Saturday, August 29, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Nichole McGill

In Girl #3, her first novel for young adults, Ottawa author Nichole McGill tells the tale of a 14-year-old papergirl who finds peace and predators, stalkers and ghosts in a Toronto ravine. Nichole is also the author of 13 Cautionary Tales, the screenwriter for The Waiting Room, which was featured at the Berlin Film festival, and her fiction has been published in numerous journals and anthologies across North America. A veteran of the Ottawa reading series scene, she also curates WESTFEST LIT. She blogs at and tweets @nicholemcgill.

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

I thought that the publication of my first book, 13 Cautionary Tales, would change my life; it didn’t. This gave me Healthy Perspective.

In some ways, my second book is a continuation of the last short story in my short story collection. “Blood & Bubblegum” also deals with bullies in a magic realism fashion.

However, Girl #3 is:

1) a novel,
2) a young adult novel, and
3) plays with time and genre.

The journey for writing this novel was a personal and stylistic challenge for me. I figured out the novel form by wrestling it to the ground. Now that it’s out, I am far more assured in my storytelling ability.

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

I started off in journalism but really, I was pushed into that field, as are most who express a love of story. At university, I fell in love with films and pictures but somehow all stories for me begin with the written word.

My writing career was unintentional. After backpacking in Europe, I was offered a job as a print journalist in Ottawa covering the arts scene on a stop-over between Prague and Vancouver, where I was headed with a notion of working in the film industry. This is how I ended up in Ottawa and two years later, I signed a short story book deal while trying to sell my print columns as a book collection.

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?

A writing project catches fire when it catches fire. I poke at it but if nothing catches, I move on to the project that is speaking to me. I will return to bother the dormant ideas occasionally to see if there’s any spark in it. Once an idea catches, I work best if I dip into the story everyday to keep the flame alive.

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?

All stories for me start with the character’s voice. Once I nail that, the story flies whether I decide it’s a short story or a novel; the length depends on the time I want to invest into that character.

Once I have the voice, I chart out a general course for that character with appropriate twists and turns, write a bit, alter my general course if need be, write some more, etc. My first draft is writing the main “A” storyline down and in subsequent drafts, I determine which of the “B” stories are integral or not.

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

I love, love, love doing readings. It forces me as a writer to confront the story that I’ve written and during a reading, I quickly discern what parts of a story are extraneous and which parts I need to expand upon. Often it renews my enthusiasm in a project.

I have found readings to be particularly valuable as a YA author. The Ottawa International Writers Festival sent me to read and discuss my works in schools as part of their Think Ink literacy program in March. The interaction with students confirmed my instinct that teen readers are a sophisticated audience and if they are invested in a story, they will follow what twists and turns and devices you put in their path, a subject that I’ve addressed in my blog.

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?

Like many writers, I am rethinking the format of the book particularly in light of the social electronic media revolution that we are currently going through. I contribute to a Google group on rethinking the book and am developing Web versions and electronic versions of a book in separate projects with a local Web venture and the Ontario College of Art & Design’s Strategic Innovation Lab.

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?

[ have no response for this one ]

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

This, naturally, depends on the editor. Linda Pruessen of Key Porter Books and Jenny Antilla at Gutter Press were wonderful editors. Then again, they shared my overall vision. That said I crave working with editors who are able to identify those this-almost-works-but-not-quite passages. Both these editors fulfilled that essential role.

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

When you are no longer nervous before a reading or a release of your work, this means you have lost your passion for writing.

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

Too easy; the difficulty is committing to one genre and maintaining one’s interest.

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?

I lead a somewhat insanely packed life. Currently, I have two preschoolers and I work full-time as an E-Communications Manager. Hence, creative writing is pushed to the evenings, weekends and leaves of absences. When babes go to sleep, I go to a café. By nature, I’m a night owl yet I live in Ottawa where cafes close at 10 p.m. and my preschoolers have not adopted teenage sleeping patterns.

These are my challenges.

I work best when I am focused on one project and I draw up a detailed schedule that will allow me to stay in the zone. I call it “dipping in the well”. You have to enter the world of your story to nurture it. Otherwise, the moment you step out of it, it’s a different story. The sentence you write this moment will not be the same sentence that you write in an hour, or the next day. So when you decide to write, you have to be committed to following through on capturing the story before its shape shifts again.

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

Go to a café. Wait until 10 minutes before close. The muse will wallop you with a motherload and you’ll be furiously writing, cursing that you don’t have another 20 minutes. (Like now – it’s 10 p.m. at Bridgehead and the café’s closing. I will have to return to finish this questionnaire another night.)

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The hair of my children.

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?

Books come from living life.

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

Writers who confirm that yes, it is possible.

Short list: Joyce Carol Oates, Lynn Crosbie, Evelyn Lau, Deborah Ellis, Laurie Halse Anderson, Neil Gaiman, Dennis Foon, Haruki Murakami, Barbara Gowdy, Angela Carter, Marie Hélène Poitras.

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

Don’t get me started.

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?

Being a full-time fiction writer might very well be delightful.

In my parallel life, I am a filmmaker (which I may very well get to doing one day). In my third life, I’m an architect building tree houses in the jungle. In a fourth life, I live in a loft in Berlin, am a powerful crone with have no children or commitments to anything but I’m not as sympathetic.

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

The need to exorcise the voices in my head.

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

A confession: I’m not one of those writers who have a favourite book that they prize above all others. I have no idea where to begin with creating a list of favourite books. All books are just parts of an ongoing conversation and storyline, a small part of which has been captured in book form.

Last great film: Pan’s Labyrinth

20 – What are you currently working on?

I’m finishing a draft of my second novel Deadhead Lake to send off to publishers; it’s a YA fantasy horror thriller set at a boy’s summer camp in Muskoka. I am working on an interactive Web literary project for the upcoming website, Ottawa Tonite – the site will officially launch in the fall of 2009, the project TBD – and am developing a short story for a hybrid electronic-print book with OCAD’s Strategic Lab.

Oh yes, and carving out time to write, in general.

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