Sunday, October 02, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Cathy Stonehouse

Cathy Stonehouse (photo credit: Daniel Henshaw) is the author of a collection of short fiction, Something About the Animal (Biblioasis, 2011) and two collections of poetry, Grace Shiver (Inanna Publications, 2011) and The Words I Know (Press Gang Publishers, 1994). Co-editor of the creative nonfiction anthology Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), her poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a wide range of journals and anthologies including Best Canadian Stories 2010 (Oberon), White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Mothering (Demeter, 2008) and Beyond the Small Circle: Dropped Threads 3 (Random House, 2005). Cathy emigrated to Canada from the UK in 1988 and currently lives in East Vancouver, where she writes, edits and teaches creative writing at various Lower Mainland colleges. Check out her website for more information:

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, The Words I Know, taught me that publishing a book does not necessarily change your life; it came and went, and I still had the same work to do--start over again! My recent work, especially the fiction is very different. Less innocent.

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

Poetry always felt like my first language. It was also easier to hide inside. I wrote poetry (bad, of course) at a very early age and never stopped. But there were always stories waiting to get out. Eventually poems started to feel claustrophobic, so I flung open the door.

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 write my initial draft quickly, but usually abandon most of it as the work begins to take shape, and end up writing "the real thing" very slowly. The work takes shape on the page, sentence by sentence; I have to get each sentence "right," or somewhat right, before I move on.

4 - Where does fiction or a poem 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 get very big, ambitious ideas that I mostly can't execute, so I have to write all those out and then return to the particular piece at hand, which usually begins with a sentence or an image. Quite often, ironically, the seed sentence or image has to be taken out of the final work. I have several "book" ideas in my head, on the go, but which will come to fruition depends on how the groundwork goes.

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

I hardly ever read, because I am quite a hermit, but in fact I love reading, and find the live experience very energizing and inspiring. I get very anxious beforehand, but high afterwards.

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?

How do the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world break down in the face of crisis, and what is left to notice when everything seems to have been destroyed--these are the moments I have been charting lately, partly to see how the dreaming, imagistic mind can be thus revealed. I guess I'm interested in the unconscious, its poetic qualities. My own unconscious does a lot of my writing, and there is a language there I want to protect. What is the unconscious of our culture? What and who do we refuse to acknowledge as real?

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 writer/artist these days is pressured to provide entertainment, diversion, and reassurance, in the sense that this is what's often rewarded; the writer/artist is also pressured to be a personality or celebrity. I hope there is still a place for writers/artists who function more shamanistically, monastic fools, and visit wild places to bring back important messages for the larger culture.

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

I had a great experience working with John Metcalf, a gift of ruthless precision operating simulaneously with unconditional acceptance. If the editor "gets' your work, what you are doing, it's essential and tremendous. If the editor does not, and is trying to impose their own agenda, it can be a disaster.

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

Poet Suniti Namjoshi once told me to take praise and criticism equally lightly, and to not take either personally. That is a great help.

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

Different truths emerge in different ways, and moving between registers allows for a variety of entry points into the larger culture. Nevertheless I tend to spread myself too thinly in most aspects of my life, and something can get lost in the cracks. I admire writers with a steely focus. I also appreciate that genre differences are often oddly superficial, and enjoy exploring this.

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?

Right now I am too busy to have a routine; I just take pen and paper everywhere and write copious notes on the bus. In my dreams I* inhabit a timeless, gorgeous place in the woods where I spend all my time working up to writing incredible fiction, usually at night, but in life I'm an overcommitted, urban working parent with about two hours a week to "write;" weirdly enough, I seem to get almost as much done when I'm busy and conditions are terrible as when conditions are apparently perfect. I get a lot of ideas while running or in the bath.

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

I am extremely self-critical and tend to abandon projects that don't meet my standards; I also get bogged down by ambitious ideas I can't carry out. I therefore lower my expectations. I draw and make collages. I also read.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Dead leaves: a British woodland in the autumn.

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?

Visual art especially. I have often drawn my way into a poem. I also find the work and working processes of visual artists, land artists & sculptors very inspiring.

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

Paul Celan; W. S. Graham; Alice Notley; Ingeborg Bachmann; John Clare; Olga Broumas; Lydia Davis; Jane Bowles; Edward St. Aubyn; Tove Jansson. An eclectic mix. Every year, usually in the depths of winter, I reread John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. I've read it about 30 times.

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

Something useful, e.g. build a school, conserve some land or alleviate human suffering in some tiny way.  Creatively speaking, I feel like I've barely begun. I need to live until I'm 90 just to get through the first two or three items on my list.

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'm currently training to be an expressive arts therapist, which is basically about exploring the power of metaphor. That feels right. I'm also a closet visual artist. If I had not been a writer I may have been a criminal, a mental patient or a statistic. If I didn't need to write so badly I would love to be a biologist or a farmer.

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

I have always been compelled to write, it's a kind of burden really. Earlier it was a way to have a secret, glorious life, and to be disembodied. It ended up bringing me into my body and the world, though, which is fortunate. I have at times wished to have the urge surgically removed, or to be healed out of it. But the urge passes. I write because I love to read and wish to enter the conversation.

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

Book: At Last, by Edward St. Aubyn. Film: Mary Poppins. My 7-year-old watches it about once a week.

20 - What are you currently working on?

New stories and a novel; floating pieces of personal narrative. Trying to organize my life so I can write again. Drawing horses.

Cathy Stonehouse reads in Ottawa on Thursday, October 6 at Collected Works Bookstore as part of an Ontario Biblioasis tour with Rebecca Rosenblum and Laura Boudreau..

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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