Saturday, April 21, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Liz Harmer

Liz Harmer is the author of The Amateurs (Knopf Canada, April 2018). Her essays and stories have been published widely, in such places as The New Quarterly, Hazlitt, Literary Hub, and The Malahat Review. She has been nominated for three National Magazine Awards, one of which she won.



1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

How (and whether) my first book changes my life remains to be seen. I will let you know.

Across my work I seem to be preoccupied with many of the same questions. The Amateurs, the novel to be released this year, has speculative elements that most of my other fiction does not. It has portals! Even so, in all my work I’m interested in questions of how we put society together (on which principles), and when to hold fast to commitments and when to be open to change. In all of my work I’m interested in how we know what’s real, what’s right, what’s true (if we can), and so I’m always circling back to topics like mental illness and religious belief. This comes out in The Amateurs in lucid dreams, hallucinations, memory loss, and a variety of other ways.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I was always writing the kind of stuff I was reading, and I got into an early habit of narrating my own movements and thoughts. I was writing fiction as a young kid, then I wrote loads of poetry as a teenager, and moved into nonfiction and fiction again in my twenties. I think it’s a mimetic tendency, and it has to do with what makes me feel free. I have heard that many people find writing to be torture—“I like having written” is how the quote goes I think—but I don’t find fiction writing to be torturous in this way. I do find writing poetry to be difficult, like pushing muscles to exhaustion in a workout.

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?

My writing comes relatively quickly, but the process is different all the time. For The Amateurs I had been writing around the ideas for a while. I had written a whimsical time travel story about heartbreak and loss, about two characters named Marie and Jason that feature prominently in the novel. I think I even tried to write it as a play at a certain point. I am decidedly not an outliner, so drafts, which often come quickly, end up being like outlines. I have to endlessly revise and rewrite and wriggle around in my drafts. I write many many many words. I’m not shy about starting things. Feeling finished is harder.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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?

Several of the other projects I’m working on are always on my mind—sometimes I sit down and write sections of them in a surge, or I’m reading around them and thinking about them. For instance, the novel I’m working on now has characters in it and situations I’ve been writing for maybe nine years, but I didn’t start working on it as a novel in earnest until three years ago. But I have another long project I’ve been working on for years and years, producing and publishing the odd essay, finishing poems, doing lots of research, and I still have no idea what form it will finally take.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I get very nervous doing readings, but I enjoy the thrill. I like being out in the world and meeting other people, and I haven’t noticed an effect on my creative process. For good or for ill, I like to splash my personality around, to paraphrase a character in The Golden Notebook.

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?

One thing I’m obsessed by is a question of how to live. It comes out of an anxiety about how little can be known about where to put one’s faith and about the future. I love Jane Austen for this reason—it feels like she’s testing out ways of living (prudence or daring, for example)—and I’m obsessed by what an Austen scholar named Marcia McClintock Folsom, writing about Emma, calls the epistemological problem of daily life—“we often feel that we do not understand what is going on.” I guess I’d put this even more strongly: most of the time we have no idea what is going on. So: how to live, what we know—these are my current obsessions. Going along with them are questions of commitment in domains of love and religious faith, questions of mental health and illness, ordinary morality as a worthwhile subject.

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 have too much self-doubt for this question! But I guess that I have found in my life that the arts, the literary arts especially, are a great and often primary consolation. I am soothed by beauty and ambiguity and careful thinking and introspection and observation—perhaps it is shallow to need soothing, but I don’t think so. Other lifelong readers I’m sure can relate to the fact that everything you read has a part in shaping one’s views and even, I think, one’s behavior. And the impulse to write comes out of that desire to be part of that long conversation about what it means to be human and to be living in the world—it is a religious impulse, somewhat. The role is crucial but small, because the writer must be one voice among many, and must never be overpowering.

Does the writer have a role outside of their writing? I guess I would want to believe that writers can live up to the gifts bestowed on them by their imagination. I want them to be great empaths and careful thinkers all the time. But of course writers are flawed and sometimes myopic and petty and disappointing, like everybody else.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential, definitely. I’m too proud and it’s no good for me to be too isolated. It’s a tough balance, but another muscle to work—do you find this, too?—to know how to hear and take criticism. Same problem I always face. But with The Amateurs I worked with two brilliant editors at Knopf with tons of experience—Lynn Henry and Amanda Lewis—as well as working with a mentor and listening to feedback from my good friend Seyward Goodhand and my husband Adam Harmer. I had very smart eyes on my work, which, if you can stand it, is a gift. Adam used to sit through me reading drafts of my novel aloud (okay, he still does this) and I could tell by his body language or the faces he was making whether something was working or making him cringe, and he has been helping me desentimentalize my sentences for years.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

