canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: John Lavery

John Lavery’s Very Good Butter (ECW, 2000) was a Hugh MacLennan prize finalist. His latest collection You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off (ECW, 2004) deals with crimes that remain unsolved. Some are unpleasant and brutal, some of doubtful importance — others might even be considered useful. But most are ambiguous, difficult to reconstruct, and the result of misunderstandings or miscommunication. Lavery has twice been a runner-up in the annual Prism International contest, and his stories have appeared in This Magazine, The Canadian Forum, The Ottawa Citizen, and The London Spectator. Lavery appeared in Coming Attractions and The Journey Prize Anthology. He lives in Gatineau, Quebec, with his wife and children. 

Michael Bryson interviewed Lavery by email in February-March 2005.


Could you provide a brief background of who you are -- and your journey as a writer, up to and including the most recent book.

I grew up in Montreal.

A grade 5 friend of mine, Dudley Smith his name was, had the ability to sit at his desk and read, without so much as dipping his head, books hidden inside bigger books. Dudley got very high marks, teachers left him alone, and he could go through the better part of a Hardy Boys book in a single morning. He read at least twenty of them in Grade 5. I had a young boy’s admiration for Dudley, who was left-handed and exceptionally good in sports, and I was utterly captivated by his ability to read so quickly and still keep track of what was going on in class.

Because I, for my part, read with laborious slowness, listening to every word as I pronounced it silently to myself, going back over any passages that I missed because my attention wandered, looking up every word I didn’t know in the dictionary. It took me ten days to get through The Sign of the Crooked Arrow, which, despite my admiration for Dudley, I could not convince myself that I really liked. I never read another Hardy Boys book.

I didn’t read quickly, but I read all the time. Brits mostly: A A Milne, Enid Blyton, Hugh Lofting (Doctor Dolittle), G A Henty. A forgotten Canadian, John F Hayes, Rebels Ride at Night, Treason at York. I read Sports Illustrated from cover to cover. Sports journalism remains the most engagingly written form of journalism.

In High School it was Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare, every year, and I never bitched, although you were supposed to. And, thanks to my friend Walter Gordon, I was getting into Hesse, Sartre, Camus, Anouilh, Kant, Kerouac, Steinbeck, the Dylans, Thomas and Bob, Ezra Eliot and T S Pound. You have to read a gazillion books. But the ones you read when you're young are the ones that matter most.

I waited a long time before writing. It’ s a tough job, you have to know a lot of stuff, and I was terrified, the word is not too strong, of not being good at it. In 1989 or ’ 90, when I was living in Fredericton, I entered a little fiction contest organized by the New Brunswick Writers’ Association. Douglas Glover was the judge that year. I said to myself that there were barely half a million anglophones in New Brunswick, that if I couldn’t win a such a dinky little contest, there would be no point in ever trying to write another story.

To this day I love to watch people who read fluently. I am still a poor reader, slow, sleepy, I have to understand everything, I have to hear it all. I’m really better off writing. And I still write for the fluent readers, like Dudley. To keep them reading. When they should be doing something else.

What was the story that won the contest? 

Actually, I submitted two stories. And although I appreciated Mr. Glover's writing 'first' in big letters over the title of one of them, I was even more winged off at him for not giving the other story, which was ten times better, a second place at the very least. Neither story was worthy of publication. I never tried, and never will.

To me, your writing -- at least the two short story collections I've read -- seems quite unlike what else is going on in Canadian letters. I wonder if you could say a bit about your literary influences and maybe how you think what your doing relates to what others are doing.

Influences. Wow. Everybody. Everything.

The summer after Grade 10, much to the horror of my mother, I read Crime and Punishment. A big, red hardcover edition with gruesome, line-drawn illustrations. I mortgaged the book over the entire summer and probably read it more than twice by the time I got it finished.

A little later on I read William Faulkner’s A Fable. I thought it was a little forced, a little artificial, but I was taken by the majestic sentences, so I decided to go for The Sound and the Fury. After that, I read a big part of the entire Faulkner canon. 13 straight novels. It took me a long time to recover, of course, but the idea had definitely germinated in my brain that I would like to trade places with Bill, let him do the listening, and me do the composing.

I also had the immense privilege of a second linguistic childhood, in my thirties. In French this time. And this time, instead of Faulkner, it was Colette. A marvelous portraitist and a pure writer, difficult to appreciate in English translations which often make her sound distortedly patrician. It is certainly not without significance, as far as my development is concerned, that Colette is so rich where Faulkner is, at times, so embarrassingly inadequate. In the areas, that is, of sensuality and the feminine personality.

I don't have the slightest impression of being technically innovative, or of doing things that many other writers aren't doing or haven't done. I do try to engage the reader, to get him or her surrounded. I wish books came in earphones. I'm a playful little fucker, speaking seriously.

Let's turn to your new story collection, _You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off_. In my review of it, I mentioned that one of the main characters (a police officer) says at one point, "People fuck up, they always will, and I take my cut." I thought that writers are sort of the same way. Without drama, we're got nothing to say. I thought that line nailed something central about the book. Maybe it's not fair to ask you about one line, so how about I step back and ask about the genesis of the book. What's the book about for you?

Actually, the seed for You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off was the title itself, although I did not immediately find a name with the right rhythm. Kwaznievski is a Polish name, not particularly common, but not rare either. The current President of Poland is Aleksander Kwasniewski, in fact. I altered the spelling of the name to avoid the last part being pronounced "ooski," and discovered recently, much to my delight, that it means "sour-faced."

Out of the name grew, gradually, the talkative character of Lydia and her alter ego, Jane Bing. Or is it Lydia who is the altered ego?

