Sunday, September 15, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Terri Favro

Born and raised in St. Catharines, Ontario and now living and writing in Toronto, Terri Favro writes fiction, creative non-fiction and articles that have appeared in Prism, Geist, Grain, Accenti, Riddle Fence and MORE, among others. Her novella, The Proxy Bride, co-won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Award and was published in fall 2012 by Quattro Books. Her short fiction has been anthologized in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Vol.6 (Diaspora Dialogues) and Behind Barbed Wire (Guernica). She also collaborates on the “Bella” series of graphic novels published by Grey Borders Books. Favro has been shortlisted three times for the CBC Literary Awards and in 2012, was longlisted for the Vanderbilt-Exile Literary Prize. She blogs 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? 

I woke up the day after my novella launch, expecting to be imbued with powers and abilities far beyond those of normal women, but the bathroom still needed cleaning and deadlines still had to be met. I would not say being a published writer has fundamentally changed my life.

Having said that, I occasionally receive emails from people who track me down through my blog (thank you, Google) to tell me they enjoyed the book. That’s a rush. I’ve been on the radio to discuss The Proxy Bride and Italian opera (enormously fun) and I met with a book club that ‘did’ the book (a bit surreal for me, but exhilarating). And friends in other cities have let me know when they’ve spotted the novella in bookstores; I was especially pleased when a friend in Montreal told me she saw the book in Indigo next to Faulkner. True, it’s all due to alphabetical order --  FAV follows FAU -- but it became an anecdote.

Despite all these good experiences, I feel a bit bereft. I spent long stretches of time immersed in the world of The Proxy Bride – an extremely emotionally intense period of my life. Now that the book is published and I’m back in ‘the real world’, I feel a little lost. My husband calls this my post-partum book depression. Ironically, I didn’t feel this sense of loss after my flesh and blood babies were born –– just the fictional ones.

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

When I was about four years old, I had two imaginary friends who looked like the Campbell Soup Twins from the “Mm, Mm Good” TV commercials. Playing with them felt a lot like fiction-writing feels now. Fiction offers unlimited imaginative scope. I get to play god. Anything is possible: I like that.

I write creative non-fiction, as well, when I’m in the mood for truth-telling. As for poetry, I’m abysmal at it, but enjoy reading it, especially when I’m writing fiction.

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? 

First drafts come quickly. Revisions are slow and painstaking. My mentor at the Humber School for Writers, Bruce Jay Friedman, used to compare writing styles to military tactics. Bruce said that he liked to conquer a page at a time, ‘secure the perimeter’ through revision, then move on to the next page, once he was sure the defenses would hold. I, on the other hand, use what Bruce called the ‘General Patton approach’: I storm in with my tanks, cover as much territory as possible, as quickly as possible, then regroup, backtrack and revise.

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? 

Books announce themselves as books right away, but like icebergs, chapters sometimes ‘calve’ short stories. I’ve had two stories published that were based on characters in The Proxy Bride. I also wrote an earlier novel, which, although unpublished, led to two short stories (published in Riddle Fence and Prism). One chapter of that book also provided the story for the first Bella comic book. I seem to start big, then go shorter. Even The Proxy Bride – a novella – started as a much longer novel.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I like doing readings. There is something visceral about them. Sensing warm bodies around me while I tell a story, hearing laughter or some other audible reaction, makes me feel as if, on some basic human level, I’m doing what a writer was meant to do. It’s part of the ancient, honourable tradition of oral storytelling.

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? 

What causes us to change? What stops us from changing? What happens to those who go through a massive transformation, such as immigration or the death of a spouse? I like to write about personal change played out against broader societal or cultural changes. I deliberately set The Proxy Bride during the summer of 1969 because the world was changing very rapidly: it was as if the process of evolution had been turned up to ‘11’. Change was technological (the moon landing took place that summer, and plays a role in the book); legal (Trudeau’s “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” omnibus bill, also important to my characters); and social (the women’s liberation movement was starting to pick up steam). It was also the year that the Pill was legalized.

In some ways, it’s a similar situation to the TV series Mad Men: we watch the reality of life in the 1960s knowing just how much everything was about to change for all the characters. That’s even truer for my characters because they all went through the shock of postwar immigration; they had already experienced a very profound change in their lives but their new country, Canada, was changing around them, very quickly. They had to figure out how to adapt –– again.

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? 

Humans need to tell and hear stories. People are so desperate to stuff stories into the empty spaces of their lives that they will resort to almost anything to do that – not only books, but reality TV shows, soap operas, movies, magazines. Even gossip.

Everyone needs stories, but not all of us can write them. Writers are the ones who give stories shape and turn them into art.

A writer’s role can be as ‘big’ as driving societal change, or as simple as offering pleasure through stories and language. Both are important.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? 

Both. Working with an editor is one of the most maddening, painful, frustrating, crazy-making processes I’ve ever been through. For a book to be as good as it possibly can be, it’s also essential because it’s so tough to see a novel in full – the canvass is so large – that you need an editor to help you see it through to its final and best form. You have to have another critical reader who is on your side, committed to helping you make the work better, even if it also makes you want to tear your head off.  Ideally, that’s your editor.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? 

