Emerging Canadian Writers: Seven Interviews, Part One
November 4, 2015
by Lisa de Nikolits
Author Lisa de Nikolits interviewed seven writers with new books this fall season that are considered "emerging voices" as these are their first book-length published works. Today we're showcasing part one of Lisa's interviews featuring Andrew Battershill and
Pillow (Coach House Books), Erna Buffie and
Let Us Be True (Coteau Books), and Matt Cahill and
The Society of Experience (Wolsak & Wynn). Tomorrow we'll continue with part two of the interviews, featuring
Debris by Kevin Hardcastle (Biblioasis),
Travel is So Broadening by Wasela Hiyate (Quattro Books),
Amity by Nasreen Pejvack (Inanna Publications), and
Meadowlark by Wendi Stewart (NeWest Press).
I am really quite relieved that I am not an emerging writer in the Fall of 2015! I have read seven of the books that are categorized as emerging voices and each of them displays such a strength of voice and clarity of style that I am very glad to not be a player on this field of champions.
Because all of the authors were very generous with their time and answers, we've spread them over two days. Today, I'll be be featuring:
I asked each of the the writers a few questions about their books and I am listing the interviews in alphabetical order of the writer’s surname, so there can be no misconstrued favouritism!
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We kick off with
Pillow by Andrew Battershill (published by Coach House Books), which has been described by the publisher as an “Elmore Leonard-style noir meets Surrealism: Pillow punches above its weight in this playful literary debut.”
Q1. What is the main idea/theme/aspect that you’re hoping readers will take awayafter reading the novel?
Andrew Battershill: This is my first novel, so the idea of having (at least a couple) readers is something I’ve been thinking about a little bit recently. And, to be honest, I don’t know that I’ve come up with anything to say that would be all that interesting to anyone, but thinking about readers a little bit has made me think harder and more than I have in a while about reading.
I went to elementary school in the 1990s, and that was a time in schools (at least the schools I went to) where there was this strong, and in hindsight, very decent and charming emphasis on and championing of reading. Just reading, as a good thing for people to do.
So, it might seem like a really basic observation, but I think reading is valuable because it lives in this middle ground between being completely inside your own thoughts (which is a vital and good thing to do, but a bad thing to do all the time) and being stimulated and imposed on by stronger sensory input like you get from watching screens and listening to loud sounds or just people’s voices (which are also good things to do, especially if you like narratives, but also terrible, and a very easy, thing to do all the time). Reading is a chance to engage with people in a very particular, simultaneously intimate and distant space, but to engage in a way in which you are quietly and, in your own mental space, actively providing the most important part of the content.
So, to finally answer your question, I’d say that I sincerely hope people take away whatever they want from Pillow! My hope is that I’ve provided enough content for there to be a solid base from which push off, but, really, once somebody picks up the book it’s their show, and that’s the way it should be.
Q2. What research did you do for this book?
AB: I would not call the research I did for this novel rigorous, or maybe even research. I think it’s easy to get bogged down in the ideas of accuracy, hard work, and completeness, but for my purposes all I really wanted was to be stimulated out of my natural state of indolence and restfulness. My thinking was that you want fuel, you don’t want to burn your own fuel just so you can say you’ve done thorough research, especially when you’re not writing a super realist novel, a novel that trades on or relies on its realism. So, I scratched the surface of a whole bunch of things, but didn’t deep-dive into anything such that I would seem like I knew what I was talking about if I was asked about it, if that makes sense. My research was a little bit reading old French aesthetic theory, and much more than a little bit of watching fights on Youtube or reading another Elmore Leonard novel (again) or watching three straight back-to-back episodes of Law and Order for the entire morning while I was supposed to writing or reading old French aesthetic theory.
Q3. How long did it take you to write this novel?
