To regard reading and writing as, in a way, an exercise in the exploration of self is no revelatory concept for Brett Josef Grubisic. Growing up, he found his passion early and preferred the company of the written word and a quiet corner to the bluster and bombast of social gatherings in his family home.
Years removed from childhood, Grubisic occupies many roles within the writing world. As a professor of English at the University of British Columbia, a contributor to Maclean’s and other publications, and an editor and writer himself, Grubisic has turned his childhood passion into a sprawling career.
The editor of Contra/Diction: New Queer Male Fiction and co-editor of Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions, Grubisic’s debut novel, The Age of Cities, was a 2007 finalist for the Vancouver Book Award. His upcoming novel, From Up River and For One Night Only—due out in April 2016—is the next in a solid sequence of compelling prose that draws on experience-as-catalyst, attesting to the fact that to write is more than just an exercise in mechanics. To write is to reach back into one’s life, to pull at the past to create something entirely new.
I spoke with Brett about his influences, his upcoming projects, and how he approaches the craft of writing.
What inspired you to become a writer?
My oldest memory of “being a writer” takes place in St. Mary’s, a weird once-upon-a-time segregated half-residential elementary school near Hatzic Island, BC. A teacher granted a few girls and me a spare because we’d finished our work earlier. We were being handpicked as “accelerated” I think. Alone in a room we were allowed to do anything creative and we came up with a gory play about a giant chicken’s heart terrorizing girls who were camping. We made a monster/chicken’s heart costume out of red construction paper. My first rejection slip came in the form of the teacher’s disappointment with the direction our unfettered creativity had taken. She told us that we couldn’t perform it and that our spare classes were cancelled. I’m pretty sure the essence of that boy was still in me when I began writing my first novel a few decades later!
What are your biggest obstacles as a writer?
That’s easy: finding free time and making sure free time happens. My paying job (and the grading of hundreds of essays each semester that goes with it) always carves into the idyllic territory called Writing Time. And sometimes if I’m choosing between an afternoon of writing or a marathon of The Walking Dead or hanging out with my partner doing nothing in particular, tapping on a keyboard loses out.
I’m no stranger to “rejection slips” (which are now usually in email form, not paper SASEs), and do find myself rejecting or at least doubting ideas for stories or plot developments in longer works that I understand to be bad ideas in the sense that I might be interested in them but pretty much know that there’s no marketplace for them. The problem with that is I’m letting my pre-formed notion of “the market” and its supposed tastes and limitations determine what I might write instead of creating something that in the end may satisfy – and be read by – just me. That tendency to write with a reader’s (or editor’s or book buyer’s) needs in mind is a trait about which I’m mindful.
Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming novel, From Up River And For One Night Only? How is this work different from your previous novel?
The Age of Cities, my first novel, is set circa 1960 in River Bend City, which is the fictional version of one of the BC towns where I grew up. Part of a loose trilogy set in River Bend City, From Up River takes place there in the autumn of 1980 and has one of its conclusions in February of 1981. Plot-wise, it traces the ups and downs of four close friends who decide to become a New Wave cover band and enter a Battle of the Bands contest at a bar thirty minutes downriver. Thematically, the novel’s exploring what they lose and gain with their ambition and what ethical lines they willingly cross in order to achieve what they (think they) want. Structurally, it’s the most complicated plot I’ve written.
The novel’s quartet of characters – two sets of brothers and sisters in high school – were drawn over actual people, myself and my sister included. My sister was struck by a car and killed during the novel’s writing, and the tragedy and sadness of that awful event bled steadily into the novel, turning what had been a largely comic story into something darker, angrier, and less forgiving. Grief’s a powerful, disturbing process, and its presence during the writing added views of parenting and small town cultural forces that seemed necessary to include.
Themes in your past work—both your own and the work you have edited—are diverse, exploring everything from identity and the idea of “progress,” to commentaries regarding national identity and the absence of sexually frank fiction. How do you approach writing thematically? How do you decide on what to write about?
There’s not much rhyme or reason, so far as I can tell. For instance, the idea for Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase, my last co-editing project, came to me in a dream. I woke up and wrote down a title and the basic idea about dystopian lit; within a week the project was in motion. In the summer I wrote a long essay, a history of the gay and lesbian short story in English, because a scholar in Scotland asked if I’d continue with a related essay I’d co-written with Carellin Brooks for Cambridge University Press. That was followed by a short story that rewrote an Alice Munro story from the 1950s, but from a queer point of view. In that case the findings from a scholarly project gave me ideas about queer absences in Canadian literary history and I was inspired to address that.
I suppose I fall into the “magpie” category of writers. Some shiny object on the ground catches my eye and before I know it I’ve clasped the thing (in my beak or claws…the metaphor’s specifics elude me right now).
What is the role of the novel? Why is it important that we read and write?
Given the sheer number of novels that are published each year, I don’t think I can meaningful comment on “the role” of novels. The airport reader of the current Robert Ludlam™ (I picked up one recently and discovered that though Ludlam the man is dead, his name has been trademarked and a behind the scenes team, I guess, produces Ludlam-like thrillers) and the graduate student writing about bio-ethics in the fiction of David Guterson are clearly having different experiences of – and see different uses for – the novel.
That said, I have no doubt whatsoever about the value and importance of reading. Articulating its worth would probably take me to an unwieldy word count!
In addition to being a novelist and a professor of English at UBC, you also write about books and writers for publications such as Maclean’s, Quill & Quire, the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star. How do your various positions and roles affect your writing?
Hmm, the process of reading-for-hire is great because it makes me read far outside my habitual areas. A horror novel, for example, or a “sweeping historical epic” that in no way speaks to me as an individual consumer. The exposure is interesting because it’s a new area of culture and a new area of knowledge and representing the world and its arrangement. Plus, deadlines. I was assigned The Mare, Mary Gaitskill’s new novel. At 450 pages, I’d probably think, “No time for that” if I was browsing at a bookstore. Once it’s assigned, though, not only do I have to read and consciously assess it (with more than “It’s good” or “I didn’t like it”), but I have to do so in short order. Given the choice to read little and for leisure or having to plow through 400+ pages in a week because of a looming deadline, the lazy guy’s choice is removed from my list of options. Like kale, assignments with deadlines are good for me.
Plus, honestly, another writer will use a word I’ve not thought of in years or organize a novel in an appealing way, and so on. That has usefulness to me as a writer. Or—in the case of Ugliness: A Cultural History, which is a current assignment—a writer exposes me to an entire field of study about which I knew little. Learning outside my fields is invaluable.
What advice do you have for young writers?
That’s complicated. The cynic in me thinks, “Play the game.” Strategize. Be careerist. Go to the correct university writing programme, meet and network with the proper industry professionals to get your foot in the door, get a name agent, befriend the world’s Atwoods, Franzens, and Diazs, skip independent presses in favour of divisions on the Bertelsmann conglomerate roster with ample money for PR, schmooze where ever and whenever possible. Etc.
Beneath that, though, there’s something less profession-oriented. Write because you like to. Because the act of creativity is fun, personally rewarding, necessary, or therapeutic. Because a eureka of an idea has suddenly manifested in your consciousness and you’re curious to see what can happen with it. I’m a hedonist at heart, so for me self-pleasure (no pun intended) is crucial.
Oh, this too: given the huge number of writers and relatively few places where their stories can appear and novels can be published, rejection and its sting is a mathematical certainty.
Joshua Robinson is a Masters of Journalism student at the University of British Columbia. A contributing writer and editor for weirdcanada.com, he loves music and confusing himself with his own writing.