Thursday, June 06, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Terry Doyle

Terry Doyle is from the Goulds, Newfoundland. In 2017 he won the Percy Janes First Novel Award and was a finalist for the NLCU Fresh Fish Award. His work has appeared in Riddle Fence, untethered, Leopardskin & Limes, and The Newfoundland Quarterly. Terry’s debut short story collection, DIG, is out now from Breakwater Books.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
This is my first book!
But it has changed my life. This weekend I was asked, “What do you do?” and I answered, “I’m a writer,” without qualifying it with, “well, I used to be a plumber…”
So that’s nice.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I guess I was always attracted to the idea of writing a novel. I think I would feel too confined writing non-fiction. And I am intimidated by poetry, knowing next to nothing about it.
Fiction is very liberating. I try to write really fast and free-associate between ideas and images without worrying about how it’ll work out, until I finish the draft. Then I go back and discover all the weird and wonderful things my subconscious created. And I tidy them up, add connective tissue.
Fiction, for me, is akin to flying. Once you get the basics down it can be very free and wide open.

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 book is a collection of stories, and with short stories I draft very quickly. Often the stories begin as a single idea supported by a torn page full of random notes and images.
I’m working on a novel now—have been working on it for almost three years—and it, sadly, does not develop quite so quickly. There is more plotting and planning involved. And while I still try to engage my subconscious, the process just takes a lot longer, so those serendipitous connections happen less frequently. At this point I’d even say that writing a novel is less joyful than writing short stories. It’s really too bad publishers don’t generally feel that way too.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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?
I definitely know when I start if it’ll be a story or a novel.
I’ve written one novella and even then I could tell it didn’t really have the legs to be a novel.
So far I’ve only had one idea so large a story couldn’t contain it.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m not sure enjoy is the word I’d use, but I do appreciate an opportunity to share my work, and to perform it. St. John’s is host to an incredibly supportive writing community, so I’ve been very fortunate.
Reading out loud is, as we all know, a wonderful editing tool, so in that way I guess it is part of the creative process.

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 write about my community. Newfoundland has the lowest literacy rate of all the provinces, so part of my goal is to make my work accessible and entertaining, while hopefully not sacrificing too much along the way. I’m not an educated person, so I try to not assume my readers are either. I strive for clarity, with the hope that maybe someone who isn’t really into reading will read this book, and then read others. Or, heck, I hope someone who isn’t really into short stories will read it and then find other story collections.
So there’s that. And also I try to be honest. With myself, what I put on the page, and with the reader. I’d like the work to feel real. If I achieve those things I feel like the rest will work itself out.
Chekhov said, “A story doesn’t have to solve problems, it just has to formulate them correctly.” And if pressed to answer which problems I’m formulating, it would be questions about work and wealth and austerity. Newfoundland has been a “have-not” culture for pretty much my entire life. Except for a short boom period where we got drunk on oil money, then pissed it all away on a shady hydro dam. Now we are almost 13 billion in debt and our population is half a million people. So I write about the people who work, who are trying their best, finding their way despite the barriers placed in front of them. In this book there are a lot of sub-economies. Ingenuity grown out of desperation.

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?
For me, I feel like the writer’s role is to hold up a mirror. Observe and report. Craft a compelling, readable story that our community can look to, see ourselves in, and let it inform or influence how we then engage with the community.
I think about February by Lisa Moore, and how beautiful a book that is. How it humanizes a tragedy, lets us spend time with something we might otherwise shy away from, and heal. The sinking of the Ocean Ranger is still a very raw wound in Newfoundland, but Lisa’s book, while heartbreaking, is like a balm. That is the kind of achievement a writer can strive for, in my opinion.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I guess it depends on the editor. It definitely feels essential, but at times it can be less productive than one might hope.
I have received feedback that improved my whole skillset with just a few paragraphs of notes, and I’ve had feedback that laboured over a comma and not much else. But in general, I can’t wait to share new work and get feedback on it. What a blessing beta readers are!

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I worked at the Banff Centre one summer, at the front desk. I checked in Yann Martel, and probably gushed a little. Told him I was trying to write a novel. His wife invited me to his surprise birthday party. It was all very lovely. Then, when he checked out of the hotel I had a day off, but he left me a note. It said, “Good luck. If I have any advice, it’s don’t ask for advice, just write like you only have a month to live.”
That was what I needed to hear.

10 - 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 bring my son to the bus stop, I have breakfast, then I sit at my desk until it’s time to go get him from the bus stop again at 3pm. What I do at the desk changes week to week, but I have to put in the time. I have to be at the desk, and be present with the work. I have to think of it as work.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I usually just try to take a different approach. If I’ve gotten stuck drafting (I hand write everything) then I’ll turn to transcribing. Usually that does the trick. If I’m editing, like this past summer, preparing the book for its final form, I’ll take my dog for a hike in the East White Hills, in St. John’s, and wander aimlessly around the trails up there. That always sparks something helpful.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Seabreeze. Salty air. Black spruce.

13 - 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?
Nature for sure. I get a lot of writing done in my mind while I walk. And fortunately, in St. John’s, nature is never far away. I can drive for 5 minutes, park my car, and ten minutes later be in silence, among trees and water.
I’ll post photos on Instagram that I’ve taken on my hikes and loved ones will see them and say they’d like to come with me next time, and I’m like, No! That’s work for me. That’s part of my process.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Lisa Moore has taught me, and so many of my peers, so much. She gives endlessly to our community.
I’m also really inspired and influenced by Michael Winter, Megan Coles, Jessica Grant, Robert Chafe, and, moving off-island, I love the work of Kevin Barry, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, George Saunders, and Colin Barrett.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish my novel.

16 - 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?
Well, I was a plumber. Before that I worked in retail, restaurants, bars, hotels, farms, grocery stores, movie theatres, airports, call centres, and dog kennels. I like writing.
If I were to do choose something else it would probably be visual art. Painting. I do it as a hobby and it’s a wonderful feeling when you finish a painting and you don’t hate it and you can step back and feast on something beautiful you made.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I tried to write as a young man and then I stopped.
Then, in 2016 my best friend was diagnosed with Glioblastoma. He was sick for nine months, and it was during that time I turned back to writing.
I would give it all up in a heartbeat if I could get Justin back, but his sickness, his passing gave me a gift: the courage to try again. To realize nothing was guaranteed.
It forced me to reevaluate, and my conclusion was: leap.
Go for it now, and don’t live with regret.

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

19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m still plugging away on the novel I started back in 2016. It keeps changing and evolving, but generally I’m happy with how it is progressing.
And thank you, rob, for the opportunity to answer these questions.

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