Born in England during the Late Pleistocene Age, Michael Joll has called Canada home since shortly after Confederation. He has held many jobs, from selling Continental Delicatessen in Selfridges on Oxford Street in London, to temporary part time deck hand and purser on a car ferry plying the North Reach of the Bay of Quinte. In between he was gainfully employed for forty years too many. Retired since 2004 (“The hours are great, the pay not so much”) he has spent most of that time writing fiction. He has been a Brampton, Ontario since the mid-1970s with a wife (his own) and the memories of the dogs with whom he has been privileged to share his life.
Michael, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. First I’d like to talk about your new book Perfect Execution and Other Stories, released this year, 2017.
Q: How long did it take you to assemble this collection of stories?
A: About seven years. I wrote the first story in the collection, “Officially Old”, in early 2010 to commemorate my 65th birthday. The last, “The Darling Buds of May I wrote in the spring of 2016.
Q:: Is there a favourite, for you, among all the fifteen stories in Perfect Execution?
A: They are all different, in content, theme and style, so there is no discernable common thread running through the collection. Perhaps my favourite is, “The Summer I Turned Eleven.”
Q: Why is this one your favourite?
A: There are a number of reasons. First of all, I chose to set part of the story in Brampton, Ontario, where I live. I placed the narrator, Tiiu, in the house next to mine and Warren living a couple of streets over, a short walk. Then there was the subject matter – a coming of age story of a young girl becoming a young woman during the summer she turned eleven, a particularly difficult time in a girl’s life. I chose to set the story fifty years in the past – long enough ago for the angst to have died down but with the memories still sharp. Finally, I could contrast the emotions of the girl with the 61 year old woman recounting them over a cold beer on a hot afternoon.
Q: What was the most difficult story to write and why?
A: Some of the stories I wrote in one sitting, at least the first drafts. “A Handsome Woman” came to me while walking the dog. Two hours later it was on ‘paper’ in my laptop. The first drafts of, “With Regret,” “Untitled”, and “Wilma” did not take long to complete. Others took years before I was semi-satisfied. “Death of the Bus to Lucknow” was probably the most difficult to write. It has been 70 years since I left India, and I have no memories of my brief time there. It was important to get the ‘Indianness’ right; not too much, not too little. I had real difficulty in bringing the character of Chanti, the protagonist, to the page, making her real, three dimensional, and not a stock cardboard cutout of a beaten Indian wife. I toyed with various combinations of Reshmi, Chanti’s friend, before settling on the one in the book after ‘pointed discussions’ with my editor! I think this story took me four or five years of tinkering, revision and total rewrites, including a sea change in the point of view.
Q:We all need a hero! Tell us about your favourite protagonist in Perfect Execution and why you like him or her so much.
A: I am of an age where I can empathize with older people more than the young. Martin is a weak man, fearful of violence, but makes his one life-altering decision in the face of great physical and moral danger. The unnamed Mother Superior of the Ursuline convent stands out as my favourite character in the story – strong, determined, a woman of faith and moral rectitude but with a possible flaw. She could be accused of passive acquiescence in her ‘turn a blind eye’ attitude to Germany and the war, but for reasons never disclosed she had a change of heart in helping the allies in the manner in which she did.
Q; The stories in this collection run the gamut of international locations, from India, the Caribbean, Italy, Canada, America and England of course. Are these stories all based on your visits to these settings or was there extensive research done to arrive at the background, or both?
A: I was born and mostly raised in the south of England but spent several of my youngest years in Calcutta, which I don’t remember, and in Karachi, Pakistan, of which I retain fond memories. I have visited or lived in many of the other locations in the stories. All, however, required extensive research to bring me up to date with the places I used as settings, particularly those I have never visited except through the National Geographic Channel. Thank goodness for the computer and its search engine, the Brampton Public Library, my own collection of books, magazines and videos, and for the input of so many people whom I know or have met over the past several years who have first hand knowledge of the places I have never been to.
Q: Could you tell us something briefly, about the title story Perfect Execution?
A: The elevator pitch? It is September 1943, and the allies are making their way slowly north through Italy. A section of German army clerks under Corporal Martin Hartmann is sent to a convent in Tuscany to check out its suitability as a possible army Headquarters should the Wehrmacht be forced to retreat further. A Nazi officer shows up and takes over. They discover that the convent is sheltering downed American airmen. The officer orders the nuns be executed immediately for aiding the enemy. Faced with the dilemma of shooting the nuns, and risk eternal damnation, or refusing to carry out orders and be shot himself, Hartmann takes it upon himself to shoot the Nazi officer instead.
Q: How did you arrive at the title for this story?
