Dina Del Bucchia

dina dbNineteen Questions Interview: Dina Del Bucchia

Interviewed by Samantha Searle

Photo credit: Samantha Searle

Dina Del Bucchia is the author of three poetry collections, Coping with Emotions and Otters, Blind Items, and Rom Com, which was co-written with Daniel Zomparelli. She just wrote her first book of short stories, Don’t Tell Me What to Do, which is out now with Arsenal Pulp Press. She also hosts Can’t Lit, a podcast on Canadian literature and culture with Zomparelli, where they interview writers about their work, talk about books they have read, and often go on lots of tangents. She is a senior editor of Poetry Is Dead magazine and is the Artistic Director of the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, where she currently is an instructor.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yeah for sure! I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I was such a stereotypical extroverted kid – I wanted to be a writer or actor or comedian. I wanted to do all of that stuff.

At one point, like many children, I wanted to be a vet, but I learned that I’d have to murder animals so that was definitely out of the running – not to mention all the math that I would’ve eventually had to do, which I did not want to do. I was always interested in more creative pursuits.

Did you write things as a kid? Have you ever found old work?

Yeah for sure I did! Some of the stuff from elementary school still exists at my parent’s house. I’m sure that some things have been kept. I haven’t looked. But I had a bedbug infestation from 2007 to 2010 and during that time I threw out all my extraneous papers, including all of my teen notebooks that were full of all my angst poems. So they don’t exist anymore. They’re gone. They’ve been recycled or they’re in the Vancouver landfill and pigeons and seagulls are eating and shitting on them, which maybe is fair. So I have no teen archive of my work. Thanks, bedbugs. I was so paranoid that I thought I had to do that in order to prevent them, but they still came back. I did not enjoy it.

What inspired you to write?

Just being alive. I mean, I think that’s an ever-changing thing for any writer. What makes you want to write every single time is going to be different. I think initially I had just always liked storytelling. My family always loved to tell stories about things that had happened to them. I grew up in a small town, so there was always different town stories that people wouldn’t want to talk about or some legendary tale about somebody. Everyone always had a story about something that was going on.

What did your parents think about you pursuing a career as a writer?

I think like any reasonable parent they were like “Okay!” but also “I hope you don’t die a starving artist.” But they’re very supportive. They don’t live in Vancouver and they always come out every time I’ve launched a book. My dad has this fancy camera and he takes a lot of photos. They’re really, really awesome about it. Of course they worry about me like anybody does, I mean it makes sense – we live in an extremely expensive city and writing is not the most lucrative thing to be doing. I do a lot of different day jobs, plus I do freelance work, plus I’m writing my own stuff and doing all sorts of events all the time, so I think they worry about that. Just that I’m going to crash hard.

But so far, mostly good. I mean, you’re always on the edge of that moment when you’re doing a lot of things. It’s hard especially when you really care about everything that you’re doing and you want to do a good job. I know there’s this whole idea that you should be saying no more often and I do say no more often to a lot of things, but there’s so much that I want to do! That’s the hard part – wanting to be able to do as much as possible. I am very, very lucky though. Not everybody gets to do all this stuff.

How to you find time to write amongst all of it?

I write a lot in the mornings before I do things. I’m not a nighttime functional person – if people text me and it’s 10:30pm, I’m like “No I’m sleeping, leave me alone!” And sometimes that’s because I do want to get up and get some stuff done. A lot of it is just fitting that time in. And I don’t have a schedule. I’m not someone that wakes up at the exact same time every day. I don’t necessarily have a routine and I think it’s from years of working in retail and years of doing that plus freelance work and a bunch of other things. It’s just an impossible thing to have when your schedule changes constantly. That’s the kind of thing you can only have if you are someone who really requires a strict timeline, or you have the kind of job that allows you to stick to a schedule every day. So I fit it in when I can.

If I’m working on a project I’m doing way more writing. I’m much more on top of it. Maybe I’ll decide that I’m going to get up five days a week and write every day, just so that I can finish whatever it is that I’m working on. It’s really about figuring shit out as you need to, project by project. And when you have a book coming out, you have deadlines and shit, so you have to do it.

How do you find time to read?

That is a hard thing! It’s the same thing – I just have to make choices about what I want to do, every day. For the podcast for instance, sometimes I have to finish a book by a deadline so I’ll just focus on that.

I love reading a poetry book when I know I can just sit and read the whole thing in one sitting. Then I can go back and look at individual poems again or read the whole thing again. It’s so satisfying to just be able to sit with a single book and experience it and then feel so satisfied. Both with the book and with yourself, because you’re like “I read a whole book, I’m so great.”

I love reading and sometimes that’s my relaxing time where I just want to enjoy myself. And before work sometimes, instead of writing, I’ll decide that I want to read. Before bed, when I’m waiting for someone, or if I have a meeting – I’ll always have a book with me just in case I have extra minutes or hours.

