Superheroes have always resonated with Andrew Kaufman. The battles of the X-Men, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four—the first stories that felt like his—sparked an interest in the supernatural and the mythical.
Written to the sounds of orchestral Hawaiian music from the sixties, Kaufman's latest novel, Born Weird (Random House Canada), relates the sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful reality of family. The five Weird siblings are travelling to see their grandmother, who, at the hour of her death, wants to remove the blursings (blessings + curses) she bestowed upon each of them at birth. Long-dead skeletons are exhumed (sometimes literally) from the closet, including one of the family's biggest mysteries: Whatever happened to the body of their father following his fatal accident?
Born in Wingham, Ontario, Kaufman is also the author of All My Friends Are Superheroes, The Tiny Wife and The Waterproof Bible. He spoke to me on the phone from Toronto, where he lives with his wife and their two children.
Erica Ruth Kelly: There's this sense of familiarity when it comes to your characters. We all know families like the Weirds. We all know people like the ones in All My Friends Are Superheroes: the Perfectionist, or the Stress Bunny or the Couch Surfer. I've known a lot of couch surfers...
Andrew Kaufman: Do you live in Montreal?
ERK: Yeah. [Laughs]
AK: Montreal is the city of couch surfers. The guy who that was based on was from Montreal. [Laughs]
ERK: So do your characters refer to specific people or are they amalgamations?
AK: I used to do a zine called Scruffy. I did an entire issue called If My Friends Were Superheroes, where I actually just exploded their personality traits and tried to find that one thing that I thought was truly unique about them and made a little superhero out of that and published it as a zine. And then that was just so much fun and so rich that I kept going with it. Some of the characters in All My Friends Are Superheroes are for sure based on people. A lot of them are just based on no one in particular but everybody you've ever met.
ERK: I'm curious about the process for writing a book like Born Weird, because it really works in layers. A second reading of it is so different than the initial reading, since you know how the story ends and become aware of all the subtleties and clues.
AK: My process is that I write a first draft by hand, or I sometimes use a typewriter, but mainly by hand. That process is actually the super fun part. I'm exploring; I don't have to make it pretty. I'm just trying to figure out who the characters are and what the plot points are, so I know where it starts and I know where it ends. And then I sit in a room and I make it read better and I make it tighter and I make the dialogue sharper ... I try to keep the story to be the most important thing and then I try to put those other things that reward a deeper reading later.
ERK: Do you remember which part of the story you started with? Did you already have the ending in mind?
AK: No. I had no idea about the ending at all. I had no idea. I started with the blursings. What I knew was that there was a family. I didn't know anything about the family. I knew there were siblings and I knew there were five of them and I knew what each one of the blursings, the blessing-curses, were. And I had that before I started anything. I knew their names were Richard, Lucy, Angie, Kent, and Abba ... And then from there on in I started doing the story.
Most of my books happen that way. I get the high concept piece and then I fill in the plot. With The Tiny Wife I knew about the man in the purple hat and the bank robbery and the rest came from there. With All My Friends Are Superheroes, I knew that Hypno had hypnotized the Perfectionist at the wedding and that she couldn't see Tom anymore. The rest of it played out with that so I didn't know what the ending was. In fact, All My Friends Are Superheroes started getting a little nerve-wracking because I had them on the plane and I was almost finished the story and I still hadn't figured out what happened, how that story ended, how and if the ending went down. There was a neat little point where I was like, "Oh my God." I felt like I had painted myself into a corner and I was like "What do I do?"
ERK: In addition to being a novelist, you're also a screenwriter and filmmaker. What, for you, is the difference between working within those two mediums?
AK: I like working in film a lot. It's more collaborative, right? I mean, again, that goes back to the blursing. The good point is that you're working with a lot of different people and you get to bounce ideas back and forth and it's a collaborative process. That's also the other side of the sword too. That's what's frustrating about it. When I'm writing a novel, it's just me sitting alone in a room, until I work with an editor. So it's just me and one person giving me feedback and helping me shape the story and suggesting and politely telling me what parts are horrible and need to be fixed. I love writing novels. It's definitely, I think, the most intimate way to tell someone a story. I can't think of any other medium where the writer and the reader, the creator and the consumer, have such a tight relationship to each other. I sit in a room alone and I write this story and then you sit in a room alone, or, if there are other people in the room, you're not talking to them, you're just paying attention to the book. And you hear the story, you read the story. I think there's nothing that beats that.
ERK: In Born Weird, there are a number of instances where there's a link made between mockery and the sense of belonging. For example, when Lucy makes fun of Paul for wanting to stay in a hotel, Angie remarks that he's being treated like family. What do you think is the connection between family and ridicule?
AK: The beautiful thing about family is that you can't get away from them. I mean, you can, but it's going to take a lot of effort. They love you, and they love you so much that you don't even think about it. You don't have to think about whether you love your parents or whether you love your siblings, you just do. It's in you the same way your eyes are brown. So inside that context, you can be really mean, and really nasty, and really cutting, because it's inside of a context of love.
But the thing is that you know that it's always trying to make you a better person. When you're being mocked by your brother, it's because you probably do need a little work in that. If they're making fun of you because you're taking things too seriously, they're probably one of the few people on the planet that can say, "Hey, you know what? You're taking this too seriously! Pull it back a notch!" And you can't really fight that because they're your brother, and they've known you since you put a pot of porridge on your head every morning when you were four and then you went through all those weird, stupid haircuts in high school. They've just seen you through so many different phases, where nobody else has, that your core, the real you of you, is just obvious to them, in a way that it is maybe not even to yourself. Those ties are so tight, that allows you to treat them like crap.
That's why I think people resonate with the Weirds. I think most families kid each other and give each other a hard time and are kind of mean to each other. And then, as soon as something bad happens, they are just there for each other. They drop everything else and get there for each other. And I love that the Weirds do that.
ERK: What do you make of the modern-day representation of families in TV, movies and books?
AK: I have a lot of optimism in my work. I feel like I have a lot of optimism and I feel like I have a lot of positivity. Even though in Born Weird there are some hard-won moments and there's definitely some darker points to this book, for sure. But I feel like it's an optimistic treatment. The theme of the book is that we should just be nicer to each other, in a lot of ways. I just feel like that is not anything that's encouraged. I feel like we're in a really cynical time where planning for the best is considered naive and where seeing the good in someone is considered naive—where just saying "Hey, you know what? It may work out" makes you look ridiculous. We're just not in a time that encourages optimism. We're in a time that encourages worst-case scenario and cynicism.
I think that transposes into how fictional families are. I feel like you've got either happy smiles and everyone is doing the right thing, or you've got these monster families where everyone accusing is each other and nobody cares and there's no love. One is just as false as the other. I mean, the sitcom representation is just as bad as the monster-movie representation. They're both false. The truth is in the middle.