One-on-one with Robert J. Wiersema

November 9, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Robert J. Wiersema is the author of the novel Before I Wake and the novella The World More Full of Weeping. His second novel, Bedtime Story, has just been published by Random House Canada. TSR is delighted to host the second stop in Wiersema’s week-long blog tour. The author answered a series of e-mail questions about his new book and where he sees himself in the CanLit pantheon.

TSR: Where did the idea for Bedtime Story come from?

RJW: It was, literally, a dark and stormy night.

This goes back to a black rain in November a number of years ago. [My wife] Cori and [my son] Xander had gone up to her folks’ place to escape for the torrential rains which were pouring both through our roof and into our basement, leaving me to stay the flood. Between trips down to the basement to make sure the pump was working, and soaked-to-the-skin fruitless manning about the yard in the middle of the night, I was reading. Of course. What else would I be doing?

And it occurred to me, as I was reading, that I wasn’t familiar with a lot of books about fathers and sons that I recognized. I mean, there was Jim Harrison, and Ernest Hemingway, and Pat Conroy, but nothing that spoke to my early thirties’ bookishness, my supposedly responsible, but actually hapless-in-the-face-of-crisis reality.

It occurred to me that there might be something there, so I pulled out a notebook, turned to an empty page, and wrote the words “Father. Son. Book.”  Within about fifteen minutes, I knew what the book was going to be.

Of course, it took seven or eight years to actually see it as a book, but that’s how these things go sometimes.

TSR: You’ve treated the subject of children in distress before, in both Before I Wake and The World More Full of Weeping. What is it about this subject that captures your imagination?

RJW: Fear. Brutal, unrelenting parental fear. Which actually surprises me still, though it shouldn’t.

I wrote Before I Wake in a white heat of fear, in the three months after Cori told me she was pregnant. Her pregnancy wasn’t a surprise; my reaction to it was, though. I went into free-fall, and poured all my fears about my impending parenthood into a manuscript I assumed no one would ever read.

Both The World More Full of Weeping and Bedtime Story look at another parental fear, and another parental loss: that inevitable, and welcome, point where your child starts to find his feet and pull away. It’s a moment of such contradiction: you can’t help but feel proud, that you’ve done your job as a parent, but at the same time, the loss, the sense of time’s passage is so acute, it breaks your heart.

Of course, nothing ever happens in a normal way in my books …

TSR: David, the protagonist’s young son, becomes enthralled with a book called To the Four Directions, a Lord of the Rings–type fantasy by a mysterious author named Lazarus Took, and literally gets lost in the story. Do you see this as an accurate, albeit exaggerated, metaphor for the reading experience?

RJW: That’s exactly what it is. I tend to operate not just from a “what if?” perspective, but I go one step further: I turn it up to eleven, to quote a cliché.

The old saw is that you can get lost in a book. Fair enough. But what happens (there’s the first “what if”) if you could really get lost in a book? But what if (there’s the second one, the extra notch) the reader isn’t just getting lost in a book; what if the book itself is a trap?

Take a normal, even wholesome activity – reading, a walk on a spring morning, exploring the friendly forests behind the family home – and turn it once, then turn it again.  That’s what it boils down to, for me.

Oh, and lots of coffee drinking.

TSR: What were your own formative experiences with books? Did you devour them like David’s father, Chris, or were you more of a reluctant reader, like David himself?

RJW: I was a rapacious, insatiable reader. I couldn’t do sports, and didn’t really fit in, so books were it for me. I spent hours every day completely lost, barely able to surface into the real world for meals or bedtime. And when I came out of a good book? The “real” world didn’t seem so real. And it was so much less impressive, less substantial, more grey, than the world between the covers.

David, in reference to his reluctance as a reader, is very much rooted in Xander, my son. David is dyslexic, like Xander, and his only willing immersion in the world of books comes as a result of the nightly bedtime story. In the real world, it’s Cori who does the nightly ritual. I’m an observer from the doorway, and it was my observation of the power of that moment every night that informed much of the early part of Bedtime Story.

(Strangely enough, just as the book was going to press, Xander began to read, spontaneously and passionately. Where we used to have to fight to get him to read a paragraph, he’s now disappearing into his books for hours at a time. Given the events in Bedtime Story, I’m wondering if I should be concerned.)

TSR: What are the most influential books for you as a writer? As a reader?

RJW: Wow.  How much time do you have?

For me as a writer, the most influential books are things like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth; Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul and Man & His Symbols; Stephen King’s On Writing and The Paris Review Interviews. Really, though, the most important book was John Irving’s The World According to Garp. I stole a copy when I was 12 or 13, and I’ve read it every summer since. That was the book that told me that I could be a writer, that it was normal to be fucked up and insular and easily confused, and you could live a life that way. (I didn’t say it was necessarily a positive influence, but without it, I don’t think I would be a writer. And I’d still be fucked up and insular and easily confused.)

