In Conversation With: Trevor Cole (Practical Jean, @McClellandBooks)
Trevor Cole is the author of three novels. The most recent is Practical Jean, which was short-listed for the Rogers Writer's Trust Fiction Prize and recently won the 2011 Leacock Medal for Humour. (Read an excerpt on our shelf.)
Cole is also the creator of AuthorsAloud.com, a website dedicated to presenting short audio readings by Canadian poets and authors of literary fiction. With over 100 published writers represented on the site, those who know my penchant for podcasting will appreciate how happy I was to have the chance to chat with Trevor about performance, collecting voices and, as it happens, Pop Rocks.
Julie Wilson: AuthorsAloud gathers recordings from Canadian fiction writers and poets. The purpose is both to offer a space to writers in which to perform their work and to introduce readers to authors outside of a retail environment. It's an aural treat. As someone who's been recording poets for a number of years and has just started soliciting submissions for "Writers Reading Recipes"—enjoy Trevor's rendition of "Cranberry-Orange Relish" by John Engels—I feel you and I are intimately aligned in our appreciation for performance. To create an online presence dedicated to curating and building a library is a dedicated feat. There must have been a moment in which you experienced something, maybe heard something, that lead you to this project.
Trevor Cole: The inspiration for AuthorsAloud came from a couple of things. My father was an actor so I grew up loving the sound of the spoken word. We would often spend time together running his lines for a play—me with the script in my lap, and he going through the process of speaking and learning his part—when I was as young as nine or ten. I remember that experience giving me an advantage in high school english class, because I could read a play by Shakespeare and imagine how it could come to life, which was an ability that most of the other kids simply lacked.
My own early work history includes a few years in radio, both writing and on air, so again there was an emphasis on turning written words into sound. And when my writing career finally led me to the world of fiction I loved giving readings, because it allowed me to share with the listeners how I heard the words in my head. And as I listened to other authors read from their work, I was struck by what an impression the writer's own voice and presence could make on my understanding. Admittedly sometimes it wasn't a good impression, if the writer was nervous or seemed to shrug off the task. But regardless it gave me an insight into the thought and the person behind the words, which was so much richer and more honest, it seemed to me, than if it had been an actor doing the reading.
JW: In any respect do you see yourself as a collector? Beyond joy, is there a compulsion to gather these performances in one space?
TC: I do like acquiring new readings from writers I admire, and I keep a running total, so I guess that qualifies me as a collector. And the site is all about capturing and preserving the voices of writers and presenting them to interested readers, which is collector-like too. But I think of it as a service, both to writers and to readers. When I started AuthorsAloud, there was nowhere that you could count on finding a selection of readings by authors of any nation, let alone Canada. I knew there were authors and poets out there doing readings, some of them being recorded for their own personal sites, and I knew there was an audience of readers who would be interested if they ran across them. But there was nothing easy about finding those readings. No one was doing the work of gathering the readings and presenting them in one reliable, easily navigated place. I thought, as a writer, and with my background in radio, that I was uniquely qualified. It was something I could do to contribute to the literary community that had welcomed me.
So now I'm proud of the fact that readers coming to listen to Barbara Gowdy or Annabel Lyon have the opportunity to scan the offerings and listen to a young or lesser-known writer. And I'm proud that I managed to get a reading from Paul Quarrington before he died, so that readers who want to know what he sounded like can come and listen.
JW: That speaks to one of my favourite parts of this project, that the recordings are of time and place. You have contributions from writers at all points of their careers. It's a bit like hockey cards, isn't it? That pride of knowing you have So-and-So while they still played for the farm team, so to speak, yet perhaps a few seasons later went to "the show." How aggressive are you in terms of going out into the field—I'm on a roll—with an ear to gathering new recordings? Do writers come to you?
TC: It's a balance. I frequently approach writers I see at events and suggest they contribute a reading. Sometimes that actually does result in a recording. But I don't like being a pest, so unless it's someone I know well I try not to push it. Emerging writers are usually more motivated to share their work and get their name out, and they recognize the site as an opportunity to do that, so they will usually come to me and ask to participate. I have occasionally said no, but usually the reason has to do with the kind of work they do—I don't include writers of children's fiction or genre fiction—or the fact that they're self-published.
Your mention of "time and place" makes me think of something else. It's a deliberate choice to have writers record themselves, in their home or office, rather than at a public reading. I prefer the intimacy of a writer alone, speaking in a quiet room; the effect is of the writer reading directly to you, the listener. This creates its own challenges, of course, because sometimes a writer is willing to submit a recording but finds the hurdle of recording and sending the file daunting. So I have, on a number of occasions, gone to the writer. In the case of Nino Ricci and Barbara Gowdy, I went to their homes. I recorded Russell Smith in a bar, and I recently recorded Alison Pick in my car, parked at the side of the road.
