Lola Lemire Tostevin has published three novels, a collection of critical essays and eight collections of poetry including Singed Wings (Talonbooks, 2013). Several of her books have been translated into French and Italian. She has taught creative writing at York University, Toronto, and served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario in London Ontario. She is currently working on a second collection of critical essays and a book of short fictions. She lives in Toronto.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The main change, I think, was putting me in touch with other writers. I had met a few writers before, but I felt like an outsider. Writing and having my first book published confirmed that it was possible for me to write and publish, something I thought was reserved solely for others.
How does my most recent work compare to my previous? Well, given that I have been writing for many years and published thirteen or so books, I hope the work has improved. Given the subject matter of my latest poetry book, Singed Wings, the writing seems more mature. Of course, I would never have written about aging and everything that goes with it thirty-some years ago. Writing changes much as life changes.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
The writers I was most interested in at the time were mainly poets. I sought in poetry themes that were more relevant to me than fiction. I like fiction—good fiction—but poetry served a more relevant purpose for some reason, so it was natural to veer towards writing poetry.
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?
Starting a project comes easily, it’s the process of seeing it through that is arduous. I end up with many drafts and those early ones look very different from the last ones. I don’t make notes, I just make drafts upon drafts which I never show anyone until I send the ms to a publisher. Then I may do more revisions depending on the feedback I get.
4 - Where does a poem or work 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 was unaware that I worked on a “book” when I first began to write. I was startled with my first books to discover that each one carried a very specific theme throughout. I hadn’t planned it that way, and a few people referred to those books as long poems. It took a few collections of poetry to realize that I do start off with a theme and, more or less, carry that theme through. With later books, I intentionally shaped them that way. Especially my latest one.
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 think they are part or counter to my creative process. Readings are just something you have to do so the publisher will sell books. You owe the publisher that much. I no longer do readings in bars or restaurants, I hate those. I like readings when there’s an exchange with an audience such as universities where the students have read my work and have questions, sometimes surprising ones. I always come away from those having learned something--about the readers, the book in question, and myself.
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?
Every writer has theoretical concerns behind her/his writing, even writers who claim to have no theoretical concerns whatsoever... Trying to make writing as transparent as possible to convey “reality” is, in itself, a theory. There’s an entire gamut of theories from the simplest ones to the more convoluted ones we’ve been subjected to for the last few decades. I don’t go out of my way to incorporate any of these in my writing although I’m sure some theories have informed my work. Nor do I try to answer “questions” in my work. The creative process doesn’t necessarily have answers other than it wants to be creative. That’s its job.
As for “current questions,” I guess that depends on each writer. I’d hate to think that writers are a monolith who dictates which questions are “current” and which ones are “passé.” I think it was important for certain groups to address certain issues at certain times, for example, women finding their own voices or people of colour finding their own places within the literary canon. But it has to be, in the end, each writer’s own voice. No one should write according to a group’s expectations or issues that are deemed “current.” Unless you are a commercial writer looking to make lots of money. But I don’t think this is what we are talking about here.
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 not impose any role on any writer or the creative imagination, other than being creative. Of course, once a work is out there it can take on a life of its own, depending on readers, depending on how it is perceived and received. Unfortunately, the “larger culture,” as you call it, doesn’t seem to have much interest in literature that pushes boundaries. It is more interested in reinforcing what it already knows. Otherwise it feels threatened. People are threatened by the unfamiliar.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t submit my work to an editor until it has been accepted by a publisher and I then work with the house’s substantive editor. I tend to make it clear from the beginning that if I don’t like certain suggestions I won’t make changes, and it has never been an issue. On the whole I’ve been very fortunate with poetry editors, starting with bpNichol who edited my first book, Color of her Speech for Coach House Press. How lucky was that? My last latest book, Singed Wings was edited by Garry Thomas Morse at Talonbooks. He is a very interesting writer himself and a most astute editor. He made some very good suggestions, several that I was happy to accept. I think I’ve run into more problems with copy editors who don’t always get what I’m doing and want to “correct” things that aren’t “wrong.” Copy editing is a totally different mindset. Speaking of editors, I went to Richard Truhlar’s funeral this week. People kept referring to Richard’s enthusiasm and I remembered seeing Richard at different readings over the years where he would often silently mouth the word “Wow” after someone had read a poem or performed a piece he liked. On two occasions when Richard asked me to contribute to his short fiction anthologies—The Closets of Time (Mercury Press) and The Sound of Smoke (Teksteditions) I knew that I would have to give my pieces that little extra, push beyond what I was used to, because I would have to “wow” Richard. A writer should always be fortunate enough to have an editor with that “Wow Factor.” Richard will be sorely missed.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I remember reading, several years ago, Yann Andréas’s book, M.D., on Marguerite Duras--he was the young man who lived with her during the last years of her life. He wrote that she could not not write. I love that double negative that turns everything into a positive. I’ve used it many times in different circumstances and it works.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I approach any project-- poetry, fiction or critical essay—with enthusiasm and optimism. I don’t find moving between genres difficult, although I am aware that the results are not always as successful from one genre to the next. It may help to be naive.
