Bruce Meyer is the author of numerous books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction, including three national bestsellers (The Golden Thread, Portraits of Canadian Writers, and the anthology We Wasn’t Pals that he co-edited with Barry Callaghan).
His short stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international fiction awards including the Tom Gallon Trust Fiction Prize from the Society of Authors in the UK, the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction, and the Retreat West Fiction Prize, among others. His latest collection of stories, Toast Soldiers, was just released by Crowsnest Books.
Meyer lives in Barrie, Ontario, and teaches at Georgian College and at the University of Toronto.
Toast Soldiers is an evocative short story collection teeming with dark and beautiful incongruities and absurdities, the stories center on characters grappling with a confounding universe. Toast Soldiers tells the stories of individuals who fight against the invincible fates they confront and attempt to assert themselves even though they know they are facing defeat.
Poetry has been often dubbed the hard sell, but some will say the short story is the hardest of all – why is that or do you agree?
Meyer: Just about any market for the printed word is a hard sell these days. Newspapers do not pay freelancers the way they once did, and poetry, despite more poetry books being published now than ever before, is a crowded and competitive art form. The stories in Toast Soldiers are more expansive works and my hope is that each is a small novel that will hold a reader’s attention for more than a few minutes. Canada is known for the short story. My friend, Al MacLeod, was likely our best. Close behind him are Barry Callaghan, Mavis Gallant, and Leon Rooke. Our sole Nobel Laureate, Alice Munro, made her name with the form. Readers will engage the short story but from the first word to the last of each one, the writer has to make sure the piece dazzles. The days of mundane realism are long gone. There has to be a revelation of ideas, facts, and discoveries of characters and character development — all elements that the best novels achieve — within a confined space.
When did you start writing the stories that make up Toast Soldiers?
Meyer: Usually, a book of short stories takes me about four years to write. I rarely work on just one book at a time. I work on a number of manuscripts and when I have a pool of stories that could be sorted in various ways, I begin to assemble the bones for a book. I never throw anything away. There are, however, three to four times the number of stories in Toast Soldiers than I needed so I was able to practice a process of selection. The title story was triggered about three years ago by a menu in a Barrie bakery where my wife and I were having brunch. I asked what “toast soldiers” were. They came with eggs. The owner made me a plate, gratis. I was intrigued by the pun build into the name, the idea of someone becoming ‘toast’ in the sense of meeting their end, and the question of what happens when something new appears on a menu. About the same time, my sister returned from an academic conference in Holland where she had visited Nijmegen and “the Bridge too Far” from the Second World War. Some of the other stories were written during the pandemic when I’ve been teaching from home but found I had time late at night to hear myself think. My books are gradual accumulations of selected material. The same is true for my books of poems.
A few of your stores take place in 20th century Americana. What are some of your influences from the 20th century – be it art, music, writing, etc.? What drew you to this era?
Meyer: I had an epiphany years ago when the late Peter Stevens too me to the last of the old time Detroit jazz clubs, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. Kenny Burrell was playing and Robert Cray joined us at the table to listen. The place had the original Naugahyde aquamarine booths. That evening brought back a lot of memories from my childhood. I was a very aware child in the late Fifties (he said giving away his age). I have a story in Goodbye Mr. Spaulding, a collection of baseball stories, titled “Calling Time” which is set in Las Vegas around the same time as “Badlands.” I’m fascinated by the Fifties partially because I lived in them and partially because they were the moment when the Twentieth century began to show the change, universally, that all the larger and more violent events had foretold. I love cars with fins, especially those that slide by on grease as in Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead.” When I went to school, I did so under the shadow of the bomb as in “Jenny.” There was a brilliant, summer light glinting off cars (that were meant to look like rockets) that was blinding even as a spirit of the thanatic hovered over everything. We sang songs in school about going to the moon. It was the last gasp of optimism. In the follow-up book to Toast Soldiers, The Leavening, I tell a story that emerges from a Bacharach/David song, “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa.” The world was just beginning to rock during the late Fifties. Then the Americans sent troops to Viet Nam and men to the Moon and JFK, MLK, and RFK and Malcolm X were shot and people began believing in a very different reality.
Many of your stories have been published in journals. How has the role of literary magazines changed or remained the same as your career has developed?
Meyer: John Robert Colombo has a poem that was famous in the early 70s, “Everyone Begins in a Little Magazine.” I learned a lot by working as an editor with a number of magazines — Descant, Cross-Canada Writers’ Quarterly, Argo (UK), and guest editing gigs with Windsor Review, Quarry, and Ice Floes (Alaska). My first term at the U of T I worked for the nation’s oldest literary magazine, Acta Victoriana. Pratt, Frye, Avison, Atwood, Lee, and Macpherson were all editors at one time or another. In October of my first year, I got a call from the psych ward at Wellesley Hospital for me to come and pick up a book. I was appointed the youngest editor of the oldest magazine because the editor, in his 4th year had signed off the project. I did that for two years, and then took on a campus-wide lit mag, the University of Toronto Review where I had to raise six thousand dollars per year to publish the thing. Not easy. I published the first poems of Anne Michaels, Cary Fagan, Jeffery Donaldson and Denis Stokes, and then started a mag, Nimbus, with two friends, Andrew Brooks and Lawrence Hopperton where we published the first poems of Richard Harrison. Editing is an excellent way to learn about writing. An editor gets to see what is being written, what works, what doesn’t and the chance to meet established authors such as Layton, MacEwen, Acorn, Purdy, and Livesay. The friendships I struck up with the established poets led to the two books of interviews, In Their Words (Anansi, 1985) and Lives and Works (Black Moss, 1991). One thing leads to another.
What advice would you give a young writer of poetry and fiction who wants to connect to their community and learn how to get published?
Meyer: Do not write like other people. I was given a lousy piece of advice to that effect. The writer said I should write like this person or that person. Via Jeffery Donaldson, a manuscript (one of about a dozen) ended up on the desk of the Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Howard — a great sage. He wrote to me. “What do you want to know?” I responded “Richard, how should I write?” His advice was simple: “There is no right way or wrong way. There is only your way.” He also suggested I take my poems apart and put them back together using meter, rhyme, and form. That was a breakthrough for me. There weren’t workshops when I was a younger writer. Those who were admitted to Creative Writing classes were just epigone of second-rate poets who were professors in disguise. Young writers can, if the chemistry is good, learn from each other. I recall the evening spent in the booth at the back of the Duke of York Pub on Prince Arthur Avenue with Brooks, Hopperton, Donaldson, Harrison, George Elliott Clarke (who hitchhiked to Toronto to sit in with us), James Deahl, and sometimes Marty Singleton. Di Cicco would join us sometimes. He had a book out and a leather jacket. Often, though, peer workshops are the result of the blind leading the blind. Younger writers should read, not just what they can find in local bookstores, but everything, anything, they can lay their hands on in second-hand shops. Read two books of poetry per day. Study the poems not for what they say but for how they say it. Writing is the engineering of the language and the imagination. Examine how the poet has solved a particular problem. I read short stories now for how they begin and how they end. As for getting published, I’d say don’t worry about that. Look after the writing and the publications will follow, but also know when to push a piece of work out of the nest. Eventually, it has to live a life without its author. Where young authors should aim themselves is the finished manuscript and that’s a whole separate topic for discussion. Go to readings and listen. Take notes. Don’t write with a paper bag of your head. Look at what it is you are writing about. Notice things. Describe things. As Rilke said, “Write about things.”
What are some essential tools you keep near you when you’re writing?
Meyer: My Moleskine notebook is never more than three feet from my left hand (I am sinister). I carry several fountain pens in case one goes dry. I write both poems and stories (or notes for stories) in my notebooks. I sleep with a lap desk beside my bed in case I wake up with an idea. I never remove my glasses and if I do (because I can’t see without them) they are on top of the notebook with two fountain pens. I travel in the car with a lap desk. I write things down. Sometimes there is nothing to them. Charles Tomlinson, a family friend who used to visit from the UK, always carried a notebook. Never rely on the brain to hold an idea. Details get lost inside a mind. When an idea strikes, write it down. I also carry a leather writer’s satchel and in it are usually two books I’m reading (I love anthologies because quite often too much of one writer is irritating), my notebook, spare pens, and a small folding umbrella. That bag goes everywhere with me if I leave the house. If I am working on poems, I often carry a formalist’s ephemeris, Lewis Turco’s The New Book of Forms. If I am near the end of a Moleskine (the 8 x 5 400 page hardback, regular lined) I carry the next notebook. Ideas appear out of nowhere. The key is to notice them, listen to them, converse with them, and write them down. Never leave an idea out in the cold.
