canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Ken Sparling

Ken Sparling is a Toronto writer who works by day at the Toronto Reference Library. His new novel is [untitled] (Pedlar Press, 2003). His first novel, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall (Knopf, 1996), was edited by the genius/nutbar Gordon Lish. He has a new story on the Avatar Review site.

Michael Bryson interviewed Sparling by email in May 2003.

[untitled], Ken Sparling's new novel

1) What are you reading right now? Anything inspiring or disappointing? (What characterizes books that inspire / disappoint you?)

I like books about misfits. I just finished reading Word Freak about the world of competitive Scrabble. When I mentioned to the great poet and literary critic, Cooper "Esteban" Renner that I was reading it, he asked me, flippantly, whether Word Freak would become a movie like Searching for Bobby Fisher, which I'd never seen, so I reserved it at the library and just finished watching it. Loved it.

Deborah Solomon's Utopia Parkway, about Joseph Cornell, knocked me on my ass. Not because it was an amazing piece of writing. It was certainly great as a work of writing, the way a bio should be in that you didn't notice the writing. But Cornell's endeavours captured me entirely. I think that book and the idea of Cornell it painted for me had a real influence on my new book. The other guy whose life and work are of interest right now to me is Henry Darger. All this stuff has been opened to me by Derek McCormack. Besides being my editor, he's been a real friend and an inspiration. And Beth Follet, another great friend (who just happens to be my publisher), also mentions interesting writers and artists. Whenever I've been talking to them, I run back to work and search the library catalogue for books they've told me about.

There's a great, relatively new work about Darger that is huge and costs more than I can afford. I was wandering through the Reference Library's copy for days on my lunches, when I finally realized I was going to have to buy it, so I called up Derek and he picked me up a copy from Book City, where he works. I don't buy books until I've read a library copy. If I love them, I buy a copy. I buy maybe two, three books a year.

Many of the best stories I've read recently have been young adult books. "The Witch in the Lake" was very cool. I read that to my kid, who's eight. He said it was scary but wanted me to keep reading it to him every night while he had his tub. I love to read aloud to the boys. I love the drama of it. Doing the voices. Those young adult books are all very dramatic. Mark, my twelve-year-old, doesn't have me read to him anymore. He makes me read (to myself) the books he's doing at school so I can help him with his essays. Cowboys Don't Cry was a surprisingly good book, considering the potential the story had for turning out to be drek. He also just did Romeo and Juliet - in Grade Seven, can you imagine? Jesus. I couldn't get through it and I'm forty-something years old. Anyway, I did read some of the important passages. The balcony scene. And that drunk guy who makes fun of Romeo was pretty funny. You know, I always feel like if I haven't read all of Shakespeare I must be a loser or something. How can I call myself a writer if I haven't read all of Shakespeare? Anyway, it can't hurt that Mark is doing this stuff at school and I'm forced to at least skim through it. Then I can act like I know what I'm talking about when another person tells me how much they loved Shakespeare when they were in high school. I always think people must be lying about that. Even my wife says she loved Shakespeare, and she's not a big reader. She likes Maeve Binchey and stuff like that. I think she listened to Shakespeare on records when she was in high school. Her and me went to see Taming of the Shrew at Stratford years ago and that was fantastic, but it was because the actors were so engaging. I had no idea what the hell they were saying most of the time. Neither of us had read the book. Anyway, now when Romeo and Juliet comes up in conversation, I can go, "Oh yeah, and what about that Nurse?" and shit like that. Most people just want to tell you all about what they love and their theories, etc., so they don't listen to you anyway. As long as you can name a couple characters, you can fake your way through. I've always been a big faker, but lately I just think, fuck you, I don't have to listen to your shit. Is that from getting older?

