canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Andy Brown

Andy Brown is a Montreal writer and publisher. He is the co-editor of You & Your Bright Ideas: New Montreal Writing (Vťhicule Press) and Running with Scissors (Cumulus Press), the latter co-edited with Meg Sircom. He is a contributing editor for Matrix magazine and the publisher and founder of Conundrum PressI Can See You Being Invisible (DC Books, 2004) is his first book of fiction. 

Nathaniel G. Moore conducted this interview via e-mail in February 2004.

Read the TDR review of I Can See You Being Invisible


Where did you grow up, background?

Andy Brown: I grew up in Vancouver in a well-adjusted area of town. Played a lot of sports, shy with girls, the usual. I took a literature course in my final year of High School which really inspired me, especially the metaphysical poets, but I was too interested in trying out for the junior national baseball team, or how to navigate the BMX track. I went to university at Queenís simply to get away from Vancouver. I hated much of my time there, I was taking pre-med which may have something to do with it. At one point I drove a cab to try and pay for my tuition.

How did you wind up getting involved in the writing community in Montreal?

Andy Brown: I used to hitchhike to Montreal from Kingston now and then and fell in love with the city. So after traveling the world I settled there. After doing my MA at Concordia I slowly fell in with a group of writers and performers. But all this time I was working in factories, printing t-shirts, punching metal. This was in the years around the 1995 referendum so Montreal was a grim place, everyone leaving, 30 per cent vacancy, so still cheap. People had nothing to lose so the arts scene was extremely vibrant. 

My first real break was when Corey Frost asked me to write an article for the new index magazine which he had just usurped and was turning into a hotbed of interesting writing and controversy. Writing groups followed. I didnít get into the Concordia Creative Writing Masters program so I wrote a novel out of spite. This ended up many years later being hacked up into the "Uzma & Isaak" section of "I can see you being invisible". My academic thesis at Concordia was on photographic theory in Michael Ondaatje (this was before The English Patient), so the fact that Uzma is a colour-blind photographer is not too surprising.

How did the idea for Conundrum Press come about?

Andy Brown: The publishing started because I was roommates with Catherine Kidd and she was just starting to do these amazing performances, and she was obviously a very talented writer. So we just got together to make a book/cassette, "everything I know about love I learned from taxidermy" (1996) and figured it out as we went along. Of course it was a lot more work than I could have imagined but the response was overwhelming. I just kept publishing the talented people around me and one thing led to another.

You have a comedic edge to your writing, which combines wit and deadpan angst, where did you develop your voice that teeters on morbid surrealism, or tragic bravado?

Andy Brown: Iím not really sure where this came from. Some people say Iím the funniest guy they know (both of them), others not so much. Iím not very interested in being too earnest, I want that to come through in some other way, and maybe humour is a screen. But I also get bored with writing that isnít self-aware, that doesnít wink at itself in some way. Humour entertains readers, keeps them involved, but it also allows this angst to come out in an accessible way. Black humour is a writerís tool in the same way that metaphor or setting is. Not sure where the morbidity comes from. 

I guess Iím fascinated by death because of its complete negation of everything we do. It exists for everyone, democratically, on the periphery, and it influences many of our actions. And yet we all function as if itís not there, we live, love, make jokes despite the elephant in the room. I guess Iím fascinated by that dichotomy, but I donít want to come across as too morbid to a reader. Humour helps us laugh at the plague. Iíve become interested in plague narratives as well, which are becoming more popular in literature ("Blindness", Atwoodís latest), or just watch the evening news fabricate fear of the latest epidemic. 

In Illness as Metaphor Susan Sontag writes that the multi-determined nature of illnesses opens them up to the widest possibility as metaphors for what is felt to be morally or socially wrong with our society. Global warming as objective correlative. So I try and laugh at the cancer, mock it, control it, keep it at bay because obviously it is terrifying. When I wrote "Invisible" I was very depressed but then I met and married a nice woman so Iím finding it harder to tap into the dark side. She just introduced me to the TV show "Six Feet Under" which is brilliant. I find it hard to watch itís so good. Itís created by Alan Ball, who did "American Beauty". And as one of the characters says on the final episode of season one, "Death makes life more valuable".

Conundrum is now a part of the Literary Press Group. For those who don't understand what that means in terms of distribution, etc. and your recent and innovative decision to form a bookclub at conundrum's site, where do you see the future of the independent publisher in the arena of the book trade considering there are these massive stores with plenty of book shelves but seemingly no prospect of a mutually beneficial relationship?

Being a part of the LPG means conundrum press has national distribution, the books can be ordered from any store, which is the least I can do for the authors Iím publishing. Although my life has been made easier since joining, Iíve actually lost money. Before joining I would sell directly to people, or to stores on consignment. I would keep the money from the sales. Through any distributor in Canada there are plenty of other costs. Bookstores take their 40 per cent, sales reps, distribution, and the killer is postage. So in the end my cheque doesnít always cover the printing bill. The main reason being that bookstores return the books and donít pay. So an ordered book is not a sold book. 

Of course when you corporatize this arrangement small publishers become heavily screwed. This is what happened with the whole General Distribution collapse which was directly connected to Chaptersí massive returns of unsold books. The problem hasnít gone away and never will. The problem is the booksellerís paradigm. In the 1980s comic shops opened all across North America. Their terms to publishers were to take a larger discount (50 per cent) but have a no returns policy. In other words the books were bought when ordered. 