The most useful advice is from Richard Bausch, who advises young writers to train themselves to write anywhere. For an example, he talked about writing while a child napped on his chest. I took this to heart, or I’d never get anything done. I am not superstitious about my routine. Sometimes I write in a corner of the living room while the kids are running around. I have written with a baby sleeping on me.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to essays to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

The appeal for switching between genres is a desire for novelty, I think. I find it hard to be totally and exclusively devoted to a very long project, and while I’m working on a novel it is a relief for me to work on shorter pieces. Takes the pressure off. I’m not monogamous in my work. It has been said many times before, but the expansion of the novel feels very different than the contraction of a story. They are different mental spaces, just as the space of essay—that always feels to me like pushing at a boundary—is different again. A novel never flows out of me the way a story does; stories don’t torment me the way novels do. Essays give me a chance to explore ideas using my own voice, which makes them much less ironizing or distancing then my stories might try to be.

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?

A typical writing day: walk the kids to school and come home to write from 8:30 until noon. Try not to get distracted by email, social media, self-doubt. Find gaps to write in: when the kids are distracted, when I’m waiting for class to start. Sometimes I get up early on weekends to write between 6 and 8 a.m. Most days are not straightforward like this, but I am reading, writing, or revising something every single day. Always feeding the work.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I give up on whatever I’m working on that’s stalled and work on something else. Or I start the thing from scratch without referring to the previous version. Another thing to do is to read as a palate cleanser: I read across many styles and eras so that I can pick something up and read it and that will charge me up. I use prompts from a writer friend. Going out and having cultural experiences—galleries, talks with artistic or inspiring friends, films—can work to fill me, too. I am rarely stalled for significant lengths of time, maybe because I have been doing this long enough that I know such feelings to be temporary.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Good question! I don’t know what home is anymore. The smell of jasmine is becoming associated with living in California. Whenever I smell strong pine sap smells I feel nostalgia for Ontario and New York State. My mom’s speculaas squares baking in an oven—a mix of ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves—will probably have me crying like a baby.

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?

Visual art and music offer moods and something deeper than what words can often get at for me, and intuitions. Watching films often makes me feel ready to make art. I try to be enriched by many things. Certain natural spaces, kinds of weather, and the awe I feel at the immensity of the universe, all these make me want to make art. Writing is my mode of response to beauty and terror and tragedy and love and the rest of the human experience, but that other kinds of responses to beauty and terror and tragedy and love and the rest feed my writing.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My forever answers are Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf’s writing offered an early model for how to live unapologetically, and I have been moved deeply by both her fiction and her nonfiction. Jane Austen, via my father, was a part of my moral education. The stories and language of the Bible are always weaving into my thinking, as does Shakespeare and certain poems. I try to read everything Zadie Smith publishes. Other contemporary writers I feel invested in are Rachel Cusk, Heather O’Neill, and Elena Ferrante.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

A thousand things. I want to learn more languages. I want to act in a play and learn new art forms. I want to absorb myself deeply in a big research project. I want to get better at writing poetry.

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’m am interested in so many kinds of lives, and have contemplated many occupations. I have come closest to academic work, teaching, librarianship, journalism, publishing. I have considered becoming a doctor or a midwife (I like the energy around hospitals and around births). I love visual arts, galleries—thought I’d like to be an artist or art historian. Briefly I thought I would become a minister or a nun. Or an entrepreneur. I have dreamed of working at airports. I have dreamed of homesteading.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

When I am feeling dark, I sometimes worry that I am ill-suited to anything else: too moody, too difficult. But really, I was just always wanting to do it since I was a little kid. I was the kind of kid writing “novels” in my spare time at age 8. When I started a PhD, I started writing a novel on the side to cope with stress. It took me quite a while to figure out how to make writing a career or a life—how to train myself or find my way in. I spent quite a bit of time being in love and having children…these are my excuses for why it has taken me a relatively long time to publish my first book, since I have always seen myself as a writer.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: I will say that Sina Queyras’s My Ariel, a book of poetry that engages with Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, was full of gifts for me as a parent-writer-woman-etc. It’s so smart and so well done that I feel inspired to do better.

Film: I just watched Call Me By Your Name, which is breathtaking, and Lady Bird, which had me both laughing and sobbing. Timothée Chalamet is in both these films, incidentally.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I have finished a draft of a second novel (a social realist novel) and I’m working on a third (a love & doom story along the lines of Alice Munro or Madame Bovary). I’ve also been amassing research and working on portions of a long project that is probably nonfiction about my family history of mental illness. I think it is also about faith and marriage (as is the second novel). I have been working on some oddball stories as well, that involved animal metaphors of courtship behavior. Too many projects!

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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