Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Jared Bland

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Finding the Words, edited by Jared Bland

Jared Bland, managing editor at The Walrus, talks to Open Book about the magazine and what excites him about Canadian literature today. He takes us behind the scenes and describes the experience of editing the newest anthology in support of PEN Canada published with McClelland & Stewart. Finding the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile and Breaking the Rules — in stores today — collects essays about the writing life by 31 celebrated Canadian and international writers.

Join Jared Bland and other Finding the Words contributors at the launch this exciting collection on Wednesday, February 16th at Duggan's Brewery in Toronto. Visit our Events Page for more details.

Open Book:

Tell us about the anthology Finding the Words.

Jared Bland:

Finding the Words is an anthology of mostly essays (there’s one conversation and one list, as well) about various elements of the creative process. We asked a wide range of writers and artists to talk about the ways in which words intersect with their own lives and work, and this book is the result. It features work from 31 of the most exciting writers in Canada and abroad. The book is a fundraiser for PEN Canada, and in a sense the fourth entry in a series of fundraising anthologies published by McClelland & Stewart in support of PEN. The first three — Writing Away, Writing Home, and Writing Life — were edited by the late Constance Rooke. I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but her legendary spirit was much in my mind while working on this book.

OB:

How did you decide on the theme for this anthology?

JB:

We went back and forth over theme a fair bit in our early discussions. One thing I knew for certain was that I wanted whatever our theme ended up being to be very broad. I felt that this would give our writers a chance to really make the subject their own — that they would be able to find something within themselves that embodied the idea, rather than creating something to satisfy a very specific request. I think we ended up with work of an incredibly wide range, which pleases me greatly. There are a lot of wonderful anthologies, of course, with more specific premises. But I feel our broad focus on creativity serves this particular book best.

OB:

What was the experience of editing Finding the Words like?

JB:

It’s the first anthology or very large project I’ve undertaken, and it’s very different from working on a magazine, which is what I was used to. So it was an enormous challenge for me. First, it’s challenging just in the sheer size of it — I think the finished book is 80,000 words or so. But beyond that, it was the precarious balance of intellectual work and organizational work (not that the latter can’t be the former, or vice versa, but you know what I mean) that was difficult to get used to. Half of editing something like this is keeping up with correspondence with writers, developing ideas, setting realistic schedules. The other half is doing the editing itself. I was lucky throughout to have the support of the brilliant Anita Chong, Ellen Seligman and Doug Pepper at M & S, who helped me keep the trains moving and on time.

OB:

The essays in Finding the Words cover a range of topics and have different styles. How did you go about structuring the book to ensure that the contributions would resonate with each other and form a unified whole?

JB:

The three previous PEN books had been published with the contributions in alphabetical order by author last name. The ease and simplicity of this approach appealed to me — and you also avoid the possibility of hurting someone’s feelings by placing their essay in a spot they consider undesirable or somehow lesser. But I also thought that arranging them in a more deliberate way was an excellent opportunity to let the pieces speak to each other, and, in doing so, to produce some greater dialogue within the book that existed outside of any individual essay.

So I wrote down all the names on a white board and stared at it for a while. Then I started to make an order, slotting people in various spots, moving them around, trying different things. I knew from the minute I read Heather O’Neill’s essay that I wanted it to open the book, so I at least had that anchor as I set forth. Once I had a list, I submitted it to Anita Chong, and she very wisely pointed out several obvious things I’ve overlooked. So we went back and forth and finally settled on what we have. She suggested closing the book with Miguel Syjuco’s “Visitation,” and I’m simultaneously depressed I didn’t think of that and very glad she did. The order itself was partly determined by necessity. We had to make sure, for instance, that pieces about novelistic process, like Emma Donaghue’s explanation of making Jack’s voice in Room, or Michael Winter’s account of his methods in The Death of Donna Whalen, weren’t too close to each other. And we had to account for the location of the action — we wouldn’t want too many international pieces in close proximity, that sort of thing.

OB:

Is there a particular essay in Finding the Words that really stands out for you?