I was reduced to tears by Road to Terabithia, which I know has been around a while, but I just read it. A lot of what you wind up reading has to do with who you know, and I know a lot of children's librarians, so I wind up reading these kids books. I also got a copy of Jean Little's Willow and Twig and that made me cry, too. That one I got because the Children's Advocate at the library, Ken Setterington, was going for dinner with Jean Little and my older son, Mark, has been collecting autographed books. Setterington told me to go pick up a couple of her books and he'd get them signed. I whipped over to Mable's Fables and picked a couple up, and "Willow and Twig" was one of them. I just picked it up one day when I had a rare few minutes to read and no book on the go.

Sometimes I go upstairs where I work here at the reference library looking for a particular book and I'll invariably come down with something I wasn't looking for. The best, most astonishing find I've made is Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills by William Saroyan. Reading that was the most exciting fiction reading experience I've had since I read Blood Meridian many years ago.

I love grabbing a book off the shelf at the library and reading a couple pages at random and then putting the book back. Sometimes I succumb to the temptation to bring the book down to my desk for a while, but I'm never moved by these books as entities at my desk the way I am when I know I've only got a few minutes and I plunge in where ever the book falls open, read, close the book and put it back. It's a bit like listening to French CBC. When a great piece of music comes on, I don't go, oh, I've got to get this, who is this by, because I can't speak French and I know when the announcer comes on, I'm not going to have a clue what he says about the piece. So I can just enjoy the piece without a lot of inner conversation about how much I'm enjoying the piece.

I picked up a Best Bet seven day loan library copy of Dave Eggars' new book You Shall Know Our Velocity because it's such a beautiful object. I took it with me to the sub shop where I was getting a meatball sub for my kid who was competing in a swim meet in Etobicoke, and while I was standing in the sub shop waiting to be served I read a few pages and decided Eggars wasn't about to pull it off again, like he did in his first book, which was smartalecky, but nice, too, and sad. This one seemed just smartalecky. I dropped it back off at the library on my way back up to the pool.

I have to mention The Man Who Loved Children, because, like Saroyan's book, no one much seems to know about these books and they have been important in my life. It's hard to believe how moving the experience of reading a certain book can be at a certain time in your life. It's something you take with you for the rest of your life. Something that rises up and moves you in ways real occurrences in your life don't always. Falling in love with my wife and having kids has given me experiences emotionally more beautiful than reading great books, but not much else has. Watching my kid compete at swim meets. My younger son's gorgeous drawings of monsters with little dots all over them. But most everything else people pursue seems ugly and horrible to me, just soul-destroying. In particular at work, where every meeting, every piece of writing, is nothing but garbage. No one likes doing it, but everyone keeps doing it. I don't get it.

I could mention a few other books, ones like Crow Lake which I really enjoyed reading, but what would be the point? These books everyone knows about, they win awards, get reviews, so there's not much point in talking about them in a situation like this, is there?

2) Pedler Press is using a quotation from Hal Niedzviecki about you that befuddled me. The quotation is this: 

This is a man [you] whose own subconscious presence is trying to edit him out of the story. This is a man who tries to bridge the divide between artistic hubris and the beautiful details that connote the pointlessness of everyday life. This is a man who through his work suggests that there is a different way to approach life. A way in which you become consumed by your own divisions, even as you relentlessly seek a way to record and separate the truth, without making it a lie. 

Okay, what the heck is Hal on about here? Evidently, your publisher thinks there's something to this quotation because they're using it in their marketing materials. A double question: What do you think of Hal's quote? How would you summarize [untitled]?

The exquisite poet and venerable human being M. Sarki once emailed me a quote that shifted something inside me, almost violently. I liked the feeling. I'd felt it before, and I hope I'll feel it again. I emailed back to him and said, "That's beautiful, Sark, but what the hell does it mean?" He emailed back and admitted he had no good idea what it meant, but he said he thought it had something to do with getting the words wrong. Which didn't actually clarify much for me, but made me love Sarki even more.

It was Sarki who turned me on to the poems of Wallace Stevens and Eugenio Montale.

The brilliant writer and editor and all-around nutbar Gordon Lish once wrote that when he had a hunger for poetry he went looking for poems by Stevens and Sarki. He said he didn't know what they were talking about a lot of the time, but he knew he was reading beautiful poetry. Couldn't that be enough?

