RUSTY TALK WITH JON PAUL FIORENTINO
JON PAUL FIORENTINO is the author of I'm Not Scared of You or Anything, Needs Improvement, Stripmalling (a Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction finalist), and five poetry collections, including The Theory of the Loser Class, which was shortlisted for the A. M. Klein Prize, and Indexical Elegies, which won the 2009 CBC Books "Bookie" Award for Best Book of Poetry. He has written for The National Post, Walrus, Maisonneuve, sub-Terrain, The Huffington Post, The Montreal Gazette, The Barnstomer, New American Writing, Hobo, Joyland, The Capilano Review, Event, The Winnipeg Review, The Queen Street Quarterly, fillingStation, Prism International, Opium, and many other publications. Fiorentino lives in Montreal, where he teaches Creative Writing at Concordia University, is the Editor-in-Chief of Matrix magazine, is a poetry editor for Joyland, the poetry editor for the Snare Imprint of Invisible Publishing, and the fiction editor for the Serotonin/Wayside Imprint of Insomniac Press.
rob mclennan: I thought it curious that for the Ottawa launch of your new collection of short fiction, I’m Not Scared of You or Anything, you choose to read a re-telling of one of the stories from the collection. For many writers, myself included, the work is all about the language and the precision of the finished text. Why did you choose to represent your work in such a way?
Jon Paul Fiorentino: Even when I've read from poetry collections, I've always had edits to the text in order to favour the sense of sound over what works best on the page. They are often very different things. It is perfectly okay to have more than one version of a text. I think it's healthy. In fact, I would argue that deciding to do this was "all about the language" and "precision." This particular story, "When It Got a Little Cold," was rendered entirely in dialogue, sort of in the style of "An Encounter with an Interviewer" by Mark Twain. This was the right choice for the story on the page. But the right way to tell this story to a roomful of people is to look them in the eyes and just tell the story. I think telling this story that way was the correct choice and the generous choice. In this particular case, I was hoping to share not just from the book but also from my life. And I like telling stories. As we all know, shuffling your feet, burying your head in a book, and just reading what's on the page is not always the best policy. At one point in the reading, two lovely older folks came into the room and I was able to incorporate them into the piece. The result was funny, warm, and inviting. That's the kind of thing that's possible when you are telling a version of a story that's conversational and interactive but also remains true to the original text.
rm: It sounds as though to you the idea of a text, whether poem or story, remains relatively fluid. What does that mean in terms of composition? Is a story or poem ever “finished” to you, or does the text itself, once complete, remain unchanged but for how you might read it publicly?
JPF: Well, I write for the page first and foremost. But I am just aware that a public reading is not necessarily best served by a word-by-word recitation policy. So, my understanding of how live audiences work does not really affect my compositional process. I don't think a story or poem is ever finished. But sometimes it is a relief to declare that a story or a poem is "done" (at least for a while). I've recently made some revisions to some very old poems and that also provided me with a sense of relief. Marianne Moore took five decades to finish a poem and people hated her for it. I think that's odd. The previous versions still existed. Writing is about affecting change (in yourself, in others). So why are literary people so often scared of change?
rm: I’m interested in the way that writers who work in more than one genre, as you do, consider the differences between them. You’ve published multiple poetry collections, a novel and now a second collection of short fiction. Is there a way you approach each form differently? When do you know something will end up being a poem as opposed to, say, a short story or the openings of a novel?
JPF: Well, with INSOYOA, I thought I was writing a novel called Invigilator. But there were just too many different themes/concepts I wanted to explore and so I tore the manuscript up and focused on developing alternate protagonists to explore everything that was on my mind.
Poetry is a completely different thing. My thought processes, my way of saying, my particular architecture are constantly being refined and revised. I think in poetry and socialize in prose.
rm: So the delineation between your poetry and prose work is clearly marked? Was this something deliberate, or did it emerge organically? Would you ever consider combining the two?
JPF: I think the considerations are often different. I write comedic prose. I don't write a great deal of comedic poetry. But hybridity is something I'm already interested in and already do. In Needs Improvement, I included a short story that was told entirely in a sequence of photocopied report cards. This new book is more straight-up joke-telling stories.
rm: A couple of your works of fiction play with illustrations, from the illustrations Evan Munday did for your novel Stripmalling to the illustrations by Maryanna Hardy that exist throughout I’m Not Scared of You or Anything. The book even includes a comic strip playing off the old Archie Comics. Why are you so interested in blending illustrations with your prose?
