Monday, September 22, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jennifer Fraser

Jennifer Fraser grew up in Vancouver and attended UBC where she could not decide between French and English literary studies so she did a double Honours BA which required a dissertation and thus dragged everything out even longer. Unfortunately, her favorite course was a year long exploration of the Divine Comedy with Professor Chiarenza. Thus, Fraser became even more undecided what to pursue in graduate studies and avoided the whole issue by doing a Masters and PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. She wrote her dissertation on the Dante's epic poem and the impact it had on James Joyce who shared Fraser's inability to commit to one culture or language even. In 2002, her dissertation, transformed into a book, was published by University Press of Florida: Rite of Passage in the Narratives of Dante and Joyce. Fraser taught as a sessional at University of Toronto and is quite likely the first and only person to convince the Literary Studies Department at Victoria College that a course for third year students on the Divina Commedia and Finnegans Wake was a must. She also taught for Humber College and Branksome, an all girls independent school. After fourteen years in Toronto, Fraser’s husband took a position in Victoria, BC and so she moved with her husband, including her two sons, one three and one eight, back to the West Coast. In Victoria, Fraser worked for St Michaels University School and just recently has taken a position at an International Baccalaureate School, Glenlyon Norfolk. Directing plays, teaching literature, and lucky enough to work with fabulous creative writers greatly influenced Fraser who has written three plays which are available through the Playwrights Guild of Canada as well as another literary study, published in 2011 by University of Toronto Press, Be A Good Soldier: Children's Grief in Modern English Novels, and an assortment of novels the first one, Crush, published in 2013; the second one, Royal Dispatch being published this summer, two others completed but presently in a holding pattern and more in process. Fraser is a compulsive writer who cannot stop analyzing, dramatizing, and spinning tales.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I found it liberating to write fiction as opposed to scholarly work. It was a difficult transition to make because I did not have a sense of how to construct a character or develop a plot or use dialogue. I discovered that a whole other part of the self is drawn upon when writing fiction and it made me feel more alive. Rather than the intellect being the dominant force, as in academic work whereby one seeks patterns or theoretical structures or cultural implications, the whole self comes into play when writing fiction. It made my heart beat and my senses become more finely tuned. Moreover, writing fiction allows for humour which I cannot resist regardless of how serious my focus is. I love funny people and situations and am quick to laugh myself at absurdity or folly and to allow this part of myself free reign in creative writing was an immense pleasure.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
When I first started creative writing, I tried short-stories and poems, but they were not a good fit. I am not a miniaturist or a perfectionist and thus could not do my best work in these highly demanding genres. I’m very character driven in my work and found that I needed more space and time to unpack my people. I wanted to throw them into a plot that challenged them and brought out their best and worst. This takes pages and pages. I am privileged to have very talented poets and short-story authors in my writing group, but I seem to need a vast literary canvas to fully shade and colour my stories.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?

My writing comes fast and furious. My characters are relentless and they badger me. If I am caught up in teaching or attending to my children or any of the other demands of life, my characters become disgruntled and sometimes even belligerent. Then I succumb and develop a vacant stare as I cope with real life because fictional life is hounding me. It is a relief for me to carve out time and sit at the computer. It’s the only activity for me where I don’t notice time passing. I forget to eat and drink. Worse, I am shocked when I pull out of story world and need to return to reality.

Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I am a note taker and my training in academic work greatly assists me in this regard. When I wrote Crush, I was not at all a wine expert and even now am an absolute novice. However, I recorded the “stories” on Okanagan Estate Wineries’ labels. I read books. I took notes. I spent hours looking at the internet. Even then, I had a sommelier read the novel and she got completely amused in places where I had made glaring errors. Likewise, I had a RCMP officer read Royal Dispatch and he corrected quite a number of errors. To draw on experts in the final drafts process is wonderful and I’ve found people are generous with their time. I write a lot of drafts as my first ones are often rough as I am to just let the story hit the page with the sense that I can always go back and refine. I think this process comes to me through my theatre work as rehearsal is the key to depth-filled performances. Rehearsals greatly impact the nuances of timing and make an enormous difference to the interactive nature of drama that compares to the inter-related aspect of character dynamics in fiction.

