Jonathan Bennett is a novelist and poet. He is the author of six books, the most recent of which is The Colonial Hotel (ECW Press, 2014). His previous work includes the critically acclaimed novels Entitlement and After Battersea Park; two collections of poetry, Civil and Civic, and Here is my street, this tree I planted; and a collection of short stories, Verandah People, which was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He is a winner of the K.M. Hunter Artists’ Award in Literature. Born in Vancouver, raised in Sydney, Australia, Jonathan lives in the village of Keene, near Peterborough, Ontario. More at his website.
This interview took place over two weeks in June 2014 in person and via e-mail.
Laura Rock: Let’s start with The Colonial Hotel, your new book. It’s been described as the ancient story of Paris, Helen, and Oenone “recast for the twenty-first century.” Which came first, the idea for the modern, global story of foreign aid workers caught up in a civil war—with you realizing that the extended allusion worked—or were you reading the classics and then realized how applicable some of the themes and situations are to today?
Jonathan Bennett: It was a confluence of things, I have come to believe. First, I had this idea that I wanted to write an “incarceration” narrative. So I began to explore the inner, imaginary life of a man in a cell. As I think you know, this book began as a long poem, or really a sequence of poems that told a sort of story. During the writing of that early version was when these characters of Paris and Helen emerged. The voice of Paris came first, but I didn’t name him. Not initially. Then I found myself writing about this impossibly beautiful nurse, working for an NGO, and so I named her Helen. Almost as a placeholder, I think. Only after some time did I realize that she wasn’t a Helen, but the Helen.
The leap to then realize the male voice belonged to Paris was harder—for a couple of reasons. I’ve come to think of Paris as cast as the inaugural “metro-sexual.” You know, the too-slick-by-half man-about-Troy. So this image of him didn’t seem to fit the physician’s voice that was telling this horrifying, modern story of incarceration. Trying to solve that problem was what led me to both dive into the ancient story, but also to mess with it completely—out of narrative necessity.
Of course, it’s a story that’s been messed with so much that “messed with” is all it really is. Helen is a series of re-writes; she’s not a character so much as an idea or a concept. But suddenly, that was interesting to me, too. So I read, and re-read, many versions of the re-writes as I immersed myself in it all. I actually read the entire Iliad aloud to my son over the course of two months. (He was then eight years old. He has Asperger’s, and can out-concentrate a rock if he wants to.) But my ‘primary’ source was really Ovid. (And also David Malouf’s Ovid from An Imaginary Life, but for indirect reasons.) I also read HD’s Helen in Egypt. In the end, stories of love and war are one of our longest literary echoes. It wasn’t hard to want to shout into that reverberation.
LR: Is that what making literature is? A shout into the reverberation? Talking back, in a sense? And every writer hoping to have the last word—ultimately impossible—or maybe even better, receiving an answer someday, in the form of someone else’s book?
JB: I don’t think literature is any one thing, or act, or attempt. It begins in a private place—the mind of the writer—and ends in an equally private one, the mind of the reader. But it also becomes public, too. I was really talking there about the way a work of literature exists within a greater body of literature. So I understand writing and reading literary work as participating in an ongoing conversation, each book reverberating with meanings from other books, both meant and accidental.
LR: Can you comment on the title? Some key action of the book takes place at the Colonial Hotel, and the characters connect briefly through that location, but I’m wondering about “colonial”—such a loaded word. What, to you, is the significance of that title for this story?
JB: I don’t want to say too much here. Really, this is within the reader’s job description. Perhaps some questions then? What are hotels? Transitory, faux homes? Places of refuge against the surrounding unfamiliar environment? Rooms for anonymity, lobbies in which to be spoiled, buildings that house personal unaccountability? Don’t hotels, even today all over, remain stuffed with nineteenth century class structure—servant-like people in uniforms lugging, cleaning, paying almost grotesque deference?