Listen, Mike, I don't quite know what Hal was trying to say when he wrote that passage you want me to interpret - Hal probably didn't quite know what he was trying to say, either - but it moves me. Maybe because it's a tribute to me. Can you not hear the love in it? I like to think it's a beautiful passage exactly because Hal has, for a moment anyway, given up trying to make everything perfectly clear. I love a writer who goes on trying to say something while at the same time admitting the whole enterprise is practically hopeless.

The guy who reviewed my new book for Quill and Quire hated it. You could hear the anger in his voice. He seemed mad that I didn't tie things together.

It won't work if you just give up trying to tie things together and go at it randomly. What hurts in a beautiful way are those moments you meet someone willing to admit they aren't sure, but who continues to struggle to understand.

As for a summary of my book, why in God's name would anyone want to summarize a book - especially a book they've written. I wrote a whole book because I was incapable of making a summary of whatever it is I was trying to make happen. If I could summarize this thing inside me, I'd already be dead, Mike. I hate summary. Fuck summary.

3) A few years ago you wrote a review of this web site for Broken Pencil in which you said some not so nice things about an author interview we did. You also made some general comments about how difficult it is to make a literary interview interesting. You've also said to me that there's one particular literary interview you really liked (my memory says it was one The Paris Review did with Albert Camus .... is that right?). And yet .... here we are doing a literary review. Maybe you could say a bit about some of your favorite literary interviews ... and why you think it's so hard to do a good one. 

The interview you're talking about was with Louis Ferdinand Celine. In that interview, I could hear Celine trying to work something out, something that disturbed and angered him. Same as with Celine's books. I can hear, beyond any content Celine chooses to cover, the hunger and the determination not to settle for anything that kills the hunger. What Celine eats, and, by extension recommends we eat, is something that just increases the hunger. You get a taste, you want more. What I like to hear in an interview is the struggle to arrive, the restlessness of knowing you'll never arrive.

But most important, Celine never tells anyone what to eat, he just steps out into the world and eats it in front of everyone. To me, that's the crux of it there. He could have ate in private, never stepped into the light and revealed himself. But he ate in front of the world, and that's what makes his eating a recommendation. The act of eating is the recommendation. Eat what you need to eat, he says, but for god's sake, eat in the light. 

I interviewed M.T. Kelly for Blood and Aphorisms years ago and the interview ran as a straight Q&A, which was my favourite form of interview at the time, probably still is, although I haven't spent a lot of time reading interviews lately. The Kelly interview was a good one. Quite different from the Celine. Kelly mainly related anecdotes: the first story he ever got published; the details of the magazine that took it; the editor; the letter of acceptance - that sort of thing. But, what I think I liked was that Kelly wasn't talking to me. He wasn't talking to some potential audience. He was talking to himself. He did the interview for himself, as another manner of working something out. He stood, through the interview, as an action in the world, a recommendation for action. Not that he said: "A young writer should do this or that." Not even by extension, as in "I decided my book needed this or that." But by actually standing before an audience and continuing with the struggle that occupied him as a manner of living his daily life.

Same with Celine. He seemed locked inside his own head in the interview, but he seemed entirely unafraid of being locked in there, not afraid to try to work things out in front of the world without capitulating in the least to that world.

I think I told you about my professor at York, Alan Blum, and his answer to the ridiculously naive and wonderfully candid question asked by the nineteen-year-old guy who apparently turned out to be this 43-year-old guy you are interviewing. "Do you really think there is such a thing as the Good?" I asked. Blum hesitated, then said, simply, "Yes." So, I've been searching for the "Good" ever since, and it occurs to me lately that Alan's answer wasn't so much a directive to look away from him and find the good out there in the world somewhere, but more a directive to hear the simplicity of the answer in contrast to his incredibly restless lectures, or the scrawl he scribbled on my papers saying, "Say more." He'd see deep into the thing, and then question what he'd seen, going even deeper, always deeper. What he was recommending wasn't in the definition of a set of words he chose to speak, but in the act of questioning everything. How can there be a "good" if you're never satisfied to settle? How can you commit to an idea of "good" without coming to an end? I think that if you hear that question in any talk, literary interview, literary work, literary review, someone's conversation with a dog, then you're hearing something worth hearing.

