An Artistic Statement … sort of

It’s probably safe to say that anyone who writes literary fiction and had their work published, or shared it with others, has at one time or another been faced with these or similar questions:
• Why are your stories so depressing?
• Why does nothing good ever happen to your characters?
• Why can’t you write a happy story?

All of which are legitimate and reasonable questions to ask. Often, when I’m considering story ideas, I wonder what draws me to dark and painful subject matter. It could be that I’m attracted to characters approaching a crossroads or facing a moral quandary. Their lives already have or are about to change, and not necessarily for the better. There is a looming threat of some kind, or they make a poor decision, or they are simply unlucky, and they spend the rest of the story digging themselves out of a situation that could have disastrous or even deadly consequences. Sometimes they make it. Occasionally they don’t.

This is nothing new. Much of our literature tells stories of suffering and endurance. It seems unavoidable. We are captivated by tragedy, by stories in which a character’s striving comes to nothing, by stories that depict the worst that human nature has to offer, by stories in which honest and decent people through no fault of their own must struggle against adversity. Look at any literary prize shortlist. Maybe we don’t think of it in these terms, but it’s worth asking why grim or shocking or disturbing fiction is valued so highly. Or, to turn the question around, we could ask why fiction that is lighthearted or comforting or written with no purpose other than to entertain is considered inferior to so-called “serious” fiction and swiftly dismissed.

This gets somewhere close to the point. Whether reading or writing, what I’m looking for is a story that is dramatically compelling. When I write, I want the story I’m working on to hold the reader’s attention, and to do that it first has to hold my attention. So if my fiction is depressing, if none of my characters ever have anything good happen to them, if none of my stories are happy stories, it comes down to what I find interesting as a reader, which are the same things I find interesting as a writer. Obviously the fault here is mine and nobody else’s (including the university professors who put all those depressing plays and novels on their reading lists).

What does this mean? In practical terms it means that any story I willingly spend time and energy on will include a character the reader cares about suffering some kind of setback. This does not necessarily mean physical suffering. It can also mean the character discovers his goal is harder to reach than he’d expected, or he is forced by circumstance to make a difficult decision or recognize a painful truth or commit an act that has morally questionable or hurtful consequences. In order to be meaningful, however, the reader must care what happens. As a writer, the response I want is visceral. The character’s struggle has no meaning if the reader doesn’t care. The character’s fate has to matter.

This is, of course, a principle that goes back to ancient times.

I once criticized a book for having a soft ending that is “content to provide everyone with exactly what his or her heart desires.” Some might ask, what’s wrong with that? The only justification I can offer is to say that the most satisfying art is art that imitates life, and in the 21st century we know that it’s rare for anyone to get exactly what their heart desires. My feeling was that the author had let the characters off easy and left several dramatic possibilities unexplored. 200 years ago Jane Austen could close her novels with happy marriages because aesthetic tastes and reader expectations were different (and we still read her because her exceptional genius allowed her to avoid sentiment). But a succession of traumatic events including two world wars have altered the world we live in, and these days happy endings in fiction carry a whiff of wish fulfillment and in literary terms are unconvincing.

Still, there’s no formula for writing good fiction. The writer’s relationship with the blank page is exclusive and personal. There’s no room for anyone else. I don’t write fiction to confirm things I already know or to give people an excuse to feel good about themselves. I write to understand what it means to be human. And if nothing else, events from the recent and distant past have taught that the experience of being human exposes us to beauty and ugliness in equal measure.

In a letter to his friend Oskar Pollak, Franz Kafka wrote that the books we read should “bite and sting us.” “A book,” he says, “must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” In other words, a book should shock us into new ways of thinking and change the way we see the world. The prose, the ideas, the twists in plot: these should take our breath away and make us grateful that of all the books out there, this book has found its way into our hands. A book should carry the justification for its existence on every page. And it doesn’t have to be pretty to do this.

Ultimately, though, the author’s commitment to the reader is to write a story that is so fascinating and beguiling the reader has no choice but to keep turning the pages. Even at their most gruesome and pessimistic, Kafka’s stories honour this commitment. Ninety years after his death readers all over the world continue to be mesmerized by the works of an obscure Czech insurance adjuster. And no one ever read Kafka for the happy endings.

