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 book made very little difference. Although it was short-listed for the Amazon/Books in Canada award, and got nice reviews, it made no splash at all. So I went right back to writing as usual. New work always feels weird—after each book I can’t believe I could ever do that again.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Secretly, I wrote poetry before I wrote fiction, just didn’t show it to anybody. I wrote plays before publishing any fiction, because I was in the business already and was commissioned to write a few plays—I don’t in any way consider myself a playwright. But for serious writing, I came to fiction before anything else because I read novels before I read poetry, and before I saw plays, even before I started to think. Novels have always seemed to be the best way to think about the world.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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?
Copious, copious notes. I probably have 1500 pages of notes for my present novel, all kept in a byzantine maze of folders and sub-folders on my computer. Sadly, I can’t remember what’s in all those notes. Quite often I have a brilliant idea and make a note of it, and then find that I made exactly the same note two years ago. Or two weeks ago. Then I lose it again. The memory thing is very scary.
First drafts look quite close to final but that’s deceptive. The final draft has been unpicked and re-stitched word by word—and packed with extra meaning and intent once I’d got to the end of the first draft and figured out what I was trying to get at. How can I know what I think till I see what I’ve written?
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?
I’d say B, book from beginning—except that my first two novels actually were short pieces that combined or grew. But that was because I still thought I could write a short story then, I hadn’t fully faced up to my long-windedness.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Absolutely part of the process. I love reading. During the writing of GTAF I was lucky enough to be running the writer-in-residence program at a library, and organizing readings every month. I think I read most of the book, as it grew over time, to the long-suffering audience in Cochrane, Alberta. The book benefited from those airings, and I don’t know if I could have continued on it alone for so long without an occasional boost.
Readings from work-in-progress are also good for the writing community—a window on what other writers are doing now, what they are struggling with, instead of calcified writing they finished two years ago that’s finally out in book form.
Touring, though, halts creative process. It’s a business activity and counter to writing for several reasons: it upheaves your family and requires massive adjustment from everyone, it mires introspective people in a situation that demands extroversion, and it takes away from the prolonged stretch of solitude and boredom that one needs (at least I need) to write.
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?
Fiction certainly doesn’t spring from theoretical concerns, for me. If I had any I would write an essay. But as I look backwards I see some repeated worries emerging: class, money, women’s gymnastic adaptions to spouses and children. I seem to be obsessed with car crashes and bathtubs—hardly theories.
I guess I am trying to answer the question, What is this like? (What is it actually like to take on someone else’s children; to tour in small-time vaudeville in 1912? What is it like to stand backstage and wait to go on, to perform, to be cancelled, to succeed, to have to leave that life? What does the road dust smell like after rain, back then?)
Here’s that damned Alice Munro who always says things so well: ‘What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting.’
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?
Recorder, rememberer, noticer, interior detective. Not political, just present. Witness. This is like this.
I like that definition of the novel as an examination of the way we live now. Although I also like Randall Jarrell’s definition: a long manuscript with something wrong with it.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s an intimate conversation—you need some common ground. The last outside editor I worked with, Melanie Little, was magnificent. A perfect editor, not only by dint of rigour and intelligence and humour, but because she is a writer herself and was determined to mend all the ills that writers are subjected to. She can’t be blamed for GTAF’s failings; she came to the book when it was pretty far along, and most of her work was helping me to cut (and sticking things that I’d cut back in). Before Melanie, I worked with Barbara Pulling, and loved working with her too: she also has the trustworthy combination of hard-edged literary intelligence and understanding. Rhea Tregebov is another very fine, very delicate editor.
Those three women are kind and diplomatic and gentle; my first editor is Peter Ormshaw, a terrifying reader whose slashing red comments (famously, "What is this shit?" scrawled across a page) make the blood pool in my ankles, but make the work better. As well as an encourager and a celebrator, you really do need a challenger.
