Taking the bull by the (literary) horns

Douglas grad and instructor John Vigna talks Print Futures, teaching, writing, and ‘Bull Head’

By Sharon Miki, Editor in chief

The life of the professional writer isn’t always as romantic or glamorous as cable television might have you believe; most working writers live a life of constant struggle between creativity and financial stability, rejection and elation, and writing and working. Finding this balance can be a delicate juggling act, which makes John Vigna’s journey from Douglas College student to working writer to teacher to published author—often simultaneously—all the more impressive.

Vigna, a graduate of the Print Futures: Professional Writing program and current Douglas College instructor, released his debut book of short fiction, Bull Head, this month. The Other Press sat down with Vigna to talk about Bull Head, writing, and his print past and future.

Bull Head

Bull Head tells eight stories of men trapped by their environment, landscape, and choices. Set in the 1980s and late-1990s in a fictionalized mountain town, Bull Head explores a variety of unique yet distinctly masculine points of view—a divorced pit bull breeder living on his ex-wife’s property, an alcoholic two-step aficionado visiting his brother in prison, a physically abused husband, and elderly brothers clinging to their old ways.

“What interested me when I was starting with these characters was sort of the emasculation that men are encountering now,” Vigna said. “This is not a response, saying that people should take notice and ‘woe is guys’…but there’s been such a big shift in society, and real growth for the positive, but [with that shift] it means that there’s this other undercurrent of things that go on, and I was particularly curious about this in very predominantly male environments where they’re tied to natural resources.”

Accordingly, the world of Bull Head is rough on the men that live in it—and their dissatisfaction emerges physically.

“In the world I created, one of the ways the men respond to this is with violence, because they’re frustrated, they don’t know how else to get through this. They try to make decisions that they think are going to be better for them, but they end up being horrible decisions that lead to terrible situations that can often be very violent or very dark…I wanted to see how these characters, put through this type of setting, how they would respond and to me, this was one response.”

While the book has already received positive reviews from the National Post, the Globe and Mail, and the Vancouver Sun, Vigna noted that the process of writing and publishing Bull Head was a long one—and began its infancy at Douglas College.

“Some of these stories I had the genesis of…while I was in the Print Futures program. And another story, the whisperings of it, started in that…so that would have been in 2001. Those stories, of course, have changed remarkably. They’re not even the same beasts, but they started there.”

From print to the future

Vigna graduated from the two-year Print Futures diploma program in 2001, which he took as a means of acquiring the skills to build a career as a writer.

“I didn’t want to end up in the place I already was, which was educated but with no job-ready skills really, so I had to make that hard decision,” Vigna explained. “When I looked into the Print Futures program, I talked to previous students and I had no idea there was all this other sort of professional writing going on out there, and when I learned that was the case I thought, ‘you know, I can do this and find the way to make the time to do my own writing.’”

After Print Futures, Vigna applied his skills to a career as a copywriter before returning to school once more—completing his master’s degree in Creative Writing at UBC.

While still balancing his work as a copywriter and creative writer, Vigna also decided to start teaching his craft.

“So now as a teacher of the program, both in Print Futures and in the Creative Writing department, it’s just fantastic because I’ve been a student in both: I know the college environment and what expectations students bring to the table, and I have experiences in both of those worlds that often cross over. It’s great to be able to connect to students, or try to with that kind of background.

“It’s great to give back to the college, and to give back to the writing community in a small way by trying to encourage other people to write and find that community.”

On writing

While Vigna still works as a copywriter and instructor, at the time of Bull Head’s release, he’s put renewed emphasis on his creative writing, as “now the focus of my life is writing the stories and planning the books that I hope to one day finish.”

For students aspiring to join the fray of professional writers, Vigna advocated courage and dedication to the craft.

“Until you respect it for yourself, no one else will. That sounds easy, but it’s often the hardest thing to do, to own it, to say that I deserve the time and I should make the time to do this and honour it this way. [And] surround yourself with really good people who support wholeheartedly what you’re doing.

“To all students: you will be rejected. Guaranteed. The most famous lucrative writers in the world and the most esteemed writers in the world to the people who self-publish… every single one of them has been rejected and will continue to be rejected on various levels throughout their career. So make friends with that and make friends with the rejection, and get past it. It’s never personal, if it’s not now its maybe the next step.”