Interviewed by Kyla Jamieson
Billie Livingston is the author of seven books, including her recent novella The Trouble With Marlene, which has been adapted for the screen and will be released this year (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2814080/). Billie’s first book, the novel Going Down Swinging, was published by Random House in 2000. Her debut short story collection, Greedy Little Eyes, won both the CBC Bookie Award and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award; the Globe and Mail called it “dark, funny, graceful, witty.” One Good Hustle, Billie’s most recent novel, was long-listed for the Giller Prize, and her essay “Hitler Sea Skank” (http://eighteenbridges.com/story/sea-hitler-skank) earned her a nomination for a National Magazine Award. Her recent stories have appeared in both print and online editions of Hazlitt (http://www.randomhouse.ca/search/node/billie%20livingston).
Billie and I met for coffee and continued our conversation over e-mail. Up for discussion were Evil Application Forms, mental furniture, and the job of the writer.
You’ve said you once thought of writers as “those people,” referring to the Oxford and Harvard-educated, and I’m wondering when your perspective shifted: When did being a professional writer start to seem possible?
In hindsight, my feelings were a sort of familial hangover. My mother was of the opinion that only people from the other side of the tracks wrote books, people with PhDs. My perspective shifted when I started reading and submitting to literary journals. I couldn’t get published to save my soul in Canada. What I was writing didn’t seem to be in vogue in this country, so my first publications were in England, Ireland, Australia and the U.S. The journals were often independent—i.e. they didn’t come out of academic institutions—and they published fiction and poetry with an urban feel, which was more in line with what I was doing. Having said all that, Banff was the significant turning point in terms of seeing myself as someone who could be a professional writer.
What motivated you to apply to The Banff Centre, and what did you take away from that experience?
I had come to a point where I was feeling lost. I’d published a whack of poems, but I didn’t know any writers and I didn’t know how to take it further. I was poking away at the first stirrings of what would become my first novel [Going Down Swinging] and I felt as though somebody out there probably knew the “right way” to go about this stuff. At the same time, I was unnerved by anything that felt like a formal institution—i.e. writers’ retreats like Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony, extended workshops like The Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. The application itself frightened me. I applied to Banff as a sort of personal challenge: Confronting the Evil Application Form.
I hoped to go to Banff, in particular, because it was promoted as a place where the participants would be treated as authors. There was a sense that this was a place for mentorship as opposed to a student-teacher relationship. In the five weeks at Banff, I worked with several mentors and each had his or her viewpoint about the best way to tackle an issue. It was the best thing I could have experienced: There is no single way to do anything, much less write a poem or a story.
You didn’t go to university, but you were encouraged to apply. How did you decide it wasn’t the right route for you?
There were several UBC students at Banff and they spoke in a sort of academic patois. I didn’t know what they were talking about most of the time. Part of me wondered if I should challenge myself by going back to school just to learn another kind of discourse. Living in Toronto at the time, I applied to U of T as a “mature student” and received word that I would need to take a mandatory year of remedial classes before I could begin a Bachelor of Fine Arts. A friend spoke with someone at admissions on my behalf, and they offered to waive that requirement. I was relieved—but knowing that this remedial year was not mandatory if you knew someone on the inside gave me a sour feeling about the whole process. Shortly after that, I received an Explorations Grant from the Canada Council, and dove headlong into what would become Going Down Swinging, my first novel.
After Going Down Swinging was published, someone suggested to me that I could use my first published book as a means of getting into the UBC Creative Writing Program. This struck me as absurd, akin to flying for Air Canada and then using the work experience to get into flight school. It was a practical suggestion from someone who assumed that I would want to teach at UBC and would therefore need a master’s degree to do so, but I have no interest in a full-time position as a creative writing instructor. I can’t fathom how they fill semester after semester, year after year. What the hell do they do in there?
Are there any mentors or peers who’ve been important to your development as a writer?
Banff was instrumental—the minds and experiences it exposed me to made a huge impression. Rachel Wyatt was program director at the time and she was enormously encouraging. Susan Musgrave was also extremely supportive, as was Rhea Tregebov, who continued to give both editorial and professional advice. The faith and expertise of experienced writers was invaluable.
As a bit of a side note, can you say a little about the Seven Sisters Writing Group? I haven’t been able to find much information and am wondering what the nature of the group was and how it came about.
