A Painful Place
An interview with Michael Blouin
BP: What contemporary fiction and/or poetry currently excite you? What older works do you find yourself returning to for inspiration?
MB: I don’t tend to read a lot of contemporary fiction or poetry, for the same reason that I don’t tend to watch a lot of television or film – a possibly irrational fear that it will show up in my own work. I do read writers I know personally though. In fiction (if it is in fact fiction) I just finished Stripmalling by Jon Paul Fiorentino and Evan Munday and in poetry I just re-read The Luskville Reductions by Monty Read and some pieces by Sandra Ridley who I’ve been working with lately. At least if I’m influenced I will be influenced by work of a very high calibre. I find all of the writers mentioned above to be working at an extraordinarily high level.
As far as older works I do read all of the time. I return regularly to the following: Joyce, Nabakov, Kroetsch, and Herge. I also teach Salinger, Dickens, Ondaatje and again, Joyce, so I’m always messing about with those.
I think music informs my writing more than writing does: Kieth Jarrett, Bill Frissel, Miles Davis, Matt Good, Royal Wood. Many, many diverse artists each playing in my head at a different stage in my process.
BP: A related question: do you see yourself (or hope to see yourself) working within a specific artistic tradition, Canadian or otherwise? If so, is this a product of style, subject matter, place, ideology, or otherwise?
MB: I do see myself working within a Canadian narrative tradition though I’d be hard pressed to define just how. That might be best answered by someone else. As a much younger writer I was deeply inspired by the early work of Ondaatje and I have a great regard and respect for the Canadian poetic tradition. Someone other than myself would have to point out to me how my fiction would fit into a specifically Canadian arc. I don’t see that but I’d be proud to be counted in I guess. I’m certainly identifiably Canadian in terms of place, both in my poetry and fiction, and I suppose subject matter as well. My new poetry is certainly quite Canadian in subject matter, tone and ideology I think. More on that below.
BP: What role, if any, did the community of Oxford Mills have in the writing of your novel, Chase & Haven? Moreover, how has the Ottawa literary scene (small press included) and its particular cast of characters helped or hindered your creative process?
MB: Chase & Haven is firmly set in the community in which I currently live and work which is Oxford Mills, Kemptville, and the wider North Grenville County area. My next novel takes place here as well as do parts of the novel to follow. Strangely they each take place in the 1970’s and I was not living here then. I find it very beneficial to be able to stand in the places that my characters walk. I could take a reader of Chase & Haven on a walking tour and point out Chase and Haven’s trailer, the restaurant Chase hangs out at, the highway and roads they ran away on, Chase’s basement apartment, the pivotal railway crossing is one concession away from my current house and interestingly several readers have identified it, though it’s never named. I hear that train every night from my bed. All of this helps me, I think, to stay close to my characters – they’re not just in my head. I can see them when I drive around.
My third novel branches out from this area to travel to St. Thomas Ontario and my new book of poetry travels to the southern U.S. and New Brunswick – in both cases because they are driven there by historical events.
Collett Tracey at Carleton University taught me that it is necessary for a writer to exist within a small community of like-minded individuals. I had never believed that to be true and I now realize that it is, or that it is certainly very beneficial to have one and I feel lucky that I do. At the very least it dissolves the sense of isolation which can easily develop for a writer. At the very real risk of leaving out important names (which I will do, sorry) I have been affirmed both as a writer and as a person who writes (two different fellas) by the following writers (people who write?): rob mclennan, Rhonda Douglas, max middle, Dean Steadman, Sandy Ridley, Monty Read, Sean Moreland, Amanda Earl, Anita Lahey and supported by Arc, the AB Series, the Tree Reading Series, the Newstalgica Reading Series, the Factory Reading Series, and the Writer’s Festival. I don’t think the whole of the Carleton Tavern would hold the number of fledgling writers who have been supported in one way or another by rob mclennan, though it would be interesting to find out…
BP: What has your editorial relationship with Alana Wilcox and Coach House Books been like? How was the scenario similar or different to the relationship you had with Beth Follett and Pedlar Press for your book of poetry, I’m not going to lie to you?
MB: I was blessed to have both Alana and Beth as my primary editors (with assistance from Emily Schultz on my Pedlar book) and in both cases was fortunate to have my work handed back to me in considerably better shape than it was when I submitted it. I consider both Alana and Beth to be forces of nature, somewhere between gentle breezes and hurricane gale force winds and encompassing both ends of that spectrum. They are similar in their infinite care and their nurturing of the author and of the creative collaboration that editing should be when it is done well. That collaboration is quite different for a collected poetry than it is for a novel of course but they both approached their work with me from a truly generous place and I am grateful for that. The process with the novel has been more elaborate just due to the nature of the project and everyone at Coach House has been phenomenal. I’m currently working on edits with an agent and finding it to be exactly the same type of collaborative and productive relationship. So I’ve been very lucky.
