ISSUE 2 VOL 1 PROFILE: Russell Smith

fiction //
Sleeping With an Elf

HLR: When and where did you write the work published in this issue?

I am going to be a bit difficult here, peevish even, and say that I am baffled by that sort of question — by any question involving process (like what time do you get up and do you use a computer?) — because I don’t get how it is important or could be important to anyone reading the story. I understand that lots of readers are also writers, and so they are interested in questions of process because they feel they might glean some secret from it, but the truth is that the process really doesn’t matter. Some people write in cafes, some people write lying on their backs, some do it drunk; there’s no secret, no technique that will actually change your sentences.  Anyway, the boring answer is that I wrote it on my computer at my desk in my study in my house probably sometime between the hours of nine and five.

HLR: Was the story inspired by anything particular?

I am currently fascinated by hipsters and by gentrification. Industrial neighbourhoods in big cities are always the most interesting and colourful because they are now undergoing massive renewal, and there is a conflict between the bohemians who first moved into their abandoned or inexpensive spaces and the speculators who follow them. You want to live in these neighbourhoods at exactly the right moment in the transition — the Goldilocks moment, you might call it — before the colour becomes effaced by the affluence. Before the Starbucks and the Gap move in. (I live in Toronto near the intersection of Bloor and Lansdowne, a neighbourhood I think is exactly in that moment right now.)

I do experience a kind of emotional confusion when I see how educated young people in these neighbouroods now like to dress, though: I have always been fascinated by costume and I have always enjoyed flamboyant subcultures such as punk or goth or rave, but the carefully cultivated uniforms of this particular group I find unattractive (the beards, the plaid, the second-hand dresses). I don’t think this is just because I’m getting old, it’s because the pose is so arch and anti-sensual; it looks prim and pious and political to me. It looks so un-fun.

HLR: Do you consider your work to be cross-pollinated by other disciplines? 

Yes, by movies more than anything. I use a lot of dialogue and like to try to have scenes unfold moment by moment, pretty much in real time. I do write while listening to loud repetitive wordless electronic music — a habit I acquired while living in shared houses to block out my roommates — and that tends to give me a certain feverish state of mind while I’m imagining. 

 HLR: Where is your favourite place to write outside the home?

I spend a lot of time writing in my local Portuguese cafe where I have my regular table and I am treated like family. I must use headphones there, too, otherwise the lyrics of Top-40 pop will infiltrate my prose.

HLR: How does travel affect your writing?

I wish I could travel more. I do think it makes one reflective and perceptive. But I don’t do it much anymore. Since having a kid I find I am completely broke all the time.

HLR: How does the Internet and your presence on the Internet affect your thinking and writing?

It is absolutely awful in every way. It has destroyed my concentration and made me unfocussed and stupid and far too emotional about stupid ideological debates. It has also made me realize in a horrified kind of way that a great many of my intellectual friends are apparently revolutionary Marxists of the most naive sort. I had no idea before, and I would rather have not known.  

HLR: What are you currently reading? 

I am re-reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom because I am teaching it in my MFA fiction workshop this term. I just love it. Freedom is such an extraordinarily ambitious novel, like the great social novels of the 19th century: it attempts to link the small and domestic with international politics. Love, social class, the gentrification of urban U.S. neighbourhoods, indie pop music, the elite university, capitalism, the war in Iraq and climate change all play a role. I think it is an argument as well as a story: it tries to situate every character’s ambitions in the context of economic struggle and change. That is to say, I think it is a fundamentally Marxist book. It is a systems novel. Franzen is also a very funny satirist, with an eye for the ridiculous in every situation. It just thrills me that such a conventional novel can still do what conventional novels have always done — bring together the personal, the romantic and the political and military, and make you laugh at the same time. I also like pointing out to young people who like to disdain Franzen for his unfashionable views on social media that he is also a novelist, and that his novels are what made him famous.

Russell Smith’s most recent novel is Girl Crazy. His new collection of short stories, Confidence, will appear in 2015. He teaches fiction in the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA program. He lives in Toronto and hates folk music.