cb: How do you define creative nonfiction?
Kostash: Creative nonfiction is the term of choice these days. It certainly didn’t start that way, and there are still several other ways of referring to “that way of writing” which readers might also be familiar with: literary nonfiction, literary journalism, narrative prose, you get the idea. We’re trying to find a way to nail this baby, the “baby” being, in the short form of the definition, the application of literary techniques to documentary material.
What that can mean is everything from what I started out writing, which is the new journalism (reportage or journalism with an attitude, is how I define that), all the way to creative nonfiction, where the creative as opposed to the nonfiction is emphasized. In [creative nonfiction] you can get into some very blurred genre mash-up, which is very exciting.
In between these two poles, if you like, is every manner of dealing with nonfiction material. We generally understand it to mean that the writer has voice interposed in the material one way or another, it doesn’t have to be autobiographical, and that a great deal of shaping goes into material that you wouldn’t expect in straight journalism: narrative, dialogue, scenes, scene-by-scene constructions—stuff that’s familiar from other genres.
There’s also an emphasis on language, so that you get, for example, lyric essay. It’s a capacious genre. It’s not just narrative it can be essayistic and reflective. I personally have decided not to use the term creative nonfiction for the whole thing, but literary nonfiction for whole thing, and reserve creative nonfiction for the really genre-bending stuff, but that’s just me.
cb: Why do we need an overarching term like creative nonfiction for these different forms of writing? It seems to be a very North American movement.
Kostash: It certainly started in the United States, and it’s extremely well established there, with the famous journal called Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind. And for years now, I know this through the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (that’s the association of creative writing teachers in the United States), almost every creative writing program across the United States has included nonfiction. This has not always been the case in Canada.
Why do we need to make the case for literary nonfiction? It’s because there has been a real prejudice against it from the literati because of its journalistic roots, especially in Canada where the documentary is considered one of the foundational arts. I say this off the top of my head, but I think in the United States, the foundational nonfiction genre was the memoir. You can see where the two might produce very different literatures 100 years later. In any event, those of us who work in nonfiction, whatever part of the spectrum, have faced the prejudice in literary arts communities in Canada that we’re not literary, we don’t belong to literature. It came as a great shock to me when I joined the Writers’ Union in 1978 that they were still having this debate of whether nonfiction writers belonged in the Writers’ Union, on the grounds that we made money. That was one of the arguments at the time. Of course, that isn’t the case now. Then as soon as I had become a member of the Writers’ Union, I discovered (well, I already knew) that the Canada Council grants, the literary grants, were not open to nonfiction. They are now, but they weren’t then.
cb: Do you know when that changed?
Kostash: I got my first Canada Council grant in 1975, and I got it through the Explorations program, I couldn’t access literary arts. Those of us who wrote nonfiction inside the Writers’ Union really went on a campaign about this with the Canada Council, because we were also shut out of writer-in-residence programs and readings programs. We were just completely sidelined. Speaking from my own history, I would say that’s probably what first mobilized nonfiction writers to call ourselves by something that would get us some respect. We’re not just journalists, which is of course, a prejudiced statement in itself.
Anyway we’ve come a long way. I’m not complaining any more. I mean it’s remarkable; it’s been a generation (and I include myself in that) that just kept pounding away at this, and eventually the Canada Council opened up to us, as did other literary programs. It’s still a hard go to get much of a nonfiction presence at the big literary festivals—I’m not sure why that is—which is one of the reasons why the Edmonton literary festival has now gone completely nonfiction. Guess whose idea that was?
cb: You’ve written all different kinds of nonfiction, from memoir to essay to reportage. What started you down this path?
Kostash: I started off as a “new journalist” writing for various Toronto magazines in the early 70s. I had read all this stuff and then started writing it. I had been reading Rolling Stone mainly but other people were reading it in Esquire, the Village Voice, very American sources. So I started as a new journalist in magazine writing, writing journalism with an attitude, with point of view, and with highly coloured language and opinion, and then I applied that to book-length material with my first book, All of Baba’s Children, which was published in 1978. That was reportage on a large scale with a whole lot of attitude.
My breakthrough book, stylistically, was Bloodlines: A Journey to Eastern Europe, which was published in 1993. I say it was breakthrough because I became much more conscious of the desire to write in an overtly literary manner, not just put information across, but to actually shape my material in a way that was much more consciously literary.
I think, when I look back on it now, that what might have been an impetus for that desire is how the book came about. The book is based on material I gathered on several trips in what was still the Soviet Bloc. I was travelling repeatedly in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and a couple of times in the Soviet Ukraine. I was after the story of my generation, the generation of 1968, in those countries, but it rapidly became a book about a whole lot of other things as well, including my own politics, and my own reflections on ethnicity and national mythologies. I did it all without a tape recorder because you couldn’t travel [with a tape recorder] in those days to those places. I was forced to keep notebooks rather than tapes, and when I went to the notebooks when I started to put the book together, I realized I had already been doing a lot of very “literary” writing, because I was not just taking down what people said, but I was making a note of how they said it, where we were, all kinds of scene building. I was creating a world around the conversation.
So I figured out how to do that. I’ve done it twice since: in The Doomed Bridegroom, a truly creative nonfiction work (I’ve never written that far out since); and the book that’s coming out next year, A Prodigal Daughter: Journey to Byzantium, which is memoir as well as reportage.
