canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Darryl Whetter

by Margaret Christakos

Darryl Whetter is a Canadian fiction author who has lived in Ontario and the Maritimes. 

Currently based in Nova Scotia, he has published a collection of short stories called A Sharp Tooth in the Fur (2003); auspiciously, the title story appeared in TDR

Darryl Whetter’s debut novel, a "bicycle odyssey" called The Push & The Pull, was published by Goose Lane Editions in the spring of 2008. 

Christakos interviewed Darryl on FaceBook in early February 2009. 

Here is the transcript, with only slight edits. Photo credit: Nicole Dixon. 

Margaret Christakos: Your first novel The Push & The Pull argues, I think, for the necessity of destinations. It’s not a wiley and distractable flaneur we’ve got cruising along the highway from Halifax to Kingston on a bike. It’s a bloodhound. Your protagonist Andrew Day, in his mid-twenties, is arrowing his way from graduate school back to the house in Kingston where for several years as a late teen he’d helped his father to die as well as possible from a degenerative nerve disease. He’s coming back with hopes to reunite with Betty, away in Europe in a perhaps more meandering probe of herself and her own future. Andrew has a route, and more or less he’s following it. My first question for you today is, did you plan out the entire structure of the narrative in advance, as some novelists do, or did you find it as you wrote? I'm betting on the first, or somewhere between the two, but feel free to surprise me.

Darryl Whetter: Oh no, I’m a maddeningly tangential and spiraling novelist. It took me ten years to write The Push & The Pull, and for more than half of that I didn’t know the ending. The plot with the house inheritance didn’t emerge for about four years. That house inheritance was a big anchor, but for years and years I just had the following base ingredients:

(1) journey by touring bicycle (in which all gear—food, shelter, warmth, mental stimulation, pain management—makes climbing hills more onerous). As the novel says, "any desire is a weight."

(2) the juxtaposition of Andrew on a bike in the present tense with his father’s disease in the past tense. The bike is such a naked and visible piece of technology (unlike all this electronica) and it impacts the human body so directly. A bike is a skeleton, and it changes the skeleton of the rider (asking us not to be bipedal, to hang our noses closer to the ground and be more mammalian). The generative image for the novel was the juxtaposition of two skeletons: that of the (largely enabling) bicycle written by a healthy young man and that of his ill father who has a degenerative disease which eventually warps his skeleton.

(3) Love. Ultimately the how, what and where of his journey aren’t as important as the why. If he’s going to do all that work, he needs a big why. The how, what and where gave me plenty, including the idea that he was carrying his own home (a "nylon nomad"). For him at least, home means love. Here’s a guy who cuts off part of his toothbrush handle to have less to carry up each hill, yet he carries postcards from his travelling, exish lover.

(4) The landscape was also foundational. In the abstract, in fantasy, I can imagine biking in the Prairies, where the flatness would allow you to bike into the most Zen-like trances. But I needed Andrew to suffer. Although the Rockies are obviously high, many X-Can cyclists claim that New Brunswick is the most challenging (because of its constant ups and downs). Also, a journey from the Maritimes into eastern Ontario has him biking into linguistic incompetence. As he passes from Nova Scotia into New Brunswick, the French rises incrementally. He may be biking home, but I wanted him biking into uncertainty first.

MC: You say you needed Andrew to suffer. This seems to be profoundly physicalized through the athleticism of the difficult ride. At the same time it seems he is exorcising the suffering he had to witness of his father’s body turning to bone, losing the capacity for muscle response.

Can you speak a little about the witnessing another’s suffering as itself a deeply physical experience?

DW: I wanted to write about illness in a novel of both familial and romantic love precisely because illness blurs the boundaries between spectator and sufferer. In family or in love, to be spectator and/or caregiver to the suffering of another undeniably in ways makes one a surrogate to the suffering. This is a novel of intimacy, and that intimacy isn’t always in health and happiness. To live with the illness of a loved one is a profound intimacy: there are vicarious rewritings of your own body as well as domestic overlaps and intrusions. On the other hand, those intimate to disease also at times feel their acute separation from the diseased. That may be a source of guilt, wonder, fear, anxiety, or of resentment. The novel explores this paradox of union and separation (through the body etc.) in both disease (death) and romantic love. Like many adult children, Andrew grows to see similarities between his body and his father’s, but his father’s body has been profoundly altered by disease (for example, the "reorbiting" ribs).

MC: While attending your reply, I noticed that you have an interesting type-o above: "The generative image for the novel was the juxtaposition of two skeletons: that of the (largely enabling) bicycle written by a healthy young man and that of his ill father who has a degenerative disease which eventually warps his skeleton." "Written" instead of "ridden."

I mean, it’s worth saying that this is an enormously verbal kind of fiction about an often speechless, interior journey.

