Angie Abdou is a fiction writer and teacher who has a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Calgary. BC BookWorld called her short story collection, Anything Boys Can Do (2006), an "extraordinary literary debut" and the Victoria Times Colonist commended its original take on female sexuality. The Globe and Mail praised her first novel, The Bone Cage (2007), for its "beautiful writing" and The Quill & Quire called it "vivid, intense, and authentic." The Bone Cage was a finalist in Canada Reads 2011. Angie has just released her second novel: a black comedy about mountain-town culture called The Canterbury Trail. She was raised in Moose Jaw, SK and now lives in Fernie, BC with her husband and two children. She teaches at the College of the Rockies.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Publishing my first book didn’t change my life at all, though I had my first baby a few months later and man, did that ever change my life: forever. I think all my books are very different from each other. My first (Anything Boys Can Do) is a short story collection mostly about infidelity. The Bone Cage is about amateur athletics, the relationship between identity and body, and the end of a dream. My new novel, The Canterbury Trail, is a fairly satirical look at mountain life and is about identity, community, the environment. That’s what I like about fiction: I can do something completely new each time. I never get bored. I suppose there is some overlap between projects, but only in the most general terms – an interest in identity as fluid and, perhaps, a bit of an obsession with the body/bawdy.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I actually wrote non-fiction first, but not creative nonfiction. I wrote academic essays, tourism articles, light-armoured-vehicle manuals, software online help … that kind of stuff. Poetry: I’d love to be able to write good poetry. Every so often I read a poem that knocks me right over, and I think: if I could write a poem like that, why would I bother with novels? But bad poetry kills me. Really. So, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take. I can’t let myself write bad poetry long enough to try to get good. Novels – that’s really what I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I learned how to read them. I guess that desire stems from how much happiness, insight, and sanity novels bring me – I love the thought of being able to do the same for other readers.
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?
Starting is the hard part for me. Once I get going, I can be pretty disciplined and pile up the pages rather quickly. However, that momentum might be a result of taking my time at the beginning – by the time I start writing, the plot and characters and central themes are already pretty organized in my mind. When I’m in the writing part of the process, I start every day by revising what I wrote the last day. So, the first draft isn’t really a first draft – it’s already undergone a lot of rewriting. That version, though, is fairly close to the final shape.
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?
I start immediately on a book (not on notes or on a “let’s see what this turns out to be”). I’m very … shall we say “goal oriented” (it’s some kind of personality disorder, I’m sure, but I prefer “goal oriented”). The start is always an idea – though that idea may morph a fair bit in the writing of the book. With Anything Boys Can Do, I started by insisting I was writing about “The death of the out-dated institution of marriage.” That always cracks me up because by the time I was out promoting it, I was very happily married and gigantically pregnant. In The Bone Cage, I started wanting to write about post-Olympic depression (and though that’s not what the book is actually about, I think anyone who has read it can see how it came out of that interest). So, a book begins with an idea … or rather an “idea turned obsession” (but that’s another personality disorder we don’t need to get into).
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love public events, but I read very little at them. I hate reading (no, I love reading – I hate reading aloud to a room full of people who are perfectly capable of reading to themselves). I really, though, very much enjoy talking with readers about my books and my writing process. I like hearing questions. I like making people laugh and think. A really good event charges me right up. But, yes, those public events are (even though I like them) still counter to the creative process. Writing a book and figuring out how to talk about a book – two very different things.
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 just wrote a page long answer to this question that bored even me. The question (the only question) is: WHY?
