“Beware: It’s Going to Be Very Personal:” An Interview with Guillaume Morissette

by Myra Bloom

Myra Bloom has published on Canadian/Québécois literature in The Puritan, GUTSThe Rusty Toque, as well as in a number of academic journals. Find her on Twitter or on her website.

Guillaume Morissette is the author of the collection of stories and poems I Am My Own Betrayal (Maison Kasini, 2012) and the novel New Tab (Véhicule Press, 2014). He has published poems, essays and infographics in The Puritan, Maisonneuve, Ryeberg, and elsewhere on the internet, including on Twitter. He is the co-editor of Montreal-based Metatron Press

This interview was conducted in Montreal, over the din of caffeinating students in a café near Concordia University. It has been edited for clarity. 

 

Myra Bloom: I loved your novel New Tab. Can you talk to me a little bit about what inspired you to write it, and how it came to be?

Guillaume Morissette: New Tab is semi-autobiographical and comes from a period in my life, 2010-2011: I felt that there was a lot there that I wanted to explore in writing, but my interest wasn’t necessarily in writing a memoir. I also felt that in terms of the plot or trajectory, there was a lot of dead weight that I could cut out. So by allowing myself to introduce fictional elements and using strategies like giving people pseudonyms (except Pierre, the landlord—his real name was Pierre, and I couldn’t change it, because it was just too perfect), I was able to distance myself just a little bit from the material to better play with it. In the end, my goal was strictly to write something that I would enjoy reading, and to write something that would read well. Questions like, ‘Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction?’—don’t matter that much to me. Whether it lands a little closer to fiction or non-fiction, I don’t really care.

MB: Do you have thoughts on the autofiction craze more generally? I’m thinking of writers like Marie Calloway, Ben Lerner, Elena Ferrante, Sheila Heti, etc.

GM: It’s no surprise that we talk more about ourselves, especially with the sheer amount of tools we have to talk about ourselves now. And these tools, like Twitter, for example, generate written material, so it’s normal that we’d be like, “I like this line! I want to use it in a thing!” That happens to be close to me because it’s the mode I’m always writing in anyway. It’s funny, because when you go back in the history of literature—when you look at Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, he has this thing where he includes an apology at the beginning of the book, like, “So, I’m sorry I’m going to talk about me in this book, I don’t mean it as self-indulgent, it’s just something I’m going to do, and hopefully there’s some sort of wisdom that comes out of this.” By contrast, it would be so strange to have a tweet before a tweet, like, “Ok, so this next tweet is going to be about me, so beware: it’s going to be very personal.”

MB: That leads me to a question I wanted to ask you about your Twitter presence. As a writer, do you see Twitter as an extension of your writing practice, or is it something separate?

GM: It’s very much an extension. I frequently use lines that came to me as tweets, like I’ll recycle them and put them in novel form. I like doing that because a tweet exists as a standalone thing, but if you put it somewhere else, like in a novel, it can give context to that standalone line: like, oh, that’s what you were feeling at that moment in time. So I see Twitter as an extension, or even like a Venn diagram, of my practice.

It felt a little bit like doing street art, instead of putting art in an art gallery.

Last year, as an experiment, I wrote a short essay on Twitter about teenage acne. I wanted to see what would happen if, instead of publishing my writing in a literary journal, I published it straight up on Twitter. It seems like that’s what people are reading, so might as well put it directly there. It felt a little bit like doing street art, instead of putting art in an art gallery. I just wanted to see what was happening while I was doing it. It was really beautiful to see the reaction in real-time, like people messaging me heart emojis, or telling me about their own battles with acne.

MB: Do you feel that the story would have been different if you’d published it in a more traditional forum?

GM: The core of the story, probably not, but the shape, yeah, since I had to work within the constraints of Twitter. I wrote that piece as 86 consecutive Tweets, which meant short, punchy lines. I couldn’t do, like, long, complicated clauses and stuff, but on the other hand, it was fun to see people using Twitter’s tools to favourite individual lines from the piece that they liked, which you don’t really get when you publish in a traditional literary journal. I feel like I’d like to do another experiment with stories on social media at some point, not sure what yet, but for now, I have to focus on other projects, so it’ll have to wait.

