News and Interviews

Stuart Ross on Experimental Novels, Big Ideas in Short Word Counts, & Juggling Multiple Projects

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Stuart Ross' contributions to the Canadian literary scene are almost too lengthy to list. From his staggering 20 books of acclaimed writing in multiple genres to his work as part of the small press scene and as an editor and teacher (and did we mention his hugely popular weekly book event listing enewsletter?), Ross seems to have boundless energy for all things literary.  

His latest contribution is the brilliantly innovative novel Pockets (ECW Press). Surreal and fragmented and narrated by a nameless speaker, the book peels back the layers of a 1960s Toronto suburb. Personal and moving, poetic and powerful, the narrative unfolds in short sections echoing the title - pockets, so to speak, of story. 

We're thrilled to welcome Stuart to Open Book today to talk about Pockets. He tells us about the 1972 novel that inspired Pockets, how a 5,500 word book can pack a wallop, and having 11 manuscripts on the go. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Stuart Ross:

My tiny novel, Pockets, was inspired by a brilliant experimental novel by Toby MacLennan called 1 Walked out of 2 and Forgot It, from the legendary Something Else Press. I first read when I was a teenager, a few years after its 1972 publication. It blew me away, and I read it over and over when I was in high school. Reading it again a couple years ago, I discovered it had lost none of its magic, and there was more for me in it, now that I was an adult. I decided to use it as a model for my own novel, which would be a kind of homage. I was intrigued by the collagey structure of Toby’s book and the fact that the chunks of text rested on the bottom of each page. And her brave and lovely embrace of enigma.

I also feel there are not enough experimental novels around. Tons of people experiment with poetry, but most fiction sounds like people want to win a GG. In fact, my editor at ECW — whose immediate acceptance of this book I am so grateful for — had wondered about publishing Pockets as a book of linked prose poems, but I was adamant that it would be a novel, and say “A Novel” on the cover, albeit a novel comprised of prose-poem “chapters” (or “pockets,” as one reader has called them). My friend Claire Dionne suggested this new form be called a “povel” or maybe a “novem.”

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

SR:

I had no questions when I started writing. I am sure there are central questions, and perhaps they differ for each reader. The main question was, when I began writing, could I finish the damn thing and write something I was happy with? But maybe, now that you’ve planted this idea, one central question might be, for me: are we, as adults, the same person we were when we were children?

OB:

Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

SR:

I hoped to write Pockets, as it came to be called, in a single day, but it took five days, spread out over three months. And then some tinkering later on, and the addition of a few more “pockets.” The book is about 5,500 words spread over 80 pages. To put it into perspective, it’s half the length of your average Derek McCormack novel! I had no intention but to write a tiny novel when I began: I just followed what was happening as I wrote — “attended” to the work, as the American poet Dean Young would say.

OB:

What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

SR:

Depending on what I’m writing, I need silence or maybe a noisy bar. I always write prose on a keyboard; it varies with poetry: pencil and lined paper or laptop. I’m trying to cut down on my neurotic eating while writing, but almonds are pretty essential. Really, I have no pattern, no schedule, no rituals, no Gillers.

OB:

What do you do if you’re feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

SR:

I almost always feel discouraged during the writing process, a process I mostly don’t enjoy. But I love having written something. So I just push myself if I’m mired in muck: what am I worth if I don’t write? Another strategy: put aside what I’m working on and start a new book (which is why I have 11 manuscripts on the go).

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

SR:

I’ll stick with novels, and I think the great ones define themselves. The author is bold or reckless enough to ignore current fashion and let the book be what it needs to be. There is no padding. The sentences are varied and excellent. The books are unpredictable. Toby MacLennan’s 1 Walked out of 2 and Forgot It is a great book. It is uncompromising and crazily evocative. Beautiful. On the other end of the size spectrum is Frederick Exley Jr.’s A Fan’s Notes, a sort of fictionalized memoir from 1968. It is sprawling, anarchic, funny, and painful. I mean, it’s about a football journalist and I hate sports and I loved this book. I’m going to squeeze in one more: Joko’s Anniversary, by Roland Topor, from 1970. Some guy gets eight people stuck on his back. Tragicomedy ensues. Written in quasi-play form, it’s insane and was another that inspired me as a teenager.

OB:

What are you working on now?

SR:

I always have a lot of projects on the go, as I mentioned above. I’m hoping to finish a poetry MS before year’s end: Motel of the Opposable Thumbs. Also, Ottawa poet Michael Dennis and I just wrapped up 122 collaborative poems, written over three years, that we’ll now need to sift through and edit. And I’m working on a book-length collaborative poem with Halifax poet Jaime Forsythe: I think we’re in year six and page thirty. There are also a few very short novels (though not as short as Pockets!), a story collection, a couple of non-fiction things, and other poetry projects. I’m doomed.

_____________________________

Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, and writing teacher living in Cobourg, Ontario. He is the acclaimed author of 20 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. His recent books include Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press, 2014), A Hamburger in a Gallery(DC Books, 2015), Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2015), and A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). He was shortlisted for the 2000 Trillium Book Award, won the 2010 ReLit Prize for Short Fiction for Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009), and his novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW Press, 2011) was co-winner of the 2012 Mona Elaine Adilman Award.

Related reading

Pockets

Brilliant experimental, surrealist fiction from the award-winning author of Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew

A wonderful dream and a horrific nightmare, a fuzzy consciousness of pain and family, Pockets is a novel of fragments — both literally and figuratively. In a series of prose-poem chapters, the nameless narrator, in a largely Jewish 1960s suburb in the northern reaches of Toronto, repeatedly enters the world, as if for the first time. His landscape is one of trilobite fossils, bicycles with banana seats, Red Skelton, and overwhelming loss. Among shadows that both comfort and threaten, a brother who drifts through the sky, he finds his narrative full of pockets of emptiness he can’t help but try to fill.

A heartbreakingly personal and profound work, Pockets redefines the novel, delivering infinite scope in something diminutive, pocket-sized. Every reading brings new revelations.