Trevor Cole is the author of three novels. His first, Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life (McClelland & Stewart 2004), was shortlisted for the 2004 Governor General’s Award and The Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book and longlisted for The IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His second, The Fearsome Particles (McClelland & Stewart 2006), was shortlisted for the 2006 Governor General’s Award and The IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His most recent novel is Practical Jean (McClelland & Stewart 2010), which won the 2011 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, was shortlisted for The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and was named A Globe and Mail Best Book for 2010. As a journalist, Trevor Cole won nine National Magazine Awards, including three gold medals. He is also the force behind AuthorsAloud.com, a website “dedicated to presenting short audio readings by Canadian poets and authors of literary fiction.”
The following interview was conducted via e-mail in February, 2011.
Spencer Gordon: Over the past few years, you’ve worked with a number of students pursuing creative writing at the post-secondary level. As many know, the very existence of creative writing MFAs poses difficult questions about the feasibility of teaching art. This debate seems especially heated across the United States, as fewer schools seem to offer such institutional instruction in Canada. How do you feel about the growing popularity of these programs, and how have you found the experience of mentoring aspiring writers?
Trevor Cole: I enjoy mentoring aspiring writers very much. Because I’ve worked as either a writer or an editor for going-on thirty years, and because the writing I’ve done has taken many forms—radio commercials, satirical columns, in-depth magazine features, novels—I’ve learned a lot about how to communicate ideas and emotions to readers, how to establish character, move a story along and make the reader care. I enjoy being able to pass along some of that knowledge to students who still have years of writing ahead of them.
Of course, mainly writers improve by doing, and MFA programs help to create a structure that imposes that doing, so you actually get into the habit of producing work, which is what I learned producing a dozen commercials a day (all of them little masterpieces, as far as I was concerned) back in my radio days. And they can add to the writer’s development by speeding up the process of getting feedback. Writers learn a lot about their craft by finding out how what they’ve written has affected the reader. Was it boring? Was it confusing? Did it go too fast? Did what was supposed to be an emotional moment just leave the reader cold? MFA programs lock in this process of feedback so that writers don’t have to wait very long before they find out whether what they wrote worked the way they intended.
I do have a couple of concerns about MFA programs. One is that people can equate “having an MFA” with “being a writer” and think that the first leads naturally and exclusively to the next. But writing isn’t medicine. There’s no license, and no established protocol. A high-school dropout who ends up in a prison library reading some dog-eared Dickens could turn out to be a great writer, just as getting an MFA doesn’t guarantee having talent. An MFA is one path among many.
Another concern is that the feedback the young writer gets in a creative writing program can be, on occasion, suspect. It’s important to remember that you’re getting feedback not from the typical reader but from other writers, in fact other learning writers, who are reading with a hyper-critical eye and who have, in presenting this criticism, something at stake. When a typical reader likes or doesn’t like something she’s read, that opinion is more or less clean, it has no motive for existing other than to exist. But in a creative writing program, criticism can be, on some level, an act of positioning—vis-à-vis either the class and the professor or the world of literature at large. In other words, offering criticism of another writer’s work in an MFA program can be part of a writer’s process of self-definition. “I am this, not that, therefore I reject this particular thing you have written, because it is the sort of thing I would never do.” I’m not saying it has to happen that way, but it can happen that way. And learning writers who aren’t careful can get sucked into trying to please this strange kind of readership, which can, bluntly, screw with the development of a writer’s peculiar vision and voice.
SG: What are the main challenges of instructing? Has the experience affected the way you write and think of fiction yourself?
TC: Because it compels me to consider the why and the how of the things I do in my work, mentoring gets me more in touch with my own process, which can be helpful. I guess the main challenge, for me and for any mentor, is figuring out how to work with young writers in a way that helps them achieve their vision—which means sometimes getting them to accept some fundamental truths about writing—without imposing my own particular approach or style on them. Each established writer has figured out The Way That Works Best, but it’s never the only way. It’s like the difference between saying, “You have to get across the river” and saying “You have to get across the river via this bridge.”
SG: Author Jonathan Franzen has stated that the contemporary writer of fiction must treat his or her reader as a friend or ally—that fiction should reward and repay the time a reader invests in it, especially in an age that offers such an abundant variety of distracting and time-consuming pleasures. You’ve mentioned your admiration of Franzen’s writing both publicly and privately. To what degree do you consider how your readers will respond to your work?