JW: I happened to record Gil Adamson in a curb-side car in the dead of winter and, as it happens, just recorded Alison on the back patio of Ezra's Pound on one of the hotter days to date this summer. In both cases, you can detect a shift. Gil's recording sounds blanketed; Alison's sounds steamy. I may be narrating my own experience, but I believe these elements make their way into a recording.
Can you talk a bit about what it means for writers to perform? I recently heard an editor suggest that to capture performance as podcast is to take the work itself out of the body, or away from the body. I certainly wouldn't suggest that the author is a distraction, but the lasting benefits of a podcast are many: You can listen as often as you'd like, in as many locations as you'd like, under as many circumstances as you'd like. The word lingers long after the performance because it's just for you. At this stage of your career, do you thrill at the prospect of performing? Or would you be just as satisfied to record an audiobook and be done with it?
TC: I do like performing. Maybe it's the genes bequeathed to me by my father, who was an actor, but I enjoy being in front of an audience, and I enjoy hearing the reactions to the things I say and read. It's a dialogue, though, and it requires something from both sides. Reading to a small, unengaged audience is a kind of hell. Strangely, in my experience, they tend to be associated with universities.
But it's true that a live performance puts a certain kind of pressure on the listener in the audience. It's not like in a theatre, where you're shrouded in darkness and the actors are playing roles. You can relax in that environment, as you can when listening to a recording. But at a reading, both you and the author are exposed and operating within social constraints. You have to be still and quiet, because even a slight adjustment of your chair or the clink of a glass can be heard, and you feel a need to react politely and positively even if you find the whole thing rather boring.
Still, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's good to be polite and supportive once in a while. It's good to make an effort to listen to someone else. Writing is hard, lonely work, and reading in front of an audience is one of the few occasions when authors can actively share what they've created. But I agree that listening to a reading through headphones or computer speakers, while you're relaxing in your pajamas with a glass of wine in your hand, is probably more conducive to concentrating on and enjoying the words.
JW: "It's good to be polite and supportive once in a while. It's good to make an effort to listen to someone else. Writing is hard, lonely work, and reading in front of an audience is one of the few occasions when authors can actively share what they've created." < You've hit on something here, that to put your money down on a ticket to watch an author perform is, at times, more about paying for the privilege of seeing an author as a hard-working individual who against most odds ended up in this position. I'd say that most authors who have yet to take this feeling for granted still secretly believe that this life, the writer's life, is a bit stupid, in the best possibly way. Like Pop Rocks-stupid. What is happening in my mouth? Where is this sensation coming from. How did I get here, that I get to write books and read them in front of an audience? Do you still experience this Pop Rocks-joy?
TC: God, I used to love Pop Rocks. I think I get what you mean. It does feel a little fantastical at times that I can go for days on end not accomplishing much of anything and think . . . this is my work. Then, more rarely, it can feel pretty zowie-in-my-mouth going days on end producing pages of writing that you know in your gut is good, and you don't have to worry about justifying it to anyone, or explaining it or asking someone for permission to say these things or begging for the time. You just get to do it because that's who you are. I guess my ultimate pop-rocks moment comes when the idea that's been floating around me suddenly becomes whole and I realize, as I did when I got the idea for Practical Jean. That is wild, and I can do that.
JW: From your blog, on the joy of introducing audiences to Practical Jean, what sounds like a pretty tough personal year:
"Hearing [the audience's] laughter, looking up from the page and seeing the smiles on their faces, was a great salve, and made those days much brighter than they would otherwise have been."
It's important to end on the note that there's still plenty of room left for authors to present their works in person, especially at a time when those venues are fewer and there's such a push on authors to create their own media. Do you have any IRL (In Real Life) appearances coming up that you'd like us to know about?
TC: Thanks, Julie. Sure enough, I've got a bunch of readings coming up:
Lakefield Literary Festival (July 15)
Stephen Leacock Festival, Orillia (July 22)
First Edition Reading Series, Perth (August 5)
Wordstock Festival, Collingwood (September 9 and 10)
Word on the Street, Kitchener (September 25)
Pelham Public Library (September 28)
Headwaters Arts Festival, Orangeville (September 30)
Don't miss the vocal stylings of Trevor Cole!
Find him on our shelves: Trevor Cole