Trevor Carolan

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Interviewed by Bradley Peters

Trevor Carolan is the author of twenty books of non-fiction, poetry, translation, anthologies and journalism. Carolan has worked as media advocate for aboriginal land claims and Pacific Coast watershed issues, holds a PhD, and teaches English and Creative Writing at University of the Fraser Valley. His books include Return to Stillness, an award-winning account of his 23-year training with Tai Chi Master Ng Ching Por in Vancouver’s Chinatown, road novel The Pillow Book of Dr. Jazz, and his guest-edited eco-anthology Cascadia: the Life and Breath of the World, which received a 2013 Best American Essays Citation. Road Trips, his third collection of poetry, will be published in spring 2019 by Ekstasis.

You are a very prolific writer; I’m interested to know whether you have a favourite, or if you are especially proud of one of your works, and why?

When you keep steady at writing it’s usually your latest book that’s a favourite. My last title, New World Dharma really brought together a lot of the material that has been close to my heart. It collects the interviews and profile features with or about important Buddhist writers, teachers and leaders I’ve produced during the past 25 years. I was grateful for securing a respected university press like State University of New York to bring it out because they have the reach and capability to ensure it gets distributed widely. I like to think of it as a generational legacy that can be picked up by others—younger seekers especially—searching for something of the wisdom traditions these great mentors have to share.

When I decide a time to write, I somehow usually end up doing the dishes, folding laundry, taking a long shower or going on a walk. Am I subconsciously preparing to write, or am I a hopeless procrastinator? 

We’re surely all procrastinators, but sooner or later it’s simply a matter of applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair as one wag put it. As a writer I’m a great believer like Jack London in the power of steady, applied work, but that’s something I learned on the job growing up with my dad who laid bricks and concrete blocks all-day-long as a mason. Just get on with things and keep moving the project forward.

What does a day in your life look like in the midst of a writing project? Specifically, how many hours a day, and days a week would be dedicated to writing, thinking about, or purposefully not thinking about your work?

For the past 15 years or so I’ve been fortunate in working as a university professor with all the reading, prep work and marking that entails. This is after the previous 20 years of scuffling in the writing world. I’m writing most of the time one way or another, whether it’s toward a committed project—an article or a book—or grooming poems or my journals. Likely, I’m also writing to friends in distant places. I’ve always maintained an active correspondence and this, I think, is a kick-starter for it all. If a book manuscript or whatever stalls for a bit, then I get writing letters and sharing my latest yarns. Friends who know me seem to understand that I’m often working out stories, probes, fragments of memoir and so on in my letters to them. Schedule-wise, I get up, play Tai Chi and exercise for about 40 minutes outside, get the coffee on and porridge for breakfast, check the news online, then either get off to classes or get started upstairs in my office. Typically, I have two, three or four things on the go—one main, current project—but also book reviews, letters to publishers, research ideas, editing Pacific Rim Review of Books with Richard Olafson the publisher…that’ll keep me going until evening break-time. Long hours, but when you love what you do, it’s not unwelcome.

Have there been slow periods in your writing career, or times where you didn’t write?

Not so much. When I was an elected councilor in North Vancouver in the 1990s, that was incredibly involving; but I managed to publish several books during that period.

You have travelled an incredible amount. Those travel experiences enter your writing in various ways. How important do you think it is for a writer to travel? Is it important for a writer to hound new experiences in general? 

Travel is a completely personal thing. I know terrific writers who stay close to home. I’ve always loved hitting the road. Maybe it’s having been an immigrant kid. I still remember the milk-run stops en route to Canada from Yorkshire in ’57 when I was a boy, fellas in kilts at Glasgow airport, the greasy spoon cafeterias in Quebec City and Winnipeg. In elementary school, we had a wonderful reader called If I Were Going—all travel stories, beautifully illustrated. Those things pointed me toward travel, I reckon. For the type of writing I appreciate, travel seems an integral component; but again, you don’t have to travel to be a good writer. You do need experience in the world. Get out and meet funky new people away from that miserable Facebook scene. Try new stuff. Take it to the street—man, that’s the test. Learn to balance writerly solitude with public engagement. Good engaged writers become ambassadors for humanity.

As an aspiring professional writer and young adult, I would like to ask how you feel the experience of marriage, and then how having children, affected your writing life, and your work in general?

