Trevor Carolan

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Interviewed by Bradley Peters

Trevor Carolan is the author of twenty books of non-fiction, poetry, translation, anthologies and journalism. Carolan has worked as media advocate for aboriginal land claims and Pacific Coast watershed issues, holds a PhD, and teaches English and Creative Writing at University of the Fraser Valley. His books include Return to Stillness, an award-winning account of his 23-year training with Tai Chi Master Ng Ching Por in Vancouver’s Chinatown, road novel The Pillow Book of Dr. Jazz, and his guest-edited eco-anthology Cascadia: the Life and Breath of the World, which received a 2013 Best American Essays Citation. Road Trips, his third collection of poetry, will be published in spring 2019 by Ekstasis.

You are a very prolific writer; I’m interested to know whether you have a favourite, or if you are especially proud of one of your works, and why?

When you keep steady at writing it’s usually your latest book that’s a favourite. My last title, New World Dharma really brought together a lot of the material that has been close to my heart. It collects the interviews and profile features with or about important Buddhist writers, teachers and leaders I’ve produced during the past 25 years. I was grateful for securing a respected university press like State University of New York to bring it out because they have the reach and capability to ensure it gets distributed widely. I like to think of it as a generational legacy that can be picked up by others—younger seekers especially—searching for something of the wisdom traditions these great mentors have to share.

When I decide a time to write, I somehow usually end up doing the dishes, folding laundry, taking a long shower or going on a walk. Am I subconsciously preparing to write, or am I a hopeless procrastinator? 

We’re surely all procrastinators, but sooner or later it’s simply a matter of applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair as one wag put it. As a writer I’m a great believer like Jack London in the power of steady, applied work, but that’s something I learned on the job growing up with my dad who laid bricks and concrete blocks all-day-long as a mason. Just get on with things and keep moving the project forward.

What does a day in your life look like in the midst of a writing project? Specifically, how many hours a day, and days a week would be dedicated to writing, thinking about, or purposefully not thinking about your work?

For the past 15 years or so I’ve been fortunate in working as a university professor with all the reading, prep work and marking that entails. This is after the previous 20 years of scuffling in the writing world. I’m writing most of the time one way or another, whether it’s toward a committed project—an article or a book—or grooming poems or my journals. Likely, I’m also writing to friends in distant places. I’ve always maintained an active correspondence and this, I think, is a kick-starter for it all. If a book manuscript or whatever stalls for a bit, then I get writing letters and sharing my latest yarns. Friends who know me seem to understand that I’m often working out stories, probes, fragments of memoir and so on in my letters to them. Schedule-wise, I get up, play Tai Chi and exercise for about 40 minutes outside, get the coffee on and porridge for breakfast, check the news online, then either get off to classes or get started upstairs in my office. Typically, I have two, three or four things on the go—one main, current project—but also book reviews, letters to publishers, research ideas, editing Pacific Rim Review of Books with Richard Olafson the publisher…that’ll keep me going until evening break-time. Long hours, but when you love what you do, it’s not unwelcome.

Have there been slow periods in your writing career, or times where you didn’t write?

Not so much. When I was an elected councilor in North Vancouver in the 1990s, that was incredibly involving; but I managed to publish several books during that period.

You have travelled an incredible amount. Those travel experiences enter your writing in various ways. How important do you think it is for a writer to travel? Is it important for a writer to hound new experiences in general? 

Travel is a completely personal thing. I know terrific writers who stay close to home. I’ve always loved hitting the road. Maybe it’s having been an immigrant kid. I still remember the milk-run stops en route to Canada from Yorkshire in ’57 when I was a boy, fellas in kilts at Glasgow airport, the greasy spoon cafeterias in Quebec City and Winnipeg. In elementary school, we had a wonderful reader called If I Were Going—all travel stories, beautifully illustrated. Those things pointed me toward travel, I reckon. For the type of writing I appreciate, travel seems an integral component; but again, you don’t have to travel to be a good writer. You do need experience in the world. Get out and meet funky new people away from that miserable Facebook scene. Try new stuff. Take it to the street—man, that’s the test. Learn to balance writerly solitude with public engagement. Good engaged writers become ambassadors for humanity.

As an aspiring professional writer and young adult, I would like to ask how you feel the experience of marriage, and then how having children, affected your writing life, and your work in general?

There’s a reason why writers dedicate their books to their wife or husband, their partner, their children. We understand that we’d have floundered without their love, their patience and their support. If you’re serious, that loving ground is the bedrock you work from. It’s what you make of it.

You have written about the Beat Generation. I am a fan of artists from that period myself. I’m curious what your opinion is on the relationship of artistry to potentially mind-expanding or perception-altering drugs; seems to have worked for The Beatles. Could getting high in a responsible and safe way potentially benefit one’s art? 

There’s a long history of psychotropic questing in sacred or religious ritual. Baudelaire and the Symbolists established an artistic template for this in Paris with their explorations in the late 19th century, and the ideas of bohemian life were popularized there by Henri Murger in his newspaper articles about starving artists, living on love and not much else. Mainstream laws regarding such use have tended to be draconian, although this hasn’t deterred seekers, artists especially, from exploring their use as a means of seeking shamanic insight into the fuller nature of consciousness. So, yeah, God bless The Beatles; it’s a serious matter though, not to be taken lightly. I’d be very wary when it becomes a pop thing. There’s certainly no compulsion regarding their use by writers and artists. Among writers, alcohol has long served as the quicksand of choice, and the world is filled with tragic figures that didn’t make it back.

You have had varied careers, from teaching to publishing to politics, and more. Was there ever a career or working experience you feel really elevated or affected your writing?

Oh sure, there have been a number of them. Living in California introduced me to a lot of poetry, ecology, and to Tai Chi. James Barber—one of the best arts critics in the city—gave me some invaluable advice: he said, “Become an expert on something.” So, I got writing about art, music, artists.

Being a dad got me more rooted at home, and I found myself writing about picking salmonberries with my kids and about nature. I embraced it and started working in environmental advocacy locally and in B.C.

My doctoral program down-under at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, was a phenomenal experience. On my first day, I was sent to meet some tribal people in the bush at these giant wild turkey nests near a stretch of beach. This fellow daubed in clay brought out a long didgeridoo and got womping on it, then the dense bilma sticks were clacking; people were dancing and chanting in Yugambeh. Those didge vibrations fill your head and take you straight to the beginning of the world. After that, I poured everything I had into my dissertation project. It’s where I learned the rigour and discipline of scholarly research and academic writing from Rosita Dellios. I still return to that manuscript for ideas.

Networking. I hate it. What do you think about it? What would a successful networking experience look like for you?

In my case, I made a conscious decision to get involved when I left university. When I saw a day-long workshop on writing and publishing advertised at the local library, I registered. I learned more at this event than I had in a couple of years of school. I attended a series of follow-up seminars offered by the freelance magazine writers association here in Canada—PWAC. They were inexpensive and a chance to hear presentations straight from the editors, publishers and writers I needed to meet if I wanted to keep on writing and get published. After each event, I’d stay behind and help clean up. One night a veteran CBC writer came over and said “What’s your name? We see you help out after every event and nobody knows who you are. A few of us are going for a drink; care to join us?” That was the start of it for me.

My last questions a doozy. Do you think being open to spirituality or the concept of a god is integral to being a stronger artist? Could a tactile thinking person, an atheist, say, as I often consider myself, or a skeptical agnostic, be lacking some key ingredient in the art making process?

