An email interview with the author by Kerry Riley
1. When you read over a newly written passage of your own with a self-critical eye, what qualities in the writing identify it as successful to you? No doubt the specifics will vary from case to case but are there general qualities that you strive to achieve in your writing?
Yes. Clarity of expression is key to me. I always try and write from a reader’s or listener’s perspective. The sentence has to give pleasure on that level—be clear in its meaning, graceful in its rhythms, compelling in its suggestiveness. And the story as a whole has to be entertaining, understood in the broad sense of keeping one interested or fascinated but not necessarily in the mindless or passive way of Hollywood romances or sitcoms. This attitude on my part is really a long work in progress. I tried for years and years to be a stylist, to show off as a writer, only to realize this was a selfish and uninteresting pursuit. I only really started writing work I felt was worthwhile when I gave up on this and just thought: I’m not going to bother thinking about style one bit; I’m just going to try and write clearly and in a way I think will bring readers into the text rather than reminding them of the presence of the writer and his expertise and ability. This is when storytelling became central to what I did. To not have any style at all would be the ideal. I always say that I found my style when I stopped looking for it. Needless to say, I rework my stuff endlessly, sometimes ending up with two different versions of the same story because I can’t decide which one I prefer. It would be interesting to publish a book like that, filled with duplicate stories that branch off in different ways . . . Maybe for the next one.
2. Have you had any significant mentors or writers who have influenced your work? What writers do you admire?
I haven’t had any mentors. I’m too isolationist, thin-skinned, and stubborn. But the writers I admire are legion: Mavis Gallant, Alvaro Mutis, Kenzaburo Oe, Mikhail Bulgakov, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, Paul Bowles, Peter Nadas, Bohumil Hrabal, and others.
3. The stories in Siege 13 seem to be carefully ordered. I think this is part of what imparts the sense of a novel-like narrative arc to the collection as a whole. Could you comment on this? Did you have a specific strategy?
Yes I did. I’m glad you noticed this. It took me a long time to get the sequencing right. There’s an earlier draft of this book called “Siege Sixteen,” but I ended up taking out those extra three stories because they destabilized the pattern or weakened it. Of course, certain characters and families reappear throughout the collection in a way that expands upon their stories, but the main movement is thematic, where the stories are in dialogue on certain themes or ideas, such as “friendship” in the first two stories, then “loyalty” in the next two, and so on. I also wanted a movement from the siege as horrific to the siege as gradually becoming a contact point, even a positive one, between characters and their situations, as demonstrated in the “Assassins” story and also the “Doomsday Machine” story.
4. Could you comment briefly on the ways in which you have explored identity in the stories of Siege 13?
Like reality, identity is a fiction, the result of a certain social order and communally sanctioned expectations. What many characters come to realize is that when society or community disintegrates their sense of self disintegrates with it. Selfhood is always thought of as biologically innate, but I think this is a ruse, and self, more often than not, is what society makes it, as was amply demonstrated by the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews; or Communism’s treatment of the bourgeoisie, etc.
5. The stories in Siege 13 are infused with a sense of a mutable reality. Identity, as well, is malleable and often lost, erased, or reconstructed. Would it be over-analyzing the situation to make a connection between the disintegration of civil society (with its perceived certainties) as experienced in the siege, and the disintegration of personal identity?
No it would not be over-analyzing at all. I had exactly this in mind while writing the stories. See my answer to number  above.
6. The dream is a motif which occurs very often in this collection. Would you talk a little about its function or meaning in your writing?