JPF: I really like playing with other artists. Writers can be too precious about their “projects” and I have discovered that if I invite someone else whose work I admire (like Evan and Maryanna) and let them add to my text with their own interpretations, concepts, etc., then it helps me get over myself. The work gets better. Also, INSOYOA is a comedy book so adding an illustrated component to the text seemed like the natural and fun thing to do. Those Archie comics are Maryanna's vision of a lame comedy bit I did on the Internet [http://jonpaulfiorentino.tumblr.com/post/52970266514/heres-the-second-installment-of-my-critical] where I replaced the dialogue from Christian Archie comics with lines from critical theory.
rm: Were the pieces by Hardy predominantly produced for the book, or were you playing with pre-existing works?
JPF: They were all interpretations of the stories. I would like to think that Maryanna went through the stories and when she started getting bored, she started drawing.
rm: You’ve made a conscious decision to write what you term “comedic prose,” and I think it can be said that your poetry has long been thick with comedy. Literary audiences aren’t always known to be receptive to humour. Now that you’ve been publishing books for some fifteen years, have you noticed a shift in how literary works utilizing humour are received?
JPF: I think it's better in some ways and worse in others. David McGimpsey was shortlisted for a GG award for Li'l Bastard. That was a victory for those who value intelligent, funny writing. But in other ways, we tend to make safe literary choices in Canada. In a way, it's completely understandable—it's easy to think that funny = not serious, and literature is supposed to be "serious business" right? We have one national literary award for humour writing, and it is more likely to go to a book of musings by a kooky small town pastor than to a book that is actually funny. Gary Shteyngart wasn't entirely wrong.
rm: There are more than a few of us even frustrated that McGimpsey wasn’t up for that award much earlier, say, for Sitcom. There does seem something baffling about his highly formal poems being dismissed almost entirely for the sake of their content. Stuart Ross is another writer who I think has had his work overlooked for too long for the same reason, although that seems to have changed over the past few years as well. Who else, in your opinion, are we missing out on? Who are the writers doing seriously funny work that aren’t receiving enough attention?
JPF: It makes no sense. David is a special writer. One of our best. Stuart is very funny too. I love Billeh Nickerson and Dina Del Bucchia too. Everyone should read Coping with Emotions and Otters. It's extremely funny.
rm: Finally, what is your first memory of writing creatively?
JPF: I remember writing a science fiction story when I was around nine years old about a fantastical microscopic world that existed under my toilet seat. The good germs were fighting the evil germs. It was pretty intense. I remember handing it in and getting an A+ and being so proud of myself. It's hard to imagine, but that immature little brat grew up to write serious literary texts about pillow fighting and Mr. Spock getting a boner.
JON PAUL FIORENTINO'S MOST RECENT BOOK
Excerpt from "Dominoes"
I didn't really mean to drop out of school. When I started at the university I thought learning how to name and explain things might bring me purpose, lucidity. I attended lectures and turned in my papers on time. I stood dead in the centre of the swirl and storm of theory. I applied myself. But then I started going to the student-operated pub between, and sometimes during, classes. The pub was difficult to find; it was located in a catacomb next to the cafeteria, and if a person wasn’t careful she could end up in the boiler room or the yearbook office. Still, it was worth it once I arrived. I spent whole days sitting in one of the vinyl chairs, their shiny purple backs stapled like patchwork beetles. I went into the pub with every intention of leaving, my time parcelled out efficiently, a half-pint of beer resting modestly on the rickety wooden table in front of me. But when the time came for me to get up and walk the short distance up the stairs, out the door and across the quadrangle, I stayed sitting, less paralyzed than somehow anchored to my surroundings. And then it always seemed too late. Too late to do things properly. Too late to do anything but wait for the next song to come on the radio. Sometimes a voice less disapproving than bewildered would intrude on my whiling away of the hours. What are you doing here, it would ask, then wait patiently. I’m biding my time, I’d reply softly, humbly, I’m biding my time.
It doesn’t feel as if I’ve dropped out, really. I still have library privileges, and the seventy-five-dollar cheques from Mum (for sundries, she actually wrote in one of her cards) keep coming every month, or more often if she can manage it. Now I’m taking this evening course, a writing workshop, so that one day, if I have what it takes, I will be a real writer. My instructor has the best posture I have ever seen. Every day I watch her riding her bike away from the recreation centre, and am convinced that there is nothing but willpower and gravity anchoring her bum to the broad, black reupholstered seat. She scares me a bit, like helium balloons. Our last assignment was to choose a clear, quirky, luminous incident from our pasts and to build a story from there.
