The K. R. Wilson Interview

When King Priam’s pregnant daughter was fleeing the sack of Troy, Stan was there. When Jesus of Nazareth was beaten and crucified, Stan was there–one cross over. Stan has been a Hittite warrior, a Roman legionnaire, a mercenary for the caravans of the Silk Road and a Great War German grunt.

“Not all productive days as a writer involve actual writing. A lot of what I write is historical fiction, where the research can be time-consuming.”

Call Me Stan is the story of a man endlessly struggling to adjust as the world keeps changing around him. He’s been a toymaker in a time of plague, a reluctant rebel in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and an information peddler in the cabarets of post-war Berlin. Stan doesn’t die, and he doesn’t know why. And now he’s being investigated for a horrific crime. As Stan tells his story, from his origins as an Anatolian sheep farmer to his custody in a Toronto police interview room, he brings a wry, anachronistic perspective to three thousand years of Eurasian history.

K.R. Wilson was born in Calgary and lives in Toronto. An Idea About My Dead Uncle, the winner of the 2018 Guernica Prize for Literary Fiction, grew out of the journey he and his wife made to China to adopt their daughter and the research into Chinese history and culture that it inspired. Call Me Stan is his latest novel.

One of the sections focuses on an opera composer in the 19th century. Aren’t you concerned that writing about opera will turn people off?

That section is fundamentally about the characters, not the kinds of dry details that make people cringe when they hear the word ‘opera’. You don’t need to know or care about opera in the slightest to engage with the characters.

That composer—Richard Wagner—was notoriously anti-Semitic, and his music was appropriated by the Nazi regime in Germany. Aren’t you concerned that a sympathetic treatment of him might offend some readers?

I don’t let Wagner get away with anything. His vile anti-Semitism is front and centre. But he wasn’t just a one-dimensional racist stereotype. Alongside his anti-Semitism, he had a lifelong fascination with the Buddha, to the point that he wanted to write an opera about him, though he never did. That jarring disconnect—how an unapologetic anti-Semite could also be drawn to the teachings of the Buddha—has always intrigued me.

Is that why you also have a section where Stan joins a central Asian Buddhist community?

That’s part of it. It was structural to the story for Wagner to get some of his understanding of Buddhism from Stan, which meant Stan had to have a grounding in Buddhism. Some scholars have also identified parallels between some Buddhist teachings and the teachings of Jesus, so that gave me the opportunity to make Stan the conduit of those teachings to his friend Yeshu. Plus I was surprised when I learned many years ago that there were once thriving Buddhist communities as far west as what is now Afghanistan. That gave me another opportunity to dig into something that I found intriguing. 

 What is a good writing day look like to you?

Not all productive days as a writer involve actual writing. A lot of what I write is historical fiction, where the research can be time-consuming. A research day might involve reading a resource, flagging potentially useful extracts, and assembling them into a document in the order in which they fit my narrative (if I’m even far enough along in the process to know how they fit yet). At a later, sort of intermediate stage, I’ll be deciding which extracts to use (probably actually only a handful) and which to leave out (almost always the majority). My guiding principle there is whether it serves the narrative or not. I try to avoid the temptation to include every shiny thing I unearthed during my research. That can lead to clutter that pulls your reader out of the story.

On a writing day I’ll settle in at my desk with a coffee and pick up wherever I left off the previous day. Sometimes that means carrying on with a narrative that I’ve roughed out in my mind. Sometimes I won’t have as clear a direction, but when I start writing the characters will tell me where they need to go next. Sometimes I’ll get hung up on a detail of history or geography or technology and step out of the actual writing for a while to do a specific bit of research, such as whether 19th century Europe had upright pianos (yes) or modern doorknobs (no). I don’t usually set a fixed goal for myself. I’ve had stretches where I’ve managed to average around 1000 words a day, but I don’t do that consistently. Even when I set a loose target I can be satisfied if I fall short of it but end up with a tight, satisfying scene. Especially if I ended up spending a lot of time that day researching pianos and doorknobs.

 What types of books did you read as a younger person?

As a kid, The Hardy Boys. As an adolescent, mostly science fiction and spy thrillers.

What advice would you give a first time author trying to get their book published?

Persist. Do your best not to get discouraged. Work on your craft. Like any other skill, the more you write the better you get at it. Solicit feedback on your writing from people you trust to be honest with you, and try not to get pissed off at their constructive criticism (I wish I could give that advice to my younger self). Make use of social media to build a supportive online community with other writers. Your support and advice to one another will be invaluable.