Keith Maillard

Interviewed by Louise BrechtMaillard

Keith Maillard is an iconic American-Canadian novelist, poet, essayist, and professor. The trek from Wheeling, West Virginia, to his chosen home in West Vancouver, was circuitous, but the author liked what he found when he arrived—and stayed. His first novel was published in 1976; Two Strand River is a noted gender-bending “classic of Canadian magic realism.” Twelve novels and one book of poetry followed. Eleven have won or been nominated for literary prizes that include the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Gerald Lampert Award (poetry), the Polish American Historical Association’s Creative Arts Prize, the Weatherford Award, and ReLit Awards.

Keith is a dedicated educator, a recipient of the Dorothy Somerset Award for excellence in that field, and since 1989, has played an integral role in UBC’s Creative Writing Program. His latest novel was published in September 2018.

Twin Studies, inspired in part by manga artist Ai Yazawa’s Nana series, visits the intense interconnectedness between three sets of twins, their families, friends, at the same time as it revisits the concept of gender fluidity introduced in Two Strand River. Intrigued by its thematic currency, I was eager to interview the book’s author.

Two Strand River was obviously well ahead of its time. How did your early years, at home and as a writer, prepare you to challenge the prescribed theory of gender binary?

As soon as I was aware of anything, I was aware that I was different from other kids. There were no words for any of this stuff back then, and when I felt bad about myself, I thought of myself as “not a real boy,” but when I felt good about myself, I thought of myself as “like a girl.” I kept these thoughts secret, of course, because they were thoughts that one should not be having. Later on, as I entered into adulthood, I thought of myself as “not straight,” but if that defined what I wasn’t, then what was I?

I am one of those people for whom gender identity is, as the psychologists say, “stable across the lifespan.” That is, my sense of my own gender is the same now as it was when I was four, or at any time, but for many years I didn’t know what to call it.  

I read voraciously as a kid and a teenager, read masses of popular fiction, and in none of it could I find anyone who was like me. Representation is crucially important. If you can’t find anyone like you in fiction, then it’s hard to feel that you are even human. When I sat down to write Two Strand River, I didn’t know for sure if there were many, or any, people like me, but if there were, then I was writing for them.

Not until 2009-2010, when Twin Studies is set, was the term “nonbinary” readily available. When I first ran across it, I let it settle in my mind, and then eventually thought, oh my goodness, there it is finally, the bell is ringing—that’s me. I gave that wonderful epiphany to the characters in my book.

Did you have any specific influences?

On Two Strand River? In the afterword to the HarperCollins edition I list most of the influences on that particular book. I piled into it everything I was thinking about when I wrote it, and that made for a dense and somewhat chaotic text, but all of that stuff is, in some sense, just piled on the top. The core story is something that had always been with me. I began writing stories in the eighth grade. Boys who were like girls and girls who were like boys had appeared in my writing early on and kept reappearing, so Alan and Leslie had always been there in my mind—which is probably why their stories came to me so quickly and intensely.  

How did its publication affect your career trajectory…and the books that followed?

Publication led to reviews, to some recognition, to Canada Council Grants, to a reading at Harbourfront. Back in those days you weren’t on a panel with four or five other writers; it was just you, and you read for 45 minutes, had an intermission and then read for another 45 minutes. That was quite a workout. After that reading a young guy came up to me and said, “Hi, my name’s Ed Carson, and I want to publish you.” And he did publish me, at General and then, later, at HarperCollins.

Can you describe the evolution of your writing process generally? Specifically?

A typical way to write a novel is to start at the beginning and write to the end. This will take you at least a year, probably more, and in the process of writing the first draft you will learn what the book is about—what you wanted to say—and that will enable you to write a second draft in which you cut what needs to be cut, add what needs to be added, and get everything in the right place. That second draft is now a complete manuscript that other people can read. That’s the way most of my students write their novels, and that’s how I wrote the first few of mine.

My process has evolved over the years, and this is how I write now. Right from the beginning—when I get the first ideas that will turn into a book—I work with a detailed outline that resembles a screenwriter’s beat sheet. Initially I spend most of my time working on the outline, imagining scenes and making notes for them, and then only gradually do I begin the actual writing. I work on all parts of the book at once, and I need to write or imagine my climactic scenes first because otherwise I won’t know what I’m writing toward. This outline, of course, changes as the book evolves. To keep track of the many drafts I produce, I date them. I love editing and working with structure, so finishing a book is the fun part of writing for me. When I have a fully completed draft, I check all the through-lines to make sure that they’re working properly and then check my scene transitions because a lot happens in the white space between scenes. Eventually I arrive at a draft that is ready for people to read.

