Carol Shaben

Interviewed by Peter Takach

Shaben

Photo credit: NT Photo

Carol Shaben is an award-winning nonfiction author and journalist. Her first book, Into the Abyss, is a national bestseller and was selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and an Amazon.com Book of the Month. Her most recent book, The Marriott Cell, co-written with award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, was named one of the Globe & Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2016, and won the Ontario Historical Society Huguenot Award. Of Lebanese Muslim heritage, she is a former CBC writer/broadcaster, and at twenty-two worked as a journalist in Jerusalem.

I am a huge admirer of Carol’s work and was lucky to sit down and chat with her about how she finds and plots a story and the advice she has to offer up-and-coming writers. The interview has been edited for length.

Carol, what are you reading right now?

I’m reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. And I’m also reading Tara Westover’s Educated.

Do you find that your reading seeps into what you are writing? Do you seek out books with an eye to study form or content?

I’m always reading for language. When I read and the language is so perfect and lyrical and elevated, that’s a high bar that inspires me. When I’m writing nonfiction, I tend to read for plot devices, character arcs, for how to make a real story as compelling as fiction can be. But I also want to be true to my own voice, so when I’m writing intensively, I try not to read work that is going to take me away from my own voice.

What books have you found the most helpful in improving your craft?

I’ve gotten a lot from screenwriting books, especially Robert McKee’s Story. When you are trying to animate nonfiction, craft is really important. McKee changed my game by getting me to think at a more conscious level about scene, and to cut any scene that does not “turn” or have a value shift for the character. That to me makes propulsive writing, really thinking about scenes and beats. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat talks about what should happen at various points in the arc of a screenplay, and to me, having that global sense of story, of midline, of turning points, has been helpful in plotting an entire book.

So what does your drafting process look like?

When I’m writing a larger project or a work of nonfiction, I really work with structure. First, I develop an overall arc to get a sense of chapters. Within each chapter, I figure out what the scenes are and within each scene, what the value shift is. If a character is happy at the start of a scene, what shifts for them to keep the tension? Another thing I do in both fiction and nonfiction that sounds cliché is to figure out what my character wants. If the character wants something, they will do something. You have to have the motivational piece nailed down.

There are four storylines in Into the Abyss, and for each of those characters, I knew the conflict (man against nature, man against self), and what each character’s arc was. And also, right out of McKee, you need to identify the gap between where each character is and where they want to be. If you look at a character’s journey as a broken staircase, the interesting stuff in fiction and nonfiction happens where your character is standing on a stair just below a broken or missing section, and knows they want to be higher up, and how do you get them there? That gap is where risk and conflict lie, where the real creative and compelling work can happen. I map those staircases out for each character.

When you read Into the Abyss, you can see how carefully you’ve woven these threads into a gripping story, one of only a few books that have ever moved me to tears.

Well, as long as you’re not crying over the language! I felt like that was a good story well told, but I have regrets about the prose because I had just a year to deliver a manuscript. If I’d had more time, I would have elevated the language. To me, there are two elements to exciting and memorable writing: one is the execution of the form and structure, and the other is language. And that is the luxury of being able to polish and to redraft and in my mind, that’s the difference between me, who I consider to still be a novice and someone whose writing slays me. Time is a really important part of the equation, giving yourself time to really work the language.

I was going to ask how you know when a book is complete. So this was a case of external deadlines?

Yes. Deadlines drove the timelines for both books and both were intensive to write. For The Marriott Cell, we wrote it in ten months and I was working fourteen to sixteen-hour days. I really work well to deadlines, but I also think there’s a feeling when things are falling into place. After all the hellfire and the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, there’s kind of an organic place where you feel intuitively that things are working in the way that serves your story. If you can get to that point, you’re either plain lucky or you’ve done the work. I also think you can polish language forever, but there’s also a time to let a book go and just know you’ve done as well as you could in the time period.

Do you have any tips for a writer muddling through the middle of their project?

One thing that helped me to write both books was to get off my screen, and use another form, like large index cards. Once, when I was stuck and had written myself into a muddle, Nancy Lee, who’s in my writing collective, suggested I go out and buy myself the biggest bulletin board I could find and start putting scenes on that board and moving them around. Getting away from the limitations of a computer screen can be really creatively liberating, because you see different possibilities. Some people use Scrivener or whatever and can do it all on a screen, but I really like that bigger canvas.

It feels a bit more tactile to have those, like you’re actually making something.

Yes. And you can get those moments when you say, “I’ve cracked the nut!” You’re digging around on this hard shell of a story with no idea and all of a sudden it cracks open for you and something is revealed and how that process happens creatively, I have no clue.

You have a magic touch for finding and telling stories of, in your words, “overlooked or underrated individuals who, through their courage, heroism and conviction, deeply move and inspire us to be our best selves.” What is the importance of telling these stories?

We’re so into this mindset of our public personas, of how many followers we have, and I think we miss that there’s power and potential in people who seem powerless or who we dismiss because they don’t tick off the boxes that we define as making them successful or worthy. Those kinds of individuals can sometimes offer stories not only about human potential but about humility, about compassion, about ignoring the artificial barriers that race or politics or economics or social status create. I feel particularly strongly at this time of rising fascism that the key we all have is to look for those stories that make us see each other in a more humane and compassionate way.

Where do you find these stories?

