Tuesday, June 16, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Susan Olding

Susan Olding’s first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays, was published by Freehand Press in September, 2008. It was long-listed for the BC Award for Canadian Nonfiction and nominated for the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award. Susan lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario, where she works at the Queen’s University Writing Centre.

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

Pathologies is my first book. It took years to complete – and even longer to appear. It’s not easy for a new writer to get a collection of essays into print; it’s considerably tougher to publish essays (as an unknown) than it is to publish a first book of poetry or short stories. I’d had several rejections of the “love it but can’t market it” variety. Editors and agents wanted me to write something in a long narrative form to go along with it. But I work slowly, and I knew it might take me many years to write that long form book – and I wasn’t getting any younger. Melanie Little of Freehand took a huge chance on me, and I’m forever grateful to her.

I was ready to quit until I got Melanie’s call. At least I said I was going to quit, and I felt like quitting; whether I’d actually have been able to stop myself from writing is debatable. But I’d have written even more slowly, I suspect, without the validation that a book represents. Publication freed me emotionally and creatively to write my next book; it gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going. It also made me slightly more visible, particularly to other writers. As a wonderful bonus, I’ve made some new friends in the writing community.

So, even though it’s a small book with a small press, the changes have been enormous for me. Finally, in mid-life, I feel I can claim the space and time I need to do the work I want and need to do, and I feel supported in that work by other artists.

In terms of changes in the work itself – I’ve been obsessed with structure from the start, but the longer I write, the more my obsession grows. I like to play with fragments and to use juxtaposition and counterpoint, to put this up against that and to see what happens in the white space between. So my recent work is more layered and textured and possibly more demanding.

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

I didn’t.

I started out writing poetry, and then fiction. But so far, I’ve been less satisfied with what I’ve written in those genres, so I’ve published less of it, too. I hope that will change! I’ve got a poetry manuscript underway and also a novel. And I continue to write essays. I’ll probably do so forever. I love the flexibility and capaciousness of the form.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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 can take me a very long time to bring a project to fruition. All too long! It took twelve years, off and on, to write the essays in Pathologies, and the initial raw notes for the first essay began years earlier than that.

Having said that – I usually get the core idea in a terrific rush and see the overall shape of the thing quite clearly. Or at least I think I see it. Then, at some point during composition I get stuck. And I realize I need to change the structure somehow or add another layer.

I do make lots of notes and ask myself many questions as I write. But parts of the completed manuscript will look almost identical to sections of the early rough notes. And I don’t “outline” so much as figure out how to put the puzzle together or how to weave the tapestry. It’s a question of seeing where each fragment or thread belongs.

From time to time, I get really discouraged with my own process. I wish I were a faster writer. But part of the reason I’m slow is that I tend to have a number of different projects on the go at one time and I flip back and forth. Someday I may discover that I’ve completed several manuscripts almost simultaneously. Then people will marvel at how I manage to be so prolific. That will be a pleasant change.

4 - Where does a piece of writing 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?

I saw Pathologies as a book very early on. Not with the first essay, but by the time I wrote the third essay, I knew.

I also saw the novel I’m working on as a novel, right from the start.

With poetry it’s a bit different. One reason I haven’t attempted to publish a book of poems yet is that while I have enough individual poems for a book I don’t have a critical mass clustering around a common subject or theme. But there again – the book idea already exists. So I guess the simple answer is “book.”

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

Both. I love to attend readings and interviews, especially if the author is someone whose work deeply interests or puzzles me. I’m often inspired by these events. And I enjoy giving readings, especially the ones in more intimate setting where a genuine conversation can take place. I like meeting readers. But to get any work done, I need privacy, stretches of uninterrupted time, and quiet.

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?

I’m trying to answer all kinds of questions in my work, but the questions are particular to each piece. In some ways, I write to clarify what they are, if that makes any sense.

I do have abiding interests in language and form. I’m impatient with traditional genre categories; I guess that’s a theoretical concern, of a kind.

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?

Nadine Gordimer has said: “The tension between standing apart and being fully involved; that is what makes a writer. That is where we begin.”

She also says, “All that the writer can do, as a writer, is to go on writing the truth as he sees it.”

That’s as good a summary as I’ve come across.

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

My experience with Melanie Little at Freehand was fantastic. She was an ideal reader for my work.

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

A friend and teacher of mine, Jim Paul, once told me that if you look closely enough at anything, it will reward your literary archetypes.

It’s great advice for a non-fiction writer or a poet, and probably for fiction writers, too.

I’m also partial this section of a letter from Keats. He’s writing to a poet friend: “…let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at: but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive – budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favours us with a visit – sap will be given us for Meat and dew for drink…”

Any late blooming flower like me will take comfort from Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

I also like what an unknown somebody told my friend, Robert Weston (author of the kids’ book, Zorgamazoo): If you’re going to be a writer, floss. There’s no dental plan!

10 - 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 get up and make breakfast for my daughter. I check my email. And then – how does this happen? – the day’s half over.

