canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Ryan Arnold

Ryan Arnold is a Vancouver-based writer. His stories have been published in Matrix, Headlight, Career Suicide! and recently he has been an entertainment writer for The Globe & Mail. The Coward Files (Conundrum, 2006) is his debut collection of short fiction. 

His blog: 

Interview by Nathaniel G. Moore, Sept. 2006


When did you start the coward files?

The Coward Files officially began to take shape in the fall of 2005. Prior to that it was little more than a folder of stories on my computer that, when I started adding them up, seemed to have a few things in common. I noticed, coincidentally or not, many of the characters were crawling around and hiding in intersecting, dubious circles of cowards, liars and whistle blowers. So from there it seemed natural to put the stories together, call them The Coward Files, and see if anything interesting happened. So I guess now I'm just playing the waiting game.

Who are some of your favourite cowards?

That, whether or not it was intended to be, is a tough question. I guess I'd say my favourite cowards are those timid, frail souls who aren't afraid to come clean and identify their fears. Those sissies who are the last ones to volunteer to work up a sweat, sign up for a dangerous job or go along for the ride on a trip to Ikea. Specifically, it's difficult to identify a single coward I love, but if there's one dude whose attitude I really admire, it's got to be Shaggy (of Scooby Doo).

Tell us about your background, where you learned to write words, etc.

It's hard to pinpoint where I learned to write, as obviously I feel like I'm still learning and, to a certain extent, I still don't know how. But my formal education in writing and literature began with a couple night classes at Capilano College in Vancouver during a period in the late nineties when I was searching for an alternative to a fledgling economics degree.

Initially I found the process of writing offered a rewarding form of self-loathing that I hadn't experienced before. So I dusted off my library card and decided to increase the amount of tweed in my suit closet. I read a few books that my instructors told me I should read and I enrolled at Concordia in Montreal where, for almost four years, I did the bulk of my formal book-learnin'.

Entering an English Department at a Canadian university was, more or less, like joining a book club with a bunch of other kids who weren't good at math. But it proved to be a valuable experience for me. More than anything, a formal study of the English language opened my eyes to the incredible system of literature and how accepting the average reader can be. I learned that what I like to write about is tolerated in more than a few academic settings and welcome in a number of bars, half-way-houses and bowling alleys in between. 

David McGimpsey was my biggest supporter and mentor in this area. He taught me that a well-constructed story about a Dave Coulier impersonator who sneaks his way into one of the celebrity slots on Hollywood Squares was likely as interesting and, more importantly, could be infinitely more relevant than a long-winded story about a boy learning the ropes from his dying father in a boxing ring. This was, for the lack of a better word, a revelation. I felt like I'd been invited to my first party in the ninth grade and discovered I wasn't the only one who wasn't enjoying the case of warm Bud Light the host had stolen from her uncle's shed.

In my years at Concordia (perhaps more accurately at the surrounding bars), with the guidance of a few key people, I learned how to learn to write. And that was it. It was all I needed.

What are you feelings towards the Montreal writing scene?

It's been three years since I lived in Montreal, and I only get to visit a couple times a year, so it's fairly difficult to comment on the current state of affairs. But based on my four year tour of duty there, I'd suggest the Montreal writing community is smaller and, in many ways, tighter than Vancouver. 

The most obvious reason for this is there are fewer English language writers in Montreal than on the West Coast. So naturally they're closer and more supportive out of necessity. And by necessity, I more accurately mean loneliness. Hit a few cafes in Montreal it's hard not to trip over a power supply chord that's connected to the laptop of some grad student writing a long-poem or editing their screenplay. Compare that to Vancouver where most writers are probably more proud of their new mountain bike than they are of their latest book. 

I probably have six friends in Vancouver who are exceptional writers and who produce magnificent work, but I don't know because they just keep it to themselves. Not me, I produce junk and tell everyone. Not only that, but I love making broad, ill-advised generalizations.

If I had to summarize the Montreal literary "scene", I wouldn't be afraid to make a comparison with the Montreal Expos. In terms of baseball glory, the Expos have never been the Yankees and they haven't even been the Blue Jays. Sure, they've had their great teams and maybe as many amazing, talented, loyal and good-hearted players as any team. Gary Carter, Hawk Dawson, Rusty Staub, Tim Raines, Jackie Robinson, even Vladamir Guerrero. Players who the city and country are proud of, who, unfortunately, just ended up playing in front of forty-five hundred at the Big O instead of forty-five thousand at Camden Yards. But you better believe those forty-five hundred knew their baseball and weren't going to the games for cotton candy or the post game fireworks show.

