Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Conflict of Interest: Heathers 2 (Starring Heather Birrell)

(Part One)
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Heather Birrell

72 Hours* with Mad Hope

*To make my column even more exciting, I've taken note of the time of day that I worked on it during the first 72 hours of writing it. I'm not revealing or denying how long I actually take (but it's at least 72 hours straight, obviously) on these columns, just putting a number into the fetters of my column's design.

I got the idea to inform the reader about the exact moment in which I began a thought about Heather Birrell's work from seeing Los Angeles artist Kerry Tribe's show at the Power Plant, which includes the Canadian premiere of There Will Be ________ (2012), a film which restores the history of Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Every few minutes the date appears (the same date February 16, 1920) with a new vignette or imagined moment. I liked this interruption and semi-didactic lineage, much like a page break, poem title or story title that we find in the common poem or short story. From Power Plant's site:

Tribe’s work uses actors in 20s costume to perform diverging accounts of the events leading up to the murder. All of the dialogue is appropriated from scenes of feature films that have been shot at the mansion. Although these lines are restaged and taken out of their original narrative context, Tribe’s work evokes a sense of familiarity or déjà vu.

In a very real way, fiction — regardless of its original intent or inspiration, original focus or gait — is a restoration of a semi-imagined state; a barely recollected, never-experienced life. A moment of assumed acuity.

Monday April 16 2:21 p.m.

I just got off the phone with an author. The main part of the conversation was about the possible subject of her column for a new magazine I'm developing. I suggested the term "post-genre" as her focus. I guess because, as a former books editor, I have seen my fair share of press releases and publisher-created mini-interviews with authors, in which they share their insights into the process by which they created their final vision — be it poem, novel, memoir whatever — I thought that it would be nice to see some different approaches to book discussion; approaches that transcended normative — let's say even predictable — trajectories.

For years at launches or over water-cooler chatter we have heard those standard FAQs: "Is it fiction?" or "What do you write about?" I always feel that as artists the fact that we have created our work and that it has reached a finality and been presented for all time invites the public to accept, inquire and discern the work on their own time. But industry standards and publishers insist that author's weigh in on their own creations. But like a boxer days after a gruelling fight, like a lover days after a gruelling fight, how objective can we truly be at defining our own craft? I'm never surprised by the passioned answers this vein of questioning elicits. Here is the question as originally posed to Heather, and here is her cool response. (Cue the Cut and Paste Microsoft Word string section as I show you what I sent her question-wise and her first response from Thursday evening.)

Sunday April 15th, 8:45 p.m.

Nathaniel: How do you know when a story is over?

Heather: I actually have a pretty good idea of the ending of a story when I begin, although this idea may change as I write. I usually have an image or impression I’d like to convey to the reader, and I write towards this. It’s good to have this “goal” floating out there ahead of me, but it’s by no means always the way the story ends up.

Nathaniel: National treasure and former Degrassi icon Drake sings, "The real is on the rise / f**k them other guys" on the song "Headlines" (it's a personal mantra). Do you think with books like How Should A Person Be? and other semi-autobiographical fiction books we are moving towards a deeper reflection of ourselves? I guess what I'm asking is how do you approach the cliché “write what you know”? How much of you is in these stories?

Heather: Hmm. The stories in Mad Hope are fiction. I hope the stories feel authentic and real, but they are not meant to be read as autobiography. The “concerns” (for want of a better term) of the collection are all mine — issues I have been busy with — and I suppose some of the characters could be considered my people, mothers, teachers, social work-y types, but many of them are clearly not me — a woman whose mother was killed in an airplane crash, a male high school teacher who fled Ceausescu’s Romania. But I would also like to argue that even those characters whose circumstances perhaps closely match my own are NOT me. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction here seems in the realm of intention. As soon as I decide a detail will be part of a “story,” it becomes very clearly separate from me and my life, and I manipulate it as if it no longer belongs to me.

Monday April 16th, 2012 2:32 p.m.

After just re-reading the first story from Mad Hope, I was taken back to those strange moments in time and space where parks and woods and ravines were to die for. Where things went down, where dogs and strangers seemed larger and scarier. Where we grew up faster. I liked how tight and focused this opening story was, but I was never 100 percent certain if there was a morality to it. If a lesson existed in the hemline, let's say. It was an inviting story, one that seemed focused on placing characters in an exact moment and in circumstance awaiting casual fate. I don't ask Heather about this story because I don't want to be denied my own vision of it. Perhaps others will seek it out and then ask her what it was really about. I like that opening story and it still kicks around in my head.

2:40 p.m.

Scanning reviews of her first book on Heather's website. I remember Ibi Kaslik reviewing it for Matrix Magazine like it was yesterday. But first I read the Annabel Lyon review:

My favourite beach read so far this summer has been Toronto writer Heather Birrell’s short story collection, I know you are but what am I? Birrell’s writing is full of tastes and colours and zingers like ’the slow red sun” that “bursts into the white light of southern hospitality. ‘Y’all,’ says the sun, and really means it. ‘Y’all!’" — Annabel Lyon, The National Post

Heather Birrell’s first collection of stories is a charming and fluid read. […] Summarizing the plots of these stories and their themes is a somewhat futile exercise as much of their success lies in Birrell’s humane, idiosyncratic prose. Birrell’s style is curiously contradictory: both incisive and vague, philosophical and prosaic, it denies its characters easy redemptive endings. The stories are often as individual and fragmented as childhood memory itself. Birrell also has a great ear for dialogue, and the intimacy between characters is artful as well as poignantly rendered. […] IKYABWAI firmly establishes Birrell as a quirky and talented young writer to watch for, on and off the playground. — Ibi Kaslik, Matrix Magazine

6:01 p.m.

