What’s more fun that talking to one great writer? Talking to two great writers – or, better yet, eavesdropping on two writers talking to each other. In what may (or may not) be the start of a new feature at foundpress.com, Seyward Goodhand and Andrew Forbes talk about, among other things, each others’ inspirations, interests, and stories. It’s a long, fascinating read, so pull up a chair, grab an adult beverage of your choice, and be the luckiest fly on the wall. – Bryan Ibeas
Hi, Andrew! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview and congratulations on the recent success of What You Need, which was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillium Book Award. You’ve also published an excellent collection of baseball essays this year called The Utility of Boredom.
As I read What You Need, I was moved by the honesty of these stories as much as I admired the beautiful writing. For example, the teenage athlete Jason Hamelin, the main character of “Cycles,” describes his father in lines that are both elegant and brutally lucid: “I hated him for the comfort he took in small things, the quietness and sobriety of his life, his friendlessness, his slump-shouldered posture. Mostly I hated him for the vision he represented of the life that I might inherit. I had somehow come to swallow the idea that I would one day eat the world whole, leave my footprints all over it, but my father’s life suggested such things weren’t likely. It both saddened and frightened me.”
Do you ever struggle over what kind of prose to write—whether to strive for elegance or jaggedness?
Hello, Seyward! Thanks, first of all, for proposing this conversation, and thanks too for those kind things you said.
I worry sometimes that that decision – whether elegance or jaggedness – stems from what I’ve been reading most recently. Doesn’t every writer worry about that? But that evaporates pretty quickly; by the time I’ve gotten to the stage of actually writing, I’ve more or less determined what sort of voice or tone I’ll use. It’s all part of the original impetus. Rarely do I ever switch from elegant to jaded, or vice versa. I don’t know that I’ve ever done it, to be honest.
Reading your stories, I kept thinking of certain qualities of naturalism, say in the work of Stephen Crane, where characters are “doomed to discover by a process” the fates into which they are born. Naturalism isn’t only a literary mode—it’s also a worldview. Would you say something like it has influenced you? If not, is there a philosophical or metaphysical underpinning in your work?
My views doubtless leach into the stories – how could it be otherwise? Naturalism could be a word for it, though I’ve also gravitated toward “determinism” which, crudely as I understand these things, might be considered a subset of naturalism, in philosophical terms. If we were to lift the rock under which these ideas formed in me, or adhered to my psyche, I expect we’d find a teeming collection of Protestant baggage, a relationship with the ambient Presbyterianism of my upbringing so comfortable – or anyway familiar – that I began to look with some affection or curiosity toward a sort of Lutheran austerity and its attendant ideas of predestination. It’s inadvisable, though, to lift that rock.
All to say that yes, I have some beliefs, some of which are dear to me and many others which I am in the messy, lifelong process of trying to shed, and that both of these varieties filter into the stories. Very broadly, I think that human lives are formed of some combination of already hardened and still wet clay and that, in dramatic terms, the failure of people to identify which is which is where much of the interesting stuff happens. It takes experience, that “process” in Crane’s wording, to hash it all out. Henry Fielding, in The Red Badge of Courage, has to learn of the cowardly aspect of his character – there’s the already hardened clay – through a bloody and harrowing process, those mistakes made in the dark. He then learns that he’s yet capable of an exercise of free will when he carries his regiment’s colours into battle and comports himself according to the conventions of war, or of that war, anyway. But then his understanding that his place in things is the result of the machinations of rash and incapable men above him suggest that his free will is, in some way, an illusion. This tension, between agency and structure, provides the girding for the whole story. This also describes the novels of Jane Austen, of course, and of a good chunk of the entire body of literature.
