An interview with Trevor Cole, 2011 Leacock Medal winner
When did you start writing fiction?
I began years ago, in my early 20s, but didn’t start going at it seriously until about ten years later. I wrote a few stories but mostly concentrated on the novel form.
Whose decision was it to enter Practical Jean for the Leacock Medal?
My publisher is McClelland & Stewart, and I leave it up to them which awards to submit to, but certainly the Leacock was discussed from the moment I handed in the manuscript. Obviously only certain books are suited to the Leacock, although I believe all of my novels so far have been submitted for that award. It’s been on my radar for a long time.
How has the comedy in your novels been received?
Critics have always noted the comedy in my novels, and the way I try to combine it with dark or serious themes. A majority of them have embraced and applauded that mixture, while a small number seem to find it perplexing. I could make broad generalizations about the talent and perceptiveness of each of these groups, but I probably shouldn’t. I haven’t necessarily been known for a comic approach in my journalism, although I did do a satire column for a couple of years in Canadian Business, which I’m happy to say made some CEOs quite angry.
With the Leacock win, are you expected to embody “funny,” to be funny in person?
So far I’ve been introduced as the Leacock winner to one person who has looked me up and down and said, “How come you’re not funny?” I’m not someone who’s always “on” and trying to be entertaining, but most people know me as someone with a ready sense of humour.
Do you write fiction exclusively?
My day job, I guess, is magazine journalism, but when I’m working on a book I can go a year or more without doing any journalistic work. I consider fiction to be my priority, and journalism as a handy way for me to make money.
Can you summarize what you do through your AuthorsAloud website? Has there been any effect on your AuthorsAloud activities due to the Leacock win?
AuthorsAloud.com is a site I started about five years ago. It features recordings of Canadian authors giving brief readings from their books, and it grew out of my love of giving and listening to author readings, and also my past experience in radio, working with audio. I noticed a few years ago that it was very hard to find readings from other authors online. You could stumble across them, but there was no place where you could count on finding recordings from literary authors. So I started asking writers I met to take a few minutes to sit in front of their computers and record themselves reading from the books and then give me the file. I receive no money for it from anyone, so I can’t devote a lot of time to collecting readings. I just let it grow steadily and organically. But I hear from lots of people, including a number of high school English teachers, who consider it a valuable resource. The Leacock award has probably brought a few more people to the site.
How did you become aware of Stephen Leacock as a writer?
Like many Canadians, I guess, our family had a book of Canadian history by Leacock, which I remember leafing through at a very young age. I didn’t know him as a humour writer until much later, and I have to confess I have only read bits and pieces of Leacock through the years, mostly from Sunshine Sketches and Literary Lapses. For me, as a writer, he’s been valuable as an icon, representing the importance of humour in Canadian literature.
What effect has winning the Leacock Medal had on your publishing career? Is there another book in the works?
My publishers, both in Canada and the U.S., are thrilled that I’ve won the Leacock. And I’m sure it will bring more attention to the book. I haven’t begun writing the next book yet, although I’m thinking about it constantly. I’m trying to find the right hook for the story I want to tell, and right now that process is a little like wading through a fog-shrouded swamp, hoping I’ll stumble over a submerged log.
Will you be able to write without thinking about upholding your comic reputation, or do you think there will be an expectation (from readers or yourself) for you to be more broadly humorous?
That is definitely something I’ve thought about. I don’t think I’ll feel pressure to be more broadly humorous. I am what I am and I like what I am, as a writer. If anything it’s possible the contrarian in me might push away from humour for a while. But it’s a simple truth about me that I’ve always tended toward character-driven humour in my work. I’m not sure that I can write entirely without humour. I’ve tried in the past and I haven’t liked the result.
You’ve given some of your characters unique names — Woodlore, Leggado and Horemarsh, for instance. Do the names convey anything about the characters?
My process for naming important characters is somewhat about sound, and how it feels coming off the tongue. I think about whether it’s a name I want to hear over and over again. Ethnicity, or the absence of it, is often a consideration. My fiction is generally not the fiction of identity, so I consciously try to avoid nailing my main characters down to a specific place or culture. I want who they are, for the reader, to come out of their behaviour and personality, not their historic or geographical background. So interesting names that don’t immediately suggest a place are attractive to me. And sometimes, as in the case of my first main character, Norman Bray, the name carries a bit of symbolic meaning.
Do you have a sense of Canadian humour writing as a specific genre, and what level of interest in it do you think there is from writers, publishers and readers?
In my opinion you can’t wrap all writing that incorporates humour into one genre. Humour is a big tent and includes writing as widely divergent as the styles represented by this year’s five Leacock nominees. I think it would be counter-productive to think of humour as a genre, because genres are ghettoized. Genres imply formulas and rules, and there are no rules when it comes to humour. That’s what allows writers as different as Trevor Cole and Red Green to both be considered funny. So I resist the urge to comment on the state of “humour writing” in Canada. Because I don’t even think of myself as a “humour writer.” I think of myself as a writer who uses humour, just as I also use character and metaphor. What I would say about the state of “writing” in Canada is that it’s surprising to me how few writers in the country use humour. First of all, I think realism demands it; our lives are filled with humour. And readers love it when they encounter it in a book. But some publishers are afraid of it, I think. I don’t know why. And some writers worry that their work won’t be taken seriously if it’s funny. So they write very serious, earnest books that wear their importance on their sleeves, and sometimes end up being rather boring. That’s fine. It means I don’t feel crowded by other writers who are doing exactly what I’m doing. I’ve got lots of elbow room.
The Leacock Associates have been awarding the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour since 1947. Trevor Cole won the 2011 Medal for Humour for his third book, Practical Jean, which was also a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His first book, Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life, and his follow-up novel, The Fearsome Particles, were both shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. More information about his work can be found at http://trevorcole.com/
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