Meet the writers ... or rather, the editor
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 final instalment of interviews, we chatted with the editor of the collection, John Farrell. The transcript of the interview appears below.
Chris Armstrong (CA): We're here with John Farrell, who is the editor of the Muskeg Press anthology Influenced: Stories from the Lockdown. Thank you so much for joining us today, John. I’m using us in the “Royal We” sense. The editorial. Although I suppose you are the editorial, because you were the editor. So maybe you should be using “we” throughout the course of this interview. What do you think?
John Farrell (JF): Yes. Okay. I will try and –
CA: You just said “I.”
JF: Oh. Sorry. We will, we will, we will…
CA: Do you kind of feel like the Queen?
JF: Maybe the Duke of Earl. I think they all talk in the third person.
CA: So John, you are the editor of the Influenced anthology. I asked you to participate in this project, back in the springtime, I believe. And you were –
JF: – all over it.
CA: You were all over it. So why were you so excited to be part of this project?
JF: I loved the inspiration behind the 700-year-old Decameron. But I also I also felt that our pandemic wasn't going to be a short-term game. It was going to be with us a lot longer. And it was going to put people through a roller-coaster of emotions, hardships and challenges. And so to have this project as a way, not only to focus writers on writing, which we did through this project globally, but also to give people a chance to reflect on stories, storytelling, and myth. At a time when all our focus is on the pandemic, it's nice to have another focus elsewhere. So, I totally agree with the spirit of it. But over time, it's become even more important, because I think that we get lost in the headlines of the day-to-day, and lose sense of the humanity and our fondness for relationships, touch, and our sense of community. And in a way that's what Influenced did by engaging a community of writers and readers.
CA: You and I are in a unique position. We're the only two people who have actually read all the stories at this point. So, it's almost like, this is probably how God feels, I would say. You know, just having all this information that nobody else has, and all the wisdom that's in those pages. Are you excited? Are you excited to share this book with everyone?
JF: Very much so. I think I've mentioned to you before, that after reading and spending so much time on these stories, you see some of these characters as iconic. Some of them are mythical – two of them are born from myth. And I think because they represent such deep-rooted cultural touchstones – and because they’re written so well – they will be with me for the rest of my life. Whereas a lot of other books that I've read lately, particularly novels, lines blur through time – you simply forget. I think people are going to enjoy the diversity too, the variety of storytelling is rich. I mean, there's comedy, modern love, there's redemption and a feeling of complete lack of control. Each story is so very different. One of the things that I did appreciate is that many of the characters, the protagonists, are wrestling with how to take more control over their lives. And it can go either way. But there seems to be an awareness of moving towards more control, which is interesting. And I think that it's not coincidental that that's what we're all trying to do during this pandemic, trying to find out what we can control because most aspects of our lives have suddenly changed.
CA: So even though the pandemic isn't mentioned in any of these stories, you see the pandemic seeping into the pages in a roundabout way?
JF: Yeah. I don't think it's direct, but I think, even for those writers that may have drafted their piece before the pandemic, this experience will have changed how they revised it. That's what is really unique about this collection: even though it's not about the pandemic, as you said, the pandemic becomes the footnotes to the narrative. There are threads that weave throughout this book that are a reflection of the pandemic, one of them is that search for control. And I think, ordinarily, we wouldn't see that come out so strongly as a theme if we weren't living in a plague. And, then the second theme is how we now measure time. Since working from home, time just seems to slip away. It becomes somehow less important to the rhythm of my day. I know I’m not alone in this Chris, work seems to meld into homelife and vice versa. And, I see this echoed in many stories in this collection. Honestly, half the time I’m not sure in which decade the story takes place.
CA: True. I want to switch gears here for a bit because you've had a lot of experience editing, mostly in journalism and newspapers. How was it different to edit a collection of short stories and how is it the same?
JF: It’s very different, because you're not focussed on fact checking. Here you're looking for tone. You're looking for flow, you're looking for how a story moves you in one way or another. The underlying mystery, the prose. Sure, there is still copyediting, but It's more textural. Journalism is more of a black and white game, and this is very nuanced.
CA: At the same time, I mean, journalism is concerned with truth. But I would say that even though you're not fact checking, as you say, there's still truth that runs through the stories as well. It's just a different kind of truth.
JF: Totally. The other thing is that when you're composing a news story, there's a beginning and an end. You want it to end tidy, with no lose ends. With fictional narrative, there's not … well, it's not that clean. Sometimes you're left with more questions. Oh, and I would say that was definitely the case with this anthology. You know, I think with the balance of them, you're left with more questions than you have answers. And, to that end, I would strongly recommend to readers that you have a friend that reads the collection along with you, so you can have these great midnight discussions over a glass of wine.
CA: Yeah, we've had a few bottles of wines over the last few months, discussing these stories at length. And that was one of the best joys for me. As much as the pandemic sucked, that was a really nice part of this whole time, that was to spend time and discuss literature with a friend. So yeah, good idea to recommend that.
JF: Yeah, for me as well. And I think the other nice thing about editing a book of very different writings, from all around the world, is that you get to talk to the authors who have very, very different perspectives. And have lived the last several months in the pandemic very differently, some setting themselves up for a challenge to write a certain amount of words per day, or others, who are literally using it as a coping device to get through incredibly difficult and challenging times, when, all things considered, their own country is falling apart. So, you know, at the time that we're having this conversation, we're at one million deaths in the world. Writing such as this has almost a moral service to help us find some light and get through this together. Although not all of these stories promise light by any means.
CA: Oh, no, not at all.
JF: Some are, you know, playing with shadow and darkness. However, redemption is still a central theme playing out over these pages, and I think it's what we need right now. We need to be believing in Good again. It’s back to the need for the hero or heroine. I actually had been imagining that once our film industry returns, we're going to see a lot more of those “good triumphing over evil” stories, because I think that's what everybody wants and needs right now.
CA: Yeah, I don't think we're gonna see any stories about zombies, or the biochemical experiment that went wrong and everyone is turning green. Or even pandemic stories. We're not gonna see those for a while because people are just gonna say, “screw that. I'm not gonna go see that movie.”
JF: Contagion 3. Jesus, no, we don't need that right now. We need an escape, which really is the vehicle you set up here through Muskeg. This is not a collection of stories that you'd say is good beach reading … but only because there's no access to beaches.
CA: I'll put a rimshot in there.
JF: But it is something that would fit nicely on a bedside table. I think you should read it the same way that we enjoyed conversing over it, you know, which is to say, by a fire with a big glass of Cab. Or, you know, after a long walk in the rain. Something to come home to and, break from all this worry and anxiety. Period.
CA: Well I just want to thank you, John, for participating in this crazy project. It was a lot of fun.
JF: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
CA: Is there any final thoughts you want to leave the readers of the Muskeg Press blog with?
JF: Only that I was actually really surprised by where these writers took us. The symbolic world was interwoven through a lot of these stories. And I think that's where our mind goes to when we're forced into isolation and solo thinking and we have time on our hands. Under constraints, we tend to go to the symbolic, we tend to go to things that are more unconscious than conscious. And I think that plays out a lot here. I think that's what makes it such an interesting collection.