Monday, September 25, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Patti Grayson

Patti Grayson is the author of two award-nominated novels and one award-nominated short fiction collection. Her debut novel, Autumn, One Spring, was translated into German and was a popular book club selection. She lives and writes from the prairies. The Twistical Nature of Spoons is her fourth book and was published in fall of 2023.

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

The first book changed the interior of my life within the context of personal accomplishment. Following publication, I received an email from a high school acquaintance that read: “You’ve managed to fulfill your dream.” At that point, I was in my 40s, and it was surprising to me that people who knew me in my teens understood and remembered that I’d aspired to become a writer.  Having the first book out in the world allowed me to refer to myself as an author without a full-blown imposter-syndrome attack every time. And my exterior world was definitely enriched. Publication provided me with opportunity to encounter readers and to engage with peers at various events. Both those aspects were very rewarding. 

I’m hoping that the new work reveals that some writerly growth has taken place.  Structurally, this novel is more complex than any of my previous projects, which were all more straightforward narratives. This work definitely feels more strenuous.

It also feels more instinctual—metaphorically speaking, there was less checking over my shoulder in the fear that validation was refusing to follow me down the path. For better or worse, I granted myself permission to proceed unaccompanied with what I was creating.

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

Actually, when I decided to become serious about my writing, my initial focus was poetry, and although I never pursued a collection, I did have pieces published in literary journals before I turned to short fiction. I’d always favoured poems that leaned toward storytelling, so it felt natural for me to begin to concentrate on narrative fiction. Once I started writing short stories in earnest, I suddenly felt that I’d never be able to write another poem. It was almost as if that area of my sensibilities sealed shut and was no longer accessible. For me, poetry and fiction remain quite distinct from one another in terms of what they ask of me as a writer. Non-fiction terrifies me, so that was an easy evasion. Fiction continues to be my preferred fit. 

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 tend to plunge right in when I get an idea, but then the process most often turns into a slow crawl. I think it would be helpful if I could work from an outline (sometimes, when I start revisions on a completed draft, I have to create a thumbnail chapter summary for quick reference, but I’ve never started with or followed an outline otherwise). I seem to prefer the wandering, loitering, and dithering that result from the lack of one.

When it comes to revising, my projects have varied in terms of number of drafts, and of the overall overhaul that they produce. I also do tend to become obsessed with minutia; I can easily spend an entire morning reconstructing a single sentence and then delete it at noon.

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?

Each of my published works has originated in a different manner. Core Samples was a determined march toward accruing a collection of short stories. Autumn, One Spring was originally a series of connected stories which were intended to serve as the backbone for Core Samples, but I pulled them out at a late stage and replaced them. I felt that the main character wanted more of my attention, and that perhaps I was ready to tackle a novel for her sake. Those connected stories were significantly altered when I subsequently began the larger project—but their solid roots remained. Ghost Most Foul, my novel for younger readers, came from a single spark of inspiration that was literally gifted to me while I was taking a walk with my dog. The entire story arc presented itself, and every time I sat down to start a new chapter, its purpose and direction were clearly defined in my head (despite not having an outline). At the opposite end of the spectrum, The Twistical Nature of Spoons, my newest adult novel, has had numerous false starts, including the completion of a hefty number of chapters for a forerunner that was totally abandoned (other than one minor character and the vague essence of a single scene that insisted on accompanying me out of the debris). Spurred on by research that led me down absurd paths and produced notebooks of ideas that were never included, I finally did manage to write one-half of a chapter that I knew immediately was going to stick. What it was going to stick to was a complete unknown, but it roused enough curiosity in me that I was compelled to find out, and see it through to completion. I’d have to say that I equally despaired and revelled in my inefficiency.

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

Despite the anxiety they instill, I love to take part in public readings. Reading aloud is pure joy to me, and sharing with an audience is bliss.

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?

At times, I’m plagued by the question of relevance in my own work. Why not leave the writing of books to those who have wider scopes—those who are more politically situated or who have more socially relevant stories to tell? Wouldn’t it be prudent to leave it to writers who are addressing environmental issues, race relations, human atrocities, the increasing polarization of ideologies, economic disparity, the encroaching dominance of social media in our lives?

But there are other aspects to our humanity that exist within the scope of our daily lives. I’m drawn toward those more interior factors and feel compelled to explore them creatively. We all live within the framework of our families and our relationships, and within the context of community, be it geographical, cultural, or endeavour-based. The everyday questions that swirl within those boundaries fascinate me. What drives human beings to forge bonds, betray, aspire, achieve, jump to conclusions, accept defeat, hold a grudge, love, harm, hope? What makes us human? And what can we do about that? These are my questions. 

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?

As I ponder these queries, the WGA (screen writers) strike is ongoing, and there is an ever-widening discussion of the threat of AI within the creative community at large. I think the role of the individual writer is so crucial within society today to ensure that humanity’s story is safeguarded and continues to be widely interpreted—whether it’s recording broad-sweeping historical moments, or creating the scene in which a fictional character raises an eyebrow and pandemonium breaks loose.

Yes, AI can string together sentences from data bases too large to imagine, but it can’t smell the sweetness of a baby’s head, can’t feel the stinging cruelty of a racial slur, or slowly emerge from under the heavy blanket of a close friend’s betrayal. AI can think it knows these things, but it doesn’t. Writers do, and can tell us about them in a way that is uniquely their own.

