Corinna Chong's new story in Room, "The Whole Animal," is a perfect example of what a short story can do with straightforward form and clarity (I'll post a link as soon as it's available online). It's a tale of bad would-be vegans who struggle with their relationship, and are nearly run down by bison in an ill-advised night trip to a national park. I swear Corinna's work flows from her in perfect shapes, but maybe that's just the effect of her calm demeanour. There's always much going on below her stories' glassy surfaces, so who knows what lurks in her?
Corinna, like Sean Johnston from last week's Storybrain, is an Okanagan College teaching colleague and workshop collaborator of mine. Her first novel Belinda's Rings (2014), named one of the year's best by Salty Ink, is a beautifully built book about a mother who goes off to study crop circles, leaving her young daughter to pick her her messes (Corinna is also a designer--indeed, she built this very site--and that acute visual skill is evident in her writing too). She's working on another novel now, and I've read parts that have me gritting my teeth waiting for more. Meanwhile, I'm fortunate to have been able to read subsequent drafts of this great short story, and to have been able to pick her brain more here.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your story? What made you pick "The Whole Animal"? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
I always struggle with titles. At the start of the writing process I’m not overly concerned with getting the title right, since it often takes a few rounds of revisions for me to understand what my story is really about at its heart. In the early stages my titles are just jumping-off points, so they tend to be very literal or directly linked to the story’s main plotline or images. When I finished writing the first draft of this particular story, I slapped on the title “The Bison” because the eerie image of bison faces in the rain was the part of the story that popped the most when I thought about it as a whole. But this title seemed a bit off for a story that’s really about a woman who doesn’t know herself, and is slowly being subsumed by her overbearing partner. I also wanted the title to have a link to the protagonist’s reluctant decision to stop eating meat. I had a feeling that there was a good title embedded in an early part of the story, when the character of Ward makes a round shape with his hands and the protagonist calls this “The universal symbol for animal. Whole.” Luckily, I had the chance to workshop this story with another writer who happens to be
particularly astute and a magician with titles, and after a bit of joint brainstorming she came up with “The Whole Animal.” (Who says writing can’t be collaborative?)
The rawness of this title fit the story perfectly, and I love how it conjures up questions about the opposite – the whole animal, as opposed to the broken or separated animal?
2. How did you find the sense of an ending?
I’m a sucker for stories that can pull off a circular structure, and it seemed right to try it for this story, so I thought about how I could create symmetry when writing the ending. The story begins with a cinematic description of the opening scene of a documentary film, with the frame slowly zooming out on the image of a piece of meat. I wanted the ending to echo this zooming-out feeling, except this time on a human body rather than a piece of meat. My hope was that this kind of echo in tone and imagery would solidify the parallel between the protagonist’s struggle to be a true vegan and her struggle to find her own sense of wholeness.
3. Could you choose a piece of music to go with the story?
“Doll Parts” by Hole. It’s got dismembered body parts, a dark, gritty sound, and plenty of angst.
4. The story has a primal layer (hunger of all kinds) beneath the couple's everyday surface. Can you talk about how that works here?
I think some of this comes from my apparent obsession with writing about food and eating. I often lead my characters into situations where they are forced to engage with food, and it’s only in the revision process that I realize there they are, eating
once again. I think the reason I do this is because food is so visceral for me in my day-to-day life, and so it unavoidably becomes part of my writing, too. I find that playing with the characters’ relationships to their food is a really interesting way for me to explore their conflicts. In “The Whole Animal,” Ruby is insatiably hungry for meat, while Ward seems totally unfazed by cutting meat out of his diet entirely. Meat in this story is representative of something solid, primal, simple, and real, and thus stands for a kind of authenticity and truth that Ruby longs for. I see Ruby as always hungry for something real, both physically and metaphorically, although she can’t seem to pin down what that missing thing is. Ward, in contrast, is confident in the world he has created around himself, and oblivious to Ruby’s wants and needs, to the point where his body can shrink away and yet still hold an enormous power over Ruby.
