canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Hal Niedzviecki is the author of Smell It (short stories), Lurvy (a novel retelling of the Charlotte's Web story), and We Want Some Too (a non-fiction book on the effects of mass media on contemporary constructions of self). He is the editor of Broken Pencil, Canada's primary magazine on alternative culture, and the organizer of Canzine, an annual fair in Toronto for 'zinesters and independent publishers. He has written for publications large and small. This interview was conducted by email in November 1999, just as Lurvy was about to be released.

TDR: Many of the stories in Smell It are about the same length (or shorter!) than most poems. Why write such short stories? How are they different from poems? What (or who) influenced you to write in such a dramatically minimalist fashion?

NIEDZVIECKI: Well, okay, there are a lot of short shorts in the book, but there are also longer works. i tend to find that the shorts get more attention simply because they are slightly outside the convention of short story writing, but nobody asks about the content of the stories in general. so for me, the mixture of shorts and longer more conventional stories were the right form for what i was writing about - which was a kind of physical and mental degradation, a real visceral sense of disgust with the self, and the hope you feel when you're at the bottom of a pit, and you're looking up at the sky. this is minimalist work, because it is very harrowing and emotional - and the best way to convey the most powerful emotions is, in my opinion, through restraint.

TDR: What is your assessment of the state of Canadian writing today? Does the new, younger generation of Canadian writers share a sensibility? If so, how would you define it? (Perhaps there is a sub-group of writers you'd prefer to identify and "explain".)

NIEDZVIECKI: i think there are young(er) writers who are tapping into a pop culture zeitgeist and redefining canadian letters, for sure. the sensibility is the sensibility of the global citizen of mass culture. it's a way of becoming lost in the interconnectedness of things, but also of obsessing over what can still be said to be original and true. in smell it, the characters are always just short of copies and caricatures. in concrete forest, the various stories deal with identity and authenticity - that is to say, not the challenge of staying alive, but the question of what it means to be alive in a world of endless referents and signifiers. you open up the pandora's box of the mass media and you have to write from another sensibility, from the perspective of someone who's seen everything, but knows nothing. you dream in images, but you speak in sentences.

TDR: Broken Pencil, the magazine you co-edit, focuses on 'zines and 'zine culture. Are 'zines the new literature? Discuss in terms of how 'zines relate to the larger literary enterprise.

NIEDZVIECKI: a lot of interesting new writers have come up through zines. sonja ahlers, golda fried, vern smith, matthew firth, and more. the writing in zines reflect the blur of image and truth and lies we confront everyday. there is collage, there is drawing, there is personal essay, there is fiction, there is poetry, but there is not necessarily the false delineation between these things that we have previously relied on. this blurring is starting to effect the larger literary project of capturing slices of our lives in words. you see it in lynn crosbie's paul's case, for instance.

TDR: A couple of years ago Matthew Barrett, then-CEO of the Bank of Montreal, suggested that studying the poetry of Chaucer could lead to a prosperous career in banking (because of the training in recognizing and articulating patterns). What other purposes, if any, do you think the literary arts serve?

NIEDZVIECKI: literature doesn't serve a purpose any more than tv serves a purpose. it is a construct, an artificial form that has seeped into our everyday lives. i think one of the things that zines do is they show how writing can still be an ordering principle even in a visual world. literature, like any medium of creation, just allows an illusory order to be made out of the chaos. we tend to love the writers who either shape something beautiful out of so many possible variables, or those who cut off a cross section of the craziness and show it off.

TDR: Any ideas about how the WWW and other digital innovations are changing the relationship between writers, publishers and readers? (Interpret this question as broadly as you wish.)

NIEDZVIECKI: people keep asking me this. is an ezine really so different from a zine? when we stop reading, when we stop needing the medium of words to convey ideas, then we will have a real revolution, then the book will be dead. otherwise, the book's appearance on the internet is just the same thing in a different form. there is the question of accessibility, but that is perhaps a broader issue of how our desire to be cultural creators and interlocutors has been effected by new technologies that make things more possible than they used to be.

TDR: What's next for Hal Niedzviecki?

NIEDZVIECKI i'm working toward the fruition of a couple of new projects. Lurvy, a farmer's almanac, is a retelling of charlotte's web from the point of view of the farmhand (lurvy) it is dark and funny and is also an exploration of the way cultural iconocraphy seeps into our brains and makes it possible to respond in a creative way toward universal plots (myths?). anyway, that's out with coach house books ( We Want Some Too is a giant tome of a non fiction book with the subtitle underground desire and the reinvention of mass culture. it is an attempt to harness my sprawling theories about mass culture and the search for identity through aesthetics and creativity. it comes out with penguin canada in april, 2000. i'm not sure if there will be an april 2000, and i can't but hope that the millennium does bring some radical reconfiguration of our lives on this planet. that's the optimist in me. 

Broken Pencil and Hal Niedzviecki PO Box 203, Station P, Toronto, ON, M5S 2S7 Canada. The broken pencil website is at:




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