Wednesday, January 23, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Laisha Rosnau

Laisha Rosnau’s first novel, The Sudden Weight of Snow (McClelland & Stewart 2002), was an honourable mention for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her debut collection of poetry, Notes on Leaving (Nightwood 2004), won the Acorn-Plantos Poetry Award in 2005 and Greenboathouse Books published a lovely little limited edition chapbook of her poems, getaway girl, in 2002. Laisha has an MFA from the University of British Columbia, where she was the Executive Editor of PRISM international. She has taught fiction and poetry classes at UBC, SFU, Vancouver Film School, and conferences and arts programs across BC. Laisha lives in Prince George BC with her husband and infant son. When she can, she is currently working on a third novel, after abandoning the second, and a new collection of poems.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Just before my first novel was published I was working as an administrative assistant in an office. One coffee break, I drank from a cup with a rainbow embossed on it along with the words “Live Your Dreams” and I started to cry. Even though my first novel was weeks, maybe even days, from being published, being in an office lunchroom, drinking reheated coffee from a stained cup, hours of data processing ahead of me, I was not living my dreams. Since publishing my first book, I am happy to say I haven’t done any data entry. I now have the street cred to teach writing classes, which I love (though I’m currently taking a break for baby-rearin’). My first book also put me on the other side of the curtain – out of the audience and in the complimentary lounge at some book events, which is very fun.

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

I moved to Pee Gee in April 2005, almost three years ago, though I find that hard to fathom. I still feel like an outsider. I moved here after seven years in Vancouver. While there, I don’t think the geography of the Lower Mainland impacted my writing much. I wrote about other places – the Okanagan, Vancouver Island, the Yukon – that had infected me, got into my blood. Though I feel like an outsider here, the landscape is insidious. It creeps into my work, especially my poetry. I have quite a few poems about pine beetles chewing through trees, rivers and the confluences of rivers. No poem yet about the current ice jam at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako but I feel it building like so much jammed ice.

Up until I had a baby, I didn’t think gender impacted my work much. The biological ability to carry and birth a baby falls more under “sex” then “gender” but the whole staying home to be the primary caregiver for the buckaroo, that’s gender. It’s a choice I made wholeheartedly. I had heard all about women who had “put their career on hold to raise children,” yada yada – who hasn’t? Somehow, I didn’t think it applied to artists as much as to doctors, lawyers, accountants. I was already used to being at home bit and had golden-hued visions of writing chapters of novels during naptime. Ha! While I am able to write a bit on the edges of my days, huge swathes of my days are consumed by either baby care or thinking about the baby. Right now, I think about him as much as I used to think about my characters and he is infinitely more rewarding day-to-day, so fiction gets the short-shrift now but that feels right for me for now.

I wouldn’t say race impacts my work much but my ethnic background does. I’m of German and Ukrainian descent. The German side of my family has been in Canada longer and the German-ness seems like more of a personality quirk than an ethnic identity. The Ukrainian side, on the other hand, has that “formerly oppressed, against all odds, we cleared the land with our bare hands & now we’re going to sing and dance and eat perogies and be proud of who we are and where we came from, would you like some vodka?” thing going on. My first novel had a Ukrainian element to it and the one I’m currently cooking up in my mind has one as well.

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?

Most of my poems and fiction begin on a walk for me, with a phrase, a narrative rhythm, an image or a character’s voice. I love to walk. I’ve had a couple of wonderful walking buddies in my life - other writers which is tremendous for conversation - but I do a lot of walking on my own or, most recently, with my son strapped to my back. Somewhere in the rhythm of walking and the ping-ponging of my thoughts bits of poetry and prose emerge. After they’ve bounced around in my mind and on the page for a while, they fall into larger pieces fairly readily.

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

It depends on the day. When I first started writing seriously in my early twenties I took classes with John Lent and Tom Wayman. They both made public readings a requirement so I associated readings as an integral part of the writing process and I learned to enjoy them, despite some wicked attacks of nerves. I went through several years of being in the closet as a writer and not doing any readings. When I emerged, I relished everything literary – workshops, writers’ groups, readings, forums – and they all seem to be on a continuum, from the very private and solitary act of writing to the more public aspects of bringing that work into the public sphere. That said, when I am in the conception and creation stage of my work, I find both attending and giving readings distracting and somewhat counter to my creative process. One of the things I like about being a writer is the great breadth of time devoted to being at home in something resembling pyjamas with books, notebooks & papers strewn about me, the CBC droning somewhere in the background. Getting cleaned up and coherent enough to give a Public Reading, putting on the Public Face of the Writer, seems a bit forced and awkward sometimes but once I’m up there, I generally enjoy it.

