Stranger, Weirder, Freer Beauty: An Interview with Spencer Gordon

This book has inner and outer beauty. Just look at this swell cover.

Spencer Gordon is a super talented writer. Just take a look at his debut collection, Cosmo (Coach House 2012). And don’t spend all your time ogling the vibrant pink and green cover either. Open the pages and start reading.

The stories in Cosmo explore the lives of characters searching for love, stability, answers, safety. Some of these characters are familiar to us because of their fame, others are familiar because they so closely resemble a neighbour from childhood, the uncle you tried to understand, a friend’s mother or sister, ourselves. These characters may feel alone, unable to connect, but this collection is not short on intimacy.

“Operation Smile” explores the fears of a beauty queen. In “Jobbers” an older sister tries to create a happy childhood for her wrestling obsessed brother, in a home that’s far from perfect. Matthew McConaughey drives through the desert, searching, a disgruntled employee opens fire, a mother tries to communicate with her son in the early days of the Internet, a man who’s quit smoking picks up his habit again. Cosmo concludes with “Lonely Planet,” in which a porn star performs in a dinosaur costume to remain relevant.

These summaries are mere glimpses, simple one-liners, not enough. His writing a fine mix of elegance and attitude. You’ll laugh and cry, you’ll feel some stirrings in your heart.

Here, Spencer kindly answered my questions, and he talks about why pop culture is like forks and spoons, ideas on beauty, destroying haters and his break-up, in process, with Avril Lavigne. It’s complicated.

There’s no denying pop culture is pervasive, but what draws you to it as subject matter for your writing? Is there something of the obsessive?

I don’t really see pop culture as the overriding subject matter of my work. It stands out, perhaps, because many other writers willingly ignore it. Our fictions, even the most ‘contemporary’ or ‘urban,’ seem steeped in an otherworldly remove. Marnie Woodrow, for example, has said that her characters will always wash their dishes by hand and use old rotary telephones. Adding the word ‘Tumblr,’ say, would simply ruin the mood. I am trying to bring pop culture up to the level of other pervasive daily experiences, like using forks and spoons. My characters use forks and spoons, but no one would say, “Hey, he’s a writer who focuses on cutlery!” Pop culture is culture, and ignoring it means we are deliberately distorting reality in service to a middle-class idea of what ‘proper’ (read: Giller Prize-winning) literature should depict.

Pop culture is the thing that makes me a part of your generation; it’s the thing we have in common, aside from our language and class and crumbling notions of nationality. It invites our participation while simultaneously rejecting it. It is at once irresistible and revolting. I have to use it, both to feel included in our culture but also to refashion it, hone it as a weapon, and strike back—a process of rebranding, one might say. Or, to use more ‘art-speak’: to co-opt. To use the language of the oppressor to release us from oppression’s hot pink chains …

So while consciously oppressed by pop, I am not obsessed with anything (except for my innumerable failures and shortcomings, and the tedious victories of my enemies). But I have definitely dwelled on things, for far longer than any healthy boy should, and I have my small and nervous array of OCD’s. Enough dwelling to know that real obsession is terrible and exhausting, and I’ve tried to depict this with sympathy and humour when I can get away with it.

Some of your stories take place at specific periods of time, though they aren’t old timey times; the ’90s, the turn of the millennium, etc. and the stories are very successful because of their time and place. Talk about the idea of going into the recent past and exploring the specific stories of those times.

I imagine writing a historical novel, something set in 1867, and I just die. If you have the realist’s dumb fealty to ‘truth,’ you’re out collecting and researching until your eyes melt. So no thank you. The 1990s and the turn of the millennium were times I actually lived through, so it makes writing about them a joy and not a burden. All the recent eras in Cosmo served their specific purposes. I wrote about the early ’90s in “Jobbers” because I was living in Hamilton during that delightful period. “This Is Not An Ending” takes place in the late ’90s because that’s when Pierre Lebrun committed his murders. I wanted to capture a moment when the Internet was still pretty new in “Wide and Blue and Empty,” so it’s the turn of the century. “Journey to the Centre of Something” required a younger Matthew McConaughey, so we zapped back to 1998. All of this just sort of made sense from experience. 

