C.D. Rose

Interviewed by Olga Holin

image1 is the author of Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else and The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, as well as a trail of short stories. He is at home anywhere there is a dusty library, a good secondhand bookshop and a dark bar.

If I was to say that you are a writer’s writer, how would you react? 

Rather numbly, if that doesn’t sound rude. It’s not something for me to say, or decide, to be honest. To say something like that is the role of the reader, or critic, but not the writer.  

I do always think that these are books for other people who have read too many books, so I would like to think of myself as a “reader’s writer,” perhaps. But again, that really isn’t something for me to say.

Your latest novel came out a few months ago titled: Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else. The main character is the editor from your previous book- The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, who this time around is invited to give a series of lectures, in an unspecified middle-European town, about forgotten books. Why did you decide to write a story focused on this character? Did you feel that he had more to say?

I’m tempted to say that this was a true story, but it wasn’t quite. But yes, your suspicion is reasonable, and not wrong. Quite simply, he wasn’t done. He still isn’t. A third (and final) volume of the Editor’s adventures is currently in progress.

When Umberto Eco passed away last year, I was distraught, but I found a lot of qualities that I admired in his work in your latest novel. There was the philosophical aspect, the hilarious absurdism that lets you laugh out loud. Most of all it was the creation of the world, as it was so vivid and real that I felt I was reading a work of creative nonfiction and not fiction. I remember thinking the same about The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure. What influenced this type of writing and is this something you want to keep exploring in your future work?

Fiction is a strange thing. Made-up stories that keep on pretending, insisting even, that they are real, that they are true – isn’t there something odd about that?  I always liked the ludic aspect of it, but worried that there was something not altogether healthy about it. I always found the best stories, the most convincing ones were the ones which acknowledged their own fabrication, their own borders, the edges of where they may or may not be quite true or real.

For a while, this felt like a game, an elaborate way of playing with the reader or listener’s imagination or sense of belief. In recent times, however, the borders between what is true and what has been imagined or fabricated have become so much more dangerous. And not in a good way, I fear.

An art critic, Carrie Lambert-Beatty, has posited the concept of “parafiction,” which I would see as being opposed to the earlier concept of “metafiction.” While metafiction was fiction which drew attention to its own fictional status, parafiction does quite the opposite, and lays a fictional discourse alongside an ostensibly non-fictional one, mixing the true and the untrue, the imagined and the observed, throwing the ontological borders of each into question.

I think a tacit acknowledgment of where these borders may lie and working an investigation of them into the very fiction itself is one way to proceed and the way my work seems to be heading.

How do you go about investigating the non-fiction element?

I don’t really “investigate” as such – I merely seem to stumble across things that interest me. Perhaps I am looking without really knowing I’m looking.

I love to travel, to listen and to read widely – not just fiction, but anything I happen to chance upon. There’s no method to it. Perhaps there ought to be.

Let’s talk about the main character, who is passionate and yet fairly introverted. He is such a keen observer and yet in constant dialogue with the reader. I think that there is an awareness in him, that he too, like the books he lectures about, will be forgotten. Being put in a position where he is an authority on a topic makes him very uncomfortable. This feeling only grows when the professor who invited him to give the series of lectures is nowhere to be found. The character himself feels out of place, which is understandable given he is in an unfamiliar place, but I got the sense that he always feels out of place, almost awkward. Can you talk about the emotional arc of the character and how it came to exist? How much of yourself do you see in that character?

I always say that he’s me and that he’s not me. Both at the same time. I think many writers have written such characters. It’s a shortcut: I spent years trying to create characters very far from my own experience, with (at best) limited success, then realized drawing on my own experience was perhaps the best way to go after all.

I’m not sure he has much of an emotional arc. He begins the novel by being slightly baffled and slightly excited. At the end of the novel, he feels pretty much the same way.

I’m glad you feel he is in dialogue with the reader. I like a narrator who will lead you into a story, asking you to trust them, offering a guiding hand, a Virgil to a Dante, one who says, as they lead you into the labyrinth, “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.” (Michael Ondaatje said that.)

