Sean McCallum | Smorgasbord 2022
Sean McCallum is an award-eligible author and occasional podcast guest who rarely uses profanity in real life, but recognizes that sometimes his characters just can’t help themselves.
After graduating from Queen’s University with a degree in English Literature, Sean entered the creative writing program at The Humber School for Writers, where the velocity and tumbling momentum of his prose drew comparisons to Jack Kerouac. He continued to hone his craft by chronicling the exploits of his degenerate friends on the SeanMcCallum.com blog. Not satisfied with the traffic on his lightly frequented webpage, he set off for the Peruvian Amazon in pursuit of Gonzo journalistic truth and the meaning of life. While he may or may not have achieved those objectives, what he did come away with was a Peruvian wife and an unforgettable story, much of which became the impetus for The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life. Sean lives with his wife and two children in Burlington, Ontario. The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life is his debut novel.
LGT: Hi Sean, thanks for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. What were you like at school?
SM: I was terrified of getting in trouble as a kid, which meant that I always did what I was told (both at home and at school). I never got sent to the principal’s office. I always had my homework done on time. I treated my teachers with respect. But for reasons that have yet to be adequately explained, my parents enrolled me in a French immersion program when I was in the first grade, meaning that I spent half of every day for the next 13 years trying to learn French (a language I still can’t speak!). I’m being completely serious when I say that, to this day, I still have nightmares about sitting in French class and having no idea what the hell I’m doing.
In high school, I had a phenomenal English teacher who, on the first day of school, spent the entire 80 minutes at the front of the room, explaining why he loved the various books he was holding in his hands. This was a powerful experience, but it paled in comparison to the experience of being in his class for the entire year. I thought I was pretty hot shit in those days, and this teacher took no time at all before putting me in my place, stripping my gears and letting me know that I would need to put in a significant amount of work if I wanted to be successful in his class. He held me accountable every single day, and I spent a LOT of time in the library as a result. He forced me to develop some incredibly diligent work habits, and those habits stayed with me through university and beyond.
I’m a firm believer that people occasionally need some tough love, and I was fortunate enough to get it from a teacher who cared enough to invest the time and energy into my development. (That same teacher, Mr. Hamish Guthrie, wound up coming to the launch party for The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life 25-years after I graduated from his class. I have to say: it was a pretty special moment signing his copy)
Lastly, it’s probably worth mentioning that I was my high school valedictorian. Still not quite sure how that happened…
LGT: Your first novel, The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life, has a great sense of place but for me it is ultimately a book about relationships. How would you describe it?
SM: Earlier this year I sat in on a book club meeting where someone described TRSOL as a profoundly philosophical examination of the meaning of life, masquerading as a gonzo buddy travel adventure. I honestly don’t know if I can do much better than that.
Like most of the books I love, TRSOL is about a lot of different things, most of which are only loosely related to plot. It’s about searching - for things we’re consciously seeking and those we don’t even realize we’re trying to find. It’s about all the different ways we experience and feel love. It’s about the complicated dichotomy of male friendship, and the challenges most of us face in adequately expressing ourselves within the context of those relationships.
It asks some of the big questions about the nature of time, the role consciousness plays in our understanding of the world, and how & why we’re here. But it’s also about how “place” shapes who we are and how we experience the world. It’s about being lost. It’s about Toronto and being Canadian. And it’s about backpacking through Peru, and the thrill & terror of experiencing a completely foreign place for the first time.
LGT: How would you describe your experience of writing The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life?
SM: When I was in my 20s, I wrote a manuscript for a novel set at the Jersey Shore. That manuscript landed me a high-profile agent, and she felt confident that we would sign a big publishing deal. She shopped it around to the major Canadian publishers, but was ultimately unable to find a home for it. This was before I knew anything about the publishing world, and before writers were in the habit of reaching out to independent publishers on Twitter to query their work. We were sort of at a crossroads, and when I asked her what our options were, she said: “My advice is to put this novel back in the drawer, and begin writing the next one.”
Needless to say, this was a pretty difficult pill to swallow. You pour years of yourself into this work, and to come so close to having it published only to have it rejected at the 11th hour was a new and particularly painful variety of heartbreak. But in the end, she was right. It took some time and some soul searching, but I eventually put that first novel away and got to work on the next one.
