Interview: Thomas Trofimuk

A few weeks ago I put Thomas Trofimuk’s Waiting for Columbus on my Christmas list. (My family starts thinking about this sort of thing very early.) It sounds like a fabulous read (I’ll let Thomas describe the book to you below) and I can’t wait to dig in. I was excited at the prospect of interviewing Thomas (even though I don’t know him, I am calling him by his first name) because his blog and website is so wonderful it makes you want to sit down, pour a pint, and ask him about a zillion random questions.

Good thing for us I didn’t ask him a zillion. But I did ask him a few. His answers will make you smile and think and send you off on your day happy. Enjoy this interview.

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You’ve got three novels under your belt and lots of great poetry. Which do you prefer writing, long fiction or poetic verse? Which came first in your writing life?

How about “poetic prose”? I like both. The approach is somewhat different but the goal, for me, is almost exactly the same. Italo Calvino writes about this in his Six Memos book. He talks about how writing prose and writing poetry are not different. So basically, he’s looking for a unique turn of phrase, conciseness, focus, and something that is memorable. I would probably add beauty to this list. No matter if I’m writing poems or prose, these goals remain. This is not to say that I always succeed.

So, the short answer is: I love writing – period. I love playing with words. Short fiction came first, then poetry, then long fiction. Now these are all tools in my toolbox – sometimes the muse calls for a poem, and sometimes, a stretched-out narrative. I’ve even been know to pump out a ghazal or two.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, Waiting for Columbus. Tell us why we must read this book!

In a Spanish mental institution, a man who believes he is Christopher Columbus begins to tell his story – he starts to tell stories about how he got his ships. His nurse, Consuela, listens, hoping to discover what tragedy drove this seemingly educated, cultured man to retreat from reality. This Columbus is not heroic in the least: he falls in love with every woman he meets, and, on land, he has absolutely no sense of direction. He is also convinced a terrible tragedy is coming. As each chapter of his tale unfolds, Consuela draws closer to her patient – to the point of an ethical and moral dilemma – she’s in love. At the same time, an Interpol cold-case expert is chasing a “man of interest” through southern Spain.

It’s a book about the resiliency of the human spirit, and the fragility of the human heart. It asks the question: What is it that we can live through and come out the other side? I think this book is an attempt to answer to that question. I say “attempt” because everyone is different – this journey is intensely personal.

The bio page on your website is quite funny. But tell us, what is the real Thomas Trofimuk really like?

I definitely have a sense of humour. I’m amused by, and curious about, almost everything. Well, except what women do in bathrooms, in private. I don’t want to know anything about that. I just want to reap the benefits of what goes on in there. The process should remain a mystery (I guess that’s sort of Mad Men-ish of me).

I do like to smoke a cigar every now and then. I like it that I have to slow down to smoke – cigars can’t be rushed. You have to sit and smoke. It’s brilliant.
I have an eight-year-old daughter who brings me joy, always. And my wife; I am fascinated by my wife – captivated. She is the biggest and most wonderful mystery in my life. I love learning about her, and then re-learning, and re-understanding.

I like tromping around in the backcountry up in the Rocky Mountains. You know, a backpack that’s too heavy and sleeping in a tent, and pulling your pack up a bear pole before bed. I move slower now that I’m older and I worry more about bears now that I have a daughter. But being in the mountains is a great love.

And I am drawn to the philosophy of Buddhism. I’m not interested in the religion; just the ideas.

What’s your writing routine like?

I’m constantly researching. I’m always poking around in stuff I find interesting. Lichens are my new passion. I’m reading about lichens. It’s difficult to turn off the writer’s eyes. I always have a journal with me – for ideas, snippets of conversation and so on. And my dreams, when I can remember to remember them, go in there too. Once I find my characters and have a sense of direction, and can articulate the overriding tension that’s going to drive the narrative – and ultimately, the reader – I begin to write. I write 1,500 words a day for three or four months. I do not have a road map. I do have a general direction in which I’d like to story to go, but once developed; my characters will make the decisions that are right for them, and the story. I write to find out what’s going to happen. I find this creative edge incredibly exciting. If I knew what was going to happen, I wouldn’t write. No matter what – birthdays, Christmas, holidays, anything – I write 1,500 words (at least) every day. Some days I feel like all I’ve written is crap. A few weeks later, I’ll go over this same piece of writing and realize it’s actually pretty good.

