Tuesday, November 21, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Paola Ferrante

Paola Ferrante [photo credit: Rob Skuja] is a writer living with depression. She has won Grain Magazine’s Short Grain Contest for Poetry, The New Quarterly’s Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, Room Magazine’s Fiction Contest and was longlisted for the 2020 Journey Prize for the story “When Foxes Die Electric.” Her work appears in After Realism: 24 Stories for the 21st Century, Best Canadian Poetry 2021, North American Review, PRISM International and elsewhere. She was born, and still resides 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, What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack, was a book of poetry and at the time, I honestly felt it changed my life in that I felt I could call myself a “real” writer when it happened. In terms of comparing my debut poetry collection to my debut fiction collection, I will say that horror, fairy tales and plenty of animals in the service of exploring women’s experiences also definitely made appearances in my poems, but I think I’ve taken these motifs to a more interesting place in Her Body Among Animals, using the conventions of genre fiction, specifically horror and sci-fi, and meshing that with fairy tales and pop culture to look at how women challenge the boundaries placed on their bodies, and the violence enacted against both women and the earth because of toxic masculinity. What feels different this time is the reach of the book to be honest. Poetry can be a lonelier endeavour than fiction; with poetry you hope that maybe some other poets read your book and like it. With Her Body Among Animals, it’s felt so validating to read reviews of my work that describe exactly what I hoped readers would get from the experience. I couldn’t believe Publishers Weekly gave me a starred review, and having a review from The Toronto Star’s Robert J. Wiersema fulfilled an actual childhood dream. Also, getting compared to a short story great, Alice Munro (NOT in any sense of my style, but in how detailed our worlds both are) pretty much made my day. With fiction, I feel I’ve gotten to hear how people are affected by the work more, and it feels fantastic to know readers are connecting with my work, to talk to the amazing Bookstagrammers and the wonderful readers that I’m so lucky I get to meet at festivals.

2 - How did you come to short stories first, as opposed to, say, long fiction or non-fiction?
I think short fiction co-evolved with my tendency to write poetry, in that I enjoy having a finite space to play around in, as well as the opportunity to experiment with form. With short fiction, I can get away with cool formal tricks, like telling the story of a domestic abuse situation and then juxtaposing it with legends about lizard men,  or in the case of “The Underside of A Wing,” a double third person narration technique to mimic the surreal dissociative experience that I had being in a mental health crisis, with lines like “She often experiences excessive worry;the albatross never experiences worry that isn’t excessive. The albatross sometimes experiences worry in social situations; she always worries that others will notice the albatross.” These techniques tend to get really old, fast when attempting a novel-length work of fiction, either feeling forced or gimmicky. I am currently working on a novel, and some of the more unconventional techniques in short fiction definitely don’t work in long-form fiction. As for non-fiction, that is a beast I don’t go anywhere near! I don’t enjoy the nakedness that comes with non-fiction, and I don’t enjoy being beholden to the truth of an event. I’m more of the “why let truth get in the way of a good story” type of person. Plus, every time I go to tell even a realist short story, a metamorphosis into a spider, or a lizard man jumps into the mix. So I truly don’t think non-fiction will ever be for me.
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?
Starting a short story is fairly quick;  but after the initial idea phase though, I end up in the garbage draft zone for what feels like forever, where I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite the first third of a piece until I’m convinced what’s on the page is a story going somewhere and it starts to look close to its final form. (Alternatively I also might realize the idea I had is going nowhere and the piece gets consigned to the dumpster file on my computer). I’m a fairly slow writer when it comes to short fiction, because not only am I interested in plot and character and voice; at some point my poetry training also kicks in and I spend a lot of time reading my work out loud to make sure the rhythm at a sentence level is also correct for the rhythm of a science. From start to a draft that I’d be sending out to literary magazines, a month is the shortest time I’ve ever taken. “The Underside of a Wing,” which was the hardest piece for me to write in this collection(and which started life as an absolutely awful realist short story in a pet store of all places), actually took about four months, the first two of which were just finding the form and voice to tell it in.