When it comes to writing, I am sort of fanatical about the details and believe that great writing should strive for the fundamental accuracy of description. I wanted this book to be as authentic as possible. So I went to Peru. I spent some wild nights in Lima. I visited Iquitos on three separate occasions, walking the streets and trying to avoid getting ripped off by the dirtbags that hustle Gringos in the plaza. I got the kind of food poisoning where you believe you might actually die alone in a foreign place. I experienced multiple harrowing trans-Andean bus crossings. I took the slow boat down the Amazon River. I spent a weekend in NYC, walking from the World Trade Centre to 163rd street. And I spent 10 days with a Shaman deep in the Amazon, working with ayahuasca and having my entire consciousness blown to a trillion pieces
In the end, The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life took me 10 years to write, and the commitment to that Gonzo journalistic process directly resulted in me meeting my wife (I checked into a hostel in Barranco and it was her first day on the job; as soon as I met her, I knew that was it for me). We’ve been married for 13 years and have two amazing kids (both of whom would not exist without this book!)
LGT: Tell me about one of your best writing moments.
SM: When I was 23-years-old, two buddies and I spent 6 weeks driving across North America - Toronto to Carlisle, PA, and then Memphis - New Orleans - El Paso - Las Vegas - Los Angeles - San Francisco - Seattle - Vancouver - Calgary - Winnipeg - Toronto. I would periodically send these email correspondences to a few people back home, recounting our progress and our misadventures (there were many). When we got back home, I was shocked to learn that those emails had been forwarded, printed off, and passed around to hundreds of different people as if they were a set of coveted bootleg tapes in the 1970s.
That was probably the moment I realized I might have an audience beyond my friends and family.
There was also the day I found out that Outcast Press was going to publish TRSOL. I called my mom and the two of us literally could not get a word out because we were so emotional. And then my sister called and it was the same thing; we were just a couple of puddles trying to convey this overwhelming feeling of love and triumph and gratitude. That was a pretty special day.
LGT: What are you working on now?
SM: Not enough! I can say with complete certainty that I have spent more time writing the responses to these questions than I have on anything else over the past nine months!
The truth is, it was such an odyssey getting this book published, and the editing process was such a grind that I’m really just taking some time away from writing at the moment.
Writing is a lonely, selfish, solitary endeavour, and it can be hard on the people closest to you. I want to hang out with my wife and kids while they still actually want to spend time with me. There are some big, important books I’ve been meaning to read, and I’ve been able to get to them over these past few months. And I want to put some time and effort into promoting TRSOL to make sure it gets the run I believe it deserves. Lastly, and not insignificantly, I need to muster the fortitude to face that blank page once again, knowing the toll it will take, and understanding what an all-consuming grind it will be once I get started.
As for my next project, I try not to talk too much about what I’m working on because I feel like if I talk about it, I won’t be consumed by that ravenous compulsion to get it down on paper. But that feels like a cop-out, so I will say that I think my next work will likely be non-fiction. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, unable to reconcile the fact that I am a parent, theoretically responsible for the lives of two little kids, while still fully aware of all the crazy, irresponsible shit I did in my formative years. There’s something in that hypocritical juxtaposition that I’m trying to grapple with, and I’m interested in exploring what that looks like on the page.
LGT: What does literary success look like to you?
SM: As cliché as it sounds, getting a novel published was always the top of the mountain for me, so it seems outrageous to pine for anything beyond that. But now that TRSOL has been published, I really just want to get it into the hands of as many readers as possible. I want them to experience the ride, and hope that they have as powerful an emotional response to the book as so many other readers have had to date. It is truly an amazing feeling when a reader reaches out to let you know that your book has touched them in some way, so the more often that can happen, the more successful I will consider myself to be.
LGT: What advice would you give your younger self?
SM: This might sound ridiculous, but the chances of my wife and I ever actually meeting were so astronomically low that I feel like giving my younger self any advice would jeopardize that chance encounter, and we’d need to get Dr. Emmett Brown involved to go back and fix the space-time continuum.
