In Conversation: Malcolm Sutton talks with Mike Steeves about his debut novel, Giving Up

Mike Steeves’ new novel Giving Up is an uproarious, unrelenting look inside a contemporary middle-class relationship. Taking place over the course of two or three hours on a deceptively inauspicious evening in a non-descript, unnamed city, the novel, Steeves’ first, has the rare immediacy of a play—only turned inside out. Much of the action here is internal, as we are privy to the finely wrought internal monologues by the novel’s two voices, the married couple Mary and James. We are immersed in the richly narrated interior lives of both, as each goes into painstaking, disarmingly honest detail about their anxieties, disappointments, and regrets—as a couple and as individuals.

In anticipation of the Montreal Launch of Giving Up, BookThug Fiction Editor Malcolm Sutton interviewed Mike Steeves about his hotly anticipated debut.

Malcolm Sutton: In your new novel, Giving Up, you delve headlong into the most sensitive territories of a contemporary relationship. The reader is taken through first-person accounts of both protagonists, James and Mary, as they consider what it is to be with each other while at the same time being singularly preoccupied by certain life goals. You shape these accounts with the intensity of non-English writers like Kafka, Elfriede Jelinek, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Thomas Bernhard, yet carve out a voice that celebrates the way English is spoken today. You manage to aestheticize post-millennial English in a way that I haven’t seen in other writers. Could you tell me about the writers that have influenced you, and your thinking about English as vehicle for your writing style?

Mike Steeves: I like all the writers you mention. Kafka and Bernhard have been particularly important for me. But that’s not all that surprising. I might as well have said that I have read Kafka and Bernhard, since it’s impossible not to be influenced by those writers. But when I say influence, I mean something more like inspiration. There’s the influence that refers to style – the writers who you borrow from, or model yourself after. And then there’s the more vital form of influence, the one that fires you up, that makes you want to respond in your own voice. You may not end up taking away anything from these influences, in terms of craft, but they are formative in their own way. Flaubert fits into this category. So does Dostoevsky. But they don’t need to be literary either. For instance, John Coltrane, or Alfred Hitchcock can be put on the list as well.

Then there’s the stuff that you love so much you wish you had written it. I feel that way about a lot of Conrad and Faulkner. Especially Nostromo and Absalom, Absalom! I love the way that both these writers take stories that could be told in a matter of a few lines, and instead they never stop telling the story, going over the same territory but coming across something new every time, all the while withholding crucial facts that they let out in ways that seem offhand but are so masterfully done I still don’t get how they work. Aside from the enjoyment of the way they tell their stories, both novels show how storytelling isn’t about what happened, it’s the event of the story itself, and all the possibilities that telling it raises. That’s why they are so full of speculation. In the case of Absalom it`s impossible to sort out what really happened from all the rumour and conjecture that is just as much a part of the reality of the story as what might considered to be the facts of the matter. I’ve never been able to sympathize with people who criticize writers for not getting to the point. If I like the book then I never want them to get to their point.

As far as writing in English goes, I don’t know if I’ve really thought about it. Of course I have, since that’s the language I write in, but what I mean is, I’m not really conscious of what my thoughts are on the topic. I can’t write in other languages, and can only barely read French, so I don’t have the benefit of that comparative understanding that comes with being a polyglot. I’ve had glimmers of it. I took a course in Latin, but dropped out after a semester because it was too hard, but it was the most interesting course I took in university. Absolutely fascinating. I didn’t do well, marks-wise, but I learned so much about how sentences fit together, and how words carry history along with them, and that when you speak or write, everyone who has used the language before you is speaking and writing through you. This is a bit grandiose, but it’s also true. It also probably explains why I didn’t do well in the course.

So I want to write in a way that lets those other voices in. This may sound strange since I wrote a book with only two characters, but what I mean is I wanted the language in the book to reflect ways of speaking, jargon, modes of thought and expression, that seem to express things about what it’s like to be alive, here, right now. I like the way that literature can do that, the way that you can hear all sorts of voices behind the ones speaking in the book.

I also think that voice is the prime component to literature, more than character. The writers that I like, who are alive and working, have singled in on this aspect of fiction. I think it’s a bit of a survival strategy. It’s the last thing exclusive to literature that hasn’t been taken over. This is what Bernhard said about modern literature, that the older stuff mapped out the exterior, now we are mapping the interior. This probably isn’t true, but it’s kind of true. He also said that poetry isn’t poetic. Which is to say that real art isn’t artistic. Borges illustrates this brilliantly in an essay where he demonstrates how lines that stand as the pinnacle of poetic art in one era are pure crap in another. So I try to keep this in mind when I’m writing, and I try to write poetry that isn’t poetic.