So when people ask me these questions:
• Why are your stories so depressing?
• Why does nothing good ever happen to your characters?
• Why can’t you write a happy story?
my answer—that I write fiction I would want to read myself, that I’m searching for a new angle on the human condition, that the struggles I envision for my characters are ones I find dramatically interesting—may be a simplification but it at least gets us somewhere near the truth. Anyone looking for a happy story won’t be picking up one of my books anytime soon. But I can live with that, not that I have any choice.


The Typewriter as Weapon

My first book is a collection of short stories narrated by a refugee from Communist Albania. While I was researching it I learned a lot about the authoritarian regimes that dominated the political landscape in Eastern Europe from the end of World War II to the late 1980s.

Imagine living in a country where the government operates under a shroud of secrecy, where questioning official policy is a punishable offence, where your next-door neighbour or best friend or cousin or brother might be watching and reporting on your activities, where a harmless act or innocuous remark could land you in prison. That’s what life was like for people in Eastern Europe for much of the previous century. The fear was real, the threats genuine. Spies

The edicts of Communism do not make oppression inevitable. But because an essential theme of Communist philosophy is that the prosperity of the collective comes before the prosperity of the individual, it’s not surprising that the idea that the state knows best in all matters forms an ideological cornerstone for many of Hammer_and_sickle.svgthe regimes from that period. In countries like Romania, Albania and Yugoslavia, the notion that the common rabble is ruled by self-interest and doesn’t know what’s good for itself translated into decades-long dictatorships characterized by one-party rule, a lack of tolerance for opposing political views, profound mistrust of foreign influences, and the brutal suppression of dissenting ideas.

Where books and writing are concerned, people had few options. Only those works that praised the state and its rulers, or were deemed acceptable by a team of bureaucrats, were printed and distributed. Any writer whose aspirations included publication had to conform to a prescribed set of ideas. Those who were unable or unwilling to compromise stopped writing, worked in secret, left the country, or were blacklisted or jailed. Often, classic works by iconic writers from previous centuries were suppressed because government censors felt the ideas they promoted did not conform to the prevailing ideology.

Banned Books
A common absurdity of the time was that some of a writer’s works would be well known and widely available, while others were treated like they didn’t exist. Works by foreign writers were likely to be banned altogether and anyone caught with these in their possession would be arrested. In Romania a 1983 law declared the typewriter a “dangerous weapon,” and anyone who wanted one had to obtain permission from the police. If permission was granted, the new owner had to submit a typeface sample so that unique characteristics of the machine could be registered with the authorities. The private person-to-person sale of typewriters was forbidden. Typewriters were only available for purchase from state-run shops.

censoredCensorship was everywhere, but many people were willing to take risks. Unsanctioned manuscripts were secretly copied and circulated through underground networks. Sometimes a work critical of the regime would be smuggled out of the country and published elsewhere. If this happened and the identity of the author was known, he or she had to go into hiding or find a way to leave the country. More than even violent resistance or outright rebellion—which could be quashed with brute force—those in power feared the uncontrolled circulation of subversive ideas. Unlike typewriters ideas are dangerous, and who better to know this than a ruling elite that was able to grab power in the first place because of the spread of ideas?

All information exchange and all forms of media—the press, television, radio, printing—were controlled by the state. With absolute control over the message that reached the public, the regime ensured that reality became what they wanted it to be. Government reports would gush about a booming economy while people stood in line for hours to buy a loaf of bread and endured service shortages and utility breakdowns because the tools to fix things were hard to come by and because the infrastructure had been falling apart for decades. The arrest of dissidents was never made known because that would be an admission that dissident activity existed. When the Berlin Wall fell in August 1989, the Romanian press did not report it. People in Romania only became aware of this momentous event through a trickle of foreign news reports that within a few weeks became a torrent. In the end, even the government couldn’t stop the flow of information.


It has been said, facetiously, that Communism failed because people didn’t want to wear Bulgarian shoes. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other socialist states in Eastern Europe is due, at least in part, to an unwieldy and ponderous and, as it turned out, unsustainable system of surveillance and control that over many years burgeoned in support of an inefficient power structure. East Germany has been described as a country where half the population was watching the other half. It couldn’t have been a surprise when the system eventually collapsed under its own weight.

