Allan Weiss is the author of two books of short stories, Living Room (Boheme 2001) and Making the Rounds (Edge 2016), as well as a number of stories, both literary and science fiction/fantasy, in various periodicals and anthologies. A third collection, Telescope, will be published by Guernica Editions in 2019. Born in Montreal, Weiss moved to Toronto in 1980 to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Toronto. He earned his Ph.D. in English in 1985 and has taught at Ryerson, Woodsworth College, and York University. He is currently an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at York, specializing in Canadian literature and fantastic fiction. In addition, he is Chair of the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is held every two years at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy.
You say one of your proudest achievements as a professor is the website “Grammar Man.” Tell us how this project got its start?
Yes, I lived in at least two worlds when I was a kid: a school in the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal and afternoon Hebrew School classes. You could also say that I lived in a predominantly English-speaking community surrounded by a francophone community I had little contact with when I was younger. I wrote a story called, “Minorities”—it’s part of my collection Living Room—about what it was like to be part of a minority within a minority within another minority. The experience of moving from one realm to another is reflected in the fact that Eliezer is always a minority of one, or maybe two if you count Melech. He’s usually, although not always, the only Jew in the immediate vicinity, and has to cope with misunderstandings and sometimes prejudice. He often has to explain things to the people he works for as he earns his room and board through his magic. Eliezer’s homelessness is to some extent a reflection of the condition of being a North American, and especially a Canadian: just who exactly are we, and what constitutes “home”? Is it the country or countries we came from, or Canada as a country, or the narrower community we grew up in? I consider Montreal, where I was born, and Toronto, where I’ve lived most of my life, two different home cities, both of which have meaning for me.
There’s another point, too. I explain a fair number of the cultural references in the book, and you don’t have to be Jewish to understand the book. But on the other hand, if there is something the reader doesn’t get, I feel it is her/his responsibility to look it up. I learned a lot of Christian lore when I was a kid and then much later, and I found it amusing during my early days as an instructor to explain to the “goyim” the difference between the terms “Christian,” “Protestant,” and “Catholic.” Well, if I had to learn about communion and the Trinity, maybe others should educate themselves about what a seder is and about Chanukah. I once told a class that I was being unapologetically Jewish in my book, and a Muslim student who wore a hijab told me that she found that insistence on being who I am very inspiring—it made her feel more comfortable about just being who she was.
For years, I taught grammar in my classes, beginning with a course on essay writing during my days as a teaching assistant. I’ve always tried to teach people things like how to use a semi-colon and the difference between “who” and “whom.” I really got the chance to do that when I started teaching first-year courses at York that included time specifically devoted to the teaching of critical skills like grammar. Also, I’ve always emphasized good grammar in my grading of students’ essays. I tell them that I’m not looking for elegance or brilliant prose, just correct writing. I won’t give a grade higher than C+ on an essay that’s poorly written. (Students find that horribly hard-hearted…) My students in one course, “Science Fiction Culture,” started calling me “Grammar Man” because I spent portions of my lectures on grammar and because I insisted on good grammar in their essays. Finally, I decided to adopt the name. Then, one student drew a cartoon of Grammar Man and gave it to me, and I use it on the Grammar Man website’s homepage. I tell people I like it for two reasons: the accurate rendering of my physique, and the way the kid spelled Grammar…Being Grammar Man became a “thing” for me, and eventually, I figured it would make sense to create a website where other people could benefit from the explanations and tips that I gave in my lectures. I also figured fellow profs who knew how to write well but didn’t have the grammatical vocabulary to explain why something is right or wrong could learn the terminology.
In your philosophy, you speak about the need to create your own meaning for the physical universe. In Making the Rounds there is a man who summons bees from the beyond to create beeswax. What is the role of fiction in defining or explaining our universe? – and how do you use science fiction to explain your understanding of the world?
