Ellie Sawatzky (@elliesawatzky) grew up in Kenora, Ontario. A past winner of CV2’s Foster Poetry Prize, runner up for the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, and a finalist for the 2019 Bronwen Wallace Award, her work has been published widely in literary magazines across North America. None of This Belongs to Me is her debut full-length poetry collection, published by Nightwood Editions in October 2021. She is currently an editor for FriesenPress, a member of the Growing Room Collective, and curator of the Instagram account IMPROMPTU (@impromptuprompts), a hub for prompts and literary inspiration. She lives in Vancouver with her partner and a cat named Camus.
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 poetry collection just came out in October 2021, so it still feels so new. It’s been incredibly validating and fulfilling. It’s been wonderful to be able to share it and celebrate it and feel proud of it. It’s wonderful to receive emails from strangers who’ve read and resonated with my poems. And in another way it’s been a humbling reminder that as a writer, you just have to keep writing. On to the next project. I spent ten years writing the poems for None of This Belongs to Me, so there was a feeling, in launching it, of throwing the baby bird out of the nest. Now it’s out there; it’s flying away from me, living its own life without me, and I have to focus on the next thing.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I would argue that I came to fiction first. I drew stories before I knew how to read and write. I had this great teacher in Grade 1, Mrs. Delamere, who helped her students “publish” books. She transcribed my stories, I drew the pictures, and then she “bound” them into books. She included an “About the Author” page, and she even had a “Unicorn Publishing” stamp. It was very cute. I would say that’s when I first knew I wanted to be an author.
Then I came to poetry as an angsty teen, as so many of us do, and it stuck. No matter what genre I’m writing, though, my goal is often the same: to tell a story. A lot of my poems are narrative. My approach to writing a poem is much the same as my approach to writing a short story. I start with a landscape or character or image, and the story unfolds from there.
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?
It’s slooooooowwwwwww. So slow. It’s almost always slow. Poems can sometimes come quickly, but it’s rare. There are a couple of poems in my book that I recall writing relatively quickly (“Finlandia”, “Sun Valley Lodge”, “The Missed Connections Ad Writes Itself”). But I’m very methodical, and I edit as I go, so that slows me down. Often first drafts appear looking very close to their final shape.
I’m currently working on a novel (eep). It’s an idea I started pondering a year ago, and I only actually started writing words on a page in January of this year. But pondering is an important part of my process; I feel like I started writing words on the page when I was ready, when I had a stronger sense of intention, of the story I wanted to tell.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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 depends on what I’m writing. My poetry collection is a cumulation of poems I’ve written over ten years. Eventually I had enough individual poems that I started to think about putting them together in one manuscript. But I think the moment I first felt that my handfuls of poems could be a book was when a friend of mine, Joelle Barron, made a suggestion for the title, None of This Belongs to Me. Which is a line lifted from one of the poems in my book that I wrote about my experiences working as a nanny over the last decade. The moment that Joelle suggested that title to me was the moment that I started to see my poems—which previously had felt like very disparate scraps of my experience—forming a narrative and becoming something like a book, and that inspired me to write more.
I wrote a short story collection for my MFA thesis, and that was a very similar kind of experience, of gathering together individual stories. But writing a novel, the kind of writing I’m doing now, is, of course, completely different. Thus far, it’s taken more planning, more forethought, more consideration of its trajectory as a book than any of my previous projects.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I have the stage fright, like anyone, but it gets easier every time I do it, and I love interacting with an audience, gauging how my work is received, what people find funny or profound. Or maybe it falls flat—that happens too. I find it changes my relationship with the piece; it gives me a better understanding of how it’s working.
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?
The poems in None of This Belongs to Me ask some big questions that I feel are pertinent to the current cultural moment. How do we heal? How do we move forward in blind faith? How do we give and receive care? How do we find compassion for each other when our perspectives are so different? In what ways do we both nurture and harm each other and our environment? What is inherited from previous generations? How have I become the woman I am today, based on what I’ve observed, learned, inherited from the women in my lineage? These are all questions I try to answer in my work. There’s a lot of crossover into my fiction as well.
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?
For me, both reading and writing are processes of making sense of the world around me, synthesizing the information of the world, which is done through feeling. I think it’s all about feeling. Both reading and writing are practices in going inwards, feeling into oneself, seeking the truth, or truths, of our experiences.
