school, through a year as a poet-barista living with 15 roommates in Mile End, on into your early 30s if you’re any good at it.  Dirty Birds is basically A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Shithead. It follows a few of the shithead years of a young dummy named Milton Ontario from the middle-of-nowhere, Saskatchewan. He graduates with a phony arts degree from a made up Moose Jaw university and moves to Montreal to become the next Leonard Cohen. Hijinks ensue. 

It’s a coming of age story, but coming of age is different now than it was before. Everything’s been distorted and delayed by a lot of different things, so we don’t grow up like they used to. I said elsewhere that Milton is basically a spunky redhead orphan but instead of being 13 he’s 23 and instead of Green Gables it’s the Plateau and instead of finding salvation in God and tea biscuits and a good husband (or whatever), it’s trying to find salvation in heroes or art or fame or money or power or violence or, or, or a lot of places it isn’t anymore because things are different, and so how does someone navigate all of that and come out the other side a decent human and not a, to borrow a Newfoundland-ism, juice arse? And how, especially, do you do all that now that things are starting to change a little bit for a privileged-as-sin white cis dude who for ages has been given free reign to be as big of juice arse as they please while being allowed to run things without question? Not that white dudes aren't still running around being juice arses and running the planet into the ground, just now there seem to be more questions being asked and the old ways we all, and white dudes especially, made sense of the world and learned how to be in the world, don't hold up anymore. Now what? So I wanted to ponder those questions, which are pretty serious, but I pondered them with a lot of ridiculousness and bad jokes. It's a good time. Although, this was all before the world began to end and we all got locked in our houses for the rest of time. So I will rewrite this when the pandemic passes about what's left of us.

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?

Stories have always sort of showed different ways or asked different questions or punched us in the nose about who we are and what we are at. They’re the way we talk about things that are too big or too difficult or too awkward to talk about head on. The point we are at now is trying to figure out, like I said above, what comes after the old stories don’t hold up anymore. After the God from our childhood is dead. And there is so much great and important storytelling going on right now, especially by people telling the stories of all those who had been overlooked or ignored or stomped on by our previous stories. Post-modernity--the breakdown of the old stories--isn’t an accident of history, it’s the long and agonizing dismantling of oftentimes oppressive or damaging stories by women and people of colour and indigenous people and LBGTQ people and others and the environment who have been hurt or held back by how things have been, and in many ways continue to be. I agree with Martin Luther King Jr. about how the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. Things are, in many ways, getting better. But, in many others, not. There is a lot of work left for everyone to do in continuing to push for a more open, just, kind, and decent world for everyone. And stories and storytellers are absolutely vital in this work. And for an average straight white guy like me who’s been given every advantage without having to so much as ask for it, I need to work at figuring out how, at the very least, not to be an asshole about it, and even better if I can use my unearned advantage to do some move that arc a few more degrees towards justice. So, if I’m going to write about it, I need to figure out how to do it in a way that adds good to the world. In far fewer words, the role of the writer (like everyone) is to not be an asshole. Bonus points for some good poop jokes. 

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

Editing is essential and it can be wonderful. No matter how awesome you and your mom think this thing you wrote might be, it probably isn’t as awesome as it could be. So a good editor will not only help you fix your mistakes, but make your writing better. And who doesn’t want to be better?

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

It’s a four-way tie between three fairly self-explanatory gems from my dad--“if you don’t eat you don’t poop, if you don’t poop, you die,” “play safe with the dynamite,” and “every day’s not Disneyland”--and something that Zita Cobb (the tech millionaire who built a 5-star hotel on a barren rock in the middle of the frigid North Atlantic on Fogo Island) said her old boss said at a talk I saw her give one time, which is “the most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing.” I think all of those are both great life advice and writing advice.

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?

I wish I had a writing routine to get some routine writing done. Until this book sells a billion copies and I own the Utah Jazz, I’m stuck in the wannabe writer hustle of trying to balance a day job that often often follows me a home, a wife, a dog, a furnace that needs firewood, a house that needs renovations, dishes that need done, Netflix that need watched, and a baby that needs everything, all the time. Maybe one day. But until then, I try to work whenever and wherever on whatever I can. I’ve been on parental leave since May, which has been a good chance to do less day job and more writing job (and it also turns out to be a lot like social isolation now that the world has gone into quarantine), which is a nice break from the day job, but turns out babies are a full-time job all by themselves (as I write this I am bouncing her in a bouncy chair with my foot). I think it’s this way for a lot of wannabe writers. Somehow you find the time, and you stick with it, and you get it done. Somehow. 

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

Well, Dirty Birds rattled around in my head for years before it came out. And its journey to being a real live book was peppered with false starts, getting stuck, and redo . But the best help is having a support group. I was fortunate enough to get in with the Port Authority writing gang in St. John’s (Sharon Bala (The Boat People), Melissa Barbeau (The Luminous Sea), Jamie Fitzpatrick (The End of the Music), Carrie Ivardi, and Susan Sinnott (Catching the Light)), who not only helped make me a better writer, but helped me feel like writer was something I can be. I’m also married to a genius artist (Kate Beaton), so being around her as she makes magic every day is a gift and an inspiration. But sometimes, even with all this helpful inspiration, you get stuck and can’t figure how to write yourself out of a corner you’ve written yourself into. In which case, I leave it for a while, I obsess over it for a while longer, then I just write something, anything, and fix it later (though, usually it’s fine).

