Michael Turner — The Unreliable Narrator

michael-turner

I had the great pleasure of sitting down with one of my favorite local authors, Michael Turner, a few years ago. Over the course of a couple hours we shared coffee and cigarettes at a small cafe on Kingsway not far from his apartment. The following is an abridged version of a larger piece I wrote for a class I was taking at the time. It focuses mostly on his approach to the business side of fiction writing. If this sounds like something you might be interested in, please, read on.


Michael Turner is sitting outside the Cedar Cottage Café with a newspaper in his hands. The sky is overcast and there is a light rain falling so he’s hiding underneath an awning to the left of the entrance. There is an overflowing ashtray at his elbow and a mug of coffee is raised halfway to his lips, stalled there by some unseen force as he pours over the contents of the newspaper. Observed like this from a distance, Michael looks every bit like the romantic ideal of a writer. His body is bent in upon itself, legs crossed and shoulders pressed forward as if he is trying to take up as little space as possible. He looks up from his paper every once and a while, taking in his surroundings and dragging smoke from his cigarette through tight lips. His eyes are dark and playful, set under a pair of dangerous looking eyebrows. The kind of eyebrows you would imagine on a flawed hero in a mystery novel.

Growing up in the Kingsway area of Vancouver, Michael draws from his experiences with the city to create introspective and provocative stories. He began writing at a very young age, keeping a journal to document the tumultuous relationship between his parents, which he believed were on the verge of killing each other. The journal was to serve as evidence, a reliable account of what went on during that period. He tells me that he believed at the time that keeping such a record would allow him to continue on living in his parent’s house after the dust and fireworks settled. As he tells the story a small smirk creeps into the corners of his mouth. Looking to the past is a therapeutic experience for him, reminding him of where he came from and how, exactly, he got to where he is today.

By anybody’s standards Michael Turner’s career has been a successful one. He first reached public notoriety by being a founding member of the Vancouver based punk rock band The Hard-Rock Miners. The band enjoyed relative popularity but he soon left to pursue a greater passion, writing fiction stories for a living. Since 1991 Michael has published five books of poetry and fiction: Company Town (1991), Hard Core Logo (1993), Kingsway (1995), American Whiskey Bar (1997), and The Pornographers Poem (1999) and has been featured in three anthologies: Lost Classics (2000), Story of a Nation (2001), and The Notebooks (2002). He is currently working on a sixth book, which he tells me should be ready for publication some time next year. In addition to writing stories Michael briefly took on the role of editor for an imprint he created at Arsenal Pulp Press called Advance Editions, where he mostly published art reviews and criticisms. It is also worth noting that two of his books Hard Core Logo and American Whiskey bar were adapted to film and his last book The Pornographers Poem is currently in pre-production.

Michael comes across as a very intelligent, interesting man who has an extremely personal view of the world around him. This is evident as our interview rolls along and his answers start to spin off into abstract territory. He can’t help but look at the big picture and whenever I try to pin him down to specifics he laughs deeply and shrugs his shoulders. We discuss many things during our three and a half hours together and at times I am completely overwhelmed by his viewpoints. Michael is an adamant defender of free speech and it is obvious that he relishes the opportunity to debate some of the hot topics from his books with me.

I ask him at one point how he deals with the business side of his writing.

Michael furrows his eyebrows and lights a cigarette. He seems to struggle between attempting to tell me the truth and giving me a stock answer, explaining that he most often works from home and that he isn’t quite sure what he can say. It is true that writing (writing fiction especially) is a solitary process, but I insist, and Michael quickly warms to the subject, finding his own interpretation of my questions.

“The romantic idea of the writer is one that makes the writer kind of heroic and the editor perhaps a villain and the publisher a kind of a jail keeper. I don’t believe in those distinctions.”

