Saturday, December 8, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Robert Majzels

Robert Majzels is a novelist, playwright, poet and translator, born in Montreal, Canada. After a misspent youth ending up in the guerrilla zones of the Philippines, he returned to graduate from Concordia University (MA, English Literature) in 1986. He taught creative writing workshops in prose, poetry and drama there for thirteen years, before he escaped to China for a couple. He is presently back in Canada, masquerading as an Associate Professor in the English Department of the University of Calgary.

Robert is the author of three novels, a full-length play, and a number of translations. Two of his novels have been translated into French by Claire Dé.

Majzels’ work has been a continuing exploration of the forms and ethical underpinnings of writing.

About his first novel, Hellman's Scrapbook (Cormorant Press, 1992):

"... a huge, complex and extraordinarily rewarding novel." The Globe and Mail
"... daring in form, political, eclectic in setting and character and masterfully threaded with an intriguing story line." The Montreal Gazette

“...a novel of Beckettian inertia combined with Joyceian allusiveness... a formidable and esoteric discourse on power, decadence and remembering.” The Globe and Mail
About his third novel, Apikoros Sleuth (Mercury Press, 2004):

“...the mysterious, murderous architecture of Majzels’ gesture, in which language is both victim and description of victimization, and in which standard narrative has been put in a compressor and squeezed into more interesting ways of thinking... The reader won’t encounter another book like this one anytime soon.” Review of Contemporary Fiction

“[Apikoros Sleuth] takes the reader back to the primal scene of the book, where reading is ritual and where eyes, of their own magical accord, unlock terrible knowledge.” The Montreal Review of Books
Robert Majzels is presently completing a book of poetry, excerpts of which have appeared in NO: A Journal of the Arts (#5, 2006), and Sleeping Fish (Summer 2006). Excerpts from his visual poetry project 85 were part of the group exhibition, Blends & Bridges in Cleveland, Ohio April, 2006.

Robert has also translated, from the French, a novel and a collection of stories by Anne Dandurand, as well as four novels by France Daigle, including Just Fine (House of Anansi, Toronto, 1999), for which he won the 2000 Governor General’s Award of Canada. With Erín Moure he translated three books of poetry by Nicole Brossard: Installations (Muses Company, 2000), Museum of Bone and Water (House of Anansi, 2002), and Notebook or Roses & Civilization (Coach House Books, 2007), for which Moure and he were nominated for a GG.
His full-length play This Night the Kapo won first prize both in the 1991 Dorothy Silver Awards (Cleveland Ohio, USA) and the 1994 Canadian Jewish Playwrighting Competition. It was produced by Teatron in Toronto at the Berkley Street Theatre (CanStage) in March 2004, and published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2005.

Photo Credit: Claire Huot

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I was introduced to the work of Naguib Mahfouz, because his were the books on all those bookstore shelves next to the spot where I had hoped to find my own.

2 - How long have you lived in Calgary, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've been in Calgary for only a year and a bit now. I haven't started writing about it. I find I'm always a few years behind in writing about the places I've been. So I'm mostly still in China (in my writing imagination). Race and gender, on the other hand, impact all writers' work all the time; it's just that some don't realize or recognize it. These are two of the elements in the construction of identity, which is certainly at the heart of my writing practice.

3 - Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I always begin by thinking of how many books my publisher wants to fit into the standard sized cardboard boxes they use for distribution. That then determines the number of pages, words and so on.

No, that can't be right. I don't think of my work in terms of working within the short story form or the novel, long or short, or prose or poetry. That doesn't mean I don't think about the forms and genres in writing, about how and why they have evolved over time. I often work against those limits and delimitations. When I begin a project, it usually starts with a problem raised by the last project. The problem is always a combined formal, philosophical and political issue. For instance, now I'm thinking about the book itself, as an object, about the visual, sound and tactile elements, the material components of the book as an object imbedded in national and transnational cultural industries, and how to write within that structure at a time when my own country is deeply involved in the invasion of Afghanistan and the murder of its people (I have to get that in, it's not much, but I find it distressing that Canadian writers can intervene in public life these days, through readings, talks, interviews or accepting prizes, without addressing the fact that our country is waging war at this very moment).

