Tuesday, December 06, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Leah Mol

Leah Mol is a writer and editor who graduated from the Creative Writing Program at UBC. She’s the author of the novel Sharp Edges, and her fiction won the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize and the 2020 Bronwen Wallace Award. She lives in Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @leahmol. 

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

My first chapbook opened up the idea of creative writing as something that could be a career. It also brought me into a writing community, which was incredibly important for me as a young writer.

My first novel, Sharp Edges, changed the way I write—I’m okay with throwing things out now, admitting when something isn’t working and starting fresh, or trying a few things and making a choice. I used to be really obsessed with making everything work, like, fitting everything I wrote into a project. But now that I’ve written a book, I know I can write another book. I don’t need to put everything into one project, because it doesn’t have to be the last one.

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

I’m not sure what I came to first anymore. I’ve always been more drawn to prose—I’d argue that any poetry I’ve written in the past is really just prose with line breaks—and I had a long period of writing mainly nonfiction. But fiction is what I loved most as a kid, it’s what I work on now as an editor, and it’s the vast majority of what I read. It’s what I know best.

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 depends on the project. My CBC short story took me a couple hours to write the day before the prize deadline, while my Writers’ Trust story took months of weekend writing and rewriting. I wrote the first draft of Sharp Edges in about three months, in 500-words-per-day chunks. I had no notes, no idea of where I was going—I just started writing one day and added to it every day until I had 60,000 words. Much of that first draft was reshaped and rewritten over another year or so, but the tone and voice were already there and didn’t change.

But…it was super difficult to take 60,000 words I’d basically vomited onto a page and turn it into something that had a plot—like, painfully difficult. So for the book I’m working on now, I’ve spent the last couple years thinking and doing research and creating a kind of structure first.

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 always know what something is going to be when I start. I’ve never started a short story and ended up writing a novel. But I am a person who likes vignettes and novels in pieces. I’ve always been a big fan of first and last lines, so I like my work to have as many sections as possible—then you get first and last line of the book, first and last line of each chapter, AND first and last line of each subsection. It’s like first-and-last-line-a-palooza.

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

Readings are fun. I enjoy doing them (probably because I like attention?), but I don’t know if most people truly enjoy watching someone read from a book. Some writers do it really well, but it’s a very different skill from writing.

For me, a huge part of readings is the social aspect, and a sense of community. I’ve noticed a switch in the last few years that a lot of book events are now discussions with the author or panels, and I feel like I always have more incentive to buy a book if I like the author and feel I know something about them. I think it just depends on the purpose of the event—if you’re selling books, I’m not sure how much a reading will accomplish. I’d much prefer to go to an open mic where everyone gets 2 minutes to read, or an event where people are trying out new material.

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?

It depends on the project. For Sharp Edges, I was thinking a lot about society’s treatment of women and girls, politics around sex work, gender expectations, sexuality, adolescence. But my focus is always character and voice.

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?

Writing is a job. I do think writing can create change—I think books and television and music can build empathy and help people recognize viewpoints they’d never have been able to consider otherwise—but I don’t think it necessarily works when writers set out with that as their role. A writer’s role is whatever they want it to be; and that might be a career-length choice, or it might change project to project.

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

I couldn’t write if I didn’t have people reading my work through the process. I do think it’s important to get a draft done before getting reads—those first pages are just so raw and tender and I can’t imagine letting someone read something until I have an actual complete story, novel, etc. Even if you don’t change or rewrite those pages, there’s something about time and space and a sense of completeness that provides distance. But at that point, I get anyone I trust to read and give me as much big-picture feedback as they can. And for my novel, after all of those reads, my editor at Doubleday, Melanie Tutino, was really helpful with filling in gaps and making final connections. I just can’t imagine moving a book from one draft to the next without editors.

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

I honestly don’t know. I feel like every piece of advice comes with downsides and contradictions, and there’s always an exception to the rule. Like, in general, as someone who has anxiety issues, I think “Other people aren’t thinking about you” is pretty comforting. But also, aren’t the best little joys in life when you find out someone is actually thinking about you?

So maybe the best advice is “Be kind.” Nobody can argue with that.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to creative non-fiction to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’ve never struggled with it—but I also generally work on one project at a time, which might make it easier?

