Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Art of Infidelity: An Interview with Mike Spry

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The Art of Infidelity: An Interview with Mike Spry

Mike Spry is the author of JACK, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Quebec Writers' Federation A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, and he was longlisted for the 2010 Journey Prize. He lives in Montreal where he is the Programs Director for Summer Literary Seminars, one of the world's largest international literary programs (St. Petersburg, Montreal, Vilnius, and Nairobi-Lamu).

I had the pleasure of asking Spry questions about his new book of short fiction. Our conversation follows below. After the interview, you will find information about Spry's forthcoming book-launch events. Enjoy!

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Alessandro Porco: Thanks, Mike, for taking some time to talk about your new book of short fiction, titled Distillery Songs (Insomniac, 2011). I thought, first, you might begin by simply talking about the genesis of the book — and perhaps, as well, the book’s title, which is borrowed from my favourite story in the collection. How and why, exactly, are these stories “songs”?

Mike Spry: Thanks, man. I really appreciate you taking the time. As for the genesis of the book, there was no great moment where I sat down to write ten stories that fit together. Rather, I suppose, they work together in that they were all written during the same two-year period or so. I was conscious of the fact that there was a commonality to them, and I’d like to believe they have a consistent sensibility.

The title actually came long before the titular story. I was writing a grant, and I needed a fake title to finish a section and it just popped into my head. Funding bodies aren’t really into any sort of auditing process, apparently. Then, about a year or so later, I came across the title and kind of formed a story around it.

In terms of the stories being songs, I see it in two ways. One, the music I listen to is informed and propelled by strong storytelling—Neil Young, Will Oldham, Silver Jews, Dylan, Springsteen, The Band—and being musically inept I wanted to mirror that which I admire in their writing in mine: the ability to tell a compelling story within a restricted space . And second, it has occurred to me that short story collections are kind of like fiction writers’ albums. Often grouped in 10s or 12s, a common thread, a pretty cover, now downloadable.

I’m flattered, and somewhat surprised, that “Distillery Songs” is your favourite story in the collection. It’s one of the few I won’t let my mum read. It was a different kind of writing for me. I had been reading a lot of George Saunders at the time, and I wanted to try and create a setting that seemed mildly futuristic, and perhaps in a slightly parallel dimension. I was also reading an early draft of Nick McArthur’s Short Accounts of Tragic Occurrences. Nick and I are good friends and we did our creative writing BA’s together, and I was always (and still am) in awe of his ability to separate speaker and writer, something I more often than not fail miserably at. That and I know Nick is a big Saunders fan as well, the two share a certain sensibility that I admire. I think after the first draft I gave it to someone, and said I had written a Nick McArthur cover story (again with the song parallels).

AP: Well, your answer propelled me in two different directions, so here’s a two-parter that you can answer as you please. First, about “Distillery Songs”: I agree, it exists in a slightly parallel dimension, where everything is off-kilter— and that’s what I find so compelling about it. But when I say everything I mean even your diction, sentence-structure, rhythms, and figures of speech are off-kilter yet normal. That mildly futuristic sense of dystopia-utopia— they seem to always intermix, especially in the case of your story— is as much an effect of the language and style as much as anything in the action. Could you talk about that element of the story a bit, or even point to other stories/moments in the collection where you might say this is also happening? Second, and unrelated, to return to that question of music and writing: I often write while listening to the same song over and over again. What’s the actual experience of writing with music playing like for you? What does it provide?

MS: In “Distillery Songs” I was trying to create a sense of place that was familiar and real, and yet not at all. I wrote it under the parameters of a Minnesota/Mid Western US region in the slight future, in a perhaps parallel universe where the Scandinavian heritage of the region was prevalent. The speaker’s diction is based is Danish and mixed with the region. So he uses phrases like “bison’s cusse,” goes to a “rathskeller” as opposed to a pub, he refers to krone, and the rathskeller serves aquavit. Beyond that I tried to incorporate the region’s history and culture, but not in a way that I found intrusive; the surnames are Scandinavian, the rathskeller serves pine marten, the jukebox plays the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, the industry is mitten manufacturing, curling is the sport of choice, Ted Knight and Rose Nylund are revered. After that I wanted to create unique colloquialisms that sounded genuine, like distance being measured by a six iron. What was most important to me was that sense of being genuine and honest, while creating a utopic/dystopic setting. It’s probably the most peripheral effort I’ve put into a piece.

I’ve tried to use language to create setting and tone to instigate and facilitate humour in a few other of these stories. In “Jesus of Thunder Bay” the speaker has an Ottawa Valley accent that’s been inundated by his Northern Ontario surroundings, and “Emulsification” employs long sentences to reflect the pace of the speaker’s frantic and chaotic evening. In “Northernton Pilot” what I tried to do was write a short story interpretation of an animated sitcom pilot. So in this version of an imagined Alberta town, it’s seemingly normal for moose to be naked and speak, for animals to interact seamlessly with humans, for people to have three fingers, for the clouds to spell out titles, for characters to leave behind silhouettes when they move quickly.

