Meet the author and much-in-demand editor, David Antrobus!
Tell us about the books you’ve written. What are the titles?
I’ve self-published two works. The first is a short account of a continent-spanning road trip I took to New York City against the backdrop of the 9/11 attacks, a kind of memoir/travelogue mash-up. It has the slightly unwieldy title of Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip. The second book is an irreverent look at the publishing industry and the world of writing in general, largely from an independent perspective, titled Endless Joke.
You write a lot of short stories, and they are brilliant. What are some of the messages in these stories that you would want readers to grasp?
Oh, thank you for the kind words. I love writing short fiction. If there’s any kind of message (and I’m not sure there is), it’s that beauty can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Most of my stories are sorrowful and dark, shot through with pain and loss, yet I try (note that verb) to discover or unearth some form of loveliness or even plain love at the heart of them. My hope is that the language itself, in all its musical, radiant, rhythmic splendor, will offset the darkness by virtue of its contrast.
You are a writer as well as an editor. How would you describe your work style for each?
Red wine and media noise for writing; silence and sobriety for editing. That sounds glib, but I do approach them from massively different directions, roughly analogous to that apocryphal quote, “Write drunk; edit sober.” Not literally, perhaps, since a certain degree of intoxication generally produces gibberish, but it’s not far off describing my approach. Up to that tipping point, it seems to open up parts of my creative brain. Editing, however, while it also calls on creativity, calls too on more structured and rational aspects of our minds, so I can’t edit if I’m distracted. That said, the line between the two disciplines isn’t as distinct as we sometimes pretend (writing isn’t pure art, and editing isn’t pure science), so I’m talking in generalizations here.
What techniques and tools do you employ to keep yourself organized?
Probably not enough! There are editing tools adored by my colleagues that help automate many of the tedious aspects of copyediting and proofreading, such as macros and software like PerfectIt, which I’ve yet to try. Perhaps because I primarily edit fiction, in all its untamed, nuanced glory, I’ve been skeptical it can be neatly rounded up like a field full of compliant sheep. Yet, time permitting, I know I’ll eventually get to that stuff. But I do use a few tricks in Microsoft Word that I’ve learned along the way (largely to do with document-wide search and replace).
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
From reading. It’s really that simple. And from a very young age. I actually remember the feeling when I first learned to read, after which I read literally everything: cereal boxes, road signs, and the like. I know it’s a cliché, but it felt like magic, like finding a ring of power or a cloak of invisibility. And somehow, my ear has always heard language like music, so as I grew older I began to read then mimic those writers who heard language similarly, Ray Bradbury being the first. My first actual stories were blatant Bradbury rip-offs.
What about editing?
Editing was different. I didn’t think I was interested in editing as a career even when I began to do it more. By that I mean, in one sense we all edit; few people write a first draft of anything and put that out in the world, and rightly so. But what I mean was that I began to edit work for friends and family in a strictly nonprofessional capacity. As I went on, I realized I had a talent for it, but even then I didn’t consider myself an editor. It was only when I committed to it fully after reading a wonderful book called The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn cover-to-cover that I realized this was what I was doing and beginning to do well and could be doing much better. And everything led from there.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing and editing?
Writing: plot. In my short fiction, I lean more toward mood and atmosphere and character, so discovering a way through from A to B to C is a huge challenge for me. I mean, because I hear the music of language so clearly and so loudly I think I’m actually coming at fiction as more of a poet than a storyteller, so I have to try to temper that impulse a little in order to achieve any semblance of coherence, of beginning, middle, and end.
Editing: grammar. That might be a surprising admission, but when you really get into the grammatical weeds, things get pretty tangled, and even grammar has its subjective side. For that reason I’m constantly trying to upgrade my knowledge of grammar, because I feel like I still have huge gaps. It’s a case of the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.
Do you admire your own work?
Ha, what an amazing question! This stumped me for a long time, and I’ve had to come back to it again and again. Okay, I look at some of my older writing and flinch hard at its often wooden and clumsy style, or where I wore my influences on my sleeve. And for most of my life, that’s been the case: write something, move on, don’t look back at the embarrassing stuff I wrote earlier, rinse and repeat. But lately that’s changed. I can look quite a ways back at the short pieces on my blog and find that I still like them. Admire? Not so sure. But like? Yes. Increasingly so. As an example, I wrote a flash piece recently about something terrible that happened between two characters in a cheap motel, and the man wakes to the aftermath and the horrible realization and sense of loss the following day. It’s called “Something Bad.” But when I read it over again, I discovered something: I could still make out the stamp or the watermark of my various influences (Bradbury, McCarthy, Chandler, Kerouac, and even the films of David Lynch and Terrence Malick), but they were no longer blaring; somehow I’d assimilated them all, yet I’d spoken in my own voice. That was (and still is) an amazing feeling. It’s taken me pretty much half a century to get there! But yes, over the last few years I’ve begun to like my own writing at last.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?
Sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing tough from mean, in this context. I submitted a story recently, and the feedback was mostly constructive, until I got to that accusation of “purple prose.” Now, I know full well what that term means, and I acknowledge I often flirt with the boundaries, but did they have to use such a pejorative term when they could have expressed the same thing more kindly? I mean, baroque or florid or flamboyant or ornate would have gotten the same message across (and I fully recognize that I do tend toward those adjectives in my writing) without me saying “Ouch,” you know?
What has been the best compliment?
A single phrase: “Cormac McCarthy with a broken heart.” Not that I want to be derivative of another writer, but that phrase recognizes a certain rarefied approach to the language of fiction, while also acknowledging the sadness that underlies so much of what I write. But I’ve had many more compliments from so many generous people, some of which I’m not sure I’ve earned.
Who has impacted you most in your career and how?
Not sure I can answer this. Too many people, including great authors, great editors, and also my peers and contemporaries.
Who are your favorite authors, and what is it that inspires you about their work?
Again, we could be here a long time! I’ll list a few that come to mind: Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Chandler, JRR Tolkien, Sylvia Plath, AM Homes, Gillian Flynn, Jack Kerouac, Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Alice Munro, Jack Ketchum, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Louise Erdrich, Dennis Lehane, Shirley Jackson, Umberto Eco, Clive Barker, Milan Kundera, Andrew Vachss, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Lester Bangs, Barbara Kingsolver, Haruki Murakami, James Ellroy, Daphne du Maurier, James Agee, Tana French, David Foster Wallace, James M. Cain, Kealan Patrick Burke, Donna Tartt… See what I mean? I’ve left out hundreds here, not least the many great authors I’ve personally edited. If I had to pick a common thread, I’d say it’s either brilliant sentences or compelling moods. And unforgettable, fully dimensional characters. Uh, I know that’s not very specific.
What books have most influenced your life, and what are your favorites?
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was the first full story to tell me I would love stories for as long as I’ll live. Kerouac’s On the Road and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings gave me the wanderlust. Bradbury’s short stories made me love short stories forever, and Alice Munro helps to confirm that every time I read another of her seemingly effortless yet ludicrously rich tales. Stephen King picked up the reins after Bradbury and showed me how the mundane can be terrifying, how horror can happen in small-town sunshine. Somewhat counterintuitively to many, perhaps, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave me a sense of the limitless possibilities of beauty in horror stories, of the potential for a merger of the sublime and the dark, the lovely and the bleak. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker showed me the literary possibilities of post-apocalyptic fiction, a genre that is constantly producing classics, from McCarthy’s The Road to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Ted Hughes’s Crow and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl have demonstrated for me how poetry can be both linguistically visceral and narratively coherent. Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels showed me the breathtaking breadth of the human imagination. Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs showed me the sheer lightning power of nonfiction. Back to McCarthy: Blood Meridian is possibly my favourite novel ever written, something that’s taken me three readings to realize; such descriptive beauty and human awfulness in one place. (I know I’m barely scratching the surface here, but I have to stop somewhere, or I’ll be typing away into 2019 and beyond.)
What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer and editor?
Pace yourself. Okay, that also sounds glib, and I’m running out of energy here, but I kind of like it as a distillation of everything I want to say!
What are your proudest achievements?
Some of my recent stories. Having some of those stories accepted by magazines. And making a living as a fiction editor, after switching careers so drastically. I’m also proud of that former career, too—working with at-risk children and youth: teenage runaways; street kids; abused, neglected, and marginalized kids. I did it for two decades until I could no longer do it emotionally. I ended up completely wrung out. But in hindsight I wouldn’t change a thing. Oh, and successfully uprooting from a good life in England to an equally good life in Canada, a country I knew from the age of twelve onward that I’d one day live in.
How do you relax?
Read. Hike. Play guitar (badly). Watch movies. Cook. Eat. Drink wine. Have great conversations.
Who are your heroes?
Some of those I mentioned above, but the first person who came immediately to mind here was Jane Goodall. A singular, unique, selfless, inspiring, brave, fiercely intelligent, vastly compassionate woman like no other. Also, some more obvious ones: Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin. All of them visionaries and courageous to an almost ludicrous degree. All of whom fashioned something good from pain.
What is your greatest fear?
