Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Ray Robertson

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Ray Robertson

Ray Robertson is the writer of seven novels, including Home Movies (Cormorant) and Moody Food (Biblioasis). Robertson is also the author of two collections of essays. His most recent book is Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live (Biblioasis), which he wrote after struggling with and overcoming serious depression. The essays contained within attempt to deal with two fundamental questions of life: 'what is happiness?', and, 'why is life worth living?'. The book was recently nominated for the Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Robertson talks with Open Book today about writing non-fiction, tackling a subject of a deeply personal nature and what happiness means to him now.

Also, please note that Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live will be launched this evening in Toronto. You can find more information on the event here.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Why Not: Fifteen Reasons to Live.

Ray Robertson:

Basically, not long after finishing the first draft of my novel David during the summer of 2008, I suffered from a depression of suicidal intensity. A year later, after physically and mentally recovering, I found that I’d been provided with a rare opportunity: to write a book of essays exploring from a uniquely advantageous perspective two of life’s most central and enduring questions: what makes human beings happy? What makes life worth living?

OB:

Why Not has deeply personal roots. What were some of the challenges and opportunities of drawing on your own unique experiences for this book?

RR:

The challenge was simple: did I really want to spill the beans about my breakdown and did I want to advertise the very personal things in my life that keep me happy? All of my novels are autobiographical to a greater or a lesser degree, but this time it would be impossible to deny that the “I” in the book was me, Ray Robertson. Not that I foresaw that I would want to deny this, but now that possibility was definitely gone.

On the other hand, after publishing six novels it was refreshing to work in the personal essay form where I could freely mix the autobiographical with what I’ve learned through a lifetime’s worth of reading in philosophy, history, and literature. I did my undergraduate degree in philosophy, so it was also a chance to write about some of the books and writers who have meant a great deal to me not so much as a novelist, but simply as a human being.

OB:

This is your second book of non-fiction. How would you compare the experience of writing fiction with that of non-fiction?

RR:

John Updike wrote that “writing non-fiction is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.” I put just as much care into my essays as I do my novels as regards language, humour, structure, et cetera, but there’s a spiritual wide-openness that comes with writing a novel, a sense that you’re not quite in control of your subject matter. Which can be a bit overwhelming at times, but also exhilarating.

OB:

In the spirit of Why Not, what does happiness mean to you?

RR:

A good day’s work done, a night of good fun ahead.

OB:

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

RR:

I suppose that’s for others to say—writers aren’t always the best critics of their own work—but every time I finish a novel it seems to me that , thematically, the human desire for meaning (and the sundry things that habitually frustrate this desire) is always paramount, regardless of the story’s ostensible subject matter.

OB:

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

RR:

Writers: Barry Hannah, Thomas McGuane, Jack Kerouac, Mordecai Richler. Musicians: Gram Parsons, John Hartford, Ronnie Lane.
Dogs: Barney and Henry.
Others: Nietzsche, Thoreau, Emily Dickinson.
My wife Mara Korkola. Without her I wouldn’t have become a writer.

OB:

Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?

RR:

Re-read. Hamlet. Although I’d change the ending. A little over the top, wouldn’t you say?

OB:

What are you working on now?

RR:

Red wine, but the evening is young.

Ray Robertson is the author of the novels Home Movies, Heroes, Moody Food, Gently Down the Stream, What Happened Later, and David, as well as a collection of non-fiction, Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing. He is a contributing book reviewer to the Globe and Mail.

For more information about Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live please visit the Biblioasis website.

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

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