Interviewed by Christopher Evans
Author photograph: Ayelet Tsabari
Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s debut story collection, How to Get Along with Women (http://invisiblepublishing.com/?p=30 ), was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and shortlisted for the ReLit Award in 2013. Her work has won the Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award , appearing in the New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, This Magazine, Prairie Fire and more, and she was one of the masterminds behind the unique Toronto Poetry Vendors project (http://torontopoetryvendors.wordpress.com/). A graduate of Guelph University’s Creative Writing MFA program, de Mariaffi has recently moved from her hometown of Toronto to St. John’s, where she lives with her husband, the writer George Murray (http://georgemurray.wordpress.com/), their combined bevy of children, and one noisy dog. De Mariaffi’s first novel, The Devil You Know (http://www.harpercollins.ca/books/Devil-You-Know-Elisabeth-De-Mariaffi/?isbn=9781443434744), is a literary thriller set in 90s Toronto and will be available in January 2015.
I was fortunate enough to meet Elisabeth when she visited UBC earlier this year and read How to Get Along with Women shortly thereafter. It’s an incredible collection—sharp, intimate, and wry. I reached her through email at her home in St John’s.
Let’s start with something easy: what is your current day job? Besides financial stability, how have your day jobs affected your written work?
Right now I’m the marketing coordinator at Breakwater Books, an indie publishing house here in St. John’s. I’ve been at it since 2012, and for the first two years it was a full-time gig—now we’ve split it into a job-share, where I handle mainly publicity (rather than sales) and only work two and a half days a week. The thing about day jobs, at least for me, is that they are really mainly about financial stability and if I stop and think about it too much, the effect on my writing feels mostly like, “I get to write less,” and that’s a bit depressing and counter-productive.
Having said that, there are real pros to day jobs, beyond finances. I once spent a year working as flight crew. I was a purser on Porter Air, which means I’m the flight attendant who stands up front and tells you what to do and is basically in charge of the cabin. Ninety-five percent of the training for that job is emergency evacuation scenarios and drills, which is stellar if you have a loopy imagination. You travel all the time, you’re constantly out of your element, which I think is good for the interior life of the writer. And mid-flight, you’ve got a ton of time to stare out the window at the clouds—also good. But did I use all that time in strange hotel rooms to write? I did not. I was very tired from flying and I just wanted to go have a beer.
Working in book marketing, you get to have relationships with festival directors and booksellers and reading series coordinators, and then they know your name, which is handy. And I do think that working a full-time job, you learn to value your writing time and, moreover, your ambition. I’ve become very efficient at both my day job and my writing over the years, in order to live up to my own expectations.
Did you always know that you wanted to write? At what point were you comfortable describing yourself as a writer?
When I was a kid, I don’t remember ever thinking I’d be a writer. I wanted to be an actor, or a spy, or an international diplomat. But I was always writing, when I was little and then beyond that; in university I worked for the student paper as features editor and wrote every day for two years.
I think I started referring to myself as a writer in public sometime in 2013—although it may have been as late as spring of this year.
What does your ideal working day look like?
First of all, it has a lot of hours in it. The house is basically clean when I get up in the morning and I can walk into the kitchen and make coffee and there’s nothing on the counters, and I only think about myself. I sit down and read over a bit of what I did the day before, only enough to remind myself where I am and also to kick my own (metaphorical) ass because really, Please write better today, and while I’m reading I drink the coffee. I take the dog for a walk and do some thinking. I come back and make some more coffee and I work solidly for a few hours. When I’m really working on a new thing, a first draft, I like to hit a thousand words a day for sure. So I do that and then I take the dog for another hike. Somewhere in there I eat something. Granola. Then I come back and maybe I write a little more and then I put it away entirely. I make dinner and have a glass of wine and read a book that is nothing like the book I am writing. Non-fiction or poetry.
Because I actually live in a busy house with four children and a guy I really love spending time with, if I want to have work days like that I take the dog and go away for a few days. You can’t keep it up forever, but it’s a good way to kickstart a new project or one that’s lapsed. I come home with sixty pages and once you have sixty pages you have to keep going, that’s pretty much a rule.
Your MFA thesis was in poetry, as was your first publication, the chapbook Letter on St. Valentine’s Day. You’ve since focused on fiction with How to Get Along with Women and your upcoming novel The Devil You Know. What does fiction offer you that poetry doesn’t, and vice versa?
I wrote and published poetry, in magazines, almost exclusively from 1997 till about 2008, but now I don’t know if I’ll ever write another poem. I was a very narrative poet, anyway, which is kind of boring. I think fiction just serves me much better.