I’ve never been one who can listen to music while writing. I find it too distracting, too interesting, too participatory. Like I said, I like music that tells a story, and when it’s playing I feel it’s important to pay attention to the narratives at work with the harmonies. That being said, I often listen to music to set myself up for a writing binge; to put myself in the head space for whatever it is I’m about to try to write. Some days it’s the Silver Jews if the writing needs attention to narrative; some days AC/DC if the writing needs acceleration of language; some days The Band just because The Band is awesome. Just never Nickelback. No one should ever listen to Nickelback.

AP: I like what you say, here, about “Northernton Pilot”— and I’ll definitely come back to that— but I wanted to push this language issue just a little more, but focusing on “Club Soda Unbridled,” specifically. The story centers around an unnamed couple, “He” and “She,” as well as “a familiar man in a trilby hat and a mulberry scarf.” “He” and “She” work as staff at a hotel. They clean: he’s a janitor, she’s a chambermaid. The language of the narration is purposively antiseptic. Clean and methodical. There’s no figuration or inflection— just active repetition and repetitive action. This is unnerving to read, especially at the end, when violence erupts and yet the antiseptic and methodical narration remains the same. I guess I was wondering if you could talk about the story, but also about language and violence— many stories in the collection, in fact, hinge upon eruptions of violence.

MS: “Club Soda Unbridled” is a departure for me, in that it’s devoid of humour for the most part. At least in the more absurd realm that I like to play in with the other stories. The antiseptic narration is an attempt to do what I try to do with humour, but with another device, and that is find small moments in the narrative that will break the reader’s heart. (This comes from Donald Barthelme’s notion of the purpose of ‘wacky mode’ in fiction, or the employment of such devices, by way of Padgett Powell. Or at least my interpretation of their notions.) For me, in “Club Soda Unbridled”, this comes when the “She” character in the midst of her repetitive day remembers “once being pretty” as she does at that exact moment every day. The fact that against the backdrop of this sterile and methodical existence, hopefully reflected in both the narrative and style, “She” takes a moment to have an honest thought, and a crushing thought at that, provided some depth to the character in a very small window. And I guess that’s part of the challenge of the medium of the short story, is to fulfill certain responsibilities of fiction in a condensed and restricted venue.

As for the employment of violence, it comes from my interest in speakers and characters who are unlikable, and yet interesting in some way. There’s a tired trope that is born of the institutionalization of creative writing, and that is narratives need to have likable characters, or at least characters that the reader can easily identify with on some level. I think that’s bullshit. I’m interested, both as a writer and reader, in characters and speakers who intrigue me, or entertain me, or elicit some kind of genuine response even if that response is offense or revulsion or hatred. Within that interest in the unlikable, is a further interest in characters that are at once experiencing love and hate. I’m intrigued by infidelity, a detestable quality, on various levels in a lot of my writing, whether that infidelity is being wronged by a lover or a friend or a god. And infidelity naturally gives way to this intriguing dichotomy of emotions. The consummation of love is sex. The consummation of hate is violence. So when writing about these extremes of emotion, the natural tendency of the climactic moments of the stories is to find a way to examine both.

AP: Well, ok, could you talk more about how “infidelity” plays out in your stories. You mention “being wronged,” one type of infidelity. It also means a loss or lack of faith. In some ways, I think that’s essential for any writer, to not be beholden to consecrated modes of action, types of character, or aesthetic models. More playfully, in terms of audio, infidelity is a sort of unsound reproduction or representation. That provides a nice metaphor. I think your formal techniques or representational strategies are, in many ways, acts of infidelity— they’re unsound, and I mean that as a great compliment! For example, in “Northernton Pilot,” as mentioned, one encounters a topsy-turvy cartoon world, where animals and humans interact; in “Claire, Rather Quickly,” the characters seems to be having the same conversation, yet they’re always missing each other’s sense (an effect of infidelity, perhaps); and in the book’s opening story, “Five Pounds Short and Apologies to Nelson Algren,” there’s your hovering between the literal and the figurative, and it’s never clear which is which. Any thoughts on this?

MS: In terms of “loss or lack of faith” I think that comes from being part of the first generation to grow up, as Douglas Coupland noted, without God. Being a part of a secular family, I’ve tried to discover some sort of understanding of religion through my writing. I’m intrigued by faith and belief, and yet estranged from it and I think that comes across in my characters. They tend to be aware of God, and yet suspicious of him/her/it.
With respect to the writing itself being an act of infidelity, I find that really interesting. I hadn’t really thought of it in that manner, but I can see that. I suppose that comes from coming into writing late in life, or later in life, than most. I didn’t start writing until my mid to late twenties, and so I had no formal background in the craft. The way in which my technique is unsound is a tribute to what just seemed to come to me naturally, in that it was and is an extension of my personality that is enhanced or exaggerated in order to (hopefully) be interesting or entertaining. I like the absurd, the odd. Sometimes I use words that don’t quite fit grammatically or formally, but I like how they sound or how their misuse helps define a character.

