Q & A with Bi-Polar Bear Magazine: canswer

Canswer is Perth author B.T. Hogan’s debut novel. Ray Hoginski caught up with B.T. on the eve of the novel’s release (Bi-Polar Bear is currently a print magazine that is only available in Perth, but there are plans to transition it to the world wide web in the very near future).

I’ve just finished reading Canswer…

Oh no. Be gentle.

No, not at all. It was great. Oddly uplifting. Was that the intention?

There was no intention, at least not in the sense of calculating a grand plan and sticking to it. I just had this idea for a story and let it take me where it wanted to go. I certainly didn’t want the story to say something grand, or grandiose, about death, because death isn’t like that. Life isn’t either, not for the most part at least. It’s awkward and tense and frustrating, and I wanted to capture that more than anything else. I wanted to capture a family breaking apart.

Are you concerned that your message in the story might offend? Even the title is pretty provocative.

I’m not arrogant enough to assume that enough people will read it to be in a position to be offended by it. But if those people are, there isn’t much I can do about it. I can’t control how people will respond now that it’s out there. I can only control what I put into the book in the first place. I honestly can’t even think of what might be construed as offensive in the book…

Well, the title alone suggests that this awful illness can solve your problems, at least that’s how I interpret it…

No. Not at all. That’s definitely not what it means. It’s more about how this illness that impacts so many lives and so many families is, in this story at least, a literary device which forces the protagonist to think about the way he’s living – or not living, as it were – his life up to the point of diagnosis. I’m certainly not dismissing cancer in any way. Sometimes you need to be told there’s not much life left to live to kick your ass enough to do something about it and get out there and experience things. In the case of Dylan, he had to get out of a dull repetitive job and a loveless marriage and go back to his roots. The illness was the catalyst.

You’re probably going to catch hell for the God scenes.

I like to toy around with form a bit, to play with religion. There’s no ill intent as such – I was baptized and confirmed and all the rest – but I just find it all a bit silly as an adult. I just don’t believe in religion as a personal choice. I don’t care what you do, or what you believe, so long as it doesn’t impact on me or my family in a negative way. But I think when our mortality is challenged, the first instinct is to question God. Even non-believers do this! So I wanted to explore that urge a little bit.

What inspired this story? It wasn’t gleaned from personal experience I hope?

Yes and no. I think any decent fiction has some form of fact to it, otherwise it isn’t coming from a genuine place. I’ve never been told I was dying, so I can’t relate to that, but I’ve certainly experienced loss. Everyone has, it’s a bond that ties people together. And loss comes in many forms: job loss, hair loss, falling out with friends, breakups, rejection of manuscripts. Death is the most profound I suppose, and obviously the most final. A few years ago I was really sick. Doctor’s couldn’t figure it out. But I had these strange pains, my stomach was all weird, anything I ate upset it. Didn’t matter what it was. It felt like my stomach was on fire pretty much all the time. So, naturally I thought I was dying. I was 29 years old and I was diagnosed with nothing. Doctors told me it was all in my head. Maybe they were onto something. But that’s how it was back then. Everything to me was either a cold or cancer. There was nothing in between. If I couldn’t explain away a set of symptoms as a virus of some kind, then I definitely had cancer. This was just where my panic-addled brain took me. I’m still that way, just three or four percent less jittery than back then.

I love the interactions with your family and particularly your mother. The writing about her death was so raw, did you actually go through that with her?

No. She’s alive and well. She did have a health scare about twenty years ago, and that inspired a lot of the writing for those flashback scenes, but everything turned out fine. I’ve had close friends that have lost parents at a young age, and I drew from that as much as possible without being disrespectful to the memory of those people.

You set the majority of the book in Western Australia’s southwest region. What inspired you to set the story there?

Two main reasons: I have family down there and it’s a beautiful part of the world. It gave me an excuse to go down there a fair bit, to kind of scout locations and all that. I’ve been all over the world but I’d put the southwest up against any place you can think of and feel confident in it. It’s a fantastic spot. Very inspirational. Who wouldn’t want to die there? (laughs).

I don’t recall there being a strip club in Busselton.

You gotta know the right people [laughs]. Umm, no there isn’t, not to my knowledge. I don’t really know what inspired me to create one in the book either. I think I liked the idea of a strong female character being resolute in her choices. She wasn’t shy about declaring that she was doing this job to earn a lot of money in a short period of time so she could leave for Spain. She just wanted to expedite the whole process. She wasn’t a drunk or someone who had a drug habit to feed; she knew who she was and she saw a quick fix to her problems.

You self-published this book. How was the experience?

Seamless. A joy. I kind of always wanted to do the book this way. I know a lot of writers say that but I absolutely believe this was the right move for me and for this book. I did everything on the book aside from the formatting, where I used a fantastic bunch of people: 52Novels. But everything else was me, even down to the cover design. I wanted complete control, that way if it fails it’s completely on me. I wanted that responsibility. Plus, there’s a liberation in not being chosen. There’s a certain freedom to say and write whatever I want and be held accountable for my words. I’m ready.

Did you submit to publishers in any formal sense?

Yeah, I did. I did it more as a gauge to see where the book was, market wise. Without naming names, it was a pretty frustrating experience all told. I submitted to one publisher locally, and hoped they’d bite. They did Craig Silvey’s first book, Rhubarb, and I really enjoyed and admired that book, and Silvey’s story particularly. He’s a self-made writer, like me, he didn’t go to Uni or jump through any of the other hoops that writers are generally made to jump through. He’s just a talented guy that can really put it down on the page. I like it when those types break through. I find it very inspiring. And yeah, I tried a couple of others, they ask you to submit a sample chapter and a synopsis and I tried that, but it went nowhere. Who knows what they made of the manuscript? I have to assume not very much.

Who would you say were your inspirations for writing this book?

You mean, who did I rip off completely? [laughs] Jonathan Ames is a huge influence on my writing. I love all his stuff, particularly Wake Up, Sir! which is a brilliant, laugh-out-loud book, or LOL for the Twitter generation. If I can approach anything even remotely close to that I’d be happy. But aside from that, my influences are predominantly not literary figures. Two people that greatly inspired Canswer were filmmakers: Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach. I love their conversational, rambling style of their films. Baumbach’s Greenberg and Linklater’s Slacker were probably the biggest influences on the style and tone of the book. Greenberg just spoke to me in such a profound way. He was such an unlikeable character, yet somehow I was rooting for him by the end. He was selfish and distant and awkward with just about everyone, and he reminded me so much of myself that it was unnerving. I wanted Dylan Higgins to embody that; to have his bitterness be endearing somehow. That was the goal.

Any other projects in the works?

A few, yeah. I’m working on a novel now, it’s about some people who get trapped in an elevator on New Years Eve in 1999. And I’ve got a short story that I’m tinkering with. I won’t get into it now, but it’s about a man and a woman who have unique afflictions and how they get together. It’s about genitals. That’s really all I can say at this early stage.

Canswer is out now and available as an eBook on Amazon for $2.99.