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Canada and the Short-Story Cycle. John Oughton in Tandem with Gerald Lynch
Brian Fawcett has published more than a dozen books, including Cambodia: A Book for Television for People Who Find Television Too Slow (1986) and Public Eye: An Investigation into the Disappearance of the World (1990). He is currently the editor of the internet news service, dooneyscafe.com. He was interviewed about his new book, Virtual Clearcut or, The Way Things Are in my Hometown (Thomas Allen Publishers), by telephone at his residence in Toronto where he currently resides with his wife and daughter.
LM: Why should readers pick up a copy of Virtual Clearcut or, The Way Things Are in My Hometown?
BF: They'll get a look at what mercantile globalization is doing to small towns and cities across North America. We've all seen and heard the abstractions for and against itýmostly declarations of its inevitability, the cruelties it perpetrates in the undeveloped world, or the personal rights it curtails here. This book takes it into a specific communityýPrince George, British Columbiaýand documents the specific wreckage. I wrote the book to create an alternate history of the town I grew up in, and that was part of what I found. I also found a huge clearcut forest, a lot of people trying to lead decent lives, a lot of people up against powerful forces they don't wholly understand, and a lot of human laughter. I followed each of those trails with equal interest and tried to be a witness to what I saw without sacrificing either accuracy or compassion.
LM: The last serious book you published was Gender Wars. That was nine years ago. Why did Virtual Clearcut take so long to write?
BF: It was a hard book to write and it took me a long time to figure out how to handle the materialsýmaybe because I'm so close to them. Since about 1970 I've wanted to write a history of Prince George that includes the people as they were. The Chamber of Commerce-sponsored histories weren't telling the whole story. I had this ambition because I believe in local knowledge: you can't know anything unless you understand the place you know it in. My place of first knowledgeýof almost everythingýwas the city in which I grew up.
LM: That leads me to wonder about the specificity of the book. In the section, "Alexander MacKenzie's Supermarket", a person accuses you of turning Prince George into an abstract metaphor for writing. Why would that be an "accusation"? Was he right?
BF: That was a cautionary concern I had throughout the book. From the beginning, I wanted to write the book so it would be understandable to the people about whom it was writtenýin other words, written in language that would allow them to see what had not been seen about the place where they were living, good and bad. I learned this from John Berger, who believes, for both political and artistic reasons, that whatever you write has to be understandable to the people it is written about. It strikes me as good intellectual ecology.
LM: What is the purpose of the photographs in the book?
BF: They're evocative rather than illustrative, even though I've organized them to relate to relevant passages. I want readers to have a sense of what and who the places and people are, what the destructions are, both in the clearcut and in the city itself. On the whole, they're pretty depressing.
LM: And suggestive. I thought the title was also suggestive. It implies both the actual clearcut and the mediated representation, as in "virtual reality." Is that what you had in mind?
BF: My working title, throughout, was The Way Things Are because I think this is how people are living pretty well everywhere outside the big cities. Virtual Clearcut was suggested by a number of people as an adjunct, to explain that the real clearcut, the damaging one, is in Prince George. The forestry clearcut in the Bowron Valley is healing, but in 2003, a virtual clearcut exists in the middle of a city of 80, 000 people. It's in people's minds. The forestry clearcut is something that few actually saw. The corporations and government never understood what they'd done. I don't think loggers understood what had been done. There was an industrial riot out there that spun out of control because it was part and parcel of the mercantile state of mind.
LM: Why do you say "the way things are" rather than "the way things were"?
BF: I don't care about the way things were unless it bears on the present. I'm not nostalgic or sentimental by nature, and whenever either impulse arose while I was researching or writing, I took it apart and tried to reveal what it was covering up.
LM: Yet there is also the sense that this is a "Paradise Lost," as the first section and epigraph both suggest. A passage from John Milton's Paradise Lost serves as the epigraph. Are there these two impulses at work Ż the "way things are" and the "way things were"?
BF: Part of being a responsible human being is figuring out how things really are: the "knowledge of good bought dear by knowing ill." To understand what paradise is you need to understand the moment you're part of, what it ought to be and what it isn't. That's the purpose of art and always has been: to see the world as it is and to reserve a part of one's imagination for the way it ought to be. Depicting that is my moral responsibility as an artist.
LM: Do you have this sense of moral responsibility every time you write a book?
BF: Of course. Otherwise I'd just be a widget maker. I'm not interested in manufacturing widgets. If I wanted to be an industrialist, I'd still be peddling soft drinks for my father or developing real estate. I'm not contemptuous of those activities, but they haven't ever been what I've wanted to do with my life.
LM: You suggest, at the end of the book, that there are no simple answers and that we must take responsibility for the things around us. What is it that you think writers should take responsibility for?
