Aaron Schneider Interviews Geoffrey D. Morrison
Aaron Schneider: What is the origin of this book? I’m particularly interested in asking this question because there is a spontaneous quality to the prose, to the way it moves fluidly from one topic to the next, and I’m wondering whether/how you conceptualized the book before starting to write or whether it evolved in and through the writing process?
Geoffrey D. Morrison: I always tell people it came about because, before Falling Hour, I tried and failed to write historical fiction. The spontaneity and fluidity you noticed in Falling Hour are just me. That’s how I think, for better or for worse. Therefore in my earlier attempted novel I really struggled to provide a “plotty,” event-filled narrative that just happened to be set in the past. I simply could not think of a book in terms of “scenes.” But I cared about history. Maybe even capital-H “History.” So, what to do?
I thought I would have better luck with something interior and centered on the movement of thought. My strongest models at the very start were probably Virginia Woolf, the Australian “proletarian sage” Gerald Murnane, Beckett’s Molloy, W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. And of course Tristram Shandy. At first I thought I would focus on the thoughts of someone historical, like Yourcenar had done, but I very quickly realized I wanted to focus on the thoughts of someone a little more like me, trying to access the historical from a vantage point closer to now.
The opening image of a city park surrounded by concrete buildings, seen first from above by a hypothetical “airline passenger or transmigrating soul” and then from ground-level by a person holding a picture frame, came as soon as I started writing. Everything else followed from it one way or another. Logically, semantically, aesthetically, whatever.
Grand structures are not really my thing. But what I learned from poetry, and especially from my favourite form, the sestina, was that having a few words put into action with a few other words can get you at least part of the way there. In the sestina, you repeat the same six line endings in a complicated variety of ways. They become motifs, the meanings of which are often discovered in the doing. And so I knew I would have motifs – little phrases repeated throughout the book as linchpins of meaning and feeling. Sometimes my motifs came from honouring a mistake (I think this is one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies?). Like, early on, I realized I had somewhat carelessly failed to determine if my narrative was in the past or present tense. There were moments that occurred in the past and moments of recollection in the present. Rather than fix this or hide it under the rug, I decided to follow it to its logical conclusions. It was, is, both. There is a story (of sorts) happening in the past, in a park, and there is a person, located “wherever it is I am now,” telling us that story and thinking about it. The logic also therefore indicated that my narrator and protagonist, Hugh, could not now be dead. Or not exactly. Not in the normal way. Assuming he was, or is – which he may not be, or have been. Basically, metaphysics was manifesting at the level of grammar. I saw that just by taking seriously the things that, in my spontaneity and fluidity, I had placed on the page, I now had something almost like a structure. Something almost like dramatic tension. The digressions work in the same way. The tension comes from wondering when the hell I’m going to get to the point, if ever.
Finally, at the most zoomed-out structural level, I learned from both Dillard’s Tinker Creek and Beckett’s Molloy that there’s something generative about books with two distinct halves in fraught conversation. It’s the macro-version of the sestina’s interrelation of motifs. In Molloy, this comes as a book divided into a part about one weird guy stumbling around in the woods, and a second part about a differently weird guy stumbling around trying to find the first one. Some people think they are actually just the same weird guy, which I suppose would make him even weirder. In Tinker Creek, the first half luxuriates in the beauty and splendour of nature. The second half remembers just how much of that very same nature is unspeakably grotesque, perhaps even evil. So at some point in the writing I knew I would also have two halves. This was partly accomplished by switching to longhand (see below) but also by an intensification of the already-latent metaphysical strangeness at the midpoint where Hugh reminds himself that everything is “fake” and realizes he can’t leave the park. He becomes increasingly unmoored from the observation of his immediate surroundings as night falls.
Aaron Schneider: And, on a related note, what was your writing process for this book? There is a coherence to the chapters, a way in which each section follows an arc of a thought, that makes them feel like each one could have been written at one sitting. Was this the case? And did your process change over the course of writing the book?