BP: In Chase & Haven you employ a spare, deceivingly simplistic tone, pounding out a declarative, insistent rhythm (a style Emily Schultz calls “Gowdy-like”, but that could also be likened to minimalist American authors). Do you feel this style of writing most befitting of your subject matter? Or is this a style you employ naturally in your fiction?
MB: It certainly could be likened to minimalism. I tend to think of it as removing filler. I take out (or don’t start off with) the passages I have trouble reading in some novels. Pieces should be strong enough to connect themselves and readers are certainly smart enough to do that. Why do we continue the narrative spoon-feeding? I try to restrain myself on this topic but… it’s 2009 for God’s sake. I just don’t understand why so much of our fiction is the way that it is. So much of it bores me to death. I’m shutting up about this right now.
I do think that the styles of my fiction and my poetry come from similar, related places. The style does change a little with subject matter but the larger subject matter remains consistent; we’re alive, we’ll die – what’s up?
BP: How long have you written fiction? How has your experience and achievements with writing poetry influenced your work with prose? Do you feel more at home with one form than the other?
MB: I have been writing fiction for an ungodly amount of time – 32 years. When I started writing smoking was a digestive aid that promoted an overall sense of well being. Drinking and driving was just how you got home. An adult cartoon was The Flintstones. Times have changed for the better I think. Except for the cartoons – Fred Flintstone trumps Peter Griffin (I like to have to look for my sub-text). I’ve been writing poetry about the same amount of time. I feel equally at home with both. I am at home with the narrative process, poetry or prose are just different means to that end. I am likely a better novelist than I am a poet. That will only be true though until my next book of poetry comes out.
BP: What’s your writing process like? Raging torrent, slow drip, or somewhere in between?
MB: At the moment, and for the last few years, it is a raging torrent. I have a new poetry manuscript heading off to the publisher, a finished novel in edits with an agent, another poetry manuscript started and a new novel on page 65. I generally write every day which gets tricky with a full time teaching job, three teen-aged children, friends, family, a dog, a cat, a Jeep to take the rust off of, a boat to polish, a masters degree to complete, a gym to get to and other projects on the go. I write in between and during all of that. I do something towards writing each day. I’d like to have a little room to write in. I don’t.
BP: Chase & Haven unfolds without much adherence to strict, linear chronology; instead, the reader is forced to assemble a series of fragmented snapshots – often extremely brief – that alternate between the present and the past. Was it your original intent to jump back and forth across time, or was this a surprising (or more spontaneous) development in the novel’s composition?
MB: That structure was set within the first few pages of the first draft. I thought that book deserved to be presented in a form that mimicked memory and the way that process works for us (or fails to work). I saw it as the most realistic and honest way in which to present that story. Fortunately Alana agreed. And fortunately she was patient and attentive to detail. The chronology required a spreadsheet in the editing stages. It has to do also with my lack of tolerance for connecting narrative – I think that often it undervalues the contributions of the reader to a work, belittling the role of the reader which if we’re honest we have to admit is the crucial role in narrative. It is the reader who writes the book. So the author should collaborate – not dictate, should guide rather than direct.
BP: If a novel isn’t quite chronological, accumulating snapshots hopefully add (rather than lead) to a materializing whole. How is this idea – addition rather than chronology – assisted by the use of the ampersand as a divisional mark throughout the book?
MB: I think it says a lot about the collaborative process at Coach House that I can’t say with full certainty that the ampersands were my idea as opposed to Alana’s. I remember that we went back and forth quite a lot on the format of the book and how the pieces would be connected because they did need connectors. At one point we were looking at little pictures as connectors, and then there were some other thoughts. I believe it was Alana who changed the and to & in the title and then enlarged it for the graphic for the frontispiece and I said hey – that’s what will connect the pieces (as in this happened & this happened & this happened…). Then Alana also made it all look very pretty. Like I said, bit of a genius her…
BP: Can you speak on the disturbing subject matter of Chase & Haven for a moment? Did the book require extensive research? What personal experience with abuse were you able to channel and transfigure into your convincing portrayal of child abuse and alcoholism?
MB: Since my parents are both still living and are very nurturing and wonderful people (I tried to signal this in the dedication which is to my father “the anti-Jack” which paints him as the opposite of the father in the book, which he is) I was concerned that the story would be taken as based on my childhood. People make those connections whether they exist or not – there’s nothing you can do about that. Except to hide between the sentences. I have had extensive experience in social work with the mentally ill and people on the street and as a school principal working with people on the edges of things. I very much hope that my portrayal honours the people who have had experiences such as those I have portrayed. That was my intent. I have my own experiences as an adult with near death and with other matters. This can be a painful place we’re in. As well as breathtakingly beautiful.
& that’s all.