Thursday, January 17, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Catherine Hunter

Catherine Hunter was born in Regina but moved to Winnipeg when she was very small. She earned her education at the University of Winnipeg (B.A. Hons, 1986), the University of Victoria, Victoria BC (M.A., 1988; Ph.D., 1991) and by excessive reading and hard knocks too. She is the author of the crime novel Queen of Diamonds (Turnstone, 2006); the lyrical mystery novella In the First Early Days of My Death (Signature, 2002); the thrillers The Dead of Midnight (Turnstone 2001) and Where Shadows Burn (Turnstone 1999); and the poetry collections Latent Heat (Signature 1997), Lunar Wake (Turnstone 1994), and Necessary Crimes (Blizzard, 1988; reprinted by The Muses Company, 2000). She selected and wrote a critical introduction to the poems in Before the First Word: The Poetry of Lorna Crozier (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005). In 2000, Cyclops Press recorded a selection of her poems, with a bonus track accompanied by The Weakerthans, in the CD Rush Hour. Her fiction, poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in journals, including The Malahat Review, CV2, Essays on Canadian Writing, West Coast Line, Grain, Prism International, and Canadian Literature. Her books have been nominated for several awards, including the Carol Shields City of Winnipeg Book Award, and the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. In 1998 Latent Heat won the McNally Robinson Award for Manitoba Book of the Year.

For six years, Catherine was co-reader of poetry for Prairie Fire Magazine, and for ten years she was the editor of the Muses Company Press, where she prepared over twenty books for publication. Since 1991 she has taught English and Creative Writing at the University of Winnipeg.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Writing Necessary Crimes (1988) taught me a lot about the relationships among different poems, how to work with a series of linked poems, what a collection is or might be, and the potential for poems to affect/infect each other by their proximity. It made me look at my whole "body" of work, instead of just looking, myopically, at one poem at a time, and to think about what I was doing as an artist in a more responsible way.

2 - How long have you lived in Winnipeg, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived in Winnipeg most of my life, leaving and returning from time to time to study, work or travel elsewhere. Do cities have "geography"? My writing is deeply embedded in what I see and feel around me, and that includes the landscape, but in my case it's mainly urban. The literary history of this place has mainly been shaped by rural writers, poets and fiction writers who migrated into the city from rural backgrounds, and they built a tradition of "prairie literature" I never fit into. This is a tradition founded on harsh climates; lonely and beautiful landscapes; complex working relationships with the land; the social and economical networks of small towns, reserves, or fishing and farming communities; and the often very rigid cultural norms and strict religious customs of this region. None of these elements (except the harsh climate) were integral to my own experience. But Winnipeg's bridges, intersections, backlanes, city lights, downtown buildings, traffic and people are inextricably rooted in my imagination (or is it the other way around?).

Race, and gender in this culture are part of individual identity. It is difficult, however, to define their "impact." That's a bit like asking the impact of hydrogen and oxygen on water. As a woman, I have some understanding of the ways in which gender affects my experience. But as a white person in a culture dominated by white people, a culture that rarely interrogates whiteness, I have little insight into the role that race plays in my individual identity.

3 - Where does a poem or piece 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?

Beginnings vary—an image, a voice, a joke, a particular fear—the beginning is always different. I have so far never written any poem with an eye to its being part of a book. I'm usually interested only in one poem at a time, despite what I said in question #1 (sudden temptation to answer every question with wildly inconsistent answers). But with fiction, I can tell pretty early whether a character or situation is going to grow into a novel.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Good question. I love attending readings and like to perform at them too, especially with other writers. Readings are community events where people share their work and responses with each other, where writers and audiences learn from each other. I also like to travel, so readings in other cities, especially when I get to meet new writers, are fabulous. On a practical, banal note, local readings are often a major disruption to my work because few take place downtown any more, and public transportation is so time-consuming. A ten-minute reading can eat up three hours of my evening. Expensive.

5 - 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?

With a new work I'm beginning, I'm looking at the long aftermath of violence. I'm asking how it affects the families of victims and how it works itself out through succeeding generations. Does the trauma dissipate or get discharged? Or does it live on? I think it survives in a kind of ghost form, and I'm looking at the ways it haunts the children and their children, how it shapes their lives. Suddenly I realize that this is not new at all but is in fact a continuation of a theme that runs through all my work. This interview is making me think too much. Dangerous.

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


7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Every single book is different. In some ways, having experience makes the process easier. In other ways, it was easier when I had no idea what to expect.

The process of getting from the first word to the final draft is a long, lonely haul, and so one welcomes the entrance of editors and publishers into the process. It's a relief because you no longer carry the whole burden of responsibility for the book alone. You have help! The next stage, the process of getting from final draft to book launch, very much depends on the quality of that help. It's like you're lost in the woods, and the editors and publishing house staff are the rescue workers. They get you home.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

About a month ago (in December). The window of opportunity on pears is slim.

Coincidentally, I bought two pears yesterday, but this morning they still weren't ready.

P.S. This questionnaire took me two days to complete. I have now eaten a pear yesterday. And two days ago.

