portrait Richard Cumyn

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 81 ~ February, 2004

Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Richard Cumyn is the only writer to date to have been short-listed for a ReLit award in consecutive years, for Viking Brides (Oberon Press, 2001) and The Obstacle Course (Oberon Press, 2002). The current fiction editor of The Antigonish Review, based in Nova Scotia, Cumyn has had one of his stories included in the prestigious Journey Prize Anthology. He has served as Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he lives.

Critics have consistently praised the sparse elegance of Cumyn’s prose. Regarding Cumyn’s work, The Globe and Mail stated, “In less than two pages arrives a breathtaking meditation on the affairs of men and women . . . an economy of words that will leave your mouth dry”

About The View from Tamischcheira (Beach Holme Publishing, 2003), Cumyn’s recent novella, one reviewer in Quill & Quire noted, “Richard Cumyn has created a fabulous tale . . . (The reader) is swept away into the current of fully lived life and imagination, the wellspring of all our mythologies and our solace .”

Cumyn has also published two other collection of stories — The Limit of Delta Y and Delta X (Goose Lane Editions, 1994) and I am not most places (Beach Holme Publishing, 1996).

Derek Alger: Growing up in Ottawa, did you always know you were going to be a writer, or more precisely, a fiction writer?

Richard Cumyn: Yes, I got the urge to write stories early, around 11 or 12. It was reinforced in school. I had strong teachers in Grades 6, 7 and 8 who had us write fiction and read it aloud. The first time you hear an audience laugh at something you write, you’re hooked. It’s a powerful incentive to continue. (Of course if you didn’t write it for laughs, you’ve got a problem.) I remember writing a story in Grade 7 about how the duckbilled platypus came to be. I think I brought an otter, a duck and a beaver together in some crazy international event a la Little Black Sambo and his tigers. The teacher made
a fuss about it and showed it to my parents. That’s all the reinforcement a kid needs. In senior year of high school my English teacher at Ridgemont, Ed Turner, got us reading Joyce and Kafka and Hesse and Graham Greene. He told me to write every day. Whenever I see him I laugh and tell him he’s to blame for putting me on this arduous

DA: You graduated from college with a degree in English and Education. Did you think of yourself more as a teacher or a writer who was teaching?

RC: When I look back on it, getting a teaching degree was a practical move, but it was also a temporary flight from writing. I was newly married and at home with a baby when I published my first two stories in 1983. My wife Sharon was completing an undergraduate degree. We thought we needed careers. Sharon began a master’s degree in political studies and I wrote the LSAT and the Canadian Foreign Service exam, with dismal results in each. Sharon brought home an application for teachers’ college — I think she was thinking of applying at first, before she was accepted to do her master’s. I filled it out, didn’t even write the essay the form called for. It sat on the kitchen table for weeks before Sharon finally put it in the mail. Next thing I know I’m learning how to design lesson plans.

DA: Do you feel teaching helped you as a writer?

RC: My first book, The Limit of Delta Y Over Delta X, wouldn’t exist had I not taught high school for seven years. Most of the stories in that collection are about teachers and students. I had to wait until after I quit teaching to write them. Distance (from rural Eastern Ontario to Halifax, Nova Scotia) and time (two years) were necessary buffers. Memory and the imagination had to do a little courtship dance for a spell. While I was teaching I was trying to cram a year’s worth of writing into the summers. I did complete a novel, but it didn’t succeed. I cannibalized a good portion of it for the stories in The
. What I was missing then, I see now, was strong believable characters.

DA: Aside from the obvious answers — notoriety, untold wealth, immortality in print — why do you write fiction?

RC: It’s what I do best. It’s how I show off, sound off, play, make sense of the inexplicable. I like what Mario Vargas Llosa says about why we write, that it’s an
act of rebellion. We’re demonstrating “our rejection and criticism of life as we find it,”
replacing it with our dreams.

DA: In 1991, you took the plunge and left a secure teaching position to write
short stories. What was your thinking at the time?

RC: Alternately, “Have you lost your mind?!” “OK, I can do this, I can make a living at it.” And, “This is what I was born to do. All I need is the time, the quiet and the lack of structure to write well.” Not just write to live. I sold a few freelance articles and essays to newspapers. Those were easy to write compared to the labor of delivering a kicking, screaming short story. I did know that I had to leap off the edge of the cliff, leave the security of a job, before I could begin to write anything worthwhile. It put my family in financial jeopardy until we came up with a plan, which was to sell everything and move to Halifax so that Sharon could study to become a librarian. Now she has tenure at Dalhousie University. Our eldest daughter graduated from Dal last year and her sister just started first-year there. Convergences. It’s spooky to think that my second published story and first in a respectable journal was in the Dalhousie Review. Now we live a ten-minute
walk away from the university, our benefactor and the girls’ alma mater.

