Genni Gunn is the author of twelve books, including three novels, three short fiction collections, two poetry collections, a collection of personal essays, as well as an opera libretto. She is also a musician, and toured Canada as a bass guitarist, pianist and vocalist before turning to writing full time. She lives in Vancouver. Genni Gunn discusses her latest collection of short stories and her work in this interview for Accenti.
Your most recent book, Permanent Tourists, is a collection of eight stories. Why was it important for you to write these specific eight stories?
Oh, that’s a difficult question. I would say each of the stories takes place in a different location, and often in a different country, actually, and probably just reflects my own traveling life; although for the last year I haven’t been traveling anywhere, as no one else has either. Each of the stories I think was engendered by something that I saw, or something that I experienced somewhere, or some interesting thing that caught my eye – you know, what if a character were in this situation. The stories came out of something that was interesting to me, but not necessarily literally. The story “Solitudes” has a character in Cambodia who witnesses the stoning of a man, kind of a half-hearted stoning. That was actually something that I did witness. The story isn’t about that particular event. It’s more that I was examining the idea of fear. It has to do with the man who had some mental issues, and the people there felt that if they didn’t throw the stone, that might come to them. They saw him as some kind of demon. What was interesting to me was the idea of how, because of fear, we can do anything. I started thinking that all human beings are capable of anything given the right circumstance. When I began writing that story, I remember thinking I was going to start with that stoning and what I wanted to do was by the end of this story, the character who was outraged by the stoning at the beginning had to be able to pick up a stone at the end. So that was thematically what I wanted to do. Some of the stories were written over a longer period of time. They probably encompass five or six years, and then when I put the collection together, I actually did write three or four new stories, or I adjusted them because they’re loosely connected.
Was there one story that was more difficult to write than the others?
If I had to choose one, it’s “Bloodlines.” It’s a combination of a couple of different stories that I’d worked on over the years. I took pieces out of an unpublished novel. I had a character and I had a relationship in that character: a woman and her father. That was the part I really liked. I had another story that had to do with an archivist who was taking calls from people who wanted to connect with other people. Somehow, those two stories felt like they could go together, like they could be the same thing, because like the archivist who is trying to find people’s heritage, the woman who didn’t grow up with her father is trying to find that heritage too. Maybe that all ties in on some visceral level and some subconscious level to my own life, to write about living here and being from somewhere else. Maybe it was a little bit harder to bring that story together. It took me longer. It’s quite a long story, too, almost like a novella. It also brings together the characters in all the stories.
When you are writing a story, do you have a specific reader in mind or a specific kind of reader?
I can’t say that I really do. I think if I were writing for, say, a particular age group, I would be much more aware of that. I’m more and more concerned with whatever the issue is that I’m writing about thematically.
Do you write in Italian?
No, no, I would not try and write in Italian. I can speak Italian, but I just think language is a living thing. I think unless you’re really living in that language, like if I were spending six months in Italy and six months here, maybe I would feel comfortable enough to do it. But, even so, I’m not sure that I would. I translate from Italian into English. There’s no problem at all, but going the other way, I wouldn’t, unless I was really living in Italy and feeling really comfortable. I think literary language is different from normal speech.
Have any of the stories in Permanent Tourists been translated into Italian, or are there plans to do so?