Fiction dramatizes the author’s philosophy, even when it isn’t intentional. You can’t help shaping your fiction according to how you view the world—even when it comes to something as basic as what you consider real. For example, I ask my students whether a story about a magic tree and a talking snake would be realism or fantasy. Most say that it would be fantasy. That’s because in our culture we don’t believe in magic or the supernatural (and I think we’re right not to). In John Milton’s day, however, people in Europe thought the Genesis story was history, not myth, and when he wrote “Paradise Lost” he was not treating the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the serpent the way Tolkien treated orcs and elves. Knowing the author’s beliefs helps you interpret the text. More commonly, the author’s social, political, moral, and other sets of beliefs affect what kind of literature he/she produces, and a big part of that network of beliefs is aesthetics: what an author believes about what fiction is and should be like.
Fiction can explore human nature, exposing the prejudices, limitations, passions, forms of behaviour, and so on that we all experience. To my mind, it’s a great way to escape your own head and put yourself in the head of someone else, someone very different from yourself—even an alien. It teaches readers that there ARE different ways of looking at the universe, and certain ways that might enlighten us as to the experiences of people who, for example, don’t usually get a voice: poor, minority, marginalized in one way or another. I’ve heard that people who read fiction are more empathetic and tolerant, and I believe that. People often remain stuck in their own prejudices, never putting themselves in the positions of others who are different from themselves, and it’s a form of willed blindness I have no patience for. You have a moral obligation, I think, to see things from someone else’s perspective, not just the one you were raised in, and judge other people from a position of understanding and at least some identification. If you’re not willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and educate yourself, you have no right to say anything about that person or others generally. That doesn’t mean you’ll always end up accepting the other person—maybe the person doesn’t deserve sympathy or his/her point of view is dead wrong, factually or morally—but you have to keep your mind open to begin with.
Fantastic fiction—science fiction and fantasy—is a great way to explore how the universe and people work. It makes the metaphorical concrete, meaning that if, for example, you’re interested in the question of what makes us human, you can illustrate that theme using androids or aliens. It’s a terrific way of examining ethical and moral issues. My wizard is obliged to do good deeds not because he’s being “punished” for gaining forbidden magical knowledge, but because that’s what we’re ALL supposed to do. There’s a Jewish principle called “tikkun olam,” which basically means we’re supposed to leave the world a better place than we found it: “repair the world.” I think that’s everybody’s obligation. People who are politically apathetic, for instance, appall me. Politics matter. Who forms the government determines what will happen to people, ourselves and others. I have strong political opinions because I’ve devoted time to studying the issues and how politicians approach them. Those who shrug and say, “Oh, I don’t bother to vote because they’re all alike” are engaging in a kind of pseudo-sophistication; they’re justifying their laziness and apathy by pretending to be too cynical to care any more. In truth, they often never did care. They just can’t be bothered to study the issues and take a stand. You have to take a stand. Bad things happen when you don’t. Anyway, I’ve written both science fiction and fantasy that deal with things like how we’re supposed to treat others, what an encounter with aliens might reveal about ourselves, how utterly empty the universe can be, real versus artificial objects of affection, and the effects of colonialism.
In Making the Rounds, I’m interested in exploring elements of Jewish culture, and also Eliezer’s self-deluding idea that someone else is responsible for his troubles. I can understand his feelings: he’s homeless, lonely, and kind of enslaved by his “curse”; on the other hand, he not only has an obligation but an opportunity to use his powers to help other people in ways other people can’t. He can “repair the world” better than anybody else. And he does make things a lot better for people who would otherwise be suffering without any hope of relief. On the other hand, the stories are fantasy; I do believe in a Godless universe, and the best way to portray that is to get off this planet and show the dark, cold stretches of void beyond the lovely blue dome we usually see when we look up.
I explore the same theme in my upcoming collection of mainstream stories, called Telescope, which Guernica Editions will be publishing in 2019. H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and other science-fiction writers have described what it’s like to come face-to-face with the universe as a dark, cold place. Science fiction, more than fantasy I think, is a good way to portray not just the way technology affects our lives and might affect it in the future, but also our real place in a vast cosmos that has no regard for us.
