Sofi Papamarko is a former regular columnist for The Toronto Star, Sun Media Newspapers and Metro Canada. She’s also written for The Globe & Mail, Chatelaine, Flare, CBC, Reader’s Digest, Salon, Exclaim! and many other publications, both living and dead. Her short stories have appeared in Taddle Creek, Maisonneuve, Room and The Toronto Star. She lives in Toronto with her partner and their children.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Radium Girl is my first book! I don't know how it will change my life. I suspect not overly, since this is Canadian publishing and I am a realist.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I came to fiction after a long relationship with non-fiction. I was a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines for over a decade. I love reading fiction more than anything, but the thought of writing it was intimidating. I just didn't feel skilled enough to create that magic. At some point, I gained enough confidence as a writer to give fiction a serious whirl and I am never going back. My friend Iain Reid, who also arrived at fiction from non-fiction, once likened the transition as going from lane-swimming to an open, empty pool. There are rules and limitations when it comes to writing non-fiction -- most notably, you have to write the absolute truth. With fiction, there are no rules or limitations at all. It's all about freedom and imagination. But it should still, at the very least, be truthful.
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 a slow reader, a slow writer and a seasoned procrastinator. It's a wonder I've completed anything at all! I'm in awe of people who can read a book a week and write a book a year. "Radium Girl" took me 4 1/2 years to write. Every short story in there began its life as rough notes, scene ideas, snippets of conversation and just evolved from there. Once I have an idea of where things are going, I can usually create a pretty solid first draft.
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 a bit of a commitment-phobe when it comes to writing, so short stories have been my comfort zone. The structure is so much simpler than a novel and I don't have to spend years with the same character or characters. I can get in, be fascinated by the characters for a period of time, and then I can get out when they bore me. I've been trying to write a novel for a couple of years, but it hadn't been going well until recently. I think I've finally landed on an idea I can truly commit to.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I've only done a handful of public readings. They terrify me. It's like being naked in front of an audience -- you feel extraordinarily vulnerable. I mean, you're getting feedback on your writing in real-time! I've had a couple of readings go very well and there's this amazing high afterwards, but I had this one reading go terribly and wanted to die. I chose a story I thought was hysterically funny and the room was dead silent for the entire ten pages. It was so awkward. Anyway, please invite me to your readings! I swear I'm getting better!
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?
My primary concern these days is this: I am yet another educated cisgender white woman from a comfortable middle-class background. What right do I have to be publishing a book when so many BIPOC voices go unheard? I think things are slowly getting better in the industry, but I will always feel a certain amount of guilt around this. I do think my voice matters and what I have to say is worthwhile, but the fact remains that people who look like me take up a whooooole lot of real estate.
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?
The world needs more empathy these days. I think writers hold the key to helping people better understand the lives and struggles of others.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Absolutely essential. I had a wonderful experience with my editor, Jen Sookfong Lee. She "got" my work and helped to make it better. Plus, she's brilliant and hilarious and I want to be her friend! (Hi Jen! Come visit Toronto when the pandemic's over? We can eat cake.)
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to journalism)? What do you see as the appeal?
They're totally different mindsets. Journalism is more formulaic. And you have to listen really carefully to the subject/s of your non-fiction pieces and pay attention to the little details. With fiction, you have to tap into something deeper and listen to the voices inside of your head. The little details remain important, but they're whatever you want them to be.
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?
There's no typical writing day for me. I don't write every day. I don't write at a certain time of day. I don't have any specific writing rituals, like sipping chamomile tea or pulling on a lucky pair of socks. I just write whenever I feel the urge and whenever I have the time and energy. I work in communications so I spend Monday through Friday writing for a living. Some days, my day job taps me out and I have nothing left. But other days, I get lucky and churn out a thousand half-decent words in one sitting. There's no rhyme or reason to my writing routine. It's barely a routine at all. But writing is my favourite thing in the world to do, so I keep coming back to it and eventually have had something to show for it.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Books! Any book. When it's better than my writing, which it frequently is, it inspires me to be a better writer. When it's not great writing, it makes me think "Hell, if they can do it, I can do it!" and I want to work that much harder. So I guess I'm inspired/fueled by professional jealousy? Healthy!
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lilacs. Christmas trees. Greek Mountain tea boiling on the stove.
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?
All of it! All of it! When I was writing Radium Girl and felt stalled, I would take a long meandering walk in High Park. Somehow, turning away from my creative knot and looking at trees and ducks and chipmunks and egrets helped me to solve the issue when I returned. And of course, art inspires art. Listening to music, a trip to an art gallery, watching the sun set -- as my dear friend Sherwin Tjia once said to me, "You have to inhale in order to exhale."
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I am particularly inspired by women who write or have written short stories that have stuck with me; Barbara Gowdy, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Katherine Mansfield, Shirley Jackson, Lorrie Moore, Jessica Westhead and Carmen Maria Machado, to name just a few.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a novel. Have a child. I'm working on both simultaneously.
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 have no dream job. I do not dream of labour."
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It's the only thing I know how to do well.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am not much of a film buff, so can I just tell you that Harold & Maude is the only film that matters to me? In terms of books, there are so many, but the one I'd recommend the most often from the past few years is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Please read it! It is breathtaking and masterful.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel and it's scary! I am also gestating a human due exactly one month before Radium Girl is published.
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