One of the stories has been translated into Italian, the one set in Italy, with the character called Clara. I wrote that story after I came back from Italy. I had been there visiting. I have an Italian translator. She translated a book of poetry of mine and we became friends. She lives in Rome and has a place in Fossombrone, which is where the story is set. There is a hotel there where Mussolini slept, you know, 307 times or 167 times, or whatever. And so they have postcards, “Mussolini slept here,” or whatever. Which was, I thought, sort of horrifying. [We met] a woman who runs the bar and hotel. She said the hotel was closed, but we heard a voice calling behind us. It was an elderly man who had all these tables out on the street; they were all filled with stones, hundreds of stones. He said, “oh, come here, come here. This is my museum. Would you like to see some more inside?” We went inside and every surface was covered with stones – chairs, tables, commodes. Then he said, “would you be interested in seeing some more downstairs? I have some special ones.” We said sure. So down we went, just like in the story. He had an alcove with a kind of fence in front of it. He turned off the lights. It was pitch dark. Then he turned on this black light inside that alcove and the stones became unbelievable. They were phosphorescent stones. That image stayed in my mind and I thought: Oh. I have to write about this, but I kind of abandoned the idea. A couple of years ago I was going to Italy and I thought: I think there’s a story there I need to go back to. So I called Adda, my translator, and we went back to the same place. To my surprise, there was a for sale sign on the house. The man had died three years before. The woman was there; she was his daughter-in-law. I asked her what happened to all the stones? “Some of them went to a museum in Milan,” she said. She took us down and showed us the little alcove. Only, she didn’t turn out all the lights so everything was sort of shot. I said to her; “what about him? Who was he? He had said to me ‘This is my life’s work. This is what I’ve been doing. This is my whole life.’” She just kind of brushed it off. She was almost suspicious. Why was I even asking? Well, he just liked stones. That’s what got me – the fact that he had spent all his life doing this, and just like that he died and there was nothing more of him left; his whole life’s work was just nothing. It made me think about how that’s true of all of us. A couple of generations and no one will even know we were here. That’s where that story came out of. Adda translated it into Italian, which was lovely.
When you sit down to write, do you know if it’s going to be a short story or a novel? Do you know that you’re working on a novel already or do you start thinking it’s a novel and then it becomes a short story, or vice versa?
I work from a theme. I would say I do see an image, or something happens, or I hear something. There’s some kernel of something that’s interesting. I don’t know what it is, and I want to go back and see it again. When I begin writing, the one thing I do know is what it is I’m writing about. Although, I have to say that sometimes I know what I’m writing about, but by the time I finish this story, I realize it’s about something else. That can happen. But generally, I know how the story is going to end. Not the physical details of this story, but I know what I want to say.
Where do you keep the kernels that you’re talking about? Where do you store the idea, physically? Where do you write?
I travel a lot, and I keep travel diaries. I have been going back about 30 years. I keep a journal, a yearly journal, but I only write in it ideas, nothing else. Nothing else goes in there. When I’m traveling, each particular trip has its own journal, and so I keep everything there. I was able to go back there, look at what I’d said about the place then, versus what I found today. I try and write down as much detail. I’ve noticed, though in the last couple of years, that I’m not keeping as detailed a journal as I used to. But I’m taking a lot of photographs. Sometimes I think; “Oh well, I’ll recreate it when I get home.” But it’s not the same. I think my earlier journals are better, because I’m writing down sounds, I’m hearing something. They have more of a texture.
You mentioned that you’re a big traveller. How are you dealing with the pandemic and the inability to travel?
Well, I have several things. I go to Italy almost every year, so that’s been totally on hold. But the other side of that is that my mother lives in Ottawa now, and she is going to be 97 in a couple of months. I have not been able to go and see her since this pandemic, so Zoom has been a lifesaver. Zoom, and, of course, I speak to her all the time. My sister lives in Thailand, so we just Zoom with my brothers in Ottawa and we use all sorts of different media. Personally, in terms of traveling, I’ve been sort of traveling within my own journals, so to speak. I’ve been traveling within and going: “oh, you know what I didn’t write about that particular journey? Maybe I’ll go back and write something about that journey.”
When did you first become aware that you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a child. My sister is a wonderful artist; so is my mom. My sister and I used to make these books. I would write the story. She would draw all the pictures and we would sell them to my relatives. I only wish I had some of those books now. My aunt when she died left some stuff, which I picked up and there were these little scribblers with stories in them. I’ve been doing that all along. I’ve always been doing it, but I’ve also been doing music.