A: It was a play on words, ‘Perfect’ being a description of the lives of the nuns in the Ursuline convent, and ‘Execution’ for the order given to Corporal Hartmann which he refused to carry out. ‘Perfect Execution’ does not in any way refer to my writing style but rather the execution of the perfect.
Okay, I’d like to move on to your writing.
Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
A: At age 6, but I quickly gave up the idea when I discovered it meant putting pencil to paper and actually writing something. I disliked it all through school, but the courses I took were all writing intensive (no multiple choice, check off the box questions in those days). And I was, and still am, a lousy speller. I spent a working lifetime writing dry reports, legal briefs and the like before retiring at age 59. I took up writing then as a hobby. It devolved into a passion. It has yet to reach the obsessive compulsive stage, although my wife might beg to differ.
Q: Most writers bring something of their own life to their writing. What period of your life do you think has influenced your writing most of all—child, teenager, young adult, adult?
A: Most of my stories involve adults as protagonist and antagonist, some quite elderly. I still remember the days of my childhood, not necessarily always fondly, my early tween and teenage years at boarding school, followed by the years of finding my way as an adult, first as a young man, then through several decades of expensive parenthood. I hope I have learned from all the experiences which have allowed me to take bits from here and there to weave into my stories. But I’m not saying which ones!
Q: How about your working experience. What aspect of it has insinuated itself into your writing most of all?
A: Note taking and report writing as a police officer taught me the three most important words in paperwork – Full, Complete, and Accurate. The narrative must be full with nothing left out that is relevant to the story. It must be complete in itself – no loose ends and unresolved sub-plots. And descriptions need to be accurate to be believable, from clothing, to furniture to blood spatters.
Q: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
A: I usually write, revise, rewrite, edit and repeat the process umpteen times six days a week, Sunday through Friday. I like to spend anywhere from two to six hours a day at my computer, more if I’m on a roll. On Saturdays I do important things, like the cryptic crossword in the Globe & Mail, and grocery shopping, and watching Hockey Night in Canada.
Q: How do you develop your plot and characters?
A: I’m bad at the former and not much better at the latter. When I hear, “I don’t have a strong feeling for what the story’s about,” I know it’s time to go back to the drawing board and work on plot and structure, more clearly defining the narrative arc and focusing on both the big picture, especially within the context of history, if applicable, as well as the smaller details which bring a story to life.
I draw many of my characters from my real life experiences, though the character who ends up in the story will almost certainly be an amalgam of several people whom I know, at least in passing. Others simply reside in my imagination until it comes time to flesh them out with warts and foibles, speech characteristics, clothing choices and annoying habits.
Q: Did you learn anything from writing the short stories in Perfect Execution, if so, what?
A: Writing these stories was a journey. I started with “Officially Old,” and kept writing. I haven’t reached my destination yet. I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t know where it is. I do know that the plane hasn’t run out of fuel and crash landed yet. And most of all I learned that, even with the best will in the world, I’m incapable of writing the perfect story. But I keep trying. Is that one of the definitions of insanity?
Q: We all have our favourite authors and books. What books have most influenced your life and writing?
A: I love Chaucer, but I can’t say he has had a shred of influence on my writing. Although his style of storytelling is sadly out of favour these days, Wm. Somerset Maugham, the prolific short story writer of the 1920s and 1930s has profoundly influenced me as a writer of short fiction. So too has Rudyard Kipling and the French author, Guy de Maupassant.
When it comes to the novel, I wish I could write as well as the late English author, John Masters, or even come close. He set many of his novels in India, mostly in the days of the British Raj, delicate eggshells on which to tread these days, but he never praised the British rulers or their rule. His characters, British and Indian, lived there, suffered there and for the most part died there.
Q: What is the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process in completing a short story?
A: No question: editing, revision and rewriting. I have little difficulty in coming up with story ideas. I take them as far as I can in my head to see if they have legs. If not, I discard them, at least mentally, perhaps to be picked up again some day as a potential sub-plot, character study or as an idea I can infuse into a longer work. Cutting out my ‘darlings’, the sentences, paragraphs, episodes and even whole chapters that I have spent months, sometimes years trying to make perfect, I find particularly damaging to my delicate psyche. But when an editor says to me, “As beautifully written as this passage is, it fails to advance the story. Get rid of it,” I do as I’m told by those who have forgotten more about writing and editing than I will ever learn.
Q: What do you feel are the common traps that upcoming writers encounter and how could/ should they overcome them?