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Depends on the project. They're irrelevant mostly, except in my current project, 85, in which the visual presentation of the poems and taped readings on video are part of the work. And to an extent with my novel Apikoros, in which reading sections of it is like a performance. Unfortunately, except in the case of work specifically created for performance, readings seem to me to be mostly just an excuse for writers to rub up against a microphone, pretend they're rock stars, and sell themselves rather than the work.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

All my writing is concerned with the intersection of language, self and world and the possibilities of resistance to structures that are constraining or oppressive. I'm trying to explore how we are constructed by the stories, the narrative and poetic forms, even the grammar we've learned. I'm interested in contemporary philosophy and critical theory that can help me to think otherwise and to imagine alternative modes of resistance, alliances and coalitions. I also try to keep informed about the political and economic situation in the world; I'm particularly encouraged by developments in Latin America, new initiatives in grassroots social organization, health and education in Venezuela and Bolivia, for example, and in the progress of the Chinese political and economic experiment; I'm discouraged by the refusal of the USA to step down and aside, and by Canada's participation in the invasion of Afghanistan (there, I got it in again).

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I sometimes show drafts of my work to one or two friends who have been very helpful. And I've found the proofreaders and editors at Moveable Inc. in Toronto to be the most thorough final readers; nothing gets past them. As for outside editors, I don't know if they still exist in the sense they did fifty years ago. I try to submit my work in a final draft that requires no changes.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

It's neither harder nor easier; it's just very hard. But I think I've become accustomed to the difficulties and I don't panic as much as I used to. I even enjoy the process.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

This is another question about theory. I like pears and eat them often. By the time you, rob, read this reply, I will have probably eaten another pear, so what is the last time to me now as I write this will no longer be the last time I ate a pear when you read this. And by the time readers of your blog read my reply, I will probably have eaten yet another pear... Unless by "last time" you are referring to a time after which I will never eat another pear. Every time I eat a pear, I hope it will not be my last one. And yet, the state of the environment being what it is, I imagine the day will come when someone will be eating the last pear. This is a political problem: what we are doing to save the pear (not to mention the other fruit and fauna) from extinction. As for mortal me, there will certainly come a time when I will eat what will be for me my last pear, though I will most probably not know it is my last pear at that moment. This is the problem of writing, the relationship between the author, the text and the reader.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don't let school interfere with your education.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?

The division into prose and poetry, translation and original creation is a problem that needs to be explored. These divisions are historical, of course, and in flux. I think, in particular, the opposition between prose and poetry is no longer as simple or useful as it might once have been. In any case, I think of my work as writing. I like to unsettle those divisions. So I'm trying to move within and between, beyond and before genres as I write.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

When I can I like to get up around 6AM, walk the dog, grab some breakfast, and work until noon. Then, a nap after lunch, and back to work, either writing or catching up on admin stuff. Of course, there are periods in my life when, to stave off starvation, I have to stick some wage labour in there. That screws up the routine.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I don't really get stalled. I think people who get writer's block should give up writing. Writer's block is really that voice inside the sufferer's head telling him or her that their work is not very interesting or worthwhile. But if we're talking about getting stuck on a problem in the writing, then I read, usually philosophy or whatever text I'm working with/on in the project I'm stuck on: the Talmud in Apikoros Sleuth, Tang dynasty poets, Paul Celan or Bada Shanren in 85.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My most recent book is a murder mystery in a form that looks deceptively conventional. It differs from all my previous books, as each of them differs from the others, and from what I'm working on now, which is a kind of visual poetry.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Books come from trees, unless they're made from recycled pulped books. Music and visual arts, a great deal. My 85 series is very engaged with visual art. And I'm working on a project involving European Baroque countertenor and Peking Opera.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

This question tempts one to either show off, or promote friends. But I guess the best response may be to mention some authors the reader may not have encountered. So... Abraham Abulafia (13th century poststructuralist philosopher), Elias Canetti, Michel Gauvreau, Kurt Schwitters, Djuna Barnes, Bada Shanren, Cao Xue Qin. And, of course, many contemporary writers in Canada and abroad engaged in experimenting with language and the world, most of whom you already know. On the anglo-www, I like to browse some sites from time to time:, PennSound, Emily Carr Institute's site in Vancouver, Slought, John Trantor's site.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I'd like to finish answering these questions.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I would have liked to be a cat burglar, so that I get my money directly from the taxpayers without having to go through the troublesome process of applying for grants.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I tried a number of other things and failed. As a writer in Canada, there's no pressure to succeed; everyone expects you to fail.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

See Question 8.

20 - What are you currently working on?

These 20 questions. But I'm done now.


Attractive Lady said...

Robert is very interesting, but not nearly as interesting as your questions.

Attractive Lady said...

I mean, could we meet? Sometime soon? I'd like to show you my poems. All of them.