Paola Ferrante's work has appeared in The Puritan, The Fiddlehead, CV2, Room, Joyland and elsewhere. She won Room Magazine's 2018 prize for Fiction and has a chapbook with Anstruther Press. Her debut full length poetry collection, What To Wear When Surviving A Lion Attack, was published Spring 2019 by Mansfield Press. She is the Poetry Editor at Minola Review and resides in Toronto, Canada.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Aside from the fact that my first book changed nothing about my day to day life, it changed everything because it gave the confidence to really think of myself as a writer, and to call myself that. It was like when I was a little kid, you sat at the kid’s table for big family dinners, and then all of a sudden, one Christmas or birthday, you got invited to sit with the grownups. I feel like having a first book was the birthday where I got to sit with the grownups.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry last actually. I had wanted to be a writer since I was maybe eight years old but it was always fiction; I was the kid in grade school who was writing 10 page murder mystery short stories that my teachers kept begging me to type because they couldn’t read my handwriting. The first poetry I ever wrote was much later on, in university, after I got into the Creative Writing Program at York University with Priscilla Uppal. She was the one who gave us a prompt to write a poem about “what you can’t write a poem about.” And I thought, maybe poetry could be really cool. Much later, it was Robin Richardson who really mentored me when it came to poetry. I brought a poem into one of her workshops, which she ended up publishing in Minola Review. That led to many workshops, two years and 80 poems which became my first book, What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack, which just came out July 2019 with Mansfield Press.
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?
That process varies wildly depending on whether we are talking poetry or prose. For poetry, on the most part, there’s a concept, or a line, or an image that starts the poem that ties into a theme of a larger work. One line or one image leads to more lines, and those get moved and broken in different ways depending on how they sound. For most poems, I’m done a working draft in two or three days. In most cases, the draft, aside from some edits, is very close to the final poem. I find if I need to substantively rework a poem in the editing phase, I just end up writing a new poem, with maybe a few lines cannibalized from myself here or there. So on the most part, my poetry drafts look close to my final drafts.
For prose, I don’t tend to write notes as much as I tend to rework a scene, over and over, until I like how it sounds and I think I have a beginning or strong concept for a story. I’m terrible with outlines because I find they always change. When I’m in the middle of a story, I might text myself ten or fifteen times a day with lines or ideas for the next scene. I might end up with 10, 000 words in a document that then get whittled down, once I think I know what I’m actually talking about, to become a 3000 word story. Rarely do I write a short story from beginning to end, unless it’s flash fiction.
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?
With both my first book of poetry and the collection of short fiction I’m working on now, I’m definitely someone who starts writing a few pieces, and then ends up going book length. As I mentioned before, with What To Wear When Surviving A Lion Attack, my debut poetry collection from Mansfield Press, I started with one poem in a workshop run by Robin Richardson. She was like, “you should probably write a series.” Somehow, around poem eight or nine, that turned into, “you should write a book.” I definitely had to think of it as one poem at a time though—the thought of trying to write 80 poems was way too daunting.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I actually love doing readings, mostly because I love performing. As a child, I wanted to be an actress and that led to lots of dance recitals and then music lessons and band in high school. To me, readings are essential to the creative process, because they offer a sense of community, the feeling that your words aren’t written in a void, and the chance to see and feel when your work is making an impact. I also love attending them, again for that sense of community, and because I have discovered so many incredible writers that way—generally I leave readings with the seed of an idea about my next poem or short story.
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?
Most of my first book of poetry, What to Wear When Surviving A Lion Attack, was born in the #MeToo era, and I honestly feel like one of the things I keep trying to answer, again and again, is how women’s bodies are treated in terms of the boundaries placed on them, and the trauma and abuse that often results from living in a patriarchal society.
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 writers, by telling our stories, have the responsibility of holding up the mirror to the difficult truths about ourselves and our society. As a writer, one of the things I like to think we should do is create empathy through our work.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors, for me, have been absolutely essential. I’ve been lucky in that the editors I have worked with have been instrumental in seeing the potential of the work, and pushing me to realize it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of advice I’ve heard about writing is from a mentor and friend, Robin Richardson, and it was simply “remove the ego.” I think that’s critical when it comes to writing—you need to be able, after the initial messiness is on paper, to stop thinking that you’re not good enough as a writer, and worry only about the work needs. If you’re doing it right, it means you start to want to hear someone else tell you what’s not working, and what you could do to make the work the strongest it can be.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I actually find it necessary to my own creative process to move between genres, mostly because I don’t think I’m the type of writer that can just do one thing. Now that I’m working on finishing a short fiction collection, I’ll spend two months predominantly writing a story, but then I absolutely have to go back to poetry because I feel sort of creatively tapped and need to come at things from a different angle. When I was working on my poetry collection, What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack, there would be times when I just felt I didn’t have ideas for a poem, and would take a month or two off, and write a piece of fiction from beginning to end. By the time that was done, I’d all of a sudden feel the need to write poetry again. For me at least, I find that one form feeds the other.
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?
