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Many of the stories in this collection explore contemporary issues without sounding remotely preachy or didactic or boring. Do you feel a moral responsibility in your writing? And how do you explore such themes without preaching from the pulpit?
I don’t feel a sense of moral responsibility in my writing. I do, however, feel a responsibility to be current and explore issues that are relevant to today’s reader. We live in such a busy world that reading has become an act of rebellion. In order to take time to read, most people have to say “no” to something else in their life. That’s hard to do. If people are going to make time for my stories, I want them to come away feeling they got something they couldn’t get from any other source. Fiction is the best way I know to really get inside an issue, to experience it rather than just witness the usual parade of facts. I think people are hungry for that. When it comes to the issues of today, nothing is quite as enlightening as spending a little bit of time inside the mind of a character who starts out on one side of an issue and, by the end of the story, is standing shakily on the other side. Still, as important as the issues are, this is fiction so my main job is to be entertaining. My best defense against preachy-ness is humour. My characters are slightly removed from reality. They experience the same feelings we all do – hunger, anger, lust, jealousy, grief – but in exaggeration. My main goal with each of my stories was to offer readers a safe way to see themselves and, by extension, an opportunity to laugh at themselves.
All of your stories display elements that are uncanny or slightly off-kilter. For instance bizarre cultural role-reversal in “Mrs. English Teacher” and dirt eating in “Mineral by Mineral.” Do you see yourself as a fabulist? A magic realist? What draws you to such strange worlds, strange events?
I think, in life, magic and reality intermingle a lot more than we realize. I’m most interested in stories that take place in that mingling place, just at the outer reaches of reality. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether that makes me a fabulist or a magic realist or both.
Many of my stories come from adding an extra layer of imagination to real life experiences. When I was young, a friend of the family began craving all kinds of unusual foods because of an undiagnosed brain tumour. In “Mineral by Mineral” I wanted to get inside that hunger, to see what I could learn by pushing it further into the realm of metaphor.
“Mrs. English Teacher” was directly inspired by my own time teaching English overseas. Although my experiences weren’t as extreme as my character’s, they were just as unsettling. I too have had the bizarre experience of preparing students for rigorous testing even though most of them were headed off to do mandatory military service.
Even my more surreal stories are grounded in truth. Post-global warming, a father and daughter transform the Pacific Garbage Patch into the last continent; a teenage girl wakes up with a Russian radio transmitting from her belly; a woman watches her boyfriend disappear into thin air: in these stories, I’ve chosen to step further out into magic in order to approach some of life’s more difficult realities, in this case, the extent of the damage we’ve done to the planet, how confusing it is for teenage girls to decode the messages society sends them, and how love so often diminishes us.
In a similar vein, mental illness plays a significant role as well—schizophrenia in “The Moustache Conspiracy;” Alzheimer's in “Drift.” These characters occupy their own worlds, ones you might also describe as uncanny or off-kilter. Are there parallels you draw between what it might be like to live with mental illness and the other-worldliness you portray in other stories?
I’ve had a lot of exposure to mental illness in my life. It has broken my heart many, many times. If there is any issue at the centre of my collection, if I have any “pet” obsession that drives my writing, this is it. Still, I didn’t want my stories to come off as “message-y” so I only put a few characters in my collection who have clearly definable mental illnesses. I’ve also populated my stories with other, more “normal” characters who find themselves close to a breaking point for very different reasons. I wanted to show that sanity is a spectrum and then I wanted to situate my stories all up and down that spectrum. I hope I’ve shown how, in our most vulnerable states, we’re all a little crazy, how crazy is often closest to brilliance, closest to beauty.
Your wonderful story, "Large Garbage", which also appeared in Darwin’s Bastards, an anthology of dystopian tales by some of Canada's finest writers, has a dystopian vibe, as do many of your stories. What about the not-too-distant, not-too-happy future compels you to write? Or do you see your writing as dystopic?
