Pasha Malla is one of Canada’s most gifted young writers: a witty Newfoundlander whose strengths behind a keyboard have earned him national recognition and got him longlisted for the 2009 Giller Prize. Feathertale recently caught up with Malla for a one-on-one interview conducted — like many conversations these days — over the Internet.
JUST THE FACTS:
Born: St. John’s, N.L., 1978
First job: Dog walker. I lost the house keys on the first day of a seven-day gig and spent the entire week climbing in through a window.
First story you ever wrote: “The Magic Mittens,” in grade three (published, for the very first time, on p. 109 of The Feathertale Review No.12).
Favourite dystopian movie or novel: That word’s kind of confusing to me, but I really like Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole.
If you weren’t a writer you would be: Working with kids.
Favourite author: Impossible to answer, but I’m most obsessed currently with Jorge Luis Borges.
Recurring dream: Trying to drive a car from the back seat.
Limerick or haiku: The limeraiku, the poetic equivalent of “half-Japanese girls.” They do it to me every time.
Most useless item in your wallet: An infinite sequence of smaller and smaller wallets.
If you could pick, what year you would choose to be born: I might claim to have been born in Srinagar in 1678, though I think I would have fared terribly in a Mughal invasion — probably beheaded, or at the very least bullied into doing something embarrassing.
JUST THE ANSWERS:
Feathertale: What does a day in the writing life of Pasha Malla look like?
Pasha Malla: You know the end of Scarface, where Tony Montana is holed up in his office with an arsenal of weapons and a giant mountain of cocaine? It’s the exact opposite of that.
FT: Your first book The Withdrawal Method (2009) is a collection of short stories. It was also a critical success, earning you praise as a new voice on the Canadian literary scene. What did success taste/feel/smell like?
PM: I felt like a fraud, mostly. The smells were easy to get rid of with aromatic votives and a fan.
FT: The book opens with “The Slough.” A character named Pasha deals with his girlfriend’s terminal illness in some kind of shitty ways. It feels raw, brave and autobiographical. It’s not. Why did you want to make the reader think this story might be true?
PM: Shouldn’t every story seem like it’s true?
FT: Arguably the other stories in the collection ring “true” too. Why did you want the reader to assume this story was autobiographical?
PM: I’m not sure I wanted that. I think I wanted more to assume some responsibility/accountability for that character, who does some pretty reprehensible things. I really don’t think much about readers when I’m writing fiction.
FT: You said in an interview once that the story is “mostly fictional,” which makes us wonder: Which parts aren’t fictional?
PM: I think there’s a sex scene in it. I’ve had sex before — call it “research.”
FT: Your second book, People Park (2012), is an epic novel set in a dystopian future. It’s packed with a huge cast of characters and complex storylines — in a lot of ways, the complete opposite of your minimalist first book, which purposely left a lot of details up to the reader’s imagination. What inspired the novel and the complete transformation of your writing style?
PM: It’s actually meant to be set in 1984, though that’s coded into the book in obscure ways. And I think of it as more “atopian” — somewhere between dystopia and utopia — in that this city has become too comfortable and accordingly static; the outsider who arrives from the sky is meant to unsettle that. The inspirations or ideas behind that book are all over the place, but I was interested in plenitude, overwhelming the reader with information, to create a corollary of my own experience as a person, alive, right now. I wanted to write something baroque and grotesque to reflect a culture that feels that way, at least to me. The language is meant to be overwrought. The visual descriptions are meant to be exhausting. The characters are meant to be caricatures and archetypes. The novel is a parody, or a travesty, of its own struggle to reflect and contain a culture that might be reaching beyond it.
FT: What don’t you like/find confusing about the word dystopian?
PM: I think it can be limiting and constricting to categorize a novel as “dystopian” because it posits a set of expectations based on the more canonical “dystopian” works — 1984, Brave New World, Superfudge, etc. — which might be irrelevant or even impede a reader’s experience of the book. E.g.: People Park has often been misread as being set in the future, despite that there’s nothing in it to suggest such a thing (no Internet, no cellphones, no flying cars). Instinctually people seem to think, “Oh, a non-existent flawed society = dystopia = the future.”
FT: People Park received mixed reviews. Some critics suggested the book was too confusing, the cast too big. How do you deal with that criticism?
PM: Calling some of those people “critics” feels generous. Most of the unfavourable reviews of People Park were so deeply insipid and illiterate and lazy and thoughtless that they were easy enough to dismiss, but I realize the book’s not for everybody. Or I’ve learned that it’s not, anyway.
FT: You put a lot of thought into crafting the novel in the way you did. Is it frustrating that “the book’s not for everybody”?
PM: Maybe not frustrating, though it did make me feel kind of lonely.
FT: Is writing a second book more difficult than writing a first book?
PM: This was my fourth book. The second being the book of poems, which wasn’t difficult to write because I didn’t know I was writing a book and I treated each poem mostly as a joke. What’s been difficult is returning to stories after writing a novel. So hard! I hate myself most of the time.
FT: What’s to hate?
PM: Well, hatred is often based in jealousy, so maybe I’m more jealous of the ideal self that I wish I could be. I hate that guy, a little — though, dear Lord, how I long to be him!
FT: Especially after encountering early success, is there pressure to live up to a certain standard?
