Among his dozen books are Walk to New York, which chronicles his 2,200 km journey—on foot—from Thunder Bay to Manhattan, and A Wilderness Called Home, which features Canadians coast to coast whose lives connect with the wild.
In The Circus at the Edge of the Earth, shortlisted for the Rogers/Viacom Non-Fiction Prize, he travels with the Great Wallenda Circus. His new book, In the Land of Long Fingernails (Penguin), is a hilarious memoir of his stint as a grave-digger.
Charles Wilkins lives in Thunder Bay with his wife and three children.
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1) As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach performance? What do you get out of it?
I approach performance with the attitude that I’m going to give the listener the most theatrical and memorable time that I can (by which I mean the most laughs, the shrillest screams, the deepest heart palpitations, the reddest sunsets, the most despicable politicians, the bloodiest revolutions, the scariest basements, the sweetest summers, the sharpest pointy things, the sexiest writers, and of course the bounciest mattresses).
What I get out of it is the somewhat ambivalent thrill of watching the audience howl with laughter, weep with rage, etc.
2) What do you want people to know about In the Land of Long Fingernails?
I want them to know that it’s a memoir about a summer I spent working in a big corporate cemetery in the east end of Toronto when I was 19 years old. And that parts of it are seditious to the point that, for fear of getting sued, or worse, I had to change the names of the people and cemetery, etc.
I want them to know, too, that there really was a guy who stole the watches off dead orthodontists, and that on occasion the management really did dig up untended graves, throw the bones into a common pit, and resell the plots.
I should add that the book is also about mortality, longing, and so on… and about some pretty strange people, as well as personal and literary matters too complicated to get into at this moment.
I’ve been told it’s all quite funny, although it would be presumptuous for me to mention it in the context of this interview.
3) Will this your first time in Winnipeg? What have you heard?
I lived in Winnipeg for ten years (mid-70s to mid-80s), started my writing career in the city, and still tend to think of it as a kind of crucible for my imagination at that time. I love the place to this day but don’t want to die there.
4) What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
I have just finished reading (for the second time) James Elroy’s memoir, My Dark Places, about the unsolved murder of Elroy’s mother in Los Angeles in the 1950s and Elroy’s attempts forty years after the fact to find the killer...and am half way through Luc Sante’s Low Life, a detailed, dream-like book about New York City in the 19th century.
As for writing, I am finishing a book of essays on my adventures in the Canadian north, entitled High on the Big Stone Heart, and am revising In the Land of Long Fingernails for publication in the U.S. next spring.
5) You joined the circus for a book. You walked half-way across the continent for a book. Is there anything you wouldn't do for a book?
I joined the circus and walked across half a continent not just to write about the experiences but because I believed such travels would be worthy and distinctive explorations both of the world around me and of myself...and would stimulating both to the senses and imagination. Which they were. For purposes of writing, I wouldn’t do anything that didn’t interest me in some profound personal way (and might add that I have turned down some invitations to adventure that would undoubtedly have been somebody’s idea of the makings of a good book… e.g. the exploration of the Titanic some 20 years ago, which struck me as somebody else’s story, but not mine...at least not at that time).
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Charles Wilkins will be appearing at THIN AIR, Winnipeg International Writers Festival:
September 26 - The Nooner, Millennium Library.
September 26 - Mainstage, with Andre Alexis, Austin Clarke, and Maggie Helwig.