Sunday, July 24, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Emma Côté

Emma Côté [photo credit: Tess Marie Garneau] is from a small town in Northern Ontario, where the winters were long but the books were aplenty. As a result, she went on to study journalism, English literature and creative writing and most recently completed a postgraduate certificate in publishing. When Emma isn’t re-reading or re-writing a novel, she can be found taking walks in the forest and asking people if she can pet their dog. Unrest is her debut novel.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The first book I wrote was when I was a little girl, which was some sort of Beauty and the Beast fanfiction. But I think I’ve been obsessed with writing ever since. I remember writing it out by hand on that paper that had perforated edges on both sides, and then ‘illustrating’ it as well.

Once I decided I wanted to work toward being a full-time author, I started reading about writing and learning about the craft and then I studied English literature and creative writing in school. But I didn’t finish the first draft of what I think of as my first novel, Green, until about three years ago. It changed my life in that I finally knew I could actually finish a complete draft. That is the hardest part, in my opinion. That first draft can really be like pulling teeth. It took me seven years to finish that draft and there were times I truly thought it would never get done.

So my most recent novel is vastly different in that I wrote the novel in three days as part of
Anvil Press’ 3-day novel contest.  With the contest, you’re kind of banking on getting into a flow state and some point, and putting all your fears and self judgement and criticisms aside. Tons of people participate every year and think of it as this sacred time dedicated to writing that just doesn’t happen the rest of the year. I’m so glad I got involved with the community, even though the process was completely foreign and uncomfortable for me. What do you mean I don’t have time to agonize about every word?

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

Technically in a professional sense, I came to non-fiction first, as I worked as a journalist for a number of years. But fiction will always be my first love. I love that you can pull from real life, while letting your imagination run wild at the same time. The possibilities are endless.

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 get an idea quickly; something that I see or hear on social media will make me think of a character, storyline or starting point. But then I will file it away and start compiling notes for a while. It’s an incredibly slow process and my first draft almost always looks vastly different than subsequent drafts. With the current novel I’m working on, I ended up inventing a completely different backstory and am now going back in and doing a full rewrite with that backstory in mind.

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?

It usually begins with the spark of an idea. Like a grotesque image that I hear about when I’m watching the news. Or when I’m told about a place that sounds like it’s begging to be a particular setting. But I never combine pieces into something longer. I rarely write shorter pieces. I seem to gravitate toward novel writing because I really enjoy fully developed story arcs and the space to explore them.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

It really depends on the day. Sometimes I’m feeling more extroverted and love the idea of doing a reading, especially if it’s in a natural setting. But sometimes the thought of being up in front of people is slightly terrifying. I do think that readings can be really beneficial to give a reader a glimpse of the author’s writing and how they interact with it personally. If you’re like me, you’re usually dying to know what an author was thinking and feeling while they wrote something. So I feel like public readings allow you a little hint at that, depending on how the author delivers the lines.

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 do think about life, death and dying quite a bit, so I think my work deals with those themes fairly often. I suppose I’m not trying to answer any questions, so much as asking them and considering multiple answers. Some of the questions I grapple with are:

What happens when we die?

What makes a life well lived?

What is important to leave behind?

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?

I see the current role of a writer as being a storyteller, no matter what form or medium they choose. There’s a reason storytelling is such an ancient artform; it’s how we learn about and come to understand the world. Stories are vital to our development, to help preserve culture, and prevent atrocities from being repeated. They can be a jumping off point to facilitate difficult discussions. Stories are everything and anything we need them to be, but they are only one step, often the first.

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

My process with an editor so far has been nothing but essential. I do know other authors that have had a difficult time, of course. It’s always challenging to have something you’ve worked on tirelessly be questioned and changed. But at the end of the day, publishing is both an art and a business, and an editor knows what will sell. Though if they’ve agreed to publish your work, it’s very likely that they see the value of it in its current form, and don’t have evil plans to change it drastically. It’s a delicate balance that needs to be hit between preserving the author’s vision of the work, and making sure it sells enough copies that the author can continue writing. I suppose it’s more vital to make sure you’re working with an editor you can trust to strike that balance.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

The best piece of advice for writers will always be, ‘If you want to write, read,’ which has been said so many times by so many prolific writers it’s impossible to use direct quotes.