It puts me in mind of another notion the novel makes much of, getting rid of things; well, and of feelings. There’s a predictive moment when Betty, wandering alone inside Andrew's house near the beginning of their relationship, finds a framed cheque issued to him by his mother on his 21st birthday. His mother, Pat, has written on the cheque: "Hatred is a burden." Blood money, unassumed. He’d rather keep his burden at that point, and not add to it with "healing."

Our first introduction to Pat, though, is one of her flinging a male doll out a car window, when Andy is a boy bickering with his cousin in the back seat. It struck me that this is one of the few scenes where Andrew actually is "bad," and out of control. He becomes so very reliable.

Is there some kind of lesson for Andrew in the scene, something about the mother having a bottom line?

DW: Pat was very important to the novel, a key, and also one of the ways in which I had to admit I was writing a novel, not another short story. In earlier drafts, Pat was more two-dimensional, sort of naively self-interested. I felt I was onto something as I began to discover and/or hear a wiser voice for her (although often a confrontational one). She often gets the last word in a scene, and she was a kind of ambassador for me into worlds of compassion and partial forgiveness. A novel should be a symphony, not a concerto, and her voice was the instrument that expanded the sound. In one scene, the lovers Betty and Andrew meet Pat at a restaurant. Andrew is eventually caught out in a lie there, and Betty leaves because of it—leaves the restaurant and maybe the relationship. As a reader, I love fiction that has me agreeing 100% with one character and then switching directions entirely to agree with equal certainty with another two seconds later. Caught out in his lie, Andrew defends himself by saying he "didn't want her [Betty’s] pity." Reasonable line, I think. But so is Pat’s reply: "So you say."

To return to the origin of the question, there is a bit of a moral mutation for Andy when he’s young. His father Stan’s disease is steady but gradual. When Andrew is younger, Stan is more able. As the boy Andy grows and strengthens, though, his father weakens. For a time at least, they are intersecting lines on one graph. I wanted to imply that outwardly Andy had been a good kid, perhaps out of nervousness and/or responsibility. As he loses Stan, however, he and the reader discover immaturities buried beneath the seeming maturity.

MC: But how much of a choice does Andrew have at becoming the caregiver of his father? They become a dyad, much like Betty and her colourful mother Elaine enter as a dyad. So you have a father-son and mother-daughter dyad, and no reliable example of a romantic couple surviving crisis or even longterm relationship. "Family" becomes located in the space between generations.

I have to say I sort of pity Andrew’s ascension to caregiver.

DW: Stan does give Andrew an out, at least nominally. Andy’s old enough to, as the divorce phrase goes, "choose." Stan assures him that he could go, but part of his pitch for staying (genuine or not) is that Andrew will emerge stronger for staying. That’s part of the big, uncertain investigation of the novel. Is Andrew genuinely stronger or, like a touring cyclist, has he strengthened some muscles at the expense of other parts of the body?

The novel does try to arrive at some wisdom, part of which is the young adult Andrew’s recognition that even Stan’s death has, in ways, improved him, that Stan’s death was a kind of graduation. Eventually Andrew’s able to admit that he wouldn’t have traded a sick father for a healthy one and he wouldn’t even, couldn’t even, trade losing Stan for keeping him. Andrew has to bike through all of that. Is Andrew a conscript or a volunteer? Does he know? By the end, he gains for his losses.

MC: I loved the relationship portrayed between son and father; it was really very moving, and tough, and detailed. How many sons get to estimate how big a piss bag their dad’s going to need; I mean, there are some very brave, smack-in-the-face near-shame experiences that Andrew gets to traverse.

There’s another father figure in Andrew’s psyche, arguably. By the time he’s on the road in his bike trip, he’s carrying with him Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. Right away here, we think, ah that Whetter, what a lit prof—which of course you are, currently at Dalhousie. There's a great irreverence when Andrew starts burning pages of the novel to keep his roadside fires lit.

At the same time you are adamantly overwriting your own horseman, man on bike, as a kind of double packhorse and centaur, heroic post-human like the fantasy Richler’s protagonist keeps fueling of his outlaw brother.

In and around here, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Richler; has he been an important influence?

DW: You’ve skewered me. Richler is crucial to me: as writer, reader and human and sometimes as lit prof. Interestingly, I didn’t read Richler until later in life, around the start of my PhD. He was good antidote at that time. Our educational system, even in the so-called Arts like my study of literature, still prefers the head to the heart. Like many middle-class grad students, in life before Richler my head had been popped by formal innovation and fiction that concentrates on the intellect over the emotions. Then Richler. He’s so committed to character and he gives his characters all of his intelligence, his wit and his compassion.

At times, parts of me think it an added bonus that Richler is Canadian, although in fiction’s genuine landscape nationality is also a fiction, a story we tell ourselves. If I had to recommend one Cdn. novel to someone it would be St. Urbain’s Horseman. I love a thousand things about it, but he won me, permanently, with a single short line: "I can be your wife or your nurse, not both."

Canadian students are far, far more likely to have read Laurence’s The Stone Angel or Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business than anything by Richler, and that shames all of us.

Rushdie has a beautiful essay about Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, calling it the "novel that taught me that the novel, as novel, has to bet the farm, go for broke." Here’s THE anglo-Indian novelist talking about THE post-war German novel. Richler's best novels—St. Urbain’s Horseman and Barney’s Version—go for broke.

I could go on and on. My life is wider and richer for having read him.

MC: Another wink is made to both Richler and Grass: "Betty" is called and calls herself "Bet." She's making a wager on Andrew arriving, in many ways.

Hmm, I can sort out in the complexity of characterization Richler’s influence on this novel in particular; you do much more translating, I’d say, of your own tropes and metaphors for the reader. There are large chunks in The Push & The Pull that narrate philosophical and intellectual connections and context. "Push" and "pull" are eludicidated in quite self-conscious ways. There’s a whole piece about how muscles work in tandem, and in chapter 17, "Andrew wonders if memory is pushed or pulled." This is a kind of risk, I’d say, that you take in a Canadian fiction landscape (okay; market) that currently hates the brain.

DW: Well yes, notice who was completely ignored by awards. I couldn’t write this for nine years and then suddenly Can Litify it for the last one. The pressures are very clear: remove all sex and humour, add rural history, have him stop in a milltown, think of WW II, use as many grandmothers in house dresses as you can.

Principally, though, my excuse is realism. One of the reasons I wanted to write about a journey by bicycle is because it removes him from contact. Go to an airport now and you'll see people sending email before and after they touch down. Even if he were backpacking, as Betty partly does in Europe, he’d meet others, converse, be able to buy new books. In sustained isolation and exertion, of course he thinks.

In short stories, I’ve often written (again realistically) about characters who are drunk or high for portions of the story. That happens a little here too, but generally he’s high on all that aerobic exercise, all that exertion.

I don’t want to lose sight of the novel too much here, but I for one am a very disappointed reader of Canadian fiction. We have an anemic review culture and a so-called public broadcaster utterly unwilling to devote Dollar No.1 to a demonstrable expert telling others whether Book X deserves your $20 to $40 or not. The same taxpayers who fund Can Lit also fund the CBC, and yet the CBC pays people to intelligently review Hollywood film but not Can Lit. Universities generally don’t reward profs for actually writing for the taxpayers who bankroll them either. Without a strong critical presence in the media or education, we're left with only a market, and it's now dominated by a few awards a year. Literary appreciation in Canada consists solely of one big stadium wave in the fall and then a critical vacuum. As a result, Cdn. fiction is too homogenous and also too formulaic. Award books will be (a) rural and (b) in the past at a time when 80% of Cdns. live in cities and, per capita, we’re a more urban population than the US. I've been living in Nova Scotia for a few years now and the market demands are absolutely crippling: you write about ye olde fishing village or you don’t write anything while Halifax has NSACD, a fine-art university, singer-songwriters etc.

[Here there is a pause that lasted three days.]

MC: Hi Darryl. After several days’ break, we’ve now been able to find a time to re-enter this conversation. It strikes me it’s a bit hard to do, and so I’d like to ask you about how you maintain your own conversation with novel-length fiction creation. I mean, you teach in the Creative Writing program at Dalhousie, and you’ve been very active as the Green Party candidate for Halifax. You also review a ton of fiction and, as I understand it, commute between two homes, one in Halifax and one in Advocate, a really small harbour community in Nova Scotia. How do you conjoin fragments toward a structure as complex as a novel while undertaking multiple professional projects?

DW: The novel is, as my art school friends say, a time-based art. Now that I’m deep into my second novel [and third book after a collection of stories in 2003] I see more of how I write novels. A finished novel has a timeline and writing novels has a timeline. As noted above, I write by an incredibly subtractive process of finding, making, reshaping and often cutting. During early stages—before I have one linear, paper draft—I’m not very good at doing multiple things. I left a job at U.Windsor in part to clear my desk and head. With low, low, low cost living in a rural Nova Scotia fishing village, I was able to write full-time for two years. As you note, part of that writing was the reviewing of fiction, but writing fiction in the morning and reviewing it in the afternoon was the perfect thing to do while I did much of the finishing on Push/Pull and then started the very, very raw work on a new novel. I taught last year (at Université Sainte-Anne) and am teaching on another one-year contract at Dal this year, but I’m certain I wouldn’t be as deep into Novel No.2 by now if I hadn’t two years of punching my own clock.

