Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with A.J. Somerset

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A.J. Somerset

A.J. Somerset is a journalist, sports shooter and former soldier. His non-fiction writing has appeared in numerous outdoor magazines and his debut novel, Combat Camera, won the 2009-2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award.

In his latest book, Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun (Biblioasis,) A.J. tackles one of the most divisive issues in current politics as he maps the cultural history of guns and gun ownership in North America. Arms is both an intelligent and humourous look at the evolution of gun culture, written from the unique perspective of a self-professed gun lover who is disgusted with what the culture has become.

Today, A.J. talks with Open Book about the extremes of gun culture, the myth of Canada as a pacifist nation and liking guns without fetishizing them.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun.

A.J. Somerset:

Arms is about the gun culture, or more accurately the extremes of the gun culture. As a gun owner, I saw extremist views moving into the mainstream, and being imported into Canada. I wanted to understand why.


Why do you think guns crop up with such frequency in books and films? Why are we so fascinated with the narrative possibilities that guns present?


The gun lobby loves to attack Hollywood for this, with perfect, through-the-looking-glass illogic: celebrities support gun control even as their movies promote violence! But movies and videogames and books don't really promote violence. They just reflect the culture we have. It's how we see the world. Heroic men with guns protect women from evil men with guns. Recently, heroic women pick up guns themselves. We congratulate ourselves for being progressive but the change is superficial.

All this gunplay bears out the point Richard Hofstadter made when he introduced the idea of "gun culture" in 1970: America is a gun culture. America can't stop dreaming of guns, because guns are central to its foundation myth. The United States even created its own unique genre, the Western, to argue its justifications for violence.

Still, it may be a mistake to read too much into stories. Stories need conflict and the cheapest conflict a writer can deal in is violence. Gunplay doesn't demand psychological complexity or make demands of its audience. As Raymond Chandler had it, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”


What is your own relationship to guns like? Did your experience as a reservist change that relationship at all?


Someone commented to me, in rural Missouri, that "the service changes you," and this is true. For some, it inculcates a mentality of eternal readiness. Others get out and just get on with civilian life. But regardless, guns cease to be exotic in any way. I have no interest in owning any paramilitary-style guns, your so-called assault weapons, because I've been there and done that. On the other hand I can easily understand why people do want to own them. The thing is, shooting is fun.

I recently bought an SKS, a Russian service rifle from the early Cold War, which reminded me that yes, I like guns, and I like shooting. Shooting is not about violence or noise or destruction but about the state of concentration necessary for accuracy. One cannot will the bullet to the target, nor concentrate on the target, nor even focus the eye on the target. One can only hold correctly, breathe correctly and release the shot correctly. Your mind must be clear and your ego silent. Shooting is Zen. I think many people will find that surprising.

I don't really think of myself as having a relationship with guns. I like guns, sure. But I don't fetishize them.


Canadians, considered pacifists by many but with a huge national history as hunters, seem to have a unique relationship to guns. How would you describe Canadian gun culture?


When we rank developed nations by civilian gun ownership, Canada is near the top of the list. We're right up there with Finland and Sweden and (surprisingly) France: we have a strong tradition of owning guns for hunting. And normally we don't think of this as a gun culture, because it treats guns as tools, not icons.

But that's not the end of it. We think Canada is pacifist because we have the historical awareness of goldfish. The Metis for example might recall otherwise. I don't want to suggest the nation of peacekeepers is a bad model but when we pit Canadian pacifism against the lamentably tacky and stupid culture that gives us Mother Canada, we're just hooting that our mythology is better than yours. Many Canadians are proud of our military history and this is in our gun culture.

And of course people say that because Canada is pacifist, the other side is not truly Canadian. Our culture war over who gets to be a true Canadian turns Canada's gun culture south, to the United States. Since my book went to press, a new gun lobby group has sprung up, the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights. Their first goal is to protect and defend our constitution. Do they mean to protect and defend official bilingualism? I think not. This is a uniquely American concern, imported sans translation. But that's Canada: we are essentially Americans, as much as we pretend not to be.


How did you approach the mix of research and personal history in Arms? What were some of the challenges and pleasures of opening up about your own experiences with firearms?


With non-fiction you want to deliver a factual payload but if it comes off as an academic paper, the reader's going to find more compelling ways to entertain himself by watching the rate at which paint dries in bright sun as compared to shade. I threw out perhaps three quarters of the first draft for just that reason. I'm talking about four hundred pages on the bonfire.

When you turn to the personal, it's surprising how much gets pulled in from various compass points, from things read or watched or done years ago that now, on reflection, illuminate the subject. Writing what you know creates the wonderful illusion that your life to this point has existed only to prepare you to write this book. But there's the problem of honesty. How much do you really want to put out there? It's all well and good to read the news and deride some guy who shoots an unarmed nitwit who's come home drunk to the wrong house. It's much harder to put yourself in his place with any degree of sincerity. The vision in my left eye has never recovered from a messy encounter with teenage pranksters, and the tough question is, would I have shot one of them if I'd been armed? This kind of question, you'd rather not consider.


What are some of your favourite fictional narratives that involve a gun or guns?


This is a tough question, because of course so many stories involve guns, if only incidentally. But I'll single out Thomas McGuane's novel Ninety-two in the Shade. Thomas Skelton intends to guide on the flats of Key West; Nichol Dance intends to discourage competition. The logic of masculinity drives escalating violence. Neither party can go back on his word. Dance has spent years in drunken atonement for killing a man with his Colt Bisley, but makes a mockery of all his contrition when he uses the gun and its history to invoke a facsimile of masculine “credence.” Having made his threat, he is bound to it. Incredibly, many critics failed to see this as a critique of masculinity and instead branded McGuane a macho writer. But that's the critic's special talent: missing the point.


What are you working on now?


I am juggling germinal stories, to see which gathers weight.

A.J. Somerset has been a soldier, a technical writer, a programmer, and a freelance photographer. His non-fiction has appeared in numerous outdoor magazines in Canada and the United States, and his articles have been translated into French and Japanese.

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