Now that it’s July, the new novel has already been written …
(and revised and revised again),
re-read twice by me,
revised two final times (for minor stuff)
and culled of excess commas,
wonky and unsightly and unclear sentences,
and turned into Advanced Reading Copies sent to newspapers and journals, whose editors – with luck – will decide they want to assign it to reviewers who will – with further luck – find worthwhile aspects to the novel and how it’s told that they’ll mention in a review.
Other than my publisher, the novel has been read by exactly one person, my colleague, fellow writer, and longtime friend, Carellin Brooks, pictured below with me at Blackburn Lake on Salt Spring Island on the sunny Monday morning of July 23. Her copy of the manuscript bled purple ink: her plentiful comments, practically all of which I took to heart during revisions.
In anticipation of the novel’s mid-October publication, we’ve decided to set up a summer interview series between her trips (and hikes and work and responsibilities) and my own.
For fun, we’ve decided to treat the Q & A as a live interview experience. That is, she’ll email me a question when one occurs to her; and when I read it, I’ll have 10 minutes to formulate the response. After that span, all I’ll do is fix the typos.
Her first question about Oldness; Or, The Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O is a simple one:
CB: “Why ‘Oldness’?”
“There are a bunch of answers to that, so I’ll start with the most immediate ones. The start-point was an echo of my first novel, which began with my own unaccountably swollen foot which – presto chango – became a physical ailment of my protagonist and a plot mechanism because his trip from a small town to the big city resulted from his need to visit a medical specialist. Anyhow, with Oldness, I had been fretting – vainly, in vain too – about an age spot I’d noticed on my upper left hand and had decided with its uninvited appearance that I’d arrived at an advanced enough age where age spots were beginning to arise. For a while, until I stopped paying attention to it, the physical mark felt a bit like a pronouncement: I was now old and that meant belonging to a particular demographic that our culture doesn’t exactly celebrate as being valuable, or attractive, or as having anything worthwhile to say any longer.
From there, I began thinking about a character as I could be ten years from 2018 (the novel is set between ’23 and ’28), and how feelings that currently passed through my consciousness on any given day (from hope to anger to cynicism, and so on) would develop by the time I reached retirement age. And from there, I pictured a man – a heterosexual one – who had reached an age where he felt simultaneously visible and overlooked and powerful and also not, and who experienced the same tumult of emotions as anyone, but could rationalize what amounts to petty and vindictive and self-serving behaviour and call acceptable and even commendable. Marcus, this guy, knows he’s 65 and supposedly wiser than he generations after him, but understands too that he’s the same man he’s always been.
The next email question dates from July 24, 6:46 AM.
CB: “There are so many things I would like to follow up with from your answer, and the fascinating idea of recognizing one’s old ‘oldness,’ the difference in terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality, why you chose the former for Marcus. But for now I’ll stick with question 2, which goes in a completely different direction.
Your tongue-in-cheek dedication [re: “Institution, employees, undergraduates: continuous inspirations”: I get students and administrators, but why “employees”? Your colleagues? Explain, please!
BJG: I’m contract faculty, which depending on who you’re speaking to, is a class of academic workers representing the university’s “dirty little secret,” the “exploitative” profession’s “great shame,” or just the way of things. But that experience of working in an institutional environment that doesn’t exactly embrace or respect or even seemingly like an entire class of its faculty produces a working experience that isn’t exactly collegial. The ‘class’ difference between contact faculty and tenure stream faculty is ignored, or tolerated, or spoken of with regret, but it’s always there… Anyhow, I considered “colleagues” for the dedication, but wound up choosing employees because it made better sense. Besides, everyone who works at the university is an employee, technically, but not all of them are colleagues.
Plus, there are others – not faculty – I’ve interacted with in a meaningful or memorable ways whose ‘two cents’ trickled into the world of the novel.
The unnamed university in my novel is characterized as a fundamentally competitive, unsupportive, and bureaucratic behemoth, and while writing I was looking at or recalling the less savory aspects of my own workplace… and the more I thought about the us vs them of any work site, the more “we” became “employees” and the “theys” exemplified characteristics of the institution I wanted to mock, critique, or disavow.
Email question #3 dates from July 31, 7:46 PM.
CB: Ah, yes, the novel’s memorable dour cleaner! And your wish to “mock, critique, or disavow” makes perfect sense. It also leads, happily, into my next question. Marcus is grappling not just with age spots but with larger problems: his decrepitude and demise, the meaning of his particular life, the human condition, et cetera. How do you see the role of humour in this story?
