Brad de Roo: There’s been a fair bit of talk about the level of violence in WASTE. CBC Books called it “one of the most violent novels CanLit has ever seen.” Why shouldn’t a book be violent, especially with all the violence in Canada and the world?
Andrew Sullivan: I can’t give a great answer on why a book shouldn’t be violent, but I guess there should be a purpose to the acts, a reason behind the choices any author makes. No one is obligated to make violence a part of their narratives, but CanLit has a tendency to place all its violence at a distance, either through style or content. I wanted something like a hand on your throat, an immediate, volatile hallucination. I’m not too interested in gore horror, but dread is a big part of my work. Dread is everywhere and it’s my fuel. And I think that is there in WASTE. Dread of what’s to come, dread over what you can’t control and yet it’s everywhere, dread that is common and banal. The violence is brutal and relentless and was intended to be. It’s hyper-real and vicious and was intended to be. I wanted it to linger. At the same time, these acts of violence are all reckoning that return to their originators, they are acts that can’t be undone. Each act is accompanied by a consequence. They are fully observed from start to finish and their victims are given a voice even as they come undone. I don’t want to just blow people away without consequence or history, without lives or stories to tell. There are stories within these acts. Each act of violence is a marker, a sign along the path to show just how far you’ve come. Or how low you’ve sunk. I think part of what has been discomforting for some folks when reading this violence is it is very embodied, very fleshy and wet. It’s connected to the bodies; it’s being inscribed in very physical, bodily terms on my characters. It’s a currency for the reader, one they may not want to acknowledge. I want to linger until it’s over. I want you to see exactly what happens. I want the big spotlights on the wound. We don’t draw a curtain and then throw some red confetti in the air. We don’t allude toward endings, we enact them. Consistently and for our own convenience, for our own comfort, our own validation. Violence determines who matters, who counts, even when we divorce it from our own hands. When we claim it’s not who we are. We say, “I could never do that.” And yet, people do. People you know. Every day. Each act is a reckoning.
BdR: Who does violence well? Are there any authors or artists that you think especially capture how and why we are violent?
AS: Off the top of my head, I think the late Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes, Body, The Hawk is Dying) always handled violence very well, very clearly. It lasted. It stuck with you. His work is straightforward about it and shows you the result, but he’s not afraid to make it funny either. Horrible things are often funny, if only for a moment. I think Craig Davidson (Cataract City, Rust and Bone) has always had a great handle on violence and how he has managed it throughout his career. Graham Greene would also fall into that category—his ability to balance action with greater thematic concerns—Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory make that clear. One of my favourite novels is Toni Morrison’s Beloved and I think that is the gold standard for depicting violence in my fiction. Morrison pulls off the feat of a literary ghost novel, detailing a history of violence, sacrifice and violation in prose that’s both visceral and meditative. It’s a brutal book and I return to it often for inspiration.
BdR: Marginalized humans definitely get their terrible share of bodily and mental harm in WASTE, but animals have it even worse. Your bloody taxonomy runs from more exotic casualties like lions, tigers, bears, and giraffes to more run-of-the-mill fatalities like dogs, toads, pigs, cows, raccoons. Why are animals splattered all over your urban novel? What about their suffering crowds your palette?
AS: The city is alive with all kinds of bodies. I used to drive home from the afternoon shift down back roads after midnight, my arms usually coated in a thin layer of dust and red wine from a busted case. A lot of roadkill pops up at dusk to get demolished, and I was the one who got to see it all afterward, just before it was cleaned up and put away. Raccoons split in half, rabbits turned into putty, cats spooled out along the side of the road from one end of their stomach to the other. Animals’ lives are worth nothing to us, usually. Or they are romanticized, and then they mean everything. They are microcosms for how we treat each other, easy metaphors for every writer, but they are also every day nuisances. I wanted that to be apparent—their lives are generally unremarkable, their deaths even more so. They are part of our cost of living. They are grist for the mill and their blood never stains anyone too long. Their suffering is endless and repetitive and it isn’t going to stop. That’s not in the cards. They are powerless, but hopefully, blissfully unaware.
BdR: While your book is definitely not a Life of Pi experience (to bring in some CanLit contrast), the big cat that opens your story almost allegorically stalks characters, especially Jaime, after it’s death. Why are animals such effective modes of allegory?