JB:

I’ve lived with some of these pieces for nearly a year, so choosing one is sort of impossible — they’re like children, almost. But I will refer again to the essays by Heather O’Neill and Miguel Syjuco. As the book’s beginning and end, they have really come to influence the way I view a lot of the other material. There are so many wonderful individual efforts within, so many surprising, personal, challenging and devastating moments. I could tell a good story about every one of these — editing Gord Downie on a train home from Ithaca, weeping at my desk as I read Stephanie Nolen’s first draft, being transported back to the streets of Phnom Penh by Maddie Thien. But Heather and Miguel, as the doorways in and out, loom large in my mind as very good examples of the different ways the book’s theme was interpreted.

OB:

How did you become involved with PEN Canada? Why did you want to be a part of this organization?

JB:

I became involved with PEN a few years ago. At the time, I thought it represented a lot of essential concerns for people in my particular profession. Since then, I’ve come to think of these issues as much bigger than simply questions of journalism or writing. It’s been an honour to be a small part of the important work PEN does on behalf of freedom of expression.

OB:

Do you think that writers in Canada tend to take our freedom of expression for granted, forgetting the many writers across the world who have been persecuted for their work or forced to be silent?

JB:

Good question. Generally speaking, I suppose the answer has to be yes, but it’s important to note that I don’t think Canadian writers do so out of ignorance or malice or selfishness or anything like that. It’s just that we live in a comparatively stable society wherein it’s easy to forget that things that are so routine and easy for us are forbidden or fought for dearly in other parts of the world. For instance, when we’re putting together a magazine at The Walrus, do we reflect on the fact that what we do every month is prohibited in parts of the world? Probably not as much as we should. But organizations like PEN are working hard to make sure that nothing is taken for granted, and to remind us that as writers, journalists, readers, etc., we have a responsibility to help others fight for the essential right to free expression

OB:

As managing editor at The Walrus, you oversee the fiction, poetry and arts sections of the magazine. What does The Walrus look for when making its publication selections for these areas?

JB:

I’m just now pulling back a bit on the arts section, and will be doing less of that going forward, so I should leave that question for the very excellent editors who’ll be working on it in the future. I will, however, continue to work on poetry and fiction. In both of these fields, I’m looking for work that I connect with in an unusual or unexpected or otherwise surprising way. I read a lot of very good, very lovely stories that we end up not taking. It’s not that anything’s wrong with them — many of them are excellent. It’s just that we only make ten magazines a year, and so I really do look for pieces with which I feel this connection. This, of course, is sort of useless as a guideline, and I have felt this connection for many different stories of many different kinds.

OB:

What is the best part of your job at The Walrus?

JB:

I’d say discovering the feeling I wrote about in my response to your last question is pretty high on the list. Additionally, I feel fortunate every day to work with an incredible group of brilliant and gifted people, from the guidance and wisdom of our editor in chief, John Macfarlane, to our editorial, art, marketing, circulation, events, advertising and publishing folks. It’s an amazing group. That said, my single favourite component to my job is working with our preposterously gifted and hard-working interns. They are inspirations to me every day, and working alongside them is incredibly rewarding.

OB:

What excites you about Canadian writing today?

JB:

So many things! First, the fact that we have so many incredibly talented people writing at the moment, across the country, across generations, across different cultural and historical backgrounds. I’m excited by the interest in the short story as a form. I’m excited that we are producing an remarkable number of gifted young poets, so many of whom are in deep connection with the history of their form. I’m thrilled that the walls between genre writing and "literary" writing continue to erode with each passing year — may they do so at an increasingly fast pace! And on a personal level, I’m exceptionally excited, and exceptionally grateful, that I get to have a small connection to many of these people, through this anthology and through the magazine. I’m constantly awed by the talent we have in this country.


Jared Bland is the managing editor of The Walrus and oversees the magazine's fiction, poetry, and arts and culture sections. He holds a master's degree from the University of Toronto, where he also pursued doctoral studies in English literature. He sits on the board of directors of PEN Canada, and is a member of the International Visitors Committee in association with the International Festival of Authors. He lives in Toronto.
For more information about Finding the Words please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

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

Read about OBT Writer-in-Residence Kate Pullinger's experience mentoring creative writing students in Tunisia alongside the "not-so-secret police" on her Author Page.

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