Cary Fagan on his 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize-longlisted collection, ‘My Life Among the Apes’
Cary Fagan answers our questions about writing and about his 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize-longlisted collection, My Life Among the Apes. The Giller Prize shortlist will be revealed Monday morning!
When do you feel as though a particular story is “complete”?
Cary Fagan: I suppose when the story feels as if it has fulfilled the promise of my original impulse to write it. That doesn’t mean it has come out just the way I first imagined it, because once I start to write a story has a life of its own. For example, when I began “The Brooklyn Revenge,” the main character was going to New York for a very different reason. I didn’t know that her husband’s long-time mistress lived there. But still some feeling that I’d hoped to capture within the web of the story was there.
You’ve mentioned that your stories are drawn from personal experiences, though they aren’t autobiographical. Please describe your creative process — where do you draw the line between reality and the moment a story takes off?
CF: It isn’t as if the original idea is autobiographical and then I change it. It’s more that the original idea, while fictional, has something in it that comes from personal experience or observation. Take the story, “Wolf,” which is about an elderly man who goes to visit his granddaughter who is studying in Berlin. I went to Berlin, too, but to see the woman who is now my wife. And together we went to the concentration camp outside the city. I used my observations but the story is all fiction. And yet, when I think about it, I can see other little things from real life. When I was a student, I too studied abroad — in London, England. And my parents came to visit me. I had mixed feelings about seeing them there, just as the young woman does about seeing her grandfather. So you see, I steal from here, there, and everywhere, but it all gets absorbed, I hope, into a coherent whole.
What is the biggest challenge you face while writing?
CF: I think the challenges change over time. I’ve been writing seriously for over twenty years now and I feel pretty confident about playing my instrument, so to speak. But I don’t want to write a story or a novel just because I can, or because the idea seems amusing or clever or — God forbid — commercial. I have to believe there is some deep truth in the story, something that I don’t understand yet but that I might if I commit myself to these characters.
You began your career writing short stories, and after five novels, you are returning to them. What is it about them that appeal to you?
CF: I suppose like many writers, I began by writing stories. Not because they were my favourite form but because they seemed more manageable. In fact, I`d tried to write a couple of novels quite early and in the end they were failures. I just wasn`t ready for such a big form.
So I went back to the short story, but with the feeling that I wanted every story to be like a little novel. That was how I approached my first collection. I wrote a second collection of briefer tales and then I put stories aside and began to write novels. But during the years that I was writing those five novels, I realized that earlier necessity had turned to love. I found myself reading story collections all the time. And I realized that the story form is just as great as the novel; it`s just different.
And so between drafts of novels, I began to work on stories again. I think I held onto this idea that each one could be like a novel in miniature. I worked on some of them over a long period. And then in more recent years things heated up and stories came to me more urgently. Eventually I realized that I was working towards a new collection — which felt to me like a coherent whole. All in all, it`s probably taken me fifteen years to write the stories in My Life Among the Apes.
In “The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese,” Edison is endearing, if not a bit of a social misfit. What made you want to tell the story through this type of character?
CF: I think I`m drawn to people who live inside worlds that are imagined as much as real — perhaps because I sometimes think that I myself do.
These people are often somewhat obsessive and off-kilter but I also find them fascinating and even admirable. The world just isn`t the way that Edison would like it to be and so he has a need to create a little space — this cafe under downtown Toronto — that can give people the respite from their troubles that they need, if only for a moment. He needs a purpose, and he needs to serve, and by a little miracle he finds his way. Yeah, he`s a misfit, but I think maybe we all are, more or less.
In the title story, “My Life Among the Apes,” why did you choose to include Jane Goodall as the inspirational figure?
CF: The story is completely fictional except for one thing. Like the character, I too was crazy about Jane Goodall as a kid. Those National Geographics would come with her articles and I would read them over and over and stare adoringly at the photographs. And like the character, I once did a school project on her. I even liked to make ape sounds (I still do, which my children find rather annoying).
At some point in my adulthood I realized something a little shocking — that Jane Goodall wasn`t just someone who was doing something amazing. I realized that when I was a kid she was an erotic figure for me.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
I can`t say that I do. I was very committed to each one while writing it — at that moment this or that one was the most important thing I could be writing. And then, like all writers, my loyalty moved to something else. Some were harder to write, some more fun. More likely I could point to a line, a paragraph, an exchange of dialogue and say, “I like that!“