Wednesday, December 30, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Natalee Caple

Natalee Caple is the author of four books of fiction and poetry. She is co-editor with Michelle Berry of an anthology, The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers (Doubleday Canada). Her short story collection, The Heart is its Own Reason (Insomniac), was reviewed by the New York Times. Her first novel, The Plight of the Happy People in an Ordinary World (Anansi), has been optioned for film, and her first book of poetry, A More Tender Ocean (Coach House), was nominated for a Gerald Lampert Award. Her second novel, Mackerel Sky (Thomas Allen), was published in Canada, and in the United States (St. Martin’s). Forthcoming in Fall 2010 is a book of poetry titled The Semi-conducting Dictionary: Our Strindberg, and in Spring 2011 an as-yet untitled novel about Calamity Jane. Caple is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Calgary. She lives in Calgary with her husband and their two children.

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

It’s not really true that I came to poetry first, although I wrote poetry when I was an adult getting serious about writing before I wrote fiction for publication. I read a lot of poetry as a child and copied out poems I liked into notebooks. I wrote a “novel” (fourteen pages and fourteen chapters long) when I was nine. It involved a lot of people being chased by sharks. My teacher called my parents because she didn't believe I could have written it myself. I was furious. At eleven I had my mother show me how to use the word processor so I could type up a story about a monster in a lab and send it out to publishers. I didn't understand that book publishers wouldn't take a short story so I mailed it to Penguin, Random House, all the presses that published the books on my parents' shelves. I got back a lot of very nice and encouraging letters, which I promptly destroyed (to my great regret now). I don't think I even have that book of all the stories I wrote anymore, and it was quite thick. At twelve I wrote a musical about a slow girl who wants to commit suicide after her dog dies. It's terribly funny to think about now -- I so wish I still had those early texts, but they became unbearable to me before I understood that one day I would want them.

At any rate I have always written in several genres but I didn’t take writing seriously – it was something I did to entertain myself and to keep myself company. I was very much a loner and a bookworm. When I did get serious about writing it is certainly true that I came to poetry first. That happened because I took a poetry course at York with Chris Dewdney as part of my BA. I was involved with the man who became my first husband and he saw himself as a writer and I was five years younger than him and wanted to have something to talk about with him and it looked like an easy course. I certainly knew that I could write twenty pages in an eight-month period. I saw myself then as maybe a visual artist or involved in film somehow – I had trouble picturing myself in the future. I was taking a screenwriting course and I remember I used to try to imagine a film being made and where in the room I would be. Would I be in front of the camera, acting, behind the camera, directing – where could I see myself? I was always standing off in the corner, by the donuts, just watching everything and being enthralled.

But when I started writing poetry this time, something caught fire in me and writing quickly became so important I had to keep it a secret. At that time I wrote pretending that I was trying to help my boyfriend/then-husband/now ex-husband and I was, but I was also gathering experience for myself. I remember his mother saying on the phone that I should send out his work and me thinking about my own work. It took a long time for me to get up the nerve to be myself.

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

To be completely honest I am not a very good public person. I love people and I struggle with the paradox of that love and severe social anxiety. I used to have about ten minutes when I was giving a reading before my hands began to shake so I made sure I read quickly and I practiced for a week beforehand so that when I started to blush and shake I would be almost done. At some point I did get used to public appearances enough that now I don’t blush and shake. And then I really enjoyed going to parties and going out with writers and talking about writing and giving readings and meeting people. But then I developed stalkers, some more innocent than others. This, I have learned, is very, very common for women in the media (even when their presence is minimal). So I slid backwards and found it almost unbearable to be in public. I remember when I was promoting Mackerel Sky I would get back to my hotel room – feeling lonely – and someone would have left a very personal message on the phone saying how much we were alike, how much we had in common. These were (I think) the innocent contacts. And I would think, really? Are you in your pajamas eating really expensive peanuts watching Anchorman for the third time? I had friends at those festivals and I didn’t feel like I could join them. But, anyway, I lost all sense of where I began and ended and nothing about me seemed okay and I didn’t know what I wanted out of writing and I needed to retreat and find a private life that felt healthy and good. So when I moved to Calgary to be the writer-in-residence, in some ways I was looking to withdraw from the writing life which had become somewhat poisonous for me.

Then I got a puppy and I met my husband and had my children and I felt safe and I was happy again. I can’t write when I am unhappy. Long story short I am enjoying writing again – it feels fun and it is going extremely well. My life feels healthy and my writing is once again a part of my happy everyday life and I am producing poetry, fiction, and for the first time a dramatic adaptation of someone else’s work. I think or I hope that when the next three books (the ones that are in the pipeline now) come out I will really enjoy readings.

3 - 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?

The biggest question I struggle with is how to be a feminist writer now.

