Amy LeBlanc is an MA student in English Literature and creative writing at the University of Calgary and non-fiction editor at filling Station magazine. Amy's debut poetry collection, I know something you don’t know, was published with Gordon Hill Press in March 2020. Her novella Unlocking will be published by the UCalgary Press in their Brave and Brilliant Series in 2021. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Room, PRISM International, and the Literary Review of Canada among others. She is a recipient of the 2020 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book came out in March 2020, which was right around the same time that COVID-19 hit. My book didn’t come into the world exactly the way I’d planned; I had to cancel my Calgary and Edmonton launches as well as a trip to Toronto and Guelph to take part in the Gordon Hill Press season launch. From talking to other authors, launching your first never quite feels like you think it will, but I think there’s a group of us with spring 2020 titles that are having the strange experience of launching online, doing online readings for the first time, and trying to promote our work without leaving the house. It’s a conflicting experience to be promoting work right now because the world is in chaos and so many people are suffering, but I have received an incredible amount of support and I’m trying to extend that support to other authors in the same position.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I write both poetry and fiction, but from a really young age, my brain processed and communicated best through poetry. There’s always been something comforting for me about white space on the page. If you ask my mother, she’ll tell you that she has some of my childhood, none of them good, but they at least show that I’ve grown as a poet).
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 work tends to be a combination of both. I don’t really enjoy outlining at the beginning of a project because I tend to get overwhelmed in the small details. I usually sit down and map out a project after I’ve already started it. Sometimes I feel like I won’t be able to know what form a project should take until I try writing it and it speaks to me. I’ve had poems that actually need to be short stories and essays that actually need to be poems.
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?
For poetry, I tend to work on short pieces that end up combining into a larger project. I usually end up writing individual pieces, find the threads that tie the pieces together, and then I start to think about the bigger picture. I think if I sat down to start working on a “book” from the beginning, I might be too overwhelmed to ever start.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
They are and I do! I love going to readings and my favourite readings I’ve attended are usually ones where I’m not reading. I don’t have to feel nervous and I can just sit and enjoy what other folks are sharing. I do enjoy readings because it’s a great way to test out new work and see if it’s actually accomplishing what I think it is. There’s also just something really profound about sharing work with other writers and listening to theirs in turn. Even though I’ve done lots of readings and I’m getting more comfortable with reading my work out loud, I still get nervous.
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?
For my poetry collection, I was investigating the intersections of femininity and folklore through fairy tales, infamous female figures, and poisonous plants. For my master’s thesis, I’m currently looking into questions of disability politics in regards to invisible/chronic illnesses and pandemics. I want to look at the semantic shift in the term ‘viral’ and how our everyday discourses are influenced by biology.
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 that the role of the writer is to observe, process, and document what is going on in larger culture. Right now, historians are asking people to start keeping a COVID journal because the observations we keep today will matter to future historians. I think that all writers need to read widely and educate ourselves on current issues. I’m aiming to read more books by Black authors this summer.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s definitely both. There’s something really challenging, but entirely necessary, about letting someone else edit your work. That being said, most of my critical breakthroughs have been because of conversations with an editor or suggestions that they’ve made. For example, when Shane Neilson was editing and organizing my poetry collection, he saw seven distinct sections that had clear thematic links. Before his feedback, I hadn’t been able to see my collection organized differently, but his feedback made the collection and the organization so much stronger. The whole editorial process with Gordon Hill Press was brilliant and I’m so thankful for their feedback.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Read your work out loud. I’ve had sentences and lines that flow perfectly in my head and then when I try to read them out loud, they sound clunky. Hearing the actual sound of a line or a sentence usually tells me what I need to fix. It’s also definitely best to try reading them out loud before a public reading. I have experienced the surprise of standing in front of a room of forty people and realizing that my tongue and mouth literally cannot make the sounds they need to for a certain line to work.
The other piece of advice I’ve received is to get involved in literary community work like journals, a reading series, or workshops. Writing can be done alone, but it’s so much better with community support and poet friends.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to the novella)? What do you see as the appeal?
I find it really difficult to dedicate myself completely to one project at a time, partly because I’m interested in so many different things but also because, at a certain point a few months in, the shine and excitement wears off and the hard work begins. I try to keep myself from abandoning projects completely, but I find that a reprieve in another genre can reinvigorate my writing process. I also find that reading a different genre from the one I’m working in helps a lot; I read predominantly poetry when I was working on the novella, and now I’m reading mostly non-fiction as I work on my novel.
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?
Before COVID, my writing routine totally depended on the day. I tried to write everyday, but it was mostly fit in between course work or attending classes. Now that I’m home all of the time and I’m not in classes, I’m settling into a more predictable routine. I usually write in the mornings after a walk and then I read books related to my novel in the afternoons.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I generally turn to other authors and books that I’ve loved. I return again and again to Carol Shields’ book Startle and Illuminate, Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journals, and Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems. They’re all such different books, but they feed me in different ways.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Freshly cut grass and brewed coffee.
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?
I find that I’m most influenced by podcasts, actually. I listen to a lot of historical podcasts like Criminal Broads, Unobscured, Storical, The Dark North, and Lore. From these, I learn about stories I never would have heard otherwise. It can be a great exercise to take a an episode of a podcast, distil it down to the most crucial details, and write it into a poem.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
One writer I have always loved is Shirley Jackson. My mother gave me a copy of The Lottery to read when I was ten and I was hooked from then on. I’ve read all of her novels, short stories, and essays. Other writers that have been important for my work are Angela Carter, Flannery O’Connor, Jesmyn Ward, Lucie Brock-Broido, Anne-Renée Caillé, Sylvia Plath, and Sara Peters.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would really like to get my PhD!
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?
My other occupation would be (and still might be) teaching high school. I have a bachelor of education in secondary English language arts.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I decided to write because it wasn’t an option not to. I have no pretensions of being a ‘full-time writer’ and I don’t know that I would want to be. I want my life to be a combination of writing, teaching, reading, and community/editorial work. I know that writing will be a constant in my life regardless of what other occupations or obligations I take up.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
It’s really difficult to narrow it down to one, so I’ll go by genre. For poetry, it’s My Art is Killing Me by Amber Dawn; for fiction, it’s either Bunny by Mona Awad or Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. For non-fiction, it’s Eula Biss’ book On Immunity.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on my master’s thesis, which is a novel about a pandemic. I’ve been planning this novel for about three years, but I did not expect to be writing it during an actual pandemic. The novel will follow a young woman who has an autoimmune disease as she navigates a pandemic with a chronic illness. It means that I’m reading a lot of pandemic fiction which can get a little heavy, but it’s also helping me process what’s happening around me in our current moment.