PM: The only standards I have for my writing are my own and those set by the books I love. “Success” means nothing. It’s fleeting, anyway. All that matters is how successfully each piece approaches its own ideal. If I were able to look back on my first book of stories and find it successful, why would I write anymore? No, the whole thing is a total, humiliating failure — and so onward I go.
FT: So, if your first book was “successful,” then you wouldn’t need to write anymore? We’re talking about success, not perfection. You seem quite hard on yourself.
PM: Agreed! And I’m talking about self-defined success, not the illusory success of awards and reviews and whatever else. Perfection has no place in art either. Who wants a perfect book? Boring!
FT: Success is a tricky word, especially applied to art. What makes for a successful writer?
PM: The same thing that makes for a successful lepidopterist: the ability to sneak around without being detected and a really big net.
FT: And financially?
PM: I guess financially it would be nice to be able to not panic every month about rent and bills and stuff, but there are plenty of writers who are raking in the bucks whose work feels like an utter failure to me. I’d like to talk about writers’ finances/sales separately from their work — so you’re not a “successful writer” if you’re selling out readings at the SkyDome and partying with P. Diddy, but you’re a writer who’s successfully making a lot of money, regardless what your books are like. Kudos!
FT: Should financial success (the idea that you can make a living off your craft) even be expected?
PM: Not expected, but I do think it’s something I’d like to work toward — though I’d much rather party with a hologram of Tupac than Diddy. Though, would I? Would I be happy seeing no one every day, sitting at my computer, only living in worlds I invented, and then going out among the unwashed masses in my invisible flying limousine? And I worry too that so much of what I write about is fuelled by frustration, anxiety, tension, so much of which in turn is a result of being broke. Were I financially stable, would writing still feel urgent? Give me $500,000 and let me find out.
FT: With People Park, why did you want to write a novel instead of another book of short stories?
PM: I had an idea for a big, sloppy, crazy story that was never going to fit into thirty pages. Basically this story demanded to be told as a novel. It was not, “I’d like to write a novel — but about what?”
FT: What is it, do you think, that drives so many of us to want to write a novel to begin with?
PM: Good question! I mean, there are two ways that desire manifests: as above, this vague inkling that “I want to write a novel” (or even just “I want to write”), which I’ve never understood — I mean, that abstract desire to write without knowing what to write about. I think writing should feel urgent and necessary to the writer: “There’s a story that I absolutely need to tell!” And that’s the second way, which is the only way, personally, I’d ever want to write anything. I think that anyone who feels that way should absolutely go for it, with everything he or she has.
FT: Do you remember (grade-three work of genius aside) the first story that you felt an urgent need to write down?
PM: When I was nine and on holiday with my family in India I wrote this “novel” that was a total Narnia rip (the crucial difference being that a mirror provides the portal into another dimension, rather than a wardrobe). While camels trundled by out the window and millions of people were everywhere, always, I was able to disappear into this made-up, co-opted world. I’m not sure if it felt urgent, exactly, though maybe it introduced this type of escape as a pretty good experience, which in turn made chasing this sort of thing more compelling, even necessary.
FT: In 2008 Snare Books published All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts, which you’ve referred to briefly. The poems are about a topsy-turvy version of our own world. While most of your work has some funny in it, you seem more willing to let the humour all hang out here. Why is that?
PM: Oh, mainly because I’m not a particularly good poet. My standards for the artistry (or whatever) of those poems were pretty low; all I wanted was to entertain myself. To be honest, I didn’t ever think I was writing a book of poems; I was just filling time between stories and trying to make myself laugh. That Snare wanted to publish those silly little things as a book was terrific, but a total surprise. I really didn’t think they were going to see the light of day, which likely allowed me to loosen up a bit when writing them.
FT: Funny poetry is pretty rare. At least, it is much harder to find than funny stories. Why do you think that is?
PM: I don’t know if that’s true. A lot of poets are funny — James Tate, Brenda Shaughnessy, Matthew Zapruder, Dean Young, Dave McGimpsey, Joe Wenderoth, Gabe Foreman, Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Parker, etc.
FT: You’re right. But funny poetry can be hard to come by officially. Once we left Shel Silverstein behind as children we didn’t encounter another funny poet until after university. Rereading certain poets, like John Donne and Emily Dickinson, we’ve discovered humour. But who was ever taught poetry could be accessible in that way?
PM: Oh man, there is so much wrong with how books are taught in school — if we start this conversation here it’ll never end. Though, generally, yes, I do think that humour is often ignored in institutional learning. I mean, we read Dickens in elementary school, but it wasn’t until the past few years that I realized how hilarious he could be.
FT: Which is more difficult to write: poetry or prose?
PM: Well, the kind of “poetry” I’ve written isn’t exactly rigorously executed and slaved over. For me writing AOGAG was far less difficult than TWM, simply because I wasn’t taking the poems very seriously, as I’ve said. They were essentially a break from the hard work of the stories. I imagine, maybe falsely, that it’s a far greater struggle to write a truly masterful poem than a great novel, but simple enough, seemingly, to get a book of mediocre poems published (and even critically lauded) in this country. Though I guess you could say the same of novels.
FT: If you were to write a poem right now, what would the first three words be?
PM: “Apologies in advance . . .”
FT: What inspires you to write?
PM: I have a carved soapstone idol of Michael Winslow, the guy who made all the funny noises in the Police Academy movies, which I take out every morning and stroke for ten minutes. That pretty much does it, every time.