In Canada our freedoms are enshrined in a constitution. We can read (and write) whatever we want. We take for granted that a vibrant, clamorous and vigilant media stands ready to pounce on the smallest gaffe or misstep committed by our political leaders. Despite how some people feel about Harper’s conservatives our freedoms have never been seriously threatened. But all you have to do is read a little history and you’ll see that Canada is an exception. We should celebrate our freedoms from time to time, if only to remind ourselves how lucky we are.


The text presented here first appeared as a guest blog entry on CoreyRedekop.Ca during Freedom to Read Week, February 2015.

Best Reads of 2014

What do I look for in a book? First and foremost, a good story. Almost any weakness can be forgiven if the story develops with the irresistible forward momentum that pulls the reader along with it. Story includes character. The author has to make us care enough about the character’s fate or moral conundrum to read every page and follow the story through to the end: any other outcome is failure. Language helps too. The reader can revel in a slow moving story if the language is rich and inventive.

Like anyone who reads fiction for pleasure I like to be surprised. I like to be kept guessing and a bit off balance. I like mystery. These are some of the books I read in 2014 that continue to resonate into the second month of 2015.

Canada Foreboding hangs heavily over the action of Canada, Richard Ford’s 2012 novel. This is the story of Dell Parsons, who in 1960 is fifteen and growing up with his mother and father and twin sister Berner in Great Falls, Montana when the family unit is blown apart in the wake of an ill-conceived bank robbery committed by their parents. After their parents are arrested the resentful Berner walks away, apparently to forge a life elsewhere. Dell waits and is eventually rescued by a friend of his mother, who had agreed to take both children to Canada to live with her brother in rural Saskatchewan, a place that Ford depicts as bleak and harrowing and smouldering with repressed violence. Dell spends his time in Saskatchewan observing the strange people around him, keeping his emotions in check and committing himself to nothing, all the while trying to reinvent himself. It turns out that the man into whose care he has been delivered, Arthur Remlinger, has spent years doing the same thing: struggling to emerge from the shadow of an act of violence committed by the passionate and idealistic youth he used to be. Ford’s vision is fatalistic, and much of the novel explores how past acts contribute to the person we become in the present, the impossibility of denying these acts, the inescapable consequences and the need for acceptance. It is also a novel about crossing borders, physical and moral. The narrative, first person from Dell’s perspective, is dark and taut and teeming with untrustworthy characters all keeping an eye on each other. The brief final section shows us Dell and Berner reunited fifty years after the main action, each sibling having responded in his and her own way to their parents’ fateful decision. Canada is a wise and profound work of fiction that you will not soon forget.

The Signature of All Things Elizabeth Gilbert’s story follows Alma Whittaker from her birth in 1800 into her old age. Alma is the daughter of Henry Whittaker, who from humble beginnings in 18th-century London builds a vast corporate empire stretching across several continents. Henry is a pragmatist who has no use for superstition or religion and nothing but scorn for established and polite ways of conducting business. An expert amateur botanist, he has a scientist’s fascination for living things and is knowledgeable of habitat and what it takes to make plants grow and thrive. However, coming from a hardscrabble upbringing and having endured for years the contempt of his “betters,” his primary interest is making money, and this is an activity at which he excels. Alma, born into comfort and knowing nothing else, gains her maturity at the enlightened Whittaker estate, where curiosity and skepticism are encouraged, surrounded by the stimulating influence of the books her father has collected and the almost nightly company of intelligent and inquisitive dinner guests. Alma shares her father’s fascination for the natural world, but with her keen intellect, the luxury of leisure time and a single-minded devotion to her quest for knowledge, she transforms amateur curiosity into scholarly ambition. Alma’s life unfolds against a backdrop of continuous scientific discovery, religious upheaval, and the occasional war, a time when ancient and sacred assumptions were being debunked on an almost daily basis. But apart from the historical details Gilbert devotes just as much if not more space to Alma’s personal discoveries, and this is what gives the novel its soul. In this engrossing story of a deeply intellectual woman alive at a time when women were expected to keep to the shadows and speak in undertones, we see Alma Whittaker at her best and also at her very worst. Alma is, above all else a seeker of answers who will let nothing interrupt her quest. To be sure she makes bad decisions and repeatedly displays poor judgment (especially in matters of the heart), but this only makes her a more endearing character and her story all the more poignant. What greater compliment is there than to say that though this is a long book I didn’t want it to end? The Signature of all Things engages on multiple levels and is a richly satisfying reading experience.