BJG: It’s scattershot, I think, and by that I mean humour plays assorted roles that run in varying and even contradictory directions. To me, in the novel there’s that long tradition in comic writing whereby something is targeted for ridicule; the critique designed in some way as well as a corrective. In the novel that’s evident in the views of Marcus, whose pettiness and heightened self-estimations make him a kind of fool figure (among many). He’s as educated as one can become, and yet often unaware of the ludicrousness of his actions and stances. Self-pitying yet privileged in most ways, he completely lacks perspective. Similarly, the university itself, the city, various faculty, administration, etc are made fun of… their own sense of worth is out of proportion with their actual value or purpose. At the same time, there’s some – maybe a lot – of comedy in the novel that’s working within that comic-romance tradition of transformation toward a better world and more viable one. It’s not an exact fit, though. Marcus’ relationship with the university, with himself, and with love (his main quest, arguably) changes and, well, resolves, by the end of the novel. But it’s an open question whether his choices and the one ‘world’ (or social order) he leaves and the new one he enters signals a traditional happy ending. It could be said that he merely trades one set of circumstances for another. For me, however, the change, is for the better. His new reality holds potential, while the former one failed to.
Email question #4 dates from August 7, 8:02 AM.
CB: You’re right, in your novel Marcus is not the only figure of ridicule. University faculty overall don’t come out well. The best that can be said about them is that they’re petty, vindictive, unhealthily obsessed—and the list goes on from there. Yet they just might (arguably) be our brightest minds. What about a rarified focus on intelligence might tend to curdle the mind?
BJG: The novel isn’t of course meant to be seen as a realistic portrayal of anywhere.
That was never in the story’s DNA. In fact, way back, when I started writing I had this elaborate (and, eventually, discarded) plan to borrow from both The Dunciad and “The Rape of the Lock” by ol’ Alexander Pope and apply some of those works’ derision and, well, warmer-hearted poking-of-fun, only at the university itself and its faculty, staff, admin, and students. That initial idea turned into something hopelessly complicated and a kind of academic one-note joke, so it went into the trash. Satiric impulses remained, though, and shaped the characterizations.
In reality (and, I imagine, in any work environment) there’s an incredibly wide assortment of personalities in academia, some of whom may seem curdled like Marcus and his ilk but many others with zero representation in the novel who are impassioned, generous, compassionate, accomplished, kind, and honourable (to name a few positives). Whatever the truth of the place might be, its good, better, and best elements didn’t really find a voice in the novel.
Interestingly (well, to me), during the writing of this book I also read two campus-set novels by Canadian authors (by Suzette Mayr and Maureen Medved), and noticed a similar anti-realistic strain in them. Their campuses and faculty are monstrous, feral, vicious, predatory, foolish, and even evil, but they’re hardly realistic. Fanciful, yes; documentary, no.
Email question #5 dates from August 14, 3:21 PM.
CB: Right! The campus novel itself has been enjoying quite the little resurgence lately. You mentioned two authors whose novels I’ve also read and enjoyed recently: Suzette Mayr’s Dr Edith Vance and the Hares of Crawley Hall and Maureen Medved’s Black Star. As you say, they both push the envelope, and realism ain’t even a goal. My question is why the campus novel? Why now? What do you think it has to say to this particular place and time?
BJG: The easy answer is that it’s no accident that we (Suzette, Maureen, me) are all university faculty and we’re writing what we know, or at least have observed for hours and hours over the collective decades of our careers.
I’d also hazard to guess that we’re far more interested in the ins and outs of campus life than the world-at large is. At least, offhand I can’t think of any recent campus novel in Canada that has swept through popular culture or climbed high on any bestseller list. If there’s a resurgence, I’m not convinced it surges much past the borders of select campuses! I guess it’s an acquired taste.
For me, I wasn’t really deciding “Write a campus novel, Brett” as I was thinking to assemble a kind of workplace comedy, which from The IT Crowd, Superstore, VEEP, and The Office I find terrific because of the genre’s inherent limitations (like a one-set comedy of manners) and, paradoxically, the utter banality and absolute cruciality (if that’s a word). We spend so much time and effort at work, fretting or talking about work after hours, and, in the case of academics, toiling on work-related projects outside of the prep-lecture-and-grade hours, that it’s easily the core occupier of our time. So, then, why not write about it?
Also, like a prison, a sinking ship, or a family reunion, a work environment is filled with long, complicated, and often fraught relationships – and power dynamics – between individuals and between the individual and social or organizational norms, etc, that, like love or heartache, it could be written about for ever.
Email question #6 dates from August 22, 4:32 PM.
