Today we will be putting the tough questions to AJ Dolman
They are a literary fiction, poetry, speculative fiction, and, more generally, 2SLGBTQIA+ fiction author who has been writing for twenty-five years. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
Gladly done, Benoit. Thank you for asking me to be a part of this series, and for all that you do to promote the literary community.
-AJ, what first attracted you to writing?
My mam was a wonderful and engaging storyteller, in both Dutch and English, and I grew up an avid reader. Stories, novels and eventually poetry were a refuge, an escape and a way to engage all at once. I think I wanted to create that same sense of connection with readers myself, although it took a fair bit of time for me to develop enough faith in myself--not only that I had the ability, but that I had the right to use my time to create art. It wasn't until I started on a history in art degree at the University of Victoria that I realized I wanted to make things more than I wanted to only talk about what others had made.
-Who were your favourite authors at the time?
I look back and see my reading was so limited, culturally, racially, politically and in other ways, but I was already reaching past the limits around where I'd started, at least, so Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite), Ursula K. LeGuin, Tom Robbins, Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey, Michael Ondaatje, Kurt Vonnegut, Timothy Findley, Tim Powers, etc.
-Name three of your favourite books, and why they are your top picks.
I love that you asked "of your favourite," not just my three favourite, because there's no way I could choose. I will stick to fiction in this case and pick two that I wish I had come to earlier in my career, and one that is one of the best I've read at inhabiting and maintaining character and voice. The first two are:
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson, which I only finally read a couple of years ago.
- The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, which same, and draws a beautiful thread of hope through a tapestry of dystopian despair, a sort of opposite in so many ways to fiction like Cormac McCarthy's, while not pulling any punches, either.
And the third, by contemporary Canadian writer Esi Edugyan, is Half-Blood Blues, which is one of the few WWII books I've ever wanted to read (my parents were raised in the Netherlands during the war, and I grew up with direct stories of horrors, injustice, evil and tragedy). I had the enormous privilege of being in a couple of the same classes and poetry workshops as Edugyan at the University of Victoria, once I switched into the Writing program. She was brilliant from the start, and is a deeply talented, lyrical and insightful writer.
All three of the above are very character-driven books that nonetheless take the reader through compelling, engaging and surprising plots.
-Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Pantser on the first draft, then, for longer works, I map everything out afterwards so I can keep track of characters, timelines, plot points and other details as I revise and edit.
-What are your two least favourite virtues in a character?
Greed and lack of empathy. Although, I suppose those are, for the most part, only thought of as "virtues" in Ayn Rand novels.
-What is your idea of happiness?
If I could honestly pinpoint that, I'd probably write happier stories. But, honestly, to me, maybe it's having the right to be who you are, however you are, to love who you want, and to express yourself freely (barring in ways that harm others, of course) while, above all, knowing these rights can never be taken away from you or others.
We've never had a society like that, not where those rights apply to everyone in it on the one hand, and cannot be brutally withdrawn whenever there's a shift in the tides of politics or fashion on the other. I suppose that's where the underlying angst in a lot of my work and many of my characters comes from: the fundamental unattainability of that happiness in the contexts in which my characters live. Not that they can never be happy. But they can't be that kind of happy. Not yet.
-What are your ideal writing conditions?
Quiet. Location doesn't matter as much as it used to, nor time of day. Just quiet. I used to love chaos and noise while I worked, but now I like the quiet.
-Where or when do you feel most inspired?
Wherever and whenever I feel a sense of true connection. When I am looking at the wide open fields and sky of the Alberta foothills, for example, the mountains clear in the distance, the whole world seems connected and part of something wonderful. Sometimes I get that feeling from the rain, too, the idea of a shared, universal moment or experience common to all of us at the same time.
Art, music and stories can have that effect, too, in doses, but the connections there are more with the individual artist and my fellow viewers, listeners or readers, past, present and future, of their work.
-What do you appreciate most in your friends?