Colony Colony, Hugo Wilcken’s second novel—published to scant publicity and little fanfare in 2007—is a gripping and suspenseful book that can perhaps be described as a close examination of the fluid nature of human identity. It is 1928 and Sabir, a French veteran of the Great War, is being shipped out to a penal colony in French Guiana. Sabir is naïve but also smart enough to know that his survival depends less on who he is than on who he can become once he reaches his destination. Once in the colony he is able to adapt quickly as circumstances change, and with lies and cunning secures a cushy position as gardener, working for the camp commandant. In the first part of the novel suspense builds as we approach Sabir’s escape attempt with several partners, one of whom—the enigmatic Edouard—is an acquaintance from Sabir’s time in the trenches. In the novel’s second part another French veteran, Manne, arrives in the colony on a mission to find his friend: the same Edouard. But Manne’s origins are as obscure as his intentions—he is already traveling under an assumed identity using forged papers and a bogus story to justify his presence in the colony—and he foolishly risks everything by forming an ill-considered alliance with the commandant’s beautiful but unreliable wife, agreeing to help her escape. This is a story that, scene by scene, conceals as much as it reveals, and by doing so suggests that trust between individuals is virtually impossible because in our heart we are all hiding the person we really are. Wilcken’s spare and coolly efficient prose is filled with jaundiced observations on human behaviour and displays true power in its terse evocation of lives being lived at the point where the struggle for survival intersects with the pursuit of something more. Readers will find themselves turning the pages to discover what happens, but also wishing to delay reaching the end because the reading is so pleasurable. It’s an exquisite dilemma.

Nickel Mountain In Nickel Mountain, published in 1973, John Gardner’s genius is on full display. This is the story of Henry Soames, who runs the Stop-Off, a diner situated along a highway in the mountainous Catskills in southeastern New York State. Henry—obese, timid, thoughtful, unambitious—waits for whatever life brings his way, much as he waits for customers to darken the door of the Stop-Off. Grossly overweight (a trait inherited from his father) and with a bad heart, he is living on borrowed time and knows it, but is content to let things continue as they are because he is simply unable to envision his life differently. When a neighbour asks if Henry will let his daughter work at the diner, though he fears and resents changes to his routine, he relents rather than annoy the man. Thus teenage Callie Wells enters Henry’s life, and though neither of them have any reason to think this is anything but temporary, she stays. Henry’s passive and accepting approach to being alive means that he is little more than a spectator to his own fate, and yet we come to care deeply for him. Callie is a wisp of a girl who speaks her mind, makes mistakes and often acts rashly and ill-advisedly, and yet we grieve for her when her lover takes off and she is forced to a decision that changes her life. Gardner populates the community around the diner with a clutch of grotesques, misfits and eccentrics who—be they narrow-minded, pigheaded, brain-addled, misanthropic or some combination—are always interesting. The action and setting are vividly rendered. The natural world, especially the forest, with its suggestion of things beyond our knowing and its threat of chaos, is a pervasive if murky and mysterious presence that informs the narrative at all levels. Remarkable for these reasons and more, Nickel Mountain demonstrates that even for someone like Henry Soames, life is an adventure that can lead anywhere. This is a major novel by one of America’s best writers.

Hellgoing Anyone who writes short stories knows how difficult it is to get their characters talking and stitch scenes together and provide just enough backstory and create a complete drama in 20 pages, more or less. The trick is making it seem easy. In Hellgoing Lynn Coady makes it seem easy. These are nine entertaining, thought-provoking stories drawn from life in the here and now, narrated with energy, verve and irreverent humour. Coady’s characters are insecure and questioning their place in the world, concerned that they are not living up to expectations and terrified that they will fail in a way that exposes them to the contempt and ridicule of colleagues, friends or family. Their actions are often guided by an instinct for self-preservation or a desire to make things right or to protect themselves from embarrassment. In “Wireless” alcoholic Jane, travelling alone on business in Newfoundland, cuts short a booze-inspired relationship with Ned when she realizes she’s being manipulated. In “Dogs in Clothes” Sam, a young publishers’ rep charged with accompanying author Marco through a whirlwind series of interviews and public appearances, emboldened by alcohol finally cracks and tells him off for being a rude and insensitive jackass. And in “Mr. Hope,” Shelly’s relationship with her teacher evolves over time to become something mysterious yet oddly comforting that she realizes she will probably never understand. Coady’s full-throttle approach almost makes it seem like the stories are slapped together, but if you slow down you will see how much care has been taken not just in the writing but also in the editing. These are stories as remarkable for what’s in them as for what’s left out. Some reviewers have remarked on the lack of resolution, but that’s a matter of taste. For those who enjoy the open-endedness of art that imitates life, Hellgoing is a treat..

