Tuesday, April 23, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lauren Carter

Lauren Carter’s most recent book is the poetry collection Following Sea which traces her settler ancestry and her own infertility. Her second novel, This Has Nothing To Do With You, will be published by Freehand Books in September 2019. Swarm, her debut novel, was listed by CBC as a Top 40 novel that could change Canada. Her poetry and fiction have been long-listed for the CBC Literary Prizes multiple times, anthologized in Best Canadian Stories, and awarded top prize in the Prairie Fire and ROOM literary contests. The Write Life called her website one of the Top 100 Websites for Writers in 2018 and 2019. Visit her at www.laurencarter.ca

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 don’t really feel like it changed my life but I suppose it did. Lichen Bright, my first poetry collection, came out when I was 30, which felt old, but, I realize now, is actually young. It was very exciting, and great to finally have a book in the world but publishing my first novel did more to change my life because with it I acquired an agent and it received some great reviews and is still being read.

Having two books out helped me gain confidence that I could then do it again which helped me calm down which helped me focus more clearly on the work. Now I’m able to work more slowly, with more attention, more care, less panic, less doubt, less hurry, less concern about perfectionism, and more awareness that something will eventually be completed and polished and good enough to publish (after a few rounds of rejections and subsequent revisions, of course).

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

I started with poetry because my teenage life felt sometimes miserable and it was impossible to be honest about that. Writing poetry gave me the ability to encode my experience (at least it felt like that to me). As my reading broadened in high school, I also started to see how visceral experience could be created on the page through poetry. I remember being in the library in my high school in the tiny town of Blind River reading a Susan Musgrave poem, with a line about blood (I wish I could remember it exactly but my mind has never worked that way), and nearly falling over sideways. That’s what I want to do, I thought. Raw emotion on the page, visceral and alive in image and rhythm.

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?

This varies a lot, depending on what I’m writing. My most recent poetry collection, Following Sea, is a collection of poems that I’ve written over more than a decade. A section of the book is formed out of in-depth genealogical and historical research which needed an injection of emotion and imagination to bring it to life so those poems took lots of notes and drafts.

Others, of course, come out fully formed. And there are some that are sitting in my notebooks, where they’ve been waiting to gel for 20 years.

In the past, I’ve tended to try to not think about things until I had a pen in my hand and then I’d just let the writing come but I’m working differently now. I’ll turn things over in my head for a little while until I have a first line, then the next, then the next and then I’ll grab a pen and my notebook. I think this has something to do with trusting my mind more.

I do write everything long-hand first, including novels, because the connection with the page and the unravelling thoughts feels different to me.

4 - Where does a poem or 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?

Most things that I write start with images. Swarm, my debut novel, came with the image of a woman in the window of a ramshackle house, looking out at a child’s footsteps in the vegetable garden. That picture popped into my mind in the middle of a lecture when I was in grad school.

With poetry, I write one poem at a time and often don’t really understand how things are coming together structurally and thematically, in the form of a collection, until I’ve got 50-some poems written.

With fiction, I tend to write as much as possible of a rough draft in a few weeks to get the story arc, start thinking about the plot points, etcetera (short stories I’ll write the first draft in one go).

Then, I’ll generally have to begin writing into the story (because my first drafts are really short) in order to expand it and turn it into a bigger, broader, multilayered story. It’s a bit like a plant. Once the seed sprouts, I’ll help the roots dig in, then start growing the leaves.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I’m an extroverted introvert, so I love to do readings once I get there but am also seriously tempted to cancel at the last minute because I’ve got a good T.V. show to watch and a bag of salt and vinegar chips. But it’s fun to talk about the work – as long as people are nice (which, of course, they usually are, especially in Winnipeg, which has a huge audience for poetry and an incredibly supportive and active creative community – if you ever thought this was a city not to bother visiting, think again).

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?

It’s very cool to be able to look back and understand one’s oeuvre after a few books are out. My fourth will be published in Fall 2019 and what I have realized is that I tend to write about relationships but also displacement and broken connections, emotional trauma and memory and the cracking of our illusions – including how we see our society versus how our society actually is, as explored in Swarm – as well as where we fit personally in the broader politics and happenings of our world. 

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?

To answer this, a quote from Ursula K. LeGuin:

I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

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

Both, and I love it! I love getting an alternate perspective on my work when it’s still forming (although I don’t let anyone read until I’m well into an advanced draft). I’ve worked with some fantastic readers and editors – Alice Major, Naomi Lewis, Jane Warren among others – who have carefully, precisely, wisely, helped me expand my own meaning and more effectively put the pieces of my work together.

