Tuesday 10 April 2018
Interview with Michael Winter
Michael Winter is the critically acclaimed author of the novels The Architects Are Here, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Death of Donna Whalen, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, The Big Why, which was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and This All Happened, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award and won the Winterset Prize. Along with two collections of short stories, in 2014, Michael’s first work of non-fiction, Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, was published by Doubleday Canada. Michael lives in Toronto and Newfoundland.
Interviewed by Lee Wright
LW: Am I right in saying that Edgar Saltus’ A Transient Guest was a pivotal moment in your decision to become a writer? And what was it about Saltus’ book that turned your head?
MW: The book itself is a hilarious fantasy full of purple writing. What changed me was the contrast from reading and writing dry, science-based material. And happening upon the novel by accident: I was looking up “road salt” and came upon the name, “Saltus”. Then I searched for “Transportation Canada” and discovered A Transient Guest. I was heading towards a degree in the sciences and this discovery of an imaginative novel reminded me that the way I saw the world was not merely surface, but human and interior.
LW: I have heard you mention that you re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night every ten-years or so. Is this your favourite novel? And why this particular work?
MW: I’ve read everything of Fitzgerald’s, including his unfinished The Last Tycoon which is pretty spectacular as well. I hold a greater affinity for books by, say, Nicholson Baker, books I think I might be able to write myself. But Tender is the Night, there are so many crazy passages and thoughts in that book, things that match a feeling I have about living in the world, and yet I know I will never write a book like that. It reminds me another type of person I may have become. And yes, every ten years or so the book seems to find me and it’s as if I’ve never read it before, that the publishers have altered the book. It’s not that, of course - it’s that I’ve changed. And so I pick out new things, new characters, from the book to admire and love. And the book is big and complex enough for that new selection to happen.
LW: Talk us through your writing day routine.
MW: I wake up and get the boy to school and then go upstairs. In the winter, I zip up this little down vest that is too small for me. The vest, as I zip it up, gives me a little hug to say, “it’s going to be okay.” It’s a reassuring zip. Then I write until noon. That’s it. I keep a cheap small notebook with me through the day to write down observations. For instance, this is something I wrote just now: “one of his friends wore a hoodie with the soft fangs of a shark around the brim.”
LW: You divide your time between your homes in Toronto and Newfoundland. In which do you write better?
MW: The location doesn’t affect me, except I do tend to write more things in the small notebook when in Newfoundland. I always think I’m going to write more while there, but then a roof needs repair or a friend is going on an excusion I can’t pass up. There’s a man I buy firewood from, and I saw him last when it was raining. I knocked on his door and he opened it. I thought you might be in the woods, I said. “No,” he replied, “in weather like this I tend to stay busy around the door.” That expression, “busy around the door,” that is the sort of thing I like to write down. And those expressions occur more frequently in Newfoundland.
LW: In your novels you write without using quotation marks. Why is this?
MW: The atmosphere I am trying to create is one of saying, quietly, to the reader, “Come with me and listen to these people converse.” If I use quotation marks, it sets up an external form, a pre-set notion that what one is reading has already happened, or I’ve shaped it somehow. I want to conjure up a “cinema-verite” feel to fiction, that the narrative is occurring outside of my control, even though the tense structure is almost always past-tense (and so has the look of hindsight). The lack of inverted commas allows the reader to eavesdrop on characters talking to one another; the author, or narrative voice, drops out of the equation. The book should give the reader two feelings at once: you are on a selected tour infused with meaning; you are not being led at all – you are on your own experiencing things in your own way.
LW: For your last book, Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, you turned your hand to non-fiction for the first time, going back to the First World War and telling the story of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at the Battle of the Somme. How did that project come about?
MW: I was standing on a piece of land I had just bought. It took a lot of effort to find out who owned the land and to persuade the owners to sell it, for it wasn’t worth much money. Anyway, during the research at the government offices to discover ownership, I realized that the grandmother of the people who now owned the land had had a previous marriage in the early 1900s. She’d had a son and then her husband died. When that boy was a teenager his mother remarried. War broke out and the son signed up. He was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. While at the war, his mother was pregnant and gave birth to a new son. This birth occurred a few days after the death of her first son. And it struck me that she would have heard about the death of this first child soon after giving birth to her second. And this second child was the father of the people I was now dealing with, trying to buy their land. But how mixed with grief must her joy have been! Anyway, standing there in that field, realizing if there had been no war that boy would have lived and had a family and that family would be here on this patch of earth now instead of me, that sort of moved me. I wanted to write about how a distant war still affects us today.
LW: What was the research process like for Into the Blizzard and how did it differ from researching a novel?
MW: I knew I wanted to follow, physically, where the regiment trained and fought. And to enter archives and read material stored there. In that way it was a bit like a return to the life of scientific research. But I promised myself to avoid big ideas and concentrate on small things - things that might point to big ideas. Let the reader connect to the big ideas. I read, in an officer’s diary, that he spent four years trying to join the regiment in France, only to be kept back because he was a good marksman and was better to the army if he trained new recruits. That man was finally sent over to join the regiment just as the war ended. He didn’t get to fire a shot. But what I didn’t know was some regiments, the Newfoundland regiment included, marched into Germany to occupy the country after the war. And, on their way, this man noted they had stopped at Waterloo. There was a museum there, to the battle with Napoleon. And the soldiers went into the museum and were struck by this huge panoramic mural of Napoleon’s army. He wrote that, for the first time in his life, he felt he knew what war was like. And he was in a museum! To a war that occurred a century before. And here I was, in another museum, reading about his experience a century after he had felt it. In that way, noting down this transference of feeling, the research was quite similar to writing a novel.
LW: You have written short-stories, novels, and non-fiction. Which form do you prefer and why?
MW: A common desire in writers is to be writing something other than what they are currently writing. Right now I’m accumulating paragraphs that, I hope, will be a novel. And so, unwittingly, I have two shapes in my head for things I might think are stories. But I tend to believe that whatever one thinks for five years can be shovelled into a novel. And so I will do my best to convert those story-scenes into novel passages. I must, or else I’ll never finish anything.
LW: Have we seen Michael Winter’s Magnum Opus yet? Or do you believe that is still to come?
MW: I doubt that is something one can predict – an artist’s big book is usually labelled as such with hindsight. My sister sent me a small book entitled Minor British Poets and I thought how funny is that – none of these poets would have carried such a meagre ambition. My son’s mother is a writer too, and we often write his memoir for him. It begins, “I was the son of two minor Canadian novelists…” and all three of us roll on the floor at the humility. But one can only be humble. Many of the grand, ambitious, rolled-up-their-sleeves novels by my contemporaries bore me to death.
About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.