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?
For me, stories generally start with a conceptual idea;  say “mother experiences postpartum anxiety as a haunting,” or “girl loses herself in relationship while boy falls in love with a literal shadow of herself.” Sometimes stories start from news articles I’ve read as well; the first story in Her Body Among Animals, “When Foxes Die Electric,” was born from an article my husband showed me about a sex robot during a tech convention who was touched too much and actually shut herself down. When it comes to short fiction I’ve learned I’m truly a “pantser;” trying to outline my short stories has never worked for me so it should surprise absolutely nobody that, while of course I want to be working on a book from the very first short story, I honestly have very little idea of what I have is a book at all until maybe 40 000 words in. That’s the point where I could start to see the thematic connections between what I’d written already. That was imperative, because then I could write the next half with the idea that the new stories needed to tie into the thematic ideas of women challenging the boundaries placed on their bodies and of the entitlement of toxic masculinity enacting violence on both women and the natural world. At that point it was a bit like putting a multi-dimensional puzzle together; I had to write stories that dealt with these themes, that used horror and sci-fi and existed in the realm of the speculative, and that, of course, had animal imagery, which was already running rampant throughout the stories of Her Body Among Animals.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I actually love doing public readings for two reasons. One is that I love seeing the real-time audience reaction to a piece I’m reading, . The other is that writing is a lonely business, and public readings are a fantastic chance to get to really know other writers and their work. For any aspiring writers out there, I can honestly say that connections I’ve made at public readings and at literary festivals like Eden Mills, Kingston Writers Fest, Toronto International Festival of Authors, and the fabulous Wild Writers have given me so many opportunities. Because of the connections I’ve made, I’ve had everything from invitations to speak to creative writing students at universities, to actually meeting and getting invited to submit the manuscript that would become Her Body Among Animals to one of my now-agents.
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 think writers are the people who tell us stories about humanity’s patterns; the concerns common to the human condition, the cycles that repeat over and over again. I know when I started writing the first story in Her Body Among Animals, “When Foxes Die Electric,” it was just before #MeToo exploded as a movement, and that particular story, about a sentient sex robot going against her misogynistic programming, was a reaction to that time, yes, but also something I felt I had been living with all my life as a woman. I think that’s the trick with writing. To be timely, but to write about why a particular issue is timely, and, in doing so, be timeless. There is another story in this collection, “Everyday Horror Show,” which features a mother who is experiencing postpartum anxiety as a poltergeist haunting. I originally conceived of this story because my own mother had postpartum anxiety way back when she had me in the 1980’s, when it was short of hand-waved as “oh, you just had a baby, you’re fine.” Before I finished this book, however, I had my own child, and it struck that, as someone with a mental health history, the system still hasn’t changed much. Yes, a social worker comes to check in on you in the hospital, but really, my experience with that was that it was more of a box checking exercise, a “yup, I saw here and I handed her an envelope of “resources.”” Whatever that means. I still haven’t opened the envelope.  As I went through the process of writing the stories in Her Body Among Animals, I was really interested in exposing the mistakes in these systems that are set up to disadvantage certain people, with the hope that we can move on from them and do things better.  I think that’s the responsibility of a writer; we are in the unique position to not only record, but illuminate the past so that we can learn from it, and hopefully break those negative cycles.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My writing would be nowhere without the fantastic editors I’ve had over the years. Honestly I love being edited. I think I got to a point where I was winning short story contests like Room’s and The New Quarterly’s, and I felt “okay, I obviously have something good going on with my writing.” It was that confidence I had begun to develop that made me feel less terror at being edited—I began to view the editing process as I think all writers should. It’s a process meant to bring out the best in the story. Working with Malcolm Sutton on this book was a privilege and a total joy. I loved being able to go into editorial sessions and discuss where a piece needed to move to really bring out the best in it. And being edited by an outside editor, namely doing a mentorship with the fantastic Russell Smith, was what got Her Body Among Animals submission-ready. Currently, I’m actually also doing an mentorship with Carleigh Baker through Flying Books (highly recommend!) to develop my novel-in-progress. So I would have to say working with an editor is absolutely essential to my process.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“No one will care about your book as much as you do,” is the most sound advice I’ve heard, courtesy of the wonderful Kathryn Mockler. Honestly, that has helped me to keep things in perspective going through book launch season. As writers, we spend so much time focused on bringing our books into the world, that we obviously care very much what readers think of them, and doing the launch season tends to lead to pretty big emotions when you make the mistake of comparing yourself to how other writers are doing in terms of reviews, media attention, awards and just generally what the very intelligent Nathan Whitlock has called “the fickle hand of fate” that lets a book break through the noise in publishing. For me, what Kathryn Mockler said kind of brings it all back, for me, to knowing that I write for myself for first of all, because I genuinely enjoy creating these worlds and these stories. And remembering that helps to take the pressure off.

