Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Jacob McArthur Mooney answers rob mclennan's questions

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Jacob McArthur Mooney answers rob mclennan's questions

Ottawa writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan has started the second series of his 12 or 20 questions and here is his recent interview with Jacob McArthur Mooney, the much buzzed-about author of the collections The New Layman's Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) and the upcoming Dead Reckoning (also M&S). Mooney won the Authors at Harbourfront’s Open Stage competition this past March and is trying to finish a novel. Originally from Nova Scotia, he now lives in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood with 2 other poets and 2 cats.

RM:

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

JMM:

I guess the major change after a first book is that you feel a little more in-the-club than before. You feel like you're a part of a community you had a peripheral piece of before. Someone has validated your parking so to speak, checked your ID. The second book feels a lot more solid, a lot more considered and, in the end, honest. I think in first books (mine included), there's this need to shout yourself from the rooftops a bit, to explain and present yourself, and of course it's hard to do that honestly for 140 pages. Book two is relaxed, by comparison. Book two is not all about its author.

RM:

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

JMM:

I think I liked the “smallness” of a poem. It worked well for the mindset of a young man who couldn't always stomach the eight to ten hour creativity-shifts that a novel demands. Poems have a different schedule, they are emergencies, but you can get away with working on them in shorter bursts. And to be honest, if you read the Almanac book as autobiography, you'll see that this isn't the most healthy-living young man we're dealing with. But now I feel a little more paced, more focused. Maybe that's why I'm writing more fiction nowadays.

RM:

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

JMM:

I try to put a lot of faith in the power of the first draft. I sense a connection to first drafts that makes them hard to completely throw away in rewrite. I feel like there must have been a reason they were what I thought of first, and I want my audience's initial reading to have as much in common with my initial writing as possible.

That being said, I edit a lot, I fiddle. I stare at the screen for an hour, move a comma, then get up, have a beer, move the comma back, call it an evening's work and have another beer as a reward. But that's craft right? That's the essence of the thing.

RM:

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

JMM:

I'm always writing a book. Almost everything I've ever put down was in the service of some project. My friends can't understand this, my writer friends whose pursuit is of the next poem. I feel lost if I'm not working towards something bigger. To me, the whole — the atomistic, indivisible product — is the book. The poems are often independent of the book, they can stand on their own, but I don't need them to be. I always want the whole to be greater than the sum components.

RM:

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

JMM:

I loathe waiting to read. I have no specific opinion on the act of reading, and I find the 24 hours immediately after a reading to be the best I have, both as a person and as a writer. I'm that asshole at readings who comes up to the host before it starts and asks to be put first in the line-up, so I can avoid being that other kind of asshole; the one who obsessively folds and unfolds his text and fills his margins with backstory and notes as the first few presenters do their thing.

RM:

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

JMM:

I'm not sure if there are “current questions”. I think the only movement in art over the last fifteen years is towards a sort of land-without-movements, where that idea of “the era”, or “the now”, is splitting apart into literally thousands of subgenres and scenes. I like this. I know that “scene” is a bad word in contemporary jargon, but it's a lot better than “era”, surely, because it offers choice. Do you want to be a formalist? Cool, there's people for that. Do you want to be political? Great, that's happening all over the place. Experimental? We got it. Lyrical? Of course. The land without movements lets artists be who they want, without fear of being buried in the countering winds of whatever might be big that year. Because everything's big, and nothing.

RM:

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

JMM:

I'm not sure if I'm fit to answer the “should” question. I don't think I'm wise enough yet. I can say, quite pointedly, that as an artist I want in. I desperately want in. I want into the world and its day-to-day concerns. I feel like I write about them, consider them, and certainly live them as a citizen. But it's hard. It's possible the world has made up its mind on poetry and I'm not sure where that leaves me, but it makes me sad. With all this talk I hear from smart, engaged, people about how they wish poetry had more of an everyman sense, I can't help but think 'What do you want from me, exactly?'. I wish every man had more of a poetry sense. I'm more than willing to meet them half-way.

RM:

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

JMM:

My editor on the Almanac book was Molly Peacock and she's a doll. As a writer, I'm a product of interactivity: I'm of that generation who grew up on creative writing camps then college CW seminars then an MFA program. So interactivity is part of my dialogue. Even now, I meet with a semi-regular writing group and share an apartment with two great poets. If I didn't have that ready-made audience to call me on my shit, I'd be lost.

