Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Alan Reed

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On Writing, with Alan Reed

Author Alan Reed's first novel, Isobel & Emile (Coach House Books), is a touching tale about what comes after the love story. He talks to Open Book about love and heartbreak.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book, Isobel & Emile.

Alan Reed:

It's a story about what comes after a love story. It's about picking up the pieces and seeing what can be made of them now that they don't mean anything anymore. It's not the cheeriest of books, as you've probably guessed. But it is honest — what I wanted to do with it was reproduce, as perfectly as possible, that moment of heartbreak and the first few steps towards putting yourself back together; that moment when something emerges from sadness and life begins again. I wanted to take a closer look at that 'something'.


What was your first publication?


It depends what you mean by publication. I like to think that the hours and hours I spent creating adventures when I was a kid who was perhaps a bit too excited about Dungeons and Dragons should count for something. But if you hold me to literary production then it would be a poem in a feminist literary journal that some friends published when we were all undergraduates. The journal was called Four Corners; I think there are copies of it in a library somewhere if you're curious and up for looking. It was a grisly little thing: a poem about a rape and the effect of the violence of that act.


This is your first novel. How did the writing process differ from your usual, more experimental style?


Fundamentally, it didn't. The kind of experimental writing I practice — performance writing, as developed at Dartington College of Arts — takes as its starting point the relationship between text and materiality. It's a way of writing that pays close attention to how the circumstances of writing, the objects used, the places it happens in, how people engage with it; how all of these influence the text and are, in turn, altered by it. In my overtly experimental writing practice I play with installing text and integrating text into various kinds of performance. And those principles and methods are as applicable to page and book-based texts. In approaching the task of writing a novel I wasn't thinking in terms of literary convention (plot, character, setting) as much as I was thinking in terms of the book as an object, the page as a particular way of engaging with text and the extraordinary amount of time it takes to read a novel.

Except, of course, that the book as an object cannot be so entirely separated from literary convention, given that it is, historically speaking, the product of those conventions. I would trace the difference between this book and my other writing to that. I'm used to working in an interdisciplinary context and having the freedom to disregard convention, or at the very least being selective in my engagements with it. And though there's definitely a sense in which that's what I've done here, with this project it felt more like slipping out from under the rules than sifting through and sampling from the ones that I like. It was a strange experience, to be so beholden to literary values.


What inspired you to write this novel?


I spent my 20's breaking my heart over and over again. Among other things, it's made me curious about all sorts of questions to do with mourning and loss and memory. Before writing this book I'd been working on a video installation that was partly built around a reading of Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia," and when it was done I felt like I hadn't entirely finished with everything that had come up while I was working on it. Sort of like I'd arrived at this gesture, for lack of a better word, this particular way of remembering, and I needed to let it loose in the world to find out what it could do.

So I sat down with it, I thought about it a while longer and realized I was sitting on the premise for a novel. Isobel and Emile represent two different aspects of that gesture, and there's an autobiographical element as well, just enough to bring the two to life, and I started to construct a world for them and as they settled into it there I was, in the thick of writing the book.


Do you spent much time revising your work?


Yes. (Also my answers to interview questions — sorry this took so long.) Absolutely ridiculous amounts of time.

I'm not especially interested in my own voice. When I write I am trying to give voice to something: an odd idea or a scrap of an image, the tone of a voice, the sense of a place, and not to say what it is but to give an impression of what it feels like. I don't want to sound like myself when I write, doing that just gets in the way; I want to sound like whatever it is I'm trying to do. It's how I get close to the fascinating otherness, the strangeness of the world. And it's not easy to root out everything that sounds too familiar.

There is, of course, the brutal irony that I'm pretty sure that my efforts to make my writing less personal actually make it more so — that the close attention I write from cannot be anything but deeply subjective. And this doesn't bother me like my voice does. I can't say why. It's just there's something to what paying close attention like this reveals that feels solid, satisfying, and unlike anything that comes to me spontaneously.


What is your next project?


I'm just finishing something for Uta Baldauf, a friend in England who does devised theatre work. She wants to see what it's like to make a film and asked me for a script to work from. She gave me an image of the moors to work with, so a certain kind of wildness and desolation, and I wrote her a meditation on the process of making art around that.

And then next up are a pair of book projects. One is a collaboration, the other the follow-up to Isobel & Emile. They're both just starting to take shape, so I can't really say anything about them. Right now I'm looking forward to sitting down and settling into writing for the next year or so.

Alan Reed studied semiotics at the University of Toronto and writing at Dartington College of Arts (in the U.K.). He is the author of a collection of poems, For Love of the City (BuschekBooks), and two plays. Since 2005, he has been working as an experimental writer, making things that sit somewhere between writing, installation and performance art. Isobel and Emile

For more information about Isobel and Emile please visit the Coach House Books website.

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

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