Siobhan Jamison [photo credit: Alejandro Collados-Núñez] was born in Manchester to parents from Northern Ireland. She spent the 90’s living between Paris and Dublin but grew up in Toronto, where she currently resides and teaches at Seneca College. She is a graduate of The School of Creative Writing at The University of Toronto and is pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Hull in the UK. Her work has been longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. Maternity and Other Corsets, a semi-autobiographical novel about chasing the bohemian dream through Europe with an alcoholic French painter and the child she must later raise on her own, is her first book. She is currently writing its follow up Frozen Meat on Hooks.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
This book has all of me and involves a personal Trojan War of sorts. The Trojan Horse was realizing the dream was doing me in and that I didn’t need the French painter or even a life in Paris to find art. The creative space is precious and illusive but can be found anywhere. Stil tapping into it with deliberation required getting the house in order: emotions, needs, finances. I feel spent but taller, exhilarated but calm.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wrote poems as a child and through high school. It was almost religious! Real life was a kick in the head though. And my first prose experience didn’t happen till a holiday in Southampton when I was 38. I don’t know why it took so long but credit the miracle that is Lake Huron for setting me straight.
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?
When it comes to writing, I’m the tortoise! The book took thirty years to live, ten to digest and ten to write. Fragments, on what role my own stupidity and that of society have played in what transpired, were scribbled in all kinds of notebooks. At the beginning, one problem was planning the narrative structure and finding the right tone. In the early drafts, there were aspects - like the domestic abuse component - that I had almost breezed over. There was the temptation, initially, to gloss up the story or pretend it didn't hurt because I was determined not to give in to self-pity.
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 had a novel in mind from the get go but it took an eternity to figure out. In the first draft, the action was stuffed into chapters, shaped around the places I had lived in - Prague, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Paris. Each chapter had its own shift, landscape and dilemma. I even assigned them pieces of music and literature. I had a character arc but the story itself was a too tightly woven, criss-crossing mess and then came the long process of cutting and gently untangling things, of working scene by scene, moment by moment.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m shy but I do like readings. The close little room, people listening in hushed tones sipping their beers and jangling their curry plates. And, you meet people as well. Through recitation, I feel you can pick up a lot about where things are working or not. Flaubert was famous for reading his work aloud to himself and I do think this helps a writer elevate the words from the page.
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?
Sure! The book is among many things an unabashed testament to why socialistic policies work. The Mairie de Paris took care of my daughter and I - rent subsidies, free daycare with hot lunch, cash handouts - who knows where we would be without them. Destiny and choices are another theme. Where success comes from and why we do what we do? There’s parenting, in there too, and why society doesn’t do more to help. So many kids get left behind and parents can lose themselves in the process. Then there’s the patriarchy and the weight of being a woman or what Simone de Beauvoir calls the “other”. What is ‘woman’? Why has she seemingly contributed so little to history and art? Why is she worshipped, mystified, hit, killed, held back and pinned up naked but so little understood even to herself.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
There is nothing like following the voice of a writer through the pages of a book. It instills empathy and opens the mind to a myriad of perspectives and ways of seeing the world. The kind of writers I most admire have a balance of original style, voice, story and moral or social purpose. But writers come in all shapes and should I think hold true to themselves and their vision and be wary of trying to fit into any kind of a box.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Absolutely essential! Editors and mentors, instructors, writers groups, friends, loved ones, help tremendously and even the most innocuous comments have kept me going. That said, when it comes down to it, you are alone with your pages and it’s up to you to get them right.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
As a workshop exercise, Erika de Vasoncelos told us to write badly and deliberately so. Strangely, this freed me from my own perfectionism and is something I repeat to myself in dark times and something I even have a lot of fun with when I get too precious.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve written a novel that is disguised and/or distorted non-fiction and I’ve tried to use poetry while writing it, so for me the forms run into each other.
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’m on academic leave this year from teaching at Seneca College and I’ve spent most afternoons writing this summer on my porch. It’s been a glorious luxury! I wrote the first draft of Maternity while on academic leave eight years ago. We all should be given sabbaticals. When I go back to teaching, it will be scraps of time here, there and nowhere. I gave up yoga, most socializing and walks to finish my book. My house was a mess and I gained twenty pounds.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
That’s a complicated question. My writing was stalled most of my life. Lack of confidence and being bogged down in work and mummy duties contributed. But there was also a blank fear that I didn’t have it in me … that no woman did. Now, I’m happy to report a good night’s sleep, a walk and a healthy meal usually sets me straight.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home is kind of an enigma but a whiff of sea would be it almost anywhere and I hope to find a piece of that soon.
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 think that’s very true and Toni Morrison talks about how you need to write the book you want to read but can’t find. And that frustration is certainly something that gave me an extra push. But I would also say that just about everything you experience influences you. A life well-lived shall we say is key - be it in on the high seas like Joseph Conrad or on the Yorkshire heaths like Emily Brontë.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and Toni Morrison are the writers that have and do most inspire. I love the vitality, courage and play with language that happens in the work of these writers. Dickinson is such an oddball but was, I think, having a bit of a laugh in her white dress. Joyce is the great humanist and has a way of elevating the banal everyday quirks that mark us and Morrison gives pain more fierce poetry than anyone.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Well, I’m greedy! One life is enough as long as I get to stuff three lives in there. I spent the 90’s in Paris and Dublin, learning bad french and the Dublin vernacular and I would love to live somewhere again - say Italy and learn Italian and then maybe somewhere in China.
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’m not sure I can. I’ve spent my whole life living the gists of a book or two and then writing them. And in my next lifetime, I’d just like to sit perched up on a grassy slope by the water somewhere.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There was no getting rid of the words in my head.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be and Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment were both great reads. At the moment, I’m slowly making my way through Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal and am mesmerized. Every single sentence is a conundrum you nod at with inexplicable understanding. Over the winter, I watched the films of Lina Vertmuller and love her examinations of social class, survival and desperation. I loved this year's Oscar winner Parasite for the same reason. I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire a few weeks ago and appreciate how the lady found a way to conduct her own portraits.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A follow up novel called Frozen Meat on Hooks. Unlike its predecessor, which is about running away and follows its heroine Maebh through six different countries, this book is about settling down and takes place in four or five houses in Toronto. Maebh knows her sins but not why she can’t escape them.