John Lavery is the author of two acclaimed story collections, Very Good Butter (ECW Press, 1999) and You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off (ECW Press, 2004), as well as the highly praised Sandra Beck (Anansi, 2010). Very Good Butter was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and Lavery has twice been a finalist in the PRISM International Fiction Contest. His stories have appeared in This Magazine, Canadian Forum, the Ottawa Citizen, the London Spectator, and the anthology Decalogue 2: ten Ottawa fiction writers (Chaudiere Books, 2008), as well as in the Journey Prize Anthology. He participated in the Max Middle Sound Project and at the Ottawa international writers festival, alongside Carmel Purkis and Max Middle, in Deasil and Widdershins as part of the Samuel Beckett centenary. In January, 2009, Lavery participated in jwcurry’s Messagio Galore Take VI alongside jwcurry, Roland Prévost, Carmel Purkis, Sandra Ridley and Grant Wilkins (with the vocal addition of Toronto writer Maria Erskine). He is currently putting the finishing touches to a first album of original songs. John Lavery lives in Gatineau, Quebec.
The following interview was conducted over email from November to December 2010.
rob mclennan: I’m intrigued by the fact that, compared to your contemporaries, you came to publishing rather late. Your first collection of stories, Very Good Butter, didn’t appear until you were nearly fifty. Was this deliberate on your part, or were you simply doing other things?
John Lavery: There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 40. One was money. Another was that although I have no difficulty being by myself, I don’t at all like living by myself. The women I’ve lived with both wanted to have children, a project to which I never put up any resistance. On the contrary, I stayed at home so the kids could look after me, which took up an enormous amount of their time. None of these reasons, however, and there are some others, was so important as to prevent me from writing. The real reason was simply the fear of not being good at it. I realize now that what I thought of then as being “good” was actually something more like “extremely good.”
rm: Does that presume years of false starts and short bursts, or something sustained over a longer period? At what point did the pieces that became your first collection of stories actually begin to cohere?
JL: What happened was I entered the New Brunswick Writers Association contest when I was in my late thirties, with the idea that if I couldn’t win such a small contest, I could forget about writing. I did win, and I won again the next year. So I was starting to think, maybe. I then wrote a story entitled “Naming Darkness” and gave it to the editor of The Fiddlehead, who had been my professor at one time. He published it, but I wasn’t convinced he would have had he not known me. Then I wrote “The Walnut Shell” and sent it to Quarry, I don’t know why. Steven Heighton was the editor at the time, and he sent me back a long, hand-written letter of acceptance. I think of this as being my first published story. I was beginning to believe, but I’m into my forties by now, and it’s taking me six months to write each piece. I worked every day after that, sometimes only an hour or so, I had these friggin kids to look after, my production was steady but slow, the stories all got picked up by one of the literary journals, and then one day, ECW gave me a call. But that’s another story.
rm: According to the biography on the back of Very Good Butter, you are a founding member of the Orchestre de la société de guitare de Montréal, and currently, you are putting the finishing touches on your first CD of original songs. How do you find your compositional process of writing music differs from your fiction?
JL: In French, the word “elaboration” applies to long, gradual processes. Bees, for example, elaborate honey. In that sense, I am an elaborator. Whether I’m working on a text or a song, I build it up gradually. But writing a song presents some immediate challenges: the lyrics must be musical and rhythmic obviously, and sometimes become a puzzle to be solved more than poetic expression; the melody must be singable, and I don’t have a great voice, and the guitar part has to be written and learned. Song-writing can be very obsessive, you simply cannot get the tune out of your head, so that by the time you get around to actually performing a song, you’ve played it literally thousands of times in your head. If you can still stand to sing it, then it must be fairly good.
rm: Does this mean you’re approaching songwriting and the compilation of a CD as you would either of your collections of short stories?
