Daniel Perry is the author two short fiction collections: Hamburger (Thistledown, 2016) and Nobody Looks That Young Here (Guernica, 2018). He was recently in Montreal and I got a chance to chat with him after he read at the “Lit Pop Number 1 Year Beginning Bonanza” (Lit Pop features amazing writers on the last Sunday of each month at The Brass Door–if you missed this one you can redeem yourself in a couple weeks).
C: Do you ever find yourself repeating formulas in your writing? You’ve been at it for some time now, having penned your earliest story in 2006 and the most recent in 2015. I imagine that that would become a possibility.
D: No, if I do find that I’m repeating themes I have to ask myself why that’s happening. Over a long enough time I can usually realize what’s going on and how to do it better.
C: In an interview for Prism Magazine you said that you feel a piece is complete only when you can no longer stand to look at it. Is there any advice you can perhaps think of to give someone who struggles to know when their editing has stopped being effective?
D: By day I’m in the advertising industry, and I walk past a David Ogilvy quote on my way to work every day: “Perfection isn’t when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away.” I cut my teeth as a newspaper copy editor and as a communications officer. What I’m getting at is that my instinct is usually to go shorter. I’ll often write a flabby draft, then cut it to the bone, and only put meat back on where it’s needed; a lot of what gets cut is never thought of again, though.
C: It’s appropriate that you should use a meat metaphor to talk about your writing. The title of the book you’ve just put out is Hamburger, so I have to ask: what do you think about the meat industry?
D: Oh boy. I, uh, have a very rational objection to the meat industry and a very irrational love of meat. I love to eat meat and I eat meat all the time despite knowing that it is extremely bad for the environment and probably very bad for me. When you think about it, it seems more and more like the case that meat is a huge mistake that we’ve made as humanity, and yet, – bacon.
C: Would you eat a hamburger grown in a lab?
D: I may already have, I have no idea. But yes, in theory, definitely. If it tastes as good as the real thing, for sure.
C: In an interview for Pages Unbound you were asked about the relationship of labour and creative work, and for The Town Crier you said that, to your mind, one’s work is inseparable from one’s life—that “our obligations and expectations say a lot about us”. I can’t help but agree and would like to ask you to elaborate on how your work and your art may cross-pollinate with respect to method, execution, and expectations—professionally and personally.
D: I expect that I will always have to do work other than my writing to make a living. I’m not sure everyone who’s attempted to write (successfully or otherwise) has had the same expectation. I think some writers and other kinds of artists are really disappointed by the reality of having to earn an income from a job they’d rather wasn’t their full-time job. But as concerns my own full-time job in the advertising industry, I sometimes wonder if I might be reverse-engineering stories: instead of being free to make up whatever I want, I have to work within constraints that aren’t my own to come up with solutions. It might be comparable to wind-sprints in preparation for the longer race day that is writing and editing my fiction.
C: For Prism you also talked about following arbitrary rules slavishly, and this answer echoes that sentiment. Both remind me, in a way, of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Have you heard of them? Do you like Eno? And do you ever apply this kind of thinking to other areas of your life?
D: No I haven’t, and I only know Eno vaguely, as a producer. As for strategies, I try not to think about it too much. If anything there are ways that I try to find space in my life. I actually play a lot of sports, which is valuable to me because I’m always thinking about so many things. But when I’m on the ice all I’m thinking about is the puck, where is the puck, how can I get the puck. I also run a lot.
C: Writers that run always remind me of Murakami.
D: Ah, yes, that was the first Murakami that I read actually. But yeah, I run until I’m not thinking anymore; it’s not necessarily a runner’s high for me, but eventually it’s just me and my feet, and I’m doing something where that is the only thing that I’m doing.
C: I recently discovered this idea, that movement generates relief, in one of the Russian Futurist painting manifestos of all places. It’s obviously meant in a pretty specific way there, but can be interpreted in this way too: that if you just move you will inevitably relieve yourself of whatever is literally and figuratively in your way, blocking you.
D: That’s it.
C: So that’s how you relieve yourself of stress related to your work, but I’d like to ask you about the other side of the process. How do you justify what you do? You’ve already enjoyed a lot of success, and things should logically only keep getting better for you. Despite this, most people on our planet, even most people that read books, will never read your work or know who you are. What do you say to that?
