Leslie Vryenhoek is the acclaimed author of Scrabble Lessons (short fiction) and Gulf (poetry). Her first novel, Ledger of the Open Hand, published in May 2015, looks at how our relationship with money colours how we relate to our loved ones, and how we come to treat love as a balance sheet. Leslie’s work has been published and broadcast across Canada and internationally, winning awards across genres. As a communications specialist, Leslie has worked in advanced education, international development, emergency response, and the arts. A former Manitoban now based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, she is the founding director of Piper’s Frith: Writing at Kilmory. There’s more at www.leslievryenhoek.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?
My first book, Scrabble Lessons (short stories), changed my life by disabusing me of the notion that publishing a book would change my life. Other things, like deciding to change my life, have been much more effective.
Writing those stories, I wasn’t part of a “writing community” yet. I had such confidence in my voice and my ability and felt really comfortable inside the skin of the stories. By the time Scrabble Lessons was published, I’d moved across the country and in with another writer, and I was suddenly surrounded by writers whose own first books had garnered big acclaim, catapulting them into hot careers. My experience was different—and my confidence took a beating. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
So when I began Ledger of the Open Hand, I allowed external advice to rule and dismissed my instincts. It took me a long time to come back to my own voice and intent. Ultimately, though, I think the circuitous journey made me a better writer and produced a better book.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I didn’t come to fiction—or any genre—first. I came to words first—words, and the desire to arrange them in ways that created an understanding, a different way of seeing, both for me and for the reader or listener.
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’s very changeable, project to project. Some things arrive whole in my head—so immediate, so just there that I can’t scribble fast enough to get them down. Those are the best experiences—and usually the best pieces.
More often, whatever I’m writing will emerge as I’m writing it, unspooling just far enough out in front to keep me moving, the way an unfamiliar highway does when you drive it at night. The trick, I find, is to not to speed up and overdrive the headlights.
I jot notes when I’m conceiving a larger project, before it’s gelled enough to start typing. But I end up ignoring most of them. I go back to writing out notes when I’m editing, redrafting, rethinking—that for me is where the best creative work happens, and those notes prove far more useful.
4 - Where does a poem or work of 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?
There’s always some seed—some idea or character I want to get inside, so I have to find the best way to get at it. It’s intuitive. Usually I know quickly if it’s a poem or a short story, an essay or a novel. I’ve never started anything thinking it would be short and then had it develop into something longer—a story that became a novel, for example—but I’ve sure embarked on long narratives, only to realize I didn’t have that much to say after all.
What it’s all to become is often less obvious. Stories and poems often begin as discrete, and then I realize there’s something larger evolving, some vein I’m mining.
5 – Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love reading. I love microphones. Maybe I love being the centre of attention. I’m the sort who needs to be disciplined about a time limit (and I am) because I could stand up there and read the whole damn book as long as I thought people were (even politely) listening. The magic of it is in seeing how the audience responds—because you rarely get to hang over someone’s shoulder while they’re reading your stuff.
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?
When another writer said to me, “We all have some core issue we return to in different ways, hoping to resolve it,” I realized my thing might be “But it’s not fair.” I’m not sure that actually qualifies as a theoretical concern so much as my inner four-year-old’s lament, but the imbalance of give and take in life—certainly in relationships—seems to keep coming up. I suppose the question behind it that interests me is just how much luck, good and bad, plays in the average life, how much is what we’re dealt and how much is what we choose. In Ledger, the uneven distribution of life’s rewards, of good fortune and good feelings, love and money, are undercurrents throughout the novel. In a small way, in a microscopic way, I’m trying to interrogate the larger issues about inherent inequity in the way the world works.
I also return, over and over, to the concept of belonging. The poetry in Gulf was concerned with how to define home. A new project that’s hovering in my peripheral vision and just starting to coalesce is focused on what it means to belong to a place—who gets to claim it and whether it’s granted externally or found within.
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?
God, that’s the question that’ll keep me up all night. I don’t have anything close to a solid answer, so allow me to equivocate. I think there are as many roles as there are writers. There’s room for entertaining, and there’s room (sometimes in the same house) for the hard reality of deep journalism. Most of us, writing in any genre, are trying to reveal something, small or large, about the world in which we find ourselves.
But we are at a very tricky place in our evolution—as a nation, as a global community—and a century or two from now, people are going to scour what we’re creating today for some understanding about how we got here and how we responded, and I’m hoping there are a few good writers who will last to shed some honest light on the early part of the 21st century.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Utterly essential, once the work is far enough along. It’s like having someone come into your new house after you’ve arranged the furniture and say, “You know, if you just moved that there and turned it sideways, you’d open up the whole space.” What a different brain can see always amazes me.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Annie Dillard—and I’m very much paraphrasing—said something like, “Don’t hoard the best stuff. Use it and trust more good stuff will come.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s easy across a long span of time, though when I’m working in a particular genre I stay there. Usually for months. I can switch gears between two prose pieces, but I can’t write a poem in the morning and a story in the evening. I wish I could, because poetry opens up channels for using language and emphasizes potency and brevity in a way that is very good for my prose.
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?
I tend to have a lot of obligations—contract and volunteer work, family responsibilities, online Scrabble games—so my routines are always changing. As a result, I write in big, concentrated blocks, quite obsessively for days at a time when the world isn’t pulling on my sleeve. I would love to be able to write a few hours each morning, but when I get going I have trouble stopping. So I like to clear my schedule and then write like mad.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Much depends on the nature of the stall. A long, fast walk if I’m just jammed. Our old country house in a small Newfoundland outport if I’m utterly lost. Vodka if I’ve just lost my nerve.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My head went straight to: Home? Please define your terms. My gut went straight to lilacs. Lilacs and Ozonal.
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?
Conversations, whether they involve me or not. Eavesdropping, especially when I have to fill in the blanks. Also news stories that leave something to the imagination. Much like Daneen in Ledger, I pilfer other people’s juicy details, plunder their screwed up families.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My husband is a writer, and a fantastic cook. He feeds me, which I find essential to my work. Also, sometimes other writers invite us over and feed us. Very important. Especially if they let something slip about their screwed up families over the main course.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
1. Write a screenplay. 2. Hike by myself through the southwestern US—Utah, Nevada, New Mexico. I’m certain there’s something waiting for me there, though I have no idea what. Death by tarantula, perhaps.
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?
For many years I worked in communications—public relations, all that—which is part writing, but also the opposite of writing in the sense we’re talking about here. And I loved it: loved honing the message, loved managing crises, loved deflecting the heat in heated interviews. The desire to focus on my own writing took me away from that career, but I might go back to it yet if the right opportunity presents itself.
My other fantasy career: house painter (interiors only and get to pick the colours).
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I did do something else. And then something else and something else again, all in a vain attempt not to write. But the writing kept banging on my door, so I let it in and then bam, next thing I knew I got used to not having to leave the house every morning—and to asserting ideas that were actually my own.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill recently blew me away. Gorgeous, evocative, gutting. The last great film I saw was probably a television series: Scott & Bailey comes immediately to mind. I’m enamoured of the TV that’s happening these days, especially in Britain and Scandinavia. Sharp writing, complex characters, and no pat answers.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a pretty solid idea for another novel that I’ve just started about interconnectivity—in nature, among people, and through the internet—and the near impossibility of escaping the past. But just now I’m longing to write something short and saucy, so I might detour into short stories to satisfy that craving.