IFOA: Confidence paints a satirical portrait of urban city dwellers and their dark secrets. Where did you gather inspiration for your characters?
Russell Smith: They are basically me and my friends.
IFOA: You write a weekly column on the arts in The Globe and Mail. How does the process of writing a novel or a collection of short stories differ from writing a column for a newspaper?
Smith: Fiction and non-fiction exercise different muscles. I find non-fiction much easier to write: it is explanatory, linear. The object is clarity. Information is conveyed differently in fiction: it is imparted obliquely. The explicit must become implicit. Writing fiction requires entering a kind of trance in which one must imagine a space—the light in it, the smells in it—and make oneself hypersensitive to emotion and irrationality. I can write a newspaper column while having a fight with my wife and answering calls from my mechanic. I can’t do that with fiction. That’s why novelists like to isolate themselves. A newspaper writer must be fully present to the world and its phone calls.
IFOA: When and where do you write?
Smith: You know, it’s funny, that question: it is the one that is most commonly asked of writers and it is the one whose purpose I understand the least. I don’t get how it is important or could be important to anyone reading the story. I understand that lots of readers are also writers, and so they are interested in questions of process because they feel they might glean some secret from them, but the truth is that the process really doesn’t matter. Some people write in cafes, some people write lying on their backs, some do it drunk; there’s no secret, no technique that will actually change your sentences. Anyway, the boring answer is that I write on my computer at my desk in my study in my house between the hours of nine and five.
IFOA: What other short story writers do you read and enjoy?
Smith: Ernest Hemingway. J.D. Salinger. Guy de Maupassant. Edgar Allan Poe. Julian Barnes. Michael Winter. Caroline Adderson. Annabel Lyon.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: “When I’m not writing or reading, you can find me…”
Smith: Mixing techno in my basement on my Traktor S4 controller.
Russell Smith is one of Canada’s funniest and nastiest writers. His previous novels, including How Insensitive and Girl Crazy, are records of urban frenzy and exciting underworlds. He writes a provocative weekly column on the arts in The Globe and Mail and teaches in the MFA programme at the University of Guelph. Smith presents his latest collection of short stories, Confidence, which shows a darker side of urban dwellers, including mommy bloggers, PhD students and experimental filmmakers.
Crystal artist, designer and photographer Mark Raynes Roberts answered our five questions! His author portraits will be projected at Harbourfront Centre during the International Festival of Authors this fall (October 22 to November 1, 2015). Be sure to check them out, along with his engraved crystal sculptures exhibit, which is on at the Gardiner MuseumOctober 26 through November 11!
IFOA: What first attracted you to glass engraving?
Mark Raynes Robert: I grew up in England, always wanting to be an artist, and so, for practical reasons, I initially trained as a goldsmith at the prestigious Birmingham School of Jewellery & Silversmithing. It was during this time that I was taught engraving by Ronald Pennell, who is considered one of the world’s top glass engravers, and so my love affair with the medium of crystal began. It’s an art and skill that requires many years of training. I was enraptured from the very beginning by the way the images I created could reflect, reveal or distort depending on the angle you viewed the crystal from. Unlike painting or bronze sculpture, working with prismatic optical crystal creates a fifth dimension that no other medium does. The two ancient engraving techniques I employ (intaglio and stippling) create the potential for both a carved three-dimensional impression, as well as a delicate stippled “mezzotint” effect upon the surface. The narrative messages of all my engraved art combine and reflect the dark and light, which is why black-and-white photography has also played an important role in my creative art.
IFOA: How has your style and technique changed over the years?
Raynes Roberts: I had a traditional training in England in which drawing was an integral part of learning to design, and I know this helped me in building a strong foundation for my craft. Over the past 33 years, I have experimented with various styles in my work and feel this has been an important evolution as an artist. In my view, it has only been in the last few years that I feel I have truly found my own voice as an artist, which is very exciting, as I still have a lot of passion for my work. I think this has come from my willingness to experiment, which in turn has built confidence when working with material that’s very expensive.
IFOA: On your website, you describe the refractive qualities of crystal as “dreamscapes of our collective conscience.” Can you elaborate on this?
Raynes Roberts: Not many people are aware, but it is crystal, a man-made material (invented in 1675) that continues to change our technological world through the use of prismatic light and fibre optics. So, in many ways, it is the perfect canvas for me to interpret the human condition through my narrative engravings. As I alluded to earlier, the refractive properties of the material provide a unique way to convey an alchemy that no other material can. With my ILLUMINATION project, there is also an obvious connection to early photography where photographic slides were made of glass. The ILLUMINATION crystal art sculptures reverse this process by visually presenting an interpretation of the authors’ words of beauty written about light and illumination.
IFOA: What inspired the ILLUMINATION: Portraits of Canadian Literature + Authors? Can we expect to see another artist series (musicians, dancers) in the future?
Raynes Roberts: In the fall of 2013, my wife Sarah Hampson and I traveled to London, England, as I had been invited to exhibit my crystal art in a gallery in Mayfair. During our stay, I was asked by The Globe and Mail if I would like to photograph the British authors, to accompany Sarah’s interview columns. This enjoyable experience of photographing each author in their home environments appealed to me, and so I began to think about photographing Canadian authors when I returned home. I had no idea how long the ILLUMINATION project would take, or how many authors I would end up photographing. But the basis of the idea was to celebrate the literary treasury and to be as “inclusive” as possible of both emerging and established writers. I would like to thank the Writers Trust of Canada, and the many publishers, agents and publicists who helped me reach out to the literary community. Charles Foran, who had won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction, which I create, was the first author I photographed for ILLUMINATION, and Michael Ondaatje was the last author. The project has been a “labour of love” and in a way is my gift to Canada, which will turn 150 in 2017. I greatly appreciate all of the warm support I have received from the participating authors and hope the exhibition resonates with Canadians across the country, because we do have an amazing wealth of writers who I felt needed to be illuminated. Somehow, I managed to travel over 20,000 kilometres and take over 22,500 photographs in the process, and as you can probably imagine, I have no plans for a similar project in the near future.
IFOA: When you are not working on your art, how do you like to spend your time?
Raynes Roberts: Together with my wife as we search for beauty in some form or another.
Mark Raynes Roberts is a multimedia artist who celebrates the literary treasury of Canada through glass engraving and the photographic lens. You can view Mark’s work at both Harbourfront Centre and the Gardiner Museum this October.
From the IFOA vaults, a round table from 2007 with Giller Prize-winning author Will Ferguson, bestselling crime writer Peter Robinson, 2015 RBC Taylor Prize nominee M.G. Vassanji and Governor General Award-winning author Richard B. Wright. They discuss what they’re reading in a panel entitled “Creative Catalysts.” Canadian writer Randy Boyagoda moderates.
Critically acclaimed American author Augusten Burroughs discussed This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike at IFOA in 2012. He was interviewed by Bert Archer. Check out the conversation below!
In November 2011, the incomparable Joan Didion graced our stage to discuss her memoir Blue Nights. The book is a work of stunning frankness about losing her daughter. You can listen to Joan’s full conversation with author Margaret MacMIllan below.