The Ian Colford Interview

Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in Event, Grain, Riddle Fence, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead and other literary publications. His previous books are Evidence, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, Perfect World and A Dark House and Other Stories. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Relit Award, the Journey Prize, and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He lives in Halifax.

Miramichi Reader: Tell us a bit about your background, education, employment, etc.

I grew up in urban Halifax, came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s hard to fathom now, but when I was young, I had little interest in books and reading. I was too busy with all the things that kids do at that age: being outside, sports, TV, music. In school, I was a science nerd. Both of my parents were readers and there were always books around the house, but I could rarely be persuaded to pick one up. My first university degree was in Mathematics, which I received from Saint Mary’s University. At SMU the Bachelor of Science program required a humanities credit so I signed up for a first-year English course. That’s where I first felt the allure of reading seriously and for pleasure and started to pick up on the magic involved in the process of creating fictional worlds with language. After graduating from SMU, I wanted to continue my education. But I’d had it with math so I did a Master’s in English at Dalhousie. Eventually, I realized that to establish myself in a career and make a living—since I didn’t want to teach—I’d have to complete some sort of professional program, so I did a degree in Library Science. With that degree in hand, I landed a job at Dalhousie and stayed there until I retired at the end of 2017.

MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.

Everyone follows their own path to writing. In my case, it was a gradual dawning. I didn’t come to reading until late in my teens and came to writing later. A few things happened to push me in that direction. One—that my science degree required an English course—I’ve mentioned. The others took place before that, in my last year of high school.

“I got a part-time job at a branch of the Halifax County Library. All at once, I had access to a bottomless supply of books.”

My high school English teacher wanted us to read, and he had a system to encourage us to do it. He posted the class list and when we finished reading a book, we were to make a mark beside our name. For each mark, we were given a point toward our final grade. It was an honour system and I’m sure people cheated. He didn’t care what the books were. I read all sorts of stuff: thrillers, sci-fi, sports biographies. For some reason, I even read a history of the Easter Rebellion of 1916. And the other thing that happened around this time was that I got a part-time job at a branch of the Halifax County Library. All at once, I had access to a bottomless supply of books. With my curiosity piqued and influenced by library staff members, I started picking up novels and story collections by writers I’d never heard of: John Cheever, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Drabble, Eudora Welty to name a few. All at once, I was reading books that weren’t trendy titles or the latest bestsellers. I was reading books that explored human behaviour and psychology, that depicted characters dealing with the effects of social inequities. Books that challenged commonly held assumptions. Books that did astounding things with language. Books that raised questions but didn’t feel the need to answer them. I started making decisions about what to read and developing opinions about what I liked and didn’t like. Eventually, I started reading about books and authors and the process of writing, and that’s when the idea of becoming a writer began to seem not so far-fetched.

MR: Recently, you were asked to be a jury member for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. What did this entail?

Reading a lot of books of short stories and deciding which are the best. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Danuta Gleed Award goes to the best first collection of short fiction published during the calendar year, so 2020 in this case. The Writers’ Union approached me late last year to take part. The other two jury members were Lisa Bird-Wilson and last year’s Gleed winner Zalika Reid-Benta.

The Union started mailing the books out in December and by late January we had about 20 titles to consider. A few I had already read. The reading was enjoyable and not onerous. The quality was generally high, and a lot of the books were excellent. So in some ways, the decision was not easy. I kept lots of notes so that when the jury consulted (virtually) I was ready for the discussion. I was prepared to argue a case for the books I felt should receive strong consideration, but amazingly the three of us were very much on the same page when it came down to deciding on a shortlist and, ultimately, a winner.

I have to say it’s gratifying to have the chance to serve on a jury like this and to help an organization like the Writers’ Union of Canada, which advocates for Canadian writers and helps the government formulate policy.  

MR: Your work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Relit Award, the Journey Prize, the Alistair MacLeod Prize, “The Very Best!” Book Award, and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. As an author, it must feel good to have your work so consistently listed for various awards. How important is that to you?

There’s no question that being nominated or shortlisted for a prize bolsters confidence and exposes your book to new readers. So many wonderful books get lost in the constant parade of new titles. Inevitably some are ignored and fall through the cracks. The time in the spotlight that your book receives when it’s initially published is absurdly, tragically brief, and some publishers don’t do much by way of promotion. So awards are important because a nomination extends a book’s shelf life, gives it another small opportunity to make an impression and find an audience.

The unfortunate downside of awards is that they perpetuate a competitive climate that turns writing and publishing into something that resembles a horse race.

“Every page you fill up is a triumph over incredible odds.”

But as a writer, you can’t help but be gratified when your book is included on an award shortlist. It validates the time and effort that went into writing it. It allows you to think, even briefly, that maybe you’re on to something, and to some extent provides an incentive to continue what you’re doing.

It all comes down to confidence. The writing life is a daily battle to keep the faith, and anything that provides a reason to persevere is to be welcomed and cherished.

You have to keep in mind though that the real prize is the page filled with words. Every page you fill up is a triumph over incredible odds. Awards come and go. People forget. But once the words are on the page, that’s forever.