TC: Franzen’s right. Though I think there is a place for the Great Work of Impenetrable Brilliance, it’s not usually in the living rooms of the nation. To live, fiction must be read, and to be read it must be enjoyed. Why do so many people talk about the number of times they’ve lost interest in a book after a couple of chapters, or only “toughed it out” to the end out of a sense of obligation? I’d say it’s because too many writers have forgotten that the writer’s job isn’t merely to express himself, it’s to reach a reader. That doesn’t mean pandering to the lowest common denominator. But it does mean that even a work of smart, thoughtful fiction should strive to engage and entertain. If you’re a writer of literary fiction and all you’re bringing to the party is a poetic turn of phrase or a deep thought, that’s not enough. What about pace? Humour? Characters you care about and a smattering of suspense that makes you want to “find out what happens next?” All of these, plus rich language, bracing honesty and emotional resonance, should be components of the best, most thoughtful fiction. Because that’s the sort of reading experience that readers should be able to expect from a novel that demands hours of their time.
SG: Do you have an ideal reader in mind while writing (say, a specific golden ear), or do you consciously gear your work to appeal to as diverse an audience as possible?
TC: I admit that I am writing for a certain kind of reader. He or she is a reader very much like me—someone who enjoys irony and humour, but who also wants a book to get at something deeper. Someone who wants to be engaged emotionally and intellectually at the same time, and who can’t help grinning when they see the perfect word in its perfect place.
SG: Your fiction is decidedly character-driven, with distinct and fully-formed individuals propelling the narrative. Indeed, one of the strongest and most memorable aspects of your novels is their remarkably unique protagonists. How has the process of finding your own voice been forged and challenged by a search to describe and express your characters?
TC: For me, the old adage “write what you know” finds its expression in my main characters. I can’t write or even plan effectively until I’ve discovered who will be driving the story and what that person is all about—what are his or her deepest fears and desires? How does he or she think and sound? It was figuring out that central fact about my method—learning that my stories don’t spring from the landscape or the history of a place, or from an issue or a constant recurring theme, but from the psychology of the central character—that has made everything possible for me. I didn’t know that at first, and so I stumbled in my fiction writing for a while, half-completing a couple of books that didn’t work. Then I hit on the idea of writing a novel about a character based on my father—a narcissistic, alcoholic, washed-up actor. And I knew that character so intimately, it allowed me to find his voice immediately, and to write with far more confidence than I’d ever felt to that point. That led to my completing and publishing my first book, Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life, which has done pretty well.
So now, each new novel for me begins with meeting and, if you like, romancing my main character, getting to know him or her the way you’d get to know a new love interest, finding out everything, good and bad, and becoming enthralled with every detail. My narrative voice emerges from the understanding I develop about that person, and I try to carry an element of that person’s essential personality in the words I choose.
How does that work in practice? In the case of Practical Jean, one small example is that the narrative voice picks up on Jean Hormarsh’s use of casual “y” words—wonky, goose-bumpy, jutty, pebbly—whenever it follows Jean’s perspective. Those aren’t words I would tend to use in my own descriptions (and you’ll notice they don’t appear in any of the chapters written from Cheryl’s perspective) but they are apt for Jean. In The Fearsome Particles, each of the chapters is told from the perspective of one of three main characters, and each personality is reflected in the nuances of the prose. It’s deliberately subtle; the effect is meant to be more subliminal than overt.
SG: Aside from Kyle’s sections in your second novel, The Fearsome Particles, all three of your books seem to be told by a fairly uniform third-person narrator. Do you feel you’ve found an omniscient (or closely located) voice that can accommodate even the most resoundingly different characters?
TC: As we discussed above, the voice in each of the novels is unique, so I’ll resist the notion that the narrators are “uniform.” But it’s true that I tend to write most happily in the subjective third person. It allows a slight, bemused detachment from the protagonist’s thoughts and actions—in a sense, my narrator sits on the shoulder of the character, facing where he faces, seeing what he sees, while being close enough to pick up his thoughts, which is crucial to portraying his psychological landscape. But that position is also very slightly removed from the character’s own perspective, which allows the narrator to observe not just what the character observes, but also the character himself, and to notice the reactions of others that the protagonist might miss. That allows the narrator, in the tone of the prose, to offer a comment on the character. You can tell, for instance, when the main character has misinterpreted something or made a terrible decision, even if she isn’t aware of it herself. From the reader’s perspective, that makes the narrator more reliable.
