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 book was a collection of stories, entitled The View from the Lane, a collection I worked on with my mentor, Isabel Huggan. It’s hard to express how happy it made me feel to see it in print after so many years of working on it, and certainly it helped to validate, especially to myself, that I was indeed a writer, and a writer for whom a publisher (Enfield and Wizenty) was willing to use their resources to champion. I was frankly honoured by that. Then they also published my novel, Winter Willow five years later, which made me doubly grateful.
My most recent work is my first collection of poetry, A Different Wolf. I had been writing these poems on the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock for over a decade. And again, I am so grateful for the faith McGill-Queen’s has shown and for their support of A Different Wolf. Robert Graves once said that his prose books “are the show dogs I breed to support my show cats, poetry” and that seems to me an apt way to distinguish between them. I’ve always found poetry to be as contrary, unruly and beautiful as cats, and prose to be some sort of an attempt at order, as beautiful as that can be (to give dogs their due).
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Actually, like many writers – my first love being words and their power to evoke emotions and empathy – my first writings were poetry. That’s when I was young, when I had not yet recognized the entrenched patterns that I later would want to explore through prose.
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 am a slow writer, a writer who depends upon editing to make evident the topic or theme of a particular work. Only through reworking and thinking about where the initial impulse came from will the larger import of the work become known. There is a lot of putting it aside, and thinking about it, or just forgetting it for a while. I usually have multiple projects on the go, so that I will be working on poetry at the same time as writing short stories, or longer works. In this way when I stall, I can work on something else, and come back to the original project when I’ve eliminated some of the stumbling blocks. I do wish though, that at a certain point, I’d feel a piece was finished and further editing unneeded. That does not seem to happen, as the editing never feels done.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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 find the impulse to write poetry different from the impulse to write prose. With poetry something will strike me, and I will need to put it into words quickly. I am part of a wonderful poetry group that meets on Tuesdays called the Ruby Tuesdays, and every week part of our meeting is devoted to a writing exercise. Sometimes these exercises can produce poems that I will keep and rework. But prose usually comes about because of either an image or a feeling that will not leave until I capture it through writing, or at least attempt to. It does not have the same urgency to write as a poem, but will nag until I do something with the memory, or with the character, or whatever it is that will not leave me alone. I’m also part of an invaluable short story group, which meets monthly and includes some wonderful local writers.
When I began my short story collection, it was by writing separate stories that I only realised later related closely enough to each other to be considered linked. It took a while, but at some point it became clear that there was a sort of gravitational pull between them. I had to work to make the links obvious but gradually, as planets and stars start to circle and exist in relation to each other, the stories settled into a form that was cohesive and interconnected.
Unlike poetry, which tends to find its themes after the writing of the poems, my novel Winter Willow began as an experiment, where I knew, in broad strokes, what would happen. There were surprises that came about in the writing, of course – that it grew to be novel length, being one – but writing it was more a matter of ploughing through after establishing the underlying structure, and then, of course, years of editing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are difficult for me. Although, I don’t feel they are counter to my creativity, I never feel comfortable doing them. What I do enjoy though is the venue where these readings happen, when I get to be with my friends and like-minded people. At times, this is even worth the agony of reading.
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 such a complex question. My writing is in answer to the need to explore why life falls into certain patterns through time. It tries to tame experience into something that can be held, examined, and hopefully at the same time be recognizable to other people. I feel I am merely scratching the surface to say that writing (mine and others) attempts to give something like cohesiveness to the chaos we live with and within. It telescopes a moment and lets it stand in for all moments – and in so doing tells us that there is indeed meaning to be uncovered (or some would argue, created), that can link us with empathy, and, as Kafka famously said, attack the frozen sea within.
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?
Oh yes, I believe writers have an almost sacred role, and that’s to show the reader how we are all linked by our humanity. I remember when I was younger thinking that I’d be better off and more productive if I could build something, like a house, that could be used by someone. But now I see literature as a way to show how similar we are, how through empathy and the use of imagination, both that of the writer and reader, we can expand our awareness beyond our own life and circumstances, in essence building a mental structure where the mystery of life can be explored and shared. Plus I do not possess the skills to build a house (regrettably).
