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Powell's Q&A

Bill Gaston

Describe your latest project.
My latest novel, Sointula, involves three people who undertake three separate but related adventures. Peter Gore, a Brit from Spokane, Washington, journeys to Vancouver Island where he jumps into a stolen two-person kayak and journeys north, infatuated with a crazy woman, Evelyn, who's in search of her long-lost son, Tommy, who at last report was researching whales up near Sointula, a remote settlement off Vancouver Island's north coast. The word "Sointula" is Finnish for "harmony" and is a somewhat ironic title, in that the events of the novel are anything but.

The novel is an odd book for at least a couple of reasons. For one, these three main characters (they take turns having chapters in their point of view) aren't all that attractive, right off the top. Tommy is surly and also brain damaged (he's been shot in the head), mother Evelyn is rather spectacularly coming off her meds, and Peter Gore is comically and arrogantly deluded about himself. In one sense the book tackles these characters in order to test a theory of mine, which is that all humans are worth knowing, and are in fact lovable, at their core. (Readers have been letting me know that this theory is true, and that reading the book is in part a process of getting to know, and indeed grow close to, these three damaged souls.) The second reason this book is odd, at least for me, is that in its writing I abandoned any strategic sense of plotting, and instead let randomness happen to these people, much as things seem to happen in life: lots of accidents, so to speak, and lots of chance, but colorful encounters, as well as a heap of meaningless coincidence. I never knew what was going to happen next! Would Evelyn finally succumb to Gore's modest but determined charms? When poor Peter gets airlifted to Nanaimo to have his gall bladder removed, would he ever see Evelyn again? Will the Vietnamese drug gang put another bullet in Tommy's brain, or will they just keep spying on him through the trees? I had no idea how any of it would turn out.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good place to start.
I like to recommend this author to friends, just as a friend recommended him to me: Redmond O'Hanlon is known to most readers of travel writing but if, like me, you don't read a lot of travel writing, he'll be a huge and pleasant surprise. He's self-deprecating and hilarious, one of the funniest writers going, and the humor is dry, as it should be. Basically, he puts himself in impossible situations — searching for pre-contact Amazonian tribes, walking alone across Borneo, taking to the sea to experience a hurricane during a month without sleep — and he bumbles through, all the while reporting on nature's wonders, almost getting killed, and making intimate friends with the most unlikely people, as only an intrepid but utterly gentle and lovable man could do. His books are at least as compelling as novels. I'd start with In Trouble Again.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why or why not?
True. Writers are the best liars of all, and they'd better be, since at its base fiction is a sustained mistruth whose main goal is to maintain the illusion of truth. Maybe, come to think of it, method actors are the best liars, because they not only have to pretend to the audience, but also pretend to themselves, often going just a little mad in the process — or "losing themselves." But writers also often lose themselves. I know I do, trying to occupy a character's mind, mood, past, environment, urges, blindness, insight. Actually, the key to this occupation isn't so much an act of lying as it is one of empathy, of doing your damnedest to walk a mile in your character's shoes, and see the distant mountains with his eyes. But, call it all a big lie, or, as Willie once called it, "indirection," which is of course just another means to the truth.

What is your favorite literary first line?
"Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression."
Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Sometime before I turned thirty, I used to play poker once or twice a week with a bunch of writers, mostly poets, and we'd have a great time playing cards all night, drinking beer, talking about writing a little bit but mostly not, mostly just living richly and intensely. More often than not we'd end up surprised by the sun rising, and we'd take that as a sign that breakfast might do us good. We'd walk a half-mile or so to 4th Avenue and an all-night diner that served all-night breakfast, and get the Logger's Special — three eggs any way, thick toast with ginger marmalade, homemade sausage, sour cream, potatoes diced and fried with peppers, tomatoes and jack cheese, and endless chai tea — pretty much sent me off to bed in transcendent spirits. I believe that this particular breakfast was also a talisman against even the worst hangover.

Why do you write?
I used to dislike this question, mostly because I didn't know how to answer it. But I've caught myself in the act of writing enough times now that I've learned an answer: I write to entertain myself. I write to tell myself a story. Not just a story, but the story I most want to hear, right now. And it's a story as good as I can possibly imagine it, with a twist where I need a twist, and a surprise where I need a surprise, and a laugh, a tear, a wince, a curious image, etc., whenever it feels right. When I write, I'm just another reader, but the first reader, and sometimes I have a great time, not having a clue what happens next. If I'm not having a great time, I begin another story. And after I've written a story I've enjoyed reading, I can only hope some other readers out there are on an approximate heart-and-mind wavelength, and might enjoy it, too. But that's a whole other thing, not connected to why I write.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
One of my early books (actually my earliest, though it was the third one published), a novel called Bella Combe Journal, had as its second main character a Métis woman, Lise, who apart from tending to the hero is by turns a servant child, a prostitute, a drug-addled crazy lady and, in the end, a wise guide, almost a guru, to the narrator. Just after its publication I received a letter, lacking a return address, from a woman who claimed to be the woman in the novel. In a very articulate manner she thanked me for writing a novel about her, and praised my understanding, my insight, etc., particularly in dealing with all the difficult times she'd been through. The letter sounded anything but crazy; it was logical, detailed, lyrical, funny, and didn't even take itself that seriously, which is often the give-away with those who might be in some way "disturbed." I still don't know what to make of that letter, simply because the writer seemed so utterly sane. She explained to me that we knew each other in ways I wasn't yet aware of. She also said she was sending me "all of her best intentions." She further said we would never meet, at least not in the conventional sense.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Writers. You can witness a rock band's brand of wildness at any suburban teenage party, when the parents are gone and things get a bit out of hand. A writer's wildness, while on tour, is more subtle, but is as dangerous and unsettling as that writer's imagination. It might look only like this: a writer sitting alone on a bed. He's wearing the sports jacket he wears only three times a year. There's a spot of black currant reduction on the side of his nose he's not aware of. One sock is on, the other dangles from the edge of the open window, fourteen stories up. In his hand, is a glass of something. The hand shakes, and the meniscus on the surface of the drink is a lovely bullseye of tiny ripples worthy of a Basho poem. He's smiling faintly, and in his eyes you could read his next, unwritten novel, enacting itself all at once. (And then, sure, maybe he'll eventually break something for fun, and later try — and fail — to get laid.) spacer

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