Talking to people, reading. Just being open. I am currently researching a longform piece on a woman who’s working in the cacao industry lifting Central American farmers out of poverty. She’s from Texas and she’s changing the way the chocolate industry operates. I think the most interesting stories are those where you can find a person who can take you inside a world that you would never otherwise have access to. Those kinds of stories are exciting. I also think that if we pay attention to others and to our environment, as writers and as human beings, we all resonate at the same level. When there is a story, we instinctively know it. We understand what heroism or courage looks like.

The world can seem rather dark these days. How do you keep your positivity and mission in the face of what can feel like insurmountable adversaries?

I look for the people and stories that move me and I try to get out of my comfort zone. Last June, for example, I went to an event called The Shoe Project featuring refugee women who had fled war in their countries. Vancouver writer Caroline Adderson had helped them write their stories of fleeing and coming to Canada. I was so moved that I invited these women to dinner, because they inspired me. And so I had fifteen women from everywhere from Eritrea to Somalia to Mexico in my home, and we broke bread together.

I think being open and reaching out across a boundary or what feels like a barrier, these small acts of humanity, open up whole worlds. And when you take a moment to look at those worlds, to get to know a person who you think is “other,”, you’ll find inspiration in the human condition on an individual level. Sometimes when you watch the news and you think of things on a global level, it’s overwhelming. But a conversation with someone who has struggled or who is different, and seeking to understand, that feeds me and fills me up. It shows me my own privilege and reminds me of our human potential. And that’s worth writing about. Also, I try to limit my consumption of CNN.

We’ve spoken in the past about the differences between fiction and nonfiction. What is the most powerful thing for you about writing creative nonfiction?

I think it’s how flawed and perfect and inspiring and courageous and heroic and terrible we can all be. It’s this range of human action and emotion that’s fascinating to me. We can all choose to walk in the world in a different way. If I can write a story that causes a reader to pause and think differently about another person or their own actions, or how they live their lives, that would be the greatest reward of writing I could hope for.

What are you currently working on, if you don’t mind talking about it?

Various smaller projects. I was hollowed out after doing The Marriott Cell. It was really intense and hard work, and then I got blocked for quite awhile. The block came from feeling like I had to have the next big idea in hand, and that it had to be fully formed so that when it came out of my mouth, other people would say “Wow! That’s amazing!” I think that’s part of the reason why some authors don’t talk about their current projects.

If there’s one thing the last few months of mucking in my own writing has taught me, it’s that we can sometimes defeat ourselves by looking around and seeing how everyone else is doing and taking a count of publications. It can be very destructive for the creative muse. We need to find the joy that got us here, that made us take the leap into believing we could do this crazy thing. Right now, I feel fortunate and excited and happy, and I’m jotting down ideas all the time, whereas when I was pushing before, there was nothing. I’m full of a sense of possibility, which I think is as good as it gets when you’re in a creative realm.

So I’m writing poetry very badly, I’m working on a kid’s book, I’m jotting down ideas for short stories. I’m researching this long form piece on cacao—it’s got its hooks into me. I’m just trusting, and enjoying the privilege of this vocation we call writing. I’m letting myself enjoy it rather than thinking it has to be a certain way, and then something will happen, something exciting.

One final question. What is the best piece of advice, writing or otherwise, that anyone has ever given you?

A writer once told me four words key to writing: put ass in chair. It’s hard work, it’s discipline, it’s just doing it. It’s not magic. The magic comes from putting your ass in your chair everyday. The best thing writers can do for themselves is not let life take them away from that one shining priority. It should be the most important thing on your to do list for the day. Nothing has served me better than that advice.

Peter Takach is a writer and teacher whose works have surfaced in some of the nation’s finest magazines, literary festivals, and recycling bins. Banished from his hometown for crimes against humanities, he can be found at the University of British Columbia toiling away at MFA in Creative Writing or perched on driftwood staring out at great Neptune’s ocean.

 

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Keith Maillard

Interviewed by Louise BrechtMaillard

Keith Maillard is an iconic American-Canadian novelist, poet, essayist, and professor. The trek from Wheeling, West Virginia, to his chosen home in West Vancouver, was circuitous, but the author liked what he found when he arrived—and stayed. His first novel was published in 1976; Two Strand River is a noted gender-bending “classic of Canadian magic realism.” Twelve novels and one book of poetry followed. Eleven have won or been nominated for literary prizes that include the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Gerald Lampert Award (poetry), the Polish American Historical Association’s Creative Arts Prize, the Weatherford Award, and ReLit Awards.

Keith is a dedicated educator, a recipient of the Dorothy Somerset Award for excellence in that field, and since 1989, has played an integral role in UBC’s Creative Writing Program. His latest novel was published in September 2018.

Twin Studies, inspired in part by manga artist Ai Yazawa’s Nana series, visits the intense interconnectedness between three sets of twins, their families, friends, at the same time as it revisits the concept of gender fluidity introduced in Two Strand River. Intrigued by its thematic currency, I was eager to interview the book’s author.

Two Strand River was obviously well ahead of its time. How did your early years, at home and as a writer, prepare you to challenge the prescribed theory of gender binary?

As soon as I was aware of anything, I was aware that I was different from other kids. There were no words for any of this stuff back then, and when I felt bad about myself, I thought of myself as “not a real boy,” but when I felt good about myself, I thought of myself as “like a girl.” I kept these thoughts secret, of course, because they were thoughts that one should not be having. Later on, as I entered into adulthood, I thought of myself as “not straight,” but if that defined what I wasn’t, then what was I?