You know, anyone can be an artist. However, it’s a gift that requires cultivation beyond just pushing keys on a cell-phone. In my experience, to stick with that commitment to your gift is probably going to take some kind of faith, because not many folks can live with the constant financial anxiety of not having a steady job or paycheque. If you’re a writer or an artist, you’re going to live that way. So, you’ll need some element of faith when times get tough. If you’ve got soul, I reckon you can relate to that, whatever your spiritual path. And if you don’t, then heaven help you, or whatever secular mojo you’ve got as your back-up plan when trouble comes knocking. For me the spiritual is inseparable from my writing work—it’s what I see evidenced in the natural world here where I live, where some days it gets so calm you can hear God breathing on the bay. Bring that into your work — the soul. That’s the kind of writing and literature I love.

Bradley Peters is an emerging writer living in Mission, BC. His story,” Unit C and the Red Scorpions” is the LUSH literary contest non-fiction runner-up, and will be featured in subTerrain magazine’s Spring 2019 issue.

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Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

2016-08-20_ent_23808280_I2Interviewed by Ella Adkins

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (her/she) is a Japanese-British-Chinese-American writer, author of one novel Harmless Like You which was the 2017 winner of the Betty Trask Prize and a shortlist nominee for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2017. This novel has a multi-generational narrative, following two parallel timelines of Yuki, a Japanese girl born in New York, and her son Jay, who Yuki abandons when he was a child. I first encountered Rowan’s work at the Vancouver Writers Fest a few years ago, where she read an excerpt from Harmless Like You. I was fascinated by Rowan’s depiction of Yuki’s quiet, tormented character and how Rowan explores the complexity of what society would deem as an unforgivable act: abandoning your child. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Rowan, and picking her brain about her writing practice and her work.

 First things first, what are you reading right now?

I’m reading Golden Child by Claire Adam, because I’ve been asked to review it.

What was one of the first cohesive creative things you wrote?

 When I was in school, we were often given creative writing exercises in English class. They blur together a little in my mind, but I remember very clearly writing a story about a dragon. It was one of the longest stories I’d ever written and I decided it was necessary to illustrate the border, with many, many smaller dragons, chasing each other around the border. As an adult, I have written no stories about dragons, perhaps because that so thoroughly got it out of my system.

What was it that made you decide that you were going to pursue this whole writing business?

It wasn’t one big decision but rather several small ones. During university, I interned in various places, an architecture firm, a business consultancy, a fashion magazine. I was trying to find something practical to do, but my pleasure time was spent reading and writing. So, when one my professors suggested I apply to MFA’s, and spend two years being paid to do those things, I couldn’t resist trying. The support from my professors at UW-Madison lead me to look for a literary agent.

If you were to have an ideal writing space, if you don’t already, what would it look like?

I really like my set-up at the moment. I use desk that I inherited from my mother, who used it in her student days. The pale yellow wood is flecked with ink stains. It feels like proper working desk. The window has a view onto a white-painted wall, onto which a neighbour’s cat occasionally climbs. I have mugs filled with pens, a notebook with good smooth paper, and my laptop for typing up.

That said, I spent a year where I travelled four hours on the train every week, and I wrote there too – so I know it’s possible to write in clatter and clang, with a battery that’s about to die. I just prefer the former.

Do you find that physical location and where you are when you are working affects your writing?

The city or physical location where I am living can impact my writing. Often the physical places inform the atmosphere of a story. And usually locations and settings are at least partially inspired by something real.

With regards to whether I’m at home, on a train, or in a café, I don’t think so. My preference is to create new work somewhere quiet and solitary, (see your earlier question.) But I often find that editing, it’s good to refresh my brain and spend some time in a new location, usually a library or a café. Sometimes a different atmosphere will allow me to focus differently.

It seems like you dabble in various forms: obviously fiction, with your successful first novel Harmless Like You, but also non-fiction, and graphic forms. Do you find that you move between written forms often? Or do you mainly stick to one form of writing?

I think of myself primarily as a fiction writer. But each form of writing has the potential to help your mind work differently. And switching can open up new avenues of thought.

When I write fiction, it is almost an investigation into the characters, trying to understand them as best I can. I came to nonfiction later. For me, that is more of a conversation with the reader. Think of when you meet someone you click with and you want to share all you know with that person. You don’t just want to show them what happened to you, you want to show them the way the world looks through your eyes.

In both fiction and nonfiction, I’m most interested in the truth of how it feels to be a person moving through this world, because that is what I take pleasure in reading—those moments where you think ‘Aha, that is what it is like to be alive.’

On the other hand, when I draw, I’m more interested in beauty for its own sake. A line that is lovely or colours that bounce off each other are a great source of joy for me. And so drawing is for me a gentler mode.

Let’s talk about your novel for a second. In Harmless Like You, specifically through the character Yuki, you explore ideas around cultural identity, and the layered experience that is having a mixed race and cultural background. Can you speak to that narrative and how your own identity informed Yuki’s experience, if at all?

Harmless Like You is a novel about a Japanese artist in New York in the 1960s and 70’s who ends up abandoning her child. It is about how and why that happens.

My mother who is half Japanese and half Chinese, grew up in Manhattan at that time. She told me so many stories of her girlhood, but in the movies and books I read about that era there were no families like my own. So it was interesting to write a fictional family to whom I could give some of those stories. In the novel, Jay Yuki’s son is mixed race. He has a lot of worries—his wife hates his therapy cat, he feels ambivalent about his new baby, he’s quite angry at his own mother. I didn’t want being mixed race to be the main standout issue for him, but I do think that being mixed race can give a person the need to invent themselves. If you don’t grow up with a model of what people like you are supposed to be like, there is the need make it up yourself.

Can you speak a little to the journey of getting your first book published? And on that note, any advice to emerging writers trying to get their work into a more solidified form?

After the MFA, I taught high school English until I was offered a fellowship by the Asian American Writers Workshop. About six months after that, I found an agent, Lucy Luck. (It sounds like a superhero name doesn’t it?) She and I worked on the novel, through two rounds of edits. Lucy sent it out to publishers. I was very fortunate –a few publishers were interested in Harmless Like You, so there was an auction.I found an editor who was a good fit for me and now it is out in the world.

Advice? It will depend on the writer. But something a friend said to me that I’ve always found helpful, is to ask yourself what story you are best equipped to tell. What is your unique vision of the world? That might have to do with your personal history, your family, your community, or just what it is you love to read. If you have a gift for imaginary kingdoms, don’t beat yourself up for not writing realism. But equally, if it’s autofiction that makes your brain sing, go for it! What is popular will come and go, so stick to your gifts because those are what will make you stand out.

 Got any advice for some bright eyed, bushy tailed, recent graduates with BFA’s in Creative Writing?

Don’t rush. I was panicked all the time that I was too slow. I look back on that now and I see that was causing myself unnecessary pain. It is more important to keep yourself healthy and happy so that you have the strength to write the best possible book than it is to fret about the time it takes to write. I know writers who came to publication at very different times of their lives and who took very different routes. There is no one correct path and you never know which experiences will be useful to you in the end.

Can you give us a few words on your new project Starling Days?

Wow, you do your research. We haven’t even made the official announcement about that yet! Set in London, Starling Days is about love, mental illness and how the way we love changes when we get sick.

Ella Adkins is a writer working and living on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and Art History at the University of British Columbia. In her creative writing practice, Ella’s focus in on the female, in specific, the experiences of adolescent females and their coming of age, with a strong attention to the cycle of menstruation. Her work exists in many forms: script, poetry and prose, as well as the hybrid of them all. Within her art historical studies, Ella is interested in the intersection of language and art, and how textual and visual forms can co-exist within visual art.

