Nathan Whitlock’s second novel, Congratulations on Everything (ECW), is a Cheers-meets-The-Office styled dark comedy that, according to the dust jacket, “tracks the struggles, frailties, and cruelly pyrrhic victories of the middle-aged owner of a bar-restaurant and a 30ish lunch-shift waitress.” A well-known critic and editor whose writing has appeared in every Canadian magazine and newspaper of note, Whitlock’s first novel was A Week of This (ECW, 2008).
Brad de Roo: Your previous novel A Week of This had a time frame of seven days. Congratulations of Everything unfolds over many years. Has anything about your conception of time changed over the intervening years?
Nathan Whitlock: I think my conception of everything has changed since then. I gave A Week of This that time frame because I thought it would make my job easier: I could simply pour the story sauce into day-sized chapter holes. For the most part, it worked, but I gradually realized I prefer to go off on tangents and to skip around – to use a looser and more emotionally or thematically driven chronology. I got restless keeping everything to one week, and was determined not to fence myself in this time.
BdR: Did the different temporal limits present different challenges in character development? What about in outlining plot, describing setting, and building suspense?
NW: Not worrying about a straightforward time-frame gave me a lot of freedom to spin things out as long as I wanted, to go on long digressions, but it turned out to be too much freedom. I wasted a lot of time writing long sections that outlined the back stories of minor characters, some of whom later got cut entirely from the book. I have massively long scenes and sections in my delete bin. I’ll probably recycle as much as I can out of them, but for now they sit there mocking me for all that wasted time.
I should note that in the novel I am currently working on, the chronology is much more straightforward, so clearly I got all that freedom out of my system.
Building suspense: ha.
BdR: You laugh, but this book had its suspense. Maybe I don’t watch enough action films anymore, but don’t life’s quotidian suspenses count?
NW: They do, of course. I just don’t want to be accused of false advertising. This book is all about the suspense of finding out how badly these people mess things up.
BdR: At risk of pushing too much direct comparison between your two novels, did you note any enduring concerns that surprised you?
NW: I think of my first book as a kind of lo-fi bedroom demo tape. It was a semi-conscious attempt to write an entire book in a single emotional register, and a particularly grey and drab one. Why did I want to do that? Ask 2006 me. I think it was some kind of puritan self-punishment or test or something. This time, as with the time-frame stuff, I allowed myself to be freer with tone and to be funnier – just throwing things in because I thought they were funny was a massive relief. Congratulations On Everything felt like a very different book while I was writing it, and I think it is, though now that I look at it as a finished thing, I can see a lot of similarities – people in bad relationships, people who mistake passivity for integrity, people who pursue dreams they are maybe not suited to achieve. All those sexy things.
I also seem to be obsessed with the idea of people owning their own small businesses, and who are struggling to stay afloat. I once read a passage (from my first book) about struggling to keep a business afloat in a bookstore in Owen Sound. It got the biggest laugh from the owner of the store – she was almost in tears. She closed the place a few months later.
BdR: I was sorry to learn that you’ve been ill. How has this affected your writing? Are vestiges of the experience turning up in your new work?
NW: I got diagnosed with throat cancer a few months ago, after the book had already gone to press, thank god. It’s a fairly recent development, and I’m still right in the worst of it, so the long view hasn’t really hit me yet. For the moment, the biggest effect it’s had on my writing is to mostly stop it dead for a while. I’m in the middle of working on a new novel – a comedy about cancer. Not even kidding. I’ve been working on it on and off for more than a year, so this current struggle is either the result of bad karma or a way to get a lot of first-hand research.
BdR: What’s it like to be preparing for a release amidst illness?
NW: A lot like rehearsing a play on the deck of ship that just hit an iceberg.
BdR: Twitter tells me you’ve been catching up on Terminator films in recovery? Is there any Terminator-inspired fiction in your future?
NW: Probably not, but I could now deliver a TED talk on what why all the sequels were terrible.
BdR: The food/bar service industry is described with biting yet loving detail in Congratulations on Everything. The problems, parties, regulars, struggles, spills, stains, and somewhat happenstance romances and friendships of this line of work are intimately addressed. How did you enter into this world so thoroughly? Did you spend a lot of time getting drunk as research or buying appetizers as an excuse to listen in?
NW: I worked for a number of years in my late teens and early 20s in hotels and restaurants, and finished out my undistinguished service industry career as the manager of two bar-restaurants at the same time. I got the managing job at the exact time my first kid was born, which pushed me very close to a nervous breakdown, so getting my first office job was like being welcomed into some saner, cleaner realm of existence. It seemed like a miracle – my own chair? And my own desk? And nobody is yelling at me about cold food or late drinks? And I can go home while the sun is still out? Paradise.
BdR: Is there an Office Space or The Office-style novel forthcoming?
NW: Yes, and it’s called Congratulations On Everything. The Office (UK) looms large.
BdR: Does your dual-role of literary critic and writer ever make you like feel like an owner or manager who has to fill in at the bar or on tables more than you’d like? Or is it more like a sous-chef called on a day off to be head-cook? Does this role-fluidity ever make it difficult to criticize those working around you?
