Cary Fagan is the author of eight previous novels and five books of short stories, including The Student, Great Adventures for the Faint of Heart, and A Bird’sEye. His latest is The Animals. He has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Writers’ Trust Fiction Award, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and has won the Toronto Book Award and the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction. He is also an acclaimed writer of books for children, having won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, the IODE Jean Throop Book Award, a Mr. Christie Silver Medal, the Joan Betty Stuchner—Oy Vey!—Funniest Children’s Book Award, and the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People. Fagan’s work has been translated into French, Italian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Catalan, Turkish, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Korean and Persian. He still lives in his hometown of Toronto.
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?
When I first began to produce and send out fiction, I had a difficult ten years of having book-length manuscripts turned down. Just to make myself feel better I published a chapbook of two short stories which I gave away and sent to various people. One of the people I sent it to was Timothy Findley and a few days later he phoned me to say he was going to mention me on CBC television as an up-and-coming writer. (That’s the sort of person Findley was). That was of course a real encouragement. It didn’t change my life but it helped me through those difficult years.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
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 a little mysterious, how the initial idea comes to me, but when it does there’s a sense of excitement I feel that makes me know it’s the real thing. I may work on it right away but often I’ll wait months or years. I usually start a notebook so that I can write down any thoughts I have and eventually I start finding scenes. At some point I’ll be able to write down a scene list in order; that’s often what I use as the basis for an outline to get me through the first draft. The better the outline, the better my first draft, but still I don’t want it to be too detailed. Often I write the first draft by hand; after that it's on to the laptop. It’s the second and third drafts where I reshape and expand the story, so that it becomes what it needs to be. The drafts after that (another two to six drafts) are a matter of working on the weak spots, of pushing the end a little farther, of refining the voice and style.
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?
The last twenty years or more I’ve tended to think in book projects. So if I start writing stories, I imagine myself building towards a collection. This was true of my last one, “Great Adventures for the Faint of Heart,” and I think is why, although they are all different, there are some common thematic threads.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Fiction writers don’t generally consider readings as important as poets do. Fiction is more, I imagine, a voice that a reader hears inside themselves. I usually only do readings after a new book comes out and I get invitations. That said, I do enjoy reading the work to an audience, and getting a sense of their response to it. (On the other hand, I do a lot of presentations to kids in schools and libraries for my kids’ books.)
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?
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’ve been dismayed to see the role of the writer diminish over the course of my professional life. That being said, I’ve never seen myself as a Richler, a Findley, or an Atwood—someone making large statements, in fiction or elsewhere, about where we are and where we are going. I’m writing in a more minor key. That’s the kind of writing I like best.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I know that some writers consider a particular editor crucial to their work. This has never been true for me, perhaps because I’ve moved publishers every couple of books. Even when I stay, the editor often moves on. And as I only send a book out when I believe it is truly finished, I’m pretty lightly edited. That’s not to say that the editor doesn’t help to make the books better and I’m grateful for their expertise. Usually I’m a little anxious until I get the editor’s notes and know that we are on the same page and I can respond adequately to the issues raised. Even when their impact is minor, it’s important for lifting the book to the next level. I’ve been lucky to have worked with some very talented editors, most recently Peter Norman for The Animals.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My old friend Norman Levine once said to me (I’m sure it wasn’t the first time he said it) that a bad review can spoil your lunch but it should never spoil your dinner.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to children's books to novels to picture books to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I write stories, novels, and books for kids—picture books and ‘middle grade’ novels. That didn’t happen right at the start but occurred over time. I now find that it keeps me writing. When I put down the draft of a novel in the morning I can pick up a kid’s manuscript in the afternoon. I love doing them all but certainly go through periods when my imagination is more attuned to one form or another for months or even a year at a time. And by now I can’t pretend that all the work doesn’t inform each other. My children’s work has influenced my adult and vice versa.
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 usually have two writing sessions a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. If I can, I’ll have the second in one of the cafes near my home, or wherever I happen to be. I much prefer writing out in the world than at home. The ambient noise, the sense of being near people but not with them, helps me to concentrate. Plus the coffee’s better.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I usually have two or three manuscripts on the go so if something is not working I can put it down and pick up another. I’ve published a couple of books that I put down for ten or twelve years before picking up again. Reading also helps.
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?
Music certainly. I am an avid amateur (very much amateur) musician and jam with friends every week. Music has often entered my work in one way or another.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read a lot; it’s one of the great pleasures of life, isn’t it? At the moment I’m reading Colm Toibin’s new novel about Thomas Mann, Andrea Barrett’s book of stories Natural History, a book on early country music recordings by Tony Russell, a memoir by somebody who worked in a Paris restaurant for seven years, and a few different books of poetry. (I do read a lot of Canadian books, just not at this moment.). All of it feeds my own work and makes me want to write more and better. And one day if I stop writing, then I’ll just be a happy reader.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I used to want to write plays as well, but I think that ship has sailed. I’ll be happy if I can just keep on keeping on.
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 like to work with my hands. I’ve built a couple of instruments and would have enjoyed being a luthier. Maybe a violin maker.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was about 12 so there really was never another option. Other than fireman.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing the second draft of a new novel. And I better get back to it. Thanks for the questions!