Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Russell Smith on his literary hot tub fantasy

The Writers' Trust Fiction Prize finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Russell Smith is the author of Confidence, a collection of short stories. (Jowita Bydlowska)

As a columnist for the Globe and Mail, Russell Smith's insights have made him a household name. But that public persona can sometimes gets in the way of his fiction — like his short story collection Confidence — as some readers have trouble separating the man from his myths. 

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

1. Alison Pick asks, "How would you most like to be remembered?"

As a very good minor writer. Most of all I would like people to think I was funny. 

2. Andrew Pyper asks, "Have you ever been surprised — deeply and honestly shocked — by the violence of a reader's reaction to your work, whether positive or negative?"

I am of course always shocked if someone doesn't like it! I had one review of my last book that was so hysterically and thoroughly negative that one could only conclude that there was something personal going on — that I myself, maybe what I represented in the reviewer's imagination or personal history, was causing the reaction. It stood out because the book was generally very well-received — every other review was largely or entirely positive. One thinks in these cases that there is some kind of fundamental ideological opposition to my esthetic, a kind of aesthetic allergy. My grandmother was nauseated by the smell of oranges; I have never met anyone else who hated them so.

3. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "Do you know how your short stories will end when you begin writing?"

I always sit down and make notes when I have the kernel of an idea for a story, and I take some time figuring out how it is going to end before I start to write. So yes, I do. That isn't to say that a new ending may not occur to me, and the whole thing may change as I am writing.

4. JJ Lee asks, "Superman or Batman?"

Batman very obviously: he has no magic superpowers; he is self-made and self-trained. He is a human. And talk about a better dress sense.

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

My dad was a university professor of English. That's about the long and short of it.

6. Sharon Butala asks, "Do you know how the heck we separate the writer-self from the writer's life, that is, the writing from the writer's person?"

I have a lot of trouble with this question. I have a rather flamboyant public life and used to dress in a flashy way and am something of an exhibitionist (in every sense, even in a sexual one). I have always had this vague idea that one should live one's life as a work of art. I confuse things even more by writing a weekly national newspaper column in which I express strong views on other people's art, and of course my own art is going to be viewed through this tainted lens. I can hardly expect people, even literary critics, to ignore this persona when they grapple with my fiction. 

And yet I naively hope that they will. The fiction is just that — an imaginary world, and a game of language. I see my fiction for the most part as a technical and aesthetic exercise in the use of language and I always naively hope that analysts will focus of that instead of on themes or politics or how it echoes what I said once in a newspaper column or who I dated in 1995. I quite understand writers who want to disappear from public life and refuse to do interviews — one tends to be judged on those much more readily than on one's fiction. But we are told we cannot sell books without a persona, without a face — without, in short, doing long questionnaires about one's non-literary self, such as this one. 

And when one is interviewed in the media or at a book club, supposedly about one's work, one is always asked about the ideas in it instead of about its sentences, as if it were an essay or argument. In other words, if I write about a fictitious man's desire, I am always asked to explain men in general. Of course my book is not about men in general and I am not a sociologist so I am ill-qualified to answer. I gamely play along, though, because people seem to find talk about sentences boring. And at least it draws attention to the book. 

It's a real dilemma. I don't know how to solve it.

7. Vincent Lam asks, "For you — what does the 'Ultimate Literary Event' look like?"

It would take place in a sex club. There would be a hot tub. With a little luck, Camilla Gibb would be in it.

8. David McGimpsey asks, "If you were to pair your latest book with a signature cocktail, what is that cocktail called and what's it made of?"

I am so not a cocktail guy — my favourite drink is Islay Scotch with a tiny splash of water and so cocktails all taste slightly too sweet for me. But really the fun in cocktails is the naming of them, right? I would like to see a drink called a Flanger, that would taste like techno (vodka, candy floss and chloroform, perhaps?). The one to match my book would be the Apology; it would be bittersweet and taste of regret. Chartreuse, white wine and zopiclone?


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