AS: Animals give us space to explore empathy in stranger, fleshier ways. I think we are more accepting of our brutal nature, our instincts for self-preservation—even love—when we’ve piped them into a beast. They provide us with avatars, ways to discuss the naïve and nasty parts of being a human who hates and wants and needs and lusts. They are totems and they are tools to express a lot of what we see as unsafe, unwanted and untenable in day-to-day life. I think my friend Laura Clarke’s poetry collection, Decline of the Animal Kingdom, offers the best recent representation of these ideas. She’s wise in all the right ways. I’ve got lions and bears, she’s got killer whales, wolves, and donkeys. A real cornucopia of flesh-eaters and impotence. From Clarke’s poem, “If I Were a Killer Whale”: Like the killer whale, I don’t want to eat your arm. I just want to take it away from you. Nature doesn’t have much remorse. It is there and then it isn’t anymore. Life is exposed as cyclical, vicious and unknowable. An animal’s life is harshly defined by circumstance, by resources, by the population around it. Which is really how the world works for most people. Circumstance. Nature does not care about any of this. And it will outlast us all in one form or another.
BdR: Would you ever write a book or story with animal characters?
AS: I want to say no, but Barbara Gowdy pulled it off with The White Bone, so anything is possible. She’s written some of my favourite books in CanLit (We So Seldom Look On Love, Helpless) so I can’t totally write it off. And I do have a lot of love for Watership Down and The Secret of NIMH. There are whole worlds and universes to be explored with animals and fresh ways to approach ideas of faith, belief, permanence and death within an alien context. The idea of rabbits as some sort of eternal victim, always fleeing, always prey, that’s something only a book like Watership Down could really achieve, and yet it’s still appallingly applicable in a human context. We deserve our own Black Rabbit of Inlé, a long-eared reaper of lost souls.
BdR: In your interview with the Globe and Mail you say: “I think we sometimes oversimplify Canada into metropolises—like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary—and then small towns … When in reality we have Windsor, London, Hamilton, Peterborough. I think it’s where a lot of the people live that no one ever talks about. It’s the forgotten spots.” What about a medium-sized city speaks to you on a dramatic or narrative level? Do smaller settings feel too constricted and mega-cities too irreducible? Or is it less a question of size and more about a particular aesthetic the Windsors and Kitcheners share, or used to share?
AS: The aesthetic definitely comes first, these are places that have taken a beating in the last 20 or 30 years, but the size does matter too. These are places just big enough to get lost in, places where you don’t know everyone, but that are not totally anonymous. Places where rumour and mystery can thrive, where you only ever get half the story before someone stumbles out of the bar and into the gutter or a cop car waiting outside with the back door open. It’s a place where a lot of things might be true, but probably aren’t, and I feel comfortable writing stories in those places. Toronto is an anxious place. If there is article about world-class cities coming out, you can feel the sphincter of the whole city tighten up. Waiting to be something, begging to be something isn’t too much fun. The smaller cities, they seem to know what they are, or accept it for the most part. They are places where people are trying to get by. Their myths are not written yet, or not set in stone. They have room for something that might have happened, could have happened. When you get smaller than that, it really becomes about history, family, legacy, etc. I want to write about a very small place in the future, but that’ll probably be a very claustrophobic, spooky book. Iain Reed probably has the best handle on small town, rural Ontario out there. People should really check out I’m Thinking of Ending Things when it blows the doors off every joint in town in June this year.
BdR: Your list of medium cities includes only Ontarian cities. Is there something Ontarian about this aesthetic?
AS: In Ontario, a city of over 100,000 people is nothing. It wouldn’t even register as much of a city to anybody. It’s unremarkable. I don’t know if that applies in every other province, but that’s how it often feels here. And even so, that’s still a lot of people sharing the same resources, living all together and yet distanced from each other. You don’t need to be in the big metropolis or a tiny rural community to feel isolated. You just need to make enough wrong turns driving home. And I think we have a lot of post-industrial neighbourhoods in our cities, places that haven’t been put to use, places that might still be too toxic to belong to anyone yet or again. There’s a lot of space between the warehouse and the farm. Also, outside Toronto, Ontario is weird. It’s a very conservative place. It’s a quietly forceful, rigid place that has no problem exiling its weirdos when it needs to do so. It’s easy to lump everyone into one group in Ontario, but there is a lot of quiet chaos here under the surface. And it’s only going to get stranger. We’ve got a lot of regions somewhere between a Rust Belt and a city-state fighting for control over who counts, who votes, who gets to benefit at the end of the day. There are a lot of tectonic plates shifting under the surface and some people will fall through the cracks. And we’ll say they should have watched their step.
