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Interview with Greg Bechtel




Sofia Samatar, who read from a memoir in progress at the Fresno Conference, raises the question, "What is a Mennonite Writer?" with Canadian fiction writer Greg Bechtel.

Bechtel

Greg Bechtel is the author of Boundary Problems, a collection of surreal and sharply intelligent stories investigating the nature of reality. Published by Freehand Books in 2014, Boundary Problems was a finalist for the Crawford Award, the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, and Alberta Book of the Year (trade fiction), and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award. Originally from Kitchener-Waterloo, Greg currently lives in Edmonton, where he teaches English Literature, Creative Writing, and Writing Studies at the University of Alberta.

I met Greg at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, FL in 2012, where in the course of conversation we discovered we shared a Mennonite background. This interview, in which I ask Greg about writing, identity, and his own special brand of fantasy, was conducted by email in 2015.

Sofia Samatar: You knew I was going to start with this one: Are you a Mennonite writer?

Greg Bechtel: Ha! Yeah, I probably should have seen that one coming, but I didn’t. I guess the most honest answer would be “yes and no.” On the no side, I’m not a member of the Mennonite church, and I never have been. (Never got baptized.) On the other hand, I’m “ethnically” Mennonite in the sense that my immediate and most of my extended family is Mennonite going back I-don’t-know-how-many generations, I was raised in that tradition and went to two Mennonite schools, and I have a lot of Mennonite friends. Plus, there are certain values from my upbringing--pacifism, social justice, etc--that I still retain and think of as “Mennonite.”

And that’s just as a person. As a writer? Good question. I don’t think of myself that way, and my bios never mention it, but I’m sure a Mennonite influence shows up in the writing in some way or another.

SS: It’s a tricky question. I think it’s partly about framing, about positioning oneself as a Mennonite writer--and that’s something you say you don’t do. But I also think there’s an emotional piece, a kind of attachment to ways of being, to practices like pacifism. And there might be something even harder to define, extremely subtle, like an atmosphere. I’m thinking of your title story, “Boundary Problems,” and how much the camp in the story reminds me of the Christian camps my friends and I worked at in our late teens and twenties—and of course there’s the fact that one of the characters, Erin, is Mennonite.

GB: Interesting! On the one hand, absolutely: I too worked at a Mennonite camp in my late teens and early twenties, and that particular story is definitely drawing on some of that knowledge and experience. Then again, I also worked at a thoroughly secular camp for at-risk youth, and the story is drawing as much on that experience as it is on the Menno-camp stuff. Which I think may point towards something to do with the role of the reader in identifying Mennonite writing/writers.

I tend to write about my own particular obsessions, such as the uncertain nature of “reality,” and the sense of an underlying “meaning” or “significance” to the world that can never quite be grasped. And it’s entirely plausible that some of those obsessions—like a tendency to see “mainstream” or “dominant” realities as weird or uncertain, along with a utopian urge towards “alternative” realities—might grow out of a certain in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world, pacifist, social-justice-oriented, self-consciously alienated-from-the-mainstream or “outside” world perspective that could easily be read as distinctly Mennonite. But it’s equally plausible that those same obsessions may emerge from my own much stronger self-identification as a speculative fiction (SF) reader, writer, and scholar. And of course, those two plausible speculations aren’t in any way mutually exclusive.

I dunno. Does that make any sense? I feel like I’ve wandered off-topic here…

SS: Not at all! You’re pointing to two connections between aspects of Mennonite culture and the preoccupations of speculative fiction: alienation and utopianism. I think that’s powerful.

I want to hear more about your obsession with the uncertain nature of reality. This is so pervasive in Boundary Problems, in stories like “Blackbird Shuffle” and “The Concept of a Photon.” Can you say more? Or do you feel the stories say it all?

GB: It seems to me that if you look close enough, the so-called "real" world—on every level, subjective, subcultural, cultural, physical—is always deeply, irreducibly strange. I mean, it's seriously weird! Plants, animals, people, chairs, rocks, subatomic particles, all weird. And that deep weirdness can provoke fear, but it can also produce wonder. And to me, that potential for wonder is important. That's where my fascination with physics came from, and it's also where my interest in SF and (later) cross-cultural fantasy came from. I also think that sense of uncertainty is a valuable thing to retain. For me, as a writer, it feels almost like an ethical necessity. Or at the very least, it's what I value in my favourite writing, the recognition and expansion of that sense of irreducible strangeness.

"Blackbird Shuffle" was actually an outline-free story prompted by a few phrases from Peter Gabriel's song "Digging in the Dirt," where I wanted to work with a power struggle that was more than it initially seemed to be. Then I discovered in the writing that gender dynamics were important, since I had started with a woman getting carjacked, but I didn't want that woman to be a powerless victim. But I had no clue how the story was going to end (or as it turns out, begin) until I heard some of my housemates practicing an a capella version of the Beatles "Blackbird," at which point the opening and closing sections kind of clicked into place.

