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Sunday, October 11, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Amy Jones

Originally from Halifax, Amy Jones is a graduate of the Optional Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at UBC. Her short fiction has appeared or in several Canadian publications, including The New Quarterly, Grain, Prairie Fire, Event, The Antigonish Review, maisonneuve, and 08: Best Canadian Stories. In 2006, she was the winner of the CBC Literary Award for Short Story in English. Her first short fiction collection, What Boys Like, is the winner of the 2008-2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award and will be published by Biblioasis in October, 2009. Amy currently lives in Toronto.

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 don’t know yet! I’m hoping astronomically! My first book is very brand new, so brand new, in fact, that I have yet to actually see it. I guess completing it and having it accepted for publication changed my life in that I started to think of myself as “a writer” as opposed to “a student” or “an unemployed hobo,” although I still can’t actually bring myself to say “I’m a writer” when people ask me what I do.

The stuff I’m writing now is different only because I’ve moved on to different obsessions. When I first started writing, I was obsessed with language; I wrote sentences because I liked the way they sounded. Lately I’m more obsessed with story – I really want stuff to happen. And my newer stuff is better, I think. I guess I still think of myself as a student in that way... I like to think I’m not even close to being as good as I could be.

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

I actually came to poetry first, if I’m going to be honest about it, but my poems really sucked, in that sixteen year old self-indulgent kind of way (even long after I was ever sixteen). I needed more room, so I started writing fiction. Non-fiction was never really appealing to me; the main reason I write is to entertain myself, and reality is almost never as entertaining as what’s going on in my imagination... or at least, I can’t write it to be as entertaining. I sometimes tell people that I like writing fiction because I feel like fiction can sometimes be more truthful because it’s not stuck in fact, but in really I just like to make stuff up.

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?

When I first started writing, everyone told me the best thing to do was to just write and write, even if it was crap, and then re-write it later, and for years I really tried hard to do that. But eventually I realized that method just frustrated me. For me, writing like making pastry or dough or something, cause I have to mix things together carefully, and if I handle it too much it just ends up ruining it. So I won’t sit down to write something until I have it completely worked out in my head. And I don’t take notes! If it doesn’t stick in my head, if it doesn’t burrow itself into my brain until I’m going so crazy that I have to write it down, then it won’t work for me. The story doesn’t always end up where I thought it would go, because my characters tend to sometimes have a mind of their own, but I have to know the voice inside and out before I can start putting it on paper. And when I start, it just comes tumbling out.

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 always think in terms of individual short stories. With What Boys Like, I never even saw anything in common between the stories until I started to put them all together and other people started reading them. It actually started as my MFA thesis, and the hardest part of the entire process was having to write an abstract for it. I think I ended up writing something along the lines of “This book is about people who do stuff.”

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

I love doing readings! First of all, I think hearing my work out loud, hearing the rhythm of the words and the cadence of the sentences and the voice of my characters is so important; it helps me understand my stories so much better. Secondly, and probably more honestly... I come from a theatre background. I love being the centre of attention, I love hearing the sound of my own voice, I love having a captive audience! Admitting this is probably going to earn me eternal damnation in writers’ hell or something like that, but it’s the truth.

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 don’t feel in any way qualified to answer any questions with my writing (in fact, even these ones I’m not so sure about!) In a lot of ways I’m just an east coast girl who likes to make stuff up. Of course, if I inadvertently answer some questions for some people, who am I to take that away from them?

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?

Um, this feels like one of those questions I’m not qualified to answer. I guess it depends on the type of writing. For a fiction writer, I’d say to entertain, primarily. For, say, an economics textbook writer, I’d probably say the opposite.

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

I haven’t had a lot of experience with editors, but what I have had has been really positive. I get way too close to my work sometimes; I love each and every word that I put down on paper as if they were 2500 or 5000 of my own little children (and yes, I realize parents everywhere will laugh at that statement) and can’t imagine them doing any wrong. I need someone to sit me down and say “Okay, Amy, some of these kids have to be disciplined.” I mean, obviously not in those exact words, but you get the picture.

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

“Stay in school as long as you can and don’t get married until after you’re 30.” - My dad.

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?

I’m really bad with routines. I tend to just kind of write when I feel like it. Also, I work nights, so I tend to stay up really late and write then, unless there’s something good on TV, or I have 12 or 20 questions to answer... in which case I’ll write on my break, or when I get out of the shower, or when I’m supposed to be cleaning the bathroom. I make myself feel less guilty about this by telling myself that most of the writing I do is in my head, so really, I’m writing all the time, and since my stories and characters are all contemporary, doing things like watching TV or surfing the internet is really like doing research, because it’s so important to, like, engage with the cultural zeitgeist or something. But really, I’m just a slacker. So I’m not going to lie: my day typically begins with coffee and Eggos and sports highlights and blog reading. And I’m not apologizing for it!

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

I think any sort of “stalls” I have in my writing stem from me having the equivalent of a two year old’s temper tantrum. I have a cache of about 10 short story collections by people I adore that I will read over and over again when I start thinking “I don’t want to do this!” And then I remember that, yes, I do really want to do this. And of course, I really, really do.

12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

My laptop.

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?

Everything. Anything that moves me, that gets me really excited, that puts me in a moment. I remember flying to Vancouver a couple of years ago and sitting in the aisle seat next to these two little twelve year old boys who were on their way to snowboard camp. They fell asleep and there was this moment when we started flying over the Rockies and I sort of leaned over them to look out the window and Hawksley Workman’s “The Future Language of Slaves” was playing on my iPod and I swear to god I wrote an entire short story in that single moment.

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

Rick Moody, Lisa Moore, Annabel Lyon, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Elise Levine, Miranda July, Deborah Eisenberg, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lee Henderson, Michael Chabon, Pam Houston, Zsuzsi Gartner, Dave Eggers, John Irving, Salman Rushdie, Anais Nin. Those are the writers of the 16 books, out of the possibly hundreds of thousands, I took with me when I moved from Halifax to Toronto.

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

Ride all of the top ten biggest roller coasters in the world.

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 read this article by John Mighton about how math and science need to be taught differently in school, and now I have this theory that I could have been really good at math and science if I had been taught it differently in school. I like to think I would have been a pretty good vet, or marine biologist.

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

I don’t know, I never really considered doing anything else. Even when I was acting, I never really thought of it as something I was “doing.” A palm reader once told me that whatever I was doing with my life was what I was meant to be doing, and I believed him, even though he later told me (and all the other girls at the bachelorette party) that “this line here means you’re really good in bed... see, I have the same line!”

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

I’m currently reading Steve Almond’s My Life in Heavy Metal and it’s pretty freaking amazing. Although maybe just “great” as in “freaking amazing,” not as in “very big and important,” so I guess it depends on the type of “great.” As for film, it’s hard for me to answer that question without embarrassing myself. I thought Zombieland was pretty cool. But mostly because of the roller coasters.

19 - What are you currently working on?

My XBOX hockey skills. And more short stories.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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