Tuesday, July 28, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Tess Fragoulis

Tess Fragoulis is the author of Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp), which was nominated for the QWF First Book Prize; Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown), which was long-listed for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award; and is the editor of Musings, an anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature. Her latest novel, The Goodtime Girl, will be published in 2010 by Cormorant. She lives in Montreal and teaches writing part-time at Concordia University.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

First of all, you should know that I’m listening to hurtin’ country songs while answering these questions, which might affect my tone.

It goes without saying that getting a first book published is a good shot in the arm. I gained a public voice and met a lot of people I otherwise would not have met, and good and bad things were printed about me, whereas before only people I actually crossed paths with had the nerve to criticize what I did. It gave me the momentum to write my second book, which was not a given. I was able to get grants and to travel to writer’s residencies. Professionally there were definite changes, personally, not that much.

I think every book is almost like a first book in that you start from scratch and have no idea if it will be finished, published, well-received. Writing is obviously a very insecure business. But there is a freedom and joy to that first book that is hard to repeat with the later ones. It’s like first love—you love others, but it just doesn’t have that all-encompassing hope and romanticism. Your first book in some way spoils you for the all the rest. At least that’s how it felt for me.

My most recent completed work, a historical novel, felt a lot more serious and constrained than my first book in that there were so many things I was trying to say and explore and devise within the limitations of the time my characters inhabited. They say that novels are like marriages, stories like affairs, and this novel was definitely a long and complicated marriage that needed a lot of attention and work. It is a book that is less fanciful and unfettered than either of my first two books, but it has other complexities that I think are worthwhile and interesting. Of course, in reaction to all those years of hard labour, I am now back to stories, which are light and airy and wistful and absurd. My obsession with the darkness of life seems to have shifted for the time being. I am after a different type of experience, both for myself and for my readers. Perhaps part of it is an attempt to recapture the verve of the first book, or its freedom at least.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

The truth is that I actually began as a poet. My first published pieces were poems, and I was prouder of them than anything I had ever accomplished before. I recently had the experience of teaching a poetry workshop and I see how little I knew about technique, about meter, let alone form, but somehow I managed to intuit some of it, and to produce a few good poems. But poems were not large enough for what I wanted to do, I needed a bigger field to play in. So I moved onto the short story, and then onto the novel, that really has ruined me for the shorter forms. Even my stories expand to about 30 pages these days. So room, it was all about room. I did gain a new appreciation for poetry teaching that workshop, the slowness that it demands in order for the reader to fully appreciate its mysteries. But ideas don’t come to me as poems anymore, though they once did. I’m still most attracted to short stories.

As for non-fiction—I like the veil that fiction provides. I’m not that into the naked truth of things. Whenever I write non-fiction, I feel too exposed. I like to do whatever I want with the facts, turn them into something else—rewrite them to please myself. I enjoy my imagination more than I enjoy real life.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I’m the type of writer that needs a long fermentation period. An idea might appear to be a good one, but I won’t do anything right away, I need to let it sit in my brain and gather, I don’t know, strength, momentum, willpower. I have to not be able to avoid it, it has to start nagging at me, otherwise it’s hard for me to start. As for how quickly it all comes once I start writing, that’s different all the time. Depends on the project: some of the stories I’m writing now come in bursts, and then there’s nothing for a while (I guess they are going through their own probationary period). And though there may be a lot of adjusting and tweaking, stories especially tend to come to me in their proper form. Things may be added and subtracted, of course, but if you looked at the first draft and the last, they are not all that different. I’ve never been able to tear the thing apart and rework it in an entirely different manner. If a story needs that much work, I probably just put it in a file and move onto something else.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

When I was starting out writing stories, I realized that having a larger plan was a good idea, something substantial I was working towards. It keeps me motivated when a story is finished to move on to the next one. It also helps to have a flexible theme, as that in itself will produce ideas for further stories. With Stories to Hide from Your Mother, the theme was sex and secrets, so my brain was actively coming up with ideas that might in some way fit into that theme. The current collection also has a theme (which I am not at liberty to divulge at the moment), and of course, the novels were conceived as novels.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Before my work was published in magazines, and then in book form, I really counted on readings to give me energy and feedback, to keep me from the dreadful isolation that writing can sometimes be. It was necessary for me to go out and find an audience for what I was doing because there was no book going out on its own, finding its audience without me. I think that is the beauty of writing—you send it out there and you no longer have to be its chaperone or emissary, in the way a dancer or an actor must. I really like that someone can have a private experience with my work, can hear it, see it without my physical participation. But in the beginning I had to accompany it wherever it went, and it was good to feel that it was getting out there and that people liked it, and that did keep me going.

I have to say that in recent years I am less interested in giving readings and going to them—I no longer actively pursue them. I’d rather someone read my book and I’d also rather read someone’s book. But I don’t hate readings—I’m a decent reader, and it’s still good to get that immediate response, to meet people, to talk to them and hear what they have to say.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I never, ever, ever think in this way about writing fiction. I’m interested in characters and their experiences, not in theories or questions that I may or may not be able to answer through them. Isn’t writing a good story hard enough? I’d rather leave the theories to academics. That’s their job, not mine.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Oh, I don’t know. I think writers and artists in general are becoming increasingly marginalized. We produce beautiful objects in some small corner which we all inhabit, and on occasion these objects make some sort of blip in the world at large, then we go back to our little corner and do it some more. I think this is as good a role as any, and I feel I live a privileged life. I sometimes wonder if there is any real point to writing more books, and then I give up the notion of art having/needing a point. I’m not trying to cure cancer or facilitate world peace. In a sense, literature is a luxury object, like haute couture—created lovingly, with the best materials, and enjoyed by a select few who appreciate it and can afford it and are not interested in knock offs. I’m happy to be part of that little margin. Perhaps like haute couture literature trickles into the culture and keeps it from being entirely mundane and pedestrian.

