Interviewed by Jane Campbell
Douglas Glover is an itinerant Canadian, author of six story collections, four novels, two books of essays, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His bestselling novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2007 he won the Rogers-Writers’ Trust of Canada Timothy Findley Award. His most recent story collection Savage Love (Goose Lane, 2013) was a Quill & Quire Book of the Year and also named to the Globe Books 100: Best Canadian Fiction list. Steven W. Beattie in the National Post called it “hands down, the best book I read in 2013.”
Glover teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts, and he is the 2013-2014 Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick. He is the publisher and editor of the online literary magazine Numéro Cinq.
In your essay “Nihilism and Hairspray,” in your collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, you argue that being a writer is a calling or vocation rather than a career one consciously chooses. I agree with this, yet in my experience, there are many people who feel called to be writers, but instead choose to be become doctors or engineers or farmers in Southern Ontario. How did you decide to make writing your career?
That’s an interesting question. “Nihilism and Hairspray” is a polemic; I was setting up an antithesis: vocation against the institution-based professionalization of writing. The larger argument of the essay is an attack on words, categories, and forms deployed to control and define behaviour. Words like “writer,” “Canadian,” and “career,” often represent a set of values and expectations, a box, as it were. I think words like this have much the same effect on everyone. Like commercials on television, they make you, at the very least, anxious because suddenly you have entered the field of someone else’s desire.
The word “career” represents an ideal of orderly professional advancement. Applying that term to myself only makes me conscious of an expectation and the fact that in no way has my life been an orderly advance. I don’t think I would ever call anything I’ve done in life a career. Actually it has been more of a careen than a career. Once, long ago, one of my many former agents solemnly warned me that my career was precarious. I told her I didn’t think my career was precarious at all. I simply didn’t have one. Then she wasn’t my agent any more.
As for deciding to become a writer, I don’t think I did. I backed into it, always telling myself I could return to journalism, which was my second so-called career after teaching philosophy. Then one day, not so long ago, I woke up and realized returning to newspapers was no longer an option. On that day, I rather reluctantly became a writer.
On a related note, many writers are crippled with self-doubt and have a tendency to wake up in a cold sweat at 2:00 am thinking, “I should have gone to law school.” Have you ever struggled with these feelings? If so, what’s kept you from giving up?
Writing well is extremely difficult. It’s difficult to learn the craft and it’s difficult to find the pitch of focus and obsession that makes for good writing. Not to mention the fact that in order to write well you need to read widely, assimilate traditions, and have some passing acquaintance with the best thoughts and minds of your age. Self-doubts come with the territory. Best to stop thinking about how you feel and get on with the work.
Many of your stories feature main characters who commit immoral, selfish, and sometimes shocking acts. How do you write stories about characters who aren’t necessarily sympathetic without alienating your readers? Or is this even a concern for you?
I teach creative writing part-time and often encounter the myth (workshop folklore, received wisdom) that literature should be dull and earnest and only deal with nice people. How would Flaubert have answered that question? Were you worried that writing a novel about a fantasy-ridden, impecunious, sexaholic doctor’s wife would alienate your readers? Or Hubert Aquin: Did he really think it was a good idea to write a novel about a drug-intoxicated French-Canadian revolutionary turned rapist and murderer? Or Leonard Cohen: Oh, stop, Lenny. Not a novel about a guy who wants to fuck a saint. Think about the book clubs!
Art isn’t a popularity contest; it’s a solitary practice, a conversation between self and self. You play with ideas and patterns and try to find a complexity of structure and nuance missing from everyday life.
My stories are moral structures, deeply felt and thought. I do not trivialize the human struggle. John Metcalf once described me (I believe we had been drinking) as a deeply religious writer. He was right. If you read carefully you would begin to notice the insistent repetition of a set of concerns: self-knowledge (identity, consciousness and the role of language), motive (morality), love, transcendence, and redemption.