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The editor at Enfield and Wizenty, Ingeborg Boyens, edited both my book of short stories and the novel. I very much enjoyed the back and forth of working with her, and especially enjoyed having someone who was as invested, as I was, in making the work the best it could be. For the poetry manuscript I worked with Allan Hepburn at McGill University, and again the editing process was a gift in that I felt supported and that the work was viewed as valuable, worthy of the care he showed it. He made some brilliant suggestions for the placement of the poems, and for that I am especially indebted. So, basically my experience of working with editors has been immensely positive and has helped to improve the final product of the books.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I read that when Eudora Welty was asked what her advice to a young writer would be, she said, “If you can stop, stop.” And seeing I cannot stop, well, that seems a sign I must continue. Also my mentor Isabel said once that the world does not need another mediocre book, so make it good. I’ve tried to live up to that dictate.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
As I mentioned, I started by writing poetry when I was young, but by my twenties I had started writing prose. I realized then that in order to write well, I had to appreciate excellence in writing, and so I started university in the evening, studying English Literature and Language. I always wrote poetry but felt it was mine alone and seldom, if ever, shared. I concentrated on writing short stories for years. Then the opportunity to join the poetry group came up (thank you, Jean Van Loon), and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to not only get back to writing poetry on a regular basis, but also to write about the topic of Alfred Hitchcock and his movies. This group, started by Lise Rochefort, Frances Boyle and Laurie Koensgen, amazing poets and friends, welcomed me and my project. The group provided an ideal combination of support and structure that allowed me to complete the collection, and for that, and much more, I am grateful.
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, be it editing or new writing. It would be an unusual day that I do not write in my diary, and I usually do that in the morning. Creative writing (and that’s not to say there is no creativity in keeping a diary, of course) often happens later in the day, notably in the evening, probably a throwback from my years of working when that was the time open to me. Saying this makes it sound like I have some sort of routine, but that is not the case. I do not believe a writer must wait for divine inspiration, and do believe that they have more control than that. But my writing does not adhere to a routine, in that I may write solid for a day or two, and then not for the next week. But then so much of writing is thinking and letting the situation of the work sink in, so what may look like inactivity can be in fact highly productive.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Often writing in my diary will help. When I am feeling stalled it usually is because something has become dense, impenetrable in the writing (this is also often a sign that it is worth pursuing), and writing about it often helps to untangle it, like pulling a weave looser so you can see its pattern. Reading also helps, as it takes me away from the problem without taking me away from writing. Sometimes I give myself a break too – I’ll cook something complicated, or go for a walk, or just complain to a friend about it. I also love to paint and sketch, and will turn from writing to work on a visual project and often find the shift will help to clarify and inspire, so when I return to the writing it is with a new perspective and renewed energy.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cinnamon. The smell of cinnamon cooking reminds me of the kitchen in the house where I grew up, when, as a child, I was allowed to make cinnamon and brown sugar rolls – probably the first thing I created that someone liked.
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?
There is a route I take when I run by the river that ends at Green’s Creek in the east end of the city, and I find being there mesmerizing – almost like meditating. If I am struggling with a story that will not come together, often by the end of the run I will have suggestions or a new perspective which might help in the writing. At times I am overwhelmed by the beauty there, as it moves through the seasons, and that alone seems to heal any discord so that I can approach writing with a renewed calmness and focus. I believe to be able to write means being able to open yourself to common beauty and influences that surround us always, that it is only by being sensitive to these elements that you can bring something to the writing that a reader may recognize and value.
In a concrete example of how another art form can influence writing, A Different Wolf was inspired by the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, by their themes and preoccupations, but modified and expanded upon through my personal reaction to the movies.
