Coffee, Rain, and Writing // a sit down with Chris Ewart

Interview with: Chris Ewart

Written by: Cassy Oberndorf

I met up with Chris Ewart in a Bean Around the World on Main and 20th on a particularly rainy Thursday afternoon; the sounds of coffee being ground, heavy rainfall pattering outside and the hum of customers flooded our encounter. It was not the first time we had sat down together at this coffee shop, and I hope it will not be the last either. Chris is a published author and an English professor; he has worked for the Calgary Herald as an arts writer, taught arts writing at the University of Calgary and at the Alberta College of Arts and Design and has also taught in the English department at Simon Fraser University. Currently, Chris is teaching at Farleigh Dickson University’s Vancouver branch. Our meeting was more like a casual encounter than an interview as I had taken a class with him at SFU. Chris was very interested in the class that assigned me this interview. When I mentioned writing in and for the arts, he immediately showed a keen interest in the subject.

“Often, artists and arts students are great because they are non-linear thinkers, generally, so they will be really creative with creative responses… but sometimes the mechanics behind expressing something clearly [through writing] aren’t there. And so it’s just getting artists to write more confidently, more vividly, more accurately about their work because they’re like, ‘well it’s just abstract’… yeah but what does that mean? There’s probably some sort of narrative happening in the work and your job as an artist is to try and express that clearly.”

I asked Chris if this ever comes into play with his own work, besides teaching others how to write for the arts.

“Yes because it’s one of the hardest things ever to do when you publish something. Your publisher says ‘well OK, write the description for the back of the book. You have 200 words, go.’ It’s really hard, and that’s part of it, is just to sort of kernelize key moments and key words, or key ideas to get them across as clearly as possible, because there are a lot of write ups in galleries, you probably have seen them around Vancouver; you see a write up for a piece of art, I’ve seen stuff with typos in it, and stuff that doesn’t make sense and I’m thinking this doesn’t make any sense, you spend forever on your work itself, whatever mediums you choose to use and then you have to write a description of it for the general public and it doesn’t make sense…”

Chris’ 3 three-year-old son, Hamish, who was completely covered in chocolate banana bread, then interrupted us; we concluded he must be looking for a napkin. It was interesting to watch a man who instructed me a whole semester, through the metaphorical sweat and the not-so metaphorical tears of my creative process, become a ball of mush to his adorable son and just as quickly turn back on to the topic we were discussing.

“Arts writing, there needs to be more practice with that for artists because sooner or later, like myself for example, I don’t make a living off writing at all, it’s impossible, and I barely make a living off teaching, so another avenue for most artists and writers, unless your independently wealthy, is writing grants. And if you can’t describe your work really clearly and confidently then the jury just goes ‘what’ and so if artists say ‘I don’t need to write an artist statement, why should I defend my work?’ It’s like well, someone has to and you should be the first, unless you’re OK with someone speaking on your behalf, which I am not. You want to have that control, you have artistic control of whatever you are producing, for the most part, so why not have that same control over what you are writing”

We were further interrupted and amused by Hamish’s antics; he clearly was very interested in what we were doing, as much as a three year old can be. We digressed and found our way back on topic, I asked Chris the most classic of questions for those in the arts, why did he start writing? And why did he take it as far as a PhD?

“I’ve always loved writing, I used to tell stories all the time in elementary school and I’d tell stories to my friends. And I’d write little stories in writing and reading classes, as early as grade school I remember, and then in high school I got a chance to take a creative writing class. I got 52% in it because the English teacher, who was awesome, she was one of the best English teachers I ever had. So she was really pro-equality and she would give us her lesbian love poetry to read and she was just awesome. And she used to say ‘OK I want people to write a poem for next class’ and of course I’d show up with a short story, or she’d say ‘write a short story’ and I’d show up with a poem. So I was trying to write whatever I liked and not follow the rules, but even that practice of bristling up against someone else’s expectations kind of taught me early on that maybe I should pay attention to someone who has done this stuff before! I was just a too cool for school kind of guy. And then the only place I thought you could study creative writing when I was about 19 or 20 was UBC, and I grew up in Ontario and then travelled and thought about it off and on and after travelling for years and years and making a living primarily busking and stuff, I came back to Calgary and met someone who had just finished her English degree and I was like ‘hmm, this looks alright’ and just sort of backed into it I guess. I applied as an unclassified student and got into English eventually, did OK in it and then I gave, in a poetry class, I gave my instructor some really crappy poems I had, like deliberately spacing all the words out, just trying really hard… and she said ‘you know, I can’t really comment on these, but there’s a creative writing department here at the University of Calgary’ and I was like ‘there is?!’ and that’s how I got hooked. And then I managed to get a portfolio that was good enough even though my English instructor said considering how banal your portfolio was you’ve done really well. So I was sort of learning from other students in the class and other instructors obviously, and sort of working through a bunch of courses more or less with a group…”

Chris went on to talk about the Advanced Creative Writing class that he had instructed at SFU that I had taken with him. He enjoyed that everyone in the class had a great dynamic of different backgrounds and passions within the craft of creative writing and that we all worked together so well, not to mention that the group was relatively small and thus made good friends with each other quickly. This really brought me back to the reason I wanted to interview Chris in the first place, it was a memorable class and I felt that he and I shared a connection of stumbling upon creative writing as a real option rather than just a hobby.

