Wednesday, February 20, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Anne Fleming

Anne Fleming’s latest book is Gay Dwarves of America (Pedlar 2012), whose stories netted some nice awards and nominations. She divides her time between Vancouver and Kelowna, where she teaches at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

The photo credit is Fionna Chong, if you put such things up.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
At first, it didn’t change my life. I was proud of the book and very happy it had been published and it brought me some small attention that I appreciated. Then it was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award (which phone call I initially received assuming it was a friend playing a prank, even though none of my friends are prank-playing sorts) and the next day I was fielding phone calls from agents, which struck me as absurd and funny and lovely and wrong. It was the same book the day before as the day after.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I didn’t come to fiction first, but poetry. My first publication was two poems in Poetry Canada Review. Poetry has this pow that I’m gaga for. But I think maybe I’m not quite smart enough for poetry, or maybe not enough of a philosopher for poetry. Or something. I don’t actually know what it is that poetry editors see or don’t see that causes them to turn my poetry down. (That’s not totally true. I have an inkling. The poetry is too glib or tries to conclude or is all surface or is shiny, something along those lines.) Despite that first publication, I’ve had more success writing fiction than poetry and that tipped the balance for me. Plus my poetry was becoming more and more narrative. I would start things as poems and then see they were best realized as fiction.

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?

No time to start, a long time to finish.

Though I write notes when I am stuck and when I am envisioning where the story will go and how it will progress, notes are never what help me move on. Writing scenes helps me move on. Once scenes exist, I revise and shape and move them. Oddly, though it doesn’t feel that way to me, their final versions are often quite close to what I originally wrote. I have even, when working on long projects, re-written scenes forgetting I’d already written them once, and had them come out almost word for word. Scary.

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?
After I’d written three stories each with completely accidental circus references and noted additionally I was working on a story whose main character was a woman with facial hair, viz., a bearded lady, I knew I was working on a book called Gay Dwarves of America.

The novel I’m working on began when I read a review of a book called Witchcraze.

The stories in Gay Dwarves began this way:

–      when I saw a guy on a unicycle waiting for a light on the UBC campus

–     when I had to write a story for CBC radio in a weekend and was afraid I would not be able to finish one or would not like it so I began three, one that started with the Asian pear on my desk

–     when I read an news item about a parent in Toronto who throttled his kid’s hockey coach

–     when I worked backstock at Mountain Equipment Co-op and thought what an amazing setting for the big opening number of a musical the stockroom would be with its triple banks of fleece and workers running up and down ladders and sliding across the floor on rolling bins

–     when I saw a woman going into SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus who looked exactly the way my aunt, who died the year I was born, would have looked had she lived

–     when I experienced delight happening upon very particular affinity groups on the internet, such as Friends of the Chalet School (


5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings. Used to be they were helpful in editing, too. I’d notice an urge to skip lines (boring, unnecessary) in front of an audience that wasn’t there when I read aloud to myself alone. Nowadays I catch those before reading to an audience. Readings are delicious affirmations.

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?
Nah. Not really. I am just trying to create an immersive, surprising, delightful, interesting and emotionally satisfying reading experience for another person akin to the ones that have most satisfied me.

I like writing that is playful. I like playfulness that has substance behind it.

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 writer’s role is multiplicitous. What we write is constitutive of our culture. It both comes out of it and creates it. I think writing can effect social change but doesn’t always or even often. There have been several studies lately that affirm what I think writers and readers instinctively know, which is that reading creates empathy and therefore fosters understanding.

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)?

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

If I had more material success with any genre other than fiction, I could answer this better. Perhaps this is my answer: I finish fiction. I find ways to finish it and put it out into the world. My plays and screenplays have never got out there. They may yet. Or not. I’m sanguine.

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?
Before I had a kid, I used to work in the evenings. I loved the wide-open feeling of the night stretching before me. There’s a line in a P.K. Page poem “The Stenographers” about how sometimes (in their imaginations?) the stenographers’ pens break free like a sled dog broken free of its traces (I think that’s the image, I haven’t double-checked to see if I remember correctly). Sometimes, at night, I feel like that. Suddenly I am not labouring anymore at pulling the sled, I am scampering off across the snow.

Nowadays I plod along in the time between school drop-off and pick-up and try to eke out some crap that I can later turn into dross and then, you know, like, better stuff. 500 words is good.

I check email too often.

This is when I’m not teaching. When I’m teaching, I can sometimes take one day a week to do the above.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I often turn to another writing project: switch from adult novel to children’s novel, or novel to essay, or novel to poem.

I don’t know if these things help or not:

Playing ukulele.



Weeding the garden.

Household chores.

Reading poetry.

Taking the bus. (Getting out of the house and amongst people.)

They may simply be ways of avoiding writing.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of Toronto’s ravine dirt, which I once defined in a poem as the smell of copper and old poo.

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?
Yeah, no. Not in a direct way. I try to write from life, not books. Although life includes books, so—shrug—I don’t know. I have, upon occasion, recognized a character I’m working on as book character (this happens particularly with mothers), whereupon I have stopped myself and recast from life.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Dickens. Alice Munro. Italo Calvino. Jane Rule. Jane Austen. Nikolai Gogol. Dionne Brand. Lynda Barry. Lorrie Moore. George Saunders. Lydia Davis. Diana Wynne-Jones. Dostoevsky. Virginia Woolf. Dennis Lee. Toni Morrison. Alison Bechdel. Rebecca West. Al Purdy. Margaret Atwood. Susan Holbrook. Jake Kennedy.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Boarding school. By which I mean, maybe, an artists’ retreat. Oh, wait. I have done that. Banff.

I haven’t built a house.

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?

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

Pleasure twinned with difficulty. The juiciness of words. Recognition.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady. Note perfect. I read it last month. I haven’t seen a great film in a really, really long time. Like, what, The Triplets of Belleville? That long. Being John Malkovich long.

20 - What are you currently working on?    
I am working on a novel set in 17th century England and maybe Hudson Bay about two children orphaned by plague.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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