Lee Henderson is a Canadian writer and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. He has published two award-winning books with Penguin Canada — the short story collection The Broken Record Technique and the novel The Man Game, which won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the BC Book Prize and the Vancouver Book Prize in 2009. Lee’s fiction and art writing is regularly published in The Walrus and Border Crossings magazine; other short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. He has curated exhibitions of contemporary art and experimental music.
Prior to moving to Victoria, Lee taught Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I was fortunate to have Lee as my fiction teacher at UBC during my first year there. His feedback was always insightful and I especially liked the cartoons he drew on my stories—I’ve kept them all.
I welcomed the opportunity to reconnect with one of my favourite teachers for this interview.
When you were little, did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I loved making up stories, for sure, but for most of my childhood and adolescence I wanted to be a cartoonist.
How old were you when you started writing? Can you tell me a little bit about your earliest work?
My high school creative writing teacher was Al Forrie, co-publisher at Thistledown Press, in Saskatoon. Forrie brought real writers to read to our class and listen to us read: Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier, Sean Virgo, and Crad Kilodney were among the guests. Kilodney made a huge impression because he was publishing his own books and selling them on the streets of Toronto and his way of doing things felt very punk. I got inspired to write stories by taking that class.
Growing up, were you a kid who read a lot? Were there a lot of books around?
Definitely. Books were everywhere all the time. My parents own hundreds and hundreds of books and they read constantly, even while the TV is on. It was hard to get their attention because the books they read were so captivating. Through my family, I learned that books were full of secrets that showed how the world works.
When did you begin writing more seriously?
University. In my teens, it never occurred to me that you could make a career out of writing. I just didn’t know how the publishing world worked. It was not until I started taking workshops at UBC that I realized that being a writer was possible. I learned about the literary journals and the Canadian publishers and editors, and I saw that my mentors like Shannon Stewart and Zsuzsi Gartner were getting published, and decided I should go for it.
Did you have a vision of what it meant to be a writer and what you’d have to do to become one?
I guess the reason I switched to writing from visual art or cartooning was because I found I never got bored of the hard work of writing. I would draw for an hour and then want to take a break from drawing for a month. That’s not a good work ethic. My friends who draw for a living can draw for eight hours a day, seven days a week, if a project is on the go. I can do that with writing. I can write forever. I didn’t feel like I was improving as an illustrator, painter, whatever, because I didn’t have the patience to work at it day after day. But I could write day after day, for hours and hours, without feeling bored. Without hitting a talent ceiling. I could see that I was an awful writer, no better than the worst, but it didn’t matter because I had the energy and patience to work like a fiend to make something of my awful drafts. It’s been like that now for twenty years. I’m still not bored of the excruciating hard work of making good sentences.
Was getting your MFA in Creative Writing an integral part of that process for you?
To be honest, the BFA at UBC was the most integral part of my process. Which is kind of the same thing but not. The MFA was amazing for the chance to work on a single project, but I learned everything about how to write that project while I was in the BFA. Taking classes with Keith Maillard, Peggy Thompson, Zsuzsi Gartner and Shannon Stewart, and the other faculty as an undergraduate totally changed my life. They are my foundation, they showed me the tools, and I look back at those workshops as a BFA student with a sense of awe. However, the MFA was integral in another sense, in that it was the beginning of the professional side of my life, and I loved the experience. In both the undergrad and MFA, I met so many other writers, and connecting with people who share a common purpose was essential.
Do you think it’s important that emerging writers share their work with others? Any advice on how they should go about doing that?
You mean outside of workshops? The huge learning curve in a workshop has everything to do with exposing your early drafts to readers to gauge the response. Slowly but surely the writer begins to see what readers want and how to deliver that without compromising one’s own goals. I suppose it is also important to show your work to others because it’s a step towards trying to get published. I wouldn’t advise anyone to show an early draft to a family member or loved one, because the feedback isn’t going to feel acceptable in the same way as a critique from a relative stranger. A relative newcomer to your life, with some expertise in the creative process and with writing – an editor, another writer – that person can help a lot. They can say more to you than “I liked it!” or “I didn’t get it!”
Sharing one’s work can make an emerging writer feel very vulnerable. Any advice on how to deal with critique?