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 think writers allow people a space to reflect on what it means to be human in this crazy contemporary world. Everything is moving and changing so fast; novels force us to slow down and think. Fittingly, the books I’ve connected with lately do have that ethical dimension: Every Lost Country (about humans’ responsibility to see—and respond to—injustice), Annabel (about the harm done by our society’s rigid notions of gender), Cool Water (about people figuring out how to cope with an inevitable change from one way of life to another), Before I Wake (about the miraculous and how to respond to it in a way that’s neither fearful nor exploitive) … you get the idea. Books let us think, in a deep and serious way, about how to best live our lives.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have had great experiences working with editors. Working with an editor is both difficult and essential, definitely. Suzette Mayr was the editor of The Bone Cage, and I learned so much about writing from her. She was also the dissertation advisor for The Canterbury Trail (which was, in an early version, a Ph.D. dissertation before it was a published novel). Lynne Van Luven was the editor for The Canterbury Trail, and we had so much fun together (it’s a wild book so I appreciated having an editor who embraced that wildness), but being fun didn’t make it any less difficult. Editing is definitely work, and it feels like it. I don’t think I could do it myself: I need that outside set of eyes.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
OK, this is an interesting question because one of the very first pieces of advice I was ever given was “always assume your reader is at least as smart as you are.” Bonnie Burnard said that at a Booming Ground workshop in about 2001. I took it very seriously and have repeated it often. Then, I had a sinking moment a few weeks ago when I thought that it might be the very worst advice I’d ever been given. Or that maybe I’d misinterpreted it (maybe I heard “Always assume your reader is at least as well-read as you are?” – not the same, right?). It turns out that there are people, a lot of them, who have never heard of The Canterbury Tales. Really. Never heard of it.
So, I’m still figuring out what to do with that, but in the meantime here’s another piece of advice (less likely to cause me anxiety) ….
I think of this corny piece of advice almost every day: The most important equipment in a writer’s tool kit: glue. Now put it on your seat and sit down.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
Easy (I mean as much as the word “easy” can ever refer to writing). I started with short stories not because I thought they’d be easier than a novel, but because I thought it would be a more practical way to teach myself how to write fiction. Simply, the end of a short story is closer in sight. With short stories, I could start sending stuff out fairly quickly and get some feedback early on. However, I always intended to finish enough stories for a book and then move onto a novel. A novel, in fact, is easier than short stories in the sense that the writer doesn’t have to keep building a new foundation every 20 pages. In a novel, momentum does some of the work.
I do admire the short story form (especially its tightness and length-to-impact ratio), and I have ideas that make me want to go back to it. If I wrote full-time, I’d likely do both simultaneously. Short stories in the morning and novels in the afternoon – how’s that for a fantasy life?
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?
A typical day begins for me at 6:30 with my two-year old yelling “MOMMY! I’M DONE MY SLEEP!!! MOOOOMMMMYYYYYYY!!!” So, life has changed. I used to have a three page rule: I wrote three pages a day (first thing), and then I could do whatever I wanted. On a good day, I’d likely write more. Now, I write when I have childcare. There’s nothing quite like paying-by-the-minute to motivate a gal.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Physical activity. I step away from the computer and get moving – that’s where my characters come alive and I start to see what needs to happen.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
I’ve never heard that saying before. So true! Books do come from books. My books also come from physical activity – running, cross-country skiing, swimming. I start my writing process at the computer, but then I get out doing something to give my brain a little space to work on the creative process without my interference (or without me trying so hard). So – yes, nature, but specifically me-in-motion in nature.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve been lucky to take workshops with (and be edited by) some really great writers, especially Bonnie Burnard, Elisabeth Harvor, Lynn Coady, Suzette Mayr, and Lynne Van Luven.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Spend an entire winter barefoot on a beach.
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?
My day job (College English Professor) is actually exactly what I would do if I hadn’t been a writer. They pay me to talk about books (and I have a captive audience). It’s awesome.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A car crash. I was doing something else – working a job I didn’t particularly like, partying a lot, running marathons, skiing every weekend … and then I broke my back in a head-on highway collision and asked “What do I really want to do?” The answer (write novels) wasn’t a big surprise: it’s been there, just below the surface, ever since I could read.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m just finishing Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and am dying to talk to someone about it – which makes it pretty great already. Films – I hardly watch any, to be honest. I have a two-year old and a four-year old and a full-time job and a writing career. Life is insane. However, I watched Black Swan on a plane to North Bay last week – a book blogger (Bookgaga) had written a review comparing it to The Bone Cage, and I was curious. They do raise a lot of the same issues.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel – but it’s a bit early to say more than that (which is interesting because I didn’t know until right now that I do have weird superstitions about my writing!).
12 or 20 (second series) questions: