Leesa Dean

Interviewed by 23022281_10159684850210624_860664395_nFraser Sutherland

(photo by Renee Jackson Harper)

Leesa Dean is a Canadian author currently living and working in Nelson, B.C. Her debut collection of short stories, Waiting for the Cyclone, was met with wide acclaim when it was first published in 2016, and was nominated for the 2017 Trillium Book Award.

Besides her short story collection, Leesa has also had her fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and interviews published in multiple literary publications, including The New Quarterly and The Humber Literary Review. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph, and currently teaches Creative Writing and English at Selkirk College, where she also spearheaded a new literary magazine called the Black Bear Review. I had the pleasure to sit down and chat with Leesa over the phone.

What was your general writing process like while you were writing Waiting for the Cyclone?

The book actually started as my MFA thesis. I was a student at the University of Guelph, and I knew I couldn’t graduate until I wrote a book. So I said, all right, I better get moving. I spent another year after graduation finishing it. And then, of course, another year working with an editor who had me undo some of the things I was doing that really were not working. The publisher also wanted more content, so I had a summer of fierce, forced productivity, where I had to come up with fifty percent more content than what had taken three years to write, and I had to do it in five months. So that was interesting to say the least. I think some of my favourite stories — if it’s not too pretentious for a writer to have favourite stories within her own work — ended up coming out of that period of forced writing.

Each story in Waiting for the Cyclone contains unique and specific settings. In your bio it says that you have held many different professions, including “jobs ranging from farm labourer to professor” and also that you have traveled extensively. Has that informed your writing?

I have a degree in geography, as well as creative writing, so often I’ll start with the setting as a character rather than having any idea about who is going to be in the story. For example, the last story takes place in Halifax during the 2004 hurricane. I knew about the hurricane, and I had written all the content that had to do with certain areas of the city being decimated, before I had any idea who would be in that story. The same thing goes for Guatemala. There is one story set in Monterrico, and I went to Monterrico and was just so blown away by the intricacies of the relationships between the people and the land there that I knew I wanted to write about it, but I again had no idea who would be in the story or what the conflict would be.

I saw on your Twitter that you used to make zines. Was this your first dive into writing? If not, how did you start?

My very, very first publication was self-published at the age of eight. It was a series called Allie the Alien. It’s funny, I was on a podcast this morning and talked about how I knew at the age of eight what I wanted to do, but I didn’t end up figuring out what I needed to do to start working in that direction until I was twenty eight. As soon as I knew how to read and write, I got out the crayons and I was writing these little books that had pretty structured narrative arcs and typical heroes journeys. I would pass those around to my family. I knew from a young age that I wanted to write, but it took me a while to get onto that path officially. It’s interesting to think about how we sometimes end up doing other things for a long time before we are called back to the thing that moves us the most.

What was the moment in your life —or multiple moments —where you knew that you wanted to switch paths, and make writing a career?

I was 28 years old, in my undergrad, and just getting back into creative writing. I wrote a novel — it was a very crappy novel, but it was nonetheless a novel — before I actually sat down to try to write a short story. I wanted to get this short story I had written published and sent it around and someone from the New Quarterly, a really great literary magazine, called me on the phone and basically said that they were not going to publish this story, but were interested in who I was and what I was doing with my writing career, because they thought there was something there. So I ended up talking to them and felt really encouraged by their ideas about what might happen to me if I continued writing. The woman I was talking to at the New Quarterly, Susan Scott, asked me if was going to do an MA or an MFA. I had never really thought about doing a graduate degree, and when she said it, I was caught off guard. And then I thought, why wouldn’t I? I can do that. So I did. I ended up doing an MFA and then went on to publish this book. It was well received and I ended up getting nominated for the Trillium Book Award in Ontario. I never expected any of these things to happen, and it makes me look back to where I was seven years ago, in my undergrad wondering if anything would happen. It’s a pretty incredible thing to look back and see what can happen in a short time period.

Your book has been out for a year now. Are there any new projects that you are working on right now?

