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Robert J. Wiersema on the speculative core of storytelling

By Kobo • March 24, 2023Author Interviews

Robert J. Wiersema is the author of four novels, including Black Feathers and Before I Wake. He teaches creative writing at Vancouver Island University.

He’s judging the Speculative Fiction category for the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.

Kobo: What are you reading at the moment?

Robert J. Wiersema: Currently it’s Far Cry by Alissa York. I’ve been a fan of her work from the very beginning. I worked with her a bit back in Victoria, a lifetime ago. I think she’s one of Canada’s great, great writers.

Kobo: You’ve got an eclectic body of work, and it’s hard to guess what kind of reader you are and what you might write next. Do you see a throughline in your work? Is that related to what you look for in a book?

RJW: Like all readers, I think I look for something that speaks to me. That could be the description of the book, my knowledge of or relationship to the writer, or it could be what I’m hearing said about the book. One of the only reasons I remain on social media is because I’m surrounded by people whose reading tastes I trust. I get a lot of suggestions that way.

I like books that play with physical format. I remember when Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees was first published it was a scaled-down hardcover, like a little brick. And that drew me to it because it was something different.

I write and I read and I try to get across to my students that every story has been told. There’s really nothing new under the sun. It’s up to the writer as an individual to bring something to those old stories, to make them new—if possible, to make them shockingly new.

I look for individualism and uniqueness in books. And in movies and all art.

It’s up to the writer as an individual to bring something to those old stories, to make them new—if possible, to make them shockingly new.

Kobo: Readers in recent history have grown accustomed to elements of speculative fiction embedded in what would otherwise be regarded as realistic literary fiction. That trend seems to have gotten off the ground in the early 2000s, right around when you must have been looking for a publisher for your debut novel, Before I Wake. What was it like shopping that manuscript around at that time, when genre expectations were more conservative?

RJW: I wrote Before I Wake because I had to. I was a bookseller at the time, and knowing how books were shelved and bookstores were organized, looking at this book I wrote I thought there was no chance it would get published. It’s an odd book. There are speculative elements in it, but it’s also a book about miracles that’s not religious and actually comes down fairly hard on organized religion. It didn’t strike me as an easy sell at all.

I’m grateful that a lot of people in the industry who read it were looking for the kind of things that I look for, a story that’s fresh and brings something new. A different take on the old stories.

Speculative elements are in the earliest examples of the English novel, and in the early Chinese novels which are the progenitors of English literature. They’re all flush with what we call speculative material. Much of what we now call classics of literature contain these elements, books like Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And writing by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins display what we now think of as genre elements. A gothic novel like Wuthering Heights is in many ways speculative in its approach to things. It’s only when the mass market took hold of fiction and commercial interest needed to break things down to make it easier to sell books—that’s when genre conventions, which now seem to have always existed, came into play.

So I’m glad to see these strands coming back together.

Kobo: Because as you say, the distinctions are arbitrary anyway.

RJW: My mother, for example, has no interest in science fiction. No interest in fantasy. But she’ll gladly watch eight seasons of Game of Thrones and she was absolutely devoted to shows like The X-Files and Lost. She likes the stories, she likes the characters, and how it’s put together. I find that so affirming and refreshing. For a while now speculative fiction has been stealthily getting back its audience, which is everyone.

Kobo: Do you think that post-WWII period, where realistic so-called “literary” fiction occupied an elite cultural space, was a temporary anomaly in how humans think about stories?

RJW: The oldest stories are speculative by their very nature. There are myths, which are stories created by people trying to figure out how the world works. And there are the most basic stories, about what is out there in the dark. Storytelling is speculative at its core.

Kobo: Were there writers you looked to when you were starting out for a sense of how you might break through or bridge these genre expectations?

RJW: Maybe Stephen King? But he’s really sui generis. I don’t think there were any writers whose example I was following.