How did his character start? With a voice?

The voice certainly came on early in the process, with the writing of the Biographical Dictionary. I realised that I was creating a different version of myself, one with some good characteristics, others perhaps less so. But he could get away with stuff I couldn’t and do things I haven’t done.

The structure of the novel is interesting, too. You have the main storyline of the editor, which is interwoven with the lectures he gives, which are stories about authors in themselves. So, yes, it is a novel and yet also a collection of short stories. Could you spend some time and explain the motivation behind that?

I always consider myself, if anything, as a writer of short stories. I am a short story writer. That is the form which I love the most, and the one which I wish to practise. I do think this is a book of short stories, linked by a red thread. The initial impulse of this book was to remember the lost books which it describes. I only put in the Editor’s story to link them.

While I am delighted with the reception Who’s Who has received, I would still like more emphasis to be put on those lost books which form its main substance (each one a short story in itself), and less on the Editor’s various mishaps and misadventures. But who am I to say?

Your publication history is always one that fascinates me and also one that fills me with hope. Could you tell us about your personal literary failures and how your first book finally got published?

I have no failures. Only incomplete successes.

I think I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling again.

In my twenties, I was too busy having a life to sit still and write. In my thirties, I slowed down a bit, and wrote some short stories. A couple got published. Then I lost my job and had a relationship breakdown and had to leave the country where I was living in a hurry. I wanted to write and had heard about those MAs in Creative Writing they have now. So, I went back to the UK and I did one. I wrote a perfectly-crafted, finely-honed Literary Novel. After that I got a Literary Agent who assured me I would be published, famous and wealthy within a few months.

None of those things happened.

I wrote another perfectly-crafted, finely-honed Literary Novel. It sank without trace before even being published.

Agent dropped me. Had another relationship breakdown. Decided I hated books, writing, literature, Literary Agents. But nonetheless, continued to write.

Decided to put a series of tales about failed writers on the internet, with the idea that they, too, would vanish within one year.

Said series of tales was spotted by a fine publisher, who gently coaxed me back into the idea of actually writing a book.  

How do you think it affected your writing?

It made me realize that I should have been writing what I really wanted to write all along. The thing that was mad, that was crazy, the thing that no one else would write. The thing that mainstream publishers and literary agents would baulk at.

With that in mind, what advice would you give young writers? 

(First up, I’d question the word “young” here. My best advice to writers would be: be old. Even if your few years militate against you, find age. Draw on the wisdom, experience, and writings of others.

Seriously, “emerging” is a better word than “young” in this context.)

And write what the fuck you want to write. Don’t let Literary Agents, Mainstream Publishers and the dreary expectations of others limit you.

That is easier said than done. Any advice on how to shut out all the voices?

Sit down. Switch off all your social media. Better still, cancel all your accounts. Read, read deep. Ignore contemporary stuff: most of it will pass. Dig deep.

Forget any ideas you may ever have foolishly entertained about ever making money from any of this.

Then start writing.

One of the things I admired in both your books is this romanticized idea of writing, something that seems increasingly rare in the contemporary world. Work, which favours elements of craft and language over content and story line. Any content writers create these days needs to be digestible and there is little room for reflection. And yet your novel does nothing but reflect. This means you took a great risk. Why was this important to you?

The work of fiction, or creative writing of any kind, is precisely that: to provide space, to create time, where there is none.

There is little more important that writers can do.

How do you carve out that space? I think for me that is the hardest thing.

It’s the writing itself that carves out the space.

Earlier you said your character is not done yet, so where is he going next? When can we expect that book and will it be a novel again?

Following the modest success of Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else, I received a letter from a person who I shall not name here, telling me they had more information pertaining to Maxim Guyavitch (a writer at the heart of that book.) After a number of misadventures and misunderstandings, this resulted in a new, and hopefully definitive, edition of Guyavitch’s stories. The Blind Accordionist: Nine Stories by Maxim Guyavitch, which will include a critical and biographical essay, should be out in the next year or two. Unless Guyavitch’s legendary misfortune should strike again.

