Your Head Is Not A Facebook Page: An Interview with Ali Bryan


Ali Bryan pic


By Maurice Mierau

Ali Bryan has a voice as distinct as the narrator in her debut novel, Roost (Freehand). From her blog, here’s a list of Facebook status updates under the posting title “Blue, anxious, disconnected”:

“I fed my kids hot dogs for dinner this week. With white buns. Pig parts. White Buns. Buns that glowed white. Parts of a pig and maybe a horse. And some colon cancer.”

“I only vacuumed 2/3 of my basement carpet because I can’t complete a task. Ever.”

“I played 8 hours of bubble pop on my iPhone this week.”

“Today I am blue, anxious and disconnected.”

Bryan lives in Calgary with her family. She works as a personal trainer and was a finalist for the 2010 CBC Canada Writes literary contest for her essay “Asshole Homemaker”. You can read Lee Kvern’s review of Roost here in TWR, or Sue Sinclair’s take in the National Post here.

Roost is very funny. I kept laughing out loud while reading. How did you get to be so funny? Are you like this verbally and you just transcribe yourself?

I was never the “funny kid” growing up but I possessed an odd sense of humor and a touch of weirdness that enabled me to always find a way to amuse myself. Whether deliberately playing wrong notes on the glockenspiel in Air Cadets (which my mother accused me of playing cross-eyed) to making up inappropriate lyrics to kids’ songs.  The obscure, the unexpected, the unmentioned regularly make me laugh.

I started writing creatively in my mid-twenties and it was then I learned I had a knack for comedy. I read, people laughed. And they laughed hard. The response surprised me but did influence my style and voice.  Still, it took years before I had enough understanding of the craft to anchor the humor with tragedy and produce a piece of work that presented itself as something greater than stand-up.

In terms of process, my blog Hot Mess: Bananas in the dryer and other chaos, has been a helpful tool. Because I write it without an agenda, the humor is genuine. I then attempt to write fiction in the same way. I ask what would this person really say? An authentic voice resonates with people. If it takes me more than twelve seconds to spit out a line of dialogue or write a simile, then my work becomes contrived and I delete it. Where I have to work immensely hard on plot and setting, the humor comes naturally and with ease.

The worst thing about being a comedic writer is the expectation that you are also funny in person. I experienced this a few years ago at the playground after meeting a stranger who read my blog. When I opened my mouth to speak I could see the anticipation on her face, followed by disappointment when I didn’t call someone or something an asshole, as I have a habit of doing.

People say there is beauty all around. Or love all around. But really there is funny all around. It’s seeing someone slam her shopping cart into a display. It’s accidentally combining two words to make a ridiculous one or watching someone attempt to kick a soccer ball and missing it. Someone going for a run in a cardigan. It’s stopping at a crosswalk, smiling at the pedestrian as she waves thanks and then saying under your breath no problem idiot. And drawings of animals made by kids. Just ask a three-year-old to draw a horse. Put those in pictures in hospitals–they’ll cure disease.

There’s a lot of funny dialogue between Claudia and her kids, like this exchange between her and four-year-old Wes:

“Grandma didn’t get killed, Wes. She passed away.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means she died.”
“That’s what I said. She got killed.”

For me as a parent these scenes with the kids had a lot of emotional resonance. How do you write kids’ voices so damn well? 

I am always surrounded by kids. I have three of my own and they are happiest when they are sitting on me or hanging off of me. I feel a lot like a jungle gym. I wished I learned earlier in parenthood how important it is for children to be heard. Listening to a child, really listening and then telling him I hear you, has a significant impact so I try to spend a lot of time just listening to what they say.  Backing onto a playground and volunteering and my kids’ school helps.

I think children are drawn to me because we have a lot in common. I have self-diagnosed adult ADD and have the attention span of a six-year-old. I laugh at potty humor. I’m not very tall. I can still do a handstand and ride a skateboard and when a kid looks at me and says something in a made-up language, I reply back in my own made-up one.  I don’t know if I should be concerned that the latter has happened more than once.

Compared to a lot of contemporary fiction, your book brims with the language of brand names (3M masks, Crocs [which get “biffed” by a child], Coke Zero, Rubbermaid etc.) and pop culture. At one point Claudia watches the reality TV show Hoarders, and I thought of how different the frame of reference was than, say, David Bergen’s novel The Matter with Morris, where the protagonist discusses Madame Bovary with his neighbor. What pushed you towards this kind of mental furniture for Claudia?

