1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book gave me a certain amount of confidence and gumption, though I think I still would have forged on with writing if it hadn’t been published. A Fork in the Road was so different from my later books – certainly more commercial in appeal – and by nature not as risky. At the time that I wrote it I was already working on postcard, what would become my third book, but an offer to write A Fork in the Road came my way first, so I put postcard aside and did it.
2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?
I actually came to poetry and fiction first, but it took longer to get my fiction published. My fiction can be risky at times, with respect to form, language and honesty – not light bestseller material – so it took a while to find a publisher willing to take that risk.
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?
I think about things for a long time. I think about a lot of different things. And then, every once in a while, I sit down and try to see if there are connections between these things, if something in them fits together. I do make notes, but I try not to write from them, I try to see if they can just be the starting point (or continuation) of something. When the writing comes, it tends to do so in intense periods broken up by longer periods of reflection – usually about three months of writing, six months of re-thinking, then three months of writing, etc.
4 - Where does a 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 never know how long something is going to be until it’s finished. And even then I don’t know. My short story “postcard” started out feeling like a very long, conventional piece, and that’s originally how I wrote it. What I thought was the final draft was about 250 pages long. But when I was finished with it, I let it sit for six months or so without looking at it, and then took it to Banff to go over it again. About halfway through a month-long stay there, where both I and my advisor were struggling with it, I had a breakthrough. In one three-hour period, I slashed two-thirds of the story and gave the surviving third the “form” it now takes today, which felt much truer to me than the original, longer piece. I don’t want to ruin anything, but you have to see the physical layout of “postcard” to understand what a radical transformation it was...
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy doing readings. I love meeting readers, and it gives me a chance to see my work in a new light. Pace in a piece is very important to me, and that only becomes apparent when read aloud, for some reason. By the time I’m doing readings, the pace has been worked out, but it’s always good to go back to something that’s completed to remind myself of the process, or mistakes, or accomplishments...
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?
Hmmm. You know, I think it just comes down to truth and honesty for me. Earlier, I was obsessed with why people didn’t tell the truth. Now I’m obsessed with the different kinds of truths that people hold, both between themselves and within themselves.
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?
I think the writer’s responsibility is to tell a truth. Not necessarily their own, or to be objective about it, but to be true enough to a subject or character that both the writer and the reader can gain from it. Otherwise there’s no point in sticking with a story, either as a reader or a writer.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Always essential. No difficult, but not always easy. If an editor is really having a problem with a section and Ifind myself overly-defending it, then I have to ask myself if my writing in that passage is good enough to convey what needs to be conveyed.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“A young writer’s best friend should be the garbage can.” The best teacher I ever had told me this more than 20 years ago, and it’s stayed with me (see question #4). I think he was trying to convey not that there’s no worth in a young writer’s work, but how long the process can be before you have something that feels right.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to critical/creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s easy, though I often employ non-fiction in my fiction and embellish a bit in my non-fiction (who doesn’t?). It’s often hard for me to tell them apart, but I don’t mind as long as the essence is true. I wish we didn’t depend on the distinction so much. Someone once told me that the Spanish don’t differentiate between fiction and non-fiction, so when you walk into a bookstore in Spain you have to leave your North American prejudices behind. I don’t know if it’s true, but I hope it is.
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 have no routine. I write when I feel I absolutely need to, when I feel that not writing would be a mistake. For me, reading other writing and absorbing things, observing, are just as much a part of writing as the actual writing part, so as long as I’m doing any of those things, I feel like I’m working, and that’s routine enough for me. Anything more regimented and I feel like I have to produce, which kills anything innovative and interesting.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Film. Other great writing. Sometimes I’ll read/re-read a book which has a style similar (but not too similar) to what I’m writing to get my head back into that voice again.
13 - Have you have a lucky charm?
A fountain pen with a flat nib and a lined notebook that feels nice – thick with paper, but not so thick that it’ll take years to fill. I still write longhand, then transpose to the computer, which seems ridiculous, but for me it makes for better, more careful/thoughtful writing.
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?
Everything influences my work. Sorry, I don’t mean to be glib, but it does.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Be paid well for all of the time and effort I put into my writing. Not a lot of money, but enough to make it feel like the relationship is a bit more balanced.
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’ve attempted (and held) many occupations to support myself while writing. My official occupation at the moment (in terms of income, anyway) is as a bookbinder and book restorer, which I like, but there’s not much mental work involved beyond some occasional problem-solving. I think I may have wound up as an unemployed filmmaker if I hadn’t been so obsessed with books my whole life. Or maybe a psychiatrist – one of the kinds who just listens.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A force. I can’t describe it. I’ve known since I was in grade 6 that I needed to write, and it has been the one thing I’ve stuck to, for better or worse, since then. And I still love it like I did back then. I can’t say that about anything else I’ve ever done.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Turkish film Climates
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a fiction piece about someone who coincidentally decides to abandon urban living for a rural/more self-sufficient setting (the foothills of the Canadian Rockies) on the day of the attacks in New York City. I’m trying to examine why we’re turning our backs on landscape... The piece uses embedded photographs to recapture a lost way of living, a lost feeling of space, a lost time, a comfortableness in nature.