Andrew Unger is the author and founder of the Mennonite satire website The Daily Bonnet. His hilarious and bestselling new novel Once Removed (Turnstone Press) explores the conflict between preservation and progress in a small Manitoba town.
1)I have to start with the question folks often tend to wonder about small-town authors: are any of the characters in your novel based on people you actually know?
I think readers love to do this, especially if they know an author personally — try to figure out who the characters are in real life. I think that’s fun, and mostly harmless, I suppose, but I think it should just be a fun little aside and should not be dwelled on too much as it can reduce a work of fiction to a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” game. The honest answer is that there are no one-to-one parallels of real people to the fictional characters in Once Removed. I know that people will claim BLT Wiens is so-and-so, and Katie is so-and-so and Elsie Dyck is so-and-so and Timothy, no doubt, is me. But it’s not so simple. Of course, as a writer, I’m an observer, but I didn’t have any one person in mind for any of the characters. Perhaps the best answer is: they’re all me.
2)Once Removed is quite hilarious, but there are also serious parts woven in, I think, quite effectively. How did you strike a balance between comedy and drama?
I think in a sense it’s like the very best satire, where there’s humour, but after you’re done laughing, maybe you’ll stop and think about the issues for a bit. It can be a challenge to strike this balance, because I think a lot of readers are expecting me to write comedy. Once Removed is a comedy, but there are scenes of sadness, too. I actually think the funny scenes are funnier because of this contrast. When I think of my favourite books and movies, they all have this balance between humour and drama. I think a great example of this is Billy Wilder’s classic film The Apartment. That movie was pretty inspirational for me, at least in terms of tone.
3)The book raises interesting questions about the role and reception of writers within rural communities. (I’m thinking of BLT’s crusade against local ghostwriters and also Elsie Dyck here.) Why do you think small towns are often hesitant to celebrate their successful writers?
There are countless examples of writers and other artists not receiving such a warm reception in their hometowns. It’s even biblical, isn’t it? “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” So, while there are famous examples of this in Mennonite communities, it seems to be an ancient problem and is certainly not unique to Mennonites. I understand, for example, that Margaret Laurence was a controversial figure in Neepawa for quite some time.
So, why is this? I’m not sure I have an answer, though I suspect that small towns might take writing more personally. It’s easy in a large city to say that this story isn’t about “me”; it’s harder to do that in a small town. The small population makes every word and description just feel that much closer to home and, like your first question suggests, people will try to figure out who is who. I’m curious to know how large a community has to be before a writer will refer to it by name. For example, no one has any problem setting a novel in New York, or even a smaller city like Winnipeg, but Sinclair Lewis calls Sauk Centre “Gopher Prairie” and Al Reimer calls Steinbach “Kleindarp”.
4)To what degree would you consider Once Removed “a book about books”?
Good question. I guess it’s a book about a lot of things, but “a book about books” is definitely one of them. The main character is a ghostwriter, there are two book launch scenes, and the local preservation society is trying to preserve the childhood home of Edenfeld’s most famous writer Elsie Dyck. The characters are all very bookish, going to used book sales, libraries, archives, etc. It was a lot of fun coming up with amusing fictional book titles. I’ve discussed elsewhere about how food is used as both a unifying force and, conversely, a source of division for the characters. In the same way, I tried to use books and writing as both a potential source of unification as well as division. I think that speaks to the power of the written word.
5)Brenda from Loans has covered her body in tattoos of Mennonite martyrs. Do you have any tattoos? And, if not, what tattoo would you like to get?
I definitely do not have any tattoos. I don’t think I’d be able to get a loan at the credit union if I did, right? Ha ha. Well, I’m not planning on getting a tattoo anytime soon, but if I had to get one, I think I’d get my great-great-great-grandfather Abraham “Fuela” Reimer on my ankle, though I’ve heard that’s a painful place to get a tattoo. Can you get a “Fuela” Reimer henna tattoo? I’m going to look into it.
Once Removed is in bookstores now, including McNally Robinson, The Mennonite Heritage Village, and CommonWord/Mennonite Heritage Archives.