In between those books, I’ve done the other kind of nonfiction, which is still journalistic or reportorial. The Next Canada: In Search of the Future Nation came out in 2000, I did a book about teenage girls in mid-80’s, and then I’ve done a couple of compilations, where I anthologize other people’s texts, having to do with western Canadian history.
The new book I’m launching next week at the literary festival here is called The Frog Lake Reader. It’s a compilation of texts having to do with events provoked by the so-called Frog Lake Massacre in 1885 in the Northwest Territories, now Alberta. I’ve done this particular project out of a very new awareness (and I’m ashamed to say that it is so new) that the Frog Lake Massacre occurred a mere 15 years before my grandfather got title on his homestead, in almost exactly the same area. I grew up without any reference to aboriginal history, you know, with this notion among settler-Canadians that the land was free for the taking, so that’s where that’s coming from.
I’ve also been writing personal essays, and I’ve got a spate of them coming out now, and I do quite a bit of radio documentary for Ideas, which is another kind of genre, and I teach occasionally.
cb: When you write these different kinds of nonfiction, do you find commonalities between them? Or when you write memoir, say, do you feel as if you are involved in a completely different activity than reportage?
Kostash: That’s a good question. Eventually it does become a very different kind of enterprise, but the source is always the same, and that’s what I call the moment of astonishment. I borrow that from Annie Dillard. For me, and maybe it’s true of other genres, the astonishment is when something in the world outside of you awakens something inside of you, has pushed some sort of a button, and you go, “aha!” And the “aha!” is the clue that something’s happened inside you. Then if it’s really creative nonfiction, you spend a lot of time exploring that thing that happened inside you. If you don’t go so much into creative nonfiction but stay in reportage, you will shape your subject matter and give a tone to it, that of course is your own, but it isn’t about self-exploration in the same way that creative nonfiction will be. So they start in the same place but they have different purposes. And, of course, not every moment of astonishment has to end in a literary artefact.
I’ve had enough experience teaching this stuff, that if you push people long enough with what it was that happened inside them, when they had their “aha,” it’s amazing what can happen. I know that from my own experience, with my book The Prodigal Daughter. I was travelling around the old Byzantine world, in south eastern Europe, tracking a saint who I had got interested in, St. Demetrius. He’s huge in the Eastern Church, he’s not in the Western Church anymore. The book began as a kind of travelogue, that’s what I thought it was, but when I began showing it to people, I was challenged: What is this really about? Why are you doing all of this? I discovered what I was really interested in was my spiritual source in the Eastern Church, and it took me right back into the Church—which is a whole other book.
cb: What do you think when people say there is a greater truth in fiction? Or that true stories have more power than fiction?
Kostash: I read a lot of nonfiction, about three nonfiction books to every fiction. I feel the same sense of anticipation and excitement when I open a new nonfiction book as I do when I open a novel or poetry: I’m about to enter a world I don’t know. Whether it’s a world that has been imagined or a world that has been recreated for me, the excitement is equal. I don’t see that the real is more powerful than the imagined, but as a writer I’ve never been tempted by the imagined world. I’ve been so caught up in the sequence of moments of astonishments of the real world that I keep on going with the next astonishments.
cb: So you’ve never been tempted to write fiction?
I wrote fiction as a beginning writer when I was lollygagging in Europe. I was writing short stories at the same time I got to know Margaret Laurence; she was living in England at that time. I sent her my short stories, and asked her, as young writers do “Now be honest, is there any point in carrying on?” I don’t remember exactly what she said but it was something to the effect of “Well, I’m not going to tell anyone not to write but I don’t think you’ve found your genre.” When All of Baba’s Children came out, she sent me a note that said, “You found it”, and that was that. I’ve never knowingly committed an act of fiction. That’s not quite true because I fool around with it in The Doomed Bridegroom, but I’ve never actually created an autonomous imagined world.
cb: The Prodigal Daughter is coming out next year and you just launched an anthology. What are you working on now?
I’m writing a play this winter based on a couple of characters from the Frog Lake story. And then I’m doing another Ideas documentary, this one about another “massacre” I discovered in Western Canada, called the Battle of Seven Oaks, which took place in what’s now Winnipeg. I’ve also started reading for a new literary nonfiction project, but it’s very, very preliminary. It has to do with the two political legacies I have inherited from my two sets of grandparents, right and left. It goes back to the history of the Ukraine in the Second World War.
cb: What kind of training do you suggest for someone starting out in creative nonfiction?
My generation (I’m 65) didn’t go to writing school. We started off in magazines and newspapers. That’s increasingly difficult these days. There are more and more places where you can go and learn to write this stuff, I’ve done it myself. In my experience with teaching people, they seem to get a lot out of it. They read examples of what other writers have done and how they’ve done it, and it seems to be a real revelation about what the genre really is and can do. So I’m not going to pooh-pooh that at all, but I never did that. What I did was get an education, a master’s degree in my case but I think a B.A. is fine, and then I travelled and I read. The combination of a humanities education, some travel, and a hell of a lot of reading is what you need. But without a sense of curiosity, without that willingness to be astonished at the world around you, nothing will happen. None of the rest of it matters.