Narrative Sacrifice & Storytelling:
Kris Bertin in Conversation with Naben Ruthnum

Naben Ruthnum

As a rebuttal to an earlier interview, Malahat volunteer and contributor Kris Bertin indulges in some good-natured raillery with Naben Ruthnum on life as a nominee for the 2013 Writers' Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize with his story, "Cinema Rex." This piece won the Malahat's 2012 Novella Prize and appeared in issue #179, Summer 2012. Naben has since been announced as one of three finalists for the Journey Prize.

First of all, allow me to say congratulations to you, sir. Not only did “Cinema Rex” (narrowly) beat out some of the greatest novellas ever written and win the prestigious Malahat Review Novella Contest, it has now been nominated for the Journey Prize. Is your family finally able to be proud of you, or will you need to achieve even greater triumphs for this to happen?

My family wants to see me making a good living, and probably married, but they’ve enjoyed the whole writing thing quite a bit. The Ruthnum household was nice and bookish, and still is—I could usually locate any author I’d read a reference to somewhere on the parental shelves. They’ll be pleased to add Journey Prize Stories 25 to those shelves, even if my mother is now irritatingly Kindle-loyal.

While a great many of your other prose pieces concern themselves with murder, masturbation, and sexual deviance, “Cinema Rex” is notably different in that it has some deeply touching moments. As well, in terms of tone, I feel like the story possesses a kind of hopefulness that I haven’t seen in your other (shittier) work. One could argue that this comes from the fact that your story spans a tremendous amount of time, which allows us to see the outcomes lacking in shorter work, but I would disagree. Mauritius itself is treated with great care and there’s some very clear endearment for it on your part. How much of this story’s sensibilities are the result of your affection for your father’s homeland (which is treated as a nearly mythological place) and an affection for film in general, and how much of it represents a carefully-considered departure from your typically dark, dismal, and downright upsetting material? Are you trying to be less of a dour, stick-in-the-mud sort of writer?

I do think the span of time is crucial to that sense of “hopefulness,” as you annoyingly put it. You’re right to point to an affection to film as an ongoing bright point, a direct connection to a sense of forward motion for both protagonists. Any fondness for Mauritius is purely second-hand; my parents are both nostalgia experts and created a version of the island in the past that is, perhaps, not quite reality. I took advantage of those gaps in their storytelling to invent parts of the place that don’t exist.

As for my less pleasant stories—I’m careful to avoid the type of harshness and brutality that masquerades as seriousness. I’m not a committed realist, but I need characters and the way they speak to each other to ring true in a certain sense, even if it’s just within the vacuum of the story itself. When I’m writing people who appear to be shallow, nasty, or blindly inconsiderate, I’m not creating them to be punished, or to punish the reader; I want to create a moment where a certain set of behaviours collides with a certain set of circumstances, and suggests an entire series of events and effects in either the past or the future.

You use footnotes in “Cinema Rex” as a device to travel through time and comment on the present by contrasting it with the future to great effect. While footnotes are typically used to supplement a text, yours does the same while also providing a concurrent narrative. One of my favourite things about this story is the way that it has two endings that inform one another. There’s the end of the story where Vik and Renga are sitting in the theatre, which relates to the final footnote, where the boys are doing some similar-but-more-complex social dance with each other (where they are inside and participating in Hollywood, rather than being outside and consuming it, like in the theatre). Since “Cinema Rex” is being expanded into a novel, I wonder how much of this original dual-track story will be lost, since you will be expanding events that were otherwise footnotes into the story proper. How do you feel about these narrative sacrifices in the name of telling a larger story?

Carrying over the dual-narrative was a real problem that I initially decided wasn’t a problem. I assumed that telling the story as a three-act novel would work well, but it was clear from the outset that something was lacking. The concurrent narratives have at least as much to do with the quality of the story as the characters do. While the story I’m telling in the novel is quite different from the short story (Nabokov’s The Enchanter vs. his Lolita provide an effective look at how an expansion / reimagining of a work can be accomplished without being repetitive), I ended up having to come up with a narrative strategy that would come close to the effect of the footnotes. I think I did it—you’ll have to see. There’s still too much work to be done on the book for me to talk about it in interesting detail.

I have to say, in all honesty, that “Cinema Rex” is one of my favourite stories that I’ve ever read in a Canadian literary journal and is the only reason I respect you as a man. There’s a richness both to story and language that we don’t usually see in the small magazines, and least of all among young people. In recent years, what stories have you read in these kinds of places that you felt truly challenged by? (You don’t have to mention me, but if you don’t, everyone will know you’re doing it on purpose.)

A person who writes on the level that you talk about is Erin Frances Fisher. Her story in Granta has that element of the “weird” that was what Lovecraft always looked for, but unlike ol’ H.P. work, it’s not alienatingly inhuman. Much of the “incursion of the fantastic into everyday life” work out there is a nightmare of quirky unicorns shoehorned into dull moment-of-realization shorts, but in this story, the fantastic is used as a lever on reality and character, in a way that I see in a lot of my favourite work. Robert Aickman’s, for example. The fact that someone I vaguely know wrote it became irrelevant by the third paragraph in, which is a good test of literature that is the real deal.

