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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Ryan Knighton is the author of Cockeyed: A memoir. His comic essays and journalism have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Salon.com, The Globe and Mail, The Daily Telegraph Magazine and many others. Ryan is also the subject of the documentary film As Slow As Possible, to be released in 2007. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write a memoir about your blindness?
Ryan Knighton: Well, it was sort of by accident, really. Originally I wanted to write a book of personal essays about anything and everything that blindness has shown me. Not a book about, you know, how awful the blinkered life is, or how well I can weep lyrically into my sleeve about my circumstances (I'll save those dippy books for other people to write), but I wanted a book that would use blindness as a perspective for talking about other, more interesting things, such as how language changes, and family, and masculinity. Any number of things really. Then, when I strung a few of these personal essays together, I realized I suddenly had recurring characters in my stories, people I've known, and a series of situations I went through, and that they needed connective tissue. That's how the memoir crept to the foreground, colonized my imagination, and became more interesting to write about than just the ideas. You can still spy a few vestigial tails from the original essays - little oases here and there of oddball musings, nothing more than armchair philosophy in my estimation -- but I still like those moments. They add another texture to the book, some other element of reprieve from all the comedy and tragedy, not that those are so easily distinguished from one another, I think.
MT: Was it painful to relive the memories of your loss of sight?
RK: No. writing this book a few years ago would have hurt, perhaps, because I was still busy trying to outrun my blindness and act like a sighted person, and all that stupidity. But, in fact, I had a helluva good time writing the book. I laughed a lot and writing, even the tragic kind, is always an easier gig than digging ditches or pumping petrol. Think about it this way, maybe: to my mind, comedy and tragedy are often born in the same place, at the same time. Slapstick is painful and funny all at once, and always has been. Couldn't have felt good to be Curly when Larry or Moe poked him in the eye. In the case of my story, whatever stung at first, and hurt for a long time and caused me so much discomfort and embarrassment, well, all that feeling was part of the immediacy of what was going on. In looking back, however, tragedy and pain diminish, and the absurdity emerges from a distance. The dark gives away to the light, the sting morphs into a tickle. What's more, you need both darkness and light when composing any picture. So, no, writing about what happened to me didn't hurt at all. Living it did, indeed, but not reliving it.
MT: How long did it take you to write Cockeyed?
RK: The first draft took eight months and was ridiculously long. I wrote every morning for maybe four or five hours, and always at the same spot at the kitchen table. I even developed a superstition. Because the book was coming so easily at first, I was skittish that if I moved spots, then the book wouldn't know where to find me anymore. The inertia was strong, too. I'd write every day, maybe a thousand loose words, and I always knew what I was going to write tomorrow. Never had a better job. And I have to confess, I loved being edited. Everybody should be lucky enough to have an editor that they trust. The best analogy I can give is a good editing feels like you've been readying yourself to show the world your school photo from 1984 - Flock of Seagulls hair and all -- only to have an editor come along and offer to doctor the photo, all of it. For the better, of course. An editor is always right, and makes a writer look the way we intended but hadn't the style to pull off.
MT: Are you angry/bitter about your blindness?
RK: Hoo boy. Haven't got time. Bitterness and embarrassment are the most common side-effects of blindness, and they're far more crippling. Sure, I felt both at some points - hell, I'm not superhuman, nor a saint - but it's so bloody boring, too, feeling all balled up inside and white-knuckling against the fates every waking moment. Rather, today, I consider myself a fortunate alien. That is, as a writer I've got an embarrassment of riches for material, and not just about blindness. Simply put, I am the naive observer, the newborn, always puzzled by the fuss about whatever is going on in this very, very visual culture. It's a natural perspective for satire. And to be a provocateur. I mean, let's be honest: I walk around with a white stick. I like to poke people with it and see what they do. Writing is no different, if I'm doing my job.
