Thank You! (On Proximal Motivation, Literary SF, and Berton House)
Okay, first, THANK YOU to the Writers’ Trust of Canada for selecting me as one of the Writers in residence for the Berton House Writers’ Retreat! I’m super-excited (and grateful) to be heading to Dawson City from January to March 2020. So excited, in fact, that I wrote this blog post, my first in well over a year. I mean, okay, it’s not exactly a blog post. More of a series of annotated excerpts from my Berton House application. Anyway, I want to acknowledge publicly a few of the things I said there. To wit:
[S]ecuring a well-defined future opportunity to spend focussed, dedicated time on my next writing projects would be a gift beyond price—not solely (or even primarily) in material terms, but in terms of motivation. Simply put, the promise of future dedicated time to spend on my own writing without the external distraction of formal classroom teaching will help to sustain the current work of fleshing out my next projects and generating the inevitably shitty first-draft material required (for me, at least) to get to the good stuff that comes later in the process.
Truth! This is a gift beyond price. Deadlines are often what motivate (cough force cough) me to write, and having this deadline to push me to buckle down and get cracking on the next novel makes ALL the difference. And don’t get me wrong: I love teaching! It’s a huge privilege, and I love seeing my students starting to come into their own as writers. But setting that aside to focus on my own writing can sometimes be a bit of a challenge.
Also, I get to live in Dawson City! I’ve never been. Which is also part of the point, in that…
This residency would also take me out of my usual urban/university environment, removing many of my usual everyday distractions (of teaching, etc.) as I lived and worked in an entirely new and (crucially) entirely different environment. Furthermore, given the underlying aesthetics of my own writing—[blahblahblah, I write weird stuff]—the underlying newness and surrealism of living in the North would itself function as an ideal external influence for the type of writing that I hope to pursue. To be clear, I don’t mean to say that the North itself is inherently or essentially “new” or “surreal,” as it is obviously familiar to those who have made Dawson City their home for years, decades, or (in some cases, preceding “Dawson City” itself) centuries and millennia. Rather, on a subjective level, it would be new and surreal to me, whether that manifested in the climate, the eternal daylight or night (or extended twilight, depending on the timing), the culture and history of the town itself, and so on.
And Eternal Night it will be! To start, anyway. Followed by the long, slow (and partial) return of the light. It should be… interesting, to say that least. Luckily, this winter in Edmonton is giving me some good practice at dealing with -40C temperatures—which, for any Americans reading this, is (conveniently) exactly the same as -40F. But as I was saying about weirdness, surrealism, and Dawson City, and why that confluence feels so very perfect to me…
My stories play out on the borderlands between the familiar and the unfamiliar, where the familiar turns strange, surreal, magical, and/or science fictional. And to me, Dawson City itself is just such a place, a borderland between the familiar and unfamiliar, an intensification of many of the subjectively surreal aspects—which are of course surreal primarily by contrast to my experience of my “original” home in southern Ontario, the deeply embedded “normal” of my subconscious—of the relatively northern urban centre (Edmonton) where I have lived for the past thirteen years. [ . . . ] And in that context, Berton House and Dawson City would be an ideal space in which to revise and refine my own writing, under the ambient influence the potentially surreal juxtapositions emerging from the jolt to my usual “everyday” existence in Edmonton. Of course, the reality of Dawson City will escape and overrun my expectations in ways that I cannot anticipate—which is exactly what I am hoping for and entirely congruent with the sort of work that I hope to produce during this residency.
Yup. Pretty much. In other words, my primary expectation of Dawson City is that it will surprise me. And I look forward to that. And what will I be working on? It’s still early days, and I’ve barely started drafting (so, you know, it’s pretty much guaranteed change in about a thousand ways in the writing process), but so far…
The novel is tentatively titled The Dead Brothers Club [ . . . ]. Currently, I expect it to tell the story of the protagonist’s discovery and escalating experience of being possessed both literally and metaphorically by the spirits of various lovers’ (and, in a polyamorous context, some metamours’) dead brothers. More recently, I have also discovered that this novel will be set in a future Edmonton, at a time when the United States has collapsed in the face of climate change, and the city has become a waystation for climate-refugees seeking entry into a more stable confederacy of indigenous nations to the north. (I haven’t yet figured out what has happened to Canada as a nation in this scenario. It may have collapsed or simply separated into a much more loosely federalized collection of provinces, none of which are particularly welcoming to refugees from the South.) [ . . . ]
Suffice it to say, this is new territory for me. But also in some senses, it’s a return to my SF roots. And with that in mind, this next part is for my SF people (both Canadian and otherwise), because I want to point out here, explicitly, that OUR WORK CAN BE (AND OFTEN IS) “LITERARY” TOO:
My long-term artistic goal is to continue writing and publishing stories and novels that consistently cross and challenge the literary/genre divide, producing complex literary speculative fiction (a.k.a. SF) that appeals to both “literary” and “genre” readers. To be clear, I am deeply skeptical of any essential distinction between “literary” and “genre” writing—except perhaps as marketing categories—especially given that many writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, Eden Robinson, Hiromi Goto, and far too many more to easily list here (on both sides of this apparent literary/genre divide), have been confounding and challenging this distinction for quite some time.
Sorry, tiny pause to note that there are SO MANY MORE. Just off the top of my head, no googling, a random sampling of my brain in this moment: N. K. Jemisin, Sam J. Miller, China Miéville, Candas Jane Dorsey, John Crowley, Ted Chiang, Jeff Vandermeer, Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, Larissa Lai, and the list goes on… and on… and on… Nonetheless,
as fallacious as it may be, this distinction remains common in colloquial terms, and my goal is to challenge it in (and with) my own writing […]
…as so many have before me. All of which is to say, THANK YOU to the Writers’ Trust of Canada for this opportunity. I am truly, deeply, eternally grateful.
And also, Canadian SF writers, don’t self-disqualify! Apply for grant and residency opportunities and all that stuff you may have been told not to bother with given the common assumption that Canadian literary organizations don’t value SF. Because it’s not (always) true. And because sometimes, if we’re Very Very Lucky, we can get them too. So there.