by Mona Awad
Montreal author and Maisonneuve editor Matthew Fox's first book, Cities of Weather is as contemporary and as Canadian as it gets¨think Alice Munro's Ontario landscapes spliced with Leonard Cohen's Montreal debaucheries. And all of it heightened by Shakesperean shiftings of season and weather. These short stories teem with lunatics, lovers, and storms, not to mention punks, sex, and cottage country lakes.
Fox is a graduate of the creative writing programs at Concordia University and The New School. His work has appeared in The Toronto Star, Bomb Magazine, Maisonneuve, and the acclaimed anthology Fresh Men, edited by Edmund White.
Mona Awad had the pleasure of interviewing Fox by e-mail.
Mona Awad: I love that the stories in Cities of Weather are anchored in quintessentially Canadian landscapes. They feel not just brought to life but mythically charged, real presences to be reckoned with. What inspired you to depict these landscape so palpably?
Matthew Fox: I'm drawn to writing about setting because I hate when fictional characters are just mental projects¨I want to see them in the world, and so I write about the worlds I know. There is a lot made about landscape in Canadian literature, and it's no wonder, considering how much of it we have. But I'm a city boy. In this book, I really wanted to take that traditional obsession with landscape and show what it could do. I wanted to take the usual approach to untamed nature and apply it to a city, to someone's apartment or office or street. It's a perfectly natural type of subversion, I think, because those urban places are the unpredictable landscapes for my generation, not the "pine and lake" wilderness¨that's where the cottage is now, that's for relaxing.
MA: In "Prove that You're Infected", the protagonist says that "there is an unsettledness to Montreal that I can no longer stand. The city's foundations are old and unstable. I feel the instability everywhere¨in cafTs, in streets, at political rallies. People unveil their fears in public, acknowledge them . . . Montreal does not pretend that there is balance¨and relishes the void. That is why I'm here. Toronto pretends. Toronto is safe." What do you make of this assessment? And, since most of Cities of Weather takes place in either Ontario, Quebec, or along the journeys between them, did you find the inherent tension between these two provinces useful in drawing out inherent tensions between your characters?
MF: Oh yes¨but not the obvious tension of language and politics. I didn't want to rewrite Two Solitudes. I've spent a lot of time bouncing back and forth between Toronto and Montreal, and the tensions between them are different now than they were in MacLennan's day¨most of all, I would no longer characterise them as "solitudes". Toronto offers money and structure and a fast pace, all of which have an incredibly different effect on a person than what Montreal gives¨beauty, alienation, and slowness. One of the questions I see dogging my Montreal peers is: "So when are you moving to Toronto?" That's a little depressing, but the answer certainly says a good deal about someone's character. As a Montreal anglo, it seemed like a natural concern to bring into my fiction.
MA: In "Alphabet City" your protagonist, a young Canadian writer wannabe, states, "I followed through on a Canadian artist rite of passage¨escape to somewhere else, to look back with an Osbornian eye at the place I left behind. Cohen did it. Mitchell, Richler, Young, Davies. And now me." Is your protagonist speaking for you and, if so, how has this rite of passage facilitated the creation of Cities of Weather?
MF: I did leave Canada for a time to study at the New School in New York City, but I don't believe that this rite is necessary to becoming a Canadian writer. In "Alphabet City", the narrator would say anything to justify his actions, and say it as pretentiously as possible. Whatever I did when I was at that character's stage of life would have been important simply because I was twenty-three and cocky as hell and had loads of ideas screaming to get out of my brain and onto the page. Had I been living in my parents' basement, I probably would have written a different book, but that's not to say it would have been better or worse than this one.
MA: It's thanks to you that I discovered we have a Go Home Lake here in Ontario. But I'm quite certain Fiona¨the smallish community that appears in several of the stories¨is a fictional town. However, I must know: is it a prototype of a specific Ontario town?
MF: Fiona is a pastiche of all the places I've frequented in Southern Ontario. I wanted a place that captured the feeling of small communities racing relentlessly forward, wanting to do just that, but unable to shake the confines of tradition and geography. There's the union and labour aspect that I pulled from growing up in Windsor, the landlocked feeling of Guelph where much of my family lives, the urban pretensions of London, and the seasonal rigmarole of all the places along the Huron shore that I went to as a kid.
MA: Shakespeare wrote that "the lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact." Often in Cities of Weather, the characters seem to be on the brink of crisis, confession, disaster, epiphany¨be it creative, sexual or psychological. What is it about this place in the mind that compels you as a writer?
MF: That narrative place that you just defined is the purview of short stories, I think. They always seem to end just as the plot finds its footing¨but really, as you and Shakespeare say, it's all just compact. The information is there and, unlike in a novel, a story invites the readers to let their own imaginations flood in the unwritten stuff. Alice Munro has said that she's rarely read a novel that couldn't fit into a short story, and I generally agree with that. If I haven't done my job well, the readers are left frustrated. But if it's done right, they can imagine with confidence.
MA: Though the characters and plots in these stories are tragically real, the landscape and the weather function with the force of myth. The weather, particularly, operates quite classically in these stories as pathetic fallacy, seemingly conspiring with or against the characters. Many of the stories seem to take place in those charged, silent moments before and after a storm. What drew you toward the use of weather as a central metaphor for this book?
MF: Weather fascinates me. I have a wonderfully unhealthy obsession with it¨I think anyone that lives in a climate of extremes can relate to this because the weather's so utterly unavoidable. It's like death and taxes: there's just no getting around it. When characters react to it, you're instantly engaged with them because you know how crazy the weather can be¨how unpredictable, how perfect, how uncooperative.
MA: In the second to last story, "Dead Roommates", a storm arrives, killing two characters on a drive between Ontario and Quebec. In the last story, "Ordinary Time", I noticed there was no mention of weather. But your protagonist, a poet, seems to hold the same position of power that the weather has occupied in all the stories leading up to this one. Was this intentional, to transfer the omnipotence the weather has assumed throughout the book to the poet?
MF: Yes. The omniscience of the weather is not unlike how I'd like my omniscient narrators to be: indifferent, distant, balancing. To be fair, though, the idea of matching someone with the meteorological theme occurred to me rather late in the writing process. It was one of those strange moments that I think all writers have¨you realise that you've left yourself a gift in the early drafts that makes itself known only once you've over-intellectualised things and gone back to square one. Sometimes the most basic aspects of subtext just need time to break the surface. They're very much like drowned corpses in that way.
MA: The interview gods will be unhappy if I don't ask you who your influences are as a writer. Please help me appease them.
MF: When I fell in love with Lorrie Moore, I fell in love with short stories. She's definitely near the top of the list, sharing space with Alice Munro, Leonard Cohen, Mavis Gallant, Maupassant, Coetzee and Chekhov.
MA: In your wonderful and odd Maisonneuve interview with Margaret Atwood, she offered you some specific advice on how to avoid a cold while on the road, giving readings and the like. Has it proved helpful?
MF: I actually went to purchase the items that Atwood recommended and walked out of the drugstore with just a pack of Fisherman's Friends. It was the only thing on her list that I could afford. She was right about those, though. They taste like a rancid meadow, but they work like a charm. My favourite thing about having them at events is that I can go up to the more accomplished readers and say, "Would you like a Friend?" ˛