As a writer, you’re aware that your characters are in a way doubly damned: by the forces which shape us all, and by the fact of their provenance within the confines of the written work. I mean that the writer invented those characters, and did so specifically so that she might have them act out some drama she’s devised in her head. So it seems in some way dishonest not to acknowledge the notion of determinism as a factor in characters’ lives. It’s also useful to know that the torque between what a character might believe they’re destined for and what they’re actually limited to can provide all the basis required for a compelling story. As such, these invented people are doomed to discover by a process their constitutional paucities and their excesses, whether economic or spiritual, their overindulgences or failings of imagination, the quiet but rigid ways in which their lives are hedged in by things they can’t control.
To be sure, much of this thinking has to do with my emotional formation during the waning days of the Cold War, but there are a million forces at work on character and there are layered into all that distortions of ego and emotion which tint or downright alter perception and memory. It can be, in certain devisings, the job of the writer to lay bare just how the shaping forces influence action, and how those emotional interpretations distort the untainted original, if we can even conceive of such a thing. Lives exist in the world – messy, unfair, desirous, subjective, and silly as it is – and it’s a story’s task to describe some bit of that. The hope that I might succeed at that frankly impossible task is what underpins my work, and yes, what I produce as a result is shaped by the prejudices and beliefs I harbour, as I suspect is yours. The trick is to make it into something worth reading.
I like your wet and hard clay metaphor. Maybe we retain some kind of minimal power in our ability to call social forces unjust even as they crush us. But you also suggest we’re equally determined by the hard clay of our personalities—by introversion, extroversion, passivity, impulsiveness—and by the wet clay of internalized prejudice. These are harder to identify because they’re invisible to most of us most of the time.
This makes me wonder: You’ve said that What You Need explores the failures of accepted kinds of bad or violent masculinity—another kind of “structure.” The masculinity the stories critique is often observed from an authorial position, from the vantage point of characters who watch the aggression and indulgence of family members from the sidelines, as in “What You Need” or “In the Foothills,” or from a future self regarding his young self, as in “Cycles,” “Below the Lighted Sky” or “A Stunt Like That.”
But in stories like “The Gamechanger” and “Floridians,” the narrators are more unreliable because they are immersed in their own perspectives. These stories also end with surprising twists—climaxes of apocalyptic insight where everything is reversed. They encourage the reader to pass judgment, but from a position of identification rather than distance. On the one hand I’m tempted to think of these twists as moments of transcendence, where an external force reorients the plot by subverting the narrator’s will. That’s interesting because it could free the narrator from the narcissistic structures that have overdetermined his actions thus far. On the other hand—this is especially clear in “Floridians”—the twist endings don’t release the narrators from themselves or from the situations they’ve created. The characters don’t rise, they fall. ‘Ted Cruikshank’ goes to Florida, he says, to seek “grace.” Instead he finds gravity. Can you talk a bit about the twist ending?
I agree that we find power, or at least identify a feeling of power, in naming the social forces which constrain us. Maybe that’s what makes literature so comforting, that overt naming. But structure is so insidiously pervasive that it creates in us a desire to perform according to its script, and against our sober judgment it succeeds in breeding in us a terrific fear that we won’t know our next line. Twist endings are often simply the point at which a character decides abruptly to go off-script, as when they’ve reached what they believe to be a moment of clarity, of recognizing that structure has blinked or petered out and offered them what they think is an opening, a shot at agency. The fact that it doesn’t usually end well for my characters is maybe another way of saying we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. It’s the shadow of that Protestant determinism again, I guess – any rewards to be had are similarly distributed at random, too. Anyway my hope is that such endings might unseat the reader, without falling into the realm of gimmick. I don’t have a yardstick for that one; it’s pure feel. But the hope, I think, is that in the midst of that loss of stable ground the reader begins to question the assumptions they may have made over the course of the narrative and, as I believe you’re suggesting, begin to recognize that in order to render judgment they must implicate themselves.
But it can’t be a piano dropped from a window. I think I’ve said this before somewhere. It has to be something already present. There should be a moment of surprise, followed by a realization that the seeds of that ending were always present, scattered here and there throughout the story. That cohesion is necessary. I like an ending to have the impact of a 9 lb hammer, but it’s important that that hammer was always there. That’s basic Chekhov, right?
