Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Interview with Bob MacKenzie

Bob put a lot of thought into his interview and allowed us into his mind and process. We're sure you will enjoy what he has to say.

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Do you see writing as a career?

I think for some writing is a career.  Most career writers work in media journalism or in advertising and publicity.  Some write genre-fiction for series published by large traditional publishers, usually under one or more pseudonyms. 

I’ve never approached writing as a career.  For me, writing is a calling, something I can’t help but do.  Writing is who I am, so it has never been a career or even a profession for me.  When I did work in the media or marketing, I chose to do so not as a career but as a way to hone the skills of my craft, skills I could then apply to the art of my personal writing.  The media were my first college, where I was educated in the craft of writing.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I was fortunate to grow up with two artist parents.  My father is a photographer and musician.  My mother was a visual artist and talented photo-colourist with a very creative mind.  My mother was constantly posing interesting visual, verbal, and musical exercises disguised as play.  These were favourite games for my two years younger sister and me.  I’m sure it was the same for my other sister, who was born nine years after me.  Between my parents and their artist and intellectual friends, we were early on exposed to the broad panorama of the arts.

Story was central to everything.  In photography, in music, in each aspect of the arts, there was always a sense of the story contained within.  I was making story so young I don’t remember when it began.  By the time I was four or five years of age, my Dad had given me and my sister each a Brownie camera.  We could take as many pictures as we wanted, of anything we wanted.  My Dad would develop our pictures and give us the prints.  Around the same age, my Dad began using us as models for competitive still photographs and as actors in his experiments making 16 millimetre movies.  As children at play, we were encouraged to create roles and play them out to create stories.  When I was eight years old, I wrote, directed, and starred in my own 16 mm movie, with my Dad as cameraman and technical advisor.

My interest was never in writing per sé.  It was always in story, which is at the centre of all artistic practice.  My interest in story began before I can remember. Throughout my childhood, my parents supported and encourage this interest.

Where did you get the idea for this story to be published in ST’s first anthology?


The idea for "War Games" really came from accumulation of many people and small happenings in my life and some sense of the collective-conscious during the times in which I grew up.  As a child and teenager, I saw the glorification of war in the late-Forties and early-Fifties, air-raid sirens in even the most isolated Canadian prairie towns during the nuclear-war paranoia of the Late Fifties, the onset and growth of America's undeclared wars against Asia, and the growth of the peace movement.  My Grandfather fought on the ground during The War to End All War and my father and uncles were in the Canadian Forces during the next war.  This story was written after my grandfather had died and I had been the one to make funeral arrangements.  I was a child in small prairie communities on the Alberta prairie.  We played with home-made wooden trucks and boats and with Dinky Toys, small metal British-made military vehicles creating whole worlds in the sand and clay of the back yard.  All of this and more contributed to my story of a boy who plays war games on the dust driveway of his rural Ontario home and whose mother is soon to die.  While it does have an omniscient narrator, the story is set primarily in this boy's imaginative mind.

Do you ever experience writer's block?

Writer’s block is something we create for ourselves.  We block because we fear we’ll not do well.  We think so hard about that perfect thing to write that we paralyse our ability to write anything. 

I don’t experience writer’s block.  I’ve lived a dual life in the applied arts of journalism and marketing and in the literary arts of poetry and prose fiction.  I started as a young poet with a “day job” in the newsroom of The Calgary Herald.  It was back in the days when newspapers put out several editions every day, so there was always a deadline to be met.  There was no room for writer’s block.  If you were unable to meet deadlines you would soon be out of a job.  It was a lesson I applied later to my work in advertising and also to my literary efforts.

The trick is to write anyway.  Write anything.  Write even if you feel the writing will be bad.  The only person who will see it is you, and sometimes the writing will redeem itself and surprise you.  Leave that book for a while and write a letter or a poem.  Just write.  Write your way around that block.  You can always come back later and polish for quality.

Do you write an outline before every book you write?

I never write an outline, or even have one in my head.  I’ve never been able to do that.

When I was in elementary school, we were required to write our essays in three stages, each of which gave us part of our mark.  We had to create an outline, then write a rough draft, then write the final paper.  My mind doesn’t work that way.  I’m sure something like that process happened, but so deep in my thinking that I wasn’t even aware of it.  To get all my marks, I would write the finished paper, dumb it down to a rough draft, then pare that into an outline.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have some idea of the shape of my story or where it begins and where it’s going.  It’s just that the process seems to be an unconscious one for me, one that works well but of which I am mostly unaware.

