1. The Toast Soldiers short story collection introduces us to a variety of narrators with thought-provoking perspectives. A boy experiences the Cold War, a bartender gives us the inside story of a washed-out boxer, and a son makes peace with his life by telling the story of how his parents met on a breadline in a Displaced Persons camp. Can you talk about how you decide whose story it is to tell? Do you explore various perspectives before you make a choice? How does the narrator impact the story as it unfolds?
This may sound strange, but I meet them, not in the flesh, but as they walk into my mind, announce themselves, and I observe what they are doing or have done. I think with many of them, their lives are small fragments of my own. I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis and refused to wait for death in the basement of my school. In the case of the Displaced Person’s Camp, I knew people who were friends of the family who experienced the Red Cross Camps. They would come to my parents’ home for dinner and I would listen to their stories. A writer is someone who listens first, then writes what he or she has heard. Writing is akin to being a sponge.
2. Time forms a powerful mechanism in many of your stories. The past is almost elastic, sometimes further away and sometimes as immediate as the present. A moment may be re-experienced throughout a lifetime, gaining meaning and defining the self as it does for the boy lost in the woods for three days in the cold of winter. How does time influence which stories you write and how you write them?
There are three places where there is no time: the memory, the text, and heaven. When it comes to stories, I think I have a Faulkner-mind where everything is in a state of plasticity and where now can be in the past, the present, or the future. I find it interesting that in the ancient Greek Hades or Hell, there is no now. Characters have a past or a future but they can’t tell you what time it is. Heaven is in the mind because there is no time in our memories. I have a lot of fun passing the time (no pun intended) where I get to mind-travel. Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five does the same thing. Boundaries and demarcations between moments are for the physical world and a writer shouldn’t try to exist in the physical world, at least as far as stories are concerned.
3. Cheese, photographic glass plates, and other objects carry deep meaning in your stories. The objects transcend time and the individual lives of characters. They can even help us understand abstract notions like love. How does the exploration of physical things impact your writing process? Can you reflect on the importance of observation of the physical world as a portal into stories?
The cheese? That was me having fun for a competition entry where I had to write about food. I didn’t win but someone doing graduate work contacted me to say that story is still one of the most discussed entries they’ve had. I made up the cheese market. I researched cheese, and all the cheesy facts are correct. I love to write factual fiction. Rilke tells young Franz Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet to “write about things.” A good story comes from the intangible but stakes its existence upon the tangible. I want to know things. I am a voracious fact hound. If I haven’t seen an idea at work in the tangible world, I try to determine how it works by acting out the scene. If you saw me, you’d think “he’s crazy”, but every idea, every action represents an illumination of small gestures as Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell (a former publisher of mine in the US) insist is what makes for verity in a narrative. The closer I can bring the content to things, the more powerful its sense of verity or what Italian Renaissance painters called “natura” or life-likeness.
4. With what other book will this work make a good comparison? Does the protagonist or indeed other main characters in the book remind you of main characters from another literary work? Are any ideas in this collection of short stories related to ideas in a comparable work?
I’m not sure books can be compared. I do a lot of reading — Mark Haddon, Haruki Murakami and Rosanna Micelota Battigelli — they’re my current night-table reading. I devour books. I look at stories for how they are constructed, the way beginnings are shaped, and how they finish. Seldom do stories wrap up nicely. That idea is at work in “The Ghosts.” I like to think my characters, as much as I can manage it, have a life after I am finished borrowing a slice of their lives. I try not to write someone else’s work. In fact, I consciously avoid writing someone else’s story because it is already written. I want to know what I don’t know. I see or hear a beginning and I see or hear an end. Sometimes the end more or less invents itself. That’s fun when it happens because it means the story has a life of its own. There is a companion volume to Toast Soldiers that is scheduled for next year about this time. It is titled The Leavening, but that’s all I’ll give away about it right now.
5. A work like this is about many things. How would you describe the most important questions this book deals with?
A friend of mine, the poet Colin Carberry who lives in Mexico, wrote to me yesterday and said Toast Soldiers is a book about hope. I’ll buy that. What interests me are those moments when characters confront life-altering experiences or challenges and how they see beyond the inevitable. We all have to cross our Rubicons at some point. My characters find themselves mid-stream and up past their necks. Then what? The other important question is how does one make his or her way back from the point of no return? They do. They leave something behind — a trail of breadcrumbs or footprints — and they return with messages of redemption. Redemption can be won by faith, but I believe it is also achieved through action, kerygma, the acts of faith in the self. Belief is fine, but kerygma puts faith to the test (not religious faith necessarily) by asking the characters to take action.