According to your philosophies, pride is our worst sin and greatest danger. With all the political division around the world today, what are the foundations that lead to the “sins” running rampant in the political parties of today?
The problem with pride is that it leads people to think they know everything; that blinds them to information that challenges their prejudices. Truth is more important than holding on to myths that make you comfortable or happy. I think
devotion to truth is a very important trait to have. Terrible things happen when people prefer myths to the truth. The right-wing nationalist populism that we see in the world today is one such manifestation of that. From Trump’s racism
to Islamophobia in North America, Europe, and parts of Asia to rising anti-Semitism in various places, we’re seeing people descend into intolerance because it’s so much easier and self-gratifying than learning to understand the
Political leaders are only part of the problem. The real problem lies with their supporters. Hitler would have been just another lunatic ranting in a beer-hall; Trump would have been just another bigot raving in his Tower; leaders of the
BJP in India and the authoritarian leaders in the Philippines, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, China, and so many other places would not be nearly as much of a problem if others hadn’t put them into office. I’ve long said that people only
have as much power as other people give them. It’s the “decent” people, the ones who would never describe themselves as anti-democratic or racist or sexist or bigoted in some way, who put emotions before reason and elect or otherwise
support bad leaders, and give them the power to harm others: members of minorities, women, even the planet itself.
On the lighter side, as “Grammar Man” what sort of conversations do you have with your editor as you prepare a book for publication?
Grammar Man has a few strong opinions: don’t change “any more” to “anymore”; don’t ever substitute “within” for “in”; and don’t EVER argue with my punctuation. Even when it’s “wrong.” I once had a teacher “correct” the grammar in a passage of dialogue in a story I wrote for school. I knew better: people don’t speak grammatically! But if I mistake “it’s” for “its” please hammer me. That’s inexcusable.
And what is it with everybody starting sentences with “So”? “So” means “because of that…”
“Hey, what did you do this afternoon?”
“So I went to the park and…”
I HATE that!
Making the Rounds is in Eliezer’s point of view, and he “speaks” (not really English, but that’s the convention) with a Yiddish accent. That’s going to make for some strange syntax. Deal with it! In fact, the only person entitled to pronounce on anything with pride, if not downright arrogance, is Grammar Man.
You mention devouring the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr. and Tom Corbett as a child. What science fiction authors do you thrill to read as an adult?
I love reading James Morrow, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Robert Charles Wilson (I’m way behind, though), Neil Gaiman (fiction), the Paolo Bacigalupi I’ve read, and Dale Bailey. Karl Schroeder’s ideas are mind-blowing. I can read and reread Ursula K. Le Guin often.
What’s next for Allan Weiss?
What’s next? I have a historical novel about the Winnipeg General Strike seeking a publisher. I’ve written a few stories about the excavation of an intelligent “alien” (native) species on another planet—the Castormond series—and would like to finish that. Two of the stories, “Heaven and Earth” and “Journals,” have seen print (long ago), but there are others in draft form I haven’t gone back to and a couple more yet to be written. Telescope, a second book of “literary” (mainstream) short stories, will be coming out in 2019 from Guernica Editions.
Website: Allan Weiss
Allan Weiss was born in Montreal and lives in Toronto, where he teaches English and Humanities at York University. He has published over two dozen short stories, both mainstream and genre, in various periodicals and anthologies, including Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, Windsor Review, On Spec, and Tesseracts 4, 7, and 9. His story collection Living Room appeared in 2001.
He earned his B.A. (1979) and M.A. (1980) in English from Concordia University and received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1985. As a scholar, he specializes in Canadian fiction and fantastic literature, and has published numerous articles on these topics and on the short story. He has also delivered papers at conferences in various countries in Europe and Asia as well as North America. He is the Chair of the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is held every two years in Toronto, and edited a recent volume of proceedings of that conference, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus (McFarland, 2014).