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Writer Wayde Compton on why he wrote The Outer Harbour, the best advice he’s ever gotten and more

Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail

Wayde Compton has written poetry (49th Parallel Psalm, a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), essays (After Canaan, nominated for a City of Vancouver Book Award) and, most recently, a book of short fiction called The Outer Harbour. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Simon Fraser University's continuing studies.

Why did you write your new book?

I was curious to see what I could do in prose fiction that I wasn't doing in poetry or non-fiction. I was particularly interested in developing characters as they interact with spaces. When I began The Outer Harbour, I was in the midst of what turned out to be an 11-year campaign to have a memorial plaque installed in Vancouver honouring the legacy of this city's original black community in the East End. That community, like so many other black communities in North America, was displaced due to an "urban renewal" policy. That policy, here as in many other cities, consistently targeted poor and non-white populations. So I was thinking a lot about how urban space is manipulated by power, and how ordinary people are influenced by policy decisions about space. That kind of thinking led me in many different directions, and a collection of short stories seemed like the best way to look at several ways that space is parcelled out socially.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

I like the way George Bowering uses plain speech to access difficult and complex ideas. His sentences and lines of poetry are a big influence on me.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

When I was a young man, Leo McKay Jr., the novelist and short story writer, told me to read literary journals and not just great works from the past, because literary journals give you a sense of what's going on currently. Also, literary journals feature work that is in excerpt, or in development, or by emerging writers, and so it's less daunting to compare your own work, as a new writer, to the work you read there.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

I wouldn't choose to live in any other time than today. But if I had to, I would pick the 1960s, because of the vast social change, the great explosion of belief and possibility, and all that wonderful music.

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten, or legendary after death?

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I'd rather be happy now.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

I regularly have the experience of reading something or listening to something that I initially enjoy, only to have that joy snatched away by some disturbing racial representation. For example, I heard something by Debussy that I really liked, and I hadn't explored his music before, so I did a quick search, and was getting into it. Then I stumbled upon a piece he did called Golliwog's Cakewalk. So then I spent a good half an hour reading about this on the web, trying to figure out where he was coming from writing something with a title like that, with all its racial implications. And at a certain point I realized that it didn't even matter whether or not that made him racist, but what mattered was that I was no longer sitting back enjoying the discovery of an artist who was new to me – I was, within an hour of discovering him, already ambivalent and exhausted with the experience.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

The guy who Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warwick is singing about in Say a Little Prayer.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

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I like it most when they tell me about their experiences of reading my work. That's better than asking questions.

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