Sunday, February 17, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Heather Birrell

Heather Birrell is the author of two story collections, Mad Hope (Coach House, 2012) and I know you are but what am I? (Coach House, 2004). Her work has been honoured with the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, and has been short- listed for both National and Western Magazine Awards. Birrell’s stories have appeared in many North American journals and anthologies, including The New Quarterly and Toronto Noir. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Toronto, where she teaches high school English.  Learn more at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The first book changed my life in that I had something tangible in my hands to point people (okay, my mother) towards when I told them I was a writer.  This second book is the same in that it a.) is a short story collection, a cousin of sorts to the first, b.) took me a long time to write and publish and c.) was edited by the lovely and astute Alana Wilcox and published by the fantastic Coach House Books.  It is different in that it feels in some ways more purposeful and fierce than the last. 

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

I actually started out writing poetry, and am possibly still a closet poet.  I found the leap to fiction strange -- I couldn’t quite figure out how to get my characters from A to B, and wasn’t too keen on writing words like, I don’t know, ‘that’ or ‘she said’ or ‘eventually’.  But now that I have been writing prose for a while, I find it hard to conceive of moments as poems, and that feels sad to me.  I’m hoping to exercise that part of my brain again soon...

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 in short scenes.  I have a sense of what I want the story to convey and snippets of ‘stuff’ that have been accumulating in a very messy file in my brain.  The scenes themselves don’t tend to change much -- the meaning and effect in my stories emerges in the ordering of said scenes -- how they chime together to create a certain sound, a certain feeling.

4 - Where does a story 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?

Nope, never really working on a ‘book’.  Too much pressure.

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

I enjoy doing readings of finished work but don’t feel too comfortable sharing before a piece is complete (or as complete as I can possibly make it).   I do feel like the oral quality of a public reading sometimes allows me to make the words ‘better’, or somehow communicate more exactly what they *really* mean -- it’s a second chance, a bonus round.

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?

Hm.  No, I don’t think I have any theoretical concerns beyond trying to tell a particular truth the best way I know how.  Current questions:  PC or Mac?  Whole wheat or rye?  Chartreuse or fuschia?  Facetious or heartfelt?

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?

Again, truth-telling, sense-making, beauty-building.

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


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

Bring your own toilet paper.

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

I think the struggle is less with moving between genres than with finding a particular form for a story or a sensation to take.  So it’s not about ‘deciding’, but instead discovering, through a kind of messy, trial and error process, that my arguments or impressions want to be articulated in a particular way.

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 don’t have a routine; I have windows of two or three happy hours, getaways, stolen moments.  I need to write by hand, in a notebook, to create new work.  Sometimes I set a timer and force myself to write to the end of the interval.  Usually I need coffee.

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

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My childhood home:  lily-of-the-valley.

My current home:  my husband’s cooking.

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?

Movies by Mike Leigh.

Song lyrics in general, usually the corny ones.

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

Deborah EisenbergAlice MunroGrace PaleyAnnabel Lyon.   I could go on and on, but those a few that spring to mind at the moment.

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

I’m not really sure...  I’ll have to get back to you once both my kids are consistently sleeping through the night.

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 might have ended up as a translator -- although that’s a bit of a cheat since a translator is a writer really.

I wish I had attempted to become a dancer or athlete of some sort.  But I like to sit around and stare into space so I’m not sure that would have worked out.

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

I was kind of mediocre at everything else and I didn’t care.  I cared about being a mediocre writer.  I wanted to get better.

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

Oh dear.  I think the last book that really blew me away was Away by Amy Bloom.  And you know, I don’t know if I’d call it great, but it has stayed with me in a way other more ‘serious’ films have not -- The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I liked Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky and also the movie Cache, by Michael Haneke -- so wonderful.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel.  Ideas for more stories.  An essay for an upcoming anthology edited by Kerry Clare.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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