4 - Where does a work 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?
Ever since Crush, I’ve learned that I can only write books. This was true in academic work as well. I tried to write articles, but it was ironically enough harder for me than writing book length studies. My thirteen year old will get utterly fed up with me as I try to advise or explain something and I think he’s nailed my character. He simply says: “You don’t have to go on and on.” In real life, he’s right and I try to hold back, but in fiction it would appear I do have to go on and on.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
My initial sense of doing a reading is utter dread. As an introvert, any kind of suggestion that I need to leave the computer and worse, interact, fills me with resistance and causes me to whine and complain. However, the second I am in the classroom or lecture hall or at a reading, I delight in the interactions and dialogue, the discussion that stories spark and the sharing that happens. So although I go to readings kicking and screaming, I finish them off feeling a great deal of gratitude for the people who attend such events and who love to talk about books.

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 am fascinated by whatever it is in a person that makes them refuse to bow down before master narratives. What caught my attention in the Okanagan and inspired Crush was the aboriginal winery Nk’mip. I loved the story of Chief Clarence Louis who is a highly talented businessman and economic instigator in this area of the world. He is a leader and that absolutely caught my attention and made me want to know more. There is a metal sculpture at the entrance to Nk’mip winery and it’s a larger than life horse with a rider upon it and they face the lake and wind with cliffs rising up behind them. It is the oppression of those cliffs that represents to me all the forces in life that tell you “no” and say “you can’t,” but this rider turns his back on the wall of rocky cliffs and sets off in a new direction which is the driving force behind all of the characters in my fiction.

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 it depends on the writer and there are many different kinds of reasons behind writing and different roles one might play in as a writer. For me, I feel like my role is as a story-teller. I feel like the most intriguing aspect of where I live is that it is paradoxically globally local. British Columbia today is a province of people from all over the world. The original settlements stretching back at least ten thousand years with the First Nations then the arrival of Europeans and Chinese and Japanese and then all of a sudden in the late eighties the whole world descended upon this wild diverse landscape forever rendering the community complex and dynamic. I find stories beckoning from all over when I’m here. What I find particularly powerful is that British Columbia is a place where people refuse to give up their stories. No matter what has been thrown at the First Nations people or the Chinese people who came here, no matter what cruelty was dished out to European immigrants or the Japanese during World War II, no one will relinquish the story of their suffering and of their triumphs. People in this community create cultures within cultures by adhering to their stories and I want to be a part of this.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find an outside editor invaluable. Coming from the scholarly community, I like an editor who does not pull punches. I am not wedded to my every word or even character and find it easy to cut or erase or reinvent if needed. I like the dialogue that occurs when an editor examines in detail one’s work. I am particularly lucky at present because my publisher, Ben Coles of Promontory Press, is also a novelist and thus I find his editing exceptional in terms of his sense of story.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My brother is a screenwriter and he told me that when I got stuck writing, I should stop and go for a long walk. It works wonders. My best ideas come to me or the solutions to my literary problems inevitably emerge when I’m walking.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (plays to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
The move from academic writing to creative writing was very hard, but I had an excellent writing group who encouraged me. I began by writing little “essays” as I literally felt baffled by the concept of fictional presentation. However, once I committed to creative writing, I find that shifting genres is quite seamless. I think because I have worked as a teacher of literature for a long time and also as a director of plays, I feel as comfortable in the world of Beowulf as I do on the stage of the Laramie Project. 

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 try to keep early morning open for writing before I have to go to work. If I’m being hounded by unsympathetic characters, I’ll write when I have spares from teaching or during lunch or just before dinner or while my son is at an activity just to quiet them. Any long weekend or extended holiday is writing time. I try to carve out as much time as possible and resent interruptions!