What was your experience like in UBC Creative Writing MFA Program?

Good! I met a lot of great people. I think what was interesting about the MFA Program is how much I got from my peers and how those people became my writing community and people that I still communicate with. Some of those people are my closest friends, some of those people have written amazing books, and some are writing amazing books right now that haven’t had a publisher yet. I think for me the community aspect was the most exciting and important because having that support is the best. Otherwise I think you do feel lost. Again, I’m a very extroverted person and I don’t spend a ton of time by myself, even though I’m a writer. Being alone is not my favourite activity, so I like knowing that I can reach out to those people and have conversations. Many of them read first drafts of stories in this new book and provided me with the most amazing feedback, great notes, and really sharp insight. Just meeting these smart people is really exciting. So that was great. Great, great, great.

What is your revision process like?

Crying and lying on the floor eating chips. No, I’m kidding, that’s not it. I wish that I could just say that and be like “I just lie on the ground and eat cookie dough and then revise one line at a time while I sob through…” I mean sometimes it does feel like that.

Again, for me it’s different project by project. A lot of the time I do write in really quick bursts – especially with a poem – and then I’ll go back to it after I’ve thought about it for a long time. Or I write notes to myself all the time that are directly to me – I don’t say Dina, but I might as well. I’ll be like, “Do you realize what you did here? Why would you do it this way?” Or “Were you even thinking about these line breaks?” That’s kind of the first step. Just talking to myself about what is going on and what needs work. Then assessing exactly what I think a poem is about and if I’ve achieved that or not – if I’ve gotten to the nugget of the poem. And then going over it fifty million times while lying on the floor eating cookie dough and crying.

There’s actually very little crying in my revision process. I think sometimes it’s fun to plan for the poetic spirit though.

Do you like to get other people to read your work?

Definitely! Daniel reads almost all my stuff. But yeah I definitely have other people that I send it to. And again, I feel like there are certain people that I know are going to give me really good feedback on a particular piece of writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction or a poem. I can send stuff to those people and know that they’re going to have great insight. I’m lucky that I have a lot of people in my life that want to read my work and give me feedback, and that cover so much really great ground. They’re smart in so many ways. I’m very fortunate.

How do you make sure that they’re not being biased because they’re your friends?

I mean you can’t necessarily ever know that, but I think people who are also writers or artists value honest feedback that’s also going to help you be productive. And I’d do the same for them. You just develop those relationships. It’s a trust. A beautiful, golden trust. It’s shiny – you polish it all the time.

How did you get your first book published?

In so many ways, all this stuff is luck, whether you go about it in more traditional ways or not.

For my first book, a lot of it was comprised of things that I had written as smaller pamphlets. I’d been asked to be a part of this art show called Funny Business where they wanted a literary element. I had been working on this poem that was called How to be Angry. It was this long poem, but then I realized that it actually was just multiple tiny pieces of one longer poem. I looked at it, and I broke it up into a “how to” type poem. I decided that what I wanted to do was create a very tacky-looking pamphlet, sort of playing into the low art concept of when you go into the office of a professional and they’re like “Here you go!” and they hand you something and you’re like “What am I supposed to do with this?” I wanted to also play with the idea of what it was like to talk about emotions that are considered negative and how they can actually be beneficial to us. So I was playing with all those ideas and the idea of what self-help is and how it’s bullshit but also there’s a reason people seek it out. The first pamphlet came out as part of this art show, and they put one of the lines in the front window that just said “Ruin a sunset.”

The first poem came about like that and I’d read from it a couple of times. Other people had been asking me to read, including Daniel before I worked with him. A few people had just seen me read. I started writing other pamphlets – every time I got asked to do a reading I was making a new one. Then I made a full chapbook for a chapbook show Daniel had done. The editor from the publication had been coming to events and he told me, “I want to know what you’re working on. I like what you’re doing.”

I had been doing a lot of readings and they were very performative, so that’s how it worked out for me. It was not necessarily putting work on the page. I had very few poems published in literary journals. To this day I still have way more rejections. I almost have more books published than I have had publications in literary journals. Whatever literary journals, I still like you, but whatever I’m doing is not what you’re into.

It was more about showing up at events and performing than it was about me submitting a cold manuscript to someone that had never heard of me or anything before.

And it was the same with my second book. I’d been approached by someone I knew who asked what I was working on, and I had a completely different manuscript that I’d also been working on. I’d been unemployed for a year and trying to get work and I didn’t like it so I had to give myself projects to fill my time.

Was publishing the short stories different from the poetry collections?