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 almost never wrote when my children were growing up, and only sporadically when we were moving from city to city or from country to country, or even when I was teaching or serving as a Writer-in-Residence. But those moves, especially living in Paris France, informed my writing later on, because of the extensive reading I was doing. Now that my days are mostly free, I’m usually at my computer by mid-morning and try to write most week days. Week-ends are reserved for family events, outings, socialising, etc... If I’m not writing, I’m usually reading something that relates to my writing. I may be a little obsessed actually.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other people’s creativity regardless of art form. My tastes are eclectic. Often I will trip on a word, a line, a gesture, a work of art, and I will play with it for hours and the first thing I know I’m no longer stalled.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Being French Canadian with a long history and emphasis on French food, definitely the aroma of food cooking.
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?
Definitely. The first thing I do when I hit a city is check out museums for retrospectives, especially of contemporary artists. I also love films, specific film directors, and contemporary choreography like the work of the late Pina Bausch and the inventive Marie Chouinard. I love Robert Lepage’s theatre. Visual artists, film directors, choreographers, philosophers, etc... are the springboards for Singed Wings. Louise Bourgeois, whose art influences some of the poems in my book once wrote on a pink postcard: “Art is the Guarantee of Sanity.”
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I don’t want to narrow it down to a few names. It would leave too many out. I have several friends who are artists or writers who are also favorite dinner guests. They are very important to my life and I too am “wowed” by their creativity. I need them in and outside my own work.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would love to publish an entire poetry book in French instead of scattering a few French poems amongst my English ones. I used to think that I would love to free-fall/parachute out of an airplane... Stupid idea since I’m afraid of heights. I’ll stick to an entire French poetry book someday.
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 used to love acting. I met my husband at an audition for William Inge’s Bus Stop. We then did Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie together and also Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. A director, Richard Howard, married to the actress Lila Kedrova of Zorba the Greek fame, asked me to do several plays as part of summer stock one year, but by then I was married and pregnant, and had to abandon what I thought was my “dream.” I still have reviews of those plays stuck under the glass on my desk. I never keep reviews of my books but I kept those. Significant? Maybe, but no regrets.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Interest and circumstances, I suppose. I started to write when I was a boarder at a convent from the age of ten until my last year of high school. It was kind of a refuge, especially when I could spend time in the library. The nuns would sometimes read my compositions to the class unaware that I used to copy entire definitions from various dictionaries and encyclopaedias to give my compositions more heft. I don’t know where my interest in reading comes from since, except for a set of French encyclopaedias, we didn’t have many books in my childhood home. Although my mother did buy me a set of The Junior Classics: The Young Folks’ Shelf of Books when I was about eight years old. I did get through those and the French encyclopaedias so perhaps they did influence me. Later on, writing was something I could do while moving from place to place because of my husband’s work, even if it was sporadic. Another writer asked me once why we persisted since the rewards were so fleeting and I said “Because it’s there, like Everest.”
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I keep going over Anne Carson’s Nox. It’s the perfect blend of the personal and the literary--an indelible life event converted into art. There’s a line in my latest book about Bourgeois not recreating the way she once lived, but living the way she created. Nox does that. I love the idea, the concept, of making one’s life a work of art. As for a recent film, I’m a huge fan of Hannah Arendt’s and I loved Margarethe von Trotta’s recent film, Hannah. I admire both Arendt’s and von Trotta’s work because of the thread of resistance that runs throughout their books or films.. Resistance is important to the creative process. An element of resistance runs through all original thought, resistance to what is expected, resistance to what is imposed.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on a second collection of critical essays and a collection of short fictions. I’ve just finished a longish poem that my translator in Italy, Annalisa Goldoni, requested for a literary magazine she edits. It started me thinking about more poems, but first I have to finish the books of essays and short fictions. I think.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;