Saturday, November 10, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Natalia Hero

Natalia Hero is a fiction writer and translator from Montreal. Her work has been featured in places like Carte Blanche, Cosmonauts Avenue, Peach Mag, and Shabby Doll House. Her translation of Laurence Leduc-Primeau's In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost will be published by QC Fiction in April 2019. Her first book, Hum, is out now from Metatron Press.

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 wrote Hum over the course of 2016, which was a pretty bleak year for everyone, and a particularly difficult one for me on a personal level. I don’t know if I would classify it as a coping mechanism, but I definitely felt more grounded having this one project to devote myself to. Because of the subject matter, it was a heavy thing to write, which made it really hard to work on sometimes. I had to take a lot of breaks because it would put me in a really negative headspace that was hard to shake. So it felt really satisfying to finish and step back from it and get it out of my head and onto the page.

I think it’s similar to my other writing because I often have these sort of misanthropic, tormented narrators, and I guess a lot of my work flirts with magical realism. I guess it’s just different because it’s longer, and maybe a little darker. All of my stories up to now have been really short and concise. Length-wise, Hum sits somewhere in the purgatory between a longer short story and novella, but I really envisioned it as a standalone book, so I’m glad Metatron was on board with it because it felt like a good fit. I wanted this to be a more intimate psychological portrait of someone dealing with trauma. I wanted the reader to feel as trapped in the narrator’s mind as she is, to suffocate along with her. And I feel like I’m usually much kinder to my readers, or anyway, I try to be.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Poetry just feels like a language I don’t speak. When I read fiction I feel like I’m an adult at a magic show - always aware that it’s not real, that it’s a trick and just for show. But when I read poems I feel like a little kid watching a magician. I’m like holy heck, how did they just do that?? And I’ve tried writing nonfiction but it never comes out the way I want it to. Maybe because I’m too much of an embellisher of real life events and a chronic daydreamer.

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?
At the very beginning I just let things swim around in my head and barely write anything down. I kind of tell myself a very basic version of the story, over and over until it’s fully absorbed, and then eventually it starts to speak on its own. Or, on rare occasions, one sentence just bursts out of my head and I ride it like a mechanical bull until it knocks me on my ass.

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?
Most of the time it’s all scraps and leftovers. I have little bursts of ideas in the middle of the day that I’ll put down in the notes in my phone. Sometimes just a sentence, a paragraph, or a weird little prompt with some random cryptic words I have to try to decipher later. And I let them ferment for a little while, and come back to them much later with fresh eyes and string them together with some of the other bits. There have also been times when I’ve hammered out a full draft of a story in one go, though. But usually it’s just a beginning. I have a huge backlog of beginnings right now that are desperately begging me for an end.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I think it’s important for writers to interact with each other in person. Otherwise a lot of us would never go outside and only ever tweet or talk to our cats.

Readings are a chance to get out of my head for a while and into someone else’s. I often find them very inspiring. That’s when I’m in the audience. I’m very shy, and truth be told I absolutely despise reading in public. I hate the sound of my own voice, and the things I feel totally comfortable publishing suddenly make me feel really vulnerable once the words are actually coming out of my mouth. But I still always say yes if I’m invited to one, because I know they’re part of the game and I need to get over myself and get used to it.

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?
With Hum, I wanted uncover a taboo and shove a survivor’s experience into people’s faces, and make it as real and ugly and naked as possible. I wanted to write about it in a way that’s difficult for a reader to confront. Because there’s this glaring absence of a counter-narrative in the current stories of sexual assault and abuse that are being discussed publicly that I felt needed to be screamed, however inconvenient and uncomfortable it is for people to acknowledge. The same level of pain survivors of assault experience seeing themselves erased when this topic is discussed, I wanted to flip that and make it hurt people to acknowledge their truth.

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?
Maybe it’s just my little internet echo chamber, but I feel like in public discourse lately there’s a lot more open and frank discussion about mental health and relationship dynamics and overall just how we interact with each other, how we take care of ourselves, not just navel-gazing like classic straight white dude lit but a deeper exploration of how we analyze our thoughts and feelings and communicate them while also knowing how to listen and be receptive to one another. I think that emotional fluency is reflected in a lot of writing currently, I guess especially among younger writers. Anonymous internet oversharing has transformed into a new brand of confessional literature. And I think it’s slowly helping build a culture of empathy. I hope it is, anyway.

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

I was so lucky to have A. Light Zachary edit my book, because it felt like a collaborative project with a very encouraging friend who made the effort to really understand what I was going for. And since this was an emotionally exhausting project to spend so much time on, it felt nice to have somebody to accompany me on that journey.

The best thing about working with an editor, for me, is learning what parts are actually important to me. It often surprises me what things I’m willing to fight for, and it isn’t until someone suggests changing them or taking them out that I jump to their defense.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Never pass up an opportunity to go to the bathroom.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novella to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
To decide whether something is a short story or a longer form thing I usually just ask myself, how much time do I want to spend with these insufferable characters? Do I need to dive into just how broken these people are or is surface-level brokenness sufficient (or even more effective at conveying it)?

