Interview with SFWP author, Ray Robertson

Ray Robertson graduated from the University of Toronto with High Distinction with a B.A. in philosophy and later gained an M.F.A. in creative writing from Southwest Texas State University.

He is the author of the novels Home Movies, Heroes, Moody Food, Gently Down the Stream, and What Happened Later, as well as a collection of non-fiction, Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing.

He is a contributing book reviewer to the Toronto Globe and Mail, appears regularly CBC’s Talking Books, and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

How did you come to write Moody Food? It’s obvious you love this period and the music…

I fell in love with the music of Gram Parsons when I was 22 and knew I would write a novel about him one day. It took ten years and two other novels first, but Moody Food turned out to be that book.

Your words really capture the music—in fact, some of your prose has a real musical quality. Are you a musician?

All good writers have their own inimitable music; I like to think all of my novels sound like me, regardless of the subject matter.

Was it my imagination, or did Brian Wilson, from the Beach Boys, make an appearance in the novel?

I went through a big B.W./Smile period when I was writing my second novel, Heroes, largely due to a very musically astute record store clerk, Mark Boyd, when I lived in San Marcos, TX, in the mid-90’s. Thomas Graham in Moody Food is a composite of G.P., Brian Wilson, and every other person and place I’ve been.

Were your parents children of the Sixties? How did you get so “inside” the feeling of the period without being there?

The same way, I suppose, Tolstoy got a feeling for the Napoleonic War–sat down and wrote and wrote until the world of his book was as real or even more real than the world outside his window.

At the end of Moody Food, you write: “This is a work of fiction and therefore of truth. Certain facts have been modified toward this end.” Can you explain this?

It means just what it says: don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth. Metaphysics is why and how we live; oftentimes information has to be bent toward the best way to illuminate this.

If there is any classic epiphany to be had in Moody Food, what is it?

Probably, but it’s best left to each reader to decide what it is.

One of the themes of your novel is how genius really isn’t enough sometimes. Is this ever a hard reality for you to face as a person or as an author?

Not being a genius, I wouldn’t know.

I get a sense that you love your characters. How real do they become for you? There’s a deep sadness, a feeling of loss, the reader experiences with Bill Hansen, the protagonist.

Again, you write and write until the voice of your character rings true; it’s like a musician getting his instrument in tune. You hit a lot of off-notes warming up, but when you finally get your instrument in tune, you know it, it just sounds right. Then you’re in business.

Do you find writing sex scenes difficult? Same goes for writing about drugs (as they figure so heavily toward moving the story along at the end of Moody Food)? Do you ever worry what your relations might think?

Sex and intoxicants are two of humanity’s most coveted, complicated states of being, so it’s a writer’s job to explore them; writers who shirk them as subject matter aren’t, to my mind, worth reading. As for family and friends’ reactions to my novels, I’m with Faulkner: “Ode on A Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.”

What do you think of “cutting edge fiction”? You know the “hip” stuff. You write about something that some might consider hip, and the irreverent subject Thomas Graham is awesome, but your prose is gorgeous in a more mannered sense, and the story draws on classical themes and plot work. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated…

Good work endures. My career goal is that twenty years from now some overwrought, myopic, mildly depressed fat girl in Wichita, Kansas will discover my book and somehow find the spur to make up her own stories and therefore save her own soul.

Is there any particular author you truly admire?

The same ones that made me want to write novels: Thomas McGuane, Barry Hannah, Kerouac.

OK, this may sound self-serving, but what do you think about small presses versus large publishing houses. Are there any first-hand impressions that you’d like share about either?

I’ve been with both, but the truth is that a bigger publisher’s number one priority is to move product. Which is fine–that’s what corporations do. Presses like SFWP are set up to publish good art, and maybe, hopefully, in the process not lose so much money that the bank forecloses on their houses. Publishers like Andrew Gifford at SFWP are fucking heroes. Fools, maybe, too, but you probably can’t have one without the other.

What musicians do you most admire?

Gram Parsons, John Hartford, Townes Van Zandt, the Stooges, Richard Thompson, Gillian Welch–anyone who weds soul with a memorable melody.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

Research is for Grade Eight science projects–I lived my characters lives and then wrote about it, even when I didn’t actually live it.

What is your most prized possession?

My 1971 original pressing of John Hartford’s album “Aereo-Plain.” That, and my 1968, original pressing of Wild Man Fischer’s “An Evening with Wild Man Fischer.”

What is the one thing in life you can’t live without?

Oxygen.

What is your greatest accomplishment to date?

Making it to 41.

What was the best advice you ever received as a writer?

If you can stop, do it; if you can’t stop, then you’re a writer.

Best advice you can give a budding writer.

Avoid hard drugs and free jazz.

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For more on Ray, visit his webpage at Rayrobertson.com

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