CB: Your novel pokes not just at the university, but at the idea of Vancouver as place. The usual suspects — real estate, real estate, and real estate — are obvious targets. Marcus’s real estate situation — his father had a crazy dream of investing in a rental building that, unlike almost every other crazy dream of a complete novice, actually worked — adds some complexity to the situation, as does his current position (spoiler alert) on top of a three-story building, in a jerry-rigged rooftop shack that’s also an aerie and fairytale lair. I wondered what, besides the obvious, made you decide to skewer the city’s pretensions in this way.
BJG: Before my real answer, I’ll just mention that the word “Vancouver” doesn’t appear once in the novel. (I just checked the file.) Technically, then, the novel isn’t set in Vancouver at all. It’s merely an unnamed city in the Pacific Northwest that bears a striking resemblance to YVR… (Pedantry comes quite naturally to academics; I’m thinking it’s an occupational hazard.)
Maybe it’s a funhouse mirror reflection.
Anyhow, while writing Oldness I reviewed Sam Wiebe’s Cut You Down, which is a noirish detective novel set in contemporary Vancouver. I really enjoyed the book but was also astounded at how completely different his experience of Vancouver—or, I guess, depiction of the city in a work of fiction… I have no idea how Wiebe-the-taxpaying-resident feels about the city) was from mine. I suppose any metropolis contains multitudes, but his—corrupt, violent, decaying, fragmented, teetering on moral bankruptcy, etc— represented a whole other notion of what Vancouver signifies, or how sullied its soul might be.
For writing, I’ve adopted Vancouver (which I moved to to start my PhD at UBC, and hadn’t really spent much time in before that) and its nameless doppelgängers as a go-to setting for all of my novels. Either it’s viewed as a sophisticated, far-off destination (in the case of my two novels set largely in the Fraser Valley), or in the case of the current one and This Location of Unknown Possibilities, as a place where material aspirations are accepted and promoted as cultural norms, where shiny and new is a be-all-end-all, and where consumerism more or less replaces other cultural forms. Marcus is witness to this, and of course part of it, and resigned, give or take, to a tradition that’s being practically as old as the city itself. It’s built into the city’s bones.
I’m not sure that characterization is skewering so much as highlighting an element of the city that already has visibility and currency.
Email question #7 dates from August 25, 1:03 PM. It’s in fact question #1 from Dan Gawthrop, a fellow writer who’s read the novel.
DG: Following up on Carellin’s [5th question, about the campus novel], and your response about workplace comedy fodder (work environments being comparable to “a prison, a sinking ship, or a family reunion”), one theme in particular jumps out for its satiric value: an ageing hetero male professor’s relationship to women.
In the novel, Marcus’ first ‘woman’, Syb, is a desktop assistant (which only fleetingly recalls the Spike Jonze film Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix). But Syb, as an “indispensable Miss Moneypenny,” is obviously no sex object; in her case, you are mining the paradox of a humanities intellectual turning to online sources such as Google and Siri-like AIs for instant information. But with the two living and breathing females in the narrative, the bitch-like colleague Judaea and L’Oreal, the rich girl princess foreign student, you explore familiar themes (competition for advancement, sexual appeal to the younger) that are, to say the least, tricky territory these days—especially on university campuses.
Without requiring spoiler alerts, can you describe some ways that a sexually competent Marcus would have produced a completely different novel?
BJG: Sure, Dan. First, I’m not convinced Marcus isn’t sexually competent. He’s functional, that’s for sure. But certainly, he’s not very socially accomplished in general… other than colleagues, who are work-only acquaintances, there’s no evidence he has friends at all.
Still, the lack of women in his life, as friends, sexual contacts, or romantic partners is, it seems to me, symptomatic of an overall lack he is either unaware of or refusing to dwell on (despite his firm belief in his superior intellect). Marcus does admit, though, that he hasn’t been in a serious dating situation since the killing of Osama bin Laden, so given the novel’s 2020something setting, that’s well over a decade…
In the novel, one of Marcus’ last-ditch efforts is remedying his entrenched romantic drought, and without that somewhat foolhardy and backwards quest as a plot element, he’d either be resigned to a fate of being a perpetual bachelor (which would, possibly, make him more jaded and cynical and lonely than he already is), or he’d be “sexually competent,” as you say, and so—perhaps—gratified with one crucial aspect of his life.
With that contentment, I’d evidently have had to conjure a new set of discontentments for him to negotiate and try to vanquish. The focus might have become more trained on the institution that employs him.
For me, though, the fun of writing the novel was less about exploring his work environment (which, give or take, is my own) and more about imagining a character far from my own outlooks, experiences, and affinities, and figuring out where to go with that set of identity traits.