MR: Do you have a favourite book (or books), one(s) that you like to revisit from time to time?

I do revisit some authors from time to time. There are many, but John Cheever tops the list. I often return to his short stories. I read Cheever for the first time when I was around 20, and 40 years later his stories and novels still resonate and can still take me by surprise. A lot of it has to do with language: the absolute control, his ability to shock and persuade the reader with just a few elegant phrases, a judiciously chosen image, a couple of startling lines of dialogue. His fiction is crammed with imaginative incident. Astounding things happen, people lose their way. There’s not much by way of tragedy in his work, but it’s frequently deeply moving. If I were to describe his fiction in just a few words, these would be humour, nostalgia and absurdity. His work also has a solid moral foundation, and he exhibits great compassion for human vulnerability and weakness. He takes a sardonic view of modern society and acknowledges the essential futility of human endeavour. The combination of all these factors results in a body of work that remains relevant and that continues to find new readers, and deservedly so.

If anyone reading this is curious enough but has time for only one of Cheever’s stories, read “The Country Husband,” which is a stunning example of the form. I guarantee it will make you laugh and cry, possibly at the same time.

MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be and why?

This might come as a surprise. Maybe not. But I would choose my father. Horace Colford was born in 1910 and grew up in Chezzetcook, a coastal community in rural Nova Scotia, on the province’s north shore. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was ten, and from that point the three children pretty much raised themselves. His father provided for the family with subsistence farming and fishing. My father completed school (a rarity in those days), got a teaching certificate, and by the age of twenty was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. I believe he taught for several years, though I don’t know the details of his life in the 1930s. He served during WWII, stationed in Newfoundland. He never spoke to me about his military service so I don’t know what he did. After the war, he attended Dalhousie University and graduated in 1955 with a medical degree. 1955 was also the year he married my mother, who was a nurse. He then went on to get a degree in public health (from Harvard). By the late 1950s, he was working for the NS Dept. of Health and was involved in data collection and policymaking in the field of communicable diseases at a time when there was a TB crisis in the province. His professional career was spent in the sciences, but all his life he was drawn to the arts. He was a fan of opera and loved books and reading. He spoke several languages and knew Latin and some Greek. In the years before he retired, he took up painting and gradually over time grew quite proficient. He died in 1986.

I doubt it will ever happen, but you can see how his life would provide the outlines of a compelling story.

MR: Tell us about your writing space. (Do you always write in the same area? Do you use a laptop or a desktop computer, etc)

At the moment, I’m using a corner of a spare bedroom where I have a small setup with a desk and a laptop. I don’t need much when I’m writing, especially when it’s going well. In the past, I’ve been able to write almost anywhere. I wrote parts of Evidence while at work either during coffee breaks or at lunchtime in a busy food court. I’ve worked on my fiction while riding the bus home. Sometimes I write at the dining room table. I like to have classical music playing at a low volume while I write, as background, I suppose because absolute silence is so easily disturbed by sounds that are fatally distracting to creative work.

MR: Covid question: how have you been coping with the pandemic? What changes (if any) has it made in your life?

There’s a joke that in various forms has been circulating since Covid-19 came along: “How do you know you’re an introvert? When a global pandemic hits and nothing in your life changes.” Last year my wife and I, once we got over the shock of the pandemic, adapted more easily than we would have thought possible to isolating ourselves, staying home 95% of the time, and venturing out once a week to the grocery store. We’re both retired, so other than a few appointments there were not many events on our schedule to draw us away from the house. We subscribe to several concert series, and those converted over to virtual events. Our local independent bookstore was taking orders online and doing curbside pickup. So even with the restrictions in force, we were able to satisfy most of our essential needs without having to go anywhere.

In the early months of 2020, I was also getting close to the end of a novel manuscript. By that point, I had been working on it more or less steadily for about eighteen months. Being confined to the house by the health restrictions allowed me to press forward on the project and by the end of July, the manuscript was complete. Next, with time on my hands, I decided to polish up some unpublished fiction that had been sitting around, most of it for years. I reviewed two previously completed manuscripts: a new collection of linked stories about Kostandin Bitri, the main character from my first book, Evidence, and a novel called The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard. By early January I’d completed revisions and rewrites on these and also polished up the new novel, which is called A Momentary Lapse. Since we were still confined to home by the pandemic, I started the process of submitting them to publishers, which in most cases these days can be done online.

Of course, we missed friends, going to restaurants, live theatre. But social media allows you to share the pleasures and the pain. You’re separated physically but you’re still connected and communicating, and you know you’re not alone in your suffering. Sharing makes the isolation bearable.

MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing (or reading)?

Apart from writing and reading, I really enjoy cooking and baking. I like testing new recipes and making cakes and pies. When I retired in December 2017, one of my goals was to perfect my pie crust. I wanted to start making quiche, which I hadn’t done before, and now I’ve made about a dozen that have turned out well. My specialties are a killer carrot cake with cream cheese icing, rum cake and apple pie.

MR: Finally, tell us an interesting fact about yourself!

My favourite band is and always will be The Beatles.

Thanks, Ian!

Ian has written many reviews for us at The Miramichi Reader. You can access his profile page here:

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