Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Greg Hollingshead on striking fear into the hearts of critics

The author of Act Normal answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Greg Hollingshead is the author of the novel Act Normal. (Kim Griffiths )

Greg Hollingshead won a Governor General's Literary Award for his 1995 short story collection The Roaring Girl. He then took a 20-year break from the form before releasing Act Normal in 2015. He was also a member of the 2016 jury for the CBC Short Story Prize.

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

1. Russell Smith asks, "Have you ever confronted a snarky critic?"

Only vicariously. My first book, Famous Players, was reviewed in the Globe and Mail along with David Young's Incognito. The headline was "Wordy games." David pied the reviewer, an academic, at a statue unveiling at the University of Toronto. Unfortunately I was out of town. When a critic in the Edmonton Journal dismissed the stories in my collection White Buick as "splatterpunk," he was in Halifax, and he was reluctant to return to Edmonton. Somehow he'd got the idea that my friends might beat him up, and he was right. 

2. Tomson Highway asks, "Do you ever get jealous of other writers? If so, why?"

Not anymore. Now that I know how precarious the whole enterprise is for everybody — the writer, the reader, the industry — the feeling is solidarity. What was once jealousy is now the rage I feel when, for commercial, political or patronizing reasons, a bad writer is celebrated as a good writer. Most readers know the difference, they feel it in their gut. Call them unsophisticated, but there's nothing more intelligent than the gut. And there is nothing wrong with reading something bad when you know it's bad. Guilty pleasures, entertainments, and so on. But when people who know better pretend that bad is good for whatever reason, then the result is thousands of readers who have been told one thing and are feeling another. What better way to invalidate a literary culture? 

3. Donna Morrissey asks, "Who has been your favourite character to write so far, and why?"

James Tilly Matthews, the "lunatic" in Bedlam. As with his wife Margaret and his doctor John Haslam, it took a while before I could hear their voices, but once I could, I was able to start writing. These are historical characters. John Haslam had written books about treating lunatics, in fact it was his case history of Matthews that first got me interested in the story, so I had his voice, but all I had of Matthews was a raving letter he wrote to a politician. But I needed him to tell a good fifth of the novel, from Bethlehem Hospital, coherently. The beauty of James Matthews derives, I think, from the wonderful floridity of his delusional system combined with the fact that he was right. 

After I finished the novel, in the Paris archives I came across a hoard of his letters written mostly in the form of practical advice to the French while he was imprisoned in Paris, and if I do say so myself, he sounds in them very much like the man who lived in my head for five years and is on the page in Bedlam. 

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

A book or a story is finished when nothing about it still bothers me, no matter how many different ways I have managed to catch it off guard. I think editing is about listening intently to every little niggle until the changes that have occurred by addressing them all have been allowed to occur. That's when you give it to an editor to find out what she hears. 

5. Claire Holden Rothman asks, "What kind of a child were you that you grew up to write fiction? What were the formative influences?"

I started writing when I was thirteen, in order not to be washed away by the waves of sorrow that would sweep over me for days. It was a horror of the fleetingness of things, of everything disappearing down the sink of Time. At first, writing was a way to hold on to what would otherwise vanish, to retain traces. Out of that came a desire to communicate and to find some kind of community and understanding that way. Before too long I was doing talking blues at parties with my friends. 

6. Emily St. John Mandel asks, "Do you write full-time, or do you also do other work? And if you write full-time now, what other jobs have you had in the past?"

Bartender, teacher, scholar. I worked my way through university as a bartender at a golf club. I was an English professor for thirty years. 

7. Johanna Skibsrud asks, "What non-literary inspirations inform your work?"

Popular science. Any good art inspires me, but in particular music, drama, graphics and cartoons, and painting. I think the one great cultural achievement of the US has been its popular music, from the 19th century on. For me it started at age fifteen with Little Richard. Fifty years later I'm still listening to The Great One, who came back doing better work in the nineties and since: Bob Dylan. I know, I know. I'm not talking about the "poetry" but the range, the archival depth, and the force and dramatic complexity of the delivery. 

8. Rudy Wiebe asks, "Who helped you most in becoming a writer? How?"

The Canadian writer Matt Cohen. When I accepted a job at the University of Alberta after living in England for five years, I was told I would have to teach a course in Canadian literature, a subject I had taken one course in as an undergraduate. At the British Museum I immersed myself in Canadian literature up to 1974. There wasn't a lot of it of much interest to me, and most of it seemed awfully remote, a culture seen through the wrong end of a telescope. One book that stayed with me was Matt Cohen's story collection Columbus and the Fat Lady

When I got to the University of Alberta, Matt was there as the English department's first writer in residence. Before getting to know Matt I had never considered writing short stories. It would be novels or nothing. I had written a lot of poetry and four novels and published a little poetry. At the end of the school year Matt and I drove back to Ontario together. We talked for five days. Practically as soon as I got out of Matt's truck, I started writing short stories, and for the next fifteen years I had no time to write anything longer. Matt was more than willing to look at my stories, he kept asking for more. He had no ambition to edit my first collection, Famous Players, for Coach House, but he did it. More than anything it was Matt Cohen's example, encouragement and generosity made it possible for me to become a Canadian writer.