With all that said, if the Montreal writing community was a baseball team, it's not exactly like I was ever a starting shortstop. I like to think of myself as one of those glory grabbers who hang out in the left field bleachers talking about my heyday. And when I routinely visit the hotdog line-up, I'm likely heard telling the dad ahead of me in line buying a round of draft for his teenage sons that I'm a former bullpen catcher and my locker was beside that guy on the mound with the cool specs who's tossing the one-hitter.

What has it been like working with Andy Brown?

Working with Andy has been outstanding. We've actually only met once, briefly, but he's invested a lot of time and resources into this project and given me a lot of professional and artistic freedom. Conundrum Press is consistently publishing diverse, creative work and I'm excited that my stories can bring the level of Andy’s reputation down a notch or two.

Who are some of your influences?

There's definitely nothing that inspires me to write more than reading a great story or seeing a great movie (I guess that's as obvious a statement as an astronomer saying that there's nothing that inspires her more than looking at the sky (but it's so true!)). Particularly, in the past two years, I've developed a debilitating interest in the short story and, although my list of favourites is wide, I'd have to say my major influences are Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Raymond Carver. If there are two books that I pick up monthly for a good laugh or kick in the ribs, they are Carver's Cathedral and Ford's A Multitude of Sins. I'd be remiss not to mention Ford's masterpieces The Sportswriter and Independence Day and Mordecai Richer, obviously. Thomas King and Kurt Vonnegut are also huge influences and favourites of mine. There are others. Bobby Flay comes to mind.

Outside the written word, I think I find a great deal of inspiration in, sadly, the most mundane activities. The idea for one of the stories in The Coward Files came to me when I was peeling a potato. It struck me as being quite odd. Maybe it was the fact that I was citing passages of Tennyson to my cat while making that meal (note the part about me having a cat is a lie, as is the comment about me citing passages of Tennyson and, for that matter, it ain't right to call my coffee mug of hash browns a meal).

Name your top five cowards of all time.

How could we talk about great cowards and not talk about the French? I heard one time Donald Rumsfeld called the entire country of France cowards. I don't know exactly what the context of that comment was, so perhaps it's not appropriate to even mention it, but this is my interview, not Rumsfeld's. Anyway, regardless of what he was suggesting, if I had the choice between being Donald Rumsfeld and being French, consider me on my way to the patisserie to pick up a baguette and a beret. Hell, I'm wearing a custom made "I love Gerard Depardieu!" tank top as we speak.

You know what? I'll have to go back to my earlier nomination of Shaggy as one of the world's great cowards. Woody Allen is a splendid coward. Maybe the perfect coward. How many is that? Three, if we include the French. Well, Bud Selig is a coward. And one time I saw a WWE wrestling match at BC Place when I was ten. This guy was assigned to fight a wrestler named "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan. The catch was Duggan came into the ring with a two-by-four and I guess he'd discovered a loophole in the World Wrestling Federation rulebook because, much to the jubilation of the crowd, he was allowed to use it. Man, that poor sap Duggan fought that day, now he was a coward.

What are you plans for the future in terms of art life or writing or ten minutes from now?

After finishing this interview, I'm going to pour myself a cold cream soda and watch the rest of the Jays game. Beyond that, the future looks hazy and, quite honestly, frightening.

In terms of writing, this project has been a pretty enjoyable experience, so I might give this pen and paper gig another jab (likely once people have read the book and tell me what a deranged, immature hack I am, I may not feel the same way). I have another handful of stories on the go that, if all goes well, I'll be shamelessly self-promoting in 2007. So standby all you book lovers.

Do you think being or calling oneself a coward is an act of bravery or vanity or neither or both or all three?

What I find interesting is how nervous and offended people get when you call them a coward. Maybe it's just a result of us taking ourselves too seriously, but let's face it, we're all either a coward or, worse, afraid to admit it.

You know, I think being a coward sometimes means you're simply more calculating and wise than the lunatic raising his hand beside you. But I guess there's a lot of ways we can interpret the term coward. It can mean you're a spineless ninny with the bravery of a sheltered chipmunk or it can mean you're a petty, spiteful tit who ducks behind a corporate or political facade to activate plans that include the hard work and suffering of everyone but yourself. Either way, as Mark Twain said, "the human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner".

TDR features editor Nathaniel G. Moore is the figurehead of Notho Entertainment.







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