AB: I began Pillow (under a number of other, since discarded and truly awful titles; I actually, at one point, sincerely wanted to call it: What animal would you be if you had to be an animal who wasn’t human?) as my thesis in the University of Toronto MA in English and Creative Writing program in the spring of 2012. I submitted a somewhat wordy and confusing version of the manuscript as my thesis a year later, and an ever so slightly leaner and less confusing version to Coach House Books later that summer. So, the basic, pre-Coach House-magic (and it is magic) version of the book took me a little over a year to write and whittle down to size.
Q4. In the sources, you mention and thank the Surrealist writers of the 1950s. Can you explain how you integrated aspects of their thinking into your work, without of course giving away too much to the readers?
AB: So, clearly the most obvious resonance of Surrealist writers in the book is that a number of characters are named and modeled directly after French Surrealist writers, and a number of scenes/icons/images from Surrealist art are referenced throughout the book.
I first had the idea for this book in a class I took with a very smart and nice film professor at U of T named James Cahill on French Surrealist film. The course included a lot of primary source early Surrealist reading, which is how I first heard of/read most of these writers.
In reading through some Surrealist thinking and writing you get an idea of what was a totally crazy and interesting social/academic scene/gang. Basically, these were all direct associates who hung out and affiliated themselves with a movement, and they produced art, started fights, heckled movie screens and held séances, all as elucidations of their artistic and ontological movement. So, in reading about that, while reading my customary swath of crime novels on the side, it occurred to me as a fun concept for a crime novel: a crime thriller with Surrealists as the criminal syndicate.
Appropriating and re-contextualizing historical/artistic figures for whatever random purpose you want was also something the Surrealists strongly believed in, so I hoped they wouldn’t mind from beyond the grave.
An aspect of it that I particularly like was the sense of artistic and ontological looseness of this school of thinking. The main assertion of Surrealism, as a school of thought, is that everything, thoughts, dreams (especially dreams), and crazy animal facts, is real. If you really had a dream, why say that dream isn’t real, and assert that other events, like stubbing your toe when you wake up, are real? Is that a necessary or a fun distinction to make? If you looked at a giraffe, for instance, you could pretty easily believe it was an alien, but it isn’t! It’s a real thing, and the world is just, for real, a really crazy place. This way of thinking also bled into a loose idea of what Surrealists considered art, and they counted as artistic material, which was whatever worked.
So, to sum up, what I took from the Surrealists, beyond approximations of their thinking and likenesses, was a general looseness of perspective that I hope is communicated in the book.
Q5. What would you say if I asked you if Pillow was a metaphorical novel? Metaphorical in the sense that we’re all punch-drunk from the blows of life’s vicissitudes and we’re all fighting to survive in less-than-ideal environments and we try to escape to the zoos of our minds for moments of small pleasures? Could the entire novel be a metaphor?
AB: I think I’d side more with the idea of the novel being metaphorical (hopefully!) than of it being a metaphor.
I think your reading makes a lot of sense though, and I chose to have my main character be a retired boxer, at least in part, because it’s such a rich metaphorical position (the other part is just because I really like boxing).
Boxers experience a lot of distilled versions of things that are all around in life, conflicts, punishment, exploitation, and joy, and they also exist, doing a potentially beautiful and artful thing in a seedy, super disgusting world over which they have very limited and fleeting control. And there’s a lot of aspects of that position that seem to me, to distill softer elements of just being any kind of person.
The other key thing about boxers, as artistic subjects, is that they’re individuals who have to know and use and navigate their own subjectivity in a very acute manner. Pillow, as the back cover will tell you, is a character who has relied and focused on his own perceptions, and his status as perceiving entity, who through the accumulation of blows to the head is gradually but surely losing his ability to rely on those perceptions.
Also, since boxers are in a business of giving out and experiencing the same kind of pain, I think there are also a lot of very engaging resonances in terms of empathy, guilt, and the positive and negative aspects of talent.
So, basically, my idea-structure for the book was to load up my central character with a decent amount of potentially emotionally relatable and metaphorical content, and then have him bounce around a (hopefully!) fun and exciting environment and story.
