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Kevin Patterson: ‘Rain-soaked nighttime cobblestone never seemed so ominous’

Kevin Patterson published his first book, the acclaimed memoir The Water in Between, in 1999. Since then, he has released a collection of short stories, Country of Cold, as well as a novel, Consumption. Patterson, who lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., and works as a specialist in internal medicine, recently published a new novel, News from the Red Desert.

Whose sentences are your favourite?

Cormac McCarthy's. He uses English like Bela Fleck plays the banjo – it just sounds like a different instrument than anyone else plays. He gives his sentences an incantatory resonance that makes them feel as if they exist in half a dozen different dimensions at once, each pulsing against the other. Suttree and The Crossing might be the best – but people argue about this, and with considerable vigour. The sepulturero scene toward the end of The Crossing is a thing I read and reread to try to understand just how he gets such density into his sentences but that remains mysterious to me. And he does this with a minimum of ornament – the words have a flattened, restrained quality to them that, in their summation, simply sing.

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Which books have you reread most in your life?

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Ellis Island and Other Stories by Mark Helprin and Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor. The first two because they are a little elusive – as I read them, I never feel like I'm grasping more than a part of what the author intended and each rereading yields more. This has to do with a certain opacity to the narration that in other books might be a limitation. The second two, because they seem to be perfect expressions of the short story and the travel narrative, respectively. The Fermor is especially interesting because, when he was in his 60s and 70s, he wrote about his walk across prewar Europe as a young man, and so there is this sense of the older man, with all his erudition and melancholy over what happened to that world a few years later, looking out through the eyes of his impetuous and exuberant 18-year-old self. It's like two narratives, entwined within the same words.

What's your favourite bookstore in the world?

Salt Spring Books, on Salt Spring Island, owned by Adina Hildebrandt and Andrew Haigh – this gem of a bookstore serves as a kind of secular church for readers on our little island. The bantery conversations over the cash register are one of the favourite parts of my day; fascinating rants and exuberant raves are tossed forth, chairs are available for sitting and you can see it on the faces of your neighbours as they walk in: It is their home, too. The society of introverts and daydreamers that are readers get to have their gathering place as well. And beyond simply providing a place to chatter, Adina and Andrew actively support all the writers on the island. These two are miraculous. And their little bookstore is the focus of that miracle.

Is there a book you consider a guilty pleasure?

All of the Alan Furst novels: Sure, they are a little formulaic, genre fiction even, but they are so evocatively written and full of brooding noirish dread. Rain-soaked nighttime cobblestone never seemed so ominous. And the melancholy alcoholic heroes and their acts of resigned heroism linger on like the smell of spilled whisky, long after what one thought to be a light summertime read has been completed. The reader is snared, by Furst's empathy and by his self-effacing love for his characters.

What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?

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The ending. That agonizing sense of oh-my-God-I-didn't-see-that-happening-but-of-course-when-you-think-about-it-it-had-to, that is what a book can do better than any other narrative medium can. And when it is done well, its power derives from the extent of the whole warp and woof of what has come before; when it is done well, that sense of culmination and heartache is the best feeling I know and I crave it as a reader as much as I strive for it as a writer. It's elusive though, like especially dim stars in the night sky. If you look right at it, you never quite see it. The best ending ever was F. Scott Fitzgerald's in The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I think those words crept up on him one night, as he stared at this blank page of his manuscript and wondered what needed to happen. And the gods gave them to him.

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