Olga Holin is a polyglot, a mix of mostly European ancestry, a writer and poet. She has a First Class BA in Creative Writing from the University of London and was awarded the Michael Donaghy Award for excellence in poetry. She published an illustrated poetry chapbook called “The Tale of Flexibility” in 2015. She is presently studying for her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and working on a collection of short stories and a novel. She is the Executive Editor, Promotions at PRISM international.

Advertisements

Naomi Shihab Nye,

Interviewed by Tania De Rozario

NaomiShihabNye

“It’s nice to find Indian naan in Tokyo!” Photo Credit: Lin Hayakawa

Naomi Shihab Nye, known largely as a poet, has written and edited work across poetry, fiction and academia. Her literary accolades include four Pushcart prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Arab American Book Award, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. A former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she has taught writing for over 40 years. Her most recent collection, Voices in the Air, was published earlier this year with Greenwillow Books.  

I first learned of Nye through her poem, Kindness. It brought me to tears, and as great poems often do, came to me at a point when I needed it most.

Let’s start with early beginnings in poetry and place. You grew up in San Antonio, Jerusalem and St Louis, Missouri, and much of your work focuses on place – domestic settings, country, State, the spaces between people. Where did poetry first find you, and how?

I was lucky to be “found” early – because my mother read poems to me at bedtime and our father told us Palestinian folktales that were very poetic in nature, full of images and rhythm and invocation and conversation, bedtime was surely the most peaceful and captivating time of the day. Also, we had our parents’ full attention then. I wrote my first poem at age 6 and felt a kind of satisfaction I’d never felt before – a glossy shine to the words when I returned to those simple four lines, a comforting “click” in the brain as if saying “You did something with that thought. You connected it.”  When I shared my first poem at school and had an older girl say to me, “I know what you mean” – I was hooked. So simply. Writing was a power within our grasp, whatever age we were. Writing belonged to anyone. It was portable and cheap. I wrote my first poem on the back of a white laundry bag in a hotel room.

Libraries, children’s anthologies, new and old collections of poems, offered all the stockpiled voices I needed to launch me into my magical new world. By age 7 in public school, Ferguson, Missouri, I had a teacher who believed poetry was at the centre of the universe and encouraged everyone in her classes to read and write it regularly. It was the heart of her curriculum – Mrs. Harriet Barron Lane. She was an elegant, old-world advocate of language and expanded vocabulary. She never suggested anything was above our heads. Lucky me! To have such a teacher at a young, formative age. I was able to thank her much later for all she had given us, when I continued on in my poetry practice, and only recently found two notes she wrote to my mother, in her compelling script. They felt like treasure maps, at this point.

And treasure itself, I’m sure!

You’re so right, compared to many art-forms, poetry is portable, cheap. That has never occurred to me. Singapore’s first and most famous Prime Minister once declared that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”

I feel sorry for anyone who says poetry is a luxury because poets consider it essential, like breath, like thinking. It’s not costly, so why is it a luxury?

In the U.S. I have often noticed that when a politician includes a scrap of poetry in a political speech – suddenly there’s something worth listening to. Poetry is a way of seeing the world, a sphere of connective suggestions, metaphor is a healing grace for all thinkers, it helps us put our mind-bits together, it helps us see what we think, then helps us convey that.

If we are to have empathy, we need poetry. If we are to expand our perceptions or imaginings about one another, poetry can be very helpful.

Yes –  in 2002, you said in an interview with Bill Moyer that “every time you care about something, or somebody that relates to a different place in the world, your empathy grows”, that loving somebody means having to “extend yourself”. Today, I feel these words urgently. Does poetry really have a place in fostering empathy?

