The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Barrie Sherwood
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
Syntax is an endlessly entertaining, Tetris-like game that I never tire of playing, even when standing on the MRT. I love seeing how sentences come together with just a little nudge.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I don’t like superstition when it’s not confined to the quaint past or some jungle in Brazil, but on occasion I allow for its protection in this one instance: never discuss a work in progress.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Who are your favorite authors?
Flaubert retains the yellow jersey, Patrick White and Nabokov are vying for second, and the rest are in a tightly-packed peloton. I appreciate writers who take risks, and sometimes fail. The same pen was responsible for Madame Bovary and Salammbo; I find that both frightening and confidence-inspiring.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
I wrote a novel about a North Korean defector. Only in writing it did I realize how much of a swindle the whole idea was. I did endless research, travelling, interviews, but it was no good. No matter what the depth of the writer’s imaginative investment or the extent of his research, the readers – who just purchased the book for $25.99 – have too clear an idea of how much the writer profits from the enterprise. Straight journalism – of which there is plenty if you look for it – is infinitely better than this kind of socially-aware fiction about, let’s say, the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide or 9/11. And you can’t Flaubert your way out of it. The better the writing, the deeper is your moral dilemma – that’s Sebald’s lesson. But of course the whole issue of appropriation of voice is passé, don’t you know. Those who say you can’t write about this or that are closing down the discussion. (Which is, of course, the writer’s own way of closing down the discussion.) I will say that no one else can make the decision for you. You have to trust in your own moral compass.
What’s your idea of bliss?
I’ll try to paint the picture, but I know already that I’ll fail to transmit the bliss:
I’m at the top of Apex Alpine, a mountain in the BC interior. It’s five in the afternoon, night is falling, the lifts have stopped running. It’s snowing. The flakes are huge and light, coming down straight. No wind. All the tracks of previous skiers have been erased. I dislike clichés about audible silences, but this is the one place I have ever truly heard it. The run I’m at the top of could be one of several: Hank’s Hollow, Gunbarrel, Sunbowl, the Pit, the Face, the Chute. I’m bone tired from skiing hard all day, thighs and back and torso heavy. It’s silent. Just the snow falling into the pines, the flakes weaving into the needles. The only intruder allowed into this blissful scene is my wife, who is not as fast as I am, but has better form. (If I had to ski Everest with someone, it would be her. Not because I want us to die together, but because if I followed her I just might stand a chance of survival.) I can’t be worried about anyone else is what I’m saying. I scrutinize the run, trying to find a straight line through the moguls. They’re waist deep and look as if they’ve been sculpted, or as if a giant ice-cream scoop has placed them – all vanilla – evenly down the slope. I stand there leaning on my poles, poised at the top. Gravity waits for me, patient and ineluctable. Then, without having made any conscious decision, I shift my weight, turn the skis in and fall into the first hollow, then the next and the next and the next, thump thump thump, shoulders going up and down, forward and back, the right carrying high on the last mogul, wrenching my shoulder back, the left already planting hard into the next, the shock coming up through my wrist and elbow and shoulder as it swings around, and all my weight is in my knees one moment, freed the next as the skis carry through the turn. At every mogul the breath is forced out of me. For one of the few times in life my mind and body are caught up in one rhythm. I guess it’s like dancing, but my partner is a mountain.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Nothing. Anger makes me thoughtful and self-absorbed and I walk around like Quasimodo, burning holes through the pavement with Superman laser eyes, and creating Walter Mitty-style narratives about how in some heroic fashion I right the wrong. (In writing this just now, I wrote “write the wrong”, which is what, in some form, I eventually do.) Fortune has smiled upon me; there have never been real jackboots in the corridor.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Three months in the boondocks? Yikes. That’s ambitious. I wouldn’t last a week. I have no idea how to light a fire without matches, make a trap for a squirrel, catch a crab with my bare hands, perform emergency tracheotomy, turn salt water to fresh, or scare away an unfriendly bear/tiger/cobra/elephant. I’d have to take some sort of survival guide. One of those yellow books for dummies.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
Assuming “thing” means “inanimate”, nothing. I’ve moved house so many times that I’ve come to hate all my possessions. The people I love would not be hurt if I did not rescue that tie, watch, painting, scarf, pen, etc, they gave me for Christmas/birthday/graduation/Father’s day. Having said that, I respect the fact that others do cherish things. So I might go back for a couple of someone else’s teddy bears.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Ignore anyone who wants you to listen to his life philosophy.
Barrie Sherwood is Assistant Professor in the Division of English, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at Nanyang Technological University. He studied at Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, Concordia University and the Universite de Montreal before completing his PhD at the University of East Anglia in 2009. His first novel, The Pillow Book of Lady Kasa (DC Books) was published in 2000 and his second, Escape from Amsterdam (Granta, UK; St Martin’s Press, USA) in 2007. His research and teaching interests comprise a broad range of contemporary fiction, including narratives of photograph and text.