I’m actually working on a poetry manuscript. I have two poems from the collection coming out soon in the Humber Literary Review, so it’s pretty exciting. It’s a found poetry project. I’ve been really interested in this one poem by Elizabeth Bishop called Manuelzinho, which is about an unhinged man living in Brazil, and I wondered what his life would look like if he was given a narrative, so I’m actually constructing a life story for him using found texts. I’m using the complete works of Elizabeth Bishop — words from her own vocabulary and from her own imaginative world — to create a life for one her characters who exists in a single poem. So we’ll see when that comes out. I’m plugging away between teaching five classes per semester and writing, so it’s hard sometimes to find writing space, but I am working on it. And I have an idea for a novel, but I’m not really that far into it yet.

You said that you are teaching as well as writing. Do you think this has changed the way you write?

 I don’t think it’s changed the way I write, but it confirms what I know to be true, which is that narrative summary is typically boring. And I’ve also remembered that any type of cliché or familiar language will just kill a poem. Teaching has been a good reminder of the things that don’t really work. But I also get to see my students work really hard. I have them for two years, and since it is a small program in a really small college, I actually get to see what they are able to accomplish in two years. It’s pretty incredible, and a good reminder for myself that if I carved space for my own writing practice even though I’m busy — because they are busy as well — I could also probably accomplish a lot in a short time period.

Do you have any advice for young writers who have just finished their degrees and are wondering what their next steps should be?

It’s interesting to see what people have chosen to do with their creative writing educations. People who were with me in my undergrad are doing all kinds of things now. Some went into advertising, some are editors, and others work for Air Canada’s En Route magazine. There are a couple of us from the master’s program who are teaching now.

In the end, you just have to figure out what your vision is. There are a lot of interesting paths people can take with creative writing, and it’s really important not to undervalue what a creative writing degree can do. Sometimes people have these views of arts graduates being not super-employable and I would one hundred percent argue against that. I think arts degrees are actually incredibly useful: it means a person knows how to write. Having a writer in any workplace is an asset, since it means he/she knows how to communicate effectively, and that’s a backbone for everything that happens in society. So just figure out a path and don’t be afraid to pursue it with passion and integrity and persistence. It does take time sometimes to get what you want, but people get to where they’re going. We just don’t always have control over the time line.

Fraser Sutherland is a writer based out of Vancouver BC. She writes poetry and fiction, and is currently in her final year of studying creative writing at UBC.

 

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Daniel Zomparelli

Interviewed by Duncan Catellier

Daniel ZomparelliDaniel Zomparelli is the founder of Poetry is Dead magazine and a prominent literary voice in the gay community of Vancouver. In 2011, he was the recipient of Pandora’s Collective Publishers of Magazines Award. His latest book, Everything Is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person, was published in the spring of 2017. It is a collection of interconnected short stories in which he meshes poetry and fiction prose to great effect. He has also published two books of poetry, one of which he co-wrote with Dina Del Bucchia.

I was interested in interviewing Daniel Zomparelli because of what he has done with his writing and his work as an editor, which is incredibly inspirational to young up-and-coming literary voices. I can only hope to one day be able to deliver honesty with such tender sass in my writing as well as in my responses to simple interview questions. I asked him about his beginnings and about how I should get my own start (by proxy of an elusive fictional character, who may or may not in some regards reflect my personality).

When did you decide to you wanted writing to be your career?

I was in University and was working on LSATS and getting my GPA up to go to law school. To get my GPA up I had to switch all my courses to English Lit because it was where my grades were stronger. I had always wanted to be a writer, but had been trained by my parents, who came to Canada with no money, to think of a financial career over one I enjoyed. I remember that in some classes the professors would let me write poems and short stories instead of essays and I was getting perfect marks. It brought me so much joy to create worlds, especially since I was closeted at the time. I found that I’d rather be happy than financially successful. I told my mom and she was devastated. I, on the other hand, was excited to do something I loved.

Tell me a bit about how you started Poetry is Dead magazine. I know you were young, but did you have any prior experience with editing, and how did the idea come about?

I had plenty of experience in magazine publishing but not in editing. I wanted to start a poetry magazine that represented all the things I like about poetry paired with reading events that were a little looser than the ones I was attending. I was young and wanted to have a fun party but also hear poetry and attempted to figure out what that could look like.

As for the actual magazine, it was a very tough learning lesson in editing. I made a LOT of mistakes and sent a lot of apology emails, but don’t regret creating it. I’m happy to pass it along now as I think there are more in-tune editors than me and I want to see the magazine change and grow.

How has being the editor for Poetry is Dead helped with your own writing?

