Heather Nolan is a writer of poems, prose and songs from St. John's, Newfoundland. She is the author of This is Agatha Falling (Pedlar Press, 2019). Her work tends to explore themes of place and isolation.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It was a more subtle change than I think we expect it to be. I got in the habit of submitting pieces to journals a long time ago, so I was really used to the routine of write, edit, submit, accept rejection. It took a few days to process the acceptance of the book.
The manuscripts I have written since This is Agatha Falling have felt more confident. Bruce Springsteen once spoke in an interview about artistic intuition vs artistic intellegence--as you go, you learn how to work with your ideas to achieve the effect you're going for. I feel like my more recent work has started to develop that process.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually can't remember which I started writing first. I've been writing both poetry and fiction since I was a child. I tend to go through phases where one of the two--or songs, which I also write--will dominate. More and more I have been finding that there are specific themes which I am more interested in exploring through specific forms. I started writing Agatha at the same time that I started writing my first poetry manuscript, so publishing a fiction book first was really only incidental, because that is the one I finished first.
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?
My writing practice has developed around the act of walking, and tends to be very rooted in place. First drafts come very quickly, almost manically, but edits come much slower. Each project seems to have its own process, though. A project about landscape that I am currently working on has involved a lot of hiking and chatting with people. A project about urban isolation has involved a lot of drinking alone! I am very interested in fieldwork.
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?
That changes from project to project, but I do tend to work on the larger whole. In my fiction I generally have a wider theme that I want to explore, and then I use different scenes to find different ways of looking at that theme. I very rarely write short stories. With poetry, I do sometimes work on individual poems, but for the last two years I have been working on a collection that has taken most of my attention. I like working on poetry with the collection in mind, as it allows you to really examine an idea through different lenses.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Oh I really don't like giving readings haha! I am a very nervous presenter, and would always prefer a conversation to a presentation. It's one of those things you have to accept and try and improve on though. I saw the poet Tom Dawe read recently and was inspired by the way he made it feel like he was just chatting with you while he read. Readings have their own kind of art.
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?
This is definitely something that interests me and I always start a work with a central question, even usually because of a question. That gives me something to center the entire project on, like a mystery to solve. I never start with the answer, and I usually don't end with it, either. The big question with Agatha was, How does memory impact us, and what factors are there in that impact? There will be smaller questions that present themselves through the work as well.
I guess the way I see it is, I have this question. I write as a way to open up that question and investigate the parts of it. I want to invite the reader into a conversation about that question. The answer isn't the point.
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?
This is interesting, as I heard that Sally Rooney recently tweeted that novelists are given too much cultural prominence. I don't think I agree. I think athletes and pop singers have too much cultural prominence, but that arts that involve critical thinking aren't given enough space. This is a difficult question, though. As a musician also, it is interesting to see firsthand the difference in perception between musicians and writers. It's easy to take in music fairly complicitly, more difficult to be passive with writing. The writer also feels a bit more removed from what people consume than the musician does. When you read, it's your own voice you hear rather than the writer's. And writers tend to show up less in popular media. So what is the role of the writer in our culture? I think the writer gets to stick to writing a lot more than musicians get to stick to making music. I really don't know what I think the artists role should be. Artists often taken on the role of satirist, of social commentator. Maybe artists should make up a satire council which presents their findings to governments.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Definitely both. It can be really difficult when the writer and editor aren't working with the same goal in mind. There winds up being a lot of work and nothing actually getting done. But, at the same time, that makes you figure out what parts you need to fight for.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Karen Solie once told me that a bell resonates because it is stuck precisely. That has been my editing philosophy ever since. And Andreae Callanan once gave advice about submissions, that a journal editor is looking to create a cohesive issue. It isn't that they didn't want to publish your work, but that your work didn't fit the issue they were building. That made me feel a lot better about the hefty pile of rejection emails haha.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to songwriting)? What do you see as the appeal?