Speaking about naming the social forces that determine us—I have a question about names. Never do I feel more insincere than when I give a character an ordinary sounding name only to create a reality effect. I can get used to my character’s name once they’ve got it, but at the time of naming it seems their name has nothing to do with their specificity. So I tend to look for artificial names that are significant. I wonder if this anxiety is why writers name their characters after archetypes, or give them goofy, clearly made-up names, or name them after themselves, or give them letters instead of full name, or names that aren’t really their names—like how Lolita is really Dolores and Ishmael is only called Ishmael. All the stories in Jess Taylor’s first collection have characters named some variant of Paul or Pauline (fittingly, the book is called Pauls – ed). Sometimes, I’ll notice, writers give their own children the same names they’ve given their characters. Do you ever feel guilty about naming your characters?
I feel extreme guilt about it, though I’d never thought to phrase it that way. But yes, absolutely, that’s the thing, a guilt, a wholly deserved blame falling on my shoulders for having hemmed in these characters with names, which are after all just forms of linguistic baggage or enclosure. I take great care with it, eliminating first the names of anyone I know, if possible. I have surrendered myself to fate before, flipping open the copy of The Baby Name Wizard which resides on the shelf next to my desk, and stabbing my finger onto a random page (here, I’ll do it now: Haven – no, that’s awful, I’ll try again: Mercedes. Hmm.). I gnash my teeth over such decisions. It isn’t uncommon for characters to be named ‘X’ in my early drafts. I leave those decisions until the last possible moment. Names carry so much! There’s historical baggage, and cultural, and of course you worry that a reader will have a person in their life with the same name and won’t be able to divorce the two, and there’s the simple matter of sound: does this name sound like my character? Writing is all about making decisions, and I find the name decision to be among the more difficult that must routinely be made. Taylor’s book is clever, because imposing that constraint must have subsequently given her a great sense of freedom to not have to make that decision. My usual dedication to realism means I can’t go the Vonnegut route and give them silly names, and I’ve never been able to leave those X’s in place when the final draft is complete. So I agonize, and I probably always will.
Now I’m curious about your approach to twists. They come throughout, suddenly redrawing or expanding the boundaries of the story, as though a camera is initially trained on a fine detail before it begins panning back to reveal more and more of the fantastic context of that detail. I’m thinking of the description of the galatrax (in the National Magazine Award-nominated “So I Can Win the Galatrax Must Die”), for example, and what that animal is used for, or of the measured revelations of the, uh, uniqueness of the fur trader’s daughter (in the Journey Prize finalist “The Fur Trader’s Daughter”). The endings then follow from your carefully-built descriptions of some natural order or other, even if those orders are implausible in our world. These worlds are, to be sure, consistent and wholly believable as you’ve constructed them, and they always end up serving your conclusions directly, which is to say there’s an inherent logic which is both consistent and, I want to say, unfeeling, or intractable, and from which only the conclusions you reach could be drawn. Is this belief in the intractability of nature – even of an altered or imagined nature – one that you hold personally and consciously inject into your work, or is it primarily a useful storytelling device?
Some of my stories are driven by ideas as much as they are by character and that probably gives them a feeling of intractability—I feel conflicted about this, but I think it’s true. The ones you mention both have to do with the relationship between animate and inanimate nature. I guess if I believe there’s something intractable about nature, it would lie here, in this relationship. With “Galatrax” I wanted to write a scene about a woman who eats an animal, which is a normal but usually unthinking activity. In the story she eats as a beast would, while her prey lives. I loved the galatrax—I designed it while looking at my cat. And the character loved it as she ate it. But life is a contradiction. We love the small, furry things, and we must eat and destroy in order to keep our own integrity. I don’t think these aspects of our natures can be reconciled. We’re conscious creatures composed of molecules and particles with their own, alien demands. Can we know that our desires belong to us?