MT: How do you write? With a brail machine of some kind or directly onto a computer? Straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
RK: I use a voice synthesizer in my computer and touch-type. As I type it says nothing, but when I move the cursor back to any line, the machine reads me that line. So, I type a lot, then go back and listen, and fix accordingly. I can hear typos and whatnot, as well. The more interesting thing about the machine, though, is how much it has shaped my prose style. That is, you can imagine what it's like suffering a bland computer voice in your ear all day. Like having an ice pick slowly press into your skull. Yeesh. To fight it, then, I write in a very casual voice, and use as much slang and colourful language that a good sentence will allow me to comfortably shove down its throat. What I'm doing when I'm writing is not only spinning a yarn, but trying to make my computer sound like a human being, or at least an approximation of one who's company I don't mind sharing. A lot of readers have emailed me and said how much they liked the book just for the sentence style. That's been a really swell thing to hear. I owe it to a poorly intoned machine.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
RK: Mostly I loaf on my couch and play my guitar badly. I'm a big rockabilly nut -- all that sort of roots country and blues stuff -- which I listen to while I'm writing or noodling on email. I also hang around my gym and push heavy objects around most afternoons. Good anger management if I've bumped into a few too many poles recently. Otherwise, well, I like to cook and I like making dinner for my gal since she's a busy corporate exec and needs to keep her strength up.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
RK: It might sound selfish or silly, but I imagined myself as the reader. I figure I can't be so different from everybody else, so if I'm engaged in the story I'm telling, or prompted to laugh aloud or blush at certain moments in the writing, well, I figure I can't be the only one in the world who will, and what other measure do I have for how well a chapter is going? So I think of my body and its gut reaction as my first reader.
MT: What are you working on now?
RK: I'm just starting to chip at a book about becoming a new father. This answer is shortish because I don't like to write about what I'm writing about. One will poach the pleasure from the other. Suffice to say I've got an arsenal of oddball stories and editorial takes on the wiggy modern world of parenting, and the private world of not being able to see my daughter, or what I'm doing. Or what we're all doing.
MT: Who is your favourite writer?
RK: Changes all the time. Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London was a very important book for me. I mean, here's a guy who wrote forty pages about being a dishwasher and showed us all how shapely writing can make anything a compelling read. Even the kitchen sink has a good story in it. The list grows from there: the American blind punk satirist Jim Knipfel is a good chum and one of my favourite prose workers. Will Self comes to mind, too. I adore the 1950's Canadian novelist Ethel Wilson, but I have to say I don't read much fiction these days, mostly memoir and other non-fiction. Dunno why. My teeth just sink into those genres better, I guess.
RK: What is/are your favourite book(s)? How accessible are (especially your favourite) Braille books? How do you find audio books?
MT: I don't read Braille. Never will, I suspect. The computer technology and MP3 files of books on the web are just so easily accessed and used that Braille's essential role as a blind technology has changed. I like audiobooks fine, but somebody has to stop the actors from performing the damned things as one man or one woman shows. They steal the pleasure of making up voices in our own heads for characters and, let's be honest, a novel is not a dramatic monologue and simply doesn't work that way, nor was it intended to work that way. As well, while I'm grousing, would somebody please smack the person who decided books are too long, the same person who seems to be of the opinion that audiobook readers share the attention span of goldfish? Abridged books are a venial sin, if you're into that sort of judgment. I tell you, when I'm Emperor, somebody is going to have something to answer for.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
RK: Writing is a verb first, a noun second. If you're interested in being a writer, don't' bother. Keep posing at bohemian bars in black and having long discussions with your chums about the virtues of deconstruction. Most of that will chew up the time needed to actually write a book. In my experience, writing is something you do, and that's the whole story. No mystery. A writer is somebody who writes. A lot. That last phrase is the difference. But if a young writer is interested in "being a writer" more than writing itself, well, that's a bad case of bassakwardness.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
RK: Who is Richard and Judy!?
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