Lover of all things Italian
Writer in the most prolific sense
A stunning collection of short fiction: ‘Standing At An Angle To My Age’
An equally stunning number of published stories
Quirky (in his very own way)
Spectacles I would nick if A. they were the same prescription as mine and B. if I thought I could get away with it (I wouldn’t)
And again with the good hair (how do they do it?)
1. What is the most satisfying element of what you’re working on now?
I find that, at present, I am deriving more pleasure from writing dialogue than ever before. Indeed I feel that, just maybe, I am starting to “get it” in this vexed and troubled area. Most writers would agree that dialogue is enormously challenging. When it doesn’t work, the inauthenticity leaps out to the reader immediately and registers on the ear with a loud clang. Writing dialogue is a strange and mysterious exercise. If one were simply to transcribe, verbatim, what is said in ordinary discourse, the transcription would generally not make for good reading. The writer thus must intervene and do something to imagined actual discourse to convert it into dialogue fit for a novel or a story. The challenge is to take actual patterns of real speech and, unobtrusively and using a form of writerly alchemy, adjust them just enough to make them scan properly but without compromising authenticity.
2. Any interesting, odd or captivating writing rituals?
Like many writers did during their early years, I used to believe that conditions had to be carefully orchestrated and perfectly arranged to allow for the writing to flow. You know—the dedicated space, the closed door, the sepulchral silence, the burning candle, the long stretch of time with no other claims on one’s time or attention. The trouble is, our busy lives furnish us with few occasions when all of the strands come together perfectly in that way and if we wait for them to do so we will make far less progress on our fictional projects than we ought to. So, I will turn this question on its head. I have in recent years consciously sought to renounce the illusory need for writing rituals. I have taught myself to slip writing into the interstitial spaces that appear, here and there, across the span of my generally very busy professional and family life. Once a story has begun, I will try to work on it whenever the opportunity arises, on trains and planes and in all manner of noisy places that are full of distractions. If a block of fifteen free minutes presents itself and I have my companionable MacBook to hand, I will seize those minutes to write. Having found that my earlier insistence upon rituals and ideal conditions was unnecessarily limiting, I can say that I feel greatly liberated in having cast them off.
3. Is there a subject you would love to write about but haven’t gotten around to?
There are several. Chief among them at the moment is the notion of being “beholden”—a fascinating subject that has also occupied my fellow Gem Street contributor (both editions), Paul Burns. In the smaller circles within which we conduct our lives, we will most of us eventually witness the awkward and dangerous cross-currents that develop between those upon whom fate and fortune have smiled generously and those to whom fate and fortune have been less generous. When people in such differing circumstances must coexist at close hand—as they do within families or workplaces, for example—such conditions of elemental inequality can sometimes require the better-positioned to come to the assistance of those who are less well-positioned and in need. The necessity for tact and sensitivity is never greater than at such times. Yet, despite best efforts, injured pride can restrain gratitude, just as selfless acts performed in ham-handed but well-meaning ways can demean and provoke unintended but nevertheless justified feelings of hurt. And sometimes those who respond with their assistance do so in ways that are ungracious and not reflective of best efforts; their actions then rightly provoke resentment. What cauldrons! Relationships can and do change under these pressures, and usually not for the better. “I should not have to apologise for my successes, especially to you,” says X to Y. “And I resent your noblesse oblige, and I resent it no less for it being dressed in the finery of unbidden charity,” says Y back to X. The word “beholden” captures one aspect of what can re-define relationships when these fragile, human equilibria are disturbed by the subtle forces set loose by asymmetries in fortune and opportunity. I have a novel taking shape in which I hope to explore fully what it means to be “beholden” and the responsibilities that the more and less fortunate both share to prevent that state, and its unwanted consequences, from taking hold to the detriment of all.
4. What does your writing process look like?
Catch as catch can, I’m afraid (as one of the answers I have given above bears out). Sometimes the opportunities to write are widely spaced, given the other demands I must satisfy each day. But I do try to pounce on those opportunities when they arise and make the most of them.
5. Writing schedule: whip-cracker or easy-does-it?
Somewhere in between, I think. Once a piece of writing has been started, I can be quite disciplined about seizing the moment to sustain its momentum. But I will allow the initial idea to take its own time to gel.
6. Your style is, at times, reminiscent of some of the old classics. Who has inspired you most?
Certainly, I have been inspired by the likes of Dickens, Austen, James and their ilk. But I have been equally inspired by more modern writers like Joyce, Beckett, Woolf, Greene and Waugh. Joyce has furnished me with a lifetime’s cornucopia of enraptured reading. Ulysses especially gives up new insights, the way the bogs toss up preserved bodies, every few years. For literary sustenance, I will however admit that I turn as often to poets as I do to prose writers, and twentieth century poetic works have been if anything more prominent on my reading list than have those from the 19th century and earlier. Eliot, Larkin, Auden—I find that they all draw me back and reward re-reading endlessly. So too does Seamus Heaney who, in so many ways, serves as an ever-present beacon and guide. His “Mid-term Break” is at once the saddest and one of the most hauntingly beautiful poems I have ever read. And then there are Simon Armitage, and Paul Muldoon, and Karen Solie, and Sonnet L’Abbaye, and August Kleinzahler, and … where does one stop? Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti set my pulses racing as a somewhat younger man, but so too did C.P. Snow, Carol Shields, Robertson Davies, Ethel Wilson and Margaret Laurence. We are blessed in Canada with a rich short story tradition. Alice Munro’s is a surpassingly vast and incomparable talent. But we cannot leave out Carol Shields (again), Guy Vanderhaeghe, William C. McConnell, George McWhirter, Cynthia Flood and Beth Goobie to name just a few. That’s the trouble with lists. They are always too short.
