Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read A. L. Bishop’s fiction piece, The Cost of Living


John: The main character of this story uses music to help elucidate her emotional life. In many ways, music seems to be the ideal art form for such things, matching as it does, emotion’s transience and ephemerality. What can literature offer us that music doesn’t?  

A. L.: Literature can offer specificity in commiseration, for one thing. When you read a line in a story or poem or autobiography that spells out exactly what you’ve been thinking or feeling but have never found the words to say, there’s a validation in confirming that at least one other sentient being has shared your emotional experience and classified it in the same way. (This is especially true if you’re pretty sure you’re a weirdo.) When the transience and ephemerality of emotion leaves you blistered and bewildered, literature can be the friend who finishes your sentences for you, articulating and concretizing and grounding in reality anything that’s getting untenable in your heart or mind. Music is often an indispensible and indefinable comfort, but literature has a unique ability to look you in the eye with a firm handshake and say, “Yes, quite.”

Do you think writers secretly wish they were musicians?

I think everyone secretly wishes to be a musician. It’s that whole snake charmer thing, making people outside of you feel exactly how you want them to, while they are powerless to resist.

I’m probably most envious of the instant atmosphere that musicians can create. Minor chords and rhythm and volume tap directly into our nervous systems – which isn’t to say that it doesn’t take a skilled musician to assemble them purposefully – but a musician can also throw in language on top of the music, and human voice and expression, and use it all to conjure up full universes of texture and feeling and colour and history instantaneously. Writers, on the other hand, will always have to break through an intellectual barrier before drawing that sort of a visceral, embodied response, and they have to do it using words alone.

But as someone who has a lot of love for and devotion to several musicians, I’m also really glad that I’m not one. I think that facing down halls full of people who worship and want a piece of you, night after night, would take a toll on the psyche – as would facing down a hall full of people who think you’re a joke, I suppose. A writer can manage the intensity through distance and removal. The chicken door is always there. You can leave blood on the page but then never show it to anyone, or never make eye contact with anyone who’s seen it, or use a different name, and keep your public vulnerability to a minimum.

I don’t know if this helps define the difference I see, but as a music fan, I think I’ve always secretly wanted my favourite musicians to want me back, whereas I’m terrified of my favourite writers and would never make eye contact with them in an elevator.

‘The cost of living’ is really a poignant phrase, rendered somehow mundane by being digested and regurgitated by economists. Any ideas on the best ways to pay it?

I definitely wish I had more ideas on the best ways to make your life as un-miserable as possible. To carry through the economist analogy, I’d say that you don’t want to end up where the story’s narrator does, having completed a cost/benefit analysis only to find that you’re throwing good money after bad. An environmental economist would probably say it comes down to renewable resources and sustainability.

I’ve found great value in positive feedback loops, where you give more of yourself than you thought was possible to another or to some select others, and they, in turn, replenish you with what they have to give and prompt you to find more in yourself. But you have to choose wisely. The things you invest in most heavily are the ones that pay the highest dividends, and will also inevitably shred you the most thoroughly – loving someone, raising children, working symbiotically with someone in an artistic partnership – so incremental reciprocity, being cautious as you enter and test out those loops, is key.

Other than that? Don’t shop from a catalogue. It’s pay-what-you-can, and you get to decide what your life should look like, so don’t let a bunch of retouched photos make you think you’re doing it wrong.

Have you ever eaten meatballs in ketchup?

Yes. Once was enough.