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Cow shit. Nothing makes me more homesick than the smell of cow shit.

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?

I don’ t know about other people, but I’m just a bag of meat animated by a bunch of stories and art I’ve ingested over the years. Everything that comes out is pretty much some mish-mashed version of all of that, some on purpose, some not. And the stuff that inspires me delights me, changes how I see and understand the world, changes how I be an animated bag of meat in the world, gives me courage, makes me laugh. Just to name a very few: My wife and Dr. Seuss and Gordon Korman and Will Ferguson and Lisa Moore and Kurt Vonnegut and Franz Kafka and Robert Caro (he’s been writing Linden Johnson’s autobiography for nearly 50 years, it’s something else) and Norman Mailer and a bunch of other writers, but there’s also the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman and Modest Mouse and Wolf Parade too. There’s Monty Python and Mark Tansey (the painter) and David Černy (the sculptor), there’s even some Jean Baudrillard and Vaclav Havel and John Ralston Saul and my Grandma Helen and a whole pile else. And lately, in the wee hours with a baby on my lap, I’ve been watching a pile of Youtube carpentry videos (Andy Rawls and Frank Howarth are where it’s at these days).  It’s a real brain soup, my bag of meat.

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

I think I mentioned most by name above. How about a “reading” list?
Kate Beaton: Hark! A Vagrant
Dr. Seuss: Hop on Pop
Will Ferguson: Why I Hate Canadians
Lisa Moore: February
Kurt Vonnegut: Breakfast of Champions
Franz Kafka: “Before the Law,” The Trial
Robert Caro: The Path to Power
Norman Mailer: Of a Fire on the Moon
The Coen Brothers: No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink
Charlie Kaufman: Adaptation
Mark Tansey: “Action Painting II
David Černy: “Babies” or “Piss
Jean Baurdrillard: “Simulacra and Simulation
John Ralston Saul: Reflections of a Siamese Twin
Frank Howarth: “Building the Woodshop

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

Get Dirty Birds done and out into the world first. Other than that, my wife and I just had our first baby and bought a farm. So pretty much everything now is something I haven’t done yet. Which is lucky, because it looks like we’ll be stuck here for the foreseeable future.

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?

When does one graduate to officially being a “writer”? I’m still waiting for an NHL team to call me up and give me a shot. In the meantime, I’ve worked in University public engagement and regional economic development for the past eight-ish years as my day job, which isn’t the worst. With a farm now, if this writing racket don’t pan out, I suppose I can raise alpacas or something.

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

Honestly? Mostly because I’m scared of death. How then do you avoid just becoming worm food? You have to leave some trace behind. So I’m trying to be a good dad so my daughter will remember me fondly when I’m gone (not for a long while, I hope), and also leave a pile of words that will outlive me. Words about what though? Well, whenever me or my brother or sister would do something shitty my mom would shake her head and say “shame, shame, shame, shame, SHAAAAAME.” Five times. Sort of sing-song-like. It was like daggers through your heart. The worst. Avoiding that is pretty simple, don’t be shitty. Be a good person. Be decent. Be kind. Be loving. Make the world better by being in it. Which is not easy at all, it turns out. But, maybe, if you’re trying to cheat death by leaving something behind you can leave behind your testimony of trying not to be shitty, of trying to figure out how to make the world better by being in it. Others have done weirder things. So, who knows? And why do it with writing? Mostly because I somehow developed a knack for it. I’m debilitatingly shy and it’s something I can do alone, something that can make me feel brave and clever even though I’m being neither, I’m just sitting there, alone in a room, writing poop jokes like it’s an act of genius valor. And, like I said above, writing can be a really powerful thing, so maybe it will matter for something to someone at some point somehow. All of which, I think , is pretty much exactly what Orwell said in “Why I Write”—ego, beauty, history, politics. Orwell, man, I don’t know why any of us even bother after that guy.

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

I’m a very promiscuous reader. I’m probably reading 20 books right now, and have been reading some of them for years, and probably won’t ever finish half of them. But the last one I felt the need to finish as quick as possible was Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles. It was an incredibly powerful and important book. Every school child and politician in Newfoundland and Labrador should read it. And so should you. The last great movie I watched was probably Parasite. It lived up to the hype, and then some.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Mostly trying to get Dirty Birds out the door to the printer’s in time. That and keep this baby happy. That and get moved to this farm. That and finish the neverending renovations on our old place so we can sell it. That and get  a woodshop set up so I can build us a dining room table. That and survive this pandemic. That and, and, and… But, when all that is done, I want to do something about Stephan G. Stephansson—one of the greatest poets who ever lived, perhaps the greatest Canadian poet who ever lived, and certainly the greatest poet you’ve never heard of. He was an Icelandic immigrant farmer who lived in Alberta for most of his life. I grew up right down the road from his homestead. He was a great poet, community builder, and a fairly important pacifist thinker during WWI. He should be crazy famous, but, the catch, he wrote in Icelandic, so no one in Canada really knows who he is (he is better known in Iceland, but still, he wrote mostly about his life in Alberta). I don’t know what exactly I’ll write about him, something fictional I think, but not sure yet. So there’s that. And about a million other things rattling around in my head. But first, finish Dirty Birds.