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

I’d say that about half of the stories in Her Body Among Animals were written in tandem with the poetry for What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack. At that time, it was easy for me to switch between genres; I always felt there was a clear line between inspiration that was definite poem fodder, and ideas like that news article about Samantha the sex robot at a gaming convention, which I immediately knew was a story.  Moreover, I felt that poetry informed my fiction, giving my work a tone I know that Publishers Weekly described in a starred review as ”...hypnotic and visceral, weaving the richness of poetry with the economy of genre prose.” Working on poetry at the same time as fiction taught me to (somewhat obsessively) read my lines and scenes out loud, not only looking for plot and character and theme and the energy of a scene, but also the energy and the sound of a sentence, and whether this played into the whole of the piece. And, of course, poets are masters of what Emily Dickinson calls telling the truth “slant.” When I wrote Her Body Among Animals, I was very aware that I was writing about really hard subjects; postpartum anxiety, domestic abuse, women who are not acknowledged when they are having a mental health crisis.  And I think telling the truth “slant,” borrowing the conventions of genre fiction such as horror, so that postpartum anxiety becomes a poltergeist haunted house story, or using fairy tale language (and urban legends about lizard men) so that an abusive partner is an unbelievable dragon, makes it easier for the reader to stay with a story and actually enjoy a story that is telling a difficult truth.

Novels, I’m finding, are more difficult to genre-hop with. I’m currently finding that I need to stay in fiction to actually work on a long-form piece.

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 am a creature of routine. Part of that is a by-product of having a young child; if I don’t consciously set out to have a writing routine I will get absolutely nothing done. That being said, I feel like my writing routine is time I carve out from the margins of my life. I write on my lunch breaks (often with the aid of the lovely Second Cup next to where I work) and then, immediately when I get home from work while my son is still in daycare. I set word count goals: minimum 500 a day, 750 good, 1000 excellent. I write copious notes on my phone. Because I don’t have a lot of time, I try to use external cues (like getting that chai tea at lunch) to signal my brain into “Okay, this is writing time now.” I’ll also read a bit from my “buddy book” at that moment to get me in the groove of a particular scene before I start writing.

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

13 - What was your last Hallowe'en costume?

Wendy from Peter Pan. It was actually a group costume, my toddler son being the titular Peter Pan, my husband being Captain Hook, and me going as the girl who wants to be a mother. Considering how many stories in Her Body Among Animals deal with an ambivalence towards motherhood, manifested by everything from poltergeist manifestations to judgemental robotic implants to metamorphoses into spiders, the irony is not lost on me.

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?
Animals are in the title of this short fiction collection for a reason! I would say nature, and more specifically, internet deep dives for weird animal facts, heavily inspired this collection.

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

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In case all the references to horror movies and poltergeist hauntings in Her Body Among Animals didn’t give it away, I absolutely love Hallowe’en. I would love to be one of those scarers who works in some kind of Haunted House attraction because i think it would be like putting on your own personal horror movie (plus I love drama). Or, I would love to be a ghost tour guide. When I go to a new place, I’ll often take a ghost tour just to learn the history in the most fascinating way I can think of. Plus, is there anything better than getting paid to tell scary stories?