It is obvious that the most important relationship in a writer’s life is that with his editor. This is a theme that comes up often in Michael’s answers. He explains to me that he views his relationship with his editor as a sort of collaboration. Explaining that you have to enter into the discourse with an open and excited frame of mind he quickly segues into how to establish quality relationships in the workplace. Michael says that a good working relationship begins with respect (it has to be mutual and understood). What he tries to do is understand what kind of situation he’s in and proceed from there.  When he feels strongly about something and the other party, be it an editor, a publisher, or whomever feels just as strongly, he says that the best thing to do is to bring in a third party. Sometimes a mediator is just the only way you can move forward when you’ve hit an impasse.

“I don’t write my books with the hope of being a massive bestseller.”

An interesting aspect of being a fiction writer is that most of your professional communication actually occurs between you and your audience. Michael explains that one of the challenges of communicating with a large audience is the amount of variation you find within that many people. An audience of one would be finite and singular, much more so than ten people and eleven opinions. The more people there are to speak to, the more you try to find a sort of consensus. He admits that you can never win over everybody and that in fact it is foolish to try to do so. Michael has struggled with this idea in the past, saying that people these days tend to prefer books with happy endings whereas in his writing he tries to reflect a more real approach to the world. On this topic he stands his ground, explaining that he will never be the type of writer that panders to a larger audience, preferring instead to write from his heart and let the audience create itself.

“There is a literary culture in this country, and you have to participate in it to some degree”

When I bring up the subject of networking Michael starts immediately by shaking his head. Just from reading his physical reaction I have a vague idea of how he feels about the subject. It seems that he doesn’t really participate too much in the “literary culture” that exists for Vancouver writers, preferring instead to run in “visual art” circles. Michael admits that he could be more involved but views the whole idea of networking with some distaste. Some people thrive in it, some shy away, and if he does indeed shy away from the company of his peers he seems to do it with humility and respect. Michael believes that it is important not alienate anyone but at the same time you should not compromise your own beliefs.

After closely reviewing the tape of our interview I think that I can safely make a few conclusions about Michael Turner as a communicator. First of all it is important for me to convey the essence of our conversation. Michael is very well spoken and assertive. He is a great listener, providing verbal affirmation as well as positive body language to make you feel welcome and as if you are on equal footing. He is also incredibly easy to talk to; something about him just makes you feel comfortable and welcome. But he is also very assertive. Michael is a very opinionated individual who is not shy to share his viewpoints with you, no matter how shocking or provocative they may be.

“I go where the debate is”

One thing that struck me as very intriguing about Michael was his view on networking. In addition to giving me specific examples within the literary and art communities he said something very striking. I go where the ideas are. Rather than pigeonholing himself within a certain genre or group of people Michael does his best to be apolitical with the networking choices he does make. He told me that he regrets that there is such a distinction between the different artistic communities in this country and that he believes everyone would benefit if they put their egos aside and pooled their resources. It is interesting that he speaks about ego within the artistic community because this is something that is paralleled quite effectively within all types of working environments. He chooses not to participate, for the most part, because networking functions tend to deteriorate into popularity contests. One type of networking that he does participate in (albeit reluctantly) is promotional tours in support of his books. Michael explains that although it is not his favourite thing to do, he has a responsibility to his publisher and to his public to promote his work as much as possible.

It is hard to see Michael Turner glad handing a room full of people, in fact he describes that kind of overtly political behaviour as “soul destroying”, but he does possess a considerable well of charm. A lot of his interpersonal tactics rely on image rather than techniques. A reputation precedes him no matter what circles he frequents. He is edgy, real, and maybe even a little bit threatening, but he also inspires a sort of sympathy in the people he meets. His career requires him to delve deep into himself and create compelling stories, often using his own life as a biographical foundation for his fiction. Although a writer’s life can be a lonely existence, it is very important to sell yourself as much as possible.

His publishers trust him, his fans revere him and the world will recognize him as an author who rose above the mediocrity of an everyday fiction writer and created an image for himself. An image that he sells very well.

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