When This World Comes to an End, was recently published by Brick Books. She is a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre, and her play After Akhmatova was produced at Tarragon in 2011. She has also written a young adult novel, The Hangman in the Mirror (Annick Press). Her poems and short stories have appeared in various places including CV2, Descant, Event, The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly and The Literary Review of Canada. Her first collection of short stories will be published next fall.
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 was a young adult novel called The Hangman in the Mirror, which was published in 2011. Before that I was a playwright who’d published some stuff in literary magazines. It changed my life in the sense that I had my name on the spine of a book—something I’d wanted for years. Having my first book be a novel, and a novel for younger readers, was not something I’d ever planned, and it happened somewhat by accident—it grew out of a play and used the same source (a woman in 18th century Montreal who’d been sentenced to hang for stealing, and saved her life by persuading the soldier in the next cell, who’d never set eyes on her, to become the hangman and marry her). I’d always imagined that my first book would be poetry. So it felt different as an interesting and enjoyable side-step. But I suppose it’s all riddled with the same preoccupations—history, the unbelievable accidents of history, storytelling as a kind of life-saving measure, the storyteller with their back to the wall.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I found it easier to conceive of poetry. Poetry could happen in this state of excitement and clarity—fiction is a much longer road, and while of course there’s craft in poetry, I find the craft more subjective. As for non-fiction, I would love to write essays if I had any idea how, but it never even occurred to me as an ambition originally—and besides, non-fiction needs a certain level of personal exposure, you don’t have the excuse of a “voice” which is easily understood as not your own. I was always interested in poetry that took on a character separate from the character of the author—which of course isn’t really possible, but you can pretend it is.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular 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 usually begin a project with a different project which turns out to be the wrong one. On a grand scale, I spent ten years focusing on being a theatre director before it dawned on me with anything like finality that I wanted to be a writer, even though I was writing as much as I could manage. Scares me a bit that I’m that slow on the uptake—what’s going to dawn on me next? Similarly, I get very excited about something and spend a lot of time working on it, before eventually realizing that there’s a kernel of an idea there that is meant to be something else. And then the real project becomes clear.
My initial writing comes very quickly. If I can’t finish a first draft of a poem at a sitting, or maybe two, it’s unlikely to get finished at all. But the rewriting is a much longer process. The shape of the first draft—that depends. Some things have only a word here and there altered, others are tinkered with for years until they are something else. Though the more I write, the more likely it is that the first draft will be closer to the last one. This is heartening.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
A poem begins at random—I have trouble sitting down with the idea of writing poems because it all flies away when you look at it straight on. So I often end up writing poetry when I’m supposed to be working on something else. This collection wasn’t conceived of as a collection. But that might change—I’d love to work on something with an overall theme, poems that had a kind of narrative arc to them the way a novel would, poems that culminated like a story.
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 with readings. When I do them, I hate the idea of them and everything about them and dread them for days—and then I have a really good time and wish I could do more, because it’s so lovely to feel that someone is out there listening.
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?
Oh boy. Yes. And no. I suppose the concerns of history, of our place in time, not just of our own moment and our own life but in relation to the past, personal and political past, the sense of history as a tragic condition, and the forms of mythology. I would like to pose some questions about time and death and memory, I don’t know about answers. I’m not sure what the current questions are. There are too many and I’m not educated enough or attentive enough at the moment to know what is most pressing and what is just headlines from the culture war.
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 used to want art to be political in some obvious way. Now I’m afraid it’s not, and this makes me very nervous. But I think the role of the writer is to express, to the best of their ability, the absolute specificity of where they are placed—to be most fully and purely an individual voice. Context makes this a political act or a trivial one—everything ranging from totalitarian states in which the “voice” of the writer is a stance against the monolith, to, more immediately, our own glib relationship to language in a culture in which language is cheap and plentiful. Writing can be a serious encounter with words when we bleed words out of our eyes. We’re drowning in wordiness, so writing is particularly problematic right now—why say more? But on the other hand, maybe good writing can rescue the sacredness of words, just a little bit.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I am just starting to gain more experience working closely with editors, as I publish more. And I love it very much. Even when I disagree, it makes me think about why I’m doing a thing.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Do not hurry. Do not rest.” –Goethe.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s been fairly easy, or at least one protects the other. As in, the poetry has a place to live, so it doesn’t screw up the plays (hopefully) and also the other way round, though I think poetry can accommodate more, is more flexible. Plays are (to me) probably the least flexible form of writing—the rules of classic dramaturgy are really pretty good and to deviate very far from them you have to be wildly and boldly original, which I’m not. I find poems much more forgiving.
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 write in set hours, very scheduled. I have two young children and my incredibly helpful and supportive partner also works so writing happens in specific times. If anything the pressure of having a family has been very good for me—there’s nothing like a school pickup to get something finished in time. I impose deadlines on myself and I love deadlines, possibly to a fault. I feel like I’ve won if I “finish” something early, even if it isn’t really finished just hurriedly patched up, and besides I’m the only person in the world who cares I’ve finished.
On a typical day I sit down in the morning with an idea of what I will work on and hope for the best until around mid-afternoon. I have a certain number of pages or words or a certain amount of revising to do, decided the previous day. On a good day I do it. The internet is the major enemy, and my own anxieties. Post-it notes above the desk are helpful.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I walk around. I buy groceries. I give up in disgust. I read—it’s better than giving up in disgust.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Ground coffee. Herbs. A slightly musty smell our house has, coming up from the basement.
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?
I agree with McFadden. Yes, there are some other inspirations, but if I was honest I’d have to say that for me books only come from books. There’s an element of one-upmanship to writing too—you read something perfect, you want to measure yourself against it, to try it yourself.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Alice Munro, W. H. Auden, The T. E. Lawrence Poems by Gwendolyn MacEwen, Possession by A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Chekhov, The Broken Estate by James Wood, William Trevor, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li, The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Joseph Brodsky’s essays, Anna Akhmatova, Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, The Anatomy of Keys by Steven Price, White Stone by Stephanie Bolster, The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard, Philip Larkin, Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, Lion in the Streets by Judith Thompson, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Anne Sexton, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich, very recently the poetry of Wendell Berry, who is a voice crying in the wilderness.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a novel in fragments that appears to be isolated stories and yet forms a coherent narrative. Write novels generally.
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 have no idea. Probably a professor of literature. I would have hated it though. I’m not rigorous or systematic enough to be a good academic.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Not being good at very much else. I was a decent theatre director but the life is too absorbing and obsessive—aside from wanting to write, I also wanted to have a life that was concerned with more than the black box.
19 – What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. Lifted the top of my head off—you think you know what he’s doing, and then he changes the rules completely. Amazing. I haven’t stayed awake for a whole good movie in a while. Probably The Lives of Others.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A play about art forgery and war crimes. A book of short stories. Some poetry that I hope will be the start of a new collection.
[Kate Cayley reads in Ottawa with Paul Vermeersch as part of The TREE Reading Series on Tuesday, June 25, 2013]
12 or 20 (second series) questions;