Saturday, September 17, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan has degrees in Writing from the University of Victoria (BA) and Johns Hopkins University (MA). Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2003, ed. Joyce Carol Oates, and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (2006). Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was published internationally. It was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, was a More Book Lust selection, and was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of 2004’s Books to Remember. Her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, appeared in Canada with Thomas Allen, and has been shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

Edugyan has held fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown (US), Hawthornden Castle (Scotland), Klaustrid (Iceland), Akademie Schloss Solitude (Germany), and most recently JAK/Collegium Budapest (Hungary). She has taught creative writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Victoria, and has sat on panels as diverse as the LesART Literary Festival in Esslingen, Germany, the Budapest Book Fair in Hungary, and Barnard College in New York City. She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

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

The first book I guess vindicated the long years of writing that stretched out before it. You think, ‘Okay, I can do this,’ even while understanding (hoping) that this is just the beginning of a lifelong pursuit. My recent novel shares, I think, an interest in histories that have slipped from view – in the first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, I wrote about a town in Alberta founded by freed black slaves, whereas this new novel explores the experiences of black Germans under the Third Reich (among other things).

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

Actually, I started with poetry. But narrative drive and character kept taking over.

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?

It depends. Some things come quickly, a gift, fully formed. Others retain virtually no connection to the initial idea or draft. But most of the writing is rewriting, always.

4 - Where does a novel 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’m very conscious when I start a piece of what it will be, whether a novel or a short story, etc. Certain stories seem to dictate certain lengths. I also tend to write chronologically.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m rather shy and reluctant in public. But I do enjoy meeting fellow writers, and readers, and hearing their thoughts and ideas. So, a bit of both I guess.

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’m not sure about theoretical. I suppose I’m unfashionable in that I try to avoid fashions or ‘current’ questions. The right kinds of questions – questions about the human condition, about who we are, what we want, how to live, what is the moral life – these seem to me either always current, or never so. But nevertheless these are the sorts of concerns that tend to occupy me. That said, my fiction seems much more interested in its characters and their particulars, rather than larger themes or authorial concerns. I guess in the end my fiction tends towards the stance that we are not so different from how we were centuries ago – that there is more similarity in the human condition, than difference.

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?

This isn’t the sort of question writers should be answering – at least not in their role as writers. I do believe the best fiction is more than just entertainment, more than mere storytelling. But everything beyond that point remains vague, and maybe it should stay that way. I think our lives have meaning, and the best fiction reflects that, and urges us to look at ourselves more intensely and maybe even a bit more honestly.

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

Both, but maybe a bit more essential than difficult. I’ve been really lucky with Half Blood Blues, in that its editors were brilliant and shared a sensibility with the novel. It was a surprisingly smooth process.

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

Failure is quitting before you succeed.

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?

When I’m between projects the days are listless, and the work doesn’t really add up to much. Once I’ve found the project and there is some momentum, I’ll write every day for four to six hours. Sometimes as much twelve, if things are really picking up steam. We’ve just had our first child, though, so I expect my writing schedule will change now. And by change I mean cease to exist!

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

I don’t know that I believe in writer’s block. Some problems you move through more slowly, some just solve themselves. But if the work isn’t coming, well, I’ve learned to trust it. Eventually something gives.

12 - What was your favourite Hallowe'en costume?

My husband went as a ghost. He cut holes in a white sheet and tossed it over his body. It was very convincing.

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?

Everything feeds into the stories themselves – rumours, news stories, experiences from travel etc. But the writing itself is sometimes informed by music – this new novel took jazz rhythms into the voice of the character himself, for example.

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

There are just so many. Naipaul and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Bolano. Toni Morrison, when I was younger.

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

Sing an opera.

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?

I don’t know. I considered law for a time, and being a nutritionist.

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

A crazy, all-consuming faith in the importance of the written word.

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

2666 by Roberto Bolano. The Killing by Kubrick.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Raising my newborn daughter.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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