The BERTIN-CORKUM Dialogues: PART 1 – The Wonder Years
Kris Bertin is a good friend and a fine writer. His stories have in spades everything I look for in top quality fiction–deep heart, great emotional risk, exceptional attention to craft, and characters so heartbreakingly complex they feel like they are part of yourself.
Kris and I got to know each other in Halifax a few years back and had some great conversations back then (along with pals Will Johnson and Chris Donahoe) about writing and the writing life. I interviewed Kris soon after we both appeared together in the Journey Prize anthology. Since then, he’s signed a book contract for his first collection Bad Things Happen (Biblioasis, 2016) and has continued to rack up accolades, appearing recently in Oberon’s coveted Coming Attractions anthology (with Will), and publishing stories in magazines like The Walrus.
He’s wanted to turn the tables and interview me for some time, but was waiting until I became famous. Since that hasn’t happened, and he is by nature an impatient man, we decided to go ahead and pool our collective thoughts on what’s at stake when we write, our current projects, the state of the human soul and psyche, and GI Joes.
This is the first of two parts of our exclusive, never-before revealed conversation.
KB: How long have you been doing this, and how did you start? What is the earliest thing you can recall writing (and being excited about)?
TC: When I was still just a little pipsqueak, before I could even write, I remember making up stories with my Sesame Street characters and GI Joes. They co-existed together in a sort of surreal and tense alternate world. I gave them secret lives and dramas. They were more based on feelings rather than action—that is still is true of my writing today.
My first published piece was a poem I wrote in grade three. It was published in the town’s local newspaper. I can still recite it by heart:
What is Sadness?
by: Trevor Corkum (grade 3)
What is sadness?
Sadness is: going away
Not getting presents on Christmas Day
When it rains out every day.
That is what sadness means to me.
What does sadness mean to you?
Obvious themes of existential angst and melancholy continue into the present. Also, who is the enigmatic you the young speaker addresses? My orphaned shadow twin?
KB: Where do you think stories come from? Are they carefully constructed strings of little characters on a page, or are they bizarre waking dreams born whole and uncovered through some sort of literary meditation? What relationship do you have to the work itself? Are you its creator, caretaker, or something else?
TC: I think the stories are somewhere between cosmic gifts and obsessions. Like anything alive, a good story is sui generis, completely original, with a life force or energy entirely its own. A story begins as a seed with some mundane detail or musing, but when the life force enters it becomes by necessity something separate from the writer.
In terms of my role, it feels sometimes like some kind of dark art or wooing—you have to listen very carefully, trust your intuition, know when to push, when to hold back, when to coax or whisper sweetly, when to beg forgiveness, when to let things lie. It’s a lot like being in a relationship.
Generally I don’t start writing until a particular story has been with me for many months or even years. I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters—tracing the trajectory of their inner and outer lives, their desires and secrets and contradictions and motivations—before I’m able to know what the particular story at hand is asking or demanding of me. Writing a novel is a huge relief in this regard—there’s so much more space and scope to use those “special features” and deleted scenes. It’s liberating. In a short story, so much gets left off the page. Silence and what’s not said play a much more important role.
TC: The last time I interviewed you was about two years ago, shortly after we were both in The Journey Prize anthology and starting to push more stories out into the big, bad world. How has your view of the writing life changed in the intervening years, Mr. Bertin?
KB: The ‘life’ is the same as it ever was. You get up, do it for as long as you can stand, then go about doing everything else that you should have been doing during that time, like cleaning yourself or answering your text messages.
The biggest difference is that I’m more focused on writing well instead of simply writing more. I’m a little more self aware, and judge current work against past work, and want to make pieces that actually represent me well. I’m more willing to take my time in order to make a story the absolute best piece it can be, and feel fine about working on a story for six months or a year. What you said—about not writing a story until it’s been with you for a while—that’s something I’ve really only started to do, and it’s made a huge difference for me.
When I started, some of my stories ended up being the same story, just sort of rearranged, because I was rushing through them without truly understanding precisely what it is I wanted to say about a subject. Without letting the story show me what I needed. Writing for me was a sort of long-form meditation on something I was struggling to understand, so a lot of the same preoccupations kept worming their way into stories so long as I was having them. It’s still like that, but I’m aware of my personal bearing on the story, and am more invested in trying to fully explore a particular issue (or concept or concern) before moving on.
KB: What are you working on these days, and what should we be watching for?
TC: I have a lot on the go right now. I finished a short story manuscript last year (2014), at long, long last–I took my time to put it together and made sure it was what I wanted out there in the world as a first book. The manuscript began as my MFA thesis from UBC (originally called Beautiful Birds Are Flying All Around You), but over time, that collection was pillaged and looted and replaced with stories that felt more intuitively and organically connected. I’m a compulsive editor—it really is a sickness—so I spent a lot of time fiddling and polishing. Only two of the original stories remain in the current manuscript. The new collection is called When We Die. It’s with my agent now–we’re getting ready to send it around. There’s been good interest so far from early readers, so that’s encouraging.