SG: As works of social realism, your novels contain a fabulously convincing level of detail. In The Fearsome Particles, for example, Kyle’s experiences in Afghanistan (and even Vicki’s selective furnishing of elite homes) gives the impression that such topics and locales required a monstrous level of research to capture fairly. How much research do you do for your novels?
TC: Each one is different. Those elements of The Fearsome Particles were built on the research I’d done for two large magazine stories—one exploring the world of luxury real estate, the other looking up close at the operation of Canadian forces bases overseas—and the grounding I got in those two unique settings gave me the confidence I needed to be able to fictionalize them, and also an awareness of what additional research I needed to do. So, for instance, I interviewed journalists and soldiers who’d spent time in Afghanistan, picking up the little details of life in an army base there.
In the case of Practical Jean, I had a basic understanding of the process of ceramics, which I fleshed out by talking to ceramics artists—one in particular who did some leaves in her work. And Jean’s experience as a child, seeing her mother performing operations on animals in her kitchen, is based on something I’d learned from another magazine story. Jean’s sense of loss and her call to action after her mother died comes largely from my own experience after the death of my father.
And speaking of my father, enduring more than 40 years of his alcoholic, narcissistic behavior was all the research I needed for Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life.
SG: You’ve referred several times to your work in magazine journalism. In what way does your ability to distill and communicate a large amount of information stem from your years writing non-fiction?
TC: The work of fiction and non-fiction is very different, but the years I’ve spent doing magazine pieces have helped me tremendously. When you’re preparing a magazine story, the process of research is like gathering up a whole bunch of tiny puzzle pieces, some of which will fit together and some of which won’t. And you have no picture to go by other than the partially-formed one in your head. Eventually, once you’ve got ten times the number of pieces that you need, you get down to the task of putting the puzzle together, bit by bit. So from that I’ve learned how to recognize the details that help the story of my novel and those that don’t. And I know how to parcel out information, whether it’s a plot point or a character trait that needs to be established.
SG: Your novels have all been commended for their sense of humour; they’ve been variously described as tragic-comic, satirical, or as black comedies. But most critics have noted that this humour is married to themes and concerns that are both deeply serious and timely. To what do you owe your particular sense of humour? Are there works of fiction (literary or filmic) that serve as personal models for marrying this blend of comedy and serious dramatic storytelling?
TC: I was definitely planted in comedy. How I got there I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it was listening to Bill Cosby and Don Adams records when I was a boy, the way other kids listened to the Rolling Stones. Maybe it was lying in bed at night, listening to my father laugh at Johnny Carson. When Dad was laughing at the television, everything was all right in the house. When he wasn’t, things could get unpredictable. I always preferred character-based humour over one-liners, so that meant I was a Barney Miller guy rather than a Welcome Back Kotter guy. To my ears, character-based humour was more human and more realistic, and therefore richer and funnier. In movies, I loved the multiple-character comedies of Peter Sellers.
So my early comic influences were all based in performance, rather than in literature. Even as a boy I seemed to understand the process of actors, and had some insight into the decisions they made, probably because I watched my father as he rehearsed the plays he was in, and even helped him practice his lines.
My childhood sources of print humour were few—Mad magazine was about it. But I loved its sly, cruel irony. As I grew up I graduated to Philip Roth novels, which always had fury underneath the funny and showed me how complex humour could be. Today, there are deep resonances for me in the black humour of Coen Brothers’ movies. Jonathan Franzen, who we’ve mentioned before, exemplifies in his treatment of his characters, particularly in The Corrections, the ideal balance between irony and empathy. And somehow Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News manages to be, at the same time, the funniest and most melancholy book I’ve ever read.
SG: Some critics have aptly pointed out Practical Jean’s most obvious influence—the 1944 Frank Capra film Arsenic and Old Lace—in which proper elderly women murder their lonesome male borders out of a genuine sense of empathy. What other literary and/or filmic influences helped shape the macabre elements of Practical Jean? Were there any ‘serial killer’ clichés and tropes you consciously strove to avoid?