Geoffrey D. Morrison: This is a very keen observation. Somewhere between the one-third and halfway point in the book, I made a 100% switch to handwritten drafts, and from that point onwards the chapters really were almost written in a sitting each. But I would say that my stamina was probably closer to half a chapter when I really got rolling. Maybe a third. Maybe a quarter. I actually think it shows in the rhythm of the book. The early chapters were written on a computer in hesitant stops and starts, each sentence becoming an object of obsessive addition and deletion. The latter ones are more fluid.
What probably aids in that feeling of coherence you mention is that, once I changed to handwriting, I usually stopped at a midway (or third-way, or quarter-way) point where I knew what I would have to do the next day. Ideally I stopped because I was tired rather than because I was blocked. It then became a relatively easy thing to pick up again next time.
There were times, like when I finished some early-middle chapter, when I wasn’t entirely sure what should come immediately after. So, in order to still have something to do, I would write little “modules” that I knew I’d use later, if not where they’d go. A “module” was usually about a half-chapter or third-chapter in length. I could then use them as the basis for a later chapter once my way was clearer, or even suture two or three modules together.
All of this came from having to manage ADHD-brain. I strongly suspected I had the condition all through the writing, and was eventually told so for certain by a specialist.
Aaron Schneider: Although this book is often directly and specifically concerned with Canadian nationalism and identity, in style and form it does not feel like a particularly Canadian novel. Can you talk about some of the influences on this book. What tradition, if any, do you see it belonging to? And where would you place it in the context of Canadian literature?
Geoffrey D. Morrison: I’m glad it came across that way. It’s very on purpose. A conscious rejection. First of all because I don’t feel very Canadian. There are biographical and political reasons for this. On the political front, a very simple way to put it is that I am one of those people who believe, with Marx, that the workers of the world have no country. This is of course complicated by later Marxist discourse about “the national question,” so that I can say what I just said but also Land Back, Tiocfaidh ár lá, Scots Wha Hae, and so on. It becomes a question of which nationalisms have or do not have a liberatory potential. And from my point of view I simply do not think that Canadian nationalism is a morally sustainable project. I don’t think it can exist in any form not predicated on continued dispossession of Indigenous people and settler-capitalist resource extraction. Without those things, it loses its reason for being.
On the biographical front, there’s a sense that the West Coast and adjoining islands are their own place – it’s hard to identify with certain supposedly universal Canadian experiences of ice and snow when the arbutuses are peeling and the crocuses are open in February. But in a deeper way I always felt apart from things due to my immigrant parent, who never let me forget that I was Scottish and who found many aspects of “Canadianness” very alien. Hockey, for one. But also subtler things. How people thought and spoke. The irony is that this immigrant distance came from having a parent from Scotland, a country that had historically provided so many settlers to Canada – and not just settlers but major architects and administrators of colonialism. Who, after all, was this country’s first Prime Minister? So, as I became more historically and politically conscious, it seemed a strange paradox that I should feel so alienated from a country where half the street names came from Scotland and the 4th-generation kids at school who asked me if my family “walked on swords” (my mother was a Highland dancer) had names like Fraser MacSomething. I had to investigate this asymmetrical folding of things back onto themselves, this sense that the belatedness of my mother’s arrival in Canada as a nanny in the 1980s made her (and by extension her children) less effortlessly assimilable than we would have been if she came in the 1880s. That investigation ultimately became the book.
Inevitably, when it came time to develop influences, I looked outward. I am hugely influenced by a certain cosmopolitan late-Modernist tradition of plotless, “inside the mind” fiction that for one reason or another is often written by travellers, exiles, and lost souls. So, the people I mentioned before (Beckett, Sebald, Yourcenar, Murnane, etc) and also Thomas Bernhard, whose moral outrage at Austria was very fortifying for me. I would be flattered if I were included among the subsequent generations of writers, in many different parts of the world, who have taken inspiration from such sources, but I would also understand if my efforts were not considered up to par. Here are some of them: In Australia, Jen Craig. In America, Emily Hall and Eugene Lim. In America by way of Ecuador, Mauro Javier Cárdenas. In England, Simon Okotie. In Canada, Christine Lai, Lisa Robertson, Kristjana Gunnars, and André Alexis.