In “Land of Plenty,” I love that you take a beloved Canadian icon, Leonard Cohen, and write this innovative story about his financial struggles. You really tapped into his persona and voice, as you did with Matthew McConaughey in “Journey to the Centre of Something.” Yet, there isn’t a sense you were mimicking, but creating a new character. Talk about balancing character and the “real person”?

I don’t know Cohen or McConaughey personally, either. So from the beginning, we interact with famous people as fictional characters; they are actually ready-made for the page or screen. And while all realist writing strives for mimicry (mimesis), I was adapting these (real-life) characters for my own purposes, just as another author might grab Othello or Jane Eyre or Duddy Kravitz. To answer your question about the process of balancing: there was no balance. It was all character. I added some factual information to make the reader suspend his or her disbelief more readily and so we could inch, like squashed earthworms, toward emotions, and feelings, and beauty, amid all that soil and shit.

Both the famous and non-famous take on very sensitive portrayals in these stories. Do you feel the same level of responsibility to the average character, as well as the celebrities?

If we believe that all the people in Cosmo are characters first, then yes, I feel the same level of responsibility, but any sense of authorial ‘responsibility’ is a wriggly fish. We want to believe in characters. If Leonard Cohen spoke like an 18th-century aristocrat, no one would be interested, just as if I said he was twenty-two and living in 2013 Australia, the story would stink. The only thing separating the average character with the celebrity character is that small tip of the hat to reality. And it is small—all you need are a few references, a bit of ventriloquism, and most people are satisfied. This isn’t a statement about my own middling talents, but about the elasticity and openness of readers.

You have an intermission, “Frankie+Hilary+Romeo+Abigail+Helen,” that details the lives and careers of several former tween and teen stars and concludes with the life of Helen Keller. Can you talk a bit about the conception of this story? You really take the initial reverence for the celebrity teens and turn the idea of fame around on its head.An intermission is typically a relief; it’s a chance to stretch and stroll, buy some snacks and chat. Cosmo’s

Reading at Coach House Launch 2012 (dangerousliterature.blogspot.ca)

“Frankie+Hilary+Romeo+Abigail+Helen” is what you could call the nightmare version of an intermission. I don’t want to speak about the piece in too much detail, as I have a lot of highfalutin, pretentious-sounding notions about concept and process and boredom and media and such that would bore anybody reading this on a screen. I can say that it was genuinely the most thrilling story in the collection to write. This probably says a lot about my mental incapacities. But god—that quivering line between pure information and opinion, a peculiar voice and so-called objectivity, the tenuous bonds between one subject to the next … it sent me all aquiver, even as I was punishing myself with the information, getting bored. Then that line, like a meditation: Boredom, then, is a sign that we are approaching something we will not yet permit ourselves to think.”

These stories tap into celebrities and their lives, but they also address those who are interested, or obsessed with celebrities. Here’s the question: Have you met a celebrity? And if so, can you describe your best, or even better, most embarrassing celebrity encounter?

The only celebrities I’ve ever met have been literary celebrities, and as we all know, these aren’t real celebrities at all. They are almost always worse than you imagine them: a little bit smellier, a little bit crueler, a little bit drunker.

It seems as though you are a pop culture aficionado, but the knowledge displayed in Cosmo is impressive. Did you do a lot of research, read a lot of People magazine and TMZ? Watch Miss USA and Miss Universe?

I don’t consider myself an aficionado (and whenever someone says that word, I picture Hemingway, sweaty and glassy-eyed, at a guts-drenched bullfight). I have the same, if not less, awareness of pop-happenings as most people riding the hideous #191 bus with me, heading to work along the grey alleyways of Highway 27. For particular characters and situations, I did do some research, but this wasn’t graduate-level, thesis-burning research. This meant that I read interviews, bios, headlines and other media ephemera from a specific time and place, compiled a bunch of notes, and then said “to hell with it.” At some point, for any ‘reality-based’ character, you have to let go of the truth and begin to intuit what they would say and how they would feel. They cross over from a confusing amalgam of facts into your own character—someone you’ve slow-birthed, alone and red and messy and onto a soft bed of pine needles.

