Kevin A. Couture grew up in a small B.C. mining town and has spent the last decade waking before dawn to write. The stories in his debut collection, Lost Animal Club, have appeared in various North American journals. Interviewed by Nancy Pearson.
N: It seems to me that the twelve stories in Lost Animal Club are about characters trying to find their place in their shifting, unsteady worlds. And yet, they are resilient in surprising ways.
K: I see it that way. It’s really accurate as to what I’m trying to do and to what I see the collection as. I like to put the characters into difficult situations and sometimes they rise to it and sometimes maybe not. I like to throw things at them.
N: One of the themes threaded through the stories is that of abandonment. Children are abandoned by parents, a dog by a former owner, dreams are let go of, a twin leaves his brother and parents for reasons they never know. What draws you to this theme?
K: In talking about putting characters into peril or an interesting situation – the theme of abandonment puts you on your own a little. That’s the most vulnerable place to be. That’s the most interesting character. It does sometimes make the story start off in a darker place, but that can add to the mystique, I think. I like to start with a character in a place that is tough to get out of, and just kind of see where they go. The theme of being lost runs throughout the stories. There’s no better way to be lost than to be on your own.
N: Several of the stories are set in small towns, and others in an urban environment. The rural characters navigate through complex relationships and experiences (for example, “In Whose Arms You’re Gonna Be”), whereas the city stories seem starker and the characters isolated within their relationships (“The Support Group” comes to mind). How did your years spent living in rural B.C. influence your writing and the characters you create?
K: I find with the stories that many of them are set in a similar town to where I grew up. I didn’t intend that, per se, but that’s a place I’m familiar and comfortable with. And I do like the stories that develop in a small town like that. I think you can mine a lot from where you’ve come from. I heard a quote where a person said that if you are 30 years old you have enough experience to write for the rest of your life. Those formative years have given me a lot that I want to talk about.
N: I marvel at how you create characters – both primary and secondary – with succinct, unique details, such as the man who lets his dog lick his teeth, or the boy who notices that his friend doesn’t wipe the counter before or after making a sandwich, or the woman who feels a would-be seducer’s moustache through her jeans. How do you pare your writing down to images and descriptions that are “smooth and taut as cherries”?
K: I do try really hard to be spare in the writing, but it certainly doesn’t start out that way. I write very slowly. So I may work on a paragraph for days and days until I get it to the way I want it. That’s the same for one detail. I think it’s just lots and lots of work and many pages that just get sort of tossed to the side. Then when it works, it feels great – you get a nice nugget detail that feels really good. For me, it’s a long process to find that nugget.
N: On a similar note, you write from a broad range of characters’ perspectives – a young boy’s, a woman’s, a teenager’s, a disaffected housewife’s, and more. How do you choose which character to take on as the lead to tell the story?
K: Many times I have that in mind when I start. But it doesn’t always work out that way. There are stories that I start with a different narrator and it doesn’t work, so I’ll either try to switch perspectives or abandon the story. I do try to have it penciled out in a brief way, but it doesn’t always work. I try to challenge myself every so often where I’ll write from a perspective that I’m unfamiliar with or a bit further removed from because I think that’s interesting and it is a challenge. But sometimes it doesn’t work and I get defeated by the challenge.
N: Despite the sometimes dire and often challenging situations your characters find themselves in, there is a lot of humour woven throughout the stories. “The Support Group,” in particular, made me laugh out loud at times. What do you see as the function of humour?
K: I think you need a bit of humour in a stark story to keep the reader going forward because some of the characters…they don’t come out well in the end. But in order to get there, I think there has to be some levity. Some of my favourite writers can do that – you cry and laugh in a single paragraph, and I think that’s brilliant. So that’s what I try to do – write a story that has dark and lighter sides for balance.
N: You’re known for being an early bird to your writing spot each day. What is it about the pre-dawn hours that help you get words on to the page?
K: Part of it is that my mind is freshest at that time. Part of it is necessity when working full-time. Plus, I was writing when raising two kids full-time; that was the only writing time available.
N: At the Victoria Festival of Authors you’ll be sharing some tips for writers in the audience on how to be successful with their own writing. What is one point you plan to tell them?
K: I think it’s persistence. I think the only difference between a writer that has published something and a writer who hasn’t published is that the published writer has written more words. And the persistence part also applies to submitting. Just keep sending stuff out there. That helps to inform how that particular piece is received. And then just have thick skin about it, because it can certainly wear you down. So, persistence.
Kevin will participate in a panel discussion, The Latest Bag of Tricks – Humour in the Written Word, on Saturday, September 24.