Above our Biology: Naben Ruthnum in Conversation with Kris Bertin

Kris Bertin

Kris Bertin and Naben Ruthnum met when they were both nominated for the Malahat Review’s 2012 Novella Prize. Kris wrote a funny blog entry about the contest that sparked an ongoing correspondence between the two writers, marked by endless jokes, digs at, and praise for each others’ work, and discussions about writing. Now that Kris Bertin has taken the Jack Hodgins Founder’s Award for the second time, Naben Ruthnum has scissored up some of their past conversations and added some specific questions about Kris’s winning story, “Your #1 Killer & Extra Hands.”

“Your #1 Killer & Extra Hands” is written in the present tense. Same goes for much of your published work—excepting, notably, the first two stories in the trilogy that “# 1 Killer”caps off. Often, present-tense stories send me leaping out the window, but it's the only mode that makes sense for the tale you're telling, and you nailed it.

Thanks Naben. I hear this a lot and it’s not just you. There are lots and lots of others who are also completely wrong about present tense.

I don’t think of this story’s tense as an exception or a device. And I really don’t understand why this is such a contested issue, or why anyone believes there’s a right or wrong way to conjugate verbs in literature. The present is a fine tense, and is as good as any of the other tenses so long as it conveys information to the audience. Its use has been called a “fad” by those who fail to see its merits, and writers who employ it often defend it on account of “immediacy” or else they say something about “evoking uncertainty.” None of those things are how I see it, and if any of these things are true, they aren’t true for me. For me, it’s entirely a function of voice and has more to do with how the story actually sounds.

And the way I see it, the secret to fiction written in the present tense is that it can nonetheless take place in the past. Present tense is past tense. Or it can be, anyway (I've had lots of fights with editors about this). People in real life recount stories this way, regularly moving back and forth from past to present without even realizing it. When I went looking for it I noticed there’s a tendency to explain backstory in past tense, and to then use present tense for action. If you listen, you’ll hear it. Real people telling you about real moments in their real lives that happened in the past—and doing it in the present tense:

Rachel walks up to me and I say “Get away from me Rachel.”
But Rachel bends over and her face goes red and she picks up this great big manhole cover—holds it over her head.
I say “You don’t have the balls Rachel.”
So anyway that’s what happened to my leg.

See what I mean?

I stopped paying attention halfway through that longwinded tirade. In the case of this particular, excellent story, why the shift away from the past tense, which you used in “Everywhere Money” (Riddle Fence) and “Girl on the Fire Escape,” (The Malahat Review, #173, Winter 2010) the first two stories about Chris Rose?

Of course you did. You stopped paying attention because you didn’t hear the words “You’re right, Naben.”(NR’s note: This is true).

The distinction between this story and the two that preceded it is simply that a different person is narrating it. The first two were stories told by Chris Rose, and that was how he did it. His mother does it this other way.

I tried to think about how it would sound if Mrs. Rose were on the phone with her friend and was explaining all the crazy things her son’s been up to since he’s moved back to her house. It’s all about trying to sound realistic, and this strikes me as the way this person would be working her way through these events if they were really happening to her. I won’t say that realism is my primary concern when writing, nor will I say my stories are realistic, nor that realistic necessarily means good, but that it’s at least an important factor to consider.

I think it matters because realism might bring an element of truth to something that’s otherwise quite obviously a construct. Author Andrew Hood and I talked about this once at a bar called Charlie’s(I’m taking you there when you visit Halifax—it’s got a jukebox and is near a men’s shelter), about how difficult it can be to reconcile with the fakeness of fiction. How, when we’re starting out on a story, one of the first and most troubling questions we ask ourselves is why is this person even telling this story in the first place? I think, if we can bang out a particularly convincing portrayal of a character it’s easier to pull off the trick of getting readers to forget that they’re looking at words on a page. The use of present tense, like first person, can be employed in this way in order to make your lies (fiction) more believable (compelling).

You’ve got an ongoing protagonist named Chris. Your name is Kris. Were you pursuing an effect with this, or is that just the character’s name?

I’m not answering that.

Cowardly, but understandable. So, killing small animals is often used as a cypher for psychopathy, or a prelude to a reasoned, violent acting-out against other people in fiction. But Chris Rose—and this is something I particularly liked in the story—is at his least antisocial when he becomes an exterminator at the end of “#1 Killer.”


