I don’t exactly remember how I came across Daniel Karasik; I may have been reading The Star, where an article about him winning the Toronto Arts Foundation Award in 2013 might have appeared. Karasik is a recent graduate of U of T, and thus I was able to entice him to give me an interview by virtue of our having this great institution in common. UTM has a very strong theatre program, I explained to him, and I believe your wisdom could help young writers and actors find their footing. He graciously agreed.
Karasik is a young actor, playwright, poet, and novelist based in Toronto. His accolades are many; within the last few years he was the recipient of the CBC Literary Prize for Fiction, The Malahat Review’s Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award for Fiction, the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Award, and the Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award. Karasik’s recently staged plays include Haunted, In Full Light, and The Biographer. His publications include the poetry collection Hungry, the play The Remarkable Flight of Marnie McPhee, and the drama anthology The Crossing Guard and In Full Light. He was recently signed with a literary agency (The Transatlantic Agency) and is on the cusp of publishing a novel. When we met at Hart House, Karasik had just flown back from a summer stint at The Royal Court Young Writers Programme in London, England.
My first question was about balance. I think many would agree when I say that I don’t know many 27-year-olds with a list of achievements this long. What was his secret? “A light course load,” he responded. It turns out that Karasik did most of his university studies part-time, at one point even taking a year off to travel, volunteer abroad, and write. This self-directed scheduling gave him the opportunity to pursue personal interests, and to have his university studies complement his creative pursuits, not the other way around.
Karasik also attributes part of his balance to his financial independence. He has been making money in theatre and film since the age of 16.
When I asked Karasik about his reasons behind going to university to study English, religion, and philosophy despite having a fairly established career as a stage actor by the end of high school, he replied, “I wanted to know about the world in ways that went beyond my worldly life and my knowledge of theatre. I didn’t just want to know about making theatre.” He wanted to be rigorously challenged on an intellectual level, and he explained that his education gave him a firm “foundation to write form”.
All this led me to speculate about the roots of his artistic talent. What was his life like growing up, for example? Karasik described his family environment as “a supportive one”, even though he did not come from a family of artists. “I would go to musicals as a child,” he recalled, and although this is not the kind of work he does himself, they exposed him to the vibrancy, relevancy, and viability of live theatre at a young age. He also credits his high school teachers with giving him a good drama education.
Karasik made his first foray into the theatre world by applying to the Tarragon Theatre’s Young Playwrights Program when he was 15 or 16. That time he didn’t get accepted, but he also refused to allow the rejection to deter him. He worked on his writing during all of that year and reapplied the following year to both of Tarragon Theatre’s programs for youth, one in acting and one in playwriting. He got into both and completed both over the course of two years.
Karasik is a man of many mediums, and I asked him about which medium came first. “Fiction and scriptwriting,” he explained. “I started writing plays in earnest when I was about 15 or 16, which is also when I started acting. I then started writing poetry more seriously from about the end of high school.”
When he was 16, Karasik had a short play produced at the Rhubarb Festival run by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. For anyone interested in playwriting, he recommended starting early and taking advantage of the various youth outreach programs that theatre companies have available. Writing short plays and entering them into festivals such as SummerWorks and the Toronto Fringe Festival can really help one get a foot in the door.
As for poetry, Karasik received his first real-world encouragement when his poem won the Toronto Star Poetry Contest at the tail end of his high school years, and ever since then he has been sending work out. Publication in periodicals “is a bit of a numbers game,” he explained, so his advice for aspiring poets is to “put your stuff out there enough to have it break through”.
At U of T’s Victoria College Karasik took a workshop with famed Canadian poet A. F. Moritz, who became not only a mentor to him but also a friend. “He was really great to me as an inspiration and encouraged me a lot,” said Karasik. Moritz’s feedback gave him enough confidence to start sending his work out to more prestigious literary magazines. “Things got published early on,” he added.
It is through these channels that Karasik got his big break in publishing. Canadian poet Robyn Sarah was guest-editing The New Quarterly, a Canadian literary magazine of high repute, when she came across Karasik’s submission of poems back when he was 18 or 19. She was so impressed with them that not only did she publish his work in the magazine, but when she started working for Cormorant Books, a small Canadian publishing company, she emailed Karasik about publishing his poems with Cormorant. Three years later, Hungry emerged.
“She wanted to challenge me, not have me write poems for the sake of writing poems,” Karasik explained of the publication process leading up to the collection’s release. She pushed him formally, he said, which led him to experiment with more traditional poetic techniques. As a result, he says, “Sonnets are well represented in the anthology.”
The most important question I had for Karasik was this: how does a young artist starting out make things happen? “It’s very important to be very well informed of the opportunities out there,” he replied. “Google is your best friend. Find opportunities in the city and apply, apply, apply.” He also stressed the value of persistence. “If you try something hard enough and consistently enough, some sort of result will issue from it,” he explained. “Now, it may not be the result that you want, but it will be something.”
This personal philosophy had certainly stood him in good stead. During his 27 years Karasik has accomplished more than many who are twice his age, all while completing an undergraduate degree.
Knowing that his poetry collection was titled Hungry, I asked Karasik what exactly he was hungry for. “The book is about all kinds of hunger,” he explained. “Spiritual, sexual, intellectual hunger. About longing. The book is about what it means to be a desirous being.”
“Do you think that the seeking is more important than the finding?” I ventured to ask. “Yes, I think I do… though I’m not convinced that the satisfying is possible,” he ruefully replied.
And on that philosophical note, our time was up. I left with a head heavy with ideas.