Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Conversation: Beth Follett with Ken Sparling

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Intention Implication Wind by Ken Sparling

Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett talks to Ken Sparling about writing, Lego, his latest book, Intention Implication Wind, and more.

Head to Supermarket in Kensington Market on April 14th for the launch of Intention Implication Wind by Ken Sparling. See Open Book's Events listing for details.

Beth Follet:

Ken, you began your publishing history with Gordon Lish and Knopf NYC, and then shied away from the conventions of the publishing world for many years. Recently you have stepped toward some of these, with love. You are a willing reader, a willing interview subject. You've travelled often to the US to read. Did something particularly happen to inspire the changes?

Ken Sparling:

I’m trying to act like everything I do in my life matters. I think there’s a false dichotomy that I’ve been buying into that’s confused me so that I’ve lived / behaved for years as though some acts matter more than others and living a good life means choosing to act in a way that will make a difference — as though it’s possible to decide in advance how to make a difference and then choose one course of action over another by understanding certain actions as more meaningful than others. I don’t think this is an honest way to face the world.

A writer can treat everything he does as either fitting into his idea of the writing life, or not. One advantage to living your life this way is that it’s easier to make decisions about what you’re going to do from one moment to the next, and also to make excuses for why you won’t, or don’t want to do certain things. You can say: This is more important than that. This fits my scheme of the writing life, and that doesn’t.

Another way you can understand the things you do in your life is to act as though, no matter what you do, you are doing only one thing. You are doing the same thing over and over again. Everything you do is the same thing and you just keep doing it over and over again, trying to do the best you can at whatever it is that you keep trying over and over to do. If you live your life this way, it is hard not to drift, or to feel random, because when everything is the same thing no one thing is worth choosing over another. It’s much more comforting to believe that there is a hierarchy of importance, among the actions you might choose, to help you make your choices about how to act.

For a long time, I considered readings and interviews as outside the scope of, and maybe even the complete antithesis to, what I needed to do to be a writer.

There are a lot of things you do in your life that you don’t necessarily start out wanting, or at any rate, deciding to do. What’s good about living your life as though you are doing the same thing over and over again is, if no one thing is worth choosing over another, there are no menial or trivial or pointless tasks or experiences. Everything you do is just the same as the thing you did before. (This is probably the strongest way to think about communism. So, it isn’t a matter of digging latrines in the morning and composing music in the afternoon; it isn’t a matter of making the world a fairer place to live for everyone by making sure everyone is doing both menial and serious work, because menial versus serious is no longer a meaningful distinction in a strongly envisioned version of communism, it’s just a matter of doing something in the morning and then again doing something in the afternoon. Everything you do is just something else you are doing.)

It might look like this approach would take the purpose out of your life, because there would never be a reason to do anything relative to doing anything else. But what if you treated everything you did as practice for getting better at doing?

I want everything in my life to be full of this exploration of doing — my work, my readings, my family life, doing the dishes, watching TV, listening to music, making the bed, not making the bed, answering interview questions, answering the phone, planning a trip, grooming my cat, brushing my teeth, standing by the coffee maker trying to stay awake while the coffee brews in the morning, scooping the cat box… everything.

I think I’ve always wanted, and to some extent tried, to live my life this way, but I’ve never understood that this is what I was aiming for. And, while approaching the choices you make this way doesn’t make living any easier, it shifts the challenge of living a good life away from the act of deciding between one course of action and another, toward finding a way to do better what you are already doing.

For many years, there was my writing on the one hand and, on the other hand, everything else. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. So writing was all I did in the end, no matter what I did. I just wasn’t aware that it was all I was doing. When I was doing something other than writing, even if it was something I loved to do, I was thinking that I really should be writing. So, no matter how crazy it sounds to say you should act like everything you do is the same thing, you are actually doing it already if you are living your life by choosing according to a hierarchy. Even when I lived my life as though I was doing a million things, practically speaking I was doing only the one thing. Everything I did was defined relative to this desperate urge to write.

Before I ever consciously understood that everything I was doing was the same thing over and over, everything I was doing already was the same thing over and over because it has always been just another take on doing.

