No Escape from Greatness, was nominated for multiple awards. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker, a physical scientist with Health Canada, and an avid golfer.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Oh man. It was a crazy time! I mean, pre-2020 crazy, of course... like a thing would happen that I had never experienced before, and it was a combination of anxious and exciting, not just foreboding, and there was actual hope, and sometimes that hope would turn into something positive, just enough to give you faith that things were going okay, and you didn't need to watch a news channel to see if the world was ending that day. I got to meet David Suzuki and Bif Naked! I went to an awards banquet (in-person!) and I was one of the nominees, not just an observer. I mean, I still get to feel like an outsider and imposter, but that's just because I'm me.
No Escape from Greatness was a concept I had developed as a tv series, then adapted to a novel. I had just come from two years working with the writers of the acclaimed TV series Less Than Kind, and I see in hindsight that I was very much inspired by the people I was working with. Greatness was also an ode to my old hometown of Virden, Manitoba, and my grandfather, who owned a restaurant there for many years.
For Still Me, it was a novel from its conception. I went for it. I tried to dump my soul into it, as though it's my last novel. I'm very excited to share it with people to see if it moves them as much as it moved me. It's certainly not as comedic. But what better time to write a book that takes place entirely on golf courses! Everybody's golfing during COVID times! This one draws inspiration from my uncle and father-in-law.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I wrote my first novel in Grade 3. I just always liked writing books and telling stories. The medium changes, from comics to TV to movies, but the story is the story. It's about understanding the most complicated things, and I'm a big believer that you can lie to uncover the most profound truths. After a third-life crisis some years ago, I tried to chase the Hollywood screenwriting dream. I had a feature in development with a Hollywood production company, but it was languishing, so I decided to take that screenplay and adapt it into a novel. I learned a lot from that exercise (and self-published a book called Zombie Princess Apocalypse).
Nowadays, when my day job permits it, I try to develop one fiction project, one film project, and one TV project at all times. I also edit fiction and screenwriting.
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 am a big believer in The Vomit Draft... but that first draft only comes after every plot point has been outlined. My absolute favourite part of story design is putting cards on corkboard. So my process starts with a workable logline, and from that one sentence I try to get a sense of the characters, and then off to the corkboard we go. Once the bones are there, I just let things fly. The internal editor goes to Hawaii. I spill words out everywhere. So my first is not THE first draft. It's Draft Zero. A few months later, I may have a first draft.
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?
To me, the medium must hold a special property that lends itself to that particular story. I do ask myself "why should this project be a novel/film/series/comic book/videogame?" at some point in the process. It's not just about length. The greatest comic book writer of all time, Alan Moore, taught me that you must always try to have your story take the medium in a new direction. That is the ultimate challenge.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I can do them. I love connecting with people who want to see and hear from me. I would much rather talk with them than do a reading, but I'm happy to serve up something the audience expects. Once I'm out there promoting, it feels like I'm wearing the "book promoter" hat, and it's tough to get into a creative headspace during that phase of the baby's life. Book! I meant book.
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 definitely want to be open to the zeitgeist when I'm telling a story. Usually I am answering the question, "Jeff, why do you feel this way? Can you not just be in touch with your emotions without having to fictionalize them and try to make an audience feel the same? Is your longing for connection so intense that you must seek it through the connection between artist and audience?"
So no, not really.
For Still Me, the questions are about as big as they can get, and I hope I have made the act of golfing a symbol for something much larger than a good walk spoiled. Because I love golfing.
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 have to be careful about what I say here. And that tells you everything you need to know about the writer in today's society. We've completely forgotten McLuhan. What is the message Twitter has for us, or Instagram? Is it any surprise that people just take facts and bend them to support whatever feeling they have at the time? We've turned reason on its head and put narcissism on a pedestal. Journalism is near death. These are sad times for the writer.
I am definitely a supporter of The Letter on Justice and Open Debate that Atwood, Rowling and 150 others signed. The western world rushed to the aid of Salman Rushdie when he wrote The Satanic Verses. Nowadays, I suspect that type of material would be held at the gate. We'd never see it print for fear of reprisal. To be a writer that doesn't conform is to be both courageous and stupid in 2020. Hopefully we find our way back to lengthy, reasoned debate again. This is one reason why I wrote a book about golf.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love it. Love, love, love it. Yes, it's my name on the cover, and yes, I did come up with the concept and execute a version of it, but a team made Still Me: A Golf Tragedy in 18 Parts. Kimmy Beach was fantastic to work with. She challenged me in new ways, and for that I will be forever grateful. The same goes for the Turnstone Press crew, as well! Sharon Caseburg had several early notes that created whole new dimensions for the book.
