So, without any further ado, here’s that interview:
New writers often are told that they should “love their characters.” I see a tremendous amount of love lavished on just about all the characters in your novel, yet tragedy falls so many of them. Was it hard as a writer to write those tragedies?
I always love my characters. I know that there are some writers and readers who like to have dislikable characters, but I think that runs counter to who I am as a person. Another writer (one of my best friends) told me recently that I always expect people to be good and generous and kind, and end up disappointed more than she is, because she never has that expectation.
That being said, I think most of the people I write about are fundamentally flawed in one or multiple ways, and they have to be in order to be complicated, interesting characters. I had a story where the protagonist cheats on his wife—with her sister—while she's serving in Iraq, but I also think that readers feel sympathetic to him. I did.
In TOUCH, however, because it's narrated by Stephen, who was a child when so much of this happened, and because there is so much myth and memory wrapped around the novel, there is a certain luminous glow conferred by his own love towards his mother, his father, his grandfather, and I can't figure out if that came from me loving the characters, or if my love for the characters came from their love for each other.
But is it hard to write about their tragedies? No. It sounds cold, but no, as a writer, it's not hard to write about their tragedies because I never considered another alternative. There are plenty of families in Sawgamet that had lives filled with less sorrow, but they were also filled with less joy and wonder.
Were you ever worried about straying too far into folklore & fable? As I said, I loved the realistic human drama. Despite all the Ijirait, Qallupilluit, and Mahaha creatures that terrorize the characters, TOUCH could never be described as a fantasy novel. How did you manage to balance fantasy & realism so well?
I think the heart of the story—in any story, really—is the interaction between characters, human dynamics, and I was concerned that by having these elements of myth and magic, the other stories might be overshadowed. The flipside can also be true, however. I've read enough stories and books where it felt like the author didn't really know how to end the story and just sort of said, "Well, maybe I'll throw in something sort of spectacular and magic, and that will work."
It's really important to make the magic, the myth, the supernatural, whatever it is, be worked cleanly into the story so that the reader accepts it as part of the world - as do the characters in the novel - without it feeling like a jarring change of pace. One of the things I've tried to do is weave the story in TOUCH with these myths so that the myths and magic are treated with the weight of reality, becoming an ongoing part of the characters' lives as opposed to single, solitary parlor tricks that are sprinkled through without purpose other than to raise amazement. Although, of course, I also hope to raise amazement.
I should say, by the way, that I think there are a number of authors—my contemporaries—who are doing this, who are writing work that I'd call mythical realism, who are reworking the "rules" of magic and literature, even if they aren't calling it as such. Ultimately though, while I’ve had a lot of people tell me how certain pieces of myth, of magic, certain images from the book have really stayed with them, I think that it’s really the people in stories that are the most magical, that without them, all you really end up with is a little sleight of hand. It's not that hard to write something that's beautiful on the surface if you don't mind it being emotional empty.
For me, the balance comes at least partially from your question about loving my characters: I do love the characters and the people around them, and while Sawgamet is place full of myths and legends and monsters and witches, first and foremost, it's a home for Stephen, for Jeannot, for their families.
The novel is steeped in Inuit folklore. Might you briefly explain what you find most fascinating in these Inuit legends?
Touch has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but I don’t think what I’m writing is really magical realism. As much as I admire Gabriel Garcia Marquez—reading his work was one of those moments in my life as a reader that changed everything—and other writers of magical realism, I've been using the term mythical realism because I am, I hope, doing something new and different.
It might seem like I'm parsing a term, but the forms of magical realism—whether the central and south American versions or the European versions—are rooted firmly in their own place and traditions, and I think that taking those frameworks and just mapping them over our own landscape is problematic.
When you do that, you end up with a palimpsest, where the ghostly traces of what you have borrowed always show through your own writing. You can create terrific work that way, but I was born and raised in Canada by American parents, and I've lived in the USA since college, so my own history dictates that I take a sort of oblique angle in terms of the way I look at my own cultures: by reworking national mythologies, I am, I hope, creating new work.
The Inuit mythology is interesting to me because it's something that was rattling around the edges of the storytelling that I was aware of, and while I've always been fascinated by myth—I remember reading Greek and Roman and Norse myths over and over again as a child—I wanted to work with something that was both sort of familiar and brand new at the same time. Of course, some of it was simply dictated by the place and the time: it is set in northern Canada.
As a side note, in an early draft, I used the term Inuit instead of Indian or Eskimo, and had some strong reactions from readers who thought it read like I was trying to clean up the language. That was amusing to me since Inuit was in use at the time the novel was set (1870-1940's), but I thought it was a valid point: the word, “Inuit,” read wrong.
I’m a big J. Robert Lennon fan, who teaches a “Reading for Writers: Weird Stories” class at Cornell where you earned your MFA. I’ve seen his 2007 syllabus, and the reading list was incredible— Kelly Link, Stanislaw Lem, Lynne Tillman, Stephen Dixon, Donald Barthelme, George Saunders and many other fantastic writers. Did you take his class? If so, did the course influence your approach to TOUCH?
I did take the weird stories class, but I don't think it influenced my approach to TOUCH. I actually started working on TOUCH before I even applied to graduate school—a good chunk of the first chapter was actually one of my application pieces for graduate school.
The weird stories class was really interesting, though I'd say that there were probably a bunch of works that I didn't actually like. One of the problems with experimental fiction is that, because you are experimenting, it tends to fail more often than not, which is not a problem, but I felt like some of the authors that we read privileged being weird over being good. Sort of like there would be a story where it was brilliant and amazing and there'd be a point where—at least to me—it seemed like some obvious choices could be made—the character should die or get married or whatever—and the author would instead just decide to throw in a magic talking octopus, because that would be different.
One of my favorite books by John is PIECES FOR THE LEFT HAND, and one of the things I like about it is that although the book could conceivable fall under that "weird stories" rubric—it’s about a hundred two page stories—they all stand and work on their own as stories.