Margaret Sweatman is a playwright, poet, performer and novelist. Her plays have been produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange, Popular Theatre Alliance and the Guelph Spring Festival. She has performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and the National Academy Orchestra, as well as with her own Broken Songs Band. She teaches at the University of Winnipeg. Sweatman is the author of the novels Fox, Sam and Angie, and When Alice Lay Down with Peter, which won several awards including the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year. Her recent novel, The Players, is published by Goose Lane Editions (Fall 2009).
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 was a chapbook called Private Property, published thanks to Turnstone Press, who then published a novel, Fox. These experiences changed my life in ways I don't even want to tell, except to say that some of it was good and some of it was very painful, but the upshot was, I was evermore committed to a writing life. The novel that I'm working on now shares some of the same obsessions that inspired those first two publications. And I've continued to be in love with history. The greatest difference, I guess, is in a furthering of my interest in narrative, though maybe the real writing, the work and action of writing remains the same.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Like so many writers, I came to poetry first. I've shied away from pursuing poetry because I'd have to spend time on it that I'm unwilling to sacrifice from my need to write novels. Somehow I just need to write novels. And short stories when the novels drive me nuts. And plays and songs between drafts of novels.
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?
The Players, published in the Fall 2009, took about ten years and maybe a dozen drafts, I don't know. I also don't know how long it's going to take me to find a strong draft of my current project. I've been thinking about this current novel-in-progress for maybe five years though I'm still on the first draft. The projects overlap. But I do find that I want to make many drafts -- this is something that developed with The Players. It's freeing, with the first draft, to know that I can always throw stuff away.
4 - Where does a poem or work of 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?
Ideas come as gestures, and some gestures are novels while others are short stories or plays or whatever. Maybe it's merely ambition.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I perform quite often because I work with musicians. I always dread readings and musical performances, freak out, get bitchy, do the gig and then feel incredibly happy afterwards and drink a bit too much. Performance is certainly part of my creative process. I love working with actors and musicians, love writing for them. Right now I'm working, along with a wonderful vocal coach, with four non-actors who are learning English as a second language, creating a piece called "Babel." All I do is invite them to tell stories in a certain way and then we build a small performance piece from that. It makes me deeply happy.
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?
That's a great question.
Um. Yes, I have theoretical concerns. I'm crazy for the tensions between characters' varying degrees of knowledge and delusion. This partly comes from an obsession with the dialogic action in narrative, the threads of discourse, the partial word that combines with others, or fractals that speak in differing voices and timbres and in various ways recombine to make a novel. And obviously, with historical fiction, the compulsion is to live vividly and actively in the past.
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 don't know. I teach literature and creative writing, and organize readings as part of that. When it becomes saddening and irritating, when I hit a wall in this aspect of my work, I discover that I believe in it. I meet a lot of people in their twenties who need to write and to read, who absolutely need books and language and pens and all the paraphernalia of writing. The role of the writer is to be read. This is almost utopic these days: that writers would act on the metabolism of others, that writers would affect the blood flow between body and brain for an hour of a Canadian citizen's day.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I've had great editors, to whom I'm grateful. For example, I worked with Bethany Gibson on The Players. That novel was like a play in that it needed dramaturgy. Bethany is a rare event: an editor with a canny, brilliant understanding of narrative structure, of dynamics; an editor who can see a book's potential even in its awkward adolescence.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Watch your backswing.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to plays)? What do you see as the appeal?
It's crucial. I need to change genres between drafts. Each new project brings its own problems and lessons that need to be learned somehow. So when I get a draft, I need to abandon it for a good while and work on something completely different, go back to school with a new piece, and then try to bring something new to the next draft.
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?
There are many interruptions and obligations. A typical day is often a battle to ignore many things that I have to do. Today, which happens to be a Sunday, was supposed to be a writing day, but I find I'm unwilling to enter the next scene. It became more useful to sweep the kitchen and do this correspondence. Today's discomfort might pay off tomorrow; Monday might work out. A lucky writing day is full, clear, long, with a lot of coffee and cookies.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The stalls are important. It's necessary to think and read, get moving physically, get the hell out of here. Often a "block" is a traffic jam of conflicting ideas.
13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?
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?
Yes, all that, especially music and theatre. But books are the most important source for me.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Writers: so many of them. I've got a translation of the Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell here with me now. And John Banville's The Sea. And Don Quixote is here. A lovely collection of poems, The Poet's Choice Columns, 1997-2000, assembled by Robert Hass. I return often to Mavis Gallant and to Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey. Countless histories. among them at the moment: Snow Job: Canada, the United States and Vietnam (1954 to 1973) by Charles Taylor, and an odd, angry, powerful book called Why is Canada in Vietnam: The Truth about our Foreign Aid, by Claire Culhane.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Oh. Just always wanting to write.
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 hope that if I wasn't committed to writing that I'd have found something useful to do. But I'm probably hopeless. If I wasn't working at writing I'd be nuts.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Falling in love with the ideal hand that makes those funny squiggles on paper.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Loved Don DeLillo's Libra, which I read a few months ago. And loved Up in the Air -- yes, with George Clooney. That's a great script, it really is, I think. The wish fulfillment as tragedy.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel. Thank you for asking, rob.
12 or 20 questions (second series);