Monday, December 20, 2010

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Yasmin Ladha

Yasmin Ladha is a Canadian fiction writer, currently working in Muscat, Oman. She completed her BA and MA in English at the University of Calgary. Her published works include the collection of short stories, Lion’s Granddaughter and Other Stories (NeWest Press, 1992); the chapbook Bridal Hands on the Maple (Second Wednesday Press, 1992); and Women Dancing on Rooftops: Bring your Belly Close, a book of short stories, documentary-fiction, personal essays and poetry (TSAR, 1997). Her story “Coca-Cola and Cowboys” was awarded first prize in a CBC Radio short story competition in 2005. Her new book is the novel Blue Sunlight Startle, published by Freehand Books in 2010.

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

A)  With the first book, Lion’s Granddaughter and Other Stories, my name became familiar to the university communities in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.  There were no big changes but tweakings: for example, invitations to submit work for anthologies came at my doorstep.  After Lion’s Granddaughter, I wrote Women Dancing on Rooftops: Bring your belly close, a mixed-genre book of short stories, documentary-fictions and poetry, more language than a plot book.  My most recent work, Blue Sunflower Startle (Freehand Books, 2010), a novel, has made me better-crafted, less Rococo.  I focused on trajectory.  This is what I am continuing to work on, even with my current work: prose-poems. I focus on muscle and contours of trajectory (plot).

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

A)  I started with poetry, not fiction.  My poetry appeared in literary journals.  Then I took creative writing workshops at The University of Calgary, both poetry and fiction.  I never gave thought to when I moved from poetry to fiction within a single piece of writing.  Workshops imposed discipline and curtailment: submitting work on time, editing others’ work and redrafts.  Workshops were also an indulgent space where a writer could experiment.  This comfortable, slightly stagey place, is where a writer could burgeon, a tad heady, a tad crazy.  In workshops, this ability of mine to swing poetry with fiction, was not cut off at the knees.  I have always written this way.  I continue to move between genres, like moving from one room to another, but within the same house, the same piece of writing.  For me, the boundaries between the genres are cozily fuzzy (poetry into fiction into essay writing into documentary fiction into memoirs) with the exception of playwriting.

3)  How long does it take to do any writing project?  Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?  So first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
A)  Blue Sunflower Startle took me eleven years!  I just was not getting it right.  The content was roughly the same but it was a sprawling mass.  I worked hard on trajectory (with the firm hand of Robyn Read, my editor). A fair chunk was chucked out.  No, I do not rush.  I like to rewrite, overwrite and indulge myself. Then slowly, writing “this”, I discover “that”.  A mellow process, the space I need.   Once the novel is in the hands of an editor, then it is deadlines and speedy work, but the period before: the startle of words, the flow of content, the many starts and the many middles, the meanderings and copious redrafts for that cold burning startle that comes in spurts and bouts, is strictly my time.  No, I do not rush.

4)  Where does 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?
A)  For me, the former is true. I work from short pieces to create a big one.  More collage than an undisturbed book.  When I write a continual book with a brawny plotline and characters distinct from my reality, that would be a step up.

5)  Are public readings part of or counter to your activities process?  Are you the fort of writer who enjoys doing a reading?
A)  Readings do not hinder my writing process, but no, I do not enjoy them.  I am tense the whole week before a reading(s).  After the reading, it takes me a few days to settle in.  I do not like to perform.  I do not like to make small talk. This time, with Blue Sunflower Startle, the experience was wonderful!  I think when your publisher is behind you, looking out for your concerns and comfort, a writer is protected.  (I have not always had it.)  Also, there were no question-answer sessions this summer.  I cannot think on my feet.  I resent stupid questions.  I resent an interviewer who has not read my book and come to interview me (about what!).  I resent tedious explanations.  I resent having it thrust upon me to be a master of diverse subjects or allotted to be someone else’s mover and shaker.  Readers suddenly become experts telling me how to write my book!  I loathe having to market my book at a reading or in an interview.  Back to readings: this summer at home, I was watching, I think it was Writers and Company, where a writer suggested it is best to enjoy the experience.  I took the advice, along with copious glasses of wine, and since my people from Freehand Books were right there, I had a rosy and happy time at the podium.  The other point I wish to make is that I prepare hard for a reading. I am not sloppy.  Since my details, images and stories are from many cultures, I invest a lot in delivery, so that what is foreign becomes familiarly foreign in this physical meeting between the reader and writer.  I also do not explain.  Most of it is through voice: the reading itself.

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?
A)  Whenever the word “theoretical” is mentioned, I get sleepy.  I did my MA when any I had to carry my deconstruction pliers in my study bag along with the novel to be read.   “Theory,” “frame within a frame,” these ways of reading is fascinating, but up to a point. In my own writing, I have no desire to answer questions.  This is how I write: I have already shared that I write “this” to discover “that”. I have also been influenced by what Iris Murdoch once wrote: that what is contained in the pages of a book or a painting can be imbibed more easily, then say, if the same story or painting were real life.  I am messily paraphrasing, but this is the essence.  Things that happen in real life may be things we may not be able to bear, but within the pages of a book, they ready us for sorrow.  Stories are my teachers for a brief season, so are contours of a piece of sculpture, so is a political thought, a film, a snippet from a ghazal, a tawdry Hindi song.  Suddenly I am a lapidist with who lovely stones in my hand.  Now, how to arrange them?

