Books·Magic 8 Q&A

D.W. Wilson on songwriting and fighting his father

The author of Once You Break A Knuckle answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
D.W. Wilson is the author of Once You Break a Knuckle. (Curtis Brown)

The author of the acclaimed story collection Once You Break A Knuckle fields questions from the Canadian literati — and, in doing so, reveals the one song he can play on the ukulele.

Below, D.W. Wilson answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Other than writing novels, what other art form do you wish you possessed or had a better grasp of?"

I wish I could play the guitar, or any instrument. My working knowledge of music extends just beyond the end of "I like how that sounds" and half the time I can't even tell what instrument I'm listening to. In grade six I learned ukulele, and to this day I can play Joan Osborne's "What if God Was One of Us" on it. So that's something.

2. Vincent Lam asks, "What do you think must happen in the publishing industry for the literary novel to survive and thrive?"

For one, I think we have to stop using monikers like "literary novel" in the first place. Genres are capitalism's contribution to fiction and I wouldn't mind it if we separated books into "good ones" and "bad ones" and "ones I'm going to read." That's obviously not going to happen, but doesn't it make your teeth ache when you hear someone complaining that, like, a western made it onto the Booker shortlist? Or that a crime novel won the Miles Franklin?

3. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "Writers often use their own life as a springboard for fiction. Could you relate a real incident in your life and then tell us how it got changed into fiction?"

This one's easy. My old man went peacekeeping to Kosovo in 2003, when I was eighteen, and when I was sixteen I fought him in a judo tournament. The opening story in my collection is about a sixteen-year-old who fights his dad in a judo tournament the day before he flies to Kosovo; I just merged the two events into one.

4. Lorna Crozier asks, "If you could come back as a musician, what area of music would you choose, and are you secretly a song writer, and if so, what is your song about?"

A while ago I'd have said eighties rock, but my favourite songwriters are strong lyricists, and as much as I hate to admit it, I'm not sure Def Lep ever produced anything truly profound.  Maybe country rock like Ryan Adams or that hard-to-define alternative/rock/sometimes-folky music you get from a band like The National. I don't know that I'm secretly a songwriter, because I'm no good at condensing emotions down like that — it's too much like magic.

5. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you ever feel so scared in the dark, when you're alone, that you have to turn on a light? If so, what are you afraid of?"

Being alone.

6. Jack Hodgins asks, "How long does it take you to get back to writing after doing a studio or in-person interview about your writing?"

I haven't really thought about it in these terms (and it's all very new to me) but after my collection came out I found myself unable to write for months, because every time I heard any praise or any variation of "I can't wait for the novel" it added another week to me getting back to the grindstone. Basically, I cracked under the pressure.

7. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Which comes first, the title or the book?"

It took me seven years to come up with Once You Break a Knuckle, but I've had the title of my novel since day one. Unfortunately, we're changing it, and I'm stumped. With stories, I often have a title before I begin, and that title acts as a kind of creative or thematic compass. But by the end I usually abandon it in favour of something that sounds better. So, both?

8. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Do you think you or your books would have been successful, say... fifty or a hundred years ago? Or has the style of writing changed too much in the passing decades?"

To be fair, I'm not sure my book is successful now, so I'd be willing to give it a shot. But I doubt it'd have worked a hundred years ago. Maybe fifty. 1962? Seems plausible — I'd only have to compete with Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Nabokov's Pale Fire.

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