By Reece Cochrane
Michael V. Smith, originally from Cornwall, Ontario, is a writer, filmmaker, and performance artist now living in Kelowna, British Columbia. Smith is an MFA in Creative Writing graduate from UBC, and he currently teaches creative writing at UBC’s Okanagan campus. Smith’s short story “What We Wanted” was nominated for the McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. His first novel, Cumberland, was nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. His book of poetry, What You Can’t Have, was published by Signature Editions in 2006, and his most recent novel, Progress (Cormorant Books, 2011), is a compelling story about a woman’s struggle to conceive her own notion of progress amidst a changing landscape and revelations about her past.
What in your childhood do you believe contributed to your wanting to become a writer?
I had a terrible childhood. I needed a lot of escapism, so I read a lot of books. And books were civilizing. People in books were moral; the heroes ultimately made good decisions, and their lives were better for it. I found books very educational in terms of other possibilities for how to live. I’ve always learned well by example—maybe that came from books. They saved my life, and so I’ve always been really interested in the arts.What did you like to read?
I remember I read every single one of the Hardy Boys books. Then I read the Nancy Drew series, which I liked more; I liked George, because she was a woman and her name was George, and because she was funny. And I’ve always liked tomboys, which is why I’m so popular with the lesbians. I also read a lot of Agatha Christie, and I read the Tolkien books, as well as many of my older sister’s books from school.
When did you start writing?
I wrote my first poem in grade seven. It was a love poem, and it was terrible. It was for a girl named Julie, and I think I said she was as gentle as a cat. But I started writing seriously in grade ten. I had the best English teacher in grade ten. I gave her poems to look at, and she shepherded me through high school. I only ever had her for that one class, but I always gave her poems, and she’d give me feedback. And then one year, probably grade twelve, she gave some of my poems back to me and said, ‘I don’t really have any comments. I don’t think I have anything else I can tell you,’ which was really nice. I’m sure she did; maybe she was just bored of doing free work.
I loved reading poems; I found them exciting. There’s so much possibility in them, and they do such amazing things in such a short period of time. It seemed so astounding how dense they were. They were magic, and, having come out of reading Tolkien, I liked magic. So by grade ten, I was pretty determined that this is what I was doing—that I was this writer.
Did you, at that time, have some idea of what it meant to be a writer?
I had a very good idea of what it meant to be an artist. An artist observes the world and tries to make it a better place. An artist builds; I’ve always thought of art as coming out of the notion of craft. My work serves a purpose. I know some people will say that there’s some kind of arrogance in thinking that you can accomplish anything, but I am very intention-driven, and I carry that with me through the work that I do. I want to make stuff that creates space for people and that makes the world an easier place for people who don’t find it so easy.
Did you move straight from high school to university?
Yes. I did my undergraduate at Glendon College, which is a bilingual campus and part of York University. I studied English and drama. I did a lot of drama in high school, so I thought I would pursue playwriting. We had to do productions for this degree—a quarter of our degree was putting on productions—and that was pretty great. I really liked that. But then when I moved to Vancouver, I didn’t meet theatre people. I had hoped that maybe I would graduate and meet some more theatre people. By then, I was definitely committed to the idea that I was a writer, and I turned a couple of my exercises from school into creative projects.
How else did you spend your time between your undergraduate and graduate studies?
I took a year off after my undergrad, and I worked at a bookstore for the rich in Toronto on St. Clair and Yonge—really rich neighborhood, lots of snobby people. It was a great summer, though, because I lived with my best friend and we both had a bit of money; I was working, so I could support myself and still manage to drink a little bit, and we had a lot of fun just not having any cares in the world. I did that for whatever it was, four or five months, and then thought, There’s got to be more to life than this. What am I going to do with the rest of my life? So I decided that I would get a grad degree and then get to teach college or something. And it worked—took a long time, but it worked.
Did you have anything published after your undergraduate degree?
I had a story that came out in an anthology. I was writing a little bit more fiction by that point, and my first published story came out in a book, which was really great—so lucky. And I had a poem published in Xtra! West, which was the first thing I ever had published. I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I did cartwheels. I was over the moon. It was a poem written in the voice of some imagined writer who had died, and I dedicated it to myself.
Where did you work during your graduate degree?
