Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Ian Colford

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On Writing, with Ian Colford

Ian Colford talks to Open Book about his latest book, Evidence (The Porcupine's Quill).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about the structure of your book, Evidence.

Ian Colford:

To clarify, Evidence is a collection of linked short stories narrated by Kostandin Bitri, a refugee from Eastern Europe, chronicling his journey from a homeland devastated by war to a new life in the west. In the book, the stories are not arranged in a chronological or linear sequence and appear, in fact, to have fallen into place at random. The reader meets Kostandin in the first story already well along in his journey, but subsequent stories skip back and forth, giving the reader glimpses into his life at important moments. In determining the order the stories would follow in the finished book, I was faced with a problem because as I wrote them, I dropped the plot of one when I started the next, so that no story references any other. In one or two cases it’s obvious that the events of a particular story follow or precede others (for example, in one he’s a child), but in others it’s not clear at all, even to me. So when the time came to submit the final manuscript, I retained the more or less random arrangement, first, because I didn’t want to impose a structure on the book that would comes across as contrived or artificial, and, second, because I decided it was appropriate for the reader’s experience to mirror Kostandin’s, which is fragmented and disjointed.

OBT:

It's not clear where your narrator Kostandin Bitri is from, just that he's a refugee from an unnamed Eastern European country. Why did you make Kostandin's origins so unspecific?

IC:

This was deliberate because my knowledge of that region and its conflicts is incomplete, and I did not want the book or my character to be constrained by a need for historical or geographical accuracy. The moment you link a character to a national origin or attach your setting to a specific town or city, you’ve limited your options in ways that affect how creative you can be. It’s not wrong. There’s plenty of great fiction that lives and breathes within familiar city limits. It just depends on what you’re trying to do, and maybe in another book I’ll work differently. But in this case, I wasn’t interested so much in a specific armed conflict or instance of ethnic cleansing that happened in a particular time or place as I was in the idea of dislocation. I was curious to see how the fact that he could not return home because home didn’t exist any more would play out in fictional terms. And I wanted the reader to see Kostandin as a kind of everyman rather than as the representative of a certain ethnic or cultural group.

OBT:

Describe the process of writing Evidence.

IC:

Years ago I had an idea for a book in which a nameless protagonist plows through other people’s lives, leaving a trail of destruction behind him. I think I saw him as privileged and unscrupulous, in the sense that nothing mattered to him. At the time, I had been reading Jerzy Kosinski, so it’s probably just as well I set this project aside. I was too deeply under the influence of his work to be able to create anything new on my own. It was at least a decade later that I came back to it, and the intervening years had transformed it into something else. This was in 2003. I knew what kind of character I wanted to write about, so I started the first story, which, as it turns out, is the first in the book. When I finished that story, I moved on to the next. As I wrote, the character of Kostandin became clearer, and I remember that by the time I had finished the second story, the third was already complete in my mind — from start to finish — so I sat down to write it. It was like that for the rest of the book: before I finished writing one story, the next was playing in my head like a movie. I knew I had written the last story because when I finished it there wasn’t another waiting to be written. I completed the first draft in six months, while I was working full time and doing other things, like writing a novel, which I set aside to work on Evidence. I doubt anything like that will ever happen to me again.

OBT:

When you're writing, do you borrow heavily from your life and from the stories of people that you know?

IC:

The simple answer is no. So far, in the fiction I’ve written, I’ve used nothing from my own life or the lives of friends or relatives. Now, when I say “nothing,” what I mean is that I’ve never consciously taken incidents from my life or the outline of the life of someone I know and turned it into fiction. What I have done is use observed details from places I’ve visited or places I’ve lived and incorporated them into my fiction. To take a couple of examples from Evidence, the little pension where Kostandin is working when Mrs. Lamond and her son come to visit: I’ve stayed there. And when Kostandin returns to his homeland to meet his cousin Migena, the hotel room where he’s staying at the beginning of the story, with the unwholesome ambiance and the window looking out at a greenish pool of water: I stayed there too, but not one moment longer than I had to.

OBT:

Who are your literary influences?

IC:

I’ve already mentioned Jerzy Kosinski. I’ve read just about everything he wrote, and I still find his work fascinating because of the audacity of it and the terse drumbeat of his prose, which is distinctive because English was not his first language. Of the classic writers, Joseph Conrad is the one I go back to. Like everyone else, I came to Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner early. I love the drawl of Eudora Welty’s writing in her stories. At some point in my teens I picked up books by South American writers — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, José Donoso, Julio Cortázar — and caught the beat of their rhythms. I still read them whenever I get the chance. And then there are late Twentieth Century masters like Joan Didion, Tobias Wolff, John Gardner and Raymond Carver, who write disturbing and compelling stories about characters who are often pursuing selfish agendas, but they describe them using crystalline prose. If I was going to admit to a genuine literary influence though, it would be John Cheever. His stories represent some of the most inventive and exuberant writing of the twentieth century. I think what I learned from him is that you don’t have to be serious all the time to be a serious writer and say things that need to be said. You can have just as much fun as the next guy, even if you’re characters are in trouble or anxious or facing tough choices. Cheever can be very funny. And he never lectures. That’s important. Sometimes he takes the impishness too far, but the main thing is that he’s always entertaining, even when he fails.

OBT:

What would you like readers to take away from your book?

IC:

I guess what’s important is that the reader come away from this book thinking in terms of the breadth or variety of human experience. Our lives in North America can be comfortable and insulated, but people all over the world are living very different kinds of lives — not necessarily of lesser or greater quality, just different. What they think of when they get up in the morning, what they see when they look out the window, their loves and fears, can be strange and even baffling to us. The easy availability of foreign books and movies has led to greater understanding among disparate cultures, and maybe in a small way Evidence can contribute to this as well.


Ian Colford's first collection of stories, Evidence (The Porcupine's Quill), won the Margaret & John Savage First Book Award and was shortlisted for the Thomas H Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. In the United States, Evidence was shortlisted in ForeWord magazine's Book of the Year (BoTY) competition and took a silver medal in the Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards.

For more information about Evidence, please visit The Porcupine's Quill website.

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

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