RM:

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

JMM:

Leon Rooke once, after a lengthy, inspired, and admittedly well-lubricated diatribe on the lack of originality in contemporary literature, told a group of twenty-five aspiring Guelph MFA students that “You're all suspect!”. I was one of the twenty-five, and still, if I feel a whiff of the predictable emanating from a piece of work, I imagine Leon breaking my door down, grabbing me by the hair, shaking his big fist in my face and growling, “Mooney! You're suspect!”

RM:

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

JMM:

I try to avoid routine. I think if you start thinking that way then you're closing off your own creativity. Routine is just superstition backed up with a little utility. I know people who only write while wearing a certain shirt and I keep thinking, “If you weren't wearing that shirt, could you still identify a good idea?”

I keep a journal with me all the time, I write a lot on public transportation. I don't write substantially in public. The one truth I hold to be self-evident is that never has a worthy piece of writing been completely conceived inside a coffeehouse.

RM:

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

JMM:

There's reading. There's, you know, the world. Baseball and wars and cats and cooking. I try not to worry about it. Some days, you write a lot, and it's all garbage. Some days you write half a line, and it's gold. Some days there's a James Bond marathon on TBS or your friend from out-of-town is around and it's okay to just say “Fuck it.” I believe in guilt-free Fuck its.

RM:

12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

JMM:

One of my roommates has two cats that live with us. They're adorable. I'd like to see them not die in a fire.

RM:

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

JMM:

I'm 25. So it would be dishonest if I avoided saying things like television, and the internet, and television-on-the-internet.
That being said, I read a lot of maps. I read a lot of local, small-scale history books. I watch movies. I like to keep my inspirations as open as they can be. A lot of what went into the Almanac book was a product of that, trying to cast the widest net possible when it came to inspiration, while maintaining a general preference for the personal over the communal when it came to specific content.

RM:

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

JMM:

This is a revolving door, so I'll just answer with the books that have most recently impressed me. My favourite recent book of poetry is Jason Camlot's The Debaucher. My current favourite novelist is Don DeLillo. My current favourite book of non-fiction is Lynn Curlee's Ballpark. Usually, when asked what my favourite book is, my answer is Oliver Twist because, as stock answers go, it's usually pretty close.

RM:

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

JMM:

Travel. I feel like I really fucked the dog on this particular rite of passage. When I was a teenager, all I could talk about was backpacking and Eurorailing. I read Alex Garland's The Beach like eleven times. But now, ten years later, the farthest I've gotten is America. Which, you know, is seriously Right There(!) It's literally right next door.

RM:

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

JMM:

Well, because I'm a writer, I've been forced to pick lots of other occupations. But if I was to commit to one entirely, I think I would have been a lawyer. That was my plan in college, before poetry came by and ruined everything.

RM:

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

JMM:

Boredom? Lack of social skills? Nobody becomes a writer because they're really great at making new friends, do they? I feel like I've always enjoyed guessing at what people may be feeling. And I like the sounds words make. Is that enough?

RM:

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

JMM:

The last great book I read was Don DeLillo's Libra. The last great film I watched was Margot at the Wedding. Though Star Trek was close.

RM:

19 - What are you currently working on?

JMM:

My second collection has just been taken by McClelland & Stewart, likely for 2011. The quest for a workable title continues, but it's presently responding to the name Dead Reckoning. It's about airports, and public transportation, and community. The instigator is the 1998 crash of Swissair 111 a few miles from where I grew up in Nova Scotia.

The idea of the book is to take that incident, melt it down to its component parts, and then use what's left to talk more generally about the structure of a community, how it does or does not react to the immensity of the outside world and the chaos presented by history.

The other project is a novel, which I'm editing now and starting to send out to agents. It's an ensemble farce, with some fantastic elements, centered around a political kidnapping, again in rural Nova Scotia. There's a mix of fictional characters and real people. The most prominent real person is Prime Minister Harper. It's exciting, doing fiction. It moves in a whole new way.

You can find more about this interview series on rob mclennan’s blog.

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