Q&A with Robert Wiersema

September 6, 2017 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A

Robert Wiersema is the author of three novels, a novella, a memoir and, most recently, a short story collection. “It’s not that Wiersema wants to tell a good story, it’s that he’s driven to tell a good story” [The Province]. Wiersema is a constant book reviewer for the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun and other newspapers and magazines. His weekly books column, Beyond the Bestseller, airs on CBC Radio’s All Points West. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Vancouver Island University and also teaches at Camosun College.

Interview by Andrew Templeton

Andrew Templeton: I’ve just finished reading Seven Crow Stories and have so, so many questions, none of which I can ask here because of the nature of the stories. Each takes the form of a mystery – the reader is not quite sure what is going on until the final resolution. So any direct questions about content would lead to spoilers, so let’s save those questions for the pub.

What I think I can safely say is that each story centres on an encounter between two worlds – what we might call the seen and the unseen – and how these encounters resolve themselves provides both the underlying tension that propels the stories forward but also imbues them with a sense of wonder – if I can use that word – at the power of hidden worlds can hold.

Robert Wiersema: Thanks for using the word wonder. The idea of wonder is important to me on several levels. The first is that very emotional response: I want to elicit wonder. Well, perhaps not elicit. Perhaps remind readers – and myself – of the wonders not only lurking in the shadows but around us, all the time. We lose that, that sense of wonder, I think. We grow out of being amazed, and I find that heartbreaking. Fiction, in whatever form, can remind us of that state of awe, of amazement, and remind us of its loss.

The second level of wonder is the idea of the unanswered question. Questioning is at the heart of the experience of wonder and with these stories I wanted there to be unanswered questions, mysteries that will take root in the mind and keep that experience of wonder alive…

AT: So, I’m curious, how would you categorize these stories? Where should they be shelved?

RW: I’m often asked how I would define my work, what category it would fit into. And it’s not an easy question. It’s sort of fantasy, but not really. It’s kind of magic realism, but only kind of. It’s got elements of horror, but it’s not horror. There’s some weirdness, but it’s not really weird fiction.

In my mind, I write wonder stories, which is a term I’ve nicked from the Germans. In Germany, their version of fairy tales is sometimes referred to as marchen, or wonder tales. I heard that and I was like, yeah, that’s it. That’s what I do. Stories of wonders, just to the side of fairy tales.

There’s something else – something I probably shouldn’t talk about, but what the heck. I’m currently at work on the early stages of a novel that I realized, a few weeks back, was the third book in a trilogy. Not a trilogy with shared plots or shared characters – there’s none of that – but a thematic trilogy. I’ll quote from my workbook here: “WONDER. There it is – that’s the key, right there, the link between the three books: wonder. I’ll likely never refer to them this way in public – or likely ever refer to them as a trilogy at all – but this is how I’m going to refer to them in my mind – The Wonder Trilogy.”

AT: Does that mean that two of your previous novels are part of “The Wonder Trilogy?”

RW: No, these are all works in progress. I’m deep in revisions on a novel called The Fallow Heart, I’ve got a handwritten manuscript for a novel called Cold Roses, and the third one, which I’m actively writing now, the subject of that realization, is called Strayed.

AT: Intriguing. Something to look forward to. I wonder if we can unpack a little about your approach to writing the stories in this collection. They are set in very recognizable realities – worlds that we all know well or are at least familiar with – yet there is another layer, another world at work that is also impacting on the characters.

RW: I start either with a very loose concept (I want to write a ghost story, or, rituals around childbirth, or, running away to join the circus) or with a character (a country singer on the road, or a young man whose brother disappeared when they were children), and whichever one comes first, the other comes almost immediately after, just a fractional delay. Almost simultaneous, but slightly out of phase, which I think works really well.

Premise comes next. “Okay, I want to write a ghost story, I’ve got this character, so where are they?”

Once I’ve got that established, then I start to write, with no real idea where I’m going. Certainly no outline. The story goes, built on that dynamic – as you say, the layering – of the overall thing (the concept, the premise, the type of story) and the characters. It’s crucial to me that the characters are real. Everything comes out of the characters — they decide what to do, they determine what happens next and they’re where the readers’ attention lies. If the main character doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t matter what happens in the story, it’s not going to have any significant effect on the reader.

So, basically, ideally, I make you love a character, then I let terrible things happen to them.

Or fantastic, wonderful things. You never know.

Frankly, I never know, until I hit the end. That’s the joy of it, for me.

AT: For a collection that covers twenty-five years of writing – what changes have you noticed in your craft or approach?

RW: You know, that’s a good question, and it really cuts to the heart of the book itself.

Despite the changes, I think I’m the same writer, and I think that’s what the collection shows. I still approach stories the same way. Typically, if I have an idea for a story, the clock starts ticking. I’ve got about 72 hours to write a first draft, or the flame sputters… So, the expiration date on how long I have with an idea has remained the same.

I like to think that my craft has improved — I’m a better writer now than I was in the early 90s.

I want to say that I’m a lot less… self-involved… now, but the most recent story, “The Last Circus” is one of the most autobiographical things I’ve ever written, and I wrote that last summer… I say autobiographical, but that’s not quite right.

AT: Indeed, anyone whose read “The Last Circus” might be curious to think of it as autobiographical but there really is a sense of lived reality to the piece. And this is true of all the stories. They maybe tales of wonder but the characters are rich in detail. There’s also a great deal of specificity to place.

RW: I think it’s more place than life.

But that’s not entirely true… I always tell my students that one of the worst pieces of advice for writers is to “write what you know” – it’s so limiting, and tends to mire writers in the swamps of thinly disguised memoir. I tend to go more with “write what you fear” and “write FROM what you know”. For me, that’s Victoria and Agassiz (where I grew up and which I have revisioned as a place called Henderson). Not the physical spaces so much, though I like to be as accurate as I can be, but rather the psychic geography of those places. What they mean, to me as a writer, and in those stories.

As for autobiographical content, well, the collection is bookended by two pieces, “Grateful” and “The Last Circus”, one of the oldest stories and definitely the most recent. Both are autobiographical, despite the fact that they bear no resemblance to any actual events in my life whatsoever. Yes, the circus came to Agassiz when I was a kid, but what happens to the main character in that story, when he visits the circus, didn’t happen to me.

Or did it?

That’s always the thing.

Robert Wiersema will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at Close-Up Magic, 3:30 at Intrepid Theatre.

Andrew is a playwright who has had worked produced in Vancouver, Toronto and London, UK. Now based in Victoria he runs the workshop studio space, GOOD with his partner Jill Margo.