Alisha Piercy [photo credit: a video still from a project by Montreal artist Stéphane Gilot] is a Montreal-based writer, artist, and paintings conservator. Accompanying a month-long drawing performance project, her chapbook YOU HAVE HAIR LIKE FLAGS, FLAGS THAT POINT IN MANY DIRECTIONS AT ONCE BUT CANNOT PINPOINT LAND WHEN LOST AT SEA explores the perceptual world that leads up to, and surrounds, the event of being lost, adrift at sea for 30 days (Your Lips to Mine Press, Montreal and Berlin, 2010). HAIR LIKE FLAGS... won the bpNichol Chapbook Award 2010. Piercy has worked on projects in Canada, Argentina, Iceland and Mexico, and has exhibited in Montreal, Kingston, and Halifax. Her next project is at the Culture Night Festival in Iceland, a collaboration with artist Oskar Ericsson and local Boy Scouts who will set twenty-two rafts alight off the coast of Reykjavik. AURICLE / ICEBREAKER, two reversible novellas (Conundrum Press, Wolfville, July 2010), is her first book. She was born in Kingston, Ontario.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I felt it coming I guess. I wrote my first novellas in self-imposed, blissful obscurity and it took a year and a half. When Conundrum Press agreed to publish them, I experienced two feelings at once: a soaring euphoria, naturally, but also the sensation that I was settling back, in a seated position with both arms and hands free, into a pond of mud. There was a deep realization that I had been avoiding what my mother had always said I would eventually do: write. Now that I was here, there would be no turning back. Before this moment though, I started writing my first novella in Argentina while also writing an application to go to graduate school for visual arts. It was the rainy season and I was living in this echoey house, and at the time I had this do-or-die mentality: If I didn’t get into art school, I was going to write a book. If I did get into art school, I’d drop all ideas book-related for good. Well, when I came back to Canada I got into art school and then spent the next year and half in a studio without windows, writing this book, in secret, in the dark. Now I write about secrets, out in the open, and by daylight.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
So far, my stories are about people who are isolated or have interaction with only one other person. I am drawn to condensed experiences--through relationship, ritual, or the slow, minutiae of how one person perceives something to be. I often write around a silence, where nothing much happens. Now, having completed the degree in visual arts, and working also seriously as an artist, I come to a writing project as I would an art project. I only vaguely acknowledge that the medium is words, and I layer into my words the kinds of expressions that inform gesture, composition, colour proximities, or the particulate of a particular void I am exploring. And yet, I have this very urgent bottom line: that there is enough tension created through narrative (or less-than-narrative) that will make my story a page-turner.
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?
I tend to be writing two things at once so it’s hard to say how long. Sometimes I am filling sketchbooks with writing around an art project and this winds up triggering a story. I can say that the writing is carried out with a fountain pen, in slow, careful handwriting, into notebooks before being transcribed, one page a day, into my laptop.
4 - Where does prose 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 recently attended a discussion among performance artists who talked about the compulsion to perform “furtive acts” in public. Most of us agreed that, at the time, it is “too soon” to know what these acts mean or to consider how we will later frame them, or if they need to be framed at all outside of the momentariness of the gesture itself. I subscribe to this kind of trust we should have in ourselves to dwell in a place of unknowing for quite some time before imposing structure or making a plan. Lately my writings begin as a series of disconnected images or episodes written around the drawings I am making. Or an essay that I’m writing that all of a sudden becomes the right backdrop or circumstance for a character to inhabit. Eventually, and after writing many pages in a fog, I get this sensation of precision about it all. A “core” feeling overcomes me that is often not about finding plot but rather, a mood that has to be explored.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t know, I’ve only done one. Although years ago, I presciently performed “a reading” at a Rare Books Library as part of an art installation. Participants were led through the darkened stacks by flashlight to the sound of crunching. When the lights came up there were scattered and bitten cabbage leaves everywhere and me wearing a rabbit head. Then I read aloud from a book I had made that was shaped like a red cabbage. So, yes, reading aloud has been part of my work. I admit though that when I first found out that I would be published I entered into a state of panic at the thought that I’d have to perform as--myself... Is it any different to read or--perform as your writer persona? I don’t know, but I am definitely developing my author-mask, getting ready.
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?
Since I’ve made writing I have been studying at the same time. So theory is always the storm-cloud hovering and I appreciate reading fiction texts that have a theoretical undercurrent. I also tend to feel more when there is a story there guiding the thing. As for current questions for writers, I admit to not knowing what they are. I think I once did though, when I was studying literature. As a reader, I am quick to recognize the intent of the author and have some interest in reading via a formal lens. This is about retrieving something once familiar that I now cannot name. I have few rules about what a book is or can be and I prefer not to limit myself. Except that I like to write things minimally. My goal, and I know this is not unique, is to find that fine line of knowing what is just enough, and to trigger something for the reader without over-determining it. Mystery, mixed messages and the magic of wondering must be honored.
