Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with T.F. Rigelhof

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On Writing, with T.F. Rigelhof

T.F. Rigelhof's survey of Canadian novels, Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, The Better, The Best Novels Since 1984 (Cormorant, April 2010), is in stores and on the Globe and Mail bestseller list. He talks to Open Book about his writing, the art of reviewing and what all writers can learn from Picasso.

Visit the Cormorant Books website to read an excerpt from Hooked on Canadian Books.

Open Book: Toronto:

When did you first start writing?

T.F. Rigelhof:

I wasn’t born with two balled fists – my left hand already had pre-natal writer’s cramp! Honestly, I can’t remember a world without me making marks on something or other, creating hieroglyphs before I knew the alphabet – pretend writing that mimicked the schoolwork of my older siblings (I’m the seventh of eight children) or their reading. Words then were images, parts of the greater images of magazines like Life and Look, comic books and illustrated children’s editions of classics. If I’d attended a public secondary school that offered fine art courses rather than the Jesuit-run natural sciences-driven Campion College in Regina, I would likely have become a graphic artist of some sort. Or an Abstract Expressionist painter like the late great Greg Curnoe who integrated words with figures. A less abstract answer is that I began working on my high school newspaper at fourteen and, as editor, turned it into an award-winning North American school paper by the time I graduated.

OBT:

What did you first write?

TFR:

In high school, I wrote satire influenced by the columnist George Crater of Downbeat, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl recordings; poetry that owed something to Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen; stories for my nephews and nieces. And speeches! I won prizes for oratory when public speaking competitions were a big deal in high school. The biggest prize was a trip to Ottawa where I met Norma, a rancher’s daughter from Alberta and fellow orator. If I’d taken up her gracious and convincing offer to stay on the westbound train a couple of stops past my home town and gone to work on her daddy’s ranch, maybe I’d be on the cowboy poets circuit these days. I’ve always liked being on small stages and wearing black hats.

OBT:

Where do you gather your inspiration from?

TFR:

Anything that sticks to my mind effortlessly. That is, not from anything I will into existence. I’m not career-driven. And I’ve never taken any creative advice from any literary agent.

OBT:

How do you decide what subject matter to write about?

TFR:

I let the subject choose me. If I’m asked a question – particularly by one of the editors I know – that I think I’m better prepared to answer than anybody else I know, I start writing. That’s if it’s an interesting question! You don’t have to search very hard on the internet to find bloggers who think my book reviews are too soft. What they don’t know or won’t acknowledge is that whichever books I do review are very carefully selected. I’d much rather turn down a review than write about any book or author that bores me simply to demonstrate my prowess as a put-down artist.

OBT:

Do you spend much time revising your work?

TFR:

You’re only a professional once rewriting becomes more important to you than writing the first draft. In an interview I quote in the book, Joan Barfoot says, “I still don’t have a business card. What would it say? 'Joan Barfoot: Thinks, feels, types; re-thinks, re-feels, re-types.’” That says it all but repeat that mantra seven to a dozen times. You have to teach yourself to write like Picasso taught himself to paint: put everything you like into a piece, let every element fight for its own space and then edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit until the original impulse is invisible. There’s a wonderful documentary film of Picasso painting. Watching it a half dozen times is probably worth more than a series of creative writing classes. Put another way, I edit until I can no longer hear the sound of my "ordinary voice," only my "literary voice." They’re similar but never identical. The thing that bothers me about blogging is that it prevents that other voice from emerging.

OBT:

What Canadian writers do you admire? Why?

TFR:

You’ll have to read Hooked on Canadian Books to get the answer to that one. And even then you’ll only know about the 99 novelists who have done admirable work after 1984. You can gather some sense of the short story and the non-fiction writers I admire from my earlier book This is Our Writing (2000). I’ve recently finished a very long essay about the very last short story Norman Levine published before his death. Read Norman’s Canada Made Me and you’ll begin to understand the why of my admiration for those I do admire.

OBT:

Do you usually work on one piece of writing at a time?

TFR:

When I’m at work on a page, it’s the only page that exists but that’s not what you mean, is it? No. I always have multiple projects on the go and since 1996, that always means three books: the one I’m writing, the one I’m researching, and the one I’ve begun to imagine myself beginning to research as soon as the first one is out of the way.

OBT:

What are some of the problems you deal with often in your writing? Do you expect to deal with them in the future?

TFR:

Making the writing appear effortless. It’s an unending quest. I’ve had health problems over the past few years that I’ve had to learn to work around. I hope I don’t have to deal with them again.

OBT:

Your recent work is a collection of essays, how do you ensure this collection is cohesive?

TFR:

By thinking, feeling, keyboarding, re-thinking, re-feeling, cutting, pasting, re-entering over and over until I can no longer remember what the original draft of any section was like and what I liked about it. Coherence and cohesiveness has a price – you kill your favourite passages.

OBT:

Finally, do you have any upcoming projects in mind?

TFR:

Yes. I’m finishing a book on the painter Philip Surrey (who was once my neighbour). It’s for publication late in 2011 or early in 2012. He was the first Canadian painter to really dedicate himself to painting the effects of electric light on landscape. Do Google his images!


T. F. Rigelhof was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan and has called Westmount, Quebec home since 1973. He is a contributing reviewer to The Globe and Mail Books section, and occasional contributor to Dooneys Café and CNQ, and the author of nine books. He has served as a juror for the Governor General's Literary Awards, the QSPELL Literary Awards, the Saskatchewan Book Awards, the Alberta Book Awards, the Books in Canada/Amazon First Novel Award and the Danuta Gleed Literary Prize.

For more information about Hooked on Canadian Books please visit the Cormorant Books website.

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

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