By Nathan Smith
Annabel Lyon is a Canadian novelist and short story writer, born in Brampton, Ontario, but raised in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Her short story collection, Oxygen, was published in 2000. Since then, she has published a second short collection, two young adult novels, and two historical novels.
The Golden Mean, published by Random House in 2009, was the only novel that year to be nominated for the three major Canadian fiction prizes: the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s award for English Language Fiction, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize–the first of which it won. Her most recent novel, a sequel to The Golden Mean, is The Sweet Girl.
Annabel currently teaches in the Creative Writing department at UBC.
What did you do before you were a writer?
My very first ambition as a child was to become a musician. I studied piano intensively and taught it for years, but to make another sports analogy, I was like someone who was 5’5″ and wanted to be in the NBA. It just wasn’t going to happen. I studied philosophy in my undergraduate program with English and French literature minors. I also did a year in the Law program. I initially didn’t think I would be able to sustain myself as a professional writer, so I thought I’d better have a backup. It seemed like the logical next step. After a year I was miserable and I dropped out.
Eventually it just came down to finding the confidence to say, “Okay, I’m going to throw myself into fiction writing wholeheartedly and work as hard at it as with any other profession.” The next day, I woke up at six in the morning and decided to start writing a novel.
Was writing always a passion for you?
I always knew that I wanted to write. I had this delusional image of myself somehow magically becoming a writer without actually thinking of what was involved in that.
My parents were always thrilled about it. My dad is a journalist and an aspiring fiction writer, so I guess that’s why it never seemed so ridiculous for a perfectly intelligent adult to make a living as a writer. I think a lot of my confidence was instilled by them, so I feel very lucky that way. Of course, they were happy when I’d decided to go to law school. When I dropped out, I saw them go: “Oh…Okay. Well, we support you!”
Writing crosses over many different genres–and even entirely different industries. What is it about writing that’s important to you?
In my last year of philosophy I read the works of an academic named Martha Nussbaum. She was very important for me, because she said that you can take a literary text and put it next to a philosophical text, and each can have equal merit. You can use this other medium to get to the very same ideas, and in some ways, do it better. There are aspects of our lives and our morals that might only be understood through fiction and storytelling. Martha Nussbaum said that emotion has to be understood as narrative. You can’t experience emotion in a vacuum; emotions have shape. Storytelling can enable you to inhabit a mind or a world that you might have no other way of accessing.
I do, in fact, believe that what we do is important. Once you accept that, creative writing isn’t a trivial thing. We can all contribute in an important way to the larger political and moral discussions within our culture.
When did you decide that your work was ready for publication, and what was your plan to get published?
There was no plan. Really, there wasn’t. I was completely naive when I entered the MFA program. I couldn’t have named a single literary magazine in Canada. I remember when a classmate loaned me a book by Richard Ford, whom I’d never heard of, and my head came off. Suddenly I started reading a lot more contemporary Canadian and American writers. Students around me were submitting to journals for publication, and I thought, that’s cool, I should do that too.
I find that students today are much more savvy than I was, but I also think we had an easier time with it. It’s way more difficult to get that first book published now. Back in 1994, we weren’t talking about the dire state of the industry.
I’ve been told that it can be difficult to publish a collection of short stories without already being an established author. Why did you start there?
I was naive and I had no idea about markets at that time, but I also think that I’m a natural short story writer. It’s a length that has always felt comfortable to me. A novel is hugely challenging. Even though I’ve had several published now, I sometimes feel like I’m flailing. I’ve never felt it was my area of supreme confidence.
The analogy I like to use is with running. Many people, when they begin as a runner, start with smaller distances and work their way up, but they also have a particular body type. Some are suited to longer marathons and some are natural sprinters. It’s the reason why we see poets make good short story writers, and people with a background in screenplay crossover more easily to novel. There are very few people who are accomplished in all forms.
Had you been working up to publishing a novel, such as The Golden Mean?
I wrote The Golden Mean because it was the first idea that I had that couldn’t be expressed as a short story. It was just too big. I don’t think you can do justice to Aristotle and Alexander the Great in fifteen pages. Frankly, I think it was also the only idea that I could have sustained interest in for the length of time it took to write. I had attempted to write a novel before that failed, and it ended up as a novella. It kept collapsing back to the essential ninety pages, so eventually I just jettisoned the other material and published it that way.
I also knew fairly early on while writing The Golden Mean that I would follow it up with The Sweet Girl. It was a companion piece more than it was a sequel because I felt that I’d only written half of that world.
You’ve been a strong advocate of “getting the first draft done” for students troubled with larger projects. What was the process that led to the publication of The Golden Mean?