For the past while I’ve been working on a novel set in North End Halifax. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between two teenage boys, and the relationship between one of the boys and his soldier father. Thematically, it explores race relations in Halifax, first love, poverty, guilt, the invention of electricity, Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan, The Ramones, and of course: death.
I’ve started early work on a couple of other novels–one about love and dying, the other an international political thriller. I’m about to start work with the actor and director Ryan Cunningham on a screen adaption of my short story “5’9, 135, 6c, br bl” which made its stage debut in Edmonton a few years ago. I have a number of new stories for a second collection, a pile of essays that need revision, and a pretty solid working idea for a kid’s book that I hope to get to this year.
KB: I’ve always been impressed by your ability to write stories that take place in the mundane slush of urban or suburban Canada but are still utterly captivating because of the richness of detail, and a special focus on the past’s bearing on the present. You often contrast descriptions of the surface world with the deep-rooted emotional content that powers the story itself. Is this something that’s difficult to balance? How do you decide how much to show, and how much of this reflects your own views? In your estimation, to what degree does the past determine the course of our lives?
TC: These are great questions. In my reading of the world, our lives are governed non-stop by the physical stimuli around us. It’s not just a literary device that makes a grey sky synonymous with melancholy, or a shadowy clump of woods to a kid a place of fear, adventure and dark desire. Humans—whether we live in Toronto or on a farm in the Maritimes or on a remote Polynesian island—are inherently part of nature and the natural world, including the underlying dark energy and physical forces at work in that world. We’re all always connected to everything. And we’re animals.
So in my work I’m interested in the tension between that deeper, primordial part of our being and the surface/superficial identities we create and become so deeply attached to. How that deeply emotional world is revealed depends on the story and the narrator. How self-aware is the narrator? How old? One of the key questions in life for me is how aware we are of our own webs of tension/darkness/emotional traps. My narrator might be self-aware to the point of compulsive narcissism (as in “Henrietta”, a story forthcoming in Prairie Fire) or mostly oblivious of what’s really happening in his or her life moment to moment (I’m thinking of the drug-running narrator in “#Fortune Teller” from The Puritan)
I guess my response to your question about time is similar. In the big picture, our lives are brief and mysterious. We spend most of our time pretending we’re immortal and repressing the inevitability of death. Whether we are aware of it or not, we’re always struggling to make sense and find meaning from our lives, reviewing the archival vaults and private tapes of our past to find clues about how to understand and experience the present. But because of how our minds work, we stay trapped in the past and remain fearful and anxious about the future. So we get stuck.
Some of these tapes of the past get played so often that the memories themselves are bent, changed, distorted. This interests me immensely—how we continually project our old storylines onto what’s happening in the present, based on how we understand or have experienced the past. If I’ve been hurt deeply in love I might project that onto the present, assuming any new love will hurt me, because that’s what I’ve known. It’s hard to see the present clearly, without baggage. As a result we become, all of us, the co-authors of our own suffering. I have great tenderness and compassion for my characters because of this—I get why they keep running around in the same loops, chasing their own tails. I do it too.
KB: Are you compelled to write? How do you structure writing into your day, and how much effort is required to satisfy yourself?
TC: Absolutely, I’m compelled. This becomes truer as I get older—there’s nothing more vital, no more fulfilling way I can imagine using my time.
A few years ago I left the full-time working world and the stability and security of a permanent job. Many of my friends thought I had gone off the deep end, but the truth is I have never been happier. I work freelance now as a consultant and researcher, so I’m able to structure most days around writing and still pay the bills. Typically I’ll rise early and work for three or four hours, switch to paid work/school research, then return to my own writing later in the afternoon or evening if I have the energy. Like most of us, when I don’t write I become inconsolable and difficult to be around.
TC: At a certain stage in any writer’s life, she or he may begin to despair. What have I done with my precious years? What is the point? Why doesn’t Oprah love me? You asked if I feel compelled to write. I’m flipping it back to you, but also asking what your life would be like if you were forced to give up writing altogether. Would you be a different person, deep down?
KB: I absolutely feel compelled to write. I feel just like you said: if I don’t get my work done, I’m not happy. Writing has been—for years and years now—how I process conflict and make value judgments about myself and others. It started as a mere act of imagination, but as I got older, it turned outward and became about my surroundings too.