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I get stuck and my long walk fails to help, then I simply leave the section of the novel I’m working on and turn my attention to something else. I have an extremely poor memory and always have; however, I am able to keep clear in my mind long intertwining narratives with all the characters and their different detailed issues. My husband finds this quality in me quite annoying as I struggle to remember a person’s name or a book I’ve read or something I really need to purchase, while I can go on and on about my plots’ twists and turns or describe my characters’ outfits or speech patterns.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home smells to me like my kids: boys’ sports equipment, boys’ empty orange juice glasses, boys’ quilts that are rumpled, boys’ shampooed hair as they lay their heads down on our dog’s musty coat, boys’ running shoes and the warmed fabric of their school uniforms. 

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?
My books are definitely shaped by books as I truly believe in seeing the world through the lens of literature, but when I’m writing, I tend to engross myself in the world of winemakers or the world of Chinese mythology or the RCMP. I love the detail and vocabulary and ideology that define groups of people who are utterly foreign to me. I’m the opposite of the writer that writes what he or she knows. I tend to write what I don’t know.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have studied in depth, over the course of years and years, particular writers, and a day does not go by when I’m not under their influence. I could not have written with such intense sympathy the Irish terrorists of Royal Dispatch without James Joyce at my shoulder. I could not have written with such humorous grief the story of Gwen in Third Culture Kid without having taught Holden Caulfield’s story year after year. The torturous journey of Dante as he descends into hell in order to spiritually raise himself back up most definitely has shaped the tragic losses that occur in the cursed tale Gemini Cycle. That said, I do not think for a moment that my own fiction is anywhere near these great writers in terms of achievement. I merely hear them as I try to tell my own stories. Thus, I greatly admire the way in which Virginia Woolf obliquely delineates a character’s psychology and I strive to marshal her approach as I putter away at my laptop. I loved the movie Midnight In Paris as it told in such a sweet way the yearning we have to spend time with our favorite writers and the way in which we cannot help but dialogue with them across the ages.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Much as I find working with young people inspiring and interesting, I would like to write for a living and not have to always divide my time between teaching and writing. My dream would be to live in different countries for stretches of time and write novels.

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 would love to act and sing. What holds me back is being highly introverted and self-conscious; hence, writing allows me to be creative and interactive yet also protects my need for quiet and alone time. I get along extremely well with my computer.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
See above answer

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently watched Cloud Atlas and I found its exploration of time and eternal recurrence fascinating. I especially found captivating the weight moments carry when one has the opportunity to do a kindness or a cruelty. I am in the midst of The Imperfectionists and am very caught up in the characters and premise. The writing is original and the descriptions quirky which has set my imagination singing.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Besides the arduous and painful task of editing, I am two chapters into the sequel to Crush which is the next Paige Munroe wine mystery called Celsius and it’s set on the Big Island of Hawaii at Volcano Winery. Celsius is all about what happens when literal and figurative heat is added to the mix of wine, relationships, food and so on. I wasn’t planning to write a sequel, but readers keep asking for it. I have a novel that needs minor edits and I’m hoping to have published in the fall entitled Gemini Cycle; it’s about the working out of an ancient Chinese curse in contemporary Vancouver’s China Town.  I have another novel called Third Culture Kid which is set at an international private school and is narrated by a fourteen year old girl who has major social issues because her dad is the Headmaster and her new step-mom is the new school counselor. Needless to say, no one wants to be her friend. Not sure when my publisher will bring that one out, perhaps in the new year. I am actually working on more, but I really find that this is one of my worst instances of going “on and on” and with that, I will hush.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Robert Penbrooke said...

I have greatly enjoyed reading Jennifer Frazer's answers to your twenty questions! I also am working with Ben Coles on "The Quebec Affair," a novel due to be published by Promontory Press in the spring of 2015. Jennifer is very honest with what inspires her work and that is most refreshing. She certainly has enough credentials! I approach your same questions as a complete amateur-- having been an architect for decades, but there are certainly common themes in what inspires a writer, and the always necessary and sometimes humorous shift between "reality," back to the plot and characters of a narrative, and then out again. I wish Jennifer great success with "Crush"!