Aaron Bushkowsky, Writer

Aaron Bushkowsky was born in Winnipeg, studied at the university of Alberta and  at U.B.C., where he received an M.F.A. in creative writing in 2002. He has had more than a dozen plays produced professionally, including THE SILLY SEASON (1990); DANCING BACKWARDS (2002); STRANGERS AMONG US (1998); MY CHERNOBYL (2008); THE PROJECT (2009); AFTER JERUSALEM (2011). He has been nominated for the Jessie Theatre Awards seven times, winning twice. He is also the author of two books of poetry, ED AND MABEL GO TO THE MOON (Oolichan, 1995) and MARS IS FOR POEMS (Oolichan, 2002); a book of short stories, THE VANISHING MAN  (Cormorant, 2005); and a novel, CURTAINS FOR ROY (Cormorant 2012). His screenplay THE ALLEY (1998) was nominated for six Leos, and he continues to write for film, with a number of projects on the go, working also as resident film writer for the Canadian Film Center. He lives in Vancouver, where he is co-artistic director of Solo Collective, and where he teaches at Langara College, Studio 58, Kwantlen University, and the Vancouver Film School.

Writer Aaron Bushkowsky

1. You’ve written poetry, novels, drama, screenplays. By far, theatre seems to claim most of your time and production. Do you work systematically from genre to genre? A play, a poem, a novel, and then a play? What determines what you are going to be working on, especially considering that you are so productive?

Deadlines seem to make the biggest difference to me when it comes to writing. The German in me responds well to ultimatums. Sometimes I also look at what is marketable today. Poetry is now the least “marketable” and theatre the most. It changes over the years. Short fiction is troublesome for publication too. I change genres a lot mostly because I’m always trying to figure out a way to get noticed.  On occasion I cannibalize my own writing from one genre to another too. I have a piece that went from a poem to a one-person play to a short story. I have a short story that became a film script recently optioned (it’s the fifth option on the film-script). It depends on what works. And what my agent tells me to do too.

2. How did you get into writing plays? What were the circumstances and what was your inspiration?
I don’t know what got me into it exactly. But I think a friend challenged me to write something for the Fringe in Edmonton. I took up the challenge and wrote two pieces, both were modest hits. I remember looking at the line-up to get into my play and I was immediately smitten by the whole thing. Also, I was smitten by the actresses. Eventually I married one, although it didn’t last.

3. You studied at the University of Alberta for your undergrad education. Did you have any writing mentors there?
I received two degrees there, neither was in creative writing or theatre. I took no classes in either genre except a poetry class or two. No mentors there. I rarely went to theatre. I didn’t belong to book clubs. I was into sports mainly. I coached college basketball and wrote cartoons for the university paper. I still cartoon a bit. It’s like story-boarding.

4. Now you teach at two, sometimes three institutions, work with actors at theatre collectives, support student writers in their work. How do you manage to find time to write? Do you write daily or just whenever you can?

I have little time to write. I do most of it late at night while my fiancée is getting ready for bed, usually that’s about an hour. A lot of my writing is done on weekends or during breaks in teaching and, of course, in the summer. I’m a fast writer so it’s not hard for me to churn something out. My last play, AFTER JERUSALEM, I wrote over a weekend. It turned out to be one of my best, although it went through rewrites just before rehearsals started. If the premise is solid, it almost writes itself. Premise is everything. And story structure is critical. Theme becomes clear to me after rewrites. A good premise is gold but they are hard to mine.

5. What is the secret of staying creative and productive when you are so busy doing different kinds of things?

The secret to staying creative and productive is facing the sheer terror that you will have nothing to say ever again. Once you face it, you run to your computer and start typing immediately.

6. MY CHERNOBYL is set in Belarus and deals with a Canadian’s attempts to share some of his father’s estate. In the process of this simple story about quest and honour, we get a love story of sorts, lots of scheming about money, and musing about fate and death.  The elements seem almost Shakespearian, but the treatment has a vaudevillean tone—without the music. That vaudevillean tone puts me in an uncomfortable spot: it’s funny, but it’s also savage satire.  I imagine the blasted landscapes of Beckett with their doomed but funny clown-figures. I wonder about the terrifying acceptance of a radioactive present and future, the fatalism, the sense that people act the same no matter what the conditions are, the embarrassingly Canadian niceness and idealism of David. I’m not sure at the end of the play whether to weep or smile. Can you talk a little about what effect you were after with this play and how hard it was to balance the satire with some of the lighter humor?

