Q & A with Kris Bertin (Part One)
Rising Literary Star
Kris Bertin is one of Canada’s rising literary stars. Based in Halifax, he’s a provocative, award-winning writer of some of the best short fiction currently being written across the country. We recently had the chance to communicate across the miles about all things literary.
Among many awards, Kris has twice won the prestigious Jack Hodgins Founders Award for best short story published in The Malahat Review in a given year. He was also shortlisted for the Vanderbilt/Exile Fiction Award in 2012. We appeared together in Journey Prize Stories 24 last year.
When did you first realize the deep, dark secret that you are a writer? Did it come at you suddenly, like the voice of God?
It would be nice if things worked this way, but no, it was nothing like that. I can’t think of a moment where I realized I was a writer, it’s just something I’ve always done. Literary orientation is not a choice. I was born this way.
When I think back to where it manifested, it was probably with my brother (I shouldn’t have led in to this with a gay identity analogy). I was blessed with a very bright and charismatic older sibling with only an average amount of disdain for his younger brother. But it was just me and him in the middle of nowhere, so he made it his business to entertain us. For as far back as I can remember, our imaginary play was utterly immersive and thrilling, with story arcs that ran for years and incorporated a number of highly complex elements that were far beyond our ability to grasp (like, say the Vietnam War, or Eugenics) and combined them with comic book and action movie sensibilities. We played out bizarre cannibal psychodramas using hand-sewn sock puppets. We played ‘army’ where I endured countless physical and mental tests, early in the morning, while my brother scored my performance with a clipboard and pen. We constructed whole worlds for our action figures that I still remember and hold dear, though today my brother has forgotten them completely. (This was a common occurrence for us—he’d get bored with an idea and not want to play any longer while I would be enraptured with it and go play by myself or else draw up some unreadable comic book about where I thought things might go).
What was just games for him ended up being one of the only ways I was able to express myself, and represented the purest form of fun available to me as a kid (with an otherwise wretched home life). While I’d look forward to seeing what world my brother had imagined for us to inhabit when I’d get home from school, I began doing the same thing for my friends at recess, dedicating a lot of my classroom time to drafting adventures for me and my pint-sized pals. Inevitably, whatever story I’d write for class would end up being a commercial for the smash-bang doozie of a thriller that we were all going to run outside and act out (making lots of kicking and punching noises, no doubt). I was so nuts for writing stories that I was put in the enrichment program and sent away to weekend learning Camps where I got to watch a hot lady dissect a cow’s heart.
You are amazingly prolific, publishing and producing short stories and finishing a couple of novels in the space of a few years. What’s the key to your discipline? Do you write every day?
It’s funny that you say I’m prolific. I don’t feel that way. A good friend of mine has an ungodly output that I’ve tried to match as long as I’ve known him. I can’t even touch that guy.
I do write every day. I’ve tried to build my work schedule around this so that I can get the job done—generally I write from 1pm to 5pm or some equivalent span of time before I have to go do my other job as a bartender.
I don’t think it’s discipline. At this point it’s habit. Imagining imaginary people doing imaginary things has never stopped being fun to me, even after I was taken out of those programs. I kept doing it even after being deemed unspecial in my teens because all my other grades had turned to shit and I was developing anger problems (and boners). I never stopped writing, and did it mostly in private until my senior year in high school when my electives had stacked up enough to let me take classes tailor made for me: Journalism, Drama, Creative Writing, Advanced English, Canadian Literature and Creative Writing II. Those classes got my GPA out of the toilet and got me to college, where I made a name for myself as the guy who wrote two good essays, did all the readings, then didn’t take the exam because he was a loser and a fuckup.
After I dropped out, I kept writing, even when I was working awful jobs, even when the writing was awful (which it was, always). Writing was just a part of my life, and how I made myself happy. If I don’t do it, I don’t feel happy. It’s as simple as that, I think.
How long does it take you typically to finish a piece?
I don’t really have a good answer. It’s kind of all over the place. Sometimes I bang out a story in a month and it’s done. A couple times I’ve made something in an evening. Other times I’m going through drafts for months. My story in The Walrus (The Eviction Process, July 2013) was a story I wrote, then killed, then reworked, then killed again. Then I wrote it completely fresh, from scratch, maybe six months after its first incarnation, and was mostly satisfied with it.
