Meet the writers: Canadian edition
In the lead-up to the publication of Influenced: Stories from the Lockdown, we're sitting down to chat with all the contributors to the anthology, and give readers a bit of an introduction to everyone. In this next installment of interviews, we had a Zoom chat with Angie Ellis and David Ward of B.C., and Evan Manning of Toronto: three writers from across Canada who appear in the book. The transcript of the interview appears below.
Chris Armstrong: So the question on everyone’s mind…Evan, tell us about that shirt. Are those tigers on there? Cats?
Evan Manning (EM): These are tigers, I think, chewing some guy apart. I don’t know. I was in Chelsea Flea Market in New York last year, and they had all these cool handmade shirts for $35 a piece. This one kind of caught my eye.
CA: Well the price is right. So we’re speaking today from all over the country. You guys are the three Canadian non-Prince Rupert authors of the anthology. So first, thank you so much for submitting your stories. What I’d like to do is go around the circle and talk a little bit about your stories. Feel free to say as much as you want about your story. Angie, do you mind beginning? Can you tell us a little bit about the story “Blue” that you submitted?
Angie Ellis (AE): Yeah, I started it from a Joyce Carol Oates prompt, where she talked about paying attention to people’s non-verbals and expressions and facial features. And that was my starting point, noticing a woman in a car, which becomes an inspiration to my main character.
CA: Well it was hilarious. Now, I’m the only one who’s actually read all the stories of this group, but Angie’s story is hilarious. I was laughing out loud a lot of times. But at the same time – it’s a sad story at the same time. It was very well done how you did that.
AE: Thank you.
CA: Can you talk a little bit about that? About how you put humour into this woman’s life, whose life is changing so dramatically in the space of a few pages?
AE: Yeah, she's pretty unhappy in her marriage, but I like to think it ends well for her. And there are moments along the way, as well, that she is able to either enjoy or see the humour in. I find painful things are much easier to write about when I can find some thread of warmth in the story. I think it's my favourite combination - funny / sad.
CA: Okay, thank you. We’ll go to your BC compatriot now, David Ward, whose story is called “Trash,” but it was called “The Island of Misfits and Wonders” originally, and I strong-armed you to change the title.
David Ward (DW): Not strong-armed at all. Not a bit. But I actually liked that, the shift and the change in title, because it captures in many ways what the story is playing with. Quick background: our youngest child started talking to me about something she was learning about in science, which was this vast dumping ground in the Pacific and in the Atlantic Ocean of trash, and just how it’s collecting into large islands out there. And so my imagination went a little wild, and I started thinking what would happen if three disparate characters ended up on one of those islands, and what if they ended up living there and existing there. The key concept is that they are also outcasts from their own countries, so they are the trash of their own countries. And they end up on the largest trash pile that can be found, and then they start turning the trash that they find into treasure. And this concept of whoever would come to their island would no longer be considered trash, but would be turned into treasure, and be given a second chance on an island of trash. That’s the main premise.
CA: Well it’s beautifully written too. It’s part adventure story and part reaffirmation of the human race. And I thought you did a really good job, because there could have been a lot of places in this story where it goes into sentimentality, where the reader just wouldn’t buy it. But you handled it very well. Do you want to speak about that? How you approached this adventurous tone, while at the same time keeping everything on a realistic level?
DW: For me, I write books for kids, I’m heavily connected to the world of children’s literature, and I think that’s always an edge that children’s lit and YA writers are playing with. There’s the edge of reality and what kids experience on a day-to-day basis across the world, and yet also what brings hope. And I think what happened for “Trash” was that there were very, very real scenarios that these characters are coming from. And without giving that away, just to say that I did my homework and some of those are real scenarios. Not necessarily from real people within the world, but certainly stories we’ve heard about with the news, et cetera. So their circumstances wouldn’t be shocking in one sense, hopefully based in real scenarios, but what they find and what they’re able to create together is something that provides tremendous hope. Even in the midst of trash. And that’s where those two pieces collide.
CA: And we definitely need a little bit of hope these days. Thank you, David. We’ll move on to Evan right now. So your story is “Chasing YourGirlLovesMe27” – can you tell us about that story, Evan?
EM: Yeah, for sure. First of all, both of your stories sound cool, I’m excited to read them. My story started with a very basic idea. Most of my stories start with a thought or an idea of a character, like a single line or something. And this character was actually inspired off someone who I work with. For the past several years, I was working at a bar, and one of the bartenders would go out for cigarette breaks and would spend 20 minutes on his phone playing a golf game, which I always found pretty fascinating for some reason. Because it would be like he was in his entirely own world when he was out there. I wrote the first paragraph and that snowballed into something else. And it became more of how lost people get today in their phones or in different forms of technology, and how that can just leave you completely disconnected from everything that’s going on around you. I don’t want to spoil too much about it, but it’s just a look at this one guy’s life as everything takes a turn for the worse because of his addiction to a golf game on his phone.