I move between all three pretty freely, and will often have projects going in all three at the same time. I like that I have these different forms of writing, as some feel more apt to explore different ideas. I think all of my writing is more about exploring an idea rather than telling a story. My poetry tends toward ideas of place, culture, rurality, and cultural identity, whereas my fiction tends to be more urban and concerned with ideas of class and gender. My songs tend to be more personal, and focus a lot on relationships.
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 am not a creature of habit at all, and don't really have a routine that I follow. I try to take dedicated writing breaks every few months where I can focus intensively on the project I am working on for a week or so and, if possible, write from the place I am writing about. I find it very difficult to write from within my regular life. That's where I edit. I don't know if I have a typical day-- usually just a chaotic mess of trying to balance the many projects I have going on and forgetting to eat. It might not be the most productive system.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
That is one of the nice things about writing in different forms. If a fiction project gets stuck, I often switch gears and dig back into a poetry project. I will also often pick up researching if I get stuck. Often learning new things about a subject I am writing about gives me fresh inspiration. Hiking or walking do as well: getting out into the landscape or place I am writing about and gathering sensory information can be just what I need to push forward. And there is nothing better than talking it out. A good conversation can have me writing for weeks.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
There are a lot of places I would consider home. I currently live in St. John's, where I can't think of any identifiable smells. Woodstove smoke and fir trees and salt air and musty bog are what I would associate with home. That is what my dad's place in Sweet Bay smells like.
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?
Oh definitely. Nature is a big influence, as is weather. You can't live in a place like Newfoundland without being affected by, or responding in some way to, the weather. A lot my writing itself happens exposed to the place I am writing about, and I like to do that so that the influence of the environment is pushed right up against me, fighting for my attention. If I am going to write about a wind cutting my face I want to be standing on the most exposed bit of rock I can find, considering how that feels.
I like influence. I like the idea of considering what is happening around me, what is being created around me, and contributing to some bigger conversation of influence.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In fiction I am really interested in contemporary feminist and experimental writing. Ali Smith, Renata Adler and Sally Rooney are some of my favourites. I love the use of experimentation with form to access theme. I also recently read Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. Mimicking experimental jazz through syntax! Or Gertrude Stein's interest in writing impressionism.
In poetry, Agnes Walsh and Mary Dalton have been huge in considering writing about Newfoundland, and Don McKay and John Steffler were instrumental in my initial interests in nature and place poetry.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
So much! I like the idea of writing scripts, having visuals to play with. I have really loved working on this poetry book, having a specific place or landscape to react to in writing, and I would love to see what other projects I can do with that process.
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?
Well its funny, because I am 27 and still picking away at university, and I am actually at the point right now where I am trying to decide what kind of career to pursue. I am still very on the fence. I really enjoy environmental science, but have also always wanted to work in publishing. I love editing. I have at least 10 different potential paths at this point.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Well I grew up with three older sisters, so I imagine I read a lot, having no say over the tv remote. I like to think that I started writing poetry out of a desire to code my diary as a child for when my sisters inevitably found and read it. That might be reading too far into it. More accurately, I have tried my hand at any art form I could access, and writing has always felt like the best medium for the kinds of ideas I was trying to express.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently read What Ever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins. It's a really evocative collection of stories that explore different relationships between race and class in America, written in I think the seventies. Lots of experimental forms in there!
I am actually not a big film (or tv) watcher. Something about the time commitment, I think. Or I am not fussed on the visual aspect. I have about 5-10 favourite films that I rewatch. The most recent addition to the list was probably the Rebillion series on the Easter Rising in Ireland. It isn't historically accurate, but it was great to see a period piece that focused on women's stories.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I have two projects on the go at the moment. One is the poetry collection I have mentioned, working title Talamh an Carraig: Land of the Rock, which looks at six site-specific questions in Ireland and Newfoundland. That is actually finished, but I liked writing it so much that I can't seem to stop researching it! The second is a new fiction manuscript that is still in a very early messy stage. That, working title How to be Alone on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, explores themes of urban isolation.
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