Author Interview: Joe Denham

Joe Denham is the author of two poetry collections, Flux (2003) and Windstorm (2009), and one novel, The Year of Broken Glass (2011). He lives with his wife and two children in Halfmoon Bay, BC, and works as a commercial fisherman throughout coastal British Columbia, Canada.

First Line (FL): Joe, in addition to writing fiction, I know that you are also a poet. Do you have a favourite word?

Joe Denham (JD): My favourite colour is blue. My favourite key is E flat Major. Individual words I don't find terribly inspiring.

FL: “The Year of Broken Glass” is your first novel. What was the journey like from writing it, to getting it published?

JD: Writing and editing it was a four year process. For two years the story and characters just kind of floated about in my imagination, slowly evolving. Then I spent the fall and winter of '09/'10 writing the first drafts. I'd tried writing a novel a couple of times before, each time taking the less disciplined approach I take to writing poetry (which is to say, getting to it if and when the desire and inspiration stirs me to do so, and otherwise busying myself with the rest of life), but unsurprisingly I kept getting lost after the initial burst of inspiration. So with this one I decided I needed to make it an 8 to 10 hours a day, everyday kind of project. Which is what I did over the six months of that fall and winter, and by the time spring rolled around Amy (my wife) and I had finished working over the fifth draft.

Before I left for fishing that spring I decided to give it to Silas White, both an old friend and the publisher of my two previous books, Flux and Windstorm, to see what he thought of the manuscript as it existed at that time. To keep a long story short, Silas thought it was
great, even possibly a big and important book, and encouraged me (despite his own enthusiasm for the book and desire to publish it with Nightwood Editions) to pursue an agent and a corporate publishing house that could really put some major money behind. Which is what I did. And after about 20 doors politely clicked shut in my face with less than a glance thrown my way beforehand, I came back to Si and he agreed to publish it. To be honest, I think we both hoped, for the sake of the book and for my career and for readers too, that I would have been able to get further with that process than I did, but what I gleaned is that there's a very conservative aesthetic holding sway in the Can Lit industry, and The Year of Broken Glass is in so many ways un-conservative, genre-melding, boisterous, etc, so it just doesn't fit. That said, publishing the book with Silas and Nightwood was a great process. Everyone poured a lot of energy into the editing and proofing and designing, and I think what we all came up with in the end is a really fantastic book that we're all proud of.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

JD: I studied at a community college for my first two years of post-secondary. When I finished, I asked my creative writing prof, a very fine and respected poet, where she thought I should go to continue my studies in creative writing: Concordia? UVic? UBC? She very respectfully suggested that if I wanted to learn to write inside that conservative aesthetic I just mentioned, that I should by all means go to any of the above. But if I wanted to find my own voice, to really find it, she suggested I should drop out, read, go to readings, work, and learn to write on my own, in the world.

Okay. So I took the latter advice. Sometimes I think to myself: who in their right mind (and who's to say she was in her right mind!?) would tell an earnest 20 year old straight A student with some talent and ambition to jump off the train? Usually I think this to myself when I've had a bad fishing season or have nearly cut my hand off at work or have had 20 agents flat out reject me without really considering my work because they have no idea who I am or who anyone close to me in my life is. But on the days when I'm writing and the writing feels good and true and at least somewhat un-affected, I think, sure, good for her, and for me, that she chose to be so honest in that moment. Spending too much time in classrooms always makes me itchy and dopey anyhow, and given the amount I recall nodding off in her workshops, she must have seen that in me! Also, looking at it all from a distance now, I think she was right in asserting that the whole apparatus of post-secondary creative writing workshops unfortunately works to reinforce a sort of lowest common denominator approach to writing and art and seems to kind of press out some of the more individual character and sensibility in many developing writer's work.

I was reading this little non-fiction piece on dissonance recently, and I found this interesting: back in the 16th century in Germany it became fashionable to carefully breed and train canaries for the purpose of birdsong performance and competition. Today, if you compare the sonograms of domesticated canaries with those of wild canaries, apparently you can see a distinct difference in the third and fourth seconds of their song. I'll quote the essayist (Barbara Hurd) here: "On the domesticated bird's sonogram, the markings on the graph (indicating frequency and duration of notes) are consistent, as if drawn by an accomplished graphic artist who'd learned to replicate the same graceful squiggle over and over. That bird is repeating clear notes and was cheered at competitions. But at the same moment on the wild canary's graph, the markings go haywire, as if drawn by a kindergartner using the wrong hand. Their thicknesses vary wildly; splotches hover over skewed jabs. Birders studying the sonogram call this the canary's "dissonant phrase." Though it's been completely bred out of domesticated canaries, it remains in wild ones."