I worked for UBC Press one year and Canadian Literature Quarterly the other as a work-study student. Canadian Literature Quarterly was my first writing job and then UBC Press after that. They were just clerk positions; I was just a student filing things for the most part. But people were around, having conversations, and I got to listen in and meet them and feel like I was part of that community. I wasn’t an outsider. They were kind to me and it meant a lot.
Do you think young writers should seek out these kinds of jobs?
Yeah, partly to see how it works, to see behind the scenes, but also to meet people. The more people you know, the more opportunities you’re going to have. It’s true that people take unsolicited manuscripts from time to time, but the vast majority of people who are getting published are being published by colleagues; they know the people who are publishing them or they know each other through mutual acquaintances.
Have you ever relied solely on writing as a source of income?
After I graduated from UBC, I went back home. When I returned to Vancouver, I worked for three months as a script reader at Shavick Entertainment. I read feature-length scripts, and I wrote reports. I read two good scripts in three months. A lot of the scripts got produced, even though they were terrible. Anyway, so I did that for three months, and then I got my job at the UBC Bookstore and I’ve been at UBC ever since. So only three months, and it was terrible and terrifying, because it was hand to mouth; sometimes, it was even faster than that, if that’s possible. I think that, if you want to write, you find the best job that you can that gives you the most freedom to write.
What made you think that you wanted to write a novel?
I just wanted to be a novelist. I’ve always really liked long forms, and I realized that I love long forms more than shorter forms. I wanted to be one of those people in the world who told a long story and hopefully told it well. I didn’t really read short stories much growing up. I read novels, and I read novels from a really young age. I read teen novels when I was a pre-teen, and I was reading my sister’s high school books—she was two grades ahead of me—when I was in grade seven and zipped through them. I read the Lord of the Rings novels when I was in grade five. I was a big reader, and I just wanted to do that thing, whatever it was, whatever that alchemical manifestation was, I wanted to do the same thing for other people.
How did you go about writing Cumberland?
I started Cumberland in my last year at UBC. I wrote a paragraph with this character Ernest in it, and it was immediately familiar; it was intriguing, and it gave me that weird body sensation that you get when you’ve struck something meaningful to you. It started with Ernest, with the character, and I just followed him around for a long time in my head and wrote whatever he did. I wrote down ideas. Everywhere I went, I got an idea and I wrote it down. I had little paragraphs. I had a few pages, and I had a sentence or two, and then I had four pages of something that was strung together. I did that until I had about eighty pages, single-spaced. Then I thought, okay, I’m going to print these out and see if I can’t put them in some order, and I quickly figured out an order. About forty of those pages ended up stringing together quite nicely, and I thought, okay, well I need to write a little bit more in order to get to this place, and then I realized I had to write even more to get to that place. Then I realized that those original forty pages that I’d written were actually the end of the novel. Progress more or less started the same way; I wrote a whole bunch of stuff, ended up with a chunk, and realized quite early on, because I was smarter, that this chunk was the end of the book.
What else did you learn from writing Cumberland that helped you to write Progress?
I had a really hard time writing Cumberland, because I didn’t know what my process was; I would sit at my computer and sob, because I found it so overwhelming. Eventually, I had to just give myself permission to just do that, sob; it didn’t mean anything. I had to train myself out of thinking that I was crazy when I was writing Cumberland. And so by the time I got to Progress, I knew that I could cry as much as I wanted to. It was fine; those were great days; they were thrilling. That’s the biggest thing that I learned, and I also learned how to pay attention to what my mind was noticing.
I have quite a speedy brain, and so I found one of the hardest things in writing a novel was trying to slow down, trying to stay in the present moment of the story. The other thing I learned is how to look around. So, I learned how to slow down and pay attention not only to what’s going on in my brain, but also within the story itself; I learned how to stand inside a character’s shoes and look to see what else my mind can pick up. It’s sort of a meditative thing.
Did you use an agent to have Cumberland published?
Somebody gave me the advice to aim high and work your way down. And getting an agent is the way to aim high. You don’t get a good book deal on your own. You just won’t, unless you’re famous already or you’re one in a thousand. I finished a draft, gave it to a bunch of friends, got some feedback, did a revision, and then I sent it around to agents and all the agents said it wouldn’t sell internationally very well, that it was too much of a domestic story.
