Michelle Berry is the author of three books of short stories and five previous novels. Her short story collection I Still Don’t Even Know You won the 2011 Mary Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher and was shortlisted for a 2011 ReLit Award, and her novel This Book Will Not Save Your Life won the 2010 Colophon Award and was longlisted for the 2011 ReLit Award. her writing has been optioned for film and published in the UK.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, a book of stories called, How to Get There from Here, changed my life because it made me suddenly feel like a real writer. I had published quite a few short stories before the actual book but holding a compilation of my stories in book form with my name on the cover was astonishing to me. I thought everyone would finally realize that I was a writer. I would be able to tell people what I do by referring to “the book.” And I thought that would give me more drive to write. I felt this way for quite a few of the next books that were published too – each book confirmed writer status, I guess-- but I would say that at this point the joy, the feeling of success, the wonder at the creation of a book is more about the process and less about the actual object. This book feels good because of the years I spent writing it, editing it, thinking about it. Because of the support of the background people -- the editors, publishers, publicists, etc.. Seeing it on publication day, in my hands, feels amazing, but it’s definitely not what defines my writing. What defines my writing and me as a writer is the process of actually writing.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Some people are extremely talented and can write in all different forms -- but I can’t. I’ve tried writing a kids’ book. I tried poetry when I was younger. And I realize I don’t have any talent when it comes to those things. I think that in order to write a novel or stories you have to be obsessed with novels and stories, you have to read them, study them, understand the techniques that go into writing them -- what works, what doesn’t work. I have spent all my adult life doing that for novels and stories -- I’m not sure how I would have the time to study poetry, non-fiction and kids’ books too. I would love to write some sort of memoir, but I realize that I would need a few years of studying the form of memoir before I could make a serious attempt at that. Maybe a fictional memoir would work?
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?
The answer to this depends on what project you are talking about. Sometimes things start with a bang, sometimes things move slow as a slug. I usually start with a sentence and, actually, try not to start with an idea or theme. I just put one sentence down and see where it takes me. If that sentence works and creates a scene in my head, I might finish a book -- if it doesn’t, I move on. I usually get to about page 100 and then I do my outline. This is when I finally figure out what the book is about. I do outlines in different ways -- sometimes with sticky note timelines and a corkboard, sometimes just dot-notes on a sheet of paper beside me, sometimes a white board full of photographs and lines connecting everything, sometimes nothing if I can keep everything together in my head (which is usually not the case). First drafts are often close to their final shape (or final until an editor gets hold of it) because I edit copiously as I write. If I’m starting on chapter three one day, for example, I’ll start again at chapter one and continue until I get to chapter three and then move a bit forward from there. It’s a slow process.
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?
Again, it depends on what project I’m working on. Interference started as a bunch of short stories that I then pushed together with segues and it then morphed into a novel. But usually, I am either writing short stories or a novel, not both. And I tend to write in one long line and then during the editing process move things around and play with structure. I guess I think of my writing as some sort of pottery: start with a lump of clay and then pull that into something that looks a bit like the object it’s supposed to look like, and then shape it, twist it, mold it, score it, glaze it, fire it, etc.. and hope it comes out looking good. This is the same for stories and novels with me.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings when I’m actually doing them. But I tend to get nervous and stressed before I do them, so the lead up is horrible. And I do have to say that when I’m done doing public events, I always overthink what has happened and only notice the things I’ve said that didn’t make sense. Public events are counter to the creative process for me because they make me stressed, but they are also part of the creative process because when I talk to people who read my work it makes me both confident and humbled. Readers also make you understand your work, which is a fabulous thing. So, it’s a love/hate relationship, I guess.
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?
Hard question. I guess I’m trying to think about human relationships and how people communicate with each other and how we try to live. I guess I’m thinking of pain and sadness and happiness and love. The current questions in the world today are massive, I can’t even begin to tackle those, but I hope my characters are portraying ways of thinking and ways of living that make a reader think about and connect to the world I’ve created. I’m studying human life in my writing, I guess, and trying not to preach, just trying to show.
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?
