© John Brisbane
Matt Lennox will share his debut novel The Carpenter in a Sunday, October 21 round table discussion called Novelists for a New Age.
IFOA: You were a Canadian Forces captain in Afghanistan before becoming a writer. What do soldiers and writers have in common?
Lennox: I don’t know if soldiers and writers have anything directly—any more so than, say, doctors and writers, or garbage collectors and writers—but I am often perplexed at the number of times people have been surprised over the fact that both the writing and the military have played dominant roles in my life, as if the two must necessarily be mutually exclusive, somehow. I suppose my experiences with the military have given me a glimpse into certain facets, shall we say, of the world that inspire the writer’s mind, since the writer’s mind must necessarily nourish itself on different and unique experiences. On the other hand, there have been a number of historical writer/military connections—Tobias Wolff and Hemingway, both of whom I admire, to name a few—so I’d say it’s not so anachronistic as one might think.
IFOA: Tell us about one book that changed your life.
Lennox: A book that changed my life was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. My mother read it to me, a chapter a night, when I was young, which I think engendered in me both a love of reading and of adventure—or misadventure, in many cases – which was most likely the genesis of the writer I am today. Huck Finn remains controversial, even now, due largely to the frequency of a certain word in the text. Although I would characterize the controversy as misguided, that’s a conversation for another day—I mention it only because at the time she read it to me, and this is 25 years ago, my mother explained what the word was, why it was hurtful, and why it was ultimately important to the context and the moral of the story. That was the beginning, for me, of critical thought and dialogue, which I’d say is the most important byproduct of literature.
IFOA: What are your favourite and least favourite words—today, at least?
Lennox: Ha, this is a funny question. I’ll try to answer it as a writer, and I’d like to disclaim to anybody reading this that my thoughts are purely subjective of course. As a writer, my favourite word, or words, are the ones that tell the story with the least amount of extraneous bullshit. If the prose or action or dialogue can be conveyed best, and most directly, with a one- or two-syllable word, my preference is always for that. A good example of this, for me, is the verb “say” or “said,” which is almost always what I’ll use to construct dialogue—said Mary, for instance—over any of the lofty synonyms an over-trying writer can get from the thesaurus. So my least favourite word or words, in this theme, would be interjected or quipped or rejoined, et cetera. I’ve said many things in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever quipped anything. At least I hope not.
IFOA: Your protagonist in The Carpenter, Leland King, is an ex-con and, as the title suggests, a carpenter. Who or what inspired you to create him?
Lennox: Leland King, ex-con and carpenter, is at once wholly his own—which I have to say, as the author—but also owes his creation to a number of real-life people. First, I chose to make him a carpenter because of my own love for the trade, and my own understanding—gained through my dad—of how essentially good it feels to put something together. In German they call it “fingerspitzengefuhl,” which translates more or less as “that finger-tip feeling.” In any case, I knew from the get-go that Lee was to have learned carpentry in prison, which was the start of his redemption.
The real-life people who informed his creation were chiefly Gary Gilmore, from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (as a small tribute, I gave the name Gilmore to one of the characters in my novel), and Roger Caron, Canada’s infamous “Go Boy.” In fact, when I saw Caron’s author photo on an old paperback copy of his book Bingo!, very early in my writing of The Carpenter, I had that fingerspitzengefuhl, and from then on, I knew exactly how Lee appeared in my mind.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: I can’t write unless I…
Lennox: I can’t write unless I have a small glass of bourbon to keep me honest while I try to put together my silly little stories. This has been making writing difficult lately, since I’m training for a boxing match at the end of October, and on my trainer’s orders I haven’t had a drop of liquor in the past few weeks. A writer’s dilemma.
IFOA: Bonus question, the International Festival of Authors in one word:
Lennox: Boketto (another word with no direct English analog, this one Japanese).
For more about Lennox and his appearance at IFOA, click here.