Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, With George Fetherling

Share |
On Writing, With George Fetherling

Author George Fetherling talks to Open Book about his latest book, Walt Whitman's Secret, his ideal writing environment and his advice for young writers.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book, Walt Whitman's Secret.

George Fetherling:

Like my other fiction, it centres on prejudice — of everyone, towards everybody else — and memory. Along with Oscar Wilde, Whitman was and remains one of the two best known gay writers of the nineteenth century, not only in English-speaking countries but worldwide. As a gay man, he was of course the object of a great deal of bigotry. But as a die-hard Republican patriot — in his way, one of the founders of Americanism qua ism; a nativist and a jingo, an American exceptionalist — he espoused views that killed more people than malaria. The way I approach this in the novel is by putting him in the context of his many fervent Canadian admirers — Whitmaniacs, they were sometimes called — who fell for him hook, line and sinker.


OBT:

How did you research Whitman's life?

GF:

Oh, I know all the important biographies and such. There is no need of another one. I was interested in giving him an inner life that would operate within his external/biographical existence. Fiction is the only way to do this. On the one hand, I rely heavily on the published record, including the nine volumes of Whitman table-talk recorded by his assistant, the real-life Horace Traubel (who is the novel’s narrator). On the other hand, I give most of the historical characters new or greatly altered personalities.


OBT:

What attracts you to Whitman?

GF:

What attracts me is the way he went, virtually overnight, from unsuccessful low-level newspaper hack to vitally important poet, recreating himself as necessary. What repels me are his ideas.


OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

GF:

Well, that changes from book to book. I wrote Walt Whitman’s Secret in Vancouver, beginning on my kitchen table about four and a half years ago, using a fountain pen. By the last couple of drafts, I was working on a laptop alternating days—alternating nights, I should say. Every other day I’d write from late afternoon to dawn, sleeping the other days. The regimen almost did me in.


OBT:

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

GF:

Learn to distinguish good advice from bad. If you can, find an editor you will come to trust, respect and like, and assume her ideas are correct unless your instinct goes into override.


OBT:

What's your next project?

GF:

Actually, I had a second book come out at the same time as Walt Whitman’s Secret. This was The Sylvia Hotel Poems, a new collection. I’m gearing up now for a run at another novel. All I know for certain at this early date is that it will be called The Carpenter from Montreal. What it will look like I can’t say. I write fiction the same way I cook: by the end, every pot and pan is dirty and the kitchen is filled with black acrid smoke — but everything tastes the way it’s supposed to.


George Fetherling has been called "an iconic Canadian writer" (Globe and Mail) and a "legendary" figure in Canadian writing (Toronto Star). The Montreal Gazette speaks of him "as a mercurial, liberal intelligence...the kind of which English Canada has too short a supply." Walt Whitman’s Secret is George Fetherling’s third novel and fourth book-length fiction. He has published 50 books of poetry, fiction, memoirs, travel, criticism and history, including the much-acclaimed Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties. George received a Harbourfront Prize for his "substantial contribution to Canadian letters." He lives in Vancouver and Toronto.

For more information about Walt Whitman's Secret please visit the Random House website.

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

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad