Friday, January 24, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Thea Bowering

Thea Bowering grew up in Vancouver, Canada and has travelled and lived in Northern Europe, including a year of study at Aarhus University, Denmark. She came to Edmonton Alberta in 2001 to study Danish and contemporary Danish Literature. Her thesis work and short fiction collection Love at Last Sight (NeWest Press, 2013) deal with the figure of the Female Flâneur: a solitary, marginalized walker, and observer of urban life. Thea continues to live in Edmonton where she has worked as a bartender, radio host, Film Studies and Creative Writing instructor, free-lance writer, and a member of The Olive Reading Series. Her most recent publication is an interview with writer Sheila Heti in The Capilano Review.

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 took me many years to write my first book. I lived with those stories throughout my 20s and early 30s. Thematically, Love At Last Sight is about things many people will recognize as being what those years are about: travelling, being in passionate love, certain feelings about art and music and beauty, an existential way of being in the world, feeling nostalgic for childhood. I was surprised that once these stories were published, I felt done with them. I didn’t expect that. The dull feeling that followed. They had seemed so alive for so long. So, having them coffined in a book ended many of my concerns with the youthful themes in life, too. What I’m working on now is just as surprising to me. I am suddenly interested in middle-aged topics! family history as it intersects with broader culture. Maybe I’ll never write another short story. I think I’m writing a novel and essays for the moment. I’m still in the gathering-myself-together stage that follows a first book, but I like the certain feeling that I am moving into new terrain—I don’t have that “gut” certainty, as my mother called it, in many other areas of my life. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I didn’t.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project?
I am bad with time, in general: feeling any urgency to do something, or remembering when things happened, what years. So it’s hard to say when a project starts and stops. It takes me a long time to get ready, mainly because while I feel the enormousness of what I want to do, I don’t want to feel anxious. I need to be calm. I can’t schedule the work out in a regimented way that will kill the joy of doing it. Once I’m on a roll I can be a bit more disciplined. 

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?

For the actual writing part of the short story collection, each story was built line by line, piece by piece, with a structure that revealed itself as I went. I don’t work in drafts, though I print out pieces. I feel I work on one draft that changes all the time, seems sculptural—bits added and taken away until a form appears. I make a few notes along the way, put up postcards I want to look at, write down lines from other works that I want to incorporate, or simply look at. I use my body as a notebook; an idea for a story could reach back years; everything I’m interested in reading, the movies I choose to go to, the music I listen to, the places or art I want to see, all have something to do with the theme of that story. I’m in a certain state with a story for years sometimes, like I have to act it out, accumulating a feel for it slowly.

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?
Every story in Love At Last Sight began with the first line of the story, insistent in some way, usually sharp and precise, or rhythmic. I don’t stop to think whether or not they are great first lines. They strike out, and sound authoritative; they set the tone, and with them I can start to feel the whole energy of what’s to come. Each story is a study of some topic I’m interested in at the time: the history of portraiture as it relates to its current forms of social media, music as it relates to writing, the relationship of young women’s sexuality as it relates to rebellious urban walking practices. Each has its distinct form, voice, and main theme. I am fully into a story when I’m working on it, and am not working on any other, or thinking about the others behind or ahead. I get absorbed in whatever the themes are. Read books about it. We think this kind of research is reserved for writers of historical fiction or biography, but I it happens for poets and short story writers as well, if they get stuck on a particular idea. These stories ended up working as a collection, I think, because of my overriding interest in the character of the urban wanderer. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Thinking of Audience as other-beings-in-the-world only happens at readings for me, so I really like hearing an audience’s laughter and feeling or seeing people listening, or not. I am moved when people take the time to tell me something that they liked. I like the way readings turn on the storytelling and performance aspect of my writing, since I’m not big on narrative and plot. I like things you can do on stage, with voice, adding visual or musical components. I think there’s a lot more we can do there, outside of strictly spoken word or performance work.

