Noble Losers: An Interview with Darren Greer
Darren Greer knows about — and writes about — loss. And fear and pain, ethics and morality, recovery and redemption. The Halifax-based author won a 2004 ReLit award for his novel Still Life with June (Cormorant Books), about an addictions worker at a Salvation Army treatment centre. More than a decade later, Greer has had a new novel published, Just Beneath My Skin (also Cormorant Books), in which a young man named Jake McNeil returns to the small town where he grew up and combats local thugs in order to reclaim the son he left behind. Although the books concern ostensibly different subject matter, they share blunt, minimalist prose and a penchant for thematic complexity.
I recently had a conversation with Greer about differences between fiction, journalism and memoir, the impact of place and gender upon a writer’s work, and things that can happen in between writing novels. We conducted this interprovincial interview via email between Nova Scotia and Ontario.
Your novel Just Beneath My Skin offers many perceptive observations on masculinity—what it can mean to be a man, a son, a father—and how male identity is inflected by other factors like age and social class and place. Would you say that your experiences as a gay man give you a particular perspective on this topic?
I’m glad you asked this question. I was aware of an extreme discomfort in myself writing about characters like Johnny Lang and Charlie Whynot, because they were intensely masculine, heterosexual men who seemed to be on the lookout for any sign of weakness, and perhaps effeminacy, in those around them. I was writing from the perspective of Jake, who is also heterosexual, but feeling a similar discomfort, for different reasons. Jake knows how dangerous these men can be, but he’s also aware that his own tendencies in caring for his son, getting away from North River, and “starting a new life” are the kinds of things Johnny despises. He actually says so in the novel. I spent my teenage years coping with this extreme machismo and trying to hide my true nature from “them,” simply as a survival mechanism. Writing Just Beneath My Skin revived a lot of that old fear in me and informed many of the scenes between Johnny and Jake.
Obviously, though, Just Beneath My Skin is also about fatherhood, and though I’ve never been a father, I believe the most masculine thing a man can do is to provide a loving, supportive, emotionally secure environment for his child. As such, Jake is a genuine hero, and the only truly masculine character in the book. The others are caricatures of masculinity. Even Jake’s father, who is a minister, fails somewhat because he has chosen to teach rather than nurture. While Johnny and Charlie’s masculinity runs to excess, Jake’s dad’s runs to repression. Only Jake allows himself to be fully masculine, by embracing his instinct to nurture as well as fight for his son. It is this that Johnny truly despises and provides the main conflict in the novel, both externally and internally.
The novel also feels, in many ways, like a meditation on the meanings of “home”—to have one, to create one, to leave one, to come back. Does this relate to your personal experiences as someone who has spent formative time in both small-town and urban environments?
I have lived now in urban centres for much longer than in the country, and yet I keep returning to small towns and villages in my books, which tells me that rural life continues to deftly persist in my imagination. Although Toronto and Ottawa were home for many years, I identify those cities more with people I knew than with any permanent sense of place. In Greenfield, the small village in the south shore of Nova Scotia where I grew up, the landscape has also influenced me. My memory is a slave to topography: rivers and lakes and hills and forests and waterfalls, as well as the things we did in and around them, like hunt and fish and sled and ski.
A friend of mine from Toronto has as one of his strongest teenage memories taking the Blue Night bus back to Jane and Finch after being downtown into the small hours. He describes the drunkenness, the fights, the laughter, the array of strange and colourful people climbing on and off — a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of the weird and the familiar that is the root and attraction of big city life. Small towns are the exact opposite — little ever changes. Greenfield is as fixed in reality as it is in my memory: the same places and landscapes and people, a sense of undisturbed tranquility. There is a darker side, though, to this ideal: when constancy stagnates, and people grow accustomed due to proximity and constant exposure to what should always remain strange, such as violence and abuse.
This, in essence, is what Jake is dealing with in Just Beneath My Skin. He experiences moments of tranquility and transcendence based on the landscape, memories of his childhood and his relationship with his son. But the abuse and despair that forced him out of small-town life to begin with has now become deadly in his absence, and he finds himself in battle with it. As it always is in real life as opposed to novels, my own experience has been less extreme. But Jake’s feelings of nostalgia for the past mixed with a distaste for the more ignoble aspects of small town life parallel my own when I go back home for any length of time.
There was a significant gap—more than ten years—between this novel and your previous one. Why?