The stories in How to Get Along with Women are confident, well-paced, and precise. What does your revision process look like? How different is the final version of a story like “Jim and Nadine, Nadine and Jim” (http://puritan-magazine.com/jim-and-nadine-nadine-and-jim/ ) from the first draft?
I approach a first draft in a very two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of way – so I’m writing and changing and tightening things up as I go. With short stories, I’m likely to go back to what I wrote the day before and really consider it and fix it before moving forward. Some people are very comfortable writing big, loose first drafts. I find that unsettling.
The most important thing in any story is voice. I think I got the first line for every story in that book before I sat down to write, and none of those first lines ever changed. In the case of “Jim and Nadine, Nadine and Jim” I remember that I was very intrigued with the visuals in a movie I’d just seen – I was aware that every important image in the first half of the movie was mirrored or came back around somehow in the second half. So I drew a little pointy arc timeline for the story and plotted some things out on that template. It gave me a constraint to work with during the initial draft, and then I let myself change some of that stuff for the sake of the story when I went back over it again.
Overall, I tend to write very short first drafts, barebones drafts. And then later I have to put more stuff in. Every draft gets longer, because it always needs more stuff.
How did you approach writing a novel? Was it very different from writing a short story?
I was basically terrified of the idea of writing a novel, so I had to keep fooling myself. A short story is so perfect. You can hold an entire short story in your hand, and you can see how pulling a little string over here, in the first few pages, will make the marionette kick her leg over there, closer to the end of the story. A novel is I guess also like that, only your hand is now the size of a blue whale and if you want to see where and how the marionette kicks her leg, you have to drop the little string you just pulled and run a half-marathon really quickly.
I kept a list of scenes I knew had to happen in the novel, and if I was stuck writing chronologically, I would just write one of those scenes instead. An easy scene, with lots of dialogue, so the page fills up fast.
You’ve previously said that Alice Munro’s Runaway and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace have influenced you. What other things, outside of literature, influence your work?
I think it’s hard to escape influence. Thank goodness, because whatever you’re thinking about or looking at or eating can just go into the story and that keeps the story moving and you with it. So, everything, is what I’m saying. In my case, I suspect landscape is the most common thing. I look at a lot of maps when I’m writing.
How to Get Along with Women has received a lot of positive attention, including being longlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize. What effect does an acknowledgment like this have on your career? Does it change the way in which you perceive your own work?
I felt very lucky with How to Get Along with Women, even before the Giller nomination—it was a first book of short stories, and my publisher was a very small indie house, but despite all that the book got decent attention from the get-go. We got national reviews and festivals were interested in me, and those things were really meaningful in terms of me taking my own work as seriously as I need to. I’m glad now that I’d already had that experience going into the Giller nomination.
The longlist happened at a really ideal moment in time—I’d handed the first draft of The Devil You Know to my agent about a week earlier. It was a very strong list, too—that helps. I felt like I’d been skipped a couple of grades, and I had to learn to keep up with the big kids. It kind of gives you instant cred. So early in my career, I look at it as a gift.
Your story collection was put out by the independent publishing house Invisible Publishing. You’ve since moved to the Simon and Schuster imprint Touchstone for your upcoming novel. What was that transition like?
I’m lucky to have two houses working with me at the same time—Patrick Crean Editions (Harper Collins) in Canada and Touchstone (Simon & Schuster) in the States. I think this so easily could have been overwhelming, but the editors in question (Patrick Crean and Sally Kim) are a great blend of smart and precise and supportive and generally lovely. It meant I had two editors to talk to during the editing of the novel, each of whom has their specific background and strengths, and I think the book is much stronger for that process. I feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds all the time – the focus of a boutique imprint, with the advantages of a big press. I’ve spent a lot of time working in the indie press in one capacity or another, and I’m surprised at how easy this transition has been.
What piece of advice do you wish you’d been given when you were starting out?
Stop worrying. (Never mind: I wouldn’t have followed that, anyway.)
Maybe this: The only way to get better at writing is to write, and to spend time on yourself in a really directed way. So you need a bunch of time. Quit feeling guilty about that, and above all, stop sabotaging yourself by looking after other people all the time. Other people can look after themselves. Any person worth their salt will want to look after you, instead.
Christopher Evans is in his first year of the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. His fiction has appeared in Joyland, Grain, Riddle Fence, The New Quarterly, and more. He lives in Vancouver with his wife, young daughter, and two disgruntled cats.