The only thing that differentiates one thing from another, when you accept that there is no more intrinsic worth in the act of writing than there is in the act of shovelling pig slop, is how you step toward an act. It’s this step forward that constitutes the unspeakable in a work of literature. That unnameable trace that is residual in the act of writing is the writer stepping toward the act in whatever way the writer has chosen to step forward. If I step forward toward readings and interviews with love, then love is simply the act of stepping forward with the intention of doing a good job of doing.


The sales reps for Pedlar Press recently asked me to link you to a history of writing, and off the cuff I said that you belong to a history that includes Gertrude Stein. I was somewhat surprised by my own response. Comments?


The strongest way to talk about love is to put two words together in a way where the two words obviously love one another. The easiest way to talk about duty is to make one word serve the word next to it. You create tension in a work of literature, not by hanging your protagonist from a cliff by her fingernails, but by hanging a particular word by its fingernails from another particular word.

I think Stein understood that words, beyond any story they might tell, can be understood as enjoying one another, and that if the reader can participate in this enjoyment, or emulate it through her reading, it will sometimes be enough.

If you want to suggest that this is something that gets embodied in my writing, I’m pretty happy to go with that.


In your work there is a piling up of images and forces and convictions that, once erected, is torn down again. You have an uncanny Sisyphusian relationship with language and ideas. "If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers." [The Myth of Sisyphus] You are a poet, of course, though something there is that insists on calling your work fiction. You turn quickly within a sentence or a paragraph, and leap so joyfully, that the reader can almost hear the whoosh of air rushing in her ears. Are you aware while writing of the effect you are making? How intentional is this building up and tearing down?


What I’ve come to realize as I write and write and write is that my intentions are rarely decent or good. There’s nothing I can do about this. In fact, without these questionable intentions, I would never write at all. You can’t act without intent and writing is an act like any other insofar as it moves you into the world like a wedge opening, altering, addressing, undermining the community within which you find yourself.

If I tear down what I’ve built up, I do it to try to clean up the mess created by the false intentions that originally motivate me to write. One way for me to understand and accommodate these false intentions is to improvise, which means to revise in a direction away from intention. Improvisation is play in that it makes no move to leave behind what it begins with, or to arrive at any predetermined destination.

You could name this play a tearing down, and I don’t think you’d be wrong. It looks like a tearing down from the perspective of a reader who has correctly gleaned my original intention as aiming to build up, to plan, to arrive. That intention is obviously there in my writing, because you’ve understood it to be there... this is the questionable intention resident in my writing.

It’s like a Bach chorale. The prelude always states the theme in simple terms, it establishes a melody with relatively little harmonic complexity. What follows the prelude of any given chorale doesn’t tear the prelude down. Without losing sight of the prelude, the movements that follow move in unexpected directions that are delightful because they follow no discernable plan, they don’t seek to leave behind what they begin with, or to arrive elsewhere. They feel like pure play.


Opening Zadie Smith's essay "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace" is a brief quote from Wallace, wherein he says that serious art's aim is to make us uncomfortable, or to force us to work hard to access its pleasures. These tendencies in your own oeuvre tend to infuriate readers who are looking for story. I think it is fair to say that you are a writer's writer, and that what you are producing is serious art. What's your take on this? Have you been able to glean who your audience is?


It’s like the difference between new and old Lego. New Lego is like putting together IKEA furniture. There’s only one way to do it and you have to take that one way seriously or you won’t wind up with whatever it is you set out to achieve in the act of putting it together. But the fact that you have to take new Lego seriously doesn’t mean that new Lego is serious art.

Old Lego, on the other hand, was just a bunch of different shaped blocks, there were no instructions, and kids made whatever they wanted. They built with inspiration but no plan. They might have aimed for something, but it was always a matter of: Put these two blocks together, see what you’ve got, see what is suggested here, add another block, then see what you’ve got now and what you might want to add to that. If there was a plan, there was also always the opportunity with every block added that the plan could be subverted by what was appearing before your eyes as you built, and that’s what made it a pleasure.

Old Lego is serious art because, in the act of building something with old Lego, you don’t take it seriously, which is to say, you aren’t, at any point, putting yourself in a situation where you perceive only one way to do it. There is no destination.