Care to elaborate?

Well, there’s probably something I need to mention about rural living and how killing animals is totally normal for a lot of us. That’s certainly a part of it. I don’t see this story as taking place in the middle of nowhere, but in a semi-rural maritime setting where wilderness is ever present. It wouldn’t be quite the same thing if it were an urban or suburban story—and in fact, I wanted this story to be a stark departure from the previous two stories (“Girl on the Fire Escape” and “Everywhere Money”) in terms of setting. I come from a particularly run-down household where killing pests and rodents was part of my duties, and was, of course, a source of pride for me. Extermination is much the same for Chris Rose and becomes the vehicle by which he gets to feel better about himself. There’s an implied Big Idea in the story about wilderness and its importance to rural people. Cities can be these soul-crushing places, these great big human beehives that are often too much for outsiders to handle. For Chris, he’s gone through this stupid, pathetic journey in The Greater World and has come back utterly defeated. That primal interaction with the wild is how he gets to wipe away every awful thing that happened to him (and that he did to himself).

Likewise, there’s also something about Maleness and Being A Man that’s going on. Chris Rose is a typical Generation Y Canadian kid who has no idea what it means to be an adult male, and who has had no male role models whatsoever. When he’s playing that Nintendo game and killing monsters with a whip, that’s the closest he comes to having some kind of guidance—in the form of some hyper-stylized brutish caricature of a man. Chris takes something from this, but is able to grow beyond it. I think one of the ways we are able to work our way into adulthood is through mastery of something—anything. For Chris, it’s a mastery of this giant encroaching force that he’s been surrounded by for most of his life. If his first act of Violence Against Animals was an inspired bit of rage (that acting out you mentioned), the subsequent ones are not, and they actually teach him things like patience and resolve and dedication.  His final act of killing is a masterfully humane coup, and shows a level of control, focus, and foresight that he never before possessed.

If you read about evolutionary biology (on the internet, like me), you know that as men, a great deal of our behaviour and traits are a direct result of hunting. We tend to think we’re above our biology, but that’s all bullshit. A lot of this stuff informs my writing, and definitely informs this story. While I’ve written other characters who are completely trapped in their bodies, Chris Rose is exactly the opposite. This utter loser dishwasher ex-phonescammer is able to rise above his cultural wimpiness and does so by submitting to his ancient nature. Finds happiness by taking part in rites that go all the way back to No Pants Times.

In another interview, you discussed the likely direction of Chris Rose’s life after the events of “#1 Killer.”I really enjoyed your imagining of where his life would go, but isn’t it, you know, against the rules to discuss a character’s life off-the-page?

I don’t know what rules you’re talking about, Naben.

But this is an interesting question. We talked about this just the other day—how plot elements or details that are ultimately culled from work end up sticking with us, even if they don’t make it to the page. In a lot of the stuff I write, those omissions still exist to me as subtext, ghost limbs that help inform the story. This particular story went through a few drafts and there are scenes that I still hold onto as part of the story of these characters and who they are. There’s a weird blind-date scene at a country club where Chris flees out a bathroom window, and another where Mrs. Rose and her partner witness a particularly gruesome dispatching of pigeons at a church by Chris. If these things didn’t make it into print, does that mean that they hold less value than the stuff that did? None of this stuff happened—it’s all imaginary. So how do we judge its worth?

 I think it’s all equal. All sorts of Things That Didn’t Happen To The Character In The Story still matter, and still hold value. If a fully-formed character has a past that we’ve conceived of as writers (but don’t necessarily have to share with the audience), I don’t see any reason why they aren’t entitled to futures. Can’t you look at something you’ve created and imagine its logical conclusion? Updike’s Rabbit is a very successful example of exactly this phenomenon. I don’t think it’s against the rules. I think it means we give a shit about the little people we’re controlling.

This all gets a little weird if you talk about it too much. I have a tendency to re-use characters from story to story, so I don’t have to subscribe to the idea that a character is only “alive” when they’re on the page. A lot of what I do is just drawing those same logical conclusions I was talking about, and watching them play out. I’d never really thought of this or verbalized it before now, but I sort of think of my little people all the time. And I think that just thinking about them is probably as “real” as writing about them. I mean, that’s what all of this is to me—imagining things, and letting them play out in my mind. That’s what’s fun about it—getting surprised by the results. For me, writing is just a way to share what I’m imagining with others.