It was different because I spent way more time on it. I had been working on some of these stories way longer and I honestly didn’t know that I would ever get them published at all or that I would even finish them. So it did feel different just because as much work as I put into those poetry collections, I really had for a long time this idea that I was going to be a fiction writer. I was going to write fiction. That’s who I was. And then finally I did and I was like “Oh yeah, this is great.” But I’m also a poet and I want all these other things, so I’m just happy about all of it.

What about publishing in literary magazines and stuff? What has happened for you?

I’ve had a few publications, mostly poetry. Honestly very little fiction. Last year I had a piece on Joyland, an online site. They’re great and they publish amazing work. It was very exciting to be on there.

Sometimes I get asked to submit stuff, and sometimes they’ve accepted my work and sometimes it’s still been rejected. I don’t submit that much. I think I still feel the way that I did ten or fifteen years ago where I think, “Well I submit all the time and I get rejected.” And that’s okay because you’re doing other stuff. It’s still super useful. I work with a literary magazine and I think they’re extremely valuable. You can find such amazing work just from submissions. I know how hard it is – I know all the stuff that people have to read, and it’s difficult to decide as an editor what you want to put in there because you only have so many pages.

How do you deal with rejection?

It’s really case by case, like rejection from a literary magazine, I’m cool with it, I totally understand. It’s been so long that I’ve been submitting and doing all this other work and writing that I think it’s just something that happens. I just have to think about it as other people are doing hard work too, working for that magazine. Mostly they probably bear me no ill will, I don’t know. I don’t know how many enemies I have. Maybe I have zero, maybe I have fifty, maybe I have two. We never can know, unless they really come for us. Whoa, this is getting dark. But yeah, people aren’t doing it to ruin your day. There are always other opportunities, there are always other chances. As long as you keep writing and you keep sending stuff out there.

What do you like to drink while you write?

I write in the morning, so water or tea. Earl grey tea. Those are the two things that I drink. Sometimes if I write in the afternoon I’ll have wine, beer, a cocktail of some description, just whatever’s around. But because I do most of my writing in the morning, it’s water or tea. I’m also always worried that I’m going to spill stuff on my computer.

And I’m not a coffee shop writer. I’m not good at that. I like to be at home or in a space where people aren’t around me because I think my socializing wants to kick in and I’m like, “What are those people doing? Should I go talk to them? Should I hang out with them?” which is not conductive to writing.

Do you like to listen to music while you write?

No. Nothing. Quietness. It’s the only time I’m really truly quiet. Except sometimes when I talk to myself. My talking to myself occasionally is the only noise, other than just incidental noise that’s around. I can’t really listen to music. It’s for party times only.

How long does it take to bring a poem from your first draft to the final work?

Every poem is different. Some poems might take a week, and I’m like, “You know what, this poem is done. I thought about it, it had percolated for a long, long time, and now I’ve worked on it this whole time and now this is it.” I might go and tweak it a bit, but that’s it. And then some poems will take like a year.

So I think that’s hard to answer. For me, at least. Sometimes I’ll come back to something and totally chew it apart. Even just going back to my poetry origin story, I worked on that one long poem for a while, and then left it for probably a year and then I came back to it when I had this project and was like “Oh man this is the right direction.” Sometimes it is just leaving it.

Like I’m going to start working on a manuscript again soon and I haven’t touched it – other than to submit some poems or for a couple readings – since June 2016. It’s just been like hanging out. It exists, but I haven’t interacted with it. Maybe I’ll have good ideas now, who knows. I might dive back into it in the next couple weeks because there are new poems that I want to add to it and I know they’re not finished. They’re just a title, or sometimes I’ll write a description, I’ll be like “This is a thing that you look up, that you think is cool, that you said you were going to write a thing about, and now you have to do it.” So it’s the place holder of an actual poem which is just an instruction from past me to whenever future me deals with it.

I think it’s good to not necessarily – unless you have deadlines – put pressure on yourself to have really strong parameters or strict rules for when your poem is going to be done. The hardest thing is actually figuring out when it’s done or knowing when you can leave it. Because sometimes you just want to work it forever – work it and work it and work it.

Do you have some poems that have been published that you look back at and still want to work on?

Oh definitely. A lot. Many, many, many poems. But that’s it. Now they’re out there.

I mean when you publish something in a magazine and later it goes into a manuscript that’s an exciting time. It’s like “Oh this one is published but now I get to do it again.” So that’s a good feeling.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

If it is something I’m working on, and it’s my only project and I don’t necessarily have a deadline or anything, I’ll just leave it. I’ll just let it hang out until I’m ready to come back.

Sometimes I’ll write through it if I really feel like I want to push myself. I’m comfortable going in either direction. Sometimes I try exploratory writing – I just barf out a bunch of stuff, and if none of it works I’m like “That was fine, that was not what I was supposed to be doing.” You can go back. You can always revise. You can either try to push yourself or you can take a break.

