Angie Abdou

Interviewed by Bri Dempsey

Angie Abdou is the award-winning Canadian author of Anything Boys Can Do (2006), The Bone Cage (2007), The Canterbury Trail (2011) and Between (2014). Her first novel, The Bone Cage (2007) was a finalist on the 2011 Canada Reads competition, defended by Georges Laraque, as well as named the MacEwan Book of the Year in 2012. The Bone Cage was ranked first on CBC’s list of Top Ten Sports Books in 2010 as well as featured by Kootenay Library Foundation for the first annual “One Book, One Kootenay” celebration in 2009. The Canterbury Trail won a 2012 IPPY (Independent Publishing Award) Gold Medal for Canada West. Between received the “Best of 2014” accolades from PRISM Magazine, 49th Shelf, and The Vancouver Sun

In addition to being a novelist, Angie also frequently participates in and moderates panel discussions at writers’ festivals across the country. She regularly contributes to Quill & Quire, a leading Canadian magazine for the book industry. She taught at College of the Rockies for fifteen years before joining the faculty at Athabasca University where she is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing. She has a new novel, What Remains, out with Arsenal Pulp Press in September 2017 and is hard at work on a memoir called Hockey Mom.

When she is in between books, Angie is constantly involved in furthering the discussion in Canadian Literature. My favorite quote about her comes from Hal Wake who said, “When it comes to moderating a panel, I could take a chance on somebody new or I could fly out Angie Abdou and know it will be money well spent.” I wanted to interview her about the career she has outside of writing books because I believe they inform each other. I also believe that in the modern definition of being a writer, wearing many hats is the best way to get the most out of your career. 

You have such a diverse portfolio of work: Everything from teaching to moderating panels to reviewing books to writing and promoting your own. How do you find new challenges and where do you get your inspiration from?

I don’t think of my interests as that diverse. Most everything I do, I do for a love of books, and also for a love of the kind of people who write those books. I like being deeply immersed in a world where stories and art matter and where people are motivated by something other than the obvious financial interests that drive so many people. The typical bores me. People living un-examined lives bore me. Writers don’t tend to be typical. 

Like many writers, I write because I can’t help it. That’s the only reason to write. But over the years, the more involved I have become in the Canadian writing community, the more I have felt I’ve truly found my people. And as I immersed myself in that culture, I found I didn’t need to seek out new challenges; those challenges mostly seem to come to me. Festival hosts and editors have been very generous in reaching out to me and involving me in their projects.

I get inspiration from anyone engaging with books in new and exciting ways – whether it’s Hal Wake or Shelley Youngblut with their energetic festivals or Martha Sharpe with her curated collection of flying books or Trevor Corkum with his insightful author blog or The New Quarterly and all the other magazines putting out high quality work of new and established writers. All of that inspires me.

Many of your books deal with the themes of a body/mind duality and how our identity can be so tied to our physical body and our ability. What keeps you coming back to these themes and how do you continue to approach and write them in a fresh way?

I’m a jock first. I grew up spending four hours a day staring at the bottom of a swimming pool. When I finished swimming competitively in my late twenties, I moved to marathon running and then triathlon and then skiing. Now, though I still do a lot of theses sports, I’m also very enthusiastic about mountain biking. The physical has always been a big part of my life and how I understand who I am and where I fit in the world. I focused my first novel, The Bone Cage, very specifically on this athletic world because it felt like an under-examined realm in literary fiction. Writing a first novel is a pretty intimidating thing to do. By covering ground I hadn’t seen covered before (the lives of Olympic athletes), I could remove the pressure to be better by simply being different: I might not be the best to tell a story, but I’ll be the first to tell this story. I recommend first time novelists (especially) aim find an open space like that, if they can.

As you say, the physical keeps coming back in my other work – even when that work that is less obviously zoomed in on the athletic life than The Bone Cage is. I guess I try to write the kind of book I like to read too. I like a visceral reading experience. I think that’s achieved by always coming back to the body, grounding the characters’ experiences in the body. Of course, I’m always changing what I think about reading and writing. But that’s what I think right now.

Location plays such a strong role in your books. What has location meant to you as an individual and as a writer?

