John Calabro is a fiction writer. His novella, Bellecour, published in 2005 was named by The Globe and Mail as one of the Top Five First Fiction in 2005. The Cousin was published in 2009, and its French translation, Le Cousin, was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award.
An Imperfect Man is his third novella.
John sat down for an interview with the blog this week.
Also, it’s his birthday today. Happy birthday, John!
BWS: An Imperfect Man tells largely of a middle-aged man who makes a sudden decision to reject his left arm, first refusing to use it or wash it then escalating its mistreatment from there. Where does such an idea for a story come from?
John: While writing my second novella, I came upon a newspaper article relating to an individual’s anguish over a medical condition called Body Image Integrity Disorder (BIID). I was intrigued, but being in the middle of writing I put the article away with the idea that I may use some elements of it in the future. Years later, I began writing what would become An Imperfect Man. My original idea was to weave a story around the theme of getting rid/letting go of toxicity whether it was a psychological or emotional toxin and how best to deal with the process and possible aftermath. I remembered the article, went back to it, and decided to add the element of real/perceived physical toxicity to the plot line and blur the lines between them. I did more research and made sure that I accurately portrayed the issues around BIID. Slowly, that plot line grew to become the central issue in the novella.
BWS: Your previous novella, The Cousin, drew comparisons in The Globe and Mail to Luigi Pirandello’s work. Would you count him as an influence? Some of the trouble Jack goes to in order to thoroughly reject his arm, for example, could be said to echo Mattia Pascal’s comically thorough “Adriano Meis” disguise.
John: Pirandello was a great influence; the fact that I am also Sicilian, and was born an hour away from where he was born and spent his childhood, was another pleasant connection that led me to explore his literary works. The way he uses the mask that people knowingly or unknowingly wear/create, and the consequences for individuals and society – some humourous, some tragic – has always fascinated me. He often used Sicilian behaviours as his model but his observations are universal. Having lived in France for 10 years, when I was younger, I was also greatly influenced by French writers such as [Albert] Camus, [André] Gide, and Henri Barbusse who wrote L’Enfer, to name a few. My writing is influenced by 20th-century existential authors and is often, subconsciously at times, an homage to them.
BWS: Do you think An Imperfect Man could have been set anywhere, or did you feel that the story had to take place in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood? What about Parkdale was most important to this story when you chose its setting?
John: It could take place anywhere as long as it included certain elements. I wanted a neighbourhood that for Torontonians would be easily recognized while at the same time it also had to produce a particular atmosphere. I sought to create the setting of a confining village within an urban environment, a space that could be both a comforting home and a claustrophobic one as well. Parkdale with its English heritage, neighbouring ethnic communities, and its location close to highways and seaways, offering the possibility of escape, seemed the most appropriate place to use as a setting. I also enjoyed walking the neighbourhood following the footsteps of imaginary characters and seeing what they would have been seeing and thinking. On those outings, I would make written notes that I later incorporated into the story.
BWS: This is your third novella, and until recently, you were president and co-publisher at Quattro Books, Canada’s “home of the novella”. What draws you to the novella form? Did you know from the beginning with each (or some, or none) of your novellas that they would end up as novella-length books (20,000-40,000 words, says Quattro)? Can a successful novella result from projects one imagines as short stories “running long” or as novels “coming up short”, or is there something different about the novella that has to be considered if setting out to write one?
John: The novella is a curious and often maligned genre. Stephen King, who has written many, called it, “an ill-defined and disreputable literary Banana Republic,” and that is by far not the worst thing people have said about the genre. Personally, I have always loved reading novellas. Most of the best contemporary authors, and many that have influenced me, have written successful novellas, often unknown to reader; it is only when you start naming some of the most famous ones that people realize that they have read and enjoyed one. Novellas such as L’Étranger, Death in Venice, Of Mice and Men, Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, Billy Budd and great Canadian novellas like Bear, Contre Dieu, The Invention of Death, to name a few. It is one of my most cherished accomplishments that with Quattro Books, as a small independent press, we were able to spotlight the novella. In the seven years I was with them (and that mandate still continues), Quattro published more contemporary novellas by Canadians than any other independent press in Canada. Through our workshops and contests we were able to tutor and mentor people on how to write a novella. We received and published some great submissions.
My books are novellas (except for the first one that was an accidental novella) because I love writing stories that lend themselves to the genre. I write books in the genre that I prefer reading. I like the literary ingredients that create the novella: very few characters, one main setting, a short time frame, one strong, if at times nuanced, theme and an arc that leads to a conclusion. Of course, you can play with those elements so that they are not readily distinguishable, but they must be there. So to answer your question, a novella has its own unique structure.
The novella, among other things is well suited for both reader and author. For the reader, at its very essence, it’s a short read, up to a six-hour read, and fits in quite well with the lifestyle of the modern reader who wants compact literature of great quality. It allows the reader to get maximum exposure to great literary prose. Because a literary novella is thematically driven to explore serious and often dark and difficult issues, a longer read might be too depressing and/or lose its impact. An overlong humorous and/or satirical work would also tend to wear thin after a while – imagine Animal Farm at 300 pages. As well, novellas in translation allow readers to get a bite-size introduction to a foreign author, a foreign literary sensibility. The novella affords the author the opportunity to experiment with style and content without investing too much time on any one project. It takes much less time to finish and edit a novella than a full-length novel. It creates the opportunity for quicker publication. Filmmakers like to mine novellas for film ideas which can be another incentive for an author. I tend to agree with the literary critic [Judith] Leibowitz, who said that the primary feature of the novella is “its unique ability to combine the economy of the short story,” which she calls intensity, “with the openness of the novel,” which she calls expansion. Walter Sitz, another critic, with whom I also agree, says, “The novella’s flexibility, amenability to innovation and ability to accommodate dramatic development with compactness,” is its strength.
John Calabro visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 – in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Danila Botha, Soraya Peerbaye, Dane Swan and special guest speaker Jack Illingworth, Literature Officer at the Ontario Arts Council, about grant applications!