Q & A with Kris Bertin (Part Two)
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.
We both grew up in military families and moved around as kids. We also both grew up in the Maritimes, far from the bright lights and big city. How has this had influenced how and what you write? Do you feel you are part of a broader group of Atlantic Canadian writers?
I think of myself as an Atlantic Canadian, and therefore an Atlantic Canadian Writer as a result. If you didn’t know who I was and you had all my stories to look at and figure it out, I think you could come away thinking I’m a Maritimer. A lot of my characters are burdened with drinking and unemployment, rural monotony and the call of the ‘Big City. Likewise, there’s often a tree line within eyeshot for a character to look at and dream of disappearing into. I have still tried to have fun with it. I wrote a story that took place in Onecdaconis, New Brunswick (Bad Things Happen, The Antigonish Review #166), a place so rural it doesn’t even exist.
But these aren’t the only things I’m interested in writing, and lots of stories I’ve had published have been about other places and kinds of people. I’m happy to be an Atlantic Canadian Writer so long as it means I can still write about whatever I want. If every story has to be about a guy with a dog and a pickup truck, you can count me out. My familiarity with a place can give me some richness to draw from if I have a particular kind of story to share, but I have no interest in defining myself solely by the Hopewell Rocks that are on my Medicare card.
You’ve had some well-deserved success lately, including publication in the Walrus and snagging a couple of big awards. Are you more aware now of an audience? Do you feel any pressure to please or meet the expectations of readers or editors?
I have a website and I can see that more people are looking for me, but for the most part, they’re all writers, looking to do the same things I’ve been doing. Most of my ‘fan mail’ has been from people like me who read my stuff and dug what I was doing. The payoff here, of course, is not pride or acclaim, but great friendships with up-and-comers such as yourself, Chris Donahoe, Will Johnson, Andrew Hood, Naben Ruthnum, etc.
I don’t feel any pressure I didn’t feel before, which is to make good work to the best of my ability.
What about your novel?
What about it.
I like to think about what’s at stake when we write. For me, good writing has something at stake or something at risk, not just for the characters but for the writer. Your writing is honest, free of bullshit—real. What’s at stake for you when you write?
This question is great because it’s frustrating and I don’t want to answer it. Not because it’s a stupid question but because it pains me with very real issues about what I do and who I am and how I value myself. In fact, it might be too good, and therefore too demanding of your subject (so fuck you).
I think you said it though. Honesty is very important to me and is what I strive for in my work. Sometimes what’s true is unpleasant and/or unpopular to say, but it’s nonetheless your job to say it. I’ve had work rejected for those reasons, and have endured some real trials in the workshop because my work had some seemingly un-PC element to it. And while all of that was awful and exhausting, even when I fail in my attempts to realize a difficult story, it’s got to be better than producing something that’s fluffy and quirky and utterly benign. If you shy away from something because it’s upsetting or politically incorrect, you might be a coward. That’s probably what’s at stake for me personally. I have to write what I see and feel and think, regardless of whether or not a grad student deems it appropriate or not.
Contrarily, another thing that’s at stake is whether or not my story (and therefore me) will be considered reasonable or fair. As much as I have write with honesty, it’s all for nothing if I fail to acknowledge the complexity and contradictions and uncertainty behind any statement or situation. The minute I start saying ‘this is how things are’, I blew it. When exploring a theme, it’s important to remember and acknowledge that the conclusions that we (and our characters) draw from the story are ultimately subjective and not at all fixed. I think one of the ways to do this is to point to a variety of possibilities in our prose, and make very clear note that this is only one outcome of many.
You said in a recent interview that you want to avoid being labeled part of “angry guy” lit. I don’t see this in your work – your characters are complex and full and you handle them honestly but with deep compassion. Do you ever worry about being pigeon-holed?
Thank you for saying that.
I do worry about it, and I think it makes sense to worry. If you produce a lot of work, and people read it, it’s their job to compare one thing to the next. The only remedy, I think, is to dig deeper and write things that we’re not comfortable with, come up with projects that we aren’t exactly sure about. With each subsequent project, I’m trying more and more to imagine different kinds of people to write about with situations and circumstances tailored for those characters. I try to write from a variety of perspectives and work on creating vocabularies that reflect each project’s characters and tone, but most of all I just try to get to a place where I can honestly say I didn’t expect this to happen. I’d like to think if I’m surprised my readers will be.
This pigeon-holing stuff is, of course, unavoidable. However we think of it, we each have our unique voice, and there are things that are inextricable from the work we produce and even the way we produce it. There is such a thing as a ‘Kris Bertin story’, just like there’s a ‘Trevor Corkum story’, and they reflect our needs as readers as much as they say something about our aesthetic as writers. Ultimately, when people people read your work, they build their own definitions for what it is and who you are. If enough people do this, there’ll be some kind of consensus. It probably won’t be wrong, and if it is, it’s maybe your own fault, right?
You’ve had three Chris Rose stories now, and in each we see Chris at a different stage and in some kind of new light. Can we expect to see more of Chris?
I’d say never except I’m not supposed to say that. I feel like what’s interesting about this part of his life has been fully explored in the little trilogy I made. That I was able to satisfactorily write three distinct stories about the same character and get them all published seems like enough. I could maybe see visiting that guy again when we’re older, but until then, there are lots and lots of other stories I’m much more interested in.
You’ve said many times that one of your goals is to get your stories into the hands of as many people as possible, including people who maybe don’t read “literary fiction” that often. What’s your sense of the state of reading in general? What are your thoughts on how to get your stories out in maybe unconventional ways while still getting paid?
I hear a lot about how stupid everyone is now, but it seems to me that being able to express yourself with words has never been as important for as many people as it is today. Look at your social media. If you can’t differentiate between possessive ‘your’ and ‘you are’, your friends hate you. People with strong, concise storytelling abilities, good grammar, and a sense of humour have this platform to interact with their friends that has never before existed. People are forced to communicate through a keyboard daily, often making work for the entire world to see—work that will be around forever. Our writing and reading and even our typing skills just matter more now.
I can’t speak for the state of literary fiction. Everyone says it’s dire, but I don’t know if it is. When things change, the doomsday people come out in droves to herald the end, but this sort of thing is too simplistic. People have been listening to and reading and watching stories for as long as we had language. That’s not going to go away just because we have a little computer in our pocket.
I think what we’re going to see a lot more of is websites that host good, exciting literary fiction that pay their authors with ad dollars. Pay-sites seem to go down pretty fast, so this is probably how things will end up being. Buy the magazine in print for X amount of dollars, or else if you can’t, go online and read it for free, where revenue is derived from advertisers. Seems to make sense to me.
Crystal ball: where will Kris Bertin be in ten years? What’s the dream?
The dream is to write in a variety of genres and mediums. I love literary fiction, but I also love comic books and film and animation. The thing that would make me most happy is to be able to come up with an idea and realize it using the best possible medium for that story. In ten years, I’d like to think I would have published at least a couple books and only work at a bar because I love doing it, not because I need to.