Marguerite Pigeon is a writer of fiction and poetry. Her first book, a poetry collection called Inventory (Anvil Press 2009), was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award. Her first novel, Open Pit appeared in spring 2013 with NeWest Press. Originally from Blind River, Northern Ontario, she currently lives in Vancouver, where she works as a freelance editor.
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, a poetry collection, made me feel like a real writer. I continue to be unashamed of it, which is all a writer can hope for. My second book is a novel. It took longer to write, and I felt that I had less facility for extended narrative, so it was harder, scarier, more confidence-shaking. All in all, a worse experience. But now I feel like, ‘Damn! Look at that! I didn’t give up!”
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing poems in my 20s. I didn’t know it then, but I’m sure I took it up as a counter to my then-life as a journalist working in daily news—the salt mines of non-fiction. I was very shy about writing (my own work), so composing poems and submitting them in secret to journals felt plausible, like taking small steps.
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 think I’m too junior to have a process yet. But I want one. I would say, however, that I am fast rather than slow. With my two current projects—more poetry and another novel—I’m trying to put the brakes on and think before I write. This coincides nicely with new constraints on my time, so maybe it’s just me making myself feel better. But I used to throw a lot of stuff out there that was half-baked and I’d prefer not to do that anymore. All of my writing goes through dozens of iterations, in part because of that throwing-myself-in tendency. I have no idea what I’m doing in a first—or fifth—draft. Maybe that’s why I’ve always made a lot of notes. Stupid amounts of notes.
4 - Where does a poem or piece of prose 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 am amazed by friends who write a short story and find that they love one of the characters enough to build a whole novel around them. This is a depth of connection I have not experienced. My short stories feel alive, but only within themselves. The new poetry project I’m undertaking is intended to be a book-length poem. And the new novel, which exists mostly in my head, began as a novel. So I guess I’m leaning towards “books.”
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like public speaking, so I’ve always enjoyed reading for others—and especially overcoming the odds by not boring every single person present. When I do read, I’m often startled to find that my work could be tighter, shorter and more dynamic. I usually edit down whatever passage I’m delivering if it’s fiction, so I guess that does tie reading to the writing process. I am also a convert to readings as an audience member. I used to poo-poo them, but I think I only cared about my own work back then. Now I go regularly and I feel like it feeds me hugely. I’m in debt to anyone who runs a reading series. I like to sit and think about the relationship between the speaker and the work. Of course, there are a lot of bad readings. But there’s a lot of bad everything.
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?
While I have an overriding concern with the position of women, specific questions vary book to book. With Open Pit, it took years to articulate these. I finally realized that I wanted to think about how we reckon with an unhappy past, especially when it feels like others would like to see it erased. Second, I wondered what it meant to live through a major historical shift—in this case, a revolutionary 1980s overlaid by neoliberalism. I suppose a third question was how to write about heavy political issues without making readers want to run away screaming. My newer questions probably seem slight: this book of poetry I’m writing is about fashion, which has always interested me. But I hope the book will be as much about self-fashioning, especially on the part of women, as it is about clothes.
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?
The category of ‘writer’ is changing with self-publishing, blogs, etc., so it’s hard to pinpoint a central role. I hope I’m open-minded about what writing can do, and who can do it. But my favourite writers all get down and dirty with politics, which is risky and sometimes dangerous. I want to become that kind of writer. I went to a panel of very famous young American writers a couple of years ago and I nearly wept when they all agreed that there was little room for explicit politics in fiction. They thought that that kind of writing was an artefact of the 20th century and its various civil rights movements. This view blew my mind—in a bad way. I hope some of them have changed their tunes.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
As a lowly editor of non-creative writing—that’s how I earn my living—I’m absolutely convinced of the necessity of the editor’s role. But because so much creative writing happens in isolation, it’s easy for writers of fiction or poetry to sign up to the romantic notion of the single voice in the wilderness and one person’s power to convey Ultimate Truths that should never be messed with. This is so bad for the world. Every time a close reader or editor takes the time to read your work, you should send them flowers—or money. They allow the writing to live. They bring their intelligence to it. And they can see in it the gaps and problems that you cannot. As the writer, your privilege is to take it or leave it, but never without considering their point of view.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I like this question because I have an answer: Greg Hollingshead, who was running the Banff Centre when I did a residency there, once told me that it didn’t matter what genre or topic I was writing in/about as long as the project was hard, because otherwise, I would get bored. Not me personally. He didn’t know me. He just didn’t want to see any younger writer take on a full-length project just to watch the energy seep away. It was was probably an off-hand remark for him, but that’s basically the day I decided to write my novel. No joke.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s not easy to shift genres—not for me, at least. It’s like speaking two languages. Whenever I speak French for any length of time, I develop a hilarious francophone accent that I’m sure people think is fake. But my brain doesn’t have that swiftness to switch without transposing one set of stylings over another. I do this with writing. And yet, being from a town of 3,000 where, literally, everyone does two things—the mayor runs a bar; my mom the nurse taught aerobics—I have a healthy scepticism of specialization. Why shouldn’t a person take more than one form of writing seriously? But it comes with a cost. People get good at things they do often, and you need to read a lot in any genre you write in, so there’s a real time limitation to how deep you can go. Also, granting agencies give people with more books in one genre more money. I think maybe it’s because multi-genre writers are perceived as dabbling. I am certainly shocked at the frequency with which I encounter fiction writers who say they “hate” or “don’t get” poetry, and poets who think fiction writers are shallow or in it for the money (!!!). None of that makes sense to me.