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?
My writing involves poetics as process, more than it works with theory. Love At Last Sight came from the excitement of wanting to write stories about women walking alone, wherever and whenever they want to, in urban environments—the way existential or dangerous male characters do in movies and novels. Then I found the feminist poetics of Erin Moure, Gail Scott, Daphne Marlatt, and Charles Olson’s idea of the un-inherited line coming out of the rhythm of your body moving around in geography. I didn’t consciously work or apply these ideas, but they allowed me to see the connections between rebellious writing and walking practices—as did Walter Benjamin’s writing on Baudelaire—and allowed me to feel that the line and story, like a person in the city, can go anywhere it wants to, not just along the set paths—this is sexy in writing and living, and necessary.

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?
Maybe because I am a lazy thinker, I think the writer’s most important role is to keep their thinking (and the reader’s) sharp, critical, articulate, and focused, and to keep hearts alive. The non-commercial writer’s job has always been to keep the poetic function of language alive in a multitude of ways, to work against the daily communicative function of language, which is conventional: effective but numbing. Triggering the mind with unconventional uses of language, ideas of beauty, will stimulate all kinds of real change in the world, remind people to pay attention to their impulses that go against convention, keep us engaged with the world. It’s hard to do.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve always enjoyed having an editor. Once or twice it has been stressful, where an editor has not understood that all the elements of story—character, plot, tone etc.—are there in the structure, and to change the structure, and the look on the page, means they are re-writing my story, not simply making copy edits or something. But then you are forced to defend your ideas about things like intersecting genres, breaking down the line, choosing writing over narrative. Some of the most useful comments I’ve had have been from writers whose genre or aesthetic is far from my own. Any time someone is willing to read my work closely I am grateful. They have improved my language by attending to it in ways English teachers may have wanted to but seldom had the time to.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“reach / this way & that.” It is great advice!

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve written some poems, but I figured out right away that I would never be the poet I would want to be. But I love writing poetic prose. The poets I read have something I don’t have, I can borrow from it, but I don’t have it. When I am writing stories I read lyric poets who do what I want to do with prose. They are really good at sounding simple, which is no simple thing. They are true technicians of form and language, understand the line and have the musical ear. Reading them is like a warm up to remind me I want every line of a story to count. I don’t like the idea of “having to get into” a novel or a story. You should already be there with the first line. It can be a difficult or weird line, but it should take you there. I found the short fiction of Danish writer Solvej Balle. Her writing is like a bit of mid-century chair against a white wall, or the frame of an Antonioni film. Her language is so cool and minimalist and simple, but also suggestive of depth. It makes you want to move quickly over it, but stop on it at the same time. I later read that there was a school of thought in the 90s in Denmark called punkstroman, which means point-like-novel. Prose that somehow stands still and pushes you forward at the same time. If we’re talking about the intersection of prose and poetry within a story, I like to do that too. Writing is writing. Freeing up the form of the short story, but always in a meaningful way.

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 to write in the morning and start by making the room and my body right. Some cleaning and re-arranging. Get a nice cup of something, a blankety sweater. Stare into a nice angle of the ceiling, out at trees, at some book spines, familiar doodads. A lot of staring is involved. Maybe I’ll stretch some body parts, look at photographs I like; watch a movie or play some music—these days Sharon van Etten or Sera Cahoone, or some music I associate with whatever I’m working on. If an idea or line is already there when I wake up, none of this matters. I wish I could write daily, but I can’t afford to, so it’s usually twice a week, right now. It’s whenever I can.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I have a lot of patience with writing so I can just sit there and call it writing. I can spend hours just thinking and moving things around a bit, so it always feels as though I am writing. The process always feels full or exciting. If something’s not working it’s usually because I don’t know what to edit out, rather than what to write. I get attached to lines and paragraphs for their sound. So, I will leave them until they don’t feel so precious, and I have a less romantic feeling about them and can cut them for the sake of the overall theme and pace of the story. Sometimes I don’t succeed.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of wet cedar.

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 recall that statement, but not where it’s from. I’d like to read it again for the nuance of what he means. Like, does he mean the lines on the page always echo other lines on other pages? which happens a lot. How much is the author’s conscious brain a filter or mediator or container for books? Books are also in the world, so the books we write come from the world, too. Much of my writing springs from or is directed by bits of other books. I also put a lot of other people’s lines in my stories, and write around and in response to those lines. A book you’re writing is also a marker of everything you’re reading, and a time and space in the world. A book you’re writing is made of language and so always comes from another book, but it should also lead us to other books and the unvoiced thing they share. Sometimes I try on the narrative voice of another writer. It’s fun. You notice how another’s mind works in a way you don’t from just reading. It’s like stopping to dust an object you walk by in your house every day—you see the details of the corners and crannies for the first time. For me, writing is about reading and learning all the ways others have worked on the immutable or unvoiced thing. I don’t really care about finding or identifying a signature style for myself. Music and visual art influence my work a lot. I care about image and cadence, and my characters are often involved in questions and scenarios to do with music and painting and film. I thought it might be fun to include a playlist of songs with my stories, so the reader could listen to what I was listening to while writing each one. It really influences the reading, I think.    

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Dostoevsky Notes from Underground: life and work. In my mother’s collection of books, which I inherited, there are many Russian titles. She was taking a course in Russian literature around the time my father was courting her, so there are a many works by and about Dostoevsky playfully inscribed and dated by my father to my mother from around the time just before they got married. I read Notes from Underground in a Comparative Literature course and was hooked. My story “How to Read Your Lover’s Favourite Russian Novel” was my attempt to narrate a story in a voice similar to the Underground Man’s.

Flaubert: Madame Bovary is my favourite novel, and the one I’ve examined the most. While writing it, in his letters to his mistress, Flaubert says: “ there are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects…style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things,” and that “what seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style…The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result. I believe the future of Art lies in this direction.” He goes as far as saying the line should try to articulate the breath of the body. He wrote that around 160 years ago! Reading Madame Bovary we can see the revolutionary beginnings of experimental prose, that is still up against against ideas of the novel from Flaubert’s time.

Also, my father’s early poetry and essays, Sharon Thesen’s poetry, the essays of Gail Scott, Erin Moure, Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Rebecca Solnit, Susan Sontag, Dionne Brand, Roland Barthes, Robert Creeley, John Berger—all dear to me.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a novel, do a book tour through Scandinavia. I don’t think too far ahead, but take a long time to get there. Live on a west coast island. Be involved in an environmental project. Learn another language well. Hand-glide. Stand in a jungle, in a dessert, in a natural waterfall.  

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 a family friend who gave art tours in Europe for a living; he used the air miles to travel the rest of the year. I always thought that sounded like the best job in the world. I’d love to be a screenwriter or cinematographer, a travel writer. Apart from art, a line of work that improved and saved the lives of animals would be the most meaningful to me. Some work that kept me close to the ocean. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I lived with writers, so it seemed possible. Writing was presented as real work and I was encouraged. There were no overhead costs or risks.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve been trying to catch up on reading first books by contemporary Canadian writers. I just read Mirror on the Floor for the first time! I don’t order things online much, which is the main way to find interesting small press Canadian fiction. So I’ve read some bigger press new writers but nothing that gave me the thrills. I’ll have to be more rigorous. I recently enjoyed Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait by Robert Kroetsch.

The most recent film I really enjoyed was Frances Ha. I don’t know if it’s Great but I haven’t seen any other film, recently, that gives a female character the job of portraying The Artist-figuring-out-how-to-be-in-the-world, which is a topic I’m interested in—Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, for example, which I love. 

20 - What are you currently working on?
I may be working on a novel, or a long essay. I’m researching right now. My primary source is my mother’s archive of letters, journals, marginalia, teaching notes, essays, voice records, published work. There is so much material. She said she’d always thought she’d have time to write down her life story, and she didn’t, so I’m going to try to do something for her. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

George Bowering said...

Jesus, Kid, I think you might be smarter than I am. This is wonderful stuff.