But on a more superficial level, I think the role of the writer should be to entertain. To make people laugh. To tell a good story. To take readers on an adventure. To provide an opportunity for escape.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I was once given some great advice by Ken Babstock. He was my poetry instructor at UBC at the time. I had written a poem (“This Little Girl Goes to Burning Man”) that was inspired, in its form, by one of his poems (“Carrying Someone Else’s Infant Past a Cow in a Field Near Marmora, Ont.). Rob Taylor recently did me a solid and came up with a name for this form: “shrinking quatrains.” In a discussion about my poem, Ken told me that if I found that a particular form or shape really worked for me—i.e. shrinking quatrains—to write more poems in that shape. Which I did. I wrote “Crystals” after that, and then “Kenora, Unorganized.” I’m often concerned about hitting the same note too many times in my writing, but that piece of advice from Ken encouraged me to work within structures that feel good for me.
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 not easy for me to write in more than one genre in a period of time. I had to, during my UBC Creative Writing days, which was a good challenge for me. But I tend to be in either a fiction-writing phase or a poetry-writing phase. My last poetry-writing phase lasted five years, and now I’m back to writing fiction.
In poetry, often I’m confronting the hard truths of my life, which can be very appealing or very unappealing, depending on where I’m at. Fiction, right now, feels like a bit of an escape into someone else’s life, into my characters’ struggles and triumphs. It also feels like a bit of an escape into a pandemic-free world, which is very, very appealing at the moment.
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?
Routines are good for me, but I’ve struggled in the past to keep one. I work from home as an editor for FriesenPress, so I get to make my own schedule. In January I started a new routine: I wake up and write. Sometimes I write in bed. Sometimes I write at my desk. Sometimes I write for one hour, sometimes four or five. When I’m done writing, I take a break and transition—usually by doing yoga or going for a walk. Then I get into my FriesenPress work, and I edit until dinnertime. I recently got a BC Arts Council grant for my novel, so I’m going to be taking a little sabbatical from FriesenPress and spend full days writing, which I’m very much looking forward to.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading a good book or a good poem often does the trick. Or I free write or write from prompts. I love prompt writing. I curate an Instagram account, IMPROMPTU (@impromptuprompts), a hub for literary inspiration and writing prompts. I find, also, that talking about the project with a writer friend helps me to work through whatever it is that’s stalling me.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
Yes, all of the above. Anything and everything can inspire my work. My poem “Chihuly’s Mille Fiori” was inspired by the glass sculptor Chihuly’s exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal in 2013. I have another poem “Spotify My Body” that’s a cento, a poem made up entirely of song titles. “The Falling Man” came to me while I was scrolling through Google images randomly, looking at pictures of “The Falling Man” from 9/11 for no particular reason (as one does). The idea for my novel came to me while having a beach fire in Robert’s Creek on the Sunshine Coast, looking through the lit windows of the cabin behind me.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I did my BFA and MFA at UBC. The friends, colleagues, teachers, and mentors I met during that time have been boundlessly important to my life and my work. This includes—but is not limited to—Rhea Tregebov, Nancy Lee, and Keith Maillard. Also Erin Kirsh, Joelle Barron, Erin Stainsby, Cara Kauhane, Reece Cochrane, Kyla Jamieson, Alessandra Naccarato, and Selina Boan.
I also met my partner, Adrick Brock, in the Creative Writing program (though we didn’t start dating until many years later). We’re both currently working on novels, and we’re at similar stages. A few weeks back, we workshopped each other’s outlines. It’s wonderful to be able to talk through our projects and to share new work. The creative energy in our house is very motivating. There’s also a light implication of competition. He’s a Virgo, type A, and very diligent, whereas I’m a Gemini, often hopelessly adrift, but his focus inspires me to be more focused.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
This is not writing-related, but I’d like to buy a house in Greece.
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 think I would have been a musician if writing hadn’t taken me by the hand. I’m not sure what kind of musician. A fiddler in a bluegrass band. Or a violinist in a symphony. Or a trombonist in a folk/cabaret fusion group.
Alternatively, I would have become something more practical and lucrative, like a doctor or a lawyer. To fund my international house-buying aspirations.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wish I knew. I feel like I didn’t have a choice. Like I said, writing took me by the hand.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently read Inside by Alix Ohlin and got totally swept up in it.
A film I enjoyed recently was Tick, Tick .. . Boom, about Jonathan Larson, creator of Rent. I thought it was so clever: a musical inside a movie about a guy trying to write a musical. I loved the overall messaging about youth and the experience of the writer, the pressure that writers and put on themselves, and the value of art. This notion that as a writer, you just keep throwing things against a wall, hoping something sticks. You just have to keep writing.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently writing a novel about a young, Mennonite woman—raised in a conservative family on a goat farm in northwestern Ontario—who secretly begins an ASMR YouTube channel. One of her patrons, a man named Jared, becomes her long-distance boyfriend. The discovery of her alter-ego by her parents incites flight from her family home to Jared’s beachfront property on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. That’s all I’ll say.