The first time I met Iain was through friends at a John K. Samson show right here in Kingston. It was a cold February night and the Grad Club was buzzing with restless energy and anticipation; all of its dimly lit, meandering rooms were full of overeducated twentysomethings sipping drinks, keen on a cheap night of live indie music. While the stage-shy opening act for John K. worked their way through a few tentative bars of song, Iain and I had the chance to talk. Almost immediately, I knew he was the kind of person that I like most: bright, quick, soft-spoken, and thoughtful, with an understated sense of self.
Since then, I’ve read One Bird’s Choice – Iain’s critically-acclaimed memoir and winner of the CBC Bookie Award for Best Nonfiction Book – as well as some of his on-going literary journalism for the National Post and Kingston Life. Throughout Iain’s work, it’s clear that those very same notes of personality and temperament influence the style and content of his writing. But Iain’s prose is much more than that, too: it’s also funny as hell and illustrates what an astute observer he is, with disarming detail, of everyday life’s small but important moments.
Iain and I have kept in touch since that winter concert. Last month I sat down with him to talk about the latest in his life, from the art of writing and what it means to blur the lines between genres to how he finds inspiration in a good night’s sleep and the forthcoming release of his new book, The Truth About Luck.
1. The last time Kingstonist spoke with you was in 2010, shortly after the publication of your first book, the quirky coming-of-age memoir One Bird’s Choice. What are some of the biggest changes your writing career has seen since then?
It seems to me not a whole lot has changed. My writing process is mostly the same. I still spend a large amount of time working on longish projects that may or may not materialize. I guess these days I am writing more short stuff too, essays, some stories, just stuff I think about. I write regularly for the National Post about writing and books. I’ve written a few sports and music pieces. My first book was translated into a few languages and was recently released in Germany and China, so that’s new, I guess.
2. Some of your other projects in journalism focus on the experience of being an author living in Kingston and offer thoughtful reflections on a young writer’s life. Do you ever struggle to strike a balance between the public and private, e.g. selecting which parts of your everyday life you share and the details keep to yourself?
No, I don’t worry about that. I worry about a lot of things, like if what I’m writing is any good or worthwhile. I worry about not writing when I’m procrastinating. I worry about my posture when I’ve been at my desk for a long stretch. I worry about consistently eating beyond a healthy weekly quota of peanut butter. So I try not to worry about if I’m revealing too much in my writing. I’m a private person, I think, so have developed an effective, built-in filter. The parts I do write about allow me to keep all the other stuff, the majority of stuff, hidden. Writing about my life isn’t like being on a reality show. It’s (only) me who gets to decide what I write about.
3. Your new book, The Truth About Luck, comes out in March 2013. This is another work of creative nonfiction that, with warmth and humor, explores everything from family and aging to adversity and what it means to be lucky. What draws you to memoir as a genre?
It’s funny, when I’m writing non-fiction that eventually will be released as memoir, I never think I’m writing memoir. It feels like I’m writing a novel. It’s all true, everything happened, but building a world and characters for any kind of story, be it memoir or novel, is a parallel process. These fiction/non-fiction distinctions are relatively new and don’t really help the reader, in my opinion. It’s just a true, book-length story. But novels are “true” too, right, so it’s complicated.
4. Beyond writing, you have a well-documented love of basketball and adventures in the kitchen. Are there any other unexpected interests or passions that come close?
Not many. I read a lot. I listen to music. I like to take walks. I like to drink coffee and talk with friends. But you see what’s happening – when I actually start to reflect on and index my interests it becomes uncomfortably clear how unexciting I am, which is something I usually try to deny and suppress.
5. Kingston is quite a literary city with an arts and culture scene that punches well above its size. Aside from your connection as a Queen’s alumni, did that play any role in your decision to live here? And what do you love most about life in Kingston?
Apart from professors, I didn’t know any writers when I moved here. Now I’ve met quite a few. There’s a very supportive, healthy literary community, both writers and readers. Kingstonians read and care about books, which is cool. Lots of excellent book stores around: Novel Idea, Berry & Peterson, Wayfarer, just to name a few. Not to mention the libraries. I love the Screening Room. I like being close to the lake. I enjoy the climate. This city also has some very good sandwiches.
6. A deceptively simple, but all too easily underestimated question: What inspires you?
Mostly a good night’s sleep. And reading. There are a lot of books I love and have read over and over and each one influences my writing. I have to be careful because sometimes the very best ones can generate the antithesis of inspiration. Engaging with certain books that are truly brilliant has the potential to make me feel like throwing my computer and all my notes out of a fast-moving vehicle, and finding a bakery to ask for a job kneading bread or something (which I think I might enjoy). So, yeah, a good night’s sleep.
Photo credit to Lars Hagberg, all rights reserved. Photo originally appeared in the Globe & Mail.