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No Ghosts Here: Steven Heighton interviewed by Elliot Robins
by Elliot Robins

Steven Heighton is well on the way to establishing himself as one of Canada's finest literary writers. It has been said that "Heighton is like the young Ondaatje." He has been nominated for and received numerous prizes. He has written four poetry collections, two short story collections, two novels, and a book of essays. I talked to him after he gave a presentation in Bracebridge, Ontario.

Elliot Robins: Afterlands, your second novel, is unlike The Shadow Boxer. The reader can relate to the characters and their experiences in The Shadow Boxer and there's a sense of immediacy when reading the novel. In Afterlands, the reader is distanced from the characters. This seems to due in part to the geographical remoteness of the setting¨the Arctic.

Steven Heighton: I'd say it's a more austere book. It's not about a young romantic trying to find himself. It's about an older man (Krueger) who's pretty skeptical about human nature and a woman who's trying to keep her daughter, Hannah, alive. It's a grimmer book. It doesn't have the same exuberance and charisma that the first novel has. The Shadow Boxer is a poet's novel. I felt I had the license to riff exuberantly and do what I love to do with language, which is write lyrically. With Afterlands I had to be more controlled with the language.

ER: The restricted area on which most of the narrative of Afterlands takes place¨an ice floe¨must have opened some doors in terms of what you were able to do creatively, and shut a few others.

SH: Duke Ellington, when talking about limits imposed by jazz and the blues, said, "It's good to have limits." In the last 50 to 100 years, poets have felt more and more free not to use constricting forms like the sonnet form or the villanelle form. Fiction writers have felt that too, and that's great, but there's a real cost. If you don't know how to work with a constricting form, you don't realise how the limitations can make you do amazing things. The limitations of the novel¨the fact that characters are forced to be together on a small floe¨were liberating. It's like imposing a word limit on something or forcing yourself not to use the vowel e, like Christian B¸k¨these are constraints that can make you say things in a really fresh way.
With Afterlands, there were the historical records, which function as a kind of narrative vertebrae for the book. I knew I was going to keep them intact, and that I would flesh out the rest of the book with my own speculations. So again, there was a kind of limitation in that I had to say, 'OK, I have one fact here and one fact here'; I could leap from one fact to the other, but I still had to land on this fact. I had to go from A to B to C.
Limitations are really liberating because they give your book a structure. You don't have to worry about the structure; the structure is already there.

ER: Both of your novels centre around water and ships. Is this anything conscious on your part? Are you fascinated by nautical stories? Are you a big fan of Conrad?

SH: I am a fan of Conrad. But no, none of that is conscious, and I try not to dwell on it too much because I don't want to make it conscious. On the one hand, I don't want to poeticise or mythologise the writer's craft and suggest poets should be these idiot savants who don't know anything about what they're doing. In fact, you do have to know a lot about the craft and your own approach to it. But, what you're really writing out of are your obsessions, or your muse. For an artist, one reason to be cautious about going to, say, psychotherapy, is that you'd want to avoid tampering with your obsessions if they are feeding your work in a really fertile way. While you're in the heat of composition, you should just be there without judging it too much. When I'm writing the first draft, I more or less want the idiot savant to be in control.

ER: You were the editor of the literary journal Quarry Magazine from 1988ű1994. Can you tell me about that?

SH: I learned a lot about trends. The nature of the stories coming in would change every half year or so. There were a lot of politically correct stories, then there were misogynistic stories. It's like this stuff gets into the air. It taught me what not to write. I'd go home and say, "There's no way I'm doing a child abuse story because everyone is doing it." It was really instructional that way, learning how quickly obsessions come and go with the ambient culture. It made me want to write books on themes that were being ignored, so that I wouldn't feel like I was getting caught up in riding a bandwagon creatively. I thought such books would have a better chance of lasting.
Some of my strongest literary friendships came when I rejected people, and later accepted their work. They knew they could trust and respect me. If your friends are always patting you on the back, you've got to get new friends. It's very important for a writer to have critical friends.

ER: In The Notebooks you say, "My resistance [to e-mail and cell phones] is a matter of wanting to protect my attention span and the ability to concentrate deeply, exclusively on things." How do you feel now about these technologies?

