Emily Ursuliak’s first collection of poetry, Throwing the Diamond Hitch, has been released by the University of Calgary Press. She is passionate about libraries and making radio content about literary things for her show Writer’s Block on CJSW. She will be teaching two upcoming workshops for the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society: Writing with the Senses, in the summer, and Truth, Lies and Historical Fiction, an eight week course that will run next September.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
After trying for a few years to get a book published, I don’t think it’s surprising for any writer to have doubts about whether or not it’s any good, or if they should maybe just chuck the whole thing and start over. I knew the process would take time, but I definitely had doubts about whether my book would ever see the light of day. There’s something very special about seeing your work bound as a physical object. It’s definitely made me feel more “legit” as a writer.
Now that I’ve found a home for Throwing the Diamond Hitch, I’m trying to finish up another project I’ve been working on at the same time, a novel about Elizabeth Siddal. I’ve also written a few poems for a new book inspired by fashion designer Alexander McQueen. I think both of these projects are a lot darker and more disturbing.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I also write fiction and alternate back and forth between the two, but I definitely did come to poetry first. I started writing poetry when I was really young, before I was even in school. The first distinct memory I have of writing is probably when I was about seven. I had a fistful of looseleaf in one hand and a pen in the other and I was trying to find a quiet place on our acreage where I could get away from my little brother because I wanted to write a poem about how the wind made the trees move. I have no clue why I wanted to do that though, I feel like maybe it could be a combination of things. Poetry was always very present in my family on my mother’s side. At family gatherings it isn’t unusual for aunts and uncles to recite poetry around the campfire after a few glasses of wine have been enjoyed. I also grew up in rural central Alberta where there’s a lot of rolling hills and dramatic skies, and there’s something poetic about that landscape.
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 think the timeline varies a lot for each project. I do like to sit with an idea for awhile before I start working on it though. I’m a bit of an overly optimistic dreamer and I have a tendency to get really overexcited about an idea, and then the next day feel like it’s absolutely ridiculous and stupid. If an idea for a project manages to stay with me for a few months or more then I feel like it’s safe to invest my time into.
Sometimes the writing comes quickly and sometimes it comes slowly, it really depends on the day. I do tend to make a lot of notes for projects. For Throwing the Diamond Hitch I was in a sense “adapting” a travel diary into a collection of poems, so it was a matter of reading the diary and then taking notes about moments I wanted to turn into poems.
I have a lot of different notes for my novel too: my initial research notes, a colour-coded chapter breakdown of the book and notes to myself about what I’m hoping to achieve for each revision. I go for long periods when I’m not able to work on the novel, so if I don’t have reminders for myself I just end up looking at the 270-some pages I have and think “What was I doing with this again?"
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?
I’ve definitely gravitated towards the “working on a book” strategy for poetry. I find it reassuring to have some overall concept that I can break down into different poems. I have written little one-off poems, but I’m not sure that they’ll ever end up in any book. Who knows, maybe these little poems I’ve written here and there will jump out at me ten years from now and totally up-end my entire strategy.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I really enjoy readings! So much of being a writer is writing this thing and then hoping that some day somebody reads it and likes it, but it’s not like you get to actually be there when they do (unless you’re planning on stalking people who buy your books). When I read something out loud I get to hear what impact it has. And sure, sometimes things fall flat and audiences can be fickle and you have to either learn from that, or not take it personally, but when people laugh, or cringe at something I’ve written it’s really rewarding.
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 definitely identify as a feminist and that does impact what I’m writing about and how I approach the topic. In Throwing the Diamond Hitch, and in the novel I’m working on, I’m interested in telling women’s stories and telling them in more complex, nuanced ways. I’m also just interested in people in general, their beliefs, the way they see themselves versus how they actually are, their driving motivations, etc.. I’m very character focused in my work and the questions change depending on the character.
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 don’t think there’s one all-encompassing role for a writer to have. I think the role is going to depend on the writer. Some writers are provocateurs, some are nurturers, some are activists. I guess I see my role as being someone who observers, interprets, and records moments from life. Hopefully by recording my interpretations someone will gain something, even if it’s just entertainment. I don’t have any control over what someone will take from something I’ve written though. I can only hope that I’ve given them something of value.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I worked with Helen Hajnoczky for this book and her feedback was extremely helpful. I think one of the major challenges for this collection of poetry is that the poems have to work together to tell a story, and Helen was able to give me feedback that assisted with strengthening the overall narrative as well as the individual poems.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’ve been watching Chef’s Table lately because I enjoy learning about creative processes in a field entirely different from mine. One of the episodes was about this buddhist monk, Jeong Kwan, who is also known as a chef. This is what she had to say about her approach to creativity: “Creativity and ego cannot go together . . . You must not be owned by the environment you are in.” I think I was way too “owned by my environment” when I first came to Calgary.
Some of the mentorship I received when I first arrived in Calgary was very focused on winning awards and getting accolades and talking yourself up. I went from being very unsure of myself as a writer to being a little too sure of myself due to compliments given to me. In the last couple of years I’ve been focusing on trying to find my way to some kind of middle-ground. I don’t think it’s healthy to put yourself down as a writer, but being too cocky is also toxic. Awards are lovely, but I don’t want to think of them as some kind of end goal for my work, because I feel like its important for me to love writing for the sake of writing itself. I think creating for the sake of winning an award isn’t going to lead to a satisfying creative life.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
There’s a bit of recalibration that happens when I switch back and forth between the two, but I enjoy how the two inform each other, and also the differences in scale. For poetry I often feeling like I’m building a tiny ship inside a glass bottle, whereas fiction feels like taking a horse out into a wide-open field and letting him gallop.