Saturdays and summers are my best writing days because, if left to my own devices, I would like nothing more than to start writing before I am fully awake. When I can do this, I can trick myself into not thinking about how good or bad the piece is going to be and actually get down to the writing. Usually though, my writing day starts at 5 or 6, after I’m home from my day job. If I’m writing poetry, I usually start with a phrase I’ve texted myself at some point during the day, and then it’s hours of research about homing pigeons, or physics, or the cast lists of classic slasher horror films to distill twenty-odd lines or so. I alternate between prose and fiction (I’ve found I have a hard time just doing one or the other), but prose days are always slower. With prose, I usually start with a sentence or two, maybe three, stare out the window. Beginnings are the worst because I usually can’t bring myself to move on from the first paragraph of a short story until it sounds right. In general, I alternate between research for a scene, and actually writing it. And research has meant everything from desperately texting a friend, needing to know the name of a particular alcohol served on top of a hill in Korea, to re-watching episodes of Star Trek Voyager to nail down a voice for a sentient robot. On one notably slow day, research also included convincing myself that dinner at a dak galbi place on Bloor was completely necessary (the story itself was later published in Joyland, so I guess I did something right). In general though, “research” or not, I try to write (and by that I mean force myself to be actively engaged at my desk) for at least two to three hours a day.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Generally, when I’m stalled I just read journals and get a sense of other contemporary writer’s works. One thing I currently like to do is surround myself with short stories and collections with which I feel my work is in conversation (currently that's Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties, Zolitude by Paige Cooper, and the short story “Orange World” by Karen Russell). For me, it makes the process of developing a piece a lot less lonely. I also find enrolling in workshops really helpful. Kathryn Mockler’s flash fiction and short fiction workshops I’d highly recommend, and I honestly wouldn’t have written my first collection without Robin Richardson’s poetry workshops. I find workshops keep on track, because then I feel accountable. They also get me out of that worried head space, that fixates on whether my work is any “good,” which I think is the wrong question to ask when you’re writing, and let me focus on how the work is working. And in general, when I get a piece workshopped, I feel relieved, because then I know what to do next, rather than just thinking that something is definitely wrong.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I don’t want to say ferret, which has it’s own distinct musk, but that’s the case sometimes, since I do have two of them as pets!
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?
Ask anyone who’s ever been in a writing group with me, and they will tell you I’m pretty obsessed with weird facts about animals, particularly birds. A lot of my poetry and fiction comes from these weird facts (thankfully my climbing partner and fellow writer Kate Finegan also shares this obsession so I get great tidbits about salamanders and bees in people’s eyes from her!) When I’m writing poetry, I find that reading nonfiction articles about animals often leads to the best metaphors. Science also plays a big role in my poetry. My first poetry collection could not have been written without researching classic studies in psychology and thinking about classical and operant conditioning, as well as physics.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This one’s always hard because there are really, so many. When it comes to poetry, Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, actually inspired my first collection because of the way she uses science in her writing to talk about feminist ideas. I am very fortunate to count Robin Richardson as a mentor and friend, and her poetry has gone a long way in teaching me about honesty in the work and direct, punch-you-in-the-gut imagery. When it comes to fiction, I deeply admire Carmen Maria Machado for her ability to blend horror and lore and genre writing into some of the most masterfully crafted short stories I've ever read.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Rock climb outside (and not be terrified at the mere thought of it!). Visit Osaka in Japan during the cherry blossom festival. Write a novel (and not be terrified at the mere thought of it...)
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?
Like most writers, I have a day job, which is teaching a high school care and treatment program for girls. If I didn’t do that, I’d probably be doing some kind of social work, which honestly, is not that far removed. But I can’t really envision doing something else “instead of” writing, as opposed to “along with” writing. I guess, there is a part of me that would like to try computer programming, just to see if I could understand the patterning, but again, I think that’s just the poet in me talking.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Probably my general introversion, my inability to carry a tune and my height made writing a more realistic career than say, acting, which is what my middle school self would have said she was going to do. In all seriousness though, as soon I read The Chronicles of Narnia when I was seven or eight, I thought, I want to write books. And I really haven’t stopped thinking that since then.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. She essentially inspired my next project, which is a collection of short fiction, much of it in the magic realist and speculative fiction vein. The last great film I saw was a bit of a while back, but it would have to be The Favorite. A friend billed to me as “it passes the reverse Bechdel test:” i.e. only one of the conversations held between the female protagonists even mentions a man. I appreciate it, not only for its dark humour, but because I’m fascinated by work that shows unsympathetic, even unlikeable, female protagonists.
20 - What are you currently working on?
As I mentioned before, I'm writing a collection of thematically linked short fiction with the working title, Her Body Among Animals, which explores the boundaries placed on women's bodies. The stories all use animal metaphors and are a blend of magic realism, science fiction and some horror. And of course, I've started working on the next poetry collection. I'm also currently the Poetry Editor at Minola Review (minolareview.com), which is an online journal that, going into its fourth year, publishes quarterly and represents the strongest, most courageous writing from women and non-binary writers. Currently, I've just finished putting together the details for our inaugural poetry contest, which, along with our fiction contest, closes Dec. 1, 2019.