“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to study creative writing as I wanted to get a degree in English just to do something other than travelling… and when I found out I could get credit for Creative Writing classes I thought ‘this is great’ and then the creative writing took on more energy and by the time I was finished my MA a big component of it was a manuscript class and there I finished most of a rough draft of a manuscript of my first novel”

Miss Lamp, a novel by Chris Ewart, 2006. Image courtesy of Coach House Publishing.

Miss Lamp, a novel by Chris Ewart, 2006. Image courtesy of Coach House Publishing.

Miss Lamp is Chris’ first and, currently, only novel and he had gifted it to everyone in my class at the end of the semester. And that’s the thing about Chris, he really does care about his students and he wants to support future writers as much as he can. Throughout our meet-up we kept falling back into talking about getting a group together of past students of his and colleagues of mine who just need a space to get together with other writers to work on their practice. As Chris put it, “Vancouver can be a very cold place considering how cultural it is.” On the note of always continuing one’s practice, Chris mentioned that he was intending on publishing his second book right after the first, but several years later is only currently just finishing the last couple dozen pages. I asked him how teaching affected his writing, if his students and their processes inspire him or if it’s more just a hindrance on his time to focus on his own craft.

“I think that it depends on how taxing the class is. The stuff I’m doing now, where I am teaching international students mostly, the teaching is comparatively less taxing, the teaching isn’t so in depth, it’s just sort of getting into reading and writing efficiently. So in that sense it doesn’t take away but also if I flip it over, I would argue that creative writing students generally are better academic writers. I think that generally, if you are studying creative writing and you’re getting credit for it towards your overall degree, it helps all those other courses a lot, it helps writing in different fields because you start reading your academic stuff as if you are editing your creative stuff, paying attention to every detail, so I don’t know if teaching takes away [from my writing], I mean I’ve taught creative writing courses in the past and I loved teaching English 372 at Simon Fraser, so for me it’s maybe that it’s primarily a chance for me to share my experiences and successes and turn that into a successful practice. I think a thing that creative writing classes don’t spend nearly enough time on is getting the work out there, and I think that there needs to be more of a component of that.”

I thought about the fact that Chris had experience in writing for and about the arts, and because it is an area I am personally interested in getting into I asked him how he felt about the industry.

“I think that arts writing is needed, you read so many reviews now that are not very good, some are OK, but there doesn’t seem to be enough people who are passionate about it or even getting into it.”

We got a little back on topic of Chris’ career, and began to talk about his book, a reading experience that I described to him as feeling as though I was on some sort of drug because of it’s purposeful ambiguity about the setting and characters that left me feeling as though I floated in a haze through it all, only sometimes awoken by jarringly odd moments such as love scene with between a woman and a peach.

“Yeah, it ended up being a deliberate choice to remove any specific references to time or to place, I wanted to break narrow expectations. A lot of old and new novels have this romantic realism going on, everything has to be in micro-details almost, and to me that’s not what is successful about narrative. When I feel disrupted by the narrative or weirded out or surprised that’s when it’s more interesting for me. Now that doesn’t necessarily translate into a commercially successful work, far from it, I mean I joke that the royalties that I’ve collected off of Miss Lamp will be enough to get my three year old son a nice lunch box, and that’s assuming that there will still be public school’s left when he’s ready to go to school. But that’s sort of a risk that you take as a creative writer, but for me that ‘s the only way I’m comfortable writing, where I am deliberately trying to evacuate the text of certain things and direct readers to details they might otherwise overlook. In [Miss Lamp], you can tell sort of what time it is in the fictional world because I make references to things like banana seats, which were a big thing on bikes in the 1970s, so those references I think will be there, but no specific ones. And there is a Peachland, BC [the book takes place in a Peachland] even though that real Peachland wasn’t really in my head when I was writing it. There’s a poem that I kind of lifted from Peter Davison called Peaches ‘I beseech you peach, clench me into the sweetness of your reaches’ – and that’s sort of the PG14 moment of the book, in some ways there’s a lot of novels that have that sort of risqué, romantic scene, or that coupling where the reader’s like ‘oh what’s going to happen’ so for me, I just thought I’d subvert it a bit, to write a normative expectation in a different way so it leaves readers with hopefully a different appreciation of what is possible.”

Peaches, 2015. Image courtesy of The Peachland Museum’s website.

Peaches, 2015. Image courtesy of The Peachland Museum’s website.

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