Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with John Oughton

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John

January 28, 2010 -

Open Book: Toronto:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

John Oughton:

It depends on how you define “publication”, but I did self-publish two poetry chapbooks in high school (via mimeograph); this was before the photocopier appeared. The first was somewhat embarrassingly titled The Turd’s Eye View. I hope that I have progressed beyond that scatological vision.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

JO:

I went to a conference on poetic inquiry in Charlottetown last fall, and I was struck by how vibrant a cultural life PEI has. The Island seems to be full of practicing poets, novelists and artists of all kinds. It reminded me that it’s not the size of your audience that matters; it’s the quality of your work and of the response that your work gets.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

JO:

Probably the collected works of either Al Purdy or Irving Layton, depending on my mood; a Farley Mowat book like Never Cry Wolf; and to remind newcomers that Canada is not all lyrical landscapes, either Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen or A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

JO:

Solitude with a view, and other creative people nearby when I feel like talking. I spent three months at the Gibraltar Point Artists’ Retreat on Toronto Island working on a novel, and it was just about perfect for this purpose.

OBT:

William Faulkner was once asked what book he wished he had written; he chose Moby-Dick (with Winnie-the-Pooh as a close second). Is there a book that you wish you had written?

JO:

Sure, dozens of them. To pick just one is difficult, but I’ll go with the high point of modernist fiction, Ulysses. It’s simultaneously a resetting of the Greek myth, a parody of many forms of literary English and a moving story of ordinary people trying to cope with sexuality, culture, ageing, jealousy and all the other challenges of life. And its style is amazing.

OBT:

Is there a book that you think you should have read by now but haven’t?

JO:

Perhaps something by Donald Trump on how to make a quick billion dollars. I don’t seem to have mastered that skill yet.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

JO:

I’m re-reading Ronald Wright’s excellent Time Among the Maya, both a travel journal and a good layman’s introduction to the complex and little-known Mayan culture. It helps explain why, although 2012 is an important date in the Mayan calendar, it isn’t the last one.

OBT:

Do you have a specific readership in mind when you write?

JO:

I’m afraid that, like many writers, I tend to write for people more or less like me; fairly literate), curious about the world and others, with a sense of humour and an impatience with dogma, whether religious, political or literary.

OBT:

What are you working on right now?

JO:

I am trying to finish and rework the manuscript of my first novel, whose working title is Enough of Hate. It started out fairly quietly with a poet-detective who rides an old motorcycle (no resemblance to me!) and somehow warped into discovery of a massive conspiracy around one of the 20th-century’s most puzzled-over assassinations. I should stop reading Dan Brown’s books, I guess.

OBT:

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?

JO:

A couple of things:

* it’s more important to make your writing as good as possible than to focus solely on publication; when you’re mastered your art, publication will follow. If publication is your sole goal, you may succeed, but the time you spend on networking and mailing out endless manuscripts with SASE’s might better have been invested in paring down your redundancies, turbo-charging your imagination, finding the right word for each place. Be ruthless with your own work; compare it with the best in the same genre, and see how you can raise the bar for yourself.

* once your writing is as good as you can make it, submit and don’t get discouraged too easily. Editors have their own quirks and biases; they are not infallible judges of literary quality. One of my favourite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was rejected by something like 35 publishers because they couldn’t pigeonhole it as just biography or self-help or philosophy. When it finally was accepted, it sold (and continues to sell) millions of copies.

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