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The BERTIN-CORKUM Dialogues: PART 2 — Path of the Samurai

Guest introduction by gentleman and scholar, Mr. Kris Bertin.

Being a writer has its fair share of drawbacks. In my opinion, other than the joy of imagining and creating, the only other fun part about it is getting to know like-minded people who are toiling beside you in the idea-mines. Some people are down here because they had an accident and fell in, others are merely driven to pick away in misery, and some people signed up and willingly hopped in. Trevor Corkum is one of those guys, the guy working harder than all of you and whistling the whole time, unearthing truths and horrors alike and cheerfully showing them off. Look at this one, he says. Look at its childhood!

In the course of a year, TC (I call him TC) has not only produced and published numerous stories, he’s working on a script, a novel, and taken the time to interview and showcase pretty-near all of Can-Lit’s up-and-comers. I thought it would be a nice idea to return the favour and put the spotlight on him, but TC said no. He’s the kind of person who doesn’t want or need to be focused on. The interview became a conversation. And here it is.

(For those of you who are wondering, if Trevor Corkum was a GI JOE, would be Low-Light, the deep-cover wetwork specialist who operates in complete darkness. The one who can observe and engage with—even in the blackest of night—what’s happening in the shadows. He’s also the one who, even if you don’t know it, is standing beside you, and watching your back the entire time.)

TC: In “A Man Might Work”, I notice a larger narrative time frame at work for you than in previous tales. It seems you’re working more consciously (though always deftly) with retrospect, so that we’re with the narrator as he’s reflecting back simultaneously on the interior and exterior worlds of a very physically and emotionally demanding summer job. It’s this more mature narrator who provides insight and reflection on what’s going on under the surface tension that summer. As usual, you’ve done it so nimbly and skillfully that it’s seamless. Why this new interest in larger timeframes, in having your narrator look back over his shoulder?

KB: A lot of the work I’ve had published, much of which is set to appear in my collection BAD THINGS HAPPEN are stories that take place in the present tense, in the moment. The past is something alluded to, but not thoroughly examined. Looking back offers a secondary dimension to explore a character, and it’s something I’ve been drawn to lately. I think I’m most interested in the idea of memory as narrative. Not everyone is a writer, but everyone writes a narrative about themselves, in their minds. They edit out boring or banal memories and replace them with ones that have value and meaning and offer them something. This is sort of the reverse of what you said, about applying old stories to your current life. I’m interested in people who reconfigure those old stories in order to justify the needs and wants of today. In many ways our past is a construct, a fiction of sewn-together dreams, half-remembered and watered down, amped up, re-coloured. A series of reboots made to suit our new sensibilities.

With this story, the adult narration was a necessity. I’ve written a few stories from the POV of kids, but without that retrospective insight, something about it feels implausible. Even thinking about my own childhood now, that person isn’t me, no matter how much I claim ownership over what I did, I was mostly just a little snaggly-toothed animal boy. His brain was small enough to fit in one hand, he’d only been making and storing memories for a few years. He believed that roadrunners were six feet tall, that sasquatches were everywhere, and vaginas went sideways. To give a child narrator a high level of insight rings false to me, and writing a story without it is impossible. Even if you leave it out, there’s an implicit judgement within the narrative about what we’re seeing and what it means. Childhood only has value to an adult, looking back. A child is incapable of making informed judgments about anything because their frame of reference is so limited, so their stories lack autonomy. Free will is the stuff of narrative, and without it, it’s difficult to even have a story.

KB: You asked me this question and it’s a good one, so I’m asking you now: what’s at stake in your writing? (Both personally, and in terms of the story).

TC: Like I said, what I admire in good writing (including your own stories), and what I try to explore in my own, is a place of deep vulnerability. This vulnerability may not be immediately evident or obvious—I think you do an amazing job of finding that sweet spot of tension between toughness (or outward strength) and vulnerability in your own characters, which is one of the things I love most in your work. Ultimately, I want to share space with characters when they’re at their lowest or most confused—their most vulnerable—because to me, these are the moments we reveal ourselves to be most human.

To do that well, it’s essential to be in touch with my own experience of vulnerability, to be honest and try to make sense of the emotional messiness that governs our lives. I need to be in touch with what it feels like to be rejected or be left behind or ridiculed or deeply ashamed for the way I’ve treated other people, just as I need to tap into the crazy miracle of intimacy and love, the rawness of sex and physicality, the shaky beauty of solitude, and so on. I need to risk diving down into the dark, quiet waters of the soul in order to bring up a starfish.

