INTERVIEW: JOHN STILES
John Stiles was born in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. His début novel, The Insolent Boy (Insomniac Press) was published in the spring of 2001 and has received acclaim in Canada and the U.S. John's poems, fiction and journalism have appeared in numerous journals and magazines such as Pagitica, The Literary Review of Canada, Storyteller Magazine, Taddle Creek and the anthology The IV Lounge Reader (Insomniac Press, 2001). John's documentaries have appeared on Much Music and in International Film Festivals across Canada. Insomniac Press will publish John's début collection of poetry, Scouts Are Cancelled, in the fall of 2002.
John was interviewed by Dave Rusk, a Grade 12 student from Bluevale Collegiate Institute, 80 Bluevale Street N., Waterloo, Canada. Dave interviewed John for his English class, Writers Craft, as part of a class presentation and Insolent Boy Entertainment thanks Dave for his interest and great questions. Writers Craft, EWC OAI, is taught by one Chris Banks. (Chris Banks has poetry forthcoming from Nightwood Editions, edited and managed by one Silas White.)
Q: Where did you attend University? For What? And is there anything in particular that happened there to motivate you to write?
A: I attended University at The University of Kings College in Halifax, Nova Scotia from 1986-1989. I took a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and minored in English and Drama. Kings is a small liberal arts college with a journalism school and something called a Foundation Year Programme (FYP) and it had strong school spirit. There were a lot of plays, bands starting out and debates going on about books and philosophy. The students were from all over Canada: Cape Breton, the Annapolis Valley, Toronto, Calgary etc. but really intergrated well. Some of the people I went to school with went on to form bands like Sloan, The Superfriendz and many others now work in radio and television and film. However there was no precedent for this at the time there was just a bunch of kids 17 - 21 years old, hanging out doing creative stuff.
Q: Is the your book based mostly on your life? If so, what parts did you omit and which did you embellish?
A: The experiences in the book are from my life but my life was very different from Selwyn's. First of all I have parents and a sister and brother and I come from a close-knit family. But I am from a rural village called Port Williams in Nova Scotia and I had a girlfriend in high school and a friend from Belfast when I was a kid. But I based the character of Selwyn and his loneliness on the life I have lived as a writer. I came to Toronto from Halifax in 1996 and just holed up in an apartment and started writing. I didn't maintain any contact with a lot of my friends because I was determined to try and find my writing voice. I worked many crappy jobs along the way and so lost a lot of confidence and struggled to keep my self together emotionally. Also the Christmas Pageant opening sequence is loosely based on experiences I have seen on the Toronto poetry scene. You either win the attention of your peers, or you don`t. There is no forgiveness. It is a lot like childhood. The rock and roll stuff is from the period in my life when I travelled with a friends rock band, the smalls. I met my friend Corby Lund (the smalls, Corb Lund Band) when I was in the Alberta resorts, right after I finished university. Corby appears as Clark Nielson in the book and every time he came to Toronto after I first moved there he took me on the road with the band to Montreal, Chicoutimi, Vancouver, Paris, etc. I was writing all the time but I also took a video camera to capture it. The film I made about them is called the smalls...er whatever. The Bee character I modeled after a great spinster aunt who lives in an old farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the U.K. I lived with her for a year after high school while working as a labourer for my cousin. My aunt mellowed me out after high school because I was a little unstable emotionally and I wasn't so sure what I was going to do with my life. She was really practical and kind and gave me a good grounding at a difficult period in my life.
Q: What is your favourite and influencial book that you have ever read?
A: After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie by Jean Rhys. It is about a lonely old former dance girl who is getting old and losing her looks and struggling financially. The tone of that book had an enormous effect on me. I got it at a book shop in Halifax and I told the clerk I was looking for the female version of Catcher in the Rye. The guy in the Trident Book Store gave me this book. Later on my Mum gave me Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore. I guess I like to write about loneliness and about the human stuff that we go through.
Q: What instance or age that you decided to become an author?
A: I started writing at age seventeen after I read The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton. I wrote ten thousand words of a novel when I was eighteen and then just gave up because I knew I wasn't ready. I picked at it for a few years, but never had the discipline because I wanted to experience life a bit first and I was curious to see the world. I was teaching English in Japan when I was twenty six. I liked teaching but I knew that I wanted to write and so I came back to Canada in 1993 told my friends who thought I was nuts and not going to stick with it but I knew it was time. My Mum introduced me to Alex Colville in my home town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia and he told me that I was going to have to write every day to become any good at it. I took his advice verbatim. I was twenty six when I got serious about writing, wrote a novel in 1994, started another and moved to Toronto two years later.
Q: Future goals that you hope to achieve?
A: Well I`m very excited about my book of poetry coming out in the fall. It is called Scouts are Cancelled and it`s about the community where I was raised in the Annapolis Valley. The poems are read in the dialect and character voice of the community -- a town cop, kid in detention, an apple picker. Some poems include: How Yah Doon anight? and Little Buggers my Mom which are in the IV Lounge Reader which Paul Vermeerch edited previously.
Q: What are the names of your two prior books that you have written?
A: Both of them are unpublished. The first one is called A Particular Fancy. The Second is called Reese's Speech. Sections of writing in both of these manuscripts received some positive feedback from Maritime publishers like Goose Lane Editions and the Saskatoon publisher, Thistledown Press, when I first sent them out in 1993, 1994.
Q: If you had your preference would you be either known exclusively for being an author or a poet?
A: That's an excellent question. I used to be worried about that but I don't care anymore. But I started writing novels at the beginning and I do want to write a few more before I'm done. I`m currently working on another one.
Q: Any awards you have won?
A: Well in high school I won the Intermediate Boys Provincial Pole Vault title in 1982. But I'm not so lucky with literary awards. But I have been long-listed for the Re-Lit award and also received Ontario Arts Council Funding and Toronto Arts Council Funding for Scouts Are Cancelled.
Q: The drive that motivated you to write The Insolent Boy.
A: I feel like Canada is a little to cautious about its identity and needs to take more chances as a culture. I love my country and really want people to know how cool it is. So since I have lived and worked all over, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Japan, England, Toronto, like many other Canadians, I wanted to write about my experiences and set them down as a chronicle of our time. We are a blend of so many things and my clearest vision of my life, though I've lived in Japan, England, Toronto (and been on the road in a rock and roll band) is my life as a child in the Annapolis Valley.
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