Taking a break is great. Taking a break is very satisfying. Honestly, maybe you’re hungry, maybe you haven’t been outside for a long time, maybe you need to see other human beings, maybe you need to go to a movie, or maybe you need to watch like an hour long stand-up special, who knows? Could be anything. But sometimes taking a break is 100% the right choice.

How difficult was it to get published?

It wasn’t difficult for me, and I know that is not normal and it can be very difficult. I feel very, very, very fortunate and super lucky – the height of publishing privilege. There are people I know who are amazing writers, who are better than me, and they are still struggling to find a publisher. For whatever reason they haven’t and I don’t know why. It destroys me because I know once that book comes out people are going to read it and just be like, “Holy shit, this is amazing! Why did it take so long for that person to get published?” But it was very easy for me. I have all sorts of weird feelings about it: guilt, happiness.

I also think it’s a lot different if you want to get a bigger publisher or if you want to get an agent. I don’t have an agent. I’ve only published with independent publishers so it’s a completely different world. Getting an agent seems hard to me. I tried a couple times and I was like “No one likes this. That’s fine. I’ll figure it out. I’ll go in a different direction.”

Were there any other kinds of obstacles that you’ve had to overcome with your writing?

I never think about this. This is a great question to think about. I mean I’m sure there are, and maybe I just block them out.

I mean, again, initially I really did find getting published in literary journals extremely difficult. It was, as I said earlier, not really until I started doing more performance, more events, more readings and showing up to things that people actually paid attention to anything that I was writing. I was literally shouting it in their faces. So for me that aspect of it was really instrumental in finding any level of literary attention or success.

I was never able to apply for a grant when I was a young writer because I never had enough publications. Even for poetry the minimum was not super high, but I never got there. I don’t even think I’m there now!

How do you know if something is ready to be published?

I feel like I’m a broken record, but I think it’s going to be different for everybody. It’s based on how you feel.

One of the learning processes as you’re starting to write and writing more is figuring out when you’re comfortable with your work. Maybe you want to show it to your peers and get feedback, and then if they say “This is amazing!” you should send it out. Great. It might be that you need to get it back and look at it a few more times. It might be that you have been able to answer whatever questions you were posing in the work. You’ve gotten to what you think is the heart of the story.

I like to look at my work, read it a few times, and decide if I would be embarrassed if other people read it or not. I think the more comfortable you are the better chance you’re like, “Oh I would not be that embarrassed if somebody read this.” This does not count people who are just weird egomaniacs who think everything they write is brilliant. They’re making a mistake. But you know you’ve done all that revision, you know the work, and you know the work you’ve put into it and I think once you get to a certain stage you can at the very least say, “This is good to me right now. I’m going to submit it.” It took me a very long time to get to that place where I felt comfortable sending stuff out.

What encourages you to keep writing?

Small glimmers of glory really. I mean I love doing it. I think about it all the time. I love reading, I love books. Obviously. It’s just something that’s a part of who I am and what I do. Even when I’m not writing it’s not because I’m giving it up, it’s just because I’m taking a break, like we all do from things that we enjoy. But I really do like attention so it’s important that I maintain doing something so that I can receive said attention. This is my chosen attention getting form. It’s working so far.

What do you think is the best way to get involved in the Vancouver writing scene?

Go to events! I think that’s a great way to get involved. There are so many different reading series and there are so many different people launching books. I think being a part of the scene means participating in whatever it is that everybody’s doing. If you know about an event, go to one!

I used to hate doing that but now I can’t stop myself. It’s not something that you might do instantly or feel comfortable doing right away, but going to events is definitely a good idea.

Also just reading books by local writers is a great way to familiarize yourself with what’s going on in the city. Knowing who’s out there, knowing what they’re doing. I think it’s a lot easier now to reach out to people than it used to be.

Go to events! Read local books!

Any other advice you have for emerging writers?

Write the shit you want to write. I think sometimes people are like “Well this is what’s popular,” and “This is what I should be doing,” and “I should focus on this,” and “This is a trend” and that’s fine, but trends move super quickly. Publishers have things lined up way in advance, and if you’re writing to a trend, you’re writing to something that’s going to pass. So keep writing the things that you’re interested in. Don’t try to do weird shit for other people. It’s not going to benefit you and you’re also going to hate doing it. You’re going to be like, “I don’t like this and I feel distraught constantly.” You’ll be lying on the floor eating cookie dough and chips, crying.

And you are writers. I think it’s really important for young writers to recognize that they are writers – emerging writers are still writers. The word “writer” is in the amalgam of the name. Even if you feel like established writers are dismissive or if you’re getting a lot of rejections, it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re still doing the work and there are still lots of opportunities for you.

Don’t stop writing!

Samantha Searle is BFA student in the Creative Writing Program at UBC. She mainly focuses on poetry and fiction. Sometimes she writes, illustrates, or helps with copyediting at The Ubyssey.

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