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

I’ve just recently wrapped up the editorial process on my new novel, and both the substantive edit and copyedit were definitely essential. With my editors’ keen eyes on the manuscript, I was afforded a glimpse of the work from outside my own head, and the book benefitted from the collaborative efforts in terms of digging deeper and adding vertical depth. I’ll admit the process of addressing all the editorial notes was challenging—at times, exhausting—but absolutely worth it.

Improvisational theatre is mentioned in this book, and one of improv’s guiding principles is the “yes, and” rule: If someone presents an idea, you say “yes, and” adding the next idea to build the scenario, rather than saying “no” and blocking the scene. I decided to try and adhere to that rule during this book’s editorial process. I recall one particular substantive suggestion that seemed quite unworkable to me, so I tamped down my resistance with the “yes, and” rule. The revisions that I made, using my editor’s suggestion, not only resolved the original concern, they added extra value. The suggestion was also a far more natural fit than I first imagined possible when my initial impulse was to question or reject it.

I couldn’t be more grateful to all the editors I’ve worked with on each of my books.  

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

When it comes to writing advice, I can never get enough of others’ wisdom. I do, however, consistently rely on one single, straightforward suggestion that I received from a mentor: “Just keep your derrière in the chair.” 

Recently, a family member gifted me a thirty-minute hourglass timer that complements that bit of advice. It’s a beautiful object, and while the sand is descending, I’m very reluctant to get up and walk away from the keyboard. Turn the hourglass over a couple of times, and something usually gets accomplished simply because I’ve stayed put long enough to do the work . . . perhaps even long enough to have entered the “zone” where time falls away, and upon resurfacing, I have no idea when the hourglass last clocked out.

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

I don’t tend to be one of those writers with multiple, concurrent projects actively on the go. I literally do full stop on one before moving to the next (that has happened to me while smack dab in the middle of a project). However, after taking a breather, my plan is to turn back to short stories for awhile, and I doubt I will even think about the longer format again until I’m story-satiated.

As for appeal, I’ve been totally content residing in one novel’s world for quite a few years now; it will be equally satisfying to bop in and out of places for shorter durations, an aspect that the short story accommodates more readily. For me, the appeal is the immersion—disappearing into the work—regardless of the format. 

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?

In early days, I used to be quite consistent at writing in the mornings until about 2 p.m. Within that system, there would often be gaps of several months, but then I’d reinstate. That routine is no longer in play. It’s been replaced by a catch-as-catch-can system, and if that means 2 a.m. insomniac writing, I give in, get up, and do it. I still believe that breakfast at my desk with a large pot of Earl Grey tea is the ideal way to start a writing day. 

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

When I’m stalled out on a specific problem, listening to music always helps.  It seems to “pop” me out of the negative doubts and struggles. Sometimes I dance along. (In the past, I’d often turn to long walks or long showers/tub soaks to free up my mind). 

If a more general lack of commitment is circling, there is no better way to motivate me again than to pick up a book and read. Contemplating the work of others just naturally inspires me to want to create again. Fortunately, the sources for that stimulus abound! (I will never complete my bedside TBR stack because my compulsion to add to it reigns supreme over my ability to reduce it).

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Evergreens/haylofts.  I’m half Canadian Shield/half Prairie. 

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?

Apart from the aforementioned music, I do turn to the visual and theatrical arts for stimulus. Nature is providing more rejuvenation than inspiration as of late. Social science tends to take the win over science for me, although my abandoned novel contained a scientific component that excited me—perhaps that will resurface. 

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

So many writers have influenced me and continue to do so. I’m not sure I would have ever imagined becoming a writer if I hadn’t encountered the work of Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut in my early days. Since then, I’ve stayed the course with Ms. Atwood, but there have been dozens of other contemporary writers along the way whose books have taught me, inspired me, changed me, or expanded my understanding of how to situate myself within my own work. My incomplete list (with apologies to the many not mentioned) includes: Alice Munro, Di Brandt, Catherine Hunter, Margaret Sweatman, Katherena Vermette, Wayne Tefs, Sheila McClarty, CS Richardson, Joshua Whitehead, Patrick deWitt, E. Annie Proulx, Douglas Stuart, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan, Lily King, George Saunders, Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Maggie O’Farrell.

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

Screenplay. Stage drama. Children’s picture book.

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?

That’s an interesting question because I’ve worked professionally at a variety of things in my life, including bank teller, hunting/fishing-store clerk, puppeteer, office assistant, trophy engraver, educational assistant, advertising copywriter, school librarian, and actor. Another occupation? Concierge? Think of the stories!

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

As indicated in the previous answer, I’ve done a fair bit of the ‘something else’, but I’d have to say that being told that I was a good writer by teachers probably had a lot to do with me pursuing the written word. (I loved school in that teacher’s pet kind of way.  During my elementary grades, my spare time was filled with visiting the library and writing my own stories).    

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

I’m answering this question strictly on the basis of most recent . . . I just finished Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood, and so admired her ability to maintain a discourse on societal issues alongside a captivating portrayal of characters in a snarl of subtle, oscillating power balances. The last film I viewed was Coda (not the recent Academy Award winner, but a film by the same name, directed by a Canadian and partially shot here).  It’s a film that invites contemplation about classical music, self-doubt, aging, and grief—understated and ‘engaging’ (TNG Trekker pun was unavoidable).

20 - What are you currently working on?

At present, a short hiatus is on the schedule as I prepare to launch The Twistical Nature of Spoons, but my husband and I have recently been discussing the law of unintended consequences (or the knock-on effect), and I’m curious as to how I might create a short story around the concept. Hopefully, its unintended consequence will be a positive outcome with an unanticipated benefit. Fingers crossed.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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