Whenever anyone asks me who my top transgressive Canadian writers happen to be, Philip Quinn is always at the top of that list. Hamilton-born, Quinn’s writing takes the familiar and makes it strange; then takes the strange and makes it quotidian. He is one of those few Canadian writers whose works are consistently transgressive and post-realist in its exploration of the urban experience. Quinn never shies away from exposing his character’s flaws or deviations, no matter how mundane, or outrageous, of pre-millennial and post-millennial middle-age male sexuality. I first published a short story of Quinn’s in Urban Graffiti X entitled, “Transformer“, and more recently at UG online with the publication of “Possessions“.
I recently had the chance to ask Quinn some questions concerning his writing and his opinion of the overall publishing environment, generally, in Canada, and for those writers of more transgressive and dangerous content, specifically.
ME: As a long time publisher of transgressive, postrealist fiction in Canada, I’ve often noted the publication of fiction which adheres closely to classic interpretations of the Canadian narrative myth “of Canadian literature, depicting people struggling against elemental and economic hardships”, while writers like yourself who challenge these myths by offering up exciting and more dynamic examples of how Canadians really are (not the complacent, unobtrusive image of ourselves much 20th Century Canlit fiction has relied) have found markets and publishers (and perhaps even agents, too) a consistently limited commodity. Perhaps based in the commodity concept of the modern novel, itself, novelists and fiction writers who do not rock the cultural boat, in Canada, are more easily rewarded for their efforts (albeit dull and woefully unadventurous fiction) through sales and awards. That said, what are your thoughts? Agree or disagree? And what reward and validation do you find amid a culture which finds any writing which is remotely transgressive something to be marginalized?
PQ: I often call it the Can/Lit factory, a production line churning out a standardized product, easily marketable and consumable. Really, only a handful of agents and editors control access to it. There are the feeder lines: the MFA programs, some of the so-called smaller presses who really just mimic the same kind of product. Now it’s an okay product, even good in some ways, the writing polished, the plotlines usually well-structured, the emotional pay-off almost guaranteed. Imaginative? Just like cars and clothes from the 80s have a certain look, a lot of the fiction and stories being created now have a stylistic and thematic sameness. Of course this is a generalization and there are individual authors who are worth reading. Though to paraphrase that Viet Nam-era air cavalry slogan, I’d rather write my own stuff and let God sort it out.
ME: Can you tell me something about your association with Gutter Press? And others? It seems even in the world of the subsidized Canadian small presses, publishers of brave and courageous fiction titles are still unfortunately short lived — both in print runs, reprints, and the longevity of the press, itself.
PQ: Gutter Press certainly had its moments publishing interesting fiction such as Derek McCormack‘s Wish Book. No one else would have published my collection of short fiction called Dis Location, Stories After the Flood. So I was able to write about these floods where babies drown and misfits roam the resulting wasteland in a very non-sentimental, non-traditional way. But Gutter ultimately suffered from the constraint that most small presses struggle with, a lack of resources. In general small press books often go ignored because of occasionally sloppy editing (or they look like they’ve been put together with cheap glue on a kitchen table) and poor execution of getting the word out. Because these books don’t usually attract the same number of reviews as books published through the Can/Lit production line, they have little chance of elbowing their way onto the shelves of the bookstores, or if they do, then once the handful of copies are sold off, that’s it, unless the author makes a personal request for the bookstore to re-order. It’s unlikely that the Literary Press Group, (a distributor widely used by small presses) will follow-up or even the press itself. Is it not better that a small press burn out publishing one or two great books that very few initially read than slowly rust out grabbing its share of government grants and mediocrity?
ME: On a more personal note, your fiction and poetry has possessed this dark thread of urban, male sexuality which weaves throughout your books? As a theme in modern Canadian fiction, urban male sexuality is barely touched upon — except, perhaps, as fodder for coming of age novels (i.e. within ‘The Street’ by Mordecai Richler; ‘Return Fare’ by John Lane). How important is this exploration of male sexuality to you as part of your overall work?
PQ: Urban male sexuality is certainly front and centre in my novel, The Skeleton Dance. I’ve read or come across, numerous explorations of sexuality in its various heterosexual, homosexual forms but rarely that ambiguous sexuality that troubled the main character, Robert Walker who is equally ill at ease with men and women. In my novel, The Double, Augustus Pollard dressed up as Jackie Kennedy and as a nun, and even wore a chador. He created a model of his mother’s womb and re-borned himself. I suspect that this blurring of sexual identity that appears to be occurring across many cultures is a result of the chemicals in the environment that mimic female hormones and are making it a struggle for even male alligators to have properly formed testes. Paradoxically, these chemicals are creating uber-women who will eventually roam the cities and night clubs anally raping men with their gigantic clitorises. In truth, The Skeleton Dance was a first novel that I couldn’t find a publisher for back in the ’80s when I first wrote it. So a lot of the concerns about friendship and fucking and what was queer were issues that I had wrestled with back then. I probably compromised the original vision I had for it in the somewhat hybrid version submitted to Anvil Press. Every work I’ve ever written I’ve compromised to a degree because there are these voices that restrain: who will publish this if I really go in that direction and of course, who will actually want to read it. Most of us want to be liked and acknowledged. It’s high school all over again, we’re on stage in the auditorium hoping for applause, a lit award or two, and a splash of money. I’m trying to whittle down the compromising. Right now, poetry offers me the best platform for the fewest compromises. At least that’s my current feeling.
ME: Where do you see your fiction evolving from this point in your career?
PQ: At different points I’ve wanted in on the Can/Lit production line. I wanted an agent. I wanted a multi-national publisher. I wanted the buzz. But I’m not inherently a self-promoter. The work matters more to me than the branding and career building. I don’t teach, review other writers work, and feel nausea at the thought of socializing at book launches. Each year, the various writing programs turn out hundreds of graduates. As in the music industry and in some of the other arts, there’s literally too much product, cramming the Internet, cramming the bookstores, popping out of e-book readers, product that basically looks and reads much the same way. The only way to address that is to move into areas no one else is writing about and to write as well as one can. My challenge is not to try to improve on the current models but to push into frequently weird areas that no one else would touch with that proverbial ten-foot Pole (a hell of basketball player though).
As Melville said: “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.” So that’s my constant challenge to myself. Not to be afraid of failure (and to accept the very real risk of never finding a publisher) and to create something outrageous but beautiful too in its own deformed, malignant way.
I leave you with this final quote: “He that desires to print a book, should much more desire to be a book.” ~John Donne
Philip Quinn lives in Toronto and online at www.philipquinn.ca.
Dead Language Echo (BookThug 2012)