Q&A with Richard Lemm

This is your first foray into fiction. How did you come up with the idea for this work?

With short stories, obviously, there is no single idea. To backtrack a long way, when I began writing in a disciplined way in my late twenties, I was writing and publishing short stories as well as poetry. A fiction mentor (a novelist) challenged me to write a novel, and I did so, and secured an agent, and a half-dozen encouraging rejection notes, saying, “Let us see your next novel.” I grew faint of heart about fiction, since my poetry was being published with increasing frequency in journals and books. And I’d finished a Ph.D. and scored a full-time teaching gig at the University of Prince Edward Island. Poetry jived better with the demands of teaching in a small undergraduate university, and with my work for various writers’ associations. Call it dedication, and call it avoidance (fear of more rejection) of the fiction I did love to write.

My poetry has strong narrative elements, and I’ve always loved telling stories. About ten years ago, on a holiday in Vancouver’s Sylvia Hotel near Stanley Park, I wrote my first short story, “The Gold Chev,” in over fifteen years. The idea was a young white man living in Seattle’s Central area, buys a gold ’55 Chev, but it’s a lemon and he has to sell it.

What was the creative process like for you?

I don’t write with “ideas” in mind. Stories (and poems) begin with a condensed “image” of an experience, a predicament. And often there’s a phrase or sentence that crystallizes it. I have to find out why, who they are, what is the “bone sticking in their craw” (as my bartender grandfather used to say), and what they’re going to do about it.

One story began with an “image” of a young trendy couple sitting on their condo balcony overlooking English Bay in Vancouver, and the line, “Nicole was the one who suggested an open relationship, not me.” There followed an aurora borealis rushing through my mind of various people I’ve known who openly or not-so-honestly had affairs.

With poetry, the first draft comes more slowly, and with a lot of psychic intensity. With fiction, the first draft flows with a smoother energy. I ran track in high school, the 400 and middle-distance. When I trained for the 400, we did a series of intense 300-metre sprints. That’s what poetry feels like. Training for longer distances, we did long runs, often along Lake Washington, and that’s fiction for me.

Who did you read as a kid, and how did these first forays into reading fiction affect your sensibilities as a writer?

There was a forgotten sub-genre of novel called “hot rod” novels, and I loved those. I devoured comic books, from Archie to Classics Illustrated (especially Moby Dick, which had a huge impact on me), which helped me do book reports at school. I honestly can’t remember most of what I read but I can vividly see myself waking at 5:30 on damp winter mornings to sit on the hallway heating vent in my pj’s, reading a novel before getting ready for school. I do remember reading, in addition to Zane Grey, books by Thomas B. Costain, and Ben-Hur.

I had an amazing great-grandmother, who died at age 99. I spent parts of my summers with her in her pioneer home on the Washington coast, where she lived until the day she died. She had books by Twain, Alcott, Dickens, Fenimore Cooper, and Poe. And I do remember reading aloud from those books, by kerosene lamp (Great-grandma had no electricity), to her.

In my teens, I began reading books in the library of an African-American family in my neighbourhood. The Gaytons were part of a pioneer black family in Seattle. I found in their library novels by Frank Yerby, Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. The turning point in my future as a writer, was when I came down with the mumps in 11th grade. I lay in bed reading James Michener’s, Hawaii, and it left me wondrous. I read Kyle Onstott's, Mandingo. That book opened my eyes to another world I wanted to delve into. Then, the Gaytons’ oldest son, Tom, started giving me heady stuff: Nietzche, and H.L. Mencken, and James Baldwin. Another Gayton, a football teammate, introduced me to Russian fiction writers. Edna St. Vincent Millay was the poet I first fell in love with, and shortly thereafter Walt Whitman, Sandburg, Frost, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsburg.

What are you reading right now?

Right now, I’m reading Amy Hempel, Lawrence Hill, Mary Karr, Eduardo Galeano, Kathy Page, Wayne Johnston, Chima Ngozi Adichi, Pankaj Misra, Jeannette Winterson, Anne Simpson, Don Domanski, Sue Sinclair.

How and where do you write?

In the cold months, I write in my study overlooking Charlottetown Harbour in PEI. In the summer, I write in my back yard or at Café Diem on Victoria Row in downtown Charlottetown, a street blocked off to traffic in summer and with sidewalk cafes, and with a small bandstand occupied all afternoon and evening by jazz combos. I also love to travel, and to write in outdoor cafes and pubs, whether it’s the Byward Market in Ottawa or a quayside taverna in Crete.

Do you write with a certain audience in mind? Who is your “ideal reader”?

I have no audience in mind when I write. But when I finish the draft of a story or poem, I do have several people in mind as my ideal readers. Most of them are writer-friends. But I also have in mind a few other people who are not writers, and that’s just as important. One of my main “ideal readers” and critics was a friend named Rick Arsenault. Rick is a log cabin builder. He is not much of a reader, preferring technical manuals. But he does play guitar and sings Stan Rogers songs beautifully, and he likes poetry when it comes his way. I always trusted Rick’s response to my poems. Now that my first book of short stories is out, I deeply appreciate the responses of readers who do not normally read fiction or poetry.

Name one person in your life who profoundly influenced your work, and why?

I’ll single out Dr. Robert Grimm, in Portland, OR, who with his wife Nancy, became my chosen family. The Grimms are lovers of the arts; conservationists and naturalists; democratic activists; and wonderful story-tellers, whose home has been home to many amazing people, from poets to ornithologists. He did not directly influence my writing, but he influenced everything else about me. Now, he is about to publish his memoir, Neurology Works. As for writing, the people who crucially influenced me early on were David Zieroth, Sandra Jones, W.O. Mitchell, Sylvia Fraser, and Alistair MacLeod.

Who is your favourite protagonist in a work of fiction?

For years, I’d answer this by saying Clea in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows. Lately, its Ada in The Poisonwood Bible, Aminata Diallo in Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Kahu in Whale Rider, and Lillian in Kate Grenville’s Lillian’s Story.

Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.

“The Gold Chev” is the first story in my book. I grew up in Seattle, surrounded by interracial and intraracial class consciousness. The main character is a composite of some of the prejudice and suspicion I observed.

Most of the other stories deal with love-and sex relationships. A woman who read the stories in manuscript said, “Wow, there’s a lot of sex here.” I was startled, and said, “No, there’s a lotta relationship stuff.” “Yeah,” she said, “but those relationships definitely do sex.”

As I resumed writing short fiction, I did, in fact, become preoccupied with love/sex relationships. Maybe that’s the dominant “idea” in this collection. That preoccupation poured out into the fiction, and then spilled over into my recent poetry. My poetry has occasionally been called “political,” and that aspect of my writing appears in some of the stories in terms of social/economic class. I grew up lower-middle class, raised by a bartender and a logger’s daughter, and class consciousness was subtly and sometimes not so subtly present in my family. I emphasize class in my teaching, especially when I teach postcolonial literature, which is more class-conscious than Canadian lit. That’s another “idea” that percolates through some of my fiction.

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