Toronto novelist Ken Sparling spends his days working in a library. His most recent novel, BOOK, was released by Beth Follett‘s Pedlar Press in April, 2010. HUSH UP AND LISTEN STINKY POO BUTT, a novel he’s been making by hand (upon request) for about ten years was released earlier in the year as a paperback, with a new introduction by fellow Toronto-scribe Derek McCormack, by Artistically Declined Press (StinkyPooButt.com). His other novels include [A novel by Ken Sparling] (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2003) and For Those Whom God Has Blessed with Fingers (Pedlar Press, 2005). His first novel, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall (New York NY: Knopf, 1996), appears in a new edition in 2012 with American publisher mud luscious press.
I lost my pen at 4:34 p.m. I knew where it was. In a puddle. Near the curb. On Bay Street. North of Bloor. I have a gift. I know where every pen I ever owned is.
At first I thought this was cool. I told all my friends. Showed off. Threw my pens away. Dropped them into potholes. Swallowed them. Shit them out. Flushed them. Days later, I went and found them.
Then I got to wondering. Was I squandering what God had given me? Maybe I should try to use this gift. Do something good.
I went to get my pen from the puddle on Bay Street. Saw a man enter the sub shop at Cumberland. His clean well-lighted face clear of any fear. His woman passing through the sub shop door behind him.
—For Those Whom God Has Blessed with Fingers
The following interview was conducted over e-mail from September to October 2010.
rob mclennan: I am fascinated by the way you construct your novels, out of seemingly unrelated fragments. What is your compositional process like, and how do you keep all the elements in place? Do you have any sort of overall plan, or do they really begin as random fragments that only slowly come together as you and the reader pour through the accumulation?
Ken Sparling: I don’t think my books begin as random fragments, no. To be honest, I think that it’s the other way around; that the pieces slowly evolve into random fragments after I give up trying to pull something cohesive together. The desire to try to pull something together is something I have to resist constantly. Many times I start out with a plan that involves a story, but as I write toward that plan I become less and less interested in continuing, and then what you hear in my prose is my lack of interest in continuing with the plan. I’ll sometimes push forward with the plan long enough to make myself really unhappy, and then you can hear unhappiness in what I’ve written. Inevitably, I’ll abandon a project like this, one that starts off with a plan, and then pick up the abandoned piece and drop it into something else I’m working on, and that’s when things finally begin to move toward something more satisfyingly random.
The actual process of making a book changes with every book, but the pattern has been that the desire to make a new book sneaks up on me. Once I’ve decided to make a book, I don’t ever have any big, overall plan to guide me. At first, I won’t even be thinking about making a book, I’ll just be writing little pieces whenever I feel like writing something. I write in little bursts. Or, like I said, I’ll sometimes make a plan to write an extended story, and abandon it after a while. At some point I come to feel I might be able to take a bunch of these little bursts and abandoned projects and turn them into a book.
For my newest book, which is coming out in 2011 with Pedlar Press, I began by taking one of the more extended attempts I’d made at doing a narrative story and forcing the characters in this extended narrative to deal with fragments I’d written, sometimes years earlier, that had nothing to do with them originally. Around the time when I finished taking my first stab at getting my three characters to deal with all the crap I was throwing at them, I had a chance to go to the cottage by myself. I went up there in September for a week and, besides swimming and sleeping, I did nothing but work on making the three main characters in my book, Chappy, Mirror and the owl-eyed boy, more honest in their responses to the crazy material they were being forced to deal with.
