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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Three interviews

Three new interviews:

Philip David Alexander on his new novel North of Here (Now or Never Publishing 2012).

Ruth E Walker on her new novel Living Underground (Seraphim Editions, 2012)

Jacob Scheier on his workshop on writing through grief.

Interview: Philip David Alexander

Please tell us about your writing by

(a) describing your recent novel (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular passage that's a favorite?)
My new novel is called North of Here. It’s about Donna and Raymond, a middle-aged couple and the state of their marriage in the wake of their son’s murder. 

The book touches upon their son’s life, his death and the subsequent investigation, but the real focus of the story is this couple and what they have left, and how the pre-existing imperfections in their relationship, and their very different world views both help and hinder their chances for recovery. 

My novels and short fiction always come about the same way. I witness something and a detail from what I have seen stays with me --just won’t go away. In the case of North of Here, there were two images. 

The first was this old guy stocking shelves in a grocery store. He looked out-of-place. He was about 6ft 5, 230 lbs, forearms covered in tattoos, a flattened nose that had been busted once or twice before. I would imagine he was one tough SOB in his day. He was whistling away and shoving cans of tomato sauce onto the shelf. I wheeled my grocery cart around him and he nodded, gave me a knowing grin, like: ‘Yeah, buddy, I work here...’ 

The second image was an older couple sitting on either end of a park bench. The lady looked upset, and in addition to sitting as far away from the man as the bench would permit, she also had her knees and shoulders angled away from him. They were having what looked like a blunt and strained conversation. 

These images became the basis for Donna and Ray. The novel basically alternates back and forth between Donna and Raymond, contains a lot of vignettes and recollections. I suppose the recurring theme is that a marriage is sometimes a question of mirror images and complementing one another. Donna is a peaceful, objective and slightly scattered person; a bit of a push-over on the outside, but very strong inside. Raymond is uncompromising, a hard man with no time for bullshit, but his emotions are incredibly fragile after his son’s murder. They try to muddle through, propelled in part by a clumsy synthesis of their opposite natures. 

I don’t have a favourite passage, but I do have some favourite scenes, for example Raymond’s short and frustrating turn working as a maintenance man in a retirement home.That entire chapter is darkly humorous. In fact ,the book contains its share of black humour. A few people have come back to me and said they laughed out loud a few times while reading the book. I was happy about that.

(b) recommending a novel or short story collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

It’s difficult to recommend just one. Maybe you’ll allow me to cheat and mention a few. For novels, I just finished Bill Gaston’s The World and really enjoyed it. He’s a great storyteller and very deftly handles a story within a story structure in this book. I enjoyed that The World was tale in every sense of the word. 

I also recently read Caribou Island by David Vann. A great book about a personal unraveling that clobbers you with an unexpected and chilling ending. 

For short stories, I enjoyed Matthew Firth’s latest, Shag Carpet Action. Salty and honest as always, but in my opinion the funniest and most entertaining collection he’s done so far. And I enjoyed Volt by Alan Heathcock. It’s gritty and gothic short fiction with a heightened reality about it.
(c) reflecting on your future writing plans: what challenge have you set for yourself next?

I am working on a new novel called Peacefield. Actually, part of it is an old novel that I had abandoned. But, I've carved one character out of that old project and dropped him into a this new novel. 

It’s essentially about a hostage taking in an otherwise sleepy, anonymous little town. The aim is once again for a compelling character study. The book is about the people involved in the incident, from the gunman to the cops, to some of the townspeople on the periphery. 

The challenge is to resist the police procedural, tactical, strategy-oriented story that could easily spring from this idea, and focus on the history of the people involved, the guts and rhythm of their lives until they were caught up in a violent mess

I’m sure I’ll struggle not to give in and write an action-packed tale that reeks of cordite! We’ll see what happens.

Interview: Ruth E Walker

Could you please:

(a) describe your recent novel (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular passage that's a favorite?)

Inspired by a private and meticulous German immigrant who rented our family's basement apartment in the 1960s, Living Underground (Seraphim Editions, 2012) explores, among other things, the ambiguity of human nature.

This strange foreigner who moved into the apartment brought only his clothes and toiletries. I knew this because I helped my mom with weekly cleaning duties. His shoes were polished and lined up in a perfect row beneath his perfectly hung clothes. He had no books. No magazines. No photographs. Not even a newspaper. Nothing that spoke of a larger life and he left a few months later, without a forwarding address.

Even as a kid, I wondered who lives like that? And why?

I started a short story to figure out some of that mystery. The story got away from me and became a novella. The novella finally became a novel, set in Dresden, Germany in early 20th century, in Scarborough 1960s and finally, in Toronto in the early 2000s.

I've long puzzled over how we can enjoy ordinary lives, and then go out and do unspeakable things to others. We humans are so good at compartmentalizing aspects of ourselves – at disconnecting emotions at will – often for reasons of survival. I have several scenes that underscore that theme. A favourite is an exchange between a Holocaust survivor and the protagonist, Sheila.

(b) recommend a novel or short story collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

This is such a difficult question because I have so many to recommend. I changed my answer to this question so many times but then I accepted that no matter what I write here, I can't begin to cover it all. And so:

I like a story that has a kind of slow striptease to it. I love Alice Munro's stories for that moment – that kind of revelation that sinks to your gut and makes a new sense of all that has gone before. Many of the stories in Allison Baggio's collection In the Body do that for me.

Any story – novel-length included – that takes me to that place of new understanding is such a worthwhile journey. It's a part of the craft that is not always fully realized by even good writers.
As to novels, Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, Jonathan Bennett's Entitlement and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time continue to stick with me for the same reason: that incredible moment of revelation.

(c) reflect on your future writing plans: what challenge have you set for yourself next?

I have a finished manuscript that needs to be put back into the blender. It's too safe right now. But I have to carve out enough time and space to get there. My current challenge is to put to bed all the other writing deadlines I've managed to accumulate, along with the business (and busyness) of being an author. It's a bit of a distraction -- a welcome distraction for the most part, but it is an element of what is keeping me from the important task of writing: revision.

Once that revision is done, I'll be in submission mode. Which means while I shop the novel around, I'll be working on my poetry manuscript and on completing my third novel manuscript which is a contemporary retelling of an old Breton tale.

Interview: Jacob Scheier

Jacob Scheier is the winner of the 2008 Governor General's Award for poetry and his poems, essays and articles have been published across North America. His second full length collection of poems, Letter from Brooklyn, is being published with ECW Press in Spring 2013. He is also a volunteer peer-facilitator with Bereaved Families of Ontario. Up until recently Jacob taught Writing Creatively About Grief through Ryerson University’s Continuing School of Education.

He is now offering a similar grief writing workshop course independently at The Centre for Social Innovation, Regent Park (third floor of the new Daniels Spectrum at 585 Dundas Street).

The ten week long course runs Wednesday evenings from 7pm-9:30 pm, starting February 13, 2013 (with an off week March 13). The cost is $200. EN

Consulting Group Inc. @ Centre for Social Innovation is pleased to sponsor the meeting space for the Winter/Spring 2013 “Writing About Grief.”

To learn more go to or contact him at or join the Writing About Grief Facebook page:
This is an interview about the grief writing workshop you lead, but I also want to hear about your writing in general. First, though, could you outline what it is that your workshop is about. 

The workshop is about how to make our personal experiences of loss and grief speak to others through the act of writing. In short, turning these difficult experiences into 'literature.' I think just expressing one's grief creatively – say by writing a poem about it can have a therapeutic effect – I know it has for me – but since I am not a trained mental health professional, my focus is, instead, on the art part; how to move from the diary or journal exploring loss into creating something that others will want to read. They will want to read it, I believe, because it's evocative, and has something to teach us about what it means to be human; what it means to lose, and go on – which is pretty much the most universal human experience there is, is it not? 

In my workshops we write in two different genres: personal narrative and personal or 'confessional' poetry. We look at examples of writing in each, which to my mind are very successful. I switch up the readings, but almost always use something from Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and a poem from Mary Jo Bang's collection Elegy. 

Through looking at these literary engagements with loss and grief, we discuss as a class what the author is doing to make their experience real for us, the readers. I then assign a weekly writing exercise in prose (for the first five weeks) or poetry (for the last five) in some way connected to these readings. For example in Donald Hall's Without, he has several poems addressed to his wife, the late poet Jane Kenyon, after she dies. 

After we look at one of these poems I have the students write a poetic-letter/address to someone they have lost. In broad strokes, I focus our discussions and workshops on personal narrative around the idea that the author organizes her or his experience around an insight about loss, and with poetry I focus more on the evocative power of imagery; how one can go about creating a complex, accurate image of loss or grief. 

Second, related, how did this workshop come about

This workshop, I guess you could say, was about a dozen years in the making. That is, I think the story of the workshop begin when my mother died, just over twelve years ago now. I was writing a bit before she got sick (breast cancer) and before she died, but it took on an urgency and necessity after that. I felt like I had to write all the time, and then eventually I wanted others to see it, to validate the experience I was articulating, I suppose. 

So, in short, I've been writing about grief and loss, mostly through poetry, though some personal (prose) narrative writing as well, for over a decade. Writing about my grief helped me a lot, I believe. What also helped me was joining a support group for bereaved young adults at BFO (Bereaved Families of Ontario). A couple years after that, I did volunteer training to become a peer co-facilitator of support groups just like the one I had taken. I've co-facilitated 3 groups (they are eight weeks long) since then. I've found it a really rewarding experience and a good way to stay in touch with my own grief (sometimes it's easy to ignore since the loss was some time ago, but I think it's always there; that it is a part of who I am and so I do not want it to become a stranger to me).

It was actually a friend of mine though who suggested I take my experiences of facilitating support groups and writing and create a workshop. A good friend.

The third question. I'd be interested in your thoughts on grief as a process of transformation, journey rather than destination. Does this transformation of the grieved one (rather than loss of the loved one) ring true for you (in your own writing)? Do you see it in the writing of people who come to your workshop? Is grief, therefore, ultimately, a process of creation (of future) rather than resolution (of past)? 

One of my favourite lines of prose in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is "Grief turns out to be the place none of us know until we reach it." When I first read that it struck as so painfully accurate – how all my ideas of what grief were like were so different than the actual experience; and that that experience was really a place, an undiscovered country – a terrifying one, though one which eventually I realized I had to explore, in part, through writing.

In my experience the literary work on loss and grief is almost always a journey story – especially the memoirs and personal essays – the story of how one goes on the journey from the world turned upside down from loss to becoming someone who can adapt and cope with this new world, and is changed in the process.

In my training as a peer facilitator at BFO they called this "the new normal" – in short, one does not get closure or have finally dealt with the loss, but has a new relationship you could say with her or himself – going from the initial shock of a loss to 'this is who I am now; this is my life.' Something along those lines.

I think this journey, is, of course quite different for everyone, but my job, or one of my jobs, as writing workshop facilitator is to suggest tools for articulating that journey. That journey, not the loss, ultimately, is the real story of the grief narrative, I think.