Sunday, May 15, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Dawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her first book, Jewels and Other Stories, was published in 2010 by TSAR Publications. She's had stories published in Maple Tree Literary Supplement and in the anthology TOK: Writing the New Toronto. Her story "Billy" was shortlisted for UK-based Wasafiri's New Writing Prize 2009, and she is the recipient of an Ontario Arts Council Works in Progress grant.

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, which has only been out for three months, made me feel very different actually. Now there is a concrete object out there, a piece of me, floating about in the world, sort of like a child, that I have to worry about! I have to worry about its life in the world, how it fares! I also have to do all sorts of things I’ve never done before, to do with promoting and marketing the book. I don’t particularly like all that, but it has to be done, so my time is quite taken up with that right now.

The writing I am doing now feels different as well. There’s more of a self-consciousness to it. This is both a good and bad thing. There is a certain innocence to one’s first book, a sense of its inevitability. It had to be written, and it had to be written that way, and no other. Now I am more aware of my own style and voice. I’m also more aware of the larger things that concern me as a writer, the themes, and what I want to write about. This could make a better second book, perhaps, but it could also make a worse book, if the edge of the voice is smoothed over. Well, I will try not to do that, to smooth over too much that spontaneous, first, fresh voice!

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Instinctively I gravitate towards fiction, in my reading as well as my writing. I love the flexibility, the capaciousness, of an imaginative world, the great possibilities. The room for exploration, the infinite capacity of it. It allows for whole other dimensions. I love reading poetry as well. It’s the interest in language I think. Fiction (like poetry) lends itself to exploration in this regard – the capacity of language to convey worlds, moods, tones, meaning. The capability of language, and the challenge of it, you know, what can be done with it. Non-fiction doesn’t concern itself as much with this, non-fiction has a more pragmatic relationship with language, a more straightforward one.

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 spend a great deal of time thinking about something before I ever put pen to paper. In fact, putting pen to paper before I have done enough “thinking” about it is usually death to a project. I might actually spend years thinking (and not necessary on a conscious level) about something, about an event, or a person, or some object that for some reason intrigues me. I prefer to manipulate the pieces of a story in my mind long before I write them. I have an idea that a story is almost fully formed in my mind before I set it down on paper. I think it does actually exist in a form in my mind, and then I put it on paper. And I do that very fast, the actual writing. That was  how my first book was written. After that is another long process of winnowing down or polishing what I have written, until it is in its final form. And that process can last a long time and many polishings too!

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?
Short stories begin almost invariably with a visual image of something in my mind, it can be a very small thing: the colour of something, the expression on a person’s face, or some other sensuous detail like the sound of a silk blouse swishing or something seemingly fleeting like that. But for whatever reason this small thing interests and intrigues me, and I can spend a lot of time thinking about it, visualising it, its surroundings. And other things slowly over time coalesce around it: people, things they say, things they do, a reason for something. And then I consciously start to “follow” this collection of things in my mind, and their pattern reveals itself to me, if I’m lucky! The reason for someone’s expression, something like that. But it really is a very amorphous beginning, and it becomes clearer and clearer over time, until an actual form, or story, is revealed. It’s sort of like a negative of a photograph that slowly develops into a full colour photograph, and then I have to go to my pen and paper and write it down!

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings come long after the story has been created and published, so they have nothing to do with the creative process for me. I don’t particularly enjoy reading aloud, I am a bit shy, but I like sharing the work, the stories, so I am very happy to do readings.

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 start with theoretical concerns. The creative process would be crippled by that I think. I create a story more by following my instinct I would say.  Afterwards, though, when I’m polishing it or even reading it long after publication, I think very much about theoretical things: how this story solved theoretical questions for me. Questions about how to represent a certain reality – a scene, a person, a character, an atmosphere, a feeling – on the page. The complex ways in which reality and writing interact. The different means of effecting this transformation of reality onto a page. And by “reality” I suppose I mean life actually. How life can be transcribed, so to speak, onto the page. How far it is possible to do that, and what limitations are there?

