Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Binnie Brennan

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Binnie Brennan

Binnie Brennan is the author of the short story collection A Certain Grace and a novella, Harbour View. Her latest book is the novel Like Any Other Monday (Gaspereau Press), an historical fiction tale that explores the intimate and tenuous relationship between two vaudeville performers.

Binnie speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today, Binnie tells us about the headspace of a musician, using Buster Keaton as the archetype for her character and what she does when the writing process isn't working.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Binnie Brennan:

Like Any Other Monday is a novel set on the vaudeville stage in 1916/17, a fictional portrait of the great comedian Buster Keaton during the last months of his time as a vaudevillian. I hadn’t planned on writing biographical fiction, let alone a novel, but it came about after several years of intense research I did on Keaton’s life and his art. I started writing fictional vignettes about Buster’s onstage life as a child prodigy comedian (one of which is the prologue of the novel), and from there I went on to write a number of biographical essays, and also prose-poetry responses to his two-reel movies. I wasn’t sure what I was writing or why, but eventually it came into focus. It was Marina Endicott’s novel, The Little Shadows, which is also set during the vaudeville era, which ignited my interest in vaudeville and Buster Keaton in the first place.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

BB:

If there is a central question, it’s not one I was conscious of while writing. I knew from the start of writing it that I wanted to write about performing – although not about performing in a symphony orchestra, which is what I do for a living. I suppose the closest I can come up with is “why perform?” and to take it further, “what made Buster/Billy tick as a performer?” The great Alistair MacLeod once said that we often write about the things that worry us. I wouldn’t necessarily say I worry about it, but I’ve been a musician for most of my life, and performing – both onstage and preparing for it offstage – takes up a lot of headspace in my everyday life. Perhaps part of me wondered why I do it.

OB:

Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

BB:

It changed quite a bit, in that it had its beginnings as a short story, one of the many writing projects I undertook during this period of deep research. The story concerned the opening week of a new act, two lifelong and nameless young performers who are thrown together to break in a new act on the vaudeville stage. It was rejected by a number of literary journals, so I put it away for awhile. When I took it out for another look, it helped me to find my toe-hold on a larger work, which became the first draft of the novel. I gave the two characters names – Billy and Lucinda, and used Buster Keaton as Billy’s archetype (Lucinda I made up). The first draft took six weeks to write, but the earlier version of the short story took about as long, and then there were the two years of research that preceded the story. Once the draft was written, I took my time revising and polishing it. Hard to say how long it took to write, when you look at the whole!

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

BB:

A notebook and a couple of good pens (black ink is preferable). My PC by a window and a good chair. Silence. An empty house is best, although not necessary.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

BB:

I’ll go for a walk — exercising helps. Talk to a trusted friend about it. Sometimes I’ll go at the bothersome passage from another angle, a different point of view. And sometimes I put it away for a while and go back to it later (see #3).

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

BB:

I consider stories that grab hold of me emotionally, through the strength of the characters and their circumstances and told simply, to be great. Helen Humphreys’ brilliant and small book The Frozen Thames is loaded with these qualities, beautifully understated but devastating in their emotional power. She’s written forty vignettes based on events that happened during the forty recorded times in history that the Thames has frozen, beginning in 1142 and ending in 1927. So simple, and so beautifully done.

OB:

What are you working on now?

BB:

I have a few things on the go. I’ll keep pecking at the prose-poetry responses to Keaton’s two-reelers, and I’ve got a small collection of short stories based on the pioneering days of the movie industry. But the piece that’s calling to me the loudest these days is a novel I’ve been working at off and on for some years.


Binnie Brennan is the author of three books of fiction, Like Any Other Monday (Gaspereau Press), A Certain Grace and Harbour View (Quattro Books).

Co-winner of the 2009 Quattro Books’ Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, Binnie has also been published in several literary journals. Her novella, Harbour View, was published in the fall of 2009; in 2010 it was shortlisted for an Atlantic Book Award and longlisted for a ReLit Award. Her short story collection, A Certain Grace, was published in 2012. Binnie is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, where she was mentored by M.G. Vassanji and Alistair MacLeod.

In 2007 Binnie’s story A Spider’s Tale was adapted for the stage in Halifax, where it received critical and popular acclaim. Since 1989 Binnie has enjoyed a career playing the viola with Symphony Nova Scotia. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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