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The Paris Review, a journal of interviews and fiction, was begun in Paris after the First World War by editor George Plimpton and some of his friends at a time when American and British writers were flocking to the city for its culture and cafés. With no warning, the original interviewers of the Paris Review knocked on the doors of such historic writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Dorothy Parker. In Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to the first anthology of interviews, in 1957, he says that when the Paris Review started publishing, “the magazine needed famous names on the cover, but couldn’t afford to pay for the contributions of famous authors, ‘So let’s talk to them,’ somebody ventured, ‘and print what they say.’”
Using the Paris Review as our model for The Notebooks, we decided to combine new fiction with interviews about the craft of writing, how writers’ work intersects with who they are as people, where the writers get their material, and how they work from day to day. Because these writers are working in the twenty-first century, we also chose to explore the influences of contemporary culture and technology on emerging fiction. Whereas those first Paris Reviews published internationally famous writers well along in their careers, we wanted The Notebooks to represent a new generation of writers.
In the late 1990s in Canada there was a great deal of press about the sudden rise of new voices. Young authors were hitting the international markets with their first and second books. They were winning awards, being translated, getting agents, andmaking connections around the globe. Our project, we realized, could command a wide audience even with a list of authors who began publishing only in the last decade.
Initially, we each came up with a long list of people that we were interested in for the anthology. With our editor at Doubleday Canada, Martha Kanya-Forstner, we culled our three lists into one. There were some struggles, but no blood was shed. From this list we decided once again to follow the Paris Review model and showcase between fifteen and twenty authors. We chose those who began publishing in the 1990s and had published at least two books, allowing us to explore the development of their careers and their lives as writers. The final list confirmed our convictions about the wealth of successful and talented young writers in Canada.
The Paris Review interviewers worked in pairs “like FBI agents,” using only notepad to record their conversations. In our contemporary version of the interviews, the notepads were replaced by computer notebooks, modems, tape recorders, voice-recognition software, and e-mail. And because we adopted different strategies for the project we each set out alone. Michelle approached her writers with a standard list of questions, as well as a list of questions specific to their work. She then compared differences and similarities between the authors at the same time as addressing each writer’s individual passions. Natalee interviewed each author to produce a representative sample of each author’s concerns and personality.
Writing in Canada is not centralized in one city, as it once was in Paris, so we offered the authors options for communication, including e-mail, in person, and by letter. Interviews conducted in person most resemble the intense back and forth of conversation, whereas interviews conducted by e-mail mimic the writers’ individual writing styles. The one interview conducted via Canada Post preserves the intimacy and decorum of letter correspondence, as well as a sense of the weight of distance so often missing in our global communication.
Riffs in contemporary culture became apparent in the preoccupations of these young authors as they discussed their perspectives on social and aesthetic issues in Canada. Hot issues included the effect of technology on the individual; the difficult intimacy of Canadian and American cultures; overlooked aspects of Canadian culture and geography; the efforts of some writers to defy genre and experiment with multiple modes of discourse; ethics in the new society; and the continuing desire of young authors to remain connected to a literary history and to the literal page.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century the proliferation of cell-phones, Internet access, digital media, and televised entertainment has become commonplace. In The Notebooks, Hal Niedzviecki discusses reality and the virtual world in his novel Ditch as well as the omnipresence of pop culture in his zine Broken Pencil. Niedzviecki explores the failure of therapy to cure contemporary ills in his short story “Soul Work.” Russell Smith mines urban angst in his fiction. In The Notebooks, his short story “Serotonin” recreates the hypnotic rhythms of techno-music in language.
As technology spans international borders, Canadian writers with strong connections abroad feel national ambivalences more acutely. Esta Spalding, who was born in Hawaii and immigrated to Toronto, discusses her double ties to Canada and America and the way that international crises, like the Gulf War and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, make her feel split across national and political borders. Her long poem/short story “Big Trash Day” described crossing those borders. Eliza Clark, on the other hand, was born and raised in Canada but set her last two novels primarily in the southern U.S. She draws with pleasure on idiosyncratic southern dialects and Americans’ tolerance of eccentricity. The excerpt she has given us from her novel in progress is her first fictional project set largely in Canada. Eden Robinson, a First Nations writer who grew up in British Columbia, was inspired and deeply influenced by American horror writer Stephen King. Her story “Hesitation Marks” plays with the horror genre, yet the eerie conclusion confounds any expectations we may have had.