DA: Your early stories demonstrate your ability to succeed in conveying “less is more” in your writing and some have used the term “minimalist” to describe these stories. What do you think?

RC: “Minimalist” is a convenient and much derided term. If it means that a story is saying much with little, then I’ll take it as a compliment. My natural style is one of compaction, although stories in I am not most places did undergo a major edit before the book was printed. My editor at Beach Holme at the time, Joy Gugeler, cut them to the bone, and the result, I believe, is a lean, clear, resonant collection. Since then I’ve
become more long-winded, less direct, more playful, perhaps. Raymond Carver’s
stories affected me viscerally when I first read them, and I think it’s taken me a while to write him out of my system and move into new territory. I know other male fiction writers for whom this has been a similar experience. What it is I’m not exactly sure. An epiphany of voice? A realization that you can write an intensely personal, emotionally charged story “straight,” without having to stretch for poetry or embellishment or epiphany.

DA: Writing can be a very lonely undertaking. You credit your wife with giving you a lot of invaluable support.

RC: Sharon is my intended audience when I sit to write. She reads first drafts, revisions, half-baked attempts. I used to worry that she’d get sick of reading a story so many times.
She says she doesn’t. I wouldn’t be a published writer without her, I’m sure of that.

DA: What would you say about the fact that there is definitely such a thing as Canadian fiction, compared to the way many are inclined to think of only writers who happen to be
from Canada?

RC: Tough question. I know a Canadian book or writer when I read one, but that’s because I’m aware of the writing scene here. German and Scandinavian readers are able to make a destinction between Canadian and American fiction. At least they’re buying a lot of Can Lit recently. More copies of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version sold in Italy than in Canada, although I’m not sure they loved the book there because of its Canadian flavour; Richler tended to be a pan-American writer who moved back and forth across the 49th parallel with relative ease. So, your question comes down to perception. Most Americans don’t see the subtle differences in tone and subject between their fiction and stories written in Canada. People in the States are genuinely surprised to learn that Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields are Canadian writers, and I think that’s because these authors’ characters, settings and plots are somehow familiar to U.S. readers. Universality of theme, perhaps? From a strictly commercial point of view Canadian writers who do not sell in the U.S. are acutely aware of the need to make their work palatable to an American audience. So, do I think there’s a distinct Canadian literature? Yes. Can I prove it? That depends on the reader I’m trying to convince.

DA: Your recent novella The View from Tamischeira is a departure from your contemporary short stories. What made you choose to write an imaginative account about Canadian radio pioneer and amateur archeologist Reginald Fessenden?

RC: I’ve been interested in Reginald Fessenden since I first read about him in Grade 6
or 7.
DA: So, he really made an impression on you.

RC: I did an interesting talk on him. He was the first to transmit the human voice via wireless radio, the first to make a transatlantic voice transmission by wireless, and he
gave the first radio broadcast to ships at sea off the eastern seaboard. And he was born in Canada!

DA: Although you and Fessenden were fellow Canadians, how did you find out
about his life?

RC: I read Radio’s First Voice by Ormand Raby and a biography of Fessenden written by his widow. Aside from those, I haven’t found much else written about the man. A comprehensive biography, incorporating his archaeological theories, is long overdue.

DA: Why isn’t he better known?

RC: He wasn’t very good at self-promotion and was overshadowed by some of the men he worked with early in his career. As a young man, he became Thomas Edison’s chief chemist, helping to develop a fireproof insulation for electric wires. Fessenden’s motivation for moving to the U.S. and working for Edison and later George Westinghouse was to learn as much as he could about electricity so he could fulfill his dream of perfecting wireless. He completed many of his experimental transmissions while working for the U.S. Weather Bureau on Roanoke Island. Around the same time, Marconi, who had a strong public relations machine behind him, won the contract to provide wireless telegraph service to Britain and the Commonwealth, edging out Fessenden when the Canadian sought supportfor his voice transmission system to replace the transatlantic phone cables. This defeat was a major reason why Fessenden returned to the States and taught at the University of Pittsburgh. His genius was appreciated there. It’s a common phenomenon in Canada. We call it the tall weed syndrome: anybody who rises too far above the rest gets his head lopped off.

DA: The View from Tamischeira is really the story of a group of disparate travelers, each on a quest, in the Caucasus Mountains. There’s Fessenden, of course, but also Katherine Waddell, the lover of Fessenden’s dead friend, Ottawa poet Archibald Lampman.

RC: When he was about eleven years old, Reginald Fessenden boarded at Trinity College in Port Hope, Ontario, and met Archibald Lampman there. The two became friends. Lines of a poem Archie wrote for Reg are on the inventor’s tombstone in Bermuda, which is where Reg met his wife, Helen May Trott.