So yes, the title is loaded, for sure. The hotel, while the simple site of initial conflict in the novel, it is also mirrored by, or contrasted with, the other physical structure in the novel, Paris’s cell—a place that he cannot ever really leave.
LR: One of the things I find remarkable about this novel is that it questions its own standing. Tensions about authority are embedded. Who gets to document the story? For example, Paris cautions his daughter not to accept his version of events as the final, authoritative truth. Similarly, he worries about the impact his words could have on people who have rebuilt peaceful lives after the war; he is not their judge. As a novelist, what are the limits of the authority you can legitimately lay claim to? Are all stories, all voices, fair game for the imagination?
JB: That’s a big question, and has some generous praise laced within it. So thanks for that, and for noticing. First, authority to tell a story is earned with each and every reader. You can no longer use hostility—or worse, entitlement—to assume a narrative position. Now, in theory, any story is available to any writer, just not as something to take from a shelf, but rather as something for which to work. In that way, it’s like trust. Second, there are no limits to the imagination, if everyone gets on the proverbial bus. If not, there are limits. I see this, then, not as a fixed position, but rather as an active, fluctuating engagement between readers and the writer.
LR: The novel is set in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. The landscape varies dramatically, from mountains to seaside, cities and villages and refugee camps, and somehow feels familiar. In some ways it reminds me of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, wherein hostages are taken in an unnamed South American country that to me, always seemed like it had to be Peru, but I suppose that other readers might have imagined a different place. Was it always your plan to keep the locale unspecified? Did you ever consider setting it somewhere else? And did that decision liberate you as a writer to range more widely in the narrative, or did it impose its own constraints?
JB: Whose story is it to tell? Will my novel be another act of colonialism? Will it subtract, or will it add? These are primary questions for me. Authenticity of voice, and experience, is currency that I’ll invest in as a reader. And I mean this imaginatively and artistically, not literally. Writers should write about whatever they want, as long as they realize that if there is any phoniness, everyone will know.
So, in this case, my modern version (the Christian NGO, the coup narrative) of this ancient story has really become a meta-fiction, a post-colonial, media-driven narrative. In the West, we know this contemporary story well. This is our siege of Troy. So for me, setting it nowhere, but everywhere, was essential if just to prove the point. The challenge was to make it feel specific and particular, without it actually ever being so. Happily, there are still some things that are human and universal, which helped a lot (love, babies, death, war, cruelty, bravery).
LR: The narrative structure you used is intriguing—three main characters writing to their unborn/infant children, all daughters. It works beautifully—to me there was never any confusion, only convergence and echoes. You could almost graphically represent the lines of narrative as overlapping triangles, showing which parents connect to which daughters. Yet this structure seems very different from the straight-ahead narration of your other novels. What does this form give you in terms of control or distance? How was the writing process different for you?
JB: My friend Peter Darbyshire told me recently that he saw this as a book about how we read. I agreed with him, without having really set that as a goal of the project. And it’s about time on some level, too, I suppose. So the structure serves those things. It came about organically. As for the writing process, it was madness, because of its beginning as a poem. “Translating” the poem into prose took me on another strange journey. I’m not going to suggest it was efficient. But there was a kind of payoff because at the line level I was able to work toward both a lyricism and an invisibility. Layering and erasure. If it’s different than my previous work, that’s because my last novel, Entitlement, was a more traditional novel than I’d ever tried before. The Colonial Hotel is more like my earlier books, I think. While the last was a happy, important divergence, this return to the mean feels more like me.
LR: Erasure, invisibility … by that, do you mean getting all traces of yourself out of the text? To the extent that’s possible?
JB: I mean the objective correlative, more or less. Look, it’s one thing to have the chops and craft to make yourself, as the author, and the “writing” disappear, and just let the story take over. It’s another to achieve this, and write a lyrical novel, because, by their very nature, they call attention to their own poetic prose. I don’t know if I achieved this, but it’s what I tried to do.