MY CHERNOBYL is one of my favourite pieces, which also was written very quickly, perhaps over three or four days. But I wrote from what I knew too. My relatives in Russia had never met my side of the family because they were separated by the Iron Curtain back in 1928. I imagined what it would be like to finally meet them but under the horrible situation of the death of a parent. When I finally DID meet them last year, they were astonished to hear about the set-up of the play, which coincided with our lives so much. My life has been one generally influenced by fatalists and religious zealots so it was easy to write the characters who live in “My Chernobyl”. They are also fatalists and deeply, weirdly religious, although in a much more broad way.  The writing has been compared to Gogol whom I’ve read little of, but I feel the tone of the piece is more like Seinfeld and Woody Allen. The satire is definitely a big part of the play, but everything is played with great honesty and I think that’s where the truth is. I don’t intentionally try to make dialogue funny,  you end up with a pure sit-com then. I try to write from character and character needs. The backdrop of a nuclear accident is something that becomes thematic in most of my writing… there is always something black on the horizon. “After Jerusalem”, my most recent play, has a terrorist bombing in it and explores the nature of life in a world where both love and death co-exist.

7. As a playwright working with actors and directors, you have the experience of seeing your play changed through workshopping and finally through performance. Tell us a little bit about that experience.  What have you learned about that collaboration over the course of your different plays?

The actors are usually right but you rarely tell them that, it just makes them difficult. Directors are sometimes right, except when it comes to endings of plays. You have to baby directors, give them lots of compliments. Agents are always right, you must buy them wine a lot, and critics you ignore except at other playwright’s openings.  I love collaboration. I like to think I’m an “actor’s writer” because I want to hear from them, mostly because I want to steal from them. Recently, in AFTER JERUSALEM I had a line where a character says vacation romances were “vomances” – the director changed the line to “holiday romances”, or as the lead character called them “Homances”. It was funnier. I went with it. We did a lot of that during the rehearsals… trying out different things to see what worked better. It’s good not to have too much ego during this process. Norman Jewison, one of my mentors, always said, “Always kill your baby, but pick your hill to die on too.” I now know what that means. Some of your favourite bits always need to go, but some of your bits should never be cut even if the director insists. You have to figure out what that is… and for me, it’s mostly related to theme.

8.What are the main issues facing young playwrights in Canada today?

None of the big companies want to produce anyone anymore. It’s too much of a risk financially, so a lot of dead, white, male playwrights get produced. Medium-sized theatres are also taking less risks with new work simply because of the trickle-down effect. There’s less money for commissions, more competing for what’s left. A lot of this is audience… it’s kind of like being in a United Church… they are getting older and older and aren’t as interested in new things. Today’s audience want DEATH OF A SALESMAN or “THE LION KING, but not much between. Some of this is directly related to funding issues with our provincial government. The arts are the least funded of all the provinces in Canada on a per capita basis. With little or no funding, theatre companies play it safe. They become less experimental, less edgy and, thus, more boring. The only way to get seen is through the Fringe. But that’s now becoming difficult to get into. Well over a hundred applied to get in, less than 20 were chosen. You could try to self produce but rentals are very expensive here in Vancouver. You could make a feature film for what it would cost to produce a play at a 200 seat theatre. That’s crazy.

9. A VANISHING MAN, your book of short stories, seems to combine play dialogue with the intimate focus of journaling and creative non-fiction. It’s an unusual mixture. The mixture allows you to maintain the ironic voice, but at the same time has the reader looking over the protagonist’s shoulder all the time. The linking helps us to create a map: Vancouver, the Prairies, Jerusalem, Hawaii, for example. Above all, I get a sense from the character of a man who wants to celebrate life but is beset by uncertainty and anxiety, sort of our condition of shedding both modernity and postmodernity without any replacement vision. Two questions: What were you trying to achieve with this book, and how conscious were you of doing something different technically?

