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, What Species of Creatures, was populated by caribou, ermine, and flying squirrels, to name just a few of the so-called “creatures,” but the benefits that ensued were largely human. The book created a gateway to meeting other writers, several of whom have become valued close friends. My new book, The Smallest Objective, shares some traits with the first while also counting as a substantial departure from it. Both books delve into the past to elucidate the present, and both combine humour and elegy. What Species evolved as a response to texts—historical writings about animals—and is quite experimental in form, drawing upon merchandise lists from the Hudson’s Bay Company, fables, children’s stories, and classifications by naturalists as an inspiration for its shape and content. In contrast, The Smallest Objective aims to reconstruct stories based on the recovery of objects like postcards, lantern slides, sheet mica, or a nugget of fool’s gold. In this personal exploration of memory and willed forgetfulness, my mother’s decline forms the narrative ark. It’s a first-person narrative, although in some ways more focused on external discoveries than pure introspection.
2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or fiction?
That’s an intriguing question. My first publication ever was actually a poem titled “Poverty” in an anthology of children’s writing produced by Montreal’s Protestant School Board. It’s also the case that my reading interests inclined more to fiction, and my postgraduate thesis was on the subject of Middle English lyric poems to the Virgin Mary. Since I was trained as a scholar, it’s unsurprising that my first book began with research, although I was responding to the material imaginatively. In other respects, What Species of Creatures appears to have originated outside of my reading life, from my activities with animals (I do volunteer work on behalf of feral cats). My new book of literary non-fiction—categorized as a memoir for lack of a more all-encompassing word—was imposed on me by some real-life circumstances. It begins with a quest for a rumoured buried treasure in my parents’ house and includes an excavation in my parents’ bedroom by a team of archaeologists. I couldn’t have manufactured anything better and there seemed no sense in trying.
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’m not sure that I can identify a precise moment when a writing project starts. More often a subject or story will creep up on me via an image or an idea, a character or a phrase that demands to be heard. It’s a question of listening. Note-taking is definitely essential to my process, but once I actually begin writing, I try to give myself as much freedom as possible to allow the story line to emerge. For a first draft, I aim to keep up the momentum by producing two or three pages a day. The early drafts usually do help to establish the overall shape and tone of a work, but the process of improving and unifying a book manuscript, adding what’s missing and excising what may be extraneous, takes place over many drafts and many years.
4 - Where does a 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?
What Species of Creatures originated in an essay, which began in turn with a series of exquisite descriptions from historical writing about hummingbirds—said to be “no larger than the tip of a child’s finger” and “with legs and feet as small as the lines in handwriting.” Only after reviewing the historical literature about wild animals did I come to realize I might have a concept and compelling material for a much larger work. In contrast, my new book, The Smallest Objective, was conceived as a full-length work from the get-go. I understood that the story of my mother’s decline and the reimagining of lost family members based on objects retrieved from my mother’s house couldn’t be accommodated in short form. The book is, among other things, a selective history of immigration from Russian-occupied Lithuania to Montreal, as told through the lives of three central characters who happen to be Jewish. One of them, Jockey Fleming—a stand-up comic, a raconteur, a purveyor of information in sealed envelopes—was a celebrated street personality of mid-century Montreal.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
It’s always an honour to be invited to read. If you’ve done hundreds of readings, maybe you begin to feel more level about the experience. I’m still at a stage where I find readings both exhilarating and demanding.
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?
I have preoccupations, as is the case with many writers. I’m fascinated by questions of identity and how we’re transformed by experiences of the unfamiliar, whether through encounters with the genuinely new or the previously unrecovered past. The idea of the wild—insofar as genuine wildness can be said to exist—is also a central preoccupation. In my view, one of the most pressing current questions surely is the relationship of our species to other life forms and how to re-establish an equilibrium between the two, which may need to involve the recognition that we’re not two at all but a complex, intertwined one.
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?