5. Your novel Belinda's Rings is very different, but also deals with a character's fascination with animals. I'm interested in where that comes from.
I’m always interested in writing about characters who don’t understand themselves, and have trouble seeing their own problems objectively or even admitting to themselves that those problems exist. I think that people who repress their problems in this way often deal with them instead by externalizing them – applying them to some other person or thing that is entirely outside of them. To me, animals act as fascinating conduits for this; while we tend to humanize them, we also see them as necessarily separate from ourselves. In both my novel and this story, the characters use their obsession with animals as a way to work out their own problems while keeping a safe distance from them. Or, maybe the animal obsession has something to do with the fact that I have a
surrogate child named Joni Mitchell who happens to be a cat…
6. And I know your novel in progress is concerned with harsh landscapes, as this story is, with the nightmarish trip to the national park. Can you talk about this?
I really admire the stories of writers like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro that manage to make landscape so vivid and integral to their stories that it becomes another character in the drama. I’m drawn by harsh landscapes in particular, perhaps because I grew up in Calgary and have always loved the stark contrast between the gaping prairies and the craggy peaks of the Rockies. I think the
landscape that surrounds you can get into your bones, especially when it’s one that threatens you in some way.
7. Your style is very clean, contrasting the difficulties and conflicts your characters often suffer. Which writers helped build this in you, do you think?
I’m thrilled to hear it comes across as clean, because it usually feels like a giant overwritten mess as I’m writing. I hope I have learned something from Lorrie Moore, whose precision is just mind-blowing to me. The more I learn as a writer the more I focus on revising sentence by sentence, looking for the most economical and yet truthful way to convey what I want to say. Alice Munro (my hero!) and Katherine Mansfield are also masters of writing in a way that seems simple at first, but is actually so complex and carefully crafted below the surface.
I met Sean Johnston when he moved into an adjoining cubicle at Okanagan College, where we teach. I read his novel All This Town Remembers soon after, and quickly realized I was cube-sharing with a genius (he won the Saskatchewan Book Award, for one thing). We sometimes gave each other writing prompts and workshopped stories before young children took over our lives (ahem, he neglects to mention that the possible title We Don't Celebrate That came from me). Despite historical fiction not really being his thing, Sean gamely read part of an early draft of All True for me, and commented that Daniel would have been better off with a cell phone. In his version, I'm certain there would be cell phones in early frontier Kentucky.
I always feel lucky reading Sean's work, poetry or fiction, draft or finished. It makes me think differently. It's unconcerned with keeping up a line between reality and fiction, and it is often happy to comment on itself from within. It bends the genre, but never shows off. Guy Vanderhaege calls him "a writer to watch." His latest short story collection, We Don't Listen to Them, is full of outstanding stories, which I asked him about here.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your book? What made you pick We Don't Listen to Them? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
I considered a number of titles. I am never quite sure with collections. Novels are easier to name, I think, but this one was called at various times A Long Day inside the Buildings, We Don’t Celebrate That, Big Books Shut. All the titles I considered came from three of the stories, which seemed to be about a similar thing, but in the end I didn’t want to use one of their titles, so I chose a line from the story “Big Books Shut,” which seems okay, but still not perfect. Those stories are about the small gestures humans may make in defiance of invisible authority and the indifference with which those gestures are met, and that’s in the title.
2. Which story did you write first? How did you decide where to place it within the collection?
“A Long Day Inside the Buildings” was written first, but around the same time as “It Cools Down.” They both come later in the collection because they seem a little quieter than the others. In the first case, for instance, nobody dies, though a boy loses his foot.
The stories that complement that one come earlier, and there is more violence in them, though it’s less directly treated in ways.
