Friday, 18 January 2013

Sean Johnston's place

When I first met fiction writer and poet Sean Johnston at Okanagan College where he teaches English and Creative Writing  and edits Ryga: a Journal of Provocations, I could tell he was the kind of writer I most admire: impatient with the distraction of self-promotion and obsessed with the integrity of his writing. Workman-like and prolific, Sean writes with a voice that, as Mark Jarman says, seems "laconic and lowgear" but with a "seething momentum." His work reminds me of what Hemingway once said about his own: it's like an iceberg, with only a fraction showing above the surface, the rest, a dark bulk moving dangerously  below. Sean is the author of The Ditch Was Lit Like This (Thistledown, 2011)All This Town Remembers (Gaspereau, 2006), A Day Does Not Go By (Nightwood, 2002), Bull Island (Gaspereau 2004) and A Long Day Inside the Buildings (Jackpine Press, 2004)You can visit Sean here.

The basement in Saskatoon

I write in two places, wherever I am: at my desk at home and at a doughnut shop a 20-minute walk away. These days my desk is in the basement up against the studs of an unfinished wall at our townhouse in Saskatoon, and the doughnut shop is the Tim Horton’s at Cumberland and 8th.

My desk is always messy with papers and books and bills and newspapers. There are piles of paper I can’t throw away on the floor around it. I listen to music, often, though it has to be old; I don’t want a new lyric to get in the way when things are going well. Sometimes I listen to nothing, sometimes the washer or dryer working in the basement with me. When things are going well it’s a simple routine. I write on the computer in the morning, beginning with typing revisions or passages from my notebook, then adding to that. In the afternoon I walk to the coffee store with some printed bits of my work and my notebook. I buy a coffee and a muffin and sit and work in the closest thing to a corner seat I can find. The walk and the overheard conversation is essential, whether I incorporate it or not.

My success depends upon the routine, since I work from no outline or overall plan. I used to, just like I used to try to keep my workspace tidy, but I’ve found the best way for me is to work on small scenes and bits of dialogue without a conscious organizing principle. The fragments always cohere in the end; there is always a tidy stack of paper that tells someone’s story. And it’s usually populated by people I’ve overheard on their coffee breaks—not necessarily their words, but their concerns.