LR: Your book raises questions about the effectiveness of emergency medical treatment without more fundamental political or economic changes. Are all the outsider-helpers compromised, in your view? By their own mixed motives, or religious views, or connections to colonial powers, to name three examples that come into play in the book?
JB: Those are really (good) questions for readers. But I’m the writer, so I can’t say really; or rather, I hope I already have, in the book. It’s only a novel, you see. It’s political, but I would meekly suggest it’s not decisive in its conclusions or even its questions. Its purpose is to tell a story. If it’s disruptive to grazing, sacred, geopolitical cows, then that’s probably valuable, but not essentially germane.
LR: Okay, the reader’s job is to interpret the work. You send a book out into the world and you must relinquish it to readers. But as you are writing, do you consider the reader or a potential audience for the story? And more generally, who is your ideal reader/audience?
JB: I don’t consider the reader explicitly when I’m writing. I mean, I suppose somewhere deep down I know it’ll be read by readers someday, but it’s the story, or the poem, rather than the consumer that I worry over during the writing process. I write literary fiction and poetry, so really, my project as a writer is a relatively limited one. I’m not chasing anything—this is about me versus the words. So I don’t teach anymore. I even avoid giving advice to new writers as best I can. I don’t participate in professional “creative writing” at all really. I largely ignore that side of the business. As you know, I’ve tried to teach. Some good came of it, I think. But I now understand it’s really not a fit for me as a writer—at least not now. No judgement; it’s just not for me. Maybe I’ll try again one day, who knows.
LR: Readers have more avenues than ever before to express their views about books—Goodreads, blogs, etc. How does that affect book culture today, and, for better or worse, writers’ careers?
JB: It’s interesting for sure. A shift is clearly occurring in book culture. I don’t think it’s better or worse, it’s just different. Sometimes I find it hard to accept, the sheer noise of it all. Other times I stumble upon a review of my book on the personal blog of a young librarian, say, who clearly knows how to read deeply and expresses herself with such surefootedness, that I think it’s all a beautiful thing. As for writers’ careers, traditional media and prizes remain the springboards they always were. The bookish hive mind on the Internet is a follower of those trends, by and large.
LR: In The Colonial Hotel, readers meet three characters who embody different degrees or kinds of goodness. For example, Helen is the most conventionally “good” in that she desires to do God’s work. Yet Paris, the unbeliever, sacrifices himself—he accepts his situation and gives up all the power available to him in such a striking way. I think I’m in love with Paris. Which character is your favourite, and why?
JB: I just spoke with Paris, and he’s in love with you, too. Seriously, I don’t have a favourite because, well, it’s the “you can’t pick a favourite child” thing writers often cite. The most interesting to write was Oenone. Her voice came to me from the ether and I followed it. Obviously, I drew on universal elements of creation myths and found great joy in creating a strong matriarch and political leader who is the salvation of not just Paris and Helen individually, but also of her people in their re-homing after the war. So, hers was a gratifying trail to follow as a writer.
LR: Yes, the voice of Oenone is singular. Any chance of following her story even further? In other words, will you give us a sequel? Please say yes.
JB: I’ve just spent five years writing a book. Which is to say, I’m hoping to think about new characters soon. I can’t really answer that question but I’m pleased to hear you were left wanting more. Surely that’s a good sign. She really was wonderful to write, I confess. Who knows. One never knows, I suppose.
LR: What are you working on now?
JB: Poems. Some quite long ones that are more meditative than I’m used to. Not sure what this means yet. And I have some new prose that is beginning to want more attention.
LR: Traditional healing and western medicine rub shoulders in The Colonial Hotel—not exactly confronting each other, more like musing about each other. The power of doctors is also a factor—power that doesn’t help Paris very much in his new context. Does Western medicine need to share power more, in your view?
JB: Western medicine acts like it prevents death. It should probably lower expectations. But non-Western and complementary or alternative medicine make other, equally unsubstantiated claims. The novel brings them into the same orbit and asks of each of them, how can they co-exist. It attempts to show the limitations of all that we ask of doctors, and how much we need them.