I am one of those people for whom gender identity is, as the psychologists say, “stable across the lifespan.” That is, my sense of my own gender is the same now as it was when I was four, or at any time, but for many years I didn’t know what to call it.  

I read voraciously as a kid and a teenager, read masses of popular fiction, and in none of it could I find anyone who was like me. Representation is crucially important. If you can’t find anyone like you in fiction, then it’s hard to feel that you are even human. When I sat down to write Two Strand River, I didn’t know for sure if there were many, or any, people like me, but if there were, then I was writing for them.

Not until 2009-2010, when Twin Studies is set, was the term “nonbinary” readily available. When I first ran across it, I let it settle in my mind, and then eventually thought, oh my goodness, there it is finally, the bell is ringing—that’s me. I gave that wonderful epiphany to the characters in my book.

Did you have any specific influences?

On Two Strand River? In the afterword to the HarperCollins edition I list most of the influences on that particular book. I piled into it everything I was thinking about when I wrote it, and that made for a dense and somewhat chaotic text, but all of that stuff is, in some sense, just piled on the top. The core story is something that had always been with me. I began writing stories in the eighth grade. Boys who were like girls and girls who were like boys had appeared in my writing early on and kept reappearing, so Alan and Leslie had always been there in my mind—which is probably why their stories came to me so quickly and intensely.  

How did its publication affect your career trajectory…and the books that followed?

Publication led to reviews, to some recognition, to Canada Council Grants, to a reading at Harbourfront. Back in those days you weren’t on a panel with four or five other writers; it was just you, and you read for 45 minutes, had an intermission and then read for another 45 minutes. That was quite a workout. After that reading a young guy came up to me and said, “Hi, my name’s Ed Carson, and I want to publish you.” And he did publish me, at General and then, later, at HarperCollins.

Can you describe the evolution of your writing process generally? Specifically?

A typical way to write a novel is to start at the beginning and write to the end. This will take you at least a year, probably more, and in the process of writing the first draft you will learn what the book is about—what you wanted to say—and that will enable you to write a second draft in which you cut what needs to be cut, add what needs to be added, and get everything in the right place. That second draft is now a complete manuscript that other people can read. That’s the way most of my students write their novels, and that’s how I wrote the first few of mine.

My process has evolved over the years, and this is how I write now. Right from the beginning—when I get the first ideas that will turn into a book—I work with a detailed outline that resembles a screenwriter’s beat sheet. Initially I spend most of my time working on the outline, imagining scenes and making notes for them, and then only gradually do I begin the actual writing. I work on all parts of the book at once, and I need to write or imagine my climactic scenes first because otherwise I won’t know what I’m writing toward. This outline, of course, changes as the book evolves. To keep track of the many drafts I produce, I date them. I love editing and working with structure, so finishing a book is the fun part of writing for me. When I have a fully completed draft, I check all the through-lines to make sure that they’re working properly and then check my scene transitions because a lot happens in the white space between scenes. Eventually I arrive at a draft that is ready for people to read.

You describe the first draft of Two Strand River as a “one off” that you haven’t experienced since. How did it differ from the others? Would you welcome that experience again?

I wrote Two Strand River very quickly, not knowing from one day to the next what my characters were going to do, and had a finished draft in six weeks. It felt like automatic writing. No, I don’t think I would welcome that experience again. Pounding a typewriter six to eight hours a day seven days a week was physically exhausting, and if I hadn’t been in reasonably good shape and in my early thirties, I couldn’t have done it. I do still experience times when I am flooded with ideas, but now I take notes, go for a walk, and let everything work itself out in my mind before I do much writing.

All but three of your novels are set in the United States. Is it at all significant that both of these novels are (primarily) set in the Vancouver/West Vancouver area?

Yes, it’s significant. I usually write the kind of realism in which location saturates the story. I didn’t pick locations to say something significant about the story; I picked them because that’s where the story happens. People have told me—and told me so many times that I believe them—that in Two Strand I really “got” good old hippy Kits from back in the day. That’s where I was living when I wrote it. When I began writing Twin Studies, I had been living in West Van for over twenty years. On a deeper level I suspect that when I left the States for Canada in 1970, I was leaving one part of myself behind and welcoming another part of myself into a new country, and this is reflected in the locations I chose in my writing.

You’ve been open about the writer’s block that precipitated a two-year interruption in your writing career. Is it the most serious obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

No. The most serious obstacle I’ve had to overcome was the chronic depression—and probably PTSD—that afflicted me in my late teens and early twenties. The simple fact that I was still alive at the end of it was a victory.

When I had writer’s block—after I admitted it and deliberately decided to stop writing—I actually had an interesting and productive life working as a photographer. In order to worry about your “career,” you have to think you have one, and I wasn’t sure that I did as a writer. I’d published four novels, one of them in New York, and I’d had lots of reviews, most of them pretty good. I’d had my picture in Books in Canada and gone on tours throughout the country, but except for Canada Council grants, I’d made hardly any money, and no one—and this was important to me—had seriously engaged with the ideas in my novels about what we would now call “gender.” Some reviewers had noticed, but they’d gone skittering away immediately as though they were terrified of the subject—which I believe they were. Whatever I was saying, nobody seemed to be getting, so why should I bother? And I really enjoyed working with images rather than words.

How did Two Strand River inform Twin Studies?

