We All Go Through This: Vanessa Herman in conversation with Tik Maynard

Tik MaynardTik Maynard talks with Malahat volunteer Vanessa Herman about his 2012 Open Season Award-winning creative nonfiction story, "Buy BENSTON" (issue #178, Spring 2012).

How did you come across Mirza’s story?  Do you know Mirza?  Did you interview him?

Mirza is not the character’s real name.  It’s really the equivalent of John Smith in Croatia and I used it because the guy didn’t want his real name used in the story.  Much of the life he left in the Balkans is still ongoing and he didn’t want to be known.  Mirza made a conscious decision to leave the country twenty years ago and never looked back.  He works in Canada now and has a family and he wanted to keep that life in the past separate from his present one.  
I’ve known the guy since we were younger, we’d play basketball together but I never knew his story, or much about his former life until he told me in the interview.  When I finished writing the story I gave it to him to read and he found it true to life.  I interviewed him for about fifteen to twenty hours to get the story.

You said you’ve known Mirza since you were younger.  Were you friends/neighbours as young adults? Or is he older than you and someone you looked up to?

Basically I went through high school while he was going through university, so yes, I looked up to him.  Besides playing basketball we had a friendship that was like the way a younger brother looks up to an older brother who is five or six years older than him.

How did you convince him to let you interview him?

The hardest part was on my end, just figuring out how to interview someone: Should I record it? Write it down?  Just remember what he said?  Would it be awkward?  Should I talk to him on the phone or offer to take him for coffee? 

In the end he was really accommodating and it was really my fears that slowed us down.  Once we got going it was fun and I ended up jotting down notes as we went and then going back and flushing out the interesting/dramatic parts.

What made you decide to assume Mirza’s voice for this story?

I wrote two pieces. This was the second where I decided to experiment with voice. The first was written in third person and I actually felt more confident about it than this one. I entered both of them in the contest and this one won. 

At the time I wrote this story I was reading Stein on Writing by Sol Stein and felt encouraged to experiment with form and try the first person point of view.

Did you stay faithful to Mirza while narrating in the first person or did you find yourself taking--or tempted to take--liberties?

The story was so phenomenal I didn’t even need to.  I could’ve expanded this into a book there was so much material.  Mirza gave me so much detail and information to work with I felt it was like the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, where there is just so much already provided there is no room to make any of it up.

How much research went in to this story about the country? About the Zagreb Tobacco Factory?

Most of the information came from Mirza.  He still has rosters from the basketball team he would bring out and show me as he talked.  If I had a question about something I would go to Mirza with my questions first.  I also have a lot of other friends from the Balkans and felt familiar with the history already.  The area’s history is tricky though.  Even after I edited it several times and got a couple friends to look at before sending it in [Malahat editor] John Barton caught an historical error about former Yugoslavia.

Last Spring The Malahat Review hosted a discussion panel on CNF writing where one of the panelists insisted that all CNF writing was a personal essay in some way or another, either about the author’s life or about a subject that was close to the author’s heart.  How is this story personal to you?  Did writing it change you in any way?

The story is personal to me because it is the story of a young man going through a tough situation and realizing he has no power.  And while this story is pretty intense we all go through this at some point in time.

I also know the main character fairly well and as I interviewed him my heart went out to him and his family.  Whenever I read a book I get really involved and the same happened when I wrote this.  The interesting part is I’m a slow reader and I found I was a slow writer.  But every time I get to read I’m excited, and every time I got time to sit down and write I was excited. The excitement never left for one moment.

The main way writing this story changed me was that after I wrote this piece and its twin I looked back at what I had written before and it was the first decent thing I have ever written.  I was like whoa, that was fun. People actually enjoyed reading it.  I want to write more!

Even though you studied history at UBC and pursued a career as a horse trainer have you always considered yourself a writer?

I’ve always been a big reader.  I always would’ve liked to be a writer but never thought it was a possibility.  I thought people were born writers and you couldn’t become one until I read the book by Stein and another one by Stephen King on writing techniques.  I feel that you can learn all sorts of technical things about writing but the art of it comes from within.  You either have it or you don’t.  You also learn from reading a lot. Now that I live in the U. S. I’m trying to read more American authors.  But I would like to go back to school one day and do a writing degree.

Do you have a larger writing project on the go? A novel or novella? Or do you only write short stories?

I’ve got lots of ideas.  It takes a big mental shift to go from writing 2500 word stories to something much larger.  I would like to take an intermediate step and write a novella first.  To go with the “write what you know” line I would either write about horses or make Mirza’s story a full biography.  With Mirza’s story though it wouldn’t all be about him I would include my journey going back there with him as well as some of the history of the area.  I think that would make it more interesting having all those aspects joined together.

Vanessa Herman

Vanessa Herman

* * * * * * * *

Check out the guidelines for our 2013 Open Season Awards.