I got a letter from Mum the other day, and in it she enclosed this clipping from the newspaper about your buddy Richie. The article wasn’t very long. There wasn’t much to tell – a bit about the murder, the arrests, how it shocked the community. And then the punchline, like something from a TV movie: Richie, two months short of a chance at parole, six years into his sentence, had hanged himself in his cell. So sad, Mum wrote. And she asked me the questions she could not ask you: Remember his mother, Mrs. Henley? Did you ever discuss with Jeremy what happened with Richie? Such a tragedy, wasn’t it? I wanted to call Mum to talk to her about it, but I didn’t because she doesn’t know I dropped out. I wanted to call you to talk about it, but we don’t really talk.
So I started thinking maybe this was a story.
It happened in High Park, at nighttime, and there were three of them with baseball bats. When you think about it, you might think of a crack, wood on bone, something clear and conclusive. But I know it was a thud, soft and stupid. Spiro was kicking him and yelling something about one less faggot, and looking at Richie like he was chicken shit, so Richie took the bat and brought it down on the guy’s chest, and then he couldn’t stop himself; he just kept swinging until he stopped the ouf noise. It was then he noticed the lines of blood streaming out of the ears like two solemn ant processions. But Joey still went at it, even after Richie and Spiro had backed off. When Joey finally stopped, it was like the guy on the ground wasn’t even a person anymore. He was just this mess of rags and blood and arms and legs all quiet like sleeping animals, so they ran back to the car and they drove away. On the back seat was a two-four of empties Richie meant to return for the deposit money the night before, and on the dashboard an old air freshener Lori had bought him. Spring Rain. Fucking hell, said Spiro. That thing smells like shit.
Richie’s life had always run alongside ours, like a wild horse next to a train. We were steady, on schedule, simply because he was not.
RUSTY TALK WITH SHEILA HETI
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Sheila Heti: I don't have a first memory of writing. Or reading. Or speaking! Or hearing words.
KM: What keeps your going as a writer or why do you write?
SH: Because not much else makes time feel so bottomless.
KM: How would you describe your writing process? How does revision figure into your process?
SH: I write it first, then I revise it. Sometimes I revise it right then and there, and sometimes I wait a few weeks, months or years. It depends on the piece and how much in a hurry I am. Sometimes I don't know where I want to go with it. Then I leave it alone. There's always something to work on. I used to only work on one thing at a time, but I like having many things to work on, depending on where my mind wants to be. Now I can always be working. I don't have to be in the mood or any particular mood because if you have ten things on the go, at least one of them will be what you're in the mood for.
KM: What influences your writing the most?
SH: The time I'm at in my life.
KM: What authors or books would you recommended to someone aspiring to be an writer?
SH: I would mostly just recommend not reading a book to the end if you're not enjoying it. Forget about how it turns out and go find a book you actually like. I can't believe how people waste time this way, finishing books they're not enjoying. The book doesn't care. God doesn't care. Where does this imperative come from to finish a book one has started? Move on!
KM: What is the best thing about being a writer and what is the worst thing?
SH: The best thing is doing what you want to do with your life (if that is what you want to do--write) and there is no worst thing. Well, maybe the worst thing is that you don't get to mature in a steady way. It's really lumpy. It's sort of dependent on finishing books. Sometimes if a book takes a long time to finish, like you start it when you're 25 and finished when you're 35, then when you turn 35, you feel more like you're 26. It's hard to believe you're actually 35.
How Should a Person Be?, House of Anansi Press, 2010
Description from House of Anansi
From the internationally acclaimed author of The Middle Stories and Ticknor comes a bold interrogation into the possibility of a beautiful life. How Should a Person Be? is a novel of many identities: an autobiography of the mind, a postmodern self-help book, and a fictionalized portrait of the artist as a young woman -- of two such artists, in fact. For reasons multiple and mysterious, Sheila finds herself in a quandary of self-doubt, questioning how a person should be in the world. Inspired by her friend Margaux, a painter, and her seemingly untortured ability to live and create, Sheila casts Margaux as material, embarking on a series of recordings in which nothing is too personal, too ugly, or too banal to be turned into art. Along the way, Sheila confronts a cast of painters who are equally blocked in an age in which the blow job is the ultimate art form. She begins questioning her desire to be Important, her quest to be both a leader and a pupil, and her unwillingness to sacrifice herself. Searching, uncompromising and yet mordantly funny, How Should a Person Be? is a brilliant portrait of art-making and friendship from the psychic underground of Canada's most fiercely original writer.
Photo by Millie Whitton
David Whitton is launching The Reverse Cowgirl in London, Ontario at the Forest City Gallery on December 2, 2011 at 8:00pm. See the Facebook event page for more details.
