Saturday, October 17, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Sarah de Leeuw

Sarah de Leeuw, a cultural-historical geographer and creative writer, is an assistant professor with the Northern Medical Program at UNBC, the Faculty of Medicine at UBC. Her work, both as a geographer in a faculty of medicine and as a creative writer, engages questions of power, place and landscape, social justice and marginalization. She is the author of Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 (2004) and her most recent book, The Geographies of a Lover, is a collection of poetry forthcoming (2012) with NeWest Press. In 2009 she was awarded 1st Prize in the CBC Literary Awards for her creative non-fiction essay “Columbus Burning”. Her poetry has appeared in a number of Canadian literary journals, including Fiddlehead, Wascana, and The Claremont Review. Her academic writing, which is broadly concerned with (post)colonial geographies, Indigenous peoples, and the social determinants of health, appears in venues ranging from The Canadian Family Physician and Children’s Geographies, to The Journal of Native Education and The Canadian Geographer. In 2007/2008, prior to moving back to northern British Columbia, she was a Fulbright Fellow with the University of Arizona.

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

Before I published my first book, I didn’t think it was actually possible to publish a book. Although books surrounded me, and although I have loved books for as long as I can remember, I couldn’t quite grasp that it was possible that I might one day write, and publish, one. That I might one day see a book I wrote on a shelf in a bookstore. The idea of publishing my work was more an abstraction than a reality. So Unmarked made the idea of a book real. My most recent book, which is a collection of poetry as opposed to a work of creative non-fiction, is hard to compare with Unmarked. In the case of both books, though, geography remains the defining theme upon which all the text moves and turns.

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

Despite my upcoming book (The Geographies of a Lover) being a collection of poetry, creative non-fiction remains my favorite literary genre. As much as I am a skeptic about ideas of ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ (and by this I mean that I deeply believe every known thing is filtered through our imaginations, our expectations, our circumstances), I find it easier, and more satisfying, to contemplate topics that I think have social import, or might contribute to a broad goal of expanding social justice, through a genre that is anchored in events or places that readers are unable to dismiss as ‘mere fiction.’

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 write all the time. I usually have half a dozen writing projects on the go at any time…and I consider everything a writing project, from writing emails to people I love through to writing grants for research about the colonial history of British Columbia. The initial ideas for many of these projects begin as I am walking, running, hiking or swimming. I find that if I can exhaust myself, if I can simply empty my brain of worries (and this often comes with physical exertion) then the ideas for writing projects will flood in quite quickly. I must admit that I am rarely without an idea about something to write. I do tend to work through a number of drafts (typically 3 to 5) before I feel as though a piece is approaching completion. Most of my work, after initial conceptualization, does start with notes scribbled in various notebooks.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of non-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 tend to organize my writing projects around themes. Once I have a theme, I have a basic idea of where my writing will go. I rarely think about the final, final, outcome of my writing. I do not want to feel as though I am writing to an end. Things seem to end where and when they are supposed to end and I usually can’t envision that when I embark. So, for instance, Unmarked began with the desire to map in writing the places that I know as home. From there, it was just a matter of “filling in the map” as a wonderful BC geographer (Cole Harris) once wrote. After a certain amount of time, a certain number of essays, I realized I had completed about as much of the map as I could. And so I just wrapped it up and offered it out to the world. I was more humbled than anything else when my “map” appeared as the book Unmarked.

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

Very much a part of my creative process. I think public readings are essential and that it is an author’s responsibility to undertake them. It is a way of sharing, a way of telling the world that it’s ok to be a writer, to write about the world. I can’t say I love (or even really enjoy) doing them, but I think orating and sharing the written word, which is too often privately produced and privately consumed, makes it come alive. I think it is an author’s responsibility to make the written word sing, to make people want to connect with it. Readings keep us from being too obtuse, I think. And I think it makes writing accessible to audiences who, as an author, you might not otherwise be engaging.

