Rod Carley’s first novel, A Matter of Will, was a finalist for the 2018 Northern Lit Award for Fiction. His short story, “A Farewell to Steam,” was featured in the non-fiction anthology, 150 Years Up North and More, in 2018. His short story, Botox and the Brontosaurus, appears in Volume I of the online magazine Cloud Lake Literary. Rod is also an award-winning director, playwright, and actor, having directed and produced over 100 theatrical productions to date, including fifteen adaptations of Shakespeare. He was the 2009 winner of TVO’s Big Ideas/Best Lecturer competition. Kinmount is his second novel. www.rodcarley.ca.
1 – How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I didn’t have to worry about Christmas gifts that year.
Critics and readers gave A Matter of Will a positive reception. It gave me the boost I needed to continue writing. My new novel, KINMOUNT, is similar to my first novel in that theatre serves as a backdrop for much of the action – more so in my new novel. A Matter of Will is the story of a picaresque rogue who goes on a journey of self-discovery and finds redemption. It takes place over thirty years. KINMOUNT unfolds over a fast and furious three weeks. The protagonist, Dave Middleton, a down-and-out stage director, has no such journey – rather he is a human pinball bouncing off the obstacles being tossed in his way and trying not “tilt”!
2 – How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I began reading fiction as a child, starting with the good Doctor. On Beyond Zebra opened up wild new worlds of possibilities for my hungry and overactive imagination. I read voraciously throughout high school, university, continuing into my adult life.
In my last year of high school I began writing poetry, and wrote many teen-angst abstract missives. I stumbled upon my old poetry journal last year and had a good laugh visiting my younger self and his clunky, tortured verse of unrequited love. Of course, I thought they were brilliant at the time. While at York University in the Acting/ Directing Program in the mid-eighties, I minored in Creative Writing and was fortunate enough to have bpNichol as my instructor. He was a generous and inspiring wild man. My imagination was set on fire and my poetic output improved. I’d meet him for a coffee now and then after I graduated, and it was always good to see him. He was very encouraging of young writers. His tragic early death in 1988 robbed us of one of Canada’s leading experimental writers.
I have spent thirty-five years working in Canadian theatre as a director, producer, actor, and playwright. Writing dialogue-based fiction is a natural extension of my theatre craft. Similar rules apply. Write characters that are pursuing an objective, encounter obstacles, and have to overcome those obstacles. Write stories where the main characters are tossed into a metaphorical wood chopper and have to somehow survive.
I have written non-fiction articles for academic journals regarding my adaptations of Shakespeare within a modern Canadian context. Certainly my long history of trying to make Shakespeare relevant for audiences and acting students informs Dave Middleton’s methodology in KINMOUNT.
I also enjoy writing an original kind of poetic mash-up I’ve dubbed a Carley-ku. The form was inspired by bp and began as a tribute to him. I write them as gifts for friends and to mark special occasions.
Lines One and Four contain one word and are the topic.
Lines Two and Three each have seven syllables and contain two ideas related to the topic.
Line Two must begin with the first two letters of Line One and end with the last two letters of Line One.
Line Three must begin with the first two letters of Line Four and end with the last two letters of Line Four.
In honour of bp, no capital letters.
call of the wild atwood can
lives unbound nation mature
3 – How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I usually mull an idea over in my head for a few months and make a some rough notes. If I find myself still excited by the idea and returning to it, I know I’m on the right track. Next, I create an outline. I have to know how the story ends. Only then can I figure out how it begins, like a game of reverse dominos – going backward in order to go forward. My first drafts usually take about a year. I wish I could say that I have magically arrived at the final shape and that all I need to do is a little bit of tweaking. But that is not my process. I envy those authors who can have a first draft that polished. I write more than I need. It’s easier to see what is essential and what is superfluous if you have lots to choose from.
My emphasis is on characterization. If they are fully and authentically realized, then the rest will grow organically out of them. I usually begin with dialogue and fill in the details around it. For the first draft, I kill my inner editor. Only when finished, do I do extensive editing and rewriting of the first draft leading to another four drafts, which takes me another year or so to complete.
4 – Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
With a book or a short story, I know what I am working on from the beginning. Sometimes, the rejected bits of novel-in-progress may become the nucleus of a future short story.
5 – Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing public readings. It’s where my actor training pays off. I am comfortable in front of audiences and thoroughly enjoy lifting the words off the page and bringing the characters to life, much like a live radio play. I’m the reader for my audio books. There is a video recording of two readings from KINMOUNT on my website if any of your readers are interested. www.rodcarley.ca.