Translation is different. Since true equivalence between languages is inherently impossible, any attempt at literary translation always feels like a failure right from the start. Strangely, all the literary translations I’ve done so far, whether they were projects I chose or that I was approached about, I’ve had a kind of symbiotic relationship with. They often coincidentally deal with some ideas I was already grappling with or at the very least with experiences I can relate to and that I’ve been thinking of writing about. So they feed into my own work, and in turn my literary voice will sort of blend into the way I translate them. I have a love/hate relationship with the practice in general. In a way it’s like writing with a very specific prompt, so you get the chance to be creative with it without having to worry about the story you’re trying to tell and how to tell it. It’s a nice break from obsessing about my own projects, because someone has already done the hard part for me. But it’s also a lot of pressure to be entrusted with someone else’s creative work. The whole time I’m translating I’m just thinking “sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry” because you can never fully nail it, you’re going to contaminate it with your voice no matter what, the language you’re translating into is inevitably going to fail you at some point as you’re trying to capture the original and I think you need to accept that first before you can even hope to do a good job.

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’ve been trying to establish a consistent routine my whole life and fail at every turn. A typical day for me begins with procrastination and then ends with me lamenting all the time I wasted.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writer’s block doesn’t actually happen to me very often. And if it does, it’s honestly kind of a relief, because I’m like okay, now I can revisit these other bits and pieces of ideas I’ve had and actually develop them. I’m in the middle of this creative burst of ideas right now and I’m struggling more with where to put them, how to organize them. I’m at a point where I actually want less inspiration so that I can actually follow through on the things I’ve started.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Coffee and cinnamon. My mom likes her cappuccinos. Maybe waking up to the whirr of a coffee grinder every morning growing up unconsciously gave me the idea for the hummingbird’s buzz in my book, who knows.

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 played the violin and the viola for most of my life. I spent a few years not touching either but lately picked them up again, and I’ve been finding that a lot of my ideas will randomly pop into my head while I’m playing. I like the way my brain goes on standby and my mind clears and focuses when I play. It’s like a reset button that makes my mind a fertile ground for new things to grow. I think the main thing about it is that it neutralizes all my busy thoughts and makes room for pure emotions to flourish.

I’ve been wondering if that’s what’s behind my recent creative burst, actually. I think being around words as much as I am makes my engine idle sometimes. When I was a kid and I played N64 for too long it would overheat and the characters in Goldeneye would glitch and start walking backwards. Perfect allegory for my creative process, I think.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
During my undergrad I studied Latin American literature in Argentina for a semester, and I was introduced to all these writers I had never been exposed to and they made a huge impression on me. The short fiction of Julio Cortázar and Virgilio Piñera have probably had the biggest, most direct impact on my writing. I love the grotesque sexuality of Piñera’s writing and the tragic surrealism of Cortázar.

That and all things absurdist. I was obsessed with Waiting for Godot in high school, and actually performed it twice, once in French and once in English—that probably set the stage (lol) for my interest in translation, actually. It was also in high school that I was introduced to Eugène Ionesco, and I was like, this is it, this is my shit right here. The Chairs, to me, was just absolutely perfect. And then Camus’s The Plague is probably my favourite book.

Also Nelly Arcan! I can’t write a book like Hum and not mention her.

So yeah. Weird gross sex and quirky darkness.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Climb some mountains in the Andes. Overcome my fear of open water and swim the English Channel. There are a few specific pieces of music I want to learn to play. Visit Slovakia, where my family is from. Learn to chill the heck out.

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 want to say music, but I know my level of shyness is way better suited to literature than any of the performing arts.

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

I think I’ve always just had a hard time expressing myself verbally, because I'm shy but also because I think in neverending tangents that take me on rides that people have trouble following. So writing is this instinctive practice for me that I use to organize my thoughts. That and growing up bilingual—having two mother tongues gave me this awareness from the moment I learned to speak that there are concepts that swell up beyond the constraints of one language, so I was always grappling with how to express myself. It made me really self-conscious about whether I was using words incorrectly as I moved between different social circles where different languages were used. I always wanted to make sure I was understood; that became a huge concern of mine and still is.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I haven’t been able to read anything for myself in a long time since I just finished grad school a hot second ago. There’s a short story collection Pétalos y otra historias incómodas by the Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel that I read fairly recently and really loved. It hasn’t been translated into English yet, actually, maybe I should look into that. And I haven’t watched a movie in forever either! Wow, what the hell have I been doing? But I liked The Death of Stalin.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m in talks about translating a book right now, so I’m finishing up a sample of it for a pitch. In terms of my own work, there’s a short story I’ve been working on that I’m really excited about finishing, so I’m looking forward to having the time to focus on it. At the same time, I’ve started something else that I think might end up being another book. I am also working on learning not to bite off more than I can chew with these kinds of projects, but those efforts have not been fruitful so far.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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