It was rough. The earliest drafts of The Golden Mean were about forty pages. It was just this embryonic thing where you could see the shape of the story, but many parts were only sketched in like a screenplay. Every time I went back, it kept getting bigger and bigger, but it was a long time before all those scenes were written out.
There were several points where I thought, I can’t do this, I’m going to go back and turn this into a novella. What kept me going was that outline I’d written. It gave me a certain freedom knowing I could write something different and it wouldn’t be wasted. I’d set my quota as two hundred words a day, and I could jump in at any point. If I didn’t feel like writing something, I’d jump to another part of the story. It was my lifeline, which is why I’m so adamant about it to students.
Was there a difference in your mentality once you’d been published?
I have a certain confidence that I can complete a novel, which I didn’t have at all while writing The Golden Mean. I think, now, that I’d like to go back and write short stories again. Working on the novels confirmed for me that short fiction is what I like to read and write.
I always joked that Oxygen was fourteen stories about a girl and her dad watching television. It comes up again and again. I’d like to go back to that narrative style; let go of plot, focus purely on language and prose. I think that’s what I would do in a perfect world.
Did you ever struggle with the balance between content and audience?
I was told a few times while writing The Golden Mean–particularly when my agent was trying to sell it–that the readers for historical fiction are primarily middle-aged women and that they want to be reading a love story. I was rejected multiple times on the grounds that it wasn’t conventional storytelling, that in order to publish it I would need to include certain elements that were expected of me. I certainly could have chosen to include those things, but I didn’t. There was no way I could get myself to do it.
I think I would be a far more commercially successful writer if I could get myself to write the things I knew would be marketable, but if your heart isn’t in it, you can’t.
What do you feel is your greatest challenge as a writer?
Making a living. Being able to sustain myself has always been a concern, especially now that I have a family and children. As a writer, I think it’s important to have your fingers in a lot of pies. You can’t go into the industry thinking you’ll survive purely off of, say, short stories. You’re going to write short stories, but you’re also going to write articles, you’re going to do book reviews, do some teaching, and you might even work in a coffee shop on the side. You need to do a number of different things and pull them all together until you reach the point where you can start choosing your own direction. It might not always be something that you want to do, but you have to help yourself get to where you want to be.
What is your opinion on the importance of agents for emerging writers to becoming published?
If you want to approach the big publishers in Canada, it’s best to have an agent. You hear these stories about people being pulled out of the slush pile, having a big hit published out of nowhere and selling their novel around the world. That’s lovely when it happens, but it’s like someone winning the lottery. It isn’t the way the world often works.
It’s important to build your writing resumé. Most agents have their own slush piles as well, so you need to focus on developing yourself within the literary culture as a whole. Once you’ve accumulated those credits, you can approach an agent and show them, this is who I am, and I am capable of writing publishable work.
Do you feel that contests and awards are important for establishing yourself?
I think people can get over focused on those sorts of things. Of course, if you win an award then you can use that on your resume and that’s a good thing. Agents and publishers do pay attention to that, especially the larger awards. However, for me, that’s not what writing is about. It isn’t about winning and beating other people. We aren’t a sport; you can’t measure writing like that. Once you get up to the highest awards, such as the Governor General’s award, you often get that spotlight put on one particular book, but the books just outside the penumbra are just as amazing.
I’m ambivalent towards this because I’ve been lucky to benefit in this area myself, but I worry when students approach me with material specifically designed for a contest. Sometimes they feel forced to fit certain requirements or fit it within a particular length. Is that really serving your work? You can’t fit something into a box that it doesn’t belong in without severely limiting yourself. A great tip that someone told me years ago is to submit to the magazine running the contest, but don’t submit to the contest. Chances are they’re still looking for content for their next publications, but most people are submitting to the contest instead.
How do you feel the shift in the industry towards a digital platform affects both established and emerging authors?
The obvious answer is that we don’t know yet. I want to be optimistic about it though. It might be an evolution that becomes more evident through generations. My concept of what reading and writing a book might become different from what my kids think it is. We’re still at that time of transition where I’m interested to see what will happen, but I don’t know if it will profoundly affect what I do. There are certain primal elements to storytelling that I don’t think are going to change no matter how you package it up. The business might change, but my relationship with words probably won’t.
If you could give only one piece of advice to an emerging writer, what would it be?
Treat creative writing as you would with any other job or career. That means, treat it more seriously than most people think you have to. Get up in the morning and put in your hours. You need to put in the hard work if you want to succeed.
Nathan Smith is an undergraduate student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. Born in Yellow Knife, Northwest Territories, but raised in Castlegar, BC, Nathan first discovered his passion for writing at Selkirk College. In 2009 and 2010, his interests paired him up with the Columbia Basin Trust, whereby he taught creative writing in high schools across the BC southern interior for the Scratch Writing Contest. He is primarily a fiction writer, but also works in stage, screen and graphic novel.