But my favourite endings retain a mortal awareness while making room for the birth of something new. I’m glad you asked this question…
I have to tell you that in order to accommodate everything which occurs to me to say, or investigate, or probe in your responses, we’d need this to be a book-length conversation. (I’d publish the shit out of that – ed)
Our talk about the determinism of historical structures makes me think of a story you published with Found Press awhile back called “The Expansiveness of My Sound.” I love this story. On the one hand, you inhabit a perspective quite different from your own, and from most of your other narrators, who are white North Americans born in the seventies or eighties. But what makes Metche Hufu such a great character is that, even though he’s completely caught up in the historical forces of an actual war, he spends so little time speculating about himself. He speaks in a declarative mood about what he loves and how he feels. He doesn’t wonder, he states facts. What did going so far away from more familiar terrain allow you to do here?
The voice of Metche Hufu, the narrator of that story, was something of an experiment, inspired by music, but in reality focused on language, or rather the point in thought just before language intervenes and begins to shape thought. Hufu and his bandmates speak a highly idiomatic musical language, a patois of American and British music mixed with sounds specific to Ethiopia, which itself rests in a unique spot, attached to Africa and so adjacent to African musical traditions, but also in contact with Middle Eastern culture. Add to that some very odd and happenstantial cross-pollinations – such as the fact that Jamaica’s Rastafarians considered Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to represent the second coming. It’s no coincidence, I think, that a Tommy McCook saxophone solo on a Yabby You song recorded in Kingston sounds a lot like what you might have heard in a club in Addis Ababa during the brief but glorious musical flourishing I tried to describe in the story.
So that’s the musical end of things, where I guessed that these characters felt in some way at home. The other language in the story, the spoken language, is, I think, where the story gains that “more declarative mood” that you identify. I had the sense that my narrator was a man who felt most at home communicating through music, far more than he did with words. The extra layer is that he communicates with the reader across not only time, but over the barrier of language. He states in the story that he doesn’t really speak English; when talking about an American musicologist who visits Addis Ababa, Hufu says: “Tom does not speak Amharic, though he does have some Arabic and much French. I have some English. In this cobbled-together way we can speak to one another.” So, how is he communicating with us, then? I didn’t want to present it as though it had been translated from Amharic, and I didn’t want to attempt to mimic a broken English – that would insult both the character and the reader, I think. Instead I arrived at something a little different, whereby the reader is somehow granted access to Hufu’s thoughts as they are formed, and before they have been translated into spoken language. Like we’re mainlining his thoughts. And at that level, I thought, given what this person has been through, he’s simply observing and reporting, with less space for the introspective. That also accounts for the fact that the narration takes place in the present tense. We’re occupying a space behind his eyes, taking in what he does, as he does.
Now this has got me thinking about the use of language in your stories, the sound and shape of it. Am I right in thinking that you’re very careful about not only plot and description, but in the language at the level of sound and shape? I almost want to say that you’re deliberate about the shape of the mouth around certain words in certain passages. Am I looking too deeply? If I’m not mistaken, you’re a scholar of Renaissance Literature, and I feel as though that’s reflected in the language you use – almost as though you defer to Middle English sounds. In “The Fur Trader’s Daughter,” I was struck by this sentence: “Bears travelled from lea to forest to lake, sucking grubs out of mulch and indulging in a sublime wanderlust.” The first half of the sentence is dominated by E sounds, the latter by U, and there’s a cadence throughout which feels in some way antiquated. Are you conscious of such things as you write?
Yes and no. My impulse might have been to write a sentence that descends from the romantic landscapes of forests and lakes to the earthy particularity of grubs and mulch. But there’s some LARPing going on with ‘lea.’ Oops. I love the tiny surprise of the musical sentence, I want my mind to move in a new direction. But for someone who loves sentences I’ve read a lot of my favourite novels and stories in translation. Maybe translation has a particular clarity because it’s always looking out at the thing it’s trying to describe. A sentence written only for its sound (I’ve learned the hard way) can feel like it’s stared in the mirror for too long. Some of my favourite sentences have been written by Anne Carson. While of course she deliberates over sound and cadence, there’s a sense in which her phrases extend from an unfamiliar distance, as if she’s first discovered the thing in a different language. Carson is inspired by her own translations of Greek and Latin poets—by the grammar of Sophocles. But what might begin for her as an aesthetic, almost mathematical fascination ends up becoming personal. Your language experiment with Metche Hufu’s voice came out sounding personal and expressive, too. Maybe the greater distance allowed you to write a naked kind of prose?