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.

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.

Amber J

Interviewed by Natasha Silva

Amber JHailing from BC, Amber J, is a 25-year-old singer-songwriter. She might be new to the Toronto music scene, but she has been taking it by storm. Typically found with her guitar, Amber J creates an evolving sound that is a unique blend of Pop and R&B music. She stepped onto the city stage like, “Woah!” in 2016, and took home one of the grand prizes for her performance in Toronto’s esteemed music program, Honey Jam. In the past yearAmber J also received a grant from Toronto’s first ever Fund Me Fest put on by Z103.5 thanks to her organic storytelling and original perspective. Most recently, she has independently released her four-song EP Good Feeling, which drew an eclectic crowd to its premiere.

Capturing the essence of raw Canadian talent, Amber J is the one to watch. She has collaborated with Juno award winning and Grammy nominated producers as well as songwriters. Everyone is on the lookout for her upcoming projects.

Did you always want to be a songwriter?

Yes, but I didn’t know how to do it and make a career out of it. I thought it was more of a hobby. I’ve had a lot of in and out phases of “could this be a career” especially when I was younger.

What inspired you?

I’ve always liked telling stories and I always sang growing up. Music has always been in my family and singing songs was a way for me to tell my stories.

What was the first thing you wrote that you thought “this could be a success?”

I’ve always written and always had songs but when I was thirteen I wrote a song called “Don’t Judge a Book,” and performed it at my family’s house in Quesnel.

Would you say moving across the country and living in several strikingly different places affected your creative process?

Definitely. It’s a completely different style of music and writing in different places. What people respond to in Halifax isn’t what people respond to in Toronto. I’m not trying to get people to like my music alone. I’m mostly trying to get people to hear my story.

 Who has been your biggest influencer?

My mom. Watching her have the strength to go out and make a career for herself when she had to get an education later in life was inspiring. She doesn’t make excuses and fights for her dreams and successes. She really sets an example that if you want something you have to work for it.

What’s your favourite part of writing a song?

 The moment when you hit the sweet spot. When the melody and lyrics collide and you’re like “yes, this is a hit.”

What is your process like: music or words first? Or do they come simultaneously?

There are very few times I sit down with the thought of writing a song unless I’m in a writing room with a producer. When I’m working with a producer and they’ve given me a track, I see us as being a team. The producer was thinking something when they made that beat so I really try to hear the beat and what it’s telling me before I write.

Do you plan the arc of the song or write first, shape later?

A lot of my songs are written from an “I” perspective but are based off things that have been witnessed. Sometimes writing a song about the things I’ve witnessed is a way for me to process through the emotions connected to an event even when they’re not always my own direct experiences.

I try to be very authentic in how I write. I work through things pretty linearly and write from experiences and the songs are my way of processing.

How long does it take for a song to feel complete and in its best form?

It really depends on the song. Songs are like living creations, some can be worked on for a year and you are never satisfied with them. Others like demos are rawer and the rough edges are genuine which is a quality that can get lost in a song that’s been worked on for a while.

Would you say you write songs for a target audience or do you write them for yourself first?

Some are targeted and some are for me. I feel like everything ends up being targeted because I write about human experiences. Since we all share a lot of similar experiences there is a lot of relatability for audiences.

Do you find inspiration strikes on its own or do you go places or do things to encourage it?

I actually don’t ever go anywhere for inspiration. I write in my bed a lot with my lights off. I’ve written most of the songs I love when I’m walking around with my headphones in.

Which part of music do you like best: performing it, writing it, or both?

 Writing for sure. Performing is an area I’m working on. It’s vulnerable. I can sit in a studio and sing and tell my story and people listen to it through a speaker. But performance is in person and it’s like telling someone “this is how I got my heart broken” face to face.

Do you write in any other genres besides songwriting?

I used to write a lot of poetry and short stories. Then songwriting took shape and became my outlet because I realized I could do poetry and tell short stories within my songs.

Is there another artist you would like to do a collaboration with?

 It’s hard because it changes with the weather. There are so many dope artists I would love to have a writing session with or see how their process works.

If I had to choose, it would be Julia Michaels or Khalid. I enjoy their voices and what they have to say in their music. I find their music very raw and connect with what they’re saying.

Do you have any advice for songwriters wanting to break into the industry?

Put yourself in the room. No one’s ever going to give you a seat at the table unless you’re in the room.

What was the process of releasing your first EP like for you?

Stressful but because I didn’t do it right and it’s not a great release. It was made more for me than it was to be successful. I learned a lot from it and asking for help is the number one piece of advice I have about the process. I’m super impatient and that’s something I write about a lot. I rushed my EP because I was so excited and had been working on it for so long. I should’ve waited for the opportune moment to release it but that’s not a regret either because it was such a personal project and was really meant for me. The EP was very cathartic for me, I was dealing with a lot of shit and everything was a battle. I cut off everyone I’d been working with because things got too loud and everyone had a say about which song was or wasn’t a hit. I decided to work with only two producers, I picked the songs that were moving me and went with it.

Which is the most important song on your EP?

“Burn Brightly.” (It was originally called Staircase.) “Burn Brightly” is a metaphor for heaven and hell. You don’t know where you’re going because the light is bright on either side and the line between good and evil is very thin.

I wrote this song when I had just moved to Toronto. It was a transformation period in my life. Amber Joy came before Amber J and becoming Amber J is really a lot of what the song’s about. The bridge goes: “watch who you make deals with, you better know your worth.” Those lines signify the whole process of “I’m not going to take everything that comes my way.” That song was like past Amber warning me about all the bullshit that happened these past two years and if I had listened to what I was writing then, I could’ve saved myself a lot of trouble.

That song was a moment when I thought I could actually do this. A lot of people started coming and wanting to put a claim on my gift. They gave off this feeling of wanting to own me. I don’t think I’m anything special. I just work hard and I have something to say and sometimes I don’t know that I deserve to have that voice. I feel like I’m still nowhere but looking back on the past two years also makes me realize how far I’ve come.

What was your favourite song to write?

“Good Feeling.” It just felt good to write. I was sitting on my couch in my Mickey Mouse onesie. It was winter. I had my guitar out and I started playing this rhythm. I’m not a great guitar player and only use it to write. I don’t even know chords. “Good Feeling” is one of the only songs of mine that has a fun sound in contrast to the darker tones of the others. My songs often come off as sad even when I’m not sad. They can come off as very dark but I think the brokenness is beautiful.

What’s coming next?

I don’t know. I’m working on a bunch of shit. I’m trying to learn from my EP. There’s naivety in putting things out there and thinking it’ll do what it needs to do. I’m trying to be more mindful and ask the questions I need to ask. I’m growing confidence in believing that I have something to say and I want people to hear it. I’m writing stuff that people can relate with and I try to say it in a way that people haven’t said it. I write colloquially like I’m trying to have a conversation with you. So yeah, I’m working on writing and trying to get better at performance right now.

Natasha Silva is an undergraduate student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. She is currently working on a poetry collection and a YA fantasy novel.

 

Beni Xiao

Interviewed by Esther Chen

 

BeniX Beni Xiao is a writer and nanny based in Vancouver, BC, whose work has been featured by Room Magazine, Sad Magazine, The Real Vancouver Writers’ Series, and Can’t Lit. They like to nap and snack. They are very into fruit. Their poetry chapbook, Bad Egg, was published just over a year ago by local publisher Rahila’s Ghost Press. I asked Beni about life post-chapbook, process, tips, and what’s coming up next.