As a reader? I adore John Crowley’s Little, Big – I’ve got part of it quoted on my arm. Mark Helprin’s Winters Tale. Stephen King’s The Stand, It and the first four books of The Dark Tower series (well, most of King, actually, but those are the biggies). Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. James Joyce’s Dubliners (especially “The Dead,” which I believe to be the finest short story ever written by anyone, ever). Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and American Gods. Borges’ Ficciones. Gabriel Garcìa Màrquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I could go on …

TSR: One of the most scathing elements in Bedtime Story involves the behind-the-scenes machinations of the publishing industry. Why did you choose to satirize it in this way?

RJW: I don’t really see it as satire, actually.  It’s just publishing reality – an overworked editor searching for the next big book – turned up to eleven.

Which might ultimately mean that this world we’re part of is self-satirizing, but that’s not a point I’m going to take on. At least not on Giller Day.

TSR: Why did you choose to meld fantasy elements with a more straightforward literary narrative?

RJW: I think you give me too much credit. Or not enough. For me, it wasn’t a matter of choice.

What I write? Those are the stories that I have to tell. There’s no “let’s spice this up with a little fantasy” or “drop in a dash of faerie here.” There’s no consciousness of it. It’s just the way the stories come out. I know that sounds twee, but it’s the truth.

I mean, if I could tell other stories would I really – in this country – be writing books about miracles and magic books and evil forces and the beautiful attractions of a forest in the spring when you’re young? If I could, don’t you think I’d be polishing out another in a line of CanLit-approved, shortlist-worthy earnest novels, this one set in a farmhouse on the prairies with a box of letters in the attic and an uncle just home from the war?

Wouldn’t I be writing that stuff if I could?

Fuck no I wouldn’t.

You know what? I like the fact that my books don’t fit into a mould, except one that I’m in the process of creating. I like it that people reading my books have no idea where I’m going to go, either within the book, or between books. Truth be told, neither do I. And that’s so powerful.

Those stories, those “fantasy elements” allow me to look at fundamental human truths under greater pressure. In Before I Wake, I explored the dissolution of a marriage, in very realistic terms. But I also looked at those people pushed beyond the point where the “real” world could push them.

TSR: Why do you think genre novels are not afforded the same respect as so-called literary novels in this country?

RJW: Snobbery.

Screw it. I’m not gonna be polite. When it comes to this, I don’t think I need to be. I think the level of disrespect shown to genre fiction by some proponents of literary fiction – and it’s not just here, it’s not just a Canadian phenomenon – is ridiculous and tacky and it pisses me off.

You know what, though? That sword cuts both ways. Because the level of rancour that some genre writers and readers have for literary writing, for those books that don’t sell and that no one wants to read, as they put it, is just as ridiculous and it pisses me off just as much.

It’s penny ante bullshit on both sides.

TSR: Do you worry about being ghettoized as a genre writer?

RJW: No, not in the slightest.

There are two aspects to this answer.

First is that I don’t actually see any stigma to being a genre writer. Full stop. The idea that there is a stigma, frankly, is pretty offensive to me.

Second is pure pragmatism: which genre would I possibly fit in? Looking at my work, there’s no place it really fits. Kinda like my high school years again. Except this time? I like it.

TSR: The book is dedicated to your son. Has he read it?

RJW: Not yet.

I definitely wrote the fantasy storyline for him. Well, for him, and for 11-year-old me.

I’m not sure how he’d feel about the other storyline, though. The later stuff he would find interesting, but the whole Scenes from a Marriage turmoil that is so present in the first couple of chapters probably wouldn’t hold too much appeal for an 11-year-old.

I expect he’ll read it sooner rather than later. And that’s when the tough questions will come.

Robert J. Wiersema’s blog tour continues throughout the week.

Here is the information on where Wiersema will be appearing online over the next few days:

Nov 8    Live-to-chat –
Nov 9    Q&A – That Shakespearean Rag
Nov 10    Guest Post – McNally Robinson
Nov 11    Q&A – Kate’s Book Blog
Nov 12    Round up – Insider’s Blog

Many thanks to Julie Forrest at Random House Canada for setting all this up.

“We are not farm teams”: Robert J. Wiersema on the small press/large press divide: UPDATED

March 18, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

The recent discussion about the relative merits and drawbacks of publishing with a small, independent press versus a large multinational got me thinking it would be interesting to hear first-hand from an author who has had experiences with both. Accordingly, I contacted Robert J. Wiersema, who has published a novel (2006’s Before I Wake) with Random House Canada, and a novella (last year’s The World More Full of Weeping) with the small Toronto-based press ChiZine Publications. The two houses could not be more different: Random House is a major multinational, part of the Bertelsmann media empire. CZP began as a two-person operation, co-owned and run by husband-and-wife team Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi.

Wiersema was kind enough to reply to some questions about the experience of being a large press author who moved to a small press for his second book. (NB: Wiersema is back with Random House for his third book, a novel, due out this fall.)

TSR: Why did you choose to go with CZP for your novella?

Robert J. Wiersema: Well, you don’t get any smaller than ChiZine – at the time I signed with them for The World More Full of Weeping, I think Brett and Sandra were running the company off their kitchen table. Now, I think they might have a desk. Just one between the two of them.

As to why I chose ChiZine? Well, for starters, they asked.