To be absolutely honest here, it didn’t particularly. It had been well over forty years since I’d written it, and I was aware that it went with Twin Studies to make a kind of set, like bookends, one at the beginning, one at the end, both set in Vancouver, both concerned with gender, but I wasn’t really thinking about Two Strand River much when I was writing Twin Studies.

In addition to gender and sexuality, Twin Studies takes an unflinching look at relationships between twins and (singleton) siblings. friends and lovers, class and money. In the course of its production did you ever experience the feeling of “I can’t write that” that you denote in the earlier work?

No. The you-can’t-write-that syndrome is something that primarily affects beginning writers, and that particular voice in my head went away a long time ago. Now I allow myself to write whatever crosses my mind because I know that if I want to, I can always cut it later.

Has your storied teaching career at UBC. influenced your choice of subject material and/or the characters you’ve chosen to portray?

Of course it has. Interacting with young people keeps me in touch with the times, and I learn as much from my students and they do from me. I couldn’t have imagined a protagonist in her early 30s—like Erica in Twin Studies—if for years I hadn’t been engaged in dialogue with my students.

Where you’ve made mention of the words of wisdom that have (deeply) affected your writing career, what professorial advice do you consider most important for emerging writers today?

Because there are so many different kinds of writers, doing so many different kinds of writing, it’s hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all answer. “Take care of yourself,” I suppose is the most important thing I could say. When you’re in the middle of a project, it’s easy to see yourself as a detached consciousness, but that consciousness arises in a body, so imagine that you’re in for the long haul and take care of that body. Also, remember that writing is a social act, and find people in your life who will read your work and give you thoughtful feedback—people you can trust. Finally, I guess I’d have to say that writing has to be its own reward. That sounds like merely some hoary old motto, so let me amplify it. Sometimes the process of writing is the most intensely alert and engaged you will ever be in your life, and sometimes that process will be all that you have.

Louise Brecht is an avid reader, aspiring author, and third year student at the University of British Columbia, working towards her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature.

C.D. Rose

Interviewed by Olga Holin

image1 is the author of Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else and The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, as well as a trail of short stories. He is at home anywhere there is a dusty library, a good secondhand bookshop and a dark bar.

If I was to say that you are a writer’s writer, how would you react? 

Rather numbly, if that doesn’t sound rude. It’s not something for me to say, or decide, to be honest. To say something like that is the role of the reader, or critic, but not the writer.  

I do always think that these are books for other people who have read too many books, so I would like to think of myself as a “reader’s writer,” perhaps. But again, that really isn’t something for me to say.

Your latest novel came out a few months ago titled: Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else. The main character is the editor from your previous book- The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, who this time around is invited to give a series of lectures, in an unspecified middle-European town, about forgotten books. Why did you decide to write a story focused on this character? Did you feel that he had more to say?

I’m tempted to say that this was a true story, but it wasn’t quite. But yes, your suspicion is reasonable, and not wrong. Quite simply, he wasn’t done. He still isn’t. A third (and final) volume of the Editor’s adventures is currently in progress.

When Umberto Eco passed away last year, I was distraught, but I found a lot of qualities that I admired in his work in your latest novel. There was the philosophical aspect, the hilarious absurdism that lets you laugh out loud. Most of all it was the creation of the world, as it was so vivid and real that I felt I was reading a work of creative nonfiction and not fiction. I remember thinking the same about The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure. What influenced this type of writing and is this something you want to keep exploring in your future work?

Fiction is a strange thing. Made-up stories that keep on pretending, insisting even, that they are real, that they are true – isn’t there something odd about that?  I always liked the ludic aspect of it, but worried that there was something not altogether healthy about it. I always found the best stories, the most convincing ones were the ones which acknowledged their own fabrication, their own borders, the edges of where they may or may not be quite true or real.

For a while, this felt like a game, an elaborate way of playing with the reader or listener’s imagination or sense of belief. In recent times, however, the borders between what is true and what has been imagined or fabricated have become so much more dangerous. And not in a good way, I fear.

An art critic, Carrie Lambert-Beatty, has posited the concept of “parafiction,” which I would see as being opposed to the earlier concept of “metafiction.” While metafiction was fiction which drew attention to its own fictional status, parafiction does quite the opposite, and lays a fictional discourse alongside an ostensibly non-fictional one, mixing the true and the untrue, the imagined and the observed, throwing the ontological borders of each into question.

I think a tacit acknowledgment of where these borders may lie and working an investigation of them into the very fiction itself is one way to proceed and the way my work seems to be heading.

How do you go about investigating the non-fiction element?

I don’t really “investigate” as such – I merely seem to stumble across things that interest me. Perhaps I am looking without really knowing I’m looking.

I love to travel, to listen and to read widely – not just fiction, but anything I happen to chance upon. There’s no method to it. Perhaps there ought to be.

Let’s talk about the main character, who is passionate and yet fairly introverted. He is such a keen observer and yet in constant dialogue with the reader. I think that there is an awareness in him, that he too, like the books he lectures about, will be forgotten. Being put in a position where he is an authority on a topic makes him very uncomfortable. This feeling only grows when the professor who invited him to give the series of lectures is nowhere to be found. The character himself feels out of place, which is understandable given he is in an unfamiliar place, but I got the sense that he always feels out of place, almost awkward. Can you talk about the emotional arc of the character and how it came to exist? How much of yourself do you see in that character?

