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Short Stories: An Interview with Novelist Dennis Bock

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This article appears in Vol I., Issue III of Raconteur Literary Magazine, our in-house LitMag (available December 2019). Interviewed by Tevis Shkodra.

Tevis Shkodra: Dennis, tell us about the first story you wrote—how old were you and what was it about?

Dennis Bock: If you’re asking about the first good story I wrote, well, that’s a whole different question than if you were to ask about the first story I wrote, or tried to write.

There’re too many to remember, those pages you’re turned on by when you’re looking for your voice and subject matter, casting your net as wide as you can.

It’s an important time for a beginning writer—that time when you’re experimenting with form and voice and structure and falling in love with the masters of the genre. Cheever. Ford. Munro. Wolff. Hemingway. Gallant.

I read these writers and did my best to rip them off as well as I could. Which was never well enough, of course. But you’ve got to read and try to take what you can from the masters, and in trying you might finally stumble onto something that you might call your own.

At long last I wrote a good story. I might have been twenty-four or twenty-five. It’s the first story in my first book. It has something to do with childhood memories, which I think serves a lot of starting writers.

I sent it to Canadian Fiction Magazine, now sadly defunct, and got an acceptance letter back. I was over the moon.

TS: What was the moment when you knew you had to be a writer?

DB: Hard to say. I don’t think there was any sort of lightning strike. I started reading novels late as a kid, at fifteen or sixteen. But when I finally came into my own, it felt like a world I’d been missing all my life without even knowing it.

I started admiring writers more than I did all those singers and guitar players who’d wowed me for so long. It wasn’t like I admired writers for the fact that they were writers, though. All that romantic nonsense. I admired them for the books they wrote.

When I fell into a great novel there was nothing better I knew. No song or record could match the feeling that came over me when I settled into a Truman Capote or Somerset Maugham or Lawrence Durrell novel or collection.

I guess it slowly dawned on me that I’d love to try my hand at it. What could be better than having a book of your own? Maybe it offered me a place to inhabit that was purely my own. (I grew up in a house busy with lots of brothers.)

I asked my dad for a typewriter. It was this big, loud, electric cast-iron Smith-Corona that rattled the house when its keys slammed against the platen.

I think it was DH Lawrence who said graffiti is the common man’s stab at immortality. Something like that. I think most writers have some need to see their experience live on beyond their own best-before date.

As a teenager I was being affected by books whose authors had died decades earlier, and it was like they were reaching out from the grave and grabbing me by the throat. I thought that was pretty cool. I wanted to write something that might do the same.

TS: Where do you get your ideas for your stories and what is your process to develop these ideas into stories?

DB: For me, most of my good writing starts with a voice on the page. It’s something about the voice that leads to a search for the character who might be the owner of that voice.

There’s a feeling that comes over you when you know you’ve got an authentic voice happening. It feels right. You know you’re not faking it. Once you have that on the page the search begins, and before too long you catch up with the character who’s speaking that voice.

Slowly you figure out his or her life, their family, who they love and hate, the things that scare them and the things they love. And these things lead you to some bigger concern that’s roped them into the story you end up telling about them.

Plot for me always comes as a consequence of the meeting of voice and character. Do it the other way around, you’ll end up writing something that feels forced.

I see that all the time in the creative writing classes I teach—novice writers shoe-horning cardboard characters into pre-baked plots. It never works. Lead with voice and character. Everything else falls into place after that if you stay with it long enough.

In describing his writing process, Dennis Lee talks about starting from a place of “notional ignorance.” I love that. What I think he means is letting language take you places you’re not expecting to go as a writer.

Clear your mind and follow the rhythms of your sentences. Interrogate the pauses. Slip into the mystery. Leave behind your prejudices. That’s where you can be surprised. That’s where the good writing happens.

TS: Can someone learn to become a storyteller? If so, where can they start?

DB: Yes. You can learn the writer’s craft over time. And you can learn to write well. Learning to write well is the hardest part of learning. You can teach yourself the various ways to put a story together, for example.

You can learn structure and when to use present tense versus past tense. The various rules of storytelling. But only your love of reading great writers, and then writing yourself, will help you become a better writer.

TS: What changes have you noticed in the world of being a novelist over the years?

DB: I don’t really consider myself part of the publishing world, and I can’t talk about trends as well as other people might be able to. But it seems to me that publishers aren’t as willing as they used to be to take on challenging books.

The market dictates what happens in editorial more than it used to, I think. There’s more pressure than ever to sign books that are as close to a sure thing, sales-wise, as possible.

Editors are aware of the bean-counters upstairs more than they used to be.

TS: What common mistakes do you see new writers make and what is one tip you have?

DB: A lazy narrator notices the obvious and walks past opportunities to get into the complicated emotional and psychological workings of a character.

Novice writers end up writing what amounts to a film treatment when in fact they’re trying to write a novel. Why? Because film treatments stay on the surface, skipping along as the writer hops from plot point to plot point.

Staying on the surface is the easiest thing in writing, and it’s a fatal flaw. It’s a result of watching too much Netflix and not reading enough. Most movies and TV is all surface.

Fiction writers do something with narrative that screen writers don’t. We work texture into our characters. We go in and stay there. Screen writers have to show all that. We get to tell. And that’s where the narrative layering comes from.

We don’t have to show our protagonist punching the wall to get the idea across that he’s pissed off. We can slip into his head and heart and articulate for the reader just what it is that’s tearing him apart.

TS: What are the biggest publishing challenges for writers today and how can new writers break through?

DB: Write the book you want to write. Don’t write for the market or what you think an editor is looking for. You’ll get it wrong if you do.

There’re worse things than not getting published. And one of them is writing a crappy book because you think it’ll appeal to a readership you yourself don’t even belong to.

Try to write the sort of book that made you fall in love with reading and writing in the first place. If that’s Harry Potter, then knock your socks off. If it’s Henry James, beautiful.
 

TS: What are your all-time favourite literary magazines?

DB: The New Yorker. Paris Review. Harpers. Then all the Canadian literary journals we should all read and support.

TS: What are you reading right now and what’s one book you recommend everyone read?

DB: I think Michael Crummey’s new novel, The Innocents, is a masterpiece. And Days by Moonlight, Andre Alexis’ new novel, is brilliant, too. Read those guys.

 


Dennis Bock is a Canadian novelist and short story writer, lecturer at the University of Toronto, travel writer and book reviewer. His novel Going Home Again was published in Canada by HarperCollins and in the US by Alfred A. Knopf in August 2013. It was shortlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. His newest novel will be released in August 2020.

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