BF: As an artist, I want to take responsibility for the quality and relatedness of the things around us. As a political being, I want to make the Global Village do what it bloody well said it was going to do. It said it would enhance democracy and give everyone access to the same high quality commodities. When you have a Zeitgeist that misinforms and impoverishes people, you have to oppose it.
LM: Why is Virtual Clearcut divided into four sections?
BF: I kept going back to Prince George and the clearcut, and each time both were transformed. Each time, there was an entirely new set of specifics for me to process. It got through to me after the third or fourth trip that the best and most truthful thing I could do would be to provide accurate portraits of time and place. It was therefore very important to get them right, even though memory is a very inexact instrument. There were points in the book Ż openly recorded Ż where I realized that there is no necessary relationship between what I remembered and what was actually there. So I had the option of imposing a professional ideology or of opening the text to the inexactness of what people understand and what people see. That's more or less the moment when I began to recognize that the book could be concluded and how it could be done.
LM: How so?
BF: I recognized that I couldn't be conclusive, and so I couldn't get it all. I didn't have to make these sort of resounding conclusions that conventional history makes. Instead, I could simply open things it up so that readers could see this particular part of the world as it was at a series of given points along a time/space locus. The narrative became progressively less dependent of what I saw, particularly in the last section of the book, where people talk and I listen. I don't have much comment to make about what they say.
LM: But aren't you mediating their perceptions?
BF: To the extent that I'm the person with the tape recorder or the note-book, yes, of course. I'm selecting what is important within what they say. If I didn't do that, it would be an interview transcription, not a narrative. But toward the end my hand got progressively lighter. My job as a writer was to present the world that they were living in, not editorialize it constantly.
LM: How does this book relate to the larger trajectory of your published work?
BF: I have a relatively simple life-project: find the difficult questions in the world and Ż rather than answer them Ż make transparent investigations of what can be known about them. The first book I did this way was Cambodia, which was about why people subjugate and/or kill one another. Now, the question is this: why can't people, even in the richest countries, have lives that are decent and fulfilling? Why is that being taken away from us?
LM: And by whom?
BF: And for what? I don't believe that there a lot of corporate villains with black hats behind globalization. That's too simple. Those people are inside a machine, and it takes away their lives as well.
LM: What is it that you think you'll write after this?
BF: There are two books I want to write. One is called Butterfly, which moves from a landmine the Russians used during their Afghanistan war. Butterfly mines were small, hinged, green stars, and were scattered throughout the desert to be picked up by children. The mines were designed to explode when the hinge was turned, but they weren't designed to kill children. They were designed to blind them and to blow off their hands Ż and thus take away the mobility of the Mujahadim who had to care for them. This typifies a new kind of human imagination: a relationship between technology and violence that is almost completely unexplored and that needs to be if human intelligence is not going to become an extraordinarily destructive evolutionary dead-end.
LM: That brings us back to The Way Things Are Żand the relationship between technology and violence.
BF: Yes. I want to explore what kind of intelligence we've developed that makes those kinds of things both possible and seemingly irresistible. It's a larger project than any single book.
LM: And the other book?
BF: I have an uncle who died in the First World War Ż I want to write a book about what it is to have one's life stolen the way his was. He was killed at the age of twenty-five, twelve days before the end of the war, as he led a suicidal charge across a river and up an embankment that had a railway line Ż and Germans Ż on the other side of it. At 5:30 in the morning he stood up and was hit by a machine gun burst or by an artillery shell. I want to reconstruct that moment, because it is part of a cultural nexus Ż the First World War Ż that has traceries into practically everything in the twentieth century, not only within my own family, but within the world we have today. I've lived this life of complete privilege and so I want to go back and pay homage to this man who had his life stolen.
LM: Yet your life has also been surrounded by violence Ż the clearcut, your uncle, and so forth.
BF: I guess violence is my subject matter. Every writer has a subject matter or event that they go back to all their life, and everything they write is Ż or ought to be Ż an attempt to widen the insights they have into it. For Primo Levi, it was Auschwitz; for Kurt Vonnegut, it was the Dresden Raid. In my privileged life, it was something that happened when I was sixteen. Some friends decided they were going to kill a cat and hang it over a teacher's door. My response was not to do go along but to write about it Ż and in a sense, I've been doing that ever since.
LM: What's your insight?
BF: That violence Ż interpersonal, military, political, economic Ż steals life from everybody and from everything. The past century saw the most extraordinary violence in human history: 120 million people died for no reason. From that moment when I was sixteen, I've wanted to understand why people are violent. The clearcut on the Bowron was an industrial and cultural act of violence. Globalization is a return to a stupid and inexcusable Darwinian violence. What I saw, way back when, was that we all have two fundamental choices Ż to kill or to understand Ż and that I was on the side that ought to be winning but isn't. Writing for me is a way of thinking about the world; I usually think about it within this frame. In other words, I don't write in order to express my sense of self or to create imaginary worlds for the market place. I write in order to understand the world and to protest against the way things are. Ú

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