You’re also a musician.
I was playing piano before I could reach a keyboard. I did a Bachelor of Music degree. I was playing professionally. I carried on with the music, but wrote all the time. I would be traveling all the time, like it is when you’re in a band. In hotel rooms I’d be scribbling things and then I guess I just suddenly decided, probably when I hit 30, I don’t want to keep going into bars. I’m sick of this life. I thought I better get serious. So I did a graduate degree and took writing seriously. Actually, I played probably for another 10 or 15 years at night while I was studying or while I was writing and teaching, as well. I started teaching at the university, so I was straddling both for quite a while and then I dropped off the music and just channelled all that energy into writing. I mean, it’s the same creative energies, it’s just a different medium, and I’m sure if I was willing to put another 10 years into learning how to paint, maybe I could do that too. It’s just a matter of time. That’s what my mom says. When I say I wish I could paint or something, she says, “well, if you put as much effort and time into it as your other career, you would be able to get it.”
Did you get any good advice from anyone in particular when you first started writing seriously?
Yes. I’ve always said that Bob Harlow at UBC was my mentor. He was really tough, and that’s what was so great. I remember I took a novel course from him and the first segment of my 10 pages or 15 pages, whatever it was that I handed it to him, when he brought it back — I think every word had something written above it. He was a real stickler for grammar, for language usage, for clichés, the non-use of clichés. He made me so aware of language in a way that I thought I was already aware of language, but no. This was a completely different look. I was so thankful to have had him because it really shaped my thinking around language. Around the same time, I read a book by Andre Brink, a South African author, An Instant in the Wind. What this book did was open my eyes to the idea and the possibility of form. The book was written in two first-person voices, often in the same sentence in the same paragraph, and yet there was no doubt who was speaking. The voice was so clear. And I thought, normally that’s the sort of thing they said not to try, because it’s never going to work. Here it did work, and that excited me about the possibility of form and what you could create and what new things you could create. I went on to read a whole bunch of his other books and several have been made into films. He did not disappoint me because each book is a completely different experiment. In the end, that’s what I’m interested in, creatively and artistically, because really, all the stories have been told. We know stories about love, jealousy, death, and they’ve been told sixty million times. To try and figure out a way to tell it in a slightly different way is I think what’s interesting, to try and experiment something, to find some other way to still make it just as appealing.
What advice do you have for young writers, or for aspiring writers (they don’t need to be young)?
I’ve come to a new thought about the creative writing degrees and creative writing; on some level what quite often happens is that you have a lot of writing that comes out that sounds very similar. There’s a kind of tamping down. It’s writing by committee right now. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can learn a lot about writing by doing that. But in the end you have to go away and just write your book by yourself. I did a novel as a thesis. But I never published that novel. That was my learning novel. Then I went off. I said: “no, I gotta write my own novel.” So that way, you make sure that you don’t have the voice of four different people and an instructor. You have your own. I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t take classes. Classes will move you forward. You can either spend 10 years and learn how to write by yourself as people used to do before they had creative writing classes, or you can take classes so you can learn techniques right. But then you still need to spend a lot of time actually developing your own voice in your own way, a style of thinking that’s your own. I can teach someone to write beautiful sentences, but I can’t teach them to think originally or creatively. Those are two very different things. The biggest thing I would say for advice is read, read, read, read, read, read, read, because you’ll learn so much. And imitate. I used to tell students all the time: If you want to learn how to play guitar. What do you do? You buy a guitar, then you put on records of the greatest guitarists you’ve ever heard, and you try and play along with them! You keep playing until you can play what they’re playing. Well, why don’t you do that with writing? Pick up a fabulous piece of writing and imitate it as well as you can. You learn a lot about the style, you’ll learn a lot about how it’s put together, just the structure of it, by having to analyze it.
That is wonderful advice. Thank you, Genni Gunn, for speaking to Accenti today.
Licia Canton is Accenti editor-in-chief.