News and Interviews

The WAR Series: Writers As Readers, with Kenneth Sherman

Poet and essayist Kenneth Sherman has ventured into the realm of memoir with his powerful new book, Wait Time: A Memoir of Cancer (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).

Starting from the time of his diagnosis, Kenneth recorded his observations and experiences as a cancer patient in notebooks, which eventually evolved into Wait Time. Cancer touches the lives of nearly all Canadians, whether directly or through a loved one, and Kenneth's thoughtful, insightful observations ring true to that difficult, disorienting experience. Rather than maudlin or angry, Kenneth's memoir is practical while remaining connected to his emotional experience. As bureaucratic snafus hold up his treatment for a malignant tumour, he begins to ask questions of our health-care administrators and legislators. In all things, Wait Time is an effort to bring the humanity, and the humane, into the cancer experience.

Today Kenneth joins us to take on the The WAR Series: Writers As Readers questionnaire, which gives writers an opportunity to talk about the books that shaped them, from first loves to new favourites.

Kenneth tells us about the emotional impact of Hemingway, what contemporary novelists could learn from the ancient Latin writer Apuleius and having Emily Dickinson take the top of his head off.


The WAR Series, Writers as Readers

The first book I remember reading on my own:

Clare Huchet Bishop’s Five Chinese Brothers, with illustrations by Kurt Wiese. Each of the brothers has a special power: one can swallow the sea, one has an iron neck, one can hold his breath indefinitely. The book was first published in 1938 and I realize now that these brothers were forerunners to Marvel’s Superheroes. A few libraries have banned the book with claims of racial stereotyping and violence. I, on the other hand, read the book as honouring the values of a close-knit Chinese family. And I can assure readers that the book’s hints at violence did not trouble my six-year old self.

A book that made me cry:

Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I read the book in one or two sittings and the ending caught me completely off guard. I think books that we read in a few sittings have a greater emotional impact than those we inch our way through.

The first adult book I read:

Do the Hardy Boy adventures count? Probably not. Then it has to be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’d had an elderly babysitter who’d read parts of the book to me when I was a child, and then when I was thirteen I read the novel through. The scene where Jim confronts Huck for making a fool of him followed by Huck’s difficult apology to a black slave just blew me away. The honesty, the tenderness. The underlying ironies. In that instant I became aware of literature’s moral reach.

A book that made me laugh out loud:

Nothing unusual here: two books I read in high school: Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22. What is unusual is that I’ve re-read them both in the last few years and they still get a laugh out of me.

The book I have re-read many times:

The Golden Ass by Apuleius. It is the only Latin novel that survives in its entirety and Robert Graves’s translation makes it sing for modern readers. Apuleius is a first-rate story-teller and his book has everything: a ghost story, vivid sex scenes, mythological tales, weird transformations. If only contemporary novels were this exciting!

A book I feel like I should have read, but haven't:

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

The book I would give my 17-year-old self, if I could:

Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. At seventeen I was immersed in existential literature: Camus’ The Stranger, Sartre’s Nausea, Hemingway’s bleak short stories. Fielding’s solid English wit and humour would have served as an anti-dote to my brooding.

A book I feel strongly influenced me as a writer and why:

When I was in grade eight our English teacher, who was also an amateur actor, read aloud Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me” and I reacted as Ms. Dickinson predicted I would: I felt as if “the top of my head were taken off.” On the way home from school I stopped by Coles bookstore and put down fifty cents for Louis Untermeyer’s A Concise Treasury of Great Poems. I recall sitting on our front porch reading for the first time Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” then Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” From that day to this I’ve been addicted to reading and writing poetry.

The best book I read in the past six months:

Geoffrey Hill’s collection of poems, Without Title.

The book I plan on reading next:

The Bridge Over The Neroch by Leonid Tsypkin.

A possible title for my autobiography:

A Spy in the Land of the Normal.

Kenneth Sherman is the author of ten books of poetry and two collections of essays. His most recent books are the highly acclaimed long poem Black River (2007) and the award-winning book of essays What the Furies Bring (2009). He lives in Toronto, where he conducts poetry writing workshops.