MB: I wanted to ask you about the translation of your novel and the cultural politics surrounding it. In an interview in Dazed, you said “Unless my novel ends up getting translated into French or something, I am doomed to mostly be ignored by French Canadian culture, but that’s a choice I made, so I am okay with it.” Now that New Tab is being translated into French, what do you think its/your reception will be in Francophone culture?

GM: We’ll see. One thing that really surprised me is that after the Dazed article, Daniel Grenier, who is translating New Tab, did an article on me for the francophone magazine Nouveau Projet. For me, it was a really strange article to read because it almost felt like reading a detective novel in which the murder that the detective is trying to solve is my identity. I was very surprised that Noueau Projet would be willing to do an article about me, despite my novel not being in French. Right around that time I was being nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and then it was suggested to me that Daniel should do the translation because clearly he was familiar with the material, and I felt that he would do a good job, so it all made perfect sense. I was really surprised: my assumption was that it was going to be ignored by all French media because I don’t write in French, and I assumed that unless I won some national award, it just wasn’t going to get picked up by French publishers because it would be off their radar.

So it was nice to find my assumptions challenged—that actually, no, there is space for anglophone literature in Québec, written by a francophone; even though it’s really weird, there’s still space for it, there’s still someone that’s willing to look at it critically and assess it for what it is. But it’s a really strange novel to translate as it’s about a francophone person who starts living with anglophone roommates and then kind of crosses over to the anglophone side. So translating that into French, you kind of lose that aspect of … I don’t want to say ‘assimilation’, but since the novel is entirely in English, and since I use representation of the French language, of French escaping from the narrator, you’re kind of like, “Oh yeah, because you speak English all the time!” When the novel is in French that’s really strange because the reader is like, “You seem to be doing fine, you were speaking French a paragraph ago!” But oh well.

MB: It’s like in Heather O’Neill’s novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (HarperCollins, 2014), where the novel is written in English but every so often the narrator, Nouschka, will remind us that she can’t speak English.

GM: Exactly! It’s really interesting to think about how my novel will be received in French. I still feel like I might get attacked by hardliners who feel that we need to ‘protect the language.’

My girlfriend is anglophone, a lot of my friends are anglophone, so English is actually a bigger part of my life than French. But at the same time, I still carry over a weird French accent and a bunch of other things that are clearly baggage from my French upbringing. And I don’t hate that at all: I think it makes perfect sense to whatever it is that I end up becoming. When I was touring for New Tab and travelled to the US, a weird thing that happened was that the farther I moved away from my hometown, the more I ended up talking about Québec in general. So I would end up in San Francisco, or something, and someone would be, like, ‘Oh, so you’re from Québec! How’s that?’ And I would explain Québec culture to them. And then it dawned on me that maybe that’s my way of being French Canadian: not so much as a hardliner with language, but rather as some kind of ambassador, or someone who can translate and explain my culture.

So it was nice to find my assumptions challenged– that actually, no, there is space for anglophone literature in Québec, written by a francophone.

People don’t have that historical background, unless they’ve grown up in Québec or studied French Canadian history. So, if that’s my way of being French Canadian, I don’t think that’s a bad way at all: it actually seems like a useful service. So when that dawned on me I felt lots more confidence all of a sudden about my position in literature and what it is that I was doing, and it stopped feeling like a betrayal; it just felt like my weird way of being. I don’t think there’s one path for anyone, and I enjoy being the alien; I kind of thrive on that role. But who knows—I’m saying this right now, though it’s possible that one day I’ll be like, you know what? I’m going to write a novel in French.

MB: Do you think cultural politics in Québec today are such that a writer like you can be allowed to exist? Is it only right now that you could be straddling those two cultures?

GM: I was able to cross over from French culture into anglophone culture, and no one was like, ‘This is weird what you’re doing, you shouldn’t do that.’ I didn’t face anyone being aggressive to me. There was no divide on that front. There are still strange clashes [in Montreal]—like, some anglophone friends have complained that francophone cops will be more stern towards them than they would be to a francophone person. Sometimes anglophones coming here complain, ‘Why can’t it be simpler to find work? I’m oppressed!’ They’re just not used to facing any struggle or oppression towards language, so they struggle with that, and it’s like, ‘Well learn French!’ And they’re like, ‘Well, that would take effort.’

