Shannon McConnell is a writer, educator and musician originally from Vancouver, BC. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in untethered, The Fieldstone Review, Louden Singletree, In Medias Res, Rat’s Ass Review, The Anti-Languorous Project, and more. She holds degrees in English Literature and Education from the University of the Fraser Valley and Simon Fraser University, respectively, and is a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. In 2018, she won second place for the John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award for Poetry. She finished an MA in History at the University of Saskatchewan in 2020 and is now pursuing her PhD at Queens University in Kingston, ON. Her debut poetry collection is The Burden of Gravity.
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 Burden of Gravity is my first book, and it’s been a really interesting process, especially with it coming out during a global pandemic. While I can’t say my life feels much different than prior to publication, the ability to hold my own book in my hands is pretty special. I think for most writers getting to see their work in print for the first time is completely surreal and that has definitely been my experience too.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I had dabbled with poetry in my youth, like many young people do to get through their teenage years. But even in my undergrad, fiction was my preferred genre as it just made sense to me. It wasn’t until doing my MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan that I really fell in love with poetry and decided to take it on as my thesis project. Poetry was by far my weaknesses genre but because the program included a six-month mentorship with a professional Saskatchewan writer, I thought it would be a good opportunity to really develop that genre. My six-months with Elizabeth Philips changed how I approached poetry and really helped me to hone my process which is key for approaching any genre.
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 love research and will spends months just researching a specific topic before even picking up a pen. The ideas for poems come pretty quick as I tend to write in snapshots trying to capture everything I can about that particular moment or image. The writing process on the other hand is lengthy, and I have to remind myself that my first draft is just that, the first. It tends to take three to four drafts to get a piece to a place where I can see the final shape. I’ve had to learn to trust my process and not get caught up on trying to get that first or second draft to being perfect.
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?
My poems tend to come from images as I love to dissect what I’m seeing and really focus on specifics. I want my writing to feel authentic, so I tend to really dig in on research so that I’m as accurate as possible since a lot of my writing tends to be based on historical events or people. I tend to take on the idea that every project is going to be a big one. With the historical topics I tend to focus on I know there’s a lot to unpack so I see the bigger goal and then have to step back and decide how to break it down into smaller pieces.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I think that public readings are always helpful to my writing. Being out in the community and talking about writing is always inspiring. Nerding out over writing with likeminded people is always fun and getting to share my work with others is always great. I’ve found that attending readings is a great way to get to know your local writing community and to hear how other people deal with the frustrations of staring down that first draft.
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?
With a lot of my work being focused around historical events or people I tend to be looking for the silences in history. I want to understand the experiences of people who have been forgotten from history and their voices have not been heard. Because so much of history has been written from the “dead white man” perspective I’m always asking what voices are missing? What is not being said in these texts? What was the experience of those who were marginalized and whose history was not considered important enough to be heavily documented during that time?
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 the current global pandemic has shown the importance of the arts and the value of it. Not only as an escape, but also as a way to understand and document the emotional truth of the moment. I think creative works are directly tied to how we interpret major events and changes in society. And I’m really interested in seeing what kind of work emerges in a post-covid19 world.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s essential to have outside eyes look at your work simply to have a different perspective. As writers we get so tied to our words and it’s so helpful to have fresh eyes to give constructive feedback and guidance. I think writing groups are incredibly helpful and having a sense of community is really important to remind ourselves how powerful and magical writing can be, especially when a lot of it is done in isolation being dejected in front of a blank screen.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t write with your knees together. While not necessarily meant to be taken literally, it was said during a writing workshop and really emphasized that we as writers, especially women, need to be bold and brave, not conform to the standards of others and push back against the system.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
My first love will always be fiction. I love growing attached to my characters and getting to know them as intimately as friends. I’ve been lucky to have a similar attachment in my poetry, especially with bigger projects. I think that each genre has a time and place, it’s just a matter of figuring out what genre best suits the project.
