Uncovering life’s silences and hidden assumptions

CNFC member Sue Harper interviews Michael V. Smith – poet, novelist, writing prof, and recent author of his first memoir, My Body Is Yours:

Michael V. Smith

Books help us contain a kind of emotion that might be unpleasant, so we might get a better perspective on it and have a more sophisticated reaction to it in our own lives.

Following two novels, Cumberland and Progress (Cormorant Books) and two books of poetry What You Can’t Have (Signature Editions) and Body of Text (Book Thug), Michael V. Smith has written his first memoir, My Body Is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press). Currently, Smith is a professor of creative writing in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan.

I was curious about Smith’s transition from fiction to nonfiction and about how he handled topics like gender non-conformity and sexual addiction, during the writing process and after the book was published.

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What made you decide to write a memoir at this point in your life and career?

Michael V. Smith: I had wanted to write a nonfiction book for a long time. Ideas percolate. I had been slowly accumulating nonfiction publications exploring ideas of gender and my relationship to masculinity. And it came about by happenstance. I had an essay in a collection from Arsenal Pulp Press, Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme that Zena Sharman and Ivan E. Coyote edited and that essay was called “A Failed Man.” I really liked what it said. It felt fresh and true to me. After the launch in Vancouver, the publisher, Brian Lam, came up to me and said he knew I had a publisher for fiction and a publisher for poetry, but if I was ever interested in publishing nonfiction he’d be interested in seeing the book. That was all the push I needed. Because I had been thinking about it already. I had a bunch of essays and I had been thinking about a book.

I really wanted to have a larger conversation about masculinity, gender expression, addiction and being a queer man in the world having a hard time reconciling being a man in that world. And my dad had died about a year and a half before that. And I had so many great insights through the slow process of him dying, that I knew I also wanted to have a conversation about that relationship and how those things were related.

Talking about the transition from fiction to nonfiction, I recognized many of your fictional characters in your memoir.

MVS: I stole a lot from my dad’s life to write the character in my first novel. I stole his name, and the street that he lived on, the city where he lived. I stole his job. I stole the vehicle that he drove. I did that very consciously because I was interested in the kind of man my father was and the kind of life that he lived because I didn’t understand him. I wanted to understand him better, so I created an imagined version of my dad. I added a “what if” to my dad’s life – what if a man like my father was gay, what would that look like? I think the man in my book is very similar to my father but isn’t my father – it’s not his biography.

I do that often. I borrow details from real life experiences, from my life and give it the “what if” to make those people fleshy and warm so I have an intimate relation with them. Their personalities take over – they become self determining. But it helps me begin by having a tenor to them that is [as] intimate as possible.

But when you move into memoir you have to meet those characters head on in real life – no disguises, no “what ifs.”

MVS: Fewer “what ifs.” I think there are still some “what ifs” because you are imagining those people even if you know them really well. I was still making assumptions about what my dad might have been feeling so there’s still some sense of inventing. But it was much easier for me to write this book as a piece of dramatic action. The moments were all there. I got to be selective about which ones I included and that was a very fast experience for me writing.

Those choices were easier to make because I already had all the knowledge, the lived experience. With fiction, writing the first draft has always been a very slow process – figuring out the story, watching the characters unfold and reveal themselves, figuring out what their conflict is and what’s driving them. That stuff happens at its own pace.

For me, the great gift in memoir was that all of the details and the mechanics of the story were readily available, so my job was to frame them as accurately as I could and to focus on crafting those moments to build an interesting narrative that had the kind of truth that I was aiming at. So I could pay a lot more attention to the conversation I was wanting to have, whereas when I’m writing fiction, I’m usually paying attention to and asking questions of who the characters are and what they want. I kind of already know that in nonfiction. The trick is to uncover more of those hidden assumptions or silences in one’s life and that’s what I was trying to do [by ]writing memoir.

Your book contains many sexually explicit scenes that might challenge your readers. I’m quoting from your book: “When people say it must have taken courage to write your book, your response is Courage doesn’t call us to action, conviction does.” What was the conviction that called you to write this book?

MVS: There are layers of conviction in there. I knew I had a right to tell my story. I knew the story hadn’t been told very often. I knew my experience being a femme man in the world was not often given much voice, or a platform, wasn’t well understood. I had a great deal of conviction that queer stories are also under represented and that they tend to be whitewashed. People tend to put on button-down collars and ties in order to talk about their queer lives and I wanted to really discuss the nitty-gritty of what that life looked like. And I really wanted to discuss the way my family and the culture became a kind of internal enemy – how I internalized those negative stories and turned them against myself. I think that is a very familiar pattern amongst queer people, queer youth and I felt like I had found a fair amount of emancipation from or insight into that experience, and I felt like that was information that was vital to share. There was an urgency for me in articulating that experience.

As you’re saying that I’m thinking of this book being in the mainstream, and not a “gay” book.