So, I don’t think it’s perfect but I definitely feel like Montreal right now is a huge multicultural hodgepodge and if anything I want to see even more crossover with literary communities. You’re starting to see that a little bit, but it’s strange: Montreal is a bilingual city, which means that there is infrastructure—universities, creative writing programs, magazines, presses, etcetera—that exists in both French and English, so the weird thing is that there are two distinct literary communities and there’s not a lot of overlap. So you can be very successful on the francophone side and not know anyone on the anglophone side, which is strange, because people have so much in common—they would totally be friends!—but they just don’t talk. It’s almost like a missed connection.

It stopped feeling like a betrayal; it just felt like my weird way of being.

What would be really interesting would be to do a test—with something like Metatron publishing a francophone writer either in translation or maybe a bilingual book, or something. That’s definitely something that exists in our pool of common ideas, but it just needs to be the right manuscript or the right fit. I feel like we’ll know when we have it.

MB: Do you feel like you have a role to play in reconciling the proverbial ‘two solitudes?’ You talked about being an ambassador outside of Canada/Québec, but I’m curious to know how you see yourself within your own cultural context.

GM: I don’t know if it can’t ever be reconciled, so I feel like I want to say no. There are places in French like Filles Missiles, which publishes new writing by female Quebec writers mixed with translations in French of stories and essays by contemporary female writers, or le Gala de la Vie Littéraire, which hands out awards to Montreal-based writers from both the Anglophone and Francophone communities, I feel like those places do a way better job than me at trying to bridge the gap. The best I have to offer to people is probably my weird path in life, which by itself proves that labels like ‘Francophone’ or ‘Anglophone’ probably aren’t as rigid as we think.

Another thing that might be interesting, we’ll see, is that the translation of New Tab is going to be published in French in the fall. I have no idea what’s going to happen with that. It’s almost like a social experiment to me. Maybe it’ll rub people the wrong way. Maybe nothing will happen. In any case, I feel like I am the first ever French person to be translated in French.

MB: Talk to me about Metatron.

GM: It’s a small press, located in Montreal, specializing in contemporary literature. We do a lot of titles by new or rising authors. Right now we’re working on our Spring catalogue: we’re going to have one Montreal writer, one writer from the US, and then one writer from Toronto. We really want to give back to Montreal literature, but we are also interested in writers from all over; we want them to complement each other. We’re also doing the Metatron Prize right now. Normally, we solicit manuscripts, but for this prize we’re doing the opposite: anyone can send us their manuscript and the winner gets a publishing deal and a $200 cash prize. Last year the winner was Sofia Banzhaf, a Toronto writer, and literally, if we had to put in an order for the kind of thing we want to receive,  Pony Castle was exactly it. We hope we’ll have the same luck this year.

MB: In a 2014 Maisonneuve article, you wrote a “Eulogy” for Alt Lit. The piece was really about the role of sexual violence in the demise of a creative community. Do you think, however, that the aesthetic/ideology/approach of Alt Lit lives on, even if the community has disbanded? 

GM: It’s not like we pressed the ‘reset’ button and then it was as if nothing ever existed, hard drive wiped clean. If anything, it gave good, valuable writers from that community the opportunity to venture out and go on to greener pastures and explore other modes of writing. It felt like they stopped being shackled by a name and an arbitrary community and allowed them to be themselves. If anything, I think what we have now is not “Alt Lit” or “Not Alt Lit.” There’s definitely Internet literature, which is either literature that is heavily influenced by, or about, or reflects, the Internet. Or is simply literature that happens to be popular in Internet circles. In terms of certain ideals or aesthetics, I definitely see a reflection of that in contemporary writing, but I’d be hesitant to apply a label to it. For example, Sara Sutterlin, whom we published with Metatron, would totally have been labeled Alt Lit; instead, she has been able largely to avoid that label even though her aesthetic fits very well with that community. To me, it’s just Internet literature now.