TC: In the years since we last spoke, you’ve snagged a book contract with one of the most respected publishers of fiction in the country (Biblioasis), and are working with the great short story guru Alexander MacLeod on editing the manuscript. What’s that process been like for you? Have you grown to love editing? Do you feel like you’ve turned a corner in your career? Does this contract have an impact on how you see yourself as a writer?

KB: I don’t feel like I’ve turned a corner. For an ambitious person who wants to do this, it just feels like another stepping stone. I’m excited and look forward to it, but if you’ve telegraphed something in your mind for this long, it just feels like business as usual. I wanted a contract by the time I was 30 and that’s what I got. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.

As far as the manuscript goes, lot of what I said about my writing being a representation of my own hang-ups came to light through the process of editing the stories with Dr. MacLeod. Looking at it from his point of view I was able to see what I couldn’t before. The weird things I treat as normal, and the subjects I’m drawn to again and again because I’m trying to sort things out in my own life. It ends up being a sort of half-uncomfortable psychoanalysis, where someone I respect immensely is sort of reading through the tickertape of my thoughts and hopes and dreams. We met in his office for weeks and went through everything I’d made over the last five years. At times things got very Freudian and bizarre.

When we started, he played a Willie Nelson song (Shotgun Willy) and talked about the importance of having something to say. He said I definitely knew I had something to say, but wanted to know if I knew what that was. He drew a picture of amorphous shapes and talked about how the ambiguous force that all my characters fear is largely the same, but because it’s unnamed, we can only infer its shape mathematically, through displacement. After that, he got me to write down what I thought my top 5 stories were, and rank them. When I wrote that Your #1 Killer (a story written from the POV of a worried mother) was my best, he said ‘I knew it!’. When I asked why, he turned to the sheet with the squiggly puzzle pieces and wrote in the empty shape mom.

Because this is what all of this is about, he said.

And he was right. But that kind of heavy, psychological inquiry happened again and again and I ended up facing myself and my prejudices and fears in a cluttered little office over a pair of coffees and granola bars. It helped me a lot, helped me sort out what I was trying to say, and what I want to get across in the future.

TC: I know you have your hands in a number of other projects. Tell me more about what you have in the magic bag and what inspires you to work on so many projects at the same time.

KB: Well, for once, it sounds like you’ve got more on the go than I do. I’m writing the second part of my graphic novel (about the Teen Detectives in a Nova Scotia town plagued with mysteries), and still working on my Choose-Your-Own-Adventure manuscript. Working on multiple things is a way to relieve yourself from the pressure of a single project, but it also gives it a voice. When you work on more than one thing, you get a better sense of how one character sounds versus another, what themes each piece embodies, etc.

The new short stories I’m making are what will become a second collection with Biblioasis. I’m writing bigger, longer stories, and am thinking that I might have a collection with a fewer pieces overall, but which are longer than the standard 4000 words that the journals end up making us produce.

I’m working on one right now about all that memory stuff we were talking about. It’s sort of like Kaspar Hauser in Nova Scotia, or the story of Jerome, the unknown sailor that washed up on Sandy Cove. One of those ‘mysterious people’ stories, where a person without an identity is found. The story itself about a woman in the present day interacting with this story which she was told as a girl, and coming to realize the significance of it. I wanted to write a story that took place in the past, but I felt like ‘historical fiction’ was another sort of false conceit that I didn’t want to engage in. Unless you’re a capital-H historian, I feel like our knowledge of the past is so limited that I’d be doing little more than trying to project my values onto another time period for flavour or something. I’d just be writing one of my stories, except they’re wearing funny hats. There’s nothing wrong with that, and indeed I’ve done it before, but I didn’t want to with this. Instead, the story is about the main character comparing her interpretation of a family story with her mother’s and grandmothers, as well as the ways its changed over time. The part of the story that takes place in 1890 is only recounted via modern characters, who bring the same flawed understanding of those times that I would have in writing them. I feel like this is ‘fair’ to the story and the reader in a way that making it take place in the past wouldn’t be.

KB: We met because of Twitter, but ended up getting to know each other in person when you lived in Halifax. What (if anything) do you or have you gained from spending time with other writers? Is it important to have a relationship with your peers? What is the difference between being around regular folks and people who write?

TC: Is there actually such a thing as “regular folk”? I think we’re all pretty weird in our own ways.

I guess it’s inspiring and affirming to have a good group of writing peers. It’s a lonely slog most of the time—we sit on our asses for the better part of our days reliving pain and heartbreak. It can make you crazy. So it’s a relief to be with people who really get what that struggle is about—who understand deeply the real-world sacrifices that are made, that it’s not just some game of tuning out but actually a pretty amazing tuning in to life and the mystery and its wild, crazy adventure.