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 it would be, again, death to the creative process for a writer to take on a role. In many ways I think writing is the antithesis of taking a role. Writing is breaking out of roles and expectations, preconceptions, at its best. It is the freedom to follow an idiosyncratic character, or route, for example, to a place no-one has been before. Paradoxically, though, in doing this, a writer finds his role: that of a discoverer, a witness, a recorder. And so that is his role, I suppose – it is a paradox indeed!

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think if you’re lucky enough to find an editor who understands you and your work, then it is wonderfully helpful. She/he then helps you to achieve your vision, to achieve the story in its best possible form. I think it would be quite awful to have to work with an editor who was not on the same page, so to speak, I can’t even imagine that. That would be very destructive to the work.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I don’t know who said it, but someone said a writer should use everything he knows, every little thing. This sounds very obvious, but it isn’t! Writing should be the marshalling of every possible resource (every cell) within the writer’s mind: his memory, his knowledge, his imagination. I remind myself of this all the time, and try to do it. And then (I think it was Hemingway who said this), you have to know what to leave out. It’s this tension between what the writer knows and what he actually says that is the door into a story I think, or even the tension between what the writer knows and what he is not sure that he knows, or what he doesn’t know.

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?
I don’t have a writing routine (I think this is a bad answer!). I write whenever I feel ready to write what I have to say. And when I want to write I will write no matter where I am or when it is – I will not sleep for instance, if I am in the middle of something that I want to finish. And in fact I do become quite sleepless if I am in the middle of something that I am anxious to put down on the page.  I think this might have to change if I start a long-term project (such as a novel).

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go walking. I think walking mimics the creative process actually, the search for something, when you walk you’re always about to find something new, around the next corner.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of the sea reminds me of a wind-swept beach in South Africa on the Indian Ocean where I spent childhood holidays. The smell of the sea always makes me think of  how large and beautiful the planet is (and how pure it used to be), and that’s what I used to think of, on that Indian Ocean beach .
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?
I find visual art particularly close to work that I do. Colours convey moods, lines convey moods, in the way words do. Lines and shapes have rhythm, as words do. I often think that my favourite short stories have a “colour”, and are like paintings actually, existing as a single visual image in my mind. Edgar Allan Poe long ago suggested his definition of a short story as a narrative with a “single effect”, and you might think of this single effect as a visual one, in the same way a painting or a sculpture is, or has, a “single effect”.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Many writers, too many to name or even remember in this space! I constantly read and re-read short stories, favourite short stories of mine, more than novels. James Joyce’s Dubliners I return to time and again, without tiring of it. Also Chekhov’s short stories, some of John Cheever’s. A recently discovered short story for me was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. I feel a natural affinity with American writers of the South - a landscape, both physical and moral, that feels very familiar to me: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers. And above all, Faulkner.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a second book!

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’ve attempted, half-heartedly, many other occupations, and was no good at any of them! I have liked jobs that gave me lots of room and space to dream. A lifeguard on a beach would be good, just sitting and thinking all day and watching the sea (as long as I wasn’t actually required to rescue someone!). Or even better, a beachcomber, walking along a beach all day, picking up stuff that came from under the sea or far away. Which, when you think about it, is one of the things a writer does.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I love to read, books contain the world, and I love the magic that a writer can do by putting words, and worlds, onto a page. I guess I wanted to do that magical thing.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read Madame Bovary for the second time recently, Lydia Davis’s new translation. I enjoyed very much seeing what a master translator can do, I kept going back to my old translation and comparing – it was interesting. And I re-read in French La Symphonie Pastorale by Gide, a novella that is both perfect and exquisite – or perfectly exquisite!

I saw The King’s Speech, loved it. But the last truly great film I saw was a 16-minute silent black-and-white film called A Trip to the Moon, made by Georges Melies in 1902. They call it the first science fiction film, and it’s 16 minutes of rough, unvarnished brilliance.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I have fragments in my mind that I would like to turn into short stories, and I have a longer work in my mind that becomes a little clearer in my mind every day, or I hope that’s what it’s doing!

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