MS: Your novel is really very very funny. At times the humour reminded me of a couple of movies: Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (my personal favourite of his) and Judd Apatow’s This is 40. I think what these movies have in common with Giving Up is that their couples are put into a situation in which everything that has been slowly building over years of being together is brought to a boiling point, a point at which everything comes out in a shitstorm of truth. Could you talk about comedic influences, whether cinematic or literary, and how they found their way into the language of Giving Up?

Mike Steeves reading at the Ottawa Writers Festival, Spring 2015 (Photo credit: Pearl Pirie)

Mike Steeves (Photo credit: Pearl Pirie)

Mike Steeves: Well Thomas Bernhard’s novel, Woodcutters is hilarious, and I would consider that novel to be influential. But while the book has obvious influences, I think that I came by the humour somewhat honestly. Which is to say that it was a by-product of the way I chose to tell the story. I’m not being disingenuous when I say that I wasn’t aware of how funny the book was. The first couple of people who read it remarked on that and initially I was on guard, like I had said something at work or at a dinner party and everyone laughed even though I was being serious. I think it comes down to the fact that I wanted to be as straight-forward as I could, because that’s basically what comedy is – treating something ridiculous with absolute sincerity.

As far as comedic film or literature, I love Woody Allen’s movies, although I’ve never considered him an influence, but that probably means he’s more of an influence than I realize. The stuff that I truly love is more far out than that though – one of my all-time favourites is The Pink Panther. I like the sort of comedy that takes a joke so far that you’re in awe because you didn’t realize it was possible. Chaplin does that too.

I also love films that nobody would consider funny but make me laugh anyway. I laughed a lot during Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. It’s actually a very funny series. But it’s a bitter humour. It can stick in your throat.

As far as literature goes, Don Quixote must be the funniest novel ever written. It’s just a piss-fest on every page. I assumed the humour would be a bit musty by now, but it still has an incredible sting. It’s as funny as anything in Chaplin. Just non-stop. And when he does let up it’s to blow your mind with a beautiful essayistic passage. Only to return to some violently ridiculous encounter with a hosteller or whathaveyou.

Also, for the past few years, I’ve been reading Witold Gombrowicz, and while his humour took a while to grow on me, I now think he’s one of the funniest writers in the 20th century. He had that thing that Dickens had, of taking a gesture, or phrase, and coming at it from every angle, making it stand for a character, or a town, or a whole people. It’s a remarkable talent. I’m not saying that’s what my book is like, but I admire it and try to cultivate it however I can.

MS: Could Giving Up be made into a movie?

Mike Steeves: There is a rich history of film-making based on literature that was said to be unfilmable, so it would be naïve to say that someone couldn’t make a movie out of it. Obviously, not much happens. And there’s a lot of narration, cinematically speaking. I definitely wouldn’t want the job. But that’s because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t manage to write even a bad screenplay. Someone else might write something great, and the film could be even better than the book that I wrote. There’s a rich history of that sort of thing as well.

MS: Though, as you say, very little happens, a lot of territory is in fact covered in service of a deeper and deeper examination of Mary and James. I’m thinking of sections that focus on travelling with a partner, looking at photos on Facebook, informing oneself about fertility, habits of watching porn. The book you’ve written feels very contemporary because of its materiality and, in a sense, its awareness of certain social preoccupations of the present. How did you go about navigating this material of the present? Were there pitfalls that you encountered?

Mike Steeves: I likely encountered all sorts of pitfalls without realizing that I was encountering them. I suppose one of the problems of writing about the present is that it’s a moving target. There’s all sorts of ways to capture what’s happening now that are basically instantaneous. So writing a novel, finding a publisher, editing the book, printing it and then selling it to people who have to spend hours reading it, kind of puts you at a disadvantage. But that’s probably a superficial way of looking at a novel. Its origins is in newspapers, among other things, but what’s interesting is unless you’re fascinated by historical research, reading old newspapers can be pretty tedious, whereas reading a novel written over two hundred years ago that is fully steeped in the stuff of that time – like Pamela – can be very engaging.

I tried to write about the stuff you mention in a straightforward way. It was important that the book stayed grounded. I knew that if I got carried away then it would end up reading like the ramblings of a disgruntled clerk. But I’m overstating the amount of thought that went into this, because, like the answer I gave to the question about the humour in the book, the content of the book was an outgrowth of the style I had chosen. And while this may not sound credible, since the book has an essayistic form, I wasn’t looking to deliver any insights on things like Facebook and porn. The actual ideas presented in the book are fairly commonplace, and even conservative at times. I didn’t try to figure out what these things mean in any larger sense (because I’m not good at that sort of thing), I just tried to relate them to the lives of the characters. The goal was to get at the feel of a modern moment for a couple like James and Mary. In a lot of my earlier writing, I would try to make what I was writing about fit into a certain literary model, but in this case, I made what I was writing about the model. There were certain experiences that I wanted to get at, like the experience of time when you’re on social media sites, because so many people spend so much time on those sites. My thinking didn’t go much deeper than that.

