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Writing the darkly comic: in conversation with Michelle Berry

Michelle Berry burst onto the Canadian literary scene at an early age, garnering rave reviews and critical attention for her striking short stories and novels. She’s already published an impressive eight books and–lucky for us–shows no signs of letting up.

I first met Michelle several years ago, through a creative writing course at Trent University. The course was called Introduction to Writing Short Fiction and was my first formal training in the craft of fiction. Michelle was a patient, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic teacher–a real champion and someone you’d want to have in your corner. Her support and encouragement had a huge impact on my work, for which I will always be grateful.

Her latest novel, Inteference (ECW Press), is signature Michelle Berry–darkly comic, full of zipping plot twists, and filled with a wide cast of compelling characters trying to make sense of their imperfect lives. The novel traces the various inhabitants of Edgewood Drive in the small town of Parkville, from fall through to spring, and tackles some weighty and complex issues.

Michelle Berry is the author of three books of short stories, How to Get There from Here, Margaret Lives in the Basement, and I Still Don’t Even Know You (which won the 2011 Mary Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher and was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011), as well as five novels, What We All Want, Blur, Blind Crescent and This Book Will Not Save Your Life (which won the 2010 Colophon Award and was longlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011) and Interference. Her writing has been optioned for film and published in the U.K. with Weidenfeld & Nicholson. She is also co-editor with Natalee Caple of The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writerswhich is based on the famous Paris Review interviews — and has collaborated on an art book with Winnipeg artist, Andrew Valko, called, Postcard Fictions. Michelle taught creative writing at Ryerson University. She was on the board of PEN Canada and the authors’ committee of the Writer’s Trust and served as Second Vice-Chair of The Writer’s Union. She presently teaches online for The University of Toronto, in-class at Trent University, and is a mentor at Humber College. She is a contributing reviewer for The Globe and Mail.

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Congratulations on the publication of Interference. How does it feel to have this particular novel out there in the world?

Thanks, Trevor. It feels like… “Finally! Finally!” What people don’t see, what my students never understand, is that publishing a book is a long, boring, hurry-up-and-wait process. This book was four years in the making. I’m glad it’s out there. But it also feels the same as when I dropped my kid off at university. I know she’s doing fine and I know she’s good on her own, but I still want to hold her hand and hug her. Hard to let it go–my book and my kid–but I just have to trust it’ll do well in the world by itself now.

This is your eighth book—you’ve published short stories and other novels, with presses both large and small. Can you talk a little bit about how launching this book was different than for previous books?

The world of publishing is certainly changing. A lot. Not only do you now have to know how to tweet and have a presence on social media (which feels like a full time job some days) — but there are also a lot fewer places now to be reviewed. Oh, and a lot more places to be reviewed too – blogs. Blogs are everywhere. And Goodreads. So… you get a lot more feedback from well-meaning folk and a lot less from professional critics. Which can be good and bad. Sometimes that well-meaning blogger who only reads science fiction shouldn’t be the one to review your book. It’s interesting, though, because I’m certainly getting more of a well-rounded response to this book. And I’m also seeing that Interference is appealing to people who wouldn’t have normally picked it up – and that’s good.

We first met in one of your creative writing classes, some years ago, and I still count you as one of my important mentors and earliest champions (Thanks!). Can you talk a little bit about how and why mentoring is important in the literary world? Who were some of your own early champions?

I still count you as one of my success stories! Mentoring and championing a new writer is still a thrill to me. It was so important in my early career to have the support of published, successful writers. Leon and Connie Rooke, Joe Kertes, Nino Ricci, Ann Ireland, to name a few. I had the best mentors. They gave me their time and their opinion, they stretched me and formed me and helped me find my voice. I still have “mentors” in the friends I have in the business. The ones who will read a new manuscript for me and critique it — for Interference it was Charlie Foran and Jonathan Bennett — or the ones who will just talk about the ups and downs of publishing with me. The ones who are honest and share and really care about my success. It’s a madly lonely business, this writing life, so to have people out there who are guiding you on, telling you to keep at it, means the world. The other day I was on Facebook with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and I was feeling frustrated and I said, “I just want to quit writing. Don’t you?” And she wrote back, quickly, “I can quit but I can’t at the same time. And neither can you, I bet. Not really.” And this is what mentoring is to me now – people like Kathryn who get it. Who understand the work and who take me seriously. She knows I can’t quit. Not really.

We’ve both lived in Peterborough, one of Ontario’s great small cities, and a city that bears striking resemblance to the town of Parkville in your book. It’s a city with a rich literary pedigree—home at one point to Margaret Laurence, Robertson Davies, and Catharine Parr Traill, among others. In what ways does Peterborough influence your writing, and Interference in particular?

Good question, and one that is hard to answer. I used to think that I wasn’t influenced by where I live – that my writing came from character, not setting. But now I think I’m wrong. I wrote my more “Toronto” stories when I lived there, I wrote my “Beaches” stories when I lived there. I never consciously identify place in my writing, I fictionalize it, but if I look carefully I see little realities pop up. Interference is about a small town and, oddly enough, it is about two hours away from Toronto. There is also a very large tree on the street where the story takes place and there is a very large tree directly across from my house in Peterborough. Many small things in Interference are from Peterborough but I hope that any small town in Ontario could be seen in this novel. It isn’t particularly Peterborough. I’m aware of who came before me here – I pass Margaret Laurence’s old house on the way to my cottage and know that Robertson Davies lived right down the street from where I am now, so there could be some writerly-influence in the air or water here. I hear the ghost of Davies haunts Massey College, but maybe part of him is still here too.

