Monday, May 06, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Paula Eisenstein

Paula Eisenstein writes and commutes in Toronto. Her first novel Flip Turn is a Stuart Ross book. It came out November 2012 from Mansfield Press. Paula has been diligently filling her writer credential card with recent publications in Descant and the anthology The White Collar Book. Upcoming you will find her work in filling Station and for a toonie purchase one of her poems at a Toronto Poetry Vendors vending machine. Paula has been a contributing editor 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?
My first book Flip Turn just came out this past November. Being in the state of waiting and wanting to find a publisher and have Flip Turn published and to be recognized as a real bona fide writer is done with. Now that it has happened, I’m published, I’m a “for real” writer, I want more. I am less willing to put up with putting off writing. I’m meaner and crankier.

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

At this point in time, I don’t relate very well to those different categories. I think how I write is a blend. I do like to write from my experience, but my experience is tenuous. It is uncertain. I am uncertain. I do like strong form though what I see as strong form others don’t necessarily.

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?
The method that worked well for me writing Flip Turn was quickly jotting down the structuring ideas that were coming to me, in point form. Then I would fill in, or write to those different overview or structuring points. The structure wasn’t necessarily linear but to my mind formed a larger connecting/disconnected narrative. There are also times I can just go on a long writing jag and the writing will circle back the way I need it to, or it needs to, but other times I am aware I have lost track of parts. 

Often just getting anything down is fine. Sometimes what I start out with doesn’t change that much, other times it morphs into something completely different.

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?
With Flip Turn I intended for it to be an extended narrative or book. I had an idea of beginning, in betweenness and end. The intention was similar with The Pinery Trip, a (yet unpublished) project I collaborated on with my husband (artist Larry Eisenstein), made up of pairings of his drawings with my writing. While Pinery has narrative components it’s not an extended narrative, it reads more like a book of poetry. But, again, the plan was for it to be a theme based book. I do too write little solo vignettes not intended to be part of a larger project. Or maybe they’ve just never found their sister and brother parts to make them part of something bigger. I’m working on something now, small pieces, based on a theme. Overall, at this time, I do like having a larger framework to work within.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t have a lot of experience giving readings yet. I’ve given some readings that I think went beautifully, that I enjoyed and felt the audience connected to. I’ve given others I have been disappointed in. I think the strength of my reading can have some influence over the audience reception. But there is also a degree of the intangible in the audience. Maybe I should try to think of that as something that could be fun. 

I have a reading upcoming next week at which I hope to simply experience whatever the audience response is, to allow getting a feeling back or another take on what my writing is about, rather than pushing for a specific response.

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 wrote Flip Turn in something of a vacuum. I wasn’t engaged with; I knew next to nothing of the Toronto literary community or any other literary communities. I did have plenty of my own ideas based on having gone to University in the distant past, and also from all the thoughts and theories that sprang into my head from what I was doing at the time, which was studying contemporary psychological needs-theory astrology. 

I did want to explore my coming-of-age years, to excavate them and find an underlying structure. So Flip Turn is a “true story” but not in any conventional narrative “true story” way. What I wanted to happen was for a different kind, an upside down or girl development narrative, arc to emerge.

Then, after writing Flip Turn I was reading ethicist, psychologist and feminist Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice which describes the stages of young girls’ psychological and moral development as different from young boys, and it seemed to me, based on what Gilligan was describing, that what I had unearthed was the same thing.

That excited me, and yet it doesn’t appear any of Flip Turn’s readers are noticing any sort of unique arc in Flip Turn, mostly, so far readers just see it as lacking arc, which I suppose could be expected for two possibly connected reasons; if it’s a pattern that’s not all that recognizable in the first place why should it be recognized now? And/or perhaps I just haven’t conveyed the thing all that well. 

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?
Yes, what writers do should be important in the larger culture. Here in Toronto we have a big writers’ scene, but it seems pretty insular; I see the same people at the different readings. Which isn’t meant as a criticism of the scene, maybe I’m asking the wrong things of it, I just wonder why it’s not more, why there aren’t more regular non-writer people attracted to it.

Flip Turn, which is set in London Ontario, my home town, received a beautiful write up in the London Free Press, by columnist James Reaney (yes, the son of). His column is called “My London.” Naturally the column’s focus was on the book’s relationship to the city, and on me and my history as Londoner.

I liked that. I like the thought of the book being about the world we live in, and in that way inviting, almost, personal participation by the reader, or a feeling of us-ness, and the writing delivering a kind of meaning to who and where we exist. 

Anyway that’s how I experienced Canadian Literature as a young adult. Reading it woke me up to the idea of my being in the world and as counting as a participant in the world in this special way I wasn’t aware of previously.  

Angie Abdou recently reviewed Flip Turn. Angie is a novelist, reviewer and academic. One of her focuses is sports culture. It was gratifying to be recognized in her review as interrogating “the culture of competitive swimming with great vigour and ruthlessness.” So yes, cultural critic is good too.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Last summer, prior to learning of Flip Turn’s publication acceptance at Mansfield, I asked poet and editor Joan Guenther to edit the aforementioned Pinery project. At that time, we (my husband and I) were thinking of self publishing and I felt extremely uncomfortable with the thought of putting it out there without a second set of trusted editorial eyes giving it the okay. 

I think editors are extraordinary beasts, and can even be considered collaborators. I’m having a poem included in this spring’s Toronto Poetry Vendors series, and I was excited by editor Carey Toane’s treatment of the piece I submitted, which was, in the first place (despite my protestations above of not recognizing genre distinctions) more a piece of prose then a poem. Carey’s editorial suggestions, which had mostly to do with taking out its more narrative components, taught me a lot. I liked what the piece turned into, but sheepishly wonder whether it would be more appropriate that Carey get a collaborator credit rather than an editorial one.

