Having completed Derek Winkler's debut novel, I've officially read every single book that Workhorsery has ever published.
And with this accomplishment under my belt, the good folks at Workhorsery gave me the exciting opportunity to take part in Winkler's very first blog tour. Having spent the past week writing over the National Post Afterword, he spends the day here, then he's off to Books Under Skin on the 21st, the Hoodie Ripper on the 22nd, Rob Mclennan’s on the 23rd, Books on the Radio on the 24th, Maisonneuve Magazine on the 25th, and Open Book Toronto on November 26th.
So what's he got planned for here? Well, I thought maybe he'd talk a bit about researching the DEW Line since it's a northern topic that plays heavily in Pitouie, but one I have very little knowledge about. Unfortunately the good folks at the Afterword scooped me on that one. Instead I went for a good old fashioned email interview.
I'll get to that in a second. But first, a brief review to familiarize you with the book.
Pitouie is one of the ripest piles of dog crap ever to be published in Canada, or dare I say the world. No longer is my time machine set to go back and kill Hitler, now my sights are set on that other notorious German, Johannes Gutenberg.
I kid, I kid. I just wanted to make the Workhorsery folks and Winkler sweat a little.
Actually Pitouie was a lot of fun. In the first two chapters we're introduced to two sets of characters, living in two different time frames and locales. One involves Otis, a modern day trade journal editor on his way to the island of Pitouie in the South Pacific. The other involves Lars, a civilian contractor working in a tiny DEW line station in the 1970s Northwest Territories. While each of these stories have enough interesting information and satire to stand on their own, the mysterious promise of a link between these two vastly different times and spaces is what holds our attention. The link turns out to be even more outlandish than you'd think.
I did have minor concerns about the use of Inuit in the book. They felt a little like accessories, like Gwen Stefani's harajuku girls. But then something Angie Abdou said recently that made me reflect on those feelings. Addressing a reader on the Canada Reads website that asked of Abdou's the Bone Cage, "Why should we care about privileged, white, middle class people training for the olympics?" Abdou replied that she doesn't "superimpose [her] own agenda on [a writer's] work." (Actually the whole exchange was nastier than that on both sides, but I won't rehash it here. Go read for yourself if you like.) Could Abdou's words apply to what I was doing? Was I merely superimposing an agenda? I was a minority for a few years to a majority of Inuit, who didn't make me feel like a minority, made me feel welcomed and gave me some of the best memories of my life. I'm probably sensitive to real or perceived slights to the Inuit. But that doesn't mean I know what the majority of Inuit think. Maybe none would be bothered by Winkler's book. And really when I think about, I wasn't really sure there was a problem. To Winkler's credit, he doesn't shy away when I ask him about it and he made me more comfortable about it in the long run.
So, without further ado...
JM: Tell us something about your book and why people should read it.
DW: There's only one reason anyone should read a novel, and that's because they find it enjoyable. You can read a cookbook if you want to know how to make Quiche Lorraine, and the enjoyment comes from having something nice to eat. You can read a textbook if you want to understand how the time-space continuum works, and the enjoyment comes from finding answers to ease your bafflement. But when you sit down with a novel, almost all the enjoyment comes from the story, the characters and the setting. At least, it does for me. Some people may get more enjoyment from beautifully-crafted prose, but if the prose takes precedence over the story, the author has made a serious mistake, in my opinion. As an author, you can also try to slip in a message or a life lesson if you want, but you should remember that these are optional extras and stand at least a 50-50 chance of making your novel less enjoyable.
Anyway, my story is about two guys in two time periods going out of their minds with boredom, and the lengths to which they go to make their lives interesting again. It just so happens that doing so involves a volcano, toxic waste, an Inuit village, a DEW Line station and any number of dubious activities. I hope people will find it enjoyable.
JM: Kevin Patterson's Consumption is set primarily in Northern Canada, but as in Pitouie, also finds several characters relocating to the South Pacific. The front of Pitouie features a volcano, while the back features an iceberg. Finding similarities between two locales that most people would think couldn't be more different is apparently a lot of fun. You're from Toronto-- which location do you think you'd be most at home?
DW: Well damn and blast Kevin Patterson. Now I have to hunt him down and challenge him to a duel or something. As for me, I don't think I'd be especially happy in either the Arctic or the South Pacific. I kinda like it here in the city. Then again, I've never been to either the Arctic or the South Pacific, so maybe I'll reserve judgment on that one. But you're right. It is fun to find parallels between disparate places, not to mention people and events. It's even more fun to invent parallels, if you need to. That's why fiction is more fun to write than journalism.
JM: There are a great number of Inuit in this book, yet few have major parts. Is this a concern for you?
DW: It was a concern for me. Every time I re-drafted the novel, I looked for ways to give the Inuit characters more to do. However, in the end, the story is primarily about these two particular guys who do not happen to be Inuit. Trying to force an Inuit character to the front of the stage out of a sense of cultural obligation would have been blatant ass-covering, I think. The best I could do was pick out a few Inuit and make them good strong secondary characters that felt like real people.