I’ve also read drafts of stories by Ryan Paterson and Michael LaPointe that are currently making the journal mailout rounds, and I hope to see them in print soon. It’s possible to create great work that falls between the demands of the various magazines, but I’m confident that most strong work finds a home. 

"Cinema Rex" concerns itself with colonialism, but seems to be something of a deviation from typical post-colonial fiction, where your protagonists succeed and excel in the West, and embrace its cultural exports while still maintaining a more nuanced sense of self that includes their colonial origins. If anything, the real threat colonialism has brought to our characters comes in the form of physical distress; diabetes and alcoholism are powerful destructive forces in this story. Likewise, Vik seems to have some issues with his “spider-body” and Renga only achieved his physique because he accidently received a Charles Atlas kit originally intended for a similarly fat neighbour. Is this a more personal preoccupation or are you trying to say something about Colonialism as a social determinant of health?

That accidental Charles Atlas kit story is one I ripped off from my dad’s childhood; happened to a kid who lived across the street from him, and the kid did start working out. The statistics on the effects of dietary change after the entry of a colonial power are pretty easy to see, especially in terms of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and alcoholism. Of course, it would be ridiculous to trace all cases of these diseases, many of which are complex and very unique to the person suffering from them, to the greater movements of history. But, you know, there is certainly something there. And I have to admit that, as with many of the jokier lines, my subconscious did the heavy lifting on some of the examples you’re asking about.

I was in last year’s Journey Prize Anthology and one of the things I liked most about it was having my work collected with other writers I admire like Andrew Hood, Trevor Corkum, and Eliza Robertson. Are you familiar with the work of your fellow anthology mates/competitors? Who among them do you admire (or fear) most?

Before receiving this year’s anthology, I’d read work by Eliza Robertson as well as Amy Jones. I like those two writers quite a bit. Amy’s book, What Boys Like, has a lot of the bleak funniness that I enjoy, and Eliza’s prose is a style I’m looking forward to following in the coming years. 

I’ve read about half of Journey Prize Stories 25, and will finish it later this afternoon. It was great to finally read something by Doretta Lau, who I’ve known from Vancouver life for years, and to have that something be an excellent story. I also thought Steven Benstead’s post-apocalyptic “Megan’s Bus” was great, and the Andrew Forbes story is good rich stuff. I’ve been reading the book out of order, as all anthologies should be read. Pretty good so far.

I’ve read your crime thriller Scrapbook, about a millionaire tech whiz who puts all his time and money towards terrifying forays into the world of serial killers (and who, of course, eventually pays the price for it). I really, truly loved it, and am looking forward to seeing it in print. You’ve said before that your pulp work is fundamentally different from your literary work in that its genesis usually comes about through plotting. Is work like this as fulfilling if it lacks a creative ‘on-the-page’ spontaneity, or does it offer different rewards?

I partially lied about that. I don’t do much outlining before the draft of any piece of work, but a crime short has a tendency to manifest as a series of events, followed by character details, when I’m thinking it up. The novel, which is in redraft right now thanks to some perceptive comments from the agent who reps my crime stuff, only started to get plotted after I was a hundred pages in. At this point, I know the characters and the important themes well enough to make fitting them into a more calculated plot a pleasure.

You asked me recently if knowing you has changed my views on class, specifically regarding fiction about the upper classes, and my answer was more or less no. But your work has been inspiring to me in that it is highly diverse, utilizes a variety of styles, settings and types of characters. I think my meeting you has affected me in the realm of storytelling, where I feel more comfortable exploring areas totally alien to me and exploring different aesthetics. Do you feel like you make a concerted effort to make your stories distinct from one another?  Besides your longer work, can you talk about what you’re writing now and why?

I sometimes worry that the range of work that I do is a deterrent to finding a proper home for these tales. There’s a stylistic link between it all, but I haven’t seen a Canadian short story collection recently that has a noirish story about a conman ESL teacher next to a story about an academic collecting an aging jerk poet’s letters next to a story like “Cinema Rex”. Wells Tower’s book ends with a story about Vikings, which was encouraging; perhaps there is room for a book by a single author with an odd range of output. As recently as the mid-twentieth, it wasn’t uncommon for a writer to produce a ghost story, an adventure story, and a few dead-serious tales of urban betrayal and bind them together in a single book. I liked those times. 
Right now I’m working on two short stories: a very 1890’s ghost story with passing allusions to the Wilde trials, and one about a middle-aged EMT who was in a pretty big 1990s metal band that started petering out and eventually ended after the death of its frontman, who was the EMT’s closest childhood friend, in addition to being an unreliable addict.

Kris Bertin & Naben Ruthnum

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