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An Interview with Meredith Quartermain, Part 4

The fourth and final part of my interview with Meredith Quartermain, whose new short story collection, I, Bartleby, launched April 23rd.

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I Bartleby by Meredith QuartermainBook Design

RS: The book cover and book design: beautiful. The cover art from your own collection, entitled “Haunted House,” by Susan Bee. I am reminded of a long ago article in Canadian Dimension about a Quebec psychoanalyst: “A human being is a haunted house!” What can you tell us about the artist and her work? How did you come to choose this painting and this particular detail? 

MQ: Susan Bee has been painting since the 60s in New York City where she lives. She is a brilliant colourist. Her works are readily available for view on-line, and I highly recommend them. I have been following her work since the 80s. Some of her early works involved the iconography of women. She used cutouts from magazines and painted around them. I found these pieces very absorbing and intriguing, and used one of them on the cover of Recipes from the Red Planet. Her work is full of wit and drollery, yet serious at the same time.

I loved The Haunted House as soon as I saw it at her opening in New York. It was a couple of years before I thought I could afford to buy it and did. I totally agree with the human as a haunted house. I, Bartleby definitely explores some of my many ghosts, particularly literary ones.

Process

RS: What surprised you during the writing of this book…that is, after you developed the stories, (several were printed in literary journals) and then collected them into this particular iteration, were you startled, bemused, jolted in any way? 

MQ: The thing is I wrote them right from the start as pieces that would resonate with each other in certain ways. They were always intended to sit together. Nevertheless I had to do some tweaking. I discovered for instance that because one element of many Chinese written characters looks like a stick man striding along, I had used the word “striding” a few too many times. I didn’t notice this when the pieces went out to separate magazines.

Then too, my journey through the various revisions of “Moccasin Box” forced me to get personal, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It forced me to consider the silence imposed on me by the Squamish language which I don’t speak and can only read in a dictionary. I wished that I could speak it because it was a language that came from this coastal place, not one imposed on this place from Europe. But the fact was I couldn’t; I couldn’t even pronounce the words. So what did it mean to stand on that threshold of reading a word and catching a translated glimpse of its meaning, but at the same time knowing I could never feel the way the word held meaning for a Squamish speaker?

RS: How did you know when this collection was “ready?” Were there any reverses in the completion of this book and if so, any revelations?

MQ: Once I had published most of the pieces, I knew it was ready to become a book. I also knew that I would value the final shaping and editing that a good editor can help with, where the writer finds out how the book looks to someone outside the work. M.A.C. Farrant was really stalwart in this process. Her suggestions spurred me to creative explorations; and I enjoyed where these led me to.

Philosophy

RS: Certain preoccupations seem to emerge in these stories: about representation, of place, of time, of the real and the un/real, about race and identity, about geography and power, about belonging/non-belonging…can you speak to how you think the stories in I, Bartleby might confront, negate, celebrate or interrogate any of these notions? 

MQ: Here are some examples. “How to remember” looks at humans in relation to nonhuman species, namely earthworms. It asks if there could be a reality outside the “unreal Reality that writes, Earthworms who eat rotting leaves in temperate forests are invasive species, but Homo sapiens who burn down forests for hamburger farms are creating wealth”? “Chow Lung” tells a story about Ethel Wilson’s Chinese cook, how he watches the Wilsons looking at and thinking about and representing him, in photographs and stories. “How to converse” tells the story of a somewhat marginalized writer at a literary party, who is jealous of a male writer surrounded by female fans. The piece dedicated to Christine Stewart reinvents world and language from the viewpoint of Vico’s giantesses from Vico, while acknowledging the plight of homeless who now live under bridges

RS: There’s a kind of inter-textuality between genres of writing; between time and its dimensions, (past future, the present); between male and female, colour and non-coloured (in terms of race/ethnicity); between those with power, and those outside of power…and so on.

MQ: Yes, as though I’m standing at the crossroads of everything, all the different discourses at work on my voice and subjectivity. Producing what it is. Yet I’m compelled to use whatever agency I have to make them visible.

Classique

RS: What books are your currently reading and what music are you listening to…did you listen to any particular music when writing these stories?

MQ: I’m almost as bad as Proust and his cork-lined room when it comes to needing silence in order to write. So no music going for sure.

On the reading, well I completely loved Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy. It is Proustian in scope, a highly readable account of what it was like for girls and women in a rough town like Naples, but also what it was like for girls and women everywhere during the 50s, 60s and 70s. It is a brilliant sociological study of the camorra, fascism, communism, 1968 idealism, and sexism, not to mention the rise of computerization. It thoroughly examines the institutions of capital, marriage, church, and family as forces of oppression, and it’s a hell of a page-turner.

At the moment I’m back to reading Melville.

RS: Meredith, you’ve been a mentor to many writers. Who were some of your mentors? 

MQ: Robin Blaser, very much so. I watched how he was in the world, and I talk about this a bit in “How to write.” I took whatever hints he gave me. I remember him saying be careful who you publish with. I remember him dropping me a broad hint one time about undigested research in my poems. He never gave detailed critiques but he always took seriously what I did. Daphne Marlatt, Rachel Blau Duplessis and Nicole Brossard have all been significant. I worked on Recipes from the Red Planet with Nicole at Sage Hill one summer. Fred Wah and Pauline Butling have also given me much guidance and encouragement.

RS: What’s next for Meredith Quartermain and have you already begun a new project?

MQ: I’m in my fourth draft of my second novel. Called U Girl. Set in 1972 Vancouver, it involves a UBC student, the characters she lives with in a rooming house, and her quest for “the great love.”

I, Bartleby is now available. Cover image featured with permission from Meredith Quartermain.

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