What was it like working with Crowsnest books?
Meyer: Wonderful. Lewis Slawsky is patience personified. I’m what you might call a high-strung writer. I’m a perfectionist but am also the world’s worst proofreader. I’m an excellent substantive editor (I do that work for several literary presses) but I can’t see my own small problems. I become snow-blind to accidentals. Lewis has a profound sense of what works artistically and what doesn’t. His feedback has been great. He told me he had followed my career for many years and that my Great Books broadcasts with Michael Enright had been one of the reasons he decided to study the Great Books in Santa Fe. His knowledge of literary is very extensive and that’s a relief. I have had editors in the past who had no idea what I was saying when I wrote something and rather than ask me, they just drew a line through it. Lewis and I have had some very wonderful conversations. Crowsnest is a new press that is going places. A former student of mine, Benjamin Berman Ghan, is one of their authors and he suggested I approach them. Ben is an excellent writer and I am glad Lewis and Alex Wall acknowledged Ben’s talent.
What were the books you read as a young person that helped shape your reading appetite?
Meyer: Wow. Where would I begin? I own over 24,000 books and now that we’re having to downsize I have to cull them which will be like shooting a herd of Bambi’s mothers. I’d say Larkin was a breakthrough for me in poetry. I opened up The Whitsun Weddings while I was stuck on a bus to Hamilton during my doctoral years and I was glad the traffic was snarled. That was the first time I looked at poems and asked “how?” I missed meeting Larkin a year later at the Arts Council Poetry Library on Piccadilly although I am certain we passed each other. Heaney was another revelation and he became a correspondence mentor to me until he won his Nobel. I fell in love with Graham Greene at grad school, especially his short stories although recently I haven’t gone back to his short fiction because there is something snarly about it. I tended to read poetry as a young person. Whenever the topic of the short story was raised, people got all spooky and mystical and began talking about “the craft of fiction.” Fiction has fewer rules on the front end than poetry and more things to look after on the back end but there is nothing spooky about a good story. Fiction says “pay attention to the details and edit, edit, edit, to reduce the narrative to a very precise and focused conversation between the author and the reader.”
Can you talk about the title? What inspired it?
Meyer: As I mentioned, the title was inspired by brunch. What I haven’t told anyone is that I had a set of 78 rpm recordings by the Canadian comic (who lived and worked in England in the Thirties) Stanley Maxted, and his gem was A.A. Milne’s “The King’s Breakfast,” which he set to music. The Milne poem is about hierarchies, ranks. It should be played in every office in Canada. “The King asked the Queen / And the Queen asked the Dairymaid / Could I have a little bit of butter for my bread…” The cow eventually gets the message but answers “Many people nowadays prefer marmalade instead.” The poem is the classic statement on administrivia. My point is that inspiration, even in its most profound sense, does not come from profound places or ideas. The challenge is for the writer to drill down into a fragment of the commonplace and make it into something more than anyone could have foreseen with the source. Isn’t that what resides at the core of invention?
What was the most difficult story to complete in Toast Soldiers?
Part of me wants to say all of them. Stories are easy to begin but the real work resides in finishing them. The hardest one to complete was likely “Oglevie,” because the character is so beaten down by life and the art of boxing. That story was inspired by Tolstoy’s remark that there are really only two stories (and I had the feeling he was thinking of Homer’s Odyssey which is the underpinning story in “Oglevie”). A stranger leaves town. A stranger returns. I kept asking myself if justice in an unkind, hostile universe, would be possible, and if even an inkling of it is possible, what would that justice (or call it mercy if you wish) look like? With the other stories, I can see then end the moment I thought of the beginning, and I knew what I had to do to reach the finale. Not so with “Oglevie.” In the end, I gave him a shred of the mercy he deserved. I had been inspired by the line from Richard Hugo’s poem, “Degrees of Grey in Phillpsburg” where Hugo says the misery won’t let up “until the town inside you dies.” The question I was wrestling with was “how does one find life and redemption in that town inside the protagonist when it is apparent to all the town has died?” Endings are never a problem for me, though getting to them can be a test of my wits.