Guy Vanderhaeghe on how he wrote Daddy Lenin and Other Stories
In 1987, the CanLit community was rocked when a beginning writer took the Governor Generals' Literary Award for his first book, a gritty and explosive collection of short stories entitled Man Descending. Almost three decades later, with only one other short story collection since (1992's Things As They Are), Guy Vanderhaeghe has returned to the form that started it all. This interview was originally broadcast on October 26, 2015.
LONG TIME COMING
One could say that this collection had a long gestation period. It took fifteen years to be born. The beginning of Daddy Lenin and Other Stories actually occurred in an organic way—over the years, a number of magazines had asked me to write short stories for them. The collection began with four short stories that had been published in magazines. And I began to think, well, if I sat down and applied myself, I could complete a collection of short stories. And that idea excited me because I was becoming intensely interested in the short story again. When I began to review the stories that had been published, I had the feeling that perhaps there was a common thread that was running through them. I'm 64 years old, and being this age, one begins to reflect upon your past. It seemed to me that partly what the collection could be about was the germ of the adult that was in the adolescent. I had a sense that I was drawing a picture of people developing over the course of forty years.
I've never been able to write anywhere except my home. In the last thirty years I've never gone to a writer's retreat, or been able to scribble in a hotel room. I need to be at home to write and maybe because of that my workspace is incredibly messy. I have paper on the floor, I have books piled up, I have rough drafts that I've run off on a printer that are marked up, I occupy chaos. But the odd thing is that I actually know amidst that chaos where everything is. It's only when I tidy up that I lose things.
The most powerful motivation for me with stories actually begins with the voice of the main character. If I get the voice solid, or I think that I've got it solid, then I can let the narrative progress. One of the stories in this collection, "Counselor Sally Takes Me to the Tunnel," is a first-person narration, but it ended up being very much told through two voices. It involves a man, a teacher, who's almost at the point of retirement. The school wants to force retirement on him, but he doesn't want to go under compulsion. So part of the deal that's worked out is that he will go to a counsellor and be evaluated on his fitness to teach. While he's with the counsellor, he begins to talk about an uncle of his who had a profound influence on him. In my mind, it's one of the stranger stories in the collection, because what begins as a story that's about the teacher actually turns into a story about the uncle who had so much impact on who this teacher became.
KERNEL OF INSPIRATION
In writing short stories, my process tends to be different than it is with a novel. I find that the impetus for the narrative in a short story can virtually be anything. It can be an image, it can be a line of dialogue that enters my head, it can be a scene that I picture of people doing some sort of physical activity, so I begin with that and then I try and follow that wherever it takes me. So when I write short stories, there's not very much mapping out in the process. I find that there's more intuition involved in the writing of a short story than there is in writing a novel. For me, it's more dangerous to begin a novel without some fairly firm idea about where it's going than it is with a short story. So in my case, writing short stories feels freer than writing a novel because I'm reacting more to whatever I'm discovering on the page as I write it.