Claudia had to be relatable and real. A lot of great Canadian books take us to other places: a gulag, a political hot spot. A potato farm in 1902. Or they are about people we can’t readily identify with beyond a thematic level: a prostitute, a member of the gentry, an albino. I never understood why people didn’t write more contemporary fiction that is relatable on a literal level, but then I was told earlier that my book would likely not find a publisher in Canada because relatability isn’t really “our thing.” But why? More of us are probably watching Hoarders and eating hotdogs than discussing Madame Bovary and drinking cordial. Not that there is anything wrong with Madame Bovary, or the voyeur experience associated with foreign settings and unfamiliar characters. It’s just a different experience and readers often find themselves introspective afterwards. Is that how I talk to my kids? Will I have to cut my dad’s toenails? Should I paint my kitchen? Do I do that?

Incorporating pop culture and branding in a book is risky because it may blur the line between commercial and literary fiction, but that was a risk I was willing to take and one that reflects my background. I have a Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing and worked in advertising before becoming a personal trainer, a mother of three, and an author. In university I was only an average English student and so have always been more influenced by Richard Simmons and Vanilla Ice than say, Thoreau and Austen. You say Tolstoy, I say Toy Story. You say Shakespeare, I say Harlem Shake. A little piece of my mother will die when she reads that.

An editor once told me the key to comedic writing “was in the details.” When I write Rubbermaid bin, you know exactly what type of bin I’m talking about. And if I describe a rooster as “the barnyard type who gang-rape hens and peck at small children” in Roost you know you don’t want that bird in your kitchen.

Another aspect of Claudia’s voice that makes it funny and striking is her obscenity and verbal aggression. For example, her verbal smackdown of the teenagers who make fun of her dad’s participating in a bonspiel expresses her love for her father more convincingly than any direct address might. And I loved how she spoiled the ending of Hunger Games in her desperation for a one night stand with Carl at the awful Operational Excellence conference. Again, what contributed to her voice in your writing process?

Claudia’s voice is aggressive. She speaks how I vacuum, which is recklessly and with little consideration for the consequences. The kind of vacuuming where you slam the power head into chair legs and suck up small socks. Her voice is indicative of a person in survival mode. Head above water, but just. She is verbal and obscene because we are in her head and not on her Facebook page. Social media allows people to construct fantasy versions of their lives. Digital dioramas complete with well-behaved children, whole grains and best days ever. An honest voice, even though it might be a fictional one, is a refreshing departure from the airbrushed norm.

I know few people in real life that aren’t treading water in some capacity. People are damaged. They have too much stuff, or not enough, or that’s all they have is stuff. Not enough money, not enough time. They are too busy or too tired, too crowded, too lonely, too fat, too sick. People lack direction, motivation, answers, solutions. Life is increasingly hyper-competitive. We’ve been tricked into believing we can have everything, do everything.  We can’t. Most of us are in survival mode.

What reaction have you had from readers (not reviewers) so far?

The reaction from readers has been amusing. First and foremost because I am more publically known (albeit on a small local scale) as a fitness professional and personal trainer. People assumed I’d written a book about how to prepare kale or do a proper lunge. They were surprised that it was a book of fiction. Generally people tell me Roost made them laugh out loud. More than one person claimed to have peed while reading it. One guy compiled a list of his favorite lines and sent it to my publisher. But what has shocked me is as many people told me the book made them cry and that they could identify with Claudia.

Some have said it ended too abruptly but that they accepted this because it was more reflective of “real life.” Many have asked about a sequel.

Your bio mentions studying in the Humber writing program with the late Paul Quarrington. What was that like?

Working with Paul Quarrington was a turning point for me as a writer. He was the first professional to validate my work and provided one of my favorite descriptions of my style; that my writing was “like a sucker punch to the back of the head.”

He taught me about sensory detail and when to keep it simple. It smelled like breakfast, was a line from another piece of work he loved for that reason. He also told me I should be writing screenplays but so far I’ve gotten too bogged down in the technical aspects of writing for the screen. Is it The End? Cut to? Exit?  I’m currently immersed in a second novel but plan to explore screenwriting again when book two is finished.

What fiction writers do you read for inspiration, when you’re not holding up a Rubbermaid bin to avoid getting biffed by Crocs etc. ?

David Sedaris, though more in non-fiction/memoir, was an early influence, but I’m always being inspired by different writers. When it comes to reading I am not very brand loyal. There are too many books, too many genres , too many authors to explore, though funny you should mention David Bergen because I have read a lot of his books. I like Todd Babiak because he is a master observer. He gets people.

Most recently I was inspired by Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros. It had such a distinct style. I wasn’t reading just a book–it was a Suzette book. I shared my Toronto launch of Roost with paulo da costa. His writing was poetic, unrushed, and very sensual. Such a stark contrast to my own, it taught me it was okay to linger a little.

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Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau is editor of The Winnipeg Review. His new book of poems, Autobiographical Fictions, is just out with Palimpsest. His previous book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award.