3. How did you know the book was done (especially weird with a short-story collection)?
I never know that with a collection of stories. I never write stories or poems with a book in mind and I kind of regret having to put them into this artificial order. I like stories on their own as a reader too, so what happens usually has less to do with the stories in the collection and more to do with what I am writing at the time – if I find, as I did in this case, that I just wasn’t writing new stories, then I look back and collect what has happened until then.
It seems like with this one I was just working on a novel whenever I sat down to write, and had no more stories in me for a while.
4. Could you choose a piece of music to go with your book, or with a particular story?
I remember driving at night in my $800 Ford Econoline van to New Brunswick to start my MA. I had a little cigarillo, nobody else was on the highway, and one of Steve Earle’s sad leaving-town songs was on the radio, and I kind of wrote “It Cools Down” as I drove. Any of his songs, really, but especially the one that has the words “I thought I might see the first light of a new day / as it lay like fool’s gold on the ground.”
5. Your characters are often powerless or attempting to take power. Can you talk about that?
I don’t know anything else to write about, really. Wilt Chamberlain said nobody cheers for Goliath, and I think that’s true. It’s the classic problem: the world does not treat you as you would like to be treated. The world is not the world you want, and you want something else. But it’s more than that, I guess. The most compelling thing about any character, to me, real or imagined, is how they remain human despite the abuse and neglect and poverty, or whatever might happen to them.
A student of mine once wrote an amazing story in a second year class. He wasn’t the strongest writer, but his subject was by far the most compelling. His story was about a man who dreamed of a union job driving a truck at the local mine. That’s the kind of thing that interests me. It was real. I have been in that position where just getting a job as a labourer makes you feel like you’ve won the lottery, and not because you can get a new car, but because you have enough to buy a battery for the old one. That kind of thing.
6. "He Hasn't Been to the Bank in Weeks" describes a man dressing his dead wife for her funeral. Physical descriptions--bodies--in your work are usually subtle but important. Can you talk about how you see your characters this way?
I try to limit the description and provide just enough for the reader to imagine it fully. For characters and their bodies what’s important to me is where they contact the world – the gestures they make and the comfort or discomfort they feel. I hope it’s done subtly, where what little is said is a signal, because the danger is probably that movie kind of lie, where the wacky character is shown to be wacky by wearing a crazy hat or not combing their hair, etc. Or the way Brad Pitt seems to think eating while he speaks makes his character seem complex? It’s hard when there is little description, but then in short fiction I just think you don’t have the time. Maybe in novels. I don’t want to be Sherwood Anderson, say, who seems to set everything up with a short fat man vs. a long skinny one.
7. These stories aren't always obviously linked, but they frequently tread a line between the realistic and the bizarre, sometimes leaping right off that edge. Does that happen naturally when you're writing a straightforward piece?
It’s funny you say that, because so often I am wrong about which parts are realistic and which are not. I wrote, for instance, “We Don’t Celebrate That,” about Canada in the near future, where there was no freedom for writers, but there were government jobs.
This isn’t really far-fetched, of course – writers spin things for governments and businesses all the time – but now I feel like it’s actually just reality, but I made a mistake and should have written about scientists being muzzled and intelligence and science being attacked in general. I could have had a nice realistic picture of our country under Harper, but I wrote it about 6 or 7 years ago and I didn’t want to be ridiculous.
We kind of live in a world right now where I don’t think anything I have written that was meant to be absurd seems unbelievable anymore.
