Register Sunday | June 17 | 2018

Little Nuggets of Perfection

Sharp short stories from Neil Smith

Bang Crunch, by Neil Smith, is compulsive reading. Yet the stories pack such an emotional punch that I laid the book down often between stories to savour the thoughts and feelings each one left me with. In this short fiction collection, Smith creates colourful and surprising worlds, using sparse, well-measured prose. Presenting Smith as the “New Face of Fiction,” Knopf Canada is promising readers another Yann Martel. At the end of an intense day of media interviews, Smith swings by the Maisonneuve office to discuss his literary debut.

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Maisonneuve Magazine: Writers are often told “write what you know,” so why did you decide to write from the perspective of such a diverse bunch of characters in Bang Crunch?
Neil Smith: That was why I started writing I think, because I wanted to enter the minds of other people—women, children, straight men, gay men, young people, old people. I’m not a writer who likes to talk about myself—that would not be the escape that I want from fiction.


MM: And you even write in the voice of a severed foot and a pair of gloves in “Extremities.”
NS: I thought at one point, well I’ve done all these other things… I have to try inanimate objects.


MM: I guess nobody can say, “Well, he got the gloves all wrong,” but was creating voices and stories for inanimate objects difficult, nonetheless?
NS: “Extremities,” is the story that changed the most from the original concept to the end, because in the original version there were no feet. It was only when I decided to do the extreme love and extreme hate theme, which these two characters represent, that the story was cemented in my head.

The foot has an extreme hate for this man he used to belong to, the astronaut, whereas the gloves have this extreme love for the store clerk that they don’t really know, and the story is all about the intertwining of extreme love and extreme hate and the extremities of the hands and feet. It was a story that let me be more poetic and lyrical than the others, and to play around with bizarre images.

I did a recording of the voice of the foot for authorsaloud.com, a website that the author Trevor Cole has put together, and I do this Southern American accent, which is how I heard the foot in my head. I know it’s very silly, but I can allow myself a silly story in the collection.


MM: So your stories are basically removed from your own life experiences?
NS: Yes, though there’s a section of “Funny Weird or Funny Ha Ha” when the main character comes across a prostitute in the Center Sud neighbourhood of Montreal, who is completely naked, and she just has a purse and high heels on. That happened to me. I had to phone 911, as the character does—obviously this woman was on drugs and needed help. When I phoned the 911 operator, I said, “There’s this woman on the corner of St Timothée and Ontario . . . she’s completely naked . . . she’s just wearing a purse.” Anyway, he said to me, “Could you describe the individual?” and I thought, how many naked women are on this corner?


MM: “Scrapbook” is based on the massacre at Montreal’s Polytechnique, in which female students were separated from their male classmates and killed by a gunman; what made you want to rework this event as fiction?
NS: I was at Université de Montréal when the massacre happened, and it was the most horrifying thing. My boyfriend at the time was a student at École Polytechnique, and I knew that I eventually wanted to talk about this in a story, but I didn’t want it to be an exact replica of what happened. I had to take the story out of Montreal, and I placed it in another town, with the same type of murders that occur and the same type of hatred against women.


MM: I was most affected by “Scrapbook,” and I wondered if that was in part because the recent shooting at Dawson College has made Montrealers more susceptible. Has this been a common reaction locally?
NS: I was expecting it actually, since the book is coming out so close after that incident. Interestingly, there have been three reviews so far and they have all brought up that story in particular and said it was a really powerful piece.


MM: The story raises many questions about gender inequalities during and after the shooting. What made you want to probe these issues in your writing?
NS: How many times do you open a newspaper and see that a boyfriend or a husband has murdered his wife or girlfriend? It’s so sickening and so rampant. I wanted to write about this hatred towards women. You see it now with Fathers for Justice, and their opinion of women taking away their rights as fathers, or the whole controversy of boys in school being taught by women, and how women are not allowing them to fulfill their masculinity, and I get really sick of seeing those articles. And at the time of the Polytechnique shooting, there was so much focus on Lépine but not on the women who were killed and what they had to go through.

I also wanted to show the aftermath in a relationship between a young man, who came out of that situation alive, and his girlfriend. I wanted to show the mix of emotions that something like this elicits: the rage, the shame and the love. After this happened in Montreal, that’s the reaction that a lot of us felt. This whole mixture. I mean we’re ashamed of what some of these men did, but then we sympathize with them at the same time, try to put ourselves in their shoes. My sympathies are towards both characters in the piece; I didn’t want one of them to be the bad guy and one of them to be the victim  

 
MM: It was strange—and quite dark—that men and women were forced to take on assigned roles in the demonstration scene in "Scrapbook," the men to wear purple figure-of-eight ribbons representing “the infinite number of women whose lives they’ve snuffed out” and the women to bear placards with images of the victims.
NS: Yes, and that actually happens at this type of event. Men and women have roles assigned to them; even at this demo, there are rules they have to follow. I played about with the memories that I had of that incident as the years passed. What happened that night and what as a society we retained for this incident as the years went by and what we’ve learned from it.


