Thursday, February 08, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Trevor Mahon

Born in northern Ontario, Trevor Mahon now calls Ottawa home. Having spent his childhood in a half-dozen Ontario towns, which taught him how to avoid wearing out his welcome, he lives with his wife and son in the suburbs and can often be found indoors or outdoors, but almost never in the ducts of an office tower. The Man Who Hunted Ice, his first novel, distills his fascination with the absurdity of celebrity.

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've had to learn how to sign a legible autograph. Also had to learn to come up with a personal inscription on the spot while the recipient of the inscription is talking to me. Way more difficult than expected. Otherwise, life remains much the same! As this is my first published work, I have nothing to compare it to. I think it's better than my previous attempts, but I also think I can do much better.

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

I've been making stories up since I was a kid. I read non-fiction almost exclusively now, strangely enough, but have no interest in writing about reality, it seems.

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 have a hard time taking the leap and writing that first line. I make a lot of notes and plan out things before actually writing, although I'm working on streamlining things. It's definitely a slow process, which helps, because ideas come to me months into a story that I hadn't considered when I was starting out. I tend to vomit it all onto the page and then slash and burn in the editing process, although plot usually remains the same from beginning to end.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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 was apparently born in the wrong century, because novels are my favourite form. Occasionally I'll attempt a short story, but I tend to rush it too much and then forget about it. I've come to have an enormous respect and admiration (i.e. envy) for people who can write short fiction well.

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

Public readings terrify me. I did one for my book launch in front of a small and very friendly crowd and that was enough. (All the same, maybe they get easier as one goes along.)

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?

Yes and no. Basically, I want to tell a good story and write a good novel, although I suppose I'm drawn to tragicomedy because it strikes me as exceptionally human--if a human is lucky enough not to live out a full tragedy. I also dig the notion of a "what if" story: in my novel The Man Who Hunted Ice, I explored a scenario where a random person doing a random job becomes as famous as a professional athlete. I love Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener" because it's a classic "what if": what if you had an employee who stopped doing his job but wouldn't leave the workplace?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

As Joyce wrote (essentially), "to forge in the smithy of their soul the uncreated conscience of their race" (or, better, species). And/or to tell good stories. If you can do one or the other (or both), you've proven yourself useful.

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

Both! A good editor is worth their weight in gold, even if a good editor isn't always your pal.

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

Hemingway and Johnson both wrote something similar about removing "good" lines, lines that you're proud of, and letting what's left tell the story. Took me a long, long time to understand that wisdom. I'm still working on it.

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've gotten busier over the past couple of years, so I set a word quota (which can change from project to project) and pick away at it during the day, especially the morning. If I set the quota too high, I tend to ramble; too low, and it takes too long to finish. Still working on finding the sweet spot. If I get a chance to write early in the day, I can be amazingly productive--though that doesn't happen nearly as often as I'd like!

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

I wish I could say I go out and sit in nature or drive to New York and sit in Central Park and people-watch, but no. For me, it's consistency, persistence, routine. Not a very exciting answer, but "keeping warm" gets me through the dry spells.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Cold winter air and wood smoke.

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?

Movies to an extent, since I watched a whack of them when I was a teen/twentysomething. More recently, Parasite and Us got my juices flowing, even though I'm not really a horror-comedy guy. (Or am I?) I really liked The Banshees of Inisherin. A really good movie makes me want to do the equivalent with a novel.

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

I keep three novels on my desk: All the Names by José Saramago, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. I think if you cracked my head open and pulled out the SIM card, you'd find those books--for better or for worse--in the software, explaining how my creative mind works, or tries to work. Blame those guys.

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

Oh, man. Lots of things. But are they worth it? Easy answers: write a legible autograph, write something really good.

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?

Professional athlete, if I had my choice of physique and talent (and age)? Actually, I've always envied people who do fascinating jobs and say they picked their careers when they were children. I read a book once by a forensic anthropologist who got interested in the field at a very young age, whereas I'm still wondering what I'm going to do when I grow up.

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

Luckily, I do something else, which pays the bills. I'd write anyway, but if I had to support myself through my writing, I'd have starved long ago.

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

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson was fantastic. I expect to be tongue-tied if I ever get a chance to meet the author. That and Endurance by Alfred Lansing, about the 1914 Shackleton expedition, are the two best books I've read in the past several years (both are non-fiction, but read like novels). Last great film: repeating myself, but Parasite. Can't wait to see what Bong Joon-ho does next.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Another tragicomedy, with social-satire elements. Should I go full horror-comedy? Maybe I will.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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