Sharon King-Campbell [photo credit: Ashley Harding Photography] is a freelance theatre artist and storyteller. Her work has appeared in Riddle Fence and Word, and on stages across Newfoundland and Labrador. Sharon grew up in Ottawa and now divides her time between downtown St. John’s and a little house in Winterton, NL.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
This is my first book, but I can already feel it changing my life. I've spent the last fifteen-ish years working as a theatre artist (and I don't plan to stop!) but there is something really fun and exciting about getting my work into people's hands in places that are far away. Live performance is magical, but it does require you to be physically in a room with the audience, which limits your reach, logistically.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I had to think about this for a minute. I *did* come to poetry first - as a little kid. I think I was 7 when my first poem was published (in the children's section of the community newspaper). But then I went into theatre and started writing (mostly) plays, so this is a return of sorts.
I think I was drawn by poetry's connection to music. I was a very musical kid, so the rhythm and rhyme of lyrics, and of the kind of poetry that I was exposed to at that age, felt comfortable to me. I liked the problem-solving of it: this word doesn't fit, what can I use instead? What's the best rhyme here? Then, when I started to expand my writing interests and I kept a daily writing practice (which I've been doing off and on since I was fourteen - much more off than on, I must confess), often I would only have 15, 10, 5 minutes, and the automatic thing for me to do is to dive into a poem. I can't write a play - even a very bad first draft of a play - in 5 minutes, but I might scribble out some lines that could later be wrestled into a poem.
Now, I think certain stories want to be told in certain forms. Most poems don't make good plays, and most plays wouldn't make good poems. You can be elaborately detailed and simultaneously say something very large in poetry because it doesn't demand a fixed narrative.
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?
Irritatingly, it depends on the project. I have written full-length plays in three months that changed very little in the editing, and I have taken a decade to wrangle my unmanageable thoughts into a play someone might produce. Poems are similar. There are a couple of pieces in This Is How It Is that came out of me whole and have changed very little between the first draft and the published copy. There are also pieces that I wrote in 2012, that started out as three different bits of writing that I pulled out of myself over the course of several months and eventually found some meaning when I put them together. There are pieces in there that started as a 20+-line poem, got whittled down to a single line or even a few words, and then built up again.
I'm jealous of writers who have their works jump out of them fully-developed like Athena from Zeus' head. What makes that awkward is that sometimes (rarely) I'm one of those writers and I can never predict when that'll happen.
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?
Well, I'm a rookie when it comes to poetry, but I wasn't working on a 'book' until very late in the process. I mentioned that some of the poems were written in 2012, and I didn't start thinking about putting together a collection until 2018.
That on-again-off-again writing practice I talked about earlier is the genesis of almost everything I write, in whatever form, so the germ of the idea happens in this kind of terrifying moment when I stare at the blank page in my notebook and try to convince myself that I'm not empty. It's probably not surprising that the vast majority of work I produce this way is absolute garbage, but that's not the point. It's practice, so that you maintain your skills and develop new ones... like if you played the trumpet. Still, those notebooks are where I go when I'm looking for something to turn into a full piece.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
This will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever met a theatre performer, but I love doing readings. I'm hoping that I'll be able to do a couple of in-person events once that is safe again. I do like live readings much better than recorded ones.
It's certainly not counter to my process. I always read my stuff out loud while I'm editing, and I love the idea of delivering poetry as a performance.
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 spend a lot of time these days thinking about how I can contribute to the social justice and environmental justice projects in a way that's sustainable for me. You won't have to read between too many lines in the collection to see that I think a lot about feminism and climate change. I guess the big questions there are How did we get here? How am I involved? and Where do we go now? There are answers to the first two of those, although there's always more to learn. The last question is the biggie, and I don't think it's one we can answer individually, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep it nearby and visit with it regularly.
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?
This giant question deserves a giant answer:
Writers, and all artists, are engaged in a community-building project. We make cultural works that become shared experiences. Think about going to the theatre (I know, this was probably more than a year ago, but try to remember). You sit in a room full of other people, watching a story unfold. Maybe it makes you feel something. Maybe it gives you something to think about. Almost certainly, what you are feeling is something slightly different than what the person next to you is feeling, but it's caused by the same experience. And then the show ends, the lights come back on, and you go out into the world having shared something with a room full of strangers. Later, when you are making small-talk with your fellow commuter on the bus, you might discover that this person saw that show too, or worked on it, and then you have something in common with that person, you have a touchstone for your conversation. By comparing your reactions to the experience, you can get to know this person a little bit. You get off the bus and there is a person in your community who you know a little better than you would've without that play.
Of course this translates to books as well: have you read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Me too. We have something in common. We can learn something about each other through that.
