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.

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