Billie Livingston is the award-winning author of three novels, a collection of short stories and a poetry book. Her latest novel, One Good Hustle, is about the daughter of two con artists, trying to figure out if she is fated to be a crook or if she's got a chance at something better. She lives in Vancouver with her husband, her god parents and a hairy butt-biting Afghan Hound named Rubin.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Before Going Down Swinging, it didn’t seem possible for someone like me to have a published book— I thought authors were born smoking pipes and pondering the world from New England armchairs. Names like Random House were intimidating so the process of working for years with a book in mind, circumventing obstacles, and persevering until I actually had a contract in my hands proved to me that anything is possible. With each new book, though, I still have the feeling that the whole publishing process is something akin to gator wrestling.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Though my poetry collection was published after my first novel, I did write poetry first. My poems were sort of micro-fictions. I wrote poetry as a way to understand characters and the impact of situations that may seem like fleeting moments. Many of the early poems later expanded and became Going Down Swinging.
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?
It’s been different with each book. The writing initially comes quickly because I don’t want to impose much in the way of self-editing on a first draft. I try to write from the gut. No one’s going to see it so I allow myself the weird and foolish and just hurl it all out on the page. Then I go back and pull and twist and rewrite. It’s unusual for my first draft to look close to its final shape.
4 - Where does a poem or prose 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?
That has changed with each book too. With my first book, as I mentioned I started toying with characters and story in the form of short narrative poems, but once I began the novel, I continued on in that way, writing hundreds of pages and then changing my mind about point-of-view, and rewriting with a more raw sense of where the nerves of the story were. With One Good Hustle, I started with short stories in the voice of the narrator Sammie. I walked her through various situations to look at how she operated until I felt ready to have her narrate a whole novel.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have a huge dread when it comes to public readings and find it hard to write on a day that I know that I’ll have to read. It’s a bit crazy because I often enjoy reading in public as I’m doing it but I get terrible anxiety beforehand.
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 like the Roland Barthes quote about that: Fiction is the question minus the answer. Like a good shrink, good stories always provoke questions. They don’t supply you with pat answers. Pat answers are the role of self-help books and false prophets.
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 the primary job of the writer is to tell a story. If you’re writing from your gut without filters — writing, as they say, what you fear most — then your themes will occur naturally. To my mind, it’s a mistake to become so entranced with one’s role as a writer that the novel becomes nothing but a pulpit from which to preach particular themes and admonishments.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with a good editor is essential. It’s almost impossible to edit one’s self. Like the reader, the writer needs someone who can ask difficult questions. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some of the best.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The only way to get anything written is the AIC method. (Ass In Chair)
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I guess it’s happened naturally. One form inspires another. I write whatever I’m drawn to write, though sometimes, writing itself feels like trying to yank veins out of my arm.
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?
If I’m deep into a book, I have a quota that I try to keep: Two pages per day. Enough that I feel I’ve accomplished something and not so much that I feel daunted at the outset. I tend to begin my days with tea and the news, answering emails. Then a walk to the beach and back.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Lately, I’ve been reading peculiar news stories. They are often filled with ordinary knuckleheads committing such desperate or narcissistic acts that I’m thrown into a deep daydream, marvelling at the avoidable and yet inevitable casualties involved. It can completely rejuvenate my sense of wonder and sympathy which in turn fuels my writing.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
This is a screaming cliché, but fresh cut grass. It’s such a comforting smell. And it’s a goofy one for me because I grew up mainly in apartment buildings. Maybe it comes from a longing for my own backyard.
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?
It’s hard not to be affected by what you surround yourself with. I’m influenced by the storytelling of friends, by walks through the supermarket or the park, by newspapers, television, road trips, music, radio, podcasts, museums, graffiti — that’s why I think it’s important to pay attention to one’s surroundings, to feed your brain with more than fluff.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I like reading those News of the Weird stories, mostly to remind me of the desperate and often absurd actions of average people when cornered. But it’s anything and everything with me: really corny fiction, dark and beautiful poetry, philosophy, mythology, theology, The Globe and Mail, The New York Post…
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I hope to do more visual art, work with my hands. I’d like to learn how to make a book, how to weld, I’d like to learn some simple carpentry.
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?
When I was a kid I wanted to be a veterinarian. Later I wanted to be a lawyer. I never went to creative writing school but I wish I’d gone to law school or medical school. It would be good to have that knowledge to use in my work.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I always wrote. When I was doing other things I still wrote. Especially while I was employed in the most mind-numbing of jobs, writing kept me sane. The surprise came when someone actually wanted to publish the writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just read True Grit by Charles Portis. I didn’t expect much, but I loved it. The original film with John Wayne and Glen Campbell was such fluff, you’d never know what was lurking in the novel.
I recently saw Aberdeen with Lena Headly and Stellan Skargård, It was riveting and terrible and, at times, painfully funny. The performances are so good, the scenes so humbling and humiliating, you want to cover your eyes.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I think it’s a novel but I’m not sure yet. I’ve written one long story about a Catholic priest in rehab. Now I’ve moved on to his sister who is obsessed with spiritualist churches, seeking mediums who claim to talk with the dead, people who might be able to help her find the voice that’s snuffed out of her life.