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

Well, I think I am easier to work with now than I was in the beginning. But I think all my editors have been invaluable in the development of my books. I enjoy editing now and I didn’t in the beginning. I think someone would tell me something was wrong and I would get defensive because I didn’t know how to fix it. Now, the editing process is a joy, a renewal of the work for me. I am always excited to hear someone else’s take on my work.

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

Ken Wiwa once told me that when he was struggling to write his book about his father (Nigerian playwright and activist against Shell and chief of the Ogoni people) that Alberto Manguel told him that for a writer the writing of the book is the book – it is important to experience the writing of the book and not to try to overcome it. For Ken this was particularly difficult because the book chronicles his relationship with his activist/public hero father and his unsuccessful bid to save him from execution. A major project has the benefit of being with you over a long period of time and can reflect changes in your own attitudes/style/affections. The drawback of major projects (books) is the anxiety you feel about their completion. The desire to know your work will come to something. That’s why I like shifting gears and writing a short story or a poem to feel something get finished when I am still working over the long term on something else. Poems and stories get rewritten and crafted into larger projects but there is a sense of relief about their initial limits. Letting go of the book in some ways always means letting go of a period in your life and the anchors you used then (I remember many times feeling in a tough spot and asking myself what my ballsy counterfeiter character Martine would do or say if it were her instead of me dealing with my life and there were times when she did comfort me greatly). But it is important to remember that what the reader sees as the book is only part of, the end product of, your book, which is actually more like a journey than a destination; more like a map than a place.

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

It is extremely easy for me to move between genres because it that is my most natural mode of writing. I usually have several projects on the go and when I get stuck with one I move over to another until I get unstuck. It’s how I relax to let new ideas in and it’s how I prevent myself from stopping. Also, I find working across genres to be a valuable way of checking that I am doing enough with each work. Poetry, for example, reminds me to think about the interaction of form with content and fiction reminds me to make sure I have content.

7 - 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 write all the time now. I write while I watch television. I’m not a very good television watcher though and I can really annoy my husband by asking what just happened? Sometimes I start by reading something that seems related in some way, sometimes I start by watching a movie in the genre I am working in or that contains an actor I used to model a character. I try to think of different stimuli that will work for the individual project. So, for the i-ROBOT adaptation (the play based on Jason Christie’s I-ROBOT) when I started to think about how to write dialogue for robots I looked up some chatbots on the Internet and had conversations with them about poetry. The first chatbot was a teenage girl and she wasn’t much help. She gave really short answers or didn’t answer at all and once in a while she just freaked out. But I found some therapist bots and an ESL conversation bot and some bots that use random algorithms and they worked really well with the material. I pretended to be a robot and I just talked to them and then typed up what we said.

8. - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie? Drive or fly (or sail)? Laptop or desktop?

As a kid I liked both Betty and Veronica but thought Archie was pathetic. Now I really can’t stand the women’s roles in that comic. I don’t know how to drive but I like being driven. I like to fly and I like to sail. I like to see things from different angles, from above, or away from shore. I use a laptop now. I had to make some decisions about space when I moved into a condo in Toronto and didn’t have any office space or a room of my own (my partner then had the office and it was not a good idea for us to share) so I bought my first laptop. It was a hard adjustment for quite a while but now I really like the portability – it allows me to write wherever I am in the small gaps in my day. That is what I am doing now, writing this while the actors (for the i-ROBOT play) review their homework.

9. - 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 draw from film and theatre a lot. I wrote one short story that was influenced by a series of photographs by a wonderful pinhole photographer, Dianne Bos. As I said, I talk to chatbots. Books come when they come from wherever – you have to be open regarding material. However, writing often enables you to think in a way that lends itself to writing more – to see narrative, characters, dialogue, lineation all around you. So writing comes from writing.

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

I haven’t written a screenplay. I am enjoying working on a play for the first time. I’d like to try some creative non-fiction but I would have to really get a handle on how I could do it in a way that felt new to me and it would have to be a subject I was passionate about. The other problem is that I wouldn’t like to write about myself – but maybe about my family, or Wales????

11. - 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 pretty sure I’d be too sad to work. It seems most likely that I would become a professor or some other sort of teacher since that is the other thing I am doing now (I’m in the last leg of my PhD in English). I do enjoy teaching very much. But I don’t think I would enjoy any of the other things I do now if I wasn’t also writing. It seems inevitable to me now that I would be a writer. Annie Lennox once said that if she didn’t have music she thinks she would be a very violent person. When I am writing I am negotiating myself, moving different parts of myself into the world. My writing is where I put things that I would never bring into my real life. It is where I put my anger, my hurt and fear, the things I believe in and the things I don’t; and then I make something that won’t hurt anyone but will make them think and feel. I make something that can represent my thinking, feeling self and can engage with a community or communities (even if I construct those communities only in my mind/work).

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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