Books·Magic 8 Q&A

George Bowering on why "prolific" isn't a compliment

The author of Mirror on the Floor answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
George Bowering is the author of the novel Mirror on the Floor. (House of Anansi Press)

It would be safe to call George Bowering prolific, but he'd probably prefer you didn't. With 100 books under his belt and an authorial career that stretches half a century, the poet, novelist, historian and biographer has more than a few pearls of wisdom for the Canadian writers posing him questions below — including his take on what writer's block should really be called.

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

1. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"

I agree with Bill. I have said something like this for decades. In fact, I am among those people who have notebooks filled with ideas that would take several lifetimes to finish. I have always been accused of being over-prolific, with the insinuation that writing a lot means writing shallowly. I think that such accusations are from people who have not thought through the subject. I love Shelley. Look how thick a collected poems he wrote in just over a decade. Sometimes I think that people claim writer's block when they want to appear "romantic." They should just call it "block."

2. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "How do you know when your book is finished?"

That is really interesting. Many times I have gone to something I am writing, to carry on, only to realize that it is done. Sometimes I have read someone's novel or story and wanted to scissor the last page off. How do I know? Well, some people say that a book is never finished, and poets such as Al Purdy and Earle Birney went on revising for later editions. Sometimes I am persuaded that the rhythm of the last sentence tells me the fiction or essay is done.

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

I think that there must continue to be those heroic people who keep small presses alive and who have commitment to a view. I get a little depressed when a small press hires people who want to be on the bestseller list or chase after fads. In all my years at this pursuit, I have met wonderful editors and publishers who would rather have books in the hands of avid and knowledgeable readers than on the Books page of the Toronto dailies. Here is the other necessity: governments who do not hate art.

4. Shani Mootoo asks, "Do you find that you are influenced in any aspect of your writing by other art forms? If so, which and how?" 

I really don't know how to measure that influence, though I feel that it must be there. I am really interested in jazz and classical music and Renaissance art and modern art and medieval architecture. I travel to look at art galleries and churches. I go to New York to visit the MOMA and listen to Joe Lovano. Why do I do all this? Maybe just because those things are interesting, maybe not.

5. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "Writers often use their own lives 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 is a tricky one. I am tempted to suggest that it can work the other way round. For example, in the book of stories I am now finishing, I deliberately mixed life and narration. I would write a few paragraphs that depended on my action in the world to see what happens next. I hate using the telephone, but I had to make calls to strangers by long distance for one story. It works both ways in capers such as this. You write something, then you do something and the outcome decides what you are going to write next. All my writing life I have been edging toward this strange situation.

6. Todd Babiak asks, "If you had to stop writing, due to some fantastical calamity, what career would you pursue and why?" 

I am too old to pursue a career. If this had happened way back in the past, I would have been screwed.

7. Linda Spalding asks, "What moves you to tears?"

I will give you some examples from my life. I mean such tears that I could not stand without something to lean on. A reading of his poems by George Oppen one night in Montreal. Donatello's Magdalene, which I have seen three times. My wife Jean (illegally) took a picture of me during the third occasion, and I have looked at it only once. Ornette Coleman at age 79, playing with beauty and energy we don't have the right to ask of musicians half his age. Outside the arts I have been moved to tears many times by the bravery of children.

8. Helen Humphreys asks, "Which of your books is your favourite?"

I think that most writers will name their most recent book. I wonder: Do we choose favourites among our own books for reasons different from our choices of other books? Well, my favourite poetry book is Delayed Mercy and my favourite non-poetry book is A Short Sad Book. But I am smart enough to realize that these are not necessarily my best. That is another question.