Monday, July 30, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Maureen Medved

Maureen Medved’s [photo credit: Nancy Vaz] writing has been published in literary journals and magazines and on the stage and screen internationally. Maureen’s adaptation of her novel The Tracey Fragments, opened the Panorama program of the 57th annual Berlin International Film Festival, winning the Manfred Salzgeber Prize for a film that “broadens the boundaries of cinema today.” Her novel Black Star came out in April 2018 and a book of essays is forthcoming in 2019. She is working on a book-length non-fiction work and a novel. She writes about film and television and is an Associate Professor inthe Creative Writing Program at the University of 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?
My first book was a total life changer. Of course there was Tracey the movie, and that changed my life in significant ways with Bruce, Ellen, the awards, etc., but that’s another story. In terms of Tracey the book, I was writing alone in a little box, performing my work at punk gigs and so forth and then very suddenly I climbed out of the box.  Both the first book and the second are told in first person POV by someone on the verge of a major crisis. But the first book is about a teen who feels rebellious and the second is about an academic who feels like a messed up teen. But they are different people with different concerns.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Originally, I grew up reading plays and watching movies with my father. It was Winnipeg. Snow. No internet. What felt like no way out. If we’d had the internet, I’m sure I would have never left my bedroom, watching Streetcar and Long Days Journey into Night on repeat. But back in the prehistoric era I was satisfied reading the plays and listening to stand up comedy albums on the turntable in my little room while the snow mounted outside. Whenever a great movie was playing on TV, the bells would sound in our house and my father and I would set aside everything to watch the film and discuss it for weeks. Because I had no way to watch a film I loved on demand, I would often replay it in my mind. The entire process became a major preoccupation. While I was interested in drama and cinema, I also loved certain novels that spoke to me in a confessional way. As an example, I read Catcherin the Rye very young (I think the first time I read it I was eight or ten. I’m not trying to make myself sound unique.  I was just very drawn to the adult section of the library where the books often made no sense and scared the crap out of me and excited me at the same time). With Salinger I felt like, wow, this teenager is actually telling me his secrets. All that private stuff nobody talks about. It felt forbidden and confessional and sacred. Of course, most ten year olds don’t hear this kind of stuff. This was like magic to me. A private world I had no business entering, but from which I couldn’t turn away. And I could see the little movie in my head as I read along, casting it and directing it as I went. In retrospect, it felt like a real exercise in interactivity. A revelation. I didn’t see myself as a writer then. But as one naturally obsessed with the form, I suddenly discovered something that gave me everything I needed for living. At least, that’s the way I’d perceived it. I remember thinking, I found in narrative a way to get everything I’d wanted. Stories could be told by integrating the monologue of dramatic writing and the visual elements of cinema in ways that could be read on the page and the stage.  I remember my father telling me to listen carefully to real speech and that the best writing came from that. He said each person has their own musicality. My father was not formally educated, and very much self-taught. But in this department he had confidence in his opinions and I took his lessons seriously. Eventually in my twenties I discovered poetry, loved it, and studied with a few poets. I love the idea of telling stories, using the language of the speaker while mining for poetic opportunities that authentically rise out of character.

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?
I start with an image associated with a strong feeling. The feeling usually catches me off guard. I will return to that feeling for a while, being curious about it. Kind of rolling it around inside me. It’s usually an unfamiliar feeling, so I get caught on that. It might be a really disturbing or even an amorphous feeling. But I’m curious enough to stay with it. Eventually, characters rise out of the darkness. At that point, I realize, wow! I might just have something to say here. The initial stages are fun, exploratory, but frustrating, too. Sometimes I can hardly tolerate what’s coming up, and I need to take breaks to consider and reconsider what I’m up against. Then comes the hard part. How to best explore that feeling in a way that is dramatically compelling. I usually work slowly until I kind of nail it in the form of story.  After that, the writing comes fast and furious. Then as I get closer to the final, the process intensifies, and becomes all consuming. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. People I know often don’t see me for a long, long time when I get to the final stages. I incubate, editing, writing, editing, writing many drafts until I get the desired effect. I usually go to work then come home and write and edit for as long as I can.  
4 - Where does a work of fiction or play 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?
Thus far I’ve mainly been working on novel-length books. Not because I have a novelist’s aspirations, but up to now that is the size of the stories I’ve needed to tell. Even if people say to me, this would make a short story, the work seems deceptively simple, but it is layered inside me like the pages of a map. It just might take a while to unfold the pages. Even though Tracey was based on dramatic monologues, I had a book-length narrative in mind once I chose to write it.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I was raised on performance and performance art both in the music and art scenes: Spalding Gray, Lydia Lunch and so many others as well as stand up comedy. I treat readings of my work as performance rather than literary “readings” per se and usually spend considerable time preparing them and getting into character, doing voices, etc.

