Interviewed by Michelle Kelm
M.A.C. Farrant is an award-winning Canadian author of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. She is a regular book reviewer for the Globe & Mail and the Vancouver Sun and has taught writing at the University of Victoria, the Banff Centre for the Arts, and MacQuarrie University in Australia where she was Writer-in-Residence.
Farrant has been nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, The Van City Book Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the National Magazine Awards, and the Gemini Awards for the Bravo short film adaptation of her story, Rob’s Guns & Ammo. Her novel, The Strange Truth About Us was a Globe & Mail Best Book for 2012. Her latest stage play is My Turquoise Years.
I have admired Farrant’s intelligent and bizarre humour for years and was delighted when she agreed to speak to me by email.
It’s clear from My Turquoise Years that your upbringing was a bit unusual. Can you describe your childhood?
My childhood was highly unusual for the times – Post-war, fifties and early sixties – when the nuclear family represented something like 92% of all Canadian families. So to have a willingly absent mother, a visiting father from Vancouver, and to be raised by my father’s sister, her husband, and the rest of the extended family, was an anomaly, to say the least. Feelings of being different arose, of course, but, actually, I had a great childhood filled with inventiveness, creativity, and the freedom to be who I was. The family was very tight-knit and they pretty much thought I was wonderful even though I was a pain in the ass a lot of the time.
What did you want to be when you were young?
What did I want to be? A Broadway singer! I named her/me Liza Lane ( I watched a lot of 1930’s and ‘40’s movies on TV with my aunt.) After that a vet, and after that, a writer.
You have been writing for nearly 30 years. What drove you to begin your career as a writer? What did you do before that?
Well, I began well before that – dabbling, dreaming, writing a poetry ms, writing a novel, both of which went nowhere. After my second child was born I figured if I didn’t do something now I never would. By “doing something” I meant get serious about writing, being a writer. With this in mind I took a fiction workshop at UVic. To my great good luck the instructor was the wonderful Leon Rooke who was teaching a one-off class. He liked the odd-ball stuff I was writing and told me to “go crazy.” In other words, gave me permission, which in turn gave me the confidence to continue. My first published story (1985) was in a Victoria arts magazine called Random Thought. After that, I went the literary magazine route until I had enough stories published to approach a publisher.
But before the serious writing began I worked as a social worker with what were then called “emotionally disturbed children”. After that I worked for west coast fishing guru, Charlie White, managing his publishing business (“How to Catch Crabs” “Salmon”, and so on), and then his film business (“In Search of the Incredible Lure”).
I’ve been reading a lot about the daily routines of writers because I find it helps me make peace with the absurdity of my own daily routine. What is your process? Do you write at a specific time or in a specific place each day? Where do your ideas come from? Do you let them mature in your head before you begin to write?
I write, or think about writing, or read something, many things, every single day. My ideas come from whatever is at hand, what grabs me at the moment – incidents from past and present life, newspaper stories, books I’ve read, poetry, the usual.
The book I am working on now, and which Talonbooks is bringing out in 2014, arose out of an assignment I gave myself. And that was to write a composition of some sort every day for a year – with no time off, not even Christmas. It didn’t matter if the composition was only a sentence or a paragraph, but it had to, in my opinion, have merit. I was and am very interested in the prose poem form and in combining that with narrative. Sometimes my self-inflicted assignment would take ten minutes to complete, other times hours. I ran out of gas at the ten and a half month mark, but, by then, I had a book and knew where I was going with it.
I have written several books now on commission and I like working this way, to deadline. This includes My Turquoise Years which I began on Sept 1, 2002 and completed in May of 2003. (It was published in 2004 by Greystone). I feel extremely fortunate to have the support of my publishers to do this. Also, if possible, I like to take the summers off so try to organize my writing schedule around that.
You were in your 30’s when you began what is a very impressive writing career. This gives me great hope. What obstacles did you run into along the way?
Time and money mostly and also, at times, wavering confidence. Gertrude Stein’s statement, “No one cares if you don’t write” kept me going, as did my good friend Pauline Holdstock who, like me, was also beginning a career while raising children. We’d escape family responsibilities by going on mini-reading tours. These we engineered ourselves by asking book stores and small festivals to invite us. Begged them to invite us!
