Malcolm Sutton wears many hats in the literary world — fiction editor, art writer, founder of a boundary-pushing literary magazine, and more. After publishing short fiction in outlets like Maisonneuve and Joyland, his first novel, Job Shadowing (BookThug), hit the shelves early this summer.
The book has been called a work of "pure, energizing imagination that speaks directly to our times" (Jacob Wren) and was described by Tamara Faith Berger as "a smooth art thriller in the tradition of Bolaño". The story of a couple drawn in opposite directions, Job Shadowing examines how 20th-Century habits, ideals, and relationship models are being challenged by our post-millennial world.
We're pleased to welcome Malcolm to Open Book today as part of our Lucky Seven series. He tells us about how bestselling self-help books of the '60s and '70s influenced Job Shadowing, his daily writing routine, and not finishing great books.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
I’ve been thinking about my own life in the wake of finishing a PhD about community in postmodern American novels. I’ve been thinking about work and unemployment, about the trajectory of my father’s academic career that spanned the 60s to the present. I’ve been thinking about fascinating projects my artist friends have been up to, and how they seem to embody a sense of freedom that I don’t see anywhere else in the world. How they do group work with a thoughtfulness towards true equality among participants. And I’ve been thinking about history, my place in the post-2008 economic crash, about how to conceive of oneself as a historical being. Job Shadowing is a novel that came out of the intersection of these kinds of experiences.
Is there a question that is central to your book?
There was a question from the beginning, though I doubt I could have articulated it back then. The question is about how one generation grows up viewing the life of their parents’ generation, and how their parents’ generation shapes expectations for the future. The opportunities of the Baby Boom generation (the generation I’m thinking of) were so different from those of their children. It’s impossible for someone to expect to have what their parents had, particularly when their parents lived in a time of such enormous wealth (in North America) — I believe this is what I’d been contemplating at the beginning of the process. But then the question became more complicated. One part of this book was a working through of the question of generational expectations in relation to employment, mobility, material accumulation. In the process of writing the book, a lot of other realities entered the question. Complications are so important for writing. Eventually I came to some answers for myself, and I find them kind of terrifying.
Did the book change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
I believe I read a small section at Readings at the Common about four years ago. The writing of this book belongs to a period in my life when I became fascinated by the Baby Boom generation, what books I saw on bookshelves when I was growing up. What the bestsellers were in the 60s and 70s and what those said about changes in North American zeitgeist. I began reading some of these books, like Future Shock and Scream Therapy and I’m OK — You’re OK. So the novel took a few years to write, and it absorbed many of my interests from that period.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I write in the morning, in Toronto cafés, with coffee, every day. I edit anytime, anywhere, because there is always the pressure of time with editing.
What do you do if you feel discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
If things aren’t working I tend to abandon a project.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
It changes all the time; there are plenty ways to describe a book into greatness. Some of the books that I would consider great are those I haven’t been able to finish, like Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936 and Can Xue’s Five Spice Street and Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil. I suppose those are books that are beyond my grasp. William Gass talked about these kinds of books as a permanent avant-garde, and Roland Barthes talked about them as texts of bliss (in contrast to texts of pleasure). There has to be something inedible in great works. They have to resist. They have to embody things beyond us. But then other great books operate in other ways. Some are great pedagogically (Fredric Jameson’s Brecht and Method), some for their articulation of a problem (Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation), some because their writers are just amazing people (Andy Warhol’s Philosophy of Andy Warhol), some because they open up a new space of thought (so many!).
What are you working on now?
A new novel, mostly I’m trying to visualize its shape and understand its themes. I want to do a lot of things, but I also know I need to limit the scope of it, exploit a few stylistic devices rather than trying to do everything.
Malcolm Sutton lives in Toronto. His fiction has appeared in Maisonneuve and Joyland, and his writing on art has appeared in C Magazine and Border Crossings. He is the Founding Editor of The Coming Envelope journal of innovative prose, and the Fiction Editor at BookThug Press. Job Shadowing is his debut novel.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.