Friday, May 20, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore is the acclaimed author of the novels Caught, February, Alligator; the story collections Open and Something for Everyone; and the young-adult novel Flannery. Her books have won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and CBC’s Canada Reads, been finalists for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize and been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Lisa is also the co-librettist, along with Laura Kaminsky, of the opera February, based on her novel of the same name (2023). She lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

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 was Degrees of Nakedness, a collection of short stories published by Mercury Press. When some copies of the book arrived at my house, in a cardboard carton, wrapped in paper, I remember thinking they were wholly magical objects. Completely magical. Beverly Daurio was an amazing editor. The edits came in the mail with her handwriting on the manuscript. She was careful and exacting and generous.  All of that work, the mailing back and forth of stories, and all the writing and rewriting, so neatly contained between the covers of a book. I realized how many people make a book come together, how many people it takes to get a book out in the world. And of course, readers. Each reader makes the book come alive by reading it, a different book in each pair of hands. It was astonishing to think that someone I had never met before could read my thoughts, know my sensations – the intimacy of that. It felt supernatural. I still feel that awe – about imagining a story, the engine of the story revving up, and the transmission of it to readers. And how is the experience different now? I’m not sure it is different. I experience the same mystery about the process, the same thrill. 

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I read novels for children and young adults, and then the older stuff, for a long time all I read was fiction – Black Beauty, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Little Women, all the Judy Blume I could get my hands on, gothic romances, Franny and Zooey, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Tin Drum, Toni Morrison, the Carry-on novels about stewardesses, Love’s Tender Fury, Roots, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Thornbirds, Tolkien, CS Lewis, – I was indiscriminate. I just read whatever fell into my lap. It didn’t matter what the books were about, or when they were written, or if they were good or not, they were all excellent! As long as they were engrossing, elaborate in terms of character development, big stories with lots of landscape and if at all possible, horses galloping through, big fat doorstoppers, or slim things, like Raymond Carver’s stories  - it was the act of getting lost in them, as many as I could get my hands on – starting when I was probably 9 or 10, to really fall headlong into short stories and novels. I just love the drama of fiction, the suspension of disbelief it demands, giving over to an imagined, made-up world. And I loved writing it, even as a kid. Trying to make a story convincing. I loved that it was imagined. That I was investing in something that didn’t actually exist. 

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 usually jump right into another project as soon as the last one is done and dusted. I often start with an idea. The shape of a novel changes dramatically over the years it takes to write. I write long hand in a journal every day. I try to write scenes, things that happened the day before. I try to write the way people move, the gestures they make, the way a particular person looks when they think, when they chew, when they sleep. And if I get close to capturing a gesture, I will attribute it to a character in a novel or short story. I remember reading in an Anne Enright novel about a character washing her face, cupping water in her hands and splashing her face, and the water running up her forearms, up the sleeves of her shirt. Enright did a better job of describing it, but every time that happens to me, water running up my sleeves, I think of Anne Enright. It’s that kind of detail in writing that makes us aware of our own experience, so that we live with more attention to the sensations and feelings that make and remake us, on a daily basis, minute by minute.

I love travelling, and on a train or bus or airplane really studying the person beside me and trying to guess who they are, in the very marrow of their bones, just by the way they look and move. Often, when I speak to them, even briefly, I learn that the whole edifice I have built up around them in my imagination  - based on their perfume, whether their hair is long or short, if they fall asleep with their mouth hanging open, giving over wholly to a dream – often I learn that I was entirely wrong. That the person is not in fact a tourist who only speaks English, but is, instead, French, and has a problem with her car, and hangs up her phone without saying good-bye, and speaks emphatically, explaining to me, I have to get off at the last stop, which, she says with great solemnity that I hadn’t guessed was coming – is the end of the ride.  I love being proven wrong. But I also love it when I’ve imagined a glimmer of the truth of who a stranger might be. It reminds me, that since we are all changing, all the time, we are all, in some ways strangers to each other, and ourselves. And we have to stay attentive in order to catch even a filament of truth about our lives. But I won’t even try to think about what truth is – I’m a fiction writer! 

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 love writing short stories, because they demand you jam a whole world into a few pages. This Is How We Love grew from a short story. Usually though, a novel starts from a fragment of an idea about a character and requires scene upon scene to make that character feel alive, solid, full of bones and blood.

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. I love sharing a story with a live audience, I love the tug-of-war, pulling them into the story, or maybe losing them and pulling harder, or more softly. I love the give and take with an audience, feeling them absorb the story, maybe laugh, or get tense. It makes the story feel like a living breathing thing.