What was the process of approaching publishers like for you in the beginning? How did you deal with the inevitable rejection that comes with being a writer?
I was pretty naïve, though cocky and full of energy, and actually quite driven. When I had enough “credits”, that is, published stories, I sent query letters and a few sample stories to every publisher in Canada, even the big ones. The big ones didn’t reply, but a number of medium and small publishers did, asking to see more. I picked the publisher with the nicest letterhead – which was mauve – and sent my full manuscript there. This was Thistledown Press who published Sick Pigeon in 1991.
Rejection is never easy to handle. There was plenty of that. Somehow I just put my head down and ploughed through it, focussing on any success. And in the early days, a handwritten sentence of encouragement on a form rejection letter was enough to keep me going.
You do a lot of writing about your family. That can be dangerous territory. How do you approach the issue of writing honestly about people who you know and care about?
The stories that appeared in my first book, Sick Pigeon, had a number of stories – fictionalized of course! – about my family that raised me. I was nervous about how they would react but they loved the stories, telling me it was just like they remembered. What a relief! Beyond that I’ve found that humour goes a long way, and then I’ve never written about things that anyone would find deeply upsetting. I showed portions of My Turquoise Years to the people I was writing about for their approval before the book was published.
Your writing, your short stories in particular, is very non-conformist and your work is often described as hilarious and absurd. How have editors responded to this? (Ahem, “Fifty thousand vaginas were sent through the mail. Free samples.”) Do you have any advice for new writers who would like to stay true to their own non-conformist ways?
Fortunately, I have never had a problem with book editors disliking anything I’ve written; they know what I’m doing when the book is accepted for publication. The editorial help comes with shaping a work for clarity and conciseness. My editor with Talon on the last four books, and now on a fifth, is Karl Siegler. Lynn Henry, Barbara Pulling, and Stephen Osborne have also edited books of mine. I really like the editing process and always learn something useful, and often something insightful.
As for writing non-conformist fiction, I am always attempting to write pieces that excite and delight me, and that, hopefully, provide insight, scope, and aesthetic pleasure to a reader. There are a lot of writers – historically and now – who have gone down this “non-conformist” road. I was emboldened by reading them, and still am. Writers like Julio Cortazar, Donald Barthelme, James Thurber, Kurt Vonnegut, Lydia Davis, David Markson, Renata Adler, George Saunders, Harry Mathews and the entire Oulipo group, Peter Handke. Then there are the filmmakers I love – Fellini, Wim Wenders, David Lynch – and poets, tons of poets, especially prose poets: James Tate, Charles Simic, and my all time favourite, Russell Edson.
Do you have any general advice for new writers?
Follow your nose. Write what you love to read. In the beginning read the works of writers whose work you want yours to be like. Persevere. Trust in your own perceptions and intuitions. Continue reading. Read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, science, journalism, comic books, catalogues, newspapers, blogs. Develop your own mind. This last one is the most important, in my opinion, because what you are doing when you write for publication is offering up your mind, making your mind and all that is has to say, public. You want that mind to be a good one.
What has been your greatest accomplishment as a writer? Has there been one moment that trumps all others in your memory?
Having My Turquoise Years make it to the stage has been pretty spectacular. But having the freedom to write what I want, to discover my writing, as it were, to be able to begin a project and know that it will be published has to be up there. Going to a book club that had been reading My Turquoise Years and finding everyone wearing turquoise and even that food from the sixties had been prepared in my honour – well, that just bowled me over.
My Turquoise Years is your first book to be adapted for the stage. How did that come about? Was is something you had always had an interest in?
The book was serialized on CBC radio – “Between the Covers” – and the actor who read it was the wonderful Nicola Cavendish. She suggested to me that the book would adapt well to the stage and put me in touch with Bill Millerd and Rachel Ditar of the Arts Club Theatre. Adapting the book was something I had not even thought of at the time. It was a steep learning curve – the collaborative process; being open to the steady input from Rachel as Dramaturge, and the actors who gave public readings of the play on three occasions; writing and re-writing scripts.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received (writing or otherwise)?
Well, Leon Rooke telling me to “go crazy” turned out to be excellent advice. In other words, it meant not censuring myself, letting my imagination fly and see where it took me and, above all, being somewhat fearless.
Michelle Kelm is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays as well as a novel. She lives and writes in Vancouver.