TC: It may seem strange but Arsenic and Old Lace never crossed my mind once when I was writing Practical Jean. Truthfully, I had no guiding literary or filmic work in mind while I worked on the book. For me it was all about Jean, her traumatic experience, and her skewed mindset. What I did consciously do was work against the traditional notion of the malevolent, insane serial killer. To me there was no point in writing the book if the reasons for Jean’s killing spree were vengeful or evil. Everything fell into place for me when I figured out that Jean loved her friends and wanted more than anything to protect them from the darkness she’d witnessed. I have always been attracted to the character who heads with absolute conviction in the worst possible direction. There’s no richer soil for pathos and humour.
SG: Your books have been nominated for The Governor General’s Literary Award, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, The Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, and The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize—an impressive list of top honours for a relatively young novelist. What do high profile award nominations do for the working writer? How are they conducive—or counterproductive—to the composition of subsequent works?
TC: Award nominations are great; there’s nothing bad about them. They’re a clap on the back and a, sadly, necessary spur to extra publicity. They tell the writer, and the larger bookish fraternity, that a few of your peers think what you’re doing is worthwhile and that you should keep on doing it. Every writer needs to hear that once in a while and it’s unfortunate that so many fine writers don’t get a taste of that approval. The trouble with nominations has to do with the perception of work that isn’t nominated. It’s too easy for a writer, or for others, to think the unnominated book is a failure. It isn’t necessarily so. There are too many books and too few nomination opportunities; lots of fine work gets missed.
SG: Practical Jean is concerned largely with conflicts and connections between women. What were some of the anxieties and challenges that arose while trying to portray your female characters?
TC: I didn’t approach my female characters as women so much as individuals. In our society there’s no one way for a woman to be. So I never found myself thinking “how would a woman deal with this?” Instead, I wondered how Jean or Cheryl or Fran or Natalie would deal with it. And I tried to steer clear of having my characters doing or thinking obviously “feminine” things. I don’t have a lot of purses or lipsticks. The one central element connected to the femininity of these characters was the importance of their friendship. But even there, that importance is not universal. Somehow my approach worked. One of the most gratifying aspects of the response to Practical Jean has been the enthusiasm of women for the book, and their frequent surprise or astonishment at the fact that it was written by a man.
SG: Both Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life and The Fearsome Particles have been optioned for film and adapted for radio. Describe your involvement, if any, with either of the two radio adaptations. What’s become of the potential film versions of these novels? Do you believe your plots and characters can be effectively translated to other mediums? Does a film version of Practical Jean sound appealing in any way, or seem to lend itself to film because of its more outlandish and dark subject matter?
TC: The radio adaptations were their own thing, handled entirely by the CBC without any input from me. A great many people first or only encountered Norman Bray … through that radio version, which in some ways is too bad because it was a truncated, somewhat distorted version of the book. It’s tremendously flattering to have your book adapted for another medium, but it’s almost impossible to listen to such an adaptation without cringing. I’ve talked to other writers who’ve had their books done for radio, and they’ve had the same reaction. I didn’t mind so much the adaptation of The Fearsome Particles, but again, it was an abridged version of the story.
The Fearsome Particles was optioned for film by a Toronto producer and, as usually happens, nothing much came of it. Only a microscopic fraction of book-film options actually result in cameras rolling. Norman Bray … has been optioned for film twice. The first time, with a Vancouver filmmaker, got to the script stage. That process ended and now it’s been optioned by filmmaker Terrence Odette. In this case I’m the one adapting the book into a script, and I’m a lot more comfortable with the process.
The trick with adaptations of my books, particularly Norman Bray …, is how to translate the inner thought process of the main character to the screen. Everything depends on understanding his rationale for his odd or horrifying behaviour. The book puts the reader right into the mind of Norman. The screen requires instead that you watch him. That arms-length distance makes it challenging to develop the necessary empathy for the character.
Practical Jean would present the same sort of challenge, but I think it could make a wonderful film.
Spencer Gordon is a Canadian actor, writer, and retired professional wrestler. He is the author of Cosmo (Coach House Books, 2012), a collection of short stories called “startling and invigorating” by Quill and Quire, “rare [and] brave” by the National Post, “poignant and hilarious” by This Magazine, and “both heartwarming and heartbreaking” by The Winnipeg Review. He has taught at Humber College and OCAD U. His poetry chapbook, Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast! (Ferno House, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 bpNichol Chapbook Award, and his second chapbook, Conservative Majority (Apt. 9 Press), came out in the fall of 2013. He is co-editor of The Puritan, the seven-year-old online literary journal, and of Ferno House, the Toronto-based micro-press. See www.spencer-gordon.com for more information. Follow him on Twitter @spencergordon.