From the publisher: From the killing fields of Europe to the merciless beauty of the Canadian prairies, Let Us Be True tells the story of three women, whose lives have been shaped and damaged by secrets, their own and those that stretch back through time, casting their shadow from one generation to the next. At the heart of the novel is 74-year-old Pearl Calder, a woman who has thrown away her past and kept it a secret from her daughters. But as Pearl confronts her own mortality, she begins to understand what her dead husband, Henry, had always known - secrets are like dark and angry ghosts. And they don't just haunt you. They haunt everyone you love.
Q1. Pearl Calder is (for me) reminiscent of Hagar Currie Shipley, in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. Would you have any comments on that, in terms of similarities and/or differences between the two women?
Erna Buffie: That is a huge compliment – I love The Stone Angel and I love Margaret Laurence – but no, I wasn’t thinking of Hagar as I was writing Let Us Be True. I was thinking of all the women of my mother’s generation. Women who were intensely private, many of whom had experienced great loss in their early lives, whether as a result of the Depression or the Second World War or through profoundly damaged fathers who served in the First World War, as Pearl’s father did.
I remember the story of one woman in particular who had been raised in an orphanage from the time she was 11 or 12. She never talked about the circumstances that led her there: what had happened to her parents, how they died, if they died, if she had any siblings. Even her children didn’t know what had happened, and to be honest, I don’t think they ever asked. It was as if they knew the door to their mother’s past had been shut and locked tight, so there was no point in trying to pry it open. So I started thinking … what were those secrets? How did secrets shape these women and how did those secrets, in turn, shape their children.
Q2. I don’t want to give any plot or theme spoilers but I wouldn’t categorize the views on marriage in this novel as being optimistic. Was that a conscious theme you set out to portray or was it just happenstance and reflective of the individual relationships that came to life in your book?
EB: I think it’s the latter; more happenstance than conscious. That said, I also think that marriage is a complicated beast. Depending on what we learn about love and relationships from our families, or if we marry very young, as Pearl’s daughter Carol did, we can make very bad choices. I think Pearl was incredibly lucky to have married Henry, and I think, as time goes on, she begins to appreciate that more fully. Henry gave her what she needed – laughter, loyalty, safety, and most importantly, love. And in a strange way Henry received what he needed as well – a kind of redemption – because he was able to protect Pearl in a way he had never been able to protect his sister. Plus Henry isn’t kidding himself when he makes the decision to marry Pearl. He knows from the outset that she won’t be an easy woman to love, which means he also knows she won’t be saying “I love you,” every five minutes, if at all! Henry is a confident, grounded man; he knows who he is, who he needs and who he loves. And he knows that while he may never be loved in kind, he will be loved. The same is true of Winnie.
So is that a pessimistic view of marriage or long-term relationships in general? I don’t think so. I think a lot of people have bought into the notion that a marriage, in order to be work, must be equal in all things, especially in passion and love. And from where I sit, more often than not, it’s not.
Q3. The women in your novel enjoy enduring friendships while their family relations are far more complex and at times, fraught. Would you feel this is accurate in real life also?
EB: Well, you know the old adage about “you can choose your friends but not your family!” Sometimes I think it’s just easier to love our friends. We know less about them. They expect less of us than our family members do. They weren’t vying with us for parental love and attention … and they go home!
But ultimately it’s our families, sorting out and coming to terms with those relationships, and our place within them, that can, in a sense, free us. And I believe that secrets – whether they’re our parents’ secrets or our own – can get in the way of that. They can lock us in.
Q4. What part of the book did you enjoy writing the most?
EB: You know, I think that “in process,” I enjoyed writing every single bit of it, but if I had to choose one chapter – the one I struggled with the most but ultimately enjoyed writing the most – it would be the last chapter, which is about Pearl’s mother, Lettie. It was an odd one because I wrote the first two pages in a spurt and then it just sat there, for more than a year. I wasn’t sure what it was or where I wanted to go with it, largely because I had always imagined that the defining parent for Pearl had been her father, because he had had such a powerful influence on her siblings. So I had always imagined that the last chapter would be about him. But by letting it sit and stew, and by reading the book, over and over again (ad nauseum!), I realized that for Pearl, it was really about the loss of her mother. And when I figured that out, I wrote the chapter very quickly. It just wrote itself.