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 wish I had a routine. It’s changed a lot over the years. Right now my routine is: try to balance multiple part time jobs and a second graduate degree for four months and then write like a mad fiend for the three week semester break I have in-between. It’s not ideal, but I feel like getting a Masters in Library and Information Science will give me the kind of job that will allow me to be a writer while still living a relatively comfortable life.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Walks help a lot. Because I grew up in a rural environment I need to escape from the city sometimes. I’m lucky because I have a lovely park within walking distance and when I want something a little less manicured and a bit more wild I drive over to Nose Hill park. From a distance Nose Hill looks like a bunch of arid hills, but it's full of secret woodland pockets, wildlife, and explosions of prairie wildflowers.
I also like to read books about writing or creativity. I’ve just started Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia. I really love how she talks about her writing process. I really hope that that idiotic Italian reporter hasn’t mucked everything up for us and that she’ll continue writing.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
While I love my little basement suite where I currently live, and the city of Calgary in general, “home” is still my parent’s acreage in central Alberta where I grew up. The smell I associate with that place is the smell of our horse barn, which I spent a lot of time in as a kid. Our barn has a whole collection of different scents: the musty, leafy smell of hay and straw, the rich scent of leather from the tack room, the earthy/clover smell of horses, and of course horse manure, which I don’t really find that unpleasant smelling to be honest. I always used to tell city people that came to visit us to think of horse manure as “reconstituted grass.”
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?
I’ve already mentioned how watching Chef’s Table has been an unexpected source of inspiration and I think I’m inspired a lot by creativity outside of “writer world.” My boyfriend is a musician, we collaborated together for one of the poems I read at my launch: he composed music to go with my reading. Working with him on that process, as well as watching him work on his own projects, has been very inspiring to me.
Another collaboration that came out of this book was the book trailer that my brother made for me. My brother is a cinematographer and filmmaker and talking with him about telling stories on film is always really interesting to me. A couple of years ago we did a sibling writing retreat at a secluded family cabin and it was a great opportunity for us to swap stories about our creative processes.
Outside of writing I also have a plethora of creative hobbies, probably too many really. I play the djembe, am part of a fusion belly dance troupe, do handcrafts, such as felting and knitting, and I’ve also got back into drawing, which is something I haven’t done for awhile. I think all of those things find their way into my work somehow.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I did a writing retreat with Lawrence Hill (Larry) last April and that was a really rejuvenating experience for me. It was an historical fiction retreat, which I wanted to attend since my novel is set in Victorian England. Larry’s writing style is very different from my own, so I was a bit concerned that he wouldn’t get what I was trying to do with my book and would tell me that my writing style was too weird. I had the complete opposite experience with him. Not only did he completely get it, but he was very enthusiastic about it, and able to point out areas where I had made mistakes that were working against my intention. I was really impressed by not only his mentorship abilities, but also the way he acted towards everyone in our small writing intensive and the larger creative community at The Banff Centre. He is a very generous, giving person and also very humble and grounded. He’s definitely become someone that I look up to and a role model for the way I want to comport myself as a writer.
I mentioned I was reading Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia earlier, her writing and her approach to the writing life are really fascinating to me. I think fame, while being enticing, can also end up being quite toxic, so her decision to be anonymous is very intriguing. I’m looking forward to reading more of her fiction as well. So far I’ve only managed to get my hands on her novel Troubling Love, but I was so impressed by how uncomfortable she makes you feel as a reader, and sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint how exactly she has achieved that effect. I’d like to read more of her work to delve into that a little bit deeper, since I’m often trying to make readers feel uncomfortable in my current projects.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I feel like there’s a lot of potential ways to answer that question, but what I most want to do right now is finish my damn novel. Novels take time, and I don’t want to rush it, but at the same time I have new projects I want to start working on and I can’t start in earnest on them until I get this current one finished.
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?
I wanted to take psychology as a minor when I was a undergraduate student, but wasn’t able to. I think I might have enjoyed being a therapist, because I find people really fascinating and would have found it rewarding trying to help them discover alternative ways of dealing with issues.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is an obsessive compulsion for me. I feel better when I’m actively engaged in it and feel frustrated when I’m not able to do it. Sadly it’s not something I feel I can make a living at, so I often am “doing something else,” which currently consists of working at a library and trying to get an MLIS so I can get a better position at the library. Luckily I love libraries almost as much as I love writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read Mischling, by Affinity Konar, back in the fall. As important as I think narratives about the Holocaust are, I’m not generally drawn to read them. I had to read Mischling for a radio interview and I’m really glad I did. It’s about twin sisters who become a part of Dr. Mengele’s “zoo”. The book is devastating and difficult to read at times, but the voices of those two characters are so strong and unique that you can’t help but be drawn into the book.
The last great film I watched was Le Week-End, a very charming movie about an older couple who travel to Paris to reignite the spark in their relationship. I thought it did a brilliant job of capturing the beautiful and painful messiness that is life.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I feel like this won’t come as much of a surprise at this point in the interview: the novel.
Outside of writing I’ve also been working on making my first wet-felted cloche hat. I’ve had this dream of making my own hats for awhile, and after a couple of years of learning and practicing, I think I might be able to make it happen this spring.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;