Magic 8 Q&A

Why Nick Mount would rather have a shelf full of novels than history books

The author of Arrival: The Story of CanLit answers eight questions posed by eight fellow writers.
Nick Mount is the author of Arrival: The Story of CanLit. (N Maxwell Lander)

Nick Mount is an English professor at the University of Toronto, an award-winning critic and the former fiction editor at The Walrus. In 2005, his doctoral dissertation became the prize-winning book When Canadian Literature Moved to New York,which won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for the best book in Canadian literary criticism. 

Mount's latest book, Arrival, explores how CanLit went from being largely ignored to a cultural phenomenon that produced authors like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje. He is also hosting the Writers' Trust Awards on Nov. 14, 2017.

Below, Mount tackles the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.

1. Anita Rau Badami asks, "Looking back, can you pinpoint the moment when you decided that you would be a writer? Is it something you had always wished to do?"

I'm not a writer. I'm a reader who teaches and occasionally writes about what I read and teach, mostly Canadian literature. Canada has lots of writers. What it needs is more readers, and I decided a long time ago that I was happy being a fan. 

That said, I decided on my current career after a teacher at a community college in Kamloops, B.C., read an essay I wrote on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and suggested something I had never considered before, going to university to study books. 

2. Timothy Taylor asks, "Does the novel still have a job in contemporary culture?"

Yes, of course, though a diminished one in the wake of so many other new ways to tell stories, from film to video games. As Lynn Coady says in her recent lecture Who Needs Books?, elegies for the novel are really just elegies for the cultural status the novel once held. The novel itself isn't going anywhere, nor are the people who enjoy them. Novels provide both a welcome distraction from our own lives and the clearest window we can get on the lives of different people. A novel about a neighbourhood, for example — like David Chariandy's Brother — or a novel about a war, like Timothy Findley's The Wars — contains more truth than a shelf full of histories about that neighbourhood or that war, because the novel can ignore the messy particulars of fact and concentrate on what matters, its meaning and significance. 

3. Dianne Warren asks, "What two Canadian writers, living or dead, would you like to see interview each other? Why?

Lisa Moore interviewing Mavis Gallant. Lisa is herself a big fan of Gallant's writing (see "Mavis Gallant in Malibu" in the summer 2012 issue of Brick magazine), and I would love to hear one of this country's best prose stylists today talk with its past best about how she did it.

For sheer fun factor, though, it would be hard to top bill bissett interviewing Rupi Kaur. 

4. Yann Martel asks, "Is there a Great Book that you actually hate? Why?"

"Hate" isn't the right word, but I've attempted James Joyce's Ulysses three times now without making it through to the end. It wears me out, which suggests that the failure is mine more than Joyce's. 

Aside from academic books, I can't think of any books that I have genuinely hated. Maybe Fifty Shades of Grey, and for the same reason I don't like most academic books — too many words for too small a reward.  

5. George Elliott Clarke asks, "What literary character would you like to seduce — or be seduced by?"

I have to say, I've honestly never thought about a literary character in these terms, at least not since puberty. I'm worried about you, George. :)

6. Tracey Lindberg asks, "Who from literary Canada is your dream Trivial Pursuit partner?​"

Montreal poet David McGimpsey. Dave knows everything about everything, including things most literary types know nothing about, like professional sports and Taylor Swift records. 

7. Marina Endicott asks, "Can you love a book written by a lousy human being?"

If you had asked me this question 20 or even 10 years ago, I would have said yes, of course: it's the art that matters, not the artist. As I get older, I'm not so sure. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to admire books by people I have learned enough about to strongly dislike. Writers don't have to be perfect, any more than friends, but if I can't see anything redeeming in them, I'm having a harder time trusting them with my imagination.

8. Patrick deWitt asks, "What is the least useful writing advice you ever received?"

I've never taken a writing class, so most advice I've picked up about writing has been from reading. I guess I'd have to say the professor in grad school, who wrote on one of my essays that I'd never make it as an academic because my writing was too clear. 

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