4) Yes, this is the second time I've interviewed you (first was for the now defunct ID Magazine out of Guelph after Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall (1996)). I'm trying to be more of a pain in the butt this time. <grin> And so ... I must tell you I got a giggle out of your former professor's advice to "write more." Seems to me your Quill & Quire reviewer was saying the same thing, and Hal was saying you're compulsively moving in the opposite direction. 

Next question: Last Friday, I spoke to a high school class in Montreal about a short story of mine that they had read. They wanted to know, above all else, whether the story had anything to do with my life. The details of the story are all made up, so I said, "No, this story has nothing to do with my life." But, of course, you can't separate the life from the writing. Or can you? How would you answer the students' query?

This question, more than your others, makes me feel like you, or your readers, might want to treat me like I have some sort of inside track on writing. Like I might know something other people don't and that an interview is a place to share something akin to jewel-like possessions that others think I might have, might even be refusing to share. I don't like this feeling. I don't like the temptation this question makes me feel to act like I have an answer. I don't have an answer.

I was initially going to say I don't care one way or the other whether or not it is possible to keep your life out of what you write. And I don't care, really. But to simply say so doesn't seem like enough. I want people to stop acting like they need the missing piece in order to move forward. I want people to stop believing that some expert somewhere possesses knowledge they need in order to live a better, more fulfilled life. Because believing this ultimately forces the "expert" to recommend - irregardless of the content of what he or she recommends - possession of knowledge as the way to a better, more fulfilled life.

I don't want people to look to me for answers. I want them to look with me to the world - and maybe not even for answers, but for something more beautiful than answers, which, as it turns out, are pretty ugly, don't you think?

The Russian chess master Boris Gulko once said: "For me chess is finding ideas - beautiful, paradoxical ideas."

Same for me, Mike, but with writing. When I come upon some beautiful combination of words, some unexpected, paradoxical literary moment, that's what really does it for me. Gulko said it well when he called it "finding" ideas, because it is definitely finding, as opposed to making or creating. It's almost like an accident and when it is successful, the process is more like listening than writing. It's like hearing something unexpected beyond what's contained in the individual words.

I even experience this doing the daily Jumble in the Toronto Star. When I've looked and looked at six letters for a long time and given up and then gone back and then suddenly the word just jumps out at me, it always makes me laugh with delight. Like I've been given something. (I often do the Jumble while walking from work at the Reference Library to the Valumart in the Manulife Centre to get some food for lunch, so if anyone see some goofball walking along Bloor Street staring intently at a little square of newspaper and suddenly laughing, it's me.)

When you hear something beautiful in words that have arrived, through your pen, on the paper in front of you, it's like some power beyond you has created this beauty. I was going to call it a 'higher power', but I don't want you to think I am invoking some notion of God. Maybe I am. But the important thing about this beauty coming from somewhere beyond the writer is that it then stands beyond everyone and is available that way - as a thing beyond us all, a thing of the world in the sense that the world presents itself to us without asking our permission.

The writer stands and looks upon this beautiful thing, and this standing and looking is the writer's recommendation to the reader. This is the pith of the literary work: the writer's recommendation embodied in his act of standing and encountering beauty. He calls upon the reader to stand and encounter beauty, and in so doing recommends a version of beauty that is beyond both writer and reader and so cannot be possessed by either, but only witnessed. It is a version of beauty that stands only in the moment both reader and writer give up any claim to ownership. It is within the fall from ownership that this beauty might suddenly leap out of the void.

Beauty cannot be given - or owned. The literary work is not a gift by the writer to the reader, because the writer never possessed it any more than the reader will ever possess it. Beauty is beyond transaction, which is probably why so many writers continue to squirm within the confines of the world of publishing. The packaging and selling of a work of literature is so at odds with the act of witnessing recommended in the true literary work.

