1 - How did your first book change your life? I reconnected with old friends and distant relatives, which was very sweet, like a party that went on for months! And the post cards I put inside Look After Her meant that actual readers, not known to me, sent me their feedback on the book. That was very affecting.
How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
If you mean what’s about to be published, This Female City, as a writer, I am more vulnerable to judgement because it’s set in Toronto in the recent past. The narrators are more self-aware than Hedy and Susannah are in Look After Her.
2 - How did you come to screenwriting first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction? There was a theatre, Cinecity, in Toronto that ran all the French nouvelle vague films, all the American indie films from midnight til dawn, and I loved the swiftness of the unfolding story, how much is told without words, and how dialogue can reveal more than the speaker intends. I took so many film courses I ended up with two degrees in film and my first screenplay won first prize in an NFB competition. I think I still am oriented to the language of film: the long shot, the plan américain, the close up, cutting on the action.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Starting is easy— any free moment. Continuing to a final draft? It depends on the other demands in my life. Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes? First drafts usually have the same beginning, middle, and end— but the characters surprise me, and they have depths I haven’t figured on, so changes happen. I also want the story to be real: I like having the exact song, or brand of bicycle, or political event— the details— true, so I can be in that time and place as I write. (I have 4 bankers’ boxes of research notes for Look After Her. I found maps of Vienna from 1912 and located the studio of Egon Schiele, and figured out how long it would take Hedy and her sister Susannah to ride there on their Stern bicycles, what the road surface would have been, what statues (it’s Vienna) they would go past.)
4 - Where does a screenplay or work of prose usually begin for you?
In real life. A comment from a friend or co-worker, a memory from an old love affair, a news article. Something that prompts my curiosity. (Or an offer of a contract, if it’s series work: in that case, reading the series ‘bible’ is essential!) 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 am writing books. So far, there is always more than one narrator, and it was astounding, with Look After Her, when the readers for the audio version gathered all of what each narrator says into two separate texts. To read everything that Hedy says, and to feel how she is consistently herself— what a gift! Now I know a technique to ensure the integrity of a character.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I hear what I write, so I am my own first listener, and it helps the rhythm of the sentences. I love reading to an audience! It is such a treat when they laugh in the right places!
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? I am hoping that readers will see that we are all unreliable narrators. What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? Why do people do what they do? What do you even think the current questions are? What isolates us? How can we work with others? Who is being treated unfairly?
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?
To open the door to an immersive reality that may, both while reading and upon return to one’s actual life, provide insight.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? It’s exciting and necessary!
9 +10 What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
How easy has it been for you to move between genres (screenplays to fiction)? When you write a screenplay, you are part of a large community which contributes to the final work. Your task is action and dialogue. It is the job of the actor and director to interpret the emotions the characters feel. (As a screenwriter, you write so they know. But they bring their own skills to this and may happily surprise you.) I had received much praise, but just as much rejection when I was looking to publish Look After Her (Inanna, 2019). I asked Amy Jo Cooper, the first writer on DeGrassi, and currently an appellate court lawyer in Los Angeles, “What am I doing wrong?” She answered, “Why are you withholding?” Emotions. I rewrote, and entered into the feelings of the characters. This resulted in, sometimes, laughter, and sometimes, walking around the house weeping. What do you see as the appeal? I love dialogue, and all things cinematic, so when you read Ondaatje’s In the skin of a lion, in some ways you are watching what happens. Or when you read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, or David Chariandy’s Soucoyant, or Terri Favro’s Once Upon a Time in West Toronto, you are watching what happens. At least, I am. Michael Redhill had to remonstrate with me more than once: I kept calling chapters ‘scenes’. (He was my Humber College mentor for Look After Her.)
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? Ha! Early! I grew up on a farm. So sometime around six am, I let the cat out, have coffee and check the news to see whether the world is ending today, or not. I make my bed, and push the button on my laptop so it burbles its little theme song. Then I write until I notice that I’m getting hungry and then I quit. Sometimes I keep going into the afternoon, but after supper, it’s rare. I like to watch series television. Keeping my hand in, I suppose.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? Research. This physical world. Talking to an old friend. Playing the piano.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home? Sage.
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? McFadden is right, of course. But also, magazine design. Anything by artist Barbara Klunder. And listening to rhythm and blues, and jazz, and old ballads. (One of the chapters in my next book, This Female City, is called “Listening to Joe Henderson.”)
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? I love poetry: Canisia Lubrin, Annick MacAskill, Faith Arkorful, and yeah, Yeats. I also like CLR James, and Berger, and Toni Morrison. Alice Munro. I like the insight and humour of Grace Paley. Kevin Hardcastle. Denis Johnson. I love Lynda J Barry’s comix, and Krazy Kat, and Little Nemo.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? Go to the Leeds International Festival, after all! —presenting my book in May this year didn’t happen, due to Covid-19.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? A set designer. Anything that is art, and collaborative. Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer? Hard time. My mother said I was destined for the Mercer Reformatory for Wayward Girls.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? It is the art most easily available to poor people, and the most intimate: just you and the reader. And I loved to read, so a kind of giving back, too.
19 - What was the last great book you
read? The Intellectual
Life of the British Working Class, by Jonathan
Rose. What was the last great
television series? I liked how the
filmed version of My Brilliant Friend enhanced understanding if, like
me, you don’t know what it was like to live in post WWII Naples. For example,
in the text, some kid might get a clout on the head, but because it’s a daily
thing in the life of the narrator, it’s not made much of. But on film, in this
series, you see the anger, the pain and confusion of the child. In the books,
you are constantly unsettled: within moments of something good happening, some
crisis threatens. You go forward, reading with anxious tension. In the series,
the camera pauses on the face of the narrator in one of those moments of
pleasure or stability, so there is some relief from the constant anxieties of
the working poor. When Napolitan teens bop to early rock and roll, the
experience is enhanced by hearing the music and seeing the moves, and it’s
20 - What are you currently working on? Two things: a novella with a main character on the spectrum, titled My Girl Harry, and The Brangien Version— the story of Tristan and Iseult from the serving maid Brangien’s point of view.