canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Peter Darbyshire

Peter Darbyshire's first book, Please: A Novel, was published in 2002 by Raincoast Books. Darbyshire describes Please as "kind of like a season of 'Friends,'  written by ... Bret Easton Ellis." TDR previously described his writing as "somehow able to join Carver and Tarrantino.... Springsteen sang, 'There's a darkness on the edge of town.' Darbyshire's characters live in that darkness, infected by the absurdities of the contemporary sit-com."

Read TDR's review of Please

Michael Bryson interviewed Darbyshire by email in January 2003.

*

TDR: Here's our standard opening gambit. Who are you? Tell us some of your background: the life history, the writing history. Who is Peter Darbyshire?

PD: I was conceived in Germany, born in Kitchener, and grew up in the interior of B.C., in a small town called Salmon Arm. I started writing in elementary school, mainly fantasy and sci-fi, often with a horror angle. Most of my characters died horrible deaths. The teachers were concerned. I returned to Ontario in the late 80s and went from one dead-end job to another, culminating in working the night shift at a grocery store in London, Ont. In an attempt to prevent the slow erosion of my sanity, and also to learn to write better, I started taking part-time English courses at the University of Western Ontario. The courses were in the day, and I was still working at night, so I kept falling asleep in my classes. I liked school enough to quit my job and go full-time. I took English and theatre, and discovered all those writers that Iíd never heard of before but now take for granted. Also met a number of other aspiring writers and we ran a writing group together (a couple of them have been featured in TDRóJonathan Bennett and Paul Vermeersch). After I finished my undergrad I moved to Vancouver for grad school. Loved Vancouver, hated the school. Stopped going to class and began wandering about the city. Went back to London and finished my Masterís there, then drifted about for a bit. I worked some more dead-end jobs (the call center featured in the book was one), then got a job working for Harlequin in Toronto. Learned many euphemisms for sex and genitalia. Got bored after six months or so of that and went back to school, did most of a Ph.D. before I took a leave of absence, which continues to this day. Started the book sometime in 1998 and finished it August 2002. Iím still bouncing around from job to job, but the jobs themselves are a little more interesting these days.

TDR: PLEASE is being sold as a novel, but I felt it was clearly a linked short story collection. The term "novel" can obviously mean many things, but (if you can forgive this oversimplification) it tends to mean a narrative that follows a single character through a series of events leading to a resolution. PLEASE follows a single character through a series of events, but I didn't sense that he resolved anything. When we begin, the major event (his divorce) has already happened; and when the book ends, we're not really past that. How does "novel" fit into your understanding of the book?

PD: Well, I have to admit that the subtitle "a novel" was meant to be a bit provocative. I like the fact that when people read the book they think, "but this isnít a traditional novel. So what is it then?" Thereís a couple of reasons why I decided to do this. First, I wanted to define my place in the current lit scene. I wanted people to pick up the book and look at the subtitle, then look at the way the book is divided into episodes and think, "Hmm, this is a different kind of novel." I think the book is different from a lot of whatís out there now, and that subtitle allows me to flag that right away for readers.

Second, and more importantly, I think the subtitle gets readers thinking about the form and structure of the book, and thatís really important to me, as those things are as much a part of the story as the plot, characters, etc. Please is a social satire of sorts, and its structure is part of this. Given that so much of our lives is dedicated to television, I decided to approach the book through a sort of sitcom logic. I thought of the book like a TV show about the narratorís life, which reflects a lot of his obsessions or perhaps addictions, and so I wrote his life as a series of loosely connected episodes. Kind of like a season of Friends, as written by, oh, I donít know, Bret Easton Ellis maybe? So the use of the subtitle "a novel" makes readers consider the ways in which the structure speaks to the broader narrative of the book, which, I think, wouldnít have happened had I called it a collection of linked stories.

