In Conversation With Mark Sedore

The 2009 3 Day Novel Contest winner Mark Sedore was kind enough to respond to a series of questions recently. What follows is some great responses on his thoughts on what the contest has meant to his writing career, some of the trials that the contest poses to writers, what he is working on currently, and some insights into the writing process.

JO: I know you’ve answered this before, but it has to be asked, what is it like to write a novel in a 72-hour period?

MS:  As anyone can imagine it’s very intense, but the structure of the contest is such that it lends itself to extreme focus and forced creativity.  I really can’t recommend the contest enough to writers who are just starting out or to those who always wanted to give novel writing a try.  Because the deadline is constantly close, so visibly in front of you, you have to work to your capacity and just crank out those words.  It’s the kind of skill-building exercise that stays with you throughout the rest of the year.

JO: How different do you think your book would be if you had months, or even years to write it? Does the adrenaline of the 3 Day Novel event make the book superior in any way versus facing no deadline?

MS:  If I had had an unlimited amount of time to write the novel, I would have done a lot more research and character building.  I think the primary characters in the work stand alone just fine, but there’s a bit of a mythos around the contest that you only have time to develop either plot or character really well, the idea being that 72-hours does not lend itself to high development of both.  I think if I had more time I would have learned more about people who live with Asperger’s Syndrome, and I would have learned more about those who have spent extended periods in the Arctic Circle on their own.  I myself enjoy reading 3 Day Novels because of the franticness of them.  They’re all so refined and immediate and so, yes, perhaps my work would have lost some of that sense had I had more time to work on it.

JO: Brothers, and more generally, family, are significant themes in the book. Can you discuss how you approach these themes in Snowmen?

MS:  I’ve written a number of (as yet unpublished) novels before, some of which deal with the theme of brotherhood.  I myself am an older brother, but I’ve always – until now – written from the perspective of the younger brother.  I wanted to see what I’d produce if I actually put myself in my own shoes.  Not to say that my real-life little brother is a rich, evil bastard the way Lawrence is in the book, but I suppose there are some dynamics between me and my brother that have come through in the work.

JO: Mark, how has the 3 Day Novel Contest impacted your writing more generally?

MS:  It’s gone a long way towards dampening the influence of my inner critic.  This was the third time I’d participated in the contest, and I really feel it’s the kind of skill that you can build over time: being able to write quickly, creatively and under pressure, without feeling the necessity to edit every sentence or paragraph as you go along.  You need to be agile when writing a three-day novel.  If it looks like it’s going in a different direction than you planned, then you should probably go with it.  Trying to force it otherwise is going to end up wasting time and energy, your two most precious resources.  I think it’s built a lot of my skills as a writer and I’m extremely happy I first took the plunge back in 2007.

JO: Your admiration, respect and fears of the ‘North’ seem palpable in the novel. Can you discuss this?

MS:  I’ve done a bit of reading on winter survival and always enjoyed winter camping when I was a teenager but, really, it’s just that like visiting the cold places of the Earth.  They’re alluring, cleansing and purifying.  I got the idea for the novel while I was spending New Years up in Whitehorse for a week, when the temperature never once rose above -30 degrees Celsius and was down to less than -40 at night.  Even the ski hills were closed because of the cold, the kind of thing I previously thought they took for granted in Whitehorse in the winter, but this was extremely cold weather even for them.

JO: How much advance preparation did you do for the writing of the novel Mark?

MS:  I had been reading Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia when I got the idea for Charles’s talent and occupation, and doing a lot of cold weather non-fiction reading as well.  The idea had been brewing in my mind for about nine months prior to entering the contest, so I felt prepared with a lot of built up information, facts and ideas prior to the shotgun start at midnight on Saturday morning.  Then it was like just releasing a floodgate of information that needed to be poured out onto the page.

JO: What are some of the things that you hope readers take away from Snowmen?

MS: That the northern and cold parts of the world can be interesting places and worth preserving.

JO: Mark, who are some of your favourite authors? What are you reading at the moment?

MS:  Some of my favourite authors are Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Murakami, Douglas Adams and Brian Aldiss.  I’m a bit neurotic about my reading choices, and the first book I read every year is always something I’ve read before, usually something from my youth that had a strong impact on me.  So, right now, it’s Dune by Frank Herbert.

JO: Would you care to share some of your current projects with us? Do you have any plans to enter the contest again?

MS: Right now I’m working on a couple of novels I’d already written, taking the editing skills I’ve gained from refining Snowmen, and applying it to them.  I hope to approach publishers sometime later this year with new work.  I would like to enter the contest again eventually, but as part of a partnership with my best friend.  We’ve written collaboratively quite a bit, and the contest does allow co-entries from two people.  I think it’d be the kind of thing we’d be good at and at the very least we’d produce something really interesting.

Snowmen as Pure as the Fallen Snow

Snowmen

By: Mark Sedore

3 Day Books, August 2010, 167 pp, Paperback $14.95

Reviewed by: James Onusko

This is an updated version of an earlier review that first appeared in the Trent Arthur.