Email question #8 dates from August 29, 8:34 PM.
CB: You’re a prolific and generous reviewer, and this is your fourth novel. How do you perceive the relationship between reviewing and writing? How do you feel about being reviewed?
BJG: Gee, that’s complicated and a challenge to answer. But allow me to try!
My writing career—lol—began with reviewing, for The Martlet, the UVic student newspaper, and then the Vancouver Sun, and so my experience of paid writing began with working quickly, and for a deadline, and for packing a lot of information into a tight form. Even this year, I’m writing reviews that are only 225 or, in one case, 100 words. Currently, typically, I don’t write anything that longer than 500 words. I’m not allow to, and I haven’t got an ‘in’ at the London Review of Books, which runs those reviews that are thousands of words of length.
What I’m getting at, then, is that review-writing as I’ve experienced it is a super-compressed form, and in one review I have to estimate what the review’s reader will want to know in terms of plot and overall characteristics (genre, etc) as well as assess its aesthetic merit (or failings, according to my reader’s eye) while also writing per a house manual or a writing level (for example, my very first review for the Sun—in the ‘90s—was sent back for revision for being ‘too academic.’ I was instructed to simplify my sentences and vocabulary for an audience with a high school reading level).
In contrast, From Up River and For One Night Only, my last novel, was, I think, just shy of 115,000 words. That’s ample space to play (or hang yourself).
Though while writing I am aware of this spectre called a reader who might read my book and might appreciate being able to follow its plot and might be in a position of evaluating its merit á la any review, I’m less concerned about creating a document whose primary purpose is accessibility—which the easily digested review is practically designed to be. So, there’s a bit of overlap between, novel writing and review writing, but not much. For me, anyhow.
As for being reviewed… You know that story from Ancient Greece that’s in, I’m pretty sure, Plato’s Symposium? Aristophanes describes an experience in the agora. He asks two acquaintances if his ass looks good in the toga he’d just tried on. One says yes, for sure; the other says no, absolutely. Aristophanes wonders how two discrete sets of eyes can perceive the same object—his ass under toga cloth—in such opposite ways. He’s confident about his ass, but it’s a fragile confidence, and so with the negative evaluation, he questions the assessor’s motivations and intellectual capability. For the other one, he’s gratified… and yet wonders whether he’s doing that Greek thing of being nice to keep the peace. Finally, Aristophanes decides platitudinously they’re each entitled to their opinion, but realizes that ultimately his own opinion is what matters most to him.
(That’s a bit, apologies. In another life, I would have done stand-up.)
Email question #9 dates from September 6, 5:28 PM.
CB: Each of your books is intensely mannered, but each tackles a completely different aspect of mannered existence: a pre-gay liberation closet, the reality of creating an absurd yet believable world of cinematic make-believe, adolescence’s delusions of grandeur; I could go on. How deliberate are you in choosing and sustaining a given novel’s style?
BJG: You know, it’s funny. When I read “intensely mannered,” my first impulse is to back away from it, disavow the very idea and proclaim that I’m as normal as the apple pies I bake… but I just happen to favour a somewhat unconventional style of putting my particular recipe together.
Phobic reaction aside, though, my experience with writing my first novel turned out to be significant for the next three: I was writing and writing and finally arrived at a point when the novel looked that way I thought it should. And it felt neither right for me or for the story. It was similar to “Stillborn,” where Sylvia Plath laments poems that look fine but—somehow—are not viable: “O I cannot explain what happened to them! / They are proper in shape and number and every part. / They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!/ They smile and smile and smile at me.”
And, on top of that, I felt like I’d arrived at some destination that made sense, just not for me. So, just stuck, I languished for awhile not knowing how to fix the problem and not sure whether writing was supposed to feel so unsatisfying. On a bus ride home one day, I realized that the framing of the story needed to be asserted and that the actual story of the novel would be presented as a lost document stuck inside an old Home Ec textbook. After that, everything made sense. And following The Age of Cities, the approach to narrating came to me easily and automatically. (That ‘ease’ is a bit of a fiction, I think. No doubt I’m deliberating for quite awhile before I start the actual writing; it’s just that I’m not sitting in front of a keyboard, so I don’t count it as part of the official writing process!) The initial choosing of the style happens wherever in the brain those choices occur, and as I write the choices continue to be made. Once I grasp the overall feel of the novel and the function of the assorted narrating techniques (come to think of it, I think I prefer “idiosyncratic narrating style” over “intensely mannered”!), the pieces fall into place. More or less, I should add. I imagine at some point I’ll write something, ‘finish’ it, and then see that a crucial part will need to be added so that, basically, the whole thing will have to be redone from the foundation up.
