canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Yashin Blake  

Yashin Blake is one of those people you see on the subway wearing headphones, writing in a spiral notebook, or staring blankly at a stack of printed pages. 

In Nowhere Fast, Yashin Blake’s collection of short fiction (ECW Press, 2004), the world is unceremoniously unplugged — his characters confront the fallout, the stillness, and silence, with a new, devastating vulnerability. The devil meets his match in a Bathurst Street laundromat. A Vietnam vet’s sister is terrified by his unexpected return. The kid who spends too much time in the garage fixates on the battle of Midway — and then breaks all the rules at the high school talent show. A middle-aged social worker’s job moves in with him. 

Blake is inspired by a lifelong love of reading, and listening to heavy music by bands such as Unsane, Madball, and Motörhead. He writes in his Toronto basement, listening to Slayer, while his family sleeps upstairs. In the mornings he leaves to teach an adult literacy class.

Nathaniel G. Moore interviewed Blake by email in the winter of 2004-2005.


Take a moment and tell us about yourself, your background, how you got into the world of writing.

Hubert Selby Jr. once said that reading and listening to music leads to writing. I feel I am living proof of this statement. I grew up surrounded by music. I’ve always identified strongly with whatever type of music I was into at the time. I dabbled with writing off and on for years. I’d come up with a scene or a character and write a few pages. I always wondered how to write a novel, how to sustain a piece of writing for that long? But I was lazy. 

My wife and my brother are both creative people who have worked hard to make their creativity their careers. They inspire me. In early 1998 a friend was killed in a car accident. Cliché as this may sound, his sudden departure from this plane of existence was my wake up call. I asked myself, what have I always wanted to do in life? Write a novel. I got to work. Titanium Punch, published in 2001, was the result.

I like to think of myself as self-taught. I took a couple of workshops through the now defunct Toronto Writer’s Workshops. That is where I met ECW editor, Michael Holmes. He inspired me to continue working on Titanium Punch and he gave it the green light for publication. It was an incredible break.

What is your approach for prose writing? Do you get a sense at length at all when working on a piece, like, okay this is a novel, this will end at page 11, etc. What drives you in terms of controlling your output? Or is it different each time?

My writing approach has changed a lot since becoming a father. For the first time, I am using the strict, ‘write everyday’ rule. At first this produced some short pieces, but a story that can only be brought to life in the format of a novel has revealed itself to me. I am writing without an outline. It is very exciting. 

The tedious/magical work of writing is really at the essence of all this. I prefer to write my first draft at the keyboard since this hastens one to the rewriting process. I do handwrite first drafts and type them up later if necessary. I wish I had a laptop.

I tend towards brevity. My stories seem to naturally end at one of three different lengths: one page, five-six pages, or around thirty pages. I believe that no novel needs to be more than 200 pages.

Titanium Punch (ECW, 2001) was written largely in an improvised fashion, scene by scene. The ending was written well before many of the other scenes. The story focuses on identity and character, not plot. It was written without an outline. The latter half of the creative process involved assembling all the scenes to see what gaps were asking to be filled.

When were the stories for your latest book, _Nowhere Fast_, written?

The stories in Nowhere Fast were written between 1995 and 2003.

What are some contemporary Can-Lit writers you enjoy reading?

The book 1978 by Daniel Jones is my favourite Canadian novel. I also like Morley Callaghan but he is hardly contemporary. I find Martin Popoff’s work on Heavy Metal (The top 500 Heavy Metal Songs / The top 500 Heavy Metal Albums) to be very informative and enjoyable.

My favourite Canadian writer right now is the military historian Mark Zeuhlke. His work on Ortona and The Liri Valley has produced incredibly readable, fascinating books. I recently met Deborah Ellis, author of the fabulous The Breadwinner and the stunningly powerful Parvana’s Journey. She inspired me to get back to writing after a fifteen month hiatus (my son is fourteen months old).

What inspired the story "June Beach"? It's a tender recollection that seems like an honest retelling of a proud moment, i really enjoyed how the father's are compared and built up, and then even the ways the boys are playing in the sand is reflective of this competitive streak. What is the origin of this one?

The first thing that made me write this story is I wanted to check in with the narrator of Midway (child) and Press Ganged (teen) as an adult. These three stories form the interlinked series called Battle at Sea. I drew on my memories of camping and my experience as swimmer to help evoke setting and events. The origins, ultimately, are that deep pool of universal fiction we all dip into. I really like this story. I read it at the launch and afterwards, my publisher asked my dad about it!

In your fiction world there is a subconscious vibe one with a huge back-story, these are characters with a lot of miles on them, which I enjoyed. "By the numbers" describes Max visiting an old flame after being released from prison. Again, the realism here is astonishing, particularly the way he explains how he wound up incarcerated using dialogue. Not that his dialogue landed him in jail, but you describe so much of this story as they speak, how is that different or better than using 3rd or 1st person non-dialogue narrative?

Dialogue has power, a realism, unto itself. It is true ‘voice’ after all. Dialogue is the story. It opens up the potential for between-the-lines subtleties/interpretations etc to be picked up on, or made, by the listener/reader. The third person is tricky because: a) you’re that much more removed from the story, and b) I find it difficult to remain true to the ‘bias’ of the third person narrator. 

It’s so tempting to conveniently jump into any character’s head to reveal what they are thinking. But the third person is rarely completely omniscient. The first person is cool. I love first person narration. Titanium Punch was written in the first person.

Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on a new novel. Titanium Punch was written back in ’98-’99 so it is exciting to be re-engaging in the process of creating a long piece of writing! It’s going well. Whereas T-Punch was about the heavy metal scene, bands, concerts etc, this book will be the novel equivalent of a death metal album.

Do you think using pop culture products in fiction makes it relevant, dated or retarded?

I love history. I feel pop cultural references fix one’s writing in time. It can be very easy to get carried away with making references to pop cultural products etc. It takes good characters to make writing relevant.

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







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