James Scoles is the author of The Trailer. He holds degrees from Arizona State, North Dakota & Southern Illinois Universities & he has lived, traveled & worked in over 90 countries. His poem “The Trailer” won the 2013 CBC PoetryPrize & his short stories are featured in Coming Attractions 13 (Oberon Press) & his writing has been nominated for The Journey Prize, the Pushcart Prize & both the Western & National Magazine Awards. He lives in Winnipeg, where he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Winnipeg & also helps run a small, 120-year-old family farm.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
If you write, any publication changes your life a little bit & my first book was a beautiful little chapbook (Coming Attractions 13, Oberon Press) featuring my short stories & it was exhilarating & unbelievably satisfying. Several publishers were interested in my story manuscripts but Coming Attractions series (and Fiddlehead) editor Mark Anthony Jarman had rejected enough of my work over the years to have confidence in me, strangely enough. Publishers were also interested in rejecting my poetry over the years, but my first full-length poetry collection—The Trailer—was submitted, accepted & published within a year & surprised the hell out of me. Immediately, it put me on a stage I’d only dreamed of being on. It was disheartening not to be able to launch in-person & tour The Trailer, but it still feels magical to see a dream come true.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I fell in love with language & poetry at an early age & have never lost that love. I was encouraged by my mother, who read to me from the womb onward. She read voraciously all her life & a huge variety of books. She bought me books that opened my mind to that creative world of words & imagination. I’ve always felt that poetry is the most efficient, intimate road between writer & reader, words & wonder, sound & the page.
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?
Not that I’m any good at it, but at this stage I can write at will, when I need to, under deadline, etc. & when it comes to poetry & fiction & memoir, each beautiful idea can fly or fester off the hop. I can sit down & start & finish a poem or story in a single sitting & I can also find myself ‘wallowing in complexity’ for a while, drafting, starting and stopping, seeking the right voice or tense. I have whole shelves full of chapters, drafts of novels in one tense, another with the tense & voice altered; poems on one page in free verse while on the opposing page I’m trying to force it into a sonnet, etc. Over the course of my life I have had many ‘inner-mad-scientists’ that love the craft & writing & playing with words so much that the end-product isn’t the aim—it’s about the journey, not arriving. That said, if you want to make a living or 'part of your living’ (as I like to think of things), you need to focus. Sue Goyette talks about being able to ‘start at the seventh draft’ & that’s what I try to aim for, even if some pieces are perfect first drafts on a bar napkin or take years to make their public appearances.
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 writing process varies between projects & because I tend to write for myself first & foremost, my projects have a personal connection & importance, so I take the work very seriously—like a job that needs to be done. With poems I’m seldom thinking ‘book’ as I write them, except a little more so now that I have a book out there.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I tell my students & truly believe that reading poetry aloud changes the world. With that sort of pressure I love doing readings & wish there were more opportunities.
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?
When I write, I’m always just trying to write, to get it down, do the work & understand something about the world in me & around me or tell a story, express some emotion & try to not consider my creative work in a theoretical way.
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 writer’s role is to explore the important questions in our world, those to do with our climate & environment, human rights & identity, race, family & relationships & we have a responsibility as communicators to consider those questions as we try to entertain, inform & persuade in our creative work. In this world where people can instantly ‘publish’ their words to a worldwide audience we must be held constantly accountable for the ideas we share.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
With the amount of rejection I’ve had, I could say my work with editors over the years has been absolutely disastrous. But I’ve been blessed to have had only wonderful experiences with the editors I’ve been given the opportunity to work with & I just had an incredible experience working with Clarise Foster (The Trailer would not be The Trailer without her).
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I taught creative writing for a short time in a women’s prison in Arizona & the university was hosting Adrienne Rich for a reading & lecture & we invited her to come to the prison & she actually agreed to visit my class. As the two of us were walking through the yard, I decided to ask a master for advice. I told her that I had no problem writing lots every day, just a hard time revising my work & she grabbed my arm & pulled me in close & looked me in the eye & said: You have to revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. That’s where the art is in writing: revision.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s easy for me to move between genres, especially when I change my special hats that I wear: my fiction-hat is an Irish flat cap & of course the poet-cap is a jaunty beat-up beret. Actually, I tend to focus on one genre in a writing session. It might be poetry in a morning session, then work on a short story or novel in the afternoon, or vice versa. I’ve always challenged myself to work on & explore different forms & genres (my non-fiction-cap is a crooked old Captain’s hat). The appeal is the range of speakers, voices, characters, narratives, soundscapes & settings (among so many more literary elements) you get to play with when you blend writing with feeling, imagination & action.
