canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Neil Smith

Neil Smith is a Montreal writer and one of Knopf's 2007 New Face of Fiction authors. He is being promoted as a writer in the tradition of Yann Martel and Barbara Gowdy.

His debut short story collection is Bang Crunch (Knopf, 2007). 

Smith has won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards, first prize at the Eden Mills Writersí Festival, and was nominated for the Journey Prize three times. His writing has appeared in The Journey Prize Stories, Coming Attractions 04, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Fiddlehead and Maisonneuve

Michael Bryson interviewed Smith by email in December 2006.

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Bang Crunch is your first book. To begin the interview, can you say a few words about how you came to write it. Is it something youíd been planning for a while or is it something that came together more spontaneously?

Writing was originally to be a hobby, nothing more serious than basket weaving. I wrote occasionally in the mornings. When my first few stories got picked up by literary magazines and nominated for the Journey Prize, it dawned on me I could possibly publish a book. At this point, I began planning. I read scores of books of stories. I decided I wanted my book to be a grab bag of different voices and styles (for instance, I jumped from writing a sober piece about a deadly shooting spree to writing a wacky story about benign tumours). When publishers began asking to see my manuscript, I contacted and signed with an agent, the wonderful and wise Dean Cooke. Suddenly writing was no longer basket weaving.

The element of Bang Crunch that I found most striking was the off-beat sense of humour. I suspect others will use words like "absurd" and "surreal" to describe these short stories. However, I wonder if thatís how you see them? The story "Green Fluorescent Protein," for example, is a fairly straight forward coming-of-age story, except it has startling elements that come close to science fiction. It was this mixture of the easily accessible with the bizarre that I found remarkable about these stories.

My favourite short story of all time is "The Former First Lady and the Football Hero," A. M. Homesís hilarious take on Nancy Reagan coping with her husbandís Alzheimerís. Though absurd and mocking, the story elicits great sympathy for Nancy Reagan. I love stories that blend absurdity and poignancy (Georges Saundersís "Pastoralia," Robert Olen Butlerís "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover," Aimee Benderís "What You Left in the Ditch").

A friend who has read my manuscript said, "You realize people will call you quirky." However quirky or surreal my stories may be, I hope they also resonate with readers. Being absurd for absurdityís sake doesnít lead a writer far.

Incidentally, the glow-in-the-dark guinea pig in "Green Fluorescent Protein" was inspired by an actual fluorescent bunny named Alba, which the transgenic artist Eduardo Kac created ŗ la Frankenstein.

Montreal. When youíre not writing fiction, youíre working in Montreal as a translator. Whatís it like to work and live back and forth across different languages? I saw John Lavery (You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off) read last year, and he spoke about wanting to write a book in both English and French because thatís how he lives (back and forth constantly between languages), but he said he realized the audience for that book would be quite small. I thought it sounded like a lovely Trudeau-era ideal of a book, though.

Oh, the French-English quagmire. Yes, Montreal is a linguistic oddball, and so am I in a way. I live mostly in French. I speak French at home and at work. I live in a francophone neighbourhood. I read the news in French. I listen to music in French. I have seasonís tickets to French theatres. And I usually vacation in France. I love the French language, to the point where it irks me when a francophone uses an anglicism like canceler when the French word annuler works so much better. Despite all this, I write fiction in my mother tongue, English.

Of the nine stories in my book, four take place in Montreal. Capturing the English-French reality was hard. Phonetic approximations of accents, the letter d replacing th, annoy me, so the francophone charactersóthe mother in "Isolettes," the best friend in "Green Fluorescent Protein"óare fluently bilingual. In "Jaybird," almost all the characters are francophone. I wrote the story as if it were an English translation of a story in French. To add a French touch, I left the names of plays, television shows, magazines and musical compositions in French. I realize this is not the perfect solution for showcasing Montrealís bilingualism.

That said, Montreal is not as bilingual as many think. The solitudes persist. Many of my relatives here speak little French. I live in Centre Sud, and few of my francophone neighbours speak English. Watch French-Canadian movies and television shows set in Montrealóeven well-written shows like La vie, la vieóand youíll be surprised how few characters are anglophones. A francophone Montrealer recently said to me, "I know that with a name like Smith, you arenít originally from Montreal." A disheartening comment given that I was born here.

The final story in Bang Crunch is called "Jaybird" and itís about two people who take part in an evening of theatre that takes a dramatic turn. I thought this story had both a sadistic streak and a strong yearning for an artistic ideal, a higher reality where all is well. Many stories live in the tension between the wanting and the not having, but I wondered if there wasnít something else going on here. How do you understand this story?

Yes, the story is about the wanting and the not having. Wanting more talent than you actually have. (I sometimes read a novel and think, Well, Iíll never write anything that good, so why not throw in the towel now.) In "Jaybird," Benoit realizes not only that his acting talent is limited, despite his eventual success, but that he does not even enjoy his career. His career makes him sick.

Of the characters in my book, Madeleine from "Jaybird" fascinates me most. Her mystery. Her artfulness. Her daring revenge, which borders, as you say, on the sadistic. She, too, is on the verge of changing her life. And boy, does she go out with a bang.

The story is divided into three acts, with the final act subtitled "The Fantasy." The fantasy is that we will all find a job weíre naturally good at and enjoy, as both Madeleine and Benoit seem to do by the end of the story. This is the ideal you speak of in your question. But maybe this ending is simply a fantasy on the writerís part. Maybe Madeleine actually gets stuck in another demeaning job. Maybe Benoit is now starring in infomercials for non-stick cookware.

The storyís three actsóseduction, humiliation, fantasyóalso mirror many bad love relationships. You get seduced, you get humiliated, and then you fantasize that things will get better down the road.

"Jaybird" was the second last story I wrote for Bang Crunch. I finished it after landing an agent and a book deal. My nail-biting anxiety (will I live up to expectations?) comes through in the mood of the story.

Speaking of sadism and artistic ideal, I recommend seeing the choreography La pornographie des ‚mes by Dave St-Pierre. Itís the most disturbing and breathtaking dance performance Iíve ever seen. Madeleineís dance and Benoitís dance were both inspired by Dave St-Pierreís work.

Your book is being released in January 2007 as part of the New Face of Fiction line from Knopf. How are you feeling? What are your future plans?

The New Face of Fiction school has graduated some admirable writers: Yann Martel, Eden Robinson, Lori Lansens, Anne-Marie Macdonald, Kerri Sakamoto, Timothy Taylor, and on and on. So I feel freakishly lucky to be chosen for the program and very grateful to Knopf and all the Knopfers, particularly my editor, Michael Schellenberg.

Whatís coming up? My book launch will be held on January 30 at Paragraphe Books in Montreal. Iíll also be on the cover of Quill & Quire in January. On February 7, Iíll read from Bang Crunch as part of the International Readings at Harbourfront in Toronto. In April, Iíll read at Blue Met in Montreal.

Bang Crunch has recently sold to Vintage in the United States and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the United Kingdom. So later in 2007, Iíll be busy with preparations for the foreign release of the book. Another big priority for 2007 is my next book, a novel tentatively titled Handsome and Petal. I must knuckle down and work on my novel.

Michael Bryson is TDR's editor. He also does other stuff.

 

 

 

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