In some of the more personal essays in [my personal-essay collection] Strange Ghosts, I revealed I had been addicted to alcohol and drugs and had stopped using them in 1995 by going to a treatment centre. My writing career did not begin until then, at age 28, because the problem was so out-of-hand I could not manage using and writing together.
After Still Life with June was published, I started using again. It wasn’t a conscious choice—the life of a recovering addict is really about maintaining a certain diligent lifestyle, and I simply wasn’t doing that. So in August 2006, I relapsed. In a few months, I lost my relationship, my home, my cats, my dog. Another few years later, I was out of money entirely and living on the streets.
Still Life with June was reissued with much fanfare in 2009 and I didn’t even know it, as I was sleeping in Dolores Park in San Francisco at the time. I rarely told anyone on the street I was a writer, but once, when I was in ICU in the San Francisco General Hospital, a male nurse came on the floor and asked me if I was Darren Greer the writer. I was very seriously ill at the time due to pneumonia and a number of other infections, and the doctors weren’t certain I would leave the hospital again. I didn’t much care one way or the other.
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
“I’ve read you,” he said. “You’re a good writer. But you’re hard to find.”
I didn’t know if he was talking about my books, or my life. I’ve been clean and sober for multiple years now, but I still credit that male nurse for reminding me of a reason to live, and motivating me to get well enough to leave the hospital and sober up and start writing books again. In a very real sense, my writing, and that nurse, saved my life.
Though you’ve lived in many places, you were raised in Nova Scotia and live there currently. How do you see yourself in relation to “Atlantic Canadian writing”—a rebellious outsider or part of a tradition? Perhaps some combination thereof? Would you say other Atlantic Canadian writers have influenced you?
Thomas Head Raddall was my first, and perhaps only, mentor. He provided early encouragement, and it was from him I learned I could write. His book Roger Sudden was a revelation to me. It was the first time I realized genuine world-class talent could live right next door (he lived in Liverpool, N.S., near where I grew up) and didn’t have to come from New York or Paris.
Rebellious outsider? Not really. I don’t think Still Life with June was fully embraced in the Maritimes, in part because it was such a relentlessly urban novel and was so critical of small-town life. But Tyler’s Cape, my first novel, was typically Maritime in some senses. Elegiac in tone. Sprawling family narrative complete with fishing village. I think, in some ways, I’m a very hard writer to classify and I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. I can mimic styles easily, sometimes cynically and sometimes sincerely, and I tend to adapt form to fit subject and never the other way around. I would definitely say I’m not a part of a tradition. I wish Raddall was still around though. I dedicated my first novel to him, and would have liked to present it to him with a personalized inscription.
What have you been working on since Just Beneath My Skin?
I have just completed Advocate, a novel about a man who goes back to a small Nova Scotian town in 1983 to die of AIDS.
I am also just finishing up a collection of poetry called Anatomy of the Posthuman: Love Poems. This collection is very hard to describe. It’s a poetic memoir informed by what was at the time I was writing it a hyper-sensitive imagination. The poems range from slave/master narratives from ancient Greece, to monologues from painters like Dürer and film directors like Pasolini to words of wisdom from my aunt sent in an email to a Californian gay pornographer. All of them, however, and no matter what their subject, are about some rather strange, serendipitous experiences I had in Toronto and San Francisco with a group of men between 2008 and 2010 who identified themselves as “posthuman.” Currently I’m working on a book called Apotheosis, which is part existential detective novel and part philosophical meditation on the role of the virtual in manipulating our environments and identities to such an extent that we become powerful as Gods.
It’s often said that an author’s oeuvre can be seen as a single project wherein he or she is always revisiting the same concerns. What would you describe as your enduring thematic preoccupations, and why?
I read a writing how-to article in some magazine when I was a teenager about creating great characters. It said you should always make your characters exceptional—incredibly good-looking, or smart, or full of ingenuity, or special somehow. That may have worked years ago, when the hero mythology was alive and well in literature. But that has long been dead. I think the best writing, the kind of writing I strive for, is to reveal ordinary people to be exceptional. I like writing about those of us who are poor, or rejected, or on the fringe. I read about multi-billionaires funding radical political agendas just so they can get a tax break—which is basically fascism—and then I see people taking food to homeless shelters to give to the guys, when I know they don’t have much themselves. This delineation of values, the nobility of those we call “losers,” and the corruption at the hearts of many of our “winners” informs, in some sense, everything I do. My writing is only one aspect of this.