This is part of a series of conversations between authors to mark the 2021 edition of The Globe 100, our annual guide to the most noteworthy books of the year.
Alix Ohlin and Randy Boyagoda’s lives intersected when Boyagoda was on the Scotiabank Giller Prize jury in 2019, the year Ohlin’s novel Dual Citizens made the shortlist. Ohlin is director of the School of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. This year she published her third short story collection, We Want What We Want, which was shortlisted for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, and vice-dean, undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts and Science. This year he published Dante’s Indiana, his fourth novel. His first, Governor of the Northern Province, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2006.
Marsha Lederman: You both work in academia – teaching, and as administrators. I’m curious about how you perform that balancing act, even just practically, in terms of dividing up your time and energy.
Alix Ohlin: I always feel like I’m not doing a very good job of it. Something’s always getting lost in the shuffle, if I’m honest. I don’t know that I have any great system, except that I try to carve out time during the slower parts of the academic year to spend more time with my writing. I’m always full of sage advice to other people and I say things like ‘you need to schedule your writing like a meeting.’ I say that to other people, and then I totally fail to do it myself.
Randy Boyagoda: From the beginning of graduate school, I have been told by professors and colleagues that I couldn’t do both. That it would be some kind of disservice either to my life as an academic or my life as a writer. And I’ve continued to do both. I think the way that I’ve been able to do it first has nothing to do with anything other than the accident of needing very little sleep. When I’m writing, I can get up at 4 a.m. and work for two hours before the rest of the family gets up. And then I take a nap on my desk on campus in the afternoon. And I seem like I take remarkably detailed and thoughtful notes in administrative meetings. They almost always have nothing to do with the meeting; I’m just working on a story.
AO: I’ve definitely gotten a lot less precious about setting time aside. I do a lot of what I call 20-minute sprints: I stop on the way to work, I have a coffee. I used to do it in coffee shops and during COVID I sometimes find a deserted academic building and just sit there for 20 minutes and check in with the work. And I also do connect with what you said, Randy. I have a lot of notes I’ve taken at meetings that literally say: “Minutes on the budget plan” and then underneath that is “what if a woman murdered her cousin?”
RB: I bike to work. I live in the east end of Toronto and I teach at U of T, which is about a 10-kilometre bike ride across the city. It’s a kind of perfect pace and experience for me to work out plots in my head. I don’t teach creative writing; I teach primarily American Literature and Religion and Literature. Teaching a book can often be a way for me to think through something that I’m engaged with as a writer.
ML: If you’re working on something, are you able to bring it into the classroom and kind of work it out? Like Randy, were you teaching Dante when maybe you might not have otherwise?
RB: Over the past five years while I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve taught Dante every fall to a group of first-year students. And I’ve simultaneously taught courses on contemporary American literature, culture and public life. And so the idea of writing a novel about a Dante theme park opening in an opioid-ravaged small town in the middle of America – the premise was something I was able to engage both by teaching Dante and by teaching contemporary American fiction.
AO: I wouldn’t say I do it explicitly, but, in teaching creative writing, I assign texts and I change the syllabus pretty much every term. I’m always learning; I’m always trying to take something from these writers that I can use for my own work.
ML: When I was reading Dante’s Indiana, it felt like you were having fun. Was it fun writing this book?
RB: It was fun researching the book, which involved going to creationism theme parks in Kentucky. And it was fun writing the book, but that’s where the discipline of being a writer comes in. One of the key sequences in the book involves a reality TV show called America’s Got Jesus. The idea is a group of contestants come up and demonstrate their love for Our Lord by doing various acrobatic feats. And I was probably enjoying it too much in some ways, in the first version. And my editor John Metcalf helped to ensure that I curbed that. Because the comedy in Dante’s Indiana is in service to something larger and more serious. So yes, I had a lot of fun writing it. But it was always with the discipline of making sure that it led to something greater than only another zany joke.
AO: Stories and humour have a lot of things in common. A good short story will often take a situation or an environment that is familiar and then try to render it strange, or use exaggeration or irony or incongruity to deliver some kind of insight for the reader and perhaps for the characters in it. And that’s a lot of how jokes are built too. Stories and jokes both defy paraphrase most of the time. A good short story is often not plot-driven. It’s about the experience of seeing how the beginning kind of twists into the ending. And that’s true of jokes, too.
RB: I’m curious with Dual Citizens – which I think you self-evidently know I enjoyed very much, in a kind of jury context: Did you have a premise that you worked from?
AO: Novels require so much more scaffolding, and the organizational schema that you have to have is so much more extensive. I write many drafts that are really exploratory; it takes me a long time to actually figure out what the form of the book is going to be. So I always knew that it was about sisters. But beyond that, in terms of the time scale or the particular preoccupations of the book, that really unfolded very organically over a long period of time. Whereas a short story for me, it’s got to just announce itself. It’s like a pop song. It’s got to establish its melody very clearly from the beginning.
RB: One of the challenges for me is to try to achieve the intensity of what Alix just described about the short story in the novel form. Scaffolding is a great term. It’s something that I really needed and then wanted to destroy with writing a Dante novel. Because in earlier versions of Dante’s Indiana, it was all scaffolding; it was Dante by numbers. And this is where the academic comes in sometimes dangerously – it was just me trying to kind of satisfy some rubric that would be more academic than literary. And it was awful. It was a complete exercise. Then at a certain point, I had this sense of, I’m not writing an homage to Dante, I’m writing in a sense in the Dante comic universe, which is also a way of understanding contemporary America, and then the scaffolding just broke apart.
AO: There’s the scaffolding that the writer needs to write the book. And then there’s the scaffolding that the reader needs. And those are not the same scaffolding.
RB: Exactly. And I think very few writers can involve scaffolding in the finished version in a way that’s kind of mutually interesting. But you know, Marsha, to your point about us being academics: conscientiousness is important for you as an academic. And it’s death as a writer. The last thing I want to be is conscientious as a novelist.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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