I’m not sure if it did help all that much. I’m already and was an avid reader of poetry, and that helped inform my writing. I would say that the people who I befriended and admired that we published in the magazine helped shape my writing. Poetry Is Dead helped more with my career as a poet, via networking and creating an additional space within the poetry world.

I’m curious about your collaboration with Dina Del Bucchia on Rom Com. There aren’t names attached to individual titles in the book, so I’m wondering what the process of writing it was like. Did you co-write poems or is the book a collection of both of your separate works?

It’s a mixture of both. We have separate poems, but even those were edited by both of us. And many of the poems were collaboratively written. We had a Google doc, and we started by writing call-and-response poems to each other, but then it got weird and we got experimental. So the poems expanded, and changed, and edited, and remixed, and moved around. It really did become a collaborative book that I’m super proud of. I don’t fully believe books need to be written by one person. I think we are just stuck in that mindset, or maybe writers are too controlling to collaborate. I think Dina and I will produce another book again, I hope.

A lot of your work centers on gay culture in Vancouver. Do you feel that occupying quite a specific demographic niche has helped your voice reach a wider audience?

 Honestly, no. I think people expect me to write something outside of the gay experience and I just don’t want to. For the most part, writing that centers on gay culture will more than likely stay within a gay market, and I’m fine with that. I think people expect gay books to be an “It Gets Better” campaign, and I want to write about the muck. I want to see the humanity in our shittier moments, in our fuck-ups, in our messes. Also I am very bad at sticking to one form or another, so I enjoy experimental writing. For all these reasons I think I’ll always be in that niche category. And that’s cool with me because I get anxiety when an audience is too big, which causes me to stop writing altogether. If I ever write a bestselling book, please make sure there is some sort of panic room I can go in.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: you’re walking down the street, it’s kind of a rainy day in Vancouver, and you come across a young man who’s not looking so happy at the bus stop. Something comes over you. You feel the need to stop and ask him what’s wrong, so you do. You don’t expect it but he opens up to you and tells you he is a young gay writer who is afraid to take his experiences and put them into his work. He’s not sure it will appeal to the audience he wants. What do you say to him?

I would probably say that’s not why he is sad, but then also explain that worrying about audience is for someone who already has a book deal. No magical being is going to show up at your door once you’ve written something and be like “HERE IS A BOOK DEAL!” If someone does show up like that, they will probably steal your identity and get thirty credit cards made in your name. Write what you want to write. If you decide that it isn’t what an audience wants, then fuck that audience and get a new one. Also, not all writing has to be for an audience, you can write your experience down and say, “Cool, this was for me. I feel better and now I can work on writing something else.” There are hundreds of poems I’ve deleted that were just for me and I don’t regret deleting them. In this scenario you described, for some reason I imagine I’ve had three beers and I’m yelling at him, so I don’t know if my advice is sound. I grew up in an Italian household where yelling means caring.

To be more sensitive to this imaginary young gay: writing your experience is scary because it means an audience can potentially reject some form of you, or not even like you. That’s an understandable fear. Make sure that if it is something that will hurt too deeply to be rejected for that maybe it isn’t time for it to be sent out and some growing and healing needs to happen. If you’re ready to share your experience, then prepare for some people not to like it because not everyone is going to like it. Have you seen Goodreads? You’re going to get some one-stars and it will sting, but you’ll be okay. Rejection is a part of growing as a writer, and your experiences are valid even if they don’t make it on the page.

What is, in your opinion, the single most important piece of advice you could give to the young emerging writers out there?

It would depend on the person so I think my advice is to my younger self and maybe that will be of help: Learn to love what you write, and not the idea of being a writer. Being a writer is not very exciting. Creating art is exciting. Being a successful writer means going to literary parties where there is still a cash bar and maybe a free snack or two and reminding people that, actually, they have met you several times before and no you are not that old guy from that TV show. I think enjoying what you do is more important than people enjoying what you do, but that’s probably why I haven’t written an award-winning bestseller.

Duncan Catellier is a BFA student in Creative Writing at UBC and is well on his way to completing a six-year degree. Before UBC, he completed a two-year diploma in Creative Writing as well at Langara College. His writing aspirations range from anywhere between chalking poetry on sidewalks to having several of his screenplays produced by Hollywood.