D: I think in the fact that there is no practical reason to do any of it. That’s possibly one of the best reasons to do it really. You’re not doing it for fame or money, since none of that really exists for writers. I think I do it maybe for a sense of play, freedom, space, where … I don’t know, I think it might come down to part of me just says do it because you will go crazy if you don’t. I’m compelled to express myself and whatever the results of that are I’d like to think that I’ll continue to do it. Setting up expectations that are bigger than the satisfaction of completing the work is the wrong way to go about it, I think. If it’s out there maybe someone will love it, and maybe that’s enough. That’s kind of a wandering answer, but..
C: Well maybe it’s appropriate that it’s a wandering answer, because that’s kind of what we’re all doing whether we’re writing or acting or practicing medicine. None of us see the real end—it’s actually precisely at the end that we stop seeing.
D: Yeah, you challenge yourself too. Can you think of something new, can you set your own bars higher, can you can satisfy yourself—can I do that.
C: Is there anything you dislike about literature?
D: Well I have a complicated understanding of prize culture I guess, or the commercial aspect of literature. The idea that if something sells well it must be great or if it wins prizes it must be great, that the forces at play here kind of squeeze out everything else, that there might not be enough space for everyone.
C: To speak about space and career-ends some more, maybe you will be able to recall the interview in which DFW predicts that no matter the degree of success, in commercial or alternative veins, writers will inevitably continue to reach smaller and smaller audiences (by way of an increasing number of virtual non-readers and an increasing number of people publishing writing). In an article for the New York Times earlier this year, Eileen Myles reflected on how there isn’t enough work for everyone and said that men should stop making art for roughly 50-100 years. How do you react to this? How do you continue to (should you attempt to?) reconcile your identity and passions within contexts of deepening resistance, criticism, or allyship? How much space do you see in your art for politics? Would you consider making such a political space by not making art?
D: Myself, I won’t stop; I don’t think it’s productive for anyone to silence themselves, to be excluded or to feel like they have to exclude themselves. The question reminds me somewhat of two arguments I’ve heard about different topics in recent years: one is Michael Lista, blaming the lack of funding for Canadian literary journals on the fact that there are too many of them and saying some should be done away with so that the truly good ones (whatever that means) can prosper; the other is Dave Eggers’ contention (about something other than literary journals, granted) that less isn’t more, but rather, more is more is more is more. There are journals in Canada that only publish women, or that focus on writing by/for/about a given ethnicity; there are book publishers entirely or almost entirely for queer writers; I also know of a liberal-minded literary magazine published in pdf only by a couple of older white men that proudly declares on its cover that it’s “a magazine for fifty people”. I bring up these examples because I do like to think that any magazine or book publisher starting up today would be doing so out of a desire to provide more space for literature that doesn’t seem to have enough space at the moment; I also like to think that any magazine or book publisher that’s been around at least a couple of years understands why it’s important to publish diverse authors. Unfortunately, I also understand that it doesn’t always work out so well, and that the same hegemony continues to repeat itself to the systemic exclusion of non-male, non-white, non-heterosexual writers. My short answer is: fewer men making art or making decisions about which art gets exhibited, published, funded, reviewed, rewarded with prizes would probably be a good thing, but that I’d rather see better men than no men, by which I mean men who are conscious of their privilege and who endeavour to make space for non-men who’ve been (intentionally or otherwise) pushed to the margins.
C: So there is a space in-between the two extremes that men should aim for, a space in which perhaps the most creative—and political—thing they can do is to make space, but not necessarily remove themselves from an entire world altogether.
D: That’s it. White, male, English speaking—there is a legacy and it is a bad legacy. So everyone needs to make the necessary effort to make spaces safer, more supportive.
C: Last big question: In literature there are any number of moments that one would call sublime, but I often wonder how often writers actually experience or witness moments of the kind of intensity they create in their stories. When was the last time you had a ~sublime~ experience?
D: I guess my most recent kind of moving moment was this week. My high school English teacher just passed away. It was one of those things where we had not stayed in touch—not for any ill-will but there wasn’t necessarily any good-will either. I loved his class but it was just one of those things. Anyways, my book came out, I tried to reach him, and learned that he was very sick. I wasn’t able to talk to him. And then I found out that he passed away. I was hit with this sense of loss for the four months fifteen years ago or something. It reminded me of Whitman, this feeling of containing multitudes, the idea that there is a whole section of your brain or your life or your experience that is just dormant, just waiting, and that you can fall back into it anytime, that suddenly you are seventeen again and you are maybe in need of a role model, or someone to believe in you, someone to tell you there is some value in literature, to encourage you to do it. I don’t know if I’d call it sublime, but it was certainly surprising to find this, this kind of a lake somewhere, to end up plunging into it again.