Anne Lazurko is author of the novel What Is Written on the Tongue (ECW Press 2022). Her first novel Dollybird won the Willa Award for Historical Fiction, and her short prose and poetry is published in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies. She writes from her farm near Weyburn Saskatchewan.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I suppose I could say the success of my first book, Dollybird, legitimized what I’d been doing for so long. That sounds dumb as I say it because I’m usually more confident than that, but somehow until it was published, had some good reviews, won an award, I still whispered the word writer in reference to myself.
The act of writing one book gave me confidence to tackle another, recently released What Is Written on the Tongue. Both books are historical fiction, and I suppose they are both coming-of-age stories in their own way, but the circumstances and settings couldn’t be more different. While Dollybird is about a young woman navigating pregnancy in early Saskatchewan, What Is Written on the Tongue is about a young man during the Indonesian War of Independence.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I wrote bad poetry when I was young, and some better stuff more recently which I’ve had published. But my first love was always fiction because I was a ravenous reader of it my whole life. Our noses always in various books, my mother, five sisters and I would nod absently as Dad yelled ‘did you see that?’ during what he thought was a particularly amazing display of skill during Hockey Night in Canada which, of course, none of us noticed.
Initially I loved the escapism of fiction and over time developed a deep love of language and it went 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 takes me a long time to start because I like to do a lot of research first. For whatever reason my novels tend to be set in places I haven’t been, or about people I have little knowledge of but have suddenly become fascinated with. I need as much information as I can corral in my head (and in notes) to feel ready, and then I try not to look at the research too much as I write.
First drafts are painful for me. I find the creative work incredibly draining. Of course there are those moments of bliss when things just come together and the words roll, but more often than not, it is slow going and even then my work needs a lot of attention once the draft is written. But that is the part I love—the editing—taking what I’ve got and working it like a puzzle. That is where the joy is for me.
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?
My fiction usually starts with something I’ve heard or read about that tweaks an idea for both a character and a ‘what if’ scenario. What Is Written on the Tongue came out of my dad telling us he’d had a nervous breakdown while serving with Dutch forces in Indonesia. What? What happened there and why?
I didn’t think I was writing a novel with my first book because I somehow thought that was presumptuous to say. But the second book just out, and the third I’m now working on, started as novels and were approached that way.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like doing readings but they happen once the book is out and, as you know, are generally aimed at marketing and promotion. So they don’t play a part in the creative process, they mostly take time away from it. But I do like the interaction with readers, to see their interest, answer their questions. I think my favorite is speaking with book clubs. The members of a book club have read the book and have an opinion of it and can have a real and thorough discussion. It’s always fascinating what they find, the questions they ask, how they draw conclusions or see connections you weren’t aware of as the book’s author. Sometimes they’ll even challenge you on things they don’t understand or aren’t happy with. I find it all very gratifying.
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 complexity of our lives and motivations are what fascinate me so I tend to put my characters into impossible situations and see how they manage. Some do well and others not so much, but I think that kind of realism is important, particularly in the world we now inhabit where people tend to search for easy answers to hard questions.
Where empathy exists and what happens when it is lost, how to find moments of grace in difficult times; those are some of the questions I’ve tackled, but I think each project asks and answers its own as they come up organically, both from the initial idea and as the story evolves.
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 don’t think most writers have an agenda when they set out to write, except perhaps books of non-fiction with fixed topics, so I’m not about to prescribe what writers should be in the larger world. But I do think we have the ability and opportunity to give clarity to the complex questions you asked about earlier. The pandemic, climate change, war in Ukraine; the complexity of the world has people searching for the kind of clarity found in good writing. Of course there’s a lot of crap out there, but thoughtful people will always find their way to thoughtful ideas that are presented well, whether in a book, a play, a song or a blog post. It’s not necessarily our role to fill that the void, but I think it happens because we are part of the same world as everyone else and we write about what matters to us.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. The work of editing might be difficult, but what it gives to my work is invaluable. And to be honest, I’ve learned more about writing from the editors of my books than from all the workshops and courses I’ve taken combined. We so often think we are doing one thing in our writing, but it can be such a revelation if you let an editor show you what you are actually doing. Each editor teaches you something and each book comes a little easier in terms of seeing the flaws earlier.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
It’s such a cliché, but ‘kill your darlings’ is a real thing. It goes along with the editing discussed above. If you hold on too tightly to what you think is the perfect passage or scene or character, that inability to let go might hold the entire novel or larger work back. Let them go gently into that good night.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to poetry)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t find it easy to go back and forth between fiction and poetry. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I become so embedded in a novel, and I can’t really think about much else until it’s done and out and I’ve come up for air. But when that happens I do like to read and write poetry because it is imagination contained in a few lines that don’t have to go beyond what they are saying. They just are. I like the simplicity of that.