JM: To me, the book had an almost conspiracy-theory tone to it. However, it reminded me more of something from say Paul Glennon's Dodecahedron than anything written by Dan Brown. It's seems more out of a love of the absurd realities and possibilities of the world than a finger waving expose. Is this a fair observation? Are you a conspiracy buff?
DW: I like a good conspiracy theory because a good conspiracy theory has to be a good story. Boring conspiracy theories don't sell well in the marketplace of crackpot ideas. I also like the idea of a fun conspiracy, because that has rarity value. Whether there's a conspiracy involved or not, an appreciation of the absurd in life is always a healthy thing to have. Plus, absurdities make good stories too.
JM: Some might argue that there's an environmental message to Pitouie. What would you say to that?
DW: Well, I couldn't really bring a bunch of industrial waste manufacturers to a pristine tropical island and then not have anyone talk about the environment, but that wasn't my primary goal. I'm not an activist kind of guy. Readers will notice there's no call in the book for humanity to clean up its act. If there is an environmental message in the novel it's this: We can't live the kind of life we live today and have a clean planet at the same time. Humans, being the greedy, lazy and adaptable creatures that we are, we will most likely continue to make the planet less and less hospitable, gradually adjusting our lifestyles as we go, until we're sitting in a global garbage dump with our plasma screens and smartphones and surgically-implanted breathing filters, and that will be considered normal. Then, when the planet can't take any more of our shit, the planet will just get rid of us. And that will be that. Call it a Stoic view of environmentalism.
JM: In your bio it mentions that you are the editor of an obscure trade publication, not unlike the Otis character. Was the book a means of escape from trade publication doldrums? What else do you do to escape?
DW: Writing Pitouie wasn't so much a means of escape from my boring life as a way to make my life interesting enough that I no longer felt the need to escape. It wasn't an excuse to take pot shots at my employer or my choice of career (well, it was a bit). I put in that stuff about the agony of trade journalism partly because it was kind of funny, especially when exaggerated for effect, but mostly because it established Otis as a character whose life had just stopped dead. But if you look at most of the major characters, you can see that they all had a non-life at some point. I guess the main theme of the book is that it's never too late to get yourself a life, even if you have to go to a tiny island to find it.
JM: You're quoted as saying, “'For a while, I didn't think I'd be able to find a Canadian press willing to publish Pitouie. It seems like the established presses in this country just aren't interested in novels that don't follow a certain set of conventions." I've read the other Workhorsery publication, Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates, and I'd have to agree that so far they're unlike most other Canadian books I've read (though as I mentioned above, Paul Glennon's Dodecahedron would seem to fit the Workhorsery catalogue.) Besides from publishing your book, why is the Workhorsery mandate important? What is the state of Canadian publishing, in your opinion?
DW: Here I'm moving into territory that I'm not really qualified to comment on, but what the hell. I read in some magazine (the name of which I cannot for the life of me recall at the moment) that most Canadian literature is about "memory and loss." That's no fun. The Canadian novels that I've read seem to fall mainly into a couple of broad categories: Historical coming-of-age stories set in the prairies, and historical coming-of-age stories set in urban immigrant neighbourhoods. All the drama comes from family conflict and the memories thereof, plus, surprisingly often, experiences of war and the memories thereof. Maybe I just haven't read enough, but those are my impressions. A press like The Workhorsery is a vital outlet for those of us who don't find those stories all that appealing. If you like 'em, more power to you. You've got lots to choose from. But let's at least have the option of reading something else.
JM: You're in the midst of quite a busy blog tour right now. Is there something you hope to gain from the experience besides more readers? You've said the Internet is your second home and that if pressed, you might answer the question, "why the hell publish a paper book?" Consider yourself pressed.
DW: Considering the number of readers I have at this early stage is probably statistically close to zero, I will shamelessly admit that my primary motivation for doing this blog tour is to increase that number to a positive integer. But my secondary motivation is the novelty of the idea. When will I ever get the chance to do something like this again?
I suppose I could say something about how much I value the opportunity to make connections with Canada's literary community, but in truth, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool introvert. It's unusual for me to make connections with anyone. I live on the Internet, yes, but I'm a congenital lurker. When I do post, it's usually anonymously. Now I've got a blog of my own and everything. What have I become?
Why the hell publish a paper book? Because I think in a decade or two, it's something that just won't be done anymore, and I wanted to be part of the last generation of writers that killed trees in the name of literature. Call it a kink. We're moving through a transitional phase here, and I want to take the ride. Everything is going digital. I went out and bought a Kobo the day they went on sale, and when I use it I find I don't miss the feel of paper in my hands at all. I look forward to being part of the first generation of writers that leaves the trees where they are.
JM: Will there be a sequel?
DW: Probably not a direct sequel. I do have an idea for a semi-sequel. It wouldn't involve any of the characters from Pitouie, but it would take place in the same continuity, to use a concept from the comic book world. At the moment, it's nothing but a few pages of handwritten notes. Besides, there's other stuff I want to work on first. I will be back. Oh yes. You haven't heard the last of me.
Thanks to Derek for being such a good sport and to the kind people at Workhorsery (especially Todd) for helping arrange this!