Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sean Dixon answers rob mclennan's Questions

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Sean Dixon answers rob mclennan's Questions

By rob mclennan

Ottawa writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan is now working on the second series of his 12 or 20 questions and here is his recent interview with Sean Dixon.

Sean Dixon is the author of The Girls Who Saw Everything (Coach House, 2007) and the YA novels The Feathered Cloak (Key Porter, 2007) and its first sequel, The Winter Drey (to be released this August.) He is also a playwright, having had several plays produced in classical and alternative venues across Canada and in select locations in the US, the UK and Australia. AWOL, a play collection, is also available through Coach House (2002). He lives in Toronto with his wife, and plays a Deering Long Neck banjo, clawhammer style.

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?

SD:

The publication and reception of The Girls Who Saw Everything made me feel like I had been wasting my time getting kicked around as a playwright. It feels much better to be kicked around as a novelist.

RM:

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

SD:

I took poetry seriously first, as a teenager and straight through my post-secondary education. But I was acting in plays the whole time and theatre tends to demand an absolute commitment or else you quit. By time I left theatre school, I wasn’t writing poetry anymore, except on the occasions when I was courting or heartbroken. Play writing evolved naturally out of acting. I played the character of Moliere on stage once, in a play by Bulgakov, and decided that if I could do it on stage then I could do it in real life.

So maybe I’m not really writing. Maybe I’m just acting like I’m writing.

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?

SD:

All of the above.

RM:

4 - Where does a play 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?

SD:

I’m always working on a vast tome and sometimes discover long after abandoning it that it was short and nearly done. Also, I often think the gestation period is short but realize later I’ve been thinking about the idea for many years.

RM:

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

SD:

I wish I could do one or two a week.

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?

SD:

During my period of collective theatre making, I learned a work method called ‘the process in search of a meaning.’ I’m starting to get impatient with this method, since it’s extremely wasteful and sometimes feels morally questionable. But it still causes me to shy away from questions like this one. What it comes down to, I guess, is I write to figure out what I want to say. I discover the story and structure as I go along. Lately, though, I’ve developed a new respect for people who set out with clear goals. I’ve been reading a lot of Simenon.

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?

SD:

Sometimes I wish I were a journalist writing about world events and influencing the way people view them. But the role of the fiction writer as I understand it is to awaken compassion in the reader for characters who might not otherwise be so easy to sympathize with or understand. That’s how I see it. I’m not sure I’ve actually fulfilled that mandate, but one of these days…

Though I can also identify the opposite impulse: to revel in the hatred of something through a satirical viewpoint. I currently feel that way about tasers. (Because people aren't killed by violence. They’re killed by preexisting physical conditions. Violence is completely safe.)

RM:

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

SD:

I like secrets. I like providing surprises. So it’s important not to involve someone too soon. But I also like collaborating. I appreciate fresh eyes and I think I know how to turn editorial feedback into something I can use. Theatre was definitely good prep for that. Trial-by-fire, really.

RM:

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

SD:

Calvino’s six memos — quickness, lightness, consistency, multiplicity, um, exactitude, visibility. Also, “Do not hurry, do not wait,” and, sometimes, “Write as if you are dying.” Also, some of the adages about critics. My brother sighs and says, “The problem with critics is they’re never wrong.”

RM:

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (plays to prose works)? What do you see as the appeal?

SD:

I’m starting to think I’ve always been better suited to writing prose. Someone once wrote a review of the AWOL collection for ECW in which his thesis was that I made theatre in genres usually the purview of prose. At the time I thought, “See how unique I am?” Now I tend to think I was trying to fit square pegs into round holes — something I also remember trying to do in a grade one IQ test. It was just a matter of slicing off the edges.

So, if I ever write a play again, I imagine it will be more or less conventional, employing the language of realism and the unity of place, involving a conflict among a small group of people who have to deal with one another in something like real time, a great reckoning in a little room type thing.

RM:

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

SD:

Lately I write in the mornings although I still remember fondly how I used to write at night.

RM:

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

SD:

The Penguin Classics section of the University of Toronto Bookstore (and the other classics shelves just to the left of it.) Balfour Books is a close second. I plan to check out The Monkey’s Paw one of these days.

RM:

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

SD:

My flash drive and a marked-up manuscript if there’s one around. I try to keep important things really close to the bed.

RM:

14 - 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?

SD:

Visual art. Methods of performance (as an actor) and the energy of watching performance, especially that of a great stage actor, larger than life, who can do great things with nothing at all. I find that very inspiring.

RM:

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

SD:

I love The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. What Painting Is by James Elkins, which is an examination of the joy of painting through the study of alchemical practices. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was very important to me for a long time and probably will be again. I used to think that would be the single book I would bring to a desert island. Mandelbaum’s translation. Because it would convince me that all the animal and vegetable life around me was actually human and I would not be lonely.

RM:

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

SD:

I’d like to learn the fretless banjo and play with some real old timers down in the southern States. I’d like to be in a production of King Lear. Doesn’t matter which part. The small parts are great in that play. It’s part of the point of it. There’s a servant who tries to stop Cornwall from putting out Gloucester’s eyes. I’m not even sure he has a name but he gets run through in his attempt to stop it.

RM:

17 - 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?

SD:

The thing that I really wanted to do but was afraid to do when I was a teenager was pursue fine art. I was great with a pencil, a good portraitist in many styles. But I was too poor with money and too much of a cheapskate to learn how to be good with paint. You have to waste the paint, ladle great tangible gobs of it onto the canvas, in order to get anywhere. I knew that and couldn’t do it. I couldn’t afford all that paint.

RM:

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

SD:

Probably the thing with the paint. Writing is a great creative pursuit for someone who can’t seem to hold onto money. Also, having tough peers that I was unable to impress. Also the death of an older brother, in whose name I swore I wouldn’t waste my life.

RM:

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

SD:

At the moment I’m reading The Reckoning by Charles Nicholl, which is a pretty great book about the secret service career of playwright Christopher Marlowe. Probably the best film I’m seen recently is Man On a Wire. A little over a year ago, I saw Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Jeanne d’Arc and was grateful to learn that it was still possible to feel transformed at my age by a work of art.

RM:

20 - What are you currently working on?

SD:

I’m having trouble letting go of a novel about an unlikely cycle of revenge that revs up between a man and a woman in present-day Toronto. Part of the problem is I can’t think of a title. I was calling it Missy Builds a City for a while, but her name isn’t Missy and she doesn’t build a city, so I’ve recently let that one go. Yesterday I was thinking of calling it Clementine, but her name isn’t Clementine either. Today I’m thinking of calling it Clementine Builds a City

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