BdR: I read Bad Things Happen by Kris Bertin last month, and, while you both have distinct voices, I couldn’t help but notice some shared concerns between his book and WASTE. Violence, crime, waste, addiction—and the quotidian ubiquity of these things—appear in both. You both focus on working class characters. You each have a knack for terse and worldly dialogue. The architecture of urban decay figures in both of your fictions. Presuming you’ve read some of his work, do feel you an affinity?
AS: I admire Kris’ work. He truly treats it like a craft and a vocation. He has a lot more respect for his readers than I do, I think. He is an extremely patient writer and he’s able to evoke a lot without using too many words. I think the discipline he shows in his craft and the high standards he sets for himself would serve well for a lot of young writers—you don’t have to publish every single thing you write. And even if you like something, it may still deserve to burn. A lot of stories were cut from Bad Things Happen and what we have leftover is a cohesive, empathetic, wryly observed debut collection to throw at your neighbour in the middle of the night. If Kris and I are doing anything similar, it’s writing stories about damage and recovery, about dismantling a misguided quest for masculinity or whatever is standing in for it. I think working class often gets thrown up as a signifier of truth or realness, but working class to me has always meant the best bullshitters, the most dedicated, pathological liars, wannabes and try-hards. And they all mean their best by it. They want you to love them. They tell tall tales not to be believed, but to be listened to for five minutes if they can. There is no honour in the day-to-day grind, but there is a recognition that you don’t matter. And it’s up to you to care for yourself when no one else will. That’s good to learn early when you start writing. Make someone care, somewhere.
BdR: Do you feel akin to any other contemporary authors in your aesthetic concerns?
AS: I try to read widely, so I consume a lot of stuff that’s unrelated to my own work. I am excited to engage with voices that offer me a new perspective and that undermine my own assumptions about what story can do or what narrative can do or the limits of empathy that exist out there. I do think there are quite a few writers delving into my own concerns, including Alissa Nutting, Tamara Faith Berger, Dorothy Allison, and Richard Price’s work, a broken realism with a lot of dirt in the filter, a few scratches on the lens, something uncomfortable, bodies sprawled all over the place. And there is a lot of posturing out there in the writing world about grit and masculinity and what is supposed to matter—it doesn’t matter, I guess. Not in a negative sense though. That sensation should be freeing—there isn’t a limit, just a vast expanse to fill. And I think there are a lot of exciting writers out there doing those things, Colin Winette’s Haints Stay, Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, and Canadians writing their own weird little worlds like Doretta Lau in How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank The Sun? and Jon Chan Simpson’s Chinkstar. I don’t write anything like them, but there’s a push for something stranger in CanLit that I want to see flourish.
BdR: Examples of dysfunctional parenting are all over this book. Many parents leave town. Some die early. Many like Elvira Moon, Gail Vine, Mrs. Singh, Old Mrs. Wugg, and Francis Paul Garrison are lastingly maimed (even killed) by neglectful circumstances or accidents. What have you got against parents? More seriously, is all the parent maiming a comment on how family and parents are not enough to protect a person, that a functional society needs more than the spotty care of vague genetic cloisters to get by and along?
AS: I really do believe WASTE is primarily a novel about family and what happens when it fails, how people try to build a new family out of whatever they can find. In the case of Larkhill, it’s also about how the failure of a community can lead to the same destructive paths and situations. I think a family is what you make it, but without ties outside yourself and your kin, the circle doesn’t hold. You can’t have an unwilling circle. It doesn’t exist, or not for long at least. It’s ephemeral and caustic. WASTE in the end is about what we owe the people in our lives, what we owe the people who came before us, and what we owe the people we should protect. It’s about the gap between our empathy and our actions. It’s about the weight of an act that has no connection to community—this is where a selfish life leads you. I blame the latent Catholicism in my blood. Everything circles back.
BdR: Racism is central to your novel. Lead characters Moses, Logan, and B.Rex, especially bond over a mix of white power tropes like Nazism, anti-immigration smears, skinned heads etc. They vandalize a popular local black-owned barbershop in an early example of their burgeoning hate. Logan is distraught at learning he may have indigenous roots. A loving Sikh mother is brutally murdered. Was it hard to walk the fine line of dramatizing racial hatred in a way that realistically captured its awfulness? In our era of Idle No More and Black Lives Matter what does WASTE have to tell us about racism and white privilege?