For me, the group began with an invitation from Suzanne Buffam, who was a participant at the Banff Centre the same year I was there. She and poet Judy MacInnes Jr. started a writers group and invited me to be a part of it. We met once a month, give or take, and work-shopped and shared information. We self-published a couple of anthologies and did readings together. The group was often in flux; people appeared and disappeared—much like the Seven Sisters constellation, which is where the name came from. We met for about six years and then drifted apart. A few of us keep in touch, but we haven’t met as a group in a dozen years or more.
Mothers who struggle with alcoholism, kids in foster care, absent fathers, and families on welfare all crop up more than once in your stories and novels, and you’ve said you like to write about people off the grid, whose voices we don’t often hear. Would you say telling these stories is part of why you write?
I guess those things are just part of my mental furniture. I grew up in a single parent home, on welfare and therefore in, shall we say, “affordable” neighborhoods. There were certainly a lot of alcoholics around. Of course there were also more stable family members, but we tended to keep them at arm’s length because they were clearly appalled by the squalor of our household. One reviewer complained that I wrote a great deal about middle-class people prone to criminal acts, violence and outbursts of rage. There’s no telling what a reader will take away.
I laughed when I read your tweet “You quit tempting me into ribald twittification! I’m trying to write an obscure book over here, for crying out loud.” Does writing get any easier, or is each project difficult in different ways?
I’m onto a new novel now and there is still the same sense of fear and dread and exhilaration as there was with the first one. I’m still wrestling with the story and learning who these characters are. It’s the same as life: you think you know someone, but you don’t really know them until you see what they do under pressure.
What’s easier now is my own disposition. I have a little more faith and patience than I once did.
Do you have a writing routine?
My writing routine amounts to a page quota. When I’m working on a novel, it’s two pages a day. If I’m on a roll and I just can’t stop then great, let her rip. But I have to write those two pages. As quotas go, it’s small enough that I don’t feel daunted, but great enough that in six months, I can get a first draft done.
Is reading part of your process?
Process! That’s another one of those words that feels born and bred by academics. It suggests a formula of some kind. Years ago, the application for the Millay Colony asked me to describe my process. I curled my lip and chucked it in the garbage.
I read because I love to read. I’ve been reading since I was a child. Like food, it nourishes me as a human being and therefore as a writer, but it’s not part of a recipe per se. Of course, there are times that I have to read for research, but I prefer to do my research in person. The story I’m working on now involves spiritualists and mediums, and to get to know that world I get off my butt and go somewhere like the First United Church of Spiritualism to see for myself.
Some writers say having a day job with consistent pay is essential; they can’t write if they’re worried about paying their rent. Would you agree? What makes a good writer’s day job?
Poverty is a big distraction. How can a writer have “a room of her own” if she can’t pay the rent? I think it’s good to find some sort of day job, both for one’s sanity and for one’s comfort. When I need cash, I work in film as an extra or a lighting stand-in. I did a fair bit of acting in commercials during my teens and twenties and became an ACTRA member by the age of nineteen. As a union member, extra work pays well and I’m not tied down to it in any real way. It’s also good for me to escape the solitude of that room of my own, now and then. A person starts to get a little peculiar and anti-social when he or she spends too much time alone.
You offered advice to aspiring writers in an interview with This magazine. “Read your brains out” was part of it, but what struck me most was your advice to: “Travel, talk to strangers, open yourself up to the world. Those are the things that help you become the essential you, that help you know what you believe. Your beliefs and passions will come through in your work.” Can you comment on why you think it’s important that writers understand their own beliefs?
CS Lewis has been quoted as saying, “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” Malcolm X is purported to have said, “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” I think both of these statements serve as a warning against what Charles Taylor called The Malaise of Modernity. How can a person be passionate about ideas—about what is socially or politically dangerous—if he doesn’t climb out from the folds of his own navel and discover the broader world?
It’s the job of the novelist and the poet to jab the reader—to provoke thought and challenge assumptions—and how can he do that if he doesn’t challenge his own? There is also the practical aspect: In order to go back to that blank page everyday, you’ve got to feel passionate and you’ve got to be hungry to tell a story. Apathy will get you nowhere.
Kyla Jamieson is a writer living in Vancouver, B.C. She has received generous support from the B.C. Arts Council and is currently working on a book about modelling. More here: http://kylajamieson.tumblr.com/