interview with Michael Bryson

submission info

by james hörner

Michael Bryson is both writer and editor. As editor, he looks after The Danforth Review. His first book of short stories, Thirteen Shades of Black and White was published by Turnstone Press in Oct. 1999. His second book, a collection of stories including the title novella, Only a Lower Paradise, was published by Boheme Press in Sept. 2000.

only a lower paradise 13 shades of black and white

why did you start The Danforth Review?

TDR started as a lark, really. I wanted to try out some web-stuff, and I wanted to play with live ammunition. I used to write reviews for Paragraph magazine, which focused on the Cdn small press scene before it folded in the late-1990s. I asked a couple of publishers if they would send review copies to a small online lit magazine, and they said they would; then I just went ahead and built it, and - amazingly! - people started to submit their work. The rest is history. I thought I would do it for 2 years, then see how things are going - and right now (August 2001) it's almost 2 years old, and things are going super.

you've been editing The Danforth Review for a couple of years now - what have you learned about publishing and editing?

Publishing and editing is sometimes perceived as sexy, but - really - it's mostly administration, keeping up with the flow of submissions, and trying to provide writers with clear expectations - and meeting those expectations. I enjoy the product more than the process, if that makes any sense.

how has being an editor shaped the way you approach writing and getting published?

Tough question. I'm not sure it has. I started the online magazine before I had published anything online, and I've since sent out as much work to online publications as print publications. So, doing TDR has converted me to the possibilities of online publication - and the whole online lit world - much more than I was before.

being an editor can be demanding and frustrating (like most things) - what keeps you going?

One of the biggest tangential benefits of doing TDR is that I stay (more) on top of the Canlit scene than I would otherwise, and I find that interesting, and it's something I want to continue to do. I've learned more about the Canadian poetry scene in the past 2 years than I had ever before. Personally, I think there's more interesting poets writing in Canada these days than prose writers - but the popular media have missed that story almost entirely (Anne Carson sucks!).

how would you describe what you're trying to do with your writing to someone who's never read it?

I like Bill Faulkner's comment that literature is "the human heart in conflict with itself." I find I'm drawn to narratives about contradiction, or impossible choices. One of my stories ("Monica & Pete," Only a Lower Paradise) includes the sentence: "The purpose of literature is to dramatize the anxieties which fill our lives." I came up with that sentence when I was thinking about what I was doing with my work, and where I wanted to go with it. (I'm not sure it's 100% true, but it was a useful thought at the time.) In my opinion, too much so-called literature perpetuates the over-obvious - like conflict between the sexes, or plot-driven hero worship, or love-of-nature pastoralism. I'd like to think that my narratives articulate some of life's more nuanced tensions. Literature should not try to compete with the blockbuster narratives that get blasted at us in movies and on television. I think literature needs to define its own narratives spaces, and I hope that I'm assisting with my own small part of that process.

in what ways has getting your MA in English affected your views on writing?

The academic gaze focuses on writing which isn't "naive". In other words, academics focus on: i) writing which is interesting enough to survive heavy scrutiny; and ii) writing which recognizes itself as writing. As a graduate student of literature, I was continually challenged to "complicate" my thoughts. On the one hand, this meant being able to read Wordsworth, say, through the prisms of various literary theories. It also meant increasingly seeing literature as its own universe. Most journalistic criticism (book and movie reviews) is "naive", in that reviewers are often comparing the narrative they've read/watched to real life. At the upper levels of academe, this never happens. As criticism, it's too easy - and it's boring. So, how did being a graduate student affect my views of writing? It challenged me to pursue more complicated narrative strategies, and to see my work - and the work of others - through multiple prisms. (On the other hand, it also encouraged me to write simple sentences, since so much academic writing is so damn fucking obtuse.) The contradiction here is that what sometimes seems naive, isn't at all.

here's the mother of all questions for you - what is "canadian literature"?

Writing by Canadians about Canadians.

you're knee-deep in the literary quagmire - what non-lit things do you do to keep sane?

Play hockey; have sex; read newspapers (I'm a news junkie - and a public policy amateur).

what reads would you recommend (old or new)?

  • St. Urbain's Horseman by Mordecai Richler (read it for the first time last winter, after not reading anything by him in about a decade, and thought it was the funniest thing I had read in years);
  • Life and Times of Captain N. by Douglas Glover (a woefully ignored Canadian novel; it's set around the time of the American revolution, and it articulates the cultural conflicts of that period - and ours - in stunning fashion; a little like Toni Morrison);
  • The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (explains why novels need to move beyond the 19th century, go back to the 15th century, and leave documentary reporting to TV);
  • This is Our Writing by T.F. Rigelhof (not a perfect book, but a strongly argued case for what is the best of the best in the Canlit canon so far);
  • Queen Rat by Lynn Crosbie (she's one of our best hopes to re-write the Canlit myths that are badly in need of a tuneup);
  • 19 Knives & Salvage King, Ya! by Mark Anthony Jarman (these two books are too good to be missed - like Crosbie, Jarman is undermining the inherited wisdom and showing us new opportunities).

what's a question you've always wanted to be asked?

"For one million dollars, who's the author of "Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature'?"

james hörner edits canadian content.