Interviewed by Emily Swan
Linda Svendsen is an acclaimed Vancouver writer, leaving her mark on both fiction and television. Her story collection, Marine Life, was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux (U.S.), HarperCollinsCanada, and Residenz Verlag (as Happy Hour) in Germany. The stories appeared in the Atlantic, Saturday Night, O. Henry Prize Stories, Best Canadian Stories, literary magazines in the U.S. and The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Marine Life was nominated for the LA Times First Book Award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and produced as a Canadian feature film.
After her children arrived, Linda focused on television for almost two decades. With her husband, Brian McKeown, she co-produced and co-wrote the miniseries, Human Cargo, which garnered seven Gemini Awards, including Best Movie or Miniseries, Best Screenplay, and a George Foster Peabody Award. Other long-form writing credits include Murder Unveiled (with Brian McKeown), At The End of the Day: The Sue Rodriguez Story, and The Diviners, adapted from the Margaret Laurence novel. She has written episodes for Airwaves and These Arms of Mine. In 2006, she received the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.
Sussex Drive (Random House Canada, 2012), a satire exploring what happens when a Conservative Prime Minister’s wife and a leftish Governor General can no longer play “Follow the Leader,” is Linda’s most recent publication. It’s a novel.
Linda has been a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program at UBC since 1989. In her twenty-five years with the department, she has helped and inspired all manner of students looking to hone their own crafts. Having been inspired by Linda myself, I reached out to her over email to learn more about her journey with writing.
How were you originally drawn to a career in writing? I know (from extensive, online stalking) that you attended classes in creative writing while pursuing your BFA in English. Was this what first attracted you to the field?
In Grade 2 and 3, I became hungry to read and write. I was an only child and on Saturdays my father would have visitation rights for the day and he took me to bookstores and he bought me as many books as I wanted. I started a sequel to Tom Sawyer. I wrote the start of a Bobbsey Twins mystery…and I wrote through high school and have never looked back. I lie. Except for a few detours into acting, anthropology, and codependency, all of which became grist for the mill.
Structurally, writing fiction and writing for television are very different beasts. What would you say are the biggest differences and similarities when writing between the two genres?
Differences: Sentences. For me, structure is like breath—I can’t imagine entering a project without the oxygen of plot. Script sentences may occasionally be brilliant but they’re of use only in the conversation the screenwriter pursues with the producer, director, and cast. In fiction, the sentences commit the heavy lifting. Invisibly.
Similarity: Structure. Why does this story have to happen to this protagonist right now?
Is there one genre you prefer writing in?
Whichever one I happen to be working in on the day. In television, I love the collaboration. In fiction, I love the loneliness.
There is something so deeply affecting about your work. (When I reached “White Shoulders” at the end of Marine Drive, everything about it just broke my heart.) What inspires you to tell a particular story?
Thank you. Grace Paley, the fiction writer and grandmother to us all, once said, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” My inspiration comes from my powerlessness over life, loved ones, the past, the future, and Canadian and world politics and from an urgent need to whisper about it, even if to myself.
Which of your previous works has resonated with you most strongly? For what reason do you think that is?
In TV, it was the experience of co-writing and co-producing the miniseries Human Cargo with my husband, Brian McKeown. I first had the idea back in 1994 and by the time we were shooting in Vancouver and South Africa, it was 2003, 9/11 had happened, and the concept had blossomed into six hours. I was involved in every phase of production: budget, hiring the director, casting, editing, and sound and the experience of co-writing and co-parenting went brilliantly. We were both on the same page—literally. The production was honoured with a Peabody and several other awards. A dream project.
In fiction, “White Shoulders,” the story you previously mentioned, took me an excruciatingly long time to write. It was the closer in the collection and written very close to my deadline. As you probably noticed, it’s quite dark, and I found it hard to land my protagonist Adele there. But land there she did.
What is your process when you start work on a new project? Does this process change much, depending on the genre you’re writing in?
Fall madly in love with it. Say no to anything else. Make a schedule. Outline, outline, outline. Use a whiteboard. Research. Read. Dig. Re-jig (usually) the schedule. Fall more deeply in love with it. Stick to the schedule. Keep my dog close. Keep saying no. Take it with me wherever I go. Don’t talk about it.
What is the biggest hurdle you’ve faced over the course of your career?
Recovering from television projects that haven’t been greenlit. It upset me so much I ran away and wrote a novel. How can I describe it? I worked on the adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel for years: feature draft, TV draft, next draft. It was like being pregnant forever and never delivering the baby. Well, I’m exaggerating. I’m going to be quiet now.
As a creative writing professor here at UBC, how important would you say a formal education is for aspiring writers?
It’s important because the BFA fast tracks writers. I’ve been here 25 years and our younger writers now are so far ahead of those from back in the day. From the large lecture classes to the minor, our writers acquire so much writing experience, sometimes enrolling in six classes or more per year. When I meet them at the end of their BFA, many of those writers are as promising as graduate students. They understand world building, structure, the elasticity of sentences, script formatting, character arcs, and how that all meets at the intersection of life experience, thinking, and craft.
Is there any particular piece of advice you would offer to emerging writers? Is it advice anyone gave you, or something you’ve had to figure out along the way?
Follow the advice in this simple four-letter word: plot. For many writers, it’s a dirty word. And if any of my instructors anywhere spoke about plot throughout my BA, MFA, or various residencies, I didn’t heed the call. But in 1990, I found plot, or vice-versa, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. At this point, I can locate plot in haiku.
Emily Swan is in the final year of her BFA in creative writing. She hails from both rural England and Canada’s west coast, and suffers a love affair with writing in almost any genre. Her one-act play was performed in the 2015 Brave New Play Rites festival.