canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Dennis E. Bolen

Interview by Michael Bryson. April 2007.

Read more about the author on his website: 


You've published five books, three of which featured the same protagonist, Barry Delta, a parole officer. You are a former parole officer yourself. I don't want to confuse the work and your biography. However, perhaps you could begin by describing briefly how the two have overlapped.

I was a professional writer years before I did much else. My first story was published in the Spring 1975 issue of the Canadian Fiction Magazine, and I did arts journalism at Monday Magazine through the late seventies. My education was a classic 1960-70’s liberal arts BA with detours through psychology, political science and English.

I only sought the job in corrections because there were few opportunities for creative writers in Victoria at the time, 1977, and I craved a career that might offer non-boredom. So I talked my way into the federal prison service and pretended I was a conscious participant for a good long time. I considered it just another formative process. Then I wrote about it.

Sheila Munro, in her BC Bookworld review of Toy Gun, says your work laces "sordid truths with humour and wit, mixing horror with the banality of everyday life." She also says the work grapples with the "theme of redemption" and claims "the worst has to happen so redemption can begin." However, I wonder if she isn't closer to the truth when she writes that your work "forces us to look at things we don't want to look at." Such as: redemption is unlikely. It seems to me that you're writing about dark themes, and that readers who are looking too intently for the light, however dim, may miss something central to your purpose. So, the question I want to ask is about this idea of redemption. Is it in the work? Or is it more in the expectations of the reader?

I agree with you about the problem of reader expectations, though I wonder if such lapses, if they exist, aren’t solely the responsibility of the writer (i.e., me). If readers expect something, likely they are justified because of something the writer is doing.

This is why I try to get publishers to market my work properly. Often I am without success in this endeavor. At a certain point in the process I have to shout ‘I am not a crime writer!’ I guess I have to expect that it might take some time—perhaps generations, perhaps it’ll never happen—for publishers to get the idea that what I am writing is a hybrid of literary fiction set in and employing the elements of the noir/thriller/police procedural milieu. My stuff has little of what one reviewer from The Georgia Straight whined that he was missing; the ‘pay-off’.

Nothing blows up good in my books; misbehaviour ends not with a bang but a simper; my protagonists do little but despair; my villains are often oblivious to their own villainy. This is an interpretation of what I concluded after a 23-year career mucking about with criminals. I offer it through my books as a kind of antidote to the wrongness of most contemporary portrayals of social misbehaviour in popular art, as well as the tragically superficial coverage typically offered by news media.

Regarding redemption, my characters are simply people I’ve seen and heard who say and do things I find useful for weaving into fictional conceits. I have no interest in whether or not they seek, attain, deserve or deny affirmation or approval or spiritual well-being of any kind. If somebody says a distinct theme of redemption is present in the work, I’m fascinated. It’s that kind of reviewing that might get a fella reading his own writing (something I haven’t yet be able to bring myself to do!). But mostly I advocate letting the reader decide what they think and feel about characters; redemption residing, as it were, in their own souls.

I’ve had people tell me they dislike my fiction because the characters, most often the protagonists, do things they don’t approve of. This is ridiculous, of course, but it might reflect something of what you are suggesting by ‘things we don’t want to look at…’ I occurs to me that readers might be embarrassed at their level of closeness to a given character, and then cannot reconcile this condition with the actions of the character. I mean, anybody who can’t stand the casual acceptance of adultery is never going to be comfortable with Barry Delta, though he may be a hero in many respects.

You have something in the idea that redemption or some such might be irrelevant and Toy Gun might actually be about the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle act of reconciling one’s nasty side with the larger, though sometimes obscured, altruistic and/or virtuous side. I think that is the case with this book. This notion goes beyond moral ambiguity, I hope, and gets into the consequences of specific societal changes occurring in the 20th Century which, I posit, has obscured Everyman’s conception of goodness.

For example, in my opinion, the world is only just beginning to reel from the one-two punch of the World Wars, particularly the second, particularly as it relates to the Holocaust. I mean, how does one comprehend good and evil after the standards were so radically reset from the previous world—of relative decency, considering—to this wild and extreme socio-political violence bacchanalia we have now? I have trouble with it, and so do my characters. I attempted to address this question in Stand in Hell, and it is also the reason, by the way, that I try to reference Hitler in all my books.