I publish graphic novels as well as literary fiction so I am seeing both sides of the fence. Whatís happened in the comics world is that now all the stores order from one corporate distributor, so if you are not carried by that distributor you will make considerably fewer sales. And they distribute action figures and t-shirts as well as books. But at least after theyíve ordered my books I get a cheque! Even though they are this huge corporation who do not have my interests at heart I still get paid! Being a part of the LPG means that we can discuss these issues and perhaps introduce a 50 per cent no returns policy in all stores. Some publishers are already doing this. I have a huge amount of respect for these publishers, some of whom have been around 40 years, so they can lobby the governing bodies etc. They are also hip to the subtle changes in funding policies. So Iím mostly an observer at the moment.

The bookclub is an idea to try and get around the whole bookstore paradigm. The idea is to sell conundrum titles directly at a reduced price and then offer lots of extras on the website to facilitate discussion of the titles. Conundrum books are basically the opposite of "Canada Reads" or "Oprah" and I think there are people out there who would get together with their friends and discuss a title, but the titles offered by the mainstream clubs (which are in themselves huge corporations) are boring. Itís a bit of an experiment. The real solution I believe is the revival of the salon. Get rid of bookstores altogether and have publishers sell directly from their own "salons" which will also be focal points for the artistic community in general. Look at Hogarth House and Bloomsbury. We need to reclaim the book as a cultural artifact. Of course the problem arises because how do I sell my books in Saskatoon if my salon is in Montreal? Well, it is through groups like the LPG that I can envision a network of publisher salons which will act co-operatively in different cities.

I Can See You Being Invisible is your solo debut, what is it like NOT being the publisher, are you someone who can't mitigate, who has to be involved in every aspect of a project?

I didnít want to publish this book myself because everyone needs a little validation from the outside world. And yet I did have control over the design, which was important to me. And I got them to print it on 100 per cent recycled paper which was a first for them. Rob Allen edits the New Writers Series for DC so it was he who elected to publish the book and he gave very broad editorial comments. At the final proofing stage I cut 40 pages which meant rearranging things. But that was also due to my wife who is my harshest critic. But I just met with the publishers of DC and planned tour dates and talked about reviews and such. And it was such a relief to have someone else do the marketing and arranging of tours, the stuffing of envelopes. I can have a little division of labour for once. So, Iím happy to follow along.

Did you research any other one-armed sports heroes for this book?

The Pete Gray story ("Something Blue") was just information which I pulled off the internet. I recently saw the Ken Burns nine part BASEBALL documentaries and there is this incredible archival footage of Pete Gray playing outfield and hitting, but this was after my book had come out. Dave McGimpsey was helpful with that story as well. "Invisible" is filled with these characters who have non-debilitating handicaps. One arm, anosmatic, colour-blind, fear of heights. Handicaps that donít confine someone to a wheelchair, or make their life extremely difficult, but help define their personality. I think there is some metaphor for repressed emotional relationships in there somewhere but thatís an issue for the critics to fight out among themselves. A real Jack Kirby punch up!

What is the writing process to you, I mean the Andy Brown that is running around picking up proofs and ordering ad space, designing Matrix and carrying boxes of books to bars, does that person disappear? How do you see yourself in the space of writing?

This is an excellent question because what you describe is my life and although I am surrounded by writers and writing I find very little time to do it myself. Many of the stories in I can see you being invisible were written with chapbook self-publication in mind. I included a publication history in the back for those who are interested in the genesis of the stories. Many of the stories were written before Iíd ever published anything. This would have been early 1990s. My writing process now is very much about finding space away from my regular life. I do the 3-day novel writing contest every Labour Day, usually at a friendís cottage, so Iím isolated. The first time I ever did it I produced the "Everyone Must Dance" section of the book, which is sort of a Lord of the Flies parody in a treeplanting camp. 

I wrote the story about the one-armed baseball player over a few days in the back room of an artistís house, which she was offering as a retreat called "A Week in the Woods". I very seldom sit at the computer and whip up a story anymore because my computer has become an extension of my job. So I have moved more toward writing little scenes or notes in a notebook and transcribing them later when I have some time. When I was rejected from the Banff Writerís program I went to Vancouver for two months to finish the first draft of a novel. I was house-sitting for my parents but I also feel I did it out of spite. Bitterness has been a driving force in my writing. I stuck to a five-page-a-day routine and managed to do it. Of course what was a Nova Scotia novel about buried treasure and riding the Globe of Death became a Vancouver novel about murders of crows and taking pictures of billboards, but thatís another story. 

One of the parts which I cut from this book was all about a fictional band on the Plateau called Umbilical and they had an EP called "Interrogating Moments". I think thatís what writing is ultimately, interrogating moments. Iím giving you the outtakes here. I am in the process now of writing another novel called The Mole Chronicles. Thatís where my head is at. I really want to go to my friendís cottage and pound out some pages. But when Iím writing, when Iím in the "zone" all I really think about is the craft and all the writers who have come before me. How can I improve on what theyíve done, what can I take away? But in the end it is just the feeling I might get on writing the perfect sentence that makes everything worthwhile. The sentence that might stop a heart, like diving into a glacial lake. That feeling is mine alone. 

So yes, I do disappear in the act of writing, I can see myself becoming invisible.

Nathaniel G. Moore is constantly in turmoil.

 

 

 

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