There’s a reason why writers dedicate their books to their wife or husband, their partner, their children. We understand that we’d have floundered without their love, their patience and their support. If you’re serious, that loving ground is the bedrock you work from. It’s what you make of it.

You have written about the Beat Generation. I am a fan of artists from that period myself. I’m curious what your opinion is on the relationship of artistry to potentially mind-expanding or perception-altering drugs; seems to have worked for The Beatles. Could getting high in a responsible and safe way potentially benefit one’s art? 

There’s a long history of psychotropic questing in sacred or religious ritual. Baudelaire and the Symbolists established an artistic template for this in Paris with their explorations in the late 19th century, and the ideas of bohemian life were popularized there by Henri Murger in his newspaper articles about starving artists, living on love and not much else. Mainstream laws regarding such use have tended to be draconian, although this hasn’t deterred seekers, artists especially, from exploring their use as a means of seeking shamanic insight into the fuller nature of consciousness. So, yeah, God bless The Beatles; it’s a serious matter though, not to be taken lightly. I’d be very wary when it becomes a pop thing. There’s certainly no compulsion regarding their use by writers and artists. Among writers, alcohol has long served as the quicksand of choice, and the world is filled with tragic figures that didn’t make it back.

You have had varied careers, from teaching to publishing to politics, and more. Was there ever a career or working experience you feel really elevated or affected your writing?

Oh sure, there have been a number of them. Living in California introduced me to a lot of poetry, ecology, and to Tai Chi. James Barber—one of the best arts critics in the city—gave me some invaluable advice: he said, “Become an expert on something.” So, I got writing about art, music, artists.

Being a dad got me more rooted at home, and I found myself writing about picking salmonberries with my kids and about nature. I embraced it and started working in environmental advocacy locally and in B.C.

My doctoral program down-under at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, was a phenomenal experience. On my first day, I was sent to meet some tribal people in the bush at these giant wild turkey nests near a stretch of beach. This fellow daubed in clay brought out a long didgeridoo and got womping on it, then the dense bilma sticks were clacking; people were dancing and chanting in Yugambeh. Those didge vibrations fill your head and take you straight to the beginning of the world. After that, I poured everything I had into my dissertation project. It’s where I learned the rigour and discipline of scholarly research and academic writing from Rosita Dellios. I still return to that manuscript for ideas.

Networking. I hate it. What do you think about it? What would a successful networking experience look like for you?

In my case, I made a conscious decision to get involved when I left university. When I saw a day-long workshop on writing and publishing advertised at the local library, I registered. I learned more at this event than I had in a couple of years of school. I attended a series of follow-up seminars offered by the freelance magazine writers association here in Canada—PWAC. They were inexpensive and a chance to hear presentations straight from the editors, publishers and writers I needed to meet if I wanted to keep on writing and get published. After each event, I’d stay behind and help clean up. One night a veteran CBC writer came over and said “What’s your name? We see you help out after every event and nobody knows who you are. A few of us are going for a drink; care to join us?” That was the start of it for me.

My last questions a doozy. Do you think being open to spirituality or the concept of a god is integral to being a stronger artist? Could a tactile thinking person, an atheist, say, as I often consider myself, or a skeptical agnostic, be lacking some key ingredient in the art making process?

You know, anyone can be an artist. However, it’s a gift that requires cultivation beyond just pushing keys on a cell-phone. In my experience, to stick with that commitment to your gift is probably going to take some kind of faith, because not many folks can live with the constant financial anxiety of not having a steady job or paycheque. If you’re a writer or an artist, you’re going to live that way. So, you’ll need some element of faith when times get tough. If you’ve got soul, I reckon you can relate to that, whatever your spiritual path. And if you don’t, then heaven help you, or whatever secular mojo you’ve got as your back-up plan when trouble comes knocking. For me the spiritual is inseparable from my writing work—it’s what I see evidenced in the natural world here where I live, where some days it gets so calm you can hear God breathing on the bay. Bring that into your work — the soul. That’s the kind of writing and literature I love.

Bradley Peters is an emerging writer living in Mission, BC. His story,” Unit C and the Red Scorpions” is the LUSH literary contest non-fiction runner-up, and will be featured in subTerrain magazine’s Spring 2019 issue.

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