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

There is a quotation from A.J. Muste I've been seeing around a lot: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." It's an illuminating political message. But I've also found meditating on it to be a liberation. Think about what it means. Try applying it to your own life.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Easy. Very easy. I am always moving among a variety of different modes of thought or expression in my reading--the logical, the narrative, the lyrical, the philosophical, the spiritual, the linguistic, the analytical, the pataphysical. All are valid; all are important. People who value one mode of expression to the exclusion of others are missing out. Each genre or discipline has its own appeal; moving among them has an appeal as well. The mind needs and wants to be exercised, and the world needs us to be flexible and open-minded. As a writer I'm attracted mainly to the narrative and the lyric modes (though I'm probably best at logic and critical analysis). But I don't choose a topic and then decide what genre to use. The process is more organic than that. For example, my crime novel Queen of Diamonds is about fake psychics. I suppose it would be possible to write a poem about fake psychics. But it wouldn't be the same work at all. The ideas in a work are not the work itself. Genre is an inherent element; I can't separate a work from its genre.

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?

Ideally, and when I am not teaching, I like to walk directly from bed to desk in the morning, start working immediately and get at least a few lines or sentences down before the world intrudes on my brain. This way, regardless of interruptions to make coffee, feed the cat, shower, etc. at least I've already started. When I'm teaching I can't do this. I have to rush to catch a bus first thing in the morning. Nevertheless my handy insomnia guarantees that I'll be waking up and writing immediately for a few hours in the middle of most nights, even when working full time.

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

To visual art, usually. Whether I'm traveling or visiting the amazing art galleries of Winnipeg, I'm always hungry to look at paintings, drawings, and photography. To be spoken to without any words.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My most recent published work is Queen of Diamonds, a crime novel. It differs from my previous novels because the main character is not a good girl at all. Usually the main characters of my mystery novels are average, well-meaning, law-abiding women, innocent people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. But in Queen of Diamonds, Lorelei is a con artist. She takes money from the bereaved and in return pretends to relay messages from their dead loved ones. It's despicable behaviour. It was a challenge for me to try to get inside the head of a person who would do something so mean and selfish. Such people really exist, of course, and often ply their trade with great financial success. I had to think hard to try to imagine how they might justify their actions to themselves. I supposed they might see it as a form of therapy they were providing to the bereaved, but that rationalization was so weak that I decided against it. I decided to forego all rationalization and just let Lorelei approach her crimes as work. What I discovered surprised me. Lorelei deals with illusion and desire, with performance and story-telling. Her work involves imagination and seduction, much in the same way any artist's work does. So the book turned out, for me, to be a bit of an exploration into the nature of art.

Nevertheless, I'm well aware that Lorelei is a "bad guy"—so this is quite a departure from my previous work.

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 mentioned visual art above, and this question now tempts me to say more about that. Colour, shape, texture, line, perspective--somebody showing me what they see --all work powerful changes in me as I look. Certain colours or images are so powerfully restorative I just drink them in. Others move me, shake me up, help me to see in new ways. Visual artists are the eyes of our society, or maybe they're the eye doctors. I also absolutely adore live theatre of all kinds. I like everything, or rather anything, that theatre folk produce, when they pour in their passion and imagination and energy. That is what money is for. After food and shelter, money is for buying theatre tickets.

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

Oh no, the dreaded book question. I'm tempted to refer you to Books in Print. Let's just stick with what I've been reading and loving lately: Jan Zwicky, Sylvia Legris, Lawrence Hill, Alyssa York, Heather O'Neill, Don DeLillo, John Banville, Ian McEwan. Ask me six months from now and there will be a different list. Also lots of nonfiction. Right now I'm deep into the beginning of Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, reading about her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya.

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

Go to Hawaii. Stay in one of those fancy hotels and hang out on the beach. I will never do this, but I love to daydream about it.

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 already in a number of occupations besides writing—teacher, editor, critic—all book-related. I think I'd like to get into film. Or maybe just watch a lot of films. I might study painting or drawing. I can't think of much I'd want to do every day that's outside the arts. Maybe I'd run a foster home. Being a mother was my favourite thing of all time and now my daughter is grown up. I like to cook nutritious meals for children, show them how to sew and play baseball and stuff, and sing to them in my terrible voice. That sounds suspiciously sentimental and ironic, but I mean it.

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

I honestly do not know. Sorry.

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

The last great book I read was probably Saturday by Ian McEwan. I've read a lot of excellent books in the past couple of years, but that one stands out for its brilliant detail, beautiful sentences, and convincing portrait of a man on a day that represents all that is best and worst about the wealthy western world. The last great film was Sarah Polley's Away from Her, based on the Alice Munro story; the plot, the characters, the acting, the music—all great. I also recently saw and really liked Slavoj Zizek's A Pervert's Guide to Cinema.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a fairly long poem called "Winter Archive" that's originally inspired by a recent art exhibit at Plug-In Gallery. The structure of the poem seems to rest on the infrastructure of the city, so the building process is interesting and in some ways more architectural than anything I've done before. It's inspired also by my dim, imperfect memory of an especially gruesome safety film that used to be shown in Manitoba schools and also, if I remember correctly, on the Winnipeg TV show Uncle Bob and Archie. Does anyone out there remember this film? It features a group of about ten friends, and each commits a fatal breach of the winter safety rules. It's grim. They get bumped off one by one, like a horror movie.

I'm also working on the project I mentioned above, when discussing violence. In this case the specific violence is World War II. I'm inventing/remembering the life of a veteran and his family. This is a story I've been trying to tell all my life.

12 or 20 questions archive

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