Saturday, July 09, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews [photo credit: Carol Loewen] is the author of five novels: Summer of My Amazing Luck; A Boy of Good Breeding, the Governor General Award-winning, Canada Reads-winning, much loved bestselling novel A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans, which won the Rogers Writers Trust Award for fiction, and, most recently, Irma Voth. The author also penned one work of non-fiction: Swing Low: A Life. She lives in Toronto.

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 Summer of my Amazing Luck, which I wrote in my late twenties and which was published in 1996. I wouldn't call it my best book but getting the letter in the mail informing me that it would be published was probably one of the most exciting moments in my so-called career. I find it difficult to compare my books because they all seem to be different pieces of some continuous query. I like to think that with each book I get a little closer to some emotional truth, but that's a moving target anyway.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I was actually working as a freelance journalist before I started to write fiction. I was making radio documentaries and eventually it occurred to me that I was more interested in making things up than in sticking with the facts. Again, it was a question of being able to develop characters and get closer to some essential truth which is, in my opinion, just as often accomplished through fiction.

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 take a lot of notes for months and months, maybe even years, before I sit down to write a book. When I look back at my notes I can see themes developing, ideas and obsessions that I've been circling around and around and trying to understand. Then when I do start writing it comes pretty quickly. The first draft isn't dramatically different from the final book, usually, but of course there are changes and additions and subtractions.

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?

Yes, I work on a "book" from the very beginning. I take everything and throw it into one large pot, rather than um...several smaller dishes. Sorry for the lame cooking metaphor.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I do enjoy them. It feels good to get feedback from readers and to make that actual tangible connection.

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 such a hard question! The only answer I have is, you know, just the meaning of life and all that jazz. Seriously, I want to know how to survive in this dark place, and maybe not just survive but to somehow achieve a type of grace, moments of joy, clarity, connection with to love, how to think, how to be happy...that fine line between staring, clear-eyed, into the abyss and acknowledging that the world is a cruel and absurd place and stepping back, walking away and embracing it anyway.

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?

The role of the writer is to take the reader by the hand (or throat, depending on what kind of a writer you are) and lead them from one place to another. It's not easy.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It's absolutely essential to work with an editor, and if you have a trusting relationship it's a beautiful thing, just seeing your book get better, tighter, pared down to its essence or beefed up to its potential...

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

Write as honestly and intelligently as you can. Make every sentence in your book as good as the best one.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?

I prefer to write fiction. I only wrote the one non-fiction book, about my father, but that was very necessary for me to do. A novel is a free and often messy enterprise that suits me best.

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 get up pretty early, drink coffee and read the newspaper, tell myself not to start the sudoku, wrestle with myself in every way and eventually convince myself to get to work. Then I work for a few hours which is all my brain can handle.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Well, there's a dark, womb-like bar on my corner which I have a habit of returning to time and again. Seriously, I give myself pep talks, I talk with other writers about the agony of being blocked, take comfort from knowing I'm not alone, I make some notes...I read the type of books I'd like to write, or the very opposite so I'm not struck in the face with my own short-comings...I don't know. Writers block is a form of hell, what can I say. It requires oceans of patience and faith to move through. I'd rather walk barefoot on broken glass.

13 - What was your last Hallowe'en costume?

What?! Halloween is a sin in my culture. Okay, well I think I was a suitcase or something. Kinda conceptual though...I'm not good at costumes.

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 of those things, mightily, everything in life, and films!...with all due respect to David W. McFadden.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are so many. I don't know where to begin. Like every other writer I read constantly... everything. Well, not everything. I've been travelling a lot lately, doing book stuff, and have begun to wake up in a cold sweat with this recurring nightmare...that I'm on a plane, a long trip like five or six hours, and I don't have a book to read. Somehow I forgot to pack one and I run wildly up and down the aisles asking everybody for a book, any book, and nobody has one...they're not sympathetic either. They turn away mumbling, embarrassed for me and afraid I'll storm the cockpit and take everyone down. Eventually I'm restrained and gagged and told to shut up about the books already or I'll be arrested when we land.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Grow old gracefully.

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?

Some day I'd like to drive a cab. It's similar to writing, getting people from one place to another, including myself. I don't know what I would have ended up doing if not writing...I don't want to think about it. Probably something unhealthy and short-lived.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Overhead is very cheap. I can't dance. I don't mean to be flip but you know the answer already, I think. The thing that every writer says over and over...something about making sense of the world, re-ordering the might have something to do with being a control freak, although we don't say that so much. It's a need, a black hole that needs's not pretty. It's not a noble pursuit.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa and Ten by Abbas Kiarostami.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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