Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Pasha Malla on mining the low points and finding inspiration in street art

The author of People Park answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Pasha Malla is the author of the novel People Park. (House of Anansi Press)

Pasha Malla was born in St. John's, Nfld., grew up in London, Ont., and now lives in Toronto. His debut novel, People Park, was shortlisted for the First Novel Award.

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

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?"

Each project I work on, be it a short story or something longer, tends to have its own influences. My novel, People Park, borrowed (selectively, and sometimes cluelessly) from the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, Guy Debord, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Rancierre and Maurice Blanchot; the paintings of Goya (particularly "Disasters of War") and the street art of Dan Witz; the music of Wu-Tang Clan, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Slint and Mobb Deep. And lots of movies, too.

2. Sharon Butala asks, "What do you think of the age-old notion that the best writing comes out of a life led outside the bourgeoisie, where so-called "rules" of normal middle-class life are deliberately broken and impulse is your guide, rather than duty or convention?"

I'm going to ignore the possibility that rich people might write "better" than the rest of us, because we all know that a) rich people don't write, they produce movies and finance political campaigns, and b) writers grow more boring the richer they get. On the less fortunate side of the middle class, suggesting poor people are somehow better suited to challenge artistic conventions risks romanticizing poverty — I mean, whose life is more constrained than the single mom working three jobs to feed her kids? But mainly I wonder how many authors these days are leading a life "outside the bourgeoisie." Writing (and, to some extent, reading) fiction has become a practice almost exclusive to the middle classes. Maybe this is why so many of our novels are so predictably uniform. That said, if we look at something like hip hop, the only current art form whose practitioners, or at least some proportion of them, come from poverty and, with success, often skip the middle-income ranges directly to absurd wealth, we see the same tendency toward strictures and codes, and the same emergence of homogeneity. But within any art form there are always innovators who challenge the dominant mode, regardless of class; Proust, Kafka, Flaubert, etc. — all born into relative privilege, though not riches, yet their work far transcended and exceeded that of their contemporaries. And Kanye grew up middle class, too. 

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?"

I would be hard-pressed to think of anything I've written that hasn't in some way springboarded from "a real incident" (as well as the unreal and surreal ones, too) in my life, or at least tried to get at the emotional essence of some lived experience. I'm more interested in that, anyway, than merely recording things that have happened to me and foisting these transcriptions on readers. Some writers are great at using their day-to-day more explicitly and literally, but I'm not one of them. 

4. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? Can you tell us about that, if you feel comfortable doing so? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"

I only trust the low points. The low points push you forward. The high points are illusions and fantasies to be mistrusted and "got out of" by pushing deeper until you feel low again. That's where the good stuff happens, I think: in that dark, bleak trough of self-doubt and fear.

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

I have no idea what the publishing industry should be doing, other than publishing and celebrating fewer shitty books. The prospect that the survival of any art form depends on its mode of distribution seems extremely glum, and will only be actualized the more writers worry about this sort of thing. A writer should focus on his or her work and leave the market forecasts to the pundits and naysayers. No real writer will stop writing if the publishing industry collapses; writers will always find some means of connecting their work with readers. Maybe this is naïve — fancifulness being one privilege of making up stories for a living — but I truly believe that all we should worry about is writing good books.

6. Peter Robinson asks, "How important is the sense of place in your work?" 

Depends what is meant by "place." Since I've tended toward writing about exterior experience over interior contemplation, I would say "place" is pretty important in that my stuff tends to be about people moving through or at least inhabiting physical space in the world. (Though I think "psychological writers" would argue that the mind is equally valid as a "place," too, right?) But "place" as some geographical signifier, viz. regionalism, nationalism or engaging with conversations about identity as a construct of the towering mountains of your hometown, etc., is not something I've written about yet… Though I do like this passage, from Thomas Bernhard's Gathering Evidence: "I spent the first year of my life, except the first few days, entirely on the sea — not by the sea but on the sea — a fact which constantly gives me cause for reflection and has affected me in every way. All my life it will remain of enormous importance to me. Fundamentally I am a child of the sea: it is only when I am by the water that I can breathe properly, let alone think properly. Naturally no impressions of this period have remained with me; nonetheless I think that my time spent on the sea has affected the whole course of my life. Sometimes, when I breathe in the smell of the sea, I have the feeling that this smell is the earliest thing I remember."

7. Greg Hollingshead asks, "How much — and what — do you think about the massive upheavals in the world of writing and publishing caused first by 9/11 and then by the digital revolution?"

I'm a bit baffled as to which "massive upheavals" 9/11 caused in the world of writing and publishing — I mean, beyond the industry experiencing the same economic fallout suffered in every realm of business, from sneakers to submarines. I think about those planes sometimes, though, and the firemen, and the people jumping out the WTC windows. And "9/11" as a metonym for a certain cultural anxiety that has destabilized the comfort of Western living — sure, I think about that a lot. And I feel similarly neurotic about the Internet, particularly around how it caricaturizes — and reveals the fragility and inherent fabrication of — identity, as well as what seems the eschatological outcome to both systems: collapse, disaster — though, let's hope, with something new and necessary emerging out the other side.

8. 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?"

How far is the interview from my house? That long. When the interview publishes or runs, however, and I see or hear what I said, either edited and recast into some completely unrecognizable version of myself, or, more likely, just plain inarticulate and embarrassing and dumb — that's when I despair, get drunk, irritate my friends, and become useless for days.