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 do think that writing – and art and creative expressions more broadly – perform a kind of ‘social work.’ I want my writing to move people, to make them think about or (even better) to care about that which is in my estimation too often overlooked. All the ordinary ‘stuff’ that so often is passed over, so often dismissed as the detritus of the everyday. I think there persists terrible social injustices that are worthy of our attention and I try to turn my attention these in my writing.

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 believe that the work produced by writers, and other artists, is culture. Of course there are others who form and produce ‘culture,’ but I think it is the job of writers and artists to produce representations that make the world discernible, legible. We/they produce the expressions and representations by which society understands itself, by which we understand each other and ourselves. And we should not be flippant about this.

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


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

With reference to writing, I think the best thing I ever heard was…in order to produced anything good at all, you first have to produce all sorts of shit. The production of everything that makes you cringe is essential to producing that one, single, small, solitary thing that you are sort-of-kind-of pleased with.

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

I like to move between and amongst genres, although creative non-fiction and poetry (in addition to more academically focused writing) are the two I favour. I think there’s always an appeal to expressing and representing in various genres because some topics seem to lend themselves to one kind voice as opposed to another.

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 don’t really have a routine per se. I just write. Whenever I have the time and space. I like to write earlier in the day as opposed to later. I am not a night owl and I tend to write in private as opposed to in cafes or bookstores (public spaces). I’m kind of a routinized person. I like to wake up early, sometimes go running, always have coffee, try sometimes to make lists of the things I am going to do, and then spend time checking things off my lists. I often include a note on my lists, every day, to write on whatever project I’m currently working on.

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

I don’t ever really get stalled. Sometimes I lack the time to execute all my ideas, but the world is a never ending source of inspiration. No matter where I turn, there seems to me to be fodder for writing. Having said this, and despite my great love of spending time alone, I think I take great inspiration from the company of people. I do find laughing and talking and eating with wonderful people a constant source of inspiration. I have to say that environments with less (as opposed to more) human alteration are those to which I return – for solace, for motivation. So…if I had to choose a hike up to alpine versus an afternoon in a big-city coffee shop, I’d choose the former. But, having said that, I also turn and return to all the things that abound in cities: museums of contemporary art, great bookstores, the hustle and bustle of streets thronging with people, really great restaurants.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Cottenwood sap. Rotting salmon on wet sand. Fall mushrooms in moss.

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?

In general, my measure of a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ creative expression (be that dance, a painting, a piece of pottery or even a fabulous meal) is something that, when I leave it, has made me see the world in a slightly different light. It is to these things I return for influence. Anything that makes me see things in a fresh way. I am always on the hunt for this, so I find it in many, many, different forms.

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

I am a rather undiscerning reader. Put something in front of me and I’ll likely read it. Certainly there are things that I like more than others (I have a preference for paired down muscular language and an aversion to anything that focuses on romance in a fluffy confessional way) but I read widely because I want to explore all the beautiful genres and voices that are out there.

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

To be honest, I haven’t really ever given it much thought. On the main, I’m doing what I want to be doing and I’m confident that things will present themselves and I will enjoy whatever comes my way.

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 always thought if I didn’t write, or if I wasn’t employed in academia, I’d like to be a chef. I love to cook. And the people I love most in the world are those who like to cook and who like to be cooked for.

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

I don’t suppose anything ‘made’ me write. It just always seemed like the thing to do. Of course the world is full of so many other things, but the neat thing about writing is that – for me at least – I get to do these things AND write about them.

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

I am a great fan of everything that Cormac MaCarthy writes and I have to say that The Road just tore me up. Really, really, good. For some reason Gaton Soussey’s Vaudeville has stuck with me and I just finished Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road which I also thought was impressive. Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson, who is one of my all time favorite authors, was terrific. Alice Oswald – a British poet – was recently recommended to me and her book Dart is just perfect. I have to confess that I haven’t seen many movies in the last year or so. I plan on rectifying this soon!

20 - What are you currently working on?

In addition to some papers and book chapters, the two big projects in the hoper right now are another collection of creative non-fiction essays about loss (I am already in dept to Sid Marty for his assistance with this evolving manuscript) and a collection of essays, which will be accompanied by photos, about people who provide various types of health care in northern B.C.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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