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?
A)  When I write, I do not start with the intention to change things up on the top the mountain, an epic whooshing down to the people.  In this, I do not write for the benefit of others.  I start from a hollow place, a private place that I enter with washed feet.  I write because something touches me, an observation quick as spit, or, slow as treacle, and I get frisky, ready to take off.   To add to this:  I do not create out of a vacuum. Art, music, writing, films have always contributed to the larger culture.  However, I also think our ability to reflect has taken a back seat (our biggest gift and hardest work).  I think we are also aware of this, but right now, we are happy hippos – it is that kind of season- bathing in tremendous information, gadgetry, instant connections and fame, all at the press of a button.

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

A) I have had editors all along my writing career.  At workshops, others critiqued my work.  This exposure made me a better writer and editor.  A good editor follows a writer’s sensibility.  This is where she situates herself.  She critiques from this place.  She does not impose.  To be a bit vulgar: (ideally) they shit from the same pot.  Strong communication between the two sharpens the writing at hand.  And it does not matter if the editor is in Calgary and the writer in Timbuktu!  I feel privileged when I work with editors, but then the writer has to be canny enough to know what to pull out of the editor (his/her strengths) and work from there.  My readers are not from a homogenous background, so at times, I blithely write away (an omelet of multi-worlds, a garish garnish of new words, or dropping words, or making them up.  A fauvish style: personal snippet-to poetry-to fiction-to a lover’s balcony [not Juliet’s for once, thank you very much]) until an editor reins me in with a stern, “Unpack!” in red. I return to my writing desk, back to the particular paragraph, word, or image, and work and work on it until we are both satisfied.  Normally, in making something clearer, I am adamant that the nuance remains raw (like when it came to be in a spurt).  In other words, the reader may still see something as foreign, but now, it is familiarly foreign.  Editors have been my catalyst for clearer, crisper writing.

9)  What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A)  Real writing occurs in rewriting.

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?
My work as a teacher takes most of my time.  I write mostly on the weekends and during the holidays.  If I have a deadline to meet, then sure, writing will be given precedence.  I find, especially as I get older, I am tired of juggling work and writing, and wish for a three month writing break.  I do keep connected with writing almost everyday, like jotting down a quote, writing down a detail, an insight, a corky phrase, clipping a picture or writing from a paper, thoughts.  Nothing has to be connected to my current writing.  In this, I am footloose.  I write this to discover that.   If I do not connect with my journal on a regular basis, I am discombobulated.  These connections are my ancillaries.  They support my writing process.  When I am actually writing, it is early, 4 am, and can go on until late in the morning. 

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

A)  I have not got stalled.  I am a modicum writer as well as a disparate one. Perhaps I do not get stalled because I am constantly returning to the pages to smooth things out! Even whilst thinking, I clear my head on paper, so I have not as yet faced “The Block”.  Is it because I am constantly jotting down things, my subconscious is involved?  Is it because my writing process flushed, healthy?  (I admit most of it will not be published, but I am nicely warmed up like before a jog.)  I am not in a state of panic.  I panic when I have forgotten to think about writing or jot down something.  Then I am discombobulated.  I make mistakes at work and in my daily life.

12)  What fragrances remind you of home?

A)   I became aware of harnessing fragrances in workshops!  What stays with me when leaving home, what I will not let go off are The Globe and Mail pages that I am carrying on the airplane.  In Muscat, which is generally 40 degrees, I miss not being able to pad around the house in thick socks.  I miss winter clothes.  Honestly, I miss flannel shirts and pulling the end of sleeves to cover my cold fingers or wipe my runny nose! 

13)  David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but there are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual arts?
A)  Yes to McFadden’s comment.  As well, my response is covered in question 7).  I am a sponge.  I will imbibe anything that startles or jostles me.  It can be a hymn or a tear-jerker commercial (particularly syrupy, insurance commercials, then I have a lachrymose disposition.)

14)  What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
A)  I learn from writers.  Even as I am reading, I pay attention to detail, the way historical and cultural facts are woven in (Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna).  In the end, however, I am floored by language, be it an article in The Guardian Weekly, or a novel, or fine writing in Walrus.

15)  What would you like to do that you haven’t done?
A)  Write a play.

16)  If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?  Or, alternatively, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A)  I would like to be a gardener, a potter, or drive big trucks (I do not even have a driving license)!  I have not a clue how to plant seeds, but yes, if I could daydream, those would be the jobs.  Had I not been a writer, I would have ended up doing some kind of office work.

17)  What made you want to write as opposed to doing something else?

A)  Stories have always placated me.  Somewhere in my teens, I started writing poems.  And then at university, I joined writing workshops, but without much thinking, rather, I bobbed towards writing.

18)  What was the last great book that you ever read?  What was a great film?

A)  May I ignore the adjective “great”?  Books, music, films affect you differently, depending on the state of mind you are in at the time.  The last book I very much enjoyed was Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. I relish Margaret Forster’s work.  A film where I walked about in a daze the next day and had gin for breakfast to stop the hurt was Yojiro Takita’s film, Departures.

19)  What are you currently working on?

A)  A book of short story-poems.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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