LR: Switching to your poetry now—do you do that? Switch back and forth between fiction and poems? Or do you tend to devote yourself to one or the other over long stretches, sticking with the project until it’s finished? Some novelists take breaks from their novels by writing short stories. Do you write poems this way, or conversely, is the novel a break from poetry?
JB: I almost always have a poem or three on the go. Gradually, they take shape and become a coherent project. It takes me a number of years, and a build-up of them, to properly understand what they concern. As for fiction, I tend to really dive into a project for stretches, then take a complete break from it.
LR: In your poetry, is there a formal structure that consistently attracts you initially, and do you consciously fight that impulse in order to vary the form? Ultimately, what determines the structure your poems take—is the decision primarily driven by the subject, the shape of a good line, or something else? What guides you as the poem develops?
JB: Sometimes my reading makes me think I’d like to try writing this or that form. That’s the apprentice aspect of being a poet. There are so many ways and means. But then again, one has to fill it up with something. So ideas and words and half-thoughts come together, and are deleted, and are added, until a shape emerges. It’s pretty fluid for me, I think.
LR: Displacement, both human and environmental, protest, the migration of languages with their speakers, modern news and its discontents—all of these appear in your poems. Do you set out, when you make a collection, to link the poems thematically?
JB: No. But these preoccupations return time and again. When I’m close to half a book worth of poems, I tend to gather my thinking: what kind of book am I writing, what are my concerns? Then I’m a bit more purposeful in the back half of the writing, so shade in, augment, develop ideas that already have company in the earlier poems.
LR: In “Civil and Civic,” the title poem of your last collection, which also appeared in The Walrus, you’ve got protestors who read as so young and naïve, so hopelessly over-matched: “We play hacky sack./ They open tear gas.” And yet—isn’t what they’re doing a kind of civic duty that most people shirk? And how civil are the actions of those behind the “helmets/ and shields?” When it was published, this poem seemed perfectly timed for the Occupy movement, yet it must have been written earlier. What inspired it?
JB: Well, it is a kind of civic duty, but I also hoped to show that it can be shallow, too. That it’s not selfless for them. He’s there for her, and she’s there for the sake of adventure (something I explored in The Colonial Hotel, too, as a matter of fact). They are fearless and naïve but goodhearted, too. And there is potential harm in their actions, just as there is harm within the actions of the state.
LR: You’ve published two poetry collections. In what ways does poetry inform your prose and vice versa?
JB: They don’t just inform one another; they converge. I write many poems that are inventions, wholly imagined in scene, voice, and substance—characters essentially. I know how to do this from writing fiction, and I find it freeing, because some ideas are poetic, and are best explored within a poem. Therefore, they have a proper place to belong, and don’t insist on clotting my fiction, where they are not wanted. And, conversely, my resting-state prose line is a lyrical one. I can, and have, trained myself to write a cleaner prose line, but these days I tend to invent fictional worlds and narrative situations that make a lyrical line if not plausible, then outright required.
LR: What kinds of ideas are poetic/better expressed in a poem?
JB: A globe belongs in a poem; the world in a novel. Does that help?
LR: I think so. The compressed representation of the thing versus the thing itself, which is gigantic and messy. It’s a question of scale, and perhaps distance?
JB: That’s what I was going for, yes. But let’s not push it too far because the trope won’t hold up; I’m quite sure of it.
LR: Your prose has often been described as clean or spare. I once heard you say that you follow a rule of avoiding the use of tropes unless they relate organically to the story’s content, a kind of self-imposed discipline. Do you still subscribe to that advice?
JB: Yes. But I might be less rigid now than I once was. I haven’t thought of that in quite some time. I might just do it without thinking about it; I’m not too sure. I’m very strict with my own internal constraints. I tend not to discuss them. Private pleasures, really. You must have caught me on a chatty day.
LR: While we’re on the subject of clean prose, you wrote all of the dialogue in Entitlement without any punctuation—open punctuation, I believe it’s called. The Colonial Hotel also contains no punctuated dialogue. Can you talk about the shift in style? And will you ever go back?
JB: I am almost certain I have abandoned quotation marks for good. I switched during the writing of Entitlement, because, as I’ve talked about elsewhere, there were long stretches of direct speech and it looked messy. So, I removed the punctuation and it allowed a looser, even ambiguous, interpretation of what was said, and what was thought—which was pleasing to me. Now, it just feels natural.
LR: Who are your most important influences, both novelists and poets?
JB: I’ll answer with living writers. (Assume I was, like every other writer, influenced heavily by reading Faulkner and Joyce and Yeats and Hardy and Lawrence and Shakespeare, etc.) So on the fiction side, the Australian novelist and poet David Malouf. He has affected me so very deeply, and has had a major influence on my writing, on the way I think about sentences, on how to write the male body. Beyond him, Coetzee, for sure. Alice Munro. William Trevor. When it comes to poetry, it’s harder to say. Les Murray. Seamus Heaney. Don Paterson. I eagerly seek out everything by the American though Greek-based poet A.E. Stallings—I find her mind and voice very smart and beautiful. I also am over-influenced by many contemporary Canadian poets—some of whom I count as friends (Babstock, Solie, Sol, O’Meara, Heighton, Murray, and Vermeersch, et al.). I will have forgotten obvious writers I adore, I’m sure, but there is tonight’s list.
LR: In terms of process, do you generally write many drafts or does the story come full-blown, requiring only minor changes once you’ve set it down? Do you outline or see where the story takes you? And was writing the new book different in any way than the process of writing your earlier fiction?
JB: I began writing fiction in a frightfully organic way; I just chased down the story and edited it all into shape, escaping complete disaster with the help of my wife—who is one of the best readers and editors around, if I do say so myself. Then, when I came to Entitlement, I took a page from the Andrew Pyper school of novel-writing and blocked out the whole thing in a detailed outline. It had its advantages, but I found myself writing against my own plan, thwarting my outline at every step, that it ended up not being much use. So I didn’t bother outlining The Colonial Hotel. Of course, I did have an 80-page sequence of poems that was more or less an outline, but it didn’t really help in that way either.
As for full-blown or multi-draft? I’ve had both happen to me. I wrote three-quarters of a draft of the prose version of this novel in about two weeks at a university in Maryland, holed up in a house, writing for 12-hour days. But, I spent the next two years re-writing it. What do you call that?
LR: Eclectic. Exceptions are the rule. But having come through the process again and again—even if it varied in significant ways—do you find yourself getting more surefooted as you make the million decisions that go into a book? The specific aesthetic or structural questions, or what have you, will change, but can you cut through the general uncertainty a little more quickly? Or is each time as excruciating as the last?
JB: Surefooted insofar as I know it will all come good in the end. So I don’t overthink the small decisions. And that might be because I have a better idea of how I go about working, and writing. But each project is excruciating in new ways. That’s okay, though, I’ve learned. It’s just a part of the way this goes for me (and many other writers).
LR: I’m intrigued by the treatment of fatherhood in your work. There’s a story in Verandah People that I’ll never forget—the father with the son and the puppy, and his self-punishment when it all falls apart. And absent fathers, the longing for fathers, how to be a good father—in After Battersea Park, the father is separated from his children in a heartbreaking way. In Entitlement, the father of the protagonist (it appears to me) in effect gives up his son in order to free him for new opportunities, ones that he can’t provide in his class and place in society. Some of this work predates your becoming a father. Is this a consciously chosen theme, or one of those things that just appears in your stories? I read somewhere (I think it was Ian McEwan in an interview): “your preoccupations insist on themselves.”