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 would love to say that I have a perfect writing routine. I get up at 6am every day and write for three hours. All of that would be a total lie. Right now I’m in my first year of a PhD program so there’s very little time for creative thought let alone creative writing. I daydream about a time when I can sit down and just write again, but am well aware that it’s unlikely to happen any time soon and that carving out time to work on my craft is going to be really important in the next few years.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I pick a poetry book off my shelve. It doesn’t matter who it is, just the act of reading poetry I think is incredibly helpful in getting those creative juices flowing. Reading poetry out loud is inspiring especially hearing how people have crafted their sentences with such keen attention to detail.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’m at a weird point in my life where I’m not sure where to call home. Having just moved to Ontario for my PhD after five years in Saskatchewan has really been an adjustment. I spent my first 32 years just outside of Vancouver in British Columbia, so that is ultimately home. I think the smell of a crisp Fall morning will always transport me back to my childhood and the excitement of the changing seasons.
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 really love using photographs whenever I can. There is an old antique shop in Fort Langley, B.C. and every time I go home to visit my family I love to stop by that shop and sift through boxes of photographs that they’ve acquired. I enjoy getting a brief glimpse into someone else’s life, especially if it’s from the early 1900s or includes writing on the back. They also have postcards that I like to look through, trying to build a backstory around what they’ve written, considering the picture on the front and where the card was going. I think it’s a great way to foster some curiosity.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I will always come back to Miriam Toews’ Swing Low as a book that came into my life exactly when I needed it. Having also lost a father to suicide, Swing Low showed me a different perspective on loss and writing, but also gave me a sense of closure I didn’t expect. Also, the writing is great, and I learned a lot about writing dialogue and voice through that book. I ended up meeting Toews years after reading Swing Low and of course her other books and just getting to hear her read and talk about writing was like getting to be in the presence of a rockstar. Her blend of humour, wit, and honesty is something I will endlessly be striving for in my writing.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I really want to write a novel. That was really my initial goal when I started writing. Poetry wasn’t something I was terribly interested in, but indeed things change. I do want to get back to the fiction side of my writing eventually, but right now I’m enjoying the complexity and change that poetry gives me.
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?
Writing is just one part of who I am. My main occupational goal is to teach, preferably at the university level, especially since I’m currently in a PhD program. I have learned that the plans I have made in the past never seem to go as planned so I’m just going to see where this takes me. I worked for almost 13 years in the deli section a grocery store back in B.C. so now being able to dedicate all my time to academics and writing is something I don’t take for granted. I made many sandwiches and salads to get to this point, and I’m grateful for the work ethic instilled in me during my time there. I can safely say that I don’t miss the customer service aspect of it though.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was obsessed with books as a child and judging by my bookshelves this is still true of me today. I think like many writers they were captivated by the power of words at a young age and found solace in the written word. I’ve been scribbling in notebooks since I was a kid and it’s just been something that has always been part of my life. It wasn’t until my undergrad where I started taking creative writing classes that I felt like this might be something that I really wanted to pursue. As a youth I wrote as an outlet and a way to get all my feelings out of my body. Now I write to understand the world around me. I am really interested in historical narratives and so I write to understand the past through different perspectives.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
While I’m not much of a film buff, the last great book I read was Sarah Ens’ debut poetry collection The World is Mostly Sky which besides having a killer title, is filled with brilliant poetry that makes me long for not only the vastness of the prairies, but also the wanderlust and endless possibilities of my twenties.
20 - What are you currently working on?
My main focus right now is my PhD, which will eventually include a creative portion. In my downtime I have been chipping away at a book length poetry collection based on the life of German chemist, Clara (Immerwahr) Haber, who against all odds got her PhD in the early 1900s. She was also the wife of Fritz Haber who was heavily involved in the creation of chemical warfare. She has a fascinating story and of course a tragic death to match. I’ve been doing research on her for a while and am fascinated with her life and accomplishments.