Lesley Trites is the author of the story collection A Three-Tiered Pastel Dream (May 2017) and the poetry collection echoic mimic. Her fiction and non-fiction have recently appeared in carte blanche, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Maisonneuve. Winner of the 2016 3Macs carte blanche Prize, she lives in Montreal.
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 was a book of poetry, and to tell you the truth I don’t think it changed my life. I still felt like an imposter. But somehow writing my new book, my fiction debut, gave me permission to start thinking of myself as a writer, and I began to feel part of a larger community. At a superficial level, the main way my recent work is different from my previous is that it keeps getting longer: I’ve moved from poetry to short stories, and am now working on a novel.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve loved fiction since I was old enough to read, but when I started writing in my teens and discovered poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, poetry is what came most naturally. I thought in image and metaphor, and I wasn’t able to sustain narrative at that point. This continued through my twenties, when I read and wrote a lot of poetry. After many failed attempts at writing fiction, something finally clicked when I was in my early thirties, and now I think of myself as primarily a fiction writer.
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?
Sometimes the first draft comes quickly, but more often it’s a slow and painful process. And no, the first drafts do not resemble the final shape at all. I love the process of revision, of rewriting and layering in new details. I like tinkering at the sentence level. I do make copious notes, especially for longer projects. I love research, though I have to curb the tendency to spend too much time on research as a form of procrastination. I use Evernote to make short notes or save ideas, fragments, and sources of inspiration.
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?
A character, an image, a poetic line or scrap of dialogue, an idea, a feeling. Something overheard or observed while out in the world, or something I read in the news. These days I’m usually interested in writing something book-length from the start.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do really enjoy doing public readings, though that’s a fairly recent phenomenon. They used to terrify me. But if you’re lucky some other force takes over once the nerves settle down, and it can be kind of magical. I also read my work out loud when I’m alone as part of the revision process, and it helps me think through a piece.
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?
Yes, I have theoretical concerns. When it comes to fiction, though, those concerns usually work themselves in at a subconscious level, and I’m only able to articulate them after I have a draft. The protagonists in my collection are all women, and I was interested in the narratives these characters create for their own lives, and how adhering to or breaking with what they see as the traditional gender roles assigned to them affects those narratives. I was interested in ambivalence and uncertainty, especially surrounding motherhood and relationships. I was also interested in silence, and the repercussions of reserved family environments where many things are repressed and go unsaid.
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 do think writers have a role to play in culture at large, but what that role is will depend on the writer. Broadly — To listen. To pay attention. To be curious. To interrogate and investigate and ask hard questions, and to find a way to articulate what seems unspeakable. To educate and entertain.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Working with an editor on the stories in my collection caused me to push my work in ways I’m not sure it would have developed otherwise. Finding an editor who will give you a healthy balance of encouragement and constructive criticism is so important.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“The Internet is nothing like a cigarette break.” – Dani Shapiro
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
For me it happened pretty organically, and slowly. I think my poetry background informs the way I approach fiction. For me, moving from poetry to short stories made sense; both forms necessitate a certain amount of restraint. Each word, or each sentence, needs a reason for being there. Now I’m trying to learn to think and write like a novelist, after being in short story mode for so long. I’m learning to expand rather than compress. I would love to write more non-fiction, but so far it’s a genre I’ve only dabbled in.
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?
For the last while I’ve had the great luxury of time, so I usually have breakfast and read for a while, and then sit down at my computer with a cup of coffee or tea. I have a daily writing goal—some days I exceed it easily, other days it’s such a struggle. One tip I picked up recently is to keep track of my daily word count on a calendar above my desk. That’s not to suggest that quantity matters over quality; it’s just a way of keeping myself motivated, brokering little daily deals with myself.
That said, I’m about to start a new contract where I’ll be working 9-5, temporarily at least, which will upend this routine. I have this fantasy that the imposed structure will force me to be more productive with my time.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Books. Always books. Or, if I’m actually in the middle of a writing session, I’ll sometimes pick up a literary journal, whatever I have on hand (The Paris Review is a favourite, as is The New Quarterly) and read until I feel inspired again. Sometimes I’ll try to free write by picking a phrase at random from the nearest book. Sometimes I'll listen to an interview with a writer. If none of that works, I'll go for a walk or to the gym or do yoga.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Popcorn, freshly popped in oil on a stovetop, reminds me of my childhood home.
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?
Film. One of the stories in my collection was inspired by a short scene in a film. Nature, in that the landscape of my childhood (swampland, river water, wild animals, fiddleheads, birches and weeping willows) has influenced my writing. Travel.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read a lot of short stories while writing my collection. Some short story writers whose work has been important to me include Lorrie Moore, Lisa Moore, Amy Hempel, Deborah Eisenberg, Lydia Davis, Ottessa Moshfegh, Kathleen Winter, Grace Paley, George Saunders, and Lynn Coady. And so many more. I’m also lucky to have a number of friends who are writers, and they are hugely important to my work and my life. Having a supportive community is what allows me to keep writing.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to translate a novel, and finish a novel of my own. See icebergs in Newfoundland. Learn to scuba dive so I can see the vast underwater world.
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 would love to have been an investigative journalist who travels abroad to report important stories. But that’s still writing, of course. I narrowly escaped becoming a computer programmer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I love books. And words. And sitting alone in a room for long periods of time, existing in a dream state. I’m more comfortable in my mind than in my physical body.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I have no idea why it took me this long to read it.
The last great film was Cléo from 5 to 7, an Agnès Varda film from 1962 (so old I had to borrow the DVD from the library instead of stream it). Paris, French feminism and existential despair. It opens with a tarot reading. It’s 55 years old, yet still felt surprisingly relevant.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel, my first. The main character is an aspiring documentary filmmaker.