Anna Leventhal is a Journey Prize-nominated author originally from Winnipeg and currently based in Montreal. Her work has been published in Geist, Matrix, Maisonneuve, The Montreal Review of Books, and several short fiction anthologies, and has been broadcast on CBC radio. She won a Quebec Writing Competition award and was shortlisted in the Canada Writes: Hyperlocal competition. She was contributing editor for the Invisible Publishing collection The Art of Trespassing. Her first collection of short fiction, Sweet Affliction, appeared in April 2014.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
This is my first book. It's been out for about a month; most of my friends are still talking to me, so maybe they haven't read it yet. Not much has changed, except for how I'm now super rich.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I like character and I like narrative voice, and those two things are very present in fiction. Maybe it's because I need distance? I used to do some theatre, and I could only really get into a character if I was allowed to do an accent. Otherwise I felt too self-conscious - I'd get paralyzed with how weird my own voice sounded to my ears. Even if it was a terrible embarrassing accent that no one should ever have to listen to, it gave me enough distance from myself to get really into whatever I was doing. Fiction might be something like that - the idea that you can get into another person's senses and temporarily forget that you're the one ultimately calling the shots. Fiction is the easiest way for me to lose myself in the work.
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?
I don't take notes in preparation to write a story. Usually I have an idea for a first line, or the vague shape of a character, or a dynamic between characters that I want to sit with for a while. From that point it's fairly steady going - but getting to that point can take ages. I can tool around for weeks, looking for the right tone or angle. I revise a lot but try to write a full first draft before I go back and tinker too much.
I'm never sure exactly where a short story is going to end up. There's a point in the writing at which I always think "This could be a novel. This could be Moby Dick." But then the narrative possibilities start to collapse on themselves and I see the story heading toward an end point that is much closer than I might have thought.
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?
When I started Sweet Affliction I did have the idea that it was going to be a book, not just a "collected works" kind of thing. I had characters I wanted to carry over from one story to the next, I had a vibe (for lack of a better term) I wanted to run with. I had themes I wanted to think about, many of which overlap in the stories. That said, I didn't write the individual stories with the other stories in mind, or only peripherally so, like background noise that you can tune out if you want to.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I really like reading out loud, not just my own writing but in general. So I enjoy public readings for that reason, on purely pleasurable terms. In terms of it contributing to my process, I probably get more insight into my work from hearing other people read it than I do from reading it myself. A reader with a good voice can totally change the way you think about what you've written. I'd like to have Gordon Pinsent on retainer.
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?
The main question I try to answer is How do we live? That's a question with theoretical, ethical, and practical answers. More specifically I'm interested in the weirdness of having a body, how we reproduce (people, yeah, but also ideas, structures, problems), what sticks us together and pulls us apart, what makes us do what we think is the right thing.
By definition I think all writing is concerned with transformation, but I don't think about that too hard when I'm writing.
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?
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Try to err on the side of doing something.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
There's the ideal writing day and the typical writing day. On the ideal day I get up, run 5 k, eat breakfast, make coffee, sit down and pound out masterful prose for a few hours, nap, go to my day (night) job. Maybe see a friend for coffee somewhere in there. A typical writing day I make coffee, stare at my computer, check the internet, open a word file, realize I'm out of coffee, make more coffee, check internet, reread what I wrote the day before, pace around, flip through the work of a real writer, make more coffee, realize I'm too caffeinated to write, clean my house, decide I've had enough and watch Buffy for four hours. I aim for the ideal, usually end up closer to the typical.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
For me writing is born less of awe or beauty than of bemusement, frustration, estrangement, confusion. So if I need fuel I can ride the bus, hang out at a bar, watch people in a park or hospital. I get a lot of ideas for writing while on public transit or airplanes. Something about the proximity to humans and the lack of breathable air.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cigarettes and cat pee.
13 - 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?
Once a spider wove an entire perfect orbital web on the chair on my balcony in the time it took me to write and then delete a single paragraph. I tried not to take it personally.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I think influence comes in several overlapping circles: writers who made you want to be a writer in the first place; writers who let you know it's okay to write about what you want to write about; writers you imitate or echo, consciously or not. A few of mine are Annie Dillard, Saul Bellow, Amy Hempel, Grace Paley, Miriam Toews, Sean Michaels, Melissa Bull, Jeff Miller, Michelle Sterling, Miranda July, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O'Connor, Greg Hollingshead, Denis Johnson, Arthur C. Clarke, Lynda Barry.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn to play piano.
16 - 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 think I'd have made a good surgeon.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As poorly suited as I am to a life of writing, I'm way worse at everything else.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi; Jesus Christ Superstar.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A novel, a screenplay, and some new fiction. The novel's been marinating in my hard drive for half a year - I'm hoping that the next time I check on it, it will be unrecognizeable and amazing. The screenplay's gonna make me super rich. The new fiction's ultimate form hasn't totally revealed itself yet but it's pretty fun - it's about work and sex.
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