It’s been about a year since Bad Egg came out with Rahila’s Ghost Press; how has the past year been for you? How have things changed (professionally, personally, socially, spiritually)?

The last year has had a lot of ups and downs for me. I’ve been working full time as a nanny; it’s a job that I enjoy and find fulfilling, but it’s been difficult to balance working, writing, and my personal life. I’ve also been in pretty shit health which hasn’t helped things. I would like to focus more on writing and my personal life but most of my life has been working (nannying) for the last year.

From a writer and author’s perspective, what was the publishing process like for Bad Egg?

I’m really thankful that my book was published by Rahila’s Ghost Press. From my end, I found the process smooth and transparent. I’ve heard a lot of publishing nightmares, but Rahila’s Ghost was a dream to work with, especially my editor Selina Boan. The editing process was very collaborative, not at all the push and pull/power struggle it turns into sometimes.

As someone who sometimes get this label/comment about my own work, I want to ask: how do you feel about being labelled a “funny poet”?

I didn’t realize I was funny until I started doing readings and people were laughing. I’m never worried about people finding me funny. I didn’t set out to be funny and they thought I was funny then, so I have to trust that they’ll still like and find me funny now. It works to my advantage though because I think people find my work more relatable or memorable because they think it’s funny. I’m cool with it.

Do you think of poetry/writing as a career? What relation is there between writing and the other kinds of work you do to earn a living?

I would like to think of it as a career. When I was in school and writing I saw myself as a writer, but now that I’ve graduated and am working full time, I definitely consider my day job as a career more than writing. That is not how I want it to be, but it’s how I’ve been thinking about myself at this point in my life. I’m currently on something of a writing hiatus. Perhaps when I can find a better balance between things, and am writing more, I’ll start thinking about myself as a writer again.

The difference for me between writing and nannying is that I get paid to be a nanny. Ha. Ha.

Do you have any tips for emerging writers regarding self-promotion and “getting your name out there” as a poet?

Go to events and talk to people, that will help you so much more than you might think. My experience with the writing community here in Vancouver is that a lot of people and organizations really want to help emerging writers, so if you put yourself there and it should (hopefully) come together. That’s what I did anyway.

What’s your writing process like?

I have a thought that I think is amusing, or that I want to think more about later. To not forget it, I write in the notes app on my phone. Usually, these evolve into poems when I do have the time to revisit them.

Describe your ideal writing environment.

I’m a billionaire who doesn’t have a day job because I don’t need one. I wake up at noon, have some tea and a blueberry danish. After breakfast, I sit down at a cute fancy desk in my living room and do some writing with a cat curled up on my lap. It’s sunny and it’s spring.

If you don’t mind sharing, what are you working on now? What do you think is next for you, writing-wise?

I would like to have my first full length book out by the end of 2021, but again, I’ve not been doing as much writing as I’d like to lately, so we’ll see how that goes. I have a feeling that whenever my first book comes out it may be very Greek myth heavy.

Esther Chen writes and draws in Vancouver, BC. More of her work can be found on her website estherchen.tumblr.com.

Sheryda Warrener

Interviewed by Olivia Scarlet Hoffman

Sheryda Warrener is poet and professor currently teaching at UBC’s Creative Writing BFA program in Vancouver. She is the author of two books of poetry, Hard Feelings (Invisible, 2010) and Floating is Everything (Nightwood, 2015). She has been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, the Arc Magazine Poem of the Year, the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize and was awarded runner up for Lemon Hound’s inaugural poetry contest. Sheryda received her BFA in Creative Wrting at University of Victoria in 2001, and her MFA from University of British Columbia in 2008.

I’ve had the personal pleasure of being Sheryda’s student throughout my years as a UBC student. Sheryda’s workshops depict the dedication she gives to poetry; it is both a serious responsibility to create poems, but also, something that must be done with a loose hand. Her workshop styles focuses on the play that can be done once there is a foundational understanding of form. Exploration is intrinsic to the type of poetry Sheryda both writes and teaches.

Sheryda Warrener

 What is your background, and how do you feel it shows up in your writing?

I’m from a small town in southern Ontario. I have a big extended family, I received lots of love as a kid. I think this has left a meaningful impression not just on my character, but also my art. I have written lots of poems about my family, travel, visual art. The speaker of my poems doesn’t stray too far from my personal experiences.

What do you think led you to be a writer?

There are lots of things in my childhood that likely inspired me, but I think it was the fact that my family was encouraging and supportive that allowed me to really pursue poetry in a serious way.

Are there certain image sets and themes that reoccur throughout your writing? Or do these develop as time goes on?

Objects, collections of oddities. The speaker of my poems always seems to be at a market, putting things in baskets. Visual art, portraits. A speaker moving around her environment alone.

I know you are a big fan of the revision process, can you walk through what you feel is important to be present in a poem to know that it is finished? Or, do you think a poem can ever be fully finished?

I take the poem as far as I can, which means it’s alive but uses no unnecessary language. After that, it’s up to the reader to activate the poem; the poem becomes alive in a new way I can’t know or anticipate. So, I think the answer to this question is yes and no.

How has teaching influenced your writing, if it has?

Teaching gets me thinking about poems on two levels, as someone who can just wonder at poems for her own personal pleasure, and as someone who is required to articulate answers to questions like: What’s up with diction? Or, Why did that poet turn the line there? Learning how to articulate in meaningful ways how poems work while sharing my huge passion for poetry takes a particular form of attention, and it’s this attentiveness that makes my own work stronger.

Why do you write? Is it something you have ever tried to go without doing? How do you think being a writer enriches your life, or conversely, do you think writing inhibits you in anyway?

It’s not that I have to keep writing to feel fulfilled, it’s that my life without poem-making would be unbearable. Poem-making makes the world come alive for me. There are lots of times I haven’t written; those breaks here and there are good for my poems, they offer a chance to gain perspective on the work. Or, I just get excited about something else for a while, like swimming in a lake every day, or binge-watching Fargo or Top Chef. Getting too far away from poems is never good, but a little respite keeps the language and ideas fresh.

How do you use form to influence your writing? Do you find yourself choosing a form first and then writing to fit that certain mode? Or do you find the poem you are writing demands a certain form?

The content demands the form, but it takes my making many versions to know for sure exactly what’s best. And that takes researching all the possible ways a poem might move. I get really excited by the formal possibilities of poems, I think there’s no end to what a poem can be and do.

Do you have any projects you are currently working on? Either actively or something stowed away in your brain for the future?

Yes! I’m working on a book of poems about how it feels to be a woman who is, as they say, “in her prime.”

How do you try to approach truth in your writing? Do you find it something concrete or as more illusive?

I try to create an intimacy between speaker and listener, and while it’s not necessarily truth I’m after, there is an authenticity to that voice I hope to achieve. Creating vulnerability in a piece of work is, I think, the greatest struggle any writer faces.

How do you feed yourself, as a writer? (As in, what kind of art do you consume and how do you incorporate it into your writing? How do you find inspiration?)

I incorporate visual art and whatever I’m reading into my writing all the time. I start the day out with a book, a cup of tea. At some point without really noticing, I’ve put the book down and started taking notes. Sometimes I include direct quotes, sometimes I’m just borrowing a rhythm or a structure. Sometimes an image has prompted a memory, and I freewrite into that space. At the art gallery, I’ll sit and write in front of a painting or photograph or weaving or sculpture. And while it doesn’t directly influence my writing, I love television!