At the end of four months I’ll lift my head up and start to weave the story together. Because I write in chunks, I’ll often write out of order—well, mostly I write out of order. And so I begin a different process of weaving the fragments together – seeing the pieces as a whole, making those beautiful oblique connections that I don’t understand – with the goal of creating a seamless narrative dream.

My daily routine is: I write when I can. I have an eight-year-old who has so many questions. And a full-time job. And I play piano in this group called the Raving Poets Band (we back up poets at an open stage session in a lounge in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on Wednesday nights www.ravingpoets.com ). And all marriages require work, which I’m happy to do. Usually, I write from 10PM to whatever time it is when I have 1,500 words. Ha!

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Can we automatically eliminate the Bible, and all of Shakespeare, and the Quran (which I’m reading right now – I am reading a reformist translation)? Oh my….this is not an easy question. I’m going to say Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker. The guy invented a new language and new mythology, and a new religion. It was a difficult read but I’m still thinking about it years beyond my reading. It’s a sort of post-apocalyptical speculative adventure in understanding your own past so you don’t make the same mistakes.

Favorite authors?

Shakespeare. Ernest Hemingway. Kurt Vonnegut. Mark Twain. Gabriel García Márquez. Michael Ondaatje. Thomas Wharton. Wallace Stegner. Carol Shields. Todd Babiak. Alice Munro. Al Purdy. Mordecai Richler. John Irving. Rumi. Mavis Gallant. Tobias Wolff. Billy Collins.

Book(s) you’re currently reading?

The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell. And The Quran; a reformist translation.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

No. Writers block is just a nice way of saying “I’m lacking discipline or desire.” There are so many stories to show! If you can give yourself permission to write awful crap and also permission to write brilliantly, then you will never have writer’s block. For me, it’s about having the discipline to get the words down. Sometimes what we write is not so good – that’s what editing is for, and revising, and rewriting. Sometimes we write beautifully and it doesn’t need much editing…maybe it just needs a bit of polish to make it shine.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

Communication with readers. Making a human connection with a reader. It is an absolute joy – completely gratifying, when a reader takes the time to find me on my website (www.thomastrofimuk.com) and write what they feel about my book – even if they have a problem with the book. It’s the communication!!! Or, when I go to a book club – and I go to a lot of book clubs – and get to listen to, and interact with, readers. If you want to become a better writer do not hang out with other writers (you’ll just drink a lot and get in trouble); rather, hang out with readers. Rilke said something about no work of art being complete until it is delivered to an audience – well, for a writer, I think, the circle is complete when we communicate with a reader – when we know that something of our intent, our vision, or our story was communicated.

Advice for other writers?

See above: If you want to become a better writer, do not hang out with other writers (you’ll just drink a lot and get in trouble); rather, hang out with readers.

And reading is important. You have to read, read, read, everything…inside your comfort zone, and outside your comfort area. A writer who doesn’t read isn’t a writer; he or she is just a monkey banging on a keyboard.

And writers write. It’s a life-long practice. You do it alone. Talking about your ideas over coffee doesn’t count. Going on and on about this idea you have for a book isn’t writing; it’s talking about writing. Writers write.

I’m sure your readers have heard this before.

Where can we learn more about you?

Well, I’m pretty open about my life on my blog. Though I try to talk about writing, and the process of writing, my life sneaks in there. And I’m in all my books. I’d be a fool if I denied that bits of me wind up in all my characters. And I do have a sorbet thing that I do every Friday. Folks from across the planet sign up for a “Sorbet” on my website and they get a small poem, or story fragment from my every Friday. The list is completely private, never shared, and never abused. The poems are pretty new, and so raw, but not too bad – and I get a bit more personal inside a poem. I’ve got just over 500 subscribers right now. It forces me to be a poet once a week. It’s good discipline.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes. Thank you for the opportunity to talk. I’ve enjoyed these answering these questions.

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