After that essay, I thought, let’s just take a year’s break and see where people are at who were involved in that community. I was curious to see where they’d be a year, two years, three years from now. I’m much more interested in that trajectory than I am about specific aesthetic concerns.

MB: Where is the Alt Lit community now, two years later?

GM: There’s no more ‘community,’ just individuals doing their thing. Crispin Best has a poetry collection coming out soon that looks good, I am excited to read it. Melissa Broder just published a great essay collection called So Sad Today, inspired by her Twitter account of the same name. Steve Roggenbuck is still travelling in Megabuses across America, doing live readings and stuff. I think Mira Gonzalez is working on a novel, or something. She has a dog now. Other people seem to have fallen off the face of the earth, or maybe simply have gotten real jobs. Whether people are still writing or not, it’s all okay. Life is confusing.

MB: Do you think the reception of your book would have been different if you were a woman?

GM: Maybe. The answer is probably yes, but I’m going to say maybe in the sense that it’s impossible to tell, unless I was a woman. I’m very open, honest, and earnest about my feelings in New Tab. Even though there’s a fictional conceit, there’s a lot of stuff in there that could have thrown dynamite into my personal life. You could definitely use that book to hurt me if you wanted, and that hasn’t happened, and I can’t tell if that’s because I’m a man, and I was read in a different way than if I were a woman. I can’t tell if I benefited from that protection, or if I simply explained the material in a way that made the reader want to empathize with me … I have no idea.

MB:  You write and talk a lot about anxiety in your work. In pieces like your Twitter story about growing up with acne, you talk about how anxiety has been a debilitating force in your life; it also seems, however, to have spurred your art. Would you say that anxiety informs your writing, and if so, would you say it does so positively or negatively?

GM: Definitely. These days, it’s really strange to me: I feel less anxious about speaking in public. The thing with anxiety is that you’ll have certain triggers, and the more I face my fears over time, the more they diminish. I feel way less anxious than I did, say, five years ago, and it makes me wonder, ‘Am I more boring because I’m less of a wreck now?’ But then I’ll go to some event where I don’t know anyone and I’m just in a corner looking at my phone and I don’t know who to talk to, and I’ll feel the pangs of anxiety coming up, and I’ll be like, ‘Nope! Still there! Still got it!’ A lot of what I do is a) shit-talking myself, and b) trying to use negative emotions or experiences or shortcomings in a creative way to redeem them. I always find wealth and creative energy there. So yeah, definitely.

I wonder whether I know how to work when I’m in a happier phase, or whether I will always sabotage my life and go somewhere else strictly to have something to write about. That’s the danger. Last week, I went to this gala for Montreal writing, and there were both anglophone and francophone readers. A lot of the Québec writers were really coming from a place of anger, and I was like, ‘This is kind of badass’. There’s also this book called I Hate the Internet by Jarett Kobek (We Heard You Like Books, 2016) which reads almost like a pissed off Wikipedia page, and it makes me want to experiment with anger a little more, and see what happens if I tap into that instead of anxiety and depression. It’s a different range. I got really excited about that possibility recently.

I wonder whether I know how to work when I’m in a happier phase, or whether I will always sabotage my life and go somewhere else strictly to have something to write about.

So I don’t know what form it will take yet, but it’s something I’m going to try. I was worried that if I couldn’t tap into anxiety I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I realized there were all these other emotions I could try tapping into. So that discovery recently was illuminating. I’m not naturally a very angry person but there’s still stuff that bothers me, and I wondered what would happen if I gave voice to that in my writing. I can change my Twitter handle to @temporaryangerissues.

MB: Can you tell me a little more about your new novel?

GM: It’s set in Montreal, Toronto and Newfoundland. It’s still in semi-autobiographical form but it’s a little bit more removed from me than New Tab, so there’s a little more distance, but at the same time, as with New Tab, where my goal was to make a standalone object—as in, you can read New Tab very close to me or very distant from me—that book will do the exact same thing. You’ll have to decide what you think was more or less true.

 

Myra Bloom


Myra Bloom has published on Canadian/Québécois literature in The Puritan, GUTSThe Rusty Toque, as well as in a number of academic journals. Find her on Twitter or on her website.

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