Mark Sedore has managed to do what very few writers could ever hope or even try to accomplish. He has written, over the Labour Day Weekend of 2009, a poignant and succinct tale of journeys – both physical and metaphorical – and manages to lead readers on a path that will lead to reflection, surprise, and admiration.

The 3 Day Novel contest has existed for over thirty years and involves writers from around the world. Over the September long weekend, contestants labour to craft a novel  on any topic of their choice. In a contest fuelled by literary instincts and pure adrenaline, writers are permitted to craft a brief outline from which to frame their efforts, and then embark on a quest to win a contest that sees the publication of the contest’s finest effort. The announcement of the winner from the most recent event in 2011 will be coming in the next few weeks. As the contest grows in popularity, the selection process becomes longer as well. The event has launched the careers of many authors and oftentimes, it forces aspiring writers to sit down and write that novel-length work that has eluded them beforehand. Snowmens author, Mark Sedore, is a graduate student in Communication and Culture at York University and Ryerson University. He is also the communications officer for the President’s office at the University of Toronto.

In its essence, Snowmen is about adult brothers who truly do not get along. The younger brother is very rich, but socially inept for various reasons, the main one being Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). The older brother is a fledgling music therapist. The younger brother discovers that he has cancer for the third time, brain cancer in this instance, and decides to honour the brothers’ dead father by walking across the Arctic Circle from Canada to their father’s homeland, Russia. The older brother, once the younger brother’s plans fall through to embark on the trek due to the cancer, takes up the cause that has initially had a commitment of $200 billion from corporations. The final pledged amount is roughly one tenth of this amount (due to Larry’s non-participation). Nonetheless, it is a huge amount for cancer research. Alternating chapters move seamlessly from the Arctic trek to flashbacks that centre on Toronto and the turbulent relationship between Charles and Lawrence. Charles’s relationship with his girlfriend Sandy is a prominent part of the flashbacks and drives a lot of the overarching narrative. In this excerpt, Charles describes his blossoming relationship with Sandy:

As far as the word meant anything, I thought she was perfect. Not like an equation is perfect, not like a logic problem has a perfect answer. Just that she was a perfect fit for me. Or, maybe, we for each other. And it wasn’t that she finished my sentences for me or that we had the same taste in music or anything quite so superficial as that. It was that there were parts of me that were missing and parts of her that were missing and that we each had each other’s parts. Like, Sandra had the head of a snowman, and I had the base, but we each only had half of the middle ball. I felt confident that we would have a lot of time together, that there was no rush to figure everything out at once, no rush to put all the pieces together. Which was good, because half an abdomen isn’t enough.

While there is much more to like about this very good novel than dislike, there are some weaknesses. Beyond Larry and Charles, none of the characters, including Sandy, are well developed. Another area of weakness, without question, is that the writing is uneven. I should note that this is not chronic and marks only small portions of the book. I think that it might be unfair to criticize Sedore alone for this, possibly the editor should share some of this not being caught during the editing process. Granted, Sedore had only 72 hours to write this book, however, the editor had months to help the author ready it for publication. Related to the unevenness of the writing, is the dialogue, and in particular, the exchanges between Charles and Larry. Sedore does not seem to have captured the cadence and rhythms of conversation yet, and yes, I understand that Larry’s language is profoundly affected by his AS, however, the stilted dialogue is not exclusive to Larry. In many ways, writing great dialogue is one of the chief challenges for young writers. It requires an exceptional ear and the ability to become, every so briefly, the character as he/she/ze. I am confident that this will improve over time for Sedore as his writing skills are many.

None of this should dissuade you from reading this slim novel. It flows well from start to finish, and it is well worth the two or three hours it will take for most people to read it. It is filled with humour, compassion, popular culture references, and pointed criticism of the excesses of contemporary North American society. The Jeopardy! references are a great touch and will be appreciated by all fans of the show. What Mark Sedore has created in 72 hours is inspiring, and many authors would be hard pressed to produce as fine a book over a three month period, let alone three days. If you find yourself with a few spare hours in the coming weeks, read Snowmen, it is well worth the time.

Trent Reads Battle of the Books

The Trent Reads Battle of the Books event is now scheduled. As a Committee member, I want to encourage everyone in the Peterborough area to come out to this event on February 3, at 7:00 pm, Gzowski College, Trent University. The embedded links have more details. Book nominator’s video clips, readings from each of the five acclaimed books, & student champions defending their book will highlight the event. New this year is an opportunity to win all five copies of the nominated books; but you have to attend to enter the draw and win. Online voting to choose the 2011 book, will open, following the event.

A Conversation With Rachel Wyatt

Award-winning writer Rachel Wyatt was kind enough to respond to several questions from me in a recent exchange. What follows are some candid thoughts on the current literary scene in Canada, some of the challenges and frustrations of aging, musings and advice on the craft of writing, as well as some of the projects that Rachel plans to work on in the near future. I trust that you will enjoy her responses as much as I have and I thank her again for her generosity in responding to my queries.