JB: There’s a line of Mr. Aspinall’s in Entitlement when he’s giving his daughter, Fiona, advice on why she needs to better get to know her future husband. He says: “You can tell a lot about a boy if you understand his relationship with his mother, but if you want to know about a man, you must understand his relationship with his father.” Now, like everything that came from the mouth of that character, it was an over-amplified point. Yet there might be something there. But first, thanks for noticing those recurring threads—it feels vaguely self-indulgent or over-luxurious to have one’s body of work discussed, or laid out lengthwise, in this way. Yet, lovely. So thanks. In any case, yes, fatherhood is its own country. If I’ve written about it often, it’s probably less because I’m interested in it as a state of being, or a defining frame, and more because I am interested in masculinity itself, and fatherhood is an important aspect, or way, to experience being male. How men care for one another is interesting to me, how it is codified, and the many ways it manifests itself are, yes, preoccupations. McEwan. I could have added McEwan to that earlier list.
LR: What advice about writing and/or a writing career would you give your younger self?
JB: Law school. Investment banking. Anything but. Really, if it can be avoided, it ought to be. But, assuming I was innately doomed, then just that it’s going to be as hard as you’d expected. (I always knew what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know ahead of time how shitty it would feel at times, however.)
LR: You’ve done a fair amount of teaching, at Humber and elsewhere. What is the most common problem you see in student writing? What should new writers be doing more of to improve their work?
JB: As I mentioned, I no longer teach. So, it’s been some years since I’ve handed out advice. As I recall, not reading deeply was always the obvious problem. The less obvious problem, and the one teachers never tell students because it’d be rude, is that they lack even moments of originality or glimpses of imaginative heft.
LR: Originality is a pretty high standard. But maybe those courses should come with a warning: register only if you can handle an honest critique. Enrolment would plummet. There goes the creative writing industry.
JB: You said it, not me.
LR: Let’s move on. We spend a lot of time talking about what constitutes Canadian literature, if there is a Canadian literary sensibility, and so forth. Is there an identifiably Australian one? And, as a writer, are you torn between your two identities? Are you a hybrid, a fully globalized citizen of the early twenty-first century, or what?
JB: There most certainly is an identifiably Australian literary sensibility. And, you’ll be happy to know, it is at times as fraught and unstable a topic as ours is here. What am I? If it matters to anyone (why?), I am an Australian and a Canadian. But I am, firmly, a Canadian writer. Which is to say, I don’t consider myself an Australian writer because I have never practiced my craft there, only here in Canada—and so I belong to this literary community. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t one day like to write alongside my “other people,” but that, in practical terms, I live and write here in Canada.
LR: Writers who migrate—it’s often said that they feel more compelled to write about their homeland (or can only achieve the distance to see it properly) from afar. Is this true of you? Are you especially drawn to Australian stories? Your first novel, After Battersea Park, was set on three continents, including Australia. Entitlement is a Canadian story, albeit centred on class divisions that exist in many places.
JB: I wrote about Australia for years. Verandah People is set there entirely. My last few books, no—my imagination has been on the move. I do think that I might again like to set something in Australia. But I’m concerned about writing a purely historical novel, or repeating myself somehow. So I don’t know yet. We’ll see. I’m more open to writing about Australia now than I was even a year ago—not sure why.
LR: What do you make of the flap over New Zealander Eleanor Catton winning the Governor General’s Award this past year for The Luminaries? Is her novel CanLit?
JB: It says far more about the power of literary prizes than anything else. But, okay, I’ll bite. I thought it was a bit tacky that it came up at all. If I’d achieved her level of success (let’s pause there a minute, shall we), I’d have found the Canadian parochial reaction pretty off-putting. Let’s hope she gives us another chance. We should be pitching a big tent. We ought to be open and generous. The rules were clear. Her birthplace is here. What more is there to say? Other than congratulations, and bravo, and welcome home.
Laura Rock’s fiction and essays have appeared in several Canadian and Irish publications, including The New Quarterly, Southword, The Antigonish Review, and U of T Magazine (online), as well as the non-fiction anthology How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions). Her story “Woman Cubed” was awarded Second Prize in the 2011 Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition.