Amber McMillan is a teacher and writer living on Protection Island BC with her partner, daughter and two cats. Her first collection of poems We Can't Ever Do This Again is out this spring with Wolsak and Wynn.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Having made a book at all means that what I wrote will make it into the hands of someone other than me, and that makes me feel grateful. My most recent stab at things is a collection of short fiction that I haven't finished. I don't know how it's different yet because it has a lot of the same feelings as a book of poems. I know it is different, but I can't figure how just yet.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I'm still thinking about the distinctions between those genres and what they might mean, but put simply, poetry generally comes in smaller, more manageable sizes, and for that reason, was a good starting point for me. By contrast, a novel is a pretty daunting undertaking to my mind. I don't know how people write them, actually. It's very impressive to me that they do.
On a more personal level, the thought has crossed my mind that I prefer to write poetry because I don't have the creative or intellectual stamina to commit to anything longer, and that this might point to a character flaw in me that is worth considering.
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?
The "project" and the writing can come quickly. The slow parts are the periods where doubt comes in and I'm forced to turn over, defend, and sometimes toss out things that can't be pushed through to the other side for any number of reasons. But that's not really about writing; that process happens in all kinds of different areas in a person's life.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
The beginning is usually a line or a few particular words that I then try to bed into some coherent context. I haven't yet been able to begin a poem with the first word or first line and then write it to the end. I don't think I even want to do that. And I usually write a bigger poem then what I end up with. I write a bunch and then cut out a bunch and then it's done. I can't speak much more on the subject because I've only written one book and I'm not 100% sure how that actually happened.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I realized early that I would never make a good criminal because I'm a person that gets very nervous and clumsy when I feel there are too many eyes on me for any reason, like a public reading or a noon-hour bank robbery, for example.
I hope reading in public gets easier for me, and with that, comes with more pleasure than it does now, but I'm not convinced it ever will. On the other hand, I've noticed that there are folks that seem really comfortable reading in public and what they give is so confident and full that I can't help enjoying the experience of watching. These are people with a lot of practice and some natural talent for humour and sincerity, and that is something to see.
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?
Maybe the current questions are something like: What's important to say? What's worth putting out there? Why? Then what?
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?
It's just one way to talk about things. One way among lots and lots of ways.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it's essential because everyone needs an editor, but I also think it can be difficult. But so what. Difficult is good too.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
For all its simplicity, "People will always do what they want to do" has turned out to be a very complicated truth, and has given me understanding into many of my life's frustrations. That one's from my mum.
Also, "Just be a nice person." - The Flaming Lips
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?
I don't have a routine. A typical day is about getting my kid ready for school, going to and from work, grocery shopping, sweeping, feeding the cats, paying bills, and sourcing out ways to get time to myself.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Alcohol, insomnia, vulnerability, quiet and boredom.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Wood stain and varnish. My Opa was a carpenter and had a furniture store in London, ON where he built chairs, tables, etc. He also used the store to show off the unfinished Mennonite furniture he would drive for hours to pick up in his truck. My cousins and I spent a lot of our weekend and after school hours in the furniture store because it was a family-run business and all of our parents worked there. Needless to say, Opa's workshop at the back of the store, the store itself, and the inside of his truck, all smelled like wood shavings, wood stain, and varnish. Even years later, when I no longer went to that store anymore, those smells were always around: on my family's clothes, in the garage, in Opa's second or third workshop that he kept in my mum's backyard. Just all my life.
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?
My ordinary influence is to address my own troubles by writing them out and trying to solve some menacing, nagging question. So, in that way, nature or music or science can be rigged up to serve any manner of metaphor to achieve that solution. Or to appear to solve. Or to come close to solving.
David W. McFadden also said, "Neither apologize nor forgive," which helps too.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I'm probably in the minority here, but reading criticism at university was the single most important reading I've done. I'm talking about scholarly essays by hardcore academics and theorists. Then later as an instructor, re-reading and discussing that criticism with my students doubled its importance. That kind of reading taught me how to organize my thinking in ways I have leaned on ever since.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I just really want to get over my fear of dogs. It's so inconvenient and makes me feel like such a weirdo.
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?
Since I was a teenager, I wanted to be a doctor. I didn't have the grades though and so my parents encouraged me to go to art school.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I tried a couple of other things first like being in bands and studying drawing in college. These decisions brought good things and I don't regret them, but there's something unobtrusive and civil about writing poems that I couldn't achieve in my earlier attempts at art.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
So, I live with a man who had written a book before I met him. This book contained a life story close to his own. When it was published, I didn't read it and then I didn't read it for a year after it was published. The next year I read it and it was the last great book I read; Nathaniel G. Moore's Savage 1986-2011, which has since won the ReLit Award in the category of fiction, so I guess I'm not the only one who thought it was great.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of stories about living on Protection Island, BC where I've just spent a year. This looks like non-fiction/fiction/poetry and it's hard to do. I've had to face and tread through a lot of questions about the ethics, integrity, goals for, and hidden motivations of having chosen to write this.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;