You’re a comics guy, and not just the acceptable grown-up graphic-novel type. What established character would you most like to write?

That’s actually the most difficult question you’ve asked. These characters were my religion growing up, and I have a fondness for them that has endured decades. I was around for the end of the era where comic books were stocked in grocery stores, and all of my money went towards various aliens and mutants, detectives and adventurers. My moral compass is a guy in a cape with a jaw like a tomato can who says stuff like Pick on someone your own size and I have to do what’s right. They’re all interesting and all mean a lot to me.

I’d love to write any of them. X-Men (teen mutants recruited into a militant freedom fighting cell), The Fantastic Four (a family of inter-dimensional monster explorers), Luke Cage (an inner city badass with unbreakable skin whose catchphrase is Sweet Christmas). Superman! I’d love to write Superman. Lots of people say he’s a boring character, but I’ve never understood that. An alien raised on a farm who dresses up like a circus strongman to protect the entire planet? Poses as a passive journalist to keep tabs on everything? Jesus Christ with a spit-curl and the meanest left hook on the planet?  That’s boring to you?

It’s still in its early stages, but I’m actually working on a comic book with a very talented artist that I’m hoping to shop around sometime next year. I absolutely love the forty-some pages I’ve seen of the work thus far.

Something else we’ve discussed a lot and share is a time-devouring love of stand-up comedy. Has this had any effect on your written work?

I’m as much a fan of Stand-Up Comedy as the Stand-Ups themselves. Among my favourites are Patrice O’Neal and Bill Burr, Jim Norton, Louis CK, Greg Giraldo, Colin Quinn. All those sorta guys—Boston and New York types. I think what they do is a lot like what we do, but with a whole other dimension of pain and suffering added on top (not just writing things down but standing on a stage and then performing what you wrote). If you’re enough of a fan to know about their personal lives as well as their careers, there are lots of lessons to be learned from them—about work ethic and productivity, about methodology and inspiration, compromise.

A central concern of these guys is “making it,” usually at the expense of one’s integrity. My favourite guy—Patrice O’Neal—is famous for telling off Big Time TV executives and standing up to all manner of pressure in his business. A man who was unanimously considered by his peers to be the best Stand Up of his generation, Patrice died at 41, virtually unknown and without much to show for his life’s work. He’s a person for whom talent was not enough, who worked against himself by being unwilling to compromise. Obviously we all want to have integrity, but the lesson I take from him is that it’s imperative to choose your battles. Maybe telling the editor who wants to fundamentally alter my story in an upsetting way go kill yourself is not a good idea. Maybe I should find a productive way around this. Maybe I should try not to be a crazy person.

Like writers, comics also experience a lot of failure, except it’s way worse for them. These guys work through sitcom cancellations, getting booed and heckled, having shit thrown at them by drunks, getting stiffed by crooked club owners, and more. It’s heartening to see their resolve. The worst thing we go through is getting our stories or manuscripts turned away with a nice note attached. If Rich Vos can find the nerve to walk out from behind a curtain and grab the mike, I can go get another book of stamps and resubmit my story.

Seeing Rich Vos’s name on the Malahat website is going to be a surreal pleasure. Now, cheating my way into an “influences” question—has any particularly stand-up’s voice had a direct effect on your prose?

I think I’ve written some Very Aggressive Men who might have had their lines delivered perfectly by Bill Burr, or else, if he’s unavailable—Andrew Dice Clay.

A long time ago I sent you a harassing email, taking issue with your contention that fiction that is interesting necessarily focuses on the working class. Now, you’re always good about saying that’s a subjective opinion, but it still troubles me. The idea that a lack of money, and the need to get it in order to keep death and failure at bay, are at the foundation of all meaningful human stories strikes me as quite wrong.

When I said that stuff about class and narrative potential in my interview(s?), I was thinking specifically of short fiction I've read that's overwhelmingly stake-less. Yacht Stories (about yachts). Stories about characters who are so safe that their problems amount to ennui. Retired white-lady stories where they're gossiping about the rhododendrons in Mrs. Baker's yard. If ennui is a legitimate feeling that people get to express, then it's just not one that I can get behind as a reader—I find it impossible to give a shit about these guys. Maybe that's not fair, but it's just who I am. I feel like what I said about the so-rich-you-don't-even-work is something I still believe and can't help but believe. I can't understand a lot of it, just at a human level, because it's so alien to me, and I have so much irrational poor-guy hatred in my heart.

