Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Finding a Perch: Beth Follett in Conversation with Jason Hrivnak

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Finding a Perch: Beth Follett in Conversation with Jason Hrivnak

Jason Hrivnak talks to Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett about his debut novel, The Plight House. The launch for The Plight House is on Tuesday, October 6 at The Gladstone Hotel (event details can be found here).

Beth Follett:

The writing, the language, of your novel The Plight House is so polished, so keenly considered, it reads like the work of a more seasoned writer. I knew you before I knew your writing, knew you and had no idea that you wrote fiction. This hidden aspect — dedicated writer of sublime intelligence — do you keep your writerly self hidden for a reason having to do with the literary pursuit? Or are you one of those shy guys?

Jason Hrivnak:

I suppose you’re right: my writing life is indeed hidden. I don’t usually think of it that way — I’d probably say it’s “compartmentalized” or that I just try to keep it out of spheres where it doesn’t belong — but it amounts to the same thing: I spend a great deal of time working at something that I almost never talk about.

Much of that umbrella of privacy is instinctive, as I simply don’t have much desire to introduce the subject of writing into casual conversation. There’s also, however, a very functional side to it. I really do feel that something vital is lost when you start talking about a project that’s not yet ready to be out there in the open.

I’m very happy with my decision to maintain that silence even while working in the publishing industry. I know a lot of people say that networking is as important for writers as it is for anyone else, but I think that’s crap. Writing should stand on its own. Period. I’d hate for friendship to muddy the waters of a publisher’s decision to take on my work, even if — especially if — that muddying effect were to work in my favour.

BF:

Tell me about the writing of The Plight House, from inspiration to final manuscript.

JH:

The manuscript came out in a white heat during the summer of 2006. I wrote early in the morning, logging perhaps an hour or two each day before work, and managed to complete the first draft in about three months.

I’d been sitting on the idea for about a year before I wrote it, so it had plenty of time to fester and make me uncomfortable. I find discomfort to be a great motivator. Fittingly, then, the months during which I did the actual writing were a terrible time for me on just about every front. That’s something about which I wonder a great deal when looking back on The Plight House: where oh where did I find the time and energy? In the end, the fact that I had neither was almost certainly vital to things having turned out so well. I’ve often, in the past, gotten caught up in preliminaries, wasting too much effort in trying to carve myself a quiet time and place. It was a real breakthrough for me to discover that, at least in this one instance, I could accomplish the task I’d assigned myself despite the presence of some very serious distractions.

BF:

Your earlier title — Evrsat — I fell in love with and urged you to keep. You said, however, that people in your personal life didn't know how to pronounce Evrsat, which was one of your most pressing considerations behind the eventual title change. Will you talk a little bit about how you wish to be perceived by your imagined audience of this book?

JH:

It’s true, I was worried that we’d annoy readers with the unusual spelling. (On that front, I think “Hrivnak” is cruelty enough.) Evrsat was meant to refer to standardized tests like the LSAT and the MCAT, but that wee bit of cleverness wasn’t enough to bind me to the title, especially once I realized that it sounded like a coinage for having been placed forever in a sitting position.

Ideally, I’d like to be invisible to my imagined audience. Yes, we live in a world where it’s important for the writer to take part in the publicity effort, but I think that The Plight House (and other books like it) work best when the author remains somewhat faceless. In terms of the work itself, I’m reasonably satisfied by the extent to which my desire to disappear has soaked down into the deepest levels of the book. Yes, much of the story is very personal, but that material is so intermixed with pure invention that even readers who know me well won’t be able to “find” me there. I’m not invisible, but I’m next-best-thing-to-invisible.

BF:

The Plight House is a test, and you, according to Lynn Crosbie, are the crazy angel who penned it. If you were to teach The Plight House in a university English course, what would you most want to say about it to your students?

JH:

Rather than talk about my own ideas regarding the book, I’d have the students undertake a similar exercise. I’d ask them to try writing an “inverted” love letter: “Attempt to woo the object of your affections using only images of bitterness and solitude, horror and disgust, any part of the emotional spectrum that we conventionally associate love’s ending or absence but not with love itself.”

And I’d make sure to assign the students some readings from Baudelaire. (He’s long been one of my favourite writers, and I’ve certainly felt, since completing The Plight House, that I’m seeing his work with fresh new eyes.) I’ve always felt that one of the great engines driving Baudelaire’s poetic vision is the hunger to see the love object in totality and, hence, across time. He seems to have felt a burning need to adore his love interest in youth and in age, in beauty and in ugliness, all simultaneously and in equal measure. Une charogne is a great, if literal, embodiment of this need and therefore a good introduction for students unfamiliar with his oeuvre.

BF:

I love this work. I wish I had been given such a book as this when I was a bright and alienated youth. How shall I attempt to reach the book's young audience, do you think? Where does this audience go to learn about books, in your opinion?

JH:

Bright and alienated youths never really go away and neither, of course, do their scars. That’s the great thing about taking as one’s subject matter the experiences — sickness, insanity, violence, love — that nobody comes through unscathed. The readership of such material isn’t defined by conventional demographic criteria, but, rather, by each individual reader’s willingness to journey into a territory filled with peril, perhaps even pain.

My own favourite works have always been the ones that deal elegantly and intelligently with that kind of base material. There’s something about the pairing of stylistic excellence and dark subject matter that I find very, very compelling. And I know I’m not alone on that front. I see the book’s journey into the reader’s hands as being primarily a question of declaring intent. The book just needs a perch — in the bookstore, in cyberspace, who knows where else — from which to set out its very simple agenda: “I want to unleash from your deepest nightmares something that can never be put back.”

BF:

You hear that, booksellers? A perch. I’m putting on my own thinking cap.

Your launch is scheduled for Tuesday, October 6 at the Gladstone Hotel, starting at 7:30 p.m. The Plight House will never be easy to read aloud from. Do you have any surprises up your sleeves?

JH:

If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

BF:

Cheeky Jason. Long may The Plight House thrive.

Beth Follett is the publisher at Toronto-based Pedlar Press and her first novel, Tell It Slant, was published by Coach House Books in 2001. She was born and raised in Toronto, spent her adolescence and young adult life in Winnipeg, and returned to Toronto in 1985.

Jason Hrivnak lives and works in Toronto. The Plight House is his first novel.

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