Interview with James Ferron Anderson, author of The River and The Sea

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This week’s interview is with my fellow Rethink Press New Novels 2012 competition winner, James Ferron Anderson, who won best new novel for The River and The Sea, a story of love and hate, set in 1918 in a dying enclave of end-of-Empire Britishness on the Thompson River and in 1920 in a cabin on the Thelon River, Canada. He is also a judge of the Rethink Press New Novels 2014 competition.

Over to you, James.

Can you tell us about yourself in 100 words? No more and no less.

I am a fading orchardist, dying of cold and hunger… no. Sorry. That’s Jack Butler of The River and The Sea. I am a fading Hollywood actor… no. Sorry. That’s Rory Devlin of Terminal City. I am a layabout author and former alcoholic, now editing and writing novels, conducing research into various histories hoping to make novels and other yarns out of them, and promoting myself as an anti-theist. Making statements that are true and a laugh at the same time is a talent to which I aspire. If only. Life, while seriously overrated, can be nevertheless a joy. (Coughs)

Why did you decide to become a writer?

I decided I was a writer when I was about eleven. That first novel never got past page two, for I couldn’t read my own handwriting even then. It was all I could do anyway well. That and run. Nippy on the streets and nippy with words. Now my knees are banjaxed the words are all that’s left. I took a novel sabbatical for about thirty years after that first attempt, but battered away at poems and short stories. Then loads of drafts that went onto shelves straight away. The first million words are just practice, that’s what I say.

Tell us about your book.

My novel The River and The Sea was published last year and won the Rethink New Novel Award. It’s a tale of love and loss, set in Canada in 1918 in the arid interior of British Columbia. The interest in telling a story of how people need each other, hate each other, love each other and dispense with each other was there first. I suspect it has been there all my life. It’s not a theme I think I’ll be exhausting any time soon. Setting The River… where I did grew out of an interest in the rise and fall of the British Empire, which in turn grew out of an interest in the Irish Famine when I was researching an earlier book. One hot day in 2007 I was driving with my family from Kamloops to Cache Creek when I stopped to read a road sign telling of an English middle-class town that flourished and then failed completely in the seven years before the Great War. I had my location. The protagonists and events grew out of combing my relationship theme and the rise and fall of Empire.

Tell us about the authors who inspire you? 

I’m not sure I think like that. A lot of frogs have been kissed that remained frogs. But when wonder is found and language sings there is no substitute. Well, except possibly sex. Or a long hard fast run. And I can’t run much any more. I could also equally honestly say I’ve been inspired by everyone I ever read, either thinking that while I could never attain that height, that accomplishment, I could try, or alternatively, that a cat could write better than that and I certainly could. All, in their way, are inspiration to write if you are already so inclined. If… Brendan Behan inspired me to drink and write. Hemingway inspired me to stop drinking and write. Charles Bukowski inspired me to write. All these statements are in their way true.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m working on Terminal City, a book that excites me and satisfies me and frustrates me as I struggle with it. It should be no other way. I labour to make it better, and I think I succeed. Another day I’ll not be so sure. So be it. It were ever so. It is a story of… well, as above: how people need each other, hate each other, love each other and dispense with each other. It’s set in Vancouver in 1939 and 1959. An event happens on Wreck Beach late at night in the week before the outbreak of WWII. For twenty years it lies forgotten. Then faded, ill, former Hollywood movie star Rory Devlin returns to Vancouver to sell his last possession of any value, his yacht, the Zara. As a young unknown he was on the beach that night. The wealthy Westwood family want the investigation re-opened… The dots are to indicate that you’ll want to read on.

Describe a typical writing day for you. 

A typical writing day for me would be to rise at 05.30… honestly… make coffee and toast and get to the laptop and the novel until about 06.45. Then I trot across the road to the Sportspark and be in the gym at 07.00. I pound away there until 08.00, and trot home again. I only live over the road. Easy peasy. Then coffee with my wife, get back to the laptop. A lot of procrastination often follows. My great industrious start gets flung out the window. I feel terrible. I nap for ten minutes that turns out to be an hour. I feel worse. I think about how I feel. I feel worse again. I make more coffee. Then I go food shopping. I get impatient. I should be at my desk and not looking at sandwich spread and wholenut peanut butter. I come out with half the things. I’ll have to go back tomorrow. I get into the writing again, but only after making more coffee and eating the muffins I bought. So little free time and here I am wasting it. I feel worse all over again. I get to work. After ten minutes it flows. It’s great. After fifteen more minutes it’s time to stop and get some dinner ready for my wife coming home. So it goes. On and on. And on.

Every writer must dream of seeing the big screen version of their novel. Who would you like to see playing your lead characters?

The River and The Sea Sarah Underhill: Keira Knightley. Is she both attractive and tough enough? Emily Blunt. Ditto. Jack Butler: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who has played Vronsky and John Lennon. Can he be vulgar enough and do an Ulster accent? A bulked-up-a-bit Rupert Friend, of The Young Victoria and Homeland. Terminal City Rory Devlin: Johnny Depp could do it, but nobody would ever forget they were looking at Johnny Depp and not at an ill and dying reprobate suffering from social diseases and malaria. Dan Kearney: Colin Farrell.

If you could find out the answer to one of life’s mysteries, which one would you choose? 

I would discover why so many people opt to preference superstition over reason and fact. How people can argue that evolution is ‘just a theory’ while not having one fact to support their own waffly creationist half-wit theory. Where does the desire to believe we, and only we, have a purpose come from? That the entire universe was put in place to accommodate us, a tiny dot on the left buttock of that universe? That a god who can create all this gets himself in a tizzy over what I do with my genitals? Because science can’t answer every question, no… it’s not all right to substitute your favourite comforting superstition instead. SO WHY DO PEOPLE DO IT? That’s my life’s mystery that I’d like answered. Then I’d like to burn at the stake or stone to death everybody who still disagreed with me. After all, that’s the religious way.

What would you do in life if you knew you couldn’t fail? 

End world hunger, bring peace and love everywhere… No. Well, maybe. Get creationists (see above) and Republicans and right wingers generally to be able to add two and two and get four, to tell old hippies that chemicals are not per se bad… that everything we can see, touch, feel, including them and that daisy over there is made up of chemicals… get over it. Then make a lot of money from writing and go live with my family in a wee house on the west coast of British Columbia and wait for the inevitable earthquake and tsunami.

Share one quote, or saying, that keeps you going in life.

You must be joking. No, that’s not it. Well, it could be. Yes, that’s it.

And the cliché question, four guests at your dinner party (dead or alive), who do you choose?

Christopher Hitchens right off. More informative fun dead than most of us alive. Gore Vidal, ditto. Socrates, for those tricky questions where he pretends he doesn’t know the answer but does, really. Jesus, just for the hell of it. A fifth: a translator up to handling all this.