NW: I feel like my career as a reviewer (not sure I’d ever call myself a critic) is in a state of semi-retirement. I used to want to gobble up books and spout off opinions in print, but that desire has lessened a lot. I still review books fairly regularly, but with less of a sense of mission, and more a boring old desire to recommend good books whenever I happen to come across them. And when I can’t recommend the book under review, I say my bit with more disappointment than with a sense of “j’accuse!” There are books I know will get my blood boiling, but I try to avoid them, either because I know someone else will do a better job of saying why they are terrible, or because doing so can feel like shouting down a bottomless well, or because life is short.
BdR: Congratulations’ central character Jeremy lives for his bar the Ice Shack. He has worked towards it much of his life. He feels more at home here than his actual home. Do you have an Ice Shack of your own, whether in bar-form or metaphorically?
NW: Remember what I said earlier about how I seem to be drawn to writing about people who pursue dreams they are maybe not suited to achieve? In my case, substitute “owning a bar” with “writing literary novels.”
BdR: Congratulations on Everything is filled with the teachings of a fictional self-help star named Theo Hendra. Each chapter is headed with vague chestnuts from his motivational corpus. Jeremy often cites Hendra’s teachings as essential to his business practices and overall view of life. Has anything like Hendra’s writing ever given you comfort?
NW: I skimmed a couple of Tony Robbins books to get a feel for the particular flavour of snake oil I wanted Hendra to be peddling. I’d never read the stuff, and I wanted it to sound authentic. Honestly, a little of it goes a long way – I probably read about a chapter and half in total of Robbins’s work, plus even less of a few other biggies.
BdR: How are fiction and self-help different? Do they share any strategies or characteristics?
NW: Good fiction is supposed to be at least a little unsettling, and self-help is supposed to be reassuring, but obviously a lot of fiction strays over the border into self-help territory. Not sure of any self-help strays the other way, though – Find Your Axe: How to Chop Through the Frozen Sea Within You!
BdR: Did you find yourself imagining deeper into Hendra’s fictional texts than the excerpts provided?
NW: I didn’t – that was one area where I didn’t go on long digressions. Getting those little quotes to work was hard enough. I scrapped a lot of them along the way. Even right to the absolute last minute I was tweaking those. I worked hard to make them funny in context, yet entirely plausible – even reasonable.
BdR: Love and romantic relationships are dramatized in very stark and unresolved/maybe unresolvable terms. Whether we are learning about all of Jeremy’s past relationships, or sitting down to dinner with his sister Marie and her husband Brian, or going to the cottage with Charlene the server and her very serious partner Kyle, love is very often at odds. Is your, in my mind, very realistic depiction of relationships in response to any trends in literary depictions of love? Is there something about mixed feelings here that helps define people – whether fictional characters or real?
NW: No idea in terms of literary trends. If anything, most of the books I read – old and new – are even more pessimistic about relationships than I am. Compared to, say, Elena Ferrante, I am Leo Buscaglia or a Pixar movie. I actually tried not to be completely scorched-earth about love and romance in this one – there are signs of hope scattered in there, and a few genuinely strong relationships. The fact that I’ve been in one of those for a while helps.
BdR: Though centered mostly on Jeremy, Congratulations ends with the carefully expectant thoughts of Charlene a thirty-something server. Something about this narrative shift hinted towards a feministic optimism to me. Would I be wrong to highlight this feeling?
NW: I wanted the book to shift in the last act, and for the point of view to change. I also think there is a strong hint of optimism in Charlene’s situation and her outlook, but at the same time, I also made sure to include a scene with another character that kind of undercuts her optimism. I didn’t want an outright ‘walking out into the clean, clear sunlight’ moment – there needed to be some acknowledgement of all the wreckage that has occurred throughout the book.
BdR: Keys and doors are repeating motifs. Jeremy keeps a belt of keys around his belly at all times. Doors left open or unlocked have character and plot significance. Are you studying to be a semiotic locksmith on the side? What about keys and their doors is symbolically handy?
NW: The symbolic handiness I can’t really speak to, but they are certainly narratively convenient.
BdR: I found this book very funny. Besides sometimes reflecting on keys and doors, where do you go for humour?
NW: I am very happy you found it funny – honestly. It’s probably the first response I want people to have. It’s not Stuart McLean-laugh-with-your-mouth-closed funny, I hope, but the humour is a big part of it. For myself, I go to: Louis CK, Veep, Edgar Wright films, early Mike Leigh, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Lydia Davis, Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Munro, Twitter. All the usual places.
BdR: I’m glad you think Alice Munro is funny. I’m with you. Most of my friends who care disagree. They find her somewhat stodgy… She’d probably do well on Twitter.
NW: She’s too smart for Twitter, and her humour is more of a cumulative effect – it’d be hard to point out more than a few lines that are “funny” on their own. She turns the knife very, very slowly, but she definitely turns it all the way.
BdR: Congratulations on everything! Was there anything I missed?
NW: Thanks. Only that there is a brief reference to rock legend Ronnie Hawkins in the book, and I feel I should note that I’ve met the man twice, sat for hours in his living room, and broke his paddle boat.
BdR: Too much rock at the dock?
NW: It was an innocent mistake.
May 2, 2016, CNQ Web Exclusive