Jeff Parker Can’t Lose


Jeff Parker Can’t Lose

The US author is here to stay, but what’s with all the ties to Russia?

By Spencer Gordon

Are we to assume that Jeff Parker is telling the truth? Sure, he’ll try to make you believe that he’s just your average, everyday, up-and-coming American author. Living in Toronto, editing anthologies of Russian fiction. You know-the sort of career move every celebrated American writer dreams of making. He’ll try to convince you that it’s every American’s wildest fantasy to live low-key and under-the-radar in a frigid northern city, far from the prying eyes of Washington, able to frequently fly to St. Petersburg to “research” an upcoming project …

Seems pretty typical, right? Or does it? What’s Parker’s agenda? What’s his interest in Toronto, so far north of his native Florida? What does he find so interesting about those Reds? And why does he carry a suitcase, a revolver, and a strange red button?

Whatever it is that Agent -er, I mean Mr. Parker is doing here, I think it’s high time the loyal readers of Broken Pencil found out.

I recently caught up with Parker in his rad, bullet-proof office room in the bowels of the University of Toronto campus to discuss his position of influence and authority, his business with our nation, his suspect trips to the former Soviet Union, and this so-called American ‘literary’ tradition.

It’s always nice to discover another great writer hard at work in our own backyard. And Jeff Parker-writer, editor, and professor-just might be one of Toronto’s best kept secrets. He’s the author of Ovenman (Tin House 2007), the story collection The Back of The Line (DECODE), and the editor of Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States (Dalkey 2004). He’s also the acting director of the prestigious Master’s program in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, where he preps and coaches aspiring writers enrolled in one of the most unique MA degrees in the country.

Parker received his own MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, where he studied under such heavyweight authors as George Saunders, Arthur Flowers and Mary Caponegro. “The most important thing for me was the reeducation I got in terms of what it means to be a writer,” he recalls. “I kind of knew that it meant you have to call out the world and yourself on all the bullshit. And I kind of knew that it meant you had to strive for things that had never been done before. What grad school, and particularly the writers I worked with there, taught me that I didn’t understand was that failure was a part of it, that most of us do time in the trenches (even the Chosen Ones) and are the better for it, and that to be any good you have to really care.”

Parker spent his younger years split between Tallahassee and Destin, Florida-a section of the state situated somewhere between “the theme park culture of Orlando and the profound Southern-ness of Georgia,” fondly referred to by locals as the “Redneck Riviera.” But since his Central-Floridian beginnings, Parker’s lived just about everywhere in the US, spent a great deal of time in Russia, and now calls Toronto home-a move which has allowed him a far greater awareness of the sometimes mysterious world of Canadian writing. “With publishing, the border is like a one-way strainer,” he explains. “American lit tends to sieve through, whereas Canadian lit doesn’t go the other way. I think it’s a real shame. There’s a lot of really exciting work being done here that goes outside the bounds of CanLit, which is a phenomenon that both intrigues and repels me. There are so many great writers I never would have come across without moving here: Michael Winter, Ken Babstock, Christian Bok, Lynne Coady, Lee Henderson…I could go on and on.”

The effect of his extensive travel throughout North America has been one of “adding tics and grammar and syntax from all those places, in what is,” he hopes, “a unique sound on the page. That’s what’s interesting to me at least, sentences as instruments.” It’s a part of what makes his narrators so sharp and distinct; and it explains his particular mastery of voice. “Sound drives my writing,” he says. “It’s the engine that makes it go. The South is one of those places with a particularly strong linguistic flavour, like Newfoundland or Glasgow. And I’m pretty sure [my interest in sound] came from an interest in the fucked-up way people talked around me while I was growing up.”

His debut novel Ovenman definitely benefits from this careful attention to voice a voice, by the way, which counts certain major-league American writers-Mary Gaitskill, Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Padgett Powell and Sam Lipsyte, to name but a few-as its fans). Ovenman is narrated by When Thinfinger, a skateboarding pizza-cook with a curiously inarticulate, often hilarious take on the world-and who, if you’ve read the reviews, may be one of the most original-sounding narrators to come along in American fiction in recent memory. “It’s his voice that makes or breaks the book,” Parker admits. “It’s not based on any person in particular, though certainly fragments come from all over. Most of the revisions involved surgery on his syntax.”

Since Ovenman, Parker’s been hard at work co-editing (with Mikhail Iossel) a collection called Rasskazy: New Fiction From a New Russia, also scheduled for publication by Tin House Books. It’s a work which no doubt draws on his extensive experience living in Russia as the program director of the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg. “That’s been a blast,” he says, considering the immense body of contemporary Russian fiction he’s been happily poring over for the collection. “The new generation of Russian writers is off the charts. They somehow manage to hold onto everything the great tradition of Russian writers did, and re-construe it in these dark and foreboding contemporary landscapes.”

Luckily, Team Parker only seems to be picking up steam. At press time he was finishing up a story collection, The Taste of Penny, due out in Canada through Snare in November and next year in the US. “[I’m] finishing a nonfiction book to be published September 2010 on Russia, thinking of it as Fear And Loathing on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. And also piecing together a new novel about animal rights terrorists. We’ll see…”