In terms of my creative process, I do read my work aloud as I’m writing to make sure the rhythm works. Sometimes I improvise aloud to find a snippet of dialogue.
6 – Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t know what the theme of my novel is when I start writing. I find out when I’m done. But I keep asking as I write. Anything worth reading is always many things, but there’s always one main thing. For A Matter of Will, one word to describe its theme would be Redemption. For KINMOUNT, Passion.
I draw extensively on my life for my writing. The outrageousness of human behaviour intrigues me – the extremes we go to, to try to make sense of life and fitted sheets. Most things that happen to me I tend to put through a comic filter. It’s my way of coping in the short term, like feeding my soul Pop Tarts so I can get by with less pain. It is a way of dealing with life, not avoiding it. Fiction allows me to reach for a deeper, less literal kind of truth. I forget who said, “Non-fiction reveals the lies, but only metaphor can reveal the truth.”
When I am confronted with the day-to-day depressing facts of the world, the best solution is to distract myself with humour. There is humour in every aspect of life, even in the humourless – look at Eeyore.
I am drawn to scrappy underdogs trying to get a foothold in life. I believe people can change and with that can come the correction of certain wrongs. Everyone deserves a shot at grace.
To laugh or not to laugh. I subscribe to hope in my writing which is why I write books with humour. But it’s important that my central characters have issues so that the reader will care about them. Now, not every topic can be approached with humour. Some experiences demand utmost seriousness. It’s a judgement call. But, for me, working humour into the background of sensitive topics can ease the blow and allow my message to take centre stage (pun intended.) And, in terms of messaging in my writing, it boils down to one question: “What does it mean to be human?” People are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. We read a good novel, connect with the flaws and humanity of its characters, and feel less alone.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does she/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I can’t speak for other writers. Personally, I believe I have a certain responsibility to society. Like working in the theatre, I try to hold up a mirror to society, reflecting and interpreting it, and, hopefully, providing some kind of humane insight and human connection. And challenge. And a few laughs.
8 – Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The editor/author relationship is sacrosanct. It is as essential as the director/actor relationship. Finding the right fit is crucial. And that fit is unique to what each individual author needs. All writers need an editor who believes in their writing and genuinely wants to make their book better. Mutual trust and respect are key. Trusting your editor means you are open to receiving their constructive criticism, no matter how difficult a pill it may be to swallow.
I’ve been lucky. John Metcalf edited my first novel and is currently editing a collection of short stories I’m working on. I trust him with my literary life.
Mitchell Gauvin edited KINMOUNT. He is a brilliant editor, possessing an astute intelligence with a keen understanding of structure and weight. He helped make the book what it is.
Only when I’ve completed a second draft am I ready to hand it over to my editor.
9 – What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t light a barbecue with the lid closed.
This too shall pass.
10 – How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel to directing plays)? What do you see as the appeal?
It is a healthy cross-pollination. Each genre informs the other. My directing process is similar to my writing process. I look at the characters in a play and ask: What do they want more than anything? What do they have to lose? What gets in the way of them achieving their objective? How are they changed by what happens in the play? As a writer, be it a novel or short story, I ask the same questions.
Directing makes me a better writer and vice-versa.
11 – What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
One of the challenges I face is finding time to write while juggling a full-time job teaching acting at my local college and university. During the school year, I write on weekends and the Christmas break. When I am off for the summer, I write five days a week, six hours a day. I am a morning person. I start early, after a coffee and breakfast snack, and usually finish mid-afternoon. I can’t write in silence so I usually have CBC Radio on in the background. Sometimes I write to music if I’m reaching for a specific mood.
12 – When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It depends on the day and my state of being. I can’t say that going for a long walk helps. Maybe if I was resigning as Prime Minister it would.
There are times when I talk to Mordecai Richler. I haven’t formed a stable of a dead Canadian authors, but I’m pretty close. Occasionally, it’s Shakespeare. My wife did one of those ancestry searches for each of us and, when she got the results, informed me that one of my ancestors apparently lived next door to John Shakespeare, William’s father. That’s cool, iambicly speaking.
Other times, I turn to another piece of writing, school work, or return to a book I’m reading. Or turn up the CBC.
Last resort, a row of dark chocolate with almonds.
13 – What fragrance reminds you of home?
The scent of an apple pie in the oven. It reminds me of my mother baking in the kitchen in the house I grew up in. It was a comforting smell, making me feel safe and secure. My mother died a year-and-a-half ago – the scent is now haunting and bittersweet.