It was never a matter of choosing ChiZine over Random House – I’ve been very pleased with my experience with Random (and I think that feeling is mutual, though I suspect there are days when I put it to the test). But I’m sufficiently aware of the realities of the industry to know that there was no way that Random was going to publish a novella as my second book. It wasn’t even a conscious knowledge, just one of those inherent truths: novellas don’t get published as standalone books (yes, there are exceptions, but they don’t make the generalization any less true). So it was a non-starter. Such a non-starter that it didn’t even occur to me to try for it.

I submitted TWMFoW (under its previous name) to CZP for their online magazine. Online magazines are great, because they don’t have the length restrictions that come with print mags, and there truly is an online mag for every sensibility. And some of them – like ChiZine – pay. I figured, “Why not?” It was either that or the drawer and the “stopgap collection of short fiction” down the road.

It was Brett who suggested actual, print publication. They had published two books at that time, and they were lovely – high-end production values, they felt good in the hand. When faced with the choice between having a manuscript languish in a drawer vs. having a signed/limited edition hardcover and a trade paperback edition, what would you do?

And Random House was terrific with it. They have the option on my next book of fiction (after the upcoming novel), but they were very generous in allowing TWMFoW to appear with CZP.

The money? Well, I was under no illusions there. I actually took my advance in extra copies of the signed/numbered edition (my son, Xander, refers to that stack as his college savings account – I’m not ready to shatter his illusions quite yet). But the first round of royalties are due to arrive just as I need to replace my computer – they’ll more than cover that, and a couple of dinners out, and a stack of new comics, so all is right with the world.

TSR: How did the publication process compare to that of a larger house?

RJW: The publication process with ChiZine was … different than with Random House, due largely, I think, to economies of scale. CZP published four or five books the season that TWMFoW came out (which was only their second year in operation, and marked a huge increase in output for them), and every one of them got a blinding level of attention. The books are labours of love, and Brett and Sandra have a hand in everything. They’ve put a lot of themselves on the line for this venture, so they stand or fall with their authors.

And they’re willing to take chances, and be a bit indulgent. When I had the brainstorm to include the essay “Places and Names” as a way of explaining (primarily to my mother and myself) that Henderson, the setting for the novella and a bunch of my other fiction was, in fact, not at all Agassiz (the town I grew up in) – except in the ways that it was – I sent Brett an e-mail, and within five minutes he had said, “Sure, what the hell.”

“Brett, I’d like to include notes for the novella and the essay.”

“Sure, what the hell.”

“What would you think of including an extra short story in the hardcover?”

“Sure, what the hell.”

There weren’t any levels or committees to go through, no one to run ideas past. It was all very easygoing.

That said, I realize that I’m writing from a position of considerable privilege. I wouldn’t trade my experience with Random House for anything – I’ve worked with great editors, a great publisher, great designers, one of the best publicists in the trade. I have no complaints whatsoever. The experiences are just different – steak and chicken, you might say. They satisfy in different ways.

TSR: Do you think it’s harder for a book from a small press to get noticed amid all the marketing buzz from the multinationals?

RJW: Definitely. Marketing budgets are smaller and, more significantly for a new small press, profiles are lower. It’s hard enough introducing a new house, let alone trying to get attention for the books on an early list …

Which means that you end up having to go different ways – lots of grassroots stuff. A week in Montreal at WorldCon (at the author’s expense). Online stuff.

TSR: You said that you thought the format of TWMFoW (i.e. a novella) wouldn’t fly with Random House. Might another issue have been the genre (i.e. psychological horror)? As a general principle, do you think the majors are more conservative in what they’re willing to take a chance on publishing?

RJW: I think the perception is that the majors are more conservative, and that’s true to an extent, but it overlooks Penguin’s very impressive sci-fi and fantasy lists, Random’s mystery titles, etc. And it overlooks … well, me, as the novel that Random House is bringing out this fall will attest …

[This post contains material that has been corrected: An earlier version of this post stated that ChiZine Publications was a two-person operation. There are now seven people on staff. TSR regrets the error.]

Torontoist serializes seasonal story

December 17, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The New Yorker has shitcanned eliminated its fall fiction special issue, but on this side of the 49th Parallel, the Torontoist website is going in the opposite direction. Beginning today, and continuing every day until Christmas eve, they’re serializing a story called “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” by Robert J. Wiersema, author of the novel Before I Wake and the novella The World More Full of Weeping.

Yesterday, the books editor at the Torontoist (he of the Bukowski-baiting Lori Lansens review) posted a note about the project along with an introduction from the author, in which Wiersema lays out his rationale for producing a Christmastime ghost story:

At first glance, there’s something a little counter-intuitive about a Christmas ghost story. After all, isn’t the season all about births and rebirths (depending on which point on the Christian/Pagan trapeze you occupy)? Well, yes.

And yet …

There’s a long history of ghosts and Christmas. One need look no further than what is perhaps the best known Christmas tale, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which has not one but four ghosts (don’t forget poor Marley.) And on the other end of the spectrum one of the best known ghost stories – Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw – which is deliberately framed as “gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be.”