Some of our writers take a cue from William Faulkner and look more closely at home. Michael Winter “moodles” through Newfoundland, describing the contradictions of East Coast life, friendly and intimate one minute, exciting and worldly the next. Winter continues exploring the life of his alter ego, Gabriel English, in his story “Seamless,” which is about the time Gabriel’s brother killed a neighbour. Lynn Coady discusses the influence of Catholicism on life in Cape Breton. Her story “The Les Bird Era” is about the contradictions inherent in fighting the “clean fight.” R.M. Vaughan dismisses the myth of Maritime peasantry by writing about his middle-class New Brunswick upbringing, living with a mentally ill parent. Vaughan disturbs and delights with his story “Pumpkin.” The reader will never relax around swimming carp again.
Some young writers seek to shatter the mould of national realism, experimenting with form and content. Lynn Crosbie challenges our nerves with books that defy genre while dissecting the scenes of some of Canada’s most scandalous crimes. Crosbie shares her “Radiant Boys” with us, a hybrid fiction about the criminal intensity of adolescent passion. Michael Turner collapses high with low art by bringing tropes of pornography to a literary audience. The three very short fictions included in The Notebooks capture Turner’s Vancouver in three ways: in film, in dialogue, and in a joke. Derek McCormack distills 1950s pop culture into ultra-minimalist fiction, shocking and entertaining his readership at the same time. In “The Haunted Hillbilly” an evil couturier plots to win the heart (and body) of an alcoholic Grand Old Opry star.
Contemporary ethics occupy the minds of such writers as Andrew Pyper, Catherine Bush, and Yann Martel. In his interview, Andrew Pyper questions whether “gentlemanliness” is now anachronistic. The night watchman of his short story wonders at his own contentment. Catherine Bush considers the sudden proliferation of different styles of war and the impact of technology on morality. In an excerpt from her new novel, The Pain Diaries, Bush introduces the idea of physical pain as a contributing factor to personality. And Yann Martel discusses religion and human nature as he attempts to draw new faces for the old companions, good and evil. Martel provides us with an extended sample of the prose notes to his novel-in-progress. These notes give a rare look at the skeleton of an unfleshed book.
Devotion to writing and a heavy investment in craft dominate the lives and work of all of the writers in The Notebooks. This is especially apparent in discussion with Marnie Woodrow, Michael Redhill, and Steven Heighton. Marnie Woodrow credits her success to the influence of great Canadian writers who have come before her. Her tender story “Per Sempre” deals with an Italian language teacher’s lost love. Michael Redhill operates in multiple forms -- poetry, drama, fiction -- illustrating just how interpolated media can be. “Cold” is a complex and multilayered story exploring friendship and the past. And Steven Heighton, the only author who corresponded for his interview via Canada Post, still relishes the positive feeling when he grips the pen in his hand and begins to mark the page. In “The Stages of J. Gordon Whitehead,” Heighton imagines the life of a minor figure in Canadian history by writing an ending for the man who killed Houdini.
We were often thrilled and surprised by how open these authors were in their interviews. They talked to us about their childhoods, losses in their families, fears of drowning and poverty, approaches to writing sex, personal perspectives on foreign and domestic politics, and tiny comforts that help them write. Although these seventeen writers come from different backgrounds, different parts of the country, have different lifestyles, and write very different kinds of fiction, we discovered that the connections between them are still plentiful. As a group they are highly engaged with the world around them, politically sophisticated, intelligent, modest about their potential success, and passionate about the act of writing. We hope that The Notebooks inspires an ongoing discussion with young writers at work and answers some of the silent questions that readers have longed to ask.
Michelle Berry and Natalee Caple