Stay Focused. Eat Healthy. Don't Kill Yourself: Kris Bertin on Writing "Girl on the Fire Escape"

Kris BertinKris Bertin talks with Malahat volunteer Will Johnson about "Girl on the Fire Escape" (#173, Winter 2010), winner of the 2011 Malahat Review Jack Hodgins Founders' Award for Short Fiction

"Girl on the Fire Escape" is one of the raciest stories I've ever read in a Canadian literary magazine. The raw sexuality and taboo subject matter is unusual for a publication like The Malahat Review. What inspired you to write about the world of cam girls?

For me, cam girls are just an ordinary part of the internet landscape. I can barely watch a video of a dog doing something funny without one showing up and trying to get me to join her show and give her money. I didn’t even think about it as a particularly racy idea when I was writing it, and it was never meant to be the focus of the piece. It just seemed like the right place to go for this particular character. It serves an important function in the story, and that’s all that really matters to me.

Gretchen is a fascinating, seemingly amoral character. Tell me about your process of conjuring her on the page.

"Gretchen" is an idealized person, a kind of super-woman who is unhindered by all the stuff that keeps us from taking what we want, doing what we want, and sleeping with who we want. I can’t really say exactly how she developed, except that I wanted to create a character that actually lives out the kind of fantasies you have when you’re working a dead-end job—stealing, getting revenge on your former bosses, moving freely across the country. She’s someone who I find exciting enough that I’ve written about her in a few other stories.

I was especially struck by the ending of your story. It reminded me of the ending of “The Sopranos.” It's deliberately jarring and abrupt, and leaves the reader to imagine what happens next. What made you choose this ending, and what significance does it have for you?

I wanted to focus on what would’ve happened if our narrator hadn’t gone after Gretchen, to show a little more closely what he’s trying to abandon by leaving the city with this crazy person. The ending is just a cycling-through the physical motions of labour, the mundane and meaningless things we have to do in order to live. I chose it because it said something to me about the endless possibilities we have littered all around us all the time, about how every moment could maybe turn into something incredible.

According to your bio, you have worked a handful of odd jobs. Your career has included time as a bouncer, a cook, and a call-centre phone rep. Have these jobs inspired your prose?

I’m more than a bit preoccupied with issues of class. Everything can be examined in terms of class, especially if you’re a poor person working a shitty job. This story is really about being in a place you don’t want to be in, and being shown another way to live. People called this a love story, but that’s never what this was about for me. It’s shaped like a love story, but it’s about being poor, broke, and unhappy. I can only write about real people who work real jobs. If you’re some wealthy upper-echelon guy whose worst nightmare is a bad divorce, I can’t really write things for or about you.

You insert the Latin phrase Memento Mori  into your text, which translates as "Remember your mortality." Does this phrase hold any personal significance for you?

In terms of the story, it points to what Gretchen believes in, that scene where she says this is it—do it or don’t. Every single one of us is going to die (even if we don’t think about it), and all we have are the minutes and hours and days until it happens. You can spend that time any way you want, so you really ought to be doing something more than scraping pigeon droppings off of windows if you can. I believe in this idea enough to write about it, but not enough to keep a human skull on my desk or anything.

You won the Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award! How did you react when you first heard the news?

I looked up at my girlfriend and told her I won a thousand dollars. She got really excited, probably more excited than I did (though she’s generally more excited than me about everything). Then I told my editor, Ryan Paterson, and my former professor, Alexander MacLeod, mostly so they’d be proud of me. I’m honoured to be a part of this award, honoured to be placed alongside previous winners. I remember reading Anna Smith’s story [“The Score Diary of Billy Bishop,” issue #169, Winter 2009 – winner of the 2010 Jack Hodgins Founders' Award] last year and thinking that it was the best goddamned thing I’d ever read in a literary journal.

What's the next step for you as a writer? Are you currently working on any new projects? Where can fans look for more of your work?

I have stories coming out in The Antigonish Review, Pilot, Words & Images, and I have a lot more stuff in the mail. Everything you do in this business is delayed tenfold, so it's hard to talk about what I'm writing today because it won't be seen until sometime next year. I wrote this particular story on January 1, 2010, and it hit the stands sometime last month [January 2011]. There are longer projects I’m working on, a couple novellas and a novel. I’m currently looking for an agent who’ll turn my pile of short stories into a book.

What advice to you have for new writers, who may be working similar jobs to yours and writing on the side? Any words of encouragement?

It’s not at all an interesting answer, but I’ve only made progress by treating writing like a job. Putting in the hours every single day in a nice quiet spot that lets you bring coffee in.  So all I can give you is a long list of boring and reasonable things—the kind of things your dad would tell you to do. Get serious. Work hard. Have faith in yourself. Don’t give up. Stay focused. Eat Healthy. Don’t kill yourself.

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Will Johnson

Will Johnson

Established in honour of the celebrated Victoria novelist’s contribution to Canadian letters and to the University of Victoria, the Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award for Fiction recognizes the excellence of The Malahat Review’s contributors by awarding a prize of $1000 to the author of the best short story or novella to have appeared in the magazine during the previous calendar year. The winner, selected by an outside judge, is announced prior to the publication of The Malahat Review’s Spring issue.