I'm certainly not asserting that I'm the literary equivalent to a wild canary, or anything "wild" for that matter. I did eventually, for one year in my later twenties, return to Creative Writing workshops (at the University of Victoria), and I've read my share of literature. So I'm affected, just as we all are. But I think there are degrees of affectation, and I think that prof was trying to steer me, in the very formative years of my artistic apprenticeship, away from an arena which applauds the replication "of one graceful squiggle over and over", and instead towards a lifestyle and approach to art in which I might retain a small semblance of the more individual and at times dissonant song we're all naturally born with. Which hasn't and doesn't let me off the hook insofar as knowing and mastering craft goes, but how that is accomplished and even what that means can be defined in greater terms than many of the academic bureaucracies allow for. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that there are no exceptions to this as far as university writing programs go, nor am I saying that no good writers or work emerge from those programs. I think it's fair to say that some great writers have come up through the academic system, just as some have come up outside of it, and I know for myself that it's been a good thing for my artistic development, for my particular temperament, that I more or less count myself amongst the latter, and that this has occurred greatly because of one writer's timely advice given over 15 years ago.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

JD: In fiction, I think John Berger's Into Their Labours Trilogy is an important work. I've been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace recently, though I'm still gathering the gumption to start in on Infinite Jest. But really, I can't answer that question. I don't think there's any one seminal author or book everyone should read and appreciate. Everyone comes to literature with their own particular needs, expectations, interests, and sensibilities, and what is an infinitely important work to one is next to useless to another.

FL: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?

JD: That's an interesting question because I'm not sure I think of myself as "being" a writer, as opposed to "being" something else. And here's why: I don't make my living from writing. At best I get the odd grant and token royalty cheque. But as it is I'm a commercial fish boat captain and a residential house builder. That's the work which pays for the home I live in with my family and for the food my children eat, etc, and it also pays for the time I take to write. Writing is my heart's first vocation, and if I could I'd spend more time at it and have a greater volume of work published as a result, but I've yet to achieve the success necessary to call myself "a writer" in that context wherein it is exclusively what I do to make my way in the world. So, it's almost like, if I weren't a fisherman and a builder, I'd want to be a writer. Maybe someday things will turn that way, but it's a precious few of us who get to live in that grace, isn't it?

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

JD: There's a small studio building on our property where both my wife, Amy and I do our writing. There's Amy's piano and my guitars and a small PA system and some computers in there. That's where I wrote The Year of Broken Glass, and I've already described a bit of how I approached the writing of that book. More generally, I tend to write sporadically. I'm not into exercises or projects or scheduled effort. I'm interested in writing born of intense inspiration, and I think too much time at the craft can dilute that. I don't think writers need to or even should write all the time. I don't believe in writer's block. I believe that when we've got something really worth saying, we've got little choice but to sit down and thrash it out, and when we don't, c'est la vie. There are a million other things to do and explore with what little time we've each got.

FL: What inspires you?

JD: The sea. Music. My wife and children. Books. Movies. Wind. Anger. Love.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

JD: I suppose that would be the poet Jorie Graham. I think her writing is absolutely phenomenal--so brilliantly intelligent and so visceral all at once--and, though I'm not sure what it is I'd like to ask her in regards to that, I'm certain the conversation would have the potential of being
illuminating, and if it weren't so it would most likely only be as a result of my own shortcomings.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

JD: I'm a guitar player. I write songs. I sing those songs.

FL: What are you working on now?

JD: I've been writing songs again for the first time in over a decade. Recently I formed a band with a few folks in the neighbourhood. I suppose it's an alt-country-rock kind of project. We're working towards an album, but I don't think we're in any hurry. I'm working (slowly) on two volumes of poetry which will form a trilogy in conjunction with 2009's Windstorm. I'm busy raising children, building a new home for my family, and kicking around ideas in my head for a second novel. I've just recently arrived home from a 100 day fishing shift, so as it is today I'm just happy to lollygag a bit with the kids, play some guitar, and hope for a little sun before summer's end.

Thanks Joe!

To learn more about Joe Denham click here.

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