Andorra Following the death of his wife and daughter Alexander Fox moves to Andorra to start his life anew. He quickly falls under the spell of this tiny isolated country that moves at its own pace, its ancient stone buildings and people who come from everywhere and nowhere. In Andorra’s capital, La Plata, he meets an Australian couple, Mr. and Mrs. Dent, who have moved to this strange place seeking a fresh start for reasons of their own. He also becomes involved with the Quays, a family of aristocrats, well established on La Plata’s outskirts on their luxurious estate. But as Fox builds new relationships his old life comes back to haunt him, and he begins to understand how difficult it is to re-invent oneself and leave the past behind. Andorra is a mesmerizing and seductive novel. Peter Cameron’s prose is a delight to read, memorable and evocative and gently rhythmic. The story unfolds slowly—building mystery and suspense but so subtly that you hardly notice how gripping it is. If you prefer fiction with all the questions answered and everything tied up in a neat little package, then maybe Andorra is not for you, but if you don’t read this book you’re missing a brilliant work by a master novelist.

Writers on writing


Ask anyone who practices a craft, and they will tell you that the learning process never ends. It doesn’t matter how advanced your career is, how many works you’ve completed, how many prizes you’ve won, each new project brings its own challenges, and these challenges are not necessarily easier to overcome just because you’ve put years into sharpening your skills.

Where fiction is concerned the issue is compounded because, as long as the writing doesn’t follow a formula, a writer doesn’t take very much from one project to the next. Other than the confidence one gains from completing a manuscript and (maybe) getting it published, the writer confronts the challenge of the blank page with an idea or two and no safety net. Ideas are capricious and untrustworthy traveling companions. They can take you a long way or they can push you out of the car in the middle of nowhere–you never know where you’ll end up until you set out on the journey. After a while the writer learns to accept that most ideas don’t pan out. Failure is a huge part of the writing process (as are second-guessing and procrastination). The bitter truth is that writers throw out most of what they write.

All of which makes it worth asking if established writers have anything useful to say to aspiring writers. What advice or instruction can they pass along that will make a difference: that will hasten the journey toward publication and perhaps save the inexperienced writer a bit of heartache along the way? If writing is a subjective process–as we believe–it means that writing can’t be taught. The teacher of writing can talk all he (or she) wants about style and structure and plot and character and setting and tone, but the student of writing still has to come up with an idea that works and get her (or his) hands dirty (so to speak) through a personal encounter with the page and the word. There’s no other way to do it.

Of course, this does not stop writers from teaching writing. I’ve done it myself and have discovered it to be a profound and enriching experience. Despite the subjective nature of the craft there is value in teaching creative writing. The thing to remember is that anyone who can hold a pen or navigate their way around a keyboard knows how to “write.” The real skill you are teaching is how to tap into a mode of thinking: about language and its relation to the world around us, and about words and how they combine on the page and act upon the mind. Things get murky at this point because we’re dealing with an alchemical and largely inexplicable process: that transformative moment that the successful writer learns to harness and prolong in order to conjure up convincing characters whose words and actions and ultimate fate matter to the reader.

The tradition of writers commenting on writing is long and fascinating. We can probably take it on faith that anyone who goes to the trouble to formulate and record their advice to young writers is genuinely trying to be helpful. But part of being a writer is learning to tell the difference between advice that’s worth taking to heart and advice that’s simply not right for you. And sometimes we should just let ourselves be amused, especially when a great writer cloaks his advice behind a curmudgeonly persona and tells a story about how he did it himself, a case in point being this New York Times piece from 1999 by Ed McBain (born Salvatore Albert Lombino in 1926) who wrote crime and detective fiction under several names for more than fifty years. He’s describing a world that no longer exists and sounds a bit cynical about it, but he’s actually saying some wise things about character and motivation and literary form.

This blog will address writing and related topics: my own writing activities and, more generally, books and creativity and words. Elsewhere on this site you will find reviews and links to other sites that I’ve found useful, informative and/or entertaining. Take what you want and leave the rest. Thanks for reading.