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Thursday, April 18, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Elisabeth de Mariaffi is the author of a new collection of short stories, How To Get Along With Women (Invisible Publishing, 2012). Her poetry and short fiction have been widely published in magazines across Canada, and she's one of the wild minds behind the highly original Toronto Poetry Vendors, a small press that sells single poems by established Canadian poets through toonie vending machines. Elisabeth works as Marketing Coordinator for Breakwater Books, and is currently based in St. John's, where she lives with the poet George Murray and their combined brood of four children -- making them CanLit's answer to the Brady Brunch.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
How To Get Along With Women is my first full-length book; I published a poetry chapbook a few years ago – called Letter on St. Valentine’s Day – with Toronto small press The Emergency Response Unit. So that becomes a more difficult question to answer. I’d say doing the chapbook gave me an idea of what completion should feel like. It was a cycle of poems, so publishing it as a small book made a lot of sense. How To Get Along With Women was a much longer project: I wrote the stories over a few years rather than a few months. They’re not linked, but when you stand them end-to-end in a book, they also make sense. In terms of how this book changes my life, I’d say: a) I’m 38 and it’s about time I put my money where my mouth is and put a book out into the world  and b) Now I can move onto a new project, which is fun and exciting and paralyzing, all those things. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry is a common entry point. I think it’s because poems are shorter. You think I’m cracking wise, but I’m really not. It’s a unit of narrative that’s small enough to feel you have a handle on, when you’re first starting to write. (Or, at least, it was for me. I know people that have jumped into writing novels from the get-go, and I just can’t imagine that huge commitment, without the constant approbation that publishing single poems in journals allows.) So I had some okay success with poetry, but I don’t think it’s the thing I do that is strongest or most original or sharpest. And I always want to be that.

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?
Any notes are kept in my head. I don’t bother to start writing thing down until I cannot stand it anymore, until I have this whole giant detailed thing and if I go one more day I’ll start to forget the details. With stories, the first line always comes first; with poetry, it was always the last line. Both of these have to do with encapsulating an overall tone, I think. How do I want the reader to feel at the end of this story? It’s right there, in the first line.

4 - Where does a poem or 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?

I just write stories, and I try to write the very sharpest, craziest stories I can. If I’m really having fun, or laughing or feeling awful or loving a character so much, then it’s probably going okay. I think planning a collection is overrated. There’s no question that if you sit down and write stories (or poems) for a finite amount of time – two years, or three, or whatever – that they will in the end be a collection, and have an obsession in common.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Love readings. Love. But I don’t read things I consider “in progress” or in draft. I read finished work only. It’s motivational. People forget about you if you’re not out there performing and engaging with others, so you have to make sure you’re writing something worth standing up and reading to a crowd.

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 just want it to be good, and by good, I mean tirelessly sharp and original. That’s really all I think about. I don’t think answering questions will make the writing better. Questions are for panel discussions.

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’m sure the role of the writer hasn’t changed at all. The kinds of media have changed – a little. But essentially the writer is out in the world observing it and taking it in and then spitting it back out in some changed and understandable form, some way that makes the reader step back, or stop and think. And we’re responsible for reporting and discussing and not letting the world get away with things. None of that is any different than it ever was.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
You should love your editor, and respect him or her so much that you are positively embarrassed if you’re not delivering perfection.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was working on an MFA thesis in poetry, my advisor was Dionne Brand. She said a whole bunch of things that were valuable, but the best was: I know a poem is done when it’s a thing. For me, that means: when I look at the piece of work and I’m not attached to it as a person anymore. It’s been worked over so much, torqued so that it’s now much smarter than the sum of its parts – my vocabulary and bits of experience.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I learned a lot from writing poems. But I’m a much sharper fiction writer than I ever was a poet. I might write the odd poem still, but I’d rather read really sharp poetry and I’d rather write the stuff where I have better impact.

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?
No routine. I’m a binge writer. Once I sit down to write a new story, I write a thousand words a day until I have a pretty solid first draft – then the real writing work begins. If I’m lucky enough to have the means, I’ll rent a cabin for a few days. I’ll write 40 or 50 pages in 4 or 5 days. But there are lots of days where I don’t write at all.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I just read and try not to panic. Read something you know and love and also something brand new to you.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Peppers and tomatoes. I’m Hungarian.

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?
Everything, probably. Don’t you think? It’s not so much the things that appear striking, but rather what you carry around with you. You find yourself carrying this thing around and turning it over and over: that’s an important turn of phrase, or lyric, or still image. We carry around the things we’re working to understand, layered things, what’s just out of our grasp.

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

I’ve been very lucky to have some great friendships with other writers over the last few years that have been very important to me, and I live with a poet now, and I couldn’t feel luckier about him. In terms of what I’ve read and re-read, likely the most important thing to me is that I grew up in this multi-lingual family, so I learned to speak and read a bunch of languages at once. This makes everything open to you; on the other hand, I hate reading anything in translation.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’m pretty sure I could win The Amazing Race.

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?
Carpenter. Doctor. Wildlife biologist, where you’re out trekking around for weeks on end. Life coach! (nb. I wouldn’t be good at any of these things.)

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve actually done a lot of other things. I’ve been a student, a housing advocate, a nanny, a clerk, a researcher, a translator, a flight attendant. I’ve been a mother for fifteen years and a long distance runner for twenty-five. My first book was a children’s cookbook. Writing is something that I’ve always done, in tandem with everything else, all the other parts.

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

I’m reading Michael Crummey’s Under The Keel now and it’s great. The last novel that really captured me was Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine. I have four kids now (two of my own and two stepchildren) and not a lot of time for leisure, so you’re stumping me on a film I loved.  I just watched Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro for the first time in years – my kids loved it when they were small and I brought it home for my stepsons. My four-year old would watch it every day if we’d let him. I might let him. It’s really beautiful.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel. No spoilers.

[Elisabeth de Mariaffi reads in Ottawa as part of the ottawa international writers festival on April 27, 2013]

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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