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?
Between writing, being a mom and having a full time job as a high school teacher I don’t want to think about having another occupation! I honestly don’t see a timeline where I’m not a writer, but I could definitely imagine one where I write as well as do something like coding, or applied physics because the patterning aspect of things like code and calculus have always felt like writing a poem to me.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As a kid, I always gravitated towards the arts. I took ballet; I played piano and, at school, saxophone in the Jazz Band. I loved drama, writing and acting in plays throughout high school. But my first love was always writing. I remember being maybe seven or eight when my mother introduced me to The Chronicles of Narnia and I was absolutely obsessed with both the series, and the idea that an actual person had created this fantastic world, and that there was such a thing as an author. In school, I was the kid who, when it came time to write that one page story for Hallowe’en on some cutesey pumpkin blackline master, would end up taking ten sheets of regular lined paper and stapling them to the back so I could finish my latest horror piece or murder mystery. Going into adulthood, I realized writing was also something I not only enjoyed, but needed. In living with depression, writing has been a way of coping, a way for me to remember the future is not always a place to despair, that there is something I can do, no matter what, that can bring me joy.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I have to give a shout out to Amy Jones’ Pebble & Dove, not only for the fact that it features one of the incredible animals of Canlit, Pebble the manatee, but because of Jones’s depiction of unconventional motherhood in the character of Imogen Starr. I think there is a lack of honest stories about what it’s like to be a mom and an artist simultaneously, something which Jones does with a complete lack of sentimentality. And as a mother and a writer, I felt seen (maybe a little too much!), and validated by how Jones chose to tackle the subject in a way that acknowledges the complexities of the person without reverting to judgment.

Being the mother of said young child, my recent cinema-going experience is seriously lacking, so I’m going back a bit here to 2019’s Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho. Not only do I consider this a practically perfect movie--that opening sequence, with dirty songs hanging off a bird cage looking out the only sub-basement window as a metaphor for escape is probably the most raw poetry I’ve seen in film in a long time—but it is also a stand-out movie for me for how it effortlessly mashes up genres. The first two thirds of Parasite I would consider a dark family comedy about class, but as we go deeper, metaphorically and basement level-wise, the last third shifts effortlessly to my absolute favourite genre, horror. I’d have to say it’s because of Parasite that I conceived of so many blended-genres stories in Her Body Among Animals; for example“Among Chameleons and Other Shades” is a romantic comedy blended with horror and ghost stories, while “Mermaid Girls” is one part classic coming of age, one part fairy tale, and one part cautionary ghost story.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on the debut novel, which I’ve titled Completables. It’s a speculative novel borrowing from science fiction and some hopeful solar punk conventions that satirically explores “living your best life,” interrogating notions of happiness created by late stage capitalism that are rooted in ableism and the exploitation of both the environment and women. It really questions ideas of happiness, how we find them, and who we hurt or help in the process.

Completables takes place in a South Padre hotel where billionaires wait to flee Earth’s ever-worsening environment to a luxury colony on Mars. The hotel staff are nicknamed Annas after the ANAAs (Anyneeds Neurologically Accurate Automatons), robots who have started to take their coveted jobs. In order to compete, they are expected to take COMPLETABLES, biochemical packages that delay aging, control depression and anxiety, and lighten the emotional content of memory, exploring how ableism is tied to toxic masculinity in the pressure women experience to present facades of wellness.  Social Escorts, women who live a luxurious Mars-bound life working as “happiness guides” to the wealthy (who are predominantly men), are another class of women who work at the hotel.

When the novel opens the narrator, Janna, is a bartender desperately hiding her depression and under surveillance because four biochips to Mars were stolen and she was involved in, along with a Social Escort, Ava, with whom she made a deal to give her eight-year-old daughter Hope, who also lives with depression and with whom she has a fractured relationship, an easier life on Mars. Despite the "way out" to Mars offered by becoming a Social Escort, the lack of personal autonomy, connections with their children, and rumors about how they are being forced to undergo illegal memory erasure to make them eternally happy and subservient to their clients cause Janna to view becoming a "Social" as a less than desirable job.

However, the plan goes awry when Ava inexplicably has no memory of it. Janna is then fired because of the discovery that she has been giving her daughter the COMPLETABLE PLEASANT, forcing her to become a Social Escort in order to pay off her debt to her employer.

Janna becomes the Social of the CEO of Completeables, Cecilia. Because of her own mental health and internalized patriarchy, Cecilia has a difficult relationship with her adult child Oriane, who lives in the beach camps and refuses to go to Mars. Janna starts seeing parallels with her own mother-daughter relationship, and begins to want the same as Cecilia: a life of chemically-induced happiness. However, when The Great Melt occurs, Janna finds out Cecilia has been erasing the memories of Social Escorts, and Cecilia demands Janna erase Oriane's memory to coerce her into going to Mars with them. This forces Janna to choose between a life of oblivious happiness, or confronting her internalized ableism and creating a future on Earth for herself and Hope.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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