Sunday, October 18, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of best-selling nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, the most recent being Burmese Lessons, a love story, a memoir about her experiences in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border. She has won the Pat Lowther Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction, and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novel The Lizard Cage. Published in 2005, The Lizard Cage was compared in the New York Times Book Review to the works of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and Mandela, and hailed in the Globe and Mail as “one of the best modern Canadian novels.”

Her other books include Grace and Poison, One Room in a Castle, This Brighter Prison, The Disorder of Love, and The Small Words in My Body. Married with a young child, she divides her time between a home in rural Greece and a home in Toronto.

1 - How did your first book change your life? it proved to me (and to a number of others!) that I was a writer.

How does your most recent work compare to your previous? it is part of my last book. it is actually “the making of The Lizard CageHow does it feel different? The Lizard Cage was an act of bravery, going down into the dark and staying there until I made it mine, and found a way out of it, or a way to live in it, that darkness of what it is to be human, and trapped, and violent, and suffering, and in need of love. It was a duty, and a kind of exoneration. Burmese Lessons is more peaceful; the end of something. It is a love story, too; and real love, no matter how long it lasts, is always a kind of celebration.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was eleven, I found a collection of poetry called The Five Nations, by Rudyard Kipling, in my great grandfather's books. Though I was already a keen reader, this was the book that wakened me to the power and strangeness of language itself, and especially to metaphor; to the idea that words I knew, magically arranged, referred to a world I didn't know, but could imagine, could experience through language. It was profound. The poems were for adults, of course, and many of them were about war, or about early British colonists. But they were the first works of literature that I loved, and I still know a number of them off by heart. And they made me want to write poetry.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? the next one is beginning as the other one ends; or they actually develop concurrently, one in process and the other in my mind, fermenting. 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? fiction is tons of notes, thrashing, getting it wrong, getting it wronger, fucking up, wandering around, eventually figuring out what the hell I am doing. but non-fiction is much easier, more linear and clear—partly because I work so directly from my own life. poetry is just magic. who knows where it comes from, how it writes itself? I’m finally working on a new book of poetry and it is pure heaven, despite the hellish material I’m working from.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? from the passions: anger, lust, violence, fear, desires of various sorts. 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 work on books from the start.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings? love them; it’s part of the work, giving the words to the reader directly

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? how do we place the body—the human, animal, earth body—in language? what responsibility does my language owe the body? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are? what is the nature of human violence and evil? is redemption possible? are we committing collective planetary suicide? if so, why? is it stoppable? what is power? what is betrayal?

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 North American writers—like other citizens—should be more political. I don’t even necessarily mean with their work; but with their voices, their lives. I find Canadian writers in particular surprisingly apathetic when it comes to political engagement.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? Not at all difficult. A good editor is a brilliant necessity.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? The great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer gave me the best piece of writerly advice I’ve ever had, partly because it was succinct but addressed so much of the struggle of creative life:

“Be daring.”

And Katherine Anne Porter wrote about the necessity of courage in the writing life. I’ve always remembered that.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal? Very easy. The appeal is that they do different things, make different sounds, like a variety of musical instruments. Or they are in fact different THEATRES that amplify and throw out the sounds in different ways. Literally, prose and poetry must engage different parts of the brain.

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? Childcare in the morning, and some email, then writing in the afternoon, from about 2-6. something like that, pretty regular too.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? I don’t get stalled, I just get lazy and procrastinate. A good stern talking-to (to myself) after a lot of tiresome whining usually gets me going again.

13 - Have you have a lucky charm? Various rocks from various countries.

A plastic rhino on my desk—the Sumatran rhino, in fact, which is very close to extinct. All of them will probably be gone by the end of our lives. Another whole species.

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. I am fascinated by writing because it comes from everything, not just books. It comes from life. It is the conversation that can talk about anything, anyone, any time. I love the breadth of writers minds.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? Seferis, Neruda, Ritsos, Gabriela Mistral, Susan Griffin, Robert Bringhurt, that great book The Gift by Lewis Hyde, Lydia Millet, various Buddhist texts, Edna O’Brien, Muriel Spark. and lately, Tim Lilburn, whose work is really prayer. I have read the poem Contemplation is Mourning over and over, and it just stuns me every time. He is an extraordinary poet.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? live in Mexico or Chile, or both, speak Arabic and maybe Chinese, visit Africa for an extended period of time, adopt a child, be a better citizen—like volunteer in a food bank or work w/ underprivileged children, stuff like that, I don’t know, this is an endless list, I have a big appetite.

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? many other things, I suppose: a doctor ( I admire doctors) a massage therapist, a dancer, a more serious traveller/adventurer, or someone who works doing something truly useful in the Third World.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? There was never any other viable choice. I was a writer from the time I learned to write, literally.

19 - What was the last great book you read? Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean: brilliant. And Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. What was the last great film? Hmm. Michael Clayton, maybe. Children of Men.

20 - What are you currently working on? a collection of poetry called oh canada crack my heart about crack addiction, my family, the women murdered by Robert Pickton (and how an entire police force, and a whole city, colluded in those murders). more light stuff. but, as I said, it is so wonderful to be writing poetry again.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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