Sunday, January 31, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jael Richardson

Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower, a book columnist on CBC’s q and the founder and the Executive Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). Her debut novel, Gutter Child, arrived January 26, 2021.

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

The Stone Thrower is really special to me. Maybe first books always feel special in that way, but writing my father’s story feels like a particular kind of gift to me and to my family. When I started writing The Stone Thrower, I didn’t plan to keep writing, not seriously at least. That was never my intent. And yet, here I am, debuting a novel eight years later, discovering my passion and my purpose as I moved through my 30s.

Gutter Child is rooted in that same passion for storytelling that I enjoyed while working on the memoir. But it feels really different too because it’s mine in every way. I made it up. I wrote it out, and with the help of a great editor and some excellent readers, it became a story from a place I imagined and created. This book showed me something I didn’t really know I was capable of – that I can imagine amazing worlds and tackle tough subjects in ways that are really exciting to write and to read.

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

Technically, I started in theatre. I studied acting in university, so my first work was in playwriting. I started to write plays because there weren’t enough monologues for me as a Black actor. I wrote plays because I had to, and my first play, my upside-down black face, was about an actor facing those frustrations. I came to prose because I wanted to write my father’s story, and it was working on my father’s story that really showed me that writing was something I loved to do outside of theatre. I think I chose fiction in the end, or for now, because I like to create and imagine. I’m not as interested in being fixed in a story that’s already been figuratively written. I want to ask questions and imagine possible outcomes and answers through interesting characters.

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?

New projects seem to start the day after I submit the final draft for the story that came before it. I don’t really take a break and I tend not to work on more than one project at a time. But aside from that, the process for writing each book has been different. I’m quite organized in general when it comes to professional work. You might say, I’m a little obsessed with efficiency. And that applies to my writing as well.  I typically plan out the frame work of the story, and then I work from beginning to end on the plot, editing again and again from start to finish in layers. The first draft is short and terrible, like a detailed outline. The next layer is about filling in details and making decisions. It’s not until the fourth or fifth draft that I’ve got something worth reading (longer if I’m not sure what I’m doing, which happened with Gutter Child). By the time I submit a manuscript I’ve worked through the whole thing about fifteen times. Minimum.

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?

I’m always working on a book. I find short pieces really stressful. I don’t know how to focus. I don’t know how to make it about just one thing. There’s always multiple things happening for me in a book.

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

I started in theatre, so I’m one of those strange writers who loves readings and public events. I’m also an extrovert, so the hardest part of the writing process for me is actually all of the quiet, detailed focus. I love connecting with readers. It’s one of my favourite things about the writing cycle.

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?

Gutter Child is very much about colonization and the experiences of Black folks and those who face systemic oppression. The final product – the ending – really came about at the late stages of editing, so one of my major concerns is how Black readers will see the book and the characters. I can’t please everyone and I don’t write books to do that, but when you’re a member of a marginalized community, it’s common to be concerned about how your community will see your work. One of my deep seeded questions is often about how to remain true to my story without doing damage. I don’t think you can really know if you’re successful at that until the work comes out and reaches people you don’t know. So my current question is definitely about the effect it will have on Black readers in particular.

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 are storytellers. Our job is to tell the stories that have been gifted to us in the best way that we can. I think with any role, you should have some morals and convictions that guide you – for me, I’m certainly thinking about things with a social justice lens. But I’m not operating to change readers with my books, and I’m not sure that’s a good approach to writing.

I’m writing about things that I’m curious about and I’m passionate about, but in the end, I’m telling stories. And once those stories are with the readers, my job is done. I hope my books make people think. I hope my books change the way people interact with one another for the better. I hope my books have a practical impact. But my goal is to tell stories that get people to question what they see. That’s all I’m trying to do as a writer.

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

The editing process is one of my favourite parts of the writing process. Editors see your book with fresh eyes, and they have a skilled way of seeing gaps and identifying opportunities. I love working with an editor. It’s the copyediting that breaks me a little bit because it’s about breaking apart what you’ve done and defending it against “rules”. It can often veer into a place that feels less about storytelling and more about language of law and order, and I feel inherently resistant to systems and processes like that.