There’s a beauty in your language, a stark realness and an underlying sadness to many of your stories, but also a lot of humour. “Jobbers” in particular covers all of these elements quite deftly. How do you create humour in your writing?

I don’t often consciously try to be funny. If something makes you laugh, chances are that it’ll make maybe somebody else laugh, too. You just have to trust your funny bone, which is located somewhere between your tailbone and your cheeks (upper cheeks).

You open with a story about beauty pageant contestants and end with a porn star in a dinosaur costume. Ideals of beauty and virility and relevance run through the collection. What are your feelings on the importance of these ideals in our society? Can we appreciate beauty and art and not be total weird jerks, shaming everyone for the way we look and judging everything around us?

Whoa, that’s a big question! To start off, of course we can appreciate physical beauty and not be weird jerks about it. Ostensibly, there’s nothing critically different about the colours used in fashion, let’s say, and those used in a beautiful painting. Beauty makes the world bearable, and we all seek it out in different ways and from different sources. This isn’t anything new or radical; it’s been that way since, like, forever.

The problem with beauty in our society—both in fashion and in physical form, lips and chests and hair—is that it’s so intimately tied to capital, to wealth. The impoverished poet, chased into books because of his ugliness, emerges from his basement lair in his tattered robes to be bombarded by the Image Economy. He cringes, disgusted, for those blessed by such a system have absolutely no need for what he can give them, which is a beauty entirely removed from (and sometimes in complete opposition to) money and sex and power. The poor poet attacks and slanders them, while they don’t even know he exists. Remember that episode of Seinfeld where George finally gains admittance to that secret club for models? Once he’s ejected from their world, the club (magically) changes to a meatpacking plant. He’s no longer welcome in the realm of the image, and he grovelingly retreats to his ugly, spiteful, yearning life.

I’m constantly amazed when people treat the beauty of celebrity actors as either surprising or earned. Or when they say, “have you seen so-and-so’s (celebrity actor’s) girl/boyfriend? He/she’s gorgeous!” Of course they’re gorgeous. They wouldn’t be powerful celebrity actors participating in the Image Economy if they weren’t. Or, I’m equally amazed when someone alludes to an actor’s beauty and fashion sense as a virtue, hard-won and fragile. All that physical beauty and fashionable clothing suggest is a mix of genetic luck, financial freedom (often from birth), and a willingness to participate in socially accepted norms of beauty and spectacle. Nothing about that is bad, per se. But the sooner we realize that it is almost entirely dependent upon money then the sooner we can avoid shaming and judging, removing a sense of inadequacy and inferiority, which you’ve rightly listed as hazards of such a culture. The real enemy is not beauty, but the triumvirate of shame: race, class and gender.

In my story “Transcript: Appeal of the Sentence,” my narrator says, “we will never be beautiful.” To suggest this is to also suggest that “we” will never hold power, or have money, or be counted amongst the important people—the models, the actors, the stars—of the Image Economy. For me, art is paradoxical. It is another way of saying “I will never be beautiful,” but that I will seek stranger, weirder and freer beauty—freed from the metal, bloody stink of money. And I think this is terribly noble and terribly sad, which might also make me a bore.

Look, it’s Spencer Gordon.

Do you have a favourite or least favourite celebrity? Or any other strong feelings about a particular celebrity that you’d like to share?

I’m in the process of breaking up with Avril Lavigne as a character in my mind’s pressure cooker. It’s kind of rough; we had a tumultuous fling, all oozy green and cotton-candy pink, drowning in shrill backing tracks. Right now, my favourite ‘celebrity’ is RiFF RaFF. RiFF participates in the spectacle of rap and consumerism and objectification while ridiculing it mercilessly. His relentless persona is the source of his dissonance; there is no slipping up, no moments of weakness. He is perfect pop performance art because he probably means it. Delving into RiFF’s rabbit hole of interviews and YouTube videos will change the way you look at cultural production and representation (literary, too) in a good and lasting way. Plus, he is adept at destroying haters, just like me.

 

Spencer Gordon lives and writes in Toronto. He also teaches at Humber College, OCAD U, and is co-editor and co-founder of Ferno House and The Puritan. You can purchase Cosmo any time now, so you should probably get on that.

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