Monday, November 5, 2012

Yak and Forth

In the lead-up to the Writer's Trust foofaraw, Fiction Prize nominee Alix Ohlin and I back-and-forthed about how hard writing can be and how awesome it is when it's over. Read this at the National Post, or here's the text:

Andrew Hood: Howdy Alix! Not to get off on a weird foot, but I was in the crowd when you launched Babylon and Other Stories in Montreal, way back whenever that was. I was in my second year (or thereabouts) of a creative writing undergrad and can acutely recall holding onto you and your book of stories as an example of a youngster’s (I guess I’d qualify as a toddler, or maybe zygote) ability to deftly boot the door in. You’re four books in and still pretty spring chicken-y, but do you remember “You” when Babylon came out, or “You” in the time before? Is there writing stuff you’re hip to now that you wish you’d known then?

Alix Ohlin: Hi Andrew! That’s not weird, it’s very nice. Thanks retroactively for coming to my Babylon launch. I’m always amazed and grateful when anybody comes to an event who isn’t an immediate family member or old roommate. I don’t know if I feel that much different now, as a writer, than I did back then. I still think of myself as someone who’s learning the ropes – if not about publication, then certainly about writing itself, which is so slippery and intricate a task that I may never master it.  All I can do is keep trying. How about you? I know your second book came out this spring. Was it a different experience from the first one, and if so, how?

Hood: That first book came out in an impossible way. None of those stories had been published before, so they were written with a real youthful alacrity – I hadn’t gone through that necessary meat grinder of submitting, you know? From that naivety came this fleeting feeling that I knew what I was doing. When that first book did okay, that initial aplomb was pretty quickly replaced by dread. I felt, and still feel, in over my head. My second book of stories was kind of written as a reaction to those indefatigable, marrowy feelings of inadequacy. It’s weird that people like it and that a story in there might win an award. Inside‘s already got a few nominations under its belt. How does that slippery, always-trying feeling co-exist with outside assurance that what you’ve done is tenable? Or does it even?

Ohlin: Yes, I hear you on the feeling of inadequacy. Worry is the real constant of my writing life; it’s my companion and my home town. Compared to awards or other assurances, which are fleeting and external, the intensity of my self-criticism is exponentially more powerful. I think this is actually good in a lot of ways; it keeps me from being complacent and keeps me working hard. It always directs my focus to the next book, because I hope so very much that it will be better than the previous ones. That’s one of my favourite parts of the process, in fact: the dreamed-of perfection of the new thing. I write towards that perfection even though I know I’ll never achieve it. What’s your favourite part?

Hood: The best part of writing is totally the idiot barreling towards a perfection that probably isn’t and shouldn’t be there. Maybe it’s a nerdy disposition that has every failure (even when it’s briefly debilitating) feel like an opportunity to try again. But at the same time, there’s no better feeling than pulling a piece off. A story working out feels like the end of a heist movie – like you’ve gotten away with something huge. And it’s a rush that, time after time, never dulls. I’ve been working on a novel for two years and suspect that, should I ever finish the thing, the payoff will be an emotional wallop requiring either a lot of sleep or a lot of beer to recover from. Do you get this? And if so, how does finishing a short story compare to finishing a novel?

Ohlin: I like that heist description; I think it’s apt. And I have had the lucky experience, a few times in my life, of pouring a story out all at once and knowing right away that it was, if not done, then set and proper in its outlines. It just felt right. Such a great feeling! With a novel, unless you’re demented or on drugs, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. It’s such a long process with so many ups and downs built into it. You don’t so much finish as finally let go. So the emotional wallop is, to me, almost wistful, if that makes sense. (But sleep and beer are called for, yes, absolutely.) But I feel like I’m making writing sound more like drudge-work than it really is, so let me switch tacks and say that I love how funny your story “Manning” is. As I was reading it, I was wondering if you were cracking yourself up while you were writing it and came up with the idea of calling one of the characters a “big pile of human being” and then just “the pile.” Were you?