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

A good editor is a wonderful thing. He/she can provide an overview, a perspective that gets lost on the writer after too many months/years staring at the same material. It’s so easy to become inured to your own work, to miss things or to just accept something as it is because you just can’t bear to work on it any more. So I think an outside editor is essential to the final part of the creative process, both his/her discernment and demands. The rub is that you have to have an editor you trust and thesuggestions need to make sense. It becomes really difficult if they don’t, or if there is an agenda different than your own at work. I had this experience before publishing my first book of stories, and often I just withdrew the submission rather than accept changes that I didn’t agree with from people I didn’t know.

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

Be kind and generous to all your characters—even the despicable ones. Richard Ford said something like this in a lecture at Humber College. I heard something similar in a Jane Rule documentary the other day.

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

When I am working on a project that is really underway (meaning I’ve moved out of the avoidance phase and actually working like something is going to come of it), I like to begin around 1pm and work until 4 or 5. I don’t really have the stamina for more than that. I like to think that 3 hours of writing is like 6 hours of any other job. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but a lot can be achieved in 3 focused hours, and I’m pleased with myself if I’ve put that much time in on consecutive days.. I must say, I need the entire day free in order to have those 3 productive hours, which is becoming more and more difficult. (This has already taken 90 minutes with a few breaks, for instance, and I think I need another one now.)

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Lately, I’ve really counted on a stack of old creative journals I’ve kept pretty diligently. After so many years on the last novel, my brain is not firing off as many new ideas at the moment as usual, but because I so diligently wrote down spurious ideas as they came out of nowhere, kept articles that intrigued me, did freewrites on a regular basis, I have plenty of things to draw from. In fact, there is enough in there that I might never have to come up with another new idea ever again!

Other times it’s just good to just stay stalled for a while until some kind of pick-up truck comes and drags you out of the mud. What’s the point of just spinning your wheels? Just try to be patient. No one has died from not writing for a little while (at least that’s what I like to tell myself.)

12 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?

To go all the way, to not hold anything back, to go further than I thought I wanted to.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Music is a big influence on my work. My historical novel was written because of a certain type of Greek music from the 20s and 30s (rembetika), which got me interested in the period and in the people who produced the music. My first novel, Ariadne’s Dream, also had many musical references, which helped me capture the mood of the characters and the energy of their lives and emotions. I love music at least as much as I love books—they’re really neck in neck. Certain images in films have also spurred creation. And at least one story in the collection I’m working on now was inspired by a portrait I saw in Scotland. It is less common for me to be inspired by a book, though I did try my own version of Jane Austen last summer as an exercise.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are writers I return to on a regular basis because they get me back on track. The usual suspects are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Ford, Diane Schoemperlen, and as of late, Amy Hempel. There is something that each of them does that I need to remember for my own work. Other than that, I’ve read quite a few Buddhist books in the past few years, which get me back on track in another way.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Despite what I said earlier about non-fiction, I’d really like to write book-length non-fiction for a change of pace. My non-fiction voice is quite different than my fiction voice, and there are a number of subjects I’m interested in exploring, but haven’t quite found the right angle yet. So they are fermenting for the moment. It would be good to write a book that was directly helpful to someone, and to get over the fear of being too exposed. Some of my favourite books in recent years have been memoir/travelogues. It would be great to do something like that someday.

I’d also like to be able to jog 5k without dying.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I always thought I would be a psychologist—it was always my second choice. I took some tentative steps towards this a few years ago, then turned around and came home. I heard someone say that you need to put 10,000 hours of work into something before you are considered a professional or an expert—something other than an amateur. I’ve now put those hours into writing, and I can’t imagine putting that much time and effort into something else. So I don’t think there will be any other attempts to become something else at this stage. Maybe just a different kind of writer.

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

I began writing when I was very young because I loved books and no one told me that it was some kind of special thing that only certain people did. I had no notion of being a writer until my early 20s. Then again, there was nothing else I really wanted to be--I didn’t have any grand goals or ambitions towards anything in particular. So I guess I leaned into something that I was already doing for myself anyway. Nothing made me write. I just liked it and kept doing it and then it became something.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

My mind went blank with this question. Great depends on so many things.

I can say that some of my all time favourite films are In the Mood for Love, La Dolce Vita, Crumb, and Gigi (how’s that for a range?). Recently I’ve enjoyed Vicki Christina Barcelona, Adam’s Rib, and YiYi. I also really liked the new Star Trek, which I didn’t expect, and a weird documentary called The Complete History of My Sexual Failures.

As for books, the all time faves and greats include 100 Years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez), Skating to Antarctica (Jenny Diski), The Collected Stories of Truman Capote, Middlesex (Eugenides), and The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Robert Hough). I would say Mabel Stark is the last great book I read. Couldn’t put it down. I was so happy to be inside its world.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a series of short stories that are sort of adult fairytales—somewhat fantastical and good-natured. It was my sideline while I was writing my historical novel, and without realizing it, the stories and the pages piled up. So the collection is close to complete. I hope to be done by the end of the year, if the final edits to the novel do not interfere.

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