I think that Please actually does fit the definition of the novel as presented in the your question. The book explores several different issues in its various episodes, some of which are broad social concerns and some of which are more personal, and while these things may appear to be disconnected from each other, theyíre threaded throughout the book in such a way that they eventually come to be inextricable from each other. I think as you get into the later episodes of the book, you canít help but read them through the events of the earlier episodes, so that thereís a growing subtext throughout the book. The narratorís attempts to negotiate all these different things in his life coalesce into an overall emotional narrative, and to me that emotional narrative is the true subject of the book. I wanted the book to be a snapshot of what life is like for me and the people I know right now, that is, a series of seemingly disconnected or, at best, loosely connected events Ė school, jobs, romances, etc. Ė that ultimately resolve them into a life story. Itís a take on the coming-of-age story, in some ways.

And I would argue that there is a resolution at the end of the book, at least insofar as the narrator is concerned. Again, itís an emotional resolution as opposed to any sort of story resolution. The narrator feels he has achieved some kind of transformation and come to terms with certain aspects of his life. Of course, whether or not you choose to agree with him is another matter. His resolution is complicated by the fact that the ending of the book suggests he has simply traded some of his obsessions for new ones, which I tried to get at by repeating lines from earlier in the book, creating a sort of cyclical structure, that sort of thing. I wanted to maintain the satire element of the book at the end Ė indeed, I think the satire outweighs anything else Ė and I think any neat, tidy ending would have destroyed this. And ending with that sort of black observation Ė well, thatís resolution all of its own, no?

Maybe I should have added an ellipsis to the end of the subtitle. Please: A NovelÖ

TDR: I said to someone that I thought you must have taken some screenwriting courses or something because the way you create extremely heighten drama in very confined spaces reminded me of a screenwriting course I once took. The teacher kept stressing the need for drama to "raise the stakes." This is something we are used to seeing on the screen, but not in short stories, where the drama often hinges on quite minor actions and subtle psychological shifts. This isn't meant as a criticism, just an observation. I was fascinated by your ability to capture high drama in a matter of paragraphs or even a few sentences. The use of the gun, for example, in one story. We're used to filmmakers putting guns in scenes to get their audiences to sit on the edge of their seats, but short story writers don't do that much at all. What do you have to say about this?

PD: No, Iíve never taken any screenwriting courses, but as I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, the book is closely engaged with television and film, and I think a lot of the underlying logic of those mediums seeped into the book. Iíve also taken a lot of theatre courses, and I think there is some overlap between film and theatre. I didnít consciously write things like the gun in to "raise the stakes," as you say. Things like that just seemed like natural extensions of the story. Maybe that has a lot to say about how weíre defined by our cultural influences. I do watch a lot of movies, and the TV is always on in the background in my place, and I guess that stuff has just kind of worked its way into my mind, so that it seems to be the natural way of things. Baudrillard would approve.

I think that much of the book still depends upon those "minor actions and subtle psychological shifts" you mention. As much as there are moments of high action in the book, I think a great deal of what I was trying to get across comes through in moments that are very quiet and understated. In fact, some of the moments that to me best sum up the book are some of the least dramatic. Thereís a moment in "It Doesnít Get Any Better Than This," for instance, in which all of the various ideas of the book come together in this one scene, making what I think is the key critical statement of the book, but itís presented in the form of a memory casually related by the narrator. This happens a lot in Please Ė where things that are really important to the critical economy of the book are just there in the background of the narratorís life. Theyíre what inform everything he does, everything he thinks about, but heís not really conscious of them on that level. Which, to me, seems more or less like life.

I was afraid when I was writing Please that a lot of these quiet moments could get missed, but I also didnít want to get all didactic with the book. Hopefully if people donít see the larger themes and issues of the book on a first read, theyíll come back to the book later and see them then. I know that happens all the time with me and my favourite writers. And even if readers never do see these things, I think the book is still entertaining on the surface level.

TDR: The Danforth Review has recently summarized an April 2002 report from the Canada Council on the state of Canadian literature in high schools. How was your high school English experience? I'm quite sure that any high school student who picks up your book isn't going to complain to the teacher that it's "boring." Do you think Canadian writers are producing work that's responding to our historical moment in a way that teenagers can get excited about? (If so, what names and titles come to mind.)

PD: I can barely remember high school, and what few memories I do retain have little to do with English. I remember reading Shakespeare somewhere along the way, but I couldnít tell you which play it was. Thatís about it Ė I donít remember a single other thing I read in high school. I have some good memories of individual teachers helping me with my own writing, but that was outside of the immediate class experience, so while it says a lot about those teachers, it doesnít say anything about the curriculum.