A mentor advised me: don’t be afraid to play with the writing without ‘burning your bridges.’ By that he meant, if you’re not sure whether something is working, play with it – experiment – knowing that you can return to an earlier draft. I find that writing that way takes some pressure off the revision process. An earlier draft might be the better draft –– a safety net, if the revisions don’t work the way you expect them to. Having said that, I’ve found that every time I’ve played with something I thought was finished, I wrote something better.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short fiction to novella to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal? 

I write in all of these genres (and graphic novels/comic books) and don’t see them as fundamentally different from one another. Creative non-fiction requires the narrative structure and artfulness of a short story or novel. I write in whatever form suits the story best.

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 don’t like routines because I find that, as soon as something interrupts it, it becomes hard to keep going. I become more focused on the routine than the writing. Instead I write in whatever part of the day I can carve out time, wherever I happen to be. I write on the subway, in bed, while I eat, and between freelance assignments (my day job is copywriting and I work at home). I write obsessively and for long stretches of time, if I possibly can – the ‘General Patton’ approach. If I’m in my office, I listen to a music playlist that reflects the mood or time period of the story. Music is the common thread that pulls me back to the story, not my physical environment.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? 

The best solution to stalling is to put myself in motion. I always do something physical: go for a long walk, cycle, or go to the gym. Magically, once I start using my body, my imagination stretches enough to get me past the roadblock.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home? 

Home is evoked by the smell of fermenting grapes. I grew up in a house that my father and grandfather built in a vineyard in Niagara Township (now the north end of St. Catharines). The smell of fermentation permeated our basement during wine- and juice-making season, lingering long after.

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? 

Music is a major influence. I listened to Opera, Italian pop, Vivaldi and late-sixties rock music while writing both Bella and The Proxy Bride. Also, early Springsteen –– songs like “Candy’s Room”, “It’s Hard to Be A Saint in the City” and “Thunder Road” caught the mood of my rust belt world, and blended with “Nessun Dorma” and “The Pearl Fishers”. It varies with what I’m working on. Every story has a soundtrack.

Historical events are a big influence, particularly lesser-known ones – for example, a short story published in Accenti magazine was inspired by the Hoggs Hollow disaster in the early 1960s, when a group of young Italian men died of the bends digging a subway in north Toronto. That event is helping shape a chapter of the book I’m working on now.

Science and technology also inform my work. My father was an electrician, later a plant engineer, and an amateur inventor. We were immersed in machinery. If you walked into my childhood home and picked up what looked like a magazine, chances are it was a catalogue of parts for industrial robots.

Although I’m a lapsed Catholic, the rituals and theatricality of Roman Catholicism continue to work their way into my writing. The rhythms of the church calendar regulated my life until I left home at eighteen. We lived next door to a church rectory and had a lot of contact with priests and nuns.

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

Certain books follow me around like a Greek chorus: Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (and later books), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Nino Ricci’s Lives of the Saints, and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. (Erdrich comes close to goddess status for me.)

I grew up in a household where reading material included Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American and my brother’s hot rod magazines.  I also had a steady diet of the lives of the Catholic saints, science fiction, comic books, fairytales and Greek and Roman myths. All of these keep working their way back into my writing.

I also have to mention Sylvia Plath. That may sound odd, since my work is so entirely unlike hers, and I don’t write poetry – but the power and economy of her writing always struck me as something to aspire to. I re-read The Bell Jar, Ariel and her other poetry from time to time.

After the novella came out, I had two different readers tell me that The Proxy Bride reminded them of John Steinbeck. I was surprised to hear that, but it’s true that I had read all of Steinbeck’s novels by about the age of 15. Cannery Row made a particularly deep impression. Steinbeck may be in my Greek chorus too.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? 

I would like to spend a winter in Venice after the crowds have left, hunting stories in the chilly, empty churches and flooded piazzas. All that history and mystery to explore!

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? 

Outside of a brief period when I wanted to be a nun (due to the influence of The Flying Nun and The Singing Nun, rather than actual piety), I’ve always planned to be a writer. But if I weren’t so lazy, I might have been a musician. Both my sisters are pianists, Royal Conservatory trained; one studied organ at St. Michael’s Choir School. I played guitar at folk masses, sang in choirs, and bashed away at the piano a bit. Apparently I have a good ‘ear’ and my sisters tried to take me in hand, but I just couldn’t face the hours of practice and study.

I would be happy as a wine sommelier. Or a bartender in a high-end hotel bar: I’d be the one with the up-do and black eyeliner, shaking the perfect martini and listening to everyone’s bullshit problems.

I would enjoy being a bicycle policewoman. I see them in Toronto, Amazons in shorts, cycling around downtown. I’d change my name to ‘Pepper’, like the Angie Dickinson character on the 1970s TV show, Policewoman.

Or I could be a card dealer. But not a legitimate one: I’d like to have the same job as ‘Tanya’ from the movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, who sits at a card table in the middle of a boxing ring and sets out the rules of the (rigged) poker game.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? 

