Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Brian Fawcett

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is the author of more than twenty books. He has also had a highly successful career in journalism, writing for the Globe and Mail, as well as countless other nationally published journals and magazines. Fawcett's latest book, Human Happiness (Thomas Allen) is a different take on the memoir genre. In this book he explores the notion of what makes us happy, what happiness is and what the role of human relationships and, most importantly, family, plays in our search to be happy.

Brian Fawcett talks to Open Book today about his new memoir.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Human Happiness.

Brian Fawcett:

It’s a book that began in 1998 when I asked my mother, then approaching her 90s, 40 questions that I was pretty sure almost no one ever asks their parents — many of them fundamental questions about the big things in life, like “What is your biggest regret in life?” and "how important is sex to achieving happiness?” I didn’t think she’d answer them, but she not only did, she went well beyond, revealing that she’d had an affair in her late 40s and telling me a raft of other stories I’d never heard before. It made me realize that I’d always taken my parents for granted and that this might be a serious mistake. So I began an investigation that I decided would be carried out without sentimentality: Who were these strangers I’d known all my life, and what did they think about the world, and what did they feel about getting old?

It took 12 years to find out, and by the time I did, they were both dead and I’d been handed two remarkable human beings who’d lived active and happy lives — and had grown to intensely dislike one another: hence the title: Human Happiness, which you have to read with the emphasis on “Human.”

OB:

Human Happiness takes a different focus than many of your past projects. What prompted you to look at family as a possible book subject?

BF:

Since I wrote Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow in 1986, I’ve used the same method of deciding what to write about. I determine what the most difficult subject matter is that I can write about, and tackle it. This one was a natural, given the process I use, which involves cold-blooded research and then writing and rewriting in order to discover what I can think though. The poet John Wieners called this way of writing performing “the unturned tricks of the trade.” You get beaten fairly often by it, but when you succeed, its deeply gratifying, and even when you’re defeated, you learn things.

I knew virtually nothing about my family's past, and my parents had simply been the nurturing (and sometimes something a lot less sanguine than that) figures I’d grown up with. Turning them into real, living, contradictory human beings was about as difficult a thing as I’ve ever done. You should try it, because the surprises are endless, and transformative.

OB:

What were some of the challenges and opportunities that arose from writing about people and events to which you had a deep personal connection?

BF:

You cry a lot. Seriously. I can’t read more than two pages of the book without turning into a weeping idiot. It's as if I used up my objectivity getting them clear of all the possible sentimentality such a project entails, and now, when I read it, there they are, as they really were. And so I guess now I miss them as a small child would, without distance or defences. I had to do nine complete rewrites in the last 18 months, with every sentence under scrutiny, because I kept on telling my story and not theirs.

OB:

What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?

BF:

I think that very few writers have more than one subject matter in their lives, and I’ve been lucky enough to know what mine was from about the age of 17. All my books are finally about the same thing: Why do people hit one another, or manipulate and lie to one another, and how can we stop doing this? This book travels right through the middle of that country. My parents were pretty much the products of dysfunction and emotional violence, and I discovered that both, sometimes in very odd ways, found paths that stopped it. They both did it without losing their humanity, and without having to resort to rigid ideologies or fundamentalisms and without losing their ability to laugh.

I decided, while I was writing Virtual Clearcut a decade ago, that I wasn’t willing to write anything that simply made people feel helpless about their lives. This book very much fulfills that intention.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

BF:

I write and revise in public places a lot. I’ve been lucky enough for the last 20 years to have the protection of Graziano Marchese and Dooney’s Café. I keyboard at home and do some of the revision there, but there’s something about testing what you’re writing against the real world that just seems right.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

BF:

It came from Stephen Vizinczey about 25 years ago, and I’ve followed it every since: Never have a drink before 5:00 p.m. Writers need all the brains they have.

OB:

Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?

BF:

I’m attracted to people and writers who are radically different from me, and I’ve consciously sought such people and writers out. My closest intellectual companion for the last 30 years has been Stan Persky, who’s a homosexual Jew from Chicago, a communist (or at least, he used to be) who lives alone in order to be able to read and write. I’m a heterosexual Anglican liberal anarchist with a huge and messy domestic life, an unruly garden, three children, two cars, etc.... The writers who have influenced me most are Primo Levi, John Berger, John Keegan, Joseph Conrad, Javier Cercas and others with life-experience and outlooks profoundly different than mine.

OB:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

BF:

We’re living in the cultural catastrophe of globalism and the imposition of the marketplace as the model for all human interactions. For us that began — mostly symbolically — in 1988, with the Canada/US Free Trade Agreement, which I fought hard against. Now we’re all enmeshed in the mess it is making of human relationships, which I argue against as best I can as a writer and citizen. That sounds grander than it is, but it’s really all I have. Culture isn’t dressing up in tuxedos and going to the Symphony. It’s an ongoing conversation we’re supposed to be having about why we don’t kill one another and grab one another’s stuff. In Canada these days, it isn’t much of a conversation.

OB:

What book have you read recently that you really loved?

BF:

Anything by Tony Judt, who died last year. Postwar, Ill Fares the Land, or Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, which is about all the things we didn’t think through during the 20th century, and which are now gouging holes in our social fabric. He’s the best writer I’ve read in the last 10 years.

OB:

What are you working on now?

BF:

The Epic of Gilgamesh According to Enkidu. I taught in maximum security prisons during the 1980s, and I accumulated a bunch of stories I couldn’t write about because the people in them were alive. They’re now dead, so it’s the next book on the “ Why do people hit one another, or manipulate and lie to one another, and how can we stop doing this?” list. I’m still discovering what I think about it, but it’s already past 50,000 words (all of which will get rewritten 20 more times…) I’m not complaining about this, because I think I have more fun writing than anyone I know.

Brian Fawcett is the author of more than twenty books, including Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, The Secret Journals of Alexander Mackenzie, and Virtual Clearcut: Or, The Way Things Are In My Home Town. He is a past editor of Books in Canada, a former columnist for the Globe and Mail, has written articles and reviews for most of Canada's major newspapers and magazines, and is a founding editor of the internationally-followed Internet news service, www.dooneyscafe.com. Fawcett was born and raised in Prince George, B.C. and now lives in Toronto.

For more information about Human Happiness please visit the Thomas Allen website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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