What makes artistic experiences different than the shared experience of sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office, or grocery shopping, is that artists have the opportunity to deliberately sculpt your experience. We work to elicit specific responses - to make you think about specific things, or to make you feel certain things. Most (but not all!) artistic work strives to elicit empathy, and empathy is one of those muscles that needs to be exercised regularly for the development of healthy communities.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors are absolutely essential!
Sincerely, I could never have made a single artistic product without the help of editors and outside readers. The editor of This Is How It Is did an incredible job of finding the connections between all of these poems from almost a decade of my life and shining a light on them for me. When I write I am too close to the work to really know what's going on for the reader, and I love and require outside input.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Djanet Sears once said that if you can steal one minute a day, write one sentence a day, eventually you'll have a whole work. She didn't say that to me but it's in a video and it's awesome.
The best piece of advice that I received directly was from a casting director, and I'm paraphrasing here, but she said "when you get a part, it's because you were perfect for it; when you don't get a part it's because somebody else was perfect for it." Being an artist of any kind involves quite a lot of rejection, and you have to be able to bear it. Receiving rejection as somebody else's success, rather than my own failure, has been invaluable to me.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to storytelling to theatre)? What do you see as the appeal?
I've never really thought about it. I didn't stop being a theatre artist to be a poet... I'm all those things at once. I think they're all facets of the same practice. I'm just telling the stories in the medium that they come out of me.
There's certainly some truth in the idea of spending ten thousand hours working on something to become an expert, and it's vital for the world to have neurosurgeons and concert violinists, but that's not who I am. I get bored easily, and I'm always looking for the next project, so it's good for me to shake things up in terms of what I do every day. Like many things, routine is only helpful to me in moderation.
Connecting to a live audience is exciting, and so is working in rehearsal to bring the best performance out of a cast of actors. So is finding that perfect turn of phrase to express that intangible thing. I love all of it. Why would I pick one?
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 could never even begin to define a 'typical' day. Life when I'm working full-time in theatre is very different from my current (pandemic-impacted) life as a grad student, which is different again from the long swaths of my life when I'm working on three or four part-time arts contracts and spending the day running from meeting to meeting, sending emails from my phone in between. To be clear, this is how I like to live my life - with a different twist every now and then - but it does make a steady routine pretty impossible.
When I'm 'behaving myself', I will find 5-20 minutes every day to write something down, without any pressure to make it good. I just add it to the checklist of stuff I plan to do in a day and I sit down to do it whenever there's an appropriate window. The periods when I've most successfully maintained that practice have been while travelling or on tour, during the runs of shows I'm working on (not the rehearsal part, the show-once-a-day part), and when I'm desperately underemployed. Early pandemic saw a near-unprecedented run of daily writing until I started coursework for grad school and abruptly stopped having any spare brain cells.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
In terms of the 'what if I'm empty??' feeling that precedes a writing practice exercise, if I'm really stuck I'll grab any book nearby and flip through it until I find a phrase I can latch onto, and then I'll copy it down and build off of it. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time just staring out the window.
In the context of having a specific piece that I just can't seem to push forward, I'll generally throw it in a drawer for a few months and come back to it later. It's incredible what you can do with fresh eyes and a bit of distance, and if I stop caring about the project in the interim, that's probably a sign I should abandon it. If I don't care, why should anyone else?
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
This is a surprisingly complicated question. Where is home?
OK, here is one each for the various places that hold that title: cut grass, ocean, woodsmoke.
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?
Yes, all of the above, and the intangible stuff that connects them together. I'll add theatre to that list, for obvious reasons.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
It seems glib, but... William Shakespeare. Without that dude I would probably be a chemist or something. Also, an eclectic bunch of folks: Jane Urquhart, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Ondaatje, Tanya Huff, Timothy Findley, Norton Juster, Neil Gaiman, Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
A book tour!
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 come from a science family. My mother taught math & science, my father was an engineer, I have two close relatives who have PhDs in physics and chemistry, and I had an aptitude for math as a kid. So it'd probably be something in that area. I could've been evaluating the carbon emissions on worksites or something (this is a real thing that one of those PhDs really does for a living, and is the most specific science-related job I can think of right now... and I'm not even 100% sure that I've described it correctly).
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I do lots of other things, as discussed above! If I was exclusively a writer I wouldn't eat very much. I just keep writing though. It never goes away.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I really loved Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Honorable mention to John Green's Turtles All the Way Down, the audiobook of which made me ugly cry in my garden on a beautiful day last summer.
It's been an eon since I last saw a new film, so I have to reach back a few years, but Hidden Figures gets a couple of viewings a year in this house. It's so good.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A PhD English (har har). I also have a playwriting project in the works - it's a contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;