One entity that has had a great effect on my writing within the context of this “infidelity” is the essay by Tom Robbins called “In Defiance of Gravity” that first appeared in Harper’s in 2004. That was right as I was starting my BA, and my brother-in-law sent it to me. It quite literally and without a hint of hyperbole, changed my life. Before that, whatever I was writing or trying to write was typically sad emotional drivel with a healthy dose of nonsense. In the article, Robbins bemoans the unfortunate direction that writing (at that time) had taken. He argued that it had turned away from humour and had become “about as entertaining as a Taliban theme park and as elevating as the prayer breakfast at the Bates Motel.” Robbins went on to hopeful points of salvation, in talking about “Crazy Wisdom” and the gallows humour. “Crazy Wisdom” is the opposite of conventional wisdom or as you’ve pointed out, an infidelity towards tradition. He paraphrases Freud in contending “a gallows humour is indicative of a greatness of soul,” that “wit is the denial of suffering,” and I just fell in love with those arguments.

AP: First, I’ve read that Robbins piece but am rubbed the wrong way by its naive contrarian position, i.e. “crazy wisdom” as “wisdom that deliberately swims against the current in order to avoid being swept along in the numbing wake of bourgeois compromise.” Your stories are better than that— infidelity isn’t oppositional, not as I imagine it anyway. Having said that, I want to address that “crazy wisdom” in a specific way— by having you talk about how you use animals in your fiction. They seem to reflect and refract knowledge or feeling, resulting some of “crazy wisdom” vibe.

Second, as this is the final question, can you tell readers about what you’re now working on? Thanks, Mike.

MS: I don’t think that’s what Robbins was doing with that sentence. It’s contrived, academically laced, MA student lit-babble. He’s mocking both the tradition (through his arguments of “crazy wisdom” and gallows humour), but also mocking the lit-essay itself by being facetious in horribly over-writing and over-analyzing in that sentence, and others. But, regardless of interpretations of the essay, my point was not that I began to use Robbins’ essay as a template, but rather a writer I had read a lot of and respected had given me permission to be weird and absurd and funny in my writing.

It’s plainly by coincidence, parenthetically, that I owe a lot to Robbins, and I use animals in my writings, but it’s interesting to me that that’s where this conversation has ended up. Few people are better at seamlessly incorporating the fantastic and the absurd while remaining genuine and honest in their writing than Robbins, as well as using animals prominently while maintaining the same sense of the real. Though his animals are way weirder. Tanuki and his scrotum parachute, for example.

I’m not entirely sure why I use animals so often. There’s some practical reasons. I spent a winter living in Costa Rica and I became quite used to having monkeys around. That’s also where I read The Man with the Golden Arm, and among actual monkey’s I fell in awe of Algren’s use of the figurative monkey, which several years later became the basis for “Five Pounds Short and Apologies to Nelson Algren.” “Northerton Pilot” is a reaction to being trapped in a Starbucks in Calgary on 17th near Western Canada Senior High School by a herd of 17 year-olds in identical “skins” of sand-coloured Uggs and Gap jeans appearing to me very much like a pack of animals. Animals ordering soy lattes. And I was hating the city’s lack of soul, and hating myself for using the word soul, and so I wrote the story in order to maintain some measure of sanity in that moment.

I refer to llamas quite often, because they make me laugh. Because llamas are funny, right? I think it’s really quite odd that humans actually domesticated certain animals, but not others. Like, why can’t I have a miniature pet llama in my 6 ½ in the Plateau? What made dogs and cats, and later (briefly) ferrets so special? I think I’d be happier. So that perceived oddity informs some sensibility in the writing. Perhaps above all, it’s that I tend to write about lonely people, and people on the periphery who for whatever reason have separated themselves from invested relationships, and in order to have them engage in some sort of interaction with something other than themselves, I use animals because they can’t, or won’t talk back.

As for what I’m working now, I just finished writing a novel called Working Up the Bottle about four people who conspire to rob a restaurant, and I’m trying to find a place for that. I work for Summer Literary Seminars, and we have a big literary program coming up in June in Montreal that’ll keep me busy for the next little while. After that I’m planning a reading break, as I’ve got a huge backlog of books that I’ve been meaning to hang out with. And I’ve got this big pile of notes on ideas for a new novel, and I’d like to start writing that by the end of the summer.

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Montreal Launch
Wednesday May 11
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly
211 rue Bernard Ouest
doors @ 19.00hrs
reading @ 19.30hrs

Toronto Launch
with Stan Rogal & Sam Cheuk
Tuesday May 24
The Magpie Tavern
831 Dundas Street West
19.00hrs

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alessandro Porco

Alessandro Porco is the author of two collections of poetry, Augustine in Carthage (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press, and the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey.

Go to Alessandro Porco’s Author Page