Ian Brown on feeling all the feels
Honesty drives Ian Brown's new memoir, Sixty, which was a finalist for the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. In the Globe and Mail columnist and award-winning nonfiction author's account of his 61st year, he alights on everything from his deepest regrets to his wife's "German farting sandals."
Below, Ian Brown answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Dianne Warren asks, "Newspaper writers keep talking about the current golden age of TV storytelling. Would you like to write for an HBO-type TV show? Why or why not?"
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I know it's a pain, and you have to collaborate, and getting a project greenlighted is so arduous that... well, that's what has kept me away from TV writing. But the camaraderie, the (relatively) contained nature of a 90-page script... plus what I imagine to be the bazillions of dollars you are paid for writing episodic TV... they are all very appealing. But on the other hand, as I say, the hoops you have to jump through, from what I have seen and heard, would make me homicidal. For instance, I have always wanted to made an HBO-style series (lots of swearing and sex and frontal nudity, etc.) about the Siege of Quebec (the summer of 1759), and the various lunatics who were involved in that historic and globally important nightmare (manic Wolfe, depressive Montcalm, sleazy Vaudreuille, the nuns sleeping with soldiers and tending the wounded, 60 cannon balls an hour falling on the city) — that always struck me as a natural TV series. But every time I raise it the conversation devolves into a gnashing about why so-and-so would never finance it. I'd rather be writing.
2. Karen Solie asks, "What do you do for fun? If you think writing is fun, what else do you do?"
I ski — back-country stuff, anywhere I can, mountains, hills, ravines in the city. Climbing up on skins and swooshing down. If I can't ski or bike or walk or run or paddle, I can't sit still. I read, too — as a journalist you have to read tons of stuff you don't really want to read, or that isn't very well written, and next to that agony the pleasure of reading a play or poetry or a novel or a beautifully turned essay is like a vacation. I paint watercolours, very badly, but it's a whole other, physical way of perceiving, so I love that. And I love to look at paintings. I am thinking of taking up the piano. And I love to wander around. There are very few pastimes that give me more pleasure than exploring some town or countryside or part of the city I don't know, wandering into bookstores and bars and open houses, with no plan, beyond what turns up.
3. Camilla Gibb asks, "Do you have an unpublished novel lying about somewhere?"
I wish I did: My single greatest regret, beyond not knowing how to play the piano, is that I haven't written one. I have a couple of extremely long short stories in a drawer that probably qualify as premature novels. I'm pretty sure they should stay there.
4. Jalal Barzanji asks, "How did you feel when you finished your most recent book?"
Nervous. Sixty, my latest, is a bit of an experiment for me, an attempt to chronicle a stretch of life between two somewhat artificial markers: my 60th and 61st birthdays. I had a sense that things were changing, though I was of course in full denial that anything was changing. But I didn't know what was going to "happen," and so I had to leave the drama to reveal itself, and that gave me the serious jimjams. It all had a rather Bernhardian feel — and that is not a good feeling to have! And something did happen, as it turned out — but not what I thought would happen. I'm so used to writing highly structured stories, based on real external events, that writing something that was structured only by time passing... freaked me out. Also, it's a very candid book in a lot of ways, without the filter of invention, and that was harrowing. And I worry about the reception, though of course I worry about that less than I worried about it a year ago. (Because it's finished now: I have at least that to be happy about.)
I think one of the interesting things that happens as you get older as a writer is that you stop worrying quite as much, because the compulsion to write as much as you can before it's too late becomes stronger than one's fear of failure. Finally! It's liberating. Of course, you have to be careful, because as you get older, as a writer, you also get scared about how fast the time is passing, and this tempts you to cover more ground, which means you skip details. And that's always a terrible mistake. So the strange and counterintuitive and rather beautiful trick is that, when you feel the urge to speed up, you actually have to deliberately slow down, instead. And pay even more attention to the things that we otherwise ignore. This in turn makes everything feel ripe and almost bursting. Significant but also sad. The finite nature of existence, and all. Who knew that very finitude would make all this seem so valuable? Not me. I was, as I say, in full denial.
