( by JD Jung)
As everyone knows, I read…a lot. Also, most of you can tell from my selections that I enjoy the dark and bizarre. So when I find an author who writes truly unique stories while still engaging my short attention span, I get very excited. Quentin Canterel falls into that category.
Recently, I wanted to talk to him, just to get inside his head. Take a look at our conversation and then be sure to pick up copies of The Jolly Coroner and Bunyan’s Guide To The Great American Wildlife .
UnderratedReads:Your characters are quite bizarre. Where do you get your ideas for them?
Quentin Canterel: I guess my characters are created in much the same way a photographer might. For me, faces say a lot, stances, gestures. When I see two distinctive people walking down a street in a certain way, holding each other just so, an entire backstory might jump into my eyes. However, for me, the scenario/story is primary over every thing else. That usually comes first and from the scenario, you get the idea of the people who need to fill it and the style in which the book will be written (the style of the voices because even the narrator is always a character whether you realise it or not). Usually (and perhaps frighteningly), many of my characters are built from a small smattering of people I have known/met and then a strong image I have in my mind of what that character looks like. With Billy [Jolly Coroner] for example, once I had come up with the title, I had this idea of a fat, disgusting coroner laughing over the body of a deceased person. Gallows humour, perhaps, but I wanted more. I knew this person had to be a sociopath. Did I know any sociopaths? Unfortunately, too many it seems sometimes (as my parents tell me, I’ve always been attracted to strange or “unique” people). With the the Jolly Coroner, many of the other characters were meant to be caricatures or types. This was very deliberate as the book was aimed at presenting the absurd and darkly humorous state to which the society the book portrays has come. Monsters made so by a monstrous reality (or at least given room to shine darkly). But characters change and this is where some thought about circumstances as now they affect different people differently. That is where one truly discovers the meat and bone of one’s characters.
UR: In fact, your stories are also bizarre. Where do you get your inspiration?
QC: If you can believe it, I generally work backwards. With both books, the titles actually popped into my head first and then the story/lead characters followed closely behind. Some of the smaller side stories have literally been knocking around in my head for years. With The Jolly Coroner, I had this idea of writing Kafka’s The Castle or The Trial backward (i.e. from the perspective of the Castle). It could have been easily told from Basyli’s perspective (i.e. the “small man”), but in today’s society where we are so used to individuals expressing opinions of helplessness and anxiety in the face of authority, I thought it would be more interesting to tell a tale about how this proverbial “castle” was built in the first place and attempt to give a face to this nameless authority. If you get down to it, The Jolly Coroner is really a book about what happens when cynical people elect cynical leaders (very true of what happens today). When a coroner runs a country, you’ve got problems (Pandemonium in Paradise Lost perhaps). In Bunyan’s Guide, I mention this thing called Hanlon’s Razor, which basically states “never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity”. I think this expression will be a very telling phrase of our times and when you look back at what Kafka was doing, we may assume a similarly absurdist bent towards the world. If you can believe it, Kafta thought of himself partially as a humorist. People often forget that.
UR: What is most challenging for you as an author?
QC: Putting a book down and stop fiddling with it (just ask my editors). I think I wrote Bunyan’s Guide in about 3 months on weekends and then spent another 3 months fiddling with words here and there. I started off in poetry, so the rhythm and sound of words is very critical. I really try hard to make sure I can form structures in which not a single word or phrase is misplaced (many may disagree). I have been frequently accused of using rare “25 cent” words, but for someone who is simply in love with words and the way they sound, I try to take care to treat each word like a gemstone that can only be set in a surrounding worthy of its glory. Furthermore, as a bit of an antiquarian, I would just hate to see certain words fall completely out of use. This, I try where I can to breath life into a words that haven’t been put to paper for decades. I guess I’m a bit of a collector that way.
UR: Does anything bother you about the publishing industry? If so, what?
QC: Yes, as with many authors, it’s the gatekeepers. The is this vicious circle howling in the dark core of the publishing industry (that horrible sucking sound you hear…excuse the pun), where the internet, movies, tv, you name it has taken eyeballs and dollars away from the traditional publishing industry. As a result, these big publishers can only survive by filling the world with non-adventurous, middlebrow books that don’t offend and are safe bets. They can get away with it, because “professional media” and academia has been stripped of reviewers (due primarily to monetary concerns) and the publishers have stepped happily into that role as well, becoming their own tastemakers. Thus, the closed loop of a endlessly self fulfilling prophesy. This has forced authors to try to please the tastemakers, and write books the publishers want, ones that if they can’t compete with movies, can at least be made into one. Publishing houses feel the need to nurture their own constellation of stars, ones that everyone can appreciate and understand. Frankly it’s boring. This is why sites like Underrated Reads are so essential and I can’t thank the editors enough for trying to give a voice to small presses who are desperately in need of support and readership. It’s really a public service.
UR: What is your favorite “Underrated Read”, other than your own books?
QC: My favourite ‘Underrated Read’ has to be The Black Spider by Jeremiah Gotthelf. I was very surprised to find it on JD’s Halloween list. I think it is really a seminal piece of horror fiction and once you read it, you really realise how much it has informed directly and indirectly so much of we see today in literary and cinematic horror films, including Aliens series and entire catalogue of virus based sci-fi. For such a small book, it goes a long way to show the consequences evil has on a small community (heard that one before…hmmm….hmmm). It’s a testament to JD that she is well aware of this little gem of the 19th century, which has influenced countless others, including, of course, myself…
UR: Thank you for the compliment!