The Barista and I (Insomniac, 2012) is the debut fiction collection from uWaterloo English alumnus Andrew Szymanski. The National Post describes Szymanski’s style as “hilariously blunt, somewhere between a precocious child and a philosophy grad student who never talks to people outside of an essay. The combination of sparse emotion, unalloyed honesty and dry, dry, dry cleverness make it an ideal fit for this modern world.” The Montreal Gazette characterizes the titular story as “a work that all but dares the reader to call it ironic, but it functions just as convincingly when read as a perfectly sincere imagining of a classic contemporary urban archetype: lonely café patron, cute café worker.”
I’m especially grateful for Andrew’s candor in this interview: it shows we don’t all get here the same way. Of course it also proves that uWaterloo Arts was right when they saw something valuable in his application that Business programs didn’t!
JLH: What made you choose Waterloo?
AS: To be completely honest, my options were slightly limited. I was part of the fabled double cohort year in Ontario, so I was graduating along with the last OACs. In my last year of high school, too, three of my six courses were calculus, geometry & discrete math, and physics–courses that required more rigorous focus than I was willing to give. I was also in a period in my life where recreational drug use trumped studying. I remember getting a few rejections from schools, for programs like Marketing or Business Administration—a random assortment, really. I applied to Waterloo with two applications: one to the Arts & Business program, and one just to the Arts program. I received an acceptance from the Arts department and I was thrilled. Then I received a rejection letter from Arts & Business, and the letter stated that they had considered me for the regular Arts program, too, and that I had been rejected for that as well. So I called the university in a panic, and they said as long as I had the initial official acceptance letter, I was in.
Another reason was that I had irrational personal prejudices against some schools, more or less based on reputations I had heard. Waterloo seemed benign somehow. And it was the right distance from my hometown of Ottawa. Far enough, close enough.
JLH: Did you imagine yourself as an author as an undergraduate? Or did you have another vision of your future?
AS: I dreamt of it, sure. I had a great deal of love and reverence for literature, and everything I wrote felt super dilettantish (and still does, to an extent). But when I showed up at Waterloo, I hadn’t decided on a major, much less a life path…. I suppose I was waiting for some kind of Joycean vocational epiphany. And I still feel as though I’m waiting.
JLH: You’ve said elsewhere you didn’t know anyone else who was writing when you were at Waterloo: we now have an undergraduate creative writers’ group. Do you think this would this have made a difference in your trajectory?
AS: Maybe that was disingenuous. I suppose what I meant was that, for the first three years of my undergrad, the only person I knew around my age who was writing fiction was my best friend out at UVic, and we were both into fiction and poetry in a big way by the time we finished high school. We’d send writings back and forth, and we eventually went on hiatus from our respective universities, met in our hometown of Ottawa to work for a few months while we lived at our parents’ homes, and then travelled to Europe, both of us with highly romantic notions. He’s still my first and ideal reader.
I met some other scribblers when I returned to Waterloo and took the two creative writing classes that were offered at the time. So I did become aware of others. Workshops and community and readings have helped me tremendously, but I think it’s good to remember that the work gets done when you close your door on the world and any communities within it, however supportive.
JLH: When did you first think about publication, and how did you move towards it?
AS: When I started writing, I thought about it in a distant way. I would read Canadian Lit magazines and be highly critical of the work in them because I had a giant chip on my shoulder. Ha. I would send stories out to these magazines and see what kind of rejections I would get. Were they writing me a personal note? Was it a hand-written letter? Did they offer feedback or criticism? Was there any suggestion in the letter that they’d ever maybe publish something of mine? I was trying to gauge how far away I was from being a “real writer.” I think it’s a pretty good policy to always have some work out there, awaiting response. It makes you feel engaged. I say this not at all as an elder statesman. I have a hard time abiding by my own policy.
JLH: What advice would you offer students or alumni interested in pursuing writing and publishing? And what was the worst advice you ever received?
AS: Be greedy with your time. Read and write. Do it for its own sake. Generally, there’s little glory and less money. So if you covet those things, there are infinitely simpler routes to achieving them. Regarding bad advice: I have a difficult time reading or hearing writing advice of any kind. It tends to be highly prescriptive, rigid and self-important. It can also be more daunting than it is inspiring. Follow your heart, people!
JLH: I do like asking: what are you most excited about reading in the next while?
AS: I’m currently immersed in War and Peace… I think I’ll read something shorter when I finish. Ha. I’m excited to read Pynchon’s most recent novel, which is a few years old now, Inherent Vice. Paul Thomas Anderson is filming the adaptation. Evidently it’s a noir, but my experience with Pynchon is I can expect his usual sexual exploits, bizarre song lyrics, and singular prose.