7. Are you a conscious or unconscious plotter?
Unconscious, to be sure. Once the right conceptual thread has been tugged by a snatch of overheard conversation or a line in a poem or something else like that, a story will spool out and when it does it takes the direction it takes without much, if any, predetermined structure to guide it. I do not say that this is the proper way, or the best way, to write short fiction. It is just my way. Nor do I say, as some writers (rather preciously) do, that my stories “write themselves”. I just find that the writing process supplies its own evolving set of fictional signposts and that I can usually only ever see a few hundred metres ahead of where I am at any particular point.
8. Are you a dress-up or dress-down writer?
Not sure quite how to answer this question in relation to my writing. I will admit that my actual wardrobe contains the full gamut from pinstriped suits and brogues to black turtleneck sweaters and a wicked pair of pointy black Ghost boots from my rock and roll days. The writing probably stretches, figuratively, from one end to the other of that quirky continuum.
9. Which of the characters you’ve created do you admire most?
That’s difficult but I think it has to be the mother in “Ceann Dubh Dilis” (the first story in Standing at an Angle to My Age). In her quiet but persistent way she creates a special space in her home and family for a helpless, aged and demented neighbour. In the process she teaches her husband and children some important lessons about kindness and love. (This makes the story sound rather sentimental, I know, but I like to think that it is more than that.)
10. What’s the toughest criticism you ever received?
Oh dear. Do I have to relive that? I guess it was an e-mail I received from a literary agent to whom I sent the manuscript of what eventually became my first book of short fiction. The agent declined interest in representing me based on having a quick look at the MS, saying:
We are certainly impressed by your publication record and I see you are a good writer but I'm afraid that the style and subjects of the stories themselves did not appeal. In this time of fewer publishers and many good writers we can only move forward with a few select projects and rarely take fiction collections. [emphasis added]
While I was pleased to be referred to as a “good writer,” I wasn’t sure how that could really be if both the style and the subjects of my stories lacked any appeal. However, as history shows, I did pick myself up, dust myself off and climb back onto the literary fiction horse. Eventually, and without the assistance of an agent, I did find a commercial publisher to bring out Standing at an Angle to My Age and the book has done tolerably well. The moral: be open to criticism but also trust yourself and your own literary judgment.
11. Three words you love.
“Chiaroscuro”. It’s a word borrowed from Italian (my beautiful wife’s beautiful first language) and it conveys the subtle interplay between light and dark—something that I admire greatly in the visual arts, in music and (of course) in literature. Another is “lineament,” referring to a distinctive feature of something. That word has a nice, palpable, physical feel to it. Lastly, I’ll say “compendious”. A “compendious” definition is a definition that is comprehensive, yet concise. It will now be obvious that in my writing I do not come easily to economy of expression; thus I find in the joinder of brevity and completeness that is conveyed by the word “compendious” an elusive virtue.
12. Three words you overuse.
I think I might overuse the adverbs “straightforwardly” and “famously”. I know I overuse the phrase “in any event,”—but it’s so damned useful when pressing ahead with a proposition that may be thought to be unsupportable, given what one has just finished saying (or writing)! Who was it who said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines”?
13. Do you prefer the short story form and if so, why?
I have an abiding love for the short story form. Until I came to know the late William C. McConnell (friend and advisor to the likes of Malcolm Lowry, Margaret Laurence and F.R. Scott, pioneering publisher of Klanak Press, founding editorial board member for PRISM international and author of many fine short stories, some of which have been gathered together in an selection entitled Raise No Memorial), I only respected and admired the short story form. Bill led me to recognise the form’s transcendent power. He encouraged me to read widely within the short fiction genre and he urged me along with my own early efforts as a fledgling short story writer. I am forever in his debt for his mentorship, his friendship and his stellar example. Bill’s much-anthologised “Love in the Park,” is—I believe—one of the finest short stories ever written by a Canadian. And, while I’m at it, I will say that I consider it a great privilege to live in Canada where I am surrounded by so many authors who recognise the value of short fiction and who have so clearly mastered the craft. The short story form is appreciated in this country at a visceral level that, I think, is quite unique. If we were a nation given to honouring our Great Ones with statues, there would be statues of Alice Munro in most Canadian cities. I would not say that the short story is a superior literary form to the novel because the forms are vastly different and such comparisons are inherently invidious. I would say that the potential of the short story form is less well appreciated, globally, than it deserves to be, and that Canadian writers like Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Cynthia Flood, Caroline Adderson, Isabel Huggan, &c., &c. have greatly helped to remedy that.
