Gaston’s characters drive stories and novels

University of Victoria creative writing professor Bill Gaston’s remarkable insight into human nature, his gentle sense of humour and his imagination make him one of Canada’s most highly acclaimed authors. His previous collections of short stories have received nominations for many national awards, so it is no surprise that his most recent collection, Juliet Was A Surprise, was nominated for the 2014 Governor General’s Award in fiction. Gaston recently took time away from his teaching and writing to answer reviewer Janet Ralph’s questions.

When you begin a story, do you always know it’s a short story and not a novel?

I always know, and always the main character determines it for me. It’s really pretty simple: some characters I get very interested in, kind of like we become close friends, and I want to hang out with them to see what they do with their life. That becomes a novel. But many of the characters I come up with are not good-friend material. Anyone who has read my short stories can see this. The main character is often someone you don’t want to spend more than twenty minutes with. They’re interesting, [I hope], but often in the way a car accident is interesting, and some of them are downright warped and nasty. But still worth probing, so to speak. Those become the short stories.

What authors and musicians are you currently reading/listening to?

At the moment I’m reading The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s newest, and just reread Pastoralia, by George Saunders. Next is Lee Henderson’s The Road Narrows as You Go. As for music, I’m checking out Alt J’s new album, and I often gravitate to old Eno. Otherwise I listen to our house background music, which is my 16-yr-old daughter’s playlist, and that’s anything from Dixie Chicks to vintage Chili Peppers and some really slimy hiphop.

Do you ever consciously turn off your powers of observation and analysis of people? What do you find most endearing, and most annoying, about human nature?

No. I’m frequently dull, blind, and stupid, but I don’t become that way consciously or deliberately. Though maybe that’s what I do when I grab one beer too many. What I find most endearing is kindness. Most annoying? Pettiness and lack of humour. I include my own sometime petty and humourless self in this, of course.

Cake is probably the most complex character in your recent book because of his peculiar power over people. What are your thoughts about this sort of “other power” some people have?

Well, I have encountered at least a couple—that I know of—people with an undeniable and somewhat magical “power” over others. But Cake I did make up. Mostly, he stands as a kind of metaphor for those who do have power over others, not necessarily a magical kind but the ordinary kind. We see it all the time: it might be charisma, or it might be more hidden, and we see it in families, and on the street. And of course in politics. I think that’s the point of Cake’s character: that often people don’t have a handle on what power they have.

Juliet, the title story, and others are so funny, I wonder if you are laughing as you write. Is there a part of you that identifies with the arborist?

I wouldn’t say I’m laughing out loud, but I might be caught smirking. I do often write what I consider to be funny characters and stories. My sense of humour might be of the driest sort because lots of people seem to miss the humour. Or maybe they just aren’t that funny, I don’t know. But I do identify with characters like the arborist. Here is a person who is socially awkward, with low self-esteem, and eyeglasses 20 years out of date, who thinks too much. He has a carnal angel throwing herself at him, in the form of Juliet—so what’s he supposed to do? It’s very much a set piece male fantasy, but I think everyone can relate to and find funny the dilemma of forbidden fruit and a lack of will power. And, of course, mindless rage and murderous revenge.

Janet Ralph is a UVic student.