AS: I wanted to examine characters who were already wrong, to poke and prod at their origins and where they came from, these people always come from somewhere, they aren’t born this way. They exist. Even the people you loathe still exist when they leave your mind, they aren’t all locked up somewhere safe away from you. I think it’s often convenient to stay in our bubbles where people share our beliefs, where our morals aren’t questioned, where we can continue to say we are good and just. But we aren’t. I wrote about frustrated, stupid, impotent boys lashing out at the world. I think we see a lot of those these days. I wanted to write about these leftovers, these fuckups and make them in to something human. Not humanize their crimes, but show them enacting their misguided will on others, often in a horrible, untenable fashion. And I also wanted to give their victims voices, to provide some pushback against these actions. It’s safer to say these acts don’t happen; it’s safer to condemn them and change nothing in the process. Racism is a vicious little cloud of hate that suffuses everything it touches, but it also doesn’t spring pre-formed from the ether. Not every racist has a handbook. We like to draw clear lines, but they don’t exist. White privilege is a vivid, very real, very powerful force, and it even keeps its saddest, smallest members in line. It’s the last thing to cling to when you have nothing. It’s the barricade you throw up to protect yourself, a hate that radiates outward instead of toward the home that’s actually on fire behind you. It’s the ties that bind you, but they also choke you when you’re the one dangling from the bottom rung.
BdR: Cultural critic Jeet Heer tweeted on April 7, 2016: “Canada is going to experience a harsh reckoning with racism soon, which will be painful because of obtuse myths of national innocence.” Is your portrayal of racism in WASTE at all a response to this burgeoning sense? More generally, is it part of a writer’s job to trim the fat off “obtuse myths of national innocence”?
AS: In Canada, we have a very deep closet to hide all our skeletons—the woods. Any time a Canadian wants to get righteous with America about its brutal history of racism, they should really pause and take a look at the current state of many First Nations communities, often isolated and alienated in remote regions across Canada, conveniently dismissed and out of sight. They should take a look in our prisons, in our mental health system, in our shelters. What does that representation look like? What patterns do you find? Canada apologizes. It retreats. It nods. It smiles. It tells you that it made a mistake. But it won’t remove the knife in your back. Canada tells you it was always there. WASTE definitely was an attempt to say these awful things do happen here. A few times, editors or readers would suggest setting the book in Michigan or Ohio, as if the violence might be a bit more palpable below the border. But it is here, and it is a daily thing. It’s small and vicious and banal, like I’ve said before. And it builds, it grows, especially when times are rough and when people are afraid. It’s an infection that leads to a fever. You can’t always reason with it. With WASTE, I wanted to change the pattern of CanLit, the endless reflection on past trauma, on the processing of historical violence, the retreat to Canada as a safer space from the rest of the world. I wanted something immediate, relentless and unfettered. This is not a remembering. This is not an apology. I wanted to expose the wound that we’ve bandaged with politeness, with distance, with time. It’s still seeping. And it’s not going to stop any time soon.
BdR: Pop culture references riff throughout the book. Iron Maiden, Don Henley & the Eagles, ZZ Top, and more make instrumental appearances. Some characters even look like or share names with classic rock stars. Others relate very personally to movie and television stars (Bill Murray & Bill Cosby), as well as fictional characters like Dr. Suess’ the Lorax and Falcor of The Neverending Story. Are our pop cultural obsessions increasingly parenting bad ideas about gender, love, and other essential components of our identities? Or are they simply luck-dragons to help lead us through a daily structure of struggles with poverty, addiction, abandonment, and bullying?
AS: I think I’ve got to fall into the luck-dragon camp. I think pop culture is more the symptom than the cause or the cure, I think it does offer a way to try and make sense of your life and build a community you feel connected to in some way. It’s a way to reach across the aisle to someone else and ask “Do you feel what I feel?” But it’s also not who we are. I think it’s a mistake to assume liking the same things can stand in for a relationship or any true affinity. A lot of fandoms actually turn me off of their beloved artist/TV show/author as I don’t feel as connected to the work as they do, or I draw something else from it. I may enjoy some Grateful Dead songs but I don’t want to spend a week with their fans. Pop culture pops up in the book to ground it in a way and to acknowledge this is a world very much like ours. It’s often strange to read fiction in the modern world that pretends something like TV never happened, but you can swing the other way too and turn pop culture into a crutch of easy references and knowing nods and smiles. It can get obnoxious. For WASTE, the pop culture references are there as flimsy tethers to an outside world, where the characters have some sort of way to ground themselves in the day to day. It’s frivolous and also deeply vital to their lives, it’s ridiculous and also painfully true depending on what day it is. There are Don Henleys out there who were never in The Eagles. Let’s all take a moment and say a prayer for them now.
