Emily Pohl-Weary

Interview by Rachel White

tumblr_inline_nn34rnuBOK1qivqqz_500Emily Pohl-Weary is a Canadian novelist, poet, professor and editor. Emily has published four YA novels, two collections of poetry, and an autobiography about her grandmother Judith Merril. Her most recent collection of poetry, Ghost Sick (2015) explores the impact and complexity of violence in the Toronto neighbourhood where she grew up.

Emily has had a unique and multifaceted writing career. On top of publishing seven books, Emily has also worked as managing editor for Broken Pencil Magazine, created and published her own literary magazine (Kiss Machine Magazine), and for six years, ran Toronto Street Writers, an organization to promote writing and creativity for inner-city youth. Emily currently teaches at the University of British Columbia and is working on a new teen novel.

Let’s start with the biggest question first! Why do you write? Where did it all begin?!

I was the kid who pretended to be sick so she could stay at home and read. Stories saved me. I believed in their power. I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, but I could check entire grocery bags filled with books out of the local library each week. In my early twenties, I figured out my dream job would be to transport readers the way I had been transported. At the time, I had more chutzpah than skill. Honestly, it was also a process of elimination. There was nothing else, except maybe teaching, that I could do for longer than a few months without hating my life.

I’m curious to know who some of your favourite writers are! Who do you look to for inspiration?

I admire authors who seamlessly weave magic into the real world, like Isabel Allende (House of the Spirits), Haruki Murakami (The Elephant Vanishes), Francesca Lia Block (Girl Goddess #9), Gloria Naylor (Mama Day), and Pablo Neruda (Twenty Love Poems).

Besides favourite writers, where else do you draw inspiration from? Your YA novels have super interesting plots and characters- Including a teenage girl werewolf, girl pirates and superheroes. Where do your ideas come from?

Oh, everywhere. I feel injustices strongly— they stay with me, and bleed into my imagination. My close friends are fodder. Everyone in my family is brighter and larger than life. If I made

them into fictional characters, no one would believe they were real! I remember going to the mall once, when I first started publishing, and bumping into my baby sister’s best friend Kashfia (she was about 16 at the time). She turned to the two girls she was with and warned them, “Be careful what you say to Emily–it might end up in a book.”

Have you always been interested in writing books for children and teens?

I definitely enjoy rewriting my teen years. They were so traumatic and I had no power. Being a writer gives you the power to revise. I haven’t tried writing for kids yet… the youngest I’ve managed is a middle-grade novel. Though I’ve been told I have the sense of humour of a toddler. It’s all fart jokes and silly names.

Why are you drawn to writing in the YA and new adult forms? How do you think these genres have changed over time?

There’s a writer’s truism about creating the books you want to read. When I was a teen, YA as an age category didn’t really exist. There weren’t any novels that reflected my reality, growing up in a poor urban neighbourhood with friends from many cultures, social classes, genders, and sexualities. Now we’re seeing powerful voices from so many communities. I’m so glad that authors are representing diverse perspectives. Teens need that.

I totally agree! I read on your website that you ran an organization in Toronto for six years which encouraged inner-city, at-risk youth to practice writing. That is so great! What inspired you to start the organization? And what impact do you think encouraging others to embrace creativity through writing had on their lives?

I started the Toronto Street Writers (a writing group for inner-city youth) in the neighbourhood where I grew up, after a teenage relative was shot and a young family friend was killed. In 2008, it seemed to me that there weren’t many places for artistic young people to meet like-minded folks. My entire doctoral dissertation actually looked at the benefits of participating in community-based writing groups and people reported finding community and support, developing identities, learning writing tools, communication skills, and a coping mechanism.

What is your writing process like? Do you fit in a little each day, or carve out larger chunks of time to work on projects? What do you do to “get in the zone?”

It’s always changing. A full-time job makes it challenging. I used to be better at writing 1,000 words a day, back when I could clear away weeks at a time. Now I regularly meet with friends to peer-pressure each other into writing a couple of times a week. Other days, I try to carve out mental space for my manuscript.

Yes! Your website mentions that you are currently working on a teen novel. How exciting! Can you share any details about this upcoming project?

Hmm. It’s still shaping into itself. I guess it’s about two teen girls who are chosen sisters? One of them goes missing and the other searches for her. It’s set in Toronto and it’s sort of inspired by growing up during the era of Paul Bernardo and the Scarborough Rapist.

What is your best advice when it comes to writing a novel? What is your process for completing the full length novel compared to a shorter piece of work?

