Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Stephen Collis

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Stephen Collis (photo credit: Lawrence Schwartzwald. low res image)

Award-winning poet and literary critic Stephen Collis is donning a new hat with the publication of The Red Album (BookThug), his first novel. Despite it being his first foray into longform fiction, The Red Album belies a confidence and innovation that has drawn comparisons to Borges, Nabakov and Bolaño.

Today we speak to Stephen about the creation of heteronyms, narrative destablisation and the writer's best supplement (hint: you can find it at the LCBO).

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Red Album.

Stephen Collis:

This is my first novel; not unlike my poetry, it has something to do with the relation between past and present revolutionary struggles. It follows the story of a middle-aged civil servant who learns that his family has a radical past, something he knew nothing about. We follow him as he uncovers the story of his great uncle, an anarchist poet who was shot by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, until this narrative is interrupted by a contemporary uprising in the protagonist’s hometown. The rest of the book is a series of short narratives, presented in a variety of genres, that at times reveal more about, but mostly complicate, the situation of the first narrative. Stories don’t “conclude” — they produce more stories. The novel “ends” with a new beginning: three young girls who discover they have the power to transform whatever they touch.


You incorporate multiple genres into this book, including essays and a short play. Did this make the writing process more challenging? What drew you to this creative structure?


I’m not sure if it made it more challenging, because this project actually began with those short pieces in other genres. I had already written and published a number of pieces under a series of heteronyms (false but fairly elaborate identities). The Red Album was a way of tying them together into a larger narrative, while still retaining some of the autonomy of the shorter original pieces and their authors’ identities.

I suppose I approached the very idea of writing fiction from a strange position: as a poet interested in Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s notion of heteronyms, I wanted fictional authors with seeming lives of their own. They were poets, or translators of poetry, or people obsessed with poetry. In The Red Album, they are both “authors” and “characters,” in a very real sense in that they have publications of their own, long before this book was published. You can find them on-line. My heteronym Alfred Noyes had one of his books appear in Google Books before any of mine did!


There's a lot of destabilisation and meta-narrative aspects happening in The Red Album as characters and writers change places. What do you enjoy about this sort of experimentation and playfulness? Are there questions you're asking by incorporating these narrative devices?


I’m interested in the divisions we make between the “fictional” and “real,” not just because of some postmodern sense of the artificiality of this divide, but because I look to fiction with a utopian desire. That is, I’m most interested in the fictive as a capacity we have to imagine, and perhaps even realize, the seemingly impossible or not-yet — like, oh, I don’t know, an effective social movement or an alternative to capitalism. The “destabilization” of the fractured and dispersed narrative was a way of thinking about sudden revolutionary change through form. What would a novel undergoing a revolution look like? I also think subjectivity is more common, shared, than individual, so I wanted a text that noisily and untidily gathers up a multiplicity of voices (in both its characters and — in some senses reaching outside the frame of “the novel” — in its various “authors”).


What would a perfect day of writing look like for you?


A short time reading early in the morning, a long walk for thinking, then some quiet hours for writing. Repeat. Maybe supplement with scotch later in the day.


How does your writing process impact what you read, if at all? What were you reading while you wrote The Red Album?


My writing and reading processes are deeply intertwined. When I’m writing something, it’s a research project, and there will be plenty to read. With The Red Album, it’s a little tricky, because I wrote it over many years, in fits and starts, and it shifted and evolved continuously. I read books about Spain (and went to Spain several times) — Robert Hughes was significant — and early on in the process, in thinking through the work of Ramon Fernandez and Alfred Noyes, I read a lot about the Spanish Civil War and modernist Spanish language poetry. At the same time, everything I was reading, whether it was specifically for The Red Album or not, made its way in there. That’s simply how I work. There’s always a dialectic of the constructivist clipping from sources and the expressivist trying to say something in response to these sources.


What are you working on now?


I have another book coming out later in the year — a collaboration with Jordan Scott called DECOMP (Coach House Books). It’s a sort of long prose poem and sequence of photographs documenting a project in which we decayed copies of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in a series of outdoor locations in BC. After that, I blissfully and purposefully have no immediate writing plan. I usually have several things on the go, but right now, after a flurry of books, I want to wait and see what comes out of the woodwork.

Stephen Collis is an award winning poet, activist, and professor of contemporary literature at Simon Fraser University. His poetry books include Anarchive, The Commons, On the Material (awarded the BC Book Prize for Poetry) and To the Barricades. He has also written two books of criticism, including Phyllis Webb and the Common Good. His collection of essays on the Occupy movement, Dispatches from the Occupation, comes out of his activist experiences and is a philosophical meditation on activist tactics, social movements, and change. Collis has read and lectured across Canada, the United States, and Europe. The Red Album is his first novel.

For more information about The Red Album please visit the BookThug website.

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

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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