For many years, you were the fiction editor at sub-TERRAIN. How did that experience help shape your work? What are some highlights from that experience?

I fell into sub-TERRAIN just after it was starting up. I’d invested money in it, and Brian Kaufman had nobody else interested in the dawn-to-dusk chore of reading and editing the mountain of prose your typical lit-mag receives. I thought I had sidestepped that particular bullet (lit-mag slavery) during my MFA studies when I evaded George McWhirter as he tried to evangelize me into working on Prism. To this day I think I am the only miscreant who ever got a University Graduate Fellowship, did not get chained to an Olivetti at UBC Creative Writing, and lived to write about it!

But seriously, yeah, it’s a character-building rite-of-passage to saturate yourself in the plethora of unsolicited middling-ness which is the lit-mag slush pile, mining for that elusive nugget of written gold… Have I mangled enough metaphors?

Highlight? Working with Brian K; one of Canada’s most shrewd, tenacious and important literary combatants in this here cultural war we’re in.

Vancouver, and the West Coast in general, seems to have more writers attacking working-class themes than the rest of the country combined. I wonder if you have thoughts on that. Is British Columbia really home to more rebel writers per capita than elsewhere? What accounts for that?

I think it’s the air and seascapes, the way a writer can set up their computer by a window so the vista-scapes inform their art, and beauty and isolation saturate their mind as they crank out the deathless literature of an ignored generation, blah blah…

Actually, I don’t exactly know what you mean by ‘working class themes’. Do you mean we have more people writing about logging? If there is a good salmon-fishing book anywhere let me know. I would observe, though, that it seems harder (at least it is for me!) to get Canada Council support out here (look at the stats!), so your average west-coast writer is more likely to have a gritty day job than are you eastern literary aristocrats.

You've been publishing novels for 15 years now. I wonder what changes you've seen in the Canadian literature scene over that period of time. Has there been a greater acceptance of the type of work you do? What other changes have you seen?

The change I’ve seen is: when I started I couldn’t get publisher interest because I was unknown. Nowadays, I can’t get publisher interest because I’m burned out and have a ‘reputation’ (maybe it’s because I so readily insult easterners!). I don’t know if this is happening to others but I sure as hell find it happening to me.

Another thing I find different now than thirty years ago is the absence of the kind if writer who can make a reader sit up and blanch. I think you guys recently ran a great piece on ‘grit lit’ or some such. We had writers like that back then, Juan Butler comes immediately to mind. I’m not sure where or if The Garbageman would get published today. The gritty writers nowadays, if they are working at all, get fringified into the smalls and barely sold in the mainstream outlets. The papers seldom review them. They remain an obscure substrata of our literary sediment and I think it’s a shame.

And even mainstream books like Fifth Business, with it’s overarching theme of violent revenge; and The Wars, which to my mind was a festival of horror; don’t typically get seen today in Canuck fiction. These books elated me, filled me with confidence that CDN fiction would be a literary institution of world standing.

I don’t feel that way now. I mostly read the Americans, who are absolutely terrific these days (McCarthy, DeLillo, Baker, Elroy, Mosley…), and other than the work of Alice Munroe—and since Mordecai Richler died—I haven’t been able to read Canadian fiction in years. To me, if it’s not sadly incompetent (Come on people! Run a word-search to excise the ‘really very sudden(ly)’s’ and instantly improve your prose by half!) it’s just stiff, academic-constipated non-entertainment. No wonder the rest of the world is less of a market for our stuff these days, and the struggle to get book buyers to pull money from their pockets just gets worse.

Do have some new work on the go? What's next for Dennis E. Bolen?

I’m working on a collection of short fiction; had a story in The Scrivener last fall, got a piece coming out soon in Front & Centre. I edited a book about Indo-Canadian gang violence last year. This year I’m editing a massive Tolkien-style children’s book. I write reviews for anybody who’ll pay me, mostly the Vancouver Sun and sub-TERRAIN. I have no novels in my head presently, but hope springs infernal.

Michael Bryson is the editor of TDR.







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