The immense popularity of crime fiction is based on two rather comforting premises: one, that crimes are clearly defined acts, and two, that those who commit them yield, ultimately, to the ratiocination, to use Poe's term, the ability to analyse and think clearly, of the non-criminal. Both premises are perfectly false. A great many criminal acts can never be adequately reconstructed, nor can the motives for committing them, or their degree of criminality, be convincingly assessed. And the truth is, that the vast majority of crimes are never solved.

So I set out deliberately to find a context for Lydia by writing stories in which the crimes committed would be elusive. Some would be inconsequential, some would even work out well, some would be purely imaginary, some would be committed by mere happenstance. And few, if any, would be solved. Along the way, I discovered the character of Inspector PF, the "chocolate dick," who seems to be developing into my own alter ego.

It is true that PF's line "people fuck up, they always will, and I take my cut," might be taken to fairly well sum up the book. It would help, though, if we had a clear idea of what fucking-up means.

Drama, on the other hand, results when human beings come in contact, whether they fuck up or not, although fucking up can speed the process and simplify things for the story-maker. Writing, however, is above all the art of language, of verbal expression. I've been through page after marvellous page of Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust (in French! he comes across as a verbose prig in English), Lewis Carroll certainly, Beckett even (sticking to stars of yesteryear), and not a fuck up in sight.

That's an excellent answer. It makes me think the next question should be: There's a lot of conversation in 
_You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off_, and as you noted above, also a quite a bit of doubt about identity. Characters aren't quite sure who they are, who they were, or who they're becoming. Your stories get a lot of mileage out of ambiguities. I'm not sure if that's the right way of saying it. We're all in a state of becoming, never arriving, might be a more optimistic phrasing. I want to ask you about that idea generally: Do you agree?

Well now that’s a good question. Doesn’t Lydia have a line, “Every step we leave to arrive again to leave again to arrive. Every step.”? My mother used to accuse me, in a friendly way, of never knowing whether I was coming or going. She was right of course. She could have saved a little breath by simply accusing me, in a friendly way, of becoming.

Ambiguity. I had an architecture professor once who liked to ask whether architecture was the creation of solid forms, or the creation of the space they encompass. And we could answer Heidegger’s famous question about why is it ‘something’ that exists, rather than ‘nothing,’ by simply saying that it is ‘nothing’ that exists, the ‘something’ being so staggeringly infinitesimal by comparison as to be negligible. I mean by this that ambiguity is everything and everywhere. Human relationships are wiltingly, joyously, ambiguous. Always. Find me a writer who doesn't get a lot of mileage out of ambiguity. Especially George Orwell who, I believe, got it wrong: doublethink not only does not entail a restriction of individual freedom, it is absolutely necessary for the individual to flourish, to doubt itself, to allow itself to be convinced.

Conversation. I don’t know if there’s that much conversation per se in my stuff. On the other hand, it is aural, vocal, from first word to last, it has all been read out loud. Many times. In his fabulosisimo story “The Bear,” Faulkner has the principal character say that story-telling is “the best of all possible talking.” Yes, yes, a hundred times, yes. Writing, while always literary, is, for me, a kind of talking.

How does being a Quebec-based writer affect your work?

As a writer, I am Quebec-based, but as a person I am simply a Quebecer. It is true that the Saint Lawrence is treacherous between Montreal and Quebec City. I've been at the helm going down it, actually, so I know. But below Quebec, it's a strong, majestic river. Montmagny, La Pocatière, Charlevoix. Lovely names. My Quebec is as much outside as inside the big cities.

Socially, it's a bit tricky, and the social aspect of writing is important. When Very Good Butter came out, I knew exactly nobody in the English-speaking writing world. Nobody. Now, though, I have some really good friends, in Ottawa and in Toronto. Without them, I might very well have let Kwaznievski choke in my PC's memory.

Linguistically, the importance of being in Quebec is immeasurable. I'm not really bilingual. I speak a single bi-systemic language. More than once, I've found myself blabbing away to someone and wondering why they look as though they don't understand what I'm saying, until it has dawned on me that I haven't been speaking the language I thought I was. The influence of French, and not only French, on my English is, of course, very strong, but you are likely a better judge of that than I am.

I might add that I read almost exclusively in French. Even Auster and JC Oates. Weird, uh? A habit. That insulates me from a natural tendency towards mimicry. And protects me from being constantly reminded of how many people are writing so fabulously well in English.

What's the question you thought I'd ask you, but haven't yet? (How would you answer it?)

I might have expected a question about style, mine being distinctive apparently. I don't think I'll answer it though, except to say that I have, at my work station, I just counted them, sixteen dictionaries in four languages. There are others kicking around the house. I do think of myself as a sort of publicity agent for English. I want to use all the English I can, but I'm always nervous about going over the top. Michael Holmes, my editor, wisely made me replace "cervine" with "deer-like," but he kept all the other uncommon and nonce words. All the fucks and shits too, obviously. You can hardly paint the sky without blue in your palette.

I would, though, like to say something about fitting writing into the one life you've been given to live. Frankly, I admire the ability to finance a writing life more than I admire the ability to write itself. Having children is generally not even a consideration for most writers, and understandably so. I, however, only started to gain an inkling into human nature, and therefore to say things worth saying, after I had children. With people of our own age, give or take, we are always giving and taking, always on the make and trying to mask it. It's vital, yes, but it's a distraction, an entertainment, however human. To observe, as a parent, how the self-interest of children operates in the open has been a revelation to me. There is really very little difference between children and adults. Children are childlike. Adults are childish.

I'd like to add that I've enjoyed doing this interview, which, being written, has allowed me the time to give some thought to the answers. A useful exercise. I've learned something. Thanks.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.




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