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 have to ask myself repeatedly what do I have to offer? What can I possibly say that is relevant and pertinent to what’s going on right now? From my own experience I am very preoccupied by what I view as unethical behavior that is both personal and systemic. This is not something new. But I have a strong desire to work with that material. I am also very interested in women’s voices. Women’s rage and the buried sorrow and loss and betrayal under the rage. We live in a world where women are at once elevated and degraded. If we look around us, women’s bodies are more commodified than ever. We see our own journeys, hopes, and dreams in that mirror. I am interested in the women who walk among us virtually invisible. I feel as though their stories are powerful touchstones for systemic problems, and can shed light on much that we don’t want to acknowledge or even see. These women have intense power for healing. I see Tracey (The Tracey Fragments) and Del (Black Star) coming out of that place. These average people on the street who most of us don’t even notice while we pass them, work with them, etc. I’m interested in the private concerns of those people.

Returning to the idea of ethics, this has always been a preoccupation of mine. It occurs to me that we all keep so busy and distracted that we don’t know how to approach ethics and we aren’t taught it, so we don’t even know how to ask the right questions. People often divide ethical matters into good and bad, right and wrong, evil and good. This leaves people completely baffled, so they avoid thinking through major issues in a deeper, more productive way until it’s too late to process them when they are called upon to do so. When it’s urgent. But on a more general level, my writing is about people and what they go through – the little tragedies and joys of living. I’m very interested in the writing itself and exploring language and hopefully expanding the form for me, at least, in ways that surprise me, but also in ways that stay true to character. This is the challenge for me as an artist: how far can I pull the elastic band of the form to reveal new elements of character and new ways to experience those elements without breaking the band completely.  As I walk through life I try to pay attention to the ways people speak and the little ways we surprise each other. Those little moments are important to me, very telling cultural touchstones.

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 can’t speak for other writers. For me, the primary role of writer is to reveal something about character, I think, some tiny insight, and the condition of being human in relation to the world. To reveal something we should pay attention to. I believe writers are like those little red candies we chewed back when I was in elementary school that can reveal where we didn’t brush our teeth well enough.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with an editor. I like showing drafts of my work to editors to get perspective on my work. I do find it essential to hear what others have to say. I think it’s crucial to work with highly tuned up people who get your vision and can see your blind spots.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Always bring it back to character.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (playwriting to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I love moving between forms. I think the genres strengthen, embolden and give perspective to each other.

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 like to write first thing in the morning. Before I start forming the to-do lists and responding to emails. I like to have an idea of what I want to write the night before. I will usually write it down on a piece of paper. Then while I drink my morning coffee, I will start writing free form while waking up. I like to get a good 500 words in that way. Then I’ll file it and start again the next day. I might do the research part of my writing at night. I’ve learned the hard way not to take a lot of breaks from the work. I have been very ill over the past twenty years with a rare condition and was forced to take long breaks because I didn’t have the stamina for a daily writing practice. That was a dark time, not only for my health, but also for the writing. Now that I’m well, carving out a daily practice is important to me. I’ve lost a lot of time. I have books I want to write, and a strong drive to get them out.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I love listening to people talk. It’s like music to me. But music itself is also good.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The sweet smell of the wheat fields. Or the air when it becomes paralyzed just before a storm.

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 am very influenced by music. I will often choose a piece of music and listen to it on repeat to get a sense of whatever I’m working on and to more deeply access that feeling I’m after.  I am also very influenced by visual art, especially photography. I love portrait work, e.g., Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman. Those artists can catch an entire story in someone’s eyes.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Bolano, Borges, Gaitskill, Oates, Paley, D’Ambrosio, O’Connor, Johnson, O’Brien. But I also relate very much to a kind of transgressive community of writers such as Acker, Holmes and Selby Jr. Finally, I am heavily influenced by Singer, Kafka, and Schulz, and those folks. But I admire the work of so many writers. The list is long.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to take up capoeira or some kind of rigorous physical discipline.

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?


18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was both a rational decision as well as a necessary one. Rationally, I love telling stories and stories are very important to me. I had a strong desire to be creative and to express myself in a creative way using words. Many writers probably say it, but writing saved me. It allowed me to focus everything inside me in a positive direction.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
There’s so much. I’m always reading and watching.  Right now I love the TV show Atlanta. I just saw an amazing film Dina. I also loved Tangerine. I review films and television. There’s a ton of media out there right now – more than ever before, but it’s always a struggle to find that stand out piece. I’m always reading a lot of great stuff. But now that I’ve finished this book, I look forward to a summer of novel reading.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a non-fiction book and a novel.

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