This is your first foray into fiction. How did you come up with the idea for this work?
I actually started off as a short fiction writer, and then turned my focus more to screenwriting after finishing university. I was in between screenplays and had this idea for a children’s story I wanted to write called “The Flyswatter”, about an old man who chases a fly around his house but is never able to catch it. Around the same time I had gotten to know Jim Westergard, whose artwork I was instantly drawn to because I recognized a similar dark, somewhat twisted sensibility in his art that often appears in my writing.
As I started thinking about the fly as a character I considered the age old expression, “Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall for that (conversation, experience, moment…)?” From there I scrapped the children’s story idea and decided to write a collection of voyeuristic scenarios witnessed by a ubiquitous fly, with the hope of getting Jim to create accompanying pen and ink drawings for each story. I wrote about six of these short stories, or “flies” as we came to call them, and when I showed them to him his imagination locked into the concept immediately, and shortly after we began our collaboration.
What was the creative process like for you?
It was a very interesting process as a collaboration in, essentially, a new genre. Because it’s an unusual project in the sense that it’s an illustrated collection of short short fiction for adults, (it’s not for children, it’s not a graphic novel and it’s not a collection of postcard stories or flash fiction as those forms of writing have come to be known) it took a while to decide how exactly I would tell the stories and how we would juxtapose the stories with the drawings. Because the book was to be such a visual experience I wrote sparsely, with an emphasis on dialogue and plot versus overly descriptive passages. In order to keep all 53 stories consistent and lean I found myself mercilessly trimming off “fat” more than I have ever done before with any project. So it was a real lesson in economy for me.
The most fascinating part of the process was working with a visual artist throughout the creation of the book, rather than afterwards, as is most typically done. In most cases I would draft a story, give it to Jim, he would mull it over and come up with a drawing, we’d discuss both the story and the drawing, make some adjustments based on the other’s feedback, and we’d end up with a completed story and drawing. There were occasions, however, when we would reverse the process and Jim would come up with a drawing first and I would create a story from that drawing. It was a true collaboration from start to finish.
Who did you read as a kid, and how did these first forays into reading fiction affect your sensibilities as a writer?
I read a lot of “choose your own adventure” type books as a kid. I loved the unconventional notion of being able to experience the same characters in completely different situations and outcomes in the same book. I think those books were quite revolutionary and really created an interactive experience for readers. For me, fiction has always been either a looking glass into the unknown and the unfamiliar or a magnifying glass of the known and recognizable, so I think of writing in terms of seeing things in ways we haven’t necessarily seen before.
What are you reading right now?
God is not Great by Christopher Higgins and Stiff by Mary Roach.
How and where do you write?
I write sporadically, mostly in the evenings, at my desk, usually listening to music (unless I’m rewriting). I write every first draft by hand in lined journals and find this far more intuitive and synaptic than trying to compose material on a keyboard.
Do you write with a certain audience in mind? Who is your “ideal reader”?
Absolutely. A great writing professor of mine at UVic, Bill Valgardson, told me to always write for my “best” reader, versus trying to appeal to a mass audience. I consider my “best” or “ideal reader” someone who is openminded, curious, thick-skinned, yet vulnerable and empathetic.
Name one person in your life who profoundly infuenced your work, and why did you choose this person?
My grandfather. He was a captain in the Danish navy who immigrated to Alberta and became a farmer. The fact that he transitioned from a high seas life of adventure to a radically more serene lifestyle in his thirties was reflected in the way he told stories with both passion and subtlety. I strive to tell stories in the same way.
Who is your favourite protagonist in a work of fiction or poetry, and why?
Ew, tough one. Like trying to pick your favourite band or movie. I don’t know, he’s really not even the protagonist, but I always think of Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck created an innocence in that character that I find more beautiful and profound than any other I’ve ever encountered.
In your own work, which character are you most attached to, and why?
I’m currently rewriting a feature length screenplay about an elderly hermit named Angus Thorpe who hasn’t stepped foot off his land since he was a teenager. I’m drawn to his psychological survival skills in terms of how he’s lived alone for most of his life, eked out a modest existence with minimal human contact, and yet his reach for something more exceeds his grasp at an almost tragic level. I feel an obligation to help him if I can.
Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.
At the heart of Fly on the Wall is the concept of voyeurism and the idea that we can find truths about people by witnessing their behaviours in compromised situations when they don’t know they’re being watched. I’m fascinated by human nature, both the good and the bad, and I believe we’re often at our most authentic in our private, unguarded moments.