canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Sean Johnston
Sean Johnston is the author of A Day Does Not Go By (Nightwood Editions, 2002), a dark, funny, magically real collection of short stories. The manuscript for A Day Does Not Go By won the 2002 David Adams Richards Award for Fiction. Originally from Saskatchewan, Johnston studied journalism in Ottawa and creative writing at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton. 

Read TDR's review of A Day Does Not Go By

Michael Bryson interviewed Johnston by email in December 2002.

TDR: How about starting with a little background about yourself? Right now you're living in Vancouver; you're from Saskatchewan; and you spent some time in Fredericton at the University of New Brunswick. I also know that you've spent a fair amount of time as a highway surveyor. Maybe expand on that and give us some of the major signposts that illustrate how your writing life and non-writing life have intersected. How have you integrated the two, if you have?

SJ: Iím from Asquith, Saskatchewan and got my Bachelor of Journalism degree from Carleton University in Ottawa. Iíve written my entire life but in the beginning it was mostly poetry. I learned a lot at Carleton and probably my journalism education with teachers like Roger Bird taught me as much about poetry as learning from Christopher Levenson, Robert Hogg, etc. at the Carleton English Dept. But both the English and the Journalism made me think more formally about what I was doing.

As for how my surveying work has intersected with writing, itís been quite good some times in that I often walk all day at work, with plenty of time to daydream and write in my head. Also, itís often seasonal so Iíve had some great periods of time off during winter.

TDR: I really liked A Day Does Not Go By, your debut short story collection. But then stories about alienated young men who struggle to find some certainty in life continue to thrill me, no matter how many I read. Actually, that's not true. I can be quite hard on writers who venture into that territory and come back with more of the same old, same old. Your collection doesn't do that or it does it infrequently enough that I felt both a sense of the familiar and a sense of the new. I don't want to suggest that you're imitating folks like Raymond Carver. I think you're acknowledging that tradition, but also extending it. Here's the question: How have you grappled with your influences? A second question along these lines might be: How conscious are you of responding to other writers who have gone into a territory similar to the one you go into in A Day Does Not Go By?

SJ: I think I was influenced more by my journalism training than by Carver and his types. Iíve never understood the idea of minimalism; there is more description and room in Carverís stories than heís given credit for. Yet I love the idea of minimalism in that, as a reader, Iíve got no desire to read another description of an idyllic scene or a horrible disaster. I have my own ideas of those things, as any reader does, and the written word cannot measure up. So my idea is to just do enough to trigger a response in the reader, and let their unconscious do the work.

But basically the struggle for me has always been that I feel Carver and his type are doing the right thing, the good thing, and I should do it too, and I try to. But then my natural impulse is to write more like Barthelme or Coover or Barth, etc ≠ just "jazzing around" as John Gardner calls it.

TDR: You worked with Mark Anthony Jarman during your time at UNB. What was it like working with him? Do you have any anecdotes to illustrate how he influenced your work? (We're big fans of MAJ, here at The Danforth Review.)

SJ: Mark is an excellent editor and he knows just what bit, large or small, that has to be scrapped. Most of the stories in A Day Does Not Go By were written before I met Mark and itís difficult to understand a personís influence until youíre removed from it. But he did a great job of guiding me through writing my thesis, a novel. My UNB experience was very good. The other students were great and both Mark and Ross Leckie are helpful and stimulating teachers. Most of the "learning" for me, came from after-class discussions at the pub, really. Mark introduced me to people like Denis Johnson and Ross introduced me to people like Jorie Graham and Matthew Sweeney.

TDR: Toronto: Love it or hate it? (I mean from a literary point of view, but feel free to take the question any way you want.)

SJ: I like Toronto and always have a good time there. I lived in Kitchener for three years and like the entire region, especially in the fall. From a literary point of view, I donít know that I have any feelings. Itís irrelevant to me, really; my stories are generally set in Saskatchewan because thatís natural to me. I guess it might be tougher to succeed in the literary world if you donít live in Toronto but I only hear this. I donít know it from personal experience, so I donít worry about it.

TDR: Another thing I liked at A Day Does Not Go By is the mix of whimsy and a kind of hard-boiled tone. I'm not sure if that's the right way to say it, but maybe you understand what I'm getting at. I would say a similar thing about Carver (there's a Kafkaesque sense in some of his stuff), but you take it farther. I get the sense that by pushing the absurdity of certain situations you feel like you're getting closer to something real. I'm thinking particularly of the door-to-door spider salesman (which I thought was just brilliant, by the way). What do you have to say about this? Why the magic in your realism?

SJ: It seems to me the natural reaction to many terrible things is to reframe them in a way that seems logical and familiar. When I was a child a man I was close to had a heart attack. I watched him stumble and slowly lower himself to the ground, ending lying face-down in a puddle. I couldnít understand what was going on, initially, and so I thought he was taking a drink from the puddle. Why? Because I couldnít handle the reality.

So how much of what we see and believe is only because itís safer and easier? So I think youíre right; sometimes by pushing something into the absurd, we can get to the truth because a reaction is unavoidable. Much traditional fiction is about men and women cheating on each other, hurting each other, murdering each other ≠ why is this normal and so easy to accept? It should be as awful and shocking as a man waking up as an insect, as in Kafkaís story. So the normalization of these common things that are awful is what I suppose I am writing against, in a way.

TDR: Where do you go from here? What are you working on now?

SJ: Well, Iím still writing poems and stories, but Iím starting on a new novel, a kind of western, I suppose, but with a hero who is hyperaware of his historical place and has a kind of intuitive knowledge of the political long-term consequences of various current (to him) events. Thatís the explanation Iíve come up with but itís mostly just fun.

TDR: Because I'm greedy, I always like to ask this question: Who are you reading right now? Any writers or works you can recommend? Who do you think deserves more attention than they're getting?

SJ: Right now Iím reading The Last Crossing and itís excellent. I would recommend Vanderhaeghe, John Newlove, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison, Charles Simic, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Raban, Grace Paley and many others that everyone already knows. But for me James Kelman is one who deserves way more attention. To me, James Kelman is the best there is today.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.




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