canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Paul Glennon

In his first collection of short stories, How Did You Sleep? (Porcupine’s Quill, 2000), Ottawa writer Paul Glennon eschews dirty realism and thinly-veiled autobiography for clever conceits and absurdly-extended metaphors. In one story, the president of a corporation is voted out of power by his executive board, which then votes unanimously to change him into a bear. In another, a man awakes to discover that his entire world appears to him as being made of chrome. Fiction which is funny and smart, without being either cloying or disposable, is a rare commodity in Canadian literature. 

Nathan Whitlock got in touch with Glennon to find out what the hell he thinks he’s up to. This interview was conducted in winter 2000/01.

Read some fiction by Paul Glennon in The Danforth Review (Jan. 2002).



The Danforth Review: The stories in How Did You Sleep? are unlike just about everything else being published in Canada. Does this a) unnerve you; or b) make you feel like a giant, standing and laughing with both massive hands upon your hips?

Paul Glennon: It is unnerving. I sometimes feel like I've brought my prize ostrich to the Olympics only to find out that ostrich racing is not an Olympic event. I'm fond of my ostrich though, and I've endured a long apprenticeship in the ancient art of ostrich racing. I can hardly switch to rowing or triple jump at this late date.

TDR: There are a number of subtle nods in the book to its stylistic antecedents — the question and answer form of the title story, pioneered by Donald Barthelme; the double-reference to 'Osberg' in one story, the anagram of 'Borges' which Nabokov uses in Ada; even the notion that some of the stories are really 'found' diaries or notes has a long history in English literature. How important do feel it is for a writer to feel himself part of a tradition, however much self-defined? How important is it to have peers?

PG: No writer exists in a vacuum. (Or at least not for very long, because they asphyxiate don't they.) You must have one or the other, either peers or precursors with which to compare yourself. Those precursors provide a test for the authenticity of your work. And a self-constructed tradition is as good as any. Borges famously said that a great writer creates his precursors. Even the moderately good play at being demiurges, inventing influences to justify what they are doing.

TDR: Who, living or dead, writers or otherwise, do you perceive as your peers?

PG: Borges and Barthelme you've already mentioned. You could quickly add Calvino and Kafka to that. I've always been fascinated too with willful perverseness of the OuLiPo movement - Perec's La Disparation and La Vie, Mode D'Emploi. I often use the Oulipian device of an artificial constraint, nothing so grandiose as a novel that doesn't use the letter E, but a story based on a list of historian's fallacies, maybe, or a story in which two personalities can only express their incompatibility in architectural terms. I also feel affinities with older, less categorically experimental writers. I see much of what I've tried to do in HDYS as metaphysical conceits, the project of extending an outlandish but necessary metaphor. My mitochondria and flotation on the bourse have their predecessors in Donne's flea and Marvel's "vegetable love". And while I'm picking teams, I'll take Keats and Coleridge too. Keats "negative capability" is my justification for laziness, not having to spell it all out. Coleridge shows how philosophy can wreck a poet, which is an important example for me.


TDR: I am curious whether the ironic playfulness exhibited by this collection's stories is something you came to self-consciously, or was always your inclination.

PG: Other than in technical journals, I've doubt I've ever written without irony. An unambiguous expression makes me cringe. Can you believe me now I've said that?

TDR: Did you serve a long apprenticeship with straight-ahead narrative, or have you maintained a consistency of vision since beginning to write?

PG: I don't think I know what straight ahead narrative means. I suppose that means having a real plot, and the whole art of my work is avoiding that. I can't say whether my vision has been consistent or even all that acute, but I don't recall ever being on the road to Damascus either. I suppose I always wanted to find a writing of otherness or strangeness, Even before Kundera or Breton told me, I always felt life was elsewhere, and I wanted to write the stories of elsewhere. I enjoy writing that shows me something new, and I want to discover something new every time I write.

TDR: Were you ever what John Barth called a "determined young traditionalist"?

PG: I think I am a traditionalist. In my own little world, which is bounded by my computer screen and my bookshelf, I stand in the main stream of English-language literary fiction. It's Geoff Chaucer, Johnny Keats, Sammy Beckett then me. It's the determination I've always lacked.

TDR: How has your writing changed since the completion of these stories?

PG: My writing changed more over the course of writing these stories than since. I began writing more found texts like "The Anthology of Nestorian Literature" and "Via Crucis". Towards the end I gravitated to the dialogues like the title story and the last story in the collection, "The Secret Agent". While I was writing these stories I was also trying to find a way to write a longer work. I drafted two consciously-conventional novels and a series of

linked stories that amounted to novel length, but I wasn't happy with any of these efforts. Since the completion of the book I've been developing a strategy for something not entirely unlike a novel.


TDR: Do you worry that readers and critics may get hung up on the odd qualities of these stories, the quirkiness of their execution, and, as is often the case with assessments of Barthelme, miss the sympathy and sadness that resonates through the seeming flippancy?

PG: I worry about a lot of things. This is about fourth on the list. I worry that readers or critics won't accept the strangeness and just ignore the book. I worry that they'll over-analyse, thinking that I've posed them the challenge of deciphering exact allegories. I worry that people won't get the jokes. I worry that they'll think I'm some manifesto-shaking punk, raring to deliver a smack-down to neo-realist convention. And yes, I do worry that readers will see these as mere formalist exercises without other concerns. So far these fears haven't been substantiated. The responses I get from readers have reassured me that they see that the absurdity and irony is material to the story.


TDR: You are one of the few writers with a "real" job — one outside of both publishing and academia. (Glennon works as a "human factors specialist" at an Ottawa-based software company.) Does this influence your writing? Does it help or hinder you?

PG: Most writers do have other jobs. Mine is just, as you say, a "real" job: in an office, in an industry that the business section cares about, with nothing to do with the arts. I'm comfortable with the apparent dichotomy, though I suppose it contributes to my literary marginalization. I rather like my job and while it does impinge on my writing, it also gives me the freedom to write out of the mainstream. I'm not counting on royalty cheques to pay the rent. The biggest downside is that I don't have an extended period of time to put in the necessary sustained effort on an NLW (Novel Length Work), but there are ways around this too.

Nathan Whitlock's short fiction won the TWUC 2000 Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers and was short-listed in THIS Magazine's "Great Canadian Literary Hunt" 2000. He lives in Toronto.




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