Q5. In terms of structure, was it a challenge toggling between the two time frames and keeping the plot arc cohesive? I also enjoyed the various characters – was it challenging balancing the amount of action and time spent with each one? Did you ever feel that one character was getting more time or attention than you had initially thought they would?
EB: I think it’s fair to say that this is less a plot driven book than a character driven one, and the main character is Pearl. The plot follows her journey through life, the secrets she has kept from her kids, and in the end, her struggle to forgive and to be forgiven. So no matter how deeply I delved into the lives of the people she loves and once loved, I was always, in a sense, writing about her.
When I wrote about her daughters, in my mind, I was really writing about Pearl, because they are as much a product of her past as she is. Unwittingly, perhaps, because they know very little about that past, but they’re shaped by it nonetheless because their mother embodies it. And each character, I hope, whether its her brother, sister or her mother, offers us a new perspective on Pearl; who she is, how she became who she is and the events and people that shaped her. So toggling back and forth through time and between characters felt right, because Pearl and her life, in my mind, were always the focus.
Q6. What are you working on now?
EB: A couple of things but nothing I want to talk about! Maybe I’m just superstitious … afraid of jinxing things.
Q7. Who are some of your favourite Canadian authors and why?
EB: That’s a difficult question to answer and it’s tough to leave out so many great writers, but if pushed, I’d have to say:
Alice Munroe: Because of the beauty, precision, and economy of her prose and the power of her storytelling.
Margaret Laurence: Because her books are huge and messy and full of heart. There’s nothing neat and tidy or trendy about Laurence’s books.
Helen Humphreys: Because she is a fabulous prose stylist, a masterful storyteller and a great editor.
Robertson Davies: Because until I read the Deptford trilogy, I had never imagined my country or its people to be heroic or tragic or mythic.
Alistair McLeod: Because he was brilliant. Period.
Margaret Buffie: Because my sister’s books are magical and complex and have been read and loved by thousands of kids, young adults and, I suspect, adults as well.
Q7. Has this novel been a work in progress for a long time? How does it feel, to have it published and out in the world?
EB: Yes, this book was along time coming, and it feels great to have it published. Just great.
From the publisher: When his father – a distinguished writer – unexpectedly passes away, Derrick van der Lem's insulated world implodes, leaving a much stranger and crueler place than the one he knew. In the midst of his downward spiral, the mysterious Society of Experience asks him to take part in a baffling science experiment involving time travel, with the possibility of changing his life and pulling him out of his rut.
Q1. In your book, your protagonist, Derrick van der Lem says, “I became known as an emerging writer, whatever that meant.” I am wondering how you feel now, as the topic of this blog post is about emerging writers? Would you say you share Derrick’s views? Can you tell us a bit about your writing journey, the highs and lows?
Matt Cahill: As I understand it, the meaning of “emerging writer” is: you’re new on the scene. And yet it only seems to fit people who are 30 and under. I’m 44 and while I’ve been scribbling and typing since I was a kid, I’ve only been having stuff published for the last few years. Do I feel like an emerging writer? No, to be honest. It’s not helped when mainstream media defines emerging by age as opposed to where you are in your development as an artist.
As for my journey to this point, I started writing when I was 10 or so, since I first laid eyes on a story my older brother wrote on a whim. It blew my mind and I remember it to this day. I took a pen and a pad of paper and started out, as most do, quite derivatively. Short stories gave way to poetry in my late teens. I started writing an ambitious novel in my mid-20s, and felt very strongly about it. And yet, with time and distance – thanks in part to enrolling in the Humber School For Writers summer intensive – I realized I could spend another two years beating that horse and perhaps never be happy with it, or move forward with all the new, more interesting stuff that had been waiting in the queue at the back of my head. I soon started the book that would go on to be The Society of Experience.
