Last Wednesday Robert Wiersema came to talk to the Victoria Writers’ Society about writing in the real world and his new book Bedtime Stories. He will be touring the Island and the Gulf Islands for the next eight weeks. His wife will drive, to protect society. In the book, father and son bond over bedtime stories, since father is a big reader – a writer, actually – but the son is dyslexic. Despite the similarities to Wiersema’s own life, he reiterates often that his main character is not him. They may both get up at 4am to get in an hour and a half of writing before facing the day, and both write everything longhand in fountain pen before typing it up, and both have sons the same age. But the character is not him. “Chris is not me. I want to be very clear on these things,” Wiersema says with a smile.
The very funny Wiersema never plans what he’s going to say . . . ever. Which has gotten him in trouble on more than one occasion. He doesn’t specify the occasions, but talks of surreal moments in his career as a writer. “Some days are strange. Some days you stay after work getting your picture taken for the Globe and Mail lying on the floor with the book open on your chest like publishing it has killed you.” He nods at the VWS audience, “some days you give speeches you’re in no way prepared for.”
His topic for the night was “writing in the real world,” so he elaborated on how and why he got into writing. He started by as an English Literature student, commenting that “there are few things more arrogant than a second or third year English Literature student, especially one with creative writing pretensions.” Working in a bookstore was one of the two more important things in his career as a writer – the other being getting together with his wife. Working in a bookstore exposed him to what people actually read, not just what was considered part of the CanLit canon. “That was a great moment for me as a writer, realizing that there was value outside of what was considered normal.”
He then posed the question, “What part of your real life gives birth to the writing?” For him, it’s fear. What kick-started his first novel was he and his wife getting pregnant. He realized that he was going to be a father, and thirty. He was happy, then terrified, then wrote Before I Wake in three months in a white fear of “what’s the worst that can happen?”
As a last point, he said, “If you take nothing else away from this, take this. This is the double underscore point. Write what you know is bullshit. Write out of what you know. If you have a happy marriage, don’t write a happy marriage. Write about someone else’s happy marriage, or about someone’s bad marriage. . . . Give your characters their own tragedies.”
He finished with a reading, then entertained questions he promised to answer entertainingly; a promise he fulfilled. As a writer and reviewer and bookseller, Wiersema has a lot of insight into the local book world.
An interesting note from the question period is how he got his agent; he already had a reputation as an honest reviewer who didn’t pull his punches, and that got his name moderately well known, and known for integrity. That came up particularly glaringly in my notes as I’ve been writing this, as this is the first time I’ve let a speaker know I’ll be writing about them for my blog.