On Writing, with Spencer Gordon
Toronto editor and publisher Spencer Gordon is on the other side of the editorial equation this season with his literary debut, Cosmo (Coach House Books). Cosmo is a collection of short fiction featuring characters that range from a dinosaur suit-clad porn star to an impassioned Miley Cyrus fan to a soul-searching Matthew McConaughey, all in stories that will leave "your mouth agape with voyeuristic thrill."
Spencer talks to Open Book today about his first collection, pop culture and the short story.
Tell us about your book, Cosmo.
Cosmo is a collection of markedly different types of short stories, written in piecemeal fashion over the past few years. Each story is actively different in subject matter, tone and style. There are some very conventional pieces and some weirder voices and intermissions. That makes summing it up rather difficult. Accordingly, our first and best attempt to unify the pieces was to latch on to the pop culture and celebrity references: human drama played out on contemporary, media-saturated settings. Fun for the kids!
But not all the stories are actually about celebrities, and not all are even that poppy. In fact, putting aside all the fun pop culture stuff, the stuff that normally piques people’s interest — e.g., Matthew McConaughey, Miley Cyrus, Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff, Leonard Cohen, Miss USA 2008, SUBWAY and ICQ and the old WWF and so forth — Cosmo can be a pretty bleak book. Every character is lonely or isolated or delusional, and sometimes all at once. While the collection was developing, I was experimenting constantly, trying to find new and exciting ways to write (and without much organizational focus), but I kept reverting to this basic setup: angst-ridden interiority, an inability to connect, oblivious egos, depressing prognoses. Buckets of dread.
What happened between those early days and the final ten stories you see in Cosmo — apart from the standard tightening and improvements of time and labour — is a general lightening-up. A general embrace of zaniness and of my own sense of humour. Not all of the stories are funny, but not all are as awfully bleak as they used to be. That marriage between depression, humour, and pop culture/celebrity seemed an inevitable one, and even in their outward disparity, I think the stories now hum together quite nicely, creating something more than the sum of their parts. It’s a candy-coated gleam on a so-depressed-he’s-silly narcissist. It’s Camus meets Chamillionaire, as Coach House’s Evan Munday once wrote. And it's got enough variety to keep the modes in constant, winking flux.
Several celebrities turn up in the pages of Cosmo, directly and indirectly. What are your feelings about pop culture and how did you find the experience of writing these people into your narratives?
“Pop culture” might be too broad a designation for me to have specific feelings about. Academics have strong feelings (in the way that I think you mean) about pop culture; the majority of the world simply enjoys or despises its offerings (and when haters be hatin’, they do so with glee and abandon). Not to sound flippant, but I enjoy some pop movies and television shows and music, and others not so much, just like 99 percent of the planet. And like all artists, I want to take inspiration from as many diverse sources as possible.
I do have strong/insane feelings about literature, though. And injecting celebrity characters and a host of pop (some might say ‘trash’) culture references into my narratives — and coupling these people/references with sometimes anachronistic and baroque writing, as is done in Cosmo — is my first response to our contemporary fiction situation here in Canada. I am not interested in ‘celebrating’ anything, or waging class war, or slinging mud. I am interested in being a realist, despite what is hailed and awarded as realism in this country.
Writing famous names into Cosmo was extremely gratifying. It required a considerable amount of research at times, but nothing onerous (save for one story; see if you can guess which!). More can be said about this, but let’s leave off by meditating on this question: what is the difference (literal, ontological, etc.) between the celebrities in my book and the non-celebrity characters in my (or any) book?
What drew you to the short story as a form? What, in your opinion, makes a great piece of short fiction?
My own path to the short story was one of tempering. As a young velociraptor, my ideas found their natural expression as bad novellas: too shaky/ill-devised to be novels and too ambitious to be shorties. So it was a process of trimming and carving those middle-sized ideas into shorter, punchier bursts. There are a few B-sides I’d maybe like to fiddle with (one in particular starring Ross Gellar from Friends [and yes, I mean Ross, not that lout David Schwimmer]), but for the most part, I’m done. On to longer, more soul-destroying work.
I don’t know what makes a great piece of short fiction. When I read, I’m either gnawing on my arm with despair or hooting with joy. When something is exciting, there is always a particular, piece-dependent reason, be it voice, characterization, pacing, theme, or whatever. So no simple formulas, sadly. Oh wait, yes there is — go get drunk and wake up early the next morning with a wicked hangover. Then go find a quiet place and read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, not stopping until you’re finished. Then watch LOL, starring Demi Moore and Miley Cyrus. Then you will be ready for the next step.
You’re an editor and publisher in your own right. How do you balance that work with your writing?
At this stage of my life, my writing gets the back seat. I teach at Humber and OCAD and these sentences take up a lot of time. As have the edits and other ephemera for Cosmo, which co-starred Alana Wilcox. Editing and corresponding and formatting for The Puritan and for Ferno House fills up the remainder of the time that I’m not sleeping or running errands or just sobbing, being held by my partner. So there is very little balance, per se. I imagine a glorious future life wherein I can write every day, for wild and anguishing bouts, and not worry about marking or money or other debts. But this is the golden dream of those who toil in poverty and financial uncertainty (unlike most Canadian writers, who have their own clothing lines and running shoes). I am writing, though (see below).
What are some short fiction collections you’ve read recently that have really knocked your socks off?
Can we consider Lynn Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything a short story collection? Maybe it’s a novel, maybe a memoir. Regardless of genre, the book held me in its utterly original and stunningly sad voice for what felt like the entire spring. It was a transformative reading experience: it changed the way I looked at the world, however briefly, and that’s a sign of an incredible book. Other recent collections of interest? Mad Hope by Heather Birrell, The Divinity Gene by Matthew Trafford, Hot Pink by Adam Levin, Better Living through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner, Ravenna Gets by Tony Burgess (another borderline ‘collection’). In the last year or so? Anything by George Saunders or Douglas Glover. Two marvels. The feeling of losing my socks (or having them clean knocked off), though, is increasingly rare …