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Q&A with Eric Freeze

Eric Freeze's fiction graced the pages of Carve back in 2012. Since then it seems he's had a few true stories he's been itching to tell.

Hemingway on a Bike—a title inspired by Ernest's somewhat fruitless exploration of bicycle racing during his time in Paris—reads a lot like a nonlinear memoir composed from a series of nonlinear essays. A timeline gradually comes into focus: the childhood in Alberta and Oregon, the years in France as a young Mormon missionary, the career as a teacher and writer, the houses, the births, the fixations and confessions. But the sequence of events is less salient than the motifs that coalesce through the unstuck-in-time telling: the blurred identity of the expatriate, the meanings of masculinity, fatherhood, and responsibility in the twenty-first century, sports and philosophy, stories and games, TV and the internet, what they all might signify, and how doing the right thing often isn't as simple as it sounds (but sometimes is).

We recently lured Dr. Freeze onto a lonely side street, placed him in a vicious headlock, and cordially asked him to answer a few questions we had about Hemingway on a Bike:

 

First, the easy question. Of all the essays collected in Hemingway on a Bike, which are you most proud of?

I'm proud of different essays for different reasons but the last one, "On Intimacy" is the one I find myself thinking about the most. It started out as a kind of conceptual exploration: what if I wrote an essay about all the things people told me in confidence? but it quickly led to something more introspective and uncomfortable to me. And because the ending was such a surprise and provided the perfect place to finish the book.

In "Trompe l'Oeil," you write: "I'm the foreigner drunk on the idea of expatriation, who implicates himself temporarily in the best of what a foreign environment has to offer and yet who seeks constantly to disrupt or transgress the boundaries that the culture has erected to protect itself." Could you expand some on the propensity of the North American gone overseas to exalt the host culture but resist conforming to it?

I currently live in Nice, France, the place that the essay is mostly about. It's a city used to visitors. France is the most visited country in the world and Nice is the second destination in France after Paris. The Old Town neighborhood where I live is full of expatriates. Most of the expats here speak middling French and they spend most of their time hanging out at The Snug or Wayne's Bar, or one of the many other anglophone establishments in the Old Town. What I was trying to convey in the essay is how I am often dismissive to these expats, the ones who come for a couple/few years and never really leave their expat bubble. I'm often implicating myself into aspects of Nicois or French culture that most expats never get to experience. I speak French at home, my kids go to French public school, and most of my friends are French. But instead of making me more comfortable, these experiences often highlight my foreignness. And that foreignness never goes away. I was very influenced by Julia Kristeva's "Toccatta and Fugue for the Foreigner" in her book Strangers to Ourselves in writing this essay (and others in the collection). Foreignness is a state of being, a contemporary malaise where we simultaneously feel like we belong everywhere and nowhere. In the end, I'm not all that different from the expats living in their protected communities. I've drawn my own boundaries and some have been drawn for me. The only difference, maybe, is that I'm constantly trying to integrate, empathize with, and understand the French. Most folks just throw up their hands. Too much paperwork!

On a similar note: "Americana" expresses the tension between your identity as a Canadian and your long residence in the United States, and examines the place of Canada in your fiction as a writer writing in the United States. How would you characterize Canadian literature as opposed to American literature? If we were to imagine both AmLit and CanLit as animals, what kind of phenotypic agreements and divergences would we see?

Hmm. Tough question. It would be difficult to figure out an apt animal metaphor since I'm wary of some of possibly sycophantic connotations. Or making AmLit seem self-important or like an assimilating amoeba. One literary animal is aware of the other and one could care less. Maybe a fly on a hippo? But then the problem is that often canonical writers of CanLit get claimed by the US. Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro are good examples. You'll often see Margaret Atwood taught in American Literature courses, books like The Handwive's Tale or the fantastic novel Surfacing. I think the AmLit attitude is less about the author's provenance and more about whether or not the work has contributed in some way to the conversation in American Literature. Surfacing for me is a seminal text in the feminist movement. In America. The irony is that book is written by a Canadian. CanLit, on the other hand, is much more territorial. It has to be. It's been more deliberate about drawing nationalist boundaries and being inclusive within its own canon. But sometime there is some overlap. Now that I'm thinking about it, Atwood's Surfacing has a great example. This group of friends is at a remote cabin on a lake accessible only by boat. Every day they see these poachers: showy anglers with a new boat and a disregard for the implicit rules of solitude and respect for nature that are important to the group of friends. They take to calling the poachers "The Americans" till one day they meet them and find out that they're actually Canadian too.

In "The Barracuda" you recount an experience directing a travel writing class: "nothing was more successful for me that week than seeing changes in [my students'] writing, helping them find new language and images to reconfigure the world. Yet I also wondered at times whether I was helping or hurting them." No elaboration follows; the sound of the note unplayed reverberates through the subsequent narrative of the needlefish and the barracuda. I was hoping you might revisit that measure for a moment and explain why you feared you might be doing your students more harm than good.

As a teacher/mentor, I'm constantly aware of telling my students to write like me, much like Richard Hugo says in The Triggering Town. Whether or not I want it to, my aesthetic bias comes through and my students are going to have to live with that. I'll always be in their rear-view mirror. And for me, that relationship can be both harmful and helpful. What I was trying to do in the essay is instead of explaining how/why that relationship exits, show a situation that speaks to the claim in a metaphorical way, much like my student looking for a metaphor to capture his loneliness. Am I the barracuda or the needlefish? Or neither? I don't really know. Hemingway famously threw all his mentors under the bus. But there is something magical that can happen between a mentor and a student and I hope that the anecdote at least captured some of the wonders of that dance.

You're a member of an often misunderstood and occasionally stigmatized faith community: you're a Trekkie. Between Star Trek and, say, your four or five favorite novels read as an adolescent, which would you say had the greater influence on you? 

As a youth, I was more on the periphery of Trekdom, a closet watcher who was aware of the power of Trek narrative but never fully immersed in the world. I have a colleague who teaches a Freshman Tutorial on Star Trek and wears a complete Next-Generation captain's jumpsuit to class every day. That guy amazes me. As an adolescent, I read all sorts of stuff that high school English told me was more important and for a while I bought into that narrative. I was like reading T.S. Eliot and trying to write my own terrible version of "The Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock," I kid you not.  So I don't know if I was as influenced by Trek as a kid. For me, I always wanted to know how Trek could command such religious fandom, till I found myself, over the years, becoming one of its most zealous converts.

Finally, the hard question. Hemingway on a Bike reveals you as an eminently thoughtful man of conviction and concern. Here's one for you, then: how do we save the world?

Empathy.

 

Hemingway on a Bike is available from The University of Nebraska Press.