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?
Early morning sessions work best for me, when the world is mostly asleep & there’s a deeper silence to the day. Cinnamon coffee & focus: pen on paper, even if it begins with a to-do list for the day (that always includes writing time). Then I dive into whatever project is on that list until I can at least partly check that off. That moment satisfies my deep desire to create & satisfies it early. To be able to keep listing & checking that ‘writing time’ off as much as possible throughout the mornings, days, weeks & months is the aim & I’ve worked hard to cultivate a worth ethic that I can adapt to different settings & times of day, depending upon the deadline or the project. Sometimes, if I’m miraculously-able to have a short nap, I can ‘trick’ myself into believing I’m into another ‘morning’ session & have a really good burst. The process can be fun, at times, but it’s 95% work the rest of the time for me. As one ‘successful’ writer told me once: Making a living as a writer isn’t all fields of daffodils & daisies & sunshine once you get there. Always lingering is that dark, spider-filled shit-house without any paper.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Outside of a good, long sit in a spider-filled shit-house, usually a long walk will snap me back. I also know I can always return to my teachers—the great writers on my bookshelves that I look up to & still learn from. I can take down a collection or novel or biography & open in up & read & get inspired & be reminded that everyone fights their fight. My mother also painted me some simple little sayings on boards that line my book shelves & desk & remind me to: Dare to dream! Keep Focused! Stay Strong! Never Give Up! & Believe!
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Childhood home: Old Spice, Chanel No. 5 & fresh muffins, baby! Old family cottage: crackling fires, wet bathing suits, du Maurier cigarettes, Old Vienna beer, sawdust & the acrid smell of someone ‘getting a perm.'
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?
Music, for sure, especially whatever I’m listening to as I write—I’ll often loop a song or put a certain album on repeat. I sometimes have a sort of soundtrack playing in my head as I write; especially with fiction, for some reason. I’m also a huge fan of silence & nature & natural soundscapes—early mornings, my cabin on our old family farm, long walks under the elms & in the back alleys of Winnipeg.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have a deep respect & admiration for a lot of Irish & Northern Irish writers & poets—from Patrick Kavanagh to Yeats, Heaney to Wilde, Joyce to Behan, Longley to Muldoon & poet-fighters like Bobby Sands. People who have persevered, writers that made me want to write in the first place, who lived ‘full’ lives, stood up for what they believed in & never stopped dancing with their dreams.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In no special order: travel two continents I haven’t been to (Antarctica & South America), publish a travel memoir, short story collection & novel (then repeat); become the eleventh poet in space; find lots more dimes.
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?
As a writer, I love teaching writing & literature, but having worked at various occupations & attempted (not-so-admirably) others, it’s a clear toss-up between five: carpenter, cosmonaut, dime-finder, professional golf caddy & dentist. I love working with wood & the idea of letting ten poets forge a path into space before me (plus cosmonauts are allowed to drink en route); dimes find me, I don’t even have to look; caddies have far less pressure, carry the weed & have full access to the world of leprechauns & I’d only do dental work on myself & leprechauns.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Those same former teachers, bosses, bullies, lovers, leprechauns & the like all made me write, for various reasons. It started with poetry & a journal that became a daily habit of not only having a conversation with myself, but with creativity itself. Getting out the ‘complaints’ & ‘passions’ & deep emotions, or exploring a surface-level issue or relationship is part of wanting to write. Playing with form & structure. Understanding that a story wants & needs to be told, whether it be in my journal or a poem. Reading definitely made me write, as well as the idea of storytelling, getting a reaction or especially a laugh was something I really enjoyed—the opportunities to do that on the page seemed open & endless to me & I went to work writing in every genre I could (poetry, short stories, novels, screenplays & travel writing), regardless of the outcome.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Burning in this Midnight Dream, by Louise Halfe. Her history & journey—the stories & trauma of her experiences in & out of residential school—is real & raw & inspiring & we can all learn so much from her. I’m teaching her collection in a course & want my students to deeply consider how history & language shape us.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A trilogy of Irish novels based on my Irish family history & a card game (Spit in the Ocean) set in 1840s Ireland, a travel poetry collection (The Stone Roses of Sarajevo), a collection of short stories (The Electricity of Crime) & a travel memoir (Around the World in 800 Days).