Alec Scott on Reaching Through Time, Grabbing You by the Lapels, and Saying, This is How it Was, This is How it Is
An interview with Alec Scott from The Write Stuff series:
Alec Scott is a Canadian writer living in Oakland. A former litigator, he has worked as an editor and columnist at Toronto Life magazine and a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Since moving to the Bay Area his work has featured in the Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Globe & Mail, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset and San Francisco. His long-form pieces have been nominated for 13 National Magazine Awards, winning three. An avid traveler, he has gone all over on assignment, and some of the resulting stories have won awards — a Lowell Thomas gold, a North American Travel Journalists’ Association gold and a Eureka. He also has a pop-history book about San Francisco coming out shortly, Oldest San Francisco, from Reedy Press. Until It Shimmers is his first novel.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
People often say re: writing, don’t unless you have to, and I agree. But many of us do have to. It takes both talent and hustle to make a go of it – much more hustle than you imagine at first. But if you’re driven to do this, you’re often driven enough to summon up that … relentlessness you need.
I once wrote a play and produced it at a small theatre in Toronto – mainly helpful for me, as a longtime theatre critic, to realize how damn hard it all is. On the auditions, one of the actors said something when I called to let her know she hadn’t got it. She said it wasn’t great to hear, but at least it got her another no, and she tended to land a solid role with an average of 20 noes. She was up to ten or so. It’s a common approach, a common reframing – I’ve since heard it a lot. But I find it helpful, when I pitch something as a story, or when I was querying agents and publishers with this novel, to think of noes as accumulating towards a yes.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
For me, the first big step forward happened at somewhere that was a mix of education and the real world. The college newspaper was critical – we self-funded though ads, but it wasn’t as cut-throat, as high-stakes as a real-world paper. There, editor and writer tended to sit right next to each other, the piece before both of them. The editor then had to explain the proposed changes. So, as the writer, you got to hear why someone wanted to shift things around in your piece. And, as helpful, when, in the upper years you were editing, you had to justify proposed shifts, analyze what was working and not with the person sitting right there. It was high-stakes that way!
My writing took a big step back, though, when I decided to go into law. The training was good for disciplining my mind. But it combined with my tendency to procrastinate in an unhelpful way. I felt I couldn’t even start writing until I knew every last case, every last statute, every single thing. It helped my journalism, which was often more thorough than it might have been, but was a block for more creative writing.
My first post-law job was at a city magazine in Toronto, its staff gloriously wry, rakish, wanting the best for the city. I knew I’d left the practice of law when, on my first day in, an office dog followed me from the coffee room to my office, and lay down there for a while. Who knew where its owner was?
The effort to jam as much wit and fun and yes, wryness into the magazine pieces that came through our mill, some of which I wrote – that was a help, though I have to scratch out excess alliteration sometimes. As the leader of a fiction workshop at Banff said once when looking at one of my alliterative sentences in an otherwise serious short story, “She sells seashells by the seashore.” But good magazine writing tends to feature strong scenes – as, of course, does fiction.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
Just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean you should do it. Studying law was hard for me – it always felt a slog, never a joy. And afterwards, I did the hardest thing for relatively introverted, often overreacting me and went into litigation. Rather than getting to yes, which is much of the practice, I was dealing with high-octane situations where people had come to a firm no with each other, and wanted me to help them resolve it, or get back at someone, all that stuff that is in the backdrop of much civil litigation. Relations with counsel on the other side were often fraught. So, 15-year-old self, choose what feels natural to you. If your training is to do the hardest thing – as mine was – don’t do it, at least without measuring whether it’s a fit with your character and passions.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
No. But getting there. I’m much older than I thought I would be when publishing my first piece of fiction. Still, better late than never. I have such a long to-do list – a follow-up novel to the first featuring the younger brother, a mystery novel, a book about San Francisco’s history due imminently … Even with the truly accomplished, I suspect this is often the feeling. I interviewed an actor, Canada’s nearest equivalent to Meryl Streep – there was little she couldn’t do, from the women in Tennessee Williams to Shakespearean characters – Portia, Viola, Juliet, crossing the porous gender border to play Richard III. When she came to San Francisco to play Mary, mother of, in a one-woman show written by Colm Toibin, I asked her if she felt she’d gotten there, if she felt she’d arrived. She said, no, you never feel that. So there is that. I know I have not arrived. But even if I get closer to that, I will probably still feel that way.
