Nancy Jo Cullen is the 4th recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Grant for Emerging Gay Writer. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph Humber. Her fiction has appeared in The Puritan, Grain, filling Station, Plenitude and Prairie Fire. Her short story "Ashes" was selected for the Journey Prize Anthology in 2012. Her short story collection, Canary, appeared in April, 2013.
She is the author of three collections of poetry with Frontenac House Press. Her work has been short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award, the Alberta Pulbishers Trade Book Award and the WO Mitchell Calgary book prize. Her second collection Pearl won the Alberta Publishers Trade Book Award.
A transplanted westerner, Cullen lives in Toronto with her partner and children. She is at work on a novel and a fourth collection of poetry.
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 came out while I was parenting two small children so it was hard to notice any change in the overwhelming world of meeting the needs of tiny children. Nevertheless, having a book published was extremely gratifying in the sense that I felt more “real” as a writer. I didn’t just say I was a writer. I had the book to prove it.
My most recent work is a collection of short stories and my previous works were collections of poetry. So, first, and most obviously, the forms are different. My last collection of poetry was a very close, personal take on some shitty life events; my story collection is fiction. While, I certainly drew from some of my life experiences in working on the stories the pieces are still fiction and not a close confessional look at something so personal as my last collection of poetry. I don’t know that it feels so different to publish this book of short stories as opposed to publishing a poetry collection. I have been very lucky to work with terrific publishers and editors. Canary is getting more attention than the poetry collections from the get go, so that’s different, but launching a book seems to be pretty much the same whatever the genre.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry first, as a form of self involved, self-expression, like many young people. At the same time, I was also writing and producing theatre and started to see myself as a real writer. I was drawn to the performative aspect of poetry and in my twenties I often performed poetry with my pal, Joni Brent-Clarke, who played bass. So, I think it was the element of voice, spoken word, if you will, that drew me to poetry as serious endeavour.
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?
My writing tends to be a slowish process. I’m a plodding writer and am amazed at people who write more than 4 pages a day on a regular basis. Ideas can come quickly (and I make note of them) but the actual process of banging out a first draft can be excruciating. My first drafts often come out in pretty good shape, but not always. I don’t write copious notes but I do love rewriting, so it doesn’t trouble me too much to have a troubling section. Putting down crappy writing is always a struggle but fixing it is a pleasure. So, I’m not like an eight draft writer (usually) but I am a 3-4 draft writer.
4 - Where does a poem or short 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?
Ideas come from everywhere. Scraps of overheard conversation, observations of my own reactions to things/events, stuff heard/found on media, pets, teenagers – just to name a few. A poem or short story often begins with a sentence that I roll around in my head until I’m ready to go. I’m both an author of short pieces that combine into a larger project (my first poetry collection, Science Fiction Saint and Canary) and projects that were a book from the outset (Pearl and untitled child)
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I think public readings are part of the work of being an author, not so much part of the creative process but more a part of the social process of being a writer. I do enjoy giving readings although the older I get the more introverted I become so I find public events taxing too. I have to say I like this new trend of doing other things at readings beside readings, such as interviews.
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 don’t think I have theoretical concerns behind my writing, although I am a feminist and my work is informed by feminist values and concerns, I wouldn’t describe my work as driven by theory. My poems and stories are not experimental, unless one considers putting queers and women who cuss central to the work as experimental.
Nor am I sure that I’m trying to answer questions in my writing, except the immediate question of the journey of my character in a particular story, or the emotion/image that I am working on evoking in a poem. I am looking to tell stories I want to hear with characters I want to see in fiction and poetry. I hope I’m entertaining and I hope I’m funny.
I think a good question is Why? And, also, What the fuck? Those are two questions I ask all the time.
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 would say that writers act as kinds of antenna to provide some feedback on the way we live – to operate as a mirror of sorts – while, at the same time, instigating something emotional or intellectual (or both!) in a reader. And, I think this should be the role of the writer. I like writing that pushes against the status quo whether that is through the kind of characters it delivers or the style of text it delivers.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s important to work with an outside editor. I want my work to be as strong as it can be, a good editor, is going to help with that.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Shifting to short fiction was a pretty simple transition from poetry. I think short fiction is more similar to poetry than it is to a novel, and after I finished my last collection of poetry I really needed to take a break from poems. Short fiction was similar enough to poetry to provide a smooth transition in forms but also different enough to offer a new direction as a writer. I like dialogue, I like the mashing up of characters inside situations of my own making and so I was drawn to story writing. But, I have to admit, stringing sentence after sentence was pretty daunting at the outset.
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 try my level best to write for a few hours each day when my kids are at school. So, I get them up, see them off, go for a walk or to they gym and then come home to write (or some days fart around on the Internet). I try to reserve errands and the other details of feeding and clothing dependants for the afternoon. When my kids are around I get considerably less done so weekends, summers, school breaks – those are reading days.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read. Reading is almost always inspiring. Going out for a walk is always good. Gardening in the warmer weather.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The fragrance that I find most evocative of my childhood, not necessarily our house but certainly a place of comfort, is the scent of L’air du Temps. All three of my sisters were out living adult lives by the time I was 9 and they all wore L’air du Temps. I was always so happy when they came home.
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 am influenced by visual art and music for sure but also by adolescent gibberish and any number of things that I come across. For me books come from ideas and ideas come from everywhere, including other books.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m really liking Tove Jansson’s simple stories. I love Ali Smith’s short fiction. It’s always a pleasure to read Lisa Robertson and Sue Goyette’s poetry. Who I like to read, and what is important for me to read is always in flux and changes with my mood, the constraints of my day/week/month and the project I’m working on.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In terms of writing, I think I’m slowly working my way through that list.
I’d like to hike the Camino de Santiago. Go to Venice. Get really old.
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?
My mom really wanted me to be a television news announcer on the 5 o’clock news – that’s back when I was going to theatre school. Dream occupation (for which I have absolutely no talent), torch singer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I read voraciously from a young age and loved writing in school. In high school I became involved in drama and followed that route in college and for a few years afterward. I wasn’t a very good actor, really. Auditions were the worst thing ever. I was writing poems in secret late at night. Then I did some backstage work and decided to try my hand at that writing plays. Writing and producing theatre was great but when I realized I was going to make a lot of no money at all, and be motivating groups of people, I started to focus on poetry to the exclusion of theatre. It was easier to make a lot of no money at all working solo.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I think the last book that I just loved, loved, loved was A Visit From the Goon Squad. I have also really loved The Summer Book and The Winter Book by Tove Jansson.
I suppose the last movie that really blew me away was Pina – the 3D version.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m just returning to a first draft of a novel and I’ve been working on a poetry manuscript as well.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
12 or 20 (second series) questions with Nancy Jo Cullen
Posted by rob mclennan at 9:01 AM
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Thank you for this interview with Nancy Jo Cullen, Rob.
I appreciate reading about this interesting writer and how she works.
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