Friday, November 18, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Katherine Lawrence

Katherine Lawrence [photo credit: Saskatoon Public Library] is the author of the young adult novel-in-verse Stay, and three poetry collections: Never Mind, Ring Finger, Left Hand, and Black Umbrella. Stay received the North American Gold Moonbeam Award for Children’s Poetry and was nominated for two Saskatchewan Book Awards: Poetry, and Children’s Literature. Never Mind was nominated for the Saskatchewan Book of the Year, and the City of Saskatoon Book Award.  Lying to Our Mothers was nominated for the Saskatchewan Book Award for Poetry. Ring Finger, Left Hand won the Saskatchewan Book Awards’ Brenda Macdonald Riches Best First Book Award.

Katherine was born in Hamilton, Ontario. She has lived in Saskatoon for over thirty-five years with her husband and their two daughters. 

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, Ring Finger, Left Hand (2001, Coteau Books) won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Best First Book.

My fifth book, Black Umbrella (2022, Turnstone Press) has just been published and I continue to explore the same terrain: family dynamics. My new book is poetic memoir. The first book used a variety of voices to examine marriage and divorce through the lens of the major players.

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

 I was influenced by the poets who visited my high school in Burlington, Ontario during the early 70s. Writers such as Irving Layton and Milton Acorn stepped into my classroom and read poetry that seemed to speak directly to me. Canada was establishing its own assured voice in literature in those days and I heard those same echoes. I thought, I can write poetry.

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 start with a line or a phrase that I have either read elsewhere, heard in a dream, or pulled from my head. I play, I listen, I follow my nose. I write many drafts, share it with both of my writing groups, edit, read it aloud, keep tinkering until the piece can stand alone.

4 - Where does a poem or 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 write and let the poems accumulate. After a year or longer I look at everything and usually start to see themes emerge. I like the long, narrative thrust of a full story told through poetry.

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

I love readings. I’ve got a theatrical streak in me. I love the challenge of entertaining an audience of any size. I love making connections with readers and listeners.

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?

My theoretical concerns are purely my own. I’m all about the family. What makes some families thrive and others fail? What is the function and purpose of family? How is the concept of family evolving, adapting to shifts in our culture?

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 feel compelled to write and therefore it’s my job to write what I feel and observe and somehow bring a universality to my specific point of view. Readers will do what they like with my material. My job is done once I send the work into the world.

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

Working with an editor is the best part of the production process. My editor for Black Umbrella was Winnipeg writer, Di Brandt. She was a joy to work with. Sharp, brilliant, fun. My previous editors were Elizabeth Philips of Saskatoon and Alice Major of Edmonton. I’ve learned from each of these generous writers.

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

“No one is asking you to write so you might as well have a good time while you’re writing.”

 Not sure who gave me that piece of advice but I agree. In other words, stop whining and write.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to young adult fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

My novel-in-verse for middle-grade/young adult readers, Stay, took me the better part of a decade to write. I wrote two other books while I was trying to figure out the verse novel. It was a tremendous challenge, a huge puzzle, but I felt determined to bring the subject of divorce into the world of the younger reader.

The appeal continues to be the readings that I do in schools. The feedback is always fun and surprising. Every kid has either direct or indirect experience with family breakdown. Stay provides them with language, a way to talk about the challenges of living between two households while always hoping, wishing, praying that parents will get back together. I’m grateful to see the book re-released in a new edition by Shadowpaw Press.

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 write a few pages in my messy journal, read some poetry or whatever novel I have on the go. Once I’ve had breakfast I move into my office and pick up where I left off.

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

I go for a walk or a swim. I cook a pot of soup. I read a good book. I let myself wander physically and mentally.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

 Lilacs. Lilacs were my mother’s favourite flower and she associated them with her mother.

And yes, lilacs are present in Black Umbrella.

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?

Visual art is often a source. Mary Pratt’s work, for example. Black Umbrella includes a poem that references her paintings and uses some of her quotes. My greatest influence is a fabulous phrase or line. I was reading Micheline Maylor today. Here’s a line that I’ve tucked away: Out out brief candle. Out. And take all your stuff. (From The Bad Wife, University of Alberta Press, 2021). I don’t know (yet) how I’ll use those words of hers but they do something for me.  I feel a pulse in those words.

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

I’m a promiscuous reader. I read poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a lot of cookbooks, three newspapers most days. My current influence is American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ve recently read everything she’s written, conducted my own private master class with a master of domestic fiction.

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

Write a sequel to Stay, move into long form fiction, and live in St. John’s for one dramatic winter.  

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 would have become an actor for the stage, not the screen. 

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

I needed to untangle my messy family when I was a teenager. Later, I needed to untangle my messy self. I’ve been on a lifelong quest to figure myself out and I know of no better way to learn about who we are than to engage in some form of self-expression. For me, it’s writing.

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

Book: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. It won the 2020 Booker Prize.

Film: West Side Story by Steven Spielberg

20 - What are you currently working on?

A long prose poem about ambivalent motherhood. It needs a new opening stanza but I love where it’s taking me. Straight back to the mystery of my parents’ doomed marriage.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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