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 always have breakfast and coffee and do a half hour of yoga before I start. That seems to set me up for a productive day. I’m older than when I wrote my first book and over the past couple of years have been able to commit substantially more time to my writing. I try to keep to a routine as much as is possible, doing the creative work for three hours in the morning. If I have more time in the afternoon I spend it doing research, administrative stuff, promotion, writing articles related to writing. I also walk a lot. In fact, a lot of my writing happens in my head as I’m walking with my dog on a dirt road south of our farm.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t really turn to something or someone else. What I do is turn to another part of whatever I’m working on. If the creative first draft stuff isn’t working it might be because I don’t know enough about the character or haven’t done the research so I’ll go back to the sketch or the library. Or I’ll skip ahead to what I know is going to happen and write that scene or chapter. This often helps me to make the connection I couldn’t previously, and then I can go back and work it all together.
And, as above, I go for a walk!
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?
Nature plays a big part in my writing; the stark prairie landscape in Dollybird, the heat and jungle of Indonesia in What Is Written on the Tongue, in my new novel the rolling landscape of Tuscany and Umbria. I think place defines characters or at least what happens to them. Someone raised in a tropical setting will have a completely different world view than someone raised in the cobbled streets of Europe. Whether it’s the natural world or human designed, places matter to my work.
To my surprise, various forms of art have also entered and influenced my work. I make no claim to much knowledge of visual art, yet characters and themes in my two recent works have been hugely influenced by art forms and artists.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I like to read books about writing. Not how to books, but more like wow aren’t the processes and inspirations of other writers amazing books. George Saunders A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, Helen Humphreys' Machine Without Horses, How Fiction Works by James Wood.
So many good books are instructive in different ways even as I’m reading them for pleasure: Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Five Wives by Joan Thomas, anything by Ocean Vuong. So many good books.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Hike the West Coast Trail? But seriously—in terms of my writing—everything. I’m a late-bloomer in the world of books and I have so many ideas for both fiction and non-fiction that I have to be careful not to go careening off course. I keep an ideas file and when I’m done one project I tackle another and see if it sticks with me. If not, I move onto the next. Just as there are way too many good books out there to waste time on something that doesn’t transport you, writing a book should do the same thing for its author don’t you think?
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?
Oh I’ve done so many things in my years. I was a reporter right out of university, and I think if I were to go back in time I would do journalism as a serious career. I have written articles over the years, but I was once told I was the next Ann Medina (and now I’ve dated myself!) and it would have been good to give that a more serious go. Instead I worked in agricultural policy, married a farmer, learned how to dairy and then grain farm, raised four kids, rode horses, hiked and camped. So… I don’t think I’ll complain, ha!
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As above, I have done many things else though I always wrote. It’s only publishing that I came to in middle age. I’m happy that I can now focus fully on the writing, but even now it doesn’t define me. Because of the life I’ve already had, there are so many things that define me so writing is one part, something I fully embrace and spend a great deal of time at, but it’s only one part.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Cloud Atlas (film). The book was fantastic too, but I recently watched the movie and it blew me away.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel about contemporary women walking the Way of St. Francis in Italy as they wrestle with various aspects of their lives. The stories of these women are back-dropped by the art and life of German print artist, Kathe Kollwitz, who lived and worked between the wars and was an activist and feminist before the word existed. What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open. It’s a line from a poem by Muriel Rukeyser about Kollwitz. The novel is an attempt to write from a woman’s truth, to explore feminism over time and between waves and see if the world splits open.