A new discovery for me has also been the creative boost of working on multiple projects. In ways that lesson should have been available to me more fully with the writing of Push/Pull as I wrote all of the Sharp Tooth stories during the writing of Push/Pull. The stories were vacations from the novel and then wound up as a collection long before I ever finished the novel. Now I quite like having one project in an advanced stage and others gestating or mutating.

As for the 2008 federal election, that was hard on my writing. I switched to writing poems during the election, and I couldn’t have done anything if a SSHRC grant hadn’t reduced my teaching load.

Lastly, I don’t have kids and my partner is a writer. We’re very respectful of silence in the house.

MC: One of the qualities of the son and the cyclist Andrew Day is a kind of overwork mania. He thinks and compulsively rethinks every gesture he encounters in others and in himself. He maintains a critique, almost an effervescent dialogue, with car drivers, truck drivers, motorcyclists, in his head and then in actual fleshed-in scenes, during his bike trip. He lives profoundly in tight frames of memory; each one breaking open into an entire tableau, often metaphor-driven. Many of the chapters in the novel seem to individually pivot around one gesture or remembered fragment. The work of the chapter seems to be to elucidate in hyperdetail an interaction that could otherwise be narrated, by a different author, in much more casual terms.

Let me reference a scene here in particular. At one point Andrew veers off the road and and climbs toward, and then into, a firetower. He ends up hanging upside down inside the skeleton of this very high tower, possibly about to drop to injury, and the trope here is that Andrew is like the syringe of medication emptied into his father’s body-frame; I love how outlandish it is, how cerebral it becomes. And at a certain point, as a reader, I moved from caring about the logic of the action to caring more about the intricate design of the image within image.

Do you ever think, "No, that's too overwrought?"

DW: My escape route for those moments is always to return to the body (Andrew’s, his father’s and the romantic body discovered between Betty and Andrew). Yes, there are moments of intense interiority or reflection, but I hope they’re balanced with a more immediate and tactile sensuousness.

I was also committed to making the landscape dramatic and the journey active. The bike journey couldn’t simply be a place to remember, a sort of moving slideshow for memories. That firetower scene was designed to provide a physical analogue to the father’s spine (as he suffers from a spinal disease). In a novel in which a character changes through a self-propelled journey, I couldn’t just tell the reader about his father’s spine; I had to try to show that spine.

In ways my answer here needs to recall my disappointment in so much Canadian fiction. Margaret Atwood is a great essayist and smart cookie, but her novels are so condescendingly telly. Every significance is explained.

MC: Push/Pull—as you refer to it above—tells too, this time ‘on’ Andrew’s desire for gay sex. There’s a kind of confessionality in a couple of scenes in particular that open up the novel to a bisexual readership. I loved the layering of Andrew’s caregiving intimacy with his father and the scenes where he experiences desire openly with men. I’d be interested in your comments on the process of complicating this character’s sexual identity, at a time when identity politics are not as fashionable in fiction, it seems.

DW: Layering with all the nudity and vulnerability of his caregiving but also the cycling as well. The novel does dwell on how "tight and bright" bike clothing is and there are the gender-bending scenes which compare Andrew washing and wearing his cycling gear to "male lingerie." For a time, Betty shaves his legs for him.

Although the bisexuality hasn’t endeared me to cyclists or Cdn. readers, I think I was simply following a logic to male bike culture. Many group rides are gender segregated, either by pace or peer groupings, etc. So why do these all male riders with blazing bright jerseys shave their legs when they’re not in formal competition? Also, when I describe Andrew’s apprenticeship with another rider, I do think those actions—of following another's grunting, sweaty body closely with your own—are homo-erotic. And the cycling shorts—they just serve up male ass. How could I not follow that logic?

Here too is the novel’s concern with survival. Andrew figures so much of his identity in caring for Stan, and then when Stan is gone, he’s guilty, lost and yet also wandering around in the "euphoria of survival." Part of that new, exploratory self must of course be manifest in sexuality. Their ages—mid-twenties—invite that to a degree: plenty of freedom, inexperience giving way to experience, sexual needs becoming more frank. The bisexuality was also designed to work in concert with the male aggression and violence in the book.

In ways, Andrew’s casting about for other male models than the one he knows. Remember that even Stan’s job involves gender segregation: he teaches in a prison.

MC: Yes, I liked all of those layers a lot. Bet’s desire and freedom is portrayed with a lot of nuance and agency as well. It’s a remarkable book. Can you spare a few clues on your current novel in process?

DW: It’s set in Windsor, which really means the somewhat porous Windsor-Detroit border. There’s a bit of history in it, although I refuse to write another Canadian historical novel stranded in the past. All of the history—which I won’t disclose—is folded into a now(ish) story. This time it’s first person, and I add multiple generations. Layers again.

Margaret Christakos has published seven books of poetry and a Trillium-nominated novel, and runs "Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon." Her most recent collection is What Stirs, from Coach House.




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