A Conversation with Guillaume Morissette

guillaume morissette

One of my favorite Canadian authors is Guillaume Morissette. I just identified him as Canadian, because I really don’t read that many Canadians, but that shouldn’t matter. But it kind of does, because Montreal and Quebec and Concordia University play a role in the new novel from Guillaume–called New Tab (Vehicule Press, 2014).

I first came across Guillaume via the Internets a few years ago, and really liked the easy fluidity of his story collection, I Am My Own Betrayal.

New Tab is set among a group of roommates within Montreal, where the protagonist  Thomas makes decisions about his career and love life and figures out how to get along with others, basically. Guillaume goes into why he gave up a video game career, semi-autobiographical novels and his style considerations.

What was your main goal with New Tab?

With New Tab, I first began with trying to write about experiences I felt strongly about, including things about contemporary Montreal, video game design and operating a semi-illegal DIY venue. It didn’t feel like any of these topics had really been tackled in book form, which seemed motivating to me. I wrote in the same way I normally do, which is by using humor to explore stuff that probably isn’t funny, but then the more I got into it, the more it felt like what I wanted was to seriously, violently and honestly examine my life as well as my position in time and space, which hopefully would resonate with other human beings and further their own self-examinations.

You were a video game designer like the main character right? Why did you decide to transition out of video games and into writing?

I worked in the video game industry for about five or six years. I was doing well financially, but near the end, everything else seemed to me like a quiet nightmare of internal screaming and long, pointless meetings. The last company I worked for was a large corporation that was openly hated on the internet and had more or less endless levels of hierarchy. I was a “video game designer,” but I didn’t feel like I had any kind of agency or power. I was just at the mercy of decisions made by, like, simple-minded marketing and business bros in their thirties who play basketball on the weekend and like themselves. Every day, it just felt like I had to restrain myself from emailing them something like, “Here’s the file you requested. On a personal note, I fucking hate all of you.” I didn’t even seem to matter whether I was doing a good job or a terrible job.

Also, it felt like our games were getting stupider and lazier. People would just be like, “This aquarium game by this other company seems to be doing well. Let’s just copy that but make it look 10% better.” It seemed, to me, like many people thought negatively of the players they designed these products for. I didn’t like thinking of players as “stupid,” or that grown adults could be satisfied with putting a hat on a dog, which was a problem.

During that period, I also started reading way more and got into contemporary fiction and then it became obvious that in most cases, the video game medium just didn’t speak to me anymore. I decided, on a whim, to apply to Concordia University to study Creative Writing on a part-time basis. My mother tongue is French, so I didn’t have a portfolio of English writing to submit. I half-assed something together in a few days and sent it in and was accepted somehow. Then I moved into the house that’s heavily featured in New Tab, which had a huge backyard that my roommates used to screen movies or throw parties more or less illegally in the summer, and from living with Anglophone roommates and studying at Concordia in English and other things, I felt a “switch” in my identity. English became my primarily language, which was really just a practical way for me to re-invent myself, a kind of exorcism of the person that I was in French.

Why did you think a semi- autobiographical approach was right for this story? Do you generally gravitate to books where the author’s life events are part of the fiction?

I like books that come from a very “internal” place and are reckless in some way, so I feel like I would have a hard time writing something that comes from an “external” place, like historic fiction set in Russia or a book that sounds like it’s trying too hard to become a movie script or something.

At the same time, I also didn’t want to write a memoir or a diary, because I wanted this particular book to exist as an entity that was separate from me, so that a person who isn’t me would be able to read it without context, without knowing or caring that several aspects are based on real-life stuff. In the end, you could have some sort of Canadian independent movie or something based on New Tab in which the main character isn’t 100% alike me, which would be totally okay and probably better.

To be honest, I’m tired of semi-autobiographical.

I don’t even know if I like the term “semi-autobiographical.” Japanese literature uses the term “I-novel” to describe a book that’s close to its author in terms of experiences and etc, which seems more accurate. In general, I think they have two distinct schools of writing, with separate prizes for each. One is “mass-market” literature and the other is “pure” literature, which I-novels are usually considered a part of.

Writing gives you the opportunity to examine your life and understand what you understood about your own experiences, which sometimes is kind of like, how can you resist? But at the same time, it also feels a little like this line in Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles where she talks about her character’s journey, describing it as something like, “of considerable interest but of no great importance.” In that sense, I can see where you’re coming from.

Your style was explanatory, but there were several sections where the paragraph jumps would transition out of a scene entirely. This was kinda disorienting, but I guess this reflects the idea of opening a new tab. Thoughts?

My model for the structure was notebook-style writing, stuff like Diary of Anaïs Nin or Why Did I Ever? by Mary Robison. These books unfold in fragments, so each break between sections represents a different entry or a passage of time or something. I played with the structure a lot and realized I like having fragments of different sizes follow one another, so that some scenes are several pages long while others are probably the length of a tweet. I think it gives the writing a kind of unique energy and momentum, to have a long scene followed by several tweet-length scenes in a row, yo-yoing between scene lengths. I hadn’t seen any other book do something like this, at least.

I think you read the e-book version, and I noticed that the space between sections is a little smaller in there than in the physical version, which maybe contributed to the disorienting thing for you, I don’t know.

Thomas seems to be the responsible one–he’s bilingual, deals with the bills, has a real job. Yet someone he cares about has a negative experience based on Thomas’ suggestion. I’m trying to say something grand about the nature of responsibility but now need you to make that point for me.

On paper, Thomas appears to be responsible, which, in a way, is actually what causes some harm and hardships in the second half of the book. The entire book, Thomas is consciously trying to self-destruct, by testing all possible limits of what he can and can’t get away with at work and in other aspects of his life. What he’s trying to do, I think, is a kind of voluntary regression, to free himself from being viewed as “responsible” in any way by fully exposing himself as a fuck up. Fucking up becomes more or less a kind of therapy.

You’ve also been making some sweet charts. Where does the inspiration come for those?

Usually just trying to exploit my personal neuroses to create mildly viral entertainment.

You live in Montreal right?

I do. I lived in Toronto for about six months and moved back to Montreal in February. Part of the problem was job stuff, like while I was in Toronto, I was just moving from insane job to insane job a lot and not making enough money to survive.

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