Lee Henderson, Writer

Writer Lee Henderson

Lee Henderson is the author of The Broken Record Technique (Penguin Canada 2002), which won the 2003 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and The Man Game (Penguin Canada, 2008), which won 2009 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the 2009 City of Vancouver Book Award.

Born in Saskatoon, he now resides in Victoria. For several years, he has written about art for Border Crossings and Contemporary, and his short stories have appeared in various literary magazines and twice been anthologized for the Journey Prize Anthology. As well as writing, he teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria.

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

While I was in university it dawned on me you could write sort-of professionally, but I was writing stories when I was younger for fun. I took a creative writing class in high school with Al Forrie, who is the publisher of Thistledown Press, and that helped me a lot early on.

2. What were the influential novels for you in your early twenties?

I loved Carver but I wasn’t setting out to write like that. I was a Vonnegut fan in high school, and Burroughs, too. So I read DFW in my first year of university and bought Infinite Jest  the day it was published. Ice Storm was wonderful to read, as was The Virgin Suicides. I really got in to the young Americans at that time. I read their forerunners, too, like DeLillo, Coover, Pynchon, Paley, Barthelme, and so on. I also loved reading a few Canadian books like Robert Kroetsch’s Studhorse Man.

3. Is your creative process always the same when you write fiction? Do you tend to write from concepts and outline or do you move more intuitively into the narrative? What tine of day do you like to work and is there anything special in your preparations?

I do like writing every day, if there’s time. I usually make time. I never made an outline for a short story, although I’ve done a lot of research for them and made notes on the language to use. For the novel it requires a lot more notes. Very scattered. I’m still finding notes I wrote for The Man Game on scraps of paper around my room, some that ended up working their way into the final manuscript.

4. If you’ll forgive the parallels, the BROKEN RECORD TECHNIQUE is like your Dubliners and THE MAN GAME like your Ulysses. I know the comparisons may seem pompous, but there is a way that your books fit this model, especially in your experiments with language and your use of other cultural forms like music. Joyce’s ULYSSES is more self-consciously involved with the creation of a modern myth and with showmanship. But you are inventing history, you do create a credible dialect, and you have vaudeville. Your Stephen Daedalus is hidden. Your Molly is a comic Venus, keeping Mars at bay. Without tempting the gods to anger or ridicule, can we say that your effort is following in Joyce’s footsteps?

I admire Joyce, and over the years I guess I’ve thought a lot about that suite of books he wrote, which are so of a piece, it’s remarkable. I really don’t know what to say – those books are so important to modern literature, I can’t be picked from the crowd for being influenced. As much as I learned from Joyce, he wasn’t a foundation for me, I came to him later, after I had a reason to appreciate what he’d done. I learned about the story of Modernism through a different artist, Marcel Duchamp, whose life and work shares a lot in common with Joyce’s, come to think. I also came to love reading Beckett and William Gaddis for the same reasons, as Joyce’s influence shines on them. I think sometimes the cataclysmic prose in Joyce can be so fascinating we forget to mention the more subtle projects of that era, such as Theodore Dreiser and Joseph Roth, who were both quite revolutionary naturalists, full of modern voices, and awesome fun to read.  

Somewhere along the line I came to learn a couple things, that a novel is written in a hundred thousand voices all talking about the same few things, and that the span of a novel is also invariably a comment on time itself, because one of the strange fictions a novel must provide is a convincing elimination of the laws of time, replaced by some other totally subjective kind of time.

As for the language, I was really excited to discover chinook, a local jargon of a few thousand words that was used by the people living in Vancouver and the region from the 1860s to the early 1900s, mostly as a way to trade between First Nations, Whites, and Asians who were all doing business on the ports. And so I did my best to use a few words from that dialect to pay my respects to this wonderful, vanished local slang. Novels are made of language, and certain kinds of rare words are like magic tricks when you read them, the words themselves help us to time travel.

5. You are originally from Saskatchewan. Are you in touch at all with that literary scene?

No, I wouldn’t say I’m in touch, except to read the authors on occasion. I read and dig Sean Virgo a lot, and Guy Vanderhague’s stuff, and Yann Martel, Rudy Wiebe and Glen Sorestad’s rural experimentations, and so on. Strong lit scene there, for sure.

6. I have a complex question here that can’t seem to find a simple form. Basically, I’m asking how aware you were of the possible contexts to the novel.  I got the idea from considering your epigrams and the invention of the game and the dialect that you were creating a space for your narrative to operate outside that particular 19th century West Coast history without disrupting it. On one level, the book is a historical novel; on another it functions through its language and invention to recreate whatever space it is that is represented by Vancouver. Through that re-creation we get the opportunity to engage with questions about the nature of violence and its relationship to creativity; dance and sport—here, wrestling; love and war; history and narrative. I‘m reminded also of Blanchot and his analysis of literary space and how literature can re-define social space. One could just go off on a riff about the nature of games and their use in literature: Beckett and his existential maneuvers, Calvino and his sense of pure invention (as in INVISIBLE CITIES), Hesse and MAGISTER LUDI (though his elitist text seems quite different from the egalitarian spirit in yours); the games of the surrealists and Oulipo (maybe to call attention to the spooky power of improvisation and accident); maybe the new video culture. Can you comment on any of this?