A writer should be open to things and should be watching the world around her. Our role should be to raise discussion, I guess. To make people think. To make readers empathetic to other ways of life.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Absolutely. An editor is the only one who knows your work as well as you do and can push you to make it the best possible creation. I’ve been very lucky with editors. They don’t seem to be pushy, which is amazing, they are like therapists -- the sounding board. They suggest changes that always make my work better. Jen Sookfong Lee and Paul Vermeersch at Wolsak and Wynn have been incredible. Paul fixed the opening for Prisoner and Chaplain, gave me suggestions to make it punchy and alive. Jen Sookfong Lee suggested so many things for Everything Turns Away – to tighten it, structure it better, give some characters more depth or loosen up on some characters. Editors are the gods of the publishing industry.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Funny, I would say the best writing advice I’ve been given has actually come from me – ha ha – I probably heard this somewhere but I can’t remember so I’m taking credit for it. When you are stuck somewhere in your novel, print the entire thing out and transcribe it from the beginning again – just type it all out again – and as you do that, edit it, add to it, delete parts of it, etc.. Physically write the novel again and again. This works for me, maybe not for others, and has helped me when I’m stuck and feeling like giving up. It’s the process of actually using your fingers, doing physical “labour” (typing) that helps you feel like you are working again and helps move you forward with your work.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
I can move between those genres quite easily. I feel that I know the structures of novels and stories so well now that I know when I’m writing one or the other. I can feel it in the arc of the piece I’m writing, in the character development, in the plot -- where is the climax? Are the characters slowly or quickly fleshed out? I don’t think I’ve ever been writing a short story that became a novel or a novel that became a short story. It’s one or the other once I’ve started.
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?
Because I was running my bookstore for 5 years and not writing, I had no routine for a while. But now I’m that I’m free of the store I try to write a bit every day. Usually I need peace and quiet in the house, maybe some low volume music on, and all my chores done (which never happens!). I also like to be alone in the house and, with COVID-19, that has been impossible. I used to have more of a routine when I was just teaching online and writing. I had days of the week that I would focus on writing. But everything has been so up in the air for 5 years now (and because of COVID-19) that my routine has gone out the window. I do a lot of creating in bed at night staring at the ceiling fan. I’m too lazy to write things down so I tend to forget most of what I’ve imagined, but probably some of it sticks.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading. Definitely. When I can’t write, I read. And when I find a book that inspires me and makes me remember why I want to write, then I start writing again. Lately this has been happening with good TV programs too -- limited serials that have brilliant writing and can make me jump up and start working again.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Coffee. My parents always have a cappuccino in the morning and an espresso in the afternoon and our house always smelled like coffee. It’s a lovely smell.
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 think books come from everything around me. Exercise, cooking, music (for sure!) and visual art. I think writing comes from moving your furniture around, from travelling, from drinking a beer. Books come from your pandemic puppy trying to catch a butterfly. The whole world is books and books are the whole world.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Way too many to count. I have been so lucky in my life to know many many writers. They all inspire and influence and encourage me in so many ways. Their writing has brought me pleasure and awe. My colleagues never cease to amaze me. And the writers I don’t know, the ones I only know through words on a page, have helped me find a reason for my work.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Everything. I haven’t done enough in the world, in my life. I’m constantly mad at myself for not taking advantage of my position in the world. I’d like to travel more. I’d like to help people. I’d like to listen more. I’d like to just be a better person.
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 can’t imagine picking anything else. I have tried retail (owning my bookstore) and there are parts of it I loved, but a lot of it was just not me and really put a damper on my creativity and my time. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a vet or a doctor -- but my brain is not very good at retaining scientific information so that didn’t work. I did temp work all through university and didn’t like it at all. I’ve taught for many years, of course. I’m just glad that I can be a writer right now. I can’t imagine what else I could be.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wasn’t good at anything else and once I started taking writing seriously, I realized that I wanted to do nothing else.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey and Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Not film, but TV, The White Lotus, Somebody, Somewhere.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A new novel. And I’m messing around with stories that have a bit to do with the pandemic -- not sure where they are going, but we’ll see.