SH: I'm checking my e-mail too often. I've got a bunch of projects on the go, including reviews for The New York Times. I need to keep checking to see if they want me to do edits on my reviews. Checking in the morning is the thing that screws up your fiction writing. You get into another mental space. You're being functional, secretarial. In the creative life there's a sacramental mode and a secretarial mode. They have to co-exist. There is no way to banish the secretarial part if you're going to have a career as a writer; you have to do that stuff, and that's OK. But you want to confine such activity to a minimum and not allow secretarial thinking to creep into the sacramental side. It takes an hour or two to do the obligatory [checking e-mails] and then it's sometimes impossible to get back into that creative head space.
My friend Russell Smith says it's OK, that this is the postmodern mode. He thinks I'm a fool for being such a Luddite. I think it's hurting his fiction whether he knows it or not. He says he's writing really hip, urban, postmodern fiction, which is all about the fact that our consciousness is increasingly fragmented, so why shouldn't he be writing in that fragmented state? But I think that he has to be more focused to write realistically about that. A Spanish poet 30 or 40 years ago said that the struggle of modern man was to avoid being turned into a ghost, and I thought "That's it!" That's my whole goal in life¨to avoid having the culture turn me into a ghost. I don't want to be a voice on an answering machine, surfing the net in the morning instead of being out with friends.

ER: When you consider Steven Heighton the writer, the artist, and Steven Heighton, the man living his life as husband and father, out in the world, buying groceries¨do you notice a discrepancy between the two, anything to reconcile? When you're in a story and you go to the store for milk, are you distant if you run into friends, or is there a seamless transition between the two?

SH: I used to have a romantic vision of the artist's life. I thought that artists had some special dispensation to be absent-minded and not relate to other people that well¨because we're artists! Now I think that's bullshit. But in practice, I'm still distracted and absent-minded when I'm in a story. Maybe there's nothing I can do about that. My mind keeps returning to the story and it's hard for me to get out of that state, so it can be hard to relate to other people sometimes. I think some writers take a kind of pride in being almost autistic socially. Perhaps they think it's a sign of genius or something. I don't buy that. I never thought I wanted children, but having a daughter has been the best thing that ever happened to me. I really don't want to have regrets when she's grown, thinking I should have spent more time with her. I'm trying to be a good dad. It's really important to me¨ as important as being a good writer. Children know what you're focused on. They don't even have to see it, they just feel it. A child can't help noticing an artist parent is really focused on, and dedicated to, their art. I think on some level that creates a kind of jealousy. It's as if the parent is having an affair¨but the affair isn't with another person, it's with the muse.

ER: Rimbaud talked about the "Alchemy of the Word." The word is a powerful thing. What is the power of language for you? Even names¨are we are moulded by them, do we become them?
SH: I'm not so sure. I feel that if I had a different name, like David or Michael, I'd basically be the same guy. If I was named Harley, what would I be like? I might be really tough. I might have twenty pounds of muscle on me that I don't have now. Maybe I would have gotten into a serious weightlifting program to live up to that name.
As for the magic of language¨look at the opening paragraph of Lolita: "Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate, to tap, at three on the teeth." You say those words and the tongue does exactly what you're talking about. The word is made flesh. The kind of writing you're talking about, the kind of writing that's really alive on the page changes the world for the reader in a small way while they read it. Journalistic prose is designed just to convey a message or describe an event. In literary fiction and poetry the words embody what they are describing. For example, there's sentence in The Shadow Boxer where I describe Sevigne. He's been sitting in a bar, brooding, and he has been drinking quite a bit but he doesn't feel drunk until he stands up. The sentence is: "Sevigne, suddenly drunk, stumbles down the stairs to the door." If you look at it carefully, the sentence is stumbling over the paired commas, and all the 's' sounds give it the sound of a drunk slurring his words. Now, 'Sevigne stood up and suddenly realized he was feeling a little drunk'¨that's a journalistic description. Perfectly accurate, but it doesn't make you feel the sentence; you're not inside it and you won't remember it.
I worked on a translation of Rimbaud's The Drunken Boat for about two years. I finally created a translation where the lines will actually make you feel a little seasick. That's what I was trying to do. My friend at Brick, Michael Redhill said, "Yeah, we all feel nauseous after reading this poem." Rimbaud was a master at that. ˛

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