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?

It changes with what I’m working on:

A short story—bits and pieces of writing here and there.

First draft of a novel—a specific number of words a day (and after I hit that number, I stop writing and just jot notes for myself the rest of the day).

Later drafts of a novel—usually an hour or so a day of staring at a screen and moving words around.
And then there are huge chunks of time where I don’t write at all, but I think about writing a lot and read and make notes constantly. Regardless, my day usually starts with coffee and walking my dog.

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

I think it depends where I am in a process. I wouldn’t say my writing ever really gets stalled. If I want to write 500 words, I can sit down and write 500 words. It might feel like pure garbage, but at least it’s easier to write more the next day, and maybe I’ll get a line or a couple words out of it that spark something new. I’d say I’m more likely to get stalled in big-picture things like structure. And that just takes time and thinking, finding some new ideas that might provide inspiration—TV, movies, books. I go for walks. Mostly, I take a lot of showers; the shower is the best place for ideas.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Clean laundry and chocolate.

I always think of my childhood home when I smell clean laundry. And the home I’ve had for the last decade is next to a chocolate factory.

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?

Honestly, kind of everything. I read a ton, but it’s just as likely for me to get inspiration from other forms. My characters are people, and they live in a world and notice things about that world. They have a broad spectrum of interests, and the only way for me to write that believably is to take inspiration from a wide variety of sources.

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

Oh my god, I don’t even know how to answer this question without pages and pages of names. One of the most important writers for my work was Elizabeth Wurtzel. I remember reading Prozac Nation in high school and being blown away that someone could be so honest and brutal about themselves. It gave me a whole new idea of what writing could be. I also started reading Bret Easton Ellis around that time, and I’ve always admired the style and voice of his fiction.

Being a writer also luckily means getting to spend lots of time with writers. And I’ve been so spoiled with great writer friends who’ve had a huge effect on my work. Honestly, there are too many to name here, but I’m especially thinking of writers out of In/Words in Ottawa, Word and Colour in Montreal, and the UBC Creative Writing Program in Vancouver.

A few more authors who have been super influential for my writing and/or life: Heather O’Neill, Virginie Despentes, Dennis Cooper, Ottessa Moshfegh, Tamara Faith Berger, Barbara Gowdy, Carmen Maria Machado, Casey Plett, Aimee Bender, Charles Bukowski, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, and Miranda July.

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

Sometimes I say I want to travel more, but every time I travel, I mostly hate it.

Writing-wise, I feel like I’m at a point in my career where I can kind of try whatever I want (not to say that someone will necessarily buy it!), which is kind of freeing, but also, I mostly just want to write another novel. At home.

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’ve had a lot of jobs, sometimes four or five at once, and I think I’ll probably continue to have random jobs throughout life. I get antsy and once in a while, I’ll be like, “Oh, I don’t have enough money”—and I decide to apply for serving jobs even though I already work full-time and work freelance and write (and another couple of side jobs that are done more for good anecdotes than money).

Right now, I work as an editor, which is a very different job than writing, but also, my life is books. Sometimes I think about what I would do if books just stopped being a thing or publishing stopped existing as an industry, and I can only imagine a terrifying dystopian world where people are, like, murdering each other to survive. If books were no longer a possibility, it’d obviously be a really shitty world where very bad things had happened.

Before I won the CBC Prize, I did seriously think about quitting writing and going back to school to become a coroner. I was really obsessed with Da Vinci’s Inquest growing up, and I’m sure being a coroner would be exactly like it is on TV.

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

I do lots of things—I’m pretty crafty, I like playing music, I can spend literal hours watching reality TV, and as previously mentioned, I do lots of other things for money. So I could always find other things to do (to make money or not).

But there’s something about that moment when you write a really good line where it seems like everything just clicks—and your brain just stops for a second and appreciates it and you feel so great. Those moments make all the bad days worth it.

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

Film: Pleasure, directed by Ninja Thyberg. It’s a brilliant, character-driven film about the porn industry, and I loved it!

Book: I read Rosemary’s Baby for the first time recently and was so impressed. I guess I should have known it was good, but it was surprisingly super great. I also really enjoyed Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel about alien abduction and pregnancy and cults and obsessive friendship.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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