In general, I have tried to pay close attention to writers based in Canada who consciously look to other places. Once in an interview Canisia Lubrin described herself as a “transnational writer,” and that stayed with me. Just, the idea that someone could be that. Her points of reference and allusion in her poetry are so often to foundational Caribbean writers like C.L.R. James or George Lamming – really to a whole cosmos of texts that someone who insisted on only reading “CanLit” would never read, to their huge loss. I also think often of the moment in Dionne Brand’s Inventory when the speaker imagines an alternate Americas along a totally different axis of cultural and political influence, so that everybody knows the words to the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara’s “Te Recuerdo Amanda,” and the street names of Montevideo and Havana, and the birthplace of Aimé Césaire, and Che Guevara appears as an old man on television. It’s always moved me deeply. I want that to be the spirit of writing in this place. I want more writers here to learn another language, or brush up on the one they already learned in school, or reconnect with a heritage language that means something to them, or join in the work to help Indigenous languages grow and thrive again. This year I have finally developed my Spanish to the extent that I can read fiction in the original, and now it’s all I want to do.
So in a Canadian context I am with the internationalists. I would even say that my book is anti-CanLit. But I think it’s anti-Canadian in the same way Nicanor Parra’s poetry was antipoetry, meaning that, compared with other poetry, it doesn’t look much like poetry, but when compared with something that’s definitely not poetry, it sure does look like poetry. Just as Hugh’s guardians attacked Calvinism in a Calvinist way, I have probably attacked Canada in a Canadian way. We are inevitably shaped even by the things we reject. By the rejection itself.
I should also say that there’s a particular tradition of left-wing Scottish farmer and worker avant-gardism (more on that later) of which I would humbly like to be considered an overseas inheritor. I especially look to Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who grew up in Northeast Scottish tenant farm country just 20 miles from one of the farms where my grandfather grew up. But I don’t know if Scottish literary culture will have me. I am afraid that in their eyes I will seem somewhat pathetic, just another overseas Plastic Mac brandishing a Clan Map tea towel. We’ll see.
Aaron Schneider: The book is deeply rooted in place, and rich with the concrete details of the park through which the speaker wanders, but the town in which the park is located and the park itself remain unnamed. To what extent did you draw on real places to create this fictional one, and why did you make the decision to leave the city and park anonymous?
Geoffrey D. Morrison: The town is a kind of London, Ontario in a mildly alternate universe. Mildly because the layout and contents of its principal city park are different, because it has an intersection called Wellington and Boyne that doesn’t exist in the real London, and because its fire hydrants are red rather than yellow. These changes were sufficient on their own to make me refrain from naming it, even though its river is still the Deshkan Ziibi or Thames. I wanted to have the freedom to combine real memories of Ontario with real memories of BC, and to combine both with total fictions.
The area around the park, with its anonymous concrete office buildings and yellow-brick Victorian houses, is the area around London’s Victoria Park to the best of my recollection. I imagined Hugh living on a street a bit like Limberlost Road, though that might be too far west for him as there’s no way he has a car. The ditch next to the bowling alley where Hugh hears a red-winged blackbird is 100% real, though I think I let some of the details merge with a type of ditch architecture more commonly found in BC. The park itself is much more like the densely forested BC parks of my childhood than anything I ever saw in Ontario.
A deeper reason for my refusal to name the city was that I wanted to create a sense of dislocation for the reader. I wanted everything to be half-familiar at best.
Aaron Schneider: The stream of consciousness structure of the book is an open ended one that could easily allow it to continue for a handful of more chapters, or, really, indefinitely. Could you talk about how you thought about the ending of the book? How did you know it was done? How did you decide to end it? And how do you think about closure in relation to this kind of narrative?
Geoffrey D. Morrison: Thankfully I had the ending in mind almost from the beginning. Or at least part of the ending: the part about George and Georgianna Keats, and how it went for them in America, and who they met, and what this person did to a certain bird. I learned all these historical facts while writing what I thought was Chapter 3. I was overwhelmed by them. They had a massive gravitational pull I was not ready to enter. So I decided to put them at the end, and everything I did was always in some way building towards them. I don’t know if I could have pulled this book off otherwise. The Keatses in America and Audubon and the red-winged blackbirds gave a kind of deeper, secret purpose to all of the digressions and motifs and returns. Everything is leading to that field of dead birds as numerous as fallen leaves.
