Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Harry Bruce

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Ten Questions with Harry Bruce

Open Book talks to Harry Bruce about his writing, reading and his latest book, Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers (McClelland & Stewart).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book, Page Fright.

Harry Bruce:

Page Fright reveals that Charles Dickens dashed off 4,000 words a day with goose quills; Edith Wharton juggled inkpot, pen, scissors, paste and writing board as she worked in bed beside her dog; Henry James demanded on his deathbed to hear someone banging away on his beloved Remington; the sickly, asthmatic Marcel Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past while lying in a cork-lined, soundproof room that stank of fumigations; Philip Roth paced around his studio for six months while writing hundreds of pages simply to find the first sentence of a new novel; Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit”; Georges Simenon claimed he stoked his inspiration by having sex with 10,000 women; five of the first seven American winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholics; and Margaret Atwood confessed, “Blank pages fill me with terror,” but wrote great literature in hotels, trains, ships and an Alabama town that proudly called itself “the per capita murder capital of the U.S.”

Page Fright is The Book of Revelations about writers.

OBT:

Describe the research you did for Page Fright.

HB:

My fascination with how writers attack their work began in my boyhood when, every night after supper, I saw my father -- who had toiled all day for the Canadian Press news agency in Toronto -- lie down on his back on a chesterfield in the family living room, and scribble away with a big black pencil on a pad of cheap newsprint. He was writing poems that won the Governor General’s Award, and a novel that became a classic in Canadian literature, The Channel Shore.

At 20, I joined the Ottawa Journal as a cub reporter and, for the next half- century, worked, first, as a staff reporter, writer and editor for assorted newspapers and magazines, and then as a freelancer who wrote both stories and columns for periodicals, and books of biography and history. For decades, the writing habits of my colleagues and rivals never stopped intriguing me. Why were mine different from theirs, and how did the way we write influence what we wrote?

Having decided to turn this ancient preoccupation into a book, I quizzed writers I knew. Most had at least one juicy anecdote about a working ritual of their own, or of some other writer. At the public libraries in Halifax and Vancouver, I milked biographies of the giants of world literature. It was with Google, however, that I retrieved perhaps ninety percent of the research I gained from periodicals. This included not only articles, interviews and reviews that had previously appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Paris Review and other print media, but also websites for online magazines and a variety of blogs that individuals, organizations and institutions maintain to share information on the making of literature.

Writing is just too damned demanding ever to be enjoyable, but I found working on Page Fright supremely absorbing. It taught me what Gore Vidal knew 35 years ago: “The most interesting thing about writing is the way that it obliterates time. Three hours seems like three minutes.”

OBT:

Can you tell us a few of the strange writing habits you discovered when working on your book?

HB:

Since the American poet and non-fiction writer Diane Ackerman wrote the best-selling A Natural History of the Senses, perhaps it’s not surprising that she worked under sensuous conditions: “I have a pine plank that I lay across the sides of the tub so that I can stay in a bubble bath for hours and write. In the bath, water displaces much of your weight and you feel light. When the water temperature and the body temperature converge, my mind lifts free and travels by itself.” Lolling in baths one summer, she wrote an entire verse play about a woman poet in seventeenth-century Mexico; her lover, an Italian courtier and various characters in her tumultuous life. “I wanted to slide off the centuries as if from a hill of shale,” Ackerman said. “Baths were perfect.”

“I write nude, seated on a thick towel, and perhaps with a second towel around me,” said her husband, the British-born American poet and novelist Paul West. “Something atavistic prevails, and helps me to relax.”

OBT:

Tell us about your writing process. Do you have any strange habits or superstitions?

HB:

I used to write in longhand, even under magazine deadlines. I believed I could not produce good writing by banging or tapping any keyboard, but only by allowing some mysterious force of creativity to flow from my brain down through my neck, shoulder, arm, hand and into the fingers with which I squeezed a ballpoint pen. I’d later type out what I’d written, or ask my wife to type it. About twenty years ago, perhaps better late than never, I became an addict to computers, word-processors, etc. When stumped, however, I still reach for one of the ballpoints I’ve purloined from hotels.

OBT:

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

HB:

Not really. I wrote it because it grew inside me and, in time, commanded me to release it. I do hope, however, that its buyers will include millions upon millions of lovers of literature.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

HB:

I’ve been around too long for any one “experience” to influence my writing. Way back in the early 1960s, however, it was working and drinking among a clique of highly talented and talkative editorial staffers at Maclean’s magazine that gave me enough confidence to think I might become a writer.

OBT:

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

HB:

The Canadian Encyclopedia; This is My Country, What’s Yours? by Noah Richler; and John A.: The Man Who Made Us by Richard Gwyn.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

HB:

Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer.

OBT:

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

HB:

Write something every day. It doesn’t have to be long. A couple of hundred words might be enough, but not just any old words. Do not quit this piece of writing until it’s as good as you can make it.

Some writers refuse to work until flashes of inspiration drive them to their desks. Most, however, sit down in the same place at the same time ever day and try to write. Even if they fail to write a single word, they show up for work the next day. They try again.

OBT:

What is your next project?

HB:

I write regularly for newspapers and on assignment from corporations, but as another book about writers grows inside me, I await the command to release it.


Harry Bruce is now in his mid-seventies and has been a professional writer all of his adult life, with thirteen previous books to his credit and many awards and several honorary degrees. Born in Toronto, Harry Bruce returned to his ancestral province of Nova Scotia, and lives in Halifax. For many
years he wrote a syndicated column about writing.

For more information about Page Fright please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

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

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