Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Mike Barnes

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Mike Barnes

The Adjustment League (Biblioasis) is the first instalment in a new noir trilogy by Mike Barnes. This first book sees the patients of a psychiatric hospital coming together to form the titular league, in an attempt to protect themselves from corrupt medical staff. When a mysterious message from the past arrives (from a patient who lived in a locked ward 20 years prior), the nameless protagonist goes on a mission of justice for the powerless. Known only as "The Super", he is determined to fight not only for the patients, but for the mistreated beyond the hospital walls, seeking to atone for his own dark past.

Mike joins us on Open Book today to take on our Lucky Seven interview series. He tells us about writing a crime novel set against the backdrop of Rob Ford's Toronto, the thematic questions that emerged from the book during the editorial process, and how the definition of a "great book" has changed over the course of his life as a reader and writer.

Open Book:

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

Mike Barnes:

The Adjustment League is a crime novel set in contemporary Toronto. This instalment, subtitled The Boiled Child, is the first in a projected trilogy. The main action takes place over two weeks in October 2013 (during Rob Ford’s garish unravelling), with an epilogue a couple of months later ending with the ice storm on December 21 that cut power to much of the city.

The narrator-protagonist, known only as The Super, is an actual superintendent of an apartment building. He is a very damaged and, often, damaging character with a chronic mental condition and a complex backstory filled with loss, undone potential, and origins that trail off into question marks. His interventions on behalf of the weak and vulnerable — what he calls his “adjustments” — are performed in his six-to-eight-week “windows” of adrenalized hyper-lucidity that precede an inevitable crash. So he is working against time — always aware of his clock ticking — as he uncovers ever-widening circles of crime and depravity that spiral out far beyond the case of maternal neglect that begins his search.

How The Adjustment League came to be in its final form is impossible to say — like any writing, it evolved as a web of conscious plan and unconscious impulse...a semi-guided dream. But I know how it began. I’d been immersed in caregiving of my chronically ill parents for two years when my publisher, Dan Wells, suggested I write a book on caregiving. I think he was trying to pick me up. I was already far into burnout territory, and my previous life — friends, reading, writing — had fallen away completely. I tried — scribbling notes in stolen minutes in an already 20-hour day. But the more I wrote, the more I bumped into an emotion I couldn’t find a place for: rage. Rage and outrage. On behalf of my parents, but also on behalf of all the mostly-neglected suffering I was seeing: in hospitals, care homes, hospices. And it spiralled me back into my own long history as a mental patient — in hospital, on disability, in rooming houses and subsidized menial work...I couldn’t fit it all into a caregiving memoir. There was just too much, and too much that was so jagged and raw. And so I posed myself a literary question: Is there a genre that fits the kind of scraped-nerve, street-level suffering you’ve lived and witnessed, and the rage (among other powerful emotions) it has spawned? And the answer was right there waiting, I’d read it often: noir.

In the same instant, it seemed, the character walked into my head of a pissed-off superintendent who dedicates himself to adjusting a broken world in ways analogous to the ways he unplugs toilets and drains, sweeps up litter, evicts undesirables. The idea made me laugh. And that laughter — black, deep — was really the start of it.

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?

MB:

I never write from a theme. I write from characters and situations and images. I only learn what the themes are by reading back what I’ve written, in the same way any other reader would: noting repetitions, what’s there and not there, tone, etc. — all the ways you grow into understanding of a work.

As I read The Adjustment League several times during the editing process, various questions emerged. Here are two:

What do we owe the weakest and most vulnerable among us?

What would happen if outrage at injustice — normally tempered by reason, compassion, social restraint — acquired the ability to act more aggressively against wrongdoing? Not mere vigilantism — but if doing started to catch up with feeling and thinking?

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?

MB:

I wrote the first draft from about February to October of 2014, with a couple of long-ish breaks when I was unable to write (I’m manic-depressive, or bipolar in the current styling). The biggest change after the first draft was in expanding the epilogue to make the ending more open and onward-leading. After submitting it to Biblioasis, I did nothing further on it for a year and a half, until the editing started. Then, besides the usual nips and tucks, I added, guided by Dan’s queries, some bits to solve inconsistencies in the plot and to fill in more of the Super’s backstory. Oh, and the working title of The Boiled Child became the subtitle of the first installment. Because Dan preferred The Adjustment League as an overall title — and I do too, now — but also, I think, because The Boiled Child was just too damn scary.

OB:

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

MB:

Very little, but a little more than I used to. At first (and then throughout), I jot down on scraps of paper things that come to me: images, bits of dialogue, ideas for scenes. When I have enough to start, I open a Word document and let one thought chain to the next. If I have a full day (rare lately), I’ll go for up to eight or ten hours with only a few short breaks. I plunge forward on the first draft — 1000 to 5000 words a day — not looking back much. When I was much younger, I wrote a lot in public spaces like coffee shops, benches in malls. I liked looking up and seeing others, hearing the hubbub. I’ll still do that if I have to: I’ve written stories and chapters in cafeterias or waiting rooms. It’s not my first choice, though. Now, apart from the short notes on the run, for the main writing, I need the privacy and silence of my own space.

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?

MB:

I almost never feel discouraged while I’m writing; I feel totally focused, energized and bullet-proof. It feels like what I hear described as a “flow” experience: a trance-like total immersion. Problems aren’t interruptions to flow but part of it; I try to solve them — write my way out of the corner — or I move to another part of the project. I don’t get blocked in that sense — or I haven’t, touch wood.

My discouragement, often intense, comes when I’m not writing, waiting to write; or when, having written, I start judging what I’ve written or imagine others doing so. The doing is everything to me. I suffer long stretches of not being able to write, read, or speak except in monosyllables (see manic-depressive above) — which can last many weeks, even months, when I am very ill. But when I’m back again, I make up for lost time with a vengeance.

OB:

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

MB:

“Great book” has a constantly changing definition, one for every phase of life. You Only Live Twice, one of Fleming’s Bond novels — a great book to the twelve-year-old me. In my early twenties, books by Céline, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Knut Hamsun — bedrock to my 24-year-old self, fresh from two years on a psych ward. And so on for every stage. But one kind of great book I return to repeatedly explores what I call “limit positions.” Extremes of devastation or surreality or magic that go far beyond domestic realism. I’ve read, and written, the latter with enjoyment, but what really inspires me are the outlands. J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, China Miéville recently. Here are some “limit position” books I’ve returned to many times: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami, which pulls an ordinary, even dull, protagonist into magical traffic between worlds, interpenetrating realities. The case study masterpieces by the Russsian psychologist A.R. Luria — The Mind of a Mnemonist and The Man with a Shattered World — which I’ve read I don’t know how many times, and which chronicle minutely the miraculous, the scarcely believable, in the human brain. The Executioner’s Song — Mailer’s best work, and another great “limit position” book. Ancient Chinese poetry — Meng Hao-ran, Wang Wei, Wang An-shi — which are also limit positions in their supreme, and supremely evocative, simplicity. I could go on and on. I’m a reader first and last. Writing is just a natural outgrowth, stocking my own shelf in that Borgesian super-library.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MB:

Writing related to the publication of The Adjustment League — like this interview, and some essays on the writing of it suggested by my publisher. Some notes on scrap paper and pencil-crayoned plans for the sequel.


Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Stories, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.

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