There are so many kinds of writers with so many kinds of callings. I look to “literary” writers to invite us to feel and think beyond the narrow, rigid categories that often seem to pervade too much discourse. This element of writers trades in complexity and ambiguity, raising questions instead of providing pat answers and inviting readers to share in otherness and to reimagine the world as we know it. The disposition of the writer isn’t necessarily comfortable, but in our present situation, we urgently need the contribution of fearless writers.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. As an editor myself, I understand the value and necessity of the editorial process. At the same time, it’s uncomfortable to admit an outsider into an imagined world that you’ve inhabited all on your own, albeit with a view to eventually sharing with readers. A sensitive editor can contribute a great deal to a book.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One of the best pieces of writing advice came from the US novelist and memoirist Beverly Lowry: “Write to the punchline.” In other words, take care that every element of your writing is essential to where you end up.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (journalism to non-fiction to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s been a natural progression from travel journalism to creative non-fiction to short fiction. Each genre of writing offers its own freedoms and constraints and helps to inform the others. For instance, What Species of Creatures, although a work of creative non-fiction, uses historical travel narratives as its principal sources.
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?
Generally, I prefer to write in the morning, always after a strong cup of coffee. My long-haired cat sprawls on my lap as I cradle my espresso and gradually ease into consciousness. I eat a paltry breakfast, followed by a walk or a run, and then take up my seat before my laptop.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading other writers whom I admire invariably motivates me to carry on. Also, locomotion, and in particular the rhythm of walking, can really free up the mind. Cooking, too, can be liberating because it requires full physical engagement but is less demanding of the intellectual and imaginative faculties. Some face-time with a zucchini can really straighten you out.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Chicken soup mingled with spices. That fragrance has survived in my grandmother’s wooden chest of drawers that I keep in my bedroom. It’s a lingering scent from more than thirty years ago, and the furniture itself must be about ninety years old—in human terms, a geriatric.
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?
Nature—in the sense of non-human life—is ever-present in my work. My debut book, What Species of Creatures, explored first encounters between this continent’s early settlers and unfamiliar “beasts.” In The Smallest Objective, one of the central personalities is an early twentieth-century botanist whose microscope became a metaphor for the close-up examination of lost family. The smallest objective of a microscope refers to the lens that allows for the greatest degree of magnification. I’m also interested in the interplay of visual art and the written word, which has prompted me to use illustrations in my work—historical drawings of animals in What Species and black and white photographs of objects in The Smallest Objective.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Virginia Woolf counted as an early favourite. As a teenager, I read and reread her novels The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Also in my teens, as a French immersion student in Montreal, I read a great deal of French literature, and I found my French-language teachers, many of them from North Africa or France, to be tremendously inspiring. They taught L’Etranger / The Stranger by Albert Camus, La Symphone Pastorale / The Pastoral Symphony by André Gide, and Kamouraska by Anne Hébert as though understanding these texts were a matter of personal integrity. In more recent decades, I’ve adored the animal writing of E.B. White (“Death of a Pig,” for example) and Faith McNulty (The Wildlife Stories of Faith McNulty). Turning to contemporary authors, I’m a huge fan of the short story writers Joy Williams and Alice Munro. Joy Williams has shown me how a sensitivity to animals and natural landscapes can pervade writing that isn’t ostensibly about those subjects.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Eat aloo tikki in India and glimpse a mossy-throated bellbird in South America.
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?
Wildlife biologist. I’m mesmerized by wild animals and have infinite patience in observing them. I’m not physically courageous, though, and so would need to confine myself to non-carnivorous or smaller species like koala bears or lemurs.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Throughout my teens and most of my twenties, it never occurred to me to do anything but major in English and pursue a related career as a writer and editor. My passion for animals made itself felt in my late twenties and beyond.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Overstory by Richard Powers. Although somewhat demanding of the reader, it’s a novel of extraordinary breadth and ambition, and in embracing trees as its central characters, it brings a sensibility that’s genuinely new. I’m more aware these days of quality TV series than films, but I admired the feature film Roma directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I started writing short fiction several years ago, both because I was so much enjoying the form as a reader and because the more limited time commitment was compatible with brief interludes away from writing The Smallest Objective. It’s felt a natural progression for me insofar as my writing has always tended to the concise, plus I’m drawn, also, to the somewhat elusive nature of the genre. As well, I’ve been working intermittently on a series of flash prose pieces—almost prose poems—about animals, each of which takes as its departure point a photograph of an animal representation.