Quill and Quire

Stuart Ross

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Ninety minutes with Stuart Ross

My first question for Toronto poet, author, and writing instructor Stuart Ross – “What projects are you working on?” – takes almost the entire duration of our 90-minute interview to answer. Initially, he limits himself to listing only a handful of things – working as the fiction and poetry editor for This Magazine; editing Peter O’Toole, a magazine of one-line poems; creating a blog (since aborted) where he would review a different book of poetry each day – but then every few minutes he recalls another project and adds it to the tally, apologizing for his “bad memory.”

The 49-year-old Ross, who arranged to meet me in a bakery near his midtown Toronto home and arrived via bicycle, explains that one of the chief reasons he is so busy is that he feels the need to create outlets for things he would like to read or participate in himself. For example, Ross says he started Peter O’Toole because another magazine of one-line poems had shut down, and he wished there was still a venue for that form. “I think that’s why a lot of my projects happen: I want [them] to exist,” he says.

The case of his new short-story collection, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (reviewed on p. 37), is a little different. Ross is very happy that it exists, but it wasn’t his idea. He says that Melanie Little, the former editor of Calgary’s Freehand Books, asked him for a manuscript when the press was in its infancy, and he handed her 23 randomly selected stories. “There’s little linking them together except that they’re written by me,” Ross says, adding that some of them even predate his 1997 Mercury Press debut collection, Henry Kafka and Other Stories, while others are fresh out of the oven. The most recent story, entitled “So Sue Me, You Talentless Fucker,” was finished in early 2009, when the book was being typeset. “I really wanted that story to be pristine,” he says.

Though the stories aren’t linked, and though Ross concedes he has trouble with plot, he does see an ongoing theme running through all of his work: misfits. Ross says this hasn’t really changed since The Many Escapes of Specimen 939-399-X, a two-page sci-fi “novel” he wrote when he was a preteen. The stories he published as a teenager in the 1975 anthology The Thing in Exile, published by Books By Kids (the forerunner to Annick Press), were also about people who didn’t fit in. “My stuff hasn’t changed in that way,” Ross says, adding, “There’s something reassuring [about knowing] there’s some structure to one’s life.”

Though the soft-spoken and unfailingly polite Ross can come across as somewhat whimsical, in some ways he seems more down-to-earth than the stereotypical avant-garde writer. For example, during our obligatory discussion about the effects of the recession on Canadian book publishing, Ross shows no delusions about the commercial value of his work if things get worse. “We could be in Mad Max-land, and I don’t know if anyone’s going to want to read avant-garde short stories.”