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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