For DAD SAYS, which was my first book, I’d been writing very short, single paragraph stories, and sending them to THE QUARTERLY. When Gordon Lish asked me to do a book, I wound up taking every short piece I had ever written that I felt I could make work (and I made stuff work in those days mainly by editing out anything that didn’t work) and putting all these pieces together in a single document. I was in my early 30s at that point and, honestly, every single thing I had ever written up to then that I felt I could salvage wound up in that book. Once I’d run out of good things to put in, I moved the pieces around. My main goal when I was moving the pieces around was to get it so that there were never two pieces one after the other that had the same feel. So if there was a piece featuring Tutti at one point, I tried to put something abstract after it, or something where language was the focus. I wanted it to change it up every time a section ended and a new one began. I broke for chapters when I thought I had an interesting section to end with, sort of the way a jazz piece ends, where it doesn’t even sound like an end until the music stops and you see that, yes, it has ended. When a jazz piece ends in a way that doesn’t seem like an end I always feel amazed at the musicians for making the decision to stop where they stopped. I think that when I put a book together out of all these little pieces I’m trying more than anything else to expose the decisions I’m making as I write. I don’t want people, after they read my stuff, to be left with the feeling that they’ve experienced a story. It’s more like I want them to feel like they’ve seen me make some unexpected decisions.
With HUSH UP, which I wrote just after DAD SAYS, the initial plan—which I again came up with after I’d written a bunch of stuff without having any plan whatsoever except to just write and see if what I wrote looked like what I wanted to write—was to use only dialogue. At some point the plan evolved into me trying to write down verbatim conversations my kids were having. Then it evolved some more so that it wasn’t only dialogue after all.
By the time I made BOOK, the process was quite different. I was still putting a bunch of disparate pieces together, but I decided to go on assembling stuff till I filled up about three manuscript pages at a time and then stop. Once I decided this was what I wanted to do, all I needed to do was keep dumping material into these three page blocks. I wasn’t really strict about the three page thing. I just kept digging up old notes and bits of stories and abandoned writing projects that I had around the house till I figured I had enough, which just happened to be usually about three pages.
However you want to characterize my process, I’d like to think that what I write exposes my ongoing attempt to escape the endless plans and agendas I and other people cook up for me. I’m trying always to write something I’ve never written, so I try, when I’m at the stage where I’m actually composing, to do my writing without any plan whatsoever beyond that of putting another word after the one I’ve just written. Then, at some point, I look back at what I’ve written to see if I can somehow make what I’ve written resemble in some way the thing I’ve never quite written but keep hoping to write.
rm: It’s interesting you mention jazz. When we met back in June, it was actually to watch one of your sons perform in a jazz trio, and there are certainly elements of your writing that could easily be considered musical; such a lovely lyric flow that isn’t, at the same time, entirely lyric. How important is music in what you write?
KS: A jazz player never goes where you expect him to go because he never knows where he is about to go himself. He never knows where he’s going to wind up until he gets there, and by then he’s beyond the place where he’s ended up and moving toward another place he doesn’t know until he gets there and again when he gets there he has already gotten beyond there.
It’s impossible to ever know where you are in jazz because you’re already heading toward the next place you haven’t yet decided you are going to go.
I think I don’t want to know where I am, because knowing where I am puts me in a place where I’m no longer moving toward a place; because the place toward which you move is always a place you can never know and being in a place is like pretending you can know where you are. Music moves. My writing moves. I think that’s all there really is to it.
rm: I noticed that a couple of the characters from HUSH UP slipped sideways into BOOK; was this deliberate or, as you suggest about your process, did it simply happen? And does this mean your books could all be somehow connected, much like Kieślowski’s “Three Colours” film trilogy?
KS: To tell the truth I don’t remember characters from HUSH UP winding up in BOOK. I thought there might be some characters from DAD SAYS in BOOK, but that’s only because somebody who read BOOK told me she was glad to see Tutti and Sammy back. But maybe Shortboy is in BOOK. I sometimes worry that I’ll put the same passage into two books, and I think that might have already happened. I think the nature of the way I work means that I can’t guarantee I won’t have the same passage in two books, and partly it’s because I don’t remember what I put into a book. Listen, if you asked a jazz musician to play again the same passage he just played, he probably couldn’t do it. But if you played the passage back to him on a tape recording, he might be able to play it again, but he probably wouldn’t want to play it again the same way, he’d probably want to take it and make it something new. If I have the same passage in two of my books, it’s like I heard a recording of what I did before and tried to do it again but couldn’t quite do it exactly the same way because I don’t ever want to do it the same way. There’s at least one passage in BOOK that appears twice, the second time slightly altered. I didn’t do this on purpose, and I only know it’s there because someone who proofed BOOK pointed it out to me. I don’t put the same characters in my books on purpose – unless you want to call it my purpose that I want to forget where I’ve been as soon as I can after I’ve been there.
