Marta Balcewicz is the author of the novel Big Shadow (Book*hug Press, 2023). Her work has appeared in Catapult, Tin House online, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Washington Square Review, The Rumpus, and Passages North amongst other publications. Her fiction was anthologized in Tiny Crimes (Catapult, 2018). She received a fellowship from Tin House Workshops in 2022. She spent her early childhood in Pomerania and Madrid, and now lives in Toronto.
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 will be coming out in a few weeks, so it’s too early to assess its effect on my life. Having it be complete, though, feels nicely freeing, in the sense that I feel free to move on to my next book in an undistracted and relatively confident manner.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I remember always writing stories, but also poems, and also articles for magazines I made for my mother and letters to relatives galore. I probably came to all these forms more or less simultaneously, and I still like all three, though I like fiction the most. It feels the most like a vast blank canvas on which I can do anything I want in an unconstrained way.
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 think I suffer from all the common modes of procrastination such as being convinced there is a certain amount of research I need to do before starting to write, or that I need to “get to know” my narrator well enough. These are valid tasks at first, but there’s a point at which they cross over into being excuses for not starting to write. I enjoy Zadie Smith’s craft essay “That Crafty Feeling,” where she discusses the “Macro Planner” and the “Micro Manager” type of writer and uses a house construction metaphor to distinguish between them. She says that the former type of writer builds the entire house in a day and then obsessively rearranges the contents and décor between all the various rooms in order to attain the perfect set-up. The latter type of writer constructs the house room by room, and only moves on to the construction of another room or floor once the preceding one, with all its furniture and décor, is complete and perfect. I think I’m the latter kind of writer, which means that my first drafts sound more or less like what I want them to be.
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?
For me, a novel or short story often starts with a word or phrase I like, and I try to think of how to build a story around it. I do appreciate that short stories can be sites from which a larger work grows. With the novel that I am working on now, I felt quite stuck with the narrator I’d initially chosen for it. At some point during this period of stagnation, I took a short story workshop with one of my favourite writers. She was complimentary about the short story I submitted, saying something hyperbolic about its opening lines. So, I took those opening lines that I was now very proud of, and I made them the novel’s opening lines. But the short story’s opening lines belonged to the short story’s narrator. So I also imported that narrator into the novel and started the novel anew. It was a very positive development.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I haven’t done a great number of public readings, but I don’t imagine them as impacting my writing. They seem to me to be a relatively innocuous activity. I’m shy, so I would not say that I’m actively looking to put myself in front of an audience, but I’m also not afraid of readings, or of audiences. When I read my work in my MFA program, a friend told me I sounded like the comedian Steven Wright, but said he didn’t mean it as an insult, just that I had Wright’s style. I was happy to hear that I had a style, the style of someone famous, when I hadn’t been trying to have one and was just speaking in my normal manner and way.
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?
I don’t consciously think of my work as a site for theoretical debate or reflection. I think of it as a place where I hopefully capture a strange or fun or interesting idea in a way that comes off as aesthetically pleasing for a reader. I don’t have preconceived notions of what that idea should be. Though I figure that the act of writing about human characters—because it inevitably touches upon and relates to human life and activity and thought—ends up touching upon some aspects of current theoretical concerns. That seems unavoidable.
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 of writers, or any artists, as having a set role in or for culture at large. I imagine some writers envision a role for themselves and treat it as a guiding principle. But it would feel Orwellian to have a uniform role be expected or imposed.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I consider my writer friends, my partner, my agent, and the editors who are officially tasked with editing my work to all be “outside editors” without whom the work I make wouldn’t be sharable with the larger world, meaning, anyone beyond myself. Their feedback is essential, and it is also a luxury for which I am consciously very grateful.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My memory is quite bad so I don’t have a piece of advice that I carry with me and treasure. I imagine this good piece of advice would deal with revision.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
I find that short stories (and poems, and essays) provide a nice change of pace and work a different writing muscle that probably somehow in the end works to make your main project better. I like to swim and it feels very natural to shift from freestyle into other strokes during a workout, almost like the body asks for it at points. Actually, I imagine a swimmer would suffer an injury in the long term without variety in strokes.
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 find writing to be entirely contingent on mood and my day job schedule, and I think that precludes the possibility of a routine, which is unfortunate. I haven’t been able to be the kind of person who writes a set number of words no matter what each day, or to wake up very early. If I am in the right writing mood, and don’t have to be working for my job at that moment, I sit and start writing at my computer until the mood expires.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I find films to be extremely fertile in terms of inspiration when writing. Books are of course even more fertile, but dangerously so, in that one can start to write too much like the writer they have just read and loved. With film, there is that distance afforded by the difference in medium at least. It’s a good challenge to think, “I’ll write in the way that director has shot a scene, or created mood, or tone,” because it’s not clear what that means and there’s no single, obvious way of achieving that. In that sense, wanting to mimic film is more like a prompt than an invitation to copy.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Any smell that I associate with my grandmothers’ houses. For instance, old moist basements and wet wooden cutting boards.
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?
I imagine everything comes from a great multitude of sources, especially a creative work born from the human imagination—that would have the most sources of all. I don’t rely on a single something as a source in the sense that I consciously study it or expose myself to it and feel in conversation with it more than other things I encounter. I imagine everything I come in contact with feeds into the brain that eventually makes a creative work.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I figure that my favourite writers must be those who end up being the most important for my work. I love Jane Bowles. In terms of more contemporary writers, I love Amina Cain, Lina Wolff, Leanne Shapton, Claire-Louise Bennett, Sheila Heti, Samanta Schweblin, Patrick Cottrell, Sayaka Murata. I would say that, currently, my favourite book is Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to learn to springboard dive, but from the three- and five-metre springboards, not just the one-metre. I haven’t tried any of them, and am terrible at diving even from a pool deck.
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?
It’s hard to conceive of writing as my occupation, as it’s not my primary source of income or what I can devote the majority of my time and attention to, unfortunately. But it is the primary thing I occupy myself with outside of the hours I’m working on my day job tasks. In that sense, I guess it’s an occupation. If I were not doing it, I think I’d like to be a ceramicist or a painter. In a fantasy scenario, I’d like to be a musician, someone who is part of The Wrecking Crew, or an NBA player. In a more realistic scenario, I’d also like to teach swimming, especially to people who have an initial fear of the water.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons behind an impulse like writing, or the pursuit of any other creative task, when it’s a thing that you’ve felt drawn to since an early age. My guess is it’s a genetic predisposition mixed with unidentified environmental factors.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m a Lina Wolff fan and her new book Carnality is great. A friend recommended Scorsese’s After Hours, from 1985, and that is the most recent film I’ve watched that I’ve been telling everyone I know to watch as well.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel. The novel that grew out of the short story I mentioned above. I’m enjoying it very much.