Then I tried publishers; I sent my manuscript to Cormorant, because they were not far from where the novel is set. Mark Côté had bought Cormorant and made it a very vibrant press. He read my manuscript, called me, and we had a big conversation about the book. He asked me a bunch of questions, if I wanted to change some things; so I did a revision, and I sent it to him. Then he called me and said that he had three questions. And I answered them all correctly, he told me, so he was going to make me an offer, and then I told him I wanted to get an agent to negotiate a contract. So I called the agent that had given me the nicest note, told her that I got a book deal, and asked if she’d be my agent. She said sure, and I have not made her very much money since.
When should a writer pursue an agent?
I think you don’t go after an agent until you have a finished manuscript, and it’s really important when you’re getting an agent and a publisher that you both have the same vision of the book. My publisher told me that he asked me those three questions because he wanted to make sure that we had the same idea about what the book was trying to do. You can run into a lot of problems with an agent or a publisher that has a very different idea of what the book is and how it will sell, if it’s not what you’re trying to accomplish. They may want you to change a manuscript that your happy with into something that you feel is less successful.
How did your career change after Cumberland was published?
Cumberland made me feel a lot more secure in my life as a writer. It made me feel more secure in general. I had done a lot of personal work to be less crazy, and that book helped move me further along in my journey of being less crazy, because I’d be out in the world feeling insecure or doubting myself and I would remind myself that I had a novel. It did wonders. I felt really self-actualized. It’s given me this astounding gratitude that I had the opportunity to make of my life something that I really value, that I could make this object that I had a lot of investment in. I’ve been very invested in books my whole life, and now I have four! It’s amazing. So the book did a lot of good for me in that regard, and it got nominated for the Amazon First Novel Award, which really helped me.
I’ve always felt like an outsider, having grown up fairly bright in a blue-collar town, and not ever feeling blue-collar, not understanding why people were so crass and gross and mean and rude and base. I just didn’t fit in that place, and I didn’t fit in my family. My dad was a very macho guy, and I was a sissy; that followed me. Even though I was popular enough in high school and had a lot of friends in university, I always just felt like the faggy, gay outsider. I was the only gay guy at UBC in the MFA program.
Having the novel published from a good press and having the nomination made me just feel more secure and confident that I wasn’t dreaming, that this wasn’t just a pipe dream, and that I had something to offer to people that was valuable; that was, has been, astoundingly productive for me.
How do you typically approach writing?
I’ll work anywhere. But when I’m working on long projects, I write in the morning. I really like routine. I’ll wake up and have breakfast, and then I’ll write. When I’m really obsessive, I eat breakfast at the computer. I usually try and write from when I wake up—which is around seven or eight in the morning—until noon. I aim for noon, and then I get to do what I want for the afternoon. Sometimes I don’t get to noon, in which case I read. That’s during my summers off; I don’t do very much of my own writing when I’m teaching.
What do you like about teaching?
The students. I love the classroom. I love making stuff up with people. We just play. The classroom is about sharing information, but it’s really just play. It’s seeing what you can do together as a group, what you can think up, what you can invent, what you can discover together. It’s huge amounts of fun. I also really love my colleagues. It’s a dream job. I love my salary, having been a poor artist for ten years, coming from a blue-collar family, and being the student-loan king of Canada.
What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
I talked to my friend—he didn’t have a novel and he wanted a novel—and I told him that it’s a matter of becoming inevitable, of making the objective inevitable. And you have to engage it in order for the inevitable to happen. If you abandon the project, it’s not inevitable. But as long as you’re engaged in the project, then the inevitability is authenticated; it’s valid; it’s functioning. The whole process of being rejected and sending stuff out is just a part of what it means to be inevitable.
When I didn’t have a book, I thought, will it ever happen? And then afterwards, I thought, of course it was going to happen. So, if you can keep in mind that of course it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of how and when, then it’s easier, because you don’t feel like a loser who might fail terribly. You just have to keep in mind that there is a destination and you will reach it, but you have to go through the steps it takes in order to accomplish the goal. Lots of people abandon it. That’s the only difference between published writers and unpublished writers; the published ones didn’t abandon the project. The unpublished ones did.
Reece Cochrane is a Vancouver-based writer, working mostly in fiction and poetry. He is an undergraduate student at UBC, studying creative writing and German. He began his post-secondary studies at the U of A, where he was awarded the McGraw Hill Book Prize in Exploring Writing for Best Portfolio. His work has been published in Fugue Magazine.