I truly have no regrets in life, but there is a very large part of me that wishes I’d figured out how to live on the beach for a year so I could learn to surf. I would have also loved to live in New York for awhile, just to experience that amazing city in every way imaginable.
So I guess the advice to my younger self would be to just go out and do those things, knowing that life usually finds a way of working itself out (see page 207 of TRSOL) - just be sure to find your way to The Point Hostel in Barranco, Lima, Peru on the night of October 31, 2008!
LGT: If there was one person (contemporary or historical) you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
SM: I was really close to my Grandfather on my dad’s side. He and my Grandmother immigrated to Canada from Northern Ireland in 1963, giving up everything they had at home to make a better life for their children (and consequently their grandchildren and great grandchildren). He was unquestionably the greatest storyteller I ever knew, and he is the first person I mention in the Acknowledgements section of the book.
I’d give just about anything to spend another day with him. I would love for him to meet my wife and kids, because I know they would absolutely get a kick out of each other. We could get the whole big family together for a few pints of Guinness in the backyard and listen to Bob McCallum tell all the old stories. When the kids eventually went to bed, he’d dust off some of his classic jokes and we’d all be huddled around, hanging off of every word. And then we’d end the night with a wee whiskey and a couple of teary-eyed songs, looking up at the stars the way we always used to.
Sure, it’d be lovely.
LGT: Now for the name game. Name three authors who inspire you:
SM: Thomas Pynchon - our greatest living writer. Hunter S. Thompson - invented the journalistic method that I employ in my writing. Ben Lerner - a contemporary of mine, operating at such an absurdly high level that all you can do is tip your cap and read every one of his books. Honourable mention goes to Bill Simmons, who is more of a columnist than an author, but his penchant for peppering his work with pop culture references, and for bringing the reader along for the ride of his own subjective experience has always been an influence on my writing.
LGT: Three books that stunned you when you first read them (hallelujah moments):
SM: Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon - the scope and accuracy and magnitude of the writing continues to baffle. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney - the frenetic energy of the writing, the cadence of the narrative, and the 2nd person storytelling - I didn’t know you were allowed to write like that! The Body, Stephen King - it was the first time I realized that the book actually can be better than the movie (the grownups were right all along!).
LGT: Three favourite books not included above:
SM: East of Eden, John Steinbeck - probably changed my understanding of human nature when I read it at 18. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway - I have re-read The Sun Also Rises more than any other book. I have also altered family vacations on multiple occasions to follow in the footsteps of the most badass writer that ever lived. Underworld, Don DeLillo - the passage of time, loss, the accumulation of things, conspiracy theories, and the endless inspired catastrophe of New York… What’s not to love!
LGT: Three favourite films:
SM: Stand By Me – unassailably in the top spot, and the movie I spent most of my childhood/teenage years trying to re-enact. Pulp Fiction – the most quoted and rewatched movie in my house. High Fidelity – If things had gone a little differently, I could have totally been John Cusack in this movie.
LGT: Three recurring songs on your playlist:
SM: New York City Serenade (Bruce Springsteen) - the most perfect pop song ever recorded. As Pete Yorn once said: smoke a marijuana cigarette, put on 'New York City Serenade', and lie on the floor in the dark while listening to it. Life advice that I stand by. Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (Tom Waits) - rock bottom destitute heartbreak never sounded so good. Astral Weeks (Van Morrison) - I recently found myself alone in a hot tub at 2:00AM, listening to ‘Astral Weeks’ while looking up at the stars… It was akin to a religious experience.
LGT: Any final words of wisdom?
SM: As the great American poet, Beck, once said: “You can’t write if you can’t relate.” Go out into the world and experience as much as possible. Talk to everyone. Say yes to everything. And when things go wrong, as they invariably will, just know that the pain and the heartbreak and the fuckups and the misadventures always make for the best stories!
LG Thomson is the author of seven novels, including Boyle’s Law, a noir thriller set in the Highlands. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of anthologies and literary publications including Wyldblood Magazine, Epoch Press, and Art North. Her latest book, Modernist Dreams Brutalist Nightmares, is a narrative memoir about being part of the first generation to grow up in Scotland’s most ambitious New Town. It will be published by Outcast Press in fall 2022. Find out more here.