When I wrote “Large Garbage,” a story about a bunch of highly educated homeless people sweeping across the country and invading cities because of an economic crisis, the idea seemed far-fetched, even creepy. But about a year after publication, the Occupy movement was in full swing. I could turn on my TV and see smart people gathered in tent cities all over the world, talking about ideas. The Occupy movement isn’t quite what I imagined in “Large Garbage” but it isn’t far off either.
I’m interested in taking what is current and imagining it just slightly into the future. This is my way of being relevant as a writer and responsive as a human. I don’t intentionally set out to be a dystopic writer, but unfortunately these are dystopic times. It’s hard to imagine all of the problems of the world vanishing overnight. It’s easy to imagine them getting worse. What surprised me about writing “Large Garbage” was how much joy, humour and hope there was buried just beneath the surface of that particular dystopia.
It seems that all of the characters in your stories are hunting for something: for connection, meaning, a way to move through one's life that is not conventional or expected. Was this a theme that you wanted to explore from the beginning, or did it start to announce itself after you were well into the collection?
I grew up surrounded by an eclectic community of people. A lot of the adults in my life were hippies who had moved out west or draft dodgers who had come up north. In my world it wasn’t uncommon for people to reinvent themselves for any number of reasons: divorce, change in sexual preference, recovery from addiction. I guess this has found its way into my writing.
As a writer I’ve always been interested in breaking points—breaking up, breaking down, breaking through. These have been the moments of greatest clarity in my own life so that’s what I gravitate toward in fiction. Still, once I had a small handful of stories I was definitely surprised to see how many of my characters are reaching out for another kind of existence. I was also surprised to see how few of them are afraid.
Hunger, insatiable appetite, obesity, round, soft flesh—these are characteristics of many of the women in your stories. Why have you chosen to portray women this way? Do you use the physical need to feed ourselves as a metaphor for something deeper? What might that be?
This representation of women wasn’t intentional but I do think it fits into the overarching themes of the collection. All of my characters, male or female, have lost control in one way or another. Some have lost control of the circumstances of their lives, some have lost control over their minds, but many have lost control over their bodies. When it comes right down to it, I’m fascinated by the body, especially in the different ways it asserts control over our lives. Eating, appetite and cravings are interesting territory for me because this is one place where our mental and physical needs come together. We eat because the body knows what it wants but we also eat for emotional reasons. Cravings are perhaps the most literal representation of buried longing. And buried longing is, I think, the best jumping off point for fiction.
You've lived many different places—British Columbia, San Francisco, Berlin, to name a few. How does travel inspire your writing? Do you draw on cultural differences – or similarities – to inform some of your stories?
It’s true; I’ve moved cities, if not continents, roughly every year for the past decade. It started out as something I did for necessity—I needed to work to pay off my student loans and since a nine-to-five office job never suited me, I started teaching English. But it quickly became about much more than that. I’ve lived East and West and North and South and each place has its own distinct political and social and emotional reality. Travel has definitely expanded my mind and deepened my writing by exposing me to these differences. But travel has also made me a better person by teaching me about the similarities between people, regardless of region. In this collection I’ve tried to make my stories as universal as possible. None of the stories are set in a specific time or place. I wanted to create the feeling that each character could be anyone, anywhere, any time.
This collection shares common ground with works of fiction by Karen Russell, Jessica Grant, among others. Who are some of the writers who most influenced – or inspired – you as a writer? Who do you go back to again and again?
I love writers who delve headfirst into the realm of magic without mediation or apology. Julio Cortázar’s book “Blow Up and Other Stories” is one of my all time favourites. In it men turn into salamanders, families share houses with tigers, and people are driven from their homes by unnamed invaders. In addition to Karen Russell and Jessica Grant, some other contemporary writers who inspire me are Judy Budnitz, Ben Loory, Barbara Gowdy, and Aimee Bender to name just a few.
I also treasure humorous writers. Lorrie Moore, Miranda July, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders and my own mentor Zsuzsi Gartner are all writers who have made me laugh out loud at one time or another. That’s a rare gift in literature.Read more about Buffy Cram >>