Joanna Lilley’s first poetry collection, The Fleece Era, was published in 2014 by Brick Books. Her short story collection, The Birthday Books, will be published in 2015 by Hagios Press in their Strike Fire New Author Series. Joanna has lived in Whitehorse, Yukon, since 2006 after emigrating from the UK. Her awards include first prize in the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival writing contest, second prize in the Dr. William Henry Drummond poetry contest and third prize in The Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron poetry contest. Joanna has also received two Advanced Artist Awards from the Government of Yukon. As part of the Ink writers' collective, she helps to organize literary happenings in Yukon. You can find out more about Joanna at www.joannalilley.com.
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 Fleece Era, which was published earlier this year, is my first book and it has certainly changed my life. I've been striving to get a book published for more than twenty years and it's very strange and wonderful when it finally becomes a reality. Up until it arrived in the post and I had a copy in my hands, I couldn't really believe it would actually happen. Having a book has helped me to feel less anxious about my writing and my identity as a writer. It's like coming out of the closet and admitting that, yes, I do spend hours and hours inside my own head, fingers tapping on the keyboard, and that's okay.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to fiction first. Or even non-fiction first because I desperately wanted to write and I thought becoming a journalist would be how I could do that. It was somehow more socially acceptable to say I was trying to be journalist than that I was trying to be a novelist or poet. It took me quite a while to find the confidence to tell people I wrote fiction, let alone poetry. Now, I'm a poetry convert. I'm not sure how I would manage if I stopped 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?
It really depends on the project. Occasionally, a poem might come almost fully formed and sometimes it can take years of writing and revision. The poems I'm currently working on, which are about extinction and related topics, require a lot of research so I do end up with a lot of notes and sometimes have to work hard to ensure those notes and sense of research are absent from the final version of the poem.
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?
Initially with poetry I was just trying to write poems and wasn't sure I could ever produce a manuscript. The poems would always begin with something that I felt deeply. Now, I write poems with a book-sized project in mind but they still have to start with deep feeling. I think that will always be the case.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy doing readings, particularly joint readings when I get to hear others read as well. I do get nervous though and worry about talking too much. Or too little. Reading a poem out loud to an audience is a wonderful way to get to know it better. Sometimes an audience will surprise me with their reaction and that's when I realize with delight that the poem exists outside of me and I can let it go off and do its thing.
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 don't really know what the current questions are I'm afraid, except the question of how humans can use language to make connections and even create healing. In my own work, I'm trying to answer my own question of how to interpret human experience.
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 think there are many roles for writers. There are so many different kinds of writers and so many different kinds of writing. For me, I am interested in the writer as an translator of the difficulties of existence and helping to remind us that our current way of life is only one way. Writers, in fact all artists, help us pay attention and be mindful. I'm interested in movements such as the Dark Mountain Project which describes itself as a network of artists who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself. I find that hugely exciting.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Only difficult in the sense that I worry the editor will tell me what I've written is rubbish! I really love working with editors and see it as a crucial part of the process. It helps me step back from my writing and write more consciously and mindfully.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Perhaps it comes in a book-sized package: Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. I first came across it in a library many years ago and it simply gave me hope. It helped me persist and persistence is so important when you want to write.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Poetry seems to have become more essential for me than fiction, more fundamental to my existence, whatever that means. However, if I'm writing only poetry then after a while I start to itch to write fiction too. I aim to have a poetry project and a fiction project on the go at the same time but one or the other is always dominant. It's hard to write both poetry and fiction on the same day or even in one week, particularly as I have a full-time job and can't spend hours a day writing.
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?
As I mentioned, I work full-time, so my writing routine is therefore to write each evening or at least do something writing-related every day such as research or sending out submissions. Then at weekends I write for longer. My ideal is to wake up and start writing straight away, before I'm properly awake. It's a magical state of mind to be in. That's a luxury that doesn't happen too often though!
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read. I pick a few books of poetry off my shelf and read a selection of poems. Or, if I'm writing fiction, pick up a novel I love. It only takes moments before I'm ready to have another go myself. Walking the dog in the woods is a wonderful way to jumpstart the writing process too.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of a wood stove. The smell of my husband. My dog's honey ears. The smell of snow.
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?
Visual art. Absolutely. I love going to art galleries with my notebook. I studied art history and did fine art too and now I love going to galleries and looking at whatever I like without any academic analysis, yet with the comfort of a little knowledge. And nature too, being in the landscape helps me feel the connection to being human.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many writers are important to me, poets and novelists in particular. My writer friends are hugely important to me. I feel blessed to know them. I'm in a wonderful novel-writing group here in Whitehorse where I live. We meet once a month and I can't even describe how much that sustains me.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In terms of writing, I would love to get a novel published. I've been trying to do that for twenty years.
In terms of non-writing, I would like to go the islands of the Canadian arctic. I've been to Iqaluit on Baffin Island but only briefly. I hope to make it back there one day. I would love to go to Antarctica too. A writing residency at the north or south pole, wouldn't that be heaven?
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?
It's hard to imagine earning a living from anything that didn't involve words but I'm also aware how privileged that sounds. I don't actually earn a living a writer but I am in public sector communications, which is very much to do with writing. I do quite a lot of editing in my day job which makes me very happy. I love films. I think that's the industry I would otherwise pick.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wrote because I loved reading and wanted to try it for myself. Then I discovered how happy writing makes me. I'm so grateful I made that discovery.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I'm a bit behind the times but I just read Donna Tartt's A Secret History. It was marvellous. The last great film? Anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman in it.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm currently working on a manuscript of poems about extinction. And there's a novel I've been working on for rather a long time. I'm trying to work out what the structure should be and it's a puzzle I haven't solved yet.
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