Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “The Divinity Gene”

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Matthew J. Trafford

Matthew J. Trafford

July 2011

In The Divinity Gene, we seem to be at the crossroads of science and spirituality. Where would you say you fit as a writer, genre-wise?

Both science and spirituality attempt to explain the unknown, and imagination is crucial to both – and imagination is also the driving engine behind fiction and stories. As a writer, I want my stories to reach as many people as possible – anyone who wants to read them and share in my imaginary worlds is most welcome. So genre doesn’t really concern me – it’s a classification that happens after the writing is done and published; as such, it’s mostly the domain of readers, booksellers and critics. I don’t think it’s my place to say what genre the collection fits into, and I would hope it doesn’t fit into just one.

I recently gave a reading of “Gutted” – a story about the dissection of a mermaid – and afterwards someone came up to me and said, “You’ll probably hate this, but I was thinking that story would be a great world to launch a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.” I don’t hate that at all. I would love for The Divinity Gene to be embraced by the science fiction, fantasy and role-playing crowd. I would love it if scientists read it. And I’m not going to lie: I’d like it if the high-minded literary set appreciated it as well. I want to find readers who love the book – that’s my only goal – and confining the book to one genre seems antithetical to that. Its whole point, as much as it has one, is to experiment with form and genre – almost like a science experiment, in a way.

Why did you opt for supernatural elements in your writing to represent the real world and current issues?

Insofar as it was a choice at all – which it wasn’t completely, I just write what I write – it’s because we’re dealing with fiction here. It’s the realm of the imagination, and anyone who picks up a book of fiction knows what they’re reading isn’t real. In that context, I’ve never been one for mimetic realism or naturalism – I read, to a certain extent, to escape the real world. Since we’re dealing with an imaginary world in any short story, why not make up something outlandish and original, give reign to supernatural things we don’t get to experience in our daily lives?

I should also say that a lot of the supernatural elements come from very old stories and myths. Because of that, they have a certain symbolic resonance built in, and readers connect with that, are already familiar with it to some extent. Stories of vampires and werewolves and other creatures have been around for thousands of years and are still hugely popular – curiosity about the supernatural is inherent to the human experience, the human imagination. It’s part of asking, “What would it be like if things were different?” I think that’s the basic question of all fiction.

Grounding supernatural elements in realistic situations also allows us to see more about our lives – lets us see the cracks in the “real world” where magic and wonder and awe and the inexplicable can seep in. That’s what I’m interested in writing about.

Recently I wondered if this penchant for supernatural elements was something I had picked up at some point during my training – perhaps I was being too influenced by what I like to read? – and also wondered whether it was a phase or something integral to my writing self. I then remembered two stories I wrote during my undergrad, before I started seriously studying writing at all. One was about a tiny boy named Little Bobby whose father found him inside a walnut, and the other was about a teenaged necrophiliac vampire hunter in Rivière du Loup (it was for this story I received my first rejection letter, by the way). So clearly this tendency towards the bizarre and supernatural is just something that’s always been with me and is just part of being the writer I am. I’m not going to fight it or try to explain it away to anybody.

In your story “The Divinity Gene,” we’re in the year 2029 and it’s written as a Wikipedia entry. Technology is currently moving so quickly and new developments are fast becoming irrelevant, i.e., who’s to say Wikipedia will still be around in 2029? What made you choose a contemporary technological reference for your futuristic work?

Of course no one can say for sure, but I’m willing to make you a $5 bet that it will be. What’s interesting to me is not the name or lifespan of the online encyclopedia, but the fact that such a thing exists at all – even when we develop new technologies, we often fail to really think outside the box or innovate - we tend to drag older analogue models into the future with us. One could argue that with all the information (good and bad) that the internet offers, we don’t need an online encyclopedia per se. Yet Wikipedia is hugely popular – probably because the smarties there figured out how to take the traditional encyclopedia form (something people were familiar with) and use internet technology (hyperlinks) to innovate on it, allowing for instant cross-referencing in a way the paper encyclopedias never really could.