What is your writing process? Does your writing come to you all at once, or do you plan it out carefully?

My process has changed over the years, and I imagine it will continue to change as different priorities take precedence in my life. I’m not a planner, I never know what I might write about at any given time, but I do have a morning ritual on those days I know I’ll have some time to myself to spend making poems. Reading is a big part of my process, reading drives the work.

What advice do you have for young writers, either those just starting to delve into their voice or ones who are beginning the publishing process?

Hold yourself to as high a standard as your favourite writers or artists. Find your people! That is, the writers & thinkers your own work might be in conversation with, those voices who make it possible for you to write in the first place.

Olivia Scarlet Hoffman is currently pursuing her BFA in Creative Writing at University of British Columbia. She is primarily a poet and a non-fiction writer. Her work has been published in Barzakh’s spring issue and Poetry for Breakfast’s online site.

Jen Sookfong Lee

JSFL

Photo Credit: Sherri Koop Photography.

Interviewed by Alyssa Hirose

 Jen Sookfong Lee’s stories propel readers through space and time with emotional, troubled, and courageous characters. Lee is the author of several fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adults, including The End of East, Shelter, The Better Mother, The Conjoined, and Chinese New Year: A Celebration for Everyone. She was born and raised in East Vancouver, talks on CBC radio, and has a killer twitter profile.

I was interested in interviewing Jen Sookfong Lee firstly because she is a fabulous Asian-Canadian female writer, secondly because I’ll never forget the day I finished devouring The Conjoined and could do nothing but stare vacantly out my bus window contemplating morality, and thirdly because her funny and feminist tweets are a welcome presence in the dumpster fire that is Twitter politics.

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I started writing with the intent to be a writer as a career when I was 10 years old, but I don’t think I knew what I was getting into then! At 16, when I was in my last two years of high school, a poem of mine got published in a student journal, and it was at that time that I thought, “This writer thing could actually work out.” Ever since then, I have never had an alternate plan. I have no real skills other than writing! So this is it. I will be a writer until I die.

I think it’s common for emerging artists, even when published, to feel like they still aren’t a “real writer.” Do you remember when you first felt like a “real” writer, or the first time you claimed that title?

I’m quite sure I never called myself a writer in public until I had sold my first novel manuscript and I could conceivably whip out that contract as evidence if I ever needed to. I think when you’re at the beginning of your career, especially if you’re a woman of colour, your confidence is shaky. Who was I to be declaring I was a writer? I was no David Foster Wallace!

How have you noticed the writing field changing from when you first started writing to today?

A few years ago, the big publishers started to change their publishing philosophies, and were much more interested in acquiring books that they thought were safe bets, and that would make money easily. Which meant that the more experimental books, often written by authors from marginalized communities, were pushed aside. Those manuscripts then went to the independent presses, which led to an interesting expansion of titles for small to medium publishers. What I think this has done is levelled the playing field a bit more, meaning that the literary prizes are not just going to the books by the big presses, that the bestsellers can and are coming from independents. The power, if we can call it that, in Canadian publishing is more horizontal, which allows for a greater diversity of voices and styles. I think this is a hugely positive change.

Can you explain the process you went through in having your first book published?

The End of East took seven years to publish! I know, so depressing. When I had finished the fifth draft, I sent queries to five agents, two got back to me, and I went with Carolyn Swayze, who is still my agent to this day. Back then, everything took a lot longer because we had to send hard copies of the manuscript to publishers, and we didn’t do simultaneous submissions as often in 2005. It took about a year for it to be rejected about five times, and then Knopf Canada offered on it as part of its New Face of Fiction program.

In The Conjoined, there are several moments that are very dark, intimate, or uncomfortable. Is it difficult to share those scenes with people who are close to you, or is it easy for you to remove yourself personally and just share work professionally?

The wonderful thing about writing fiction is that you can hide behind the “I just made it up” curtain for everything you ever write. I highly recommend this! Actually, The Conjoined didn’t bother me so much because it was my third novel and also everyone understood I was writing a literary crime novel, so the darkness was a matter of course. It was my first book, The End of East, which is quite obviously based on my family and their stories, that worried me more than anything. However, my family, who I think loves me, understood that this novel was the most important accomplishment of my life, so if they had any criticisms about how I wrote sex or violence or abuse, they kept it to themselves.

Do you have any advice on how to deal with rejection?

I only really read rejections once or twice. I will read them, transcribe any feedback that is useful into my notebook, and then immediately delete it. You take what is helpful, and forget about the rest, and move on. Do not dwell.

When you get feedback for a piece of writing, how do you decide what feedback to use and what to ignore? In other words, how do you make sure that your work remains yours even after being workshopped, critiqued and edited?

My philosophy is that feedback is often spot on about pinpointing what isn’t working, but not always right about how to fix it. So, if someone points something out to you that they don’t like, it is always worth your time to look at it and give it some thought. The solution you come up with to deal with that problem may not be what anyone suggested, and that’s fine and great. You need to find your own solutions! Having said that, some feedback isn’t helpful and I think if it makes you cringe or feel bad, then ignore it. There is nothing wrong with this. One thing I do to keep my own voice apparent is I insert a header into my Word doc that states the themes I want to be present in every scene. So, for The Conjoined, it read, “Missing and murdered women from the Downtown Eastside, cycle of working poverty, intergenerational trauma.” This helps keep everything on track.

What has surprised you most about being a writer?

That community would so important to me. Writers are often people who are quite happy being alone, but the sense of community is more important that you might think. We need to talk about our projects with others who care, and we need to have those supports when we go forth and promote our work. But also, we just need other humans, to interact, to be part of the world.

Are there any specific obstacles that female-presenting, Asian Canadian writers can expect to face that male-presenting or white writers do not?

Well, we are always confused for one another, meaning about 33% of the time someone thinks I’m Evelyn Lau or Madeleine Thien. I think there can be a real push for Asian women to write trauma stories, or stories of systemic oppression, or immigration stories, and that’s just wrong. Why shouldn’t we write graphic novels or romance or spec fiction if we want to? I call it The Joy Luck Club Syndrome. Which is to say publishers can often pressure us to rewrite that novel over and over again. No shade at Amy Tan! She is a pioneer and a human delight! Also, she wears BDSM outfits and sings in a punk band, so I’m into her always.

If you feel stuck on a story or article, are there activities or methods you use to inspire you or push you forward in your work?

Freewriting helps for sure. Give yourself 10 minutes to just write out the junk in your head and by the end of it, you will have come up with an idea for your story that you will likely be able to use.

What encourages you to keep writing when you feel discouraged?

The love of books. Honestly, that’s it.

How do you prepare for readings or panel discussions? Do you get nervous for them? How do you deal with those nerves?

I write speaking notes usually, which helps quell the nerves. I am rarely nervous anymore, but I find preparing a lot helps with those nerves. Also understanding that book audiences are very forgiving. They want to like you!

If you could go back in time to before you became a writer, what advice or words of wisdom would you have for yourself?

Write what you want. Don’t listen to all those gatekeepers who told you to write something different. Protect your voice.

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

Meeting my readers. What a wonderful experience that is! It is never bad and never grows old.

How do you choose when to engage with problematic and potentially exhausting topics in the writing community, and when not to engage for your own wellbeing?

This is something I am still learning, as controversy comes and goes and changes over time. Some issues are not mine to take on, only mine to listen to and support. Others feel very personal to me, like UBC Accountable. It’s a balance of what I have energy for and what demands to be addressed. I have found that there are times I need to step away for extended periods just so I don’t exhaust myself so much that I can’t write. I guess my only advice is this: protect your energy so you can write. Your writing is your legacy.

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?

Mostly Youtube makeup tutorials. I am legitimately writing an essay on them, but really they are AMSR therapy to me. Without them, I would never sleep.

What are you working on right now?

I have a few projects on the go. A kids’ book of non-fiction, about immigration and refugees. A poetry collection that will be published in 2020 by Wolsak & Wynn. A collection of essays that are part pop culture, part memoir.

Who inspires you?

Zadie Smith, Celeste Ng, Ariana Grande, Gus Van Sant, Kylie Jenner. I am totally not joking.

What advice do you have for emerging writers (particularly local, Asian-Canadian ladies!)?

Give yourself time to write in obscurity. It can be so tempting to jump into a literary scene right away, to make connections before you’ve had a chance to solidify what you want to be writing. You need the time to write, try new styles and genres, and to do so in an environment that is safe and yours alone.

 

Tanya Boteju

photoInterviewed by Artemis Saatchi

Educator, writer, and debut-author Tanya Boteju was born and raised in Victoria, BC. She moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia, and then never left. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in English at UBC, then her Bachelor of Education immediately after. She has been teaching English and Creative Writing at the high school level for almost 17 years now. She completed a Masters of Arts in Educational Leadership from Columbia and a diploma in Creative Writing from SFU in that time as well. KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS is her first novel. The book is slated for release in May of 2019, by Simon Pulse. She is currently working on a second YA novel, as well as on a short story for a YA collection called ALL OUT NOW slated for release fall 2020.

Could you describe your relationship or history with writing? Have you always known you wanted to be an author? What role has writing played in your life?

I’ve always enjoyed English as a subject, but wasn’t much of a writer or reader when I was younger. And my high school didn’t offer a creative writing class, so I really just dabbled in writing and journaling until much later in life. I can’t remember when exactly I knew I wanted to write a book, but it was some time in my mid-20s. My experiences with drag, being queer, and teaching young people made me feel like there was a fun novel in there somewhere that might make queer kids feel better about themselves. It took me until I was 37 to start writing it though!

Has your teaching career influenced your writing, in terms of style, voice, or content?

Absolutely. I did things a bit backwards—I taught creative writing for 10 years before actually writing much of my own. Having to teach it forced me to learn more about it and practice it alongside my students. And as I started writing KINGS, I found the practice of writing easier because I had encouraged my students to fully participate in and trust the writing process—especially freewriting—so I took my own advice and just kept writing, even if the first draft was “shitty” (shout-out to Anne Lamott). Additionally, there’s no way I could have written this novel without spending so much of my time with teenagers. One, my work with young, queer kids has inspired my desire to write something meaningful and hopeful for them. Two, I think/hope my teenage characters feel more believable because I spend so much time with them. And all of this is a two-way street, of course. My writing informs my teaching as much as my teaching informs my writing!

Do you have a favourite genre when it comes to what you like to read? Could you tell us about some of your favourite authors? KINGS is classified as YA—what genres would you say your writing resides in?

I love literary fiction. And discovering female writers when I took a Women in Literature course at UBC my second year changed my reading life. It was the first time studying English where everyone we were reading wasn’t white, old, male, and (usually) dead. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, and more opened up a whole new world for me. And I continue to gravitate towards writers of color and queer authors now too—Toni Morrison continues to be a favorite, plus Sarah Waters, Ann Marie MacDonald, David Chariandy, and people like Amber Dawn who are changing the way we write and read about queerness.

Before starting to write YA, I never really read YA. But I knew that if I wanted to write it, I’d need to read a bunch to get a sense of what’s out there and how it might differ somewhat to adult fiction. I read a lot of YA over the past three years, especially YA that included queer stories, and really fell in love with it. There are so many wonderful stories being told now that include diverse characters and experiences. I continue to keep a YA novel on the go almost all year long now, for when I need a slightly faster read and also to keep myself “in the know. To escape I’ll read angsty YA with girl-girl romance, even if it’s not that well written. Some of my favorite YA so far has been The Miseducation of Emily Post, The Hate U Give, and The Marrow Thieves. Miseducation really influenced KINGS—it was the kind of novel I wanted to write in terms of realistic, well-developed characters and storyline. I prefer to read and write realistic fiction.

Is there any kind of writing that you tend to stay away from? Both in regards to your personal consumption and in what you teach?

I teach poetry and short stories because I value them and think they’re important, but I don’t consume a lot of either on my own. I also don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I consume non-fiction-type stories via podcasts and TED Talks instead of through books. Over the years, I’ve also moved away from the ‘“traditional literary canon” in my teaching because…who decided on that canon anyway? We still teach Shakespeare, and we should, because how’d he do all that? But I try to insert as much writing by POC, female, queer writers as possible these days. So I guess I tend to veer away from old, white, dead men and towards more contemporary, within the last 100 years, writing. And feminism! I lean towards complex, diverse female characters, and immigrant and indigenous experiences.

Is there something specific that you’re reading right now or just finished reading?

I’m reading Roller Girls: Totally True Tales from the Track, as research for the YA book I’m writing, which will take place in the roller derby world. By my bedside right now are: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Boy Erased by Garrard Conley, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I just finished I’m Afraid of Men, a short but heartbreaking and courageous memoir by Vivek Shraya.

 

Can you describe the events and emotions that led up to you writing your upcoming debut novel, KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS? Can you describe your path—was this something you’ve wanted to write for a long time, did the idea come to you all at once, did you get it down on paper quickly, or did writing it span a longer amount of time?

KINGS began as a tiny germ of an idea resulting from my time as a drag king. Since then, I always thought there was a story in there somewhere involving the drag world, since it’s so colourful and fascinating. I’m not sure what finally clicked for me to make me start writing the book—maybe it was the feeling of ‘“what next?” after completing my masters. But I wrote the first words of the book while in France on my own in the summer of 2015. I had a general idea of who my protagonist was—17, female, naïve, queer—and I knew she’d somehow find herself in the drag world. That’s about all I knew. To find out more about her, I began monologuing. It was by far one of the most useful things I did as part of my writing process—getting to know her better helped me write in her voice throughout the novel. She ended up telling me what to write in a sense. I still use that monologuing strategy to get to know my primary characters better as I write.

I only wrote a bit of her monologue that summer. Once school starts, I find it very difficult to write consistently. The next time I sat down to write KINGS in earnest was May-July of 2016. I began taking myself on week-long writing retreats each summer to have focused writing time. I enrolled in the Writers Studio at SFU for the 2016-2017 school year to keep myself on track, and it really helped. I was able to hammer out a manuscript over that year and complete it by the summer of 2017.

Mainly, for KINGS, I wrote out the entire story as it came to me. I’d write a section, and then the next time I sat down to write I’d read over what I’d written and clean up any obvious problems, and then keep writing. I didn’t have an outline for KINGS, but found this problematic later on in the process when I wasn’t sure where I was going for the last third of the book. Now, I try to have a loose outline and a sense of the protagonist’s character arc before writing. I think and have heard from other writers that this helps with efficiency, which I can believe since I wrote about 30,000 words extra for KINGS that I may not have written had I had an outline first!