BdR: The Wizard of Oz gets a lot of inter-textual play in WASTE (The lion, red-heart shoes, Kansas, the emerald city, etc.). Given the amount of dental destruction in the novel, you could almost say the yellow brick road to Oz-shwa is paved with broken teeth. Why does the modern myth of Oz appeal to you?
AS: Oz in this case was a way to tell the reader that this is a bit of a nightmare; this is the surreal version of home, after all the lights go out and someone says last call. Oz is a lie straight down the line—the wizard is barely holding on to the power he has cobbled together. And Dorothy has very little control over her fate too, yet she still has to deal with the circumstance she’s given. That house came down like a reckoning on the Wicked Witch of the East, and whether or not she meant it, Dorothy is on the hook for all the pain that comes with the justice she delivered. My motley bands of shithead, reprobates, and wannabes fits in with the crew Dorothy assembles, the heartless, brainless cowards who still band together as a makeshift family even when it’s possibly against their best interests. The Wizard of Oz is a quest, but the truth uncovered isn’t that comforting. The lie is still there. I wanted something mythic, something grander than a shitkicker town to stand in for the world of this story. What we do with these places is we make them grander, we paint them up into something worthy of a story. I’d say The Neverending Story is just as big a part of the book as Oz, another touchstone for my characters. The Nothing is coming for Larkhill. The Nothing comes from desperation, from brutality, from neglect and despair. And the scariest thing any villain ever said, at least in my books, was G’Mork, the wolf, when he described the Nothing to his prey, Atreyu: “It’s the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.” And I have been trying to help it. Goddamn.
BdR: A recent interview in The Fiddlehead cites your interest in cinema. Was David Lynch’s subliminal use of Oz in films like Wild at Heart and Mullholland Drive at all influential?
AS: I can’t say the Oz references in those two directly influenced WASTE, I was just mainlining the primary text when it comes to The Wizard of Oz. Lynch’s Blue Velvet still had the largest effect of all his films, a sense of dread and foreboding permeating everything. Although some responses to WASTE have pitched the novel as dirty realism, it can be a pretty fantastical, surreal journey. It’s got the elements of a quest narrative, but it’s got this endless dysfunction. I wanted to have signals in there for the reader, but I also wasn’t going to make it a pure allegory, matching sign to signifier up and down the street. Lynch is not making puzzles, and I think that’s where our sensibilities align. You don’t need to figure it out. The mood and the atmosphere of the work can carry a lot of the meaning. There is no right answer. Engaging with a book or a film or a piece of art is not supposed to be a test. You do not receive a prize for figuring it out. I also think that’s what has made Lynch’s work last; it remains a conversation, not a statement. Something like Twin Peaks doesn’t resist discussion; it reveals our own assumptions and prejudices.
BdR: If WASTE were made into a film, who’d be best to direct it?
AS: Of all the living, currently available directors, I’d love to see Ben Wheatley take a swing at it. I am a huge fan of his cult film Kill List and I think a lot of his work resists easy interpretation on the first viewing. He’s shown a great capacity for action and brutality in films like Down Terrace and A Field in England. He’s willing to make his audience uncomfortable, to make them second guess what they just saw. I saw his most recent film High-Rise (an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s brutal, hilarious novel) at TIFF last year and it was everything I’d want from a movie about societal collapse inside a condo building. The goal would be to get as many Stevie Nicks and ABBA covers on the soundtrack as possible, remaining mindful of budgetary concerns. And then we’d have to get Disasterpiece (It Follows) to handle the rest of the score.
BdR: Is there anything about your book that you’ve wanted to discuss, but always goes unmentioned?
AS: The baseball card stuff and Pittsburgh Pirate trivia the Lorax spouts during his final scenes. I spent a lot of time getting those dates and stats right, but at least my one baseball editor friend noticed. So it’s good to know it wasn’t all in vain. We remain tethered to the pop culture that gets us through the day, and that includes sports. Baseball provides a link to a greater community for some people. For about half the year, there is a game on every day. It’s the heartbeat of a lazy summer. It’s a reminder of how cold the winter truly gets. Everybody fails eventually. No streak goes unbroken. You will fall. You will make a mistake. And then you will go out and do it again. And again. WASTE understands that. Go Pirates!
BdR: Will your next book feature as much pus?
AS: Probably more, to be honest. Someone’s gotta keep waving that Cronenberg flag north of the border. Long live the old pus. May the wound always overflow.
April 20, 2016, CNQ Web Exclusive