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?
This question is often put to artists--To what extent are you morally/politically/culturally “responsible” for the work you make. I am always torn on this one. I think creation is driven by unconscious processes, as well as more conscious, or, external forces, which would include questions of culture, things that happen globally, etc. My mom, also an artist, says that just living now makes whatever you make “contemporary.” I’m not totally sure of that and have no idea how to elaborate, but on some level, it feels like a basic and unrefutable premise. Recently I heard John Banville interviewed, and he said something like “I don’t care so much about the morals of the day...All I provide is evidence, a testament to what one man saw.” I really love that line. I think this is about a pact between writer and character and reader--that no censorship will happen here and that there is a collusion of observation and experience on this journey. Having said that, my next project circles a moral question or more specifically, a cultural taboo.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
What I love is when the work is the work alone, without me there circling it, hating it or loving it. At this point, the editor (this is sometimes my partner, a reader-friend, or Andy Brown) and I can talk in practical terms about what needs to be done to improve the work. I get high on chopping because it is the most exquisite form of abandon to destroy your art, which is really just about transforming it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To be uncompromising. And to take moral risks in making art, which means daring to write outside of your comfort zone.
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?
Since the act of writing is about inhabiting another world, I give myself symbolic portals for getting there: coffee or wine usually. Opening the white notebook is like putting myself near to an altar. There is something mystical about settling myself there. I’m not precious about the where or when, so long as I have the ritual of crossing some barrier first. There is also something for me about mixing discipline with an element of lawlessness.
And then my rule is: write one utterly perfect page per sitting.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Non-fiction, film and drawing. I was inspired by Allen Weiss’ book Breathless for ages... notions about hearing voices from the dead and how a nineteenth-century condition has also fueled a lot of present-day sound art. Or right now I have a parallel fascination with French “second-wave” films... Or how-to draw ‘fireworks becoming waterfalls becoming fireworks’--a concept I was exploring visually, led to the conceit in my chapbook HAIR LIKE FLAGS... where the character “you” continually sends out S.O.S. signals from the middle of the ocean, signals which are absorbed by daylight, or disappear into nothing or have only been hallucinated or create so much flare that “you” becomes invisible. In fact, content is not a problem for me, I literally have permanent imagination-overload. Reeling the kites in before they tangle is my challenge.
12 - What was your most recent Hallowe'en costume?
A floor-length fur and a nosebleed.
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 recent chapbook about being lost at sea was influenced by the ubiquity of present-day migrants, but also began by seeing the Fall films of Bas Jan Ader--the Dutch artist who attempted to round the world in a small sailboat in 1975. And disappeared. I am fascinated by disappearing acts and the idea of “making contact” once lost or dead. The nothingness of deadtime, where say, you are in the middle of the ocean and likely to die, is a human condition I explore in all my work whether it be drawings, performances or stories on paper.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read Agota Kristof’s trilogy after writing AURICLE and ICEBREAKER and felt like I’d stumbled upon a much wiser and more deft kindred spirit. I’m attracted to timeless, placeless scenarios where little descriptive information is given about the characters. Timelessness without being otherworldly. So I loved that the brothers in The Notebook have this rule about not writing down (in their daily accounts of their world) anything about their feelings or their interpretation of a situation. Just the facts. For some reason, I had approached the girl voices in my novellas with the same kind of severity. To chronicle, list, and state particular things that happen, is for me, the best way to bring the reader to an understanding of the characters’ state of mind. I feel like it is a slow building up of details that can accumulate into an emotional car crash or, nothingness, depending. For similar reasons I also love how Cormac McCarthy writes dialogue. He strikes the right balance between pared down and real, human exchanges between characters. Then this minimalism is set against poetic interludes which just kill you because they’ve been given such careful room to breathe. That his writing is often referred to as spiritual is, I believe, the extent to which he honors silence on the page. I appreciate the numinous space that happens around an event: the awkward utterances, a single, hard-to-read gesture and of course, plain old silence.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Bungee-jump, but I’m almost positive that this act of daring is where I draw the line. I don’t think I could actually do it. I would just stand there for hours then feel defeated.
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?
I’d like to be reincarnated as the next Joan Jonas.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My celestial imprints: my first house Neptune conjuct Mercury and my tenth house placements suggest that I am a born (albeit sci-fi/fantasy) writer...
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Simple Passion (Annie Ernaux). Ma Mère (film by Christophe Honoré). My favorite books forever are Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K and Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains.
19- What are you currently working on?
Something about polyamory.