Alice Petersen is a citizen of Canada and New Zealand. Her stories have been published in Takahe, Geist, Fiddlehead, Room, and in The Journey Prize Stories 19 (McClelland & Stewart, 2007). Petersen’s stories have variously been shortlisted for the CBC Literary awards, The Journey Prize and the Metcalf Rooke Award for fiction. In 2009 she won the Richard Adams Award offered by the Writers Federation of New Brunswick. Her first collection, All the Voices Cry (Biblioasis, 2012) recently won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Concordia University First Book Prize. Alice Petersen lives in the woods near Shawinigan, Quebec, with her husband and two daughters.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
All the Voices Cry is my first book. Seeing it in print is encouraging. It feels more concrete to have a book of one’s own, as opposed to publications of single stories here and there.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I used to write ghastly poems when I was a student. I think I’m just better at 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?
For short stories, I make a folder for each idea, and then I add it, without looking back, until I feel that I’ve touched all aspects of the story that I want to tell. That usually adds up to about 40-45 pages. Then I read it all through and find the points where I have been repeating myself in about the same words, and that’s the backbone of story, and that’s also the voice or mood in which I naturally wish to tell it. Then I come at it again and work it through logically, writing each section again, kind of rendering it down. The stories always come out at about 12 pages. I don’t know why. It’s my length, I guess. This can take four to five months because I am usually working on a crop of stories. Once I have crop, I think about where to attempt to place them, but not before.
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?
Stories for me begin with an image or an object or an utterance encountered in a social context within landscape. Although there are connections between the stories in All the Voices Cry, the stories also stand alone.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes, I love readings. Reading my own work is like performing at a concert for which I am well prepared. I know what’s coming at any given point and how it should go, so there’s no reason not to enjoy it. And usually, afterwards, I am able to talk to the members of the audience, and I like that, because they usually turn out to be writers as well as readers, so we can have a good talk.
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?
No, I don’t write with questions in mind, because that can become preachy. I see the questions that I have posed afterwards, and they become part of the story. If I want to sharpen up the theoretical angle, it comes later, after the story is told. The tweaking is subtle but deliberate.
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 agree with authors like Saleema Nawaz who suggest that good writing fosters empathy. I like to read a book and feel that the author has understood one of my own problems, without even knowing it. I also like to be shown places and fed images or ideas that I have never seen or thought of before. And of course, I love to read, and I like the idea of adding to the pile of stuff out there to read, because reading fosters the imagination and a book is a lovely thing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve only worked with one, John Metcalf at Biblioasis and it was a great experience. He did not overdirect me, but he had good suggestions for change.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I did receive this advice directly, from Montreal-based author Mary Soderstrom. If you think you want to be a writer, give yourself a ten year apprenticeship – that’s how long it takes to know if you could be a professional at anything – golf, piano, whatever – so don’t give up easily, chug on, but keep your day job in the meantime.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
The only other genre I have worked in, long ago, is the academic essay, which is a different kind of art, but very structured and necessarily persuasive. It can be quite creative. Still, I prefer making it all up.
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 begin with tea, and school lunch making and getting everyone out the door to where they need to be. Then I drink some coffee and get in maybe two and a half hours of writing if I am lucky. Sometimes I leave the house and write in a coffee shop. Either way I leave the breakfast dishes or else I find my best hours are gone in exchange for the paltry reward of a clean bench. I have to take a stand on behalf of my writing. I have to walk away from the dishes. In the afternoon I earn my living and go for a run, then I do the dishes and become Mum for the evening.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go for a run or I work on something else. A story can be like two sticks to rub together to make a fire. You get one stick, but maybe it takes a year or two before the other one comes along, or maybe it doesn’t. Stressing about it doesn’t help. There’s always something else to do.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Inside, the chilly scent of a room in the early morning, where there has been an open fire in the grate the night before; and outside, the smell of wet ferns.
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?
Oh nature, for sure, in its beauty and oddity, and classical music for its structural possibilities and its profound traditions.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I really value the complex books that were produced before the benefit of word processors – nineteenth century novels like those by George Eliot and those of the first half of the twentieth century – the intricate works of Nabokov for example. What incredible feats of organization these works were. Word processors have made us all so wordy, so unmeasured. I also love the short stories of Alice Munro and William Trevor.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to travel to the North of Canada. I would like to learn to swim really well.
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 would have liked to be two things: a botanist, specializing in trees or a set designer for historical movies.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I had been doing some acting, and it seemed to me that in writing, I could be character and director at the same time, and still go to bed at a reasonable hour. I need to be in control of what I produce, and writing is good for that – you don’t rely on anyone else.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Anna Karenina – I can never get past that book, I love it so. It’s one of the few books that make me weep. As to films, well I’m not very fussy. My current favourite is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which I found funny and touching and different.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am hatching ideas, some big, some little. I’ll let you know once the crop is ready to harvest.
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