Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

let us all think of hostile critics as insult comics

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let us all think of hostile critics as insult comics

I read Jon Paul Fiorentino's charming, playful, and sweet first novel about the personal perils of ambition and failure, Stripmalling (ECW, 2009), this week — it's a portrait of the artist as a young fuck-up as told in a series of genre forms, including a vibrant comic-book sequence illustrated by artist and Coach House publicist Evan Munday.

In addition to writing Stripmalling, which has recently been optioned for film and shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, Jon Paul is the author of the poetry books Hello Serotonin (Coach House Books, 2004) and The Theory of the Loser Class (Coach House Books, 2006) as well as the humour book Asthmatica (Insomniac Press, 2005). He lives in Montreal where he teaches writing at Concordia University and is the editor of Matrix magazine.

I asked him some questions and he gave me some answers.

DR:
In your novel, a writer named Jonny who is struggling to write a novel named Stripmalling is having a premature mid-life crisis (which is interesting in relation to his character-defining immaturity). He knows he needs to focus in order to be a better writer, but he is afraid of losing the childlike quality that he believes is his greatest creative asset. He worries, “But how can one develop patience, discipline, and restraint without becoming conservative?” I’m wondering who some of your favourite writers and artists are and where they tend to fall on the wild to conservative spectrum?

JPF:
My tastes are all over the place, from traditional to avant-garde. Some of my favourite poets include Wallace Stevens, Stevie Smith, Robert Creeley, Robert Kroetsch, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg. I’m recently really into Gilbert Sorrentino’s poetry as well. I am getting into Philip Roth (late in the game), and I’m always rereading Oscar Wilde. My tastes are more developed than Jonny’s. Jonny still has some things to figure out.

DR:
When Jonny chafes against the authority of his former-jock boss at the suburban Winnipeg stripmall gas station where he works, he notes that “I always had trouble with jocks and ex-jocks like Stubler. They treated everyone the way their coaches treated them. It was a kind of ‘eyes on the prize’ / ‘in it to win it’ mentality. And since there was no prize in the life of a gas jockey, it was very hard to buy in.” I remember having a lot of similarly crappy jobs in suburban Detroit. But even when Jonny enters the comparatively rarefied world of Montreal’s literary scene, he finds a schlocky emptiness there too. What drives you as a writer to keep your eyes on the prize, even when the stakes might seem low? What is the prize (assuming it’s not an actual capital-p Prize)?

JPF:
You don’t find fulfillment in life from jobs or careers, status or scenes. It is true in the rarefied air and it is true in the dirty strip mall air. Jonny is on his way to learning a hard lesson about the important things in life: valuing community, loving people and making art. It was much more interesting for me to leave Jonny as a work-in-progress. I think we get the sense he will figure it all out, but not without suffering consequences. You know, like in real life.

As lame as it might sound, I feel like I’ve already hit the jackpot at this point. I’m 33 and I have been lucky enough to work with amazing people like Wershler, Kroetsch, Wilcox, Holmes, and many others. And Montreal has been such a wonderful place to grow as an artist and a person. There’s a strong community here.

What drives me as a writer is to continually push myself to produce content that is unapologetically contemporary and true to my own vision and voice. I think it’s about being artful without trying to be artful. So many people write in a Writer’s accent. And it seems they strategically choose Literary subject matter. I did that when I was young. I have promised myself I will never do that again.

DR:
You identified Neve Campbell as an American actress. She is one of your own! How is it possible that you did not know she was Canadian? Discuss.

JPF:
That was caught in editing, actually, but left uncorrected since everything in that section is wrong anyway. St. Petersburg is not named after Peter Parker. How did I not know that about Neve Campbell? I don’t know. I guess it’s a failure of our educational system. I’ve received a high school diploma, a bachelor of arts and a master’s degree, and yet...

DR:
In the most sexually graphic and comically naked moment in the book, Jonny reaches a powerful climax while having sex with his lover in a position that allows him to read the blurbs on the back of his book that praise his writing talent. Other than an attack by a sweater-vested rival in workshop and an initially hostile cabaret crowd in Brooklyn, he seems to be mostly met with encouragement throughout the book. I’m curious how Jonny would react to negative press — would he be motivated by criticism or crushed by it? Can you ask him?

JPF:
Jonny, the character, would be crushed by any criticism. He’s a victim of too much encouragement and the results are monstrous, yet hopefully humorous. The writer of Stripmalling, on the other hand, has had an interesting development since the release of his book. I was greeted with very positive reviews and I was on top of the world. And then some snark artists reared their heads and I was initially distraught. As the spring and summer went on, the positive and celebratory far outweighed the negative and snarky. And I was happy to see that.

But something else happened. After the initial sting, I began to enjoy reading the reviews that said my book was shallow or unfunny or boring. It felt like being heckled by insult comics! And I was more and more entertained by it. I guess I’ve calmed down about the whole thing and about reviews in general. I mean if I were to believe my press, Stripmalling is “unfunny” and “hilarious” and “a triumph” and “appalling.” In the end I’m pretty sure it’s what I had hoped it would be: a hybrid book that’s funny but with a tinge of sadness.

DR:
Speaking of encouragement, I loved Carmen Adams, the tough-yet-nurturing teacher character. Did you have great teachers? And you are a teacher yourself — do you hope to inspire your students like this? You make the Jonny character a pretty jokey teacher (he sells the kids drugs), but I’m guessing you’re actually a very generous teacher. Do you like it?

JPF:
I am answering this question on a computer in front of my class at Concordia University, it’s 10 minutes before class starts. I will ask them. They say I’m relaxed, eclectic, passionate, and horrible.

The great teachers of my life were all in university. Catherine Hunter and Robert Budde were exceptionally gifted teachers who opened my eyes and they were very supportive of my early publishing endeavors. Later on, at Concordia, Mary di Michele was a wonderful thesis adviser and helped me shape Hello Serotonin.

DR:
And finally, what was it like to work with the talented Mr. Evan Munday? Was it exciting to see your words translated into images? And don’t just make a joke about your pseudo-sexual relationship, I’m serious.

JPF:
It was an eye opener. Evan is an amazing illustrator — an evil Norman Rockwell. He definitely added depth to the book by taking very simple character design notes and turning them into perfect, unique illustrations. When I originally had the idea to make Stripmalling a multi genre text, I immediately thought of Evan. I was a fan of his comic book, The Amazing Challengers of Unknown Mystery. I just knew that I had to have him. And I think he was happy to have been had.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Damian Rogers

Damian Rogers lives in Toronto. Paper Radio (ECW Press) is her first book.

Go to Damian Rogers’s Author Page