You are no doubt aware that young Sean Michaels won the 2014 Giller Prize for his first novel, Us Conductors. I loved the title at first sight, although I confess to having imagined the book would involve buses. It doesn't. It's about Lev Termen, the inventor of the theremin, and so it's very much about music (not surprising, as Sean has been running Said the Gramophone for years, and also writes a music column for the Globe and Mail). It additionally pins down ideas of love, and of destruction and rebuilding in the twentieth century. It's told in Lev's voice, with perfect, tiny slips in English idiom that echo the story's miscommunication motifs, so I was glad to talk with Sean about first-person novels when I met him in Toronto in May. I will not forget sharing a peculiar dessert with him and his wife Thea. I'm also glad he had a little time, while sitting on a plane--this man is busy, y'all--to answer my questions here.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your book? What made you pick Us Conductors? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
One of the first things to come to me was the title of this book. In fact I think my first draft was mostly an attempt to write the book that fit the title. But that title wasn't Us Conductors. For years the filename for this manuscript was IN WHICH I SEEK THE HEA.doc. And the title at the top of the first page was what is now the subtitle, hidden inside the final cover: In Which I Seek The Heart Of Clara Rockmore, My One True Love, Finest Theremin Player The World Will Ever Know.
A mouthful! But I imagined it in the tradition of the lengthily-titled contemporary novels that were in fashion at the time.
Then when it came time to show the book to my agent, one of her first comments was, "About that title..." I was ready for the criticism; I was already over it. And the ungrammatical Us Conductors came to me a day or two later - a riff on one of the book's most important themes, in the tone of voice of Jazz Age lovers.
2. How did you start this book--an image, a word, a general idea?
I knew I wanted to write a novel about Termen and the theremin but what crystallized the project was some opening lines. The narrator's tone of voice, his statement of purpose - hackneyed sentences that didn't survive the third draft.
3. How did you find the sense of an ending--did you know when to finish? Did the ending remain the same through different drafts?
I wrote Us Conductors from a detailed outline. I knew how I wanted to end it and that's how it ended; what changed was the absence or presence of the postscript, a vacillation about how little (or how much) to answer.
4. Could you choose a symbol to represent your book? A shape, person, piece of music, anything you like?
A woman's hand as it moves across open space, entering a field or leaving it.
5. Did the book grow out of autobiographical experience? Did writing it change your view of the past?
Since my youth I have been interested in the idea of untrue love, lying true love: the illusion that the universe is pointing you toward someone. This book helped me meditate on that; helped me put the matter to rest, perhaps, or to better understand the way a deceived, would-be lover may be responsible for their own deception.
When I read Matt Rader's story collection, What I Want to Tell Goes Like This, I hear it in his voice (that's my own private answer to question six). I read at Russell Books in Victoria with him on a rainy night earlier this year (see earlier posts). The rain and the dark, and Vancouver Island and gin, turned out to be the ideal introduction to this book.
The opening sentence of the first story, "The Laurel Whalen," goes like this: "It was the summer Sergeant Cote killed his only son by accident and we had to boil our drinking water." This strikes me as the whole book in miniature--the past inevitably reaching into the now, the dreadful forever tangling up with the mundane. To paraphrase the last story, "All This Was a Long Time Ago," history plots ambushes. These stories also ambush us (this is my partial answer to question five). They are startling, ominous, and highly assured. This man is a writer's writer--read the answers below!--who also has the ability to suck in readers. No spoilers, but some of these stories are guaranteed to haunt you. This book is Matt's first story collection, and his fourth book of poems, Desecrations, is forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart in spring 2016. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your book? What made you pick What I Want to Tell Goes Like This? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
This book took shape over the course of about 10 years and it has had many identities over that time. The first title was The North American Book of the Dead. I thought maybe I was writing a book of literary ghost stories. The current title comes from a line in the opening story “The Laurel Whalen” and only auditioned for the title role maybe six months before publication. One of the themes of the collection is, ironically, the difficulty of telling a story.
A sponsoring spirit of the book was the union activist Albert “Ginger” Goodwin. Goodwin was an orator and writer. His importance historically had less to do with his organizing efforts than with the public voice he gave to the efforts of poor and working class to collectivize. He was killed by deputized manhunters near Cumberland, on Vancouver Island, in the summer of 1918. The question that still haunts me: Who tells the story once the storyteller is dead? The title refers to the attempts the book makes to articulate that question.