On a story level, the challenge was that I wanted to get across a lot of information in a fairly short amount of time; to boot, I was talking about hundreds of Jesus clones with a world-wide presence and trying to explain their genesis, characteristics, challenges and futures – a bit of a tall order for a single section of a short story! It came to me pretty quickly that one of the most efficient ways of doing that would be an encyclopedia entry. And it seemed like an online encyclopedia would make the most sense in a tale about the future. Plus, even though Wikipedia is used worldwide, I hadn’t seen any fiction written using its format yet, which surprised me and was something I wanted to try. In the e-book version of The Divinity Gene, we designed it so that many of the hyperlinks in the story actually work – which was another fun innovation.

I did change the name from Wikipedia to Poplopedia, thinking that a) Wikipedia might not be around in 18 years, and b) that a number of online encyclopedias would spring up and be in competition with each other (though to my knowledge this hasn’t really happened).

You dedicate your book to other Traffords and you and your brother are part of an improv group called The Bromos. Clearly you are close to your family, but familial themes are not strong in your writing. Was this a conscious decision?

I do come from a close family. My brother and I live in the same house (with two other housemates), and I see my parents often. Sibling relationships aren’t so prevalent in these stories, it’s true, although a fictional version of my brother Thomas does appear in the story “Camping At Dead Man’s Point,” alongside a fictional version of me. In the fictional world, Thomas is straight and married – it was fun to imagine what our relationship might have been like were that the case.

My family has always been very supportive of my writing. My mother used to jokingly say, “Don’t write anything bad about me until I’m dead.” As a result, I’m sometimes tempted to avoid parent figures in my stories, lest my real life parents read themselves into characters that weren’t intended to represent them. Despite my attempts, however, parent-child relationships are actually very prevalent in this book – the figure of Marsha opening and closing “The Grimpils,” providing that story’s emotional core, the parents in the library in “Forgetting Helen,” the tyrannical father and powerless mother in “Gutted,” the grandfather and dead grandmother in “iFaust,” Maciej’s mother and father in “The Divinity Gene.” “Victim Services,” while it deals with the ethics of cloning, is really about parental love, and how the strength of that love can be so all-encompassing as to potentially injure its object, or make decisions that aren’t truly in the child’s best interest. The story is told through glimpses into the lives of the children and the parents both.

Speaking of improv, do you use those comedic and spontaneity skills in your literature? Or vice versa: do your writing skills help you on stage? Does the fantastical come into play in your improv?

When I started taking improv classes with The Impatient Theatre Company in Toronto, I quickly realized that a lot of the questions my teachers were encouraging me to ask about my improv scenes were the same questions fiction mentors had encouraged me to ask about my stories: Why this day instead of any other? If this one thing is true about this imaginary world, what else is true? What is the relationship between these characters, and what do they want from each other? So I think improv and writing work on a lot of the same principles, especially in terms of world-building, character development, subtext in dialogue, and so on. The two go really well together. But with improv you’re making it up on the spot, off the cuff, and acting it out live in front of an audience, and you’re creating it with another person (or more) and the resulting creation exists for only a brief time and then disappears forever. With writing, you work alone and once you have something, you keep working and working and polishing the same material, in hopes of making something beautiful that will be published as a text and therefore will last for a very long time. And your audience doesn’t get to read it until years after you’re done. So there are big differences as well.

Yes, the fantastical comes into my improv – I remember a scene with my brother where we were sanitation workers with flame-throwers, destroying dragon eggs in the New York subway system. It’s just part of who I am; I have a very active imagination. But that kind of fantastical stuff is par for the course in improv – it doesn’t seem as unusual or “genre” as it comes across in writing.

In terms of the origins of your stories, do you develop your characters first or the concept? And how does one influence the other?

Almost always the concept first. Most of my stories start for me with a concept, and then I need to figure out the voice or the structure – which are very linked. Sometimes a story is told through a character’s voice, but even in those cases I would say that really it’s the concept that comes through first for me. Who the person speaking is, and what they feel, and certainly what they look like, all come way after what is actually happening in the story and how it’s being told, for me.