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?

My undergrad was in English and I had just enough upper level classes in literary theory to decide I wanted very little to do with it. For me, it was stifling and forced. I remember leaving classes with notions of post-colonial, post-gendered, post-modern badonkadonk swirling round and round my mind, clutching the book in question and thinking, “But, but I thought it was a just really good book…”

The kinds of questions I am trying to answer with my work are: Can we ever really know another person? What is love? Are there any limits to love? Is there such a thing as destiny or fate or is a matter of random choices that leads us to places and people? Is the ice jam at the confluence of two major rivers a metaphor for relationships, an act of God, a random weather event, or all of the above?

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

Both. My first experience working with an editor was with my novel, The Sudden Weight of Snow. My editor was Ellen Seligman, whose reputation as being intense, insightful and thorough preceded her – and was well-deserved. I spent our first few phone calls saying, “Ummm” or “Uh, I’m not entirely sure” or “Can you repeat the question?” It was difficult to work with her because it was both intellectually and emotionally taxing, not because our relationship was difficult. It seemed a bit like psychoanalysis but not for me, for my characters – eg: “But why is she choosing to do this now? What’s changed for her?” We’d have marathon hours-long phone calls that would leave me lying prone on the floor, staring at the ceiling, wondering how I would ever finish the book. That whole experience did seem essential to my novel perhaps because it was the experience I had. My poetry editor, Silas White of Nightwood, had a lighter touch and a great ear for musicality and eye for the line - good in a poetry editor, I think! However, he saw my poetry at a far different stage than Ellen saw my fiction. My poetry sees the light of day a lot more than my fiction. I’ve always appreciated the feedback of other poets and two poets who have remained constant Jennica Harper and Marita Dachsel [see her 12 or 20 here]. They have read and commented on almost every poem I’ve written in the last eight years. In PG, I’ve worked with Gillian Wigmore, Al Rempel, George Sipos and Betsy Trumpener and I’ve exchanged work across the country with Aurian Haller. With fiction, I squirrel it away, spend months then years piling it up and chewing away at it before anyone else sees it. By the time people do, it’s essential – if I lived with it alone any longer I’d grow a tail. Some peer editors who have talked me off the edge during extended bouts of novel writing are Nancy Lee, Charlotte Gill, & Steve Galloway. Thank God for them.

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

Right now, harder. I wrote, sent out for publication consideration, and published my first two books, the novel and the poetry collection, in a state of blissful ignorance and naiveté. It was glorious. I was struck hard by secondnovelitis and, though I wrote innumerable drafts over several years, that novel is currently wrapped in brown paper, sitting in the freezer. I’m not eager to open the package. I think its expiration date may have passed and it might stink.

My life changed immeasurably between the publication of my first book and now. When I started my novel, I was single for the first time in years, I lived in a graduate student’s dorm, and I didn’t even cook my own meals. Time seemed like an expansive and malleable thing and I replaced that lost relationship with a fire of ambition under my ass. I was really happy professionally but I pined for true love, a baby and a house with a yard. Now, I got all those things and I haven’t yet figured out how to write books while feeling grounded and content. That, and my time seems a lot less malleable, or rather someone else is doing the bending and shaping of my time and that someone, though very small and cute, can snap time in half over his wee pudgy knee.

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

I probably have pureed pear smeared on my pants right now. Pears are one of my son’s favourite foods. I brought a box of them back from my parent’s place in the Okanagan. My husband had the wherewithal to puree them and freeze it into cubes, God bless him.

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

“Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” Isak Dineson

“Don’t come see me until it’s done.” Keith Maillard, my graduate advisor for my thesis, which later became my first novel.

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

Fairly easy in any given month, though less easy day to day or, at times, week to week. There are periods when I move between the two, not effortlessly but manically. Other times, I am in a definite Poetry Period or Prose Period. Generally, when I’m working intensively on either one or the other, I am a single-genre kind of girl. During early drafts, conceptions, generation, etc, I can flit from one to the other, often in fits of fickleness. I love poetry for its ability to capture a moment, an image, or a contradictory feeling in so few lines. I love fiction for its Hugeness, the way it can consume me.

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?