Keep writing. Learn to love revising—it’s when the magic gets layered in and the story becomes full and wild. Outlines are your friends. Do what you have to do to stay interested in the same story for years.

Do you have different processes for writing in different genres? For instance, does it take different effort to get into the headspace for writing poetry versus YA?

Oh, definitely. Poetry is shorter, so it’s easier to write when you’re busy. But I tend to revise every poem a hundred times. Novels are so long, but I only revise them about ten times. When I’m working on longer things, I need a lot of space to keep all the story threads in my head and swaths of time to make real progress.

I saw you do a guest lecture in my second year creative writing class and I really enjoyed it! I was especially interested in how you got your start working in writing and publishing your own zines! I love working in the comics and graphic novel genre, but have noticed it’s not as popular and doesn’t have as big of a platform as some of the other genres.

Why were you drawn to create your own zine and publish your own work? Do you still create comics and zines?

See the response to question #1, about having more chutzpah than skill when I started writing. Zines were my way of showcasing young writers whose work I loved, but who weren’t being noticed by more established publishers. I published Kiss Machine Magazine for eight years, a true labour of love, and probably the best thing I did, in terms of my career. It taught me about editing, design, production, distribution, advertising, and framing my work. I met so many people who are now doing the most incredible things—writers, editors, visual artists, performers, curators, arts administrators, etc.

And, yes, I recently wrote the script for a YA horror comic. Such fun! Fingers crossed the publisher releases it in 2019 and I can say more.

So cool! Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be successful in the comics genre specifically?

I don’t know the industry as well, but I suppose my advice would be similar to my advice to novelists and poets, which is to make comics and keep making comics so your craft improves. Get to know the industry. Study the careers of people you admire and reach out to them if you can.

Your writing career has mainly included works of YA and new adult fiction, with some poetry, non-fiction and comics sprinkled in! Which genre do you feel most comfortable working in? Do you have any plans to try working in a new genre?

My big issue is that I feel comfortable in all of the genres. I love writing for screen, too! I won’t pretend I’m equally skilled in all of them, but I appreciate them all.

That’s amazing! I also noticed that you worked at Broken Pencil Magazine for a long time. I’m a big fan of that magazine! How did you enjoy working as an editor? Was it difficult to go home and be creative after working a job where you had to read other people’s writing all day?

Because I kept sending my own zines to be reviewed, they asked me to start writing reviews, then they asked me to edit the review section. I remember proofreading several issues (without being asked!) because typos mortally offended me. After that, I went on to become managing editor and co-editor for a couple years. It’s always hard to wear the different hats that writers in Canada need in order to make a living. Since my first book was published, I’ve always had jobs where I read other people’s writing as much or more than I wrote my own.

How has your experience working in editing influenced your writing practice? Do you get the same fulfillment from both writing and editing?

It’s a different kind of fulfillment. To me, editing is like playing Tetris with words. Writing is expansive and dreamy and very hard to prioritize, even though I’m a miserable blob when I’m not doing it.

In my careers class, we’ve discussed the massive gender pay gap for Canadian writers. Have you faced any challenges or hardships working in the creative writing field as a woman?

Certainly. There were years when I felt people patted me on the head whenever I spoke. But I was raised by feminists who taught me to speak up about inequality, so I try to do that whenever I can.

What strategies do you have for the times when you face writer’s block? Is it enough to simply take a step back or are there activities or therapies you employ to get yourself back to producing again?

Play video games. Read. Get bored. Go for a walk. Watch TV shows I’ve seen a million times. Gripe on the phone to a friend. Meet other writers at a café. Print out my manuscript and tape it to my walls, so I’m perpetually immersed in it. Talk to my agent. Go to a wonderful reading.

Do you usually write anytime you feel inspired? Or do you create opportunities in your life to feed your creativity and to write?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to write whenever I’m inspired these days. I have to create gaps in my life when I allow myself to get bored and the creativity bubbles up.

Thank you so much for the interview, Emily. Lastly, what advice do you have for young writers who hope to someday experience success in writing, publishing or editing?

Take risks. Try to find an unlocked window rather than going through the front door (i.e. a different way to get published than joining slush piles). Make your own opportunities. Find allies who support you and respect what matters to you.

Rachel White is a third year BFA student at the University of British Columbia. She likes to write creative non-fiction, poetry and make comics! She also loves being outside in the mountains.

