canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Derek McCormack

Derek McCormack is a Toronto writer. His most recent book is The Haunted Hillbilly (ECW, 2003).

John Degen interviewed Derek McCormack by email in fall 2003.


JD: Derek, I have e-mailed ECW, trying to scam a free book. But why wait until I've actually read the work? Let us begin, shall we?

Having never seen the book or read anything about it -- though there is a cover image up on bookninja.com where three eminents will soon be discussing your use of semi-colons -- my first thought is of the classic American novel of the late twentieth century, "Deliverance". For me, there is no more influential a book, and I uncomplainingly sit down to watch the film every time it is on public television, which is often. Tell me "Deliverance" was not on your mind in choosing the title and cover image of this book. I won't believe you.

DM: Hidy John -- I hope ECW gets right back to you. If they don't, let me know. I'll copy my galleys for you or something. Re: Deliverance. I've never read it. I've seen the movie. It's sexy. I love the whole creepy hillbilly thing. I am, after all, a creepy hillbilly. And I like to think that my readers are by and large gay hillbillies. It's my little corner of the market. All sewn up.

I can't really say Deliverance influenced the cover image, either. You'd have to ask Ian (Phillips, of pas de chance fame, who also did Wish Book and Halloween Suite and Western Suit). I think he was inspired by sideshow banners. I think. Why does the cover remind you of Deliverance?

P.S. You sure got a purdy mouth, JD.

JD: Are you kidding? The guitar (Ronny Cox actually played a guitar in the famous dueling banjos scene in that film), the missing tooth, the big floppy hat. I know you're working in a different era in this book (which I have now read), but I think you and James Dickey would have a lot to talk about, if he wasn't dead. You'd love the book, anyway.

Tell me about chalkware. What is it about cheaply made carnival flash that attracts you so?

DM: Sorry to take so long replying. I have a couple excuses. 1) Spent the long weekend at Book City. Working. 2) I can't figure out why I love flash so damned much. I love that carnival flash is so cheap. I mean, those stuffed animals and plastic gewgaws cost pennies. And folks spend hundreds of dollars winning them. And yet...nobody really regrets it. Folks love flash. They become keepsakes. Sentimental souvenirs. There's a lot of emotion invested in flash. A lot of nostalgia. Romance. What have you.

I have a special fondness for chalkware. A forgotten form of flash. Chalkware dolls are so garish. And so fragile. Just like Hank. It occurred to me one day that chalkware dolls--with their loud colours and tinsel trim and glitter glued on--looked just like country stars of the 1950s. The same style. Not an earth-shattering idea. But it got me excited. Does this help?

JD: Well, I don't think you'd be the first person to compare the idea of celebrity to what amounts to very pretty, yet worthless, junk, but what a nice way of putting it. Have you ever thought about turning your ideas about chalkware -- and flash in general -- into the next big thing in literary theory? Wait, I think Wershler-Henry might already be doing that for you. And what does all this mean for Ben and J-Lo's impending wedding?

Derek, the world wants to know -- Why are your sentences so short? And why do you run away from a description you've only just started (this is not criticism, by the way -- many writers could benefit from McCormacking a bit more). It seems to me when Nudie begins his assault on Hank's ass, there's a whole lot of colour commentary ready to go, but it doesn't go, does it? What say you, sir?

DM: I can't remember what I wrote the last time. About celebrity and junk. I hope it didn't make the book sound like a comment on celebrity. An ironic take. Thing with me is, I love worthless junk. I really do. I love merchandise. I mean, I wear a Buffy the Vampire Slayer ring to work. I have a Jackass t-shirt and toque. This stuff really moves me. As for my sentences. Their shortness. I don't know. I find it really hard to write. And I find it really hard to capture what I have in my head. So I stick to short sentences. It's very childish. It's like I'm perpetually learning to write. And I like the effects I get. I mean, I think the perfect sentence length is three words. Subject verb object.

A simple structure like that can produce a world of weirdness. The description thing's a different ball of wax. I'm not really sure I back away from description. Not consciously. I describe exactly what I mean to describe. Or maybe I describe exactly what interests me. This is hard. Thinking about what I do. I never think about what I do. I do keep one thing in mind. A warning from my pal/idol Ken Sparling: Write only what amuses you. If I can't think of a good way to describe something, I won't describe it. Does that make sense?

JD: It makes perfect sense Derek, and I commend you for your faith in readers. Itís ironic that bare bones subject, verb, object sentences require, I think, the reader to do a whole lot more work toward their own enjoyment of writing. Trained as we are by the Anne Marie MacDonalds of the world to expect every possible camera angle in a never-ending ride on Insight-O-Rama, we donít quite know what to do anymore when a writer radically simplifies. I know with my own writing, the one common comment I always get is "but then what happens?" or "Iíd really like to hear more about that, but you just stop." It has become a real anxiety for me, when to stop. Obviously, you donít feel that anxiety, or at least youíve figured out what to do with it.

Derek, every time I read you, you take me into a hospital, or poison me somehow. Are you a paranoid hypochondriac? I already know the answer, but letís Oprah this discussion up a bit.

