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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Rewriting our sense of self

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

AG: Is your attitude towards publishing different because publishing has become so different? I mean, electronically, people are more independent; they can publish on a computer printer or on the Web.

SH: I made zines when I was in high school — I think most of us have had some experience with zines, or publishing on the Web — and it does change the way you see regular publishing. Mostly, I think it makes one comfortable with the idea of a small audience, perhaps even happier with a small audience than a big one. I think I would be very frightened if my book was a massive bestseller. If it's small, if the book only exists in the heads of several hundred people, it still feels familiar, it still is what it was when I made it. Perhaps the book doesn't change the culture as drastically, but neither does the culture change the book as drastically.

When I read a favourite book, there are certain people I want to share it with, but not everyone in the world, because a book that is loved is a delicate thing; anything that is loved feels fragile, and you only want it in the gentlest hands. I think people who make zines experience these sensations. Certainly such sentiments can go awry, they can manifest themselves as superiority or cliquishness or hostility, but they don't have to.

ES: I agree with Sheila. People have been asking me why I only print 100 copies of my Pocket Canon chapbook series, and whether I would ever get them professionally printed rather than hand-folding and hand-cutting every one. Until Sheila verbalized it, I didn't realize that this was why! I've received more pleasure from making the Pocket Canon than I have from the publishing my own book — no disrespect to my publisher.

LH: This is one of those things — it's all I know, right? I mean, you always hear about, "Wow, back in the Seventies, boy, it sure was hard to get a book published in Canada," and I believe them, and I feel like, "Thank God I was born when I was." It seems like things are going pretty well in Canada right now, and a lot of different types of books are getting published, very different styles of books, and everyone seems to be getting a bit of attention, and that's terrific and wonderful, and as well as this great source of underground material and zines and this kind of very proactive group of people, the old punk-rock kids on acid making little photocopied zines, that stuff's great, too. Yeah, it's a good time to be alive.

AG: Would you care if the traditional book disappeared and we only had e-books?

KC: Growing up, I didn't want to write an e-book. Maybe the next generation of writers will dream of writing the great American or great Canadian e-book, but I was what, 21, before the Internet came around. I think that was way past my formative years at that point. I think the Internet's a great research tool, and I think it'll be surprising to see how many books have been written courtesy of Google and stuff like that.

SH: It's like reading a book in the absence of space. There's no atmosphere to the e-book.

LH: Conceptually it's just so empty. But on the other hand, book design is so lamentable as well, and books becoming more flimsy and more cheap, and you just feel like, "Well, what's the difference?" There's no sort of love for the tangibility of books these days.

AG: Do you think that other arts — music, film, TV, visual art — are a big influence on you, perhaps more than past generations?

SH: I always think about my work, and the way I work, in terms of visual art — painting, mostly — and I understand what I am doing to be closer to painting than to writing, though this may not hold up to examination. I get most of my ideas from thinking about art. Seeing the Gerhard Richter show in New York last year gave me more ideas than I could ever possibly use. These ideas reveal a superstructure: I get ideas for ten-volume novels when I see art. I get ideas for projects that could occupy me for the next fifteen years. The influence of other writing is not oblique enough, perhaps. Really great fiction presents a world in itself. It's hard to do anything with that except experience it. But a really great painting is like a deep hole that you can look into forever without seeing the bottom.

LH: It sounds corny probably, but Marcel Duchamp is a massive influence. I have no idea how I'm supposed to prove that based on my little book, but it's true. A painting by Carravaggio directly inspired my story "Highlights from the Young Boy Vs. The Ram." The two CDs by the Kids of Widney High, a class of mentally challenged kids who records songs, directly inspired "Mirage/Fata Morgana." The story "The Unfortunate" was related to my love for Eraserhead, the greatest movie ever made, and my love for Gummo, the second-greatest movie ever made. If those two movies were the only movies ever made in the history of film, the medium of film would be the most wonderful thing in the world. The art of Gerhard Richter gives me a mental hard-on. I still get a brain-buzz when I think about the fact that I have Marcel Dzama drawings all over my book, as I think he is such an incredibly wonderful illustrator.

ES: Film and music are incredibly important to me. One of my stories was written entirely to the soundtrack of In the Mood for Love even though I don't reference the work at all. I wanted to try to strike the same tone verbally as Wong Kar Wai does visually and musically. Right now I'm in love with filmmaker David Gordon Green. I tried to read Robert McKee's book Story for help with plots and pacing, but I've found it just breaks my flow and I start writing very trite scenes. I do much better when I follow my gut instincts. I don't think any amount of trying to write for film adaptation or against it matters. The written page is a completely different vehicle, and any director or screenwriter is going to change the story in adaptation. One of my stories was adapted for a television series, Bliss, and became something else entirely. Suddenly there was a lesbian romance and a happy ending to my boy-girl story of suicide.

KC: I'm not sure film, tv, et. al have affected our writing in a significantly different way than in past generations. I mean, James Joyce was trying to incorporate cinematic technique in Ulysses, Ralph Ellison wanted his prose to sound like jazz, Donald Barthelme used collage. Perhaps what makes our generation different is that we're less conscious — maybe because we've read Joyce and Ellison, or maybe simply because we don't read as much — of outside influences.

In the last half-century, many writers have responded to film as the dominant narrative form by trying to write fiction that would be difficult to adapt as a movie. I think this type of resistance has died, and I feel it's a disappointing development — a capitulation. I know a lot of writers who consult screenwriting manuals when plotting their novels, and I've noticed a lot of short fiction being written that uses, like a screenplay, the present tense and short, disconnected montage-like scenes. I prefer the raggedness, the digressiveness that you can only find in a novel.

LH: I agree with Kevin that it is maybe lamentable how many fiction writers turn to screenwriting books for their structure. For me that's the worst course of action. I am obsessed with structure, and I believe that it's linked at the flesh with style and content. If one's structure is derivative, since structure is the core of narrative, then the writing risks being derivative. For me, structure is the difficult presence of modern consciousness. David Foster Wallace tackles this in Infinite Jest by using tons of end-notes, breaking up the narrative into "linked" pieces. Ben Marcus reflects the structure of modern life by developing a world of new meanings, new phrases, new objects, in his wonderful book The Age of Wire and String. Thomas Bernhard's structure is based on anger, the unceasing paragraphs developing internal infernal rhythms that resolve in a final spleening of emotion.

ES: I work better when I make the language a part of the content and let the plot flourish from there. That is what I am looking for when I read as well. I only referred to screen style because I felt like people were asking me, "What happens?" and "Where will it go?" What I really want is to have faith. Both as a writer and as a reader. I want to follow this elusive thing and see where we'll wind up.

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