I didn’t realize location played an important role in my books, but it makes sense that it would. Location was important to me as a reader, growing up in Saskatchewan. The prairie classics inspired me to be a writer. I loved coming to Sinclair Ross and Margaret Laurence and Robert Kroetsch and learning my own world could be worthy of literary representation. Yet, I never write about the prairie. I write to understand the world around me, and I understand the prairie in my very bones. I have no need to write about it. I’ve written a lot about small mountain towns – wealthy towns defined by both resource extraction and recreational tourism, towns set in locations of great natural beauty, towns a lot like Fernie, BC where I lived for fifteen years and still own a home (though I have recently moved to Alberta for work). Though I love Fernie and the people there, I don’t always understand it. I often feel like an outsider. I write to understand it and make sense of my life there – and because I find it endlessly interesting.

You were just in Austria! What has been the greatest importance of engaging the international community through your work?

Things like that seem to happen just when I doubt the writing life. As soon as I think “WHY am I doing this”, a treat will come out of nowhere. That Austrian invitation was unexpected and surprising. In December, I went to Innsbruck to speak about my ski satire The Canterbury Trail at a Reading the Mountains festival. It was perfect. Glorious. Such a wonderful reward.  

Last week I was having one of those days that I thought I might prefer to be a folk singer (though I can’t sing and don’t play an instrument) and then I received an email that a graduate student in Slovenia was writing a dissertation on The Bone Cage. Last year, I found out that a textbook in Spain included a chapter on The Bone Cage. Those moments really do fire me up – especially the moments of international attention. I work very hard to get my book into the hands of Canadian readers and sometimes feel that I have to hand sell every copy. These surprises remind me that the books have a life beyond me. Once they’re out in the world, anything can happen (I mean, seriously, Slovenia!).

You have spoken before about the role of social media in your career. Talk a bit about what it has meant for you and how you have used it to your advantage.

I think I said I was making up for a real absence with a virtual presence. I do still think of social media that way. I live remotely, very far away from the main Canadian publishing world in Toronto. Social media has made it possible to be actively engaged with a community even when I live a four-hour plane ride away from its home base. I have people I think of as friends, who I have never met IRL. When I do go to a festival (or to Toronto), I don’t feel like an outsider who is unconnected. I feel part of the group – that couldn’t have happened without social media. Of course, social media is also highly addictive and distracting and all kinds of other bad things, so I’m constantly rethinking how to balance ways in which it is useful and ways in which it can actually be a very negative presence in my life.

You are an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University. What is it like to be a writer as prolifically active as you are and teaching the next generation of writers at the same time?

It can be overwhelming at times to juggle the load of teaching, writing , promoting, reviewing, moderating, hosting, and parenting. Actually, I’m overwhelmed simply writing that sentence. But most writers juggle. It’s the financial reality. For me, teaching is a good complement to writing because I’m a social person, more of an extrovert than the typical writer. I like the balance of social interaction that teaching provides. Teaching also forces me to consider and articulate why to write and how to write and how not to write and what to expect from writing and the writing life.

I’m very honest with my upcoming writers. I let them know about day jobs. I keep aspiring writers realistic about financial expectations. I make sure they’re writing for good reasons – not for some deluded idea of becoming rich and famous. In my role of mentor I have to think hard about the whys and hows of the writing life, and that thinking shapes the way I approach writing in my other roles (reader, writer, reviewer, moderator, radio columnist, writer series’ host). Those whys/hows are always evolving and changing, of course, but I like the way teaching forces me to think about them in a way my lazy mind might otherwise avoid.

You often participate in writer’s panels, not only as a panelist but also as a moderator. What do you find most rewarding about being a part of a discussion of writers? 

I always tell my students that literature is an ongoing conversation and they can’t enter it unless they know what others have said. Reading is, therefore, crucial to the writing life. I’ve come to feel that way about my other involvement in the literary community. It’s not enough to simply show up at festivals once every three to four years and talk about my own book. I want to be part of the larger Canadian Literature conversation on a regular basis.

But, to be honest, I’m also actively involved simply because I like it. Writers are smart and interesting and articulate. I like the way they think and speak about life – how to do it. All my reading and writing comes down to that – how are we supposed to live? A panel discussion with brilliant writers is a perfect place to explore that question. That’s my idea of a fun time – doing it at a pub over beer is good too … but on a stage with an engaged audience offers its own kind of intoxication. Really my answer of why I do it and why it’s important is simple: it’s fun. That’s what motivates me most in life: fun (excitement, energy, comedy, originality, surprise). That’s why I’m drawn to the community of writers: fun. That’s why I’ve chosen a life of books: fun.

Bri Dempsey is a writer living in Vancouver, BC. She is currently finishing up her BFA at the University of British and focuses mostly on fiction and non-fiction.  

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