The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Kris Bertin

Kris Bertin
TREVOR CORKUM cropped

In this week’s The Chat, I’m thrilled to be in conversation with Halifax writer Kris Bertin, author of the acclaimed debut short story collection Bad Things Happen (Biblioasis). With humour and dignity, and an exceptional eye for detail, these are stories that explore the stubborn, subterranean wounds that animate the private mystery of our lives.   

Writing in Quill and Quire, Brett Josef Grubisic called Bad Things Happen “Brash (in the best possible sense), intriguing, and consummate without being showy, these are terrific stories in a strong, diverse, and fascinating collection.” Shawn Syms, reviewing the collection in The Winnipeg Review says “Bertin finds within perversity a welcome sense of hope.”

Kris Bertin’s work has been featured in The Walrus, The Malahat Review, TNQ, and PRISM International, among other magazines. He is a two-time winner of the Jack Hodgins' Founders' Award for Fiction and has had his work anthologized in The Journey Prize Anthology, Oberon's Coming Attractions and EXILE's CVC Anthology. He currently works as a bartender at Bearly's House of Blues & Ribs.

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THE CHAT WITH KRIS BERTIN

Trevor Corkum: What chance coincidences, good or bad luck, or atmospheric weather disturbances were responsible for you becoming a writer? What would you do if you weren’t writing?
 
Kris Bertin: Bad parenting, a tumultuous home life, a lack of supervision, and access to comic books and coloured pencils led me here. My writing is an extension of daydreaming and play, the thing I did a lot of when the real physical world was boring or most often upsetting. I did enough of it that I think I screwed up my brain and now it’s how I think. There’s my life, and then all the imaginary ones that are living in my head. Writing is the only way to get that out. It’s really stupid, actually, to live like that, to actually have to sit down and make up weird little stories to be happy.

As for whatever else I’d do, it’s difficult to conceive of not writing anymore while still being myself. If I had my brain crushed by a rogue tractor trailer tire and lost that part of myself—but otherwise made a full recovery—I’d be using whatever skill sets I had left. Lesser abilities I have are: social perception, leadership skills, the ability to intervene in serious situations, speaking ability. I thought about being a cop for a long time. I guess I’d become an RCMP officer without any other shit going on his head except for what the wife and I are going to have for dinner later.

Sounds like heaven, actually.
 
TC: As the blurb for your collection says, the characters in Bad Things Happen are between things, on the run or on the move or simply waiting for whatever will happen next. Chris, for example, in “Girl on Fire Escape,” is a 22-year-old escapee from PEI who drifts through the back alleys of Toronto in the thrall of a female scam artist. Imagine you’re spending a day with Chris. Where does he take you? What do you talk or argue about? What’s the one thing you learn from him about life?

KB: Chris has a character arc in Bad Things Happen, so he’s very different from story to story. In "Girl On Fire Escape," he’s struggling with being alone and poor and overworked, so he’d probably take me to the kind of place I’d like. A no-frills bar, not necessarily a dive, but one that’s looked the same for 15+ years. Some place to get obliterated-drunk and forget that you have to clean dishes or windows the following day. I think we’d argue about whether or not things hold meaning (he’d argue life was empty and I’d say some of it can be nice, at least some of the time) and if he would show me anything it’d be that all of our fears and anxieties are mostly temporary, fleeting and conditional, especially when we’re young.
 

... if he would show me anything it’d be that all of our fears and anxieties are mostly temporary, fleeting and conditional, especially when we’re young.

The Chris from "Your #1 Killer"—who has overcome his shortcomings, his moral failings, and who has left behind the criminal underworld to become an exterminator—wouldn’t have much to say to me. He’d say there’s no reason to talk to me. If I explained that I had created him and wanted to see what his day was like, he’d say it doesn’t matter what I want. I think maybe, if I followed him, I’d get to see him enter the woods, follow a path marked in his mind, and end up somewhere wholly unexpected, like a cave system underneath the forest floor. Somewhere he can just go and be himself without the filter of another person’s gaze to define him.

I could learn something from this, certainly.
 
TC: Many of your stories are set in rural parts of the East Coast, but several also take place in large urban centres—Halifax, Toronto, Montreal. How important is it for you to nail the real-life details of your fictional worlds, and how much do you feel at liberty to create?

