canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Suzette Mayr

Suzette Mayr is an active part of Calgaryís vibrant literary community whose poetry and fiction have appeared in countless periodicals and anthologies an in collaborations with visual artists. She is the author of the acclaimed novels Moon Honey (finalist for the Georges Bugnet Award for Best Novel and finalist for the Henry Kreisel Award for Best First Book) and The Widows (a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book, Canadian-Caribbean region). Mayrís latest book is the brash, surreal and sharply witty satire Venous Hum, chronicling a 20-year high school reunion that runs into complications ranging from adultery to undead vegetarian cannibals. 

Nathaniel G. Moore interviewed Mayr in February 2005.


TDR: Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer, highs and lows, etc., schooling, work experience?

SM: I started out planning to be a science major because biology was pretty much the only thing I was good at in high school. I was tested as a "slow learner" when I was very young -- I think the English teachers were just really boring. But once I got to university, I sucked at biology and was doing well in English so that's what I went into (I was a bit unfocussed as a younger person). I was accepted into a poetry writing class at U of Calgary in my 3rd year and just kept on going.

The high points were the teachers I worked with, and I remember being so thrilled when I saw my very first novel come out. It smelled so good. Work-wise I'm much more settled now, but I took on all kinds of jobs to get here like waitressing and ushering and being a night-shift sandwich-maker during the 1988 Olympics and being a receptionist for a publishing company. I was a receptionist at a used car dealership (this was a definite low low very low). I quickly figured out that the 9-5 scene wasn't going to work for me because I can't stand physically talking to people before noon.

TDR: What is your opinion on the state of fiction in Canada or the world? Do you think fiction writers are addressing or reflecting enough moral and social issues or too many? What about your work?

SM: This is a hard, complex question to which I don't have a real answer. I think I just wish people read more which seems tangential but is an important part of the question. Without readers what's the point of publishing? Writers need to be encouraged that their investigations are important. I also think that exciting things are happening in the novel genre, but that the short story genre is (with a few exceptions) becoming too homogenous a category particularly in terms of form. 

There isn't a lot of experimentation in this genre and it's a shame because its compactness leaves so much room for opportunity. There are the masters of the genre like Alice Munro, and Canada has some excellent short story writers, but I worry that the form is not being taken as far as it can go. I also know I'm generalizing terribly, but in contemporary US short fiction it seems like everyone is trying to write like Raymond Carver. Some of it's quite skilled (eg: Lorrie Moore and Tim O'Brien), but there's little experimentation. Not like the older American stuff.

In terms of moral and social issues, I think that this is being addressed quite well in contemporary Canadian fiction and in fiction from around the world. I take my inspiration from Latin American writers and especially British lesbian writers like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters who integrate the same-sex debate so beautifully in their work.

I really appreciate satirical writers like Julian Barnes and Fay Weldon. With regards to Canadian writing, I think there needs to be more serious (or comically serious) debate about race and ethnicity and the myth of multiculturalism in a big way. Right now there are writers who write about this, like Dionne Brand and Thomas King, but in spite of their stature they still seem marginalized to me in the major literary discussions. I still don't think they're necessarily part of the canon when they absolutely should be. 

In my work, I'm really interested in talking about the second and third generation Canadians of colour who can't be categorized as immigrants -- this makes them trouble, and for me trouble is a great place to start writing fiction.

TDR: In _Venous Hum_, two writers are editing novels, were you concerned to have two characters in similar states of vulnerability? I just thought of that for some reason, it's a vulnerable place to be.

SM: Although the two characters are both writing novels, I think they are entirely different writers and come at writing from radically different directions. Thor wants to make money and that's why he writes. His ears are too big for him to be good-looking, so he decides that he'll be a behind the scenes type and make his million that way. He's in love with the trappings of fame and doesn't really seem to understand what writing is actually about. Louve, on the other hand, is writing because she just needs to put the words down and she isn't really concerned with the outcome. It's interesting that you see writing a novel as a vulnerable place to be. I hadn't thought of that.

TDR: Do you run into people from your high school? When it happens and there is that cognitive moment or recognition, do you recognize them or yourself? I always recognize myself, and it grosses me out? And you?

SM: I do run into people from high school -- a lot lately. With some of them it's a delight because they've grown up and aren't the same as they were then and we discover that we still have a lot of things in common. I really enjoy that. Then there are the other ones who either are the same or just seem exactly the same to me. I remember running into a woman who was quite beautiful and blonde in high school and she is _still_ beautiful and blonde. She was perfectly decent, but I suddenly entered a time warp where I started feeling like, shit, I forgot that all you need in the world to get ahead is to be beautiful and blonde. It had nothing to do with her as a person, but I was shocked at how completely insecure I suddenly felt and how I somehow hadn't progressed past the age of 17. I felt like such a loser and I felt like a loser for feeling like a loser who felt like a loser. This is why I will never go to a high school reunion. I would rather suck the fart out of a bull (to quote a writer I once heard).

TDR: What writers are influencing you these days?

SM: One old faithful is Kerri Sakamoto's The Electrical Field which just seems to me to be a grand, operatic tragedy. I think it's marvellous and even when I read it a second and third time to teach it, it still grips me. I also will always adore Michael Ondaatje's early work, like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Running in the Family. He has such tremendous facility with words and image. Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie McDonald really moved me, not because of the actual language which I thought was fairly bland, but because the story incorporated miscegenation and sexuality in ways I'd never seen before. I realized when I read that book that that was what I was trying to touch on in my own work and I was astonished when it made me bawl my eyes out for about 1/2 an hour. 

Really my dirty secret is that I've started reading biographies, the trashier the better, and by far the most wonderful book I read last year was Eddie Fisher's biography, Been There Done That, in which he trashes his ex-wives Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Fisher and talks about how Mamie van Doren or Ann-Margret (I can't remember) gave him the best blow job ever. I don't think I was alive when these actors were at their peak, but there's something about the high trash quotient that appeals to me. It's partly why I adored Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates -- it's a big gossip mag about Marily Monroe, but Oates can write like a fire-cracker. She is one of my favourites because she refuses to turn away her gaze. She takes in all the crap and throws it into the reader's lap. She does it too in Black Water, her look at the Chappaquidick murder. Thomas King also writes the best and funniest short stories I have ever read. I just read "Borders" and thought it was brilliant.

TDR: I was happy to hear of your involvement with the visual arts. Do you think writers are visual artists? I mean, some words and structures are completely auditory, and some are completely visual. What elements of the visual art world do you apply to your writing if any?

SM: I absolutely agree with this idea that writers are visual artists. I also think they are actors. The good writers tap into all the senses all the time and I know that when I write certain characters it is a physical feat. In my second book about older women, I did a lot of just walking around my house and work and up and down stairs, I tasted food and washed and dried dishes all making my body think about what it would feel like if I were 50 years older than I am. It is also essential that a writer show the world they're writing about -- this taps into visual and sensory angles that I imagine visual artists have to too.

TDR: What was it like working with Arsenal?

Arsenal was great! They did a really great job with the way the book looks, were deeply respectful during the whole process of bringing out the book, and their distribution has been marvellous.

TDR: What are you working on now?

Right now I have a lot of things cooking, but nothing definite. I'm going to have to wait until things are a little more freed up time-wise before I can really jump in.

Nathaniel G. Moore is the features editor of The Danforth Review.







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