CA: When I talked to you earlier about your story, Evan, I mentioned how there’s so much stuff out there about whether phones are good for you or bad for you, and there’s all this opinion. But I thought your story handled it so well with no sentimentality at all, and this guy’s a total jerk. I think we can give that away – that he’s a total jerk. And seeing how this guy’s world falls apart in every sense because of his obsession with his phone.
EM: Yes, he is definitely a total jerk. For some reason, a lot of the stories I write seem to revolve around losers, or people who aren’t necessarily the nicest people. And I tried to balance that with a lot of humour throughout because you gotta have that, or else people might just end up hating that character.
CA: Yeah, it’s weird, at the end there is a little bit of sympathy for him.
EM: A little tiny bit. I wanted to leave him not completely in the dark at the end.
CA: It’s really interesting, in your answers, you all speak about your inspirations for your stories. Do you want to expand on that at all? How did that spark end up in your story?
EM: It’s a combination of things. You start with an idea, and for me, things just start to click as I write. I’ll write, and I’ll delete stuff, and I’ll write, and I’ll delete stuff, and eventually an hour later I’ll have the first five or seven hundred words and a story will start to form. Sometimes I’ll have the ending before I even know what’s going to happen. And I’m always very influenced about what I’m reading at the time. I was reading a lot of George Saunders, that worked its way in. One of my favourite books that I read last year was A Confederacy of Dunces. That worked its way in. It just all happens organically, I guess.
DW: I loved Angie’s comment earlier about the concept of a glance. The concept of just a quick look over and from that stems an outpouring of all these other images. For Evan, noticing a bartender, that one little image, and out of it comes so many things. And I found the same. I clicked on the great Pacific garbage patch. I looked at some National Geographic photos and some other from way high up, looking down. And that just – wow – when you’re looking at a photo, or it’s a snapshot glance of that woman in the car, you start picking up on all kinds of details, and then from the details come more details. It spills out story and it keeps rolling from there. I definitely found that when looking at the photos of the great garbage patch, and seeing different really weird items in it. Just bizarre things that have become trash. And from that spills more story.
CA: Angie, do you want to talk a bit more about Susan?
AE: It’s funny, because she’s not even real in the story. But I also have my go-to things that show up in a lot of my stories. Religion does a lot – kind of like a darker form. My angels are pretty sinister. But that’s not unusual, that crops up a lot for me. So Susan was the starting point, but then I have my other things that come in.
CA: Did you guys all write this during the pandemic? Or were there bits of it that were written before?
AE: I’m always coming back and forth, I always have three or four stories on the go. Definitely, most of my work was during the pandemic. But bits of it started before that.
DW: The whole thing came through COVID. Work is very busy, and I’ve not had a chance to sit and write for a while, and my wife said to me, “have you seen this contest?” And she through it over to me to look at. I saw it and I thought, this is incredible. I finally have some hours, a little bit of time to sit down and start to craft. And that’s what happened. I think the only thing that had maybe started earlier was in the previous week or two, our daughter had mentioned about the great garbage patch. That would be the only thing. But the writing happened all through COVID. Which made it really special, it really did. It was just this focused, concentrated time.
EM: The same for me. And like Angie said, I usually have a few different projects going on at the same time. Pre-pandemic, I had actually been working on a novel for a few months, and then I was let go from my job at the bar I worked at, at the start of the pandemic. I finished that novel in one crazy flurry, and I need to go back and re-work the entire thing because it wasn’t the most productive flurry. And you have this feeling when you finish something bigger like that, there’s just a huge weight off your chest. And something just clicked right away, where I started writing all these shorts. In April, I wrote one before this, then I wrote this one, then I wrote another one after this. And “Chasing YourGirlLovesMe27” and the one I wrote right after are the first ones I’ve gotten published. So there are a lot of silver linings that have come out of this pandemic. Obviously it’s been terrible in so many ways, but I’ve had some really great moments that have come about from it too.
CA: And, last question, what do you hope readers take from your story? After they put the book down and they’re reflecting on it, what do you hope they take from it?
EM: My hope is that people will remember to try to disconnect from the screens that are always in front of them. And just socialize the way that I imagine people have for a long time before they had email and text messages and all that stuff. Get away from the distractions that are so hard to get away from sometimes.
DW: That concept of hope. Also that concept of what we consider trash and what we do with our trash. And its impact on others and how we treat one another within the world. In terms of a global space, it ends up in the same places. Hopefully people will be able to reflect on that and think about trash both in its actual sense, but also in its literary sense of how do we view one another.
CA: Angie, what do you hope readers take?
AE: It’s never too late to leave a stagnant life. We get stuck in life and things are the same every day, and we’re not really taking chances or even living the life we thought we would have. So I think it would be that. I’m always happy to make people laugh too, but I think the point is more, make your own life.
CA: Make your own life. I think that’s a great place to end this interview. Thanks very much for your time!