RUSTY TALK WITH DAVID WHITTON
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
David Whitton: I wrote a Hardy Boys novel when I was eight or nine. Can't remember the title, but it was probably something along the lines of The Mystery of the Fuzzy Kitten Bellies. It was three, four, five pages long. I remember nothing about it, except that I desperately wanted to impress my oldest brother, Jim, who made an effort to fawn over it. His reaction to that novel kept me motivated for decades.
KM: What keeps you going as a writer?
DW: The three Ds. Delusion, denial, and desolation. Also the feeling, for just a few minutes every day, that all the moments in my life that I’d thought I'd pissed away actually have some sort of purpose. Because it all comes back to you, doesn't it? The girl you made out with in the park in grade ten. The surreal conversation you had with your uncle three months before he left the earth. It all comes back. These evanescent moments that you, privileged person that you are, now get to sink into amber. What a gift.
KM: What is the revision process like for you?
DW: It's like a women's prison movie. Except that I'm both the perverted, sadistic warden and the wrongfully convicted inmate. It's full of relentless self-abuse and almost existential self-questioning. But what can I do? It’s what I signed up for.
KM: Rejection can stop new writers before they start. How did you deal with rejection when you first started out?
DW: I rewatched Alexander Mackendrick’s great sleazeball drama, The Sweet Smell of Success. I reread Jesus' Son and A Good Man is Hard to Find and Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? I listened to Raw Power and The Velvet Underground and Nico and No Wow and confirmed to myself that my aesthetic was sound. It's important to remember that tons of people, even people in positions of power, don't know what they're talking about. Editors, publishers, and agents will often make decisions based on the most superficial of criteria. But if you’ve placed yourself in a continuum that includes Denis Johnson, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver, then no one can touch you.
KM: What authors or books would you recommend to new writers?
DW: I wouldn't. One thing I've learned, or am trying to learn, is that no one else's opinion counts for shit. Taste is identity. When you figure out what rocks you out, you figure out who you are and how you write. No one else matters.
KM: Do you have a piece of literary advice for aspiring writers?
DW: Avoid writers. Spend most of your time with electricians. Or bipolar No Frills cashiers. Or new-age construction workers. Or downward-spiralling Coffee Time franchise owners, or schizophrenic former bread-truck drivers, or women who used to be men. These are the people who will teach you how to live, and therefore how to write. And they'll give you your best material.
KM: Your funniest literary moment, if you have one.
DW: Most of my literary moments are unspeakably tragic. But I do cherish the memory of my wife Brenda coming into the kitchen and telling me that my book, The Reverse Cowgirl, had reached number 69 in the Amazon.ca short story charts.
KM: What are you working on now?
DW: My dream project. An epic southwestern Ontario white-trash crime novel. A while ago I met James Ellroy and got him to write "I'm yo daddy" in my copy of Blood's a Rover. I intend to prove him right. He's my literary daddy, at least for one book.
The Reverse Cowgirl, Freehand Books, 2011
Description from Freehand Books:
Keen, intense, and darkly comic, the short stories of David Whitton are full of misfits, oddballs, dropouts, klutzes, and loners. You might dress em up, but it’s just a matter of moments till they unravel back into their fallen, and fascinating, selves. Their mistakes and misdeeds, temptations and transgressions thread their way through these stories, stirring up surprises on every corner.
Whitton navigates current life and future worlds, dirty truths and murky fantasies, continually setting up, if only to send up, modern romantic scenarios. In the end, whether the lovers meet online or on acid, at a wedding or in battle, the object of ardour might be in for a rough ride. Maybe they’ll stay afloat—tremulous and tentative—or plunge to earth in delightful and refreshing ways.
Praise for The Reverse Cowgirl
“The Reverse Cowgirl is both hilarious and horrifying, as startling and poetic as a gargoyle dropped on one’s head, a corpse with a plastic flower instead of a face. Whitton writes the way a master painter paints—just a few well-placed strokes of his brush and he reveals worlds of vast and mesmerizing complexity. The characters in these stories are all at a loss in some way, and with his frightening talent Whitton makes readers care deeply for them, even while ashamedly laughing at them. He is marvelous in his ability to show the comic in the tragic, and he constantly forced me to question my own ethics, my own place in the world. A truly gifted writer and a truly kick-ass short story collection.” —Suzette Mayr
Rusty Talk Editor:
The Rusty Toque interviews published writers, filmmakers, editors, publishers on writing, inspiration, craft, drafting, revision, editing, publishing, and community.
Unless otherwise stated all interviews are conducted by email.
Our goal is to introduce our readers to new voices and to share the insights of published/ produced writers which we hope will encourage and inspire those new to writing.
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