Without a doubt. And this is the thing we need most in our world. And because, as American poet and scholar Rita Dove reminded, poetry is “immediate” – it doesn’t take as long to enter the world of a poem as reading a novel for example – so we need it all the time and everywhere and every day. Sometimes, we may only need a stanza. But to feel another perception or viewpoint through a poem is a vast and gracious thing – extending our own humanity toward wider care, which is what empathy is. The great Palestinian anthologist, translator and scholar, Dr. Salma Khadra Jayyusi said, “If we read one another, we might be less likely to kill one another.”

Yes, reading poetry has always enabled me to connect things – it’s a means of mapping, searching, uncovering, discovering. And speaking of mapping, there is a lot of conversation these days about writers’ career trajectories. I am always interested in is how becoming a published author changes one’s practice. Did Tattooed Feet chart your writing life in ways you had not expected?

I have always had a very simple philosophy about “getting one’s work out there”: Each thing gives us something else. If I had not published poems in regional journals during my college years, small-press publisher Dwight Fullingim, who brought out Tattooed Feet and Eye-to-Eye, my first two chapbooks, from his Texas Portfolio Press, would never have heard of me. If he had not published those books, my first full-length publisher (James Anderson, Breitenbush books, Oregon) would never have heard of me. One thing always led to something else. I am grateful to all those people.

This is why I urge writers to publish their work as they go along.  I started sending poems to children’s magazines when I was seven. I have never had an agent.

Wow, seven -years -old! And have you faced any obstacles in your writing journey since then?

I don’t know if I faced any particular obstacles. Somehow I always just slid along from one thing to the next quite happily. Someone recently told me my books may have received unfair criticism from people who find it hard to accept that Palestinians are human beings too. If that’s true, it’s okay with me. I’ll take the criticism.

Right. A lot of your work responds so relevantly and succinctly to what is going on in the world. Do you respond poetically to events as they unfold, or do you have daily routines or processes that help you focus on, and develop, your writing?

Thank you for this comment. I write in a notebook every day and often find myself responding to what is happening in the atmosphere.  As human beings we are all part of a grand (and sometimes frustrating) conversation which hopefully belongs to all of us and writing helps us feel as if we are contributing our own ideas – even if no one else reads what we write. I use my notebooks as the wellspring for other writing – I write first thing every morning, rising at 5 or before; a cup of coffee is my other sacred spring. Going back to the notebooks and finding excerpts we wish to work on is another ongoing practice. I don’t wait for big ideas but try to engage tiny bits of ideas as they flow through. I love taking notes. I even take notes at the movies. It’s the best thing I’ve found to do and has served me at all my ages and for all my books.

Great advice. Also, speaking of books! Your most recent collection, Voices in the Air came out this year. It is strikingly beautiful, and pays tribute to wide range of writers and historical figures. It is also subtitled “Poems for Listeners”. For me, this speaks to poetry’s beginnings as oral traditions. Could you tell us a little bit about how this collection came about?

I am so deeply grateful to you for mentioning this book. We all hear a lot of voices every day – in our surroundings, in our heads, memories. These days in the U.S. we are swarmed by breaking news – every hour it seems – and have a chance to hear many voices we might prefer not to hear, along the way. I often find myself referring to a poem first read long ago, remembering what a beloved writer once said which might prove helpful for this particular moment, and those sources and memories are how this book of mine got started. I love thinking about people like Peter Matthiessen or Grace Paley or William Stafford who were truly inspiring in their daily lives as well as writings. They save my soul! The poet Robert Bly once wrote a beautiful series of poems called Gratitude to Old Teachers. We could add to our own compendiums every day. And the teachers don’t have to have been writers. They might have been kids or neighbours or hairdressers or grandmas.

And on the subject of teachers – any advice for emerging writers?     

Read as much as you can, find voices you love, keep them near you.

Write regularly – even if you only have five or ten minutes a day to write in, take it. Do it, You’ll feel a different gravity in your own voice.

And find a way to share your work.

Tania De Rozario is the author of And The Walls Come Crumbling Down and Tender Delirium (Math Paper Press, 2013/2016). Born in Singapore, she is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.