Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “A Matter of Life and Death or Something”

Ben  Stephenson

Ben Stephenson

January 2012

What inspired you to write A Matter of Life and Death or Something?

The first thing was Arthurís character. Iíd been trying to make work about childhood and stuff when I was doing film at NSCAD, but everything I made was pretty cartoony and kind of cutesy. And I had this idea of a character, which was a little boy with an elaborate routine, inside his room. (Itís funny because that idea sort of turned into the book trailer video, years later.) So I was going to try to tell a story about the boy in a short film, but I hated school too much. I took a year off and went to Vancouver and started reading and writing fiction around then. Itís silly but I think for a first novel part of your inspiration is probably like meta-inspiration, or whatever. Itís like ďI keep saying Iím writing a novel! How inspiring! What a thrill!Ē So it was that kind of obsessive thing, combined with the idea of Arthur, and trying to figure out what his story was. Also there was this photo I took of like, a web of tree branches and leaves, with the sun glowing through it all. That image was often in my head when I was writing, even though I donít know how big of a role it even plays in the book. Things like that are weird.

So much of the charm and pathos and humor of the novel come from its central protagonist, ten year old Arthur. What drew you to his character? Was it difficult to write the bulk of the novel from the perspective of somebody so young?

I donít know what this says about me as a person or writer, but the funny thing is that it wasnít hard at all to write Arthurís voice. If you want to hear about hard, we could talk about Phil. But Arthur was this very strange natural process for me. I think for a lot of people, especially around age twenty or so, you wish you were still a little kid. The worldís getting suddenly so huge and weird, and thereís this nostalgia and hysteria, a desire for a simpler consciousness. Itís pretty normal, I think. Arthur allowed me to pretend I was still a kid in a way. You could even call it an escape, if you want. I think a lot of the book is about trying to escape too, so it makes sense.

Also I mean when youíre twenty to twenty-three youíre basically still ten, you know? It didnít take much, if any, effort to dumb down my vocabulary or make grammatical errors or obsess about huge illogical worries, is what I mean. Maybe it was actually a form of like, admitting who I actually was.

The novel is actually narrated by three different entities: Arthur, a notebook Arthur finds in the forest behind his house written by a man named Phil, and the forest itself. For a first novel this is incredibly ambitious. At any point did you consider writing from one perspective only? How did you weave these three narratives into something so singular and affecting?

Itís funny because the things youíre seeing as ambitious are the things I find most embarrassing, in a way. Just like the character age thing. Iíd love to be able to write a long coherent very adult book in a smooth grown-up voice. Thatís an ambition of mine, but at the same time I doubt itíll ever happen. Writing from multiple perspectives was something that intrigued me, probably from reading Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, and it also allowed me to jump around a lot. I have A.D.D., like everyone seems to. So I think itís actually easier for me to wrap my jumpy head around a project if itís fractured, or has Touretteís, in a sense.

Around the second draft, I did cut the trees out completely though. They just didnít have their own story, and they were getting all preachy. They were actually becoming like a Greenpeace ad or something. But my best friend and best writer pal told me to keep them in, or she like made me put them back in, and I trusted her, and Iím glad I did. They worked out in the end, I think.

And probably I wished I could throw Phil out of the novel every step of the way, but then there would have been no novel, of course.

Did you do anything in particular to get into the spirit of each character?

Not too much. Like I said, itís easy to get into a childís character when youíre trying to escape growing up. I guess Iíd listen to certain music; I definitely have personal playlists for the novel. Definitely for Phil it was the hardest. The kinds of things Phil says are things I think real people say, but usually not out loud, and not on demand. I always felt like I was faking Phil, for about three drafts. The last time I rewrote him, I had to submit and try to like, be him, in a way. It is weird to talk about. Iím an actor when Iím writing, even more than Iím a writer. You become a method actor, sometimes, in order to get something out, and itís actually scary sometimes. And there are also certain songs that can turn me into Phil immediately. I donít know about the trees. But in all cases itís listening, for me. I always have the sense, even though itís a delusion, that the character already exists. If I try to make a character, I think Iíll always be faking it. But if I can just listen to them telling me what theyíre all about Ė even though it sounds weird and metaphysical and alchemical Ė thatís the only way I ever seem to get words on paper I donít want to just cross out and crumple up.

There are a number of mysteries and unstated backstories to the characters in the book. Some of it a reader can figure out by conjecture, and in other cases they remain unknowable to the reader. How challenging is it to leave well enough alone with backstory? Is there as much of a challenge in ďleaving outĒ as there is in ďadding inĒ?

Adding-in for me would be way more challenging than leaving-out. Because the way I think about characters and the type of listening Iím talking about is a very present-tense kind of thing. I am trying to get down who someone is. When I have to write backstory it usually feels kind of arbitrary and annoying to me, even though it isnít; itís super relevant. And itís as real as anything else fictional. But I find it hard. Thatís the truth: I hate writing backstory, and Iím bad at it. And sometimes I hate reading it, if itís done in a silly way. Iím bad at figuring out how, in life, one thing can be seen to have led to another. So yeah. I do know most of the mysteries and the lacunae in the book, I think. If you asked me, I could come up with them, and I have, but then thereís also the iceberg idea that Hemingway talked about, too. I donít like showing off much of the iceberg.

And one of the best parts about fiction, as a medium, is that the reader gets to invent what isnít explicit, and bring that to it. I like knowing that some of that room is there.

This is a deeply humane and touching novel, one that is by turns funny-as-hell and quite sad and moving. How did you balance the humor with the melancholy? What did you most want to achieve with this novel?

Thanks for saying it was funny. I donít know how to respond to that. I think what I wanted to achieve was, personally, to know I could tell a story that meant something to someone. I mean I had like, aesthetic opinions and rules and ambitions while writing it, but I think my real want was just to feel like Iíd made something that could allow someone to feel a little less alone, for a few days or hours. Or one second. I also wanted to tell a story that could end in a hopeful way and not be contrived or feel like a fraud. I donít know if I totally succeeded or not, but I hope so.

Who are some of your literary heroes? What is it about their writing that you love so much?

There are a number of writers I admire, but if weíre going to use the word ďhero,Ē at this point thereís only two, for me. J.D. Salinger and David Foster Wallace. And I think the link between them is voice. Theyíre obviously such different writers, sensibility-wise, and in so many ways, but both of them can embody the voice of a character to such a degree that you feel the characters are 100% real people you could happen to meet one day. Or become. When Salinger passed away I cried. It was maybe my first real experience with missing someone who died. Someone you never got to meet. And I hadnít read any David Foster Wallace yet when he died.

Theyíre both the type of writer that you pretend is your best friend. Holden Caulfield said it best too: ďÖa book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.Ē

I wish I had more Canadian heroes. Iím a little uncomfortable with that. Also lately Iíve been auditioning Kafka for the role of the third hero, and weíll see how he works out. So far so good.

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