A: I suspect we all want to write a novel, even The Greatest Novel Ever Told. Beethoven didn’t begin his career as a composer by writing his 9th Symphony any more than Mozart started with the ‘Jupiter.’ Like they did, start small. Write it well. Then write it better. Length will come, but excellence takes a long apprenticeship. Write what you know? Perhaps, if you have no other ideas. But why not write what’s in your imagination? Give the horse its head and see where it carries you. Don’t tell me J.R.R. Tolkien “knew” Middle Earth before he started ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Q: Do you think someone could be a writer if they can’t feel the emotions of their characters?
A: Absolutely! As a man, how can I experience the emotions that are peculiar to a woman? Or as a young person, how can I get inside the head of a pensioner? Use your imagination. Read. Ask people how they might react in a given set of circumstances, physically and emotionally. Write down their answers. Massage them. Use them, a bit here, a bit there. But if you don’t know how it feels to suffer a spousal assault, or go through a messy divorce, or lose your child to cancer or an abduction, do the research. Read about PTSD. Addiction. Mental illness. Ask, ask, ask. A Psychology degree with a specialty in deviant psychology will probably stand the aspiring fiction writer in better stead than an English degree. Something to think about.
Q: Assuming you always think there’s room for improvement, what’s your approach to becoming a better writer?
A: Number one – read. But I don’t take my advice as seriously as I should. I spend too much time writing.
Number two – study. This mostly comes down to reading books on the craft of writing. See Number one above.
Number three – go back to the basics. Learn from what doesn’t, or didn’t work – a flat lead character; a hackneyed plot; an uninspired opening paragraph which only leads to a weak ending; a lack of surprise in plot or character; a unrealistic plot twist that comes out of the blue; happy people without conflict in their lives. Some are merely irritants. Others story killers.
Q: What’s the most difficult stumbling block for you in writing characters of the opposite sex?
A: I love writing women, particularly strong women, but often ordinary women who become victims of events they may not always be able to avoid no matter how strong, or weak, they might be. Chanti in ‘Death on the Bus to Lucknow,’ Anna-Lise Jaeger in ‘Anschluss’, and Wilma in ‘Wilma’ are examples of women, two old, one young, who find themselves swept up in events they cannot control and who must find their own solutions. Auntie Tillie in the story of the same name, Sue Lewicki in ‘Snowfall’ and the Mother Superior in ‘Perfect Execution,’ are all stronger women who still find themselves in over their heads and have to deal with the consequences of their actions.
I find the complexity of women fascinating, which is partly their attraction in writing about them. I find men tend to be more predictable and less capable of caprice or surprise. Maybe that’s just the way we are. Besides, women are prettier and generally smell nicer.
Q: Is writing cathartic in any way for you?
A: Not at all. Not even remotely. I simply enjoy writing for its own sake.
Q: Did you hide any secrets in this book that only a few people would find?
A: Very occasionally, someone who knows me well will find something as short as a sentence or as long as an episode and say, “That’s you, isn’t it?” If it happens to fit into the story and doesn’t libel or slander anyone else, I might use it. The closest I came in ‘Perfect Execution & Other Stories’, is Hugh in ‘Officially Old’. It started as a short piece for the Globe & Mail’s ‘Facts and Arguments’ column several years ago. I decided to turn it into a short story, fictionalizing almost everything about it except for Hugh’s occupation as an Marine Insurance Average Adjuster (I worked for one early in my career), his hobby of writing bodice-ripping genre Romances, and his abhorrence of walk-in bath tubs.
Q: What’s your next project?
A: I have a second collection of short stories currently being reviewed by a potential publisher, and a third collection gathering dust in my laptop’s hard drive waiting for the publisher to beg me to send them to him. I have just had a professional Second Draft Critique completed of a novel, tentatively titled, ‘For Valour’ and have been busy making corrections, killing my darlings, and generally doing as he strongly suggested to make the story better. The next step is to find a publisher. A second novel, something of a follow-up to ‘For Valour’, is in first draft and I have just started going over it again after leaving it fallow for a few months. And a genre Romance is ready to go as soon as Harlequin asks me for it!
Q: If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer, what would it be?
A: Don’t chase the latest trend. By the time you know what it is, it will be out of fashion. At the very best it will be a lame ‘Me too,’ story. It’s too easy to lose your integrity as a writer, so be true to yourself and your original goals. If you want to write commercial pulp fiction, write it. Sci-fi,fantasy, if that’s your thing, go for it. Westerns, Zombies, Vampires, mommy porn? Whatever. If you write it well, an audience will find you.
Q: What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org will reach me.
Facebook; I have a Facebook page under my name. Also the Brampton Writers Guild: https://www.facebook.com/BramptonWritersGuild/notifications/
CHECK OUT MICHAEL’S BOOK HERE
by Michael Joll