JO: Many actors state that comedy is the most difficult type of acting to perform. You handle humour in Letters to Omar with great skill. Do you find it challenging to integrate humour into your writing?

RW: I sometimes find it hard to keep humour out of my writing.  Comedy can arise from being a serious person in a topsy-turvy world like Alice in Wonderland, or being a Jacques Tati character, a ‘feckless’ person in a serious world. The problem with some kinds of humour, say, irony, is that isn’t always understood. On a panel four years ago I was asked whether the humour in my work didn’t go too far at times. Weasel-like, I answered ‘perhaps’. Ever since that day, I’ve wanted to reconvene that panel and that audience and say, ‘Absolutely not or I wouldn’t have written it.’ For me, a sense of humour isn’t about telling jokes, it’s about looking at this strange and tragic world in a cock-eyed way. Or as a wise person once put it, writing humour is only a matter of setting down the truth in simple words.

JO: What do you hope that readers might take away from Letters to Omar?

RW: I hope when readers have finished it, they’ll feel that they’ve shared a bit of life with some real people. I hope they’ll have been entertained and also have found something to think about. It would be nice too if they felt impelled to go out and buy copies for all their friends and relatives.

JO: In Canada, many of us seem reluctant to discuss the elderly and aging in a meaningful and profound way. Would you share some thoughts on why this might be?

RW: Old age. Yes. I’m there now. I’ll become a great-grandmother this year. I’m not sure how it happened but I am old. I think some people see the aged as skeletons at the feast, memento mori , and so they prefer not to look. There’s a little scene in the novel where Dorothy takes Elvira with her to the TV station because she knows she’ll likely be ignored. This kind of thing has happened to me and to other women I know. We are the invisible, the used-up and the no longer useful. How depressing that sounds! But we, the oldies, know that we have life left and things to do and if you treat us badly you could be in for a nasty surprise.

JO: You have worked within several literary genres in your writing career Rachel. Do you have a preferred genre and why do you term it a favourite?

RW: My favourite genre? I enjoyed writing for radio because it’s a challenge to tell the story in words without overloading the dialogue. The listener’s mind is the stage and it’s up to the writer to build the scenery. So much can be done in a few words and with the help of the sound engineer. My favourite sound effect was for the sinking of the Titanic or any large vessel: take an old rocking chair, a Coffee Crisp and a hammer. . .but that was before all sound effects were on CDs.

I liked working in the theatre because of the collaboration with so many talented men and women: costume designers, directors, lighting and sound people and of course the actors. And then there’s the thrill of having an instant reaction to your work. Will it be an ovation or the sound of the audience rushing for the exit?

Setting out to write a novel is to begin a journey in which anything may happen – and perhaps nothing. There’s a sense of danger and at the same time a feeling that in the end, no one will want it and the manuscripts will remain forever in a drawer. But when you have that first draft on your desk or your hard drive, there is a fine sense of achievement along with the knowledge that the real work is just beginning.

To answer your question though, my truly favourite genre and the most difficult to write is short fiction. When stories work, they have a roundness to them, a completeness. A story will tell you itself when to stop, when to leave it alone. Good stories can be small in scope or they can take in the world. If I could write poetry, I would like that best.

JO: Rachel, what is one book that you would love to read, but have not been able to so to date? Would this be an extensive list if I asked for more titles?

RW: I want to read The Tiger by John Vaillant, and a new translation of Demons (formerly The Possessed), by Dostoevsky.

JO: Are there some contemporary writers that you enjoy reading and what are some of the reasons that you find their work particularly meaningful?

RW: I’ve just read Linden McIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man and found it to be fine in every way. It made me want to write a novel with a single voice again. Mavis Gallant’s stories fill me with admiration, as do Alice Munro’s. Both of them achieve such depth in their work. Then there’s Martin Amis who makes me wish I was young enough and smart enough to write in such a ‘modern’ way. I could go on.

JO: How would you describe the current landscape in Canadian literature? Do you feel it has changed a great deal in the past twenty-five years?

RW: Has the landscape changed? Some of the old trees are still standing. And then people like Yann Martel came along with a new approach and planted themselves in the foreground. Since then there’ve been new shoots; writers in various genres experimenting with form and style. It hasn’t so much changed as evolved, I think. Though perhaps those two things are the same. And CanLit has rooted itself strongly in the international scene in the past couple of decades.

JO: Would you care to share some of your current projects with us? Can we expect another novel in the near future?

RW: Coteau is currently considering, at least I think they are, another novel. It’s a back-to-front mystery story. I was perhaps reaching beyond my capabilities when I wrote it. Its fate remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I am putting together some short stories. And I have an idea for a play.

JO: What advice would you offer to novice writers that may be reluctant to move from the initial private act of writing into the public realm of publishing?

RW: It does take courage to send out that novel or those stories for the first time and put your work into the hands of strangers but it’s better than having your efforts ‘waste their sweetness on the desert air.’ It can be hard when letters come back saying, ‘this is not for us’, or worse. The only thing to do is to keep writing and to keep sending stuff out. And most of all, keep reading.