There’s no denying that it’s painful to get a manuscript back with every page covered in marks—a flush of dismay and shame that you’d left so many places open to question. I felt like someone had gone through my dresser drawers. But thank God someone does. You’d feel worse if the public saw those drawers.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Besides smoothness and eloquence, sir, it is necessary that every little line be adorned in all ways, to have flowers in it, and lightning and wind, and sun, all the things of the visible world. Chekhov, in The Ferryman
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to writing plays)? What do you see as the appeal?
Very easy to move to fiction, I’m no kind of a playwright. Within fiction, only too easy to move from short stories (which kept getting longer and longer), to novellas, to novels.
Excess, I suspect.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
At 5, with my husband’s three alarm clocks going off. Then I lie there thinking for a while and eventually stagger downstairs and write till I have to get children off to school (summer is best because they sleep till the afternoon and I can work straight through), then back to my desk till they come home, when I stop and talk to them and make supper, then usually the desk pulls me back until I get disgusted with something and go to bed. Repeat.
It sounds all disciplined but that leaves out the hours spent on email and skipping like a stone over the wide web-sea.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Images. I mean actual pictures. Or I go to the place. A few hours walking around on the ground of wherever I’m writing about seems to unplug the pipes. Not that art derives from place or anything. If I’m in real trouble, the best over-the-counter medicine for cowardice or constipation is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
13 - What fairy tale character do you resonate with most?
Scheherezade, spinning stories all night and coming up with the goods, or else. Or the poor girl who had to spin straw into gold for Rumpelstiltskin. Lately I’m kind of sympathizing with the mother in the Three Little Pigs, as I write about three sisters in a vaudeville act. And the poor old wolf.
14 - 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?
All of the above.
Performance is a source in every form, the brilliant, dull, skillful, clumsy performances of other artists, and memory of the work in my past life in theatre.
The everyday world outside, which perhaps can’t be dignified with such a large title as Nature, is important to me, and I can’t help believing it’s trying to tell me something. You know, if there are two magpies in the yard I’m happy all day.
Music is a strong influence too, which surprises me—I’m not a very good musician (I play piano and harp, neither particularly well), but I use music a lot both in my work and while working. I sympathized with Barbara Gowdy when she wanted to put out a CD – was it with White Bones, her elephant book? – of the music she’d been listening to while working. These days it would be easy, she could just put a playlist on iTunes.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life utside of your work?
All the usual suspects, I guess, but what’s important for one’s writing is not always readable within it: Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Lynda Barry, Colm ToÌbÌn, Penelope Fitzgerald, Grace Paley (really, some of these are laughably not readable in my work), Russell Hoban, Mavis Gallant, Annie Dillard, George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson. A few obscure, undeservedly forgotten women: E.H. Young, Rose Macaulay, E.C. Spykman.
The writers most important for my work may be the friends I respect and admire within my own community, whose example and company encourages me to continue. A few of them are Lynn Coady, Connie Gault, Jeanne Harvie, Melanie Little, Annabel Lyon, Glenda MacFarlane, Greg Nelson, Sara O’Leary, Peter Ormshaw, Fred Stenson, Guy Vanderhaeghe.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Weird, I think I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I even went to Tonga. I’ve written books and been wildly and happily in love and had amazing children. I’d like to write eighteen more books. I’d like to be Queen of the May, of course.
17 - 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 could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin for the judging…’
Oh, alternately, alternately—I’ve had a lot of other occupations, and might have stuck with any one of them I suppose, but if I had not had writing to go to, I probably would still be a dramaturge. A bitter, prickly, self-satisfied and opinionated dramaturge.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s the best thing to do in the world. You can do it all alone, and then when you get lonely, go air some of it at a reading, or talk to interesting writers or go on tour for a while, and then come back to your silent room and work some more.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears, which I re-watched a little while ago when it occurred to me that I could order it from Amazon.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A vaudeville romp about The Belle Auroras, a sister-trio-harmony act touring respectable small-time circuits across the prairies on both sides of the border, in 1912.