By contrast, "The Concept of a Photon" actually started out as a piece of creative nonfiction, where I wanted to write about the weirdness of physics along with this weird guy that I met in a physics class. But I realized as I was revising the piece that I actually had no idea what had "really" happened, and a fuzzy memory of some of the things that did, so the whole thing kind of turned into this creative nonfiction meditation on the impossibility of producing a "nonfiction" account of this necessarily semi-invented memory.

SS: I want to pick up this notion of “cross-cultural fantasy.” What is it? Are there examples of it in Boundary Problems?

GB: Hm. Again, yes and no. I use the term "cross-cultural fantasy" as a convenient shorthand for a more specialized term I developed for my PhD thesis: "syncretic fantasy." This type of fantasy blends multiple worldviews and perceptions of "reality" in a single narrative. And that blending can be cross-cultural, sub-cultural, or, more broadly cross-categorical, but in each case the point is the cognitive blending, transformation, and challenging of simplistically oppositional cognitive binaries like "real" vs "unreal," "civilized" vs "savage," "science" vs "magic," "Us" vs "Them," "science fiction" vs "fantasy," and so on. It's the sort of fantasy that challenges that "vs" between seemingly opposed categories to suggest that it might not be—and probably never was—that simple. In addition—as opposed to magic realism, which takes magic as a fait accompli—syncretic fantasy explicitly depicts its characters' cognitive struggles to come to terms with a new and more complete version of "reality."

So with all of that in mind, I don't think Boundary Problems contains any direct examples of cross-cultural or syncretic fantasy. But I do think it bumps up against this notion of culturally dependent understandings of "reality" in at least two stories.

The first story that springs to mind would be "Junk Mail," where I did a whole heap of research into schizophrenia, most of which never shows up directly in the story. But I distinctly recall coming across an observation that schizophrenics in developed countries tend to experience a less intense onset and life-long recurring symptoms, while those in developing countries tend to have a more intense onset with better long-term outcomes. So I had some of the characters—members of the collective called "We"—imply that so-called "developing" countries might have more robust and effective cultural traditions of dealing with schizophrenia as a spiritual phenomenon rather than a medical condition. And while the cross-cultural interaction itself is never directly depicted, that suggestion itself raises the possibility of differing cultural perspectives on the "reality" of schizophrenia.

The second story would be "The Everett-Wheeler Hypothesis," where Matthew is obsessed with precisely these sorts of questions. In particular, he thinks a fair bit about Wade Davis's investigation of real-world zombies in the Haitian Vodoun tradition. But at the same time, he's just some white-bread twentysomething who's done a lot of reading. And as hard as he tries to believe in the "Hidden World," he finds himself butting up against the limits of his own (cultural) traditions and habits of thought. Likewise, he keeps bumping up against the limits of his own (gendered) experience of the world and the (usually faulty) assumptions he makes about the various women he interacts with over the course of the story. And in the end, the best solution he finds for dealing with those limitations is embracing the inherent uncertainty of his own perspective.

SS: Matthew’s struggles in that story seem deeply connected to something you mentioned earlier: the idea of uncertainty as an ethical necessity.

GB: Yes. For me as a writer, the ethical necessity of uncertainty has to do with resisting the urge towards depicting "reality"—particularly my own understandings of reality—as in any way "objective" or "universal." And that becomes especially important when dealing with materials drawn from (or based on) extant cultures and belief systems of which the author has no direct or personal experience. Fantasy has a long tradition of plundering "Other" (non-European) cultures for material, ideas, and stories, and that can be done terrifically badly. In the hands of a bad writer, that sort of thing can easily turn into an exoticized or parodic oversimplification of the cultural materials in question, and even in the hands of a skilled writer, it can enact more subtle forms of literary colonization. And yet, I do want to include diversity—including diverse cultures, subcultures, sexual orientations, belief systems, etc.—in my writing.

SS: Thank you for answering my questions, Greg!

GB: My pleasure! And thanks for the opportunity!



About the Author

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar (GC English ’94) is an award-winning author of fantasy fiction now teaching at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her most recent book is Tender (2017), a collection of short stories. Her fantasy novels, The Winged Histories (2016) and A Stranger in Olondria (2014), brought her to world-wide fame in the Fanstasy and Science Fiction community. Previously she taught at California State University Channel Islands. In 2013 she earned a PhD in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is married to Keith Miller (GC ’91) and they have two children, Isabel and Nico. Keith has also published three fantasy novels: The Book of Flying (Riverhead 2004), The Book on Fire (Immanion 2011), and The Sins of Angels (PS Publishing 2016).

Photo credit: Peter A. Duffy