Malcolm Sutton (Photo credit: Pearl Pirie)

Malcolm Sutton (Photo credit: Pearl Pirie)

MS: In Giving Up the reader might sense the coexistence of parts that feel fictional and parts that feel like they are derived directly from the author’s experience. This fiction/nonfiction line has been a preoccupation for many writers for a number of years, but has been brought forward, I’d say, to form part of our present zeitgeist by writers like Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heti, and by a revival of interest in Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. An audience wants this degree of disclosure. Yet one of the main risks in writing a novel that makes honest statements about one’s life, perhaps statements that are more honest and hurtful than one would even say in private to a friend, is that you might cause catastrophic rifts in your personal relationships. How do you navigate this present literary terrain that leaves the writer so exposed?

Mike Steeves: This is a hot topic right now, and I wish I had something insightful to say, but so many other writers have been way more illuminating on the subject than I ever will be. A fairly conventional observation is that this line-blurring phenomenon in fiction is not new. Ulysses is an example of a book that turned this aspect of fiction into a borderline fetish. I’m not an expert, but I don’t believe the initial critical response to the book was focussed on this.

If you go back to the novel’s origins in the 18th century, the situation seems to be almost the reverse. Novelists often opened their books with assertions of authenticity. They were at pains to demonstrate how the text was derived from real sources; correspondence or diary entries. Now, even when a book is clearly modeled on real events and people, it’s not uncommon for a writer to claim that the work is a product of pure imagination. They also claim that, while they may be using real events, the moment these events undergo an aesthetic treatment they necessarily become fiction. I don’t think I’m the only one that finds this argument a bit weak.

Some of this confusion, I imagine, comes from a categorical misunderstanding. We associate fiction with something that is untrue, something that has never happened, or something that has been made up. Of course, anybody who has studied literature knows that these definitions fall way short of the mark. Fiction is a way of seeing things, an artistic approach to understanding. This approach is capable of working from material derived from personal experience, as well as from research or any number of sources.

So the excitement that the reader experiences when they feel like they are reading something that is presented as fiction, but obviously has its origin in real events, is a literary effect. Just as a knowledge of 19th century Russia will heighten your appreciation of Doestoyevsky’s books, so will a biographical knowledge of a writer help the reader appreciate how the writer is deploying this experience to literary effect.

The vulgar aspect of this phenomenon (and I don’t mean this in a bad way), is when we get the impression that the writer is disclosing something in a manner that is “honest” and potentially “hurtful” (hurtful, that is, to the real-life model of the fictional character in the novel). I’m as guilty as the next guy for taking an interest in this sort of thing, but what’s interesting is how these disclosures are rarely revelations. For example, it’s uncommon (maybe unheard of) for a writer to confess, in the pages of a fictional work, to a murder that they had perpetrated in real life (at least one that they haven’t been convicted of, yet). What’s more common is that the writer explores their responses to things like jealousy, rage, death, etc. So to answer your question about how I navigate this terrain, I would say that I don’t navigate it. Whatever might pass for revelation in my book is the sort of thing that most people in a similar situation could be expected to feel, or could at least imagine, and as long as I approach the material with as little ego, and as much sympathy as possible, I hope that I’m doing justice to the real events and models that inspired the book.

The other thing that happens in fiction is that truth becomes a moving target. The writer mixes their own responses with those of others. They hypothesize and try on different opinions. In Giving Up, I am just as often as not, writing from a perspective that I consider to be at odds with my own. As a result, it becomes difficult to sort out what is autobiographical and what isn’t. What’s more important, I think, is that each moment of the book is deeply felt. Even if I’m not writing out of personal experience, the hope is that I can use this fictional approach to get as close as possible to the real thing. Or, as the critic Daniel Mendelsohn puts it – fiction “can tell truths but cannot tell the truth.”

Read an excerpt from Giving previously published on the BookThug Blog, here . Join Mike Steeves on Friday May 15, 2015 at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard Ouest, Montreal, for a reading from the novel, followed by a Q & A with fellow BookThug  Jacob Wren, author of Polyamorous Love Song. For more information visit the event page, here

Photo Credit: Nikki Tummon

Mike Steeves attended University of King’s College in Halifax, where he received a BA in Political Science and English Literature. He completed an MA in English Literature at Concordia University. Steeves lives with his wife and child in Montreal, and works at Concordia University. Giving Up is his first full-length book of fiction. Connect with Mike on Twitter @SteevesMike.

Photo credit: Hazel Millar

Malcolm Sutton is a writer, editor, book designer and educator. He is the founding editor of The Coming Envelope journal of experimental prose and fiction editor at BookThug. He teaches various forms of writing at universities in Toronto.

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