5. Jane Urquhart asks, "If you were forced at gunpoint to give up either reading or writing, which would it be?"
Impossible question. My first thought was, writing: At least that way I could continue to read great work. Whereas the odds of writing great work... not so good. But the compulsion to write is a very strange and powerful and irrational thing, without much regard for any other smarter and more civilized considerations. I have decided to quit writing about, oh, I don't know, six million times in my life? And it is always precisely when I finally give up, and abandon a writing project, and have finally filled out the form to be a greeter at Walmart (because what else has a life as a writer qualified me for?)... then and only then do I have a sudden flash of inspiration and figure out what I need to do to finish the writing. So, in all honesty, I cannot say which I would give up. But the intelligent answer would be writing, so I could read the known and established great work of others.
6. Rudy Wiebe asks, "Who helped you most in becoming a writer? How?"
Complicated question. I came from a decisively non-literary family (books were considered bad for one's health because they kept you inside) so my first writing influences were outsiders — teachers who made me realize how much pleasure books and reading gave me. Eventually I figured out that I wanted to try to give others the same pleasure writing gave me. So Miss Wilkie in Grade 5 and Mr. Humble in Grade 13 were important: They made me think my enthusiasm for reading and writing were okay, permissible. I had a great editor on my first job, Dalton Robertson, who loved good writing, and encouraged it as much as he encouraged thorough reporting: that helped. Tom Wolfe's stuff, the reporting more than the novels, just amazed me. That someone could write about... buttonholes, or astronauts, or cars... in such a lively way, was a revelation. Joan Didion, ditto. Ian Frazier, ditto. James Joyce, ditto. Philip Roth, because he could write about anything, and did. John McPhee, ditto. Some very good friends who were also very fine writers, who taught me to trust my instincts more than I had been trained to, and some very good friends who were very fine editors, who convinced me that a reporter should be an individual, a distinct set of eyes, seeing what a single set of eyes see — in other words, that reporting could be personal and still be universal.
I think in the end, for ambitious nonfiction writers as much as for novelists, you have to have faith that this strange undertaking is worth it and will come to something, that it's worth writing, if only for its own sake, despite all the evidence to the contrary. So anyone who helps you make that leap of faith becomes crucial to the enterprise. Anne Collins, my editor. My brother, who lets me go to his place by the sea to write, because he believes it's worth trying. My wife — partly because she's a superb writer herself — and now my daughter, too. They both tell me to keep going. I'll never be able to repay them for that. Sometimes I think faith and confidence are the whole trick.
7. Alexi Zentner asks, "Do you ever bribe yourself to write? What with?"
Yes, with television. I used to work late into the night, and would reward myself with the chance to go to bed. But I can't do that anymore, so I get up early and write every morning. Then I go to work, and then I come home, and if I have a deadline, or am involved in some massive thing, I work until dinner. I try to get enough done that I can go upstairs and watch a couple of hours of Masters of Sex or Our Friends in the North or Catastrophe with Johanna Schneller, my wife. We banter about the shows as we go, and she knows all the necessary background. It's so much nicer than writing.
8. Graeme Smith asks, "As the American performance artist Laurie Anderson said: 'What I really want to know is: Are things getting better? Or are they getting worse?'"
Depends who wins the election. But seriously? I think better. I realize I may be delusional. I discovered in the course of writing my new book, Sixty, which is about turning sixty, that the aging brain changes in certain ways that bias it towards optimism. It's basically a coping mechanism, after your brain has to start relying on several parts of the brain to accomplish what when you were younger one part could do on its own; for reasons that nobody really understands, the compensating brain feels the need to see the glass half full. I'm not saying talent improves as you get older; that seems to be an individual thing, though there are lots and lots of artists whose work improved after 50, after 60, after 70. But my desire to keep trying, to keep describing this and that, to put in words the thing that all my life my heart has sought that I have not yet been able to name? That still seems to be there, longing and lunging as much as ever. Nowadays, if I try and fail and try again, you can go ahead and say, you failed. But it doesn't bother me any more. I am less worried about what other people think, and more concerned about getting it down.