Building with old Lego was play. You didn’t take the place you were eventually going to arrive at seriously, because you were never picking up any of the blocks with the intention of arriving at a specific predetermined place. You arrived at the next moment in order to wonder about the moment after that. That is the nature of play.

My sociology professor at university, Alan Blum, used to arrive in class and launch into his talk as though he was in the middle of it, as though he was in the middle of some kind of investigation that he carried around with him everywhere he went, and when he arrived in class he would speak to us as though he were simply carrying on the theorizing he had been doing in his office before he arrived in class.

I want people to enter my books as though they are encountering me in the middle, like they are arriving for a lecture I’m doing, and I am arriving to visit them in the middle of putting together my book, and I’ve brought the book with me to the meeting, and I’m going to work while we’re together, as though the book isn’t finished when the reader and I arrive together. The reader has arrived in the middle of the work I’ve been doing as a writer and I’ve arrived in the middle of the work she’s been doing as a reader.

I want the reader to come to my books as though she has been working on the project of reading all her life and is now working on it using my unfinished book, as though we just happened to have arrived in the same place at this particular moment and we are working together on the projects we were already working on before we met, only now, for a time, we are listening to one another, trying to hear how one project might influence another.

I don’t want my books to be seminal. I don’t want them to be pivotal. I don’t want them to become objects of any sort. I want them to be part of some vital, living work that is ongoing for both me and the reader. I don’t want it to be like entering into a brand new project together where there is a beginning and an end defined by the covers of the book, or by the reader’s points of entry and exit in and out of the book over the days she is reading it. I want it to be like the reader and I meet in the middle of our own projects, turn toward each other, and continue on with our own projects, but now that we have met we are taking into account that we are facing each other and in this way our projects are being influenced each by the other.

Our two projects, mine and the reader’s, might be thought of respectively as the project of doing good writing and the project of doing good reading. But the two projects meet during our time together as an opportunity to be influenced in ways that enhance our manner of doing.


In your new work, Intention Implication Wind, you have main characters. You! Ken Sparling! Main Characters! Can you talk about your decision to allow a Chappy, a Mirror and an owl-eyed boy to take form in this new fiction?


It wasn’t a decision. It was more like a bad idea, a clichéd motif that tries to find its way into everything I write, but that I gave into a little more than usual this time around. When I went to clean up the mess I’d made as a result of chasing this bad idea for too long, I didn’t give up on the idea altogether, the way I might have in the past.

With my other books, those before Intention Implication Wind and Book, I treated my bad intentions like outlaws that were sometimes glamorous, but mostly deserved to hang. They were always present in everything I wrote, but they sometimes looked so cool that I left them alone. Mostly they looked rotten, though, and I cut them out. What I’ve done in choosing to stay with three characters right through this book is to acknowledge the presence of these bad guys and, hopefully in the end, embrace them more fully through the act of revision.

There are different ways to come back to the messes we make through the bad intentions we begin with in the middles of our lives. Intention Implication Wind is, for me, a new way of approaching these bad intentions in my writing through the process of revision.

If I did make any sort of decision in terms of an approach to creating Intention Implication Wind, it was to try to give my initial intentions a place in my writing. Rather than excising anything that felt to me like it was threatening to develop into an extended plot, I brought in Chappy and Mirror and the owl-eyed boy and had them find ways to accommodate the material I brought to the book. This way I could acknowledge my bad beginnings and at the same time achieve some distance from them by handing them over to the characters in my book and seeing how the characters might bring these bad intentions to bear on their lives. I created these characters to act as role models that I could look to for inspiration in trying to deal with what always feels to me like painfully bad initial intentions.

Often Chappy, Mirror and the owl-eyed boy didn’t seem able to cope with what I was throwing at them, so I developed a rhythm where I would just move on to the next section whenever I found that the characters weren’t able to deal with the material. I tried to be really patient and not panic if things weren’t going well for my characters, just move on, act like a scribe, or a typist in a typing pool, simply inputting something I had no real stake in.

For the most part, I didn’t give the characters the option of rejecting anything till I’d been through the book five or six times and found that Chappy and Mirror and the owl-eyed boy were still refusing to deal with something. If they couldn’t make anything out of what I was giving them after five or six tries, I gave up and deleted.

