Gerard Collins is a writer and teacher whose fiction has appeared in Storyteller, Zeugma, TickleAce and Hard Ol’ Spot. He has also won several prizes for fiction, including the Percy Janes First Novel Award, and has been shortlisted for The Cuffer Prize.
He was born in Placentia, Newfoundland and has lived most of his adult life in St. John’s. He has also resided in Nova Scotia, Ontario, and British Columbia, as well as various small towns in his home province. For many of those years, he was, alternately, a guy with a shovel, an agricultural inspector, a printer, newspaper reporter, high school English teacher, substitute teacher, tutor, vagabond, musician, philosopher, songwriter, TV background actor, and grad student. Few people know that, for one brief, shining moment in the 1990s, he was a Spinal Tap drummer.
Gerard has a Ph.D. in American literature (MUN), with a specialization in ghost fictions, and an M.A. from Acadia University, with a thesis on the Gothic works of Edgar Allan Poe. For over a decade, he has been teaching English Language and Literature at Memorial University of Newfoundland while writing short stories and novels. Moonlight Sketches is his first book.
Your Ph.D. is in American Literature with a specialization in ghost fiction. How has your academic interest shaped your creative writing? How has it benefitted or hindered the creative process?
I’ve often wondered the same thing. Most times, I feel as if academia gets in the way of creativity, but that’s probably just my perpetual resentment of anything not directly related to my fiction writing. My thesis was on the subject of ghosts in literature, a topic that grew from my interest in the unknown—not just spirits, but immortality, life, afterlife, religion, God—you know, the really big issues that concern most people. And considering we know we’re all going to die, what do we do in the meantime? How do we react to the unknowable? That’s where fiction comes in—the fiction writer can go where the academic writer usually cannot, into the realm of imagining what comes next, but also into the area of human emotion. Also, humour is important in my writing, and there isn’t much room for it in academic writing. But there is crossover in that, if I’m studying an Atwood novel like The Robber Bride or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I get to study how they handle difficult subjects and have that influence me in some way when I later approach my own fiction writing.
Except for maybe a cabin in the woods, there’s no better environment for a writer than in a university, where writing, and the pursuit of truth through perfect expression are valued. I teach stories and poems that interest me, and I write about subjects that matter to me—in that way, I’ve been blessed. Doing it that way allows me to have constant stimulation and a connection—although it seems tentative at times—to my creative self. The worst part is that the constant grading, meetings, and preparation for lectures leaves very little time—or especially mental energy—for fiction writing. Creative expression isn’t difficult, but writing a new short story seems so frivolous when you convince yourself you could grade a stack of essays in the time it would take to create something new.
You have your first draft completed. What comes next in the editing process?
I know I should let the manuscript sit for a while, but I never do. As soon as the last word is written, I start reading from the beginning, sometimes before I’ve even gotten out of my chair. I can’t help it—despite having visualized the ending over and over the way you visualize a visit from a good friend who lives far away, I need to immediately start the process of improving it. I’ll read it repeatedly whether a short story or a novel manuscript. First, I’ll tighten the language and add or delete bits of prose as needed—and I’ll do all that on the computer screen. Then, when I’ve read through once, I’ll print it off and re-read it slowly and thoroughly, doing pretty much the same thing. Rinse. Repeat. I’ll read it through for each character arc, for overall plot, for pacing and always for language issues. Only when I’m completely satisfied—usually after several more readings and revisions—do I give it to my first reader to have a go at it and when she’s done, I’ll go through the same process again, at least a couple of times. The next novel, which is almost finished, will probably have several readers before I conduct final revisions. All told, I probably revise the same manuscript a dozen times or more before sending it to a publisher. After that, I just start the next project.
Benny and Dave are central to Moonlight Sketches. Will we see them again in future collections?
Benny and Dave, the two disparate cousins with the complicated relationship, start out with similar disadvantages in life and somehow grow into completely different human beings. I started with “Tar-cat”—and I’ve gotten a lot of early response to the violence in that one—and found that these two had more stories in them. I once entertained the possibility of writing a novel about them, but I think Moonlight Sketches covers all the terrain I need to cover with those two. There are four stories out of the sixteen in the collection that involve either both of them or just one of them as they grow up and become adults in their different worlds. And I’ve been told that their stories combined read sort of like a novel. I think you’ll see them in a future novel or two as minor or background characters. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m done with Benny and Dave, as much as I’ve enjoyed them. Such contrasting characters are fun to write, especially with their different ideas of morality, and it’s rather hard to let them go.
