Weighing in on Vonnegut, zombie Shakespeare and ‘The Fatness’

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Endnotes spotlights the personalities and published books of faculty, staff and alumni.

Today, Information and Media Studies professor Mark A. Rayner, author of The Fatness: A Novel of Epic Portions, answers 12 questions on his ‘bookishness’ and writing.

Human-shaped, simian-obsessed, robot-fighting, pirate-hearted, storytelling junkie, Rayner is a writer of satirical and speculative fiction. He is the author of four novels, hundreds of short stories & flash fictions, and several plays. His newest work is a satire about concentration camps for fat people and bureaucracy gone mad. (Don’t worry, it’s a love story.)

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What book do we find you reading tonight?

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s the follow-up book to his incredible history of the human species, Sapiens.

If you haven’t read Sapiens, and you have any interest in human nature, it’s a must. I’m especially enjoying his prognostications on what challenges we next face as a species.

How you decide what to read? Reviews, word of mouth, maybe occasionally judge a book by its cover?

All of the above, including the latter. I actually do find that a visually original cover is a good indicator for an interesting read. Not always, but often enough that I’ve read some great books that I might otherwise have missed.

Name one book you wish you had written.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Another must read.

Name one book you could never finish.

Okay, I’ll admit it: Ulysses by James Joyce. I always get bogged down in chapter four. Pun intended.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

My hope is that nothing would be a surprise to people who know me. I’m a dilettante – according to the original sense of the word, as someone who loves the arts, not the pejorative meaning it has taken on. So I’m interested in really everything. My bookshelves reflect that. People may be surprised to see how much non-fiction is on my shelves, and the lack of sci-fi – a definite shift from my younger self. I still read lots of speculative fiction, but it tends to live on my Kindle. Sadly, many of the paperbacks I read in my younger years have gone to the big remainder bin in the sky.

Any genres you avoid?

Mysteries and detective fiction don’t do much for me, though I wouldn’t say I avoid them. A few years ago I read Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, which is a fun and literary take on the hard-boiled detective genre, and I loved it.

If you could require every university president to read one book, what would it be?

Catch-22.

What sort of objects are must-haves in your writing environment?

Cats, though they would object to being labelled as “objects.” Dogs too, but they wouldn’t care about the terminology. A computer, preferably disconnected from the Internet. It’s helpful if an assortment of dictionaries and my Chicago Manual of Style are nearby for when I inevitably forget how to spell something, or cannot recall if I should use 2 or two, 17 or seventeen. Gardens and patios are supportive, as is a wee nip of scotch.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Wait, this isn’t some kind of trick where you get me to invite a bunch of dead writers, and then tell me they’re zombies, is it? William Shakespeare doth chomp on my cerebellum!

Assuming I get to invite the dead and actually have a conversation with them, I’d say: my literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut; Peter Ustinov, who was an amazing raconteur; and I’d add Dorothy Parker, whose wit would make things even more interesting.

How do you explain what your latest book is about to them?

My new book is a satire of bureaucracy gone mad – set in a concentration camp for overweight people – and a re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet story.

What is the best line you have ever written?

That’s probably something you should ask the readers. I will say that I’m generally happy with the first line of my books, for example: “Nick’s life as a monkey began with a wedding.” (Marvellous Hairy)

Who would you want to write your life story?

If the same rules apply as the dinner party apply, I think Douglas Adams could make it interesting. Or maybe Phillip K. Dick, pre-Valis.

‘The Fatness: A Novel of Epic Portions’ by Mark A. Rayner (Monkeyjoy Press, $22.76) is available through The Book Store at Western, Amazon.ca or other online retailers. For more information about him and links to his social feeds, visit markarayner.com. The offer of cake is purely pro forma.