Oh, Good Lord. If you’d asked me that question two years ago, I would have been able to outline a very specific, disciplined routine, though I found ways to trick myself into slacking off on a regular basis. If you’d asked me that question last year, I was pregnant, experiencing significant back pain, and had a daily and weekly routine that combined all sorts of physical activity (for the pain) with regimented bouts of poetry (because I could only sit for 15 minutes at a time). Now? I have an eight-month-old. I write when I can. A typical day begins at 6 AM. My son has an internal clock that wakes him almost every morning at that time. Thankfully, I can nurse him and he falls back asleep for 1.5 to 2.5 hours. There was a blessed time in the autumn when I would get up and write while he slept so by the time he woke for the day at about 8 AM, I’d already written for an hour or two. It was lovely but it didn’t last long. A few nights of interrupted sleep and waking every morning at 6 to write wasn’t realistic. I am now going to try to write in the evenings. So far this is theoretical. Right now, instead of writing my own work I am answering these questions, at length apparently. That counts for something, right?

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

I go for walks and I read – anything: novels, short stories, magazines, kid’s books, the back of the cereal box. I put on the CBC, go out and watch people, eavesdrop. I talk to good friends, some who are also writers. I have found that nothing compares to the camaraderie, support, and understanding of other writers, though I suspect a couple of us are a bit co-dependent! (“You’re thinking of throwing your 350 hundred page, twelfth draft, four years in the writing novel in the fire? Go for it, so am I!”)

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

Next question

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?

For me, books come from walking (and, once upon a time in a bike route friendly city, from biking) as well. I don’t consider myself a “nature writer,” whatever that is, but the space and rhythm of moving through the outside world influences my work. I picked up a habit in my undergrad of listening to the same music over and over while I work on a specific project. I listened to three albums while writing The Sudden Weight of Snow. One of them was an Elliott Smith CD. A few years later, a student in one of my classes said to me, “This may sound strange but your novel reminded me of an Elliott Smith album.” I was floored and he got an A (not really; the course was non-credit!) Science is increasingly an influence. The novel that I stuffed in the freezer was about a particle physicist. I’d started to read about physics and everything seemed like a Huge Metaphor to me, still does though that novel is on hold. My husband’s work as a biologist and all the things he tells me about the mating habits of birds and the like have a way of making it into my poetry. But of course, books come from everywhere and everything.

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

I’ve sat here for minutes trying to come up with the perfect list to answer that question. I’m going to stop now and write: too many to list. I’ll leave it at that because I’m obsessive enough that if I listed a few, I’d spend days remembering those that I didn’t mention. (Also, see the answer for question 6 & the name-dropping therein.)

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

I would like to go on a long paddling trip down a river. I’d like to travel to Eastern Europe, which we’re planning on doing this September, and Ukraine, which will have to wait. Some day, I would like to live in a loft with massive windows.

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?

A spy. I know that’s a lame answer because all writers fancy themselves spies; we make the shit up instead of using actual intelligence and tactical manoeuvres. Still, as far as other occupations go, that seems like the only one that would trump being a writer. I used to think I’d like to be a photographer but I have realized, in this era rampant with amateur photographers and surfeit images, that I am not actually as interested in photography as much I thought I was. I spend a lot of time daydreaming and I’m not very observant of the world immediately around me; my eye isn’t sharp enough because it’s turned inward so often.

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

It is the thing I like to do most. The only thing I like as much as writing, perhaps more, is taking care of my little guy. There are other things that I wished I liked as much – I already mentioned photography. Visual art, design, music, cooking…I really wish I was as interested in those as I am in reading and writing but, though I dabble, I also have a really limited attention span for everything that isn’t writing, taking care of my buckaroo, and going on long walks. Boring, but true.

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

The last book that I full-out sobbed during was Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. I was recently sent an anthology called White Ink: Poems on Motherhood because one of my poems was included, a surprise to me. Because I am in this new mamahood phase of my life, I consumed it, barely coming up for air. The last great film was Charlie Wilson’s War – I’m not sure the film itself is “great” but the context of seeing it was. My parent’s babysat for us on Boxing Day and my husband and I went out for the longest date we had since the baby was born - six hours and part of that was seeing the movie as a late matinee. Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie is brilliant and I could and do read Go Dog Go! over and over – “Do you like my hat?”

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m editing a series of poems, gathering them into a book-length manuscript. I’m also at the most fun part of writing a novel, the part when I am daydreaming about the characters and the place that has brought them all together. I am at the notebook and index card phase of the novel, which is far easier than the part when I actually sit down and write the thing. Now, if I can figure out when I will be able to do that…

1 comment:

Bonnie said...

Hi Rob,

I just stumbled upon this in between e-mails with Laisha, and catching up on her blog.

I love the interaction, which of course is a combination of the particular questions you posed, and Laisha's responses to them. :)


Bonnie Lumley