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Thursday, January 24, 2013

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.

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