I recently gave a reading at a high school in Peterborough, and I was surprised by how many current writers the students knew. However, the writers they seemed excited about were the ones that are more out there in popular culture Ė Russell Smith, Dave Eggers, etc. Ė rather than the critical darlings. I think they were just interested in writers that somehow spoke to their experiences, or at least their sense of the world, and werenít really interested in any questions of nationalism, Canadian history, or anything like that. I think they liked my book not because I was a Canadian writer but because they picked up on the cultural references in it (they seemed to think killing John Cusack was a really good idea).

Iím not sure how I feel about the idea of "Canadian" literature as a subject. I taught CanLit for three years at York and I found myself increasingly uneasy with the very idea of a course grounded in some sort of national essence. Iím all for supporting Canadian authors wherever possible, and Iíd love to see students reading current Canadian books, but thatís not what really happens in that kind of setting. Itís all Susanna Moodie and so on. Maybe if they extended the idea of "contemporary" literature past the 80sÖ

Do I think Canadian writers are producing work thatís responding to our historical moment in a way that teenagers can get excited about? No, not really. I donít think thereís much work out there by Canadian writers that is responding to our historical moment at all. Most of whatís coming out now seems to be historical fiction Ė itís talking about the past, not now. In fact, I was arguing to someone recently that historical fiction is Canadaís equivalent of John Grisham or Michael Crichton. Itís really turned into a stale genre here. Iím not against historical fiction in general Ė I like a lot of the American books that grapple with history Ė but I think Canadian historical fiction has devolved into a series of bland, moral texts. I like Findleyís historical works for the most part, but I canít think of anyone since him whoís created anything as challenging as The Wars. I think a lot of the Canadian historical novels have all the complexity of Harlequins Ė lots of lush adjectives and adverbs, a clear moral scheme and feel-good endings. Not what Iíd be reading if I was younger.

TDR: How about that odious influences question. Are you conscious of being influenced by other writers? Do you feel any "anxiety of influence"? Any writers out there that intimidate you?

PD: Well, I think everyone is influenced by other writers. We donít write in a vacuum, after all. I imagine Iím like other writers in that Iím always concerned about writing something new, something that sets my work apart from the work of those who taught me how to write. But I also think that itís okay to write in an identifiable tradition, as long as you update it and bring your own experiences to it rather than simply replicating whatís come before.

Someone once said to me that writing a book was like entering into a dialogue with literary tradition, and I had that in mind when I was working on Please. In fact, parts of Please deal with this directly, and I even have characters speaking lines that are really coded comments on the ways in which the book takes a new path away from my influences. I didnít go over the top with this, as I didnít want it to become the subject of the book, but itís there if you look for it.

I think the concerns about influence are a particular issue for anyone who writes in a minimalist style, which is what I do. When you use a lot of adverbs or adjectives or page-long sentences or whatever, you can develop a style that people automatically identify as yours. However, when you donít use those devices, when you rely instead upon quieter turns in the writing, and work instead with situation or dialogue or whatever, those distinctions in style are much more subtle. Iíve been amused by some of the reviews of my book that compare me to other writers, because Iím amazed at the comparison. I know making comparisons is kind of a shorthand for reviewers, but Iím sitting there thinking, "But that writerís use of metaphors is totally over the top! Thereís not a metaphor in my book!"

Any writers that intimidate me? No. There are books that amaze me Ė recently itís been Proulxís Close Range, George Saundersí Civilwarland in Bad Decline, and Adam Johnsonís Emporium Ė but thatís about it. When I see a book thatís really new in its vision and the way it engages with the world around us, I always get really excited and invigorated as a writer. Usually, though, Iím just disappointed that people donít take more risks. Most writers seem content to keep on telling stories in the same old way, without doing anything to make the reader pause and think. Whatís the point of that?

TDR: What's next? What are you working on right now?

PD: Iím picking away at a couple of projects, but both are still in the early stages. Iím a very slow writer, and I rewrite everything about twenty times. One is a collection of short stories. Iím working on them here and there. The other is a new novel. I donít know what itís about yet. Hopefully Iíll know in a couple of years.

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

 

 

 

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