Ten Questions, with Suzette Mayr

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Suzette Mayr

Suzette Mayr talks to Open Book about the benefits of taking — and teaching — Creative Writing classes, the challenges of writing a novel about teen suicide and the difficult experience that compelled her to write Monoceros (Coach House Books), a tragicomic novel about the suicide of a gay high school student told from the perspectives of his acquaintances and friends.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel Monoceros.

Suzette Mayr:

Monoceros is a tragicomic novel about the after-effects of the suicide of a 17-year-old high school student. The 17-year-old kills himself partly because he was bullied for being gay, and as a result many people who knew him when he was alive — his parents, his secret boyfriend, his English teacher, his closeted male guidance counselor, a girl in his English class — feel terrible grief and guilt about the death and their indifference toward him when he was alive.

OB:

What made you decide to take on the challenge of writing a novel about teen suicide?

SM:

The novel came into being because my partner was teaching in a Catholic high school several years ago where a Grade 12 student killed himself after being bullied at school for being gay. My partner never taught him and didn’t know him very well, but it created tremendous emotional turmoil for her because she was a closeted lesbian in an environment hostile to queer people, and here was a young gay man killing himself because of this in-school, Catholic Board of Education-sanctioned hostility towards queer people that she was also finding very challenging.

The student’s death was just the last straw for her. Her grief about his death and her later decision to quit teaching in order to dedicate herself to activist work by going back to graduate school was a big change in our household. In the meantime, I found that I just couldn’t write about anything else anymore. Everything else I tried to write just seemed so trivial and beside the point.

OB:

Monoceros is told from the perspectives of various characters in the book. Why did you choose this approach?

SM:

I wanted this novel to be different from other novels about suicide or trauma. Most books in this suicide or trauma genre usually revolve around the victim and someone very close to the victim, like the sister of the dead man in Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering, or the family of the murdered protagonist in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, for example. I wanted to show that a tragedy of this nature doesn’t just affect the victim and immediate family or spouse/partner of the victim — a death of this kind ripples outward and touches all kinds of people in serious and lasting ways.

In a way I modeled the kinds of characters who appear in the book on my partner and me and our relationship to the real-life death. Neither of us knew the student who died in my partner’s school, but it definitely impacted us. I felt I needed to have a large and sprawling cast of characters who could all equally get their say in order to show what effects this kind of death can have.

OB:

Is there a character in the novel who looms larger in your imagination than the others?

SM:

I am still really attached to Walter, the closeted guidance counselor. Sometimes I miss visiting with him. He was one of the very first characters to appear when I started writing the book eight years ago, so I’ve known him a long time, and it was really, really important that he be as rounded and complex as I could make him because he is a central character.

He originally started out as very handsome and physically fit, and he played hockey in his spare time, but he was ridiculously boring and had no depth whatsoever. Then one afternoon I was riding the green-line subway in Toronto during a visit with my family, and I saw this chubby-ish guy with a goatee and wearing a purple toque sit down kitty-corner to me across the subway aisle. I thought, Oh my god, it’s Walter. So suddenly my Walter sprouted facial hair and gained about 100 pounds — physically he became a lot more teddy bear-ish — and the character opened right up, gaining a lot more vulnerability partly because of his self-consciousness about his weight.

I think Walter as he is now in the book is very kind-hearted and generous, but for much of his life he hasn’t been allowed to express this kindness because of his closeted status at his job as a guidance counselor in his school and because he isn’t out to his father. He is a person who delights in sharing and being social and he is a natural at these things, but he isn’t allowed to be himself because if he does he’ll be outed and fired from his job, and maybe jeopardize his relationship with his remaining parent.

OB:

How did the experience of writing Monoceros compare to the writing of any of your previous three novels?

SM:

This book was hard hard hard. Holy crap, I’m still burned out. I think it’s because I was working with the largest cast of main characters I’ve ever forced myself to deal with, and the topic was just so sad. I’ve never written about tragedy before, and tend to gravitate more towards the comic. I cried a lot while writing this book, and because I was also writing a quasi-comedy about suicide I didn’t want to come off as flippant. Also, in the past the plots of my books have been generated by isolated ideas for characters, or me fiddling around with image and language completely divorced from character and plot.

