The Proust Questionnaire, with rob mclennan
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007–8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.
The Proust Questionnaire was not invented by Marcel Proust, but it was a much loved game by the French author and many of his contemporaries. The idea behind the questionnaire is that the answers are supposed to reveal the respondent's "true" nature.
What is your dream of happiness?
It would probably involve something involving far less worry. A cottage by the lake with my lovely with a writing studio with large library, a photography studio for her, a cat or two, a garden, naked babies playing in the yard. A new novel every two or three years. The options of good extended travel, the whole lot.
What is your idea of misery?
Not being able to do exactly what I'm doing right now. Probably some kind of 9–5 horror. I keep hearing complaints from my talented, brilliant, well-employed friends about all sorts of nonsense they have to put up with in their jobs, including bad middle management, general incompetence, gossip-mongering or idiot co-workers making their lives harder. I would rather stay clear of any of that. A huge waste of time.
Where would you like to live?
In a shared house with my lovely, wherever that might be. These days, the plans most often involve Toronto.
What qualities do you admire most in a man?
A quick wit. The ability to play along. Patience. Listening skills. Those Old Spice commercials.
What qualities do you admire most in a woman?
A quick wit. The ability to play along. Patience. Listening skills. Fierce intelligence, openness, engagement, odd humour, expressive talent, general brilliance. A kind of Lucille Ball/Drew Barrymore zaniness. Lovely eyes. All of which apply to my lovely partner.
What is your chief characteristic?
Attention. I think I'm very good at paying attention to a lot of things happening at the same time, whether books appearing in various corners, or people around me. I somehow manage to keep track of a large network of friends (although this always needs improvement). Some might say infinite patience. Others might even say optimism. Or even just the grey streak. It's what folk seem to remember the most.
What is your principal fault?
I don't always know what the hell is going on. And I haven't quite figured out how to make the big money.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I have a collection of over 8,000 comic books. Wednesday is comic day. Some might say the fact that I write full-time at all.
What faults in others are you most tolerant of?
Ranting. I think I'm a pretty good listener. Sometimes when general complaining gets out of hand, I can often temper. A release valve, you know.
What do you value most about your friends?
What characteristic do you dislike most in others?
Deliberate cruelty. Intolerance. Refusal to try to understand other points of view on their own terms.
What characteristic do you dislike most in yourself?
Sometimes I think I work too hard. Sometimes I think I don't work hard enough.
What is your favourite virtue?
Determination. Integrity. Benevolence.
What is your favourite occupation?
What, for myself or others? I don't really understand this question. I rather like what I'm able to do right now, which is full-time writing. But radio host might be fun, or acting (something I did very briefly in the early 1990s). Musician. I think I was pretty good at farming, despite not wanting to be part of any of it.
What would you like to be?
What is your favourite colour?
What is your favourite flower?
I remember really liking the trillium when I was younger; we had it growing wild in the bush across from the farmhouse.
What is your favourite bird?
Not sure if I have a favourite. We used to get the occasional blue jay at the birdfeeder on the homestead. Andy Weaver once gave me a pair of socks the colour of magpies.
What historical figure do you admire the most?
Elizabeth Smart was pretty brave. Raised four children by herself as a single mother in 1940s-era London. Or is that foolhardy? Whether or not she made good decisions is a whole other matter. David Thompson, explorer, is pretty interesting, despite losing track of the Canadian-American border during a four-day snow squall; who loses an entire country?
What character in history do you most dislike?
James II of England. The massacre at Glencoe was his fault, and then he got the Irish caught up in his nonsense. His foolishness cost many lives over many generations; to this day, there's an Orange parade through a Green area, celebrating William III's victory over James II's forces in Ireland, which cause regular mayhem. He had no business involving the Irish in a battle he'd already abandoned.
Who are your favourite prose authors?
Ken Sparling is probably my current favourite, and Alessandro Baricco; over the years, a list of favourite prose authors would include Dany Laferriere, Sheila Heti, David W. McFadden, Paul Auster, Sarah Manguso, Michael Ondaatje, Pasha Malla, Aritha van Herk, Daphne Marlatt, Roy Kiyooka, Jeanette Winterson, Timothy Findley, George Bowering, Ali Smith, Milan Kundera, Robert Kroetsch. There are probably others.
Who are your favourite poets?
Most of the poets that really excite me these days are American women, including Kathleen Fraser, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Elizabeth Robinson, Lisa Jarnot, Rachel Zucker. Others include Gil McElroy, George Bowering, John Newlove, nathalie stephens, Natalie Simpson, Barry McKinnon, Pearl Pirie, Robert Kroetsch, Rob Budde, Marcus McCann, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Suzanne Buffam, Lisa Robertson, Margaret Christakos, Monty Reid. There are stacks upon stacks of others.
Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?
Batman is pretty awesome. All ingenuity. Well, and bottomless reserves of cash.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My little sister has three children, ranging from two to seven, and she recently took them camping. That's pretty damned brave. And she hasn't been driven mad by any of them.
Who is your favourite painter?
I've always liked Greg Curnoe, David Hockney, Roy Kiyooka, Eliza Griffiths, Danny Hussey, Adrian Göllner. Although why limit art to painting? Attila Richard Lukacs, Henry Saxe, Joe Fafard, Frank Shebageget, Amy Thompson, Kenneth Emig, Dave Cooper. John Romita Jr.
Who is your favourite musician?
Chris Page's third album is great, and I've really enjoyed various things over the years by the Stars, Snow Patrol, Clannad, Metric, U2, The Donnas, Jim Bryson, Electric Six, Ron Sexsmith, Andy Stochansky. Does anyone remember The Neon Judgment? Deja Voodoo? Gogh Van Go? My teen years were all about Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Housemartins, Screaming Blue Messiahs. My daughter usually makes me a couple of cds a year with all sorts of songs new and old to keep me updated.
What is your favourite food?
Not sure. Many things. My lovely is making me more adventurous. I grew up with daily meat-and-potatoes with no variety. It sometimes gets hard to break out of that.
What is your favourite drink?
A nice pint of Guinness. Although there are the warm days when the finest tasting and most refreshing drink in the world is a cool glass of ice water.
What are your favourite names?
Mercedes. Duncan. Winona. Lainna.
What is it you most dislike?
Today, it would be construction noises that start hours before I plan to wake. At least it's how I woke up today. God-damn.
What natural talent would you most like to possess?
I am working my way up to getting back to piano. But I need a space to put one, and then the ability to get my piano from the farm. And then two years to re-enter. I took thirteen years of piano, but have barely touched one since the late 1980s. But I don't know about automatic natural talent; I think there are affinities people have, or even interests, that have to then be developed over an extended period. Some natural talents at investing sure would be useful.
How do you want to die?
Of natural causes at a very advanced age. I used to tell people I had to live to one hundred, because of all the things I think I need to accomplish. I've recently had to append that to one hundred and five, because I've been getting behind lately. Or, a fierce gun battle. Hah. So at least I'd have a fighting chance of not going at all. But, again, at a very advanced age. Give 'em hell!
What is your current state of mind?
It's the beginning of the work-day. All cylinders firing.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
My daughter, Kate. Although she probably wouldn't appreciate me trying to take credit. Or, simply the fact that after years of slow accomplishment, I am still here, engaged, creating and improving. Persistence?
What is your motto?
Be positive. Keep going. Don't sweat the small stuff. Outlive your critics.
Check back for more Proust Questionnaires with Canada's literati in this latest series of interviews on Open Book.