The Conscious Interview of Eric McCormack

Eric McCormack the first.

Eric McCormack is known for his blend of the absurd and the existential, of crime and the gothic. His 1997 novel, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Inspecting the Vaults (1987) was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and The Paradise Motel (1989) won the Scottish Council Book Prize. Eric has been lauded by The New York Times Book Review as “a master stylist.” His first novel in more than a decade, Cloud, is a dark story about the nature of love.

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way: why the twelve-year wait for a new novel?

During the twelve year gap, there were a number of difficult changes for me. I moved away from Waterloo, where I’d lived for thirty years, to Kingston. A year or so afterwards, I retired from academia and, thus, from the very supportive environment writers find there. Other, personal matters (I know you’d love to hear all about them!) cropped up. So, plugging away at the novel-in-progress (Cloud) became an enjoyable distraction-in-progress, and I wasn’t all that keen on getting it finished.

How did Cloud come about, story-wise?

Cloud began with an image from a dream—which, in turn, spawned a narrative.

The cloud of Cloud refers to an obsidian cloud that purportedly descended upon a Scottish township, leading to rumors of exploding eyeballs in children (among other unsubstantiated events). What does the cloud represent, if anything?

Who knows what, if anything, the cloud represents? I’m not saying that just to be obtuse. But the nice thing about these images that emerge out of the unconscious, fully-formed, is that they don’t respond much to logic. No matter how hard you chip away at them, they never seem to reveal much except other ways of saying the same thing.

Cloud revisits many of what I’ll call your “McCormackian” tropes: unexplained phenomena, orphans, morally dubious science, South Pacific locales, tragic deaths, mistaken identities. Is there a secret (hopefully scandalous) reason behind this? Enquiring minds want to know!

Any reader, after the first few pages of a novel, can’t help thinking: What kind of person would write such a book as this? The question is soon answered, for even the various devices and disguises used in the book don’t really conceal the writer’s obsessions. Hence, a person with just such obsessions is the person who’ll write just such a book!

Similarly, many events of your past works weave their ways through your various narratives. The one-legged miners of Inspecting the Vaults, the unnerving speech virus of The Mysterium; do you see your novels and stories as pieces of one larger story?

This goes back to the earlier questions. Some images are so perplexing and enticing, I enjoy going back to them, turning them around, looking at them from different perspectives to see what emerges this time.

You tend to poke fun at your past works, e. shelves of books with titles such as Last Blast of the Cornet and A Dutch Wife (instead of First Blast of the Trumpet and The Dutch Wife). Why the self-inflicted wounding of your output?

It’s amusing (sort of) that these narrators should be much more perceptive than the writer who supposedly ‘creates’ them.

Your work has been described as “Canadian gothic.” What does the term mean to you? How do you feel about the term? Is it accurate?

My publisher and I have gone through this problem with each of my books, trying to figure out how to categorize them. The places I’ve lived in and been affected by—the Dickensian slums of old Glasgow, the in-bred mining villages of the Scottish Uplands, the superficially respectable towns of Southern Ontario, the exotic Coral Sea area of Australia, the southern parts of Mexico—all do have “Gothic” possibilities. On the other hand, I was never a big fan of traditional Gothic novels. Probably these labels are always too restrictive.

What does Eric McCormack read?

I very much enjoy reading the old stuff, even books I’d trouble with when I was too young to appreciate them, for example, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (they’ve changed that iconic title in new translations—now it’s In Search of Lost Time!), or Thackeray’s Pendennis, or James’ Ambassadors. I also re-read Conrad and Hardy. I dabble in philosophy (still looking for truth in all the wrong places), from A.J. Ayer to Hilary Putnam, and philo-socio-anthro-psycho guys like Clifford Geertz, James Hillman, etc. I try to keep up with contemporary writing: lately I especially liked Javier Marias’ novels—very creepy stuff.

Eric McCormack the second.

If Canadian author Eric McCormack ever met Canadian actor Eric McCormack, would the world cease to exist? Or would the union result in an überEric?

Over the years, I’ve received emails and inquiries meant for the actor, Eric McCormack. I’ve seen clips of Will & Grace, but prefer movies to regular tv. When he was an actor at Stratford during the ‘80’s, I was teaching at Waterloo. One or two people actually thought I was that Eric—or he was me. He’s obviously a fine actor!

Would you have any recommendations for holiday gift-givers starving for ideas?

Give someone a good bottle of scotch and a gift-certificate to a local independent book-seller.

Coming soon: The Subconscious Interview!