When I copy edited the book before it went to the printer, I was amazed at what I saw emerge. Keeping the same characters, dumping my bad beginnings on them, and then working with the characters to try to fix the mess I’d made, allowed me to get sustained perspective on my intentions. My intentions seem to me to be very unprotected in this book. Unblinking. It’s like looking at the awful things that threaten to show themselves in any of my books, only this time I don’t blink so soon. It’s like looking at the world the way God or a cat might look at the world.


Please say something about Shortboy.


Names are just words like all the other words you put in a book, but they don’t behave like all the other words. With all the other words, you begin in the middle of everything, because every word you use is burdened with implications. Each of us comes to each of the words in a book with our own mess of preconceptions.

But in a work of fiction, a name can appear as a real beginning, a vessel empty of implications, a signifier devoid of significance.

A writer is trying to provide a clean slate for every word she uses, to engage one word in an interaction with other words in a way that allows each word to escape the reader’s preconceptions.

Shortboy is a hybrid, because it is both a common and a proper noun. Shortboy, as a word, is similar to the character Mirror in Intention Implication Wind, because they are both words that are bound to come upon the reader encumbered with the preconceived baggage of a common noun. But they are posited as names, so they immediately resist these encumbrances.

Shortboy, as a word, stands as an example of everything I’m trying to accomplish because it represents in one and the same moment the encumbrances brought to a word, and the potential to wash a word of those encumbrances through the work the writer and the reader do together.


I don't think you've ever mentioned a war in any book, rarely a political figure. Hardly ever do you move beyond dyads in relationship. God appears from time to time. Death makes appearances. You write about family, you write about the domestic. Hard-ons and the word cunt appear from time to time. Your material is not sexy or perverse, and yet by your own refusal to apologize for or in any way compromise your artistic practice, you, like Derek McCormack, have become something of a cult hero. What is it about literary refusal that attracts?


I don’t like fighting. It scares me. People who like to fight scare me and War and Politics are about fighting.

People who internalize conflict are often thought to be emotionally damaged, but all conflict is essentially internal. When two people fight, it is one person fighting with something inside himself, facing another person fighting something inside himself. Argument seems to miss the whole point of conflict by pretending the conflict is between two people. An argument between two people is really just one person’s internal conflict hurling words out from itself, as though words could penetrate the internal conflict of another.

The version of conflict pointed at by the words War and Politics seems flagrant to me. War and Politics seem to exemplify a version of conflict that misses the internal nature of conflict entirely.

The version of conflict pointed at by the words God and Death, on the other hand, seems to me to be internal and very personal.

In all cases, God, Death, Politics, War, the words point to ideas, and the ideas they point to depend on the person using the word, but, if you ask me, War and Politics seem always to involve people pointing at one another, whereas Death and God seem to me to point inward.

If you hear refusal in my writing, I like to think it might be because I am refusing to act as though words are between me and the reader — as though I am a catalyst, and the reader a consequence. I am trying to represent and affirm the relationship between me and myself by representing it in two words (for example, Me and Myself), followed by another word up against the first two words (for example, By), followed by another word and another word (for example, Representing and It), each set in conflict against the word before, and then the word after. One word against the next against the next, against the previous, against the next, so that the words stand together as a recommendation to the reader for a way to interact. The way the words interact with each other represents the way my internal conflicts interact with each other, forming a recommendation for the reader to follow in interacting with herself upon witnessing the words in my book as they meet and interact with each other.


A pleasure, Ken.

Beth Follett is the owner and publisher of Pedlar Press, a Canadian literary house based in Toronto. A chapbook of her poems, entitled Bone Hinged, has just been released by paperplates/espresso.

Ken Sparling’s most recent novel, Book, was published by Pedlar Press in 2010. Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt, previously available only in a handmade edition, was released in paperback by Artistically Declined Press in 2010. Other Pedlar Press books by Ken Sparling include an untitled novel and one novel titled For Those Whom God Has Blessed with Fingers. He has a story in a recent New York Tyrant and stories online at Corium and JMWW. Pedlar Press will release Sparling's new novel, Intention Implication Wind this month. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about Intention Implication Wind please visit the Pedlar Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.