I never considered anything else (except the nunnery, briefly, as I’ve mentioned.) My family told a lot of stories. One grandfather, Giovanni-Battista Favro, told dark Italian folk tales and fairytales to me when I was little. He had a vast storehouse of stories in his head, similar to, but darker and a bit sexier, than the Canadian versions. And my family always told a lot of stories about things that had happened to a previous generation, back in Italy, in New York (where my mother’s family mostly settled) and in Niagara in the early days. Dad used to like to talk about the daredevils and ‘river rats' that did stunts at Niagara Falls but were also quite big-time smugglers during Prohibition.

By the time I’d started kindergarten, I was making up fairytales for the neighbourhood kids. By ten years of age, my tales of bloodlust were scaring my younger cousins so badly, my aunt had to have a ‘word’ with my mom. I was twelve the first time I was published -- a limerick about the Kellogg’s cereal processing plant in London, Ontario: the Star Weekly paid me (I think) ten bucks for it and published it as by “Mr. Terry Favro.” (It started to occur to me around that time that I should switch from “y” to “i”.)In high school, I wrote for the town’s daily newspaper, The St. Catharines Standard; I experienced my first writerly rage when an interview I’d done with Geddy Lee of a new band called Rush was chopped to make more room for basketballs scores. In grade 13, I received Honourable Mention in The Permanent Insurance writing competition, adjudicated by Margaret Laurence, which was the premier national writing contest for Canadian students in those days. At university, my short fiction won the McMaster Medal for the Creative and Performing Arts.

So, what happened? Answer: I graduated. It was 1979, stagflation was destroying all hope of jobs, and SkyLab was falling, which was a pretty good metaphor for my life at the time. I came home from one of my nasty short-term Hamilton jobs only to find a bunch of guys with sledgehammers standing around my flat, chuckling over the New Yorker cartoons taped to my walls. The house had been sold for demolition and no one bothered to evict me. Suddenly homeless, I considered getting some help from my boyfriend at the time, a tool and die maker who also came from Niagara, but he managed to break his neck in a motorcycle crash. (The relationship didn’t last.)

Writing suddenly seemed like a luxury. I needed to make a living. I was doing some freelance writing – mostly arts and music stuff – but it barely paid anything. I considered going back to St. Catharines, living with my folks, maybe getting secretarial work or a job at the plant where my father worked. (There was beginning to be interest in woman doing ‘line work’ in industry at the time.)

Then I spent a day with Milton Acorn -- a total accident: I’d volunteered to help out at an arts festival at McMaster that summer. Acorn was supposed to have a student chaperoning him around that day, seeing to his needs, but the eminent poet proved to be such a handful that his volunteer (spineless dweeb) panicked and ran. Someone asked me if I’d look after Mr. Acorn for the day; after what I’d just been through, with my flat and my boyfriend, it seemed like a walk in the park. Milton was a bit odd: he looked like he’d gone ten rounds in a boxing ring and he was prone to getting up on tables in the cafeteria to declaim poetry, frightening the med students. I made it my mission to get him through the day without accidentally hurting himself; I’d read I’ve Tasted My Blood and knew the guy was a genius, even if he was a bit scary. It was my “My Favourite Year” day. It ended with me sitting on a curb with Milton, in the middle of the night, pouring out my heart to him: where was I going to live? What was I going to do? How could I manage to be a writer and eat? I was twenty-two; he looked about a thousand. He was quite lucid, for a change, during this conversation; he told me that he wasn’t all that happy about living over the Silver Dollar Tavern on Spadina, either, but you never knew what life was going to hand you. And he told me that I didn’t have much choice about being a writer. I was already in it up to my neck.

So: I went to Toronto, slept on a lot of couches, worked a bunch of half-assed jobs, and fell into the advertising industry which welcomed me with open arms as a copywriter. It took a while to come back to actual creative writing, but I'm trying. I’m trying.

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

For ‘great’, I’d go back about a year, to when a friend presented me with Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, published in 2001. The book tells the story of a woman in Minnesota in the early 20th century who lives her life disguised as a man –– more specifically, as a priest. About halfway through the book, I closed it, had a little cry and thought – why am I even trying? This is just so fucking good.

Last great movie: The Secret in Their Eyes, a 2009 film from Argentina. On one level it’s a police procedural; on another, a psychological thriller; on another, a love story; on another, a political film. Three years on, I still think about it. The only other movie that comes close is the 2008 Italian film about the Calabrian mafia, Gomorrah.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on two things: a novel-in-stories called “A Pagan Marriage”, which is a sequel to The Proxy Bride. I’m slowly getting back into the lives of Marcello, Ida and Bum Bum: they are all in danger, because the villain dispensed with in the novella had some criminal friends who are determined to revenge his loss. Studio 54, circa 1977, will make an appearance. Quite a lot of this book is written but requires substantial revision. (See: ‘General Patton’.)

I’m just beginning to work with my illustrator-partner-husband, Ron Edding, on a graphic novel that will either be called “Providence” or “House of Providence”. Set in Toronto during the Depression, it’s based on an actual unsolved murder from the early 1930s. The name comes from the House of Providence, a Catholic institution for orphans and indigents that stood in Toronto for about a century. We are in the research phase now.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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