Hood: I wasn’t cracking up, but I was certainly keeping myself entertained. Because – you’re absolutely right – the work, when it’s going well, is anything but drudgey. I tend to gravitate to dark and mean-spirited subject matter and I think the humour comes from having to entertain myself while I’m slogging around in the muck I’ve chosen for myself. Plus, I have a hard time subjecting readers to the kind of negativity I’m into without cracking wise. I wanted for the epigram of my second book a Tony Millionaire comic strip: Guy 1 chuckles to himself, Guy 2 asks what’s so funny. Guy 1 answers, “The horror of being alive.” I love that; it wound up in the acknowledgements. Where do you stand on this, Alix? From Babylon and Inside I get the sense that you’re very much interested in testing the emotional and psychological tethers in people, but you’re much better at keeping a straight face (that’s not to say that there’s not a great deal of humour in your writing) than I am. Do you set course for these destinations, or do you tend to get blown there by whatever winds?

Ohlin: Many of my favourite writers combine humour and pathos (aka the hilarious horror of being alive), so I’m definitely aligned with you on that. For me, the process of finding the right tone for a piece—sometimes overtly funny, sometimes less so—has to be pretty organic. Before Inside, I had written a comic novel and a number of stories that featured similar narrators, usually a young woman with a skeptical view on the absurdity of the world. I was interested in broadening the kinds of characters who appeared in my work, and I knew that in order to tell their stories in the right way, I might wind up broadening my style as well. Do you ever think about sameness and variation in your writing? Or, to put it another way, how and where do you find surprise?

Hood: There are sort of two phases to how I write: the first is a rush of opinion, or mood – usually both caustic or maudlin; and the second, the meat of the work, the editing, is something like an adjudication of my initial inclinations. I usually end up disagreeing with that first rush, or get sad that I’d been hemmed in by something fleeting. This is where that surprise lives. Before I start to worry about sameness in my writing, I worry about sameness in my living or in my thinking. And I’m definitely there now. Chock it up to nearing thirty, maybe. I try to stay out of writers’ lives, but since I’ve got you on the horn here maybe I’ll ask about your life and your writing. Do you have an I Love Lucy strip of tape dividing one from the other? Or is the membrane pretty porous?

Ohlin: Do you mean in terms of writing autobiographically?  I think every word on the page betrays something about a writer’s life – because of how personal the process is, and how much it derives from your preoccupations and perceptions of the world. But as I get older I’m becoming much less interested in excavating my own particular experiences. I’m more curious about other people, trying to figure out what makes them tick, or exploring narrative structures and events that have nothing to do with myself. I think we’re closing out on this Q&A, so I’ll ask, how do you handle endings? What do you think makes a good one?

Hood: As an adult, I’ve yet to really write a plotted story where the resolution of the animating conflict would be the end. Writing the stories that wound up collected as The Cloaca (which “Manning” kicks off) I was aiming for satisfyingly unsatisfying endings, where the characters don’t really come to understand anything, but understand that something is there be understood. “Manning” has one of my favourite endings, with the son and mother managing to create some meaning from a situation in which they’ve both sort of missed each other’s point. Ending a short story is tricky, as that traditional epiphanic moment has become so tired. A bad or expected ending can blow an otherwise great story all to hell, I find. There’s that old Flannery O’Connor anecdote about Flan not knowing her bible salesman would steal Hugla’s leg until it happened. I really subscribe to this. A good story is usually pregnant with a good ending, and I guess the writer’s job is to make sure that everyone comes out screaming and hale when the right time comes. I want to ask you about the ending of Inside, but don’t want to give it away. Maybe I’ll ask you this (and leave you with the last word): did you know how it was going to end when you began? Do you ever know your endings when you start? Have you ever stolen someone’s prosthesis?

Ohlin: I don’t tend to go for the completely wrapped-up ending either. Instead, I cross my fingers and hope that there’s enough resolution – usually thematic or emotional, rather than plotted – for readers to come away with some sense of what the story is about, while leaving room for them to bring their own interpretations.  With Inside, I didn’t follow the characters all the way home, so to speak, but I tried to show how they were headed there. I don’t like to know the exact ending before I start.  But I often think of writing as if it were a piece of music, and I know, in a general sense, the kind of note I want to finish on: the big swelling crescendo, the fade away, a major chord or a minor one. I imagine that note lingering in the reader’s mind, and aim for it. And I have never stolen a prosthesis, though I have come into possession of an abandoned one. But that’s a story for another day.

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