Take my story “Sixteen Categories of Desire.” A lesbian nun seduces an adolescent girl. Tsk, tsk, says the naive reader, shaking his head. But the word patterns cleave toward theological motifs, and the text throws into question the entire idea of a conventional morality that would condemn the act. The text invites the reader to challenge his own assumptions. It suggests that there might be a higher morality, that the nun might actually be a saint. It suggests that the reader ought to wake up, wake up intellectually, wake up morally, and wake up spiritually. Everything I write functions at this level.
Where do you get ideas for your fiction?
I sympathize with the question, but as you learn technique and as you read more deeply, you begin to realize that ideas for things to write about are completely unimportant. Once you understand form, you can write about anything. For example, after you realize that a story plot is a conflict structure, a desire meeting a resistance, once and again and again, then all you need to start a story is some conflicted situation. It could be any conflicted situation.
I used to sit with a notebook in the evening and write out a couple of dozen two-sentence openings, usually involving a man and a woman (a pretty common zone of hazard and conflict). No characterization, no setting. All that would follow, if I invented an intriguing conflict. “I thought my wife had left me, but she is back. What she has been doing the last two years I have no idea.” “I am in bed with a woman who looks like a movie star, and I have lost my memory.” Both these examples developed into stories and, in both cases, I had no idea what they were about or how the stories would develop. But I know how forms works.
When you think of it this way, the story then becomes an experimental field, a locus for the play of imagination, for adventure and discovery. You form the plot around a set of thematic concerns, you construct image and word patterns, you keep pressing your characters into confrontation, and there you go. A story.
Art is playing with form.
You’ve written a number of works that have historical settings. I’m particularly fond of “Tristiana” in your most recent collection Savage Love. Do you research these pieces? If so, what’s your process like? Do you research before you start writing or do you research and write simultaneously?
One is always reading books, ferreting out facts and details, always looking for the particular detail that will convince the reader to trust the world of the story. But at the end, I go through my texts and cut out most of research and historical explanation. I don’t write costume melodramas or period pieces. My historical texts are deliberately shot through with anachronism. In effect, I do research and then subvert the research as part of the ironic structure of the text.
In Savage Love, there are three historical stories: “Tristiana” (Idaho, 1869) and “A Flame, a Burst of Light” (Ontario, 1814) and “The Lost Language of Ng.” “Lost Language” is not obviously a historical story because it is a parody, a piece of mock historical scholarship. In terms of writing stories like this, it is interesting to ask yourself not what research was done but how is history deployed structurally and thematically in the text. I have several thoughts on this.
First, I learned some time ago that setting is not just landscape, that you can extend the concept vertically, as it were, perpendicular to the horizon of space, and imbue setting with a human dimension: time, time passing, loss and social evolution. At a certain point, I began inserting potted histories of place in my stories to create that vertical/temporal dimension for my characters. You can see this in early stories like “The Obituary Writer” and “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon.” I would say, in general, that what you see now is that technique expanded and elaborated to contain the whole text, story or novel.
Then I discovered that, of course, history itself is not settled and monolithic. This is the false assumption at the base of those costume melodramas, and it’s why Tolstoy, for example, has to subvert the history of War and Peace by inserting a long essay at the end of the novel, an essay in which he discusses his philosophy of history and informs the reader that Pierre and Natasha, rather than ending heroically, decline into bourgeois superficiality. Thus, in my novels and stories, history as a concept is in play. How does history get written? Who writes it? Who has authority and why? What is a fact? And so on. These ideas develop as a conflict of discourses in my novels The Life and Times of Captain N. and Elle.
And then, of course, history can be used symbolically, as a reflection of the present.
Canadian culture and history plays in integral role in many of your works, but you’ve also lived in the US and written many stories set there. How do you decide where to set a story?
