Kathryn Mockler has an MFA in creative writing from UBC, has been published in many journals, has two collections in print, has had her work screened several times on television and screened at a number of festivals.
Currently, she teaches creative writing at UWO and co-edits the UWO online journal The Rusty Toque.
When I started reading Onion Man, I thought, “Hey, this is just prose broken up into short lines”, but when I got further into the story I began to feel that you had found the perfect format for it. It actually felt like you had discarded all poetic and prose forms and, starting from zero, had asked yourself how this content would best be presented.
Did it happen something like that?
At the time I started writing these poems, I was reading a lot of narrative poets. Douglas Burnet Smith’s collection The Knife Thrower’s Partner, Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy The Kid, and Michael Turner’s Company Town and Hard Core Logo were particular influences for me.
Considering that prose is much more popular than poetry, it would seem that you made a big sacrifice writing the story as linked poems. Did you think about that?
Over the years some people had suggested that the story would work as a novel, but it didn’t feel right for me for this project. I write in many genres, and I generally let the project dictate the genre, and sometimes I will adapt my ideas from one genre to another—often poetry or fiction to short film.Poetry (and I would say micro-fiction does this too) forces you to pay attention to images, details, bits of dialogue, fragments that you might gloss over in a larger block of prose. Poetry offers us the opportunity to slow down and pay close attention. I would never consider it a sacrifice to write poetry.
Many readers would be able to read the whole book in one sitting. I did it in two, and I’m a slow, unfocused reader. I was very surprised how easy it was to read, considering that poetry usually is a bit of a struggle for me. But your writing was so clear and precise, and each little vignette led to the next and the next so well (yes, like peeling the layers of an onion) that I had no desire to put the book down. Just the opposite. Also, it read as if it had been a breeze to write. But it must not have been.
How much work did it take, and over what time period?
I started Onion Man over fifteen years ago. I didn’t work on it all the time but just kept adding to it over the years. The biggest struggle was working out the narrative thread and then settling on the line breaks during the final days of editing.
The story develops inside a corn-canning factory, but it was only later, when the protagonist leaves the factory and goes into the city, that I found her, and me, in places right down the street from me here in London. The shock of reality was very strong.
Did you expect that to happen to us London readers? Could you have located the story pretty much anywhere?
Perhaps I could have set the story in a fictional town or another Canadian city, but some of the social conditions that I wanted to portray were particular to my experiences of living London. For instance, I was interested in having the young protagonist not be fully aware of her own class biases which her boyfriend Clinton calls her on at one point in the story.
I assume that you, Kathryn Mockler, don’t feel the same as the protagonist’s boyfriend about London, which he calls, “just another shitty little town.”
I did when I was a teenager. My experiences of growing up in London weren’t particularly positive which I guess is why I wrote about it.
I was surprised how perfect the voice of the protagonist is, an 18-year-old factory girl, even though you only diverge from proper English grammar in small, unobvious ways, and not often.
Was it difficult to find a balance that would convey her realistically and yet not be so blatantly colloquial as to make the writer obvious?
The voice is close to my own, so I wasn’t focused on how it should sound in terms of believability. My biggest hurdle was the narrative.
One of my strongest impressions of the story is that there is no way it could have been written by a college professor. Much of it, especially the complex emotional and social situation in the corn-canning factory, is strongly familiar to me from my early days working in similar situations.
Is the young protagonist some version of yourself when you were that age?
Yes, very much so. I did work in a corn-canning factory one summer. Although the book is a work of fiction, I did base some things on my experiences.
Virtually all the characters, male and female, live sad, depressing lives that are so real the reader will struggle desperately to find a way, in vain, toward a happy ending for any of them. Yet there is humour and lightness in many small episodes. Is this how you see life for everyone, or only for this particular lower stratum of society? Or only for a recession-era, such as this one, which took place in the 1980s? Or only for individuals in certain situations? In other words, why did you not have any relatively happy lives in the story?
I don’t see the characters as being in a lower stratum of society. The characters (because of the recession and economic conditions outside of their control) don’t feel that they have a future. They don’t have the same opportunities that were afforded to the generation that came before—such as a living wage. Similar conditions are certainly at play today, and I hope that this experience resonates with readers who feel that same dark cloud over their future.
Maybe I’m hanging around the wrong people—but I don’t know hardly anyone who has a relatively happy life.
I kept hoping for something positive for someone while reading it. On the last page, you provide it. You describe hope so powerfully you practically define it. I’m curious whether, during the lengthy time it took you to write the book, you found a need for that hope in the story, not only as a gift for the reader but for your own emotional needs, as well?
I knew that the protagonist needed to transform in some way and having her get out of her present situation felt natural for the story. I wasn’t focused on trying to create hope, but rather I intended for humour to balance out some of the bleakness.
Could you describe your second book, ‘The Saddest Place on Earth’, which has been published by DC Books, but is not yet available at the time of this interview?
The Saddest Place on Earth is coming out in December 2012. It’s a collection of absurd poems that I started writing in 2004 while collaborating with my husband, David Poolman, who is a visual artist. Some of his drawings will be featured in the book as well.
The Saddest Place on Earth began as a response to the actions of the U.S. government in Iraq, and many of the poems follow the structure outlined in the following Donald Rumsfeld quote.
When briefing his press secretary on how to deal with the media, Rumsfeld said: “Begin with an illogical premise and proceed perfectly logically to an illogical conclusion. They [the media] do it all the time.” However, my critique in this book now extends to the Canadian government, most significantly, in its attack on the environment in the pursuit of oil.
Thanks, Stan, for your thoughtful questions and for inviting me to participate in your event.