rm: Well, either way, it works, and I’m glad for it; there’s something about the tendrils of one book slipping into another that manages the entirety of your work together as some kind of single project, even if we can’t yet see the shape of the whole, just yet. I’m interested in your work in terms of influence. Who would you say has had an impact on how you write, whether early on or current influences, or anywhere in between? What books or writers do you find yourself returning to?
KS: Real influence is insidious and I think reveals itself in the heart of the work a person does, without that person necessarily understanding its influence. The closest I’ve come to being influenced in this sense, at least the closest I’ve come to recognizing the operation of this insidious form of influence in my own writing, is some recent work I’ve been doing that stakes itself on a dangerous and currently pervasive approach to literature that seems to risk everything in hopes of discovering an unexpected connection among random moments that have been thrown together almost carelessly. In most cases, the connection never appears and all is lost, and I’m not quite convinced it’s worth the risk and I’m really, at the moment, at a loss about how to proceed.
A less insidious and easier to elucidate form of influence would be the one you hear writers talk about when they cite other writers they admire. I can do that, but I don’t know that the influence these writers have had on me is anything but superficial. After I read Celine’s early work, I tried scattering ellipses through my work and going for that bawdy sense of humour Celine employed that had me laughing so hard it sometimes left me crying. I tried to copy Leon Rooke’s rollicking style when I was a teenager; I tried to copy Raymond Carver’s (or was it Gordon Lish’s) minimalism later on in my life. And maybe these bouts of copying left their mark on my writing. But I don’t think the sort of mark they have left could be called an influence in any meaningful sense of the word.
I like to think the people who have had an impact on the way I write are not just writers. Certain people stride into the world in a way that influences me, whether I’m watching them stride into the world by reading a book they’ve written, or by interacting with them directly. When I look back and think about these people who have impacted my life, it looks like a flash cutting through my life, like an extended bright moment where I’ve felt euphoric about being in contact with a certain person, whether it be through a book or through actual direct contact with the person. Mostly I think these people have influenced my work ethic, and I think my work ethic involves the search for a kind of confidence, so that what might appear in my work as a result is not so much a sense that the work proceeds with confidence, but a sense of the ongoing struggle to gain confidence that I think pervades my writing. It’s a struggle that does not accumulate, so that I have to start over again in my search for confidence each time I sit down to write.
I don’t tend to go back to writers. There are some reading experiences that stand out. A BICYCLE RIDER IN BEVERLY HILLS by William Saroyan. THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead. These are a couple of the reading experiences that come back to me sometimes when people ask me about books in my past. I don’t remember so much what these books were about, or what happened in them, so much as a general sense of wonder that I felt as I read.
A lot of times I find I’m most inspired when I’m least desperate. When I can be in the company of another person, or another writer through one of their books, and not feel like I could ever possibly do, or even like I’d ever want to do, the specifically amazing things that person or writer is able to do, then I can relax and be amazed and get filled with wonder. I feel, when this happens, that I, too, might do amazing things—not the amazing things this person I’m interacting with has done, but my own amazing things. This is what is inspiring about witnessing something amazing, this feeling that I could do my own amazing thing and it would have nothing in common with this amazing thing I’m witnessing, except that they are both amazing and that I and this other person could possibly be entering together a sort of community of people who do amazing things—this I believe, in contrast to my search for confidence, might accumulate, so that a bunch of people each doing their own amazing thing could create a kind of community of the amazing.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives there. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry .pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.