Heather Birrell enters the second quarter of 2012 with a new collection of stories with memorable characters and connections, and a freckle or two of all-around mystery.

For those of you in the know, it's been six wilderness years since Heather's debut collection, I know you are but what am I?, was released to a slew of positive reviews and accruing buzz, which was coupled with other attention-worthy asides, such as being shortlisted for National and Western Magazine awards, published in The New Quarterly and winning the Journey Prize and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction. (Not to mention one of my favourite pieces in that blockbuster US-published anthology Toronto Noir.)

Some things I learned about Heather’s reading tastes and about putting her book together: Heather lists Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Enright, Annabel Lyon, Ian McEwan and David Mitchell as current favourites and Kim Jernigan at The New Quarterly and Alana Wilcox at Coach House Books ("she prompted some great re-writes and came up with a structure for the stories that really resonated with me,") as invaluable supporters of her own stories over the years. "The story writer's road can be a rocky and lonely one — and although there is satisfaction in finishing a story (versus the longer haul of the novel) there is also often a sense of now what? at its completion. And even once a collection is assembled, the fight to get it published in its entirety can be a harrowing one."

6:15 p.m.

The second story in Mad Hope, “My Friend Taisie,” is a tag along for the hustle and bustle of registering someone for their wedding, sharing visions of domestic virtue and the triumphs of introducing an adopted child into a new family order. This would sort of be like listening to “Fast Love” on George Michael's 1996 masterpiece Older after listening to “Jesus To A Child.” The song and this story are both spoken in lucid, accessible, matter-of-fact, listen, this is what it's all about, okay, trust me manner that breeds interest and enjoyment. The story is breezy, full of chatter and gains momentum.

"Once joyful and quick to laugh, Taisie is now prone to bouts of humourless intensity when her attention is not flitting like a debutante between topics. It’s the hormones, I know, but it can make things a drag or a crapshoot." — From “My Friend Taisie”

8:45 p.m.

Nathaniel: What was your response to the YOSS campaign and how do you feel (if anything) about the genre in Canada?

Heather: I think the YOSS manifesto put into words a lot of frustration myself and others have felt in trying to get our stories out into the world. I love reading and writing short stories but I feel like I’ve been trained by certain naysayers to apologize for my passion. And the funny thing is that whenever I do, most readers deny that any prejudice against or even lack of interest in the form exists. As for the genre in Canada, my step-father-in-law, who lives in the Scottish Hebrides, recently remarked that being a great story writer in Canada is like being a great football (soccer) player in Brazil. So we’ve got a rep! We should embrace it!

10:28 p.m.

When the newly forming family in “My Friend Taisie” returns home from a baby shower registry at a department store, the adults discuss further expansion.

On the way home Anton falls asleep in the car, propped up against an overturned, second-hand bassinet.

‘Maybe we need a pet,’ says Taisie, changing lanes. ‘Now that we’re like a family. A dog?’

‘Fish, maybe,’ I say. ‘It’s good to start small. We had two fish when I was little. Names: Rhubarb and Custard.’

‘Why?’

‘We had no idea at the time — just heard the names on a British tv program and thought they sounded exotic. But our cat understood.’

The scene moves briskly; a domestic lane change that turns into a quest for pets. "A book is a part of speech," Yan Martel says on the book on tape I'm listening to simultaneously (Beatrice and Virgil).

I had just looked up the Irving Layton-Leonard Cohen quote about preserving the self. It’s in that film Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, in which Layton says what concerns Cohen is preserving the self. That is what Thomas is doing, preserving the self as he recalls it to Taisie. Not because it's the truth, not because it's a verdict, but because it is how he remembers the story he's told his whole life, perhaps, as a performance about the fish and his cat. The acceptance of the name choices. It's part of him.

Tuesday April 17th, 2012 7:46 a.m.

I woke up about ten minutes ago with a splitting headache. I want to remove all the doors and people from my house. I check my email and Heather hasn't gotten back to me on the next round of questions. Her launch is on November 24th, 2012 at The Dakota Tavern where I've seen the following Toronto writers before: Lynn Crosbie, Tara Michelle Ziniuk, RM Vaughan and a lot of bands in cowboy shirts. What will happen at Heather's launch? It says she is doing on on stage interview with someone.

8:52 a.m.

Read this while listening to Michael Jackson's Black and White.

9:00 a.m.


Reread “My Friend Taisie” and the narrator Thomas's self description of his own profile: "less like a shadow than a spy".

END OF PART ONE.

Read the conclusion of “Heathers 2” on Tuesday right here. Mad Hope (Coach House Books) by Heather Birrell launches on Tuesday April 24th at The Dakota Tavern in Toronto. Click here for details.


Nathaniel G. Moore has just completed a biographical novel/memoir called Savage 1986-2011. This summer he will be working on the uprising of his new imprint at Tightrope Books (The Highwire) and helping the press in the department of book promo. Follow him on Twitter @NathanielGMoore

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