I have synesthesia and so certain music creates a sense of color melding together, and although the experience is non-verbal, it often provokes memories, or a sense of another time, which in turn will demand a representation in words.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I studied early twentieth century writers at university, and particularly love Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, among others of the era. When I was very young, it was by stumbling upon Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock that I first encountered what was for me the new element of poetry, and marvelled at how it could help explain and expand the world through the beauty of language. And I knew then, at the age of twelve, that I would always want to have that in my life. At the same time there was a new vitality to Canadian writing, particularly in poetry. The poetry that most inspired me from that time was from writers such as Gwendolyn MacEwen, Raymond Souster, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, among others. At the same time the prose writers which particularly influenced me were Alice Munro, Isabel Huggan (with whom I was lucky enough to develop a mentorship and then friendship), Audrey Thomas, and from Quebec, Marie-Claire Blais, Anne Hebert, and later Monique Proulx. Non-Canadian writers I came to love included Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, among others.
Lastly, I am often inspired by the writers in my poetry group, the Ruby Tuesdays. The experience of being part of this group has allowed me to see how each writer has a unique relationship to language and how their poetry can express their equally unique apprehension of the world.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
There are places in the world where I would like to visit – a trip down the Nile, or on the Orient Express (seems the novels of Agatha Christie have had an affect on my travel dreams). Also I’d love to visit South Africa and I’ve never been to Portugal or Russia. In fact, there are many places left for me to explore.
As for writing projects, for years I have wanted to research the life of Archibald Lampman with the aim of writing a novella based on his life. There were so many thing I felt I could relate to about his life – the desire and need to write, while working in the government, the fact that he fell in love at work, and how disruptive that was for other aspects of his life, and that he lived in Ottawa, the same place I was born and where I have lived most of my life. All these things I can relate to and would love to write about, and so it is my plan one day to do exactly that.
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’ve often thought I’d have liked to be a teacher. To be able to introduce young students to the work that opened up the world of literature to me, I think would have very rewarding.
For years I worked in a lab setting and I’ve thought how I’d have liked to be a research scientist, obsessed with finding the answer to a problem that could take years. The individual quest, the dogged determination, answered (if you are lucky) by a breakthrough which would be of value to the world. What satisfaction that would give.
I also love to paint and sketch and think I could devote my life quite happily to being a visual artist (but then, I know who I am would mean the writing would always interfere).
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I really didn’t feel I had a choice. I was and am compelled to write, it’s a need only answered by trying to explain experiences through words. I’m not sure where that bend of my mind comes from, but it’s been there a long time, and it seems impossible to ignore. At times the only writing output I have in a day will be a diary entry, but I always have either a short story or poem nagging me. As I’ve mentioned though, it takes a lot of ignoring it, of letting it steep, before it finds its shape, and then leaves me alone.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished the Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace, edited by Carolyn Smart, and I was blown away by her poetry. I felt I’d met a kindred spirit and find it heartbreaking that she is no longer with us. I’ve also greatly enjoyed new collection from fellow members of the Ruby Tuesdays, and am especially anxious to read Frances Boyle’s short story collection, Seeking Shade, which will be out soon.
With the pandemic I have not been to a cinema in months. The last movie that stayed with me, and I believe lived up to its hype, was Parasite. Lately I’ve come to rely on movies or series that I can get on demand at home. One I especially enjoyed was the series After Life with Ricky Gervais. It struck me how juxtaposing a comic apprehension with the weighty topic of death can give us moments of pathos which can also be highly entertaining. Also I still revisit some of Hitchcock’s movies, and when I do, there’s always something new to appreciate, which I suppose is the mark of a work of genius.
20 - What are you currently working on?
As I mentioned, I work on different types of projects at the same time. The poetry collection which has been occupying me is a series of poems on yards – the yard from my childhood, those where I’ve lived over the years, and the yard behind the house where I currently live. I am also working on a collection of stories, entitled It Is What It Is. Some of these stories have been published or will be published in The New Quarterly, Threepenny Review, Exile, Narrative, South Carolina Review and Event. I’m also working on a larger piece based on my experience of a trip to Dublin. So, I am busy, or could be very busy, at least.