Tuesday 29 May 2018

Interview: Vic Cavalli

This week's author interview comes in the form of an exciting Q&A with Vic Cavalli. Chatting about literature, music, inspirations and his novel The Road to Vermilion Lake, it's a pleasure to have Vic aboard The Writing Greyhound!

Welcome to The Writing Greyhound, Vic!
Thank you for welcoming me to your blog, Lorna. 
Please could you introduce yourself?
My name is Vic Cavalli. I studied the visual arts and photography as a young man, and later in life discovered the potential depth and force of literature. In graduate school, I concentrated on the complex interpenetrating relationships between literature and the visual arts. I have been teaching Creative Writing at University level in Canada since 2001.
How did you first become interested in writing?
As a young man, I fronted a couple of rock bands in my hometown of Vancouver, BC. Writing song lyrics was my introduction to poetry that was real. The idea of producing lyrics based on their commercial potential didn’t even occur to us. In a sense, we were beautifully innocent and sincere.
the-road-to-vermilion-lake, vic-cavalli, book

Tell me about The Road to Vermilion Lake.
The Road to Vermilion Lake is my contribution to West Coast literary fiction here in Canada. As a literature professor, I love literary fiction that rewards repeated readings. I respect the reader’s valuable time and hope that each reading will be increasingly satisfying as layer upon layer and strand woven with strand explore the themes of memory, love, healing, and hope in our post-modern world. It’s a book about the environments of the heart.
What drew you to writing this book?
Most artists eventually long to work on a large canvas, a larger scale, whether it is literally a large painting, a long poem, or the novel form. All of my early publications are poetry. Then as I noticed my poetry was becoming increasingly narrative in structure, I thought I might as well try writing some short fiction. My first fiction publication was in The New Quarterly, one of the most prestigious literary magazines in Canada, and that publication inspired me to continue writing fiction. For years, I percolated ideas about a possible novel, and after my 18th short fiction publication, the time was right. I was ready for the large canvas.
Did you find writing it a challenge?
I was brimming with ideas and eager to write the book. The biggest challenge was the lack of time. Then in the summer of 2012, I was unemployed and the time was right. I just holed up in my study with my computer and worked 8 hours a day until I had a complete rough draft. That draft was the foundation I worked with over the next five years until I reached something like draft #47 and it was ready to submit to publishers. I was thrilled that Harvard Square Editions accepted the manuscript. I knew that if anyone would understand the book, Harvard graduates would understand it. And they allowed me to further perfect it up to a 60th draft, at which point I could honestly say, “This is the best I can do.”
How did you get inspiration?
I am a romantic with a vivid memory and I have passionately enjoyed the Canadian wilderness from my youth. Those two features combined with my interest in music, the visual arts, photography, and Funny Car drag racing, fuelled the writing process. Also, this is a book about suffering, beauty, and hope. In this broken world we live in, I know there is hope and true love. That inspires me.
What’s your writing process?
Now that the book is finished and I’ve received numerous reviews responding to the book in strikingly different ways, I realize how much my background in the visual arts has affected my writing process. Just as a painter applies layers of colour and washes of paint, similarly I apply layers of narrative to create a palimpsest text. Medieval, pioneer and contemporary layers are overlapping and hopefully luminously visible simultaneously.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
For me the hardest thing about the long form of the novel is the anxiety of closure, that is to say, not knowing if you’ll actually be able to finish the book as you hoped, and if you do, if it will be accepted by a good publisher. Any project that takes years to perfect creates this sort of stress.
What do you love most about writing?
Because I am only interested in writing sincere literary fiction, I love the honesty and chance at the original vision. My goal is to see with my own eyes and feel with my own nervous system. Writing allows me to analyse what is derivative vision and feeling, and chose to be myself.
Which authors inspire you?
I love writers who have distinctive styles. You read a sentence and say, “No one but O’Connor could have written that.” Some of the writers who have inspired me are Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and J.M. Coetzee’s early short parabolic fictions.
vic-cavalli, author

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Short answer: Write what you love to read. Write from your deepest self. Be honest. 
Long answer: To aspire is to have hope, in this case, hope of success as a writer. If you believe you have a gift to develop, my honest opinion is that you should study English Literature to get a clear sense of what has been done and the various styles that writers have developed over the centuries. This will help you to avoid what I call "Pioneer Syndrome," which is the belief that you're a pioneer breaking new ground when in fact your style or strategy has been used before; it's nothing fresh or original. 
Then study Creative Writing as an academic subject. Take courses in a good academic community and acquire the tools you need to express yourself. As a Creative Writing teacher, I can honestly say that I've seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of students' work once they've taken university-level courses. Also, I highly recommend aspiring writers try to follow a trajectory from poetry to short fiction to longer fiction to the novel form. I always flinch when a student tells me that they have written several novels. My response is usually, let's begin by helping you to write an effective scene. 
Once an aspiring writer has acquired a significant foundation, then I recommend that they reread the best writers slowly, slowly. Pay close attention to how they create their effects. Carefully observe their sentences, diction, punctuation, rhythms. Notice the unique hand-polished wood-grain of their individual styles. Note how some writers use thousands of modifiers while other writers use almost none. Note how they totally disregard the tastemakers of their times. Note the risks they take to be loyal to their personal visions. If they crash and burn, they crash and burn, but they don’t bend to the formulas of commercial product. The soul is all that matters. 
Then create your own style; see with your own eyes and feel with your own nerves. Write sounds and images that can only come from you. Once you’ve published around 10 short stories in literary journals, you’ll probably be ready to tackle a full-length novel. This may sound like the long way, and I can appreciate your impatience, but it seems more rational than writing a novel prematurely and then spending a fortune getting advice from people regarding how to fix it.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a stand-alone sequel to The Road to Vermilion Lake. Ten years have elapsed since the final chapter and the point of view has shifted from first-person to omniscient. Tom Tems, the narrator of The Road to Vermilion Lake, has now become one of many characters in a universe of hearts.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m a University professor, and right now it is hurricane season for research essays and final exams. Other than that, I’m reading Leesa Dean’s Waiting for the Cyclone: Stories.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
Music, the visual arts, photography, nature. I love fishing for steelhead in the winter. The colder the weather the better - snow, wind, ice forming on the edges of the river. Those harsh elements keep all but the true devotees from the rivers and the resulting experience is a wild flame-like solitude. The ultimate contrast with my office desk at the university.
The Road to Vermilion Lake is available to buy now.

Are you planning to read the book? What do you think about Vic's advice for aspiring writers? Let me know in the comments below!

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