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

There’s two that I repeat over and over throughout the process of writing that are actually connected, despite coming from two different sources over the last five years. In a writing workshop, author Helen Humphreys once told me, “Everything in service to the reader.” It’s about giving readers what they need to follow the story. For me, this has meant letting go of what sounds good or clever in my writing and moving scenes along so that a reader gets the most authentic story. But it’s also an approach that made me think about who my reader is and that awful question of who you write for. As a Black writer who read a lot of stories growing up that were not for or about Black people – this has been hard to decipher. Did I even know the difference between writing for a mystical white or non-white reader having grown up in a literary system that often fed me the same kinds of stories? Do I even know what the difference is? In an interview I did with Indigenous icon Eden Robinson, Eden said that for every book, she writes to one person – a very specific person she knows. I’ve stolen that approach. Rather than thinking about a collective blur of readers, I now write to serve that one person – that one reader. It’s been the most helpful craft advice I’ve ever received.

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

In The Stone Thrower, there was a scene in each chapter that I fictionalised – where I imagined what could have happened without rooting it in firm research. These were my favourite scenes to write, so I think fiction was a natural transition for me. I love being able to bend and create stories. I’m not particularly interested in re-creating real places in my work post-memoir. And I’ve been wondering of late if my fiction will ever be set in a real place, or if I’ll always want to create cities and places that I can bend to my preferences. Science fiction may just be the exact opposite of non-fiction – in terms of inventing worlds and making everything up. And I love that. I’m very comfortable here.

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?

My best writing days happen when I wake up and start writing at 7am or so and I have until noon to just write. I can usually go 3-5 hours straight pretty easily, but after noon or after any other kind of work the process is a little more fractured. It takes me longer to get into the writing and I’m generally less productive.

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

When I get stuck in my writing it’s usually because I’m torn about the direction it should go or the adjustments that are necessary. I tend to watch stories that are about similar kinds of problems and settings for inspiration. I find watching documentaries and real stories helpful in this regard. Because it’s easy to take a real story and use it as inspiration for your fiction.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Food. Especially homemade pizza. My mom used to make homemade pizza every Friday night, and that particular smell definitely reminds me of home.

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 would say I’m largely influenced by other books. Gutter Child happened because I read Sula by Toni Morrison. I loved that little novel. I loved how it made me think about things. I’m sure nature and other things shape my ideas in ways I should probably think more about, but I am most heavily influenced by the books I read and the tv and movies I watch. I’m most motivated by what I feel is missing or what I think is being overlooked in those places – stories I might be well-suited suited to writing.

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

I heard a writer share this recently and it’s true for me as well. Each of my books has mentors – books that shaped the content and structure and style. For Gutter Child, Sula by Toni Morrison, Brother by David Chariandy, The Break by Katherena Vermette, and The Hunger Games were definite influences. But for my next book, there’s a whole new suite of mentors that are shaping the story.

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

I’d like to have a book turned into a television series or a movie. And not for the book glamour, although that would be nice. I just really want to see that evolution of a story. I’d love to be involved in the writing and to learn how that kind of storytelling works differently than the styles I’ve done before.

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 happen to plan a literary festival, and I love doing that. But I left teaching to do more writing and to plan FOLD, so if I wasn’t doing FOLD and writing, I think I might be a college professor. 

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

I write because I’m compelled to. It really is that simple. I remember when I was in labour, trying to deliver my son. I had been pushing for a while, maybe an hour or more. He was stuck, and the midwife said that on the next contraction I could rest, but the next contraction came and my whole body just needed to push. I realized I couldn’t rest. I had to just do it, just keep working at it. That’s how writing feels. On my tired days or during the worst parts in the writing process, I still hear these characters. I still feel their stories, so it’s best to just hunker down and work. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing, and it’s too hard to fight against a force like that.

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

I could never pick just one, so Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet, and Indians on Vacation by Thomas King. They hit me for very different reasons, but they affected me as a writer, and for me those are the best kinds of reads – when I’m not just drawn in by the story but by the storytelling as well. The films that are most on my mind these days are the entire Hunger Games Series and the Jumanji series. I know they’re not perhaps what people might expect me to watch or read or be thinking about, but they are relevant to what I’m working on and I think what strikes me about those two series is how each consecutive film brought something new while remaining really rooted to the world established in the initial film.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Well, I think that’s going to have to remain a secret for now. But I think if you read closely about what I’m reading and watching, you might just be able to figure it out.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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