It’s funny, but I’ve never thought much about dreams in terms of this collection. I think that there are dream states or dream fugues characters enter into, or maybe that some of the circumstances and landscapes they experience and travel through have a dreamlike quality, but in the end this is a reflection of the historical circumstances they find themselves in, which turn the world unreal. I think the real point is to demonstrate how fragile a thing “reality” is, often the result of a certain political or cultural stability rather than an actual connection to nature or truth or certainty, and when that stability disappears then our sense of reality disappears with it. And of course there’s the flip side, where totalitarian or authoritarian regimes try to obscure the dreamlike quality of our existence by nailing it down with hard and fast truths; this has an appeal to a lot of people who can’t function without both physical and conceptual certainties, “universal truths” that stay true no matter what moment in history it is, and that absolve them of the need to reflect on and confront change, and we see that even today especially on the right with the Tea Party and other groups such as this, and also on the left of course.
7. As I mentioned in the review of Siege 13, it seems to me that the stories all, in one way or another, explore the burden of survival – the challenge that reintegration into “normal” life poses for survivors of extreme situations. Comments?
Yes. As I said above in one of my questions, there are no heroes in this work, just as I don’t really think there are heroes in real life. I’ve certainly never met a “good guy” in the Hollywood sense of the words. I think that most of us do some good things, and then some bad things, all as a part of trying to enable our individual existences. Some do worse, some do not so bad, but none of us gets through unsullied, and in extreme circumstances we’re likely to do extreme things, and then somehow try to justify it or explain it away. Reintegrating with normal life, once the extreme situation passes, depends on how successfully the explanatory narrative has been constructed, which is also what I mean, above, by storytelling being a means of survival both psychically and physically. The characters who can best hide or alter the moral sense of their survival through an explanatory framework that others can buy into are the ones who come out the best, though “best” in this sense doesn’t mean anything more than being skillful.
8. My own curiosity demands that I ask you if, in the story, “Days of Orphans and Strangers,” you are making deliberate reference to the “third man” phenomenon in Jeno’s “second presence?”
I’m sorry, I don’t know what the third man phenomenon is. Let me look it up. Wow, that’s interesting. The road to Emmaus is, I guess, the classic example of this. No, I wasn’t thinking of it, but it sure works. I guess this is a great example of a kind of zeitgeist or unacknowledged cultural patterns worming their way into my work.
9. What advice or guidance would you offer to a grade 11/12 high school student approaching Siege 13 for the first time, in search of understanding?
I would tell them to just enjoy the stories, to put themselves in the characters’ situations and imagine what it would have been like to be there, in the midst of a war, or its aftermath. Beyond that, if they were truly interested, I would tell them to read about the Second World War in Eastern Europe, to acquaint themselves with the historical background that informs the stories. Try and read historians in translation, because Allied historians often miss the nuances. And try very hard to ignore historical movies by Steven Spielberg and the like, who wouldn’t know history if it slapped them in the face.
b) Could you suggest a few ideas, in regards to Siege 13, which might prove
helpful to a senior English student in search of an essay topic?
a) Who writes history? Who makes history? Are there really good guys and bad guys?
b) In what way do these stories reflect historical crises?
c) What is the role of information in politics?
d) In what way is storytelling a survival technique?
10. My family is 4th generation Canadian Anglo/Irish. We’ve lost our stories of immigration. Our defining stories tend to be about pioneering in south/central Ontario and even those are at least two generations removed and getting a bit anemic. When I hear the quite astounding stories of friends and acquaintances who are much more recent immigrants, I’m often forced to conclude that I’ve led a rather small life. It seems that these stories may provide an important new source of energy for our collective narrative. Any thoughts?
Someone recently came to a reading and told me he felt “ashamed” for having lived all his life with some of the people from my stories (Eastern European immigrants) and never having had any idea of what they went through, much less inquiring into it in any basic way. I think it is important to understand just how different these cultures are from our own (this is very difficult to do), and how differently those people experienced the world and the same moment in history as we did. Is this going to help our “collective narrative?” I think it will, or at least I hope so. History is not one story but an infinitude of them, in a way that can’t be captured by the way we write history because it’s always a single overarching narrative that doesn’t do justice to the sheer variation of experience, so we’re really hampered in this pursuit even before we start off on it.
Further Resources: http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/