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?
How I wish I could say that I get up, make coffee, and sit down to my computer for a long session of writing before taking a walk out of my stately home to feed the ducks. In reality, I have to steal writing time, and I’m not a very clever thief. That said, when I am writing, I am not a procrastinator. I’m too much of a goody-goody, as we used to say in grade school. I like to write a lot, for sustained hours, and then smugly review my progress. So it’s weird: I don’t put writing off, but because of external constraints on my time, I don’t get to it as often as I’d like. I do prefer to write in the morning. And I really do like to take walks and see the ducks, which helps me think.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
In fiction, at least with straight-ahead narrative, you often get stuck on plot, on whether a character is behaving in a way that’s true to who they are, or on the quality of the writing itself. For the first two issues, I return to my notes and then make more notes. I go so crazy note-taking that I sometimes have a sleeping fit, where I will barely make it to my bed before I conk out for fifteen minutes: my brain can’t handle all those hard questions. With regards to the quality of the writing, I turn to my idols, whose finished works are impossibly good, and the writing incredibly easy or funny or devastating. I am also a big fan of research, so sometimes it helps just to go back to that supporting literature. A new idea can pop up that opens the door for me.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My best friend from childhood says my house always smelled like chicken. Which is a compliment, I think. Beyond that, my spiritual home, Northern Ontario, often smells like earth warming up while the snow melts away, maybe mixed with exhaust from trucks and snowmobiles. I can really get there, just thinking about those smells!
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?
Film has influenced me directly. I once saw a Bunuel film that literally made me run to my computer to write. I wanted so much for my work to be that weird and beautiful and smart. Oh, how I came up short!
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Probably the genre that most influences me daily is news writing. I take in a lot of it—and not all high-brow stuff either; I’m not picky when it comes to news. I would then put fiction and poetry in a tie as my second-biggest influences.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to translate a long-form narrative—probably a novel—from French to English and do a good job of it. I would also like to participate in a writers’ festival somewhere out there in the big world, so I could meet and share work with writers outside of North America.
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 was a journalist first, and maybe I’ll be one again. Other than that, I could see myself working for a social justice organization again—hopefully one like Rights Action, the awesome group through which I originally went to Central America.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My path has been uneven. In my twenties I had several “real jobs” as a journalist. Then I spent time working in the international social justice movement. These days, I take my editing work seriously. So, there’s a pattern: I’ll likely always do other things while I write. But I feel more at home writing, and I see it as the biggest commitment in my life along with my family and friends.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Embarrassingly, even though it’s been three years since someone asked me a similar question, I still have the same answer: Proust. I’m on Volume 4 of In Search of Lost Time. It’s the best and most influential work of creative writing that I have ever come across. I fear it ending, but luckily, I’m going super slow and will probably reach age 50 before that happens. Film-wise, I recently watched Spike Lee’s 4-part documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke. It’s very straight and unadorned, but the stories don’t need embellishment. I was stunned. Mad as hell.
20 - What are you currently working on?
My ‘fashion project’ is a book-length poem in which I’m trying to figure out why I’ve always cared about fashion, how to reconcile the contradictions in fashion—ie, the freedoms and pleasures that consumerism has allowed for women vs. the low-paid labour, performed mostly by women, behind a century of garment-making—and, on a more basic level, how modernity allows self-fashioning and at what cost. My ‘prison project’ is a novel about two childhood friends from Northern Ontario who encounter one another later in life on either side of the women’s penal system: one teaching creative writing to a group of inmates, and one living life as an inmate.
[Marguerite Pigeon reads with Ottawa poets Chris McPherson, Chris Jennings and Shane Rhodes on Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 7pm at Raw Sugar Cafe]
12 or 20 (second series) questions;