When I place a story in a locale, the locale works as an element in the semiotics of the text, part of the formal organization. Canada, for example, is not just a place called Canada with lakes and muskeg and a string of cities hugging the United States. It is a mythic/symbolic construct, and not the same mythic/symbolic construct in every story either (i.e. it’s not a message but a variable aspect of form). In “Story Carved in Stone,” a Gulf Coast Alabama housewife abandons her husband, runs away to the Canadian Arctic, and has an affair with an Inuit shaman. Then she returns to her cracker husband and tells him what she has done. Canada, in this case, is a transcendent realm, a magical place of transformation, myth and mystery. In that Canada, Glenna learns what it really means to love another human, and then she returns to teach her husband.
You mentioned “Tristiana” from Savage Love. That story is set in the Idaho Territory, what is now Idaho and Montana but before they were organized as states. The protagonist is a version of Nietzsche’s Superman. In conventional terms (he despises conventional ethics), he’s quite awful, but in some other discourse he is an elemental, heroic figure, close to nature, God’s terrible avenger, who cleaves to power and survival and withal gets to fall in love and marry the girl. In this case, place is again symbolic, a blasted high desert landscape already ruined by a gold rush that has petered out by the time the killer and the girl arrive. Not the beautiful mountains of fantasy, but a dystopian fallen empire of destroyed rivers, smoking smelters, and poisoned water tables. Destitute natives haunt the sidelines. Racism is the lingua franca. Sounds like the America of 2014, doesn’t it? At least a precursor.
I have no preferences as to place. Any place can be forged into a thematic construct that works on several planes of meaning simultaneously within a text.
What does a typical day look like for you? How much time you spend writing? Do you have any routines that you find help foster productivity?
I am not an ideal writer, I’m afraid. I live pretty much like everyone else (well, everyone else who doesn’t have a day job). Put the dog out, coffee, look at the news, do some work, put the dog out, coffee, run some errands, talk to my mother, go to the gym, walk the dog, talk to my girlfriend, talk to my sons, put the dog out, more coffee, scotch, and a book at bedtime. Up until recently, my two sons were living with me and my day bent around them, their needs and schedules. But they are both away at university now. None of this is noteworthy or mysterious. I am an intermittent writer, which is fine with me. And, aside from the annual virgin sacrifice in the woods behind my house, I don’t do anything to foster productivity.
On the other hand – and I think this a more telling if oblique answer to your question, I have spent much of my life catching up on my reading. And the more I read, the slower I go. If I get very interested in a text, I write an essay about it, so that in writing out my thoughts I align myself more precisely with the wonderful mind that wrote the words.
There is nothing so inspiring or so helpful with the writing itself as doing a Vulcan mind-meld with a good book. I count repetitions, note devices, do chapter summaries, watch the time control structure, I circle and note every instance of a but-construction, I keep track of page numbers for each pattern as it develops, I write lists of words and quotations on the spare pages, I draw lines from page to page to connect word repetitions, I read the book backwards chapter by chapter, I use different coloured pens, I turn down corners, fold pages in half and festoon the margins with coloured flags. Especially, I am always on the look out for the thing I don’t understand, the device I don’t recognize–that is the place where learning begins. You can see an image of my reading copy of Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung” in the craft book section of my magazine Numéro Cinq. And you can see where my tastes run by looking at my nonfiction books.
I also keep up with the history of ideas and fairly current critical theory (a couple of years ago, I wrote an essay pulling all my ideas together, “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” which you can find on The Brooklyn Rail website). I am steeped in many of the best Canadian ideas: Innis, McLuhan, and Frye. E. K. Brown, who died too young. Stanley Ryerson’s histories. Tony Wilden’s Lacanian analysis of the Canadian soul, The Imaginary Canadian. Arthur Lower. The three great Canadian prose writers of the 20th century: Hubert Aquin, Leonard Cohen, and Alice Munro.
For a writer, this is the life that’s important.
In 2010, you founded the online magazine Numéro Cinq. Why found a magazine? Why online?
Well, to start with, it’s a delightful way to waste time.
