“The characters get to talk back all the time”: An Interview with Michael Blouin

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I’ve known Kemptville, Ontario (roughly an hour’s drive outside of Ottawa) writer Michael Blouin’s easygoing manner, something that has translated into his writing as well, for some twenty years now, first having encountered him through the open set at Ottawa’s TREE Reading Series. Since those days, Blouin has won ReLit Best Novel in Canada, been shortlisted for the Amazon First Novel Award, the bpNichol Award, the CBC Literary Award, and is a winner of the Diana Brebner Award and the 2012 Lampman Award. He has collaborated on recent projects with poet Gillian Sze, film director Bruce McDonald, poet and artist bill bissett and visual artist and author Elizabeth Rainer. He is the author of the poetry collections I’m Not Going to Lie to You (2007) and Wore Down Trust (2011), and the novels Chase and Haven (Coach House Books, 2008) and I Don’t Know How to Behave (2013). His latest novel Legend appears with TalonBooks this fall, and a subsequent novel, Skin House, appears with Anvil Press in Spring of 2018.

Rob Mclennan: I’ve always been fascinated by the tone of your books. There’s such a conversational ease with your prose, something that lends itself brilliantly to the public reading. How conscious are you of this, and how do you think this developed?

Michael Blouin: Well, it may seem a simplistic answer but prose just always works as a conversation to me and maybe that’s why it reads that way. It works that way in my head with my characters and anytime I write prose I am in a state of actively talking to my reader, as if it’s happening in real time when, of course, it is not. I guess the ability to express it this way means that I am aware of it, though I’ve never thought about it in that way. But that’s all that writing prose is really: a conversation.

Unfortunately the characters get to talk back all the time, hardly ever shutting up in fact, and the reader seldom gets that opportunity. In terms of public performance I do tend to select the passages that lend themselves more easily to a live dramatic interpretation. I feel there’s a responsibility to entertain when there’s an audience. To memorize and to rehearse; to act. To orchestrate something with an audience in mind, to, I suppose, extend the conversation. Like we all do, I hear voices. I put them down. That too is a conversation. Except that I’m really the only one in it.

RM: To a lesser degree, I see some of the same conversational structures in your poetry collections. What drives you to approach a project in one genre over the other?

MB: The ideas tell me what to do, I can’t take the credit. Sometimes they present themselves in one form and switch to the other as the work progresses. The novel I’m working on at present presupposes that Billy the Kid falsified his own death and lived for thirty years following. The concept presented itself one morning in the shower solely as the title “I Am Billy the Kid” and I assumed at the time that it was a poetry collection which referenced both Michael Ondaatje and bpNichol. I was eager to get started on it. As I began to write it the voices involved quickly became adamant that they were involved in a novel and not in a poetry collection, this would have been by the seventh or eighth page. It is the voices that decide.

I’ve written several poems in the last year, the voices of which have not made this bid for novelization. The latest issue of Arc contains a poem involving Susan Sarandon and the latest issue of Bywords has one that borrows the voice of Charlie Parker. I don’t know why some of these voices ask for novels and some speak in poetry. I just try to listen to what they have to say and act accordingly. Whichever form they end up taking I do feel that there is a responsibility on the part of the author to listen carefully and also to open up a vein on the page. That is what it is about to me. Whatever fictional narrative voice I assume in poetry or prose it is essentially my voice that speaks. I speak through the characters but it is they who seem to decide how they will speak and precisely what they will say to each other.

RM: So is yours a writing that centers around voice? What is it about voice that appeals so strongly?

MB: Anything that I write about stems from voice, the process doesn’t make much sense to me otherwise. Voice is people, which to me is just central to the act of writing. It is an attempt, in the very limited amount of time that we are here, to say to each other “Look here we are, what does this mean that we are here? How does it appear to you? Is there a way in which we can connect to each other before we leave? Is writing a way in which to do that? This happened to me and this is what it felt like… has it happened to you too?”

I mean, I could write about birds, some people do and more power to them. It just doesn’t feel to me like I have the time for that. Time is very, very short. Fuck the birds.

RM: You’ve spoken before of coming to writing from an interest in film. Now that you’ve more than a few novels under your belt, how do you feel that relationship has developed? Have your novels become more cinematic in scope, or less? Have your scenes become more compact, or have they opened?

MB: I would say that the cinematic aspects of my novels have increased over time. Legend, which comes out this fall, is an experimental novel (whatever that means, people like to have categories and this irritates me but that’s another topic) that deals in part with film history as it relates to biography. Skin House, which comes out next spring, is a more traditional novel that to my mind reads as if it could be an HBO or a Netflix series. And I Am Billy the Kid, which is the one I’m currently writing, is what I would view as a very traditional novel in terms of character and narrative arc but it attempts to use cinematic techniques in text form. So by that I mean not just that it has a cinematic feel to it but that it uses methods such as “pull focus” and “zoom out” to reveal information. Also I would describe this novel as “sprawling” which is not a term I would use to describe any of my previous work. It’s a western adventure (admittedly with a modernist approach) so it was necessary, in practical terms alone, to open up the narrative up a bit.

RM: I know that some of Michael Ondaatje’s early prose exists as an important touchstone for your work. What is it about his work that makes it so important as an influence on your own?

MB: I think that central to this aspect of my development is the sense of isolation that existed when I was a fledgling writer in my early twenties. There was no internet naturally and in the Ottawa suburb in which I grew up you were just not likely to run across much literature that wasn’t either on the “approved” Ontario curriculum (Circlular 14 was, if I remember correctly, the very appropriate title for the list of books approved by the government for use in Ontario schools at that time) or available at the tiny bookstore at the local mall. So Margaret Lawrence and Stephen Leacock were not really helping me out at all.

I discovered Ondaatje’s early prose and poetry at a crucial stage in that I was beginning to write material which I had never seen before (it certainly was not stylistically new, I had just never seen it) and his work informed me that yes, you could in fact write in a more varied and open style and not only that you could get it published—you could get it published in Canada! I remember the exact moment, in fact, when the revelation hit me. I was reading Running in the Family in the back bedroom of a cabin in Eastern Ontario on a hot July afternoon and I had the thought “This is something that is possible.” You have to appreciate just how dark a time it was for access to literature at that point, at least for me—a kid who had no idea what was out there or how to go about finding it. I mean obviously the really good work was always out there but I with my rugby shirt and tobacco Adidas and high school diploma certainly was not likely to run across it easily or accidentally—until that moment. It was as if someone had suddenly given me permission to write however I wanted to write. Which is exactly what Ondaatje had done. That book opened the door to The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter and then to the poetry and from there to the Coach House back catalogue as well as to bpNichol and bill bissett and Stuart Ross—all the people who became my heroes.

I wish that I could recall how that book ended up in that cabin for me to pick up that afternoon, I certainly had not brought it there. So it is not just a stylistic matter or a matter of creative influence (though it is both of those), it is almost a shamanistic experience—that which was not evident at all was suddenly made clear and not only could I do it but, by God, I was going to do it. I’m really not certain that I would have become a writer if not for Ondaatje. Things could certainly have taken another route at that time. But not after Ondaatje. That is the point at which it became definite. Obviously there’s more to it than just that moment though, I keep returning to his early work on a regular basis and still find it to have been such a monumental achievement. As I’ve said the title of my work in progress “I am Billy the Kid,” well… it’s not coincidental.

RM: You mention Nichol, bissett and Ross: what was it about their works that influenced you and your work?

MB: I guess everything that they wrote and also the way in which they (and two of them still do this) managed to live their lives in such a way as to serve the writing. It demonstrated to me, and it serves to continue to remind me, that the work is what is essential and in many ways, in most ways in fact, the writer’s own life is subservient to that fact. In a way that is sad but it is also quite glorious, at any rate, it’s the way that it is, or the way that it has to be in order to get the real work done. You cannot regard the life and the work of any of these three individuals in any other way and I think that is a very admirable thing; one’s life becomes the work and one’s work becomes the life. That is something to which I have come to aspire—the fact that these two things are completely integrated and it is only by denying this reality that you might fail. I recall seeing Stuart on Yonge, or possibly Bloor, in Toronto selling his books in the early 1980s and it took me many years to appreciate what was happening in that dynamic.

I am old enough to have been a young man standing outside of Coach House wondering how to get inside of Coach House at a time when bp was actually inside there working. And I somehow came to bill’s work much later but here is a man who has written some of the best lines ever to have been written in this country or anywhere else. Geniuses in a time when that word is both overused and undervalued. Pioneers. We are here because of them. I have a line of bill’s poetry tattooed on my left arm and on my right I have the phrase “know who you owe” and that refers to a number of things in my life but to a great degree it refers to this: as writers we depend on the fact that a certain amount of ground has been broken prior to us having ever even typed a word and we are diminished as artists if we remain unaware of this fact and also if we do not acknowledge it. We do so at our own peril and at the risk of ever creating any truly legitimate work.

We have to be aware that illegitimate work is created in great volume each and every day and I think often it is simply due to a lack of ability but it is also due to a lack of awareness of the tradition and heritage from which any artist springs. I don’t think that I would describe myself as a nationalist (current definitions and permutations of that term aside) but the fact is that I have only ever considered myself to be and have only ever wanted to be, specifically, a Canadian writer. “International author Michael Blouin” or “author Michael Blouin” do not interest me nearly as much as “Canadian author Michael Blouin,” and I think that there’s a heritage involved there—in my case I can’t see it as extending beyond the parameters of my own biography in that the authors who have been my guides have trod the earth within my own lifetime but there we are, I am here because they were and that is an inescapable truth to me. So it is not merely the brilliance of their work that inspires me, it is the fact that they managed to get it heard and that they managed to get it heard here in this country when such things were quite a bit more problematic than they are now, not that they are particularly easy at present!

RM: Finally: you’ve also been opening yourself up to more collaborations over the past few years. What is it that collaboration allows that might not have been possible otherwise?

MB: Rhonda Douglas described this stage in my work as being generous in one’s practice which is a lovely way to look at it but I think there’s also a selfish motivation on my part. In addition to all of the advantages for me of writing over filmmaking it is without doubt a more isolated experience. I’m not talking about social aspects—I mean in terms of creation and collaboration.

With a novel you work away at something on your own for a number of years and only at the end of that process come a series of other people; substantive editors, copy editors, designers, publishers, agents, all brought into the process towards the end. I have always really enjoyed that aspect of the work, when others become involved and (provided you’re working with the right people) the book expands as if someone has opened a window and let in the air. Collaboration just enables that sort of dynamic earlier on. Legend has had the benefit of substantive edits by Donato Mancini who was able to perceive exactly what the project was about and make numerous suggestions for additional segments to augment the manuscript. This was a very intense dynamic that took place over a month and a half and added a great deal of writing to the book. It’s quite different than writing something in isolation and so the collaborations I’ve been fortunate enough to experience in the last couple of projects with co-writers are similar to that, it’s just that they start earlier in the process.

Then there is a whole different but related idea when you write fiction about and with actual living people and you turn them into characters with their knowledge and assistance. I was able to take great liberties with Bruce McDonald’s persona with his permission and I enjoyed turning poet Gillian Sze into a bank robber with her real time consultation and I think she enjoyed watching herself become a wanted felon and someone who blows up cars with dynamite, I know I enjoyed that.

Elizabeth Rainer has done most of the illustrations for Legend and the majority of these were done in something resembling real time in that I would write something or get the idea for writing something and let her know what needed to be created and she would be doing the painting while I was doing the writing. I went to Toronto to spend some time with bill bissett knowing that the encounter would appear as the climax of the novel and did so with bill’s acquiescence and he’s been engaged with the project ever since.

There are other real people in the novel as characters, some heavily fictionalized and others who appear as themselves with virtually no touching up at all. Elizabeth appears as a character and Gillian Sze shows up in a repeat performance as herself.

That extension of a novel beyond what a novel is traditionally expected to do fascinates me. I could put it this way: I don’t want a fictionalized version of bill bissett in my novel so that a reader might think “Hey, it seems like that character might be based on bill bissett…”, I want bill bissett in my fucking novel. All of this said, Legend marks the end for me of a trilogy of novels in this vein (Wore Down Trust and I don’t know how to behave) and the next novel has only a central character loosely based on a good friend of mine while I am Billy the Kid deals with the extreme fictionalization of historical persons. Writing novels is a lot like playing. Serious playing, I think, but playing all the same. So as to what collaboration allows that might not have been possible otherwise the answer perhaps is that it changes the books—I could not have written these books without these other people, they are collaborative creations. Here are some examples: Elizabeth begins as the illustrator, then becomes the character of the illustrator communicating with the author about the illustrations, and finally appears as a character complaining about how the illustrations are being used. bill appears first as an idea, then as an influence, then as an excerpt, then as a character and finally as himself. In the promo for the book it is described as a “live appearance by bill bissett.” I think it may be the first novel to claim a “live appearance” by someone famous and I think it’s an accurate description, he literally walks into the book.

To answer your question, in the instance of Legend, the book would not exist without bill. This is part of what I mean by the shamanistic experience and by honouring what has preceded us. Well, this is a big part of writing to me. You pay your dues to get where you get, but you also pay your respect.