Natalie Appleton is an award-winning Canadian writer living in Vernon, BC. She is a graduate of the University of Regina School of Journalism and the MA in Creative Writing (Narrative non-fiction) program at City University London, UK.
Natalie’s literary memoir, I Have Something to Tell You (Ravenscrag Press) recently launched with praise from Alix Hawley, Elizabeth Eaves and Theo Pauline Nestor.
In her former life as a journalist, she worked at newspapers across western Canada and her stories have appeared in publications around the world, including Natalie recently won Prairie Fire’s Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Contest, and her short non-fiction story Fourth Son of Fourth Wife was longlisted for the 2016 CBC Creative Non-fiction Contest.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I think I grew up as I wrote this book, or the book grew up with me. In later years and drafts, as I weaved in the meaning of events long after I’d told the facts, I had to use the perspective of my older self to understand not just my own choices but the choices of others, and how you can’t isolate events; they’re a culmination of years of moments and things we’ve done and things people have done to us. I gained an empathy I didn’t have before and saw my family members as individuals with pasts and stories of their own.
2 - How did you come to journalism first, as opposed to, say, fiction, poetry or non-fiction?
I fell in love with writing as a teenager, but I realized I was going to need a way to pay the bills. I was good at asking questions and one of those high school aptitude tests pointed to journalism, so I thought that sounded like a good plan. I went to journalism school and got a job at the daily in my hometown, thinking someday I would become ‘a real writer.’ I discovered I didn’t have the stomach for the aggressiveness hard news sometimes calls for, but I was enchanted with writing longer, human interest type features. I wrote narrative non-fiction strictly until I was in my early thirties, and then suddenly had an appetite for fiction and poetry. At first the idea of curling a narrative around something I could make up kind of frightened me, after years of having someone’s story arc laid out. I still prefer to write long-form journalism and narrative non-fiction, but I’m fond of writing poetry and fiction now as well.
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 depends so much. I tend to do an enormous amount of research for every project, from novels to a single poem—because my poetry tends to be an act of journalism. The writing, albeit flawed in that first draft kind of way, does come quickly if I stick with it. Unfortunately, with trying to earn a living and keep a few little humans alive on the side, I never have extended swaths of time. Poetry tends to look more or less like itself from start to finish, but I seem to do much more editing for narrative non-fiction and poetry.
4 - Where does a poem or 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?
Poems, for me, usually come from something I’ve read or experienced that angered me in some way. The Annie Pootoogook poem I wrote that won Prairie Fire’s Bliss Carman Poetry Award began after reading of her death in a national newspaper. I happened to be working on a series of poems about missing and murdered Indigenous women and men—and that project stemmed hearing about a Saskatchewan serial killer I’d heard of 15 years earlier, in university. Annie’s story was a terrible and unfortunately fitting last poem in that manuscript.
I do seem to be drawn to writing books, though I don’t always know it, or I try to avoid it, at the start.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings can feel so vulnerable and sometimes I feel nervous, until I’m a few lines in and I feel the story kind of taking over, coming to life, and I forget myself. I don’t dread readings themselves, but if I never had to do a Q&A or discussion again, that would be fine with me.
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?
Of course. I think with I Have Something to Tell You, I was trying to figure out what makes some people remain stuck, and others to take leaps. What our own ways of knowing are. How we cling to stories—our real and made-up stories, other people’s stories—as we defend the steps we do or don’t take.
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?
On one hand I think wouldn’t it be nice to write and to have people read my writing for the joy of the story and the fact the world doesn’t actually depend on it. But the journalist in me also knows this is how we effect change, telling stories.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential, absolutely, especially for memoir. It’s a story that you lived, first, and second, are re-living as you write about it. You need an outsider to ask questions about connections that you might not consider on your own anymore because you can hardly see the forest for the trees.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
That what other people think of you is none of your business—good advice for any memoirist. I also read a Sarah Polley interview recently, in which she recalled advice given to her by Margaret Atwood, about standing up straight and using her voice. Good advice for any writer or woman, I think.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (journalism to poetry to short fiction to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?
For me they seem to have entirely different functions. Journalism is how I tell the true stories of others about issues I think are important or people with stories that are simply beautiful, often heartbreaking, in some way, for some greater, collective cause. Poetry is a way for me to write about those stories while letting me kind of step into the picture and have a voice about those people, compressing and fracturing events into their most basic parts, in a way you just can’t as an unbiased journalist. Fiction tends to be a medium I use when I want to write about something based on a true story, but there are gaps I can’t fill in with truth.
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 do early morning writing at least four days a week. I try to be at my desk by about 5:30 with an idea about what I want to write about, and how much. If I don’t set a bit of a goal, I often flounder and just re-read what I wrote the day before.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return (for lack of a better word) for inspiration?
I tend to do research in those lulls and read historical works about odd events and people. Eventually, those stories inspire me.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Dusty pick-up trucks.
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?
All of the above! I read once somewhere that to be in the state of mind where you notice and are emotionally moved by things you encounter in day, however small or seemingly unremarkable, you are in a place to receive and create art.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
When my sons are much older I’d love to live in the middle of nowhere, maybe even the middle of nowhere in the Prairies so I can better appreciate what my settler ancestors endured. I think I would have made a good homesteader.
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?
Librarian, bookstore owner, psychologist—all the cliché responses of a writer, I’m sure.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I started when I was a teenager and just couldn’t stop. I was also fortunate to have a few teachers early on who were encouraging, and I think that gave me permission to focus on it from a young age.
19 - What was the last great book you read?
Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, and I’m already looking forward to re-reading it. For so many reasons, I think it should be required reading for Canadians.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a historical fiction novel set in the early 1900’s in southwest Saskatchewan. There’s something mesmerizing to me about this area, and the characters I’ve read about it who homesteaded there. It’s amazing to me, how brave they were. Also, after years working on a manuscript about myself, it’s been a pleasure to write about a time and place so unlike those of my own life.