The Funny Bone of Fiction: Will Johnson in Conversation with Elyse Friedman

Elyse Friedman

Malahat volunteer Will Johnson talks with Elyse Friedman, judge for the 2015 Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction (deadline May 1, 2015). Friedman discusses literary influences, her prose versus screenwriting, and spills tips for new writers.

Read her biography here.

While I was scrolling through your website, I noticed an authorial lament about the chick-lit design used for the cover of your novel, Waking Beauty. You assured readers that the cover didn’t reflect the content, and made a point of distancing yourself from that categorization. I know you’re not the first female author to have a cover marketed this way, and chances are you won’t be the last.

Genre seems to be a contentious issue in literary scenes these days, with many seemingly keen to ghettoize work into distinct categories while others busily attempt to explode our definitions of what is and isn’t “literary.” When judging a contest for a journal like The Malahat Review, which has a certain perceived literary pedigree, do questions of genre come into it? Do you think “literary” is a meaningful categorization?

“Literary” connotes quality. I think it is a meaningful category. I’m not a snob, though. There are plenty of literary authors who write genre —crime, thriller, sci-fi, etc. Elmore Leonard, for example, wrote kick-ass literary crime fiction. I embrace it all, provided it’s well-written.

The Montreal Gazette once said, “Reading a story collection can be like having to jump into 10 or 20 cold lakes, one after another. But a Friedman story is like an indoor pool with the thermostat set to 86 degrees. It’s easy to slip right in.”

If we were to create a spectrum with baffling prose like William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily” on one end and John Grisham thrillers on the other end, whereabouts would you say contemporary writers should aim to land? Is there a sweet spot that you have in mind when you’re writing? How about when you’re reading?

I don’t think writers should ever aim for a place on any spectrum. Real writers don’t aim. They open and spill. And their words find the place where they’re supposed to be. My writing tends to be accessible and there’s usually a plot involved, often a high-concept premise, but I like to read all kinds of writing. I don’t care if there’s plot, or if the writing is difficult or the narrative is disjointed—as long as there’s truth and rhythm and talent.

Your recent tragicomic novel, The Answer to Everything, released in 2014 by Harper Collins, tells the story of a cult started as a misguided money-making scheme. Gil Adamson’s blurb praises your empathy, saying your work “delights in human foibles.” Do you think that’s accurate? Are you most interested in your characters’ flaws and shortcomings? And how important do you think empathy is to the fiction-writing process? 

I am drawn to flawed characters. I prefer them. They’re far more real and fascinating than saintly ones. Part of the joy in constructing my most recent novel was presenting three flawed main characters, all of whom wanted to think of themselves as blameless in a particular tragic event. It’s been fun to see who readers ended up identifying with and believing.

Regarding your question on empathy, I’ll say this: I’ve read good writers who aren’t particularly empathetic, and I’ve read bad writers who are extremely empathetic. But I’ve never read a great writer who wasn’t empathetic.

Your work is often praised for its humour—a quality I find is often lacking in many Canadian lit journals. What function does the humour serve in your fiction? Do you consciously set out to provoke the reader into laughter, or is it just a random by-product of the creative process? On a related note: who are some of your favourite comedic writers?

I don’t set out to write humorous fiction, I just have a naturally snide sensibility. I do think that humour adds texture and life to even the most serious and painful subjects. And I find it difficult to love books that are devoid of humour. I don’t think novels have to be knee-slappers, but books that are completely humorless are usually boring as hell. Like humorless people.

Some of my favourite comedic writers: Lucy Maude Montgomery; Charles Bukowski; Vladimir Nabokov; Martin Amis; Edward St. Aubyn; J.D. Salinger; Kurt Vonnegut; Junot Diaz; Jane Austen; Ben Hamper; William Boyd; Philip Roth; Tobias Wolf; John Kennedy Toole.

You work in a variety of mediums, including film and TV. What do you think this CV-diversity brings to your writing, and would you recommend that multi-pronged approach to aspiring authors?

I keep my prose and screenwriting very separate. For example, I would never intentionally apply a three-act film structure to a novel or plan it out in advance. For me, prose writing is mysterious and spontaneous. You set off down a road and you have no idea where you’re going. Or maybe you have a vague idea where you’re going, but you have no clue how you’re going to get there or who you’re going to meet along the way. It’s full of surprise and magic. Detours welcome. Screenwriting, on the other hand, is a journey you have to plan more carefully. If you wander off down shadowy little side roads, you’re going to get hopelessly lost. You have to know in advance precisely where you’re going, and you get there as quickly and efficiently as possible by following a fairly rigid structural road map.

Prose writing is more art than craft, and screenwriting is more craft than art. But I enjoy both. When stories occur to me, it’s usually clear which medium they belong to. I tend to ping-pong back and forth from screenwriting to novel writing, depending on the ideas that arrive. So that can be refreshing.

I would recommend that aspiring authors learn the craft of screenwriting. It’s a good way to pay the rent without having to get dressed or leave your apartment. Just don’t let the rules of screenwriting mess with the magic of prose writing.

You won a National Magazine Gold award for your story, “The Soother,” and your books have been shortlisted for a variety of awards, so you’re no stranger to that scene. What do you make of awards culture in the Can-Lit scene? What function do literary competitions like this one serve in the literary community?

Awards are wonderful and horrible. They focus attention on books and help sell copies (wonderful), but they make authors who haven’t been nominated feel like loser pieces of crap (horrible). And the sad truth is that juries all too often get it wrong. Not always, of course. I really loved All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which won a bunch of awards. And I liked Sean Michaels’ book, Us Conductors, which won the Giller this past year. But you tend to see a lot of the usual suspects on award shortlists. And many of the usual suspects are not very good writers. They just write earnestly about serious and important topics so they seem more award-worthy to jury members. Or they’ve had past successes, so jurors think they would look foolish if they didn’t nominate the pre-approved. I’ve seen a lot of boring or purple books on awards list over the years. I’ve seen big awards go to mediocre and even terrible writers. It reminds me of those singing competitions, like American Idol. Solid, tasteful singers get passed over for the ones who scream the loudest and do the most runs. That’s showboating, not talent. But it fools the judges. It’s frustrating. Especially when interesting, lively books like Life is About Losing Everything by Lynn Crosbie or Mongrel by Marko Sijan or Not Being on a Boat by Esme Keith are ignored (although Life is About Losing Everything won the Relit, which I was happy to see).

I would love to hear about some of your most cherished pieces of short fiction. Were there any in particular that inspired your own work? What authors do you keep coming back to, and why? And if you had to pick just one Can-Lit short story to recommend to people reading this interview, what would it be? 

Some of my favourite short stories: “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff; “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” by JD Salinger; “Symbols and Signs” by Vladimir Nabokov; “In the Reign of Harad IV” by Steven Millhauser; “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” by George Saunders: “The Swimmer and Reunion” by John Cheever, “Last Night” by James Salter; “Career Move” by Martin Amis, “A&P” by John Updike.

The two authors that I re-read the most are probably Charles Bukowski and JD Salinger, because they bring me back to a time when my brain was young and juicy and crackling with electricity.

I haven’t read a lot of Canadian short fiction, so your last question is difficult to answer. I’ve enjoyed collections by Mark Anthony Jarman, Gil Adamson, Zsuzsi Gartner, Stuart Ross, Margaret Atwood, Pasha Malla and others, but I can’t think of one particular Canadian short story that has stuck with me like the ones I mentioned above. Gulp. Sorry.

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Will Johnson

Will Johnson