It is always a pleasure to welcome an emerging author to LitStack, but when the author is also one of our own contributors, it’s a very special pleasure indeed. A rousing LitStack welcome to Jason Lee Norman, author of the recently released story collection AMERICAS.
Jason, as I was reading your work and browsing your website & links, the first thing that struck me (aside from your being a great writer and your glorious beard, of course) is that you have an extremely funny sense of humor with a killer deadpan delivery. Some people don’t get that kind of humor – has it ever gotten you into trouble?
You may be surprised to hear that you are the first person ever to tell me that. Nobody would ever give me the satisfaction of telling me that I’m funny so thank you. When I’m talking to people I tend to have a really sarcastic tone to my voice so people never know if I’m being serious about anything or not. Maybe it’s the same with this book. People never know how they’re supposed to be interacting with the stories. I’d have to say that I’m constantly in trouble when I talk. 50% of everything I say would be a reference from The Simpsons if I had my way but that doesn’t work in a job interview.
I understand the beard has definitely gotten you into a bit of trouble. Well, okay, your lack of paperwork got you into trouble, but let’s blame it on the beard. “I Want to Tell You About My Beard” (Pure Slush, June 4, 2011) is a hilarious but also very poignant story of being detained by immigration officials on the way to study writing in England. Did you ever make it to school? Did the Muslim woman and her children ever reach their destination? What happened to the beard?
I Want to Tell You about My Beard is the most true story I ever told. It is 99% true. I did in fact make it to school. After flying home I re-took a photo for my visa and then flew to Ottawa. My dad managed to get me an appointment at the UK Consulate and I went there and practically begged them to go as fast as they could to get me my student visa. The amazing thing about that story is that when I was in Ottawa I ran into another person that I saw in the “airport jail” the day before. We had both made the same crucial mistake that led us to be kicked out of the UK. I suspect that his dreadlocks had the same effect on the immigration officials as my beard did. He made it to school too. We’re still Facebook friends. I only ended up missing a week of school and when I arrived it was my beard and that story of being detained that proved to be a great icebreaker. The last thing I remember about that woman and her children was one of the (guards?) told her that they would soon be moving her and her children to a place with real beds and get something real to eat besides just a cheese sandwich from the machine. I’m pretty sure that the last thing they told her was that they would be sent back to where they came from, just like myself, to try and enter the country again some other time or perhaps a week later just like me. My beard still lives on to this day to fight injustice.
Americas is a collection of 22 stories, representing 22 different countries in North, South and Central America. I love that you have given each one a personality, drawn on some truths, spun them together with a little humor and imagination, and emerged on the other side with something like a fable or fairy tale. I was curious to know what inspired you to write about these countries, and whether there have been any international incidents as a result of the publication of your book.
The first thing that inspired me to try and write a story for every country was my story Honduras. I wrote it years ago for my friend Crispin Best’s site For Every Year. On that site there is a story dedicated to every year since the year 1400. I had chosen a year in which Honduras was either discovered or got its name. It was soon after I wrote this story that I thought of the idea for giving each country its own story, much like For Every Year had a story for every year. I love story titles and thinking of the names of these countries as a title for a story already evokes certain feelings in the reader anyway. I remember reading a Donald Barthelme story called Paraguay and I don’t think it had anything to do with Paraguay. I remember that it was a beautiful story though and I was excited to try out my own Paraguay story. There have been no international incidents yet but I would really like to have the book translated into Spanish so that I can start to spread it around some of the countries of the rest of the Americas. Then we`ll begin to see some real outrage/excitement.
Much of your writing reflects a sense of being Canadian, and Americas is certainly about country and identity. How does place inform your writing? What does it mean to be a Canadian writer, and more specifically, a writer from Edmonton?
It was impossible to write this book without thinking about a sense of place. People are always asking me if I travelled to all of the countries in this book. That’s mostly because the look and the title of the book suggest that it’s some kind of travelogue. One bookstore in Edmonton is actually carrying it in the Travel section. I kept telling them that the whole book is fiction but they didn’t seem to get it. I have travelled to quite a few South American countries and when I went there I had almost no idea about any of the history of the countries or what the people loved and hated and what made them tick. I wrote the book with the idea that there was still a lot of mystery in the world about even a whole continent like South America.
Being a Canadian writer means that I basically have to do whatever Margaret Atwood tells me to do. It’s exhausting. She’s on Twitter now, so I always have to sign petitions about saving wildlife preserves and public libraries.
