Monday, April 15, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Kit Dobson

Kit Dobson lives in Calgary, Treaty 7 territory, in southern Alberta. He is the author or editor of eight previous books, including Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada and Field Notes on Listening, one of the CBC’s top non-fiction books of 2022. We Are Already Ghosts, his first novel, is scheduled to be published in May 2024.

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 was an academic book, Transnational Canadas, published in 2009. It changed my life in many ways, first and foremost by showing me that I could actually see a book through to publication. That book still brings me the occasional note from readers, for which I am grateful. My most recent writing has shifted toward creative work, so it’s quite different. The most recent examples are my 2022 nonfiction book Field Notes on Listening and my forthcoming first novel, We Are Already Ghosts. The work now feels very changed. I have the confidence of having seen other projects through, which is great, and I am continuing to challenge myself in new ways.

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

Spending a lot of time in university shaped my initial writing. So it’s shifting from academic writing that brought me to creative non-fiction and then to other modes. My first creative non-fiction book was Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada. I initially thought that I was writing an academic book. It took a discerning reader to let me know that I was trying to fit a creative project into a critical frame – and that it wasn’t working. With that book, it was a matter of shedding a protective layer (my academic voice) in order to let that book be what it wanted to be. Fiction has been harder. My thinking was that I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of novels; I’ve written essays and criticism about dozens of them; maybe I could write one. Turns out it’s really hard, as any fiction writer can tell you. Having now endeavoured to complete a novel has enriched how I read and write about all of the fictional works that I encounter. I have tremendous respect for anyone who manages to write a novel.

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 varies so much! I work on more than one project at a time. That means that if I get stuck on one project, I can flip to working on another – until I get stuck again and make another shift. It’s a process that works for me. So the forthcoming novel has been about nine years in the making, but in the middle of that I paused and wrote Field Notes on Listening, which took about five years. I kept editing the novel when I got stuck with Field Notes in turn (and I have more projects in the works, ones that I’ve kept working on in fragments). All of that is to say that my writing is a slow, laborious, and at-times painful process. First drafts look nothing like their final published forms. I have a notebook in which I scribble notes, plot timelines, do character sketches, organize ideas, and draft in longhand, then I rewrite drafts into my computer, then I take a pause, then I print out drafts, scribble all over them, and then rewrite from scratch on the computer all over again – multiple times, as necessary. It is not a tidy process, but it is one that I am pretty happy with.

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 whatever reason, the scale and scope of the book works for me. I tend to think in book-sized and book-shaped projects, for good or for ill. I may put out some smaller pieces from that project along the way, but find that I am always working on a book from the get-go.

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

I enjoy doing some readings because I am concerned with fostering and building literary communities. Readings can be one way of supporting that process. But this question is perhaps a version of one that I often ask people who write, which is: do you prefer to write or to have written? That is to say, do you prefer the process or the product? While I do write because I have a goal of sharing an idea or of presenting an argument to readers, if I am honest I prefer the process. There is nothing better for me than being at home, at my desk (which is formerly my grandparents’ farmhouse dining table), with a coffee, during a cold, snowy day, and writing for an hour or two. That’s the best. I do readings for the sake of community, friendship, and conversation – but my writerly self (who is rather an introvert at heart) is happiest when writing.

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?

My answer to this question will vary from project to project, but I am always thinking in terms of theory, society, and the political. In the broadest of terms, I concern myself with thinking about the world we live in, analyzing its shortcomings, and trying to articulate how we might learn to think, see, listen, and live differently. My personal goal is to leave my own little corner of the world a little bit better when I go. I hope that I can do that. Whenever anyone tells me that they have read a piece of mine, my answer is some version of “I hope that it was useful for you in some way.” I really do mean it. I don’t think that I am a particularly interesting human, but I do think that we can have meaningful conversations with each other through words. To me, that’s an amazing thing. The current questions are wide-ranging, but I am at this moment very concerned with polarization and social fragmentation. The literary has a role to play in bridging between divides and I work in that spirit.

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?

Writers absolutely have a role to play in larger culture. I have been following the conversations about book bans and censorship with interest lately. I taught a course on this subject this past year, one that featured some of the most controversial books of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If books – and by extension writers – didn’t matter, then there wouldn’t be this intense energy being directed toward banning and censoring books. I’ve spent many years having to defend books and literary studies against the charge of being boring or passé. These days it's the reverse. Republicans in the US are threatening literal burnings of books with LGBTQ+ and BIPOC content and similar attempts to ban books are afoot in Canada. To me, this sign is one among very many that books continue to play a vital role in culture writ large. Books matter as a way of sharing vital information and for forming communities. I am a passionate believer in the importance of literary works and I believe that this role is a good one – if fraught – for writers.

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

Editors are crucial. Anyone who wishes to write and believes that they do not need an editor is, in my view, not ready to be making their work public. I say this because such a resistance means that the writer is not ready to accept feedback and criticism (which, believe me, happens when one publishes a book). The process can be difficult, yes, but it is essential. I gave the example already of a reader – who became my editor – who let me know that Malled wasn’t working because of the box into which I was trying to put that manuscript. That’s one example. The editor for my latest book is Naomi K. Lewis, who is a brilliant writer, reader, and editor whom I admire tremendously. Naomi’s insights were crucial, and I do my best to maintain positive relationships with anyone who has ever served as an editor for any of my projects.

