Katie Munnik comes from Ottawa and lives in Cardiff. Her debut novel, The Heart Beats in Secret, was published by The Borough Press, HarperCollins in the UK at the beginning of April and in Canada in May. She has had work published in various journals and anthologies, and her poetry had been longlisted for the CBC Literary Prize. You can find her at katiemunnik.com and on twitter @messy_table
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 published book is my second book, so I’m coming at this question sideways. After my debut novel was accepted, an editor from another publishing house got in touch, wondering if I might send him a pitch for a collection of short fiction and poetry. So, of course, I did, and happily, he liked it. Because it was a collection, that second book came together relatively quickly and was published before my novel. That first book didn’t change my life, but it did teach me how one project can surprisingly lead to another. And that part of being patient on the road to publication is keeping on writing.
My novel, The Heart Beats in Secret, felt more immersive to write, but as the story spans three generations, it also felt like a collection. The different encounters and events illuminate each other, sharing and shedding light on emerging layers of the story. I included letters, landscape histories and recipes as a way of exploring the ingredients that make up a family history, again adding to the collective feeling. What I like about literary fiction is that it can be spacious like this. It gives time and focus to character and setting and unfolds slowly and contemplatively.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’d say all three happened at once. There was no first. I’ve been writing and publishing all three since high school, and although I’ve published more creative non-fiction through my work as a magazine columnist, I find it can be difficult to draw solid lines between these forms. When I’ve read my work at open mics, I’ve been surprised to receive feedback about both prose and poetry about a single piece. Beyond length and line breaks, there isn’t a lot that definitively divides them, and when shared aloud, the lines can blur.
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 write fairly quickly. Some of that falls away and some sticks around for the final version. When I’ve written as far as I can, I try to step back and ask myself questions. My notebook fills with choppy garbled bits of notes, answers, do-I-dares and realizations. Then I make some more coffee and take another run at the project.
4 - Where does a poem or 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?
Content-wise, place is important for me. I often know where a piece is set before I know about character or story. Places make us and I like to start grounded in place.
As for projects, I’ve had poems grow and interconnect, but when I start a story, I typically know what sort of project it is from the beginning. It sounds exciting to start a short story and find yourself with a novel on your hands, but that hasn’t happened to me yet.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes. I love the energy of speaking words out loud and find reading to an audience gives oxygen to a work, whether it’s a work-in-progress or something more polished and established. I live about four minutes from a fabulous arts centre where there’s a literary open mic once a month. It’s pure gold and I love 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?
I think questions come up after the first writing has been done. I can’t start a piece trying to answer something theoretical. For me, first writing needs to be about listening to place and circumstance. But the editing process can be revealing. That’s when questions of connection and influence come to light. Why do we make the decisions we make? Is it important to know the truth to make good decisions? I’m not sure these are current theoretical questions or just questions stemming from the novel that’s just out. Or maybe intergenerational stories inevitably raise these questions. I think that right now I’m too early on in this novel-making game to be able to see that with definitive clarity.
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 think a writer should create space. For self and for others. We all need space to think. Space to question. To rage and remember and reform. Different writers do this work differently and make different shapes of space, but however it is done, it feels like necessary work for today. Life gets too crowded and too noisy when you don’t have good things to read.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve been really lucky with both my books as they’ve fallen into the hands of excellent and meticulous editors. That sounds like gush, but it’s true. I have writer friends who look back on their first or second books and desperately wish they’d been put through the wringer. Books are better when editors ask hard questions. Of course, it isn’t easy to work through piles of marked up pages, but the work definitely benefits when you do. I’ve also been grateful for the close reading of copy editors. In my novel, I had a cat whose gender changed from page to page. Good editors smooth out all those distracting little mistakes as well as the huge plot-hole clunkers.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A few years ago, I did a writing mentorship through the Humber School for Writers and was lucky to be paired with the excellent Joan Barfoot. Midway through, she told me that only I knew how difficult it was to write my novel. Simple and obvious, but I found her words deeply, changingly true. That small observation gave me a kind of liberated ownership over my story and my writing. That was it. I didn’t need to work within someone else’s parameters. I could work out my own struggle in my own way. Each time you write anything, you learn how to write it. You work out your battle and then keep going.
10 – How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
For several years, I wrote a weekly blog for a magazine which pushed me to commit to regular creative non-fiction. Fiction feels like the centre of my work but as I work through pages and chapters, poetry quietly and slowly burbles away on the back burner. It’s good to have different voices to use and different muscles to flex. I think it brings flexibility and resilience to my work.
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 try to write every day. My kids are all in school now and after dropping them off, I have a twelve-minute bike ride home which gives me a good interlude before starting the day. Biking gives me momentum and space to think so that when I get to my desk, I have something to put on paper. I start with my notebook, writing down whatever I’ve been thinking about and trying to break into my work again. Later, I turn on the computer and transcribe what I’ve written which is the first level of editing.
Later in the day, I tackled the admin side of writing. Emails, to-do lists, chipping away at articles and that sort of thing. I also work for a comic book printer: writing invoices, emails, banking details, etc. It’s not exciting or creative, but it’s productive and it buys groceries.
I need to get my work done when the kids at school because my desk sits at one end of the living room so I don’t have a door to close. I used to write at night once they were all in bed, and I still do when things are really flowing or when I’m busy with other work, but mostly I like to keep to a discipline of daytime writing.
12 – When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Poetry. But I do it wrong because I don’t read for the poem or even for the image. I read until I find a word I can use. I guess that’s stealing, really. But it’s a just a word, and then I write it down and it changes on my page and I find I can go forward.
13 – What fragrance reminds you of home?
Bread. When I was a student, I used to walk past a classy bakery window filled with expensive loaves I couldn’t afford. Then I’d go to the grocery store and glare at the cheap plastic-wrapped white bread. Misery. But flour was cheap and I decided I could probably figure it out if I tried. So I did and now that’s home to me. Which is good because I’ve been moving around a fair bit and manage to make bread wherever I move.
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?
Art galleries and parks are important places for me. I need space around me, and I need to look. Both provide that and have been refuges for me. I’m learning they work best when I am alone, which should be obvious, but has taken me some time. I used to drag boyfriends around art galleries and around parks, too, and then there were my years with small children. Attention spans were short. The kids got distracted, and I got distracted. (Probably the same things happened with the boyfriends). Now, I have flexible work and time by myself, and I’m rediscovering the value of space and seeing. Just slowing down and looking helps so many things. Pieces fit together. I see old things in new ways and new things better. Hopefully, all that makes the writing better, too.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Since moving to Cardiff, I’ve plugged into a local writing community here. Katherine Stansfield, David Towsey and Carole Burns have been solid support for me. We write in different genres, but we live close to each other and read and talk about each other’s work which is really helpful.
Recently, for poetry, I’ve been leaning on Marge Piercy, Alice Oswald and Philip Gross. All three surprise me back into recognition.
16 – What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Sea kayak. Live in France. Cross Canada by train. Return to long-distance walking.
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’d like to work in a bakery. I’ve had stints baking in cafes which, for the most part, I enjoyed, but I think I’d like the all-round bready environment of a bakery. The off-norm hours. The busy pace. The stuff-of-life yeastiness. I could roll up my sleeves and enjoy that sort of life, I think. It might be hard to fit in with raising kinds, but if we’re going to a complete occupational change, a bakery might be the right place for me.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My childhood home was full of books, and everyone bigger than me was always reading. Books felt important. They were where you could find real life. Whenever I had a clever observation or a story to share, my mother told me to write it down. She said it would be grist to the mill. That was her phrase. She convinced me that everything would be useful someday if only I wrote it down. And she was right.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Miriam Toews’ Women Talking because it’s urgent and absolutely itself.
Manchester by the Sea because it was always about what it wasn’t about.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Finishing up novel #2 – which tackles art, grief, a river, ideas of north and Greenland’s medieval mummies.