Can you also offer a rough outline of what happened once the book was written—how you started sending the story out, what you focused on in your query letters, interactions that took place through the story—positive or negative? Are there any specifics you learned through this process that you could share, or any advice you could offer other debut writers?

I had just finished the Writers Studio, which was helpful, as we learned how to write query letters and my mentor, Eileen Cook, guided me through the process. She suggested a few agents to query, and I used online sites like Publishers Marketplace and Bookends to find other agents who specialize in diverse lit and YA.

I sent out about 10 to 15 letters, making sure to emphasize my POC, queer character and the drag element, which, from my research into other YA and even adult novels, I knew to be a unique part of the story.

I received back two requests for the manuscript quite quickly and then a couple more over the next few months. This, from what I’ve heard, is not typical and I am very lucky. I also received two or three rejections and some didn’t reply at all.

Jim McCarthy was the first agent to respond, and ended up becoming my agent. I love him. I signed on with him in August 2017, about a month after completing the book.

He has a great reputation in the publishing world and is with a well-established agency in NYC. He started shopping my book around, and we got a couple of offers. The quickest to read the book and show love for it was Jen Ung at Simon Pulse, however. Her written response to my book won me over—it was heartfelt and glowing. She seemed to really get what I was hoping to do with the book in terms of making a difference for young queer POCs.

Some advice: write from your unique experience; diverse voices are finally in. But don’t write diverse voices just to write diverse voices—write from a true place or the voice will feel superficial. Be ready for rejection, look for agents that are looking for what you’re writing, and find a writing community to help you navigate both the writing process as well as the querying process. Don’t write for fame or fortune—keep writing because you love it. Also, stay open-minded to others’ feedback, but also true to your story and characters. No one knows them better than you do.

What was a highest and lowest point for you, as you underwent your writing and subsequent query process?   

So many high points. I loved the writing process, I lucked out with amazing beta-readers and feedback, I loved my story and characters, and I had probably the most positive querying/publishing process a writer could ask for. Obviously, having someone actually want to publish my book was mind-blowing—I still can’t quite believe it—and since then, every new little thing with the editing and publishing process has felt like a celebration. I’m just riding the wave!

I don’t really have any “lows.” I guess the hardest thing has been balancing writing with teaching full time. I’m tired at the end of the day and feel guilty when I don’t write. I did get a taste of rejection recently when I wrote 13,000 words of what I thought would be my next book and my editor didn’t love it. But it led to me writing my current project, so the rejection turned into another high. I think partly I’m lucky because I love teaching too, so I have this fulfilling career and now I have this other fulfilling career and I feel like everything is just an opportunity to grow.

Could you provide a description of your upcoming novel, KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS, touching on genre, subject matter, and why you think it’s relevant for today?

KINGS is really a love letter to the drag community as well as to young, queer, brown kids. I wanted to write a hopeful story for queer kids that wasn’t a coming out story. Nima [the novel’s protagonist] isn’t so much struggling with her sexuality as she is with her insecurities, though she is new to the world of dating. I hope the relevancy is obvious. We need more diverse lit. Kids need to see themselves in the lit and media that surrounds them. Kids need happy endings. And I hope people get an inside look at drag too—it’s a magical community and deserves more recognition beyond RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I’ve taken a look at your Goodreads page, and so many people have had a positive reaction—to say the least—to the fact that your Nima is biracial and queer. You really seem to be representing groups of people that have rarely felt seen in the media. What are your thoughts on what has been available as far as minority representation in literature and media? Did you feel a certain responsibility to tell this story? Are there any stories out there that you think did a good job making other people feel seen and heard?

When I first started writing KINGS, Nima was white. I had to stop myself about a third of the way through the first draft and give myself a kick. I had to consciously and very deliberately re-image Nima in my mind to make her brown. This just reiterated to me how insidious and ubiquitous whiteness is in our world/media. I’m brown, I’m feminist, I’m hyper-aware of race and do anti-racist work…but my go-to characterization was a young white girl? So yes, I do feel a responsibility to represent POCs and queer characters and characters that go beyond traditional gender constructs. Thankfully, more YA authors are seeing this need to and writing voices we haven’t always heard. Fat kids, POC kids, immigrant kids, Muslim kids, queer kids, trans kids, indigenous kids, asexual kids, “ugly” kids, “loser” kids, intersex kids…I think YA is doing this better than most genres in general. But two books I read recently that are not YA but tell stories we’re definitely not seeing enough of are Little Fish by Casey Plett and Johnny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. Trans and Two-Spirit lives told without apology or the need to ‘clean things up.’ Amazing.

Why do you think that there are more minority stories being told today—both in books and in movies? For example, two of the biggest movie phenomena of 2018 centred on East Asian characters and culture, and neither of them relied on the other-ing tropes, or stereotypes, that films tend to employ when discussing people of colour. Do you feel good about the direction in which the media seems to be leaning, in terms of representation?

I do feel good about it overall. Obviously, there’s so much work to be still done as the percentages of these kinds of movies/roles are still abysmally low. But the good news is that when movies like this do come out, they do well financially, so that whole “well, these kinds of stories don’t sell” line can be put to rest. I think the ‘why’ of it has to do with plain, hard work—POCs fighting tooth and nail to have their stories heard and some resolute allies supporting them. And social media has definitely played a positive role in all of this too—even as it has its massive downsides, it’s made these voices more accessible.

How important is it to you that stories centred on minority characters be told by people of the same minority?

You’ve opened a can of worms here! I do believe it’s important for marginalized groups to be able to tell their own stories. I think it’s possible for dominant groups to tell marginalized groups’ stories if they do some serious work/research. And I don’t think it’s always possible for all characters to be written by authors with the same identities. If that were the case, I’d only be writing about brown, queer characters forever. But, the ideal in my view is for people to tell their own stories. Which is why I think it’s important for those in privileged groups to bolster and create space for marginalized artists to tell their own stories. If you’ve got some power and prestige behind you already, find a way to bring marginalized voices up beside you.

Do you feel as though today’s climate is a good environment to release your book into? Is there another time or place that you wish you could share your story?

I feel this is the perfect time to release this book. Diverse YA lit is exploding, RuPaul has made drag mainstream, and people are looking for queer stories that go beyond the tragic coming out trope. I feel very lucky to have written this book when I did.

If you could give the version of Tanya Boteju that existed before KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS entered your life one piece of advice what would it be?

You can write while teaching, Ms. B. Quit making excuses and figure it out, woman!

How do you feel about the period of marketing that is coming your way, prior to the book’s publication? Is it something that excites you? This might be a silly question, since this is exactly one of those marketing-style things.

It’s not silly at all. I’m really excited about it. I’m not sure what to expect—all of this is so new—but I love the idea of sharing my book with others and being able to talk to people about their responses and hear their stories as well. And my agent and editor have been amazing, so I feel good about where they’re taking me as a writer. My blue-sky desire is that I get to hold lots of book launches in lots of great cities and each one opens with a local drag king or queen act. I don’t know if it’ll happen, but the prospect is thrilling.

Are you planning any other novels right now, do you have any ideas that you’re jotting down for a next project?

My next YA novel is tentatively titled Bruised. It takes place in the roller derby world, which is another subculture I find fascinating. I’ve never done roller derby myself, so I’ll need to do my homework, but that sounds like fun research to me! I’ve heard the sophomore project is very hard, and I can see why. KINGS was a book that was just kind of inside me, waiting to be written. My next book will feel less natural than that, I think. But I’m still excited about it.