I wish I had a regular routine. I like routine. I need it. But lately, I don’t get it. Right now I just grab whatever time I can get, between paid jobs, home schooling, and ordinary household chores.

I don’t recommend this to anyone. In an ideal world I would set aside regular writing hours, as I managed to do for one blissful year when I was on a leave from full-time teaching and before I became a parent. It was my most productive year ever. Maybe I’ll find a way to recreate that schedule next year if my daughter goes back to school.

I used to make a practice of beginning every writing day by copying out, in longhand, a poem that I love. It was instructive. I memorized quite a few poems that way, though I’ve forgotten them since then. It might be fun to do the same thing with excerpts of prose.

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

The library stacks. A walk or a run. The kitchen, to cook something. And sometimes, to another piece of unfinished work – preferably in a different genre.

12 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie?

Blonde and “nice” equals Betty. Feh! Worse yet, I don’t have her skill with auto mechanics.

Change the paradigm. Make it Peanuts. Then I’m Schroeder. With a pen instead of a piano. Or a different kind of keyboard.

Drive or fly (or sail)?

Walk. Swim. Climb.

But I do get on a plane for longer distances. And use the subway in a city.

Laptop or desktop?

I like a laptop. But I have a desktop.

And a notebook, with a Pilot Techpoint pen. Right now the notebook is one I got as a gift at the Ottawa Writers’ Festival last fall. My cat, who enjoys eating paper – preferably important paper – has gnawed the corner off it.

13 - 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’m interested in weaving different kinds of texts together and playing with genre. So I can find inspiration from many kinds of extra-literary writing. Previous inspirations have included the dictionary, a medical text, pop and literary biography, recipes.

I love music and visual art as well and have occasionally found inspiration there, but it’s not as easy to trace directly in the work. It’s more a “feed the soul” kind of thing. Ditto for nature. And the city. I’m from Toronto but now I live in Kingston and I sometimes miss the swagger and clash of big-city life.

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

Oh – so many. I always hate this question because inevitably I leave too many out.

Different writers have been important at different times. In high school I had a wonderful English teacher who introduced us to the Russians – Tolstoy, Turgenev, Checkov. I got to Dostoevsky on my own. We also read Beckett and Albee and O’Neill. I’ve never forgotten them.

Later I read Virginia Woolf. I loved all her work, but especially To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, the diaries, and of course her essays. Reading her essays I began, in a halting way, to write my own, not really conscious that I was doing so at first.

Alice Munro. Have I said Alice Munro? She amazes. And Mavis Gallant, too. I love her sharp intelligence. Also Lorrie Moore. And Charles Baxter’s Saul and Patsy stories.

I’ve always loved and read poetry. Sometimes contemporary and sometimes not. I went through a long Rilke phase. And an even longer Keats phase. Some poets I fall back on in times of need. Others push me forward. For a while, recently, I was reading mainly Chinese poets in translation. In the last few weeks I’ve been reading Sina Queyras, Ronna Bloom, and Jacqueline Larson.

At various times, literary biographies or letters have been important. I especially like Richard Holmes’s life of Coleridge and Keats’s letters. And a book by Phyllis Rose called Parallel Lives.

I’m also a big reader of cookbooks. Everything from Brillat-Savarin to Mark Bittman.

Contemporary novelists who’ve moved, impressed, or influenced in some way or another include Gordimer, Doris Lessing (for the way the Golden Notebook is structured), Martin Amis (the style), Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Zadie Smith (hmmm…I seem to have a thing for the Brits), Michael Cunningham.

In terms of influences for Pathologies, Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory made a huge impact on me when I first read it. Again, I had no idea why at the time, but in retrospect I see that it was partly because he was working against or around accepted definitions of genre. I loved Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments – that was the kind of memoir I wanted to write, if I wrote memoir. I read Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father shortly after I’d written a memoir-essay about my own father; reading it made me feel I was on the right track. It encouraged me to keep going.

I read The Woman Warrior late in the process and was thoroughly humbled and inspired. “Memoir” doesn’t do it justice. It’s a redefinition of creative nonfiction and an amazingly original piece of work. How did she do that?

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

Learn Mandarin and live in China for a year.

Finish all the books I still want to write!

16 - 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 might have been a chef. A singer. Or a neuropsychologist.

At one time I thought I’d be a lawyer. I even went to law school. Thank god, I escaped that fate.

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

It was the only thing I ever really wanted to do. I couldn’t not do it.

But of course I also do other things. I teach, and I enjoy teaching. And in the past, I’ve held so many kinds of jobs. Waitress. Book store clerk. Researcher on health law. Perfume seller. Chicken gutter.

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

I re-read Vanity Fair a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it more the first time through, but I still admired the characterization of Becky Sharp.

My film watching is sadly diminished since I became a parent. But I’m really impatient with most movies these days, anyway. They seem so formulaic. I tend to prefer documentaries.

19 - What are you currently working on?

A novel and a book of poems. Plus the occasional review.

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