Writer in Residence

Considering life noir

By Lisa de Nikolits



This grey November Sunday afternoon, we will be discussing writing about life noir and I’m honoured to be joined by the amazing Lynn Crosbie. I’m such a huge fan of everything Lynn has written and in today’s post, we will be looking at Corpses of the Future which is an extraordinary tribute and homage to father/daughter relationships. And, beyond that, it is a profound and searingly moving, unflinchingly honest and exquisitely loving contemplation of life.

As part of 16 Shades of Noir, I’m categorizing Lynn’s work as life noir, as summed up by this quote from the collection: 

“And we clink bottles as my poor mother stands at the door, resigned: she is used to this, resigned to hearing me, a little drunk, recite Rocky’s speech to his loser kid,

You or me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life!”

Life! It comes loaded with sucker punches, there’s no doubt there but you take the most incredibly tough situations and you portray them in such a beautiful way:

“It is a sunny day and I am with my father, my dog unborn and everything waiting, waiting also to become undone.”

Now, onto some questions! 

“You see, you are just swimming along until something flares or shimmers. 

You follow and the trapdoor snaps shut.”

LdN: With regard to writers and writing styles, do you believe that each of us is born with an inescapable writing style, much like our personalities, most of which we cannot change, even if we’d like to?

LC: No. I don't think we have a _style_, but definitely a sensibility from the get. I won a writing prize in junior HS, and it was hippie-noir free verse, like Seize the painted eyeball, nothing like my writing now (I hope!) but it was weird and morbid, so---

LdN: I’ll be honest – I’d give an arm and a leg to be able to write like you (who wouldn’t?!) Is there any advice you’d be willing to share, that could help a writer of life noir improve? How does one get visceral but paint it with beauty?

LC: That's so weird: I just wrote noir and you just said it, so to speak. You are crazy-flattering, thank you. I suppose one has to see the beauty in ugliness (look at Baudelaire's "Une Charogne") to write about it as such. Jean Genet is one of my favorite writers and he gets it, and then some. 

LdN: Which are the three saddest songs you know? In Corpses of the Future, you mention, American Pie, Ode to Joy and Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot. Are those the most sad for you or are there others? 

LC: The first is my Dad's favorite song, I am not a fan, but like it because he does. The second is a hiccup from watching _A Clockwork Orange_ about 25 times in a row at some point recently and the third is good, again not my favorite. When I'm writing I grab at, mostly, what's on my mind that moment: it is rarely definitive. Three sad songs though: "Big Louise," Scott Walker; "Atmosphere," Joy Division and "Hurt," the Johnny Cash version of the Trent Reznor song. 

“Everyone said no as he stood on the platform hearing that mournful whistle that is the sound of remembering, departures. Privation.” 

LdN: What is the saddest, most beautiful, heartbreaking book you’ve ever read and why?

LC: Oh that's so hard to say. The real tear-jerkers are always trashy, aren't they? By writers who can run a fairly easy con: kill a beloved pet, split up star-crossed lovers, throw cancer around. The miracle that is _The Great Gatsby_ gets to me. _Dubliners_. And _The Mill on the Floss_. Likely missing a lot. 

“I miss you, he says, and I say it back, but this time we are both miserable because what we are saying is that who we were and what we were is gone.” 

LdN: What, would you say, is the saddest sound: a small plane flying overhead on a summer's day, the sound of a far distant train (as above), wind chimes, a Harley Davidson, the wind in the trees or the rain. Or none of these and you’d prefer to name another? 

LC: Those are beautiful examples. The saddest sound...someone's voice breaking in pain or fear, always love. 

I read recently that the absence of sound registers as strongly as its presence. 

The sound of no one there; of someone gone. 

LdN: And yet, you have made the relationship live for eternity by writing this line. Is that how the catharsis of writing works, do you think? Because it creates something timeless that cannot be destroyed? In this way, do you think we can make the ghosts of youthful beauty live forever? I feel like you captured so much of that in Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

LC: I don't believe---poor Shakespeare and his brag!---in immortality: all of our words will die, without a doubt. But there is a longer reach, yes. And yes, as Andrew Marvell says, in his seduction poem, "To His Coy Mistress," 

"Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run."

 We cannot hold on, but we can throw, quite far.

LdN: What were the last five books that you read? Or ones that really stood out as being great, for one reason or another (and if you could give us the reason, that would be wonderful!)

 LC: My eyesight is failing, am having a hard time reading. 

But I read every night, on an iPad, have always read every night since I was five or so. 

I loved _Ill Will_ by Dan Chaon, which is so deeply disturbing, I had a rough time of it. The prose is so inventive, so pitch-perfect, it's worth the pain. 

I'm reading the very creepy _The Sinner_ by Petra Hammesfahr, which starts on Showcase next week and I don't get Showcase! It's so German, in idiom and manner, in pure narrative, I cannot imagine how it will play out as an American story. Weird, unnerving and cool. Its extravagant view of barely remembered sex as perverse and evil seems normal to me. 

Robert Siek's new book of poems in galley-form, called _We Go Seasonal_. I was a fan before we were friends: he's miles ahead of most people politically, artistically and innovatively. And he's tender and sweet. 

I reread Patti Smith's _Just Kids_, which I use in classes (and read the somewhat disappointing _M Train_.) Hubris aside, it’s such a gorgeous catalogue of things, radiant with significance, and a melancholy/gorgeous look backwards at ground well covered by Hemingway in _A Moveable Feast_ (another devastating book.) I dreamed she asked me for dress advice last night (I have a high fever.) I recommended a red gown by Kingi Carpenter. 


I read a fair bit of straight up trash, Google words and concepts every half hour, and pick through difficult philosophy, science and art theory. I will mention trash that is not trash: commercial novels. 

I most recently read a bunch of John Grisham books---_The Rogue Lawyer_ stands out, and he's great, such a smooth stylist and good story-teller. Absolutely on par with, better, IMO, than the US darlings, like Franzen and (the unreadable---I dare you!)  Ferrante. And did some (comfort rereading) of Joy Fielding, who is overlooked by serious Canadian arbiters, and who is also a quite brilliant stylist and compelling, highly feminist, story-teller. I recommend _Grand Avenue_, which I reviewed cruelly in the Globe, because I was a snotty jerk. It's masterful. 

When I want a good reco, I ask Martha Sharpe (Flying Books's pilot) or look at Type Books' Instagram. Always fanciful, lovely to look at, better to read. Don't blame them for my taste!


LdN: I do have one last question, and pleaseforgive me if it's too personal. With the passing of your beloved Frankie, life is indeed more lonely and noir. The deep bite of loss. Do you feel more of less inclined to write during this time of grief? 

LC: No, it's not possible to write. It would be like writing in a building being smashed by a wrecking ball. Maybe one day, in the ruins. Maybe the ruins belong to me and him and no one else.






The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy and has lived in the U.S.A., Australia, and Britain. She is the author of seven acclaimed novels, including her most recent novel, No Fury Like That (Inanna Publications). She has won the IPPY Gold Medal for Women's Issues Fiction and was long-listed for the ReLit Award. Lisa has a short story in Postscripts To Darkness (2015), a short story in the anthology Thirteen O'Clock by the Mesdames of Mayhem, and flash fiction and a short story in the debut issue of Maud.Lin House.