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?

I wish I was disciplined enough to keep a strict routine. I do have a full time job now, so I try to set some time aside in the mornings a few times a week to get some words down. But early, early mornings—sometimes without even getting out of bed—will always be the ideal time for me.

My typical routine consists of getting up whenever my dog licks me in the face, followed by drinking coffee and doing some reading. Right now I’m making my way through S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, which is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It feels more like dissecting a piece of experimental art than reading. If you haven’t heard of this book, I highly recommend looking it up.

After that I’ll try to squeeze in something writing related, even if that just means researching or compiling notes.

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

In Journalism school my teacher said that writer’s block could be cured by chopping wood. (?) By which I think he just meant do something else, anything else, preferably physical. So I’ll often jump on my spin bike now and put on one of the classes where they really yell at you. 

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The smell of a campfire. I grew up going on canoe trips with my family, so anytime I get a whiff of woodsmoke I instantly feel comforted and relaxed.

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?

Definitely nature. My stories always have a strong connection to the environment. I worked as a sea kayak guide for many years, so that makes its way into my stories as well. I love any work that is described as atmospheric, where the characters spend a fair bit of time outside, either contending with or being a part of their surroundings. 

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

I’m a huge supporter of other Canadian authors who write Canadiana; Mary Lawson (who is also a self-proclaimed slow writer, by the way) Elizabeth St John Mandel, Madeleine Thien, Elizabeth Hay, Miriam Toews, Margaret Atwood.

As for my life outside my work, I also really love reading self-development titles, written by professionals in their field. Like Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach for instance, because I think having a growth mindset is important. Allowing ourselves to be open to learning new ways of thinking prevents us from stagnating and becoming jilted when things ultimately shift around us. 

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

I would like to travel some more! I’m very lucky to have had the chance to live in a number of countries thus far, but I hope to see more of the world.

Another dream of mine is to get my dog, Fable, registered as a therapy dog and take her to long-term-care facilities to visit the residents. I didn’t get to spend much time with any of my own grandparents before they died, unfortunately. And I think it’s just as important to hear the stories of seniors as it is to hear the stories of published authors. Quite literally, everyone has a story to tell. It’s impossible to get through life without one. I think it’d be great to hear some from people who might feel like very few people are willing to listen.

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?

In 2019 I was working in Cambodia as an English Language Arts teacher. My plan was to continue down that path and teach in different countries around the world. But as time went on I found that I was more drawn to the texts themselves than I was to talking about them in a classroom. I made the decision to come back to Canada and attend a post-graduate publishing program in Toronto. Now, I work for a not-for-profit that helps Canadian independent publishers create and sell their digital books. We also do a lot of work in the accessible publishing space and that has been rewarding and meaningful work.

I’ll also add that having a full-time job allows me the space to write. For a time I lived in Costa Rica and tried to work solely as a freelance writer, but the lack of stability on all fronts made it really challenging to create the space to write.

So I do feel like I was always angling toward a career in publishing, and winning the 3-day novel contest with Anvil has given me a little confidence boost to continue toward supporting myself as a full-time author one day. Though I won’t be giving up my day job anytime soon!

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

I used to say that writing was the only thing that came naturally to me. But then I started trying to write fiction, so that wasn’t really true anymore. But it does remain the only thing that I have an inexplicable drive to do. Even if I avoid it sometimes.

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

The last book that moved me to tears was Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. The way she was able to illustrate such clear arcs for each of the real life people she wrote about was astonishing. And the fact that their problems were so different, and yet so relatable was touching in a way I haven’t experienced with a book in a long time.

I don’t watch a ton of films. I prefer TV shows for the same reason I prefer novels over short stories. But my all time favourite genre-bending TV show is called The OA, which I don’t know how to talk about without spoilers, so I’ll have to leave it at that.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on the major rewrite I mentioned earlier. I’m putting myself on a strict schedule to get it done in two months so I can query it to literary agents a final time and then put it to bed if it doesn’t get picked up.

After that I’m going to switch to completing a story that I started during the 2021 3-day novel contest, but then quickly realized was getting way too complex to finish in three days. It could be described as futuristic fan fiction about an icon we all know and love.

Thanks for reading!

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