I mean, I'm mostly wrong. I know I'm wrong because some rich lady could say all these stories about grocery store guys are boring because they're all losers and who cares about them and she'd be maybe doing the same thing that I’m doing. But I get a rage stomach-ache when I read about how “sailing will be much finer once these motorboats stop flying about.” Stories that are about things and clothes and status just don’t offer enough to satiate me.

All that said, I do think I'm speaking and complaining about a specific type of story. That your character has some wealth doesn't preclude you from having an interesting story, but it has to have real stakes. If it does that, then it's fine. And I’m not married to my class. I have a series of stories about a womanizing upper middle-class academic father and his fuck-up kids. I mean, not everything I write is about Throw-up Guy or Mr. Back Injury. I realize there is narrative potential virtually everywhere.

Literature, and maybe Canlit in particular, has a few genre pockets that writers often fit into naturally, and that others end up falling into through critical categorization or the writer’s own desire to find a home for their work. The genre I have to be on the lookout for—as in avoid falling into—is what Saul Bellow called the novel of “wounded ethnicity,” or stories exclusively about the first-generation children-of-immigrants-trying-to-balance-traditional-values with-their-modern-lives. Is there a type of writing, or story, that you find yourself shying away from writing?

I don't want to write angry tough guy stories.

Really? That’s not what comes to mind when I think of a well-worn genre, as something to be avoided.

If I write about people who punch each other, there needs to be a reason for it. They need to have depth or emotions or intelligence. I hate that fake rawness that's supposed to be shocking, thrilling. I’ve seen lots of Bukowski wannabes who do this sort of thing. It’s not really specific to Can Lit, but it’s what I try to avoid. Because some of my stories have been violent or have “risqué” material in them, it’s something I’m wary of.

Yeah, that sort of thing is my least favourite. It makes me give Bukowski and Palahniuk their proper due when I see how putrid knockoffs of that work can be.

Absolutely. I never want to write caricatures. Most of what I do is trying to figure out the why behind things. Trying to unravel my small theories about what I see during my day. If I’m writing solely to shock people, if I’m coming up with characters to serve some stylistic affectation that I have, then I’m not doing work that’s honest or engaging or even interesting.

You insist that a day when you get published or win a prize is still a day where you just nod and then continue on with your work. What about the financial component of a win like the Founders’ award? Does it have a practical impact on the way you use your time, or perhaps an effect on the way you think about your career?

Well, I’m insistent that success is relative and happiness is fleeting. Writers are needy losers and we can depress ourselves easily by chasing “acclaim.” I’m very careful with my emotions about this stuff—it’s easy to get carried away and disappoint or hurt yourself with expectations or delusions of grandeur. Linda’s praise meant a lot when I read it, and getting the award a second time is a huge honour, but it doesn’t change my responsibilities. When I get news, I tell my girlfriend about it so that she can scream and jump up and down, but that kind of thing’s not going to do me any good, because it’ll be another six months before I hear any kind of news. The things that serve me well is meeting my word count or finishing something that I’ve been working on for a very long time. Awards and contests and acclaim, critical reviews and interviews, all that stuff is nice, but it’s not the point and it won’t make you happy. Writing—making something out of nothing— is what’s fun and meaningful. That’s what you have to focus on.

Money is different. It means something if a highly competitive, well-read magazine wants your work, and wants to pay you for it. And I think it makes better writers. There’s some kind of natural selection that we get to take part in when we submit, and it can only make us stronger. What’s the challenge of having your work published on a website that doesn’t pay you and accepts everything they’re given? Didn’t you work hard on your story? Why would you give it away for free? With few exceptions, I’m not interested in submitting my work to non-paying magazines or journals.

Monetary compensation doesn’t change my schedule or afford me more freedom or anything like that. I don’t think that happens until they make a bad movie out of your books. This $1000 dollars will remain untouched in my Dental Emergency Nest Egg. If anything, money’s more of a confidence booster. It means that my work has value, and it has value to smart, talented people who have been at this longer than I have. It does give me hope, however, that I might not have to pour draft and sell hamburgers forever.

Naben Ruthnum

Naben Ruthnum

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