Generally I’m most comfortable with working with random images and phrases, then finding character, then last of all finding the “story" or plot. With Monoceros I was obligated to start with the plot, and then had to find characters to fit the plot. And in the meantime it was easier just to work with dull, serviceable language because I needed to fit plot and characters together before I could think about language and image. It was very challenging and sometimes I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it — it was like trying to put a foundation under a house that’s already been built. Or even worse: having a completed roof, and then trying to build a house underneath it.

OB:

How does your work in the Creative Writing department of the University of Calgary influence you as a writer?

SM:

Because of my job I’m always exposed to young people and the things they want to read and/or do in their spare time. I’ve had to read books I never would have encountered on my own because they aren’t necessarily “literary” — writers like Chuck Palahniuk and Haruki Murakami. Now I’m being exposed to a lot of writing that taps into gaming culture and electronic media. It’s really good for me because if I want to be a good teacher I have to be flexible, I can’t be snobby about what I’m prepared to read and I have to try to understand where a student might be coming from. It keeps my writing muscles limber.

OB:

Is a Creative Writing degree a good way to get a start as a writer these days?

SM:

A creative writing degree is a good credential if you want to have the option of teaching creative writing somewhere down the road — which a lot of writers do to pay the bills — but it’s not necessary to get a degree if you want to be a writer. I would say though that it’s really useful to maybe take a course or several in creative writing — a course will give you deadlines and an extra push to finish work; it will thicken your skin in terms of having to hear people sometimes respond negatively to your work (in much the same way an editor or reviewer will respond to your work); and a class will help you become a more objective reader of your own work and others’ work.

Classes are also good because in reading other students’ work you get to figure out what mistakes a writer can make without having to make those mistakes yourself first. Courses also enable connections with other writers and a writing community — I’m still writing buddies with several people I met in creative writing classes I took over 20 years ago, and I’ve met other writers in classes and eventually had occasional publication opportunities because of these contacts. It’s important, though, that you find a good teacher who isn’t overly egotistical and who doesn’t have their head up their ass — that can be lethal.

All that said, there are many successful writers who’ve never taken classes and obviously do just fine. Every writer has a "teacher" of some kind though, whether it’s someone who’s a writing mentor, or a favourite book or books that a writer might feel inclined to return to again and again in order to figure out the craft of writing.

OB:

What excites you about Canada's emerging writers?

SM:

Writers like Joey Comeau and Lisa Foad really excite me because their work shows a freedom and fearlessness in their representations of non-heteronormative sexuality, but the writing is still well-crafted. That said, it’s hard to know where to find the exciting writing — there’s so much crap you have to wade through to get to it. And I’m dismayed at how it’s only in the small presses who don’t have a lot of resources for getting their publications known and recognized that the really innovative stuff is being produced. We’re in such a tricky, dangerous time regarding the publication of books — I’m worried that the independent bookstores and smaller, interesting presses will get snuffed out for good by the Amazon monster and all the ebook hysteria.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

SM:

Holes by Louis Sachar. I’m on a Young Adult lit kick right now.

OB:

What will your next writing project be?

SM:

If only I knew. Like I said, Monoceros has left me sort of exhausted. I enrolled in an introductory playwriting course last year and I really enjoyed how different playwriting is from writing straight-forward fiction. With a play you have to get to the point a lot more quickly, and everything is just a lot more bald compared to writing a novel. My dream is to write a full-length play someday and have it produced.


Suzette Mayr is the author of three previous novels: Moon Honey, The Widows and Venous Hum. The Widows was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Canada-Caribbean region and has been translated into German. Moon Honey was shortlisted for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Best First Book and Best Novel Awards. Suzette Mayr lives and works in Calgary. Find out more at suzettemayr.com.

For more information about Monoceros please visit the Coach House Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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