Sarah Leavitt writes both prose and comics. Her writing has appeared in Geist, The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Review, The Georgia Straight, and Xtra West. Leavitt has written short documentaries for Definitely Not the Opera on CBC Radio, and her non-fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, including Nobody’s Mother (Heritage 2006) and Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease (Kent State University Press 2009). She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Tangles is her first book.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different? This is my first book, and it just came out this month, so not totally sure yet how it will change my life. I am starting to get emails from people who have read it and who laughed and cried their way through it, including people who have their own experience with Alzheimer’s, and that is the most wonderful, moving thing — to get that kind of response.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction? I don’t write fiction, actually. I’ve tried, but it isn’t my thing. Most of my published work has been social commentary or memoir.
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 am a slow, procrastinating, somewhat constipated writer and cartoonist. I collect tons of sketches and drawings and then spend lots of time narrowing them down into something that makes sense. Lots of drafts, rewrites, redraws, gnashing of teeth.
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?
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings? I love doing readings. At first I hated it, and I realized one day that it was because I didn’t like my writing enough to feel confident that other people would. So honestly, I didn’t like reading until my writing improved to a point that I had a true desire to share it. I love hearing people laugh or seeing them cry when I read. It is such a powerful way to connect.
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? In my book, Tangles, my main concerns are the nature of love in the face of illness, and the role of memory and language in creating someone’s personality. When Alzheimer’s takes away memory and language, what are we left with? I am also very interested in the role of the artist in the context of a widespread disease like dementia. I think artists (including writers, cartoonists, all artists) must witness and respond artistically to illness, and this is as important as a medical- or research-focused response.
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 am a pessimist. I think our world is being driven rapidly towards extinction by governments and huge corporations. Art is one of the things that makes it all bearable. Ideally, writers and artists are witnesses and interpreters of whatever is going on around them, and sharing their observations and perspectives with others.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? Both. Editing helps me make my writing understandable to other people — left to my own devices I am very susceptible to self-indulgence, or leaving out essential background information that enables readers to understand what I am trying to say.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? Kill the puppies/kittens: i.e. Let go of your treasured little favourite bits of writing if they don’t work for your piece. Don’t keep a sentence or line or description just because you think it sounds smart or you like the words you chose. Does it actually help the piece as a whole? If not, kill it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to comics)? What do you see as the appeal? Moving from memoir in prose to memoir in graphic form (comics) is easy in that it feels like the best way for me to express myself, and is an extension of the note-taking and sketching I do all the time. However, it is super hard work to write comics! Takes a lot of fiddling and determination and patience.
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 wish I had a routine, but I don’t. I work sporadically and am a bit tortured. If I don’t have a deadline, I’m lost.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? Old sketches, ideas; fellow writers; favourite books.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home? Hay.
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? I would say music and visual art.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? Favourite and inspirational cartoonists include: Lynda Barry, Aline Kominsky, Miriam Engleberg, Kim Deitch. I love the prose of Alice Munro and Anne Carson’s poetry.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? Travel and study in Europe, do a headstand.
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 would love to be physically coordinated and fit enough to do something like leading adventure tours, but I would have had to be a completely different person. I also wish that I was successful enough to just write full time and not have a day job.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? I like writing, and I like expressing my ideas.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? Cruddy, by Lynda Barry. A Serious Man, by the Cohen brothers.
20 - What are you currently working on? Preparing to start my next book, still figuring out the focus. It’s historical fiction, I think, in comics form. Working on short comics too.