Clark Blaise Derek Alger One on One

portrait Clark Blaise

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 72 ~ May, 2003

Clark Blaise is the author of nine story collections, three novels, and three previous books of non-fiction.His most recent book, Time Lord: Sir Sanford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, gives a fascinating account of the Canadian engineer and surveyor’s struggle and perseverance in the latter 19th century to get the world to run on the same schedule.

Author Clark BlaiseBorn in Fargo, North Dakota of Canadian parents, Blaise spent his childhood in Alabama, Georgia, and central Florida, eventually graduating from high school in Pittsburgh, all the while periodically returning to the refuge of his mother’s family in Winnipeg.He attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio as a geology major before switching to English and beginning his apprenticeship to the craft of writing.

The Clark Blaise Papers at the University of Calgary document Blaise’s literary activity between 1960 and 1986, ranging from his early work at Harvard University where he was in a summer workshop taught by Bernard Malamud, and including three short story collections, two novels and a travel journal, Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), co-authored with his wife, fiction writer Bharati Mukherjee.

Blaise graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1964, completing a collection of short stories, Thibidault el fils, as his thesis.At the age of 25, Blaise moved to Montreal, where he remained for 13 years and founded the graduate writing program at Concordia College.Over the years he has taught at universities throughout the United States and Canada, including serving as Director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.A world traveler, Blaise has also taught and lectured in Japan, India, Singapore, Australia, Finland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Holland, Germany, Haiti, and Mexico.

His novel Lunar Attractions (1979) won the fourth annual Books for Canada Award for a first novel, and it was followed by Lusts (1983), and the story collection Resident Alien (1986).His other works include the story collections A North American Education (1973) andTribal Justice (1974), a work of journalism, The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987), The Border as Fiction (1990), I Had a Father (1993), If I Had a Father: A Post Modernist Autobiography (1994), and If I Were Me (1997), as well as The Pittsburgh Stories (2001) and The Southern Stories, (2002).His Montreal Stories are scheduled to be published in 2003, and International Stories will be published in 2004.

Derek Alger:I believe you once said that you grew up with “an outsider’s view of America and a romanticized exile’s view of Canada.”Could you elaborate?

Blaise:Those are my own words coming back to haunt me.I think the simple act of seeing Canada as a romance and as a place “lost” to me generates sufficient energy for a lifetime of writing.Most people in my position as a dual citizen of those two very similar countries see Canada as an irritating complication and irrelevance in their lives.To make Canada into a kind of Mexico, let’s say, or India or Italy or Japan or China, is a sufficiently intriguing challenge.

DA: How has such duality in your life influenced your work?

CB: I’ve always been aware of the dualities in supposedly solid identities. It wasn’t just my own, but all of my friends as well.They were Jews, or Italians, or whatever; or they came from odd parts of the country, or they had huge families, or a lot of money — those were the things I noticed.I don’t think I was any more attracted to, or agonized by mine than anyone else is by theirs.Canadian/US, even French/English is a pretty minor thing on this continent in this day and age.

DA: You have been hailed as a master of the form of autobiography and fiction, what you have called “personal fiction.”What do you mean by personal fiction?

CB: The acceptance of an outer shell of inherited limitation, a kind of contract that I’m not seemingly inventing out of whole cloth.Most of my work could have “happened” to “me,” from what anyone might know of my biographical circumstances.But really, I use the voice of autobiography, not the events; I try to make you believe in the probability of what I’m saying in order to slip other things over.I may be in all of my characters, but none of them are me (except in the overly autobiographical parts of Resident Alien, or of course, I Had a Father.

DA: Your most recent book, Time Lord, was a pretty ambitious undertaking.How did you come up with the idea of writing about Sir Sanford Fleming?

CB: He spoke to me.I had a grandfather in Winnipeg very much like him, but he was lost to Alzheimer’s by the time I was old enough to know him.He was one of those polymathic Victorians.The fact that no one had written a full book on Fleming is very strange to me.On the other hand, I didn’t want to write a full-scale biography.My interest was in the human or “rational” assertion of control over “time” and its implication for modernity.We had to wrest it away from the religious authorities and once we controlled and coordinated the flow of time, all things became possible in science, the arts, the economy, etc.

DA: What prompted you to change your major to English in college and decide that you wanted to become a writer?

CB: Too many science labs.I never got beyond the hours spent proving the validity of earlier experiments.If I had begun to work on my own discoveries, it would have been different of course, but I was years away from that.Really, I was clueless in science; like Fleming, I was probably capable of synthesizing leaps, but unlike Fleming I had no idea of how to get there.In writing, you can cut immediately to stunning observations; and it’s fun even getting there.

DA: You have said that taking a summer class in creative writing taught by Bernard Malamud was the luckiest move in your writing life.What was that experience like?

CB: The class showed me that I could make the transition from a small school where I was good and knew I was good to a very different, far more demanding environment.Malamud responded to my work ( I had responded to his when I was still at Denison), so it was magical for me.It’s not any different from an actor or a musician or even an athlete, realizing that his skills are scalable.

DA: In addition to meeting your wife, what were the benefits of attending the Writer’s Workshop and receiving your MFA at the University of Iowa?

CB: The time to write, to learn self-editing, to hone a quick take on other’s work.To develop friendships and professional attitudes to the craft.To carry the model of the

two great teachers in my life, the late Paul Bennett at Denison and Bern Malamud, forward.

In a word, to learn self-respect and respect for others who deserve it.In fact, to serve those with talent, always to read their work, to offer helpful opinions, to smooth the way if I’m able, which is what I’ve tried to do in my 40 years of teaching experience.

DA:You moved to Montreal in 1966, living there for 13 years and becoming a Canadian citizen.Why did you feel that particular locale was the spiritual home for your writing?

CB: My parents met and married there. I always felt myself an “exiled princeling” from Montreal, that it was the place fated for me.It’s still the only place on the continent that can spell my name.

DA: You and Bharati collaborated on Days and Nights in Calcutta.It was your idea to go there, what prompted that decision?Or, which came first, the idea for the trip or the idea for the book?

CB: I wanted to explore and familiarize myself with Calcutta before the idea to write about it.I was going to Father Gaston Roberge’s film seminar on Satyajit Ray and Truffaut at Loyola (Gaston lived in Calcutta and was Ray’s French subtitlist) for the year before leaving.I had been married for ten years and had not made a significant effort to know India in anything like the spirit Bharati had mastered Canada and the US.

DA: While you were teaching at the David Thompson University Centre in British Columbia, you were expected to complete work to share with your students.Since that’s more an exception than a rule, what was it like being a first among equals in a workshop environment?

CB: It was probably the best teaching experience of my life.A terrible shame that it was closed down a few weeks after I left.It was a true blue-collar experience, a commune of writers, and the Socred (meaning Social Credit, a right wing party now thankfully vacuumed up by history) government was right, by its dim lights, to close it down.

DA: You and Bharati collaborated on another work, this time about the Air-India tragedy of Flight 182 iin which 329 people were killed in 1985 by a terrorist bomb.In a sense you were ahead of the times, in light of the attacks on 9/11.

CB: This one was Bharati’s idea.She saw that the victim’s families were expressing their anger at the slow pace of the investigation (would it have been so slow if the bombing had been on an Alitalia flight?)We knew some people on that flight as well.It was a harrowing book to write, even dangerous for us, but it has been our proudest accomplishment, as writers and especially as citizen-writers.And it’s still ahead of its time.