MM: The opening and closing scenes of “Scrapbook” use striking visual images; how did they come to you?
NS: One of the jumping off points for that story was the image from the magazine Macleans. In the first scene, there is a diagram of the school and the people inside, and it’s colour coded. I came across such a diagram in Newsweek the week after the Columbine murders. They had this really clinical diagram of the school with colour-coded stick figures representing the wounded, the murdered, the killers, and it was just so bizarre. And I was just trying to imagine what the person was thinking as he drew up this very architecturally-exact diagram of the school. How he felt labeling the dead and the wounded. It was like a doll house, a really macabre dollhouse. And that’s the first scene, Amy coming across this diagram. And the first thing she presumes is that the illustrator was a man.

I think that the three main characters embracing on the grass was a vivid image for the designers at Maisonneuve [where the story was originally published] because they took that grass for the illustration of this story. It’s really well done: it’s a close-up of grass and there’s a pair of scissors in the grass that you can’t really see. They’re hidden in this beautiful stretch of grass that you almost want to walk across, but there’s an element of danger. I though it really captured the theme of the story well. An image of grass ended up on the cover of that issue too.


MM: The “Green Fluorescent Protein” characters, a recovering alcoholic widow, her teenage son, Max, and his “gifted” friend Ruby-doo, are endearing and I was happily surprised to see them reappear in “Funny Ha Ha.” Are you finished with them now?
NS: They’re not going to be in the novel I’m working on now, but the novel will be written in a similar tone. The novel will be based on 16-year-olds, but a boy and a girl this time. It’s a love story between these two characters, there’s a mother that’s present, and there’s a dead father too, so there are similarities to the characters of those short stories.


MM: How different is writing a novel from writing short stories?
NS: With the short story, every word counts, and you have to edit them over and over again so they’re little nuggets of what you hope will be perfection. With the novel, you can go on and spread your wings a bit more. Still, I have a structure that I’m hoping to follow, and I have a goal of where I want to go with this book, and the type of voice and the tone, which took me a while to decide. The novel is called Handsome and Petal, obviously as a reference to Hansel and Gretel.


MM: You introduce strange elements even into stories about very ordinary characters. We see a glow-in-the-dark guinea pig towards the end of “Green Fluorescent Protein,” and a bizarre, S&M naked dance routine performed by a rubber-masked dancer in “Jaybird.” How did you develop the confidence to handle all these weird and wonderful things in a first book?
NS: I think maybe it’s because I started writing later in life than most people tend to. But also I have worked in translation with words for many years, so maybe some of the confidence that I have comes from that experience. The clinical precision in some of the stories is acquired through my editing and translation days. Having control of the language frees you up to go all out on other elements.


MM: You also have a background in fine art; how does that play into your writing?
NS: Well in the first story, “Isolettes,” for example, the story is about babies in incubators and I also saw it as these “isolettes,” as isolated scenes. It’s written without paragraph breaks, so I thought that on paper, the story would look like rectangular incubators and isolated scenes. I think that’s the visual aspect coming in.


MM: Do you show your work to anyone during the writing process?
NS: I have a friend who I’ve known for a long time who really likes my stories, and he reads a lot. I show him my stuff and he gives me honest feedback. I tried a workshop, and although I valued the instructor’s comments, the other students I didn’t find particularly helpful. I also took a QWF mentorship programme with Joel Yanofsky, but, as he freely admits in his Quill and Quire piece, we didn’t really talk much about fiction, we talked about his life. (laughs)

He’s done so much: he does journalism, essays, stories, reviews; he’s written a novel about Mordecai Richler . . . and himself! He’s always writing about himself. (laughs) We also talked about the various aspects of being a writer. Of course he did read my stuff—he gave me a few suggestions. He was my mentor, but not in the same sense as in my final short story “Jaybird”—we didn’t get naked together!


MM: Which stories would you say are the most successful in the collection?
NS: I want to say all of them! What I like about the book as a whole is the variety of them. The outlandish stories like the “B9ers,” “Bang Crunch” and “Extremities” with some of the sober stories like “Isolettes” and “Scrapbook.” Then the easiest story to write was probably the title story, “Bang Crunch,” which reads as if it was released very quickly. And it was! Once I had the idea of a story in which someone’s life would bang up then crunch down, that’s all it took for me to sort of spew it out.