Not just emerging writers feel vulnerable to critique – even middling nobodies with books under their belts like myself feel vulnerable during a critique. We all freak out. There’s no way around the vulnerability. My instinct has always been to write all that vulnerability into the prose – because the more you hold back on the page, the harder it is to accept critique. The more of my naked flesh and blood there is in the prose, the more I learn to be fearless and nothing can harm me, even good advice. I listen carefully to what everyone has to say. I listen for trouble spots where everyone in a workshop or editorial meeting agrees something isn’t working and I make up my own mind how to solve the problem. I never ignore feedback. I try to understand what I can do to make the problems go away. But, I also think it’s important to value certain people’s feedback more than others. Certain readers get you, other readers don’t. There’s no reason to treat all feedback equally. Some people are idiots and don’t know how to read: Avoid them.
You completed your MFA at UBC and promptly published a collection of short stories, The Broken Record Technique. How did it feel to sell your first book?
Ha ha, it felt amazing to sell my first book. It happened over Christmas, too, like a gift. It was the beginning of everything. Signing with Penguin was the beginning of my life, in some way. In my undergrad, getting a book deal felt like the end-all-be-all, even impossible, but then you realize it’s actually just the very beginning of a lifelong process. Every day I’m back to square one: write something. Nothing changes, except every few years I get thrown out into the public for a few months to read from a new thing. Publishing is weird.
The Broken Record Technique really is a beautiful book. Given your admiration and involvement in art, did you have a say in artist Marcel Dzama doing the artwork for the cover?
Oh for sure. I told my editor I wanted Marcel’s work on the cover. That was back when he was just starting to break big – still doing spot illustrations in Saturday Night magazine and showing at Atelier Gallery in Vancouver with the rest of the Royal Art Lodge. I emailed Dzama and asked if he would draw the cover. For a total of $250 he made five drawings, including my request for a Dzama-fied Penguin logo. I kept three of the drawings and gave the others to my editor. Then the year my book came out, he started to do stuff with McSweeney’s and signed up with the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City.
Six years later, you published your novel, The Man Game. Was that a different experience?
I still got to decide the cover artist and image for The Man Game. Other than that, absolutely everything about publishing the novel was different from the stories.
It took you nine years to write The Man Game. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?
Writing The Man Game was a slow, strange process that swallowed my life for, yep, almost ten years. Two, maybe three years into the project I found my first chapter and had to throw away two hundred and fifty pages, kid you not. I’ll save you the soap opera but I moved around a lot from rental to rental slowly moving eastward through Vancouver as I wrote the book on a little table starting on Dunbar Street and ending on Keefer Street with all kinds of part-time jobs and amazing views of the city in between. The novel’s about Vancouver so the changing perspectives probably helped me form the portrait. At the time though, I moved for the same autobiographical reasons as anybody, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. Life impacted the story. Writing the book impacted my life. By the time I was seeing the advanced review copies, I had no job, a little East Van apartment with a pet rabbit, and no other possessions besides my books and my university clothes. I slept on a single-sized mattress the artist Jason McLean donated to me, which, by strange coincidence, was the mattress Marcel Dzama slept on when he stayed in Vancouver.
Can you tell me more about how you made ends meet during that time? How you managed to pay the bills, while still finding the time to write?
Part-time jobs. Any part-time job will do, but I found ones that I liked. Then I hustled a lot of freelance on the side to make up for the lost money. Meanwhile part-time work meant I got more “weekends” meaning nights I could stay up to write fiction.
Nine years is a long commitment. Do you have any personal rituals or superstitions around your writing? Anything that you do to get yourself started?
Nope, nothing in particular. I’m a night writer. I try to write all afternoon, stabs and chops, and barely get anything accomplished. Then after I’m ready to hit the sack, for another hour very late at night I get most of my work done.
When would you say is the time for an emerging writer to get an agent? Is there a proven process?
Once you’ve finished a decent draft of a novel, that’s the time for a writer to think about getting an agent. There is a proven process: You do the work, then stick your neck out.
Before you finish a novel, let’s say you also write short stories and/or poems. Stick your neck out and send them to the literary journals. That’s the proven process.
What do you tell your students about trying to make a living as a writer? Any immediate advice?
It’s a great idea to try to make a living as a writer. There’s no better gig in the world. Not a job, not even a career, it’s a living, that’s right.
Anita Bedell is a MFA candidate in her second year of the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. She’s written one feature length art-house film, and is working on her second feature as well as a novel. She’s an avid cinephile and aspires to be an auteur filmmaker as well as a writer. Originally from northern British Columbia, she now lives in Vancouver.