I think so. I could abandon the hope that I’d capture this person by locating a series of idiomatic tics, or that I’d reveal something about him through his speaking voice. It got me closer to him, in a roundabout way.
Let’s talk about the medium of baseball. I’ve spent the last few days immersed in your lovely collection of baseball essays, The Utility of Boredom. In your title essay there’s a sense in which you suggest a relationship exists between boredom and intimacy, two things we fear. You’re home alone doing laundry, listening to a dull and unimportant baseball game on the radio, and in the boredom of the moment you feel euphoria for being alive. From a state of boredom you are re-enchanted by the banal experience of yourself in the world. But what if you were home alone doing laundry without a baseball game playing on the radio? Did the medium of the baseball game on the radio heal the breach between yourself and the world, or did it make you feel comfortable enough to float into the breach? Or is that wrong and the real question goes: are boredom and intimacy terrifying sensations that reveal there is no distance between ourselves and the magnitude of everything else? Does a medium offer us some distance?
We’ve positioned boredom as a stand-in for the fear of death, because the decorations and distractions of life are put in place to divert our attention from the glaring black hole which lies at the end of the path, waiting to swallow us up and deliver us to oblivion. But viewed differently, boredom allows, maybe even encourages, a feeling of presentness, of being-in-the-world, a proximity which allows us to sense the pulse of our surroundings. So, yes, I think that the scenario you’re referring to – folding laundry while listening to the broadcast of a dull and meaningless game – allowed me to feel comfortable enough to float into the breach. I try to think of boredom not as a lack, but as a baseline, the opportunity to lie on my back and feel the earth spinning beneath me. It is true that a baseball game on the radio is a distraction, but its pace is meditative in such a way that allows me to get closer to that baseline. It invites a deceleration, a drop down into a rhythm peculiar to modern life. This might just be a glass-half-full thing; I sense mortality in such a moment, but because I’m ingesting baseball, which has given me so much enjoyment for so long, I’m tempted toward viewing life’s finite nature as an opportunity to gorge on its fragrant ephemera, to examine the pebbles on the path, and so on. Thinking about it now, it’d be fair to say that baseball’s just become my own personal meditative practice. It has the same palliative effect on my brain, during the frequent lulls which characterize roughly 80% of its duration, as reading Annie Dillard. Double plays and dragonfly wings, rendered in intimate detail, all in an effort to feel closer to life as it occurs.
The fear of death, or the fear of time—maybe even a fear of eternity? It’s interesting that whenever we invent immortal characters the first thing we think is ‘they must be bored.’ Consider the vampire, or the trope of the bored, suicidal aristocrat. There’s an old theological anxiety that the Gods are bored. What else are they supposed to do with their infinite time but involve themselves in human dramas? Is boredom a confrontation with consciousness rather than a stand-in for death? I like your idea that boredom isn’t a lack, that actually it’s full. I wonder if depression and optimism are two comportments toward boredom.
What, I’m moved to ask, is your baseball? Is my baseball your baseball?
I wish. Actually, I’ve started watching baseball since reading your book. The tension of watching the bases fill up is very satisfying. A home run is almost a let down! But then back to filling up the bases…
My work here is done! Really, though, solace comes from all corners. I sense, in your stories peopled with fur traders, dairymaids, shepherds, and monks, a comfort-taking in the idea of the long reach of human history, the notion of lives lived long ago bearing some similarity, and indeed some direct connection, to our lives as we live them now. By which I mean that you seem not to dread the ineradicable march of time, but to take some pleasure in knowing it will have its way with all of us. Time will take us as individuals, but life persists. Am I way off here? The fairy-tale allusions in your stories seem to delight in eliminating some of the perceived distance between us and our forebears.