Why do you get up every morning?
Our black cat Robbie sits next to my head, purring, sometimes butting his head against me, or running his paw gently down my cheek. It’s time I get up to feed and let him out. (At least there’s the purring, which is a nice sound to wake up to.) I often use that old advice from this great book my brothers and I read growing up, The Great Brain, of thinking of a problem just before you go to sleep. So if I’m noodling over something in a magazine piece or bit of fiction, often I’ll put it in my mind just before falling off. As often as not, there’s something there in the morning, that I’ll jot down – after dealing with the cat’s needs.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her/their story?
The cat was named for this uncle several generations back, Robbie Ross, one of Oscar Wilde’s circle. A young Canadian in London, Ross became, briefly, scandalously, Wilde’s lover when he was in his late teens, Wilde in his early 30s, and on that foundation they built a friendship, one based mainly on a shared appreciation of Oscar’s brilliance! Robbie was an excellent art critic and curator (he brought the likes of Rodin, Monet and others to his London gallery). He was not maybe great in his own right, but he recognized and fostered greatness in others. He was loyal to Wilde, even in extremis, even at great risk to himself, helping to pay for Oscar’s lawyer in the trials that laid the Irish playwright low, ultimately landing him in Reading Gaol. Robbie often took on himself that thankless task of giving good advice to his older, erratic, brilliant friend.
Robbie didn’t see his job as ending with Oscar’s death. As his literary executor, he pushed the disgraced playwright’s work on anyone who would hear him, finally getting a German theatre to produce one of his plays, the start of Oscar’s posthumous rehabilitation. He helped commission the grave in Pere Lachaise, asking one of his artist friends to carve the sphinx under which Wilde lies – and his own ashes were added to the mix there years later.
Robbie had his own Second Act, as mentor to the soldier-poets whose work on WWI we still read. But his life ended on a sour note. He did not believe that so-called War to End All Wars was necessary, and a rabidly bellicose MP went after him, questioning his patriotism, attacking him for his homosexuality. He died under a cloud. He sounds to have been great company, and he stood up, in a quiet, but forceful way, for what he believed. I have the hero of this, my first novel, Until It Shimmers, also a young, gay Canadian transplanted to London, seeking out Robbie’s haunts, finding some comfort in his example.
What is your fondest memory?
I was leaving a school to go to another, one that none of my few friends were going to. My Mom and I collected all of the many things I’d lost over the course of the year, from the Lost and Found table. The principal wished me luck, congratulating me on winning a public speaking contest with a truly silly speech about the birth of my much younger sister – somehow it beat out more earnest pieces on the Red-Tailed Hawk and the future of bilingualism and multiculturalism in Canada. It was a nice leave-taking, but I just felt so sad. I started to weep in the car, and my Mom seeing it, empathizing, also wept – the sadness of even necessary goodbyes in both of us.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
A move towards reconciliation between my home country Canada and its first peoples. In a primary school outside Toronto, we had plenty of projects devoted to supposed lore about the people whose land we’d grabbed, but it wasn’t until I got to college and then law school, that I made friends with descendants of the continent’s first inhabitants. At law school, one of my favorite classes was First Nations Law, in which we learned some about the long, often shameful legal history of interactions between the settlers and those who were here. But there were tools in the law, now being used, to help shift the balance of power, new interpretations of old treaties, a clause in Canada’s then new constitutional instrument, Trudeau pere, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that the courts were then giving teeth.