That said, there are a lot of other things going on in those final two chapters that I only discovered in the doing. The part about Arthur and Bedivere, for instance. And there were other things that I modified in conversations with André Alexis during the editing. The public toilet becoming a kind of crofter’s cottage, which then maps unevenly onto Keats’s “mental cottage of feelings,” was one of those.
The very end, basically everything after Hugh goes outside again, was suggested by everything that came before. I’d been deliberate about the first sentence in the book referring to an out-of-body experience, and I wanted Hugh’s visions in the final moments to evoke that again. The “invisible bridge of brass” that seemingly links the “now” of Hugh’s narration with the “now” of the time of the park was a fortuitous discovery back in Chapter 17, and so of course that had to return. The Church of Scotland catechism had to barge on in there. And the book had to end with that phrase so important to my structural conception of the book, “wherever it is I am now.” Bringing all of these things back again felt like closure. It’s a technique I first started to learn while writing Archaic Torso of Gumby with Matthew Tomkinson. Matt always had such a beautiful structural sense in his pieces. It felt impossibly beyond my abilities to match it. Then one day he said, “It’s just like stand-up comedy. You know, callbacks.” Suddenly it seemed a little less impossible.
Of course, this is more of an associative, imagistic closure than a narrative one. Is Hugh dead? Alive? Some strange combination of both? Does he really levitate into the sky, and does he really walk on an invisible bridge of brass? I stay silent on these matters. All we know for certain is that he is wherever he is now, and that wherever it is he is now he is practicing a kind of sitting and a kind of writing. I leave the rest to you.
Aaron Schneider: One of the central concerns of this book is class. There can sometimes be a tension between this subject matter and the category of experimental writing that this book falls into. I’m thinking specifically of the tendency of writing about class to reflexively return to fairly conventional forms of realism. Did you feel this tension when writing? And how do you think about the relationship between experimental writing and class?
Geoffrey D. Morrison: This is such an important question. For me maybe the question. Because I wrote this book with the hope of exploring how social class had been operative in my own life and thinking, but when I looked around for models it tended to be as you say. Conventional realisms, and two in particular that I felt breathing down my neck. The first one we could call “Raymond Carver Pacific Northwestern Kmart Realism.” The second one we could call “Frank McCourt Sentimental Celtic Misery.” To describe my own childhood could so easily fall into the former mode. To retell the stories my mum told me about growing up working-class in Aberdeen in the 1960s and 70s could so easily fall into the latter. But it would be fake. It wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter. And, what’s worse, it would be for tourists. I didn’t want to exhibit pathologies and sad stories for people with little personal cognizance of such things to go, “How pathological. How sad.” I wanted to provide a kind of dialectical ammunition for people who feel at least a little bit the same way I do in one way or another and are at a loss for words about it. Which meant I needed to approach my subjects as primarily formal questions related to the movement of thought, rather than dramaturgical questions of scenes and incidents.
And I actually think that weird kids from poor or working-class backgrounds are very likely to have avant-garde instincts. If you already have an adversarial stance towards authorities and rules and received opinions, the alternatives offered by the proletarian weirdos who came before you are very liberating. Plus, not knowing the right way of doing things can sometimes be very enabling. I often think of Gerald Murnane in this regard. He grew up in a chaotic way, with a gambler father who was constantly moving the family from one rented house to the next. In adulthood he worked as a primary school teacher. He did ultimately receive a BA but his sensibility has always been basically autodidact. It made him free to do things his own, deeply personal way.
Like water finding its own level, I think that if left to their own devices most people’s self-expression will tend towards the weird, the meta, the digressive, the story-within-a-story. That’s how it is in oral cultures, that’s how it is when we tell a funny anecdote to a friend, that’s how it is when your grandmother who left school at 14 writes you a letter. I tend to think you have to be cajoled into conventional realism by authorities, although that may be a little bit unfair of me. In any case, I think that what I am doing is not so much an experiment as it is regaining fluency in a kind of lost mother tongue.