Email question #10 dates from September 11, 4:37 PM.
CB: It’s interesting that you have such a strong reaction to the phrase “intensely mannered.” I’d love to explore that more! Which is to say that your answer pulls me in several directions, but let me just stick with this one. You’ve alluded in your introduction, above, to having exactly one reader, myself. How come? Have you had other readers in the past? How do you trust yourself in terms of knowing when and what in a given novel of yours is or isn’t right? Is it a matter of paying attention to other writers’ novels, or something else? Maybe that’s more than one question.
BJG: Maybe more than one question? Definitely, it’s a handful!
As you know, I’m not much of a planner, so there’s no master strategy or magic equation when it comes to choosing the number or variety of readers. Sometimes, it’s pragmatic. Person A is unavailable for reason X, for instance, so I don’t presume to intrude. Or, I know that I value person B’s peculiar set of characteristics that make her the sort of contrarian reader who will offer me criticisms I believe I should value and take seriously, while also offering me praise that makes me feel appreciated (which should not be underestimated).
I’m currently reading a novel whose Acknowledgments run to two full pages. The author thanks literally dozens of people who read and commented on her manuscript and who made suggestions as well about both aspects running in wrong directions and areas that could use further development. The fact of this approach to writing tells me a few things. One, this author has a significantly larger network of writers to rely on or accept advice from than I do. Secondly, the author evidently prefers this sharing-and-collaborating-and-dialoguing form of writing over something that I prefer, which is significantly more solitary and non-collaborative. That author’s approach makes my skin crawl. That’s not saying it’s somehow ethically suspect or wrongheaded; it just holds zero appeal to me. So handing over the manuscript to just one trusted person (or perhaps two, the number varies from novel to novel)—and not a village of ‘em—and asking for commentary is both useful and efficient. And fitting for my personality.
Personal preferences aside, I’m not sure that a larger number of readers would benefit me, since every discrete reader will have a set of beliefs about what a ‘good novel’ looks like and what constitutes ‘good writing’ and what ‘effective narration’ should be, and what they’d do if the story was theirs…and collectively they’d overwhelm me with points of view that would contradict one another and conflict with my own ideas about good and effective and proper in fiction might be. It’d be frustrating, I imagine, and would leave me dizzied by the cacophony of opinion and confounded about the correct direction to move.
As for trusting what’s right and wrong in a given piece of writing, like most—I suppose—I rely on the ol’ gut … something is missing, I feel, something is out of place, something needs further development, or needs to be pruned. I’m revealing too much or leaving things overly opaque. These are all addressed by ‘instinct’. All those aspects are ongoing concerns or worries while writing. They are, I guess, part of the game called Writing a Novel. (And as for other writers’ novels, I’m a magpie with words. In someone’s novel or short story, I love, love, love happening upon a word I haven’t seen or thought of for ever and copying it in a notebook. With near inevitability, it’ll show up in a piece of writing that’s a current project.)
Email question #11, the last one, dates from September 25, 7:57 PM.
CB: You’ve mentioned stealing words from other writers in magpie fashion, but let me ask explicitly: who are your influences?
BJG: Stealing?!? Really, did I say that? If so, I meant borrowing, reusing, reapplying, taking-inspiration-from but using to my own ends! ‘Stealing’ maybe, but only in the most ethically unsullied meaning of the word!
I’m at an age where I read fiction that I admire or like or feel meh about or dislike. The dislikes and mehs are influences to me in a roundabout way because they remind me about characteristics of writers that I’ll continue to avoid in my own work.
Oddly, when I read stories or a novel I’m moved or impressed by, my current reaction isn’t so much ‘I ought to try that’ or ‘I really should put more of that in my own work’ as ‘I really like how she writes’ or ‘He really organizes plots in an intriguing way’ along with ‘That’s fine for them, but there’s a snowball’s chance that I’m going to do that myself.’ Call it he’s-set-in-his-ways or he-knows-what-he-knows, but at the moment I’m comfortable enough (resigned enough?) with how I write that I’m not really conscious of being influenced any more by another writer or style.
That said, I teach lit all the time and read it as well, so undoubtedly pick up techniques or stylistic flourishes without even realizing it.
Earlier, though, I couldn’t get enough of Margaret Atwood’s tone of voice and sardonic humour, anything of Alice Munro, and, in truth, felt completely enthralled by Rick Moody’s extravagantly long sentences and the pure bravado of David Foster Wallace. Domesticated versions of all of them are, I’m pretty sure, embedded in my sentences.