Andrew Kaufman was born in the town of Wingham, Ontario. This is the same town that Alice Munro was born in, making him the second best writer from a town of 3000. Here in the UK, his previous work, All My Friends are Superheroes, The Waterproof Bible, The Tiny Wife, were joined on 3rd January by the release of Born Weird. The five siblings of the Weird family find that they have been cursed by their grandmother, Annie Weird. Richard, the oldest, always keeps safe; Abba always has hope; Lucy is never lost and Kent can beat anyone in a fight. As for Angie, she always forgives, instantly. The narrative is led by Angie as she pulls her family back together to save them from these blursings (blessings turned curses) before Annie dies, properly this time.
Alexa Radcliffe-Hart: Hi Andrew, thank you for taking the time to talk about Born Weird. Firstly, l’d like to say how much I enjoyed reading Born Weird, along with your other work. The ability to reimagine and create fresh fables seems to be something that naturally occurs for you. Is this your not-so-secret superhero power, or are you inspired by any particular writers who also have this skill or indeed current culture in general?
Andrew Kaufman: Honestly, I’m not sure where it comes from. Certainly the writers I love reading the most, Kafka, Chris Adrien, Amiee Bender, Kurt Vonnegut, are prone to exaggeration and fable-making. I just feel that metaphor and allegory are actually better at capturing real-life than realism is. To me realism can convey what the world is like, but magic realism can convey what it feels like to live in it.
ARH: That’s possibly the best description of the importance of magic realism that I have ever heard, thank you for that! I’ve read that you have an interesting relationship with your characters whereby, even though they may be some small part of you, you don’t always like them and they don’t like you. Do you find it easier to write from the viewpoint of a character that you dislike? And how do your writing processes differ between those you like and don’t like?
AK: Sometimes my characters are based on something I don’t like about myself. Working through their story is a way for me to work through this part of my personality. So, obviously, it is much harder to work with these characters because I’m actively trying to get rid of them. I want them gone! So it’s much harder to get any compassion going for them, to see where they’re coming from and understand them. I think that writing in the third-person, which I mainly do, which allows me to write from the perspective of the story-teller and not the characters, helps a bit too.
ARH: As you say, you tend to write in the third person but I felt that Born Weird is naturally led by Angie. However, that does not stop the other four siblings from being equally important. I was particularly drawn to Richard with his need for safety and Lucy’s inability to get lost. Did Angie lead the narrative from the beginning of the writing process or was it someone or something else that made you create the Weird Family?
AK: It was always Angie. She came first. The writing of this book was really improvisational – I didn’t make an outline and I wrote each plot point as I went along. It started the idea of the Blursings (Curse+Blessing) and I knew from page one what each of the siblings was blursed with. But as far as knowing who they were and how we were going to meet them, even the whole Dad thing, all that was something I stumbled across. I’m really happy to hear that you enjoyed Richard and Lucy as much as Angie. I wanted each sibling to feel as important as the others. I think this makes them really feel like a family.
ARH: How do you create a sentence in which words resonate with a reader, to the extent that he or she describes a feeling exactly – not a physical sensation but a private thought and/or emotion, that when read, makes one realise that one is not alone in this world? I think you have a particular skill for this, but this may be a subjective experience for each of us and is not replicated for all readers, or is it?
AK: My strategy is pretty simple — use as few words as possible and keep myself as the writer out of the way. Because the things that resonate with readers are pretty simple. Stuff we feel every day, intensely. So I just try to state them simply, unadorned. And maybe, on a good day, in a way the reader hasn’t thought of yet.
ARH: Quite often it’s the simplest of strategies that get lost whilst we’re trying to create but forgetting what we really want to achieve; that connection with the reader. What is the worst assumption any aspiring writer can make about their work?
AK: That it won’t get better. It’s essential to set your standards high, but I’ve seen a lot of writers get discouraged and give up before they meet them.
ARH: So to keep them on their journey, what is the most important book any aspiring writer should keep by their side?
AK: The Elements of Style, William Strunk/E.B. White. Everything you need is right in there.
ARH: Ah, the much argued over “bible” of writing! Your website provides some wonderful insight into your writing and what provides inspiration for your imagination. My favourite of your favourite things, is the invention of new words. Along with blursings, featured in Born Weird, I particularly like lucased.
To achieve a degree of success that no one will tell you when you’re failing.
So, lastly, are there any other new words you’d like to share?
AK: Breadsinner – the guilt felt by a man who stays home and takes care of the kids while his wife goes off to work.
Digipearred – The use of technology to avoid real-life conversations and emotions.
The English language is missing so many words. Remember that dictionaries are products. Their authority on what words are valid is completely self-serving. Everyone should start making their own right now!
ARH: I think we’ll all be investing some new words from now on with that kind of inspiration!
Born Weird is available from 3rd January 2013 in hardback. If you’d like to hear Andrew read, he will be doing an ‘In Conversation With’ and signing at Piccadilly Waterstones on Wednesday 16 January at 6.30pm, and visiting ‘The Firestation Book Swap’ in Windsor on Thursday 17 January from 7.45pm.
Also launched last week was the paperback release of The Tiny Wife; a beautiful and delightful novella where a thief robs a bank in the West end of Toronto, but instead of taking money he demands – and receives – the item of most emotional significance from everyone. Claiming he’s taking 51% of their souls with him, it’s up to those robbed to grow them back. Although it’ll sound very strange, this is possibly the most beautiful love story ever written; doing what Andrew does best – conveying what it feels like to live in the real world, with a little bit of magic.