A Plea for Constant Motion is Paul Carlucci’s sophomore story collection, published by House of Anansi’s Astoria imprint in January 2017. His debut, The Secret Life of Fission, won the 2013 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Individually, his stories have been published in Grain Magazine, filling Station, The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, Little Fiction, Carousel Magazine, EVENT Magazine, Riddle Fence, The Malahat Review, Descant, subTerrain, The Puritan, and others. He lives in Ottawa.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Hard to say. Secret Life wasn’t very popular – I think it sold less than 200 copies – but it did set me on a course that led to the publication of my second book, and I guess taken together those two events have been life-changing, albeit subtlety. I’ve gotten more serious about my writing, more confident in certain aspects of it, regardless of their reception, and at the same time a lot more open to different sorts of reception. My first collection was really sour and negative, with some embarrassing clots of overwriting. Several of the stories in my latest have more of a sense of humour. My rhythms have changed too, and the themes are hopefully more mature. There’s a lot less semen, anyway.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I actually came to non-fiction first, at least professionally. I was a journalist for about ten or eleven years. I freelanced in Toronto, worked at community papers across Canada, and wandered around abroad for two six-month stints. Although I wrote fiction as a kid and intermittently as a journalist, my stories didn’t really start getting published until that career fizzled out. I wasn’t super good at it, but I suppose it came first because I didn’t have to be especially good; I could still make enough money to call it a job, until gradually I lost all my ambition, made very little money, and grew to hate it.
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?
Each story is different. Some come out very quickly, like in a few days, and I don’t really change them all that much, or at least not until some time goes by and I realize they suck terribly. Others suck terribly from the get-go, and little details take a lot of work to snap into place. Occasionally, I start and restart and restart again while searching for the right tone or image or something. Sometimes, that stuff just pours right out. Other times, I take loads of notes, like sheaves of mostly unusable junk, and I do it before and during the actual writing. It’s not really the notes I need in these cases, but just some solidification of a thought. I seldom actually refer back to them. I dunno. There’s no template, really.
4 - Where does a 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?
Stories start in different places. Sometimes it’s a character. Sometimes it’s a theme. Sometimes a setting, an exchange between characters, or an image. I generally have a sense of how long or complicated a thing will be by the time I get serious with it, which I guess is because I’ve thought through a lot of the mechanics by that point. Having said that, things can and do change on the fly, though usually in the direction of more expansive, not less.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m not a huge fan. They’re nerve-racking. I have a hard time listening to other readers because I’m either consumed by the dread of my own turn, or the relief of its passing. I also over-serve myself at these things, and because I never really know anyone else, that can be sort of embarrassing.
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 go through different phases. Agency is a big one, but I guess it is for everyone. I’m also mindful, or at least I have been recently, of how people interact with their surroundings, like how the immediate world takes on elements of the broader world, learned about through the news or history or gossip or something, and what sorts of impacts that can have on a person’s mind. It’s maybe a question of abstract things, like say terrorist events on the news or something, becoming tangible, like say terrorist events that involve a person you know, or that happened in a space you know or occupy. What happens then, in a person’s political make-up? In their social setting? I also like plugging characters in and out of different economic contexts for similar reasons. Like these huge, massive, godlike systems that nudge us this way and that, and every once in a while, snap into perfect focus, so clear we can touch them, before blurring and becoming abstract again. Or they snap into perfect focus and we ignore them, because we’re too obsessed with something personal. I’m not sure there’s any one current question, but if there is, it might be something along those lines: At some point, all this quasi-fictional shit we’re constantly hearing, reading, and watching will reach out and touch us directly; it’ll become very real, and will any of the years of exposure help us process it, or will we just be afraid and confused and angry?
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’m not too sure. Probably the same as it has been historically. Interpret, instigate, record, amuse, entertain, suggest, remark. Different writers will do it in different ways, like how some are more inclined toward social media than others, but I think the changes we’ve experienced are primarily caught up in the ways writers embody the role, rather than the role itself. The role seems pretty unchanging, if only because it’s so varied to begin with.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s essential, and for the most part, I think it’s fun. Editors get a shit rep in writing. There’s this big soloist fallacy that capital-noun Writing self-perpetuates, whereas a lot of other art forms, like, say, film or music, celebrate those backroom types who engineer a record or edit an action sequence. Editors are essential to the process. Good ones make you challenge your assumptions about your work, and even if you disagree with them, you’ve at least thought through something you may’ve previously taken for granted. Outside editors, and even just plain old feedback-offering readers, only benefit a writer’s work.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Read a lot. Live a lot. Sin a little. Stuff like that. Basically, fill your brain.
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 really have one. Just whenever I have time, even to do a little bit, whether it’s taking notes on a phone, in a notebook, or actually typing at a keyboard. But not too much time. Too much time leads to me to do nothing. I need just the right amount of time.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It doesn’t often get stalled per se, but there are dead spaces between stories, and it can sometimes be difficult to fire one up when I have a new idea. When those problems come up, I do different things. Sometimes, I’ll read stuff I like. Other times, repetitive tasks tend to help, from washing dishes to jogging. Sometimes it’s sleep. Sometimes it’s music. Sometimes it’s hanging out. Whatever works to distract myself from overthinking.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
At the moment, some weird tea my girlfriend boils. I don't know what it is. Moss or something. Pretty gross.
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?
Loads of stuff. Music, news, science-y stuff, studies, people right in front of me, things I overhear, things I vaguely remember. The sources are literally endless, but rarely are they found in other books. I do read a lot, but I don’t know. I don’t often find my writing in conversation with someone else’s, although it probably is, and I’m just not conscious of it.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Those would have to be the writers I know personally, published or otherwise. I’ve been fortunate in that professional and established people helped me when I was in a very embryonic state, and that they continue to help me. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have writerly friends who like to talk shop, exchange writing, and kick the bones around. Having a special relationship with a particular book is a great thing, but at least for me, it’s no substitute for having a personal relationship with someone who’s equally interested in writing.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Tough one. I think mostly I’d like to see more places, learn little scraps of whatever languages are spoken there, whatever histories are particular to a place. I like that sort of exploration, and because there’s always more of it to do, it’s simultaneously a thing I’ve done and not done.
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’m not a full-time writer. I just can’t generate the income. But if I were to have pursued a different passion, I’d pick biology. Who doesn’t want to spy on animals all day?
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I really don’t know. I guess it was fun, and most of the time it still is. It’s very satisfying to be published and find readers, but ultimately, it has to be fun alone in front of the computer too. Otherwise, it’d be just another chore.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last book that really blew my mind is called Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. It’s the first of a trilogy of truly out-there eco-sci-fi/philosophy/horror. It’s among the strangest, most gorgeous, and most intense things I’ve ever read. The third installment, called Acceptance, is also pretty cool.
The last really impressive movie I saw was called The Hunt. It’s a Danish movie about a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of molesting one of his students. It’s in fact the student herself who levels the charge, and the movie follows the saga of the community turning against the teacher. It’s staggeringly good.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently trying my hand at a novel, but I don’t really want to say too much about it, mostly because novel-writing has not been my thing, and this latest effort probably won’t come to any great end, either.
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