On another level, there is a sense of comradeship and moral support that comes from having a community of creative peers. They don’t need to be writers, exactly—I have lots of friends who work in theatre or dance or film—but I do very much feed off the energy and passion and commitment of my peers.

At the same time, it’s also healthy and necessary to have friends and contacts who are not writers but who are engaged with the world in other ways. This balances everything out and keeps the perspective wide and the mind and heart properly ventilated. It’s also necessary for gathering stories—otherwise we’d just be writing about neurotic writers writing about neurotic writers all the time.

TC: Speaking of Halifax–it’s also the location for my novel, so I feel like I’m still living in Halifax in my mind every day and thinking about what the world looks like from there. What does the Canadian literary scene look like to you from the East Coast? Do you feel connected to any of the many keen and lively literary conversations happening here in Upper Canada?

KB: I’m not really a ‘scene’ kind of guy. At least not at this juncture. I go to the Saint Mary’s reading series every now and then. I joined the Nova Scotia Writer’s Federation for the dental plan, but my membership lapsed before I could get anything out of it. Toronto will always feel like The Emerald City, and the east coast will always feel like Munchkin Land, but Munchkins aren’t so bad.

I don’t really feel involved in the literary conversations, but I also don’t think I need or want to be. When things turn political, when a writer is speaking out against some supposed controversy, I get pretty annoyed. An activist would disagree with me, but I feel that, as an artist, it’s our job to be detached, to hang back and watch, and understand—at all times—that every situation is more complicated than it seems. If you try to shoehorn your liberal or conservative agenda into the discourse, you’re an asshole.

Speaking of exactly that, the only thing that I’ve given a shit about recently is the Raziel Reid/Barbara Kay thing. The petition to recall a literary award because you’re uncomfortable with the subject matter is ridiculous. I said to my pal Naben that this whole thing was spawned from little more than a dull woman’s lack of reading comprehension skills. Her ‘take-away’ from the book is the result of her conflating a character with the author and the ‘message’ itself. A student making the same argument in a book report would be failed by their English teacher. Like Reid said himself, he is depicting a culture, not defending one. You and I are doing the same thing.

KB: You’ve been diligently updating this website with interviews (along with news and a few analyses of short fiction) and have racked up 20+ interviews with your fellow up-and-comers. What have you learned in that process, either about writing, our generation, or the state of CanLit in general?

TC: It’s been sweet pleasure to do the interviews. One of the things I take away is how diverse and sophisticated the writing world is in Canada. It’s a whole interconnected ecosystem with micro-climates here and there. There are great writers creating innovative work from sea to shining sea. Folks who are articulate, thoughtful, committed, generous with their time. We don’t often have the space to reflect on what we do, why we do it, and how it connects to the work of our peers and others. So people have been grateful and seem to appreciate of the chance to think critically about what they do, to join a wider conversation.

I think there’s a general unease out there about the future of the “industry” in Canada, as in elsewhere. It’s ironic: at a time when literature in the country has arguably never been better, and when the population has never been more literate or hungry for original, compelling stories, we hear and fear stories of doom and gloom—magazines going under, publishers scaling back, bookstores closing (350 indie bookstores in Canada in the past decade alone). At the same time, there’s a real will to pick up the slack, to create new forms and versions of literature, new venues for readers and writers—so that’s encouraging.

TC: Do you believe humans have souls? What happens when we die?

KB: I don’t know, but I don’t want one. I’ll be pretty disappointed if I have a soul and if anything happens to it after I die. I don’t want to be dead right now, but I look forward to it eventually happening. It’ll be nice not to have to get up or talk to anyone or do anything. It’ll be like sleeping in forever, only you never have to wake up. Now that’s heaven.

KB: You once asked me about what kind of pistol would be a good fit for a pair of cargo shorts. What did you decide on? Did it end up fitting?

TC: A Glock 17 pistol. It was for a story called “I’m Still Your Fag”—a tale of jilted love. The gun fit into the pocket perfectly, though the shorts were a bit loose.

TC: If you were a GI Joe, who would you be, and why?

KB: I’d want to be someone exciting a dynamic, like Chuckles, the tough-but-sarcastic undercover Joe who wears a Hawaiian t-shirt and looks like a blonde Riggs from Lethal Weapon. He’s brilliant, strong, and charismatic, and gets the most exciting and dangerous jobs.

Who would I actually be?

Let’s look at the bio of the much more boring GI Joe, ‘Short-Fuze’:

Short-Fuze is logical and sensitive. He also has a noticeable temper, hence his code-name. Short-Fuze comes from a military family.

Sounds about right.


Find out more about Kris Bertin and Bad Things Happen here.

Read PART 1 of the BERTIN-CORKUM Dialogues here.