14. Ever misplace your writing Mojo?
Is so, where does it eventually turn up? Not really. But other things do get in the way sometimes. Once they’ve been cleared, however, the impulse generally returns—like a loyal cat frightened off temporarily by a bit of commotion.
15. When and why did you start writing?
I have been writing ever since I could hold a pencil. Somewhere I have a copy of a poem that I wrote at the age of four or five which was inspired by the peanut butter that I had each day on my morning toast. It is often said that Canadian writers look for and find the extraordinary in the quotidian. Although I have moved on past the wonders of peanut butter, I do still share the view that “ordinary” lives are usually anything but and that, in fact, they can often be perfectly fascinating when examined at close range with a discerning eye. I was always a bookish kid and I remain a bookish adult. Reading has supplied a goodly measure of the joy and satisfaction that I have taken from life and so, I suppose, it was only natural that I should seek to contribute something of my own to that vast inventory of prose and poetry that have fed my sensibilities for as long as I can remember.
16. What have you found to be the most beneficial way to unwind after an intense writing session?
That’s easy. Jazz. We have a ridiculously large collection of music in many genres at home, but it is jazz that best meets my unwinding needs. I love to settle in with, say, Bill Evans, or Tom Harrell, or Tomasz Stanko, or Bill Frisell, or The Hugh Fraser Quintet, or the Pugs and Crows, or the Peggy Lee Band playing in the background. So much of that repertoire is timeless. It continues to give. The 1959 Miles Davis/Gill Evans Porgy and Bess collaboration (for example) has provided endless pleasure since I first came upon it in the early 1970s and it will continue to do so until the end of my days. That arrangement of Porgy and Bess is number one on my Desert Island Discs list. And, I will admit that sometimes the winding down picture is rounded out with a Bombay Sapphire Martini (shaken, not stirred; two Castelvetrano olives; and just a whisper of vermouth): perfection.
17. Favourite place on earth and why?
We love Vancouver (where we live) and I can’t imagine us moving anywhere else. But we spend some time, almost every year, in Italy where my wife’s family originated and where there are many relatives waiting to welcome us on each visit. Italian hospitality is peerless in its warmth, generosity and exuberance and so, apart from Vancouver, the area of the Veneto where San Giorgio di Perlena, Bassano del Grappa and Breganze are all situated is my favourite place on earth. These towns and villages are indescribably beautiful, steeped in history and—most important—they are the places where the members of our boundlessly generous extended family have always greeted us with a spirited and exceedingly warm welcome every time we visit.
18. How did the idea for your story ‘But No, Nothing’, published in this year’s Gem Street: Collector’s Edition come about?
This takes a little explaining. The story addresses, among other things, the destructive potential of inertia in the face of a moral duty to act. Inertia is paralysis and if its grip is not loosened when a compelling need to act is confronted, harm will inevitably result. Inertia and paralysis can be brought on by uncertainty, by a lack of confidence and by the sense (illusory or not) that one is confronted with conflicting duties where the choice as to which one ought to prevail is unclear. I wanted to put characters into a situation where a paralytic inertia could get in the way of responding to a moral imperative so I could see what they would do.
19. What is the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself through writing?
That the teachings and example shown me by my parents, both now deceased, live on within me. I was blessed with happier beginnings than many people whom I know. I was blessed with happier beginnings than many of my fictional characters. I remain grateful for the way I was ushered into this messy world by my mother and my father. That ushering was marked, by turns, with kindness, wisdom, principle and firmness leavened with restraint. It was informed by discerning insight. My mistakes (and I have made many) all come to rest at my own feet and they cannot be attributed to the want of a good upbringing. As I push my characters onto the stages they occupy in my stories, I am constantly reminded that the main fabric of the usually unmentioned moral and ethical backdrop against which those characters’ actions can be assessed by the reader is the one that was supplied to me by my parents.
20. It’s a few years down the road, what are you doing?
I will, by then, have transitioned to a part-time work schedule in my “day job”. This, health permitting, will have opened the door to spending blocks of time abroad, in Italy, Ireland, the UK, France … sometimes with kids and grandson to accompany us. To focus in a little, in the theatre of my mind I see myself sitting in a comfortable chair on the patio outside a long-stay rental house in, say, Marostica or San Giorgio di Perlena—a few short kilometres from at least 15 zii e cugini. My wife is in the chair beside me (we are reading) and our grandson—by then five or six years of age—is playing with a neighbour’s child and astonishing us all with his quick uptake of la lingua italiana. His parents (my daughter and son-in-law) are away in Bassano del Grappa attending a cooking class and are expected back soon. I happen to have returned to Seamus Deane’s brilliant Reading in the Dark for, by then perhaps, the third time—marvelling anew at its remarkable lyricism and intricate and clever plot structure. My own writing for the day will have finished earlier in the afternoon and as the sun sets we will all soon be preparing to set off in our rented Alfa Romeo Giulietta to Icio e Paola’s Pizzeria for dinner. That’s what I see myself doing a few years down the road, health permitting. Che bella vita!
You can get full details of the author's work at www.PWBridgman.ca