I always say that he’s me and that he’s not me. Both at the same time. I think many writers have written such characters. It’s a shortcut: I spent years trying to create characters very far from my own experience, with (at best) limited success, then realized drawing on my own experience was perhaps the best way to go after all.

I’m not sure he has much of an emotional arc. He begins the novel by being slightly baffled and slightly excited. At the end of the novel, he feels pretty much the same way.

I’m glad you feel he is in dialogue with the reader. I like a narrator who will lead you into a story, asking you to trust them, offering a guiding hand, a Virgil to a Dante, one who says, as they lead you into the labyrinth, “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.” (Michael Ondaatje said that.)

How did his character start? With a voice?

The voice certainly came on early in the process, with the writing of the Biographical Dictionary. I realised that I was creating a different version of myself, one with some good characteristics, others perhaps less so. But he could get away with stuff I couldn’t and do things I haven’t done.

The structure of the novel is interesting, too. You have the main storyline of the editor, which is interwoven with the lectures he gives, which are stories about authors in themselves. So, yes, it is a novel and yet also a collection of short stories. Could you spend some time and explain the motivation behind that?

I always consider myself, if anything, as a writer of short stories. I am a short story writer. That is the form which I love the most, and the one which I wish to practise. I do think this is a book of short stories, linked by a red thread. The initial impulse of this book was to remember the lost books which it describes. I only put in the Editor’s story to link them.

While I am delighted with the reception Who’s Who has received, I would still like more emphasis to be put on those lost books which form its main substance (each one a short story in itself), and less on the Editor’s various mishaps and misadventures. But who am I to say?

Your publication history is always one that fascinates me and also one that fills me with hope. Could you tell us about your personal literary failures and how your first book finally got published?

I have no failures. Only incomplete successes.

I think I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling again.

In my twenties, I was too busy having a life to sit still and write. In my thirties, I slowed down a bit, and wrote some short stories. A couple got published. Then I lost my job and had a relationship breakdown and had to leave the country where I was living in a hurry. I wanted to write and had heard about those MAs in Creative Writing they have now. So, I went back to the UK and I did one. I wrote a perfectly-crafted, finely-honed Literary Novel. After that I got a Literary Agent who assured me I would be published, famous and wealthy within a few months.

None of those things happened.

I wrote another perfectly-crafted, finely-honed Literary Novel. It sank without trace before even being published.

Agent dropped me. Had another relationship breakdown. Decided I hated books, writing, literature, Literary Agents. But nonetheless, continued to write.

Decided to put a series of tales about failed writers on the internet, with the idea that they, too, would vanish within one year.

Said series of tales was spotted by a fine publisher, who gently coaxed me back into the idea of actually writing a book.  

How do you think it affected your writing?

It made me realize that I should have been writing what I really wanted to write all along. The thing that was mad, that was crazy, the thing that no one else would write. The thing that mainstream publishers and literary agents would baulk at.

With that in mind, what advice would you give young writers? 

(First up, I’d question the word “young” here. My best advice to writers would be: be old. Even if your few years militate against you, find age. Draw on the wisdom, experience, and writings of others.

Seriously, “emerging” is a better word than “young” in this context.)

And write what the fuck you want to write. Don’t let Literary Agents, Mainstream Publishers and the dreary expectations of others limit you.

That is easier said than done. Any advice on how to shut out all the voices?

Sit down. Switch off all your social media. Better still, cancel all your accounts. Read, read deep. Ignore contemporary stuff: most of it will pass. Dig deep.

Forget any ideas you may ever have foolishly entertained about ever making money from any of this.

Then start writing.

One of the things I admired in both your books is this romanticized idea of writing, something that seems increasingly rare in the contemporary world. Work, which favours elements of craft and language over content and story line. Any content writers create these days needs to be digestible and there is little room for reflection. And yet your novel does nothing but reflect. This means you took a great risk. Why was this important to you?

The work of fiction, or creative writing of any kind, is precisely that: to provide space, to create time, where there is none.

There is little more important that writers can do.

How do you carve out that space? I think for me that is the hardest thing.

It’s the writing itself that carves out the space.

Earlier you said your character is not done yet, so where is he going next? When can we expect that book and will it be a novel again?

Following the modest success of Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else, I received a letter from a person who I shall not name here, telling me they had more information pertaining to Maxim Guyavitch (a writer at the heart of that book.) After a number of misadventures and misunderstandings, this resulted in a new, and hopefully definitive, edition of Guyavitch’s stories. The Blind Accordionist: Nine Stories by Maxim Guyavitch, which will include a critical and biographical essay, should be out in the next year or two. Unless Guyavitch’s legendary misfortune should strike again.

Olga Holin is a polyglot, a mix of mostly European ancestry, a writer and poet. She has a First Class BA in Creative Writing from the University of London and was awarded the Michael Donaghy Award for excellence in poetry. She published an illustrated poetry chapbook called “The Tale of Flexibility” in 2015. She is presently studying for her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and working on a collection of short stories and a novel. She is the Executive Editor, Promotions at PRISM international.

Naomi Shihab Nye,

Interviewed by Tania De Rozario

NaomiShihabNye

“It’s nice to find Indian naan in Tokyo!” Photo Credit: Lin Hayakawa

Naomi Shihab Nye, known largely as a poet, has written and edited work across poetry, fiction and academia. Her literary accolades include four Pushcart prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Arab American Book Award, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. A former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she has taught writing for over 40 years. Her most recent collection, Voices in the Air, was published earlier this year with Greenwillow Books.  

