In spite of his lack of appreciation for question 4 (I was SO SURE he'd have a death metal song or 1990s power ballad for me), I'm happy to have Naben Ruthnum's answers about his writing process. I knew him in Kelowna when he was five and unsmiling, and later, he was in the prog-rock band Bend Sinister with my brother. He's now a terrific unsmiling writer with a crime fiction column at the National Post and the 2013 Journey Prize for short fiction. He has a book or two underway, and a sharp short story, "Working Clean," in the current issue of The Walrus. Call it post-noir, maybe?
1. Did you have any alternate titles for the story? What made you pick "Working Clean"? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
The initial title was "Cowards," which I never quite liked. It seemed too much like an instruction on how to correctly read the story. Plus, I don't really think that these characters are cowards, not really. Nick Mount (the fiction editor at the Walrus) also didn't like it. The next title I came up with was "Stage Time," but as my friend Andrew Sullivan said, that title is so plain that I might as well have used "Comedy Story." So I sent up a flag for help, and my friend Kris Bertin and I looked through twelve-step terminology and comedy lexicons until Kris found "Working Clean," which has a great ambiguity about it. Thanks, Kris.
2. How did you start this story--an image, a word, a general idea?
It started with the idea of a standup using a twelve-step meeting as another place to get stage time, to work against his nerves and also build material. The ambition angle came in later, as well as the idea of that deception of the protagonist's forming the foundation of his career and life.
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 think it's amazing, by the way.)
I wrote this whole story on a flight from Kelowna to Toronto, after many weeks of trying to see how it would fit together. But the major plot points haven't changed from that first draft. I didn't realize, myself, that Jeev was being deceptive until I wrote it that way. It seemed like a natural fit, and also suggested something important about the relationship that performers and artists have with each other--how they guard their own, and each other's, lies.
4. Could you choose a symbol to represent this story? A shape, person, piece of music, anything you like?
5. Did anything in the story grow out of autobiographical experience? Did writing it change your view of the past?
Well, all the comedy and AA stuff comes from research. I haven't tried either. But the ambition and commitment stuff, that has a lot to do with my own attitudes, even if there's a ruthlessness in these characters that I'm glad to lack. Writing it did legitimize some of the hundreds of hours that I've spent listening to comedians and shock jocks, so it did affect my view of the past in that sense, yeah.
I think about the more exposed, performance-based arts a lot, probably because of the years I spent playing music. There's something about presenting your work in the immediate present to a likely-hostile crowd that I think is invigorating and continues to influence the way I write and attempt to present my work.
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.