Tell me about the first story you wrote. What piqued your interest in writing it?
My first story came about in third grade — I had done a series of drawings of a battle between Earthlings and Martians, and such were my gifts for drawing that no one had any idea whatsoever what was going on. So I wrote the story of the battle, linked to the pictures, by way of an explanation. I guess that means my first story was a comic book!
My first longer form “books” were spy novels, blatant rip-offs of the James Bond novels and movies I was so in love with, loaded with gadgets and violence and sex. I gave them to a teacher to read, and his comment has always stuck with me: “Would you buy shoes from a snake?” I’m not a believer in the old saw about “writing what you know”, but I do firmly believe that you should write something that you have a clue about!
What were your feelings when your first novel was accepted or when you first saw the cover of the finished product?
I was overwhelmed, first by the deal, then even more so when I saw the advance readers copies of Before I Wake. The tales of me weeping and wailing as I opened that box of my books is perhaps a little overstated, but only by degrees. I felt… well, it was a curious combination, really. In part, I was relieved: I had put my whole life into this, and it was nice that it hadn’t been a waste. And I was terrified: I had a book! People were going to read it! Or they weren’t! I don’t know which thought terrified me more. And finally, and mostly, I think I felt redeemed. As a writer, I’ve internalized a lot of negative voices, and seeing a book with my name on it (and later, with the success of Before I Wake), I was able to say “screw you” to those negative voices.
Bedtime Story contains a book within a book. Have you always been a fan of fantasy novels? Do you consider this book to be a genre piece?
I haven’t always been a fan of fantasy, actually. I used to take myself quite seriously, and I naturally gravitated to studying English, with all its biases and value judgements. It was actually Cori, in the early stages of our relationship, who introduced me to fantasy novels, with Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony and, most crucially, my first copy of John Crowley’s Little, Big. My notions of what a novel could do, what it could achieve, were shredded in relatively short order.
Do I think Bedtime Story is a genre piece? No, not really. Yes, there is a definite fantasy side to it, but there was to Before I Wake as well. I think it bends genre, and bends readerly expectations. What fantasy allows me to do, as I’ve indoctrinated my son Xander to say, from Spinal Tap, is to turn it up to eleven. My fiction, no matter how out there it might get, is always rooted in gritty domestic reality: marriages, families, relationships, jobs. The fantasy elements allow me to push those characters, that reality, one step further than a strictly realistic narrative would allow, and to follow those realistic characters as they deal with worlds that are utterly beyond their ken. People pushed to their extremes are the life’s blood of fiction: fantasy allows me to move those extremes one step further.
What draws people to fantasy in novels? Why do we, as readers, like to be immersed in a fantasy world?
I think it has a lot to do with the dynamic tension that occurs when you have recognizable human characters — with all their faults and strengths — set against an imagined, but realistic, world. I go back to Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry: the pleasure of those books is both the rich mythic structure and world he builds, and what it does to the contemporary characters that are swept up into it. It allows for extremes of heroism, and of tragedy, and of sacrifice. That’s what I try to bring to my fiction: that dynamic tension. Fantasy isn’t about escapism: it’s about our fundamental humanity.
Is there a message in your novels that you want readers to grasp? What is it that you’re exploring in your books?
I’ve always said that if you want to send a message, you should try email (yeah, it used to be Western Union, but times change). If pressed, though, I would say that I was exploring contemporary issues in a unique way. Before I Wake dealt with the question of faith, and what it means in the modern age. The World More Full of Weeping was about what is lost in the transition between childhood and adulthood. And Bedtime Story, for me, is about what it means to be a man, and a father, in the early 21st century. Mostly, though, I just tell stories.
How did you come up with the title Bedtime Story?
That was actually a bit of a process. Usually I get titles right away — Before I Wake had a title before I wrote the first word — but for the four years I was immersed in Bedtime Story, it was referred to, both in conversation and on all the manuscripts, as UCNN — Untitled Children’s Novel Novel (though in later days it became ULDCNN — Untitled Long Delayed Children’s Novel Novel). When we began editorial work, one of the main questions was what to call it — Bedtime Story came out of those conversations.
Your books are firmly set in your hometowns, past and present. Tell us about how your sense of place has influenced your writing.
Well, I wrote a whole essay about this (Places and Names, included in The World More Full of Weeping), but what it boils down to is that, in dealing with stories that take strange and fantastic turns, it’s vitally important to have them rooted in the real. And for me, that’s Victoria and Agassiz (though Agassiz gets turned a quarter turn and becomes Henderson in my work). I think it’s helpful for readers, but it’s vital for me: I need the grounding, the realism, and the places in the book are, in some ways, as significant as the characters: the locales are certainly part of the warp and the weft of their lives, part of what makes them real.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing process?
You know, most of the time the writing is a joy. Seriously. It fulfills me like swimming used to: if I don’t write, I’m miserable. The challenge that I have is one that I’ve created for myself: I write longhand, in notebooks, with a fountain pen (don’t get me started on pens!). And I write from the beginning of the book to the end, without ever looking back. Which means I end up with stacks of notebooks filled with a scrawled novel that somehow has to transition to the word processor — no one else can read my printing when I’m in full flight, so it falls to me.
A wiser man — and this has been suggested to me, and I keep meaning to do it — would type as he went, write in the morning, enter the day’s pages in the afternoon. I never seem to follow through on that. As a result, it took me, I think, nine months to transcribe the UCNN notebooks to MS Word, cursing every minute, swearing I’d never do that again. We shall see.
As a reviewer, you read a lot of different genres and authors. Who are some of your favourite new entrants to the writing world?
The first two books to come to mind are Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle and Ami McKay’s The Birth House — I don’t think you’ll easily find two more different novels, but I loved them both, and I simply can’t wait for their next books.
Has a review or profile of your writing ever changed your perspective on your work?
Not a review or profile, but I’ve found that talking to people about the book — this is especially true of Before I Wake — can often prove illuminating for me. I did an event with a student group at a local private school, and a question from one of these students — grade 11 or 12 — blew me away. I think I was speechless, before I joked that I wanted to come back and workshop my next novel with them before it was published.
Any piece of fiction is a collaboration between the writer and the reader, and one of the things that thrills me with our new interactive, socially networked, book-clubbing, blogging culture is that the writer is able to actually hear from the readers.
Have you ever been surprised by a controversy among fans or reviewers – for example, you created a character and found some readers loved him and some hated him?
Well, there’s Simon in Before I Wake, who, in the first 15 pages, is revealed to be a huge, unsympathetic, irredeemable cad. But I did that on purpose, to set the bar purposefully high to demonstrate his redemption over the course of the novel.
One thing that HAS surprised me — and this comes from a handful of reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and places like that — is a sentiment held by a small percentage of readers that Before I Wake is a Christian novel, and that I’m, therefore, somewhere on the born-again spectrum. Neither of these things are remotely true — Before I Wake goes out of its way to question faith both textually and subtextually (note that the most avowedly Christian character is also the novel’s villain), but somehow it’s still not clear. That’s the risk I ran, though — I deliberately set out to explore elements of Christianity with the freedom that fantasy writers routinely use Norse, Greek or Native American myths and tales.
Reading has changed a lot with the advent of the Kindle and the iPad. Do you think people will read more with new technology?
I think so, but with a caveat. The Kindle, the eReader, the iPad, the Nook, these are tools, and I think they’re fantastic, and increase access to books and ease of reading. I think that they’ll increase reading, certainly. Here comes the caveat, though: they’ll increase reading for those who are in a position to financially make the investment. And that leaves a whole lot of people on the outside looking in, especially young people, readers just starting out. When I was a kid, I didn’t have $200 US to buy a reader to put books on, let alone the $6-700 of an iPad: when I was a kid, a voracious reader, I lived for the used bookstore, for twenty-five cent paperbacks at church sales, for boxes of old comics….
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider to be a mentor?
The writers who have had the greatest influence on me, and my work, would have to be John Irving, Stephen King, and John Crowley. Irving’s The World According to Garp gave me permission to be a writer, and a glimpse of what life as a working writer might be like (at its absurd extremes) — I still re-read it every couple of years. King taught me about story, and gave me the approach that I’ve found most handy: paraphrased, it boils down to “Introduce your characters, let the reader fall in love with them. Then let the monsters out.” And John Crowley’s Little, Big… well, that’s just a reminder of how good fiction can be, and how far I have to go.
What do you do to unwind and relax?
Relax? What’s that?
Okay, that sounds glib, but I work full time, I review a couple of books a week (at least), and I write books — there’s not a whole lot of downtime (and certainly not a whole lot of sleep!). When I do have downtime (or steal time from what I should be doing), I tend to devour tv series on dvd (the highlight of my week is the weekend mornings that I spend with Xander, watching Buffy or Angel or Dr Who). When time allows, I love to travel — New York is a favourite, and I’m just about due to go back (nah, I’m always due to go back). And then there’s music — there’s always music on, whether I’m writing or reading or sleeping or working. It’s my safety valve.
What are you writing now?
A couple of things, actually.
A new novel, which, in fear of the muse withholding her favours, I can’t really talk about. And something new for me: a bit of non-fiction. This is a quirkly one: it’s a book called Human Touch, which takes the form of the liner notes for a mixtape of songs by Bruce Springsteen, each song keyed to a significant moment or theme in my life. So it’s a blend of biography, music criticism, and memoir. And it’s a good excuse to immerse myself in Springsteen for a few months!