Sunday, August 14, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Emily R. Austin

Emily R. Austin was born in Ontario, Canada, and received a writing grant from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2020. She studied English literature and library science at Western University. She currently lives in Ottawa. Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is her first 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?

Thanks for chatting with me, rob! My first novel, Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead came out last year. A few years before it, I wrote a novella, “Oh Honey.” In terms of how the works compare I’d say my writing has become a little more earnest and a touch less focused on apathy.

Everyone In This Room
changed my life in that it’s what connected me to my talented literary agent (Heather Carr with the Friedrich Agency), as well as publishers, editors, publicists, other writers, booksellers, librarians, and readers. Day to day, my life doesn’t look too different. I get more messages than I used to. I feel a little less coy referring to myself as a “writer.” I’m also a bit more motivated to write now, I think.

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

When I was thirteen, my high school English teacher gave me a short story assignment. Before high school, I was weak in English. I had a learning disability growing up (and still do, presumably.) I was never told what it was, but I’m pretty sure it’s dyslexia. Because of that, I performed poorly in English growing up. So, I was surprised to get an A+ on the story I wrote when I was thirteen. My teacher moved me from the college track English to the university track English, entered my story in a contest, and it won first place in Ontario. I got a fancy plaque. So, I got into writing fiction because my little thirteen-year-old heart was given the confidence to do so by a very kind English teacher.

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 takes me a while to write an entire book, but I can write the beginning of a book pretty quick. I have lots of ideas, though most are bad. In terms of how the drafts look, I edit while I write. I don’t think you’re supposed to do that, though. Because I do, my first drafts have already been pretty painfully edited. After they’re done, I action the notes from people like editors or my agent, and the story shifts a bit. So far, you’d be able to tell it’s the same book, though, I think.

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’m an anxious person who feels a weird illogical desire to be always working towards something, so if I’m writing—I’m hoping for it to become a book.

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

Everyone in this Room came out during the pandemic. It was very shortly before covid that I found my literary agent. It was near the beginning of the first lockdown when I got the book deal—so, no, I’ve not done many public readings. None, in fact, besides a few virtual events. I used to intentionally select classes in university based on whether they had a presentation component. I’d have chosen a class with a forty-page essay over one five-minute presentation.

I’m about ten years out from university now, and miraculously, I’ve overcome a lot of that. I went through a period of feeling deeply apathic, and one of the few benefits to apathy is that it made it possible for me to speak publicly without caring. I am no longer an apathetic person, but I managed to get a number of speaking opportunities under my belt while I was, and unintentionally overcame the fear. Somehow, I actually teach classes now. That all said, it would still be a lie to say I enjoy any form of public speaking. I am certainly able and willing to readings, though.

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 main reason why I write is because I like to. I don’t sit down to write thinking of the concerns I have, or the questions I want to get to the bottom of. I am just sort of acting on a compulsion. Questions usually do come up as I’m writing though. It depends on the characters, I think. In Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead the questions relate to, “What’s the purpose of life?” and “Why not kill yourself?” I guess generally, I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of other people to understand, and foster empathy maybe.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think writing can be important. It can do things like entertain, offer hope, or make you think. Though, it doesn’t always do that, does it? I don’t have a strong opinion about what the role of a writer should be. I guess I think everyone should be whatever they want.

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

I really love working with editors. I think having other people involved in your writing, who prompt you to improve it, is extremely fortunate. For me, I also find it’s often easier to action feedback from other people because I have a lot of self-doubt, and when there are editors involved in your writing whose judgement and skill you trust, it makes writing easier. I was lucky to have a very talented editor, Daniella Wexler, work on Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead. I can say, for sure, that book is much better because of her. My literary agent, Heather, also edited, and she significantly improved that book too. There were others involved too. I think having anyone involved in your writing who cares about it enough to want to make it better is lucky.

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

Write pretending no one is going to read it but you.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (novella to novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

Genre wise, I’d say my novella and book were pretty similar. I like to write about women, mental illness, and dark humour. I tend not to write very long stories.

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 should probably start a writing routine. I have multiple day jobs in addition to writing, and while I think I’m somehow managing to create the façade that everything’s organized—the behind the scenes of my writing is a mess. I write in my note’s app a lot. Usually, the bulk of my books are written over a handful of frenzied weekends, where I did nothing but write, and then picked at for half an hour here and there. All to say, I’m probably in no position to offer any advice regarding this.

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

If I feel stalled, I try to get away from it. I go for a walk. I read something. Or, usually, I start something new and come back later.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

There’s some wild plant that grows around Southwestern Ontario (and probably Ottawa too) that I smell sometimes when I’m outside. I don’t know what it is, but every time I smell it, I simultaneously remember being a teenager working at a summer camp, playing at my aunt and uncles farm, and laying in the grass in my parent’s backyard. It’s some sort of weed, I think. It has a distinct smell. I want to say it’s juniper, but I think I just like the word “juniper.”

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 definitely does for me. I’m a big fan of the band Muna, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus. Every time I hear a song I like, I imagine a story around it.

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

Ottessa Moshfegh, Brandon Taylor, Kristen Arnett, T Kira Madden, Sam Pink, Jean Kyoung Frazier, Steven Rowley, Casey Plett, Zoe Whittall, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen.

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

I’d like to find ways of being a more helpful person to other people. I’m looking for opportunities to contribute more to the well-being and happiness of other people.

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?

Outside of writing, I’ve worked as a librarian, a college professor, and an information architect. I might just be a little burnt out, but I’m becoming one of those “I don’t dream of labour” types. It might be fun to just be a writer someday.

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

I am into visual arts too. When I was a kid, I thought I’d do something with that. When I was going to university, I felt like I had to pick between being an English major or go into visual arts. I picked English. I planned to be an English major, to go to library school, and to try to be writer, but I didn’t think the writer part would actually happen. It’s nuts that has to be honest. I felt sad about not going into visual arts though. I got a tattoo of this doodle I used to draw on all my notes on my side as a sentimental way of remembering I wanted to get into art once.

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

The Swimmers by Chloe Lane. It’s about a twenty-six-year-old woman named Erin who is spending a holiday weekend with her aunt, uncle, and terminally ill mom. Over the weekend, she learns her mom is planning to end her life the following Tuesday. It’s very sad and very funny.

I watched Drop Dead Fred recently which is a black comedy from 1991. I watched as a kid and re watched recently. It’s about a woman’s imaginary friend named Fred. It’s got 11% on rotten tomatoes, but I love it. 

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a couple things. One is a book about a woman with a phobia, and the other one about a girl who failed twelfth grade English.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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