Thursday, May 08, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with dee Hobsbawn-Smith

dee Hobsbawn-Smith grew up in a gypsy Air Force family and is a fifth-generation prairie dweller. Her award-winning journalism, poetry, essays and fiction has aired on the CBC and has appeared in books, newspapers, magazines, anthologies and literary journals in Canada, the USA and elsewhere. In spring 2014, Hagios Press published Wildness Rushing In, her first poetry collection. Next year, Thistledown Press will publish Appetites: Stories, her first collection of short stories.

At present, dee lives on the family land west of Saskatoon with her partner, the writer Dave Margoshes, their dogs, cats and books. She has recently completed the fifth draft of a novel, The Dryland Diaries, as her creative thesis toward earning her Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.  dee has attended Sage Hill Writing five times since 2005, and participated in the SK Writers Guild mentorship program in 2011 with the poet Elizabeth Philips. She is a regular attendee at the province’s artists’ and writers’ colonies at St. Peter’s Abbey.

Dee attended culinary schools in France, Ireland, Vancouver and Calgary, and earned her Red Seal designation as a chef in 1986. Between 1992 and 1994, dee was chef and co-owner of Foodsmith, one of Calgary’s first restaurants to utilize and honour locally-sourced ingredients.  After selling her restaurant and catering company, dee transformed her food savvy into a freelance teaching and writing career that included eight years as the Calgary Herald’s popular food columnist, The Curious Cook. An active local foods advocate and long-time Slow Food Calgary steering committee member, dee served as president of Slow Food Calgary from 2008 to 2010, and she attended Slow Food’s 2008 Terra Madre conference in Torino, Italy as an Alberta delegate. For 12 years, she researched and hosted the Calgary City Palate magazine’s annual Foodie Tootles, rural farmgate bus tours culminating in on-farm locavore dinners. After her move to SK, in 2012 she helped to co-found Canada’s newest Slow Food convivium in Saskatoon.

During her 27 years in Calgary, dee taught thousands of Albertans the hands-on nuts and bolts of cooking methods, ingredients, knife skills, food and wine pairings, and food culture. She has written three best-selling cookbooks and the definitive resource guide to sourcing cooking ingredients and tools in Calgary.

Her fifth book, Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet (TouchWood Editions, 2012), examined the issues and politics of small-scale sustainable agriculture in Alberta. It was hailed by The Globe and Mail as ‘a locavore call to arms’ and in 2013, it won Best Culinary Book at the 2013 High Plains Book Awards in Billings, Montana. It also won the Best (Canadian English-language) Food Literature Award in the 2013 Gourmand World Book Awards.

dee is a long-time coffee aficionado and spends her spare time drinking lattés or wine, painting, reading, watching movies, cooking or sewing, writing, yoga-ing, walking or playing with her pets. She has two sons; both are talented and proficient professional cooks.

1 - How did your first book change your life?
My first book was one of five I wrote about food. I wrote it after I sold my restaurant in 1994. Holding that book when it came off the press was like holding another baby [I have two sons.] With each successive book, I saw myself more and more as writer first and chef second. With my fifth, Foodshed, an examination of the issues and politics behind small-scale sustainable local food production in Alberta, I began to see myself as a writer of literary work and not ‘just’ food books. My next, this poetry collection, Wildness Rushing In, cements that migration from the kitchen. Who knew I was a poet back when I was cooking for a living?

How does your most recent work compare to your previous?
Ha. The newer work is emerging closer to done, for starters. My previous, you’ll remember, that is, my current book, is my 1st poetry collection. I sweated over it for ages as I learned about craft.

How does it feel different?
As I work on my 2nd poetry collection, I’m more conscious of not just craft and form but the idea of my work as ‘book’ as opposed to a collection of pieces. The current work is more political, less autobiographical. More form poems, less internal interrogation, more examination of the external world.

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

I kept showing my poet-friend Rosemary Griebel my awful terrible wanna-be baby poems and she finally said, ‘You should go to Sage Hill.’ That was in 2005. I went that summer, worked with Phil Hall and Sue Goyette in the Intro to poetry and fiction, went back in ’08 to work with Karen Solie, and again in spring 2012 with Barry Dempster, then with Don McKay in spring 2013. Crash course, as such things go. And my partner is Dave Margoshes. We talk about writing poetry and fiction every day!

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project?
It varies. Poetry: I write and write and write, then I look at what I’ve written and pull the common threads.
Fiction: I imagine a character in a particular situation. Then I play ‘What if?’ and keep writing. If it grows too big to fit as a short story, it’s a novel. Some, I talk my way through, like Scheherazade trying on a story for size. Always, I walk it into existence. My novel, I carried around for several years before I had the nerve to start it. Ditto some of my short stories, but others arose out of specific situations, and a couple came together in a first draft. Amazing when that happens. And my essays too, arrive of a piece, and quickly. The time spent afterwards, polishing and addressing form and craft issues, that’s where time piles up.
Sometimes an essay arrives as a poem that needs to be teased and coaxed into being an essay, and vice versa, it’s a fluid boundary, that one between essay and poem.

Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?
Quick quick quick. Quick. Sandra Birdsell, my mentor as I went through writing my novel [as my thesis for my MFA in Writing at the U of S, my defence will be later this summer]  and my partner Dave both harangue me about moving too quickly, writing too rapidly, but it’s how I’m wired. I need to try something on, see if it fits, then re-cut it and do a second or third or fifth basting of seams. I’m so visual, I need to See it, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll pull out the stitches and re-write.

Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape,?
Now they do, mostly. Except for my novel. It’s in its 5th draft at present. I’ve pulled it apart several times, it has a complex structure and several narrative arcs.

… or does your work come out of copious notes?
No. Not poetry or short fiction. I often write a line in my notebook, then come back to it and it grows.
My novel is the exception. I have filled several notebooks, writing around that novel, its characters, plot, place, back story!

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you?
On the driveway [a long one, a causeway surrounded by water and fields], walking with my dogs. I walked my novel and this current poetry book and the one I’m engaging with now, walked them all into being.

Sometimes when reading another poem, someone else’s. A news item will trigger a short story.

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’ve taken both approaches. Both work, depending on the content and state of mind.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Part. I gauge the audience’s reaction to a piece, to its rhythms and words and content.

Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes. A bit of a ham. In small doses. I’m also very fond of being alone. I think that’s a necessity, if one is a writer.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing?
No. I’m a writer, I tell stories, and the litcrit folks can analyze it after the fact.

What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
Who am I? What is this world? How to make sense of it? And of the complexity and bafflement of humanity? Why is there so much pain? What is redemption? How do people find redemption? Is there good and evil in the world? How? Why?

What do you even think the current questions are?
aw shucks, why can’t I have another piece of chocolate? What happens if I do? Are those berries ripe yet? Why? Why? Why not?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?
a mirror. a conscience. a voice.

Does s/he even have one?

Absolutely. She wouldn’t be writing if not.

What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The trickster/joker/Fool-philosopher/truth-teller of the court.

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

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Sleep on it, give it time, wait. Re-read it tomorrow and see how you feel.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)?

I move from poetry to fiction quite seamlessly, almost always have several projects in process, although I immerse myself in one at a time, for short or long periods of time. Just put my head down the well and breathe in the cool air. I don’t write critical prose.

What do you see as the appeal?

Of shifting genres? Some things are poems. Some aren’t. The words dictate the form.
11 – What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one?
I’m a fulltime writer, and I’ve just finished doing my MFA in writing, so my routine is the same now as it was [except for when I had to go in to town to attend workshops and classes]. I’m a pit pony, I like to work, so I put my head down and I work.
Mornings, I do yoga, drink tea and walk, eat breakfast, read what I wrote yesterday, revise it, then write. Afternoons, I write. After dinner, I watch a movie. I like silence, no music, while I work. I write in a 2nd-storey studio with floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows that overlook a large lake that arrived in 2011, with the floods in SK. I watch the waterfowl and shorebirds as I work. 

How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Yoga. Then tea during a walk with the dogs, with binoculars, notepaper and pen in my jacket pocket. Breakfast. Then I sit down to transcribe whatever I wrote on the paper.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go walking. I read. I watch a good movie. Mostly, I walk. We live rurally, so there’s always something to listen to – the chickadees, the crows, the magpies, our dogs and cats, the neighbour’s donkeys, the grackle, the woodpecker, the killdeer, the coots, the geese, the teals…

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Just one? Cedar. Curry. Ocean. Woodsmoke. Horse sweat. Cinnamon, star anise, cloves. Alfalfa. Wet dog. Since the flood, wet marsh.

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?
Mostly nature. Wildlife, scenery, plant life, animals. Visual art and written art, paintings and sculptures. Sometimes science, occasionally music or trying to make sense of philosophy.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Annie Proulx. Louise Gluck. Don McKay. Guy Vanderhaeghe. Dave Margoshes. Guy Vanderhaeghe [again]. MFK Fisher. Alice Munro. Annie Dillard. Pat Lane. PK Page. Jan Zwicky. Phil Hall. Vandana Shiva. Wendell Berry. MFK Fisher. Madeleine Kamman. Michael Pollan. I re-read things.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Blow glass. Spin pots. Make silver jewellery set with stones. Make wine. Make prosciutto and air-cured sausages. Write a sestina. Write a play. Travel Asia and India.
Making things with my hands is an irresistible draw; my maternal family are Hutterite artisans, and my sibs and I all make things.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?
I’ve done a few good ones already; I’ve been a restaurateur, chef and a journalist.
A perfumer, my nose and I are like this.
A vet. I love animals.
A gemmologist. I love stones.
A geologist who wouldn’t work in the oil patch.
A potter, jeweller, clothing designer, fabric artist, winemaker, cheese maker, weaver.

Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A painter.
A winemaker.
A cheese-maker.
A haute couturier.
A sculptor [stone, not metal]
A silversmith.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
First I cooked. Then I wrote down what I’d made. Thought about al the “What if’s?” that arose. What if that cook had an affair? What if that couple lost their child? What if that dog ran in front of a bike and the little girl on it broke her arm? I started with stories. 
Writing is textural, like cooking. Like sewing. They’re all about transformation. Writing gave me a chance to set down the rhythms and stories in my head. Spin words.

19 - What was the last great book you read?

The Horseman’s Graveyard by Jacqueline Baker. Before that, The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney. Before that, The Shell of the Tortoise by Don McKay.

What was the last great film?
Donnie Brasco starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel, my first, titled The Dryland Diaries.
I’m also revising my first short fiction collection, which will be published by Thistledown Press in 2015. Writing new poems. Waiting to settle down and revise my existing poems and see what they are. Writing essays.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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