The same characters come in and out of stories either as protagonists or minor characters. Will Darwin become to you what Manawaka is to Margaret Laurence?
I love Laurence’s Manawaka stories, so I can only hope my Darwin stories are nearly as well received. I’ve been writing about this small rural town for year. Finton Moon won the Percy Janes First Novel Award for an unpublished manuscript about ten years ago, and that was set in Darwin. I’m in the process of rewriting that one from scratch, along with putting the finishing touches on another novel manuscript, also set in Darwin. Moonlight Sketches tells the stories of characters who seemed to reside on the periphery of those novels, the people whose stories needed to be told but weren’t covered in those two earlier manuscripts. It’s like every time I finish writing a Darwin story, another character raises their hand and asks, “My turn yet?” I just let them speak, or I watch them to see what’s interesting about their lives.
But I don’t just write about Darwin. There are only three Darwin books in the works, and that’s likely all there will ever be. When you asked about my academic pursuits, here are the casualties: I’ve got about ten unpublished novel manuscripts stashed away that few editors have ever seen. I honed my storytelling and writing skills on them, and they tell stories set in Boston, Chilliwack, St. John’s, Toronto, and other places. But Darwin, to me, is where I live. It’s a conglomerate of all the small Newfoundland towns I’ve lived in or visited and if more stories from there need to be told, I’ll tell them. Whenever I start a new story with a new character, one of the first questions I’ll ask myself is “Where does this person live?” Sometimes, it’s got to be Darwin and then, despite my reluctance to go there again, it’s always nice coming home. Sometimes, though, as with some of my newer projects, the story requires a more urban, or cosmopolitan, setting.
What are some of your influences?
I find inspiration just about everywhere. Listening to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” made me envision the first scene of “Exit the Warrior.” Listening to music from the forties and fifties helped me tell the stories of Winnie and Francis Minnie, the oldest living residents in Darwin.
But in terms of literary heroes, I can go as far back as C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and Enid Blyton when I was a child. Those stories, especially The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe just ripped my imagination wide open—ever since I’ve discovered my own ability to tell stories, I’ve wanted to write something like Narnia, Middle Earth, Oz or Wonderland where characters fall into an alternate world. I haven’t done that yet, but one of my new projects aims in that direction. Nothing inspires me like reading great stories. As an undergraduate, it was Joyce’s Dubliners—that collection, the way Joyce builds a world within his short stories, shows how to get inside the head of a character and emphasizes the importance of minutiae, the possibility for tragedy, comedy and romance in a nuanced look or word, taught me a lot about writing—especially about how the “coming of age” isn’t restricted to adolescents. I’ve often said that the first page of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby can teach a person everything they need to know about how to open a story. Flannery O’Connor makes me a braver writer, as does Faulkner. Also, I have to say that after reading Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, I will never approach writing about Newfoundland in quite the same way ever again. I can’t say my approach will change intentionally, but there’s something about the gentle spirit, juxtaposed with the rural roughness, of that novel that just speaks to me. Oh, and a shout-out to Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Hardy, Stephen King, John Irving and Cormac McCarthy!
What projects can we expect from you in the future?
At the risk of sounding precocious, even at my age, I expect to be putting out quite a bit of work in the years to come—and the silly thing is that it will be all new work. I’d love to have time to go back and revise those ten forgotten manuscripts, but that’s not likely. The next item in the out tray will be Finton Moon. That’s the one story I’ve been trying to tell for over ten years, and I think I’ve got it exactly right this time. It’s a complete rewrite of the original story and it’s set in Darwin. But it’s very different from Moonlight Sketches in that there’s a large element of the supernatural, or magical realism—a coming of age story about a boy with a touch of strangeness to him. After that, I have a gothic novel called Two Sisters, set on Forest Road—it’s a gothic story about two siblings whose parents die and leave them a big, old, useless manor that seems to be haunted. One sister lives in Toronto, the other in downtown St. John’s, and they quarrel over what to do with this decrepit monstrosity. But it’s more about contemporary St. John’s than about the past—or about how the two worlds cohabitate. I’m also working on The Ghost of Emily Dickinson, a noirish tale that features a femme fatale, a widowed college teacher, a serial killer and a coffee shop, also in St. John’s. There’s lots more in the works besides those three, but that’s a story for another day.