14 – David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I am influenced by
Colleagues, friends, family
Hilton, a silent movie tabby cat clown
Arthur, a hyper poodle with licking issues
Dead + Living Authors
The Snuggery (my writing studio)
I put together a soundtrack for KINMOUNT so that readers can listen to the music that I’ve included in the novel.
THE KINMOUNT SOUNDTRACK
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
The Log-Driver’s Waltz – Wade Hemsworth
Desolation Row – Bob Dylan
Margaritaville – Jimmy Buffett
Bad Moon Rising – CCR
Pavane, Op. 50 – Gabriel Faure
Alla Turca – Sonata No. 11 – Mozart
Vivaldi – The Four Seasons – Spring
Bagatelle in A minor (Fur Elise) – Beethoven
Sudbury Saturday Night – Stompin’ Tom Connors
Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
Ride of the Valkyries – Wagner
You Oughta Know – Alanis Morissette
Bobcaygeon – The Tragically Hip
Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash
Gentle on my Mind – Glen Campbell
The Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell
A Fifth of Beethoven – Walter Murphy
Hit Me With Your Best Shot – Pat Benatar
Footloose – Kenny Loggins
Summer Nights – Grease
Don’t Stop Believing – Journey
Sweet Caroline – Neil Diamond
A Horse With No Name – America
15 – What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
As a young reader, I embraced the satire of Kurt Vonnegut. His writing is minimalist and dry. He avoids wordy run-on sentences. I connect with his themes of social equality and need for common decency.
I admire the autobiographical works of David Sedaris. I enjoy his self-deprecating wit, his keen observation of everyday events, and the obsessive behaviour of his characters. I write simply. My sentences aren’t complex. I don’t use big words to show off. Well, except for orthography. I’m into orthography. I learned that from David Sedaris who learned it from Raymond Carver – simple sentences I mean, not orthography.
Terry Fallis is always entertaining. I enjoy his good-hearted humorous whimsy, mischievous sense of irony, and witty dialogue.
I am a big Mordecai Richler fan. He remains an important influence on my writing – his wry social commentary, attacks on the hypocrisies of contemporary life, and his acerbic sarcasm. He would have a lot to say about the world today.
I dig Christopher Moore. He sees his characters like his children. I enjoy his daffy sensibilities, love of the bizarre and comedic supernatural experiences.
And the writing of J.D. Salinger. I wanted to grow up in the Glass family.
16 – What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Write my next novel.
Meet Shelagh Rogers.
17 – If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I have only been writing novels and short stories for the past ten years – a late bloomer. My many years of directing theatre and teaching acting immersed me in story structure, characterization, dialogue, plotting, and obstacles. It is the culmination of this work that has led me to transition into writing fiction – something I’ve yearned to do since bpNichol’s creative writing classes.
I am now realizing my other occupation.
18 – What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Originally, I did something else. But I’d always wanted to be a writer. I had stories I wanted to tell and now I’m doing it. It’s a good thing to look forward to writing whatever it is I’m working on. One of the other appeals of writing a novel is that I have control over it. Another great appeal is when I’m finished a couple of pages I can tear them up and throw them away.
19 – What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack by Heidi von Palleske, Dundurn Press. I read an ARC. It’s just been released.
Reading Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is to feel Milan Kundera walking along the shores of Lake Ontario. It is a magnificent story, beginning with the seed of a boyhood blinding and branching out in haunting and surprising directions, all rooted inn that seed.
JoJo Rabbit – directed by Taika Waititi
Most of us agree that Nazi’s aren’t funny. However, Waititi’s comic voice is so ridiculously loveable that, despite the odds, his satirical stance works. I wish I had written it.
20 – What are you currently working on?
I am in the final editing stages of a short story collection entitled Grin Reaping. Grin Reaping catalogues the foibles of the fictional Black family. In a series of interconnected short stories and musings, Rudy Black, a college English teacher stuck both in middle age and in the middle of his five siblings, transforms the strangeness of his everyday life into exaggerated home-movie prose. From the significance of tuna fish and Botox, the threat of coyotes and chickens, to the big ticket items of mortality, lizard-people, and Armageddon, Rudy tackles a range of topics with a wry, self-deprecating wit. It is the human condition writ Black, without sugar.
I am also in the early outlining stages of a new novel – it’s a comic tale of writer’s block, the chopping block, ghosts, and ghostwriters.