Mary Fairhurst Breen grew up in the suburbs of Toronto and raised her kids in an artsy, slightly gritty part of the city. A translator by training, she spent thirty years in the not-for-profit sector, managing small organizations with big social-change mandates. She also launched her own arts business, indulging her passion for hand-making, which was a colossally enjoyable and unprofitable venture. Its demise gave her the time and impetus to write her family history for her daughters. She began to publish autobiographical stories, and wound up with her first book, Any Kind of Luck at All.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Any Kind of Luck at All is my first book. It comes out in October [ed. note: this interview was conducted in mid-2021], so I can only hope that it does what I want it to do, namely to contribute to the destigmatization of mental illness and addiction by telling the stories of my family members in all their complexity. Writing it has already changed me a great deal, because it was only through the long process of retracing my steps on paper that I was able to see patterns, figure out why events transpired as they did, and begin to forge a way forward with more compassion for the many people in my life whose choices seem regrettable, including myself.
2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?
I’m creative but perhaps not as imaginative as I once was. I’m very practical. So for me, non-fiction makes sense. I have an insatiable curiosity about how other people live, so I love to read biographies and autobiographies (and watch documentaries). I can escape into a novel, but I don’t know if I could write one.
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?
Forgive the imagery, but the first very raw draft of this book spewed out of me over the course of a week, 7 years ago now. Then it sat and waited for me to be ready to write it properly. It came apart into separate stories, then back together again to form a whole. It went through multiple edits until I thought it might be something, then another overhaul after the most devastating loss of my life changed the narrative and, to some degree, the purpose of making it public.
By contrast, when I write an article for publication, I am fast. I know what I want to say, and so far I have enjoyed a rapid flow of words. I always let the piece sit for a while though, because improvements inevitably come to me at random moments in the days or weeks following the first draft’s completion.
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?
With this book, I had no idea what I was writing when I began. I only anticipated an audience of my own family members. As I am a (rather old) emerging writer, this is my first published work apart from a few magazine and newspaper articles and a radio essay. My next book, for young readers, has a fairly precise format that I had to think up in order to apply for arts funding.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I guess I’ll find out as pandemic restrictions lift! I always get a lot out of hearing authors read, and I am very fond of storytelling and the spoken word, so I will prepare by reading aloud to myself to identify passages that I think I can “perform” well. I have always enjoyed public speaking, though reading from this book will be emotionally draining because it’s about my life. I think I’ll choose excerpts that my editor calls “chipper.”
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?
Because this book is a memoir, and my other published pieces have also been autobiographical, my main concern is honesty. Memory is an exceedingly tricky thing, and I know I can only portray the past as I experienced and remember it, which will not match how others perceived or recall the same events. I always try to make it clear that my position and privilege as a white, formerly middle-class Canadian settler impact every aspect of my life and give me a great deal of protection, regardless of how much pain I may feel. I have resources others do not, and especially in this time of (overdue) reckoning, I think it’s critical to examine what that means.
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 role of the writer has never been as important as it is now, in the information/disinformation age. It may be harder to discern what to read, but it’s vital for a society in such flux and turmoil to have access to intelligent and diverse voices, expressed through every artistic medium. Future generations (hoping there are some) will need today’s writers to reflect and interpret what the hell was going on in the world in the first decades of this millennium.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Let me state unequivocally that I love my editor at Second Story Press. And my experience working with newspaper, magazine and radio editors has been nothing but positive. These are the people who will save you from terrible embarrassment.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
You should stop using the word should when making decisions (my mother). Always leave a party when you’re still having a good time (also my mother). I think this second one applies to a good many relationships, jobs and other endeavours too.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
The next year will present my first opportunity (and obligation) to dedicate time to writing. I am a morning person, and very disciplined (if not a bit rigid), so I look forward to the luxury of writing daily for the first time in my life.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I give it a time out. I walk away from it and let it think about how uncooperative it has been, then come back to it when it’s ready to behave.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The scent of my mother’s face powder was a comforting fragrance from my original home, and it lingered on her things for a long time after she died. The scent of the homes I have made is fresh baking.
13 - 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?
Everything influences my work, from podcasts to theatre to visual art. Stand-up comedy too - I’ve done it and I think it’s an underrated art form. A comedian has to deliver the goods with a minimum of words, and my objective is to do the same.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read a lot of Canadian books, with a particular focus of late on Indigenous writers. I really appreciate the way Thomas King, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Eden Robinson, among many others, slip humour so gracefully and generously into difficult subject matter. It’s what I try to do in my writing, and as my main tactic for staying sane. I am a huge fan of Emma Donoghue, David Chariandy, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Barbara Kingsolver… A saving grace of the pandemic was all the extra reading time.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Nearly everything! Cross Canada in an RV, swim with dolphins, visit Iceland. And also smash the patriarchy.
16 - 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 a degree in translation but didn’t use it, and I think I might have succeeded as a literary translator. I would have made a good radio producer, perhaps. Instead, I worked most of my life in the nonprofit sector, and am just now, at the age of 58, embarking on a writing career. It may be 4 pm, but there is plenty of day left.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I did something else until I ran out of things to do for money, and then I wrote about that.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: How to Pronounce Knife. Film: Nomadland.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I have a picture book coming out this fall with Anchorless Press, inspired by the last year spent caring for my two-year old granddaughter. I did the story and artwork. My next project (funded by the Canada Council, whoopee!) is to write the first in a series of biographies for children ages 8 - 12. It will be based on oral history interviews with all kinds of Canadian women who have done fascinating things.
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