2. Which story did you write first? How did you decide where to place it in the collection?
The oldest story in this collection is “Brighton, Where Are You?” which was written in 2004 or 2005. It’s a story set in a truck stop in California as a trucker tries to make his way back to Vancouver Island. When I was a kid my dad was a long haul trucker and I
remember those truck stops and the strange liminal space they occupy both civically and in the personal lives of truckers. They’re not so much passageways but eddies of time and direction in which toilets, showers, coffee, and pie appear like emissaries of settlement, transformed gifts from the “real world” that stand in for the very same things that exist at “home.” The story is placed in the collection to echo in a contemporary setting the kind of liminal moments experienced in the historical stories.
3. How did you know you were finished (especially weird with story collections)?
When my publisher took the manuscript away from me. This was my fourth book and I my experience with all of these books has been less a sense of completion than a sense of needing to move on, of having hauled the cargo as far as I could.
4. Could you choose a piece of music to go with your book?
I was gifted a vinyl record a few years ago when I was in the midst of researching the mining history that informs the collection. The record is called Come All Ye Miners and is a collection of songs performed by miners and mining families in Virginia. Part hillbilly
blues, part Appalachian bluegrass, part Americana folk that might have been from the Smithsonian Folkways archives. One song on the record—“Black Lung Blues” makes a brief appearance in the second story in the collection. Karen Dalton’s rendition of the
Blind Lemon Jefferson “Blues Jumped the Rabbit” has much the same feeling to it. Both Dalton and the miners have a sound that feels far too old to have been recorded at the very end of the 1960s.
It’s fitting for me that this is one of your standard questions as I often think of music as analogue to my writing projects. I’m currently finishing a book of poems that will be out in the spring and I’ve had two guiding records along the way, one contemporary and one classic: Hamilton Leithauser’s Black Hours and John Coltrane’s Love Supreme.
5. The book has two main threads: the stories about labour unrest in early twentieth-century BC, and those set closer to the present. Fear is a thick link between them. Can you talk about this?
To be honest, I’ve never thought too much about fear as a connective force in these stories. I’d be curious to hear more about that from your point of view. Certainly, there is an overwhelming feeling of portentousness in both the historical stories and the
contemporary ones, but I think part of the grace of the characters (in so far as I was able to describe it) is that they go one living and acting despite that sense of impending doom. To me this is the essence of deep resistance.
A critic of Anton Chekhov once said that for Chekhov the true hero was the hopeless man, who, despite his hopelessness, acts. I’d amend that a bit borrowing from a distinction that Cornel West makes between optimism as the belief that things will get better and hope as the belief that a more just world is possible: the true hero for me exists in full recognition of the portentousness surrounding our lives yet remains animated by hope. That animation is as much evidenced in simple human interactions as direct
6. Many of the present-day stories are first-person. Back to the title--who is the overall "I," do you think?
This is both a simple and a complicated question. To the complicated version: one thing that I usually spend time thinking about with my first-year students is what the self is and how we constitute our ideas of the self. This is important to both how we read and how we conceive of with whom our work communicates. Lately, I’ve been researching immunology, autoimmune disease, and the concept of the self versus the non-self that is axiomatic in almost all of Western cultural construction. We have a lot invested ethically, politically, and philosophically in these distinctions between the first, second, and third person identities.
To the simple version: the “I” is the voice speaking to you when you read.
7. You seem to trust your readers, letting us figure out for ourselves what's going on historically, switching voices within stories, and giving us what feels like very private information from some of your characters. Does this come easily?
I do trust my readers. I don’t feel like I have much of a choice. I tend to distrust experiences that have few ruptures, few intimations of mystery, few sutures of the contradictory. Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the well-made work of art or the well-curated experience, because that would be ridiculous and disingenuous. But for me those works of art, those experiences, take their charge from their irreducibility, the impossibility of paraphrase, from the moments of wilderness in which I am invited to find my own way. The craft is in offering the opportunities for navigation._
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.