Books·Magic 8 Q&A

'All art is failed art.' Michael Redhill on being comfortable with failure

The Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of the novel Bellevue Square takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill is on the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. (Amanda Withers/Penguin Random House)

In Bellevue Square — the winner of the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize — by Michael Redhill, protagonist Jean Mason is emotionally and psychologically tested after learning that she may have doppelganger who lives in Toronto's Kensington Market.

Redhill, a poet, playwright and novelist who previously garnered acclaim for past novels Consolation and Martin Sloanetackles the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight random questions from eight fellow authors.

1. Lynn Coady asks, "Is there a poet, philosopher, musician, painter or any other type of artist outside the world of fiction who has inspired your work in a concrete way at some point or another? If so, who?"

Joseph Cornell, the American assemblage artist, inspired my novel Martin Sloane. I didn't know he existed until I happened on his surreal-ish box constructions at the Art Institute of Chicago. On an upper level of the gallery, there was a tiny, dimly lit room in a corner, with some of his bird boxes on the walls. They were barely visible until your eyes adjusted. Then they emerged from the darkness like you'd been surrounded in a forest at night. Those boxes, and the ones he made that are like games for an imaginary lonesome child (or Cornell himself) were the first sparks of the novel.

2. Shari Lapena asks, "What do you find is the hardest thing about being a writer?"

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Failing. I like all of my own work, and I even love some of it, but it's all failed work. By necessity, by design, by its own nature, all art fails. The exceptions to the rule (a hundred exceptions over all of human history?) only prove it. Beckett failed all over the place in the making of an eternal statement with his lifework, and he said it best: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

3. Frances Itani asks, "If you were to have a silent conversation with a now dead writer, which writer would you choose, and from which period? Or perhaps you already converse with dead writers?"

I wish I could have a chat with Boswell. It would hardly be silent. Or sober. His confidence (or temerity?) awes me, and I'd like to ask him some questions about Dr. Johnson, like "Why didn't the Good Sir write a novel?"

4. Russell Smith asks, "What is the musical soundtrack to your latest book?"

Belladonna of Sadness by Alexandra Savior, Hot Thoughts by Spoon, Process by Sampha, Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada, Atlas by Real Estate, Doug Paisley by Doug Paisley, Long Time Leaving by Christa Couture, Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs, Bigfoot by Cayucas, Advanced Basics by USS, Blackstar by David Bowie.

5. Linden MacIntyre asks, "Is there value in what I'd call 'literary collegiality?' How useful are the workshops and writers' retreats?"

I think these are often good and useful for younger or beginning writers and they keep some professional writers in Wheaties between contracts, so I see its value. It was a hell of a lot of fun, too, when I was in my 20s and 30s. As I've aged, I've come to feel that I need to be alone, isolated, even. The world is full of voices; I need them to quiet down so I can hear myself and the voices of other writers can be especially distracting!

6. Linwood Barclay asks, "Does writing get easier the more you do it, or more difficult because you don't want to repeat yourself?"

It's easier because I've done it before and I know I can do it again. But it's harder because I know my limits better and I'm more aware of the time left.

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

Hey, why don't you spend 10 years writing crime novels under a pseudonym?

8. Padma Viswanathan asks, "How do others' books figure in your own writing or process?"

When I'm really living inside of something I'm writing, I'll read newspapers and magazines, but I give novels a wide berth. This is why I'm hopelessly behind on my reading. But other times I turn to books that are different than what I'm writing, as palate cleansers, books that will clear my mind by filling it with something different. I  also dip in and out of various "masters" — writers who do one or a few things very well, sometimes very small things, just to pick up their scent and test it against one thing or another that's buzzing around in my head.

There are piles of books standing on various tables in my house that contain novels and story collections and books of poetry that I might only have read a few pages of the week before. If I get numb trying to get deeper into something, I might pick up D. H. Lawrence or Dostoyevsky or Alice Munro and try to sink into the complexity of their visions to open myself up again.