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Words and Music: Craig Davidson and Jenn Grant (part 2)

Brad Frenette

Words and Music pairs up a Canadian novelist or poet with a Canadian songwriter for a conversation about the art and process of writing.

Craig Davidson is the author of three books, including The Fighter, Sarah Court and Rust and Bone. The latter book – a collection of short stories – has recently been made into a film (read the review), which will make its Canadian debut at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

Halifax-based singer-songwriter Jenn Grant has released three records, beginning with 2007's Orchestra for the Moon. Her latest, titled The Beautiful Wild, is set for release later this year.

For this instalment of Words and Music, we paired the two writers together to exchange emails with each other about starting out, family dynamics and measuring success.

Read part one of this conversation here. The conclusion is below:

Craig Davidson: Do you find that "place" plays a big part in your creative process? Where you're from, the rhythms of home? I say so because my girlfriend is an East-Coaster and that eastern blood always seems to want to seek its source again. She enjoys Toronto, but it will never quite be home. So is that how you feel, too?

Jenn Grant: The place I was born and grew up until I was 10 years old was Prince Edward Island, and since then I have lived in the Maritimes. There is a quiet mystery and whimsy that flows in and out of my writing like the wind or the ocean and I connect it to that. But music makes me a traveller, both in my heart and in my body. So there are other places now that are sometimes darker or different and stretch farther than an island could ever tie me to, and at the same [time] seem to always also me back.

Do you listen to music when you write?

Davidson: Oh, yeah, tons. I'm very bad for the "repeat" button. If I'm writing a scene, I often find that one song really helps flesh it out for me – it sets the background music to it. I was recently writing a nonfiction piece for Esquire and I kept listening to "Real Hero," I think it's called, off the Drive soundtrack. Over and over and over. Just poring over the same scene again and again, changing one word, dwelling on it, deleting the word, trying to make it all come together and gel. My girlfriend gives me grief for it. Like, "There are 12 songs on the damned CD, Craig. Why not listen to the other 11?" I do get burnt out on specific songs that way.

Grant: Given a financially successful situation, would you prefer to retire someday? Or do you imagine yourself writing until you can't move your fingers and you need your stories to be transcribed by an old-fashioned secretary? (In this situation the secretary is easy to work with and you are still in a loving relationship with the mother of your child, who has no problem with you spending so much time with your secretary.)

Davidson: I actually think the opposite. I'm 36 now, which isn't ancient but it feels that way, sometimes. And I guess for me, with writing, I use the bouncing-a-ball analogy. For me, if you look at writing as bouncing a ball, the joy for me is in the initial parts. Picking up the ball, turning it over in my hands, trying to bounce it, failing, trying again, having a little more success and so on.

What I'm less interested in is finding out how long I can bounce the ball for. I know that's a simplification; writing or being a musician or any kind of artist is more complex and can be a lifelong pursuit. For many it is. But for me, like I said, the interest is in the learning, the failing, the re-learning. So I kind of feel like I know how to write. I'll never be Steve King but I've made peace with that. I'm pretty happy with what I've accomplished.

So going forward into my 40s I might want to try something completely different. I was talking with a film director who was in much the same position. In his early 40s, has had success but maybe not as profound as he'd envisioned it being when he was younger (it's so awful to hold yourself to those youthful projections) but he was saying that film was so difficult because even if you had an idea, a good script, even some good actors, it could fall apart in any number of ways. You could get 99 per cent to the finish line only to have it collapse. And he said he'd like to make donuts. Seriously. He liked the idea of being fully in control of something. Making something without having to prove or weasel or finagle anything. He didn't have to worry about someone saying, "Oh, I don't like the character arc of this donut, so sorry, I'm holding back the vanilla" and he couldn't make it.

So I get it. Sometimes you just need to make the damn donut. So sometimes you need a change. I'd still want to do something artistic, sure, but not writing. Cooking, maybe. I find that fascinating. Addicted to the Food Network, this guy. Maybe the director and me can open a bakery. I might go back and write a kids' book at some point, maybe even a series if anyone was interested in publishing it. Anyway, that's how I feel today. I may make a liar of myself yet.

How about you, regarding success? Do you have an end goal or have you already accomplished what you wanted to? Or do you see it as a lifelong sort of thing, intimately tied to who you are, that you can't see yourself without music?

Grant: I know I will always make music and that it will always be a big part of my life. I hope that my career will be long and fruitful, and I hope I experience many different types of successes. I know that I have already had many, and am very fortunate for them. But my job, which happens to be music, is also my soul's purpose. I think there will be ups and downs in the way it comes and goes, but as you said, even that will be a part of it – collecting experiences, and dreaming up ways that I can sing my story of them.

Davidson: What about the business of your career? Do you give much thought to some of the things that managers and agents harp on – brand management and "platforms" and the use of your song in a diaper commercial or something? Do you ever struggle with that strange intersection of art and money/commerce/business?

Grant: I'll take what I can get! If not for music placements, I would be floating in a river somewhere on a boat made out of cardboard eating canned beans (don't get me wrong, I like canned beans).

OK, well, I would like to think if a known company using harmful chemicals or malnourished mothers in third world countries came along and wanted to use my song for an ad, I would say no. I would like my music to represent a standard of morality if there is a choice one way or the other. But I think I would be hard pressed to say no to a diaper commercial, for example. (Pampers – call me.)

Do you ever get so attached to your characters that you cry when something bad happens to them?

Davidson: You know, I do. I can become a real mess when I'm writing something. In fact I sort of use that as a litmus test: if I'm bawling like an infant when the end of a story draws near – and more importantly, if I start bawling again when I go back to work on it in the edits – then I feel like I might have an OK piece of work on my hands.

It's not always when something bad happens, either, just those times when all the threads you've been working with, all the experiences you've put the characters through, sort of come together, braid tight, and coalesce. A lot of my stuff ends ambiguously – a reader can follow the character off the last page and surmise how s/he ends up, in pleasant or awful circumstances, based on their own feelings. Me, I always hope for the best so I guess there's this feeling, this strong emotion that conjures up when I leave them there at the end of the story. I'm very hopeful for them, always. Maybe it's misplaced hope (anyway, they're just characters, not real, so the idea of "hope" for nonexistent people may seem odd) but anyway, in general my worldview is hopeful and so I sometimes find myself crying out of, yeah, hope for these characters. Hope that their lives will find grace and happiness.