My friend, the novelist and poet Lisa Pasold, tagged me in the The Next Big Thing writing chain letter. The idea is you answer the questions below and tag another five writers you admire. This was a good exercise for me since I haven’t thought about my manuscript in a while and sometimes when something’s been in a drawer for some time you forget about why you cared about it in the first place. I’ve been working on a novel for the past year, and while that’s provided (and continues to provide) a whole slew of issues and things to fret about, it also caused me to forget about this short story collection that I sometimes feel almost pretty good about. So, thanks, Lisa.
What is the working title of your book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
This is a hard question for a book of short stories, since each story has its own origin. I mostly get ideas from things people tell me, which I then shamelessly appropriate and build stories around, or from uncomfortable situations I can’t do anything about, so I go home and try to write my way out of them. A few catalysts:
- A friend who looked through a window at night to see a guy eating a pie from the middle, with a spoon.
- Listening to Born in the USA with a friend; when “Glory Days” came on, she said “When I was in Grade Four I used to listen to that song and think about Grade Three.”
- A woman who came to my apartment a week or so after I moved in and asked to borrow twenty dollars.
- The true fact that women have no real control over our fertility; the true fact that every person who takes a pregnancy test is really hoping for a particular result, but not necessarily the same one.
- Living in a largely Hasidic neighbourhood for six years.
- Monogamy and its alternatives.
- People I care about who’ve had cancer; trying to think about cancer differently, or imagining someone who could.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie adaptation?
I’d like Lily Tomlin to play the narrator of the title story. Besides her, I’d probably get my friends to play the other characters. Or have Lily Tomlin play everyone. Just a bunch of Lily Tomlins lurching around being all lanky and amazing.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
“There is no rest, really, there is no rest. There is just the joyous torment, all your life, of doing the wrong thing.” – from an interview with Derek Walcott. Okay, that was two sentences.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book is represented by Natalie St-Pierre at the HSW Literary Agency, and will be coming out with a small, brave press in 2014.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About a year and a half, though some of the stories were already written when I started seriously working on the book.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Montreal is a pretty big inspiration in a lot of the stories, even though it might not always be obvious from reading them. The city enables a certain kind of social lifeworld that I find really interesting – a mix of Neverneverland and a genuine, earnest longing for something worth caring about. I think my main task as a writer is to try to engage with how we live as accurately as possible, so working to capture what I see as “how we live” has been really tightly tied to my life and the lives of my friends here. People inspire me, is what I’m trying to say.
I realize that’s pretty vague, so more precisely, some things/persons that inspired me before and while I was writing are my old neighbourhood Outremont; women; Greg Hollingshead; Moving Day; Alice Munro; George Saunders; Amy Hempel; CKUT 90.3 FM; the Manitoba Museum; Brasserie Beaubien; my writing group. I listened to this song obsessively (it really gets going one minute in, wait for it), and a line from it is probably going to be my epigraph.
And this, always and forever:
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
People encounter each other, say some things, don’t really understand what the other person means, part ways, come home and look at something in their house, think about it for a while. A rat dies. Maybe you’re into that sort of thing.
The five writers I’m tagging
I am pleased to be considered a Weird Canadian, which I guess is what it means when Weird Canada reviews something of yours:
Change and perseverance. Preposterous and indispensable. Anna Leventhal’s “Moving Day & Other Stories,” a specular collection from the ordinary out-of-the-ordinary, the familiar fantastic, might well have been titled The Montreal Trilogy.
I wrote a short story set on Moving Day, which here in Montreal is the day that replaces Canada day – apartment leases come up on July 1st, so once a year a giant citywide game of musical chairs goes on. Rental rates are exceptionally high in Montreal – we’re a city of tenants, not owners. So Moving Day is kind of a civic holiday, albeit an incredibly stressful one, with furniture and garbage instead of cake and fireworks.
The premise of the story is this: What if, on July 1st, if you didn’t own property, you had to move? It’s kind of a jam on institutionalized instability, but also flexibility and adaptation… ugh this makes it sound very dull. Anyway if you want to find out for yourself, my publisher Paper Pusher is offering free shipping on it right now.
They are the best! And getting mail is the best too!
Back to the world of things – like, actual things – I’ve been invited to read at Maisonneuve Magazine’s 10th anniversary party. I like this magazine a lot, and it’s pretty cool that I’ll be reading with people like Kathleen Winter, Jacob Wren, and Melissa Bull. I don’t know what I’m going to read yet – probably something from my collection of short stories, though if I’m feeling ballsy maybe I’ll pick something from the novel. The widdle baby novel. Nope, probably not. Anyway, come!
There’s a line somewhere in The Corrections where a character, an older man losing control of his abilities, thinks to himself that he will “require some cooperation from the world of objects.” This line has been ringing in my head ever since, partly because I feel that way myself and partly because I spend a lot of time thinking about the materiality of writing. Like, if words are things, if they have weight. I don’t mean weight figuratively, or in the sense of the weight of the ink on the paper or the screen. If I write the word “table” it’s not the same as an actual table. But I think it’s more than a representation of a table, or the suggestion of a table.
My people have some things to say about the materiality of words – according to mystic Judaism, god created the entire world from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is the kind of idea that gives writers a boner, but it’s not just a metaphor, I think. Or it is a metaphor, if we assume that metaphors imply actual transformation and not just symbolic. So when Michael Ondaatje says “My father’s body was a town of fear” he doesn’t mean “My father’s body is like/similar to a town of fear” but actually for real my father’s body is a town of fear. What are we meant to do with that information? Can we envision a body that’s also a town? Maybe not with our visual imagination, but maybe with our literary imagination. This is another sense, a sixth or seventh or whatever you want – the sense that allows us to perceive metaphor.
Words are to an extent just recollections of things, but they are also those things themselves, in the sense that they call things into existence rather than suggest them. I can’t put a book on a written table, but then again – I just did. I put a book on the table. In your head, that’s what I just did. This is the same mode in which the world is actually created out of letters. Of course, in the Franzen quote, the world of things is distinct from the world of letters – it’s an unwieldy world, resistant, unfriendly, ultimately uncooperative. But also a world that seems to have its own will.
Sumerian cuneiform writing was done with pointed reeds in soft clay. The words were negative space – they held shadows instead of casting them. I like this. I wonder what it would mean to write this way. But ancient Sumerian was pictographic – according to the internet, it was easy to talk about a fish or a broom, but more difficult to describe abstract concepts ‘like liberty or justice.’ It’s almost like the negative space of the pictographs fits around the positive space of the world of things. But for a writing that deals with abstraction, we need positive-space letters – black on white, foregrounded.
Also it’s come to my attention that I need more gifs on this blog.
A few years ago I made this radio piece with my dad, who’s an abstract painter. After not painting for about ten years, my dad went into a sudden period of extreme productivity which he’s continued to this day. We’d never really talked about “art” together – not the content, but the idea of making it. It was always just something he did, and I did, and that was that. So one day in January I brought a microphone to his studio and asked him what it was all about. A lot of what he says relates to things I’ve written before and thought about regarding process, creating stuff, and speedy existential crises, so I thought I’d share it here.
Last summer I interviewed Lee Henderson for Maisonneuve‘s SLS interview series. I met Lee when I was doing a writing residency at the Banff Centre. It killed me how he would doodle all over my manuscript, sometimes in lieu of commentary. If he thought something was funny, he’d draw a guy laughing. And then he showed up in Montreal to teach creative writing at the Summer Literary Seminar. We watched Vancouver lose the Stanley Cup (on TV), and then I interviewed him with the riots and the subsequent fallout providing a sort of wastoid backdrop. It was weirdly perfect, as his novel The Man Game deals almost entirely with masculinity, shiftless testosterone and its potential (for violence, and uh beauty?). Aside from that, he also says some things I like a lot. So I’m reposting it here, you know, for posterity.
Anna Leventhal: What do you think is next for Vancouver? Is the city just going to disband and relocate its population to Red Deer?
Lee Henderson: I pity the Red Deer of that scenario! Ha ha. Oh my god, Anna, it’s so true, though. One of the most insipid demonstrations of civil disobedience ever witnessed. The last time something this insipid happened on a mob level in the city was the Guns N’ Roses riot. See YouTube video: http://youtu.be/g_pP40K55Eo
I’ve been stuck here in gorgeous Montreal, as you know, because we watched game seven together at Romolo with all the great expat Vancouver fans. And so when I’m not spending time teaching and drinking with the SLS folks, I’m kind of glued to my Facebook updates as I hear from all my friends in Vancouver. Everyone has a story to tell, and the sense of collective shame, I feel it. We didn’t want a riot. We didn’t need one. A riot is a very misunderstood mentality, though, and we are afraid to recognize its power until it happens. And it can happen anywhere. What incites a riot is never political, I don’t think, but the fear of the mob to disobey the most violent individuals in their huddle.
And also I guess it’s obvious that riots are extraordinarily gender biased, and that the media talks its way around that huge issue.
I’m proud to have three of my short stories published in a booklet by Paper Pusher micropress. This guy loves paper and ink like you love Jay-Z and bonbons. It’s a handsome little risograph print with my stories Moving Day, Last Man Standing, and Sweet Affliction. Here’s the publisher’s description:
With incisive humour and caustic sympathy, in three short stories, Anna Leventhal gives us characters that live in a world strolling a few steps beside our own. Exploring class, ownership, and civic duty, Moving Day captures the totalitarian exercise of a mandatory, city-wide move and the effect of its bureaucratic mishaps. The shiftless narrator of Last Man Standing has his social bubble threatened by a dubious emergency, while a diagnosis in Sweet Affliction suggests a new stage in human evolution.
You can get it sent to your actual physical mailbox by a nice person in a hot uniform here.
This story first appeared in Maisonneuve last summer. It was recorded in my kitchen, read by John Dunhill, Famous Actor and my apartment building’s caretaker. I’d been wanting to collaborate with John for a long time. He’s been in movies, mostly terrible, with Johnny Depp, Michael Caine, and Gerard Butler. He played one of the elders of Sparta in 300. He also plays a corpse convincingly, which is apparently hard to do. He’s the kind of guy who tells you stories that sound like the most obvious kind of bullshitting, and then they turn out to be true. For instance, he changed one of his dogs’ names from Walter to Johnny, after his good buddy Johnny Depp. Yeah, okay. But then I watched Secret Window, and there he is with a screwdriver stuck in his head, being pushed over a cliff by America’s moody darling. (I would have posted a spoiler alert, but honestly this movie is so bad that I am probably doing you a favour if this prevents you from watching it.)
Some things about John that are probably true:
- Albert Camus once told him he was the quintessential “homme revolte”
- He has a white pitbull named Blanco. This dog’s head is the size of a bowling ball. Sometimes he sings “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” to the dog (this is definitely true, I’ve heard it).
- He knows the true story of Charlie Manson and Sharon Tate.
- He played Gogo in a production of Waiting for Godot directed by Samuel Beckett.
Anyway, I recorded him reading this story I wrote.
The drawing is by the wonderful Sarah Pupo (as is my header image).