Wednesday, October 28, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Theanna Bischoff

Theanna Bischoff was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, where she completed a BA Honours Degree in Psychology at the University of Calgary with a Concentration in Creative Writing. In 2006, she moved to Toronto, where she completed a Masters degree in Psychology, and is currently pursuing a PhD. Her research has explored how women experience a cancer diagnosis, as well as the development of creative writing skills in adolescents.

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, Cleavage, was a pleasant surprise that almost didn’t happen. I wrote it for a class I was taking at the U of C that I wasn’t going to take, until the last minute. Then, midway through the year, Suzette Mayr, the class teacher, suggested I work towards publishing it. As publishing a novel had always been a childhood dream of mine, I went ahead with it, even though it hadn’t been my original plan. When Cleavage got accepted, I was 22 years old – so my childhood dream came to fruition much faster than I originally thought. I was even more pleasantly surprised when it was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the 2009 ReLit Awards. I think my first novel made me believe that writing could be more than just a hobby and a dream for me.

In terms of how my more recent work differs from my first, it’s hard to say, since my next book is still in progress. However, I would say that there are definite similarities. Both deal with the impact of a traumatic experience on one’s life, both are told in a fragmented narrative, and both are narrated by a female in her mid twenties. However, my book-in-progress is much darker in tone, and should be longer than Cleavage when it is finished.

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

I’ve always written fiction, even in childhood, except for a brief foray into poetry in the 5th grade. I have always wanted to tell stories and get to know characters, which I don’t feel that poetry really affords in the same depth.

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?

Cleavage took approximately a year to write, but it was written while I was participating in a year long creative writing workshop, so I was fortunate enough to have lots of feedback and input all the way through. When I finished a final draft, it was very polished, because it had been continually workshopped and revised all the way through. Typically, I write slowly, and play with getting the language and the images just right before I move on to the next section. However, I don’t write in any linear way – I write the scenes and the images as they come to me until all the pieces fit together.

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?

Cleavage, my first novel, started as a short story, partially because I was enrolled in a short story class at the time, and it was written for a final assignment. The teacher of the class was the one who insisted it “felt like a novel,” though, at the time, I didn’t agree with her, and had other stories in my head I wanted to tell. The problem was, I couldn’t seem to get the other ideas down properly. Instead, I kept coming back to Cleavage, and it grew into the novel that my writing teacher saw back when it was just a short story. Since then, however, any project I have begun has been intended to be a novel. Short stories are great, but they always feel unfinished to me – I want to get to know the characters in much more depth and see what happens to them.

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

Initially, I wasn’t a fan of doing readings, perhaps because I tend to be shy and dislike being the center of attention. But that was something I had to get over pretty quickly when I went on tour for Cleavage. Now I enjoy reading from Cleavage, though I have to admit, I like discussing it more; specifically hearing what others thought about it and what questions it left them with.

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?

Because I am a Psychology grad student by day and a writer by night, my work tends to center around psychological themes, such as coping with a physical or mental illness. I have always said that my stories take an average character and mess up their lives, and then watch how they deal with it. I think this is true for most fiction. The question I hope my work stimulates in readers is, how would you cope in this situation? How would it change your life? Sometimes people assume that they would be able to handle the curveballs of life and judge others who are faced with difficult circumstances. I hope that my work makes people think otherwise.

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 role of a writer is primarily to stimulate deep thoughts and feelings in a reader. A secondary role is to entertain, but I think writing has to go beyond entertaining. After finishing a piece of writing, the reader should be stirred up, either emotionally, or intellectually.

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

I had the privilege of working with a whole “team” of editors while writing Cleavage, because, as I mentioned, it was written as part of a yearlong creative writing class, so it was workshopped frequently. I found their input invaluable, as well as the input of my editor, Suzette Mayr. The frequent input helped me ensure that the story I was trying to tell was coming across the way I wanted it to.

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

I heard Angie Abdou (The Bone Cage; Anything Boys Can Do) say never to read your reviews, but, instead, to just count them. Unfortunately, I am far too curious to follow this advice.

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?

Writing is not my day job – I’m actually doing a PhD in psychology, which occupies the majority of my time. So, often, I carry an idea (an image, a scene, etc.) in my head, letting it percolate, for some time before it gets written down. Sometimes I jot down lists of these “scenes” in notebooks and then, when I have time to write, I pull out the notebook and try to get down a scene or two. Because I had specific deadlines for Cleavage (as part of the class I wrote it for), I had to force myself to write more often than I do now. Any future books will be written gradually over a longer period of time.

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

Sometimes I dig through past stories that I’ve written for an image that was really poignant for me and see if it will work in a new story – I haven’t done this too often, but there are one or two images in Cleavage that are recycled. Generally, I keep lists of powerful images, so that if I sit down to write, I can select any of those and begin.

12 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?

The most powerful thing a writing teacher taught me was how much more powerful a non-cliché image was than a cliché one. This may seem really obvious, but I was in high school at the time and had just started studying writing. In my first writing class, one student wrote a story in which the main character’s boyfriend brought her a bouquet of roses. My creative writing teacher, Nicole Markotic, commented, “Wouldn’t it be far more powerful if he brought her something more personal, like Rootbeer slurpees instead?” In Cleavage, Justin brings Leah slurpees, which is in homage to Nicole and a simple but powerful writing lesson I learned way back when.

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?

My psychology research influences my work, not only because I write about coping with life stressors / mental illness, but because the way I have been trained to look at people is to consider what motivates them to behave as they do – and now I look at characters this way. I suppose that form, then, would be academic writing / case study.

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

Writers that share a similar tone to my work are important. Reading books with a similar tone to the story I am attempting to compose helps set the mode for my work. Also, I find research vital to my work. During Cleavage, I read lots of academic books on cancer and interviewed women with cancer, as part of the research process.

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

Because I am still at the beginning of my writing career, what I haven’t done yet is publish more than one book. I have another one in the works, but I’m doing a PhD in a different field at the same time, which makes the writing process slow. Hopefully, one day, I won’t just be a one-hit wonder.

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?

Writing is only one of my jobs – the other is a soon-to-be Psychologist (once I actually get my PhD). I feel these two careers actually fit very well together – they both, after all, explore how humans tick, why they act the way they do, and what happens to them when major events happen in their lives.

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

I don’t even know that I can answer this question. I’ve just always needed to write. When I was 3, I wrote an exercise book with orange and pink magic marker people and told my mom I was going to write a book when I grew up. I’ve just always wanted to tell stories.

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

I love Wally Lamb, partially because he explores psychological themes (e.g., PTSD, Schizophrenia, etc.), but I’m currently in the middle of Somebody Else’s Daughter by Elizabeth Brundage and can’t put it down. Books that really explores the deep, nitty-gritty of human life, not censoring any details, will usually captivate me. One of my all time favourites is also The Time Traveller’s Wife.

As for films, I greatly enjoyed The Reader, which was adapted from a novel, because of the ambiguities in intimate relationships and the fact that nothing is clear cut.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a novel involving a pair of sisters, one of whom commits suicide because of something the other did. It deals with themes of guilt, grief, and mental illness.

12 or 20 questions (second series);


Anonymous said...

That's really great advice I gave to Theanna! I have to point out, though, that I don't remember saying it and have never ever followed it. I wonder if any writer has? I'd love to say that I'm going to try ... but like Theanna, I'm way too curious.

Good blog.

Anonymous said...

Whoops -- did I post my name on my last comment?

Angie Abdou