Thursday, January 02, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Francine Cunningham

Francine Cunningham is a Canadian Indigenous writer, artist and educator. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in The Malahat Review, the anthologies Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press) and Best Canadian Essays 2017 (Tightrope Books), and was longlisted for the 2018 Edna Staebler Personal Essay. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Grain as the winner of the Short Grain Writing Contest in 2018, The Puritan, Joyland, Echolocation, The Maynard and more. She is a graduate of the UBC Creative Writing MFA program, winner of the 2019 Indigenous Voices Award for unpublished prose, winner of The Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL Indigenous Art Award, and a recipient of Telus’ 2017 STORYHIVE web series grant. On/Me is her first book.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

So far I haven’t noticed any change from this first book other than knowing that a whole bunch of strangers are gonna know my stories. That’s been kind of a trip to think about so I try not to. 

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

I actually can’t remember what I started to write first. As a kid I loved writing fiction stories and making books, drawn covers and all. I also have many journals filled with teenage poetry. I kinda always knew though that my first book into the world would be poetry. Poetry is where my heart lives, where my story lives, its where I process the world.

I am hoping my second book into the world is short fiction, and then a YA novel I’ve been revising for years but am finally ready to let go of.

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?

Starting is super easy for me; I have more ideas than I could ever write. Follow through and not getting bored with an idea and abandoning it is the trick for me. Honestly I need to revise over a period of years. I need distance to see the truth of the work. There have been a few short stories though that are basically exactly as written on the first spark. Those are typically heavy voice driven work that comes out of places I don’t even know are inside of me. I have a few stories that came out in like an hour and scare me because the voice is so dark. But I am just going with it, trusting my subconscious.

I do feel that with some stories I work on them in my head for years before I write them down so those always feel more or less complete as I’m writing them, those stories though typically come out as poems and my nonfiction. 

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?

I am working on a book from the beginning type of writer. I need to see the whole of it or I get antsy. I don’t mean necessarily like a full blueprint but I need to know the general shape. So for this book I knew it was going to function as a kind of ‘Encyclopaedia of Fran’ from the beginning so I started with themes of poems like mental illness, grief, identity and from there I was able to write accordingly. If it’s just all wide and open I get stalled. I need planning. I currently have full outlines for many novels I’ll probably never write; I just really like the world building part of writing. But by doing a full outline and then leaving it for six months it lets me see if it’s actually a good idea or maybe something I just tuck away.

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

Public readings are something I don’t have a ton of experience with. I have done them but I get a lot of anxiety before a reading so I stopped for a while because I didn’t have any coping mechanisms to deal with the fear but I am currently trying to learn ways to get through. I started a podcast actually as a way to practice public speaking, I know that its not technically ‘public’ because I am alone with a microphone but for me the fear was always cantered around saying something ‘wrong’ and having that be recorded or remembered forever so me having a podcast that could in theory live on the internet forever has been good exposure.

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?

One of the things I like exploring is choice. I believe that the only thing we take with us to the next life is the choices we make. I am endlessly fascinated on the why of humans. Where does the root of a choice start? Because a lot of the time its so deep inside of us that unless we take the time to really follow the root we’ll never find the seed but when you do find the seed it can be explosive.

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?

Honestly I think about this all the time. Welcome to my existential nightmares. And for as much as I think about it I have no answers. Except that storytellers are essential to the fabric of humanity. We’ve always been here. We will always be here.

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

I quite enjoy it actually. Someone who is wholly dedicated to making my work better, sign me up!  

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

Early into my writing life I was sitting at an Indigenous writers conference, it was one of the first I believe, and Lee Maracle got on the stage and she spoke to us. And one of the things she said was something I always felt but could never articulate, and it’s really the way I have set my life up now. The teaching she gave us was that we must live by the one hand up one hand down teaching. Meaning as we climb the ladder, we must always have one hand down pulling up the youth behind us. For me that is how I always want to live my life. I currently spend about half my year working with Indigenous youth teaching writing and visual art. It gives my life joy. And the more youth I can bring with me as I continue writing the more they can bring and so on and so on. There’s no limit to how many of us can rise, which is something I try to teach to. I feel like in some artistic fields that is the attitude, that there’s a limited amount of spots, but it’s not true. The more Indigenous voices I see on the shelf the more happiness I feel.

