“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our conciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book
From the start, food has featured large in my friendship with Steven Mayoff. We met at the inaugural Seawords workshop series on PEI, in 2009. A brilliant experience and a magical place where words and the business of words were the daily focus from early morning til night.
But it’s the food I remember most.
Oysters right off the boat, lobster, patios with beautiful watery views, roadside chip vans selling fresh-from-the-red-dirt spuds, mussels ten thousand ways, a tiny mom and pop diner on a Charlottetown side street that made the kind of perfect toast I haven’t eaten since I was a kid, and the giant bowl of cioppino Steve and I shared at one exceptional place he kept suggesting I try: The Dunes (officially now one of the top ten places I’ve ever eaten; and I’ve eaten a lot).
Food continues to find its way into most of our e-conversations, if only as a closing comment—and due to Steve’s powers of description, I can sometimes almost smell what his foodie-extraordinaire wife, Thelma, is fixing for dinner (especially hard on the days I’m having sauerkraut).
The meal inspired by Fatted Calf Blues can be found at the end of the Q&A.
1. What literary character did you identify with as a kid?
SM: As a kid the only literary characters I knew came from TV and movies, such as The Wizard of Oz or Winnie the Pooh. I actually walked around with a posse of imaginary cartoon friends (Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, etc.) like we were some kind of street gang. They were my confidants.
I didn’t do very much reading, although I do remember picture books about mythology and dinosaurs. And I remember being fascinated by book spines on our shelf and strange titles like Tropic Of Cancer and Nine Hours To Rama and unpronounceable author names like Kazantzakis. There was also a book about the Holocaust that had gruesome photos of shrunken heads and lampshades made of human skin. That certainly caught my attention.
The first books I remember actually reading were The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Catcher In the Rye in high school. Of those two, I’d say I identified more with Holden Caulfield: the loner, the outsider, someone with a rich interior life. Duddy was more of a go-getter, which is not how I saw myself, although the influence of Richler’s book is still with me. Salinger influenced me more with his short stories.
2. Can you recall your earliest poem, story or finger-paint-illustrated trilogy?
SM: I remember making a finger painting when I was probably around 5 or 6 years old and having my sister, who was around 19, ask me what it was called. I’m pretty sure I said something like “Snakes of Love.” I knew it was a grown-up thing to say and my sister was both amused and shocked.
I drew a lot as a kid, mostly super heroes and later on rock bands. I didn’t start writing poems until my last year of high school. I had three published in the school literary journal. One was a description of a pair of construction boots “looking at the world through unlaced eye-holes” or something like that. Another was some kind of meditation on the contradictions of labels while trying to figure out my identity. I can’t remember the third. I was also into writing song lyrics as a natural outlet for being a frustrated musician. I didn’t attempt a short story until my late twenties.
3. Are there recurring themes in your writing that surprise you?
SM: I’m surprised when any kind of recurring theme arises, because I don’t think that way. I’m not even sure what the recurring themes are. Alienation, I guess. Ummm…good hygiene? Seriously, I do notice things in retrospect that, more often than not, don’t surprise me. But I am a great believer in what Wayson Choy said: “I know I am a writer because until I’m writing I don’t know what I know,”
4. Do you work to a routine, a schedule, a daily word count?
SM: The only real routine I work to is the urgency in my head that I have to get something done. How that happens is anyone’s guess. There’s no particular schedule I follow, except that I try to write every day, usually in the afternoon or evening. The idea of a daily word count makes me want to blow my brains out. I know the professional thing is to see writing as a job, but I’ve always resisted that. I worked at various jobs for most of my adult life, so I’m happy not to have one now. In one way I kind of envy writers who say they wake up and bang out so many pages or words first thing in the morning. Waking up is a long process for me.
5. What is a favourite passage from any book?
SM: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” from Slaughterhouse Five. It’s a simple sentence (I suppose I should say “deceptively simple”) that leaves a lot to the imagination. It could be describing the most liberating experience or the most horrifying nightmare. Surprising how often those two things go hand in hand.
I’d have to say that sentence (as well as the book and Vonnegut in general) really influenced my writing. The whole idea of coming unstuck in time is a kind of madness where one discovers that linear time as we understand it doesn’t exist and everything – past, present and future – is happening all at once. That’s what fiction and the writing process is for me: a kind of madness where truth reveals itself, but not in any coherent way, until I begin writing and trying to make some kind of sense of it. I learn things about my characters and the situations they are in (and also about myself and what is important to me) as I slowly organize the events and give shape to the story.