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Emily Nilsen

Interviewed by Jordan Ewart

Em+Bio-8414_finalEmily Nilsen is about as “British Columbia” as a poet can come. Born and raised in Vancouver, Nilsen released her poetry collection Otolith in the spring of 2017. The following year, Otolith would be the winner of the 2018 Gerald Lampert Memorial Reward for poetry. Now residing in Nelson, BC, she has maintained roots in the lands that helped to form her unique perspectives and forge her inviting, yet striking pieces. Combining her observations on the natural world and worlds we create as individuals, Nilsen’s work is felt both in the head and heart of humanity. She’s had work feature in PRISM International, Lake, and the Goose, as well as the chapbook entitled Place, No Manual. Nilsen was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2015, after having been longlisted for the prize on three separate occasions. Her work has also been longlisted for the UK National Poetry Prize.

Emily, how did you first start writing? What drew you, specifically, to poetry?

I started writing stories on a clunkety-clunkety typewriter my family inherited. I wanted to write about aliens and adventures in space, which seems strange now. Poetry, as in poetry as I know it now, didn’t come until much later. What drew me? The words of others, how their words opened kaleidoscopes in me.

Do you remember the first piece of which you felt particularly proud? Why is it so memorable?

Grade 6. I wrote a poem about Earth. It was published in the school newsletter with an accompanying drawing of a planet, shaped as an apple, with a bite out of it.

What do you consider your first “success” regarding your work?

Learning that a stack of my poems was found in my great aunt’s apartment after she passed away. There they were, after all these years, dozens of poems she’d held onto.

Has the process of writing changed for you over time? Do you need designated time to write or are you able to work on projects in the moment?

Yes, it has. As my life changes (shape) so does (the shape of) everything in it. For me, parts of writing get done fleetingly: jotting down notes, sending texts to myself to remember something that’s come into my head. But, to actually get down to it, I need relatively open-ended space — at least that’s what I tell myself.

What would you consider your ideal writing space?

I’m picturing a little cabin, a good table, a pile of books and a window over the kitchen sink that looks out to clouds or water.

How much influence has growing up in British Columbia had on your work? What makes it unique from other places you’ve either lived or visited?

Landscape definitely makes a mark. The ocean has always felt like a kind of eye I could spend hours, years, lives looking into.

Congratulations on winning the 2018 League of Canadian Poets Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for your first book Otolith. Could you explain where the title of the book comes from?

Thanks! An otolith. Oto, ear. Lith, stone. A tiny structure found within the inner ears of vertebrates. When a fish’s otolith is spliced, it’s possible to age it by counting annual growth rings — as you would the rings of a tree. This shape, the image of rings inside rings inside rings, stuck with me. It became an everything pattern. Islands inside islands. A ripple. Interconnections. The nothing-but-beauty of the fish’s environment physically imprinting. Every poem, a type of ring.

What influences do you find in science that differ from nature? How are they similar?

Science is the study of XYZ and nature is XYZ — both have their own languages. The limitations of science, that’s an interest. How can we / do we measure the spaces between quantifiable data? What are its parameters, and what falls outside of these parameters, and who is there to pick it up?

Has publishing Otolith and other works allowed for any opportunities you didn’t foresee?

It’s opened new conversations, reopened old conversations.

Were there any difficulties with publishing that you didn’t expect?

It’s out there and you can’t take it back. That line break. That image. That word choice. That poem you weren’t sure about, that you decided to include at the last minute.

If any, what sort of research and outside work goes into a collection like this outside of personal experience?

Many many hours of reading. I also spent weeks with an H4Zoom rowing around on the ocean, listening, sometimes recording, but mostly listening to the intertidal zone.

Have you worked in genres outside of poetry? Are there any that intrigue you?

As part of my MFA I wrote a series of non-fiction essays — having the space to stretch out and write in a longer form felt luxuriously good. Actually, every form intrigues me when it’s done right.

What drives you creatively?

Being human but not wanting to be the kind of human we’ve made ourselves to be.

Have there been times where you’ve felt creatively drained or worn out? If so, how do you cope with that feeling?

First, I go through a long drawn-out stage of bad behaviours and then slowly coax myself back. Reading helps. So does jumping into water.

Outside of writing, what are some of your interests and goals?

Being outside in a forest in winter: always good. Next year I’d like to grow an artichoke.

If you could offer a younger version of yourself any sort of words of wisdom, what would they be?

Be fierce.

What sort of advice would you offer to aspiring poets?

Turn off the computer or phone and go be in the world.

What are you working on next?

Right now I’m writing an essay about extinction, but once that’s finished: more poems.

Jordan Ewart is currently working on his BFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. He enjoys working on pieces for both stage and screen, but is happy to fly blindly into any genre. He once wrote a pilot script about a centaur working in an office. It wasn’t very good.