It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a very specific Scottish tradition of formally adventurous working-class art. In film this is the undisputed terrain of Lynne Ramsay. In literature, we can see this going back at least as far as Burns and James Hogg (more accurately peasant writers than working-class writers), brought magnificently into the twentieth century by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and continued later by people like Alasdair Gray, James Kellman, and Irvine Welsh. Scottish working-class and rural culture really prized learning, historically. I know it up close from the example of my mother and her parents, who always had immense respect for anyone who could do something like memorize a poem.
Aaron Schneider: I’m interested in craft at the level of structure, but also at a more granular level, at the level of the sentence. Can you pick a sentence or two from the book, a short passage that is one of your favourites or that you had to really wrestle with in the writing process, and walk me through the process of composing it? How did you think about it? What decisions did you make? And why did you make them?
Geoffrey D. Morrison: This is such a cool question. I think I will show you an early sentence that, while nothing special on its face, seemed to point the way towards the style that I would increasingly try to adopt as I progressed with the book. When I wrote it, I felt in some small way like I might actually be onto something. It lodged in my brain as a template.
The sentence is on page 19 of Chapter 2. It deals with the ultimate fate of Joseph Severn, the English painter who accompanied Keats during his final months in Rome:
“The young painter will stay in Rome for most of the rest of his life, over the long span of which he will imperceptibly cease to be young.”
I looked at the oldest draft of Chapter 2 I could find just now. I don’t think I ever changed this sentence from when I first wrote it. Maybe our favourite sentences are sometimes just the ones that sound good to us on arrival and which we never have cause to change. Anyway, what strikes me now about this sentence is that it really takes its time to deliver what on the surface seems like a relatively modest parcel of information. If I followed the dogma of the USA writing advice blogs, I would of course need to cut the adverb (those are bad) and render everything in a crisp, muscular active voice:
“He will grow old and die in Rome.”
I humbly submit that something is lost in this. Obviously the nuances that he didn’t spend all of his remaining life in Rome, or that this life was long. But also a certain attitude towards the elapse of time which fits with the sentences before and after it in the chapter. And with the book as a whole. The sentence stretches outwards on its long march through the decades before finishing up almost on the same word it started with, “young,” but now as something unattainable, finished, through a process we are barely aware is happening while it happens. The adverb and the infinitive “to be” work together to make the elapse of time, appropriately I think, a thing done to Severn rather than something he heroically masters as syntactical subject. Because isn’t that what it really is to get older?
The almost Latinate syntax of “over the long span of which” probably reads fussy to some ears, but discovering I could write sentences like this one really enabled me as I went on. For one thing, it gives you a sturdier architecture by which (heh, see?) you can effectively link ideas over the course of a long sentence – a useful thing for a digressive writer. It’s also a trace of one of my deepest debts of influence. I studied medieval and early modern literature for my BA and MA, and ultimately found the most delight in early modern English prose. People like Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, and Thomas Nashe wrote at a time when grammarians were trying to wrest the English sentence into the not always commodious syntax of Latin. I was spellbound by what these writers could do under such daunting conditions. And in fact it was my love of Thomas Browne that led me to W.G. Sebald, as Browne features prominently in The Rings of Saturn. Sebald in English translation reads much the same as writers like Browne.
Aaron Schneider is a queer settler living in London, Ontario. He is the founding Editor at The /tƐmz/ Review, the publisher at the chapbook press 845 Press, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing Studies at Western University. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, Filling Station, The Ex-Puritan, Hamilton Arts and Letters, Pro-Lit, The Chattahoochee Review, BULL, Long Con, The Malahat Review and The Windsor Review. His stories have been nominated for The Journey Prize and The Pushcart Prize. His novella, Grass-Fed (Quattro Books), was published in Fall 2018. His collection of experimental short fiction, What We Think We Know (Gordon Hill Press), was published in Fall 2021. The Supply Chain (Crowsnest Books) is his first novel.