6. What was the best advice you ever received as a writer?
SM: When I was in high school I asked an English teacher what I needed to do to become a writer. He looked down at me soberly (he was a giant of a man with very blue eyes) and said: “You have to suffer.” That scared the crap out of me and maybe even deterred me a little, because I didn’t know what “suffering” entailed. I thought of that when I published my first book, Fatted Calf Blues, (I even thanked that teacher in the acknowledgements). In retrospect, I like to think he was really telling me to go live my life so that I’d have some experience to enrich my writing. I appreciate the fact that maybe he was just treating me like an adult and giving me the real information, thinking it would either scare me off or inspire me. And it did both.
7. The opening story, The Most Important Man, sets the tone of ‘displacement’ that runs through the collection, personal discomfort, shown through discomfort with the physical space the characters occupy. This leads me back to the theme question: was this intentional, something you were exploring, the idea of ‘not fitting’… or did you recognize the thread only after the stories were written?
SM: To be honest, I didn’t realize there was a thread until you just mentioned it. While promoting FCB I was asked what the connecting idea of the stories was and I usually tried to bluff my way through and say all the characters were searching for some notion of home. “Displacement” is probably a better answer. Anyway, these things only become evident after the fact. I never or rarely think about them beforehand. But again, in retrospect, the themes of displacement and looking for a home are very personal for me, so it only seems natural that they would creep into my writing. I’m obviously attracted to those kinds of stories, so I have no doubt an unconscious part of my creative process preplans some sort of exploration of those themes.
8. A couple of the pieces are written in either the voice or POV of a woman; what were the challenges with that, if any?
SM: I can’t think of any real challenges. I invest myself in my characters and try to be a kind of witness to their lives. I never think to myself something like: “what would a woman do here?” because I’m looking for the humanity in the character, although I do believe there are specific differences in the attitudes of men and women. Men might have more difficulty expressing themselves and women might be more open about their feelings, but people as a whole don’t voluntarily give out too much information without some prodding. So discovering any character’s voice or POV entails me searching for the right buttons to push.
9. If the title story were made into a film, who would you like to see play Mavis Jean? (Any other casting ideas?)
SM: That’s a very timely question as I have just returned from the Screenwriters’ Bootcamp that happens every year in Charlottetown and is sponsored by the Island Media Arts Cooperative (it’s only open to Atlantic Canadian writers). I was in an adaptation workshop with renowned story editor, Ken Chubb (he was involved with the Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps and the CBC mini-series Dragon Boys). I’m trying to adapt the story Fatted Calf Blues into a screenplay and it has been a long process. After this workshop, I now find myself back at square one, although I have a better idea of how to go about it.
Mavis Jean: Hilary Swank, Tara Spencer-Nairn (also, Nancy Roberts, although she is older, would be interesting)
Milo: Michael Cera, Elijah Wood
Two-Gun Billy: Chris Cooper, Nicholas Campbell
Vesta: I used to think Jackie Burroughs was pefect, but she’s passed away, so my alternative would be Toronto actor, Barbara Gordon. Or even Sissy Spacek.
10. Why short fiction?
SM: It has the expansiveness of prose, but matched with the precision of poetry. It is a kind of postcard portrait that allows you to glimpse life beyond its edges. Every short story should be a kind of map you might find in a mall that says: You Are Here.
Coffee or tea? Coffee. I do like a nice caffeine buzz.
Lyrics or prose? Lyrics. My fantasy job is to be a lyricist in a rock band like Keith Reid in Procol Harum or Pete Sinfield in King Crimson. (I bet you will have to Google these). The next novel I want to write will have a lyricist as its narrator and a series of song lyrics to complement the unfolding story.
Ocean or river? River. I live right by one and I think a river has more metaphorical mojo.
Pen or keyboard? Keyboard. I find it more playful. I like tapping things. Also, it placates the frustrated musician in me. I’m the Elton John of hunt-&-peck.
Kundera or Beckett? Kundera. His quote: “The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.” from his book of connected essays, Testaments Betrayed, helped me get a handle on my novel manuscript, Blessing and Song (which I’m currently shopping around).
Scrambled or Poached? Poached. On toast. I have it rarely, so it’s a treat.
Editor’s Note: Food and Drink inspired by Fatted Calf Blues—
Steven Mayoff was born and raised in Montreal and now makes his home on
PEI. His fiction and poetry have appeared in magazines across Canada and the
US, as well as in Ireland, Algeria and France. His story collection, Fatted
Calf Blues, won a 2010 PEI Book Award, was shortlisted for a 2010 ReLit
Award and was a Finalist for the (Maritime) 2011 CBC
His web site is www.stevenmayoff.ca
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in April, 2011.