Giller-Prize-finalist John Gould who has just published his new book
The End of Me (Freehand Books)—a collection of flash fiction about death—joins us to talk about his influences (from Ernest Becker to Basho), how the phrase “We and the beasts are kin" set him on a path to writing, and more.
All Lit Up: Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?
John Gould: I’ve just dug out my old, alarmingly musty copy of Wild Animals I Have Known. “We and the beasts are kin,” writes Ernest Thompson Seton in that book, words that came to me, when I was young, as a promise of salvation. The connection to a larger living world helped me feel alive and okay, and books like his gave me access to that connection whenever I needed it.
So I was crazy about nature writing, with the emphasis on the “nature” part of that expression. Over time, the emphasis shifted to the “writing” part. Those early immersive experiences had established in me a sense of the potency of language and narrative, a sense that writing had the capacity to liberate and redeem.
It wasn’t until my twenties that I completed the turn in the direction of writing. I’d done a degree in life sciences and philosophy, and was pursuing research in systems theory and environmental studies...when I suddenly found myself moving to the west coast to plant trees and write stories. Wild.
ALU: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?
JG: Early in one’s writing life, the most influential books tend to be those that expand one’s sense of the possible. An example for me was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a difficult and frankly exasperating book which demonstrated to me that I could bring everything into my fiction, the whole multifarious life of the body and mind. Meantime, and perhaps even more importantly, the haiku poets—Basho, Buson, Issa—were demonstrating to me that I could leave almost everything out, that there was great power in understatement and suggestion.
The writers who inspire me most nowadays tend to be those who leave me baffled, whose work seems beyond what’s possible. Of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, Julian Barnes (and others, including me) have asked, simply, “How does she do it?” This is the kind of bewildered reverence I mean. Other authors who come to mind: Joy Williams, Alice Munro, W.G. Sebald...one shakes one’s head.
John's writing advice
ALU: Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?
JG: There are a number, but I’ll mention, because it’s pertinent to my current collection, The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. I came to this book many years ago through Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness. Broyard observes that “good books should be revisited, just as we revisit places or paintings or listen again to a piece of music.” He goes on to cite The Denial of Death as an example of a work very much worth coming back to.
Becker’s book is hugely ambitious, an attempt (building on the work of Sören Kierkegaard and Otto Rank) to synthesize modern thought in the aftermath of Freud, and to illuminate the conflict at the core of the human condition. I find the book fascinating, and admirable in its syncretic zeal. Why not try to put it all together? Why not try to say everything?
ALU: Why do you write?
JG: Martin Amis once said that he doesn’t understand how people who don’t write manage, what they do with all their unresolved thoughts and feelings. I get that, though there are certainly periods during which I don’t write, and I seem to muddle along okay. I’m easier to live with during those periods, I suspect. More available to the world around me. In time, though, I do start to crave immersion in the work again.
Otto Rank (I mentioned him above) was a disciple of Freud’s who, like Carl Jung, ultimately went his own way. His treatment of the creative temperament has always intrigued me. “The profoundest source of the artistic impulse to create,” he says, is “the struggle of the individual against an inherent striving after totality, which forces him [sic] equally in the direction of a complete surrender to life and complete giving of himself in production. He has to save himself from this totality by fleeing, now from the Scylla of life, now from the Charybdis of creation, and his escape is naturally accomplished only at the cost of continual conflict.” (Art and Artist, p. 60.)
Rank could be obscure, but I think he was onto something.
ALU: Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?
JG: I like to start by settling in at my desk, searching about for my reading glasses, and realizing I’ve left them downstairs. Things seem to evolve naturally from there.
A peek at John's writing space featuring his cat, Pip.
ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.
JG: I get up at dawn. I go for a run by the ocean and do an hour of qigong followed by kundalini yoga. Then I plant myself at the desk for ten to twelve hours of...no. I’ve often wished I were a morning person, in part because early rising tends to be linked to virtue and industry in our culture. Sleepers-in are degenerate slackers.
But in truth my perfect writing day starts late, because I’ve been up late working the night before. I putter at this and that in the morning—“life,” as the expression goes—then settle into some reading and editing and low wattage writing in the afternoon. A walk and some other exercise and then, with my wife, dinner and a show. About mid evening, I get serious.
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More about John
Of John Gould’s 200 stories, one—a novel—is long, but the other 199 are very short, and assembled in three collections, including Kilter and The End of Me. Why are his stories so brief? Does he just run out of stuff to say? Does he fancy himself some sort of haiku poet, or a monkish dispenser of koans? Is he pandering to distracted readers in an era of texts and tweets? Is it philosopher envy, is he hoping to be as gnomic as a Nietzsche? Is he a wannabe rock star, settling for sudden stories in place of three-minute rock songs? And why is he so big on questions?
A few relative certainties: John grew up in Toronto and lives in Victoria, where he taught creative writing at UVic, and served on the editorial board of the Malahat Review. He’s worked as an environmental researcher, tree planter, carpenter, arts administrator, teacher, and editor.
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