One thing I don’t even want to articulate, as it involves another person, and though I’m not generally superstitious, the thought that saying it out loud might be a jinx is enough to make me stay silent. As for fear involving myself only, I’d say dying before I’ve felt, seen, experienced the beauty in everything. Yeah, not smart of me, I know, since it guarantees I’ll die in sadness.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
Italy. Mysteriously, I’ve always been an Italophile, and the four days I spent in Florence and the Tuscany region a lifetime ago were magical, and no doubt my memory has layered on something shimmering and glorious even beyond the reality.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
Help my family. Travel. Nothing extravagant, though.
Do you laugh at your own jokes?
Sadly, yes. And worse, they’re often dad jokes.
What is your favorite memory from childhood?
Drawing Spider-man in a sketchbook in a small Victorian seaside resort in North Wales while Don McLean’s “Vincent” played on a radio. Honestly, though, this answer would change every time you asked me! How about hiking the Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry, Ireland, during a raging storm and being fed Irish coffees by a woman, a stranger whose cottage we stumbled upon in the lashing torrent (if eighteen counts as childhood). Or listening to the trains go by beyond the backyard wall of my gran’s house, while she dug divots in her lawn so I could play golf. I could go on.
What makes you cry?
I could be flip and say Bambi, but that would actually be true. My favourite music, my favourite movies, my favourite books. Most things have sadness at their core, though. My Irish DNA has doomed me; as Yeats once said, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
What makes you laugh?
The above quote. Fortunately, given my propensity for melancholy, I also love humour. Sadly, it’s usually pretty bleak itself. Definitely gallows. I think of standup comics as priests, almost. I revere them. Honestly, without humour I’d be long gone by now. The last two years since Brexit and Trump? Without the ability to laugh to offset the horror and the crushing disappointment of it all? I’d have wandered into the mountains by now.
What is the loveliest thing you have ever seen?
This will sound sappy and even clichéd, but the birth of my daughter. Followed by so many sights and sounds throughout Europe and across North America. The aurora borealis, which I’ve been lucky enough to have seen four times. Grey whales in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia. The Oregon coast. Montana’s skies. Devils Tower, Wyoming. Baffin Island from the air. The CN Tower from the air. Flying north over nighttime Europe and seeing the bright emerald soccer fields lit up in town after town. The Badlands of South Dakota. Koma Kulshan (Mt. Baker) up close and personal. Mt Rainier backdropping downtown Seattle. The Bay Area. The Ring of Kerry. The ominous dark of Albania seen through a train window, and the contrast with islands of joy as we crossed into Greece and saw people dancing in brightly lit tavernas. Smoky, dangerous Marseilles. The Sylvia Hotel in English Bay in Vancouver’s west end. Jazz and blues clubs on Bleecker Street in the West Village. The view south from Grouse Mountain, of Metro Vancouver all the way to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Sitting round a campfire as the moon rises over a ridge to the east and the coyotes begin their ghost chorus. The great splash of our galaxy across the deep black seen from a beach near Tofino, BC. Silhouetted people against a peach sunset by the Vancouver seawall. So much beauty.
You love films. What is your favorite film and why?
Today I’ll say The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Because it’s about everything: the beginning of the universe and the beginning of life, the evolution of everything, the dinosaurs and the asteroid, the rise of mammals here on Earth, but also the ties of life, how the roots are mirrored by the branches, the endless mystery of women and men, of the paths we can follow, nature or grace, and how our choices determine those of our children, on and on, the great sweep of it all, the tragedy and the loveliness, and what might become of us.
Who would play you in a film of your life?
Ha, no idea. But the actor most people have compared me to is John Cusack. Not so much a looks thing, but an energy thing, I think. But thinking outside the box, how about Emma Stone? Ha ha!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Boring and unoriginal, I know, but write constantly, and write what you urgently want to read.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Check your six. And toughen up. Yet keep your heart tender. And don’t think you can do that work with the kids forever. Have a Plan B.
David Antrobus is a freelance writer and editor whose origins lie in northern England and who currently lives in the Vancouver area. As if in tribute to the abused and neglected children he spent two decades working with, his writing in all its forms bristles with outrage, sorrow, dark humour, and resilience.
As a writer, David is far from prolific, which he justifies by assuring anyone who cares to listen that he much prefers quality over quantity. The fact that he has one perfect daughter lends support to this approach. However, his steady intake of wine, caffeine, and deeply questionable movies just as easily undermines it.
As an editor, he created Be Write There in 2009, a one-stop service that provides proofreading, copyediting, substantive editing, developmental editing, and manuscript evaluation.
He has published two books, both nonfiction, and has written numerous dark yet lyrical tales scattered among various anthologies and websites.
Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip is a short account of a road trip across a continent, to New York City, at a time when everything felt under attack:
Endless Joke is an irreverent yet heartfelt look at the moment when self-publishing became a real possibility for the many; highlighting the pitfalls and potentials of a literary world without gatekeepers. In a way, it’s a disguised love letter to our wondrous language: