Walker Pityn: You’ve written novels, plays, a collection of poems, short stories, and non-fiction. With such an expansive and experienced body of creative work, how do you find your writing ambitions have shifted through time and experience? Are you more inclined to write in a particular form of literature now than you were before?
Bill Gaston: I’ve had a long career, and have been blessed, or cursed, with some degree of skill in all the forms—I used to think of the “jack of all, master of none” expression, and wince—so, yes, I’ve done a lot of shifting. My first book was a collection of poems, but somewhere along the way I learned that any poetic word-spasm I suffered could be put to good use in a sentence in a story I was writing. So I suspect I was never a poet to begin with. Similarly, I started writing plays and screenplays, I think mostly because I love writing dialogue, but then I became frustrated by the collaboration required in both those forms. I’m enough of a control freak that that degree of collaboration was painful. But it wasn’t just that—with fiction, I was able to sit back and imagine that anyone reading my work was experiencing exactly what I intended them to experience—they got all my jokes, they understood the objective correlatives, they were intrigued by my characters just as I was intrigued by them—which is all a delusion on my part, of course, but one I continue to enjoy. So fiction was it. Over the years I’ve published seven novels and seven collections of stories, with two more novels in my bottom drawer that will never see the light of day. And that might be it for novels. A short story needs only a seed to get it going but a novel needs a whole garden plot, and I just may have run out of those. So, it’s stories now. I still love writing stories, and apparently I’m better at them—three collections have been up for national awards, but no such accolades for the novels. Finally (I’m sorry for such a long answer to this question but, again, this has been a long career), I’ve turned to non-fiction, which in my case means memoir. I’m currently framing up a third. By “framing” I mean plotting, and voice. While memoir, and non-fiction in general, is in some sense easier to write because all you need to do is write what happened, but you do have to work very hard to make what happened interesting.
WP: In our previous discussions, you’ve mentioned that you both plot out your stories as well as write as you go. Could you speak on this process a bit more and why this process is effective for you? Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers struggling to find what works for them in their creative process?
BG: First I’ll just say that every writer needs to find the process that best works for them, because there isn’t any right or wrong. It’s all about setting a stage for inspiration. For instance, some need a special room, time of day, type of beverage, etc., and some need a more chaotic opposite of all that. I had one phase where words would come most easily if I was in a noisy, crowded, clattering cafeteria where I worked at my day job, a university. It’s the same with process itself, and whether it’s best to plot the whole thing out or just plunge blindly in and hope for the best, because again there’s no right or wrong. There’s an upside and a downside to both the planned and the spontaneous approaches. If the whole idea is plotted out and the dramatic and emotional movements well-conceived, it’ll probably get written and be good but, in the writing of it, how many opportunities were missed? How good could it have been, artistically? Then, the other way, just plunging in and going line by line, is exhilarating and by definition open to all and every opportunity, but will it find a good shape? This method can be doubly scary if it’s a novel, because you might give years of your life to it and it goes nowhere. Not that writing is ever a waste, but. In any case, I’ve found that a combination of both ways can be best. I often come up with a “bendable structure,” meaning that, once I have an interesting character who’s in an interesting dilemma, it’s a solid enough foundation to proceed with. Just like a reader, I sit there and see this interesting person with their interesting problem and I wonder how they might solve it. I have to say that maybe the biggest joy I take from writing is the surprise of a good sentence, but also the surprise of your character doing something you never imagined, or planned.
WP: As writers, so much of our writing—if not all of it—comes from our own experiences and engagements with the world. From our conversations this past summer and from snooping around the internet a bit, it really does seem like you’ve had a plethora of life experiences to help shape and guide your writing. What I’m particularly interested in now is how those experiences are utilized in writing over time. Does your attention lie more in the subtle details or scenes from perhaps a memory, or do you abstract larger themes from your experiences? Or both?
BG: It’s true that I have done a lot of different things in my life, and I suppose because of that I have many colours to paint with, but let me say that this is just background, and no life is any better than any other in terms of what might be called “material.” I encountered a saying, which I half believe, which is, by the time you’re twelve you have enough experience to write for the rest of your life. Again I only half-believe that, because at twelve you don’t have much experience with such things as sex or failure or wine pairing. But every life has its own plethora of detail, and its own core of confidence and suffering. Life is hard, and a person who is alone their entire life simply has a different reservoir of material, and palette, than someone who lives surrounded by children and friends. It’s all about finding the interesting dilemma, and those are everywhere. Then it tests your ability to see deeply and vividly, and then translate what you’ve seen into words. And then it depends on whether readers understand your particular translation. You don’t have much control over that, other than that both seeing and translating can and must be practiced, and learned. Some can fling open those two doors with genius, but most of us have to keep knocking, and hunting for those keys under the mat.
WP: Your writing has been described as humorous, gentle, zany, spiritual, absurd and many other descriptors. As a writer (me) who struggles with getting out of the confines of the world that I live in, I wonder if you could share how you tap into an ‘otherness’ or the ‘unconventional’? Is it a morphing of something concrete and grounded?
BG: “Morphing” is a good word for what I sometimes do, or did. When I lead workshops in creative thinking I refer to it as “artful exaggeration,” and sometimes its sibling, “artful incongruity.” Artful exaggeration is simply taking something ordinary, or even deadly-ordinary, like a cliché, and nudging it back into the light. Many of the details of my first novel, Tall Lives, were pretty much driven—or morphed—with this technique. I wanted to write a love story, but the romantic story had been told a billion times, so I ventured into a story of two brothers, twins, identical twins, which is itself a cliché. So I decided to magnify, or exaggerate, the cliché. One twin was good—so good that he might thank an elevator when it opened its doors to him, so good and fair that he became a Canadian Football League referee—and the other was bad, so bad that he stole whatever he could steal, treated people badly just because, and sabotaged his brother whenever he could. Not only that, but they were born conjoined, or “Siamese” twins, but joined, impossibly, at the big toe. Not only that, but their horrible father, a vet who wanted to be a doctor, believes it was his fault they were joined, blaming his hubris after demanding that he, a lowly vet, deliver his own children (even though they weren’t) in his backyard clinic. Then he saws them apart. Since he’s drunk, one toe ends up a bit longer and the other a bit shorter, resulting in their respective goodness and badness. And on it goes. Like all identical twins, they share emotions telepathically, but in their case through their severed toes. Havoc, marriage, adultery, and prison ensues. Now, since those early days when I didn’t care much for realism, I’ve dialed this technique back, towards not only realism but subtlety, or less garishness anyway. Back then, a childhood bully might have all molars in his mouth. These days, I might create a bully with teeth that are noticeably yellowed, and uniformly very small.
WP: Finally, is there anything you would like to share with the writing world about any upcoming work?
BG: As it happens, just this morning I sent my new collection of linked stories to my agent. Who knows how long before it’s in stores? In any case, it’s called Gavel Island.
Bill Gaston taught Creative Writing at the U of New Brunswick (and edited The Fiddlehead, Canada’s oldest literary journal) then at the U of Victoria, where he retired as Professor Emeritus in 2020. His eighteen books have garnered nominations for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award and Charles Taylor Prize, and won the Ethel Wilson Prize, Relit Award, a CBC Prize and the inaugural Timothy Findley Prize for a body of work. He lives with writer Dede Crane on Gabriola Island in the Salish Sea.
Walker Pityn is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, where he writes poetry and realistic fiction. His stories explore coming of age, codependency, and anticipatory anxiety. His work has been published in in medias res. He is a contributing editor at ARC Poetry magazine.