The way some writers talk about their characters often leaves me perplexed, sometimes envious, sometimes amazed. Writers will talk about “going for walks” with their characters, or talking to them, or having their characters “insist” on doing things the writer never intended – that hasn’t been my experience. One of the hardest things for me is giving characters names, which I often change at the last minute with the ‘find and replace’ function in my word processor – I know writers who find the idea of this abhorrent and somehow cruel or uncaring. The Divinity Gene may have one or two too many Daniels in it – something I only noticed after it was finished. I guess for me the characters are so inside the story that I don’t let them bleed out into my real life.

And yet characters are the lifeblood of any story – they are the people, after all, and that’s what readers, who are also people, really care about. So character work becomes a huge part of my editing process, making sure they are three dimensional and believable, making sure the reader has access to (or at least clues to) how each of them is feeling and why they are behaving the way they are, what their relationships are to each other. Hopefully I’ve been successful at that.

There are prevalent themes of Toronto in your stories – the reader can’t help but place the characters in that city in many cases – and yet you published the book with a Vancouver company. Is there any disconnect for you here?

Not really. I had already built a professional relationship with Douglas & McIntyre when they published the anthology Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow, edited by Zsuzsi Gartner. I knew how great they were and had enjoyed working with them, so when Chris Labonté asked to see the manuscript for The Divinity Gene, it was a natural and easy decision to say yes. Plus, D&M do have offices in Toronto.

For the first time ever (as far as we can tell), more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. It’s a really new time for humanity and for the history and life of the city – and I see why my work can be classified as “urban,” for whatever that’s worth. And while each city of course has its own personality and flavour, there’s something interchangeable about cities, too. Certainly our major Canadian cities have their differences, but at the same time I don’t really think of Vancouver as so ontologically or essentially different from Toronto – the distinctions are skin deep, in a sense. I would like to think readers could place my stories in any major city.

It’s also a case of an author’s biography slipping over into the reading of their fictional work. I don’t think the word “Toronto” appears at all in the book – and only two stories are really set there, “Past Perfect” and “The Renegade Angels of Parkdale.” In the first case, readers familiar with the Church-Wellesley area of Toronto would recognize it in the story, but there’s no reason that story couldn’t happen in another city that has a gay village – be it Vancouver or New York or Manchester or Sydney. Same too with the angels story – part of the point of it is that every city has a neighbourhood like Parkdale, and within the story references are made to angel bars in Brooklyn and New Orleans and Berlin and Amsterdam. If you didn’t know Parkdale was in Toronto, that story could take place anywhere. I recently had a reader from New York message me on Facebook and say that she loved “The Angels of Renegade Park” – an interesting inversion. I don’t know if that’s a real neighbourhood, but I liked the slip she made. I’m always trying to open my stories up to as many readings as possible, not limit them down to one specific setting (or interpretation).

You’ve recently developed the YOSS manifesto – a defense of the short story format. Why do you stand so ardently behind this form of writing?

It’s just a really beautiful, challenging, incredible form, which to my mind brings the most delight both to read and to write. And it’s the form I’ve read the most, and certainly written in the most. But the market hasn’t been kind to short stories in the past couple decades, and as a result publishers are increasingly uninterested in short story collections, which they see as books they can’t sell. The thing is: it’s not really true – talk to readers on the street and they’ll tell you how much they love short stories. To a truly frightening extent, people buy what they’re told to buy – so it just seemed like something needed to be done to promote the short story form and its marketability, and to encourage booksellers and publishers not to give up on this brilliant form. YOSS seemed like the perfect answer – and it’s been working!

It was Sarah Selecky who first coined the terms YOSS – the Year of the Short Story – because 2010 was such a great year for short fiction collections (at least in terms of prize nominations, which often neglect the form), and because we knew of many great short story books coming out in 2011. Together with Jessica Westhead, whose collection And Also Sharks came out from Cormorant this year, we penned the manifesto and put it up at www.yoss2011.com. The response has been fantastic, with all kinds of support from book bloggers, readers, and booksellers who have set up special short fiction tables and sections in their stores.

