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Q&A: David Balzer on the digital launch of his fiction debut

Tonight, David Balzer launches his short fiction ebook Contrivances (Joyland) with “MELODRAMZ: A Night of Contrivances,” featuring an art show, drag performers, and dancing at the White House Studio Project in Toronto. (Admission is $8 and includes a copy of the ebook, downloadable through a QR-coded postcard.)

Q&Q spoke to Balzer, a well-known visual art critic, about his fiction debut, which he says is inspired by “Old Hollywood, Gothic novels, art-world gossip, and maybe a Lifetime movie or two.”

What is the connection between the paintings that appear in your book and your stories?
I’ve always been really interested in painting and portraiture. When I started writing stories they seemed like exercises to me. I wasn’t sure where they were going, but then it became clear to me that there was a strong element of whatever I was seeing in historical portraiture happening somehow within the psychology of the characters I was writing about. Around the time my confidence in fiction writing began to solidify, about six or seven years ago, I saw a show by the painter Janet Werner, whose painting is now on the front of the book. I wouldn’t say it inspired the book, but it confirmed a bunch of things for me, like the literary sensibility around portraiture.

It also dawned on me that a lot of the literature that I was into from the 19th century was illustrated in that Victorian tradition. Adding illustrations was a way to ground the collection within the art world because that’s where my audience is.

Did you always know who you wanted to get to illustrate the book?
A lot of the artists I had in mind, like Janet Werner. Many of the artists are my friends, like Marcel Dzama and Alison Fleming. In some cases, I worked with the artist to find a match for the story. It was a fun process.

How has your work as an art critic impacted your fiction?
I’m interested in characters who look at life the way I would look at a work of art: always asking questions around significance, and analyzing surfaces and aesthetics in terms of their philosophical and moral implications. I like the rigour of working your mind through strange situations like you would when you see a work of art and you don’t know what it means.

Why did you decide to publish Contrivances as an ebook?
Short fiction is incredibly hard to publish, and the illustrations didn’t seem to be a selling point – after about two years of queries I didn’t have any bites. You always dream that your first book is going to be a physical entity, but what Joyland is doing is so interesting. There’s so much momentum around their imprint as a champion of new short fiction.

What do you have planned for the launch party?
I thought it was really important to have a counterpoint to the fact that the book is virtual and to make it come alive. The obvious way to do that was to have an art show of the works in the book. My friend Rea McNamara has curated a bunch of projected .gif art – it’s a way to bring weird online culture into an event space.

In terms of the readings, it struck me that because there are so many women in the book – I’m gay but there are no gay characters, but I feel like the book has a strong queer sensibility, anyway – it would be good to have a cast of drag performers doing short readings. And because I’ve been working on this book for five years, the DJ part is just me wanting to dance.

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