But regardless of when it’s finished, it doesn’t become a piece unless it’s any good. More than half of the stories I write get buried in my story graveyard and never see the light of day. Once something’s done, I leave it alone for a while, forget about it, and then go back to it and pretend it’s a stranger’s short story found at the grocery store. If it’s terrible, I leave it behind (usually in a grocery store).
I know a lot of us young writers are in a rush to be successful, but if you’re sticking bad shit into envelopes, you’re only going to hurt yourself. I’ve sent out some bad stuff and regretted it, and it’s something I work very hard to avoid.
I think, too, that sometimes we aren’t ready to write a story when we first try to do it. Maybe you’re not smart enough or you don’t have an angle or any insight into this situation that interests you. Maybe you haven’t experienced the right things yet. But you might, later on. You have your whole life ahead of you (barring horrible disaster, of course). Wouldn’t you rather wait, and tell a great story later on instead of telling a mediocre one now?
What do you aim for when you write? How does the story hook you? Do characters ever surprise you or does the plot take you into unexpected directions?
I’d say that most of the time I’m just trying to write something that I’d like to read. I like work that’s mostly realistic, and if not that, then imaginative is just as good. Funny is better than not, though funny goes quite well with sad, or even scary. But in the end, I think the very best thing a story can be is weird. Most people read books or watch movies and go ‘oh my god that was so weird’ like it’s a bad thing—weird just means something is unfamiliar, or maybe has a fleeting familiarity combined with something frightening and uncomfortable, too. There are Calvino and DeLillo stories that I can’t un-remember because there was some captivating moment or image in them that was utterly thrilling. Weird is the highest compliment that can be paid.
Characters are my first concern. There is no story without character. Plot, mood, atmosphere, theme, all of that stuff is secondary to the little people you’ve made. I write from the point of view that the characters run the show. You make them up, out of memories and behaviors you’ve seen or imagined, but they make the story happen. If we’re working with a realistic framework, settings and circumstances (even when they are highly abnormal or exceptional) are never going to be what makes a story. The maze isn’t interesting. The rat is interesting. I’m in the business of rearing good rats.
I do am routinely delighted by the decisions of my rats, and this is definitely when I’m ‘hooked’ on a story. When a character is strong enough that he or she is changing my intended goals for the story because it doesn’t suit them, that means I’m imagining something that has real power over me, and, if I do my job right, the reader.
When is something “done” for Kris Bertin? Do you get a special feeling inside? Any stories that have been more of a struggle?
I think it’s the absence of a feeling. A story is done when I read it out loud and don’t hear anything that makes me sick to my stomach with shame (I call this feeling the groans, as in: that last passage gave me a real case of the groans). When a story is groans-free, I am happy.
Lots of stories are a struggle. Like I said earlier, sometimes I’m just not smart enough to pull off the thing I’m trying to do. Sometimes a story is one that you’re meant to write, but it’s not meant to be shared. Sometimes you make something for yourself and it’s not really a story—it’s a diagnostic on what you’re not good at, or hopefully, what you’re not good at yet.
Do you typically work on more than one project at a time?
Yes. There’s usually a ‘main’ story or project that I’m quarreling with, but there’s always something floating around that needs more work. There’s a threshold of how much work I can get done in a day, but there’s also a threshold for how much I can work on a particular project before I start to hate it, which usually comes much quicker. Working on multiple things lets you maximize your day’s output when you start to lose steam on a particular project.
Are you a fan of working with editors?
I have some trusted advisors that I can go to personally, though I haven’t been using them as much lately. I want to know that I can fix something and get it up to snuff on my own without depending on others, so I’m reserving asking my guys for help when it’s for a very specific purpose, like a big contest or a story that’s particularly difficult for me.
Working with the editors of magazines can be hard, because it’s often the case that you have conflicting concerns. For every comma that they remove for clarity, they’re taking away some particular inflection or sonic idiosyncrasy I’ve slaved over. Every style guide correction they make removes voice. What I try to do is marry myself to the few contested parts that do the most work, and explain why, then fight for them. Everything that’s less important gets changed as a form of appeasement. I think you’ve got to be flexible, or else it’s not going to work.
The things I’m not flexible on, however, is the story itself. An editor edits for clarity or else style. They don’t get to write your story. Suggestions for how the plot should change, or what oughta happen with this character or that one is unacceptable. If an editor gives you any of that guff, they aren’t editing, they’re writing by proxy, which is a shitty thing to do.