I can’t imagine a world where I’d be forced to give it up, but those are pretty good grounds to blow my brains out if it came to that. That’s not to say that I think what I’m making is important to anyone else, but it’s important to me. Without it, I’d probably be angrier, less thoughtful. I worked through a lot of my own problems by writing about them, by asking myself what I believe, and then asking myself—well, what does that mean? And what’s under that? And under that?
I can’t imagine where I’d be otherwise. It’s what I’ve done with the vast majority of my free time since I was very small. Without it I’d be a home invader or something.
TC: Diving into the literature, you write succinctly—enigmatically—about masculinity. I’ve said before that in many of your stories you create a heartbreaking and nearly unbearable internal tension between toughness and vulnerability in your male characters. Can you talk a bit more about vulnerability in your work?
KB: We are all vulnerable. We all have hopes and dreams and things that we want and need, things that hurt when we don’t have them. What we call ‘masculinity’ or ‘toughness’ is just the suppression of that vulnerability. Being tough, I think, is really just ‘acting tough’. It’s a performance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real, or important or necessary. It’s something you need to be capable of to get through life. It’s complicated because being inwardly and outwardly tough is important—it protects you or forces you to act when you otherwise might not want to—even though it’s just some kind of weird mental ballet of repression that’s not always healthy.
It’s a useful lie, one where you tell yourself you can handle something that you might not be able to if you really think about it. Of course, this can be absolutely harmful too, because it makes us totally unwilling to admit when something’s wrong, when we’re hurt or need help. To the point where it’s enough of a problem that there are public service announcements (PSAs) specifically targeting men who refuse to go to the doctor and end up dead. The thing is that suppressing vulnerability isn’t the same thing as negating it. All of it is still there. I feel like if you’re going to write about these sorts of men, you have to show that inner world too, otherwise it’s just horseshit posturing and you’re reinforcing some kind of macho falsehood about ‘bravery’ or what have you. Fakery to the highest degree.
It’s something I’m interested in because it’s so complicated and strange, and because—no matter what anyone says—it’s a huge part of being a man, even today.
TC: In your latest story, for example—“A Man Might Work” (one of my faves) from the current issue of The Fiddlehead, the male narrator reflects on his teenage bravado, the outward fearlessness and compulsion to take physical risks at that stage in his life—only to dial it down, pull back in later years when he becomes a father to his own son. There’s a feeling of regret and heartache permeating the work, but it’s elusive and conflicted. Why is the theme of conflicted masculinity important to you as a writer (and/or human)?
KB: It’s important to me because I struggle with it. My father and brother and grandfather struggle with it. You protect yourself with this particular mode of thinking and being, but like I said, it also makes it so people can’t actually assess if something’s wrong with you. It makes you reliable, but makes it harder for you to rely on others. The heartache comes when you realize that you maybe could have helped someone if you weren’t just keeping a stiff upper lip and expecting them to do the same and chastising them when they don’t. For a lot of years, especially when I was younger, I was just sort of running on automatic, scared of everything and pretending I wasn’t. And a lot of it comes from being hurt, too. I think toughness and vulnerability are intertwined because one begets another, and trying to find a balance is a lifetime of work. I think this is how a lot of people are.
The solution, of course, is to not take yourself too seriously, and to realize that most of your personality is just a series of modes that you can operate under. Having a sense of humour is very important for this sort of thing.
In ‘A Man Might Work’, he’s struggling with the dilemma through his son. He can see clearly that he doesn’t want his son to have to go through what he did, but he also recognizes that it would be a mistake to throw a child into the world without any way to protect himself. In trying to find a balance between those parenting strategies, he gets to a point where he realizes he’s giving his son truly pitiful advice, even though it is true. This is what I’m most interested in—there are facts of life that are disappointing but also seemingly meaningless without having lived the lesson of them.
KB: Your stories are varied in terms of setting, tone, as well as form. When you do something like write a story from the point of view of a pair of eyes scanning a memorial website, are you actively looking to challenge yourself? Are your stories inalienable from their form, or could a Trevor Corkum story be told in a variety of forms?
TC: This is always a tough question. Some of the more experimental stories (pieces like “In Memoriam”, that you mention, or “Diagnostic Checklist: A Review of Common Body Fluids in the Case of Casey Cripps”, both from Little Fiction) were a deliberate challenge of form in a technical sense, but also seemed the best fit for the material itself. Most of these choices seem to happen at the unconscious level—the form seems to present itself in the course of the writing. “5’9, 135, 6c, br bl” (originally published in Plenitude) is told in reverse chronology—it came out that way and could exist in no other form. I find that when I’m too conscious of wanting to try or experiment with a particular form, it’s for that exact reason—to experiment and grow my technical skills. Those stories are often not as strong.
So to get to the heart of your question, a Trevor Corkum story can be told in many forms—but hopefully at the beating heart of each story is something recognizably Corkumesque. The weird wonder of being alive.