Now we just have to figure out how to keep the movement going once 2011 comes to a close!

You’re also working on a novel. What has the difference been in the writing process? And what is your new novel about?

The process is similar in many ways – not nearly so different as I was expecting. One thing that’s really surprising is that, at least for me, there’s not really more story to a novel, even though it’s so much longer – you just show more of it in a novel. Novels are big and galumphing and sprawling and plot-driven and they rush along, and by necessity are somewhat less language-conscious than short stories. But I’m not going to sacrifice the quality of my prose just because it’s a longer work. In a novel I can write a whole chapter – with scenes and all kinds of detail – about something that would be a single sentence in a short story – or something implied in the subtext of a sentence in a short story. And it’s very much still in progress – I’m learning as I go, reading lots of novels for a change and putting all my short story ideas on a shelf for another time.

My novel is going to be called The Tworphins. My standard answer is, “It’s about twins.” But I guess I can tell you a little bit more about it here: it’s about orphaned twins – as in, one of the twins has died. More specifically, a group of orphaned twins. More specifically, a cultish group of orphaned twins that claims access to psychic contact with their deceased siblings and tries to recruit a newly bereaved man… well, now I’m giving too much away.

What was the most difficult story to write in the collection – from any point of view: personal, technical, etc.?

The very first story I wrote, and one of the very last to be finished, was “The Grimpils.” When I originally had the idea for this story, it was to be told from the point of view of a sociologist studying the Grimpils (gay refugees inexplicably drawn to Paris in thrall to “the Author”). The main story was going to be in the form of an official report or study, with the footnotes providing the sociologist’s personal impressions and emotions about the Grimpils. But when it came time to really write it, the omniscient point of view felt more appropriate. Yet the footnotes stayed – and took on an even more “personal” meaning by revealing the inner impressions and thoughts of four characters instead of just one. The story had potential from the first draft – but it needed a lot of work.

Figuring out the order of the elements that open the story was also very challenging. Several characters are introduced, as well as the large scope of the story, and it was difficult to do this in a way that would let the reader keep everyone straight and also clued in as to what was going on. Finding the exact perfect ending was also tricky – hell, the whole thing was hard.

It was also difficult because there’s a few different levels of satire going on – kind of a political satire about how gays are (or could be) treated in society, but also a satire on the kind of obsessive fandom gay men are prone to. The Grimpils are more effeminate, whereas characters like Richard and Nick “pass” more easily – and Louis is conflicted as to whether he would rather be a Grimpil. And then there was the matter of whether or not to name the author figure in the story – he is modeled on David Sedaris, and many readers pick up on that. But I decided not to use his name so as not to exclude readers who aren’t familiar with Sedaris, and also because there will always be foreign writers living in Paris. I heard from one reader who thought the Author was James Baldwin, and I loved that.

So for many reasons, one of which is how hard it was to write, in my heart of hearts “The Grimpils” is my favourite story. I’m very happy with the way it turned out.

Are you an optimist? Do you have a positive outlook for the future?

Yes and yes. Oh yes. I have a great outlook for the future. Writing is an inherently hopeful act; optimism is wired right into it. So is reading. Without a positive outlook, there’s no point in either activity. But I do think in order to move forward in a positive way, we need to be honest about how bad things really are, and how evil each of us can be, and where we’re headed if we don’t change things. It’s only through facing this that we’re going to get anywhere good.

I think the future will probably hold some pretty challenging moments, but I have great faith in the human spirit of ingenuity, and the ability of people to be selfless and generous in our most dire moments.

To order a copy of The Divinity Gene, visit Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca or your local bookstore.

D&M Marketing, Jul 15, 2011
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Matthew J. Trafford

Matthew J. Trafford

January 2011

A great interview over at London Time with Matthew J. Trafford, discussing the writing process for his new collection of stories, The Divinity Gene, and the resulting two-book deal he secured with Douglas & McIntyre.

London Time, Jan 26, 2011
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