Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Conversation: Anne Fleming with Beth Follett

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Anne Fleming

Anne Fleming talks to Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett about fat novels, short stories, the process of becoming a writer, mistaken identities and her latest book, Gay Dwarves of America (Pedlar Press, 2012).

Beth Follett:

What did you read when you were a kid?

Anne Fleming:

First book, age four: Cat in the Hat. After that, everything I could get my hands on.

Favourites, reread many times: Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book; The Phantom Tollbooth; James and the Giant Peach; Nicholas Knock and Other People, by Dennis Lee; the Narnia series; all nine Anne of Green Gables books; similarly, Little Women, Little Men, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Jo’s Boys; The Dark is Rising series; The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service, etc.; Enid Blyton’s Adventure series; The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Gouge; Hawthorne’s Wonder Book (a book of Greek myths); a big thick book of fairy tales; a Japanese book about a boy with an amulet who lived in the mountains with a wolf, I think; My Side of the Mountain.

As a teenager, I liked thick books: James Clavell, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Dune, Lord of the Rings, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, The World According to Garp.


Was part of the delight of thick books the refuge, their sustained remove from everyday life? Interesting, that while then you loved thick books, as an adult writer you have focused on short fiction, though not exclusively, of course. (Anomaly is on my bedside.)


Yeah. Anomaly. Not thin.

I don’t know. I don’t know about the remove from everyday life. Immersion in a fictional world may result in remove from everyday life, but it’s the immersion, not the remove, that motivates me. Part of the appeal of thick books when I was younger was simply that they lasted longer. Maybe it’s because I’m a fast reader. I did not like short stories really at all. They were too short. Except for Gogol. I read “The Nose” at 16 or 17 and was agog. “Diary of a Madman” and “The Overcoat” were next, and the other stories. But the fat novel, Dead Souls, which should have been the best of all, did not live up to “The Nose,” not even close.  

My mom had quite a number of the New Canadian Library. I read Thirty Acres, The Mountain and the Valley, The Tin Flute, As for Me and My House, a whack of others and all of Margaret Laurence. I did love the stories in A Bird in the House. They were funny and sad. They were about a household that felt familiar to me. Around the same time I read Lives of Girls and Women and had a similar response. Though the characters were my mother’s age, they were thoroughly familiar to me, and not because I knew anything about fox farming. The stories were possibly the most honest stories I had ever read, and the most full. I would finish an Alice Munro story and feel like I had read a fat novel. That was quite a lovely feeling and also quite different from the sort of bloated, let-down feeling after finishing Leon Uris’s Trinity in one August day.

Plot has this headlong rush towards resolution that is exciting and compelling and that I still love to be caught up in. What’s different now is how I feel about resolution. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. I loved Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, but was irked there was so little resolution. Shortly after that, I reread David Copperfield and was irked with its neat and utter resolution.

I think my adulthood has been an intense self-education in the short story, a very very fruitful and satisfying pursuit. There are so many ways to write it!


When did you start writing, when did you begin to think of yourself (if you do) as a writer?


Though I made a few small stabs at things when I was a teenager, I did not really try to start writing until I was in my early twenties. The shift between being a reader and a reader/writer was a profound one. One of the things I loved as a reader was the feeling of inevitability in a plot — that horror, too, of watching characters do things that were totally going to screw them but were also going to provide the plot and emotion necessary to the book’s very existence. When I began to write fiction, I was paralyzed by the wide-open possibilities of what I could make happen. There was no inevitability whatsoever. It was up to me. I found it much easier and more satisfying to write comedy, parody and poetry in consequence. It was about ten years from there before I began to think of myself as a writer. I think of it as an apprenticeship period.


Will you comment on this excerpt from a Paris Review interview with Dennis Cooper, please:

What are normal novels?

Too much story, too much realism, too much overfamiliarity in general. They bought into the traditional, majority approach and opinion among American writers and arbiters of literature that life is most effectively depicted in fiction via one streamlined, time-proven method—the narrative arc, the sympathetic character, the snowballing plot, et cetera—and when I read work like that, all I saw were the writers’ slight variations on a central formula that seemed reductive and arbitrary and bogus.


I like narrative arcs and sympathetic characters. Quite a lot. I’m also fond of realism. And fantasy. And satire. And wit. And experiment. My main reaction, reading the quotation out of context, is that I think he’s being snobby. If I read the whole interview, I’d likely agree.  I think there are many fewer great books than bestseller lists and even prize lists would have us believe, and many more great books in the set of books that only three or four hundred people have read. Many, many people have said it, E.M. Forster most plainly (I paraphrase, not having Aspects of the Novel in front of me), “Oh, dear yes. The novel must have plot.” (Or Kurt Vonnegut, paraphrasing again: “I don’t recommend plot as an accurate representation of real life, but as a way to keep readers reading.”) Fiction is a funny thing, both game and art. For myself, I always return to Henry James: “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” There are so many ways to be interesting that to deride any one of them seems mean-spirited.