Working with Stuart Ross on Flip Turn, I felt myself witness to a profound otherworldly experience. It seemed like Stuart simply, picked the novel up in his hands, like it was a clean wrinkled bed sheet from off the clothes line, and shook it out in such a way as to get it to smooth out into its proper form.

I love editing my own work, it’s a part of my creative process, but really, isn’t it best to get someone else to shake the thing out?  

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best advice I’ve received was from a grade eight art classmate. Regarding our assignment, to draw from the local architecture, which I had no clue how to do, she simply recommended, “Draw what you see.” I did. I followed how I saw the lines of the house springing out in directions another part of my mind was telling me made no sense, was wrong of me and illogical; yet it worked. I drew the house and the completed work even received the recognition of getting taped up on the art class wall. My classmate’s instructions on how to draw has translated well for me as good advice on how to write. 

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to novel to critical prose to journalism)? What do you see as the appeal?
The way I like to write is kind of prose, kind of poetry. In terms of the reader response to Flip Turn I find myself in odd position. The novel readers expect Flip Turn to do what a regular novel does and don’t quite understand its trajectory and don’t really take into account or even notice its poetic sensibility. Meanwhile, on the extreme end of those on the poetry side of the divide, some won’t even pick the book up because it has that bad five letter word “novel” on the cover. To get back to your question, my issue isn’t about moving between genres, it’s about being between them.

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 work full time at my day job. I am working on changing this to give myself more writing time. When I wrote Flip Turn, I quit my job and was able to get in a regular daily writing routine. I got my son up in the morning, took him to school, went for a swim, then came home and wrote from about 10am to 3pm, at which point, I put my writing down and went to pick up my son from school.  That was a great routine.

Before daylight savings I was managing to get myself up an hour before work, and get some writing in then.  I know other writers who do it that way, get up early, but I can’t say I’ve had consistent success at that yet, though I’m not ready to give up. I’ve actually accumulated a fair amount of half decent writing on my transit commute to and from work.

I’m close to temporarily reconciling myself to work more on poetic projects that don’t demand the psychic/psychological (not sure what the word for the state is) connection necessary to the holding onto or driving down into a deeper narrative theme the way I did when writing Flip Turn.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I love writing from inside my life experience. I am inspired by planets and outer space and the astrology of it too. Up until now I’ve been pretty gushy and haven’t had a lot of difficulty sourcing inspiration. I can see that possibly changing upcoming as I begin to mature as a writer and look for greater challenges.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pine needles, pee, wet.

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?
In the Pinery Trip, Larry’s drawings came first, my writing followed. So, echphrasis, kind of sort of, because while the drawings were the starting point, the writing was also based on the shared experience of a family camping trip, so sometimes the writing was quite digressive, writing to a space connected to the space evoked by the drawing. I do get quite inspired by music, but I’m too sensitive. I have seen myself just write to the music when I don’t want to be writing to the music, so I don’t usually listen to music when I write. Nature, definitely! Science! Yes, love reading, especially about the planets and outer space, and picking up from there.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I think I am still primarily influenced by my early literature studies. I have been exposed to a lot of contemporary Canadian poets through Margaret Christakos’ Influency Salon and I feel going forward, in terms of my writing, I am still just beginning to mulch or incorporate these newer influences. 

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to get more highly educated. I would like to travel to interesting places and stay for a while and write in those places/spaces.

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?
Novel published? Check!

List of getting published in other venues growing? Check!

Favourite other people to hang out with, writers? Check!

Still have a full time day job? …………drats... check.

I am still working hard at claiming writer status. I have not raised my sites to occupying another. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I always liked writing. I always had a talent for it. Your question makes me think writing wasn’t all that conscious of a decision for me; more of an “it happening to me” than a “my happening to it” kind of thing.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I seem to have lost the knack of feeling the “great book” reading experience. Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle as a teenager shocked and thrilled me. It seemed I had stumbled upon a hilarious secret world and based on how everyone around me was acting or failing to act, it looked like I was going to be able to keep it. I felt the same way when I was introduced to David W McFadden’s Trips around Lake Huron and Erie during my university years. 

Regarding film I do have a thing for Hitchcock. In particular I recently saw Shadow of a Doubt. I do so love Hitchcock’s attention to small town social order and how small slip by small, what is sweet and whole and right turns dark and pulls everyone into it helplessly.

20 - What are you currently working on?
As mentioned above, it seems, for the moment, because of the demands of my day job, I must focus on theme based projects without deeper narratives. I am working on something of that ilk right now, but it will need more time before I will know whether it’s working.

I’ve been attending a poetry writing workshop run by Hoa Nguyen from which I am learning new writing strategies. I had planned to attend another Margaret Christakos’ Influency Salon, a forum that helped me in developing a critical understanding of contemporary poetry and invited me to make contributions to it, but sadly, for all, the Salon has been cancelled. 

Since Flip Turn is a book with an appeal to young adults I plan on doing more high school visits; I did one recently and it was so interesting to get students’ feedback. As well, I think there’s a “using personal astrological symbolism to develop your writing” course that’s been mulching at the back of my mind for some time. Perhaps it is time to let that project idea hatch.  

Looking forward I am planning on finding a way to take a leave from my day job to give me the kind of time and space I need to delve into a project with a deeper extended narrative, like I was able to do previously with Flip Turn

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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