The Man Game took about nine years to write, and in that time I was able to slowly excruciatingly develop a bunch of overlapping motifs running through the storyline, and many of the more abstract motifs you mention in this question and others are ones I puzzled over how to include. I’m not sure what the meaning of it all is, or how my writing parlays its way into the game of literary theory. I am interested in these sorts of brainy conundrums and how a fiction writer is supposed to express these things in narrative.

7. Your work seems straightforward in some ways, but that’s a disguise. By the time I’ve finished I believe fully in the historical reality of all the elements in your text and I‘m thinking in all of these ways—including the music of Edwin Prevost and others, even though the novel seems to have nothing directly to do with, say, language, acoustical space, and the creation of culture.

I was listening to a lot of really strange far-out music, and a lot of old folk plainsong type tunes as well, while writing this book, and acoustic archictecture is a great way of describing how language locates a reader. My story was set in 1886, but I tried to create a space with very contemporary-sounding acoustics.

8. You’ve mentioned Beckett as an influence on your writing. I know from personal experience how addictive his style can be. What exactly did you learn from him?

Beckett is everything to me. I learn everything from his writing. Repetition, paradox, absurdity, impossibility, acoustics, interior voices, exterior voices, even vaudeville. His interpretation of vaudeville really inspired me. I’ve always loved vaudeville and I saw how Beckett used the tropes of vaudeville and I admired that a lot.

9. The Western novel has a slim but important tradition. Edward Abbey, Robert Kroetsch, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, John Nichols, Howard O’Hagan, Wallace Stegner, Rudy Wiebe. None of the work of these writers seems similar to yours.  Now there is a novel short-listed for the Booker:  THE SISTERS BROTHERS. I haven’t read it yet, but people say good things about it. Do you see yourself fitting into a tradition like that?

Well, I don’t know, these are quality writers and I am not on that kind of radar. I love all those writers you mention and want to read the Sisters Brothers, it sounds awesome. The Kroetsch novel The Studhorse Man is the best thing of all, really is the absolute masterpiece of the postmodern Westerns. Amazing book. McCarthy’s just amazing, too, his books are all amazing. I grew up in the West, so I’m interested in the contemporary story at the heart of this genre, and want to find ways to approach it. I just wrote a short story for Border Crossings called Bison Burgers, that’s a Western of a sort. There’s also John Williams’ incredible novel Butcher’s Crossing to recommend, a story which has a bitterly ironic environmental theme for its narrative and takes place during the badass days of Deadwood. It’s one of my favorites, and Williams is a phenomenal writer. Not the same guy as the music composer I don’t think.

10.  Recently, younger Canadian novelists have taken a new approach to the historical novel and used exotic settings.   I’m thinking of Steven Galloway (The CELLIST OF SARAJEVO), Adam Lewis Schroeder  (IN THE FABLED EAST), Karen Connelly (THE LIZARD CAGE), Steven Heighton (EVERY LOST COUNTRY), Kevin Patterson (COMPULSION), Annabel Lyon (THE GOLDEN MEAN), Heather Burt (ADAM’S PEAK). What’s your understanding of that tendency?

Novels are often speculations on the themes of time and memory, truth and deception, objectivity and subjectivity, family and country. These themes can be played out pretty healthily in historical novels, which I think hope to cleave to the truth, not the fact. I suppose we are all fascinated to a degree by how much the world seems to have changed throughout recorded history and confused by how very little some of us seem to change along with it, as if today there are still neanderthals and Roman centurions and medieval lepers and Victorian dandies all shopping at Holister and Shoppers Drug Mart. The historical novel is pretty much a djed pillar of the literary genre. The tendency towards operatic melodrama is part of the fun or corniness of the historical genre, just as it is for sci-fi, and likewise the real challenge is to relate the struggles of the era with our own contemporary calamity.

11.  You write about art as well. Is there any confluence of ideas from art and literature in your writing?

Gosh, I think so, for sure, although it would be hard for me to say exactly how because the things I read and the art I look at and the graphic comics I read/look at, and the music I listen to all get into my writing. There are certain artists whose stuff I really can’t stop thinking about though. Marcel Duchamp. George Herriman. Robert Walser. William Gaddis. Miles Davis. David Lynch. Sheila Heti. & also I really am thinking a lot about the work by my artist friends, Jeffro, Jason McLean, Kara Uzelman, Marc Bell, Mark Delong, Aurel Schmidt, Evan Lee, Elizabeth Zvonar, J Ladouceur, Dave Poolman, Shary Boyle, Carrie, Marcel, Krups, Scrivedog, Keith J, Amy L, Holly W, Kevin S, Geoffrey, etc etc, so many artists in Canada whose work I admire and constantly learn from. I try to follow contemporary Canadian art as closely as possible.

12.  What are you working on these days?

I just started teaching in the creative writing program at Uvic, so I’ve left Vancouver and I’m getting to know my new students, filling my new office with books, and in the meantime writing another novel. I published a short story this year in Border Crossings called Bison Burgers, as well as a profile of artist Evan Lee, and wrote essays to introduce the work of artists Eli Boronowsky and Valerie Blass to readers of The Walrus.

Thank you, Lee.

Visit Lee’s website: www.leehenderson.com

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