DA: So the idea for the novella evolved out of that friendship?

RC: Right. Knowing about Fessenden and Lampman’s early friendship, I became intrigued with the idea of writing a fictional account of a scientist and poet joining forces
to solve a great archaeological puzzle, i.e., locating the Garden of Eden and the area inundated by the Flood that so many different cultures have described. Recent studies
of the Black Sea floor suggest that Fessenden may have been pretty close, and
that the Flood may have occurred when the Mediterranean broke through a natural
barrier separating it from the arid depression that is now the Black Sea. The channel carved through that barrier became what is now the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

DA: You certainly know your geography.

RC: Not really. I learned what I needed to know to write the book. Anyway, a fiction writer can dream about such exotic places for only so long before wanting to send his characters there. And archaeological theories make for pretty dull reading, that is, until a romantic element is introduced, and I found such a romance in the suggested love affair of Archibald Lampman, a married man, and his colleague in the Canadian Post Office Department, Katherine Waddell. We know that Lampman addressed a number of poems to a woman who wasn’t his wife and we know also that the poet had these poems printed and bound as a gift for Miss Waddell, who remained single all her life.

DA: So where do fact and fiction converge in your book?

RC: My story departs from the historical record just before Lampman’s death in 1899 at the age of 39. Stricken with grief and charged by a dying Lampman to take the best of him (his letters to Waddell and hers to him) to Eden, my character Katherine persuades Fessenden to accompany her to the Caucasus because, as my fictional Lampman says,
“Reg will know.”

DA: Can you set the stage for us? Where does the novella open?

RC: It begins in the town of Vladikavkaz at the northern entrance to the Dariel Pass, that “dark defile” Fessenden believed was Erebus, which was the way through the underworld the ancients believed the soul had to pass on its way to the next life. My characters, Reg and Kate, are joined by a British travel writer and member of Parliament, Henry Norman, another historical character whose book, All the Russias, published 1902, I read for a sense of geography, people, food, and modes of transportation my characters would have
encountered on their journey. Completing the foursome is Sergei Borshelnikov, an entirely fictional character, who serves as Norman’s translator.

DA: Would it be fair to say that both Fessenden and Katherine, in their own
ways, are on a quest?

RC: Sure. His search for an actual paradise contrasts with her search to reconnect, however briefly, with her lost love. Just as no earthly garden, no matter how beautiful, can compare with Eden of myth, Kate begins to question her motivation for traveling to this region. What exactly did she think she was going to achieve? Sergei, who’s a rogue, promises to lead her to a place en route where she will be able to commune with Lampman’s spirit. She rides off with the Russian in the middle of the night, discovering too late his real reason for spiriting her away from Fessenden and Norman.

DA: One adage of the craft of fiction writing is put two characters in a room
and get them talking. You put four on a mountain.

RC: Technically through and over the mountain. Yes, put four characters in a carriage on a long journey and eventually they open up. I wanted to tell the story in two voices, the relatively detached and self-conscious Henry Norman, who narrates the first half of the book and who soon finds himself writing anything but his usual travelogue. Then, after Kate rides off with Sergei, she assumes the narrative, and takes us on an even stranger journey, into the heart of Islamic Daghestan.

DA: Although the action in your novella takes place at the dawn of the twentieth century, I found it a very appropriate story given contemporary events. The past is prologue to the present so to speak.

RC: In that region it seems that the Russians have been fighting an endless war with the indigenous people, the Chechens, the Kurds, the Afghanis. Shamyl the Rebel was a legendary freedom fighter of the Caucasus who held out against the Russians for decades during the latter half of the nineteenth century. So little has changed. Whether it’s the tsar or Putin or G.W. Bush, it’s always the same: an imperial power pounding the stuffing out of some plucky little guy who has the gall to want to determine his own destiny.

The Russians need to control Chechnya and Dagestan because of the rich oil reserves around Baku. Sound familiar? I wonder what priceless artifacts, important clues to the historical puzzle my characters were trying to solve, have already been lost because of military aggression. It makes me shudder to think of the irreparable waste of life and knowledge. What if Fessenden were right? What if the Caucasus really is the seat of
all western mythology? Perhaps it’s human nature to obliterate the past. I don’t know.
What I can be sure of is that my fiction can never be about anything. It can’t set out to educate people about the plight of Chechens, for example. It can’t strive to prove anything, really. I can only put characters into motion in a dramatic situation and watch them act. The good reader will be put off by deliberate didactic intention in fiction the way a cat can sense a storm coming. in each case something goes flat, the book face-down on the bedside table or the animal close to the door and trying to find a way out.