Wednesday, July 29, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Annabel Lyon

Annabel Lyon is the author of Oxygen (stories), The Best Thing for You (novellas), and All-Season Edie (juvenile novel). Her first novel for adults, The Golden Mean, about the relationship between Aristotle and the teenaged Alexander the Great, will be published by Random House in August 2009. She lives in New Westminster with her husband and two children.

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

After Oxygen was published I got teaching gigs, reviewing gigs, etc. So I was able (barely) to make a living as a writer, whereas before I had to have other jobs. The Golden Mean doesn’t quite have the stylised prose that Oxygen has—I’m not sure I could have sustained that for a novel. But it definitely has more story, more range and depth. My joke about Oxygen was always that it had just one story: a girl and her dad watching TV. The Golden Mean has Aristotle and Alexander the Great.

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

I do write non-fiction too (journalism), but really it wasn’t something I ever thought much about. It’s just the way I process the world. I think in terms of fiction.

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?

I tend to have just one idea at a time, and work very slowly. With stories, I usually write a super-slow first draft that comes out pretty close to the finished thing; with longer works and definitely with the novel it was much more a process of multiple revisions.

4 - Where does a 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?

Short stories start in tiny moments: a bit of overheard dialogue, a perfect description, an interesting piece of clothing…. Longer stories usually start with a character facing some kind of problem. The Golden Mean started with me reading a thumbnail bio of Aristotle and thinking, that’s interesting, how would you structure a novel around that? Then sketching an outline, almost for fun, and then realizing when I turned to other things that the idea kept nagging me, and I had to work on it some more. And then some more. And then for a few years more.

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

They’re kind of like doing the laundry. I don’t enjoy them or not enjoy them; they’re part of the job, so I do them. I’m not a natural performer but I don’t get too nervous either.

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 subscribe to Martha Nussbaum’s view of literature as essentially an exercise in ethics: you’re putting out an ethical world-view, challenging your own and your readers’ ethical preconceptions. That doesn’t mean you’re resolving things necessarily, but you’re opening people’s minds to all the shades of grey. It’s not so much “is abortion wrong?” as “what does it mean to live a good life?”.

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?

I don’t know how to answer this one. I write what I’m able to, to the best of my abilities. I never really feel like I choose my subject matter; it’s just what I’m capable of at that time. So I’m not consciously forging a role for myself in the larger culture. I can’t speak for anyone else.

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

Both. When I’m in the middle of working on something, everyone is an idiot but me. Then, when I’ve had a chance to get a bit of distance from the thing, I almost always take suggestions from my editors really well, and work to incorporate them. I decided early on to keep my inner diva in.

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

Write each book as though it will be your last; don’t try to keep anything back for the next book. Someone I know once got advice to this effect from Richard Ford.

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 used to love to write in the morning, but I have two kids now and they usually have other plans for me. These days my writing time tends to be in the afternoons when my husband’s off work and can keep the kids out of my hair. And I can work while they’re napping, after they’re in bed, etc. I’ve got to the point where I can focus pretty quickly and get small but substantive things done in small amounts of time.

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

If something gets stuck I put it away for a while, and come back to it when I’m feeling less frustrated. That’s about it.

12 - What was your most recent Hallowe'en costume?

I was a kid! I don’t remember! Ask me another quirky one! I can be quirky!

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?

No, I think McFadden has it right (for me, anyway).

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

The writers I read and reread are Joy Williams, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, William Trevor, John Updike…. I read the New Yorker religiously and get really upset when someone takes it in the bathroom and gets it damp.

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

Run a marathon in less than four hours.

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?

Sometimes I fantasize about taking a PhD in law and having an academic career. I wouldn’t have made a good lawyer but I like thinking and reading and writing about ethics. I’ve done a fair bit of teaching of one sort or another and I think I could have done that.

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

I don’t know. It’s just something that’s always been there. Before I could read, I dictated stories to my mom and then drew pictures around what she’d written. I always knew writing stories was going to be my thing.

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

I sat on the Rogers Writers’ Trust jury last year and got to read pretty much everything published in Canada in 2007/8. So I read lots of good stuff. Memorably, Miriam Toews The Flying Troutmans, Lee Henderson The Man Game, Stan Dragland The Drowned Lands, Rivka Galchen Atmospheric Disturbances, Ahmad Saidullah Happiness and Other Disorders, Craig Boyko Blackouts.

Last great movie would be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I rented it a few months ago.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a sequel to my kids book, All-Season Edie, tentatively entitled Encore Edie. I’m also thinking about a sequel to The Golden Mean, but haven’t started writing it yet.

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

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