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

“Be kind and be useful:” how Barack Obama sums up the fatherly wisdom he’s passed on to his kids (I saw him speak last week).

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’ve always written in multiple genres: poetry, short and long fiction, non-fiction journalism, a little bit of playwriting and, recently, picture books.

I also do visual art: collage and fibre arts mainly (as well as gardening, which is a sort-of art). I usually have a few different projects going on at the same time - these days, mainly poetry and novels - which I find helpful for continuing to work despite being stuck on one or the other.

The appeal is constant creativity, and allowing myself a way to express myself in a multitude of genres and forms.

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 thrash and burn, abandon things, hate myself, battle depression, try to remember to meditate, practice self-coaching, advise emerging writers to write as often as possible then break my own rules and feel like a hyprocrite. That’s about it.  

But, on a good day, like today, I get up, grab my pen and notebook without any whining, bring it back to bed with coffee and write for three hours. When a project’s really burning, I’ll also often get up at 2 or 3 and do a few hours in the middle of the night.

So, you know: chaos and unpredictability woven with humming hours of intense focus pretty much sums it up.

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

Walking. Art galleries. Reading in the hammock (in good weather). Weeding. Knitting. Anything that lets my head get loose so the seeds I need to see can sprout. I’ll also turn to books, of course, and the writers I most love and admire: T. C. Boyle, Paul Auster, Joyce Carol Oates, Lisa Ko, Karen Joy Fowler, Tash Aw, Alice Munro, among many others.…

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Pine trees and open water.

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?

Books do come from books. After I put down We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, dried my tears, and reached for a pen, This Has Nothing To Do With You came out in a frantically written and fast rough draft.

I’m also inspired by history and visual art. My mom is an extraordinary oil and watercolour painter and, as I get enough work behind me to realize I have an ouevre, I can notice the links and connections between her explorations and themes and my own: loneliness, landscapes, open water.

This connection really comes together in an interesting way in the cover of Following Sea, which is a painting that she did of me as a teenager (but which she often says is me but isn’t me – sort-of a fictionalized echo of her own experience of longing and loneliness).

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

Lately, my Winnipeg community – Ariel Gordon, Erna Buffie, Donna Besel, Sue Sorenson, Sally Ito – who have done a lot to help me resettle to this part of Manitoba, after living several years in the north (after living until then in Ontario). Others are Ian Williams, who helped me a lot through conversation and simply an awareness that he was writing his own novel while I was writing mine (we were both in Calgary doing writer-in-residence gigs and set a deadline to take finished drafts to dinner which was really helpful). Naomi Lewis from Calgary is also a writer I respect a great deal and who was a smart, sharp and terrific editor (I also adore her new memoir coming out this spring, Tiny Lights for Travelers).

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

Oh, boy. Plant a prairie garden in my yard. Learn how to spin my own yarn. Get really good at crochet. Walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall. Paint my ugly kitchen cupboards. Finish a (good) novel written in third person (or maybe second).  

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?

Visual artist. There was a time when I was doing crazy things like building anatomically correct papier-mache hearts and selling Japanese paper dragonflies at craft markets. But, then again, I’ve also had fantasies of being a dog trainer and a big city lawyer.

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

Life. Genetics. Who knows. I started writing before I could write.

I’d make scribbles with a pen and ask her what words I’d written and tell my mom stories that she’d write down. One she even illustrated: The Girl with the Green Hands. My late uncle was also a writer and poet. I think it’s in the blood. Plus: my mom and brother gave me books all the time for presents and pens and journals.

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

I am reading the last few pages of Paul Auster’s epic, enormous 4321, a novel that weaves together the four possible lives of Archie Isaac Ferguson, a young writer (in all his realities) growing up in the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s intrigued me, bored me, surprised me, stunned me and left me incredibly inspired to take on an enormous canvas. Other books I’ve recently loved: How To Be Both by Ali Smith, TheFirst Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz, The Red Word by Sarah Henstra, and The Leavers by Lisa Ko. I’m just about to crack open Reproduction by Ian Williams. As you can tell, I mostly read fiction, and also don’t watch enough great films (although I LOVED Russian Doll but do Netflix series count?)

20 - What are you currently working on?

A collection of poems about grief, depression, gardening and my brother’s life and death, and a couple of novels in the literary and weird fiction genres. Promoting my new poetry collection. Also, securing permissions for the quotations in my next novel, talking about the cover, and that sort of administrative, dressing the baby before it’s ushered out the door sort-of stuff.

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