Kathryn Mockler is a writer and filmmaker. She is the author of The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012) and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Currently, she is the Toronto editor of Joyland: a hub for short fiction and the publisher and co-editor of the online literary and arts journal The Rusty Toque. She teaches creative writing at Western University.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
It changed my life in the sense that it forced me to get more involved in the literary community than I had been previously. Although I started writing poetry many years ago, I’ve spent a great deal of my writing life as a screenwriter. I started writing my first book of poetry, Onion Man, about fifteen years before it was published, and it was a project I picked away at over the years. So when it was accepted for publication, I realized that I needed to get more involved—read more poetry, go to more readings.
How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Onion Man is a semi-autobiographical series of narrative poems set in London, Ontario in the 1980s about an eighteen-year-old girl who works in a corning canning factory with her boyfriend. She’s questioning the world around her and her values.
My second poetry book, The Saddest Place on Earth, is quite different in tone. The poems are more absurd and not linked to each other in a narrative sense but by tone. These poems were initially a response to a series of bleak and absurd paintings that my husband, David Poolman, was working on called Start as You Will Go On. Around the same time (2003 to 2004), in the early days of the Iraq War, I was pretty obsessed with the war and how the media was portraying it. Of course this was all before the discovery that there were actually no “weapons of mass destruction” and that the war was predicated on what we now know to be false intelligence. In the later poems, my critique centres around the Harper government’s assault on the environment. However the issues are dealt with indirectly and usually with some form of humour.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Once when I working at the factory that my first book is based on, for no reason, I just wrote a poem in the middle of my shift on a cigarette pack. This was before I wrote anything or identified as a writer or even knew what a poem was. The poem just came at me and had to be written down. I think it might have had something to do with being in a trance-like state, standing on the Brite stack watching cans go by for hours. I remember thinking—that was weird, I just wrote a poem. I want to find that poem. I wonder if it’s any good.
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?
This depends in which genre I’m writing. Screenplays take a lot of planning, drafting and rewriting. I think I enjoy poetry becomes it comes to me and I don’t have to go looking for it. I edit my poems quite a bit, but the process is more satisfying in the short term.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you?
An image or a line sparks an idea, and I have to stop what I’m doing to write the poem down like I did that time in the factory. Sometimes this is inconvenient, especially if I’m busy or trying to sleep, but I know if I don’t follow the poem, it will get away from me.
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?
For Onion Man I knew the poems were going to be part of a larger narrative, and in a way it feels like a poem novel to me, so I approached it more the way I do fiction or a screenplay. For the poems in my second book The Saddest Place on Earth, I knew they were similar in tone and just kept adding more and more until I realized I had enough for a book. But I wasn’t thinking of them as a book while I was writing them.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I learn a great deal about my writing by doing live readings, so it can be a helpful part of the creative process. There’s a series in Toronto called Draft where I read a couple of years ago, and the whole point is for writers to read from a work-in-progress which can really inform you on what’s working and what’s not. I’m not a huge fan of reading my own work, but I do like the feeling in the moment just before the reading is over.
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’m not trying to answer questions, but rather I’m trying to ask questions usually through absurdity and humour. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we act like this?
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’m interested in politics and the environment and that informs everything I do in my writing life. I think it’s everyone’s role (not just writers) to be concerned about the world that they live in and what’s going to be left for the next generation. I'm particularly concerned with how our current government is undermining that future—our environment, our health care system.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like working with an editor. I’m used to it because in screenwriting, you often get feedback from a variety of people. I’ve learned to develop thick skin and an ability to push back. The push back has to be because it’s in the best interest of the work and not because your ego is bruised. And it takes a long time to know the difference between the two.
With my second book of poetry, I had a great editorial experience with Jason Camlot from DC Books. He was pretty ruthless—but in a good way. It was an intense period of cutting, editing, and writing new stuff. One week I wrote ten poems. I wish I could do that every week.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I just attended the AWP conference in Seattle this year, and I saw Chris Abani read with Chang Rae Lee. Abani talked about his process (and I’m paraphrasing here) and how he writes everywhere—in airports, when he’s waiting in line, etc. For him writing isn’t about setting up the right conditions—the perfect space, the right mood. Basically if you’re a writer, you just write wherever you are. I think that’s great advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to film)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t really see myself as one particular type of writer. I’ve always written in diverse genres, and often adapt my work from one genre to another. A short film I wrote called Skinheads was based on poem from my book The Saddest Place on Earth, and my husband and I have made a series of videos, The Reluctant Narrator, from some of those poems as well. I find an editing process always happens along the way which makes the work in each new form a little different.
The actual writing in different genres is not difficult for me, but the labels can feel strange. Working in film for many years and pretty much seeing myself as a screenwriter or fiction writer, it felt strange to be referred to as a poet after the publication of my first poetry book. Not that there’s anything wrong with being called a poet, but for me the label just felt weird.
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?
One of the reasons I enjoy being a writer is that I don’t like a routine. I don’t like doing the same thing every day.
Once a poem or a story or essay captures me, I just work on it like crazy. I wrote an essay for Lemon Hound last summer, and it just took over my life for a coupe of weeks. I had planned to write something else, but that project took hold and I went with it.
Sometimes though I have long breaks in between projects. The breaks are part of my process, and I’ve learned not to get panicked by them. If something isn’t going well then I work on something. I always have some kind of a project going.
The other thing that’s part of my process is napping. Seriously. I used to wonder why every time I sat down to write, I needed a nap until I realized that I come with the best stuff when I’m in that half-awake, half-asleep place that I can only get to with a nap. I think this is the reason I like writing on trains too.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I either read writers in the genre I’m trying to write or I eavesdrop.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Curry and cigarettes and Barbie dolls. Whenever I think of my childhood home I have this memory of playing Barbies with my best friend Eleni. My mother was cooking curry in the other room and smoking, and I guess one of us said that Barbie was giving Ken a blow job, and my mother heard and came running into the room and said—how do you know what that is?
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 visual art and music. My husband is a visual artist and his work has been an influence, but also being exposed to a lot of art has also been an important influence on the way I look at the world.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Kurt Vonnegut for his humour and his scathing view of humanity.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a play. I think I’m actually a playwright, but I’ve never written a play. My poems are often plays and my screenplays are very dialogue driven. But I’ve never made the leap.
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 probably would have done something involving activism and the environment.
But I can’t picture myself doing anything else quite honestly. I can’t stand discomfort, so I’m not one of those people who can toil away at a job I hate for years on end. The closest I came to that was when I taught composition at a community college for three years. I was very miserable and often would say over drinks with friends—the English teacher wants to kill herself. I was kidding and not kidding.
When a student from that college asked me how I knew I wanted to be an English teacher, I was horrified and said—but I'm not an English teacher! I quit shortly after that conversation and studied at the Canadian Film Centre. I still teach of course—I have to make a living, but I teach creative writing and I love it. It’s whole different job when you’re teaching students who are interested in what they are learning and when you’re interested in what you are teaching.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was taking English at Concordia and I heard that if you did an English and Creative Writing major then you didn’t have to do an English honors thesis. So I took creative writing and loved it and it changed the whole direction of my life. But basically I started because I was lazy.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m doing Jonathan Ball and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s #95Books challenge in which the goal is to be as well read as George W. Bush by reading 95 books each year. I’m off to a slow start but hope to pick it up in the summer. Some good books that I’ve read this year have been I Love Dick by Chris Kraus and Sarajevo Blues by Semezdin Mehmedinović. The great thing about this challenge, which I know I won’t be able to live up to and I’m fine with that, is that I’m reading books that have been on my shelf for years that I’ve meant to read but have not gotten around to. So having this goal is forcing me to finish more books.
The Panic in Needle Park is an Al Pacino film from the 70s that I recently watched. It’s bleak but good.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve gone back to an old screenplay that I could never get right and now I feel like I’m ready to fix it. It’s a bullying story set in the 80s before helicopter parenting. I’m always working on poems too.
[Kathryn Mockler reads in Ottawa on Saturday, March 29, 2014 with Stephen Brockwell and Souvankham Thammavongsa as part of the fourth annual VERSeFest]