Claire Tacon is the winner of the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke award for her first novel, In the Field. Her fiction has been short-listed for the Bronwen Wallace Award, the CBC Literary Awards and the Playboy College Fiction Contest, and has appeared in journals such as The New Quarterly and sub-TERRAIN.
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 only came out about nine months ago, so it’s still too fresh to say. After it was accepted for publication, however, I was offered my first sessional gig, something I doubt would have happened without the book. Having the teaching income has allowed me to quit my job in communications at a population health research centre, which was as dry as it sounds. Not seeing the words “synergy,” “impact-oriented” and “knowledge development and exchange” on a daily basis has made me a happier person.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Ha! I didn’t—I was a failed poet and playwright before I ever wrote prose. When you’re younger, a lot of writing is closer to journaling, to using writing to work out feelings. The poems I wrote as a kid and in my teens were all earnestness and no craft. By the time I came to prose, I was more interested in using writing to explore bigger ideas.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I started writing fiction. I showed a play that I was proud of to my mentor and she said she really liked the writing but thought it was more suited to the page than the stage. It was hard to hear but I sucked it up and re-wrote it as a novella. For whatever reason, that flipped a switch and everything I’ve written since then has been prose.
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?
Only a few projects have been birthed quickly and easily. The rest have taken time. The project that I’m working on right now has taken several years of thinking about and researching different things, waiting to see how they gel together. Sometimes I think of my process as throwing a bunch of crap in the back of a car trunk, going for a long drive and seeing what’s ended up where.
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?
Often, I do have a sense of the scope of a project when I start. Pretty early on in the writing it becomes clear whether there is room to say what I want to say in a story, or if it needs the space afforded by a novella or a novel.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I just got back from a book tour with the wonderful poet Jamella Hagen, and I have to say I love readings. Even when there are only a few audience members and they are flipping through the grocery store flyers (true story!). Readings have an inherent tension—the performer has the ability to win or lose and audience—and tension is always exciting. When it works it can also be tremendously rewarding, being able to see people react to your writing.
Creatively, I’ve found that reading aloud has really clarified what a scene is supposed to be doing and if it achieves it or not. A passage might be gorgeously written, but if nothing happens in it, then the audience starts to fidget. Readings also tend to point out where the fat is in a text. However, most public readings only happen after something is published, when the chance for editing has past. It’s not the same, but I do read my fiction aloud during the editing process, even if only my cats are listening.
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?
Most of what I try to answer is what must that be like? It’s not to say that there aren’t bigger questions that I’m grappling with, or that I don’t frame stories so that the reader can extrapolate to a larger ethical issue, but most of my interest starts with a singular person in a singular situation. Most of my day is spent wondering what it must be like to be the various people I encounter, wondering how they perceive the world. I think any question can be relevant if it matters to someone or something.
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?
For me, the role of the fiction writer in society is to promote empathy and to shed light on overlooked aspects of the human experience. Or to show common experiences from a new perspective. There are lots of deeply political things that I care about, from large-scale environmental concerns to smaller-scale socioeconomic questions, such as how the city I live in treats people with special needs. I think that my job is to create characters and a narrative that allows the reader to imagine him or herself in that position and to come to their own conclusion about the issue. It’s not to say that I don’t stack the deck, depending on my point of view, but my job is to raise questions, not to be pedantic.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I guess it’s like marriage—if it’s with the right person, it’s a dream. I’ve had a limited experience with working with a professional external editor, but I can say that every change John Metcalf suggested benefited the book. If there was a less simpatico relationship, however, I could see it being difficult. I had an early reader of the novel suggest killing one of the kids off halfway through the book and that seemed spectacularly wrong-headed to me. For better or worse, the story I wanted to tell was more subtle than that. I mean, once you kill a kid off, who cares about infidelity?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Writing is a career of attrition.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (solo to collaborative)? What do you see as the appeal?
So far, I haven’t done much moving between genres. But I do have stories that I’d like to tell in formats other than fiction, so I’m hoping it will be a smooth transition.
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?
When I’m at my best (and when I’ve saved up enough money to permit it), I’m writing for several hours a few times a day with a reading break in between. Most of the time, however, I have a day job to contend with and I’m happy if I get four nights a week with an hour or two of dedicated writing time.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I get a lot of inspiration from low-brow sources. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from the (truly awful) movie Centrestage. When one of the characters gets passed over for a part, her teacher advises her to go back to the barre. Instead of getting angry, it’s better to go back to working on her craft. Its SO CHEESY, but I’ve found that it’s done me well in times of frustration, to just go back to the blank page and start writing. Usually I can find my way back into a piece sideways.
And, barring that, there’s always YouTube. The other day, I saw that a man had taxidermied his cat and turned it into a remote controlled helicopter. There are hundreds of videos with people carding wool or showing off their new manure spreader. There’s a man whose dog dances the merengue better than most cruise ship performers. Seeing the spectrum of humanity being pushed in so many ways always makes me itchy to pick up a pen.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Any kind of musty cellar smell. My parents’ house is a century-old farmhouse with a cobblestone basement. My dad has bad knees so I spent a lot of my childhood fetching things from the subterranean pantry. A few weeks ago, my husband and I were driving trough South Dakota and we stopped into the Jewel Caves. It’s the world’s second-largest cave system and is completely covered in nail-head spar calcite crystals. Before you descend the 28 floors to go on the tour, there are all these warnings advising people who are claustrophobic to turn back. I’m not too nervous in closed spaces, but the warnings made me pretty anxious. As soon as I set foot in the caves, however, I was hit with that stale, damp basement smell and it calmed me right down. Also, the caves are spectacular.
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?
Newspapers really influence my work—any kind of human interest story that has a hint of the bizarre in it. The New York Times is my go-to, especially for its magazine articles, but Yahoo News has yielded a few gems. There is also a lot of great radio these days, so I listen to a lot of podcasts, particularly on science and technology. Bits of information from those podcasts have certainly woven their way into my writing.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
What a hard question—there are too many to list! Right now I’m reading Suzanne Buffam’s poetry and loving the hell out of it. I’ve also recently gone back to Dan Chaon’s story collection Among the Missing and Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here. Wired magazine is also a favourite.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Creatively? I’d like to explore more experimental work. Non-creatively? Win the lottery.
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?
There are lots of professions that interest me, but I don’t think I could commit to just one for the rest of my life. That’s part of writing’s biggest appeal to me, getting to immerse myself in someone else’s life and then moving on. It’s a socially acceptable series of one-night-stands.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Art was always valued in my family, so it wasn’t the big fight that it can be for some. Writing was what I was always most passionate about (and I certainly had no skill with the other arts). At the same time, I do spend large swaths of time in other occupations in order to make ends meet.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
David McGimpsey’s Sitcom, especially for his poem about sessional teaching “Architeuthis.” When I was in Vancouver recently, I saw the Norwegian film Turn Me On, Dammit at the VanCity theatre. It’s one of the few films about teen girl sexuality that is funny, accurate and doesn’t turn the lead into a hot-local-coeds-click-now Lolita.
20 - What are you currently working on?
This summer is all about trying to bludgeon out a draft of the next novel.