Guillaume Morissette is an anomaly.
Writing in English in Montreal means you're the subject of a double exile—exiled within Quebec as an anglo minority, and exiled from the rest of Canada by living in Quebec. In the end, you die from a lack of sunlight. But Morissette has exiled himself even further; he's a francophone who has given up writing (and, largely, speaking) in French, and he writes fiction and poetry about the internet and video games for a generation interested in the internet and video games but not in reading.
Morissette's new book, a collection of poems and short stories called I Am My Own Betrayal, which came out last month through local press Maison Kasini, showcases Morissette doing what he does best. He's a master of the tragicomic one-liner, and artfully “captures the zeitgeist” of twenty-first-century living: beer slogans, online first-person shooters, chief operating officers, writing workshops, social networks, being drunk in a room full of strangers, job descriptions, love lives; the whole lot.
I traded emails with Morissette, who is also a Maisonneuve contributor, about the Concordia Creative Writing program, the process of putting I Am My Own Betrayal together, how to boost your reading karma, and what he sees coming down the pike for him and for the writing universe he inhabits.
Alex Manley: How did you come to apply for Creative Writing at Concordia University? It is a bit of an off-the-beaten path program. Based on the indeterminate ending of "How I Failed at Life in Quebec City," it was hard for me to make the leap with you from working in video games to Creative Writing. Was there some sort of epiphany?
Guillaume Morissette: As a teen, I discovered a web forum with a community that was into writing witty comments and making really intelligent poop jokes. Participating, it was like, “Wait, I am actually good at this,” and it was a surprise because school had been teaching me to try nothing and write boring, methodical essays and then grading me as average for them. Later, I went into video games, but even then, I often wrote, like, long emails with extravagant metaphors in them or unnecessary sections in game-design documents and didn’t know why I was doing that—probably just to entertain myself. I moved to Montreal in early 2009 and began buying a lot of English literature, including books published four seconds ago and classics and books at random. I read more books that year than any other year, and it was good for me to read not just a person’s work but also about their lives and what they had sacrificed to write their books.
In fall 2009, I felt cripplingly unfulfilled at work and wanted to get out but wasn’t sure to do what. Video games were a part of my identity, so having to create this whole new person and then transfer myself into it seemed scary. A week before the deadline, I decided to apply to Creative Writing at Concordia and then rushed together a writing portfolio from scratch and sent it in and somehow got in. I remember it as a very lonely decision, like I don’t think I talked it over with people that much. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. It felt like jumping off a cliff and thinking, “I’ll probably land somewhere better.”
AM: What was the editing process of I Am My Own Betrayal like? Almost all of these works were circulating in some way prior to the book's publication. Did you do any major re-writes on anything or was it mostly fine-tuning?
GM: I cut a three-thousand-word piece in November that mixed short poems (six to seven lines, two to three words per line) with little paragraphs in the style of maybe an email below each poem addressing that poem. That piece had funny lines about St. Bernards in it (my parents owned a St. Bernard when I was a kid), and other lines in it, but I ended up dropping it due to it being, overall, very weird and emo and only making sense to me.
At the last minute, I also decided to add ‘Karpman Drama Triangle’ and cut a five-thousand-word poem that had some lines I really liked in it, but I couldn’t get the narrative arc to feel satisfying. It was hard to cut both pieces. Part of me was like, “Fuck off, inner voice, I put so much time and willpower and mental energy in these, I should get to publish them, even if they feel wrong.”
The rest was my friend Aeron MacHattie being supportive at times and sending me long emails with lines like “THIS IS NOT ALLOWED” at other times.
AM: When I was reading the book, my initial instinct was to read all the poems first, and go back and tackle the stories afterwards. Your poetic voice and your prosaic voice are really quite different a lot of the time—your poetry feels like it's trying to be the summer blockbuster material of your writing—so it's neat to get the interplay. How did you decide to order the works?
GM: There was no metaphysical concept or anything—like, the pieces aren’t ordered according to the Fibonacci sequence or something. They also have different tones. Some have more of a dream-like feel and others have more of a dying-alone feel. It’s the difference between “How it felt” and “How it happened,” I think. But where they really connect, I think, is they share similar concerns and neuroses and a kind of flawed outlook on life.
I also don’t read short story collections in order. I always think things like, “Stupid book, don’t tell me how to read you, I know what’s good for me, I am a human, we’re faultless, I am starting with the last story.” I wanted a person reading it to have flexibility, and if you want to read just the poems and skip the stories, then do that, go for it. The poems are more instantly gratifying and something that can be easily sampled. They’re almost like an image on Tumblr, in that you get a sense of what they’re going to be about just by looking at them a little. The point of mixing stories and poems in no discernible order is that you’re forced to come across the stories to get to the poems, and maybe just from flipping through the book you’ll find a line you like in one of the stories or something.
AM: What are your plans for the future? Is there a novel in you? Do you respond to market pressures? I feel like you could produce some really interesting TV/movie scripts.
GM: “Write a novel or die trying” kind of sounds like my internal monologue’s catchphrase right now. I am working on a manuscript for maybe a novella based on a lot of shit. Jesus, don’t even get me started, and every day I think, “I am never going to finish this” and then I make progress on it. I find it hard to work on, even harder when I think things like, “Is your shitty book just a waste of someone else’s time” or imagine someone at a publishing house reading my manuscript and being puzzled by it and then burning it. In a weird way, I find that pressure helpful. I think I want to write a book that’s terrified of you not reading it.
From my book, stories like “Banhood” or “And how they all felt to and speedily devoured the muskallonge that had eaten the carp” could probably work as short films, I feel. Right now, I am okay with being autonomous and writing things for no other purpose than themselves, and if I ever have the opportunity to adapt my neuroses for other mediums like a short film or a Vice article or a Disney-on-Ice or a video game (that would be really ironic), I’ll either feel good about it or I won’t. In a sense, I am already experimenting with different forms, like I try to have an interesting Twitter presence and I also do charts from time to time. I feel like regular human people approach books cynically, and as objects books just sit there quietly and don’t do anything other than contain themselves, so “branching out” or lowering the barrier of entry into your stuff is becoming almost a necessity.