canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: John Degen

Some people win games. Some achieve success. But when it comes right down to it, most people donít. Failure is a guest no one invites, yet it shows up almost everywhere. The gifts it brings are easy to overlook. John Degen's The Uninvited Guest (Nightwood, 2006) is a whirlwind ride featuring Romanian hockey superstars growing up in Montreal, Danish prostitutes working in Sweden, Russian mobsters, the perils of parking in Penitanguishene, and how not to die if you want to make it home on time.

Michael Bryson interviewed JD by email in Oct. 2006.


Let's start with the obvious: Do the Leafs have a chance this year? Actually, just kidding. This would be the normal Toronto-hockey narrative, but you've written a novel that weaves in a different direction. THE UNINVITED GUEST is a "hockey novel" without a lot of hockey in it. Actually, I think there's more backgammon in it than hockey. If I had to summarize the novel, I think I'd say its saying something about the need for games and the need to approach games (and life) with a champion's attitude and how hard it is to do this, given life's many competing absurdities. Is it something like that?

Yes, The Uninvited Guest is a novel in which some hockey happens. I'm not sure if that makes it a hockey novel, and even if so, I'm not sure what a hockey novel is supposed to do. People play hockey; people attend hockey games; many people don't know much about hockey; and a whole bunch of folks in the world would not recognize the Stanley Cup if you showed them a photo of it. My book is a little bit about the people in all those categories.

I was struggling with a way to define the book early in its life and after much deep thought and red wine I decided it is a book about tyranny. Specifically, it is about the tyranny of desire. How what we want most in life can be so maddenly hard to get, and how our desire for it can twist and alter our path, even our character. Many of the figures in my book focus their desire on one thing, often a thing very difficult to achieve. For only one of my characters is this thing the Stanley Cup. For others the one important thing may be an education for a talented grand-daughter, a handful of oranges, freedom from totalitarianism, some small measure of romance, a family, a brief moment of dignity before death. These are the 'victories' real people seek, and it is the games we play to get these victories that I've written about.

And yes, there are more games than hockey to be found between the covers -- backgammon and chess make notable appearances. I am one who sees little qualititive difference between the front section of a newspaper and the sports section. When are we not playing some sort of game? I have filled my novel with images of people strategizing, feigning, dodging, racing, fighting, playing possum, and making that one perfect play to make the game-winning goal. I also wrote a little bit about hockey.

That said, the Stanley Cup makes an appearance on the cover of the book, and most write-ups have stressed the hockey angle. I'm a bit glad I don't find the book shelved in the sports section at Indigo, although considering the recent sales figures for fiction, maybe I shouldn't be glad. I'm Canadian, and my first novel has a bit of hockey in it. I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

As to the Leafs, since this is September I feel supremely confident in predicting that the Leafs are going all the way this year. In fact, someday someone will write a book about the Leafs called "Eternal September."

The novel plays on the significance of "The Cup" a significance the main characters take for granted -- but the story also takes "The Cup" well outside of its safe zone; specifically, to Eastern Europe, and the recently "de-communized" Romania. As readers, we're led to question the significance of the silverware as our eyes are opened to non-North American facts of life. What's your relationship with Eastern Europe? Why was it important for the story to go there?

I had a lot of fun writing one specific section in the book where a minor character questions the significance of the Stanley Cup trophy. I love hockey, but when you live in Canada, it's easy to forget that relatively few people in the world know or care about our sacred piece of silver. It's just not that important. Sacrilege, I know.

I lived in London for awhile in my youth, and my neighbourhood became a sea of blue jerseys whenever the Chelsea Football Club had a home game, and one sensed that wearing anything other than blue on Saturdays was a life-altering decision. Even here in Toronto, walking in the vicinity of the Air Canada Centre on hockey night, I don't get anywhere near a sense of that passion that Britons have for their sport.

I probably know Eastern Europe better than Western Europe, despite my having lived out the Cold War on this side of the curtain. My German relatives lived a few short kilometers west of the East German border, and I remember waving at East German border guards in their towers as a child. Eastern Europe is a very special, symbolically rich place for me. My uncle grew up in a village in East Germany, moved just over the line before the border was closed and then lived out almost his entire life within shouting distance of friends he would never see again. The schisms of the Cold War will show their scars for many years yet, I think.

I've travelled extensively in Eastern Europe and, more importantly, I've drank extensively there, listening to tall tales and life histories. I've romanticized it in my head, been bored there, been terrified there and had my naive politics challenged there. It's a place, many places, that give me perspective, and I hope that is what it also lends to the novel.

You've published two collections of poetry. How did they prepare you for writing the novel (if they did)? Any reflections on the difference between writing poetry and prose?

I find that an almost impossible question. All writing is very difficult for me. When I write poetry, I worry I'm being too focused on narrative. I've often asked myself -- How is this poem not a very short story? And then, does it matter? When I write fiction, I feel I've stopped too soon. Do photographers who also paint get asked this kind of question? It seems to me the two forms are different enough (or should be) that although they may inform each other's progress in one writer, analyzing them in this way will bear little fruit. At least I'll get little fruit out of the analysis. Someday, whena PhD student is writing a thesis about Canadian hockey fiction and its relation to the narrative poem, this question will have a satisfactory answer.

I will continue to write in both forms, I think. And, to be completely honest, I liked one image from an early book of my poems so much, that I reused it in the novel. I'll probably keep doing that as well.

The writing business. In your day job, you're the Executive Director of the Professional Writers Association of Canada. What does that organization do? Sometimes folks like to think of literature as apart from the world of bills and paycheques, but of course it isn't. What's your take on the state of the writing business (the "quality lit game" as Terry Southern once called it), circa 2006?

Yes, a writer with a day job. Who'd have thunk it? I also have two children. Lucky for me, I require absolutely no sleep.

PWAC's misson is to protect the rights and careers of freelance writers. Our members are all professional writers for whom all or a portion of their income comes from selling their words. And now a brief commercial message -- if you have sold your writing and plan or hope to do so again, and you live in Canada, you will make no greater investment in your career than the purchasing of a PWAC membership ( 

I technically can't be a member because I do the admin stuff, but I can say even this sideways association with PWAC has had an immense impact on my career. The solitude part of being a writer is great for putting words onto a page, but when it's time to build a career, one needs connections, advisors, friends, compatriots. PWAC is all of those things, and it does that job extremely well. We have a dedicated and rapidly growing membership.

As to the state of the writing business, it depends on where you are looking. So much is in flux right now, with the shift from print to digital, with views on copyright (and laws governing copyright) facing radical questioning. The Economist recently published an essay analyzing the dramatic decline in print newspaper readership and ad sales. PWAC just completed a survey of writers in Canada that found average incomes dropping in the last ten years. You hear all the time that men don't read fiction and that overall book sales are down, down, down. It can be depressing.

I'm an optimist. I like to look at all the many members of PWAC who are truly fulfilled in their work and making a good living at it. Whatever shake-up the industry might be going through, I don't think humanity has lost its need for the written word. I'm certainly not planning to leave the business.

Michael Bryson is a short story writer and the editor of this website.







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