6. How did you arrive at the title? What did you want the title to do?
My wife and I went for brunch at a bakery on Dunlop Street in downtown Barrie and as I read the menu I asked the chef what toast soldiers were. He was serving them with all the egg options. He gave me a complimentary plate of them — long, thin pieces of buttered toast with the crusts cut off. The title is a pun in many respects. There is a toast, a raising of glasses, to the protagonist. When the protagonist is poisoned, he is literally toast — a toast soldier. The question then is “what is a soldier?” Ovid says that within every soldier there is a lover. The harder the characters fight for their survival or their place in the world, the more they appear to be lovers of life, or the world, or things, or people. The character in the final story, Jadot, photographs lovers but more than merely taking pictures he imagines a world where love makes things happen. I say in that story “love is the most difficult subject of all to depict.” Love is a form of honesty, the generosity of spirit where the characters, despite their reservations or pangs (as in “Thine Is the Kingdom”) do what they do as a result of love, and that’s not to say love is the holding hands variety but the strength of the soul to look into the darkness of the world and perceive even the most muted flickering of light.
7. In terms of sheer length, what did the book look like after the first draft? Did the length change?
I didn’t write the book flat out. I threw away more than two-thirds of the stories that could have been included. I write far more material than I need. Then I select from the pool of pieces. The book took about four years to come together. Each story went through about twenty or thirty drafts. “Oglevie” and “Badlands” underwent constant shufflings, deletions, small additions. I like to work on a large canvas and then reduce it and refine it. The finished product was just hours away from going to press and I was still making changes. I love working with editors and friends such as Rosanna or Nicholas Ruddock because they are my second pair of eyes. A writer can’t see his or her work, even if the drafts are set aside for years, though in some cases with the stories in The Leavening there were smallish stories that I expanded. What a writer should be prepared to do is be selective with his or her work, and to do that, a writer needs to have a lot of work at hand.
8. Are any aspects of the book autobiographical? How did you consciously deal with your intimate material (such as emotional and physical experiences) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography?
Yes and no. I had an imaginary friend as a child, a lonely child, whose name was Mr. Elmer and he’s the same as the invisible playmate who appears in “Inches.” I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, as I said, and I got up in the middle of chaos in the school basement when a teacher yelled “Shut up! The world is going to blow up!” and I walked home. As for “Urineworts,” the first time I saw them I was on my way to Pointe au Baril on Georgian Bay with two university buddies. My wife grew up in the mining community of Elliot Lake so “The Promised Land” and “Jenny” are based on real places and the stories that happened there. I had an uncle who had been a prospector. He said, “There is nothing as wonderful as sleeping under the stars of an Arctic night.” He was also a tail gunner on a Lancaster bomber during the war. I am a Type Two Diabetic so the story “The Apple of Her Eyes” is about finding out one has that problem (I was poisoned by an eye doctor who put me on an extended lethal dose of prednisone and almost killed me). I spent a night in that hotel in “The Star-Maker Machinery” and when I turned off the light I saw the heavens pasted to the ceiling. I had a concussion as a result of a car accident and lost my ability to read for four months. As I said, a writer must listen to what goes on around him or her. Other stories came from seeing and hearing a character explaining themselves such as “Candlemas” or “Badlands” or “Oglevie.”
9. If you had the chance to visit the periods or the places in the work, what would be the first place you’d visit and why?
For some reason, I keep going back to Las Vegas in the Fifties. In my very early book of baseball stories, Goodbye Mr. Spalding, I have a story set in Vegas during the same era as “Badlands.” Why? I’m not sure. It may be because that place at that time was so complex — brave, enterprising, full of hope, and yet slightly askew from reality as Las Vegas (to which I have never been) evolved its sense of the embodied illusion. It was an era of aquamarine Naugahyde booths in restaurants and bars. I miss those times.
10. Considering that all works of art are in some ways forever a work-in-progress, now that this book has come into the world, if given the chance, are there any aspects of the book you would like to change or tinker with?
I would like to think that at least one of the laborers in “The Ghosts” makes it back to China. I would like to think the son in “Roosevelt Dimes” learns to love his father or finds his ‘edges’ in “Skating.” There are some characters I would like to meet when they are younger, and some I would like to listen to when they are older. I agree. I don’t think a work is ever finished, especially a collection of short stories, but at the core of each short story is the idea of looking through a keyhole, of catching a glimpse of reality, not necessarily the entire world (that’s what a novel is for) but a few moments in time that test a person as we watch them rise above themselves.
Bruce Meyer is author of 68 books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His most recent collections of short stories are Down in the Ground (Guernica Editions, 2020), The Hours: Stories from a Pandemic (Ace of Swords Publishing, 2021), and Toast Soldiers (Crowsnest Books, 2021). His recent poetry collections include McLuhan’s Canary (Guernica Editions, 2018), Grace of Falling Stars (Black Moss Press, 2021) and Telling the Bees (Libretto/Nigeria, 2020). He lives in Barrie, Ontario.