Artemis Saatchi is an undergraduate student in the Art History and Creative Writing programs at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in fiction and creative non-fiction. She is currently finishing a YA manuscript, and applying to graduate programs.

 

Katherena Vermette 

vermette

Interviewed by Napatsi Folger

Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory, the heart of the Métis nation, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her first book, North End Love Songs (The Muses Company) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2013a. Her novel, The Break (House of Anansi), was a bestseller in Canada and won multiple awards, including, the 2017 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. 

Ms. Vermette is also the author of the children’s picture book series, The Seven Teachings Stories, and recently published the first book, Pemmican Wars, in the young adult book series, A Girl Called Echo. Ms. Vermette’s second book of poetry, river woman, was published in the fall of 2018. Her National Film Board documentary, this river, won the 2017 Canadian Screen Award for Best Short.

Vermette lives with her family in a cranky old house within skipping distance of the temperamental Red River.

 

You’ve written poetry, fiction and other genres, do you have a favourite genre?

I always say that poetry is my favourite because it feels most like home. But the others all have their merits too, except for fiction.There is nothing comfortable about fiction. 

 

I’m intrigued by your statement “there’s nothing comfortable about fiction.” could you elaborate on this? I know it is not your main genre but your piece of fiction The Break was so strong and successful. What about fiction makes you uncomfortable? Is it just writing fiction or does reading fiction also feel uncomfortable for you?

 

Reading fiction is so comfortable. I love fiction. I love reading a story by a writer I trust and just knowing I will be led to beautiful places. I meant writing fiction. It doesn’t feel as natural to me as poetry. It feels hard and layered. There are so many things to keep track of – you have to remember where you put characters, you have to follow some sort of plot, or not, which arguably is even harder. I just meant it feels like work. Poetry is home; fiction is work. I love my work, but it’s work.

I recently read your poem “When Louis Riel Went Crazy” and thought it was fantastic. It seemed like a non-fiction poem, but people don’t tend to link non-fiction and poetry together.Would you consider the combination of poetry and non-fiction as a sub-genre that your work could fall into?

I have always thought of poetry as non-fiction. It might be because at my local library, poetry has always been in the nonfiction area—is that not normal? For me, poetry is far closer to my life story or a life story than anything else. I don’t know what it’s like for other writers. I do know poetry always feels more personal. It feels closer and immediately intimate somehow.

 

As for poetry not being non-fiction, now that I think about it, it does seem like the right fit, I guess we tend to discuss them as such separate things, and I think people sometimes associate non-fiction less with creativity and more with a sense of textbookishness.

 

I have never written CNF and have no ambitions to, but from what I hear, it sounds an awful lot like poetry – you look at something, you try to see and portray it in a different way, and take truth and make it fancy. That sort of thing. 

What kinds of literary works inspire you? For example, I am a non-fiction and fiction writer but I find the most inspiration from poetry and music, are you similar or do you get inspired by good work in your specific genres mostly?

I get inspired by young people’s stories. I love watching new writers find their voice. I’m never limited to genre. You’re right- it comes from all sorts of places.

 

If you could work with an author (in any capacity) of your choice living or dead, who would you choose?

I am currently doing a deep dive into Métis history so these days, I’m thinking a lot about my ancestors. I would love to sit down and chat with Louis Riel, talk poetry and politics. That’s the dream to me.

 

What inspired you to become a writer? Has your inspiration for writing changed since you began?

For many years, through childhood and young adulthood, I was really just writing to stay alive. It was a way I could process and think about things, mostly bad things but that’s just how my life looked at the time. But it’s always been a way of making sense of the world, either through fiction or poetry, it was a filter and a lens. It hasn’t changed much in that way. It’s still a very cathartic experience for me, at least at first. But when you write for others, in school or for publication, you add other steps to the process- many, many more editing steps, for one. I do like editing. It lets you write away and around the initial idea. You can polish it and make it better. Usually better. Sometimes not so much.

You cover very intense themes in some of your work.Has your writing been embraced by your community? Have you ever struggled with backlash from those community members close to you (encountered people thinking you are writing about them or exposing the darker aspects of life in your community)?

I’m not sure what you mean by community, really, but I’m going to assume you mean this place now called Winnipeg and the Métis folk I tend to write about. So no, I haven’t gotten any backlash from them. I’m sure there are critics but I’ve never heard anything like that. It’s also worth noting that the only people who think my community would be mad at me for “exposing darker aspects” are not from my community. My community knows where these “darker (I would say negative myself) aspects” really come from- these are systemic and colonial abuses that were imposed upon us. An oppressed community doesn’t have the privilege of having any aspect of its lives free from that oppression.

 

I find your response to that interesting and I asked because, and I’m not sure if this rings true for Metis people as well, but, Inuit were very much integrated into Christianity. I’ve found that these factions of modern evangelical Christian Inuit often dislike the exposure of our imperfect lives to the larger outside world. What I’d like to know is do you come across barriers or negativity in the world of CanLit because of your heritage or subject matter? If so do you have advice for other Indigenous writers who encounter similar treatment?

 

Yes, I get that. And I have no doubt there are critics who hate what I am writing, but I have been lucky to be insulated from that. I say lucky because though there is always criticism, and I have taken a lot of creative writing classes so I think I have a thick skin about some of it, but I have no skin about criticism from my own community. For them, I am just raw and vulnerable. I try my best to be respectful in all things, speak truthfully, speak from my own individual experience and never on behalf of anyone, so if I was ever accused of the opposite I think that would break my heart.

 

I do understand the Christianity thing. I do understand that idea that we should keep ourselves to ourselves, but I suspect that comes from fear, and fear should always be challenged. Fear is a completely reasonable, valid response, but I also think Indigenous nations have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Ever. Always. I also think ignoring and avoiding truth, and hard, negative things, serves no one, least of all the persons most affected by them. I also understand and try to convey that the issues affecting my community affect all communities of every walk of life, everywhere, but are exacerbated by the long term, intergenerational effects of attempted genocide and perpetual colonial abuses. There is a reason things are the way they are, and it is by design. Nothing else. 

 

In this era of Canadian “reconciliation” talk, what do you think non-indigenous writers can do to support reconciliation and their Indigenous counterparts?

Support Indigenous writers, stories, books, voices. Make space. We all have stories to contribute to this idea called reconciliation. We just need to support and give space to each other, I think.


Who would you consider your target audience?

I write first for my community, and also myself, in some respects. I don’t know that I have a target audience. That sounds like something marketing people deal with. I’m the worst at stuff like that.

 

What do you most want readers to get out of reading your work?

I would like Indigenous persons to feel seen and respected. I would like non-Indigenous persons to see and have respect for Indigenous subjects. 

If you had an assignment where you had to write a piece of fan
fiction what work would you choose to cover?

I wish fan fiction was a thing when I was a teenager. I would have loved it. It would have been all about bands, like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Road trip stories, bands on tour, probably. That sounds like something I would do. Or I’d make everybody vampires. It was the 90s after all.

Will you please write a choose your own adventure poem?

I love this idea! But it’s yours, so you know what that means. I look forward to reading it one day.

Napatsi Folger is a freelance short fiction and non-fiction writer from Iqaluit, Nunavut. She is currently in her first year of study in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. Napatsi studied history and English at the University of
Toronto, and worked in policy for the Government of Nunavut for 12 years. She has written both fiction and non-fiction for publications such as Word Hoard, Puritan Magazine, The Walrus, Matrix Magazine, The Town Crier and published her first Young Adult novel, Joy of Apex, in 2012 with Inhabit Media.