I first learned of Nye through her poem, Kindness. It brought me to tears, and as great poems often do, came to me at a point when I needed it most.

Let’s start with early beginnings in poetry and place. You grew up in San Antonio, Jerusalem and St Louis, Missouri, and much of your work focuses on place – domestic settings, country, State, the spaces between people. Where did poetry first find you, and how?

I was lucky to be “found” early – because my mother read poems to me at bedtime and our father told us Palestinian folktales that were very poetic in nature, full of images and rhythm and invocation and conversation, bedtime was surely the most peaceful and captivating time of the day. Also, we had our parents’ full attention then. I wrote my first poem at age 6 and felt a kind of satisfaction I’d never felt before – a glossy shine to the words when I returned to those simple four lines, a comforting “click” in the brain as if saying “You did something with that thought. You connected it.”  When I shared my first poem at school and had an older girl say to me, “I know what you mean” – I was hooked. So simply. Writing was a power within our grasp, whatever age we were. Writing belonged to anyone. It was portable and cheap. I wrote my first poem on the back of a white laundry bag in a hotel room.

Libraries, children’s anthologies, new and old collections of poems, offered all the stockpiled voices I needed to launch me into my magical new world. By age 7 in public school, Ferguson, Missouri, I had a teacher who believed poetry was at the centre of the universe and encouraged everyone in her classes to read and write it regularly. It was the heart of her curriculum – Mrs. Harriet Barron Lane. She was an elegant, old-world advocate of language and expanded vocabulary. She never suggested anything was above our heads. Lucky me! To have such a teacher at a young, formative age. I was able to thank her much later for all she had given us, when I continued on in my poetry practice, and only recently found two notes she wrote to my mother, in her compelling script. They felt like treasure maps, at this point.

And treasure itself, I’m sure!

You’re so right, compared to many art-forms, poetry is portable, cheap. That has never occurred to me. Singapore’s first and most famous Prime Minister once declared that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”

I feel sorry for anyone who says poetry is a luxury because poets consider it essential, like breath, like thinking. It’s not costly, so why is it a luxury?

In the U.S. I have often noticed that when a politician includes a scrap of poetry in a political speech – suddenly there’s something worth listening to. Poetry is a way of seeing the world, a sphere of connective suggestions, metaphor is a healing grace for all thinkers, it helps us put our mind-bits together, it helps us see what we think, then helps us convey that.

If we are to have empathy, we need poetry. If we are to expand our perceptions or imaginings about one another, poetry can be very helpful.

Yes –  in 2002, you said in an interview with Bill Moyer that “every time you care about something, or somebody that relates to a different place in the world, your empathy grows”, that loving somebody means having to “extend yourself”. Today, I feel these words urgently. Does poetry really have a place in fostering empathy?

Without a doubt. And this is the thing we need most in our world. And because, as American poet and scholar Rita Dove reminded, poetry is “immediate” – it doesn’t take as long to enter the world of a poem as reading a novel for example – so we need it all the time and everywhere and every day. Sometimes, we may only need a stanza. But to feel another perception or viewpoint through a poem is a vast and gracious thing – extending our own humanity toward wider care, which is what empathy is. The great Palestinian anthologist, translator and scholar, Dr. Salma Khadra Jayyusi said, “If we read one another, we might be less likely to kill one another.”

Yes, reading poetry has always enabled me to connect things – it’s a means of mapping, searching, uncovering, discovering. And speaking of mapping, there is a lot of conversation these days about writers’ career trajectories. I am always interested in is how becoming a published author changes one’s practice. Did Tattooed Feet chart your writing life in ways you had not expected?

I have always had a very simple philosophy about “getting one’s work out there”: Each thing gives us something else. If I had not published poems in regional journals during my college years, small-press publisher Dwight Fullingim, who brought out Tattooed Feet and Eye-to-Eye, my first two chapbooks, from his Texas Portfolio Press, would never have heard of me. If he had not published those books, my first full-length publisher (James Anderson, Breitenbush books, Oregon) would never have heard of me. One thing always led to something else. I am grateful to all those people.

This is why I urge writers to publish their work as they go along.  I started sending poems to children’s magazines when I was seven. I have never had an agent.

Wow, seven -years -old! And have you faced any obstacles in your writing journey since then?

I don’t know if I faced any particular obstacles. Somehow I always just slid along from one thing to the next quite happily. Someone recently told me my books may have received unfair criticism from people who find it hard to accept that Palestinians are human beings too. If that’s true, it’s okay with me. I’ll take the criticism.

Right. A lot of your work responds so relevantly and succinctly to what is going on in the world. Do you respond poetically to events as they unfold, or do you have daily routines or processes that help you focus on, and develop, your writing?

Thank you for this comment. I write in a notebook every day and often find myself responding to what is happening in the atmosphere.  As human beings we are all part of a grand (and sometimes frustrating) conversation which hopefully belongs to all of us and writing helps us feel as if we are contributing our own ideas – even if no one else reads what we write. I use my notebooks as the wellspring for other writing – I write first thing every morning, rising at 5 or before; a cup of coffee is my other sacred spring. Going back to the notebooks and finding excerpts we wish to work on is another ongoing practice. I don’t wait for big ideas but try to engage tiny bits of ideas as they flow through. I love taking notes. I even take notes at the movies. It’s the best thing I’ve found to do and has served me at all my ages and for all my books.