Maybe I am ‘eliminating some of the perceived distance’ of history. It’s true that I think history is short. I often wonder: who would I be in another time and place? Possibly a dairymaid? More likely, considering how persuaded I was as a kid by a kind of uneducated, conservative male pragmatism, I’d have been married at fifteen to someone loud and charismatic with an aura of manly power. Then I’d become addicted to the idea of romance like Emma Bovary, do something to get myself shunned, be magnanimously forgiven, and age into a bitter, authoritarian housewife. But who knows? When I look at the past I don’t see a home for me. But I do sometimes feel an urge to keep distant figures company. My hope is that both the past and present will seem unfamiliar.
Earlier you mentioned your formation under the Cold War. I wonder if we might draw to an end by trying to historicize ourselves. When we consider that we stand on the edge of a political and economic order that’s about to pass away and in whose passing we’re all going to be swept up, it makes sense that writers might take a turn toward a kind of fiction in which the lives of characters are determined by forces larger than themselves. Yet I’m trying to remain committed to what Margaret Atwood has identified as one of Isak Dinesan’s literary motifs, “the brave but futile gesture in the face of almost certain death.” Many of your characters are highly self-aware. On the one hand this creates a wonderful effect of uncanniness in which your characters are distant from their lives as they live them. I’m thinking of Rupert digging up his friend’s grave while listening to the sounds of a Jamboree and wondering, “How do people have fun”? But another effect of a hyperaware narrating consciousness is that your stories make fatalism feel introspective and close. Your essays make doubt feel intimate. Is this self-intimacy “the brave but futile gesture”?
We live at least two lives at once: the one in which we’re actively participating, the one where we get our hands dirty, and the second one going on in our heads, where we narrate the action, and consider it, and doubt our actions, and question the motivations of others, and so on. Fiction is an opportunity to lay bare both of those simultaneous lives in another person, a chance we’re not otherwise afforded. I don’t know if this constitutes the “brave but futile gesture,” or just a futile one, with occasional stabs toward beauty, or empathy, but it’s what I enjoy doing. The fatalism you identify is just the shadow obscuring our actions, that of the towering fact that most of our efforts are doomed to fail, and death is the only reward. The intimacy results from admitting we’re all equally subject to that, and that we’re all afraid, or anyway intimidated, or motivated toward seemingly unreasonable behavior, by the fact of our mortality. The Cold War offered the overbearing spectre of death in daily life, on the nightly news or in Time, or wherever, which isn’t so different from the doom and gloom delivered from pulpits while the plague swept Europe, say.
A desire to underline the commonality of that experience – to make it intimate – explains why the first person is my default, and that while I have written stories from the third (and even second), the existence of those stories represents a conscious decision on my part to adapt them from a first-person perspective, which is what naturally occurs when I sit down to write. So I want to ask you: how do you decide which perspective to represent? What does the third person allow you to do? Why do you write in that mode sometimes, but, as in the case of “The Fur Trader’s Daughter,” switch to first?
I don’t have rules for this, but I think it comes down to distance. I like writing in first person if the narrator is supernatural or a well-known figure from history, for example. Otherwise, third offers the distance I need. But who knows—maybe a penny will drop and this will all change tomorrow! I’ve observed that first person works well when the narrator spends most of her time focused on someone else. This is why Rachel Cusk’s OUTLINE is such an experience. Then again, Proust. However, you get the sense with Proust that he’s a stranger to himself, so it works. With distance comes intimacy, I think. The narrator has to suffer estrangement.
There’s a slogan. THE NARRATOR HAS TO SUFFER ESTRANGEMENT. Put that on a t-shirt.
stories by Seyward Goodhand
stories by Andrew Forbes