I am wondering about your preference for things carnivalesque: dwarves and unicycles and puke and certain queer motifs like potlucks and ‘80s dances. Can you say something about this?


I think my project in some ways is to simultaneously de-carnivalize the carnivalesque and to celebrate it, to hyper-carnivalize it. To the person with dwarfism, dwarfism is not carnivalesque. It’s normal. Same with women with facial hair. Bearded ladies. But certain other people will always be fascinated with such things. They will stare. And what do you do with stares? Well, you ignore them. Or you exploit them. The carnival is that exploitation incarnate. The unicyclist, I think, feels something carnivalesque in him or herself, maybe just the need to perform. People stare at me. They are trying to figure out: male? or female? fag? or dyke?

Potlucks and ‘80s dances? I went to a lot of them. They were great.


Do you think there is any connection between you & Alice Munro?


I think we both write longish stories that we try to pack a lot into and that (I hope) compel people to read on even if afterwards they can’t say what the plot was. I would be very gratified if other people saw a connection between me and Alice Munro. I feel like you can live in her stories. I’d like readers to feel the same about mine.


Are there stories in Gay Dwarves that you would never choose to read aloud because of the private material?


One day a number of years ago, I saw a woman go into SFU Harbour Centre who looked exactly like my aunt Margaret would have looked had she not died in China the year I was born. Wouldn’t it be wild, I thought, if she had not died after all? That was the initial premise for the story. When I got into writing it, though, I could not write a straight long-lost relative with a secret life story, not at all. It had to be something else, something playful and fantastical that used the real. And so I used the “real” story of my aunt Margaret. Also the real story of my boss when I worked at Canadian Wilderness Trips in Algonquin Park whapping a live mouse off a beam with his bare hand and giving it to his dog. I was nervous about how my father would feel about my using Aunt Margaret’s story, so I sent him what I had written, and tried to explain what I had been trying to do:

There's something that feels very right to me about blending true life stories, quickly told, in a highly fictionalized, playful setting so that the story as a whole questions the reliability of the narrator, and the authority of the author. I think it's fairly clear that the "Anne Fleming" who is the narrator of the story is misguided, if well-intentioned, and a bit bumbling. She's wrong. This woman is not her aunt. And yet there are uncanny similarities. Which is sort of how fiction relates to real life generally, for me. While the story is clearly made up, tiny bits of it are true — and the emotions, I hope, are truest of all, meaning, here, the emotions of regret, empathy, sorrow, curiosity, compassion. I personally find the ending quite moving. It is an end to joking. An acknowledgment of what is lost when someone dies. And maybe, in the context of the other things I've been saying about the non-authority of the author, also a confirmation that there is fiction, which is big and fantastic, and then there is reality, which is smaller, more sober, and quiet, and truer. Whatever flights of fancy we have, in the end, we live with loss that cannot be unlost.

Dad thought that my version of Aunt Margaret’s story was overstated, but he was okay with my publishing it. I changed the names of everyone but Margaret, and would have changed Margaret’s, too, only I had already googled “Peter who once loved Margaret” and I loved what I got from that (Princess Margaret married to equerry and comptroller, Margaret Cho wanting to marry an FTM).


Also and finally, you have a recent post on your Blog about "People You Mix Up." My personal favourite among these is Frankie Valli and Frankie Avalon. Here's a picture of the two of them together. You are often mixed up with Ivan E. Coyote. Do you think having your picture taken with Ivan E. and floating it around the Internet might help put the confusion to rest?


That picture is not going to help me at all remember which one is Frankie Valli and which one Frankie Avalon, so I’m not sure a similar one with me and Ivan would clear things up, except to say there’s two of us.


Anne Fleming grew up in Toronto and lived in Kitchener, Ontario for several years before moving to Vancouver, where she received her MFA from the University of British Columbia. In Vancouver she read scripts for CBC television, reviewed books and theatre for The Georgia Straight, and taught creative writing at UBC, Emily Carr Institute, Kwantlen University College and Douglas College, with additional stints at the Victoria School of Writing and the Banff Centre for the Arts Wired Writing Studio.

Her first book, Pool-Hopping and Other Stories, published in 1998 by Polestar, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Danuta Gleed Award.

Her fiction has been commissioned by CBC Radio, and widely published in magazines and anthologies, including Toronto Life magazine, The Journey Prize Stories and The New Quarterly, where it won a National Magazine Award. She once had a very nice rejection from The New Yorker.

She also writes poetry and children’s books, plus the occasional stage play and screenplay. Anomaly, a novel, is her most recent book (Raincoast, 2005).

She likes to cross-country ski and play the ukulele, although not necessarily at the same time.

Visit her website,

Beth Follett is the publisher of Pedlar Press, a small, gutsy & gorgeous Canadian literary house whose list includes works by Martha Baillie, Camilla Gibb, Souvankham Thammavongsa and Jacob Wren. She is the author of the novel Tell It Slant (Coach House Books, 2001) and a chapbook of poetry, Bone Hinged (espresso/paperplates, 2010).

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