JL: Well no, not really. I have to admit that I’m kind of enthusiastic about the CD because it’s something I’ve only wanted to do since I was twelve years old. Several of the songs were written after I’d started recording, many were written for friends, and the title song “Dignity” was written for my late mother. So it is a more spontaneous and far more personal project (all the more so in that I’m paying for it myself and will be peddling it myself). Also, there are many technical concerns in producing the songs. The melodies have to be within the range of my very ordinary voice, the vowels on sustained notes have to allow the throat to stay open, the guitar part has to be interesting but playable without staring at the fingerboard, and so on, not to mention the technical aspects of recording which are only partly my concern. So there’s lots of stuff to sink your teeth into that writing a book does not involve. What is interesting, perhaps, is that many of the songs have a strong narrative element, and three at least are out-and-out short stories, one being a retelling of a story in Very Good Butter.
rm: How did you originally get involved with the Max Middle Sound Project? Since then, you were involved with him in a number of other projects, eventually joining jwcurry’s Messagio Galore Take VI, moving from two-and-three-person sound pieces to a sextet. What was the experience of working with jwcurry, as opposed to working with Max Middle? What did you think of the experience generally?
JL: I started working with Max for the simple reason that he asked me to. I had a car; that may have influenced him. I worked with john for the same basic reason, because he asked. Max’s material was quite light-hearted. We rehearsed, but not a huge amount, relying on spontaneity, and rightly so. Also, I contributed some pieces myself. Messagio Galore VI, on the other hand, was a highly structured work expressing a wide range of emotion from playfulness, to aeolian calm, to bitchy anger, to bursts of true anger, to crunchy bits with smooth centres, to other bits where you were perilously close to losing it altogether. It required a lot of rehearsal and was truly an exceptional work. Messagio VII is coming up. It will be great.
rm: There’s such a lyrical and even performative element to your prose that it would be difficult not to see a connection to your writing and performance work. What do you see as the connections between the two, or even the influences?
JL: I am a natural performer, and have been since even before my parents made me show off my chops for their martini-drinking friends. Performing is a way of deflecting attention away from yourself. The performer offers up a version of himself which he hopes will be sufficiently interesting to people that when he stops performing, they will not interest themselves in what he considers to be the real version and leave him alone. The performer requires anonymity, but the anonymity would be unbearable without the performing.
rm: What was it about the character Paul-François Bastarache, the character that threads together the stories of your second collection, You, Kwazneivski, You Piss Me Off, that kept your attention enough to feature him in your novel, Sandra Beck? How difficult was it to write a novel around a central character who, but through the perspectives of others, doesn’t actually appear?
JL: Well, I enjoyed PF’s company when I was writing Kwaznievski. I liked that he was a detective, though not a loner or a heavy drinker. More of a paper-pusher, really, as many cops are. And there were stories that I had introduced in Kwaznievski that I wanted to explore further, principally the murder involving the plaster casts. Also, I hadn’t given him any more than a hint of a home life, and I thought I owed him one. That said, I’m not at all sure that the PF Bastarache in Sandra Beck is consistent with the PF Bastarache in Kwaznievski.
Your second question, rob, is a very good one. From the outset, I decided that I would create the character of Sandra just through the points of view of her husband and daughter. This involved some technical challenges which I kind of enjoyed. For example, the second part, “Crutches,” is written from an omniscient point of view, but this omniscient voice is highly infused with PF’s own voice. (Perhaps it is written from the viewpoint of the red arrow hanging over PF’s head.) I wanted this section to give the impression of being narrated by PF, but I couldn’t write it strictly from his viewpoint because I needed to include details he could not possibly know. So I had to blur the boundaries a little. And although, as I say, it was always my intention that Sandra never actually appear, I was far from being certain, when I submitted the manuscript, that I had succeeded in what I was trying to do, in creating a pivotal and living portrait strictly through the comments of other characters. In fact, the title of the book, when I submitted it, was Crutches. It was only when I had to do some fast talking to convince Melanie Little, the editor at Anansi, to accept the manuscript, that I suggested the title be changed to Sandra Beck, putting all my shaky confidence behind my central thesis. And it seems that Sandra’s presence is quite immediate and convincing, even though, in a sense, she never actually does appear.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Japan: Obvious Epiphanies, 2010), kate street (Chicago: Moira, 2010), Glengarry (Vancouver: Talon, 2011) and wild horses (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2010) and a second novel, missing persons (2009), An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottwater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). 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