Great advice. Also, speaking of books! Your most recent collection, Voices in the Air came out this year. It is strikingly beautiful, and pays tribute to wide range of writers and historical figures. It is also subtitled “Poems for Listeners”. For me, this speaks to poetry’s beginnings as oral traditions. Could you tell us a little bit about how this collection came about?

I am so deeply grateful to you for mentioning this book. We all hear a lot of voices every day – in our surroundings, in our heads, memories. These days in the U.S. we are swarmed by breaking news – every hour it seems – and have a chance to hear many voices we might prefer not to hear, along the way. I often find myself referring to a poem first read long ago, remembering what a beloved writer once said which might prove helpful for this particular moment, and those sources and memories are how this book of mine got started. I love thinking about people like Peter Matthiessen or Grace Paley or William Stafford who were truly inspiring in their daily lives as well as writings. They save my soul! The poet Robert Bly once wrote a beautiful series of poems called Gratitude to Old Teachers. We could add to our own compendiums every day. And the teachers don’t have to have been writers. They might have been kids or neighbours or hairdressers or grandmas.

And on the subject of teachers – any advice for emerging writers?     

Read as much as you can, find voices you love, keep them near you.

Write regularly – even if you only have five or ten minutes a day to write in, take it. Do it, You’ll feel a different gravity in your own voice.

And find a way to share your work.

Tania De Rozario is the author of And The Walls Come Crumbling Down and Tender Delirium (Math Paper Press, 2013/2016). Born in Singapore, she is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.

Catherine Cho

Cat ChoInterviewed by Ryan Kim

Catherine Cho is an Associate Agent at Curtis Brown Ltd . She joined Curtis Brown in 2015 and is building her list in fiction and non-fiction. Originally from the US, her background is in law and public affairs. She lived in Hong Kong for several years and worked in the lobbying world in Washington DC before joining Folio Literary Management in New York.

In terms of her list, she is looking for literary and reading group fiction. She particularly enjoys speculative fiction, magical realism, and science fiction and fantasy. In terms of non-fiction, she is looking for narrative memoir and science writing. Some of her favourite authors are Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Adichie, Karen Russell, Elizabeth Strout, and Robin Hobb.

I feel like every book is being adapted into a movie like “Crazy Rich Asians,” so I wonder if there’s a crossover that writers should be aware about in their query letters.

I think the reasons why loglines work so well is because I think every story has a logline. So whether that’s film, whether that’s a radio drama, whether that’s a book, I think that’s why it’s really important to know that your story has a central conflict or core to it. I was actually just reading this book called Story by Robert McKee, and he’s a screenwriter, but I recommend it to any writer because he basically talks about the elements of story and what makes a story compelling. And I think that’s something that novelists can learn from, and not just novelists but also non-fiction people, anyone who’s a writer. It seems so obvious, but a lot of times we find that writers have a really hard time describing what their book is about in a very succinct way. And that usually is indicative of them not really knowing what the central premise is about. It can be about a lot of things, but those are all themes, but not necessarily something central that’s really compelling.

I mentioned all those movies coming out and they’re mostly by POC, but I wonder if it is a trend or if they are finally getting this recognition because they’re all powerful, amazing writers.

I think it’s everything coming to fruition. I think more people are writing, POC who traditionally wouldn’t have. It’s kind of like a cause and effect thing where if you see more voices or experiences, you will feel more empowered to share, so I think that’s definitely a thing. And I think, not that it’s a trend, but I think there are more POC working in publishing as well, who want to find stories that they relate to and know that there are stories that should reflect a wider human experience.

Is there a discernible difference between white writing or Asian-American writing or black writing? Or is it all just good writing and it just happens to be a POC behind the pen?

I think I can usually tell if a writer is Asian-American. I think just because usually the things they are noticing or observing are things that I would’ve noticed or observed, and I think are a bit different from what a Caucasian American experiences. I think as a writer, it’s all about what you observe and your perspective and I think being able to dictate what you perceive. But I actually don’t get that many submissions from POC.

Is that discouraging or is that how the numbers work?

It is slightly discouraging. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not that well known because I definitely would love to find someone like [Min Jin Lee]. And I would hope that because I’m Asian-American maybe more POC would find me more approachable.

Do you feel any pressure to gear towards POC writers over white writers as you are a POC yourself. Is there any pressure in that sense?

I guess a little bit, just in the sense that I do feel a certain sense of responsibility. I would feel strange if my list was not diverse (laughs). But at the same time, I’m just looking for a good story, I think a story is part of the human experience, it’s what makes us human.

What is the difference between a publishable book and one that is on the cusp of being publishable?

A lot of times, manuscripts are well written, but not compelling. There’s no central theme or narrative momentum. I think that it’s not published because, to be really harsh, who cares about the story? It’s not good enough for a book to have nice writing. A book, at the end of the day, you want to create a place that readers want to escape to. So I think that’s the key difference that I find.

Is it more of a quality issue, I wonder why a lot of [submissions] are rejected.

A lot of it is quality, to be perfectly honest with you. A compelling story with not so great writing, you can get away with. What you often have is writing that’s pretty good, but with a not compelling story and that, you can’t come back from. And also, sometimes I see books where you’re not quite sure where it’ll sit on a bookshelf. And maybe that makes publishers more risk averse, like I don’t know whether “Ulysses” would have been published today, but maybe not. That is something to think about.