DM: I had to chuckle at those comments you get. "But then what happens?" "I wanted more, but then you stopped." I used to get those a lot, too. Now nobody expects anything from me. Just bare bones.

It's true, I don't have much anxiety about when to stop writing. I stop when I run out of good ideas. Or when I get bored. I get bored fast. I wanted The Haunted Hillbilly to be like a good comic book. Read it fast, then read it again. Folks have told me it took them an hour to read the book. That's great. That's the length of an episode of Buffy. 

Yeah, the sickness thing. Well, the easy answer is that sickrooms and sicknesses make for dramatic scenes. The deeper answer is autobiographical. I was a sickly kid. In and out of hospitals. I needed doctors and hospitals. But the fact remained that they meant pain. Cutting. Stitching. So, I had this double-vision of medicine: pain and comfort. Same with anesthetic. Felt great going under. Felt sick waking up. I just found out that men often get aroused while waking up from anesthetic. They're horny, groggy, and usually in agony.

I'm not really answering your question. Okay, I'll put it this way. I was in hospitals a lot in my early 20's. I found it very degrading. Being prodded and examined. So I thought, I'll try and sexualize this. I tried to transform these surgical procedures into erotic rituals. It didn't work. Not in real life. But it's sort of there in the writing. That's not very Oprah, by the by. I also have to say: I love Oprah. I watch her whenever I can. There's this decorator on the show. Nate. She brings him on all the time. He's totally cute.

JD: In fact, The Haunted Hillbilly reads exactly like a great comic book. Thatís your writing style right there. You write the little corner squares of exposition needed to move the pictures along, plus the dialogue balloons, of course. And thereís no point in getting too long-winded because youíd just run out of space. You canít have the frame all exposition or dialogue balloon, can you? Your genius, of course, is that you manage to still tell a full story without needing the illustrations.

Let me tell you though, I am starting picture some fantastic illustrations here. Have you ever thought about working with an illustrator Ė pas de chance man perhaps Ė and really kicking out a full graphic novel?

Have you seen the "American Splendor" movie? Are you the gay Harvey Pekar?

DM: Wow, I love what you said about The Haunted Hillbilly. "You write the little corner squares of exposition needed to move the pictures along, plus the dialogue balloons, of course. And there's no point in getting too long-winded because you'd just run out of space."

The comic books I ripped off--Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fearóare famous for their wordiness. I mean, the captions crowd out the visual stuff. And the tone is classic horror hokum. Beware! Do you dare read on!

That kind of thing. I wanted to avoid that. I wanted the visual element to jump out. So I used a lot of similes. Too many, probably. But I felt they strengthened the images. I did, however, keep another element of those monster comics--puns. Discarded book titles included "Tailor from the Crypt." And "Haunt of Fur."

I also knew I didn't want to write about comics. That seems to be a little lit trend. There's Chabon's Kavalier & Clay. Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. Tom De Haven's Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies. Kavalier drove me crazy. It disposed of all the things I love about comics--brevity, trashiness, sexy violence, disposability. Chabon tried so hard to make comics into high lit, or to give them the sheen of high lit, or something.

It killed comics. Accidentally, maybe. I didn't want to do that. I decided that instead of writing about a monster comic, I'd write the thing itself. Haven't seen "American Splendor." I don't know if I'm the gay Harvey Pekar. I wish I was the gay Crumb. But I think I'm more like a Crumb brother.

JD: Once again, you show great faith in your readers, that they donít need to be educated about the relationship between comic books and our humble existence here on earth. I havenít read the Chabon book, mainly because I feared being taken by the hand and told what to look at on a tour of my own childhood reading habits. ĎThe sheen of high lit,í as you call it is what Classic Comic Books are for Ė you know, the Illustrated Lord Jim, or Crime & Punishment where we really get to see Raskolnikov sweating with that ax in his coat. We know weíre not in one of those with you, not just because of the ass-sucking vampire, but because of your conscious use of clichéd dialogue:

"Youíre a sick, twisted pervert Nudie."

"I should have done this a long time ago."

That stuff is as much 1970ís TV drama as it is comic books. Have you ever thought about writing for Spanish soap operas?

DM: I can honestly say I wasn't thinking cliché 1970s tv dramas. I was thinking cliché B-movie westerns. That scene of mine your quote from--that's sort of my showdown at the midway. Shootout at Hank's Corral.

But you're right. Hank's thoughts are pretty pat. He's not the brightest light on the tree. Audrey's way smarter. Besides Nudie, she's my favourite character. Spunky. She's the only one who causes Nudie any grief. But Nudie has the upper hand. I mean, he's the Prince of Darkness. Undead.

So my answer is: No, I've never considered writing for Spanish soap operas. Don't be silly.