A sense of humour. Openness to adventure. And a fully stocked wine rack.
-Where would you like to live?
I would like to live by water again, maybe somewhere I haven't been yet.
-Who are your greatest influences?
In life, my mam, who passed away nearly six years ago now. In the arts, I think an enormous but very unfortunate influence early on was the idea of "CanLit." That weighed very heavily on me as I was starting out--the idea that there was "serious" art/literature and then there was genre, these fields where we didn't even acknowledge we had highly talented and creative Canadians achieving international fan bases. And all of that even though so much of our much-lauded "serious literature" (Atwood leaps to mind) was fully just genre remarketed, and successfully so mostly because of how mainstream its heavily promoted authors were.
As someone whose work naturally bridges (as so much art and writing does) various styles and genres, the biggest influences for me in the past decade or two have been the many authors, past and present, Canadian or not, burning down those distinctions through good, compelling, hard-to-categorize writing.
Look at books ranging from Christian Baines' Puppet Boy to Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower, and the wealth of work from poets and fiction authors from Canada like Tanya Huff, Joshua Whitehead, Téa Mutonji, Dionne Brand, John Lavery, David Ly, Dominik Parisien, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Amber Dawn, Canisia Lubrin, Isabella Wang and so many others. These authors have been willfully not accepting marketing divisions, instead writing about and across what hasn't been written before, or at least hasn't been broadly marketed and promoted before. That is inspiring, both as a reader and a writer.
I think one of the worst influences on me at the start of my career was white, upper middle class, male, straight, cis professors saying we should "write what you know." Because that was an obvious fence to keep everyone who wasn't part of the Canadian Canon(tm) mold out, since we could all see who and what was being published in Canada at the time. What was anyone supposed to do if what they "knew" wasn't just how to look at a lake while worrying their middle class lifestyle or wife or belongings might be taken away while perhaps starting to feel a hint of shame or remorse about something nebulous and unnamed?
-If there was one recommendation you could give to authors starting out, what would it be?
Lift others up with you, at every step. It all looks like a competition, and it can definitely be framed and feel that way. But success isn't pie, as Vancouver author Jen Sookfong Lee has said; there can be enough for all of us. Have faith that, if you have skill and stick with it and are willing to learn and grow and embrace opportunities, you will find a readership, you will find what you do best and create connection. But also accept that, by the time you get it, success probably won't look how you thought it would at the start of your career. Be grateful for that.
-What are the characteristics you believe make a great short fiction story?
Tension, believable and compelling characters, and that spark of some new sense or insight, that idea or feeling that will linger with the reader afterwards.
-What is the title of your latest story?
"Office Work" is coming out in Canthius 11 at the start of 2023.
-Can you give us a synopsis of it?
It's about a series of deeply depressed bureaucrats, a demon looking for a new home after an unfortunate accident with his previous one, and a dominatrix witch who is shopping for furniture. I can't say I've written anything like it before, but that's part of the fun of writing in the first place, isn't it?
-Are you working on anything else at the moment, or have the germ of an idea for another story you’d like to titillate your audience with?
I have a book of poetry, Crazy/Mad, coming out in spring 2024, and I'm wrapping up rewrites on my first novel, tentatively titled Take. It's about a bisexual Toronto man in his mid-20s whose first relationship with a man inspires him to revisit how he sees himself and what he wants from the other parts of his life. But both his relationship and his journey become complicated when his new, politically powerful boyfriend is accused of past abuse, financial and otherwise. Writing in this longer form has been a learning experience for me, but I like the results so far.
-Once again, thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I wish you all the best of luck in your writing endeavours!
Thank you! And the same to you!
Would you like to read AJ Dolman's work? Click this link
Their short story "Office Work" will appear in the upcoming issue of Canthius.
Here are their socials:
If you enjoyed this interview, you should read our previous interview with Stephen Graham King!
If you enjoy weird fiction and short stories, check out The Calumnist Malefesto and Other Improbable Yarns by Benoit Chartier: