Thursday, September 03, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Brenda Niskala

Brenda Niskala is a poet, fiction writer and currently the Executive Director for the Saskatchewan Publishers Group. She has two chapbooks, What Butterflies do at Night (2005, BPrint Editions) and Emma’s Horizon (2000, Hagpapers), one co-authored collection, Open 24 Hours (1997, Broken Jaw Press), and a book of poetry, Ambergris Moon (1983, Thistledown Press). She has taught Creative Writing for the University of Regina Extension Department, Festival of Words (teen program) and Sage Hill Writing Experience (teen program), and read her poetry in nine provinces, in Finland and in England. Her first novella, Of All the Ways to Die, will be launched by Quattro Books in October 2009. A collection of short stories, Women in Trade, will be published by Coteau Books in 2010.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

The first book didn't change my life in the way that having children, say, continues to change my life. It was a foundation piece, and I'm grateful to Thistledown for going with it.

How does your most recent work compare to your previous?

Although I still write poetry, I've succumbed to the call of narrative. My next two books, the novella Of All the Ways to Die (Quattro Books) and the collection of linked short stories Women in Trade (Coteau Books), benefit from my poetic practice, I think.

How does it feel different?

The poetry is mostly in the body, whereas there is more balance between body and brain in my fiction, I hope.

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

Poetry's shorter. (Not easier.)

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially 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?

My novella was born out of the 3-Day Novel contest. It's changed immensely since then (only about 20 pages of the original remain). The short stories and poems live in my head until I have a chance to download them, often well formed. I seem to respond well to deadlines, and I love the editing process.
4 - 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?

Always a question. Why? What if?

Poetry strands usually are less than book length for me, so I love the chapbook option. My short fiction uses the same characters to explore different questions, so they look like a book from the start. The longer fiction starts as a book and still scares me a bit, as the scope of the projects envisioned expand. The questions are different too: novella or novel; fiction or creative non-fiction. I love the novella length!

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

I enjoy doing readings, but savour them most when they are occasional, rather than non-stop. Extended tours block my creativity, rather than inspire.

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?

Oh, it's always the big ones, isn't it? Birth, death, and all the quests in between. I also am drawn to shining light in dark places. In “Of All the Ways to Die” a recently brain-injured woman invokes the dead to a potluck, as she searches for a missing girl. In “Women in Trade”, class and cultural contrasts follow Kathy as she single-parents, learns a trade, and makes the adjustment from farm to city life.

I am drawn to ethnic and cultural contrasts. My work usually has Finnish and First Nations/Métis content, reflecting the realities of my life and life in Saskatchewan – and perhaps in Canada.

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?

Writers are the observers, recorders, the communication conduit between our intellectual inheritance and the leading edge of possibility. At their best, writers should provide inspiration. That inspiration could be for fun, for play, for expanding minds, for increased sensitivity.

When people read my work and tell me they had never thought of things that way, and especially when I am able to introduce the reader to people they otherwise might pass by, might not even see, and am able to do so with respect, then I have done my job.

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



Also exhilarating, and sometimes humbling.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
It's not about the writer, it's about the writing.

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

I've been writing both for thirty years. When I have time, I write more/longer. Some ideas/questions require more time/space.
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?

I have a day job, so the writing tends to be in pushes – weekends, evenings, Writers Colonies like the one through the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. The 3 Day Novel contest worked for me too. When I'm in a push, I cancel everything, focus entirely.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I have been fortunate to be part of a vibrant and supportive writing community, and have been part of active writers groups for thirty five years. When stalled, there are dozens of talented and generous writers I can and do call on for the possible answer to “what next?”.
13 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie? Drive or fly (or sail)? Laptop or desktop?

What? How about Kid Colt? Wonder Woman? I never had time for the spoiled and senseless comic book brats. There are injustices to avenge!

Where are we going? I'll fly and stay/explore rather than watch through a window.

I want a lighter laptop. I'm watching the development of mini's with great interest. And paper. Always paper.

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?

If I haven't lived it in some form or another, I don't tend to write it. Books come from life experience, which definitely does include nature, music, science, visual art, movies, cultural contrasts, adventures, travel, history and changing philosophies. I am often in awe of the work of others, but that is not where my writing comes from.

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

I read everything, from brash to trash, from classic to corny, and I think I learn something from all of it. I'm drawn to original voice, and to the skillful connection of brain to body, ideas to emotion. Anne Szumigalski remains my mother in poetry. What an amazing mind and facility with the language of the fantastic. In fiction, I haven't yet found my muse.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Jump out of an airplane? Take a balloon ride?

See Africa and South America.

Write the Finnish-Canadian epic.

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 happy. I've tried lots: waitress, store clerk and manager, research project co-ordinator, nurse's aide, crisis councellor, labour rep (in film), education co-ordinator, writer in residence, creative writing teacher, mentor, lawyer, cultural industries executive director, and mother. I'd like to try a few more – maybe involving travel or gardening. Or travel and gardening. It all feeds my writing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I have done something else. (see above) I just keep coming back to the fact that I am a writer.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Poetry: Johnathan Livingstone Clarke, Man Reading 'Woman Reading in Bath' (Thistledown 2009). My favourite subject, death, and my favourite poet, Anne Sz, by a poet I am in awe of.
Fiction: Jessica Grant, Come Thou Tortoise. A first book by a NFLD author with a truly unique voice. Bravo! More, please.

Movie: I watch movies for comfort and mindless entertainment, and for that, it's hard to beat my two favourites: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and The Princess Bride. Any anything done in animation. Love Tim Burton.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Editing the upcoming books. Next on the list – three easy readers and two ms of poetry waiting for cover letters. And then there's the Finnish-Canadian epic, for which I am at the “can hardly wait to get started” stage.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

1 comment:

the regina mom said...

Yay, Brenda! And yay, Rob, for doing this!