But, seriously, after writing The Enamoured Knight and Elle, both books being concerned with the moment in history when printing and publishing arise, I became fascinated by the idea that, with the advent of computers and the Internet, we are living through an analogous techno-cultural moment. Rather than be a passive bystander, I wanted to experience that world from the inside, as an active participant.
Publishers are in disarray and many writers are fearful for their careers and income. Since I have neither career nor income, I am in a good position simply to be curious. So you could say I started the magazine out of curiosity. Also, since I started it with a group of students, it was a teaching tool. It remains a teaching tool. There is, for example, the Holy Book of Literary Craft.
A note on Numéro Cinq’s home page mentions that those who comment frequently and insightfully may eventually be invited to submit to the magazine. If writers are interested in contributing to Numéro Cinq is this indeed the best way to go about it?
Most literary magazines follow the same somewhat superannuated model. Even online magazines usurp the forms, rituals, and conventions associated with print magazines. This includes dealing with the masses of submissions (some are wonderful, of course, but very few), the quest for grants or institutional subventions, the editorial committees, the boards, dealing with printers (or web hosts and designers), the accounting.
Going online is cheap. It means you don’t have to be beholden to anyone. I am not even beholden to a web designer–I taught myself how to do it (a highly rejuvenating activity at my age). You don’t go out of print or off the bookstore shelf. If you design the site logically and with good search options, your archives are constantly before the reader. Anyone in the world with an Internet connection can find you. Of course, you have to put some effort into differentiating yourself from every other web site, but I have found a lot of pleasure in learning the game. And quality will tell.
Not taking submissions simply frees up immense amounts of time for other things associated with the magazine. If you have a reputation for quality and panache, it is not difficult to lure writers into making contributions. It’s much easier to invite a person you admire to contribute a story than to read 200 submissions hoping for a work of quality to appear. Reading submissions is the needle-in-the-haystack approach to finding good work.
But that doesn’t answer your question. How does someone we don’t know attract our attention in the first place? We’ve broken the old form and what have we put in its place? The obvious way is, yes, to make comments that show you are reading the magazine intelligently and understand its culture. Several contributors have made this transition. E.g. the conceptual artist Paul Forte and the French-Moroccan photographer Abdullah ben Salem D’Aix. We watch the comments, not just on the magazine, but on Facebook and Twitter. Just today we began to track an Irish writer who suddenly popped up on the radar, tweeting NC posts, retweeting, commenting, showing perspicacity and insight. Also she writes in Irish (I looked her up), which is fascinating; next free moment I have, I’ll DM an invitation to submit. That’s how it works.
Alternatively, it’s possible to find a foothold inside NC itself by offering to write reviews or do interviews. Once you’re on the inside, all sorts of good things follow: People like Julie Larios, R. W. Gray, Gerard Beirne, and Nance Van Winckel have tracked their own interests and created little fiefdoms within the magazine. But the magazine always needs reviewers, interviewers, and curators. The review guidelines for NC are publicly available online. Several people on the masthead have contact buttons on their bios. Inquire first, don’t send work samples. We can get a sense of who you are from the way you interact in conversation and by looking you up on the web. A reviewer gets a trial run. The standards are stringent and high. The process is very much about testing and quality.
The ideal NC writer grasps the culture, understands what is required, needs minimum editorial oversight, can post on WordPress (upload images and text, do layout) and can self-regulate in terms of deadlines and project initiation. When you think of it, these are all the tools a professional writer needs.
You mentioned your dog in a previous remark. I find many writers have close animal companions. What is his/ her name and breed?
Ah, the best question yet. The most important question. Goes straight to the heart of life and art. I am possibly the only writer ever to have dedicated a book to his dog. This is 16 Categories of Desire and the dog was Nellie.
My current familiar is a Dalmatian named Lucy, and she often appears in Numéro Cinq pretending to be a dog.
Jane Campbell is the Prose Editor of PRISM international. She is a second year student in UBC’s MFA in Creative Writing program and is currently working on book of non-fiction.