Malahat volunteer Jack Crouch talks with Okanagan College professor Colin Snowsell about sexual exploration and inherent human violence in his story, "Krankowsky," recently published in Issue 190, Spring 2015 of the Malahat.
For most writers, content comes from what they know. How does academia, which is a recurring theme in your work, shape the stories you write, and how much of it is autobiographical, or is it more fiction based on an accumulation of perspective within the institution?
I'm answering these questions from Paris, where I've been living this year having been awarded a sabbatical from Okanagan College, which makes no distinction between research and creative writing as vital scholarly activities and provides faculty ample support for both: recently, the academy has been good to me. Before it was good to me it came close to killing me, and I can think of no other profession where the positions available are so wildly disproportionate to those invited to study for them. Great hordes of idealistic would-be professors are plunged through the meat grinders of grad schools run by universities run increasingly for profit; and, even though grad school itself is so frequently farcical, the waste of a country's intellectual talent is tragic.
The academic experience, which, to answer your question, is accumulative, seems to me under-represented in fiction, and, in any case, it is, as you say, what I know. Grad school grows desperation; and desperate people, I mean, who knows what they might get up to.
Krankowsky's character is not unusual in the sense that male promiscuity is rampant on many college and university campuses, but his, perhaps, late lechery leads him astray from the social and intellectual circles he once seemed to moderately enjoy. How did this idea come about?
The peril confronting those who read critical and cultural theory is that the line between the academic exploration of alternative sexualities, and the practice of them, isn’t clearly drawn. And so, even if we probably can't say that promiscuity, intentionally practiced as a rejection of the fallacy of universally natural monogamy, is the property exclusively, or even mostly, of men, there is some sense as to why kids stuffed full of Foucault and subcultural theory find on-campus acceptance (or, at least, tolerance) of practices that exceed what would be afforded them in many, or most, other public spheres.
Krankowsky's great failing is to exploit cynically one of the last social spaces where wide latitude is (supposed to be) allowed to sexual exploration. Although Krankowsky takes unfair advantage of this permissiveness, many others have followed favourite theorists with the best of intentions only to find their careers stalled in the doldrums that lie between deviance allowed in theory and deviance allowed in practice. Critical theory ought to come with a warning: attempting to apply in your own life may prove fatal.
The main conflict in the story, when Krankowsky nearly kills a girl, elevates the tone of the subject matter from promiscuous to violent. Do you think this event was a tragic mistake built out of Krankowsky's newly-found vanity, or an inevitable part of his character?
I was thinking, I suppose, of Louis Althusser who, in 1980, strangled to death his wife Helene, and wrote about doing so in L'Avenir dure longtemps. If Althusser, one of the most important philosophers of our time, can kill, then any of us can. Freud, among others, instructs us of the inherent violence of the species, and, while what Althusser terms ideological state apparatuses teach us how to tame it, or, at least, direct it to state-sanctioned aims, the urge to do harm remains; it never entirely goes away. Advanced education and an expert command of critical theory are not, as Krankowsky, like Althusser before him, learns, a perfect defense against the poor life decision that in an instant alters everything.
"Krankowsky" was mentored by the editor of The Malahat Review and a fiction board member. How did this benefit you?
One of the first essays I published was edited like a wounded confederate soldier is edited, and the mangled wreck that remained I mostly thought might have been better off simply put out of its misery. I suppose, quite naturally, that this earlier and unhappy experience left me with a terrible fear of the editor’s saw, a fear that working with Liam Workman and John Barton, skilled and sensitive surgeons both, has entirely alleviated. The changes they made (or helped me to make) were subtle, sensible, and "Krankowsky" is a vastly superior story thanks to them: it continues to astonish me how the very slight changes they suggested had such a huge impact on the overall cohesion and structure of the story. It was a wonderful and pleasant experience working with them—an education.
Do you have any particular influences when it comes to writing short stories? And what are the advantages and disadvantages for you personally when writing a short story?
Christopher Hitchens claimed Gore Vidal once told him the three most dispiriting words in the English language were "Joyce Carol Oates." I like to imagine Hitch and Gore guffawing and taking great gulps of brandy while continuing to brandish their deeply learned, deeply sexist, zingers without any regard for consequence, or for the wrath of Oates, a serious mistake to anyone familiar with her work’s reputation for violence. In an essay written in 1998 for the New York Times, Oates addresses this reputation. "The serious writer, after all, bears witness," she writes. "The serious writer restructures 'reality' in the service of his or her art, and surely hopes for a unique esthetic vision and some felicity of language; but reality is always the foundation…" There exists in my writing much of what might be considered genre—people get strangled, people get killed with golf clubs, people conduct Satanic rituals—but the idea that the academy is immune from human emotion and folly is false, as is the idea, as Oates shows us as well as any other, that the literary must from violence, and other manifestations of troublesome reality, remain unsullied.
The economy of words required by the short story form lends itself well to the violent turn, and the shock ending: I like that.
Are you working on any current projects? And what else do you have planned for the future?
The most common criticism I received about my scholarly writing during grad school was that my writing was "too stylized," the kiss of death in academic circles where creative writing is viewed as the dead endeavour of the intellectually vacuous. I possess also a drawerful of rejections from literary journals on the grounds that my short stories felt more like academic treatises (accusations of "pretentiousness," yes, I’ve had a few), and so I’ve spent this sabbatical trying to see if, for once, I can get the balance right. Waiting for the 80 is a novel-length treatment of the themes present in "Krankowsky," and I’m very excited about it. It’s dark and, dare I say, the first thing I’ve written, in long form, that doesn’t feel like either style or smarts has been turned off to accentuate the other. The novel adds Paris but retains Montreal as setting, and attempts, among other things, to complicate the themes of sexuality I’ve discussed above.
A few years ago I published a novella called The Frollett Homestead (a story that would have benefited enormously from the Malahat editorial treatment) that uses the wildness of B.C.'s interior as a setting for gothic gloom. I've gone back to the mountains in and around Vernon again to produce a second genre novel in which, I am sure many will be happy to hear, not a single character suffers from academic angst. It's called The Springs at Mt. Lutzerath, and it’s basically The
Island Mountain of Dr. Moreau.
I hope to find a publisher for each or both when I’m back in Canada later this year.
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