For a while now speculative fiction has been stealthily getting back its audience, which is everyone.

I wrote Before I Wake out of fear. My then-wife was pregnant with our first and only child, and within a couple of months of her being pregnant I panicked, as I think a lot of prospective parents do. But my way of panicking is to throw myself on the page, and I wrote that book out of the fear of learning the answer to the question, what’s the worst that could happen? I’m typically a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

My mind flashed upon a newspaper story that I’d read some years earlier and I still have clipped in my archive boxes somewhere, though I’ve never re-read it. It’s about a little girl who died and was brought back, and was found to be able to perform miracles and was put out on the miracle performers’ circuit. But what I took from it is, what’s the worst thing that could happen—it’s choosing to let your child go, which is where the moment in Before I Wake in which Sherry’s parents take her off life support came from. And the first miraculous thing to happen is her surviving. But then this other story started to weave in—and I just wrote in the white heat of fear. I can take it apart now and see what was going on with me and where it came from now, but at the time I was writing it, I was just writing.

And yes, I was writing in the shadow of Stephen King, but I was also writing in the shadow of Raymond Carver. It’s very important for my writing to be grounded in gritty realism. People have jobs, they have relationships, and relationship issues that are factors in what they choose to do and what can happen. So that’s the Carver influence, but I also admire Neil Gaiman—and I’ll say as an aside I regard The Sandman comic, all 75-issues, as one of the finest novels of the twentieth century, and that’s a hill I’ll die on. There’s also John Crowley's Little, Big, from which I have a quote tattooed on me.

I still write primarily out of fear.

Kobo: Has teaching creative writing, working with students who develop and grow over the course of a semester, shaped how you see yourself as a writer?

RJW: Teaching is so rewarding because of that growth. But it’s also odd because I take very little credit for it. I teach, but at a fundamental level, writing can’t be taught. I can teach you the mechanics of story, I can give you a sense of how dialogue works and how setting works, and how best to employ significant details—but the student has to do it on their own.

As I said earlier, all stories have been told. What matters is what you can bring to these stories. I tell my classes that on the first day, through the semester, and again on the last day. I want them to know, your greatest strength is your own voice, your own perspective of the world. What you bring to writing is yourself—in all your ragged glory as Neil Young would have it.

Storytelling is speculative at its core.

One of the great things about teaching is I get to constantly remind myself of all of those things. The importance of routine, how dialogue really works, why stories need to actually move, why scenes need to do something, or else you should cut them. Every time I teach I’m teaching myself.

Kobo: You’re judging the Speculative Fiction category of the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. And this year we’ve opened up the eligibility window wider to accommodate books in this genre published since the last time, three years ago, when we awarded a prize in it. So that means there’s a relatively high likelihood that you’ll have already read one of the books on the shortlist. Is there a book you’re hoping to see come through? And this can be, it probably should be, a yes or no answer.

RJW: Not at all. No.

But I thought about this three-year time span, and the odds are that I will have read at least one book on the shortlist. But I’ll also find that I’ve read books that didn’t make it to the shortlist. Regardless, I plan to handle this as objectively and fairly as I can, which is to say if I find I’ve already read a book that comes through on the shortlist, I won’t be setting it aside and letting myself not worry about it. I need to read all six books that make the list with as few preconceptions as possible.

Books change in different readings, in different settings, and in different seasons of a reader’s life. I re-read a lot and I find books are always shifting and changing for me. So while I’m looking forward to reading the books I don’t yet know, I’m also looking forward to re-reading books I’ve read, and treating them all equally from where I am now in my life. ◼

This interview has been edited for clarity

Black Feathers by Robert J. Wiersema

Sixteen-year-old runaway Cassie Weathers is utterly alone, living on the streets as winter sets in. Then she meets Skylark, a young girl who introduces her to a community of street-dwellers and runaways. As Cassie settles in to the community, the city is rocked by the news that a number of young prostitutes have been murdered.

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