Wednesday, April 14, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden was born in London, England and moved to Canada as a teenager. Her poetry and prose have been short-listed for the Pat Lowther Award, CBC Literary Contest, K.M. Hunter Award and Prism Short Fiction Contest.  She has published two books of poetry, Learning Russian (Mansfield Press) and Clinic Day (Brick Books). Her novel, No Place Strange (Key Porter Books) has recently been short-listed for the First Novel Award. She is currently working on her second novel, Tunapuna. Read more about Diana and her work at her website,

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Every first book is a “coming out” story. Out of the closet, with your book of poems, short stories, essays, novel. My first book, Learning Russian, was partly about my love affair with the Russian language, and with poetry, so I felt I’d gone public with what had been very private material, but also that I was admitting to the world that I was, or wanted to be, a poet. For quite a while, that book embarrassed me. Now I love it like you might love a younger sister – it’s a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Also, although the poems are almost all free verse, I played with rhyme and rhythm in a way that made me eager to go on and try other formal structures in poetry.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I had tried writing short stories, and they all sucked. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself – your first efforts probably should suck, if you’re going to learn anything from them – but they also felt completely sterile to me. Then one day I wrote a poem instead, and even though I could see its flaws I had a feeling that this was it: this was what I wanted to write. I didn’t write prose again for years, except for the occasional essay.

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?
It really depends. Poems, for example, arrive in all kinds of different ways. Some are sudden and instinctual or somehow emotional in origin, so the first draft comes in a rush, and others begin with an idea or an image, and slowly develop. And I don’t find it predictable, at all, which kind will be easier to finish to my satisfaction. With any poem I tend to write many drafts, and usually end up cutting the last couple of lines – I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to want to sum up and tell the reader what to think there, almost as if I don’t trust the poem itself, so now cutting those lines is almost automatic. I still have to write them first, for some reason, but then, off they go!

Fiction seems to gestate as a thought or idea or character for a while, and then when I sit down to write I produce a lot first, then slow down as it starts to become clearer to me what it is I’m trying to write, or write about. I speed up again later as it becomes more solid. It’s less stressful than poetry in the sense that I can’t possibly produce a first draft of a novel in a sitting, or a few days or weeks, so I can allow myself to write pages and pages of notes, or drivel, knowing that I’ll get rid of it later.

4 - Where does a poem or piece 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?
My first book of poetry consisted of discrete poems that happened to be connected by certain themes. Some poems began with a line or an image, others with an idea. My second book of poetry was conceived of as a book, complete with a narrative structure, but I’ve come to think that it didn’t succeed in the way I originally envisioned it. Not that it failed completely, but the strongest poems in it are the ones that aren’t contingent on the narrative – at least in my opinion. A novel is a novel, so obviously a book – I still write the occasional short story, but my short stories still, mostly, suck! I just do them for practice, or if I’m stuck with a novel and need to distract myself, but can’t turn to poetry.  I write much better essays than short stories, so perhaps I should do that instead.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Tough question. I’m doing a lot of readings right now to promote my novel, and some of them are excruciating, others wonderful. I suffer from nerves before I read but in the moment I often enjoy it. It can be good to communicate face to face. Writing is so solitary. I think poetry readings are easier – for one thing poetry is meant to be read aloud as well as on the page, and in a poetry reading you have more opportunity to vary tone and musicality as you shift between poems, without having to explain. If you move around while you’re reading from a novel you usually have to give as much thought to your explanations as to the reading itself.

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 think I’m a very theoretically oriented writer. In poetry I’m concerned mostly with how the words sound, with images, and with a poem’s ability to distil. I do enjoy working inside formal structures, but that’s about it. As a fiction writer and reader I’m very old-fashioned. I love a good story, the more complicated the better, and I love my characters, and want other people to as well. I don’t mean, by the way, that the characters must be loveable people, but that they must be interesting, you should want to know more about them even than I’ve written. I really enjoy shifting points of view – the opportunity that this allows me as the writer to show (or conceal) the different dimensions in a story. I want the voices to be believable. This is all very pragmatic, not really theoretical at all.

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 can only speak for myself, and I think it’s dangerous to want to speak for anyone other than oneself as a writer – that’s where you’re at risk of pontificating, or proselytizing, or writing cant rather than fiction or poetry. I see my role as being to entertain, and if I’m lucky to move my readers. I want them to be able to lose themselves when they read a book I’ve written. As a child what I loved about reading was the way I could enter another world, another life, one that I was unfamiliar with, or not ready for, and travel without ever leaving my spot on the floor behind the couch (my favourite place to read back then). As a writer and a reader, using your imagination is the most exciting thing.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with an editor. I’d read interviews with famous writers talking about their editors and it sounded so glamorous, all those boozy lunches and late-night phone calls. The reality is less glamorous, of course, but very rewarding. I had relatively light editing on my poetry books, so it was exciting to work with my editor at Key Porter, Jane Warren, who is both generous and demanding as an editor – a great combination.

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

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s been very easy to move from poetry to fiction – not at all to move back. I’ve hardly been able to write poems since starting to write fiction, and the ones I have written get shorter and shorter, the language more and more plain. I’m not happy with them. I would love to be able to move freely between the two genres, but can’t. It’s as if they use different muscles. I wrote an essay for the New Quarterly a few years ago which is a kind of love letter/lament for poetry and I’m still pretty much at that point. With fiction I love the expansiveness of it, the ability to play and create a whole world.

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 take care of my nephews during the week, so I get up very early, drive across town, take them to school and then I have the day to work. I work in the kitchen, mostly, either at my place or my sister’s. I’m a physically restless person, so I need to move in between stints. Sometimes I go to the gym. Because school ends at 3:30 my work can be interrupted earlier than would be ideal, so I sometimes snatch more time while the boys are doing homework or watching TV. I occasionally work at night but not by choice, only if I have insomnia.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other writers. Exercise. Sex. Conversation. Usually when it’s hard to write there’s a reason – fatigue, or I’m worrying something out that needs to sit for a while rather than be written down.

13 - Have you have a lucky charm?
Different ones for different books, connected to the book in some way.

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?
Film, for sure. Movies have clearly influenced my novel and those of many writers I read. My poetry was influenced by visual art and music, I’m not so sure about fiction. I read so much as a kid that I think it’s still other books more than anything.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Actually this is an impossible question to answer. Almost everything I read is important in some way, even things I don’t like. You define yourself just as much against the work of other writers as with them, I think. Conversations with my friends and my husband are important. I’m often humbled by the things other people see or understand that I seem to come to so slowly.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write my next novel, better than the first, of course. And the one after that, and the one after that….

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?
Professional misanthrope. Or maybe criminal lawyer. Or detective. I always expect to find a body in the woods.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Love. What could be more fun? And I hate most other jobs.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? 
Hmmm, great book. I’m re-reading Middlemarch right now, and it’s marvelous: funny and tragic both. Film, Night of the Hunter, with Robert Mitchum. He’s terrifying, and the kids are fantastic in it, and I love all the shots of animals up close. I can’t believe it’s the only film Charles Laughton directed.

20 - What are you currently working on?
My second novel, Tunapuna.

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