The process is essential, and I knew it after I self-published a novel that desperately needed an edit and didn't receive one. I am a big believer in that back-and-forth to elevate the project and make it connect with readers. I have told several people in the past that, when you're doing it right, it's a lot like curling - when the skip is yelling "off!" and the third is yelling "hard!" it means you're getting close to the target. Those back-and-forth exchanges are the bunsen burner that creates a new chemistry within the work. Or alchemy? One second, I need an editor ...
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
So much to choose from. While I'm no fan of the screenwriting education industry and endless thousand-dollar seminars, I am a disciple of Robert McKee's Story. He speaks of writing "from the inside out." I always try to do that. Plot means nothing. Story means everything. If you want to explore a theme, you start with the inner lives of your characters. If you want to write a 90-minute commercial for a Hollywood license, like Emojis or Go-Bots, then you write from the outside in.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (screenplays to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I touched on it a bit earlier - I visualize pretty heavily, so I probably start in a position that is more conducive to screenwriting than fiction writing. But the story dictates the medium. The biggest difference (and a piece of advice I pass along to people) is that there's an extra camera angle available to the novelist: Extreme Close-Up Inside Mind. And that can get you closer to the soul.
Film, TV and books are each different and similar. Some things cross over. But it's all story. I'm developing an arcade game with some friends right now, and the same principles apply. They are story principles with obligatory things that pertain to the medium.
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?
I go in waves. I do have a day job but I like to write with a clean mental slate, so that means getting up before the sun and writing for maybe two hours, or three. Editing comes later in the day. But that is peak efficiency, and I do a large portion of my annual writing production in a two-week span, at our summer cottage retreat. NaNoWriMo is a great kickstarter in November, too, when the winter blahs start to set in. So I wouldn't say I have a typical day, but I do have a typical year. When I am drafting, I work every single day. Then I take a Playstation break. I tend to read non-fiction when I'm drafting fiction, because I don't want to have another author's language seep into my writing. But for movies, I'll watch similar movies. Input takes place at night. Weird, huh?
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I hit the road. Wandering, both physically and mentally, is what lets me think deeply enough. I'll have a half-nap and try to induce some theta thought to daydream, if I'm working on a specific scene or story problem and can't crack it. But the big stuff, the story ideas, almost exclusively come when I'm not home. I miss you, airplanes! But Manitoba has lots of scenic drives. Now I want to take one.
I don't believe in writer's block. I believe in procrastination. The way you do it is to just do it. You start with one word, then you write another. You set goals that are achievable. It can be 300 words a day, or 3,000, but you set a target and forgive yourself if you are spent.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Onions melting in butter. Rosemary, maybe. Wet cat food.
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?
Part of my imposter syndrome is fed by my lack of voracity when it comes to reading books. I probably get through four novels a year from front to back, though I may start many more. But I read all day, every day. I do love surrealist art. I grew up on visual storytelling as much as fiction. I love a good comic book with a moving or consciousness-expanding story. With the help of my daughter, I'm finding more video games that move me as well. We're finishing The Last of Us, Part II right now. It has moved me to tears. I used to be the lead singer of a grunge band, back when I had hair. Music is a huge influence on me. I just like making stuff.
Studying people and trying to understand how they are (and how I are) is my true passion. I have a face problem: I can remember just about every face I've come across. I remember people who don't remember me. I unconsciously seek familiarity in faces, scanning constantly. A shopping mall can be tiring for me, but also very rewarding if I see people I recognize. I've learned not to approach, though! I have surprised more than one person who didn't recognize me. "Hey, it's me! We kissed in the schoolyard in Grade 3, thirty-seven years ago. How are you?"
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
How do you narrow it down to just a few? Preston Sturges, Alan Moore, the Tao I Ching, Sark, Neil Gaiman, Sidney Lumet, David Mamet, Miriam Toews, Stanley Kubrick, Rachel Carson, Karen Connelly, Kimmy Beach ... so many.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I have a travel to-do list that is currently on hold and languishing. I would like to golf at several of the golf courses I wrote about in Still Me. I would like to start a social enterprise that leaves a positive legacy in my community. I'd like to see how my daughter turns out.
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 probably like to own a restaurant, even though my grandfather made me swear never to do it. "It'll drive you drinking," he said. And he would know.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have to write. When I don't write, I get this throat chakra clog where I just feel a tension all the time, like I'm choking. I become surly and withdrawn. Writing is my way to navigate the world, both outside and inside my head/heart connection.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book: Grandmother, Laughing by Armin Wiebe.
Last great film: I saw Parasite the day before I saw Marriage Story. I'll call it a tie. Haven't seen a great movie since the lockdown! Please help!
Last great television series: Umbrella Academy
20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a few things on the go, as you do, but I've been working with my 15-year-old daughter on a horror-comedy during the lockdown. It's about killer dad jokes. She's been keeping track of mine :)
12 or 20 (second series) questions;