I tried to write what I know, or thought I knew. I didn’t want to make things up. So I wrote about things that happened to me and lied about them to make them work on the page. I’m an anxious person, so they were filled with angst. I’m also uncertain about everything in life, so the stories were filled with uncertainty. I wasn’t trying to meld journaling or creative non-fiction… journaling I loathe, and creative non-fiction is a genre I can’t figure out anyway. I was trying to write short fiction. After the collection came out, my publisher asked me not to write short fiction anymore because it’s so hard to sell. He said I had to write a novel. I said I don’t even read them and worse yet, I didn’t have an idea. He suggested we go out for drinks. “I’m sure if we eat and drink enough something will come up.” It did. My next novel (due out in May) is about theatre and wine, two things I know a lot about. It was a great relief to write the story (CURTAINS FOR ROY, Cormorant Books) because I felt like I didn’t have to make it all up. I’m not good at that. I’d be a terrible science fiction novelist. It seems like a lot of work.

10. Is Vancouver a good place to be a fulltime writer of plays and fiction? Is it good for theatre?

It’s a terrible wasteland for playwrights. Sadly. We need more provincial funding… desperately. We need more venues, more stages, more companies willing to take risks. I run a company Solo Collective Theatre that has produced over 20 new playwrights over the past 12 years. We’re always struggling to survive the year. You can be a fiction writer anywhere… like a Gulf Island or something… like most BC novelists are. Your career doesn’t depend as much on networking and schmoozing like it does in theatre. Again, to quote my mentor Norman Jewison, there are five things you need to make it in theatre or film and number five is talent. In order they are “Persistence, Who You Know, Timing, Blind Ass Luck, and Talent.”

11. You have done some projects for film as well. Is that a medium in which you would work more often, time willing?  THE ALLEY (1998) an independent short, was nominated for a few awards. You do some teaching for the Vancouver Film School, and so you are in continual contact with youthful energy and hope.  I have heard that VFS has a very good track record placing grads into technical positions. What about writers for film? It would seem to be harder to get on board as a screenwriter. What advice do you give your students?
Write a film you can produce on your own dime using your own DSLR camera. Get your friends and relatives to help you. Beg and borrow stuff from everyone. Have fun and who cares if nobody picks it up. Post it on the Internet and then move on to your next project. Don’t linger and pout. Create.

12. What contemporary writers do you read?

This is the one thing I don’t do much of. I simply don’t have time to catch up. I’m teaching and marking so much during the September to April slot I can’t  read much. When I do read it’s student writing. Or Golf Digest. Or the Wine Spectator.  I can read short stuff. I read like sparrows eat, peck here and there and then move on. Novels intimidate me. Plus I’m afraid if I read a novel, the writing will appear in my next book somehow. I’m afraid of bilateral inspiration.

13. How important are your Prairie roots? There are lots of references in your poetry and short stories, not so much in your plays, which are within the urban or mainstream experience. Religion seems to be a subtle reference to the Prairie experience, though your work isn’t religious. Do you find yourself going back in memory to earlier days?

I go back in memory less and less mainly because I can’t remember it. I come from an extremely religious family. My father was a Baptist minister and my four siblings either married ministers, minister’s sons, or missionary’s daughters. I’m the black sheep of the family. I’m not religious and I’m living in sin with a dental hygienist.  I write more about my recent past because I think it’s more interesting… plus it won’t insult my family as much. After the publication of my short story collection (THE VANISHING MAN), some of them didn’t talk to me for a while. They felt “weird” and “shocked”  (their words not mine). I had no idea they were reading my work, so I took it as a compliment.

14. Tell us something about Aaron Bushkowsky we don’t know.

I broke 80 last year playing golf. I love the game and play it with other disillusioned writers. It takes our mind off the desperation and uselessness of it all trying to make it in the biz. I’m also a really good chef, particularly with soups and fish. In my family we have five siblings, three of us are born on the same day exactly three years apart almost to the hour. And my sibling’s kid is also born on our birthday. It’s weird.

15. One of my students asked me whether you were related to the Beat poet “Charles Bushkowsky.” I said it was something you didn’t want to talk about. Was that okay to tell him?

Tell him I’ll buy him a drink. In fact, “a drink for all my friends!”

Thank-you, Aaron.


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