Monday, April 14, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Alison Pick

Alison Pick was the winner of the 2002 Bronwen Wallace Award for Poetry, the 2003 National Magazine Award for Poetry, and the 2005 CBC Literary Award for Poetry. Her first collection, Question & Answer, was short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Award for Best First Book and for a Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award. Her second, The Dream World, has just been published by McClelland & Stewart. Alison is also the author of the novel The Sweet Edge, a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book that has been optioned for film. Alison has lived, read, published and taught across the country. She now makes her home in Toronto where she is at work on a novel and a book of non-fiction.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

In every way—although I didn’t realize it at the time. I published it very quickly after starting out as a writer. In retrospect I see that having a book affords all kinds of cultural privilege, as well as giving membership into the world of letters. But then I thought it was simply par for the course. I also had no idea about any of the politics of the writing world in general and of the Canadian poetry scene in particular. There was a pure kind of pleasure to publishing Q&A that sometimes I wish I could get back to.

2 - How long have you lived in St John's, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing?

I don’t live in St. John’s anymore, actually, I live in Toronto. But The Dream World is a book that I wrote during the five years we lived in Newfoundland, and it is preoccupied almost entirely with geography (and with the intersection between language and place). I was what is referred to there as a “Come-from-Away,” and so the book looks at what it means to be a stranger in a new environment, both cultural and geographic.

3 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Counter. I’m such a classic introvert, not in the sense that I’m shy, but that I get replenished by time alone and tired out by interaction. So a reading—even worse, a long series of readings—really takes it out of me. On the other hand, it’s incredibly rewarding to meet readers who appreciate the work, and a reading is most often where that happens. I’m getting to enjoy giving readings more, but it’s a skill I’m always trying to cultivate.

4 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Difficult, no, essential, yes. As a young writer the skill I am most focused on is learning to be my own best editor. I love editing my own work, but it’s still (and always will be, I assume) invaluable to have a set of fresh eyes. I’ve been incredibly lucky with my editorial experiences thus far. Lynn Henry at Polestar and Raincoast (now at Anansi) and Molly Peacock at M&S are both incredibly talented. Respectful, astute, deep listeners. I also have a whole army of friends whose feedback I trust: Steve Heighton, Michael Crummey, Anne Simpson [see her 12 or 20 questions here], David Seymour, Alayna Munce, Degan Davis

5 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Last year. In Newfoundland. It tasted like a rock.

6 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I wouldn’t say it’s been easy, but it has felt necessary. I’m drawn to both genres, and take pleasure in the similarities as well as the differences. There are poets and novelists (although mostly poets, I think) who contend you can’t do both, at least not with success and/or integrity. To me, though, writing in two genres feels like exercising the same muscle but in different ways. My hope is that one strengthens the other.

7 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

It was threefold: read, read, read.

8 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I write first thing in the morning. Ideally I don’t check email until I’ve put in four or five hours. The business end of things I deal with in the afternoons. I don’t take a weekend, not because I’m disciplined, but because I’m miserable without the time to write.

Black coffee is essential.

9 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I stumbled into it. Took a creative writing elective in the final year of my undergraduate degree. Published a couple poems in The New Quarterly (thrilling!). Got a small grant from the OAC. Travelled to St. Peter’s Abbey to attend the Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium with Tim Lilburn. Stayed on at St. Pete’s for several months, writing. Got another small grant. Published more poems, and then a book. Etc. I keep waiting for the day when I have to get a day-job, but so far so good.

10 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

It’s better!

Seriously, though. I wrote Question & Answer as a brand new poet with almost no training and with no background in literature whatsoever. I felt my way through it—it was an intuitive, visceral enterprise. The Dream World has not only more life experience but also more poetic training behind it. It’s a tighter book, better edited. I’m very happy with it.

11 – What do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I was thinking of being a therapist. The world is a better place for this not having had happened.

12 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on two things, both big departures for me. The first is a novel set in Prague around the time of the Munich Agreement, in the autumn of 1938. It focuses on the “Kindertransports” that sent Jewish children out of Europe just before the war. My own grandparents came to Canada around that time as well, renounced their Judaism and raised my father and uncle Christian. The second book I’m working on is a book of non-fiction exploring my family’s relationship to religion post-Holocaust, my own accidental discover of my family’s secret in my early teens, and my subsequent exploration of religious and cultural identity.

12 or 20 questions archive

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