JD: Well, thereís a germ of seriousness in that last question. Your book crosses cultures. Iím a small-town boy from Ontario and Iím walking a lot of familiar territory in The Haunted Hillbilly what with the comics and the cheap halloweeny feel, and the memories of HeeHaw and one-night only midways. Iíve already mentioned the Deliverance reference, which I stick by even if it was completely unintentional on your part. There is the whole classic horror story progression youíre working with that travels its way through world literatures Ė the unstoppable evil force, the villain as hero. I canít imagine this book not finding a readership no matter which language itís published in. Is there anything about this book, besides the Hank Snow reference that you feel labels you Canadian? Is that a question that even matters to you?

DM: I figured there was a germ of seriousness in your question. I just couldn't put my finger on it. I do use a lot of hoary horror tropes. I guess the biggest would be the homo as monster. I mean, I was like every other gay kid. I loved villains. The wicked stepmothers. The mad scientists. The vampires. I think of Nudie as Malificent in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty." Though there are overt references to the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz." I liked the idea of writing a gay guy who could get any man he wanted. No dating. No pleading. Just a little hypnosis and a little bloodletting.

Is there anything Canadian about it? Well, no. I don't think so. Other than that I'm Canadian. And I think it's a book about isolation. About dreaming of knowing the performers you love, of having power over them. About having an exciting, star-studded life in someplace like Nashville. Gay kids, I think, dream these things. As do artsy straight kids. As do small-town kids. And big-city kids. And, I guess, Canada sort of dreams these things. Hank Williams and the Grand Ole Opry are like Marilyn or Elvis or James Dean or John Wayne--they're American icons about whom Canadians dream. So they're ours, but not ours. Does that make sense? I have a bit of the flu.

JD: Yes, McCormack, it all makes sense. So, how far do we stroll down this gay-rape fantasy avenue, you and I? Iím intrigued that you relate to the aggressor, granted an aggressor with a super stylish name like Nudie. As entertaining as Nudie is, there is something about Hankís quasi-naiveté I find more compelling. Yeah, sure he doesnít know whatís going on. Rewatch Deliverance (not to beat this horse to death) and tell me exactly what Jon Voight is thinking as Burt Reynolds draws a bead on the raping hillbilly. Iím convinced thereís a part of him thatís turned on. I know you never get that overtly analytical, but how much intentional defining of queerness do you do in your writing?

DM: I agree, I think, that Hank's greenness is more compelling. Or appealing. Also, his ass. Nudie is a real power grab on my part. I wanted Nudie to be unstoppable. Undefeatable. I thought about making him more complicated. You know, going the Buffy route, making my vampire conflicted by feelings of love or remorse. But I've got plenty of love and remorse in my own life. I wanted to speak through a narrator who didn't feel these things.

Regarding queerness. I don't know what to say. I really don't. I've written a couple answers to that. Then erased them. I really don't think I intentionally define queerness. Or address queerness. I guess I probably do it unintentionally. Unconsciously. What do you think is going on? Can you give me a clue?

JD: No, I think your answer stands just fine on its own. Letís leave it up to a professor in Wisconsin to decide how Derek McCormack consciously or unconsciously defines, redefines or writes against the predominant concept of queerness in early 21st century North America. I suppose I might have been a bit disappointed if you had a really clear prepared answer to that question Ė and I guess that reveals a bit of my opinion about socio-politically driven writing. If you draw the chart before you write the book -- Iím going to address this, this and this issue and redefine that, that and that concept -- you get a long "fictional" essay full of wooden characters and indescribably boring plot situations. Clearly, you do not work that way. How do you feel when you read folks theorizing about your writing?

Letís wrap this up with a nuts and bolts research question. I just learned from bookninja.com that there actually was a "rodeo tailor" named Nudie. Iím trying to imagine your glee at discovering this character. Tell me what you know about the real Nudie and whether you had any difficulty creating a vampirish Nudie.

DM: It's weird. I studied Semiotics and Post-Structuralism at university. I have fond memories of reading the big French theorists. But I've lost the language. I can't talk about myself in critical terms. I just want my work to be good. I have no idea if it's important.

Not that many people have written about me in a theoretical fashion. Theorized me. I read an essay by Peter Dickinson in Essays in Canadian Writing. I really liked that. He was very generous. And in a lot of ways he was right. So, I'd happily take more of that sort of attention. But I'm pretty unknown in the academic world. No, not pretty unknown. Totally unknown.

As for Nudie. Nudie Cohn was, I suppose, the most famous of all country & western couturiers. He dressed Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce. Everyone. I liked his name, so I borrowed it. But the character of Nudie in my book is nothing like the real Nudie Cohn. My Nudie's a blend of a bunch of people. Nathan Turk, the first great C & W couturier. Charles James, the great and greatly peculiar American couturier. Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian designer. Some contemporary designers. Dracula.

JD: Yes, come to think of it Dracula had some fine threads. Thanks for all this Derek.

John Degen's debut poetry collection, Animal Life in Bucharest was published in May 2000 by Pedlar Press, and a new collection Killing Things was published in 2002. He has recently completed a novel, The Uninvited Guest, about totalitarianism, hockey, and the anecdotal history of backgammon, set in Romania and Canada. More info: http://www.poets.ca/linktext/direct/degen.htm

 
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