In his sophomore novel Immortal Water (Guernica Editions), writer Brian Van Norman contrasts two very different men – Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and, centuries later, retired teacher Ross Porter – in their quest for eternal youth. In this interview, Van Norman shares his own quests: reading, travelling, and writing full-time, as well as how spending time with a neighbour got him into the writerly business.
All Lit Up: Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?
Brian Van Norman: There is, in fact, a stand out moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer, though it took a very long time for me to realize it. I grew up in a small town called Orangeville, on a street named Sunset Drive. On that street, just up the way from us, lived Max Braithwaite (Why Shoot the Teacher and other works) who was an author. At around eight years of age I would play with his kids, Colin and Sylvia, but every once in a while I would glance into the room where this man both typed and wrote. I didn’t really understand what he did until one day the door was open a little wider than normal and Max was taking a break when he saw me. He asked me to join him. He was working on a piece about lamprey eels and showed me in a few deft moments how a writer would research a subject and then create something about that subject on a blank page. Then he asked if I would like to help. He gave me his pencils to sharpen then gave me the sheet of paper he had been working on and asked if I thought it looked okay. We looked over the page together. I learned about lamprey eels. I learned about being at your desk every day. I learned too that most writers don’t make big money. I learned that I wanted to be like the late Max Braithwaite.
ALU: What do you enjoy reading?
BVN: I have always enjoyed reading, sometimes to my detriment. Early in my life I discovered The Hardy Boys and my parents would often find me under bed covers and long past "lights out" reading by flashlight. I enjoyed reading so much that with each year of English at U of Waterloo I would enable myself to take the week off during reading week as I had already read everything given me for course work. I enjoy reading everything except those tomes of mathematics, chemistry and calculus which my "right-brained" configuration can’t comprehend anyway. Indeed, one book I have returned to several times is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which does include considerable statistics though they seem to be written in a manner which I understand. Beyond that there is no writer who directly had the most impact on my writing but a large and varied group from down all my years of reading.
ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.
BVN: As you can see by the photo of my portable office, I travel often. This serves as the familiar space I go to when I want to research or write. It serves no other use and has been found in broom closets, bedrooms, hallways, and sun rooms so long as the place is fairly isolated and distraction-free. When I write I find myself in a kind of trance brought on by my ritual of always stopping the day previous at a place where I can continue, and always starting by editing the material I’ve written the day before. It takes me into the world I am at once creating while that world often offers me more words because at times, though I have a broad plan, the intricacies of characters’ interactions determine alterations within that plan.
"My portable office" – Brian's workspace.
ALU:Who is your favourite fictional character?
BVN: My favourite fictional character is really two, each dependent upon the other as to how their worlds play out: Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostova from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I find the character arcs of these two so compelling as they try to find happiness in a society which constrains them, then step outside that society to become the fulfilled characters readers see by the end. They are scarred, they are regretful, but they are more sensitive, complete human beings having learned their true selves as well as having learned how to love.
ALU: What are you working on now?
BVN: I am currently working on a novel about the Luddites of 1812 Northern England who, when thrown out of work by new technology, attempted to stop the future by destroying the machines which replaced them. They were so threatening to a British government that more troops were sent into Northern England than were fighting Napoleon in that year. That time period so reflects our own with mass migrations, ordinary people being treated inhumanely, trade deals in tatters, economic tribalism between haves and have nots, and acts of terrorism brought on by desperation. In the Mobius strip of history, no story ever repeats, but events often come very close to a similarity which is disturbing.
ALU: Why do you write?
BVN: Why do I write? Because I have to. It isn’t even a choice. Though I have been through varied phases and forms of work in order to sustain myself and my travels, I have always written something: short stories to start, then theatrical scripts as I worked in teaching, and with travelling I began the genesis of several novels. My love of history and philosophy as well have given me the impetus to write. My previous novel The Betrayal Path is a historical thriller set in Quebec from 1757-59. I believe it was one of the most significant times in Canadian history when a continent changed hands. So writing has always been with me. I began Immortal Water thirty years ago, then put it aside as other responsibilities pressed, and finally picked it up again when I decided to give to writing the commitment it deserves.
"Don't get bogged down, keep writing!" Brian's advice to writers.
ALU: If you wrote a memoir, what would it be called?
BVN: I would never write a memoir. Life is far more complex than any biography or fiction or historical tome can possibly muster. If I were forced, I think I would title it Confusions for my previous states of mind or Doors for the varied and vastly different lifestyles I have lived and left behind as one door closed and another opened; sometimes purposely, sometimes not.
ALU: What question do you wish someone would ask about your book?
BVN: I hope someone would ask of Immortal Water why this subject, theme and style. My answer would be that throughout history, though times and cultures have changed, basic humanity has not evolved all that much… thus the story of two men from two eras, both in the grasp of the same doubts and fears. I wanted to indulge my interest in history and the fact that no record of Juan Ponce de Leon’s second voyage to Florida exists, gave me the chance to create a scenario which, I’m sure, would not have actually happened. I wished as well to delve into the plight of contemporary "baby boomers" as they watch their lives change and so many attempt in so many ways to deny the natural process of aging.
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About Brian Van Norman: My home is a modest house in Waterloo, Ontario though I’m often travelling. Obviously I have no day job but do have a pension. It gives me a great deal of freedom though achieving it meant not writing the novels I wished to write earlier in life. My travels mean I remain without a pet, though I once had the privilege of having a cat named “Me” who was anything but. He was a loving little guy whom I’ll never forget. As to having a favourite place to eat… that would be anywhere where my wife, Susan, who is an extraordinary chef and “foodie,” makes the most delicious and unusual combinations brought about by our travels together. As to a destination… there are so many, varied and exotic places in the world I could never name only one as a favourite. On another note, regarding music I enjoy, I love all genres from opera to bluegrass and almost everything from most cultures to which I’ve been exposed. As to a band? Again I can only answer in the plural from the Royal Philharmonic to Spooky Tooth to Mez Me. Unlike other authors I never listen to music when I write. I require deep focus to achieve the world I’m trying to enter and remain within when I write. I am not a multiple task kind of guy.
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Our thanks to Brian Van Norman for gamely answering our author questionnaire, and to Alex at Guernica for making the connection. Immortal Wateris available now.
All Lit Up is produced by the Literary Press Group and LitDistCo. LPG and LitDistCo acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council.