Alan Cumyn on writing a novel about the worst idea ever
Take a quick glance through Alan Cumyn's stack of published novels and you'll see he's a writer who's up for anything — from meticulously researched First World War sagas to human rights stories and children's books. His latest novel, the YA tale Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, tests his range like nothing before.
Alan Cumyn won the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People at the 2016 Writers' Trust Awards.
Below, Alan Cumyn answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Kelley Armstrong asks, "Which has been harder for you: becoming an author or staying one?"
I had a long apprenticeship as a writer, or at least it felt that way. With an MA in creative writing in hand at age 24, I still needed to do a lot more living before my experience caught up with my artistic energy or my budding skills. So it took me seven years of strong effort before I finally published one short story in a literary journal which paid me $50. Along the way, I got so discouraged piling up rejections from magazines that I started writing novels, figuring that then I could write for an entire year before having to face more rejection. (I know that for many writers this story sounds familiar.)
The novel manuscript that finally broke through for me, Waiting for Li Ming, was my fourth full manuscript. It was loosely based on a year I spent teaching English in China — that is, on experiences that had truly changed my life. So I had finally gotten to a place in my practice where I could explore fictionally material that had deep resonance. In some way or other, I have been doing that ever since — 13 novels in the last 23 years. And while getting those projects into print has never been straightforward, the ups and downs of my professional life have still been easier to weather than those initial years of drought and uncertainty.
2. Karen Solie asks, "Has a mentor or teacher profoundly influenced your writing or decision to become a writer? Who is this person and what have they taught you?"
I had the great good fortune of studying under Alistair MacLeod at the University of Windsor when I was still quite wet behind the ears. He wasn't famous then, but we all knew he was brilliant. I would write stacks of short stories for him, then wait forever for his feedback. Finally, in his office, he would pull one out of the pile and say, "Let's work on this one." Over the course of about eight months, under his direction, I fashioned a strong collection of short stories based on summer work I had done as a geological assistant in the woods of Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. It was impossible not to fall under his spell, and especially under the spell of his work. I still read all my manuscripts aloud as I am composing, thanks to his emphasis on the power of sound in story.
Part of the long apprenticeship after my graduation was stepping out from under Alistair's shadow, figuring out for myself what my writing needed to be and where it needed to go. He was still a strong support to me especially as I was becoming established. One of my most treasured letters is a note from him that arrived out of the blue one month when I was chair of the Writers' Union of Canada and life seemed to be throwing everything at me. He had written to say he'd heard what terrific work I'd been doing on behalf of writers. How did he know to send it just then? He had a magic all his own.
3. Shani Mootoo asks, "What was the best surprise you had in the process of writing your latest published book?"
Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend took flight in my imagination when I heard author Libba Bray use just that phrase, three times in the course of an hour, to tell a group of writers at the Vermont College of Fine Arts what not to write. (She meant don't slavishly follow trends, but "Don't go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel" struck me as if I'd just stepped on a rake.) My biggest and best surprise came on the first page when the character of Shiels Krane sprang up in my imagination as a vehicle for the story.
Sure, the pterodactyl arrives out of the sky to become a high school student, but it's the student body chair who has to deal with all the repercussions, and especially the terrible disruptions to her well-planned love life. Shiels is the heart of the story; Pyke, the pterodactyl, is the agent of chaos who gets her questioning everything in her life.
4. Padma Viswanathan asks, "What is the place of dreams in literature, or, for you, the relationship of dreaming to writing?"
Funny you should ask! Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend is full of dreams. Pyke affects Shiels in the beginning primarily through her subconscious, and infects her dreams with unsettling images from some primordial past. In a larger sense, the book is all about the buried iceberg of our unconscious and how we are so often unaware of why we do, think and feel certain things as we sleepwalk through our lives. So I think dreams can be central to literature, and for a long time I did much of my writing early in the morning, close to the dreamtime. Now I feel like when I sit down to write, no matter what time of day, I can usually slip into a bit of a state. I'm not dreaming per se, but I fall into the dream of the story, the imagined situation and the fictional characters, and I try not to disturb anything as I write down what they say and do.
5. Katherine Govier asks, "Would you continue to write if your audience disappeared?"
A theme is emerging here. Back in my writerly youth, when as yet unpublished novel manuscript number four had been out with an editor for several months with still no word, I faced a difficult decision. I never put my life on hold so I could write. I was married then, we had our first baby, and I had a really good job writing and researching on international human rights issues for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Why should I continue banging my head against the wall if the world did not want to read my made-up stories? Then one Sunday afternoon it happened.
I was lying in the sun with the baby on my front. Sleep was precious. When I woke up and Gwen was still out, I dared not move. And still I lingered with the most precious feeling, one I can hardly even put into words. What was it, to lie still on a Sunday afternoon with your child on your chest? What if I could put that feeling on the page? I started working on the story that turned into my second novel, Between Families and the Sky. At the time though, it meant starting on my fifth unpublished longer work. But so what? I realized that no matter what else was going on in my life, I felt better about myself, was a better father, husband, person, when I kept writing. Maybe no one else would like it. I decided it didn't matter.
6. Jonathan Auxier asks, "If you could write an authorized sequel to someone else's book, what would it be?"
This question just reminds me of how much I haven't read. I love the raw energy and grit of life in Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory, a hybrid memoir/novel, and while he did write other manuscripts that are lately coming to light, I suppose I wish he had written straighter about his star-crossed career as a singer-songwriter, a wild, hard, true-like voice in times of Depression, war, raw politics and numbing conformity. I guess I just like the unfettered humanity in his work. I probably couldn't see the world at all like he did. But I'd love to be able to do it.
7. Claire Holden Rothman asks, "What draws you to fiction written by others? What are the ingredients of a good novel? What do you look for when you read?"
For me, the strongest draw of fiction is to give the reader a semblance of living through compelling events in the thoughts and skins of fascinating people. I want to have done all the hard work of breaking down the barriers so that it is easy for me to immerse myself in other lives and worlds. How else am I going to get a chance to fire a cannon from the heaving deck of a sinking ship (The Happy Return), or party on the moon with other kids on March break while commercials play directly in my head (Feed), or stand face to face with the nightmare monster I think might be able to cure my mother's cancer (A Monster Calls)?
8. Pasha Malla asks, "Flannery O'Connor: 'All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.' Where do your 'reaches of reality' extend to?"
What questions! This feels like an existential grilling. In Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend I stop the forward momentum of the narrative because my main character becomes sidetracked by a pair of yellow shoes... shoes that hold the key to unhinging the iron comfort of her whole world view. In the course of the narrative, Shiels is forced to question her own assumptions, even rethink the way she breathes and walks. "What else don't I know?" she asks the old man who is quietly becoming her mentor. I think in a way we are all like Shiels, whistling along in a world so vastly complex we don't even imagine a fraction of what we don't know. The unsettling reach of that reality is actually quite destructive to stories, to narrative. We look to popular literature for frames and answers, cause and effect, for the comfort of focus, not deconstruction and doubt. But further to the previous question, I like fiction that feels torn from real life. It means the edges are ragged, the questioning continues.