Highs: sharing and discussing new work with my former writing group, seeing the novel improve with each pass working with editor Paul Vermeersch. Lows: every time I send something out with my name on it only to realize that it could really use more work.
Q2. What gave you the idea for this book?
MC: I imagined a woman sitting in a room, staring at a time machine and dealing with the tragedy of never truly spending “time” with the person on the other side of that contraption. As I fleshed it out, I also thought it would be fun/liberating to incorporate different textual perspectives. The challenge was to have it flow organically rather than be read as a series of dispatches. It needed to be a story and not feel like a gimmick.
Q3. In your ‘day job,’ you’re a psychotherapist. Has anyone ever told you something about their lives that you have wished you could write about but you have been ethically barred from doing so?
MC: I’ve been anticipating someone asking me this question, so it’s good to finally address it. You’re correct: I’m prohibited from sharing confidential client material. I consider what clients share with me as sacred. Don’t get me wrong, in nearly every other aspect of my life I’m just as opportunistic as the next writer – I keep my ears and eyes open at all times. But, interesting story or not, what’s shared in the therapeutic space stays in the room. Thankfully, that magpie writer instinct gets switched-off without much difficulty.
Q4. I love what your protagonist says here: “Look, all writing is deception. Writers counterfeit reality. Whether it be a travelogue, or a poem, or something you jot down in your diary and forget about. It’s a forgery. The fact we put things in writing doesn’t auto-reckon them authentic or true.” Would you agree with him? Could you elaborate on your thoughts about this?
MC: It comes from the darkness that every writer finds themselves from time to time. The voice that pipes up and says: who cares that I’m writing about a stock broker in a car accident or a child trapped in a well – isn’t it really just another bloody writer using tropes to alleviate their psychic woe? I sometimes wonder if someone like Harper Lee, on a bad day, thought: blah blah blah transparent contraption to discuss racism and society blah blah.
It stems from a weariness and cynicism – especially if you are unpublished and feeling unpublishable – that comes with feeling lost in the dark of the moment. Writing is a lonely profession and when you hit a wall there’s often little support available.
Q5. How long did it take you to write this novel?
MC: Years. About two for the first draft. Then another 2-3 years revising and editing. In the end, it takes as long as it takes.
Q6. What was hardest part of the whole process (of getting this book to print) for you?
MC: The stamina. Intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. Because the chronology and narrative perspective of the book changes on a regular basis, during passes with the editor that stylistic ambitiousness felt like a curse after a while. Oh, and receiving notes from the copy editor on the sex scene.
Q7. What are you working on now?
MC: I have two novels in the works. One is a sequel to The Society of Experience, but one with an entirely different set of characters. I’m also developing a novel about someone who is cursed with the gift of magic. Down the road I would love to write about the film and TV industry – I worked in it for 20 years and I don’t think there’s been a lot of quality writing devoted to it.
Q8. Is there anything you would like the readers to know, that I haven’t touched on?
MC: I know that, for at least the next year, I’m going to be publicizing the book and myself as its author. And, to be honest, I’m scared by the notion of being “Matt Cahill, novelist” and feeling like I have to fit someone’s idea of who and what I’m supposed to be – at least to the outside world – before I’m able to be comfortable with it first. How’s that for emerging?
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Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy and has lived and worked in the United States, Australia and Britain. Her award-winning novels include The Hungry Mirror (2010),
West of Wawa (2011), and
A Glittering Chaos (2013), all published with Inanna Publications. Lisa recently released her fourth and fifth novels with Inanna,
The Witchdoctor's Bones and
Between the Cracks She Fell. Lisa lives and works in Toronto.
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Thank you to Lisa and the authors for participating! We'll be back tomorrow with part two of the interviews, featuring Kevin Hardcastle (
Debris, Biblioasis), Wasela Hiyate (
Travel is So Broadening, Quattro Books), Nasreen Pejvack (
Amity, Inanna Publications), and Wendi Stewart (
Meadowlark, NeWest Press).
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