Sunday, March 03, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sabrina Reeves

Sabrina Reeves grew up in Boston and New York and currently lives in Montreal. She founded the performance company Bluemouth Inc., with whom she’s written and staged over twelve original works and performed all over the world. She was awarded the Dean of Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Creative Writing upon completing her MFA at Concordia University in 2018.

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

It feels like I’ve been handed a permission slip to continue writing prose. My background is in writing for theatre and performance, texts that are meant to be spoken aloud. I’m sure there are writers who find performing their writing more daunting than simply leaving it on the page. But I find it much easier to perform my words than to trust the paper to convey all the emotion. There are no qualifiers, no added emotions or gestures on the page. The words must speak for themselves. Did I choose the right ones? What if my ideas change and I later disagree with myself? There is a permanence to writing that is daunting. Also, the sustained focus of long-form prose was a new challenge for me. Building sentences that add up to sections that add up to chapters that connect necessarily one to the other to build to an inevitable ending requires a very particular and sustained focus—and a fair number of rewrites!

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

I have been an actor for several decades. I co-founded the Toronto-based performance collective Bluemouth inc. I think it was in this transition from performing in other people’s work to creating my own that my affinity for writing became clear.

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 bit of both. Some of the chapters were written in one sitting and have changed very little since that first draft, while others have been worked over and over—some of the chapters I’d probably still be fiddling with if not for the deadline.

4 - Where does a work 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 would say there are multiple parts to my process. In the beginning, I like to have several different ideas percolating simultaneously. I collect bits of this and that: sentences, observations, research, free writing, etc., and then loosely file them under different project headings. The part of my brain that plans and has ideas about what I should write about is, unfortunately, not a very good writer. My controlled side is a bit too controlling; it doesn’t allow for anything unexpected, and so the writing is stilted and dry. I do, however, find constraints very freeing once I start to know what I’m working on. Nothing to do with content, strictly form. For example, write sections of exactly 15 lines each, write lots of them, write until you have 20 pages worth and organize those into a coherent piece. Or write a page without using the letter S. Sometimes, those constraints short-circuit the “control freak” side of the brain and remind the creative side that it has its own organizational logic and to trust that.

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

I love doing readings.

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?

This may seem redundant, but I am drawn to the power of story. I have friends in different artistic disciplines, mostly dance and visual art. And sometimes they ask me for feedback, and I can’t help but put a narrative to what I see, even if what they’re doing is, for example, exploring the color blue. I believe in Joan Didion’s line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I suppose that has something to do with how I approach writing. I am drawn to women’s stories, mental health issues, generational trauma, and the opioid epidemic, for example. But I believe personal stories have the power to resonate on a mythic level, and so would always approach any issue through personal narrative. One of my favorite writers is Claire Keegan. Most of her stories are deceptively simple, usually set in Ireland, or some small rural place where not many people live, in a time that is unspecified, featuring humble characters, and I don’t think she’s written anything longer than a novella. So, never some grand issue-based opus. And yet, every single one of her stories hits me like she has reached across continents, stuck her hand in my chest and touched my heart. Images of the atomic bomb come to mind; each story, an atom that annihilates. Even the simplest story can hold tremendous power.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think the role of the fiction writer is to make big issues personal by transmuting facts into story.

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

Not difficult at all. For me, particularly writing something autobiographical, it proved essential. At times, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees; Shivaun really helped me find the throughline.

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

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Joseph Campbell

I think every day, almost every moment we have the choice not to be afraid, to choose life. We are so driven by habit, but many of our habits came into being to protect us from things we were afraid of. It can be a daily effort to remind oneself that we have choices; we don’t have to still be afraid of things we were afraid of as children.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (performance texts/plays to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Two of the most impactful books I read when I was younger were Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Woolf’s The Waves. I didn’t realize it was “allowed” to write novels like that. That rulebreaking that defined Modernism had a profound effect on me.

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 free write every morning. And I keep a small notebook with me to collect thoughts and observations as they arise throughout the day. In nice weather, I walk on the mountain (in Montreal) in the morning and then write in a café afterward. Lots of thoughts come to me when I’m walking. The afternoons are a bit less predictable. I’d love to say, “I sit at my desk for three hours every afternoon.” But that’s not true. I have two kids and my life is unpredictable. Sometimes I get more writing done in the afternoon, but sometimes not.

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

Free writing, observation, and unusual writing constraints

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?

Little Crosses was heavily influenced by the landscape of the southwest. In general, being in a very different landscape or climate or city than the one I live in makes me notice more. It awakens my curiosity. Another thing that inspires me: I have a lot of friends in the dance community and my daughter is a dancer, so we go to a lot of dance shows. When I am at a dance show, I am often flooded with ideas and images. Dance is so much about architecture of space and rhythm and tone, and oddly there is something about plotting that is similar. The necessity of architecture and orchestration. Often I will bring a very small pad of paper and a pen when I go to a show and I surreptitiously take notes.

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

Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, James Hillman, Louise Erdrich, Claire Keegan, Jenny Offill, George Saunders, Miriam Toews, Joseph Campbell, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf.

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

Live somewhere else for an extended period. Japan and Ireland come to mind.

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 would love to be a farmer or run a small bookshop. Not exactly an exciting response, but there you have it. I have no desire to skydive or hike the Himalayas, though that would be a more exciting answer.

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

Though my creativity takes various avenues, it is always fueled by storytelling. I consider myself a beginner in writing fiction, but in storytelling and dialogue and creating scenes that evoke emotion, I feel comfortable saying that this is what I do. From years of performing my writing in front of an audience, I have gained an immediate visceral sense of how to connect with an audience through words.

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

I just finished Lydia Davis’s collection Our Strangers, which I loved and Dennis Lehane’s Small Mercies. And last week I saw the film American Fiction, which I really enjoyed.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Various short pieces, that will likely turn into longer pieces.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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