The question that high school kid asked you, the one you've brought to me, might be seen as a look toward the problem of witnessing. Can a person, a writer, see something in the world that is just the world, something not coloured by experience? That's the problem the literary work investigates most deeply. So I guess I care about the relationship between the writer's writing and the writer's life more deeply than I might have thought. I care about the problem of witnessing the world as it develops through the relationship between the writer and the written. I care about the writer as a recommendation to sustain the look that is witnessing - the look that believes in a beauty that transcends experience.

So when that kid in Montreal asked you that question, he was asking for help. He was asking if there is something like pure witness. It's a question very similar to the one that na´ve kid asked Alan Blum so many years ago: "Do you really think there is such a thing as the Good." The kid who asked you your question was saying: "Are you trapped in your life the way I am? Because if you aren't, you can't help me. You can't even understand me." 

Of course, we all feel trapped in our own lives at some time. So the question becomes, can we, you and I, writer and reader, student and teacher, interviewer and interviewee, stand together against this problem of wanting to be witness from within a life that colours everything it witnesses? Or is that colouring something akin to an incurable disease that isolates us irrevocably from ever standing together at all?

When Hal said it looked to him like I was trying to edit myself out of my life, what he must have been seeing was my plea to others to look away from me toward the world. What he saw was me recommending a look which doesn't detect beauty so much as erect it for a brief moment through the looking itself. Beauty is itself a moment that can be sustained only as long as the deliberation to look away together can be sustained. How long could that possibly be?

5) [from]: Dogs or cats?

6) What's one question you'd like to ask yourself? (and possibly the answer....) 

I'll start with question six, since I couldn't get that site of catvdog to open. I'll try again after a bit.

Here's my question: Is it possible to get things working so that structure grows out of adventure? In other words, is there an alternate world where adventure isn't a matter of setting something up and then experiencing, like bungee jumping, or riding a roller coaster. Adventure is entering a place where structure hasn't ventured and structuring your life on the fly.

This question comes more out of my work at the library than my writing. In my writing, I think I've continued to ask that question again and again. How can I come into the writing structureless and yet wind up with something as structured as a book. It works both ways. How can I maintain the adventure, yes, but also, how can I withstand the pressure to settle inherent in structure. How can I embrace structure to the extent that a book - or story, or book review, or even an interview response - results, yet at the same time continue to walk away from the structure that suggests itself constantly throughout the adventure, and threatens to cause me to settle (for that structure as a way of arriving at a wholeness without suffering the chaos of being unwhole).

But in my efforts to make my living work well on all levels, I've had, finally, to address the problem of structure vs. adventure in my library working life, because it seems to me if you want to stand as an example of a good life, it has to permeate everything you do, as much as that might be possible (or impossible!).

It's a much more challenging problem at work, actually, because there is such a huge, unquestioning reliance on structure among many of the people I work with, in particular the managers, who are, now that I think of it, like structure incarnate. I find myself constantly challenging structure (I'm talking about policy, guidelines for writing documents, guidelines for answering media queries, that sort of thing, all written out ahead of time, all designed to defeat the possibility of surprise).

What really makes it challenging is that, when I question structure, I'm seen by my coworkers as someone who wants chaos, who wants to defeat structure altogether, and I find myself answering these accusations by actually taking on the role of the champion of chaos. Which I don't think accomplishes anything. I don't want to introduce chaos in order to defeat structure, but, rather, in order to defeat unthinking reliance on structure.

In answer to the question cats or dogs (even though I haven't seen the website you pointed me to) I'd have to say cats, because cats seem willing to live much more structureless lives than dogs, and yet remain beautiful in form and movement. Dogs are just dopey and require great amounts of structure in their lives. Cats seem to structure themselves, based on their needs and the daily course of their lives; dogs seem constantly to require guidance - witness the endless walks in the park, the huge, almost undefeatable desire to sleep on the master's bed.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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