Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Thom Vernon

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Thom

June 27, 2010 -

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book.

Thom Vernon:

Hoo, Daddy. Well, you’ve got four people fighting like hell to get what they want, over three hours, in a blizzard, in northeastern Arkansas. It’s funny, violent and snaps along at a pretty good clip. There’s a pregnant housewife, Julie, who doesn’t want to be a parent again; Charlie, her husband, who is all about being a dad right this time; there’s Wilson, a factory worker who’s hoping she’ll have a shot at true love with Dol, a trans-dad, who’s lost his health care. The book comes out of stories my aunts told me my whole life about this little town out there, Bay. The Drifts isn’t a re-telling of those stories but it sure is coloured by them.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

TV:

I did, I suppose. The techniques I use in the book zap a reader into the book. If you don’t want to be zapped in, my book’s not for you. People tell me on the phone they want to kick this character or reach into the pages and hold another. I had in mind a reader that is suspicious of cookie-cutter novels. That said, it moves so go ahead and grab it at the airport. Those readers that trust a writer to put them into situations and lives, honestly; those who’re more interested in my characters than my big mouth; a reader who digs getting provoked. I aspire to write something that can be entered differently wherever a reader is at that moment of their lives. My readers love literature and, it seems, have entered The Drifts.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

TV:

If I’ve got a pen and some paper, I can do damage anywhere. I just came back from doing a bunch of readings in the South. I was in hotels, living rooms and back porches. Here in TO, blessed that I am, I have my own room to sling my pen around to Miles, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bird, Monk. It makes my husband crazy so it’s good I have a door that closes. Turkish hip-hop shapes the space and keeps me bopping too. As soon as I got back to TO, our lovely L.A. friend came to stay a week with us. She camped out in my office/workroom. She left two days ago and I have to say I freaking grinned walking past my room, seeing my lonely desk and then reuniting it with my chair stashed in the solarium.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

TV:

When I was eight I sent a letter to Lansing State Journal kvetching, rightfully, about a bunch of teenage hooligans who destroyed a bunch of ancient gravestones. I love graveyards. “Pity,” in my book, used to be called, “Sexton” but Alana (my editor) and I agreed it seemed a little heavy-handed.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

TV:

How much time do you have? On that tour I mentioned earlier, I was appalled at how maniacal Americans looked with all of their grinning. It is downright shocking to me after four years in TO. Those grins, ear to ear. We Americans do, indeed, look like we’ve lost a bolt or two.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

TV:

DeNiro’s Game, Rawi Hage. Cockroach, Rawi Hage. Any Alice Munro but probably The View from Castle Rock. I don’t know what it is about those two but they have never failed to cut me deep. Not hurt, per se. But I understand myself and my work differently after reading their uniquely Canadian words.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

TV:

The Prisoner, Proust. I do my best to keep up with The New York Review of Books — I discovered Tony Judt there. Oh, and Terry Eagleton on Walter Benjamin; I’m getting a paper together on melancholy, food and Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus for an August conference at U of TO.

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

TV:

Ah, I’m glad you asked! I just wrote an Open Book piece on rewriting to be posted during my residency. So, with rewriting, rewrite for different things every time you pass through the manuscript. Choose one, maybe two, things to focus on: tastes, sounds, rhythm, plants, animals, etc. Very helpful. And, of course, the best other two pieces of advice I got were from Cubby Selby, my dear, dear teacher: sit your ass in the chair or nothing’s going to get written. Even if you only get one word, that’s one word you didn’t have before. And, second, you don’t have any place in your work. The artist’s job is to transcend the human ego. Good luck with that.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

TV:

I hate this question. Nobody has any advice worth a grain of salt — and certainly not me. Well, okay, I can say something. I have systems advice.

You write, you send. Get yourself a stack of envelopes or a list of email addies. Get your query letter prepped and obviously your piece of work. Follow the submission guidelines, they’re there for a reason. It’s disrespecting the person you’re sending it to to not follow their guidelines. Stay away from pink plastic notebook covers. And send three submissions out at the same time. No matter what they say. As they are returned, just pack them right back up and send it to another person. That’s for short stories and poems.

I only sent The Drifts, my novel, to Coach House. I knew they’d want it because I’d read so many of their books and saw a simpatico sensibility. And if they didn’t, I would’ve chalked it up to Alana having a bad day. That lady’s not scared of the slush pile so I slid in. Part of it is a numbers game. And do not take no for an answer. Nobody knows anything about that either. Aram Saroyan, William Saroyan’s son, whom I respect a lot, told me, with a very intent look, maybe some people aren’t supposed to write, Thom. I’m sure he was talking to me about me. Of course, I’m not "supposed to," but that’s not going to stop me. If you must write, you will. Simple as that. And, there is an audience for your work somewhere. Absolutely.

OBT:

What is your next project?

TV:

Thanks for asking! I’m working on another lit novel. It’s a love letter to Toronto, my new home. Also, I’m picking away at the true memoir of a freakishly brave Ciudad Juarez homicide detective who’s seeking asylum here. And, a novel about the last years of Walter Benjamin’s exile and a contemporary queer couple (One African, One American — like us!) hoping to make it to Canada is circling. Canada’s a dreamland to a lot of us cast out and unwanted around the globe and I’m hoping writing about this will help me understand myself, here, better.

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