One of the things that impressed me so much about Interference—and in your earlier novel, Blind Crescent, is how seamlessly you weave together a world of so many connected characters, a kind of ensemble fiction, without losing narrative momentum. That’s no easy feat. What draws you to writing about community in this way, and how is it different than working primarily with one or two narrators?

See, you said it nicely – some people say, “You have too many characters. I’m so confused!” Ha. I love weaving stories. I love interconnected narrative. I love when everything seems not to be connected but then surprises you. I think that’s why I love those BBC murder mysteries on TV. All the weaving of plot and character and setting making your mind almost explode and then, blam, the solution! So writing Interference was like weaving. I had all these loose ends, all these characters, and I needed to put them all together – they shared things: hockey, the street they lived on, kids, dogs, etc – each time I picked up one end of the yarn (or whatever the hell you weave with), another piece would tighten or unravel. It was tricky.

There is something about a neighbourhood that calls for this interconnectedness. I mean, think about it – these people are all living on the same street, doing sort of the same things, coming in and out of each other’s houses, balancing kids back and forth – it only makes sense to me that the actual structure of the book would be a lot like the structure of a street and the neighbours who live on it. I can look out my window on any given day and see a couple kids biking together up one side, a dog pissing on a lawn on the other, a woman leaving her house to take something to the neighbor next door, a man cutting the grass at his house while his kid is having lunch across the street, etc…it’s a busy little microcosm. Like ants. Everyone is moving back and forth.

On another note: Blind Crescent is actually structured around the idea of a cul-de-sac. Each chapter gives us one house around the semi-circle, then the middle part of the book takes us once around the semi-circle, connecting everyone, then the climax is when everyone comes together on the street to almost complete the semi-circle, make it a circle. It was intentionally done – the very book itself is a cul-de-sac. (And by intentionally done, I mean, I edited it to be that way – when I wrote it I intended nothing).

You write both short fiction and novels, and weave among both. What, for you, are the strengths, limitations, joys or perils of each form?

I tell people (and this is an old, boring joke I’ve told many times but I’m getting old so excuse me for it): writing a short story is like having a one-night stand and writing a novel is like being married. Stories are fun and exciting, but after that one-night stand you have to look for the next conquest (or idea). Novels can be boring (not my marriage, of course!) – spending years editing and writing and being absorbed in the same idea — but they are comfortable. You always have your novel to go to and be with in your office. Your novel is always there for you. So, although I love writing stories, I find my mind works better when I’m in a novel. I like to see the bigger picture, I like to immerse myself and spread out and give myself room to move around. That’s not to say another story collection won’t be on the horizon. The thrill when you write what you feel is a beautiful short story is incomparable.

Interference tackles some weighty issues—cancer, suspected pedophilia, sexuality, teenage OCD, to name a few—yet you handle the material with a deft tone, pulling back before the material becomes overly heavy. This careful balance between pathos and humour seems, for me, to be a hallmark of your work, the essential Berry touch. How and why is humour important to you as a writer? Why do you think humour—or even irony—seem absent from so much writing in Canada?

I love writing humour. I love reading humourous stuff. I can’t figure out why Canadian writing is sometimes so dry. My humour is biting and sarcastic, though… and dark… so some people just don’t get it. I used to think it was U.S. humour, because I was born in the States, but, funnily enough the U.S. has never published one of my books. It’s as if they don’t get the tone or something? The U.K. loves my writing, though, and they seem to get my dry sense of humour. I think sometimes that people (and not just Canadians) take themselves too seriously. If you can’t laugh at yourself, than what good is anything…. I’m also fully aware, when writing about the horrific stuff, that balancing the humour just right is a dangerous game. I mean, a tiny man in a brown suit who uses sound effects for everything he does can be funny, but he’s also a pedophile! How do I walk the line without falling over? It’s hard and leads to some interesting reviews, but I’m glad you appreciate it.

It’s important to me to sometimes shock readers and humour does that in a gentle way – my character, Claire, trying to survive cancer treatments lying in bed at night imagining murdering all the criminals of the past is having horrible thoughts, but they are kind of funny too. In a weird way. She is so angry she makes herself become ridiculous in her thoughts and this leads to a bunch of honest human emotions. No one is one-sided with emotion. We do laugh at funerals. In fact, writing humour is harder than writing sad stuff. You bring into a joke all your preconceived ideas about life, politics, etc… you expect people to come from the same background as you and to see the world in the same way you do – but they don’t, of course – so trying to make them laugh at something dark is risky. But worth it when it works.

Finally, what are you working on now, Michelle? What can we expect from you next?

Good question. I’m teaching a lot now at U of T in Continuing Studies (online) and am finishing off a Humber stint (eight month mentorship with five students). I’ve also taken on an editing project for Turnstone Press. So I’m busy with all of that. But I have been working on a novel called 12 Hours about death row and a prison chaplain. It takes place in 12 hours and so is extremely tight and hard to edit. Every time I change something I have to be careful of the count down of time…. My agent wants me to edit it a bit more and then we’ll hopefully try to send it out. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll write something new instead. Or maybe just teach this year. It’s a beautiful fall day right now and I’m going to watch my 15-year-old play field hockey and admire the colours on the trees. That’s what’s next for me now.

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Find Michelle Berry online and on Twitter. Purchase a copy of Interference here.

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