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 think about the tactility of language, how it is a material. And I think about whether the texture of the language is in the foreground or background of the drama in the story. Is the reader aware of the rhythm of the sentences, of the kind of vocabulary the narrator is using, of the distance between the narrator and the unfolding action of the story. Is the fabrication of the story laid bare for the reader, so they don’t feel duped?  And I am interested in what makes a novel or story. We crave a kind of unity, as readers. Like walking into a house where the rooms feel like they have a satisfying proportion, something almost impossible to articulate, but a size and shape that is right for the human body, that gives a sense of being held and sheltered, but provides an airiness, space enough to live a life. The shape of a story or novel is like the architecture of a house, a human scale, I sometimes think. Other times I think a story or novel has to break down all the walls of such a house, or such a shelter, and instead, make the reader uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that the things that they have held to be true must be questioned, maybe abandoned. I don’t think any of that while I’m actually writing – I just write. I probably don’t think those things even when I’m rewriting – not consciously. But later, much later, when I read other books, and when I consider things I’ve written in the past, think about the shape of the story, ask myself if the story held the reader, and also, if it sent the reader outside into the raging storm.   

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 might be able to make the reader feel deeply, question assumptions, and act with generosity. Fiction (maybe) has the ability to hone the imagination and it’s with imagination that we can hope to get ourselves out of this mess (maybe, or maybe it’s already too late? Does fiction then, prepare us for the end?). A good story makes us recognize the complexity, the brevity, the depth of our experience, and with any luck, helps us share, teaches us to love. Tall order. If fiction fails at all that, maybe it allows us to experience beauty, and I think beauty is radical. Beauty changes everything.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I have been very, very fortunate in having the very best editors in the whole world. Beverly Daurio, Martha Sharpe, Lynn Henry, Sarah MacLachlan and for the last four books, Melanie Little. They are all geniuses, as fate would have it. And also, beautiful people. I am eternally grateful to them. There have been editors at various magazines too, who have edited short stories of mine for publications. I have never had a bad experience with an editor. I am just felled by gratitude.

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 (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

I think stories come in different lengths. Some stories swoosh through in an instant, a flood of feeling, a revelation. And some cover a bigger geography. I’ve written a few novella too – and I love that length, it’s kind of a cheat, you get the best of both worlds.

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 get up at five and write then. I don’t look at email or the news until later. I reread what I’ve written – not necessarily from the day before, I can read from any part of the story or novel to re-immerse myself. I try to write without stopping for about two hours. I don’t think I should write for two hours – but when I look up from whatever I’m doing, two hours have gone by, eaten up in a millisecond. When I am working on edits I can work for hours and hours and it gets dark without my noticing. I need to walk after a two-hour stint. Walk really fast.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I read authors whose sentences feel like nobody else’s sentences. Those author’s whose voice I can hear, even though I’ve never heard them speak in real life. A paragraph or two of those authors, and I am ready to get back at it.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Orange spruce needles on the floor of a forest.

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 like to paint and draw. I’m interested in the quality and texture of the mark. I love the physical energy that goes into a drawing or painting, especially if its big and you have to stretch to cover the paper or canvas, stand on tippy toes. Or if it’s lying on the floor, walk around it.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I teach creative writing, so the work of my students is very important to me. Just the aliveness of it, and how it belongs to the moment, how they are capturing such varied representations of this time and this space. Everything fresh, new.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Grow or forage all my own food. Or…grow anything edible, just once! I’ve got some rosemary started! Wish me luck!

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?

Fashion designer.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I was obsessed with writing, for as long back as I can remember. It was always what I wanted to do.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Paul Takes The Form of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor – this is a raunchy, hilarious, stunning novel that completely upended every thought I had about gender. Film? I watched Pedro Almodovar’s Madres Paralelas recently. It is haunting.  

20 - What are you currently working on?

I just gave a talk about climate crisis and genre fiction, the use of the supernatural to make us face up to the damage we’ve done to the earth, Freud’s idea of the return of the repressed, all those fears we bury really deep, but burst back up in different forms, to overpower us, despite our best efforts to shove them back down, how ghosts in Victorian literature never wander far from whatever castle or mansion or abbey they haunt, how ghosts are chained to the place, but that global capital is unfettered and roves all over the world free of the chains of say, oil clean-up, or fair labour practices or environmental restrictions easily brushed out of the way. How oil is buried too, how it is perhaps our worst nightmare, how digging it up might haunt us forever. How oil rigs are like gothic castles, with their soaring heights, and fragile looking spires, and how they are already ghostly, because this can’t go on for much longer folks. In case it’s not immediately evident, this talk still needs work! 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;


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