Karen Smythe is the author of a short-story collection, Stubborn Bones, and Figuring Grief, a ground-breaking analysis of the depiction of mourning in fiction by Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Edna O’Brien, and others. The title story of her collection was anthologized by Lynn Coady in Victory Meat: New Writing from Atlantic Canada. This Side of Sad, her first novel, will launch in September from Goose Lane Editions. A former English professor, university Registrar, and senior policy analyst, Karen now writes full time. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.
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 was exciting but also frustrating, because at the time I was starting a new career that demanded all of my attention and I wasn't able to write (or even think about writing) after the book launched, for years. Writing was almost my little secret, until I semi-retired and returned to writing in 2014. When I did, I realized I needed to update myself in terms of contemporary approaches to writing. I needed to read a lot and widely, and to rethink how I wanted to write; I had to challenge myself and discover new modes that excited me about writing again. With my latest book, a novel, I did just that: I tore up early drafts and figured out a new way of writing my character's story, one that follows not linear chronology but the associative logic of a mind in reflection.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
For me, writing narrative has always been like breathing. I did write rhyming poems as a child--poetry with social messages, even--but as an adult, I found I was too awed by poetry to attempt writing it myself. I’ve written and published lots of literary criticism, but it failed to satisfy me. Only fiction gives me the feeling that what I am writing has some potential to be meaningful to 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?
Once I decide on a project, writing tends to come quickly. I usually have an outline, but it’s loose and always changes. It’s a framework that gives me confidence to get going, I suppose. With This Side of Sad, for example, I had three storylines intertwined and a timeline written out, but the shape of the novel is diffuse. I needed the original structure to give me the idea that I had to break it, to make the book work.
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?
Sometimes I realize that short stories I've written really comprise a larger story about the characters, even though I didn't plan them that way. It is a thrilling feeling, to recognize that the fictional people you’ve created have become more real and complex than you’d realized during the writing process, and that they need more room than you'd originally given them. For larger projects I collect thoughts, metaphors, bits of dialogue etc. on scraps of paper, and they end up being sorted for use in specific sections of the work. I used bulletin boards for organizing scenes and ideas when writing This Side of Sad, which was so helpful as I shaped the novel in an unconventional way--because quite often, I could visualize where things belonged before I wrote them out. Other times, of course, cutting and pasting was a life saver and a big part of the creative process for me.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m terribly shy and though most writers I know say this, I am extremely insecure. No amount of success, praise, or reassurance can change this aspect of my personality. So I am very nervous before readings, and very relieved when they are over! I am always told that I come across as a confident speaker, so I suppose I have some acting ability that kicks in.
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?
My fiction is always concerned with the unknowability of individual human beings, with the way relationships between people work, or don't, and how we interpret and invent versions of ourselves and those we interact with all the time. I’m not a theoretically inclined writer (after abandoning an academic career in which I focused my work on literary theory, I've had my fill!), but how to represent consciousness became a huge interest for me when I was a student of literature, and it still consumes a lot of my attention both as a reader and as a writer.
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?
Writers can make you perceive what you otherwise would not (or might not) see or feel. I think the role of writers has always been to show us to ourselves, to make us think and feel more than we would without reading their work, and to become better people in the process. I’ve heard statistics about the very low percentage of Americans who read at least one book a year; I don't know what the status might be in Canada or England or Poland, but generally I think “entertainment” (TV, streaming and the like) has overtaken reading as a past time of human beings, and that the impact of this on how we treat and value each other is pretty obvious.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential! Not only for moral support and encouragement but for technical advice and expert assessment of what works, what isn't working, and what might help bring the whole work together in a meaningful way.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Stan Dragland, one of my first writing mentors, told me to make sure my narrator has an excellent memory. That is pretty basic, but it is also extremely important and depending on how complex the piece you are writing becomes, your narrator's memory can be more difficult to manage than you'd think.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
My short stories started to get longer and longer as I grew older, and I realized that my characters were more complex than I'd given them credit for in my earlier writing efforts--and that the stories I wanted to tell required longer narratives to get at what I wanted to. Now that I've finished my first novel, I am tempted to try to write a short story again, to see if what I’ve learned in the novel-writing process might have taught me something about the short-story form, too.
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?
My ideal day begins spending the morning drinking tea and reading--the news, The New Yorker, an article or a review someone has posted on a feed. A mid-day work-out at the gym then takes me to a four-hour stint working in my writing shed. Yes, I have one--I built it a few years ago and it is the best gift I’ve ever given to myself. I don’t use the shed for any other work--for my freelance editing and other projects, I work at home. My writing shed is my creative oasis. It’s the one place in the world where I am completely myself.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to some of my favourite books and read new work too, until that old feeling returns… the sense that I must be in my writing shed and write something, anything at all.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Oil paints, because my father always had a painting on the go when I was growing up; lilacs, because I fell under their spell when I was young; and cigarette smoke, because my husband hasn’t kicked the habit.
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?
Oh yes, visual art definitely inspires me and moves me. It's another form of story telling and imagination-sparking. Looking at artwork is like communing with a kindred spirit who understands exactly what you want to write about.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I enjoy reading philosophical writing, neuroscientific studies, psychological case studies, and a wide variety of medical news. Keeping current with new knowledge in non-literary fields feeds my literary imagination. Reading work by my contemporaries is also extremely important for my work and my life. I feel an uncanny kind of connection evolving among writers of our age, I think. Perhaps it has always been thus--this sharing of common goals, values, and challenges in response to the world we find ourselves in.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Build a little place by the sea, in Nova Scotia--not too close to the water, though, considering water levels and climate change.
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 did end up doing a lot of things instead of writing! English professor, freelance editor, education administrator, university registrar, policy analyst.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I've had a lot of different careers (see #17, above), most of which I think I pursued in order to avoid being a writer. I've known since I was about nine that I was a writer, but I didn't give myself the opportunity or take myself seriously until middle-age.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation continues to haunt me. My memory for movies is terrible, but I loved the documentary, I am not your Negro. And I recently saw the original Panique (1947), with the great Michel Simon, which is about making an “outsider” into a villain and an enemy. Terrifying and timely, both films.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm gathering my thoughts, marinating ideas, for two very different novels. I’m not sure quite yet which will take over my mind and my life, but either way I'm excited about spending more and more time in my writing shed in the months to come. I’ll be doing a few readings from This Side of Sad starting in September, too. I’ll be posting dates on my website (www.karensmythe.weebly.com) as they are confirmed.
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