KB: Details are important, but accuracy isn’t. I think, unless there’s some facet or landmark that I’m really drawn to or need for the story, it isn’t something I rely on. I’m more interested in a place’s atmosphere than recreating a bang-on description of it. If I don’t get the tone right, if the characters and their lives don’t seem right, if it doesn’t feel like the place, then it doesn’t matter if the CN tower is in the skyline or not.
 
I feel completely at liberty to fictionalize a locale, and I think it can actually improve it. In Bad Things Happen, I have some made-up places like Kennedy Narrows, or Onecdaconis or a few others, and they represent the kinds of places I’ve been or seen, a more distilled version of a place that actually exist. Fictionalizing towns allowed me the kind of flexibility to make my own mythology, people, names and geology—to exaggerate or downplay some feature—while still using something from my own experience to make something compelling.  

TC: What’s your own litmus test for good fiction? Are there particular writers or works that have influenced your own development as a writer?
 
KB: As a youngster I was inspired by Stephen King, Edward Packard’s Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, Tolkein, and countless Marvel and DC comic books—probably my favourite from back then were Walt Simonson’s Fantastic Four and Thor. As an adult I’ve liked mostly John Irving, Don DeLillo, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and—still in the world of comics—European writers like Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis. Those things changed my world, and made me feel like writing had actual value because they had inspired so much feeling in me. It’s also weird to say this, because I’m friends with her, but Amy Jones and even earlier, David Adams Richards, made me feel like I could write about where I’m from and who I am and it could be Real Fiction.

Amy Jones and even earlier, David Adams Richards, made me feel like I could write about where I’m from and who I am and it could be Real Fiction.

I will say, however, that I’m always eager to drop something that’s boring, stupid, or tiresome, and get to work on my own stuff. For me, my litmus test is really simple. It’s physical. How soon into reading have I yawned or involuntarily rolled my eyes? Do I feel anything inside my chest cavity? Anything at all? Has my pulse picked up?

I’m always eager to drop something that’s boring, stupid, or tiresome, and get to work on my own stuff. For me, my litmus test is really simple. It’s physical. How soon into reading have I yawned or involuntarily rolled my eyes? Do I feel anything inside my chest cavity? Anything at all? Has my pulse picked up?

TC: What’s a question no one has asked about your book yet, that you wish they would ask?
 
KB: I think it’s interesting that in only maybe half of my interviews or reviews does humour get mentioned. I’m not sure if that’s because that half doesn’t find it funny, or if they’re so highbrow that they don’t think humour is an element of fiction that deserves mentioning. It might just be that CanLit is a very serious place. Or maybe that the stories are only funny to me. I don’t know. My hope is that people find the stories as funny as they do moving, because a lot of it really does make me laugh. A lot of it gets written because it makes me laugh. I’ve heard from a lot of readers who think the collection is endlessly bleak. I didn’t know that.

The question I want is: what’s the funniest part of Bad Things Happen?

The answer is: the scene in "Make Your Move" when the Champ has to come up with a lie about why he didn’t show up to work (because he was getting drunk with some kids at Wendy’s at a campground) and decides to say that he got carjacked in his limo, defeated his attacker, and is now back and ready to work. He even sits and draws a storyboard about it on diner napkins, then uses them as flash cards to help him through his fib.

That’s my favourite.

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Excerpt from “The Eviction Process” (Bad Things Happen)

We evict Champ first because we’re worried he’ll kill us. Even laid up in the hospital with one hand set to rot off, he could do it. Even fucked up, bedridden, and stuck in a room with another guy whose entire leg is swollen up like the Michelin Man, he could do it. Champ has it in him. Look past his Huey Lewis hair, and you can see it in his face, all marked up like a tiger mauled him. He could go room to room and kill every patient, nurse, orderly, and doctor from here to the lobby if he wanted to. Jack’s sixty-one with a cane, and I’m not overweight but soft around the middle and weak everywhere else. We’d be nothing to him. This is why we’ve brought J.J. with us. He stands next to the bed, slapping himself, the only thing separating us from Champ. Before pulling us apart like Kleenex, he’d have to reach past the little boy he has so much affection for, or push him down, or step over him.

I have a whole quart of Iceberg in my pants, between my thigh and balls, and my concern is that if something happens it might break and I’ll be drinking denim-filtered vodka until tonight.

When we closed the shop and didn’t need someone like him around anymore, he said sure, like it was no big deal. Then went out and fought every man in some bar across the river. We heard about it on the news first, then someone said to me, That was the Champ, you know, and then I put it together. It could’ve just as easily been us.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

April 26, 2016
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