You describe the first draft of Two Strand River as a “one off” that you haven’t experienced since. How did it differ from the others? Would you welcome that experience again?

I wrote Two Strand River very quickly, not knowing from one day to the next what my characters were going to do, and had a finished draft in six weeks. It felt like automatic writing. No, I don’t think I would welcome that experience again. Pounding a typewriter six to eight hours a day seven days a week was physically exhausting, and if I hadn’t been in reasonably good shape and in my early thirties, I couldn’t have done it. I do still experience times when I am flooded with ideas, but now I take notes, go for a walk, and let everything work itself out in my mind before I do much writing.

All but three of your novels are set in the United States. Is it at all significant that both of these novels are (primarily) set in the Vancouver/West Vancouver area?

Yes, it’s significant. I usually write the kind of realism in which location saturates the story. I didn’t pick locations to say something significant about the story; I picked them because that’s where the story happens. People have told me—and told me so many times that I believe them—that in Two Strand I really “got” good old hippy Kits from back in the day. That’s where I was living when I wrote it. When I began writing Twin Studies, I had been living in West Van for over twenty years. On a deeper level I suspect that when I left the States for Canada in 1970, I was leaving one part of myself behind and welcoming another part of myself into a new country, and this is reflected in the locations I chose in my writing.

You’ve been open about the writer’s block that precipitated a two-year interruption in your writing career. Is it the most serious obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

No. The most serious obstacle I’ve had to overcome was the chronic depression—and probably PTSD—that afflicted me in my late teens and early twenties. The simple fact that I was still alive at the end of it was a victory.

When I had writer’s block—after I admitted it and deliberately decided to stop writing—I actually had an interesting and productive life working as a photographer. In order to worry about your “career,” you have to think you have one, and I wasn’t sure that I did as a writer. I’d published four novels, one of them in New York, and I’d had lots of reviews, most of them pretty good. I’d had my picture in Books in Canada and gone on tours throughout the country, but except for Canada Council grants, I’d made hardly any money, and no one—and this was important to me—had seriously engaged with the ideas in my novels about what we would now call “gender.” Some reviewers had noticed, but they’d gone skittering away immediately as though they were terrified of the subject—which I believe they were. Whatever I was saying, nobody seemed to be getting, so why should I bother? And I really enjoyed working with images rather than words.

How did Two Strand River inform Twin Studies?

To be absolutely honest here, it didn’t particularly. It had been well over forty years since I’d written it, and I was aware that it went with Twin Studies to make a kind of set, like bookends, one at the beginning, one at the end, both set in Vancouver, both concerned with gender, but I wasn’t really thinking about Two Strand River much when I was writing Twin Studies.

In addition to gender and sexuality, Twin Studies takes an unflinching look at relationships between twins and (singleton) siblings. friends and lovers, class and money. In the course of its production did you ever experience the feeling of “I can’t write that” that you denote in the earlier work?

No. The you-can’t-write-that syndrome is something that primarily affects beginning writers, and that particular voice in my head went away a long time ago. Now I allow myself to write whatever crosses my mind because I know that if I want to, I can always cut it later.

Has your storied teaching career at UBC. influenced your choice of subject material and/or the characters you’ve chosen to portray?

Of course it has. Interacting with young people keeps me in touch with the times, and I learn as much from my students and they do from me. I couldn’t have imagined a protagonist in her early 30s—like Erica in Twin Studies—if for years I hadn’t been engaged in dialogue with my students.

Where you’ve made mention of the words of wisdom that have (deeply) affected your writing career, what professorial advice do you consider most important for emerging writers today?

Because there are so many different kinds of writers, doing so many different kinds of writing, it’s hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all answer. “Take care of yourself,” I suppose is the most important thing I could say. When you’re in the middle of a project, it’s easy to see yourself as a detached consciousness, but that consciousness arises in a body, so imagine that you’re in for the long haul and take care of that body. Also, remember that writing is a social act, and find people in your life who will read your work and give you thoughtful feedback—people you can trust. Finally, I guess I’d have to say that writing has to be its own reward. That sounds like merely some hoary old motto, so let me amplify it. Sometimes the process of writing is the most intensely alert and engaged you will ever be in your life, and sometimes that process will be all that you have.

Louise Brecht is an avid reader, aspiring author, and third year student at the University of British Columbia, working towards her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature.

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.

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.