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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Rewriting our sense of self

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

AG: What about the different themes between your generation and the other ones? What do you see there?

SH: I don't think it's even really quite fair to say the older generation has these themes. Like, what does Michael Ondaatje have to do with Mordecai Richler? Why do they have more to do with each other than, you know, Emily has to do with Mordecai Richler? I think it's sort of artificial. And it's, like, 20, 30, 40 years. Not that much really happens to human beings in 40 years, at least not literary culture.

LH: We might have something new to say about Canada's obsession with historical novels. Personally I find the genre to be almost entirely pretentious. And so I am currently writing a historical novel, as punishment maybe for future crimes. I hope in some way my historical novel will address the issue that many writers of historical novels fail at: "How the hell does this have anything at all to do with what's going on right now?" I want to tell a historical story that lives in the spirit of the present day.

KC: I think for certain writers, like me, we all have some sort of thing that we want not to be writing. I'm not sure if the Canadian novel is something I've tried to avoid. Being a Chinese-Canadian, I've really been loathe to write any books that might have a cover with bamboo lettering on it. That was something I've always been afraid of.

ES: I don't want to feel compelled to write an epic novel. I love the elegant slim volume. I like writers who say what they want to say and then get out. I'm fine with 300 pages, but I really don't want to feel pressured to write a big book. I don't want to start writing filler just to get published.

SH: Really, everyone knows shorter is better, except publishers, book buyers and critics.

ES: Don't you think, though, that our literature is changed by the change of social mores? We grew up in a different time, certainly, than our parents did, and we converse, probably, differently, and conduct ourselves differently than they may have. Certainly my parents would have studied Henry Miller, but today we have nationally syndicated columnists like Dan Savage coming up with terms like "pegging." I don't plan to use that word in my fiction, but I do describe the act. These are our ordinary lives. These kinds of words are in our lexicon, evidence of where we are placing our attentions or our values. Apparently, it's important to my generation to know — before entering a commited relationship — whether their partners are into "pegging" or certain other sexual acts. Since most fiction is about human relationships in some way, how we meet one another's standards plays into the writing, even if we aren't writing specifically about a sex act. The cultural world around us both affects and is indicative of our fears and our ideals.

SH: I'm not, right now, so interested in what differentiates now from 20 years ago but more what's sort of remained the same between now and 20 years ago and 100 years ago and so on. The details change but people don't change.

LH: I don't know if I necessarily agree. When you see a book come out today by someone who's 25 and it reads like an Alice Munro book, you don't think, "Oh, this is really very contemporary," you think, "Aw, jeez, this person is living inside the very heavy shadow of Alice Munro's great career." You feel like it's almost reactionary or afraid to speak of its own generation or temporality or something. . . . I want to react to what I see as the structure of the world today. With time, certain things structurally change in how we live. Just the stuff that you can use as metaphor in writing, like the Internet or television, these things had dramatic effects and will have dramatic effects on people's fiction writing.

SH: How can you say what ways you are of your time and what ways you're not of your time? You feel completely of your time, you know? One feels completely contemporary, and the ways that you're not aren't really apparent to you, I don't think.

AG: Is there anything you guys feel you can't write about? Are any topics off-limits?

ES: Well, I have a hard time finding taboos, is what I'm saying. You know, if I can't find a taboo then I'll just throw some anal sex in, because that's the only taboo I can usually come up.

LH: That's what our generation's all about, anal sex.

ES: My husband calls it my deus sex machina. That's how I end any story if I can't come up with an ending.

KC: In the early Sixties, Philip Roth wrote this very famous essay about how real-life events were just far outstripping fiction in terms of how outrageous it can get. I'm still trying to figure out a way to write about certain events which are so far-fetched — events that belong in a Tom Clancy novel or something that you can't write in good literary fiction. I'm not sure if I'm ever going to do that.

SH: But you don't feel that's off-limits to you.

ES: I think we all have personal taboos. There are certain things I would never write.

SH: Like what?

ES: Lynn Crosbie writes very graphically about crime, and I could never do that, ever. Even though I totally respect her for doing it, I wouldn't be able to subject myself to the kinds of emotions that I would need to feel to write that.

SH: But I don't think that's taboo. I always think about that word in relation to the outside world.

ES: But I'm not sure we have that many taboos in the outside world anymore, is what I'm saying.

SH: I don't know. A certain kind of sincerity, perhaps.

ES: Maybe taboo has more to do with tone than with, like, actual subject matter.

LH: I don't really like quotation marks and so I don't think I'll ever use them. They're off-limits to me, and have been, and always will, be as far as I can tell. . . . And I also don't really like brand names very much. Except for Chrysler. I like certain words, so maybe I'd put Chrysler in a story.

KC: Volkswagen Jettas.

LH: See, that's too much.

SH: A writer might find that when they go into the street, all they notice are ads, and for them the fulcrum point of the whole culture is a Calvin Klein billboard. Why shouldn't such a person include brand names in their writing? But it has to be a conscious choice. Too may writers are sloppy about brand names. They haven't considered why they should be put in or why not, and this is foolish, because brand names are tremendously potent.

Lee's stories take place in a universe like our own, except things that happen slowly in our world happen quickly in Lee's, and the reverse. If he had a character talking on a Nokia phone, it would create this nice little release and we'd be comforted by Nokia's familiar face. But if you want to unsettle — which is the best way of making a reader vulnerable and therefore open to the world you're presenting — you don't put in Nokia.

LH: The temptation to use brand names is almost unbearable, for exactly the reasons Sheila outlined, but also because the word Nokia is so gorgeous. How can a writer not be smitten with the lushness of brand names? Many expensive people sit around for many days trying to think of a brand name that is going to be just so lush and deliquescent that people will want to let it rest on their tongues as often as possible. Nokia. Amazing how great that word is, especially because it had no meaning until its owners granted it one.

KC: Don Delillo's original title for White Noise was Panasonic.

SH: Wow. That's super. Lee's original title for The Broken Record Technique was Charmin.

LH: Ha.

ES: Works like American Psycho used brand names to complete advantage. I like to use them within reason. My short stories didn't touch them, but the novel I'm working on now is set in the Eighties and I'm finding the brands I'm referencing convey as much about the class of the characters as the time.

KC: I think they tend to date a story 10, 15 years after they're written, but after some point, they become period details. I mean, Joyce used commercial jingles in Ulysses.

AG: Can any of you guys support yourself entirely on your writing, now?

KC: Barely.

LH: With the help from the drug money.

ES: What counts as writing? Because I support myself on writing, but a lot of it's fluff, freelance.

SH: Journalism.

KC: Grants are very helpful.

LH: I write a lot of grants.

AG: Does it bother you that grants have been cut back a lot over the year? I mean, you guys are the time when they're pretty minimal, are they not?

SH: I just got a grant in December. I know that they were cut back, but this the first grant I've ever gotten, and it's made a hell of a difference in my life. I'm not complaining.

LH: I heard just last night that there's a Toronto Arts Council that gives out money, and I was just, like, "Fuck! Where's the Vancouver Arts Council?" If there's one thing about western Canada that is maybe different, it is that we have this verminous type of politics, and you have people like Ralph Klein and Gordon Campbell who are like pestilence. This is the kind of sort of opposition that in some weird kind of quiet way I can't help but think it's worth writing against, and maybe not directly using politics as an avenue of fiction, but damn, it's just so upsetting and strange.

ES: God bless the Ontario Arts Council.

LH: Yeah, it's just great. You've got some great money over there.

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