MVS: I’ve always tried to do that. I’ve always tried to write for mainstream audiences. There’s this really interesting thing where queer people live in a predominantly straight world and we imagine ourselves into that world all the time. When I was growing up there weren’t any queer characters on TV, there weren’t any queer love stories. So you see a straight love story, and you imagine that you are one character or the other. You make the imaginative leap to see yourself as the other person or to have empathy with people who don’t have the same sexual orientation. But you make the imaginative leap to understand the “other.” That doesn’t happen in reverse, or it hasn’t. I think it’s happening more now. When I was growing up, it didn’t happen in reverse. If your average person saw two gay guys or two lesbians kissing on the street you felt immediately uncomfortable. You didn’t go “Oh, isn’t that sweet wouldn’t I like a love like that.” Whereas when you see straight people kissing on the street, you think, “Oh, isn’t that sweet wouldn’t I like a love like that.”

That’s one of my convictions. You have to see these stories. We have to expose the small intimacies of our queer lives if we’re going to invite the “other” into the conversation so we see how little we are “other” so we see how much we have in common, how much our differences are shared differences.

When you are reading, when you are the public face of this book, are you finding that your audiences are diverse?

MVS: Yes. Incredibly so. Everything has been surprising. When I wrote this book because it was so sexually graphic, and it was so vulnerable in the queer content, I assumed the opposite of what I assumed for my novels. When I was writing my novels I assumed I was writing for everybody. I still feel my diction and narrative approach is very accessible. It’s an accessible story. But I thought, “Ok, my reading audience is really going to be gay men of a certain age and maybe a few queer women.” And I have found more than any other book, this one has struck a chord with people. There are all kinds of women who have written me and said how much they appreciated it because they felt trapped in their own gender. I didn’t anticipate that. Straight men wrote to me and said the same thing, that they felt really trapped in masculinity. One wrote me and said, “well even though I’m not gay, I have had all of these experiences as a man in the world. I have all the same frustrations. I really recognize your struggle even though I have a different orientation. But my struggle was the same.” Which was so thrilling. That’s one of those emails when the book was worth it. To get that from a straight guy. And I also got all kinds of people from every manner of experience saying that they really related to the last third of the book of my father dying, and even though I was writing about addiction and about my dad and coming to terms with my masculinity all at the same time, there’s still something about the loss of a parent that I captured well enough that people felt that echo, that reverberation.

Where is the line in memoir between protecting and exposing? In an interview with Trevor Corkum you said you asked your family not to read your memoir. So there is a point at which exposing can be difficult.

MVS: I gave myself permission, when I wrote this book to be as vulnerable as I wanted to be, to expose all the things I wanted to expose, to speak to all the silences I have buried in my life, some of them that I have done away with, some silences I have given voice to and others silences I hadn’t yet given voice to. There was only one detail I didn’t include in the book. It was a story about a family member that I heard through another family member. That information would have been damaging psychologically to the subject of that story. So I struck that from the manuscript. And I’m sure I must have made other similar decisions on a smaller scale, but I can’t think of any others.

I checked in with some people. I have a scene with fisting with my first boyfriend and I checked in with her – my first boyfriend is now a her – to see if it was ok to use her real name. And I have an ex-boyfriend who appears, Patrick, and I asked him if it was ok to use his real name. I let them both know the context.

I was mindful of it – and I also changed the names of other past lovers that were casual lovers – I didn’t use their last names so they’d be more anonymous. The story was about their agency not about their identity.

Your memoir starts with a definition of “abreaction.”

MVS: Wayne Koestenbaum in his book Humiliation gave me this word. It means by discussing an unpleasantry you relive the unpleasantry and you overcome it. Koestenbaum talks about putting yourself through a memory of a humiliation, and making the humiliation less by remembering it. And that has been really helpful in my life. I thought that the book might not do that just for me. I wanted to have a larger cultural conversation so that our discomforts with sexuality, with intimacy, with gender non-conformity, we might become more comfortable with those discomforts. In sharing the conversation with readers, they too might experience a kind of abreaction.

I think books do that. Books help us contain a kind of emotion that might be unpleasant, so we might get a better perspective on it and have a more sophisticated reaction to it in our own lives. That sounds a bit high falutin’ but I’m very interested in what books have taught me about how it is to be human. I feel like books raised me to a great extent. I became a more sophisticated creature because of the things I read, and I like that tool, the tool of literature as an educational tool in what it means to be human, a humanizing tool.

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At the public reading in Kelowna shortly after this interview, Smith chose a scene that demonstrated the potential danger of his sex addiction without going into graphic detail. It was a sensitive and smart choice. It challenged the audience at the same time opening the conversation Michael hoped his memoir would trigger. He was candid and forthright addressing any awkwardness felt by the audience.

His sister has not read his book, partly because she doesn’t want to know the intimate details of his life, but mostly because she cannot face reliving the death of their father.

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