The discovery of mass graves near the schools where native children were forced to go, often far from their homes – this simply illuminated what was known, that the conquerors, my people, were ruthless in imposing their will and ideas on the conquered. But somehow, some of the continent’s first peoples survived it, bringing other ideas, other cultures forward. I would like to see progress on this front.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I like that feeling of confidential truth-telling that you get in the best novels. Of someone reaching through time, grabbing you by the lapels, and saying, this is how it was, this is how it is. There is nothing like that. Often there’s that great sense of recognition – you are not alone. But as interesting, are those moments where you don’t recognize the scene or the thinking, where you’re being introduced to a whole new way of things.
What is the relationship between your identity and your desires? Perhaps related, perhaps not: why is sex (un)important to you?
As I moved towards puberty, I realized I was more drawn, sexually, to boys than girls. So there was a close relationship between my identity and what I wanted, what our (Anglican) prayerbook called the devices and desires of my own heart. (We weren’t supposed to listen to those too much!)
Sex is important to me because I had to fight for it. When I was young, it was not accepted – both the sin and the sinner disdained by most of the people I knew.
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
I have on black Oxfords, good for walking around New York, on a brief visit. I wear my shoes to death; I do not take the care of them they deserve. I have always been a mess on the fashion front, friends, at lunch, taking off my glasses to clean them with a napkin, stains in places that need to be explained away. I was the ruin of every family photo, capping my off-kilter outfits with an extraordinary ability to blink at exactly the wrong moment.
That said, I love to be around people who can pull it all together, who put some elan and creativity into their looks. I just am not that person. Even when I try my damndest, there’s always something off.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
I am writing about the oldest this that and the other thing in San Francisco. So: the oldest children’s charity, founded as an orphanage in the Gold Rush; the oldest blue jeans (I felt I was seeing the shroud of Turin when the Levi’s historian took them out of the vault); the oldest rainbow flag; the oldest bike shop and funeral home.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I would like there to be more affordable housing.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
I love the theater – I worked as a critic for years, and had a play of mine put on at a small, Toronto theatre. So it’d start with a show – either at the theatre or, in the Bay Area, at one of our great old, Hollywood-Babylon era movie houses. Then there’d be a bite – I like to eat late. Once that would have all been prelude to some clubs, but no longer. I’ve become a bore, an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type.
What are you unable to live without?
Good music. In our house, growing up we had the good time music of the ’60s – Janis Joplin, The Supremes, The Stones and Beatles. And at college the soundtrack to the Big Chill, featuring some of those tunes, was much played. The witchy opening chords of Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” can still make me feel the anticipation you have on entering a big party.
I also love choral music, the double expression of some sacred impulse in both the hymn’s words and melody.
In my book, at key moments, I’ve used music to set the tone, to speak to what is happening with the characters and in the story. Or at least, the lyrics of that music, since the music can’t be displayed on the page. There is this bottled euphoria in some of the best music that I have tried to capture in my writing – this sudden feeling of rightness. It seems almost impossible to bottle, to share, but I would like to do that.
If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I’d take my car-mad husband David to the South of France, renting an old Citroën DS, so he could drive along the coast and up into the hills. Though a German-Canadian, he loves all things French – and speaks it well. Though he likes vintage Mercedes-Benzes, the beautifully designed, often histrionic Citroëns have his heart. The Michelin guides give you symbols for cosy, traditional restaurants – we’d seek those out, in some of those villages perched on impossible slopes. Without him, without his intelligent cheerleading and support, I could not have written this novel – and he even copy-edited one of the publisher’s final proofs. It would be nice to be able to thank him properly.
If you could live in your ideal society, what would your average day be like?
I liked the life an uncle and aunt built, in England. They both started their careers in publishing in London, but then moved to the countryside where both were more at home. He became a garden writer, an eminent one, and she often edited his work – as well as that of others. They worked hard in the mornings, he in a shed out back, her inside, her making a nice, simple lunch for the pair of them. They’d often play a game of backgammon early afternoon, then go back at it. A late afternoon walk would get the best of the day’s light. In the evenings, they often had company. They worked hard, together, on projects that mattered to them. They both had – and she still has – this curiosity and openness to surprises – that idea that Walt Whitman lifted from a Roman poet, that nothing human is foreign to me. A day with some good engaging work, some walking, some talking, some eating, some music, some of it spent alone, some in good company – that seems a good day.