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Books in Canada interviews Tim Bowling
Books in Canada: The Paperboy's Winter, a new novel,your second, was released in February. The Witness Ghost, a new collection of poetry, your fifth, was published in March. Can you tell me a bit about the differences between writing poetry and writing fiction?
Tim Bowling: Well, writing poetry is ecstasy and writing fiction is just pleasure. I'm partly kidding, of course, since each form does come with its frustrations. But I've always written because I enjoy it, and that basic enjoyment is what most ties poetry and fiction together for me. I also came to reading literature without a theoretical program, which means I'm either blessed or damned (depending on who you are) in believing that story-telling is the foundation of both forms. I've always felt a strong narrative pull when I write poetry, and a strong lyrical pull when I write prose. But don't get me wrong; they are different animals. More than anything, in practical terms, you have to be prepared for a different kind of pacing and intensity. In my novels, I aim for a rich and lyrical prose, but not a poetic one. That difference is essential for me. But I think most poets try to sneak over some poetic effects when they tackle a long prose piece, if only for their own sanity. When asked why he didn't write novels, Paul ValTry apparently replied "Oh, I could never write something as boring as 'The marquise went out at 5 o'clock.'" I can certainly sympathize. Fiction needs more of a set-up until you get to those really great parts, whereas poetry tends to cut to the chase. But, in the end, good writing is good writing, end of story, so to speak.
BiC: But there's a moment on page 42, for example, where Callum talks about how, for him, listening to the rain "deepened the pleasurable solitude of reading." He continues: "The stories were oddly more real, as if the rain had put a stamp of dampness on themÓ" That's a wonderful turn of phrase, and it occurred to me that it was your poetry that taught you how to write a line like that.
TB: Descriptive writing of any kind is likely a good teacher, though I see what you mean about poetry's particular emphasis on the apt word and phrase. So yes, writing poetry certainly offers a way in to writing an interesting prose. But I'm generally puzzled by the Great Divide that many wish to establish between the two forms. It's almost as if any kind of fictional prose that isn't as spartan as Raymond Carver's must therefore be "poetic." Or, something else I've noticed, any prose that goes in for abstract references to beauty, truth, etc, that has characters staring into cups of coffee for endless pages while musing about "Life", is, again, "poetic". I couldn't disagree more. The fiction I most respond to (say, Fitzgerald, Cather, Cheever, Alistair MacLeod) is rich and vivid and, a key point, often poetic in conception and rhythm, not simply in the surface effects of metaphor and subject matter. Does anyone ever say of MacLeod's work that it is poetic? Just look at the rhythms of his prose style, the rich cadences, the attention to the flow of the language! That's as poetic a prose as has ever been written in Canada, yet MacLeod clearly writes fiction, clearly attends to narrative and characterization and not some murky surface lyricism. The same goes for the other writers I've mentioned. That's the sort of prose I aspire to. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that the fiction I read with pleasure teaches me more than the writing of poetry does about how to achieve a solid prose style. And the teaching and the learning are ongoing, of course.
BiC: Your writing has always been elegiac. Most writing is, of course. But what makes your elegiacal energy interesting¨at least for me¨is that it's a sense of loss one usually associated with the pain of exile. For example, early on in The Paperboy's Winter, Callum Taylor described himself as being "shocked into sight" and of waking "to a place and time from which I was, at heart, dislocated." He soon depicts the dislocation as function of watching his boyhood town of "swaybacked barns and crumpled wharves, rusted, abandoned train-tracks vanishing into the salt flats and sunken fishboats turning skeletal along the muddy riverbanks" being turned into "strip malls, fast food franchises, and gated condominium developments named 'Heron Shores' and 'River Point'. How close is Callum to your experience of nostalgia?
TB: We're all going to die, which is the ultimate form of exile, at least from this place as we currently understand it. So I've always thought I might as well warm up! Seriously, if you're asking about me as opposed to Callum in the novel, I'd say that I've always felt alienated from the human culture around me but not from life. Isn't this true for many writers? I hope I never make the mistake of thinking my alienation from mainstream society means I naturally have to feel alienated from the world. But Callum's situation is simpler; he's not able to deal with the fact of his father's death, and by extension human mortality. As a result, he sees the changes in his physical landscape as another form of death he's unwilling to accept. I know exactly how he feels, and I think many people do, even if we don't allow ourselves to sink quite so far into that knowledge.
BiC: Was there anything about your first novel¨be it stylistic, thematic, structural¨that bothered you and that you wanted to fix for the second book?
TB: Don Domanski once told me that every book is a failure because words are always only an approximation of your response to the world. I agree. If you feel deeply enough to write about life, then you'll always feel that you haven't quite done the job properly. Except in the case of my first novel, which is a work of genius. Okay, there are a few things that bothered me, the most important of which is the plotting. There's a little too much melodrama for me in Downriver Drift. I think melodrama, like rhetoric, is unjustly abused today, but nonetheless I was too aware at times of the need to fashion a suspenseful plot (there's nothing at all wrong with doing so, but that fashioning should grow organically from the characters and not be imposed as a sort of mechanical structure). How did I fix this for the new novel? This time, what melodrama there is grows naturally out of the point of view of the ten-year-old narrator. It's more natural, more unified with everything else that's going on. Also, I trusted myself and the reader more this time by giving in to a pace that best suits my abilities. For one thing, I love description in a novel. A lot of contemporary fiction, with its heavy reliance on dialogue, reads as if it might as well be a screenplay. I don't want to concede that the reader's attention span is that poor. However, unless you're a prose genius like Proust, it's foolhardy to write a novel that doesn't pay close attention to traditional devices like suspense and plot. So it's a matter of finding the right balance, which is what I'm always aiming for.
BiC: You mention that you love description and its true that the world's tactility¨"The air was like silted water being slowly cleared" or the wind "furrowing the calm channel into a small chop"¨is something you're very good at evoking. As a result there are lots of "things" in The Paperboy's Winter and lots of lists of "things"¨as if the richness of your surroundings provoked you into cataloging them, or as if you were literally archiving what the book is, thematically, mourning the loss of. Any thoughts on this?
TB: Oh I love lists, absolutely. And again, some people have the strange notion that description, lists of things, etc, is "poetic", something the poets don't realize they should get rid of when they write fiction. But that's selling fiction terribly short. How about that terrific list of guests who come to Gatsby's parties? It's a joy to read. And description, especially of landscape: when that's done well, there's nothing I love better. And I think my love comes simply from the same place as the alienation. Look, here's what I'm sensing, here's my world¨and look, it's changing, or, more basically, we're going to have to say goodbye to it one day. Besides, I've always believed the novel to be a magnanimous and grand form, one that can take in as much of the world as the writer can get onto paper. So yes to both of your points: I'm provoked by the richness of the world, and I'm trying, at least in part, to archive the source of that provocation.
BiC: Finally, then, could you talk about smell? "The thick smell of blood and slime rose out of the stern to merge with the mud-heavy air"or the Haunted bookshop which was "a cramped, magical place smelling of must, mildew, stale tobacco, and a hundred different scents of bubblegum" or, well, I could go on and on. Of all the senses, your writing seems especially tuned to your nose.
TB: I'm encouraged by that observation, as I've always believed myself almost monolithically visual. Now if only someone else would point out how auditory my writing is! I do have a theory about this, though, now that you mention it. I grew up in Ladner, a fishing and farming town at the mouth of the Fraser River (Chilukthan, in my novels, is based on Ladner) and I spent time working in both industries. So, rotting fish, bilge, manure, rotting cabbages, etc. And the flip side too, the pleasanter smells, the ripening blackberries, the brine, the cut hay. You'd have to be without a nose to grow up in such a place and not experience the smells. It makes me think of William Carlos Williams¨you know the poem where he basically attacks his nose for its, well, nosiness. "Must you have a part in everything?" he asks. It's probably a good thing, for life as well as writing, if all of your senses are that nosey. ˛
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