Do you have a specific writing style? Genre?

I tend to be a genre-bender, a trans-genre sort of writer.  My short stories and novels don’t usually follow one genre but two or more.  I have great difficulty sticking to only one genre.  In life, things shift and change.  There is no single genre to real life, and I try to represent life as it is.  To write in a single genre seems flat and unrealistic.

My primary approaches are through crime-fiction and thrillers, romance in the Arthurian sense, and the supernatural, often blended in unique ways that surprise me as much as my readers.  The world I describe is very much like the world in which I live.

Are experiences you write about based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

I borrow from everyone and everything.  Sometimes events in my stories are revisionings of events I’ve lived.  Sometimes I draw on aspects of people I know or have known, but usually only to create a composite which is not any one person in my life.  I also watch the newspapers, magazines, television, and the Internet for stories that interest me and I incorporate aspects of those stories into my own.  To include only materiel from my own life would leave me with too narrow a palette for the stories I want to tell.

What books/authors have most influenced your life?

That’s an interesting question.  My life?  I’ve never thought about that.  I have no idea what books or authors may have influenced my life, though I’m sure some must have.  Mostly, books and their authors have had an influence on my art, on the directions my writing and photography have taken.

I have trouble remembering specific books by title and author.  Only the content, the story stays with me.  These are the books I think have been the greatest influence.  There are others, of course.  Kingsley’s “The Water Babies” is one, with its harsh description of real life blended with a coexisting world of fantasy.  Edgar Rice Burroughs sense of time and space has strongly influenced the way I structure my novels.  Although I’ve only read him translated to English, Jules Verne’s books - especially - Michael Strogoff - have also had a powerful influence on the way I tell my stories. Cohen’s “Spice Box of Earth” cemented my resolve to become a poet and his subsequent works have also been a strong influence.  Of course, the noir mysteries of the Thirties and Forties influence my crime fiction and thrillers.  Graham Green and Elmore Leonard are also strong influences.  James Branch Cabell’s novel “Jurgen” forever changed my approach to fantasy and the paranormal.

The list goes on and on.  Perhaps my writing is so eclectic because so many and varied authors and their books have influenced my life as an artist.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?


Here’s another interesting question, one that cuts both ways.  Does it refer to the way I write or to the content of what I write.

In writing my stories, my challenge is to keep the story real.  I want to tell the story in an interesting way, but even when I wander into fantasy and the paranormal I want it to feel real.  I want to draw my reader into the story and hold him or her there until the story ends.  If I lose that sense of reality, then I may also lose the reader.

I believe making art is a political act.  Art should be more than simply a pretty artifact.  It should inform or educate as well.  I hope my subtext touches on ideas and issues that will bring my readers more than just entertainment.  In some cases where the issue is especially important, I’ll even bring it more obviously to the surface.  It’s a challenge for me to include these elements without seeming to preach at my reader.  Though I feel an issue is important to raise, it must be consistent with the story being told and not stand out as something extra.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing your story to life?


Research for “War Games” was pretty simple.  It was simply a matter of diving into my memories of a rural childhood plus my more recent understanding of history, loss, and rural life in Ontario, where I had lived for some time.  When in doubt, I found the Internet invaluable for fact-checking.

For me, the concept of a “literary” short story or novel has always been problematic.  It seems to me that this is the realm of the academics, elitists, and snobs who dismiss any writing that doesn’t fit their idea of what is literature.  I also find that many “literary” are not of the highest quality, even the ones that win important awards.  My only challenge is to avoid the sort of artifice that defines many of these works and to keep my own stories real.  I want my reader to be right there with five-year old Adam Forman as his story progresses.  I want my reader to see, hear, and feel what Adam sees, hears, and feels.  The reader should be able to escape to that world and forget for a time that this is just a story.

My psychological challenge was, many yechildhoodars past my own, to put myself into the heads of this young boy as well as those of his aunt, uncle and mother. 

My only logistical issue, if any at all, was to make myself sit down and write the story.  Making time for writing is always a challenge.

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