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

I love writing in as many genres as I can. It’s what makes writing so fun and exciting. If I had to only pick one….well I’d just secretly still write in all of them. I have so many different voices in my head and they are all suited to different genres. My short story voice is very character driven and so far has a dark bent to it. My novel voice is more long winded with a more lyrical bent to it. My poetry is me, my story, in my voice. My creative non-fiction is my analytical overthinking voice. Or maybe this is just me overthinking it.

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 don’t keep a routine. The past few years of my life have been travel heavy for work so I wake up in different places and I just write when I can during the day. I do try and write every day, even if it’s just in the notes section of my phone. I use to believe that I needed a fixed routine and that I was a failure of a writer because I couldn’t ever seem to get it nailed down but its just not how I work. I do tend to do my long stretches of writing after dark when everything is quiet and its dark out.

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

I’m always working on more that one project and in more than one medium. So for example if my writing isn’t working I’ll put it aside and work on my painting and when that stops being fun I’ll pick up my beading or my soap making or an endless list. I try to work on more than one art form a day so I never get bored. That’s the only way my brain works. I also find that when I am working on something with my hands like painting my brain is busy away figuring out the problem with my characters and I’ll suddenly just get what needs to done so I’ll switch back to my desk with my computer on it and keep writing. It keeps life interesting. I should say with this system though nothing gets done fast as there also ‘on the go projects’.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I moved around a bunch as a kid so I don’t have a scent from my childhood home or anything but one place in my life that stayed consistent and still would be kokum’s sewing room which always smelled like smoked hide. The smell of a deer hide brings me right back to their trailer and the feeling of family.

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?

The natural world is endless influence. It’s the most beautiful and expressive force that exists.

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

Have you read Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost or Tracy Lindberg’s Birdie? Those books lifted me up and showed me what I could do with my writing. They opened the door for me to be able to write how and what I wanted.

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

I’d like to travel outside of Canada more, talk to people who haven’t lived here, listen to stories. I also have a life to-do list that I wrote when I was a kid and I’ve been lucky enough to check some stuff off like publish a book, but two that I’d really like to do are host a TV show on APTN and be the voice of a beloved cartoon character. Kid Fran was very specific of her dreams.

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 recently asked myself if ‘I got a chance for a re-do life, while still keeping the memories from this one, what would I do? My answer is to be someone who studies viruses and diseases. I find that whole field of study fascinating. Like I’d love to be someone who tracks the progress of a disease as it’s threatening the human race. But I’m not super into math so really; I’d probably still have become an artist.

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

I started off in acting school, dreaming of being a world famous actress, but then realized it was more fun to be the director, you got to decide everything, but then I realized its actually more fun to be the writer, because you get to actually decide everything, all the world building is on you. And I love world building. I also love being in charge.

But the why? Because I always have just done art, it’s the thing that comes the most naturally to me, the thing I don’t have to struggle with like I do with stuff like science. Creating is the thing that gets me hyped up. I can’t not do it.

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

I am thinking of trying my hand at writing a mystery YA novel in the new year so I have been reading a ton of thriller, mystery, detective novels right now. And I gotta tell you its been great! Such a fun genre. I am currently reading my way through the alphabet mystery novels by Sue Grafton. I read a bunch when I was younger but I am going through the whole series again.

As for the screen, honestly I have been bingeing American Horror Story. It’s the fall and so I must scare myself as much as possible. And I love that show. That’s one writers room I’d love to sit in on.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am finishing up my second poetry collection tentatively titled Postdated. I have a short story collection finished called God Isn’t Here Today that I am sending out to publishers and I have my YA novel Teenage Asylum’s that I am finally ready to let go and send out.

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