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

Don’t fall in love with your own writing. That piece of advice was given to me by Judith Mitchell, the professor at the University of Victoria who taught the introduction to literary theory seminar that I took more than a quarter-century ago. I was frustrated by that advice at first because I wanted every word to count. I realize now that it was an invitation to the recognition that one can edit one’s work without worrying about “losing” important or valuable words. Most of what I draft doesn’t see the light of day – and that’s a good thing. Just because one has written a sentence doesn’t mean one needs to keep that sentence. Let it go. Becoming less precious about my writing has been tremendously helpful.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (essays to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

My moving between genres has been an endeavour to respond to how best to share my arguments, ideas, or visions. Essays serve one kind of audience and creative non-fiction serves another. My academic training focused relatively little on thinking about audience, so that’s something that I’ve been meditating on in depth recently. That’s not a slight against my mentors or my training; they taught me fantastic and wonderful things about how to think and how to exist in this world. I wouldn’t be able to do the work without them. But I suppose that I wasn’t ready to learn to think in depth about audience until more recently. It’s been that shift in my thinking about audience that has helped me to move between genres.

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 wish I had a routine! My daily life is moderately chaotic. My day begins with helping everyone in my household to get set for the day, walking the dog, and so on. I answer emails from my students first. I plan my teaching, I do my marking, I go to meetings. I keep scholarly tasks on campus moving along. I coordinate future plans, touch base with fellow writers, colleagues, friends. On good days, I squeeze in some writing early on (sometimes quite early). When deadlines start to loom, I deal with them. I think it may be easier to think of my routine in terms of seasons: fall and winter I am typically doing all of those things that I just listed at a full-out sprint. Spring and summer I get more writing done, but it remains a struggle. I look forward to a time when I might be better able to calibrate my rhythms, but I haven’t managed it lately. I do insist, though, on taking weekends away from my desk. I’ve been through enough rounds of burnout in my life to know that I need to maintain a level of balance. I have had cycles of burnout that have taken years for me to recover from and I never want to find myself there again. So self-care is also very important to me, as best as I can manage it.

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

Inspiration is a fine word by me, partly because it is connected to breathing. I head to the woods and get a breath of fresh air. I go outdoors as much as I can and that is what grounds my practice (literally and metaphorically). A good hike with a friend will do more for me than any amount of trying to force my writing when I stall out.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Pine, spruce, cedar. I am fussy about smells. I am actually fussy about almost all sensory inputs. I cut the tags out of my shirts because they itch and I can only tolerate certain fabrics. Same for smells. If it smells like a forest in Alberta or BC, then I can enjoy it. Otherwise I struggle with fragrance. Most fragrances tip me into a kind of sensory overload. Same with loud noises and bad lighting. My partner (rightly) tells me that I am not the easiest human to deal with.

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?

Books definitely come from books – that’s a cornerstone to my practice. But yes, books come from elsewhere too. Field Notes on Listening came from other books, but also, and very importantly, that book came from the landscapes of Alberta, and northern Alberta in particular. That book is a result of over forty years of returning to the same landscape and then slowly learning words that could attempt to convey that experience. Music, science, and visual art can inspire me in ways similar to books, but I’d really like to emphasize the importance of returning to land and environment, especially in my most recent work. My previous non-fiction book, Malled, also involved being in specific spaces – in that case, each of the shopping environments about which I was writing. I literally wrote the initial draft of the first chapter of that book in Calgary’s Chinook Centre mall on Boxing Day.

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

I am often asked what my favourite book is. I thought for a very long time about this question before I settled on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It’s a novel that I return to every few years and I get something else out of it each time. My own novel is an attempt to mix stylistic elements of To the Lighthouse with bpNichol’s playful poetics in an Albertan setting. I have an extremely long list of key texts in my life – touchstones to which I return and new books that devastate and inspire me – but maybe that’s a whole separate conversation.

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

I would like to slow down. I could come up with a more zippy answers, but slowing down speaks to where I’m at right now. I return to this challenge periodically. One my commitments is to be in the forest as much as possible. Every summer for the last few years I have managed nearly a week of being fully off the grid, but it seems like a drop in the bucket in an otherwise very busy life.

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?

Well, it sure wouldn’t be an astronaut. (My friends know that I have a perhaps ill-founded antipathy towards our celestial über-Menschen because they are always looking down on us. Besides, my eyesight isn’t nearly good enough.) I work at the University of Calgary and so I am also a professor, or at least that’s my job title. I don’t tend to think of myself as a writer. Instead, I usually think of myself as someone who writes. Back in the day I signed up to write the LSAT exam and to go to law school, but I don’t think that I would have been good at it. My baseline level of anxiety is too high for that profession.

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

Increasingly I will say that the best – or even the only – reason to write is that one couldn’t not write. I think that that’s my reason: I couldn’t not write. It’s a thing that I do. I do other things also, but I write because I couldn’t do otherwise.

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

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the most recent book that I read that absolutely knocked me flat. What an amazing book. Sad, devastating, and beautiful. I cannot recommend it enough. The film Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is probably the last great film; its nuanced reworking of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice made it one of the most touching and simultaneously heart-wrenching films that I have seen in a long time. Both are not exactly up-to-the-moment references, but I come to some things later than others do.

20 - What are you currently working on?

With my novel We Are Already Ghosts set to be published in May, I am going to dedicate some of my energies to having the follow-up conversations that that book may lead to, for a start. Behind that book I have several academic projects that I am working on, none of which are really in such a state that I can say too much about them yet. But more than any of those things, I am working on finding small cracks of time that might allow me to slow down. I might never complete another novel, I don’t know (though I have one in the works). I am working on community, on relationships, and on figuring out how to become a better person. I’m a work-in-progress myself, after all.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

No comments: