I was told in an interview once that if there is anything that links the characters of my various books together it is that they are all outsiders in one way or another. There is nothing shocking in that of course, but it did come as a sudden realization to me… the author’s always the last to know. The characters in my new novel, Skin House, are no exception—they are so outside of any situation in which they find themselves that they can’t even find the door. When I look back at some of the books I was reading or re-reading as I was writing this book, I can’t help but wonder what all of these characters would say to each other if placed in the same room. Not to mention the authors. That is a party I would go to. And I don’t go to parties.
Do the Wrong Thing, by Malcolm van Delst
This is an extraordinarily vivid and intimate Northern Gothic novel published outside of the “industry” which chronicles Ava Mueller’s struggles to come to terms with her devout immigrant parents. When a high school teacher tells Ava she should write, her world is shattered. “Boys go to school, girls help their mothers: this is what the Bible says,” her mother tells her. Fun fact: I read this book knowing nothing about the author and though the novel is set in an unspecified rural environment I found myself picturing those places as locations in which I had actually lived and worked in my thirties. When I met the author, it became apparent that those were indeed the places she was describing. See? Vivid.
Panicle, by Gillian Sze
I return to Sze’s work often and this is a book of poems that sing with query, surprise, and longing. Her work often observes from the outside while managing to claim the perspective of an intimate and knowing voice, which is an attribute I believe many writers aspire to achieve... or should.
the long, low, phantom drag
of the train…
…The sound scatters
when it draws close
and slips into bed with me
damp and freshly dipped
Pockets, by Stuart Ross
I have been a big fan of Ross’s writing since the early 1980’s when I read Father, the Cowboys are Ready to Come Down from the Attic, a book that told me, as a novice novelist, that I could write what I wanted to write in this country—which was true, but I had no idea that doing so might not be as easy as it appeared to be at the time. More recently this brilliant little book had a profound impact. Its hero relentlessly enters and re-enters a dreamworld, which might be this world. And like Ross's Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, its ending resonates long after the book is shelved. The publisher claims that it redefines the novel. I believe it does, just as I believe that every novel should.
Paul’s Case, by Lynn Crosbie
I know from my own experience that writing fictionally about real events can be a dangerous thing (which in itself is a good reason to do so) but the uber-talented and daring Crosbie wandered intentionally into a minefield with this one, a book that has been equally applauded and misunderstood. It takes the form of 52 fictional “letters” involving the people and issues surrounding the Bernardo/Homolka murders. I sometimes imagine Crosbie’s writing stance as one which involves a firmly raised finger, which is just one of the reasons that I love her work. This is now a hard book to find at a reasonable price. But then it is not a reasonable book…
Stilt Jack, by John Thompson
Well, Thompson is like the gold standard for outsiders despite the success he achieved in a short time, most of which was posthumous. Michael Ondaatje called him, “our bright, brief star.” The stellar poet Sandra Ridley introduced me to his work, and I think that it is something, both the work and the story behind it, that all Canadian writers should be familiar with.
“Can’t believe it, knowing nothing.
Friends: These words for you.”
Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje’s Buddy Bolden is outside of everything, even outside of himself by the end. This book was an essential inspiration for me as a fledgling writer. I had never seen anything like it. I haven’t seen anything as good as it since and I particularly admire the way in which life is breathed into characters who are long dead and who did not leave their voices behind for us. Author as resurrectionist and as conjurer. “There are no prizes.”
This Great Escape, by Andrew Steinmetz
Steinmetz’s book came out around the same time as one of my books, which also played with what might be called personal interpretations of actual people, in this case, the author’s uncle Michael Paryla, an actor who had a small part in the classic film The Great Escape. Steinmetz uses photographs, letters, reality and imagination to portray a relatively small thing as a massive pageant on a grand stage. He does this through a masterly use of written language. Just that.
Prairie Ostrich, by Tamai Kobayashi
As the publisher blurb points out: not every story has a happy ending. Eight-year-old Egg Murakami lives on the family ostrich farm with a mother immersed in sorrow and alcohol and a father who has taken to living in the barn. Egg is a bewildered outsider or rather a character so encased in a shell that the world outside has ceased to make any sense, if it ever did. But to say that she is tenacious in her quest to understand would be an understatement. A strong young character whose story is told through vividly engaging moments.
Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race, by Naban Ruthnum
Talking with Naban Ruthnum has taught me a lot, as has reading his engaging personal take on the Indian diasporic experience utilizing the possibly imaginary culinary dish as a vehicle of expression. Examining brown identity through pop culture, anecdote, reflection, movies, recipes, and travel Ruthnum uses a variety of methods and flavors to bring his prose to life.
Rush: What Fuckan Theory A Study Of Language, by bill bissett
Well, it’s bill bissett—the universe’s gift to itself and to Canadian literature. Working with bissett has been one of the best experiences of my career to date and knowing him one of the best experiences of my life. As Jay MillAr says: “Rush: what fuckan theory; a study uv language is a vital, vocal protest against business as usual.” For me bissett is Canadian literature’s shaman. He is a cosmic force. He has written some of the best things I know and any of his books is worth reading but this book is a good one to start with, or finish with, or to just dance around the room with…
Oh my goodness. Did you ever get to thinking that "down on your luck" isn't just an expression? And that what we need here is a bigger statement? Something that adequately describes the scope of the situation? Like when your ex-wife spends all of her time angrier than a five-dollar pistol at everything on the planet, but mostly at you (well, really only at you), and she brings back your record collection, but she sets fire to it on your porch and the flames spread to your house and that just proves what you've said all along: that she is crazier than a box of frogs. Or when your ninety-year-old stick of a father uses his gnarled up knuckly fingers to apply "the nut twister" on you every chance that he gets. And you haven't been with a woman for a very long time and about the only chance you will ever have of getting laid again is to crawl up a chicken's ass and wait.
This shit is dire. Well, what I mean is that "down on your luck" doesn't quite cut it when bad luck has become a way of life. You just have to remember: You can have everything you want in this life. Provided all you want is a stained mattress and a hangover.
Skin House is a story about two guys who end up in the same bar they started out in. Maybe they're slightly better off than they were at the start. Or maybe not. One has a girlfriend though. They both have a little extra cash, enough to order nachos whenever they want to without going through their pockets first. They're not dead, and that's something right there. And they're not arrested, which is the quite surprising part.
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