Being a writer from Edmonton means that I can be part of a great tradition of writers from Edmonton but still also be able to build something of my own here too. I’m from here and I’m proud of it and it allows me to stake a claim that I wouldn’t be allowed to do elsewhere. I couldn’t just land in Seattle or Chicago tomorrow and say that I want to be part of the local writing scene. I could eventually participate but I wouldn’t have that same sense of belonging that I can have here. I’m trying to build a community from scratch in a lot of ways here and it is constantly exciting and frustrating but ultimately rewarding because this is my home.
The opening story of Americas considers the personalities and relationship between Canada and the United States:
“…countries like Canada and the USA can become neighbours like the neighbours in situation comedies where they just kind of let themselves in through the back or side doors, carrying a mug of fresh-brewed coffee or maybe a basket of muffins to share.”
… If Canada & the US were sitcom neighbours, in say, “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (apologies for all these American examples), which character would each be and why?
If the USA and Canada were sitcom neighbors? Oh boy. Well in some ways you could look at The States like Joey and Canada like Chandler from Friends. Joey is attractive and passionate and good with the ladies. He’s also impulsive and physically stronger than Chandler. Chandler lives a bit more in his head. He gets by on his intellect and wit but can still be a bit insecure about his place in the world. I’m just realizing now that they aren’t really neighbors but they were neighbors later on when Chandler moved in with Monica. That counts, right?
Basically they are way more fun when they’re together and having a good time. When they fight it’s no good for anybody. Just like Canada and the USA. Also, remember the show Due South? That was pretty great, right? Canadians are all like Paul Gross. We’re beautiful.
You read Americas to senior citizens. I am dying to know how they reacted.
Yes I read Americas to senior citizens. The recreation coordinator from a facility in Edmonton contacted me and thought that they would enjoy if I came to read from my book. She had local authors before and I thought it would definitely be an interesting experience. The group was small and some of them were very sleepy after breakfast but the group that was paying the most attention was very enthralled by the reading. They were a bit annoyed because they said I was reading too fast for them to keep up with. I thought that I had slowed things down too much but was obviously mistaken. They were most interested with the stories Argentina and Chile. We talked about the miners getting stuck and we talked about the Dirty War in Argentina and they were truly shocked about the things that went on during that time. It felt weird that I was somehow the historian in the group but I loved when they kept asking questions and I was able to accurately describe to them a place like Argentina where I have spent a lot of time in the past and what the country is like today. It’s probably the most unique reading I’ll ever do but maybe I’m wrong about that.
What is Words With Friends? Do you really share stories and drink? That sounds fun.
Words with Friends is a group I started in Edmonton with a local poet named Kasia Gawlak. When I arrived back home from the UK I was desperate to connect with other local writers at things like readings and performances but found out that pickings were kind of slim. We worked on fixing that situation and created Words with Friends which emphasised performances of fiction or poetry and music and mixing that with having some adult beverages in a really encouraging environment. People could mingle and become fans of each other. It’s something we’ve done about every other month and we get more and more people coming out to watch every time. This is the type of thing I was talking about when I was talking about building something in Edmonton. We’re trying to build a real community here and communities support each other and don’t always compete with each other. In May we did what we call a Word Crawl and loaded a bunch of people on a yellow school bus and drove to different locations in the city and did little performances at each one. It was a great way to tour around your own city and it was also sometimes loud and boisterous and showed the people of this city that these aren’t your typical poetry or fiction readings where people sit on their hands and listen quietly in a café or library basement. Words with Friends has infused some much needed energy into the writing scene here in Edmonton.
What’s next for you?
Next? I have some secret ideas that I hope will become realities very soon. I also am going on a road trip/mini book tour in a couple weeks to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota as well as Manitoba and maybe Saskatchewan. I’m going to try and spread the word about my book down south and I really look forward to meeting new people and also some writers that I’ve connected with through Twitter and Facebook. It will be great to finally meet some of them and read together and help me sell some books for gas money. In the fall I hope to really buckle down and do some serious work on this novel but also just do some serious writing in general. It’s been really fun trying to get the word out about this book but it definitely cuts down on the amount of writing and reading I do every day. There are so many things that are coming up over the next year. 2012 has been such a wonderful year for me and I think that 2013 could be the biggest one yet.
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