So is that just the hard truth of the matter, that people just focus on getting their writing to a really good place?

I think you just keep going. You will find somebody, you just need one person to say yes. It’s kind of like dating in a way, you just need one person to be your partner. It must get so frustrating to have people say no, but there will be someone out there, I truly believe in this. So, A. improve your writing and B. make sure your story is compelling and C. just keep going despite all the rejections and don’t take rejections personally.

Has there been any [query letters] recently that you’ve read and were like this is how you write a query letter or best example of a query letter you’ve read.

Yeah actually, I had a really good query letter today. Firstly, it was not to “dear sir” which is always a really good way to annoy an agent (laughs). It was addressed to me and the person you could tell had a really good idea of what their book was about. It was a historical novel set in Prague, which automatically sounds very appealing, but they had a one sentence description of what their book was about. They tailored it to be like “I’m submitting it to you because I think that with your taste and this and this, you’d find it really interesting.” And then it had a paragraph general description of the plot without introducing too many characters, without making it sound confusing. And it was just very well written, very succinct. And I think sometimes writers get a little too worried about explaining everything, so you just get these messy query letters with a bunch of character names and a bunch of different things. To keep it clean and simple is really an art.

How much of a query letter should be personable?

I think a couple of sentences. You can think of it as like applying to college. You can technically use everything, but it’ll stand out if you use something like “because you’re looking for” something that an agent states in their bio. And that’s exactly what she did actually. I think that shows you’ve done your research.

Is there anything that you want to plug or anything else that’s coming out?

I’m gonna plug, “Ruin’s Wake” by Patrick Edwards. It’s a really cool, Margaret Atwood-esque sci-fi novel that’s coming out in March from Titan Books. It’s inspired by North Korea, but imagines this totalitarian government where the past has been erased, which is scarily happening now. It’s very relevant, I feel. Just the writing is beautiful and it’s entertaining and I have high hopes for it.

I think you are one of two Asian-American agents that I’ve recently found out about, but do you have any words of encouragement for any up and coming writers or agents of color?

Yeah, definitely. I know how difficult it can be to pursue your passion. When I graduated from college I thought, “I can take an unpaid internship in publishing or I can get paid well to do law and be independent.” I think for a lot of POC, especially Asian-Americans who are children of immigrants, that seems like a no brainer. We don’t have the luxury of being like “I’m gonna intern and get my parents to give me an allowance.” Like no, you’re supposed to do better than your parents because your parents sacrificed so much for you and you’re supposed to send them money and all these things. But what I’ve realized and part of the reason that I don’t think it’s being selfish, I think it’s just realizing that actually following your passion, that if you do it, you can be successful. And in a way, you can be more successful doing that rather than going for something that your heart’s not really in. Not that I regret doing law or lobbying, but if I were to look back on that decision I would’ve said, “You know what? Go for the unpaid internship and just make it work somehow. Don’t just choose the safest path.” I think that’s probably the advice I would’ve given. It would’ve been really difficult, but it is worth it.

Ryan Kim is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia and has had non-fiction published in Ricepaper and fiction in Hidden Chapter.

Fran Krause

Fran picFran Krause is a comic writer, illustrator, animator, and educator based in California, U.S.A. Krause began as an animator and director on television, and has worked on a number of online animated shorts and series, such as James Kochalka’s SuperF*ckers.

Now, he is most widely known for his online comic series Deep Dark Fears, which began as Krause chronicled his own irrational fears and posted them on Tumblr. The series has grown and now Krause illustrates fears submitted to him from internet strangers with their own irrational anxieties. His first book, Deep Dark Fears, premiered as a New York Times bestseller for hardcover graphic novels in 2015. It includes many favorites from his webcomic, as well as a few new and original pieces. His second book, The Creeps, published September 26th, 2017, draws more from his well-known webcomic.

What is your art background? I’m aware you went to art school, but what about writing?

 I went to undergrad at Rhode Island School of Design, but before I did that I grew up in a little town in upstate New York called Utica, and there wasn’t a lot of good art programs in my high school, but luckily there was a local community college that worked through an art school called Munson Williams Proctor Institute that allowed people in high school to take college class at night. Once I could drive I could start taking college classes, and that really helped when I was applying to school later on. I could just use my portfolio from that. After that program I went to Rhode Island school of design for four years though their animation program and studied some freshman foundation classes, and sculpture, and graphic design, but I also went through animation there. Maybe fifteen years later I went to get my MFA. I went to Queens College for a semester, then transferred to a place called Goddard College in Vermont and got my grad there.

As far as writing goes I’ve never really studied writing. I’ve read about it. I’ve read some books about screenplays, and I’ve read a lot of narrative books, but I’ve never taken writing classes outside of grade school and high school. I figured it out by thinking about it a lot, and reading a lot of books.

I want to move into your work on Deep Dark Fears, a series I really love. What drew you into comics, outside of the animation you had done previously?

 I wasn’t really interested in making comics very much before I was working with James Kochalka on SuperF*ckers, but it was really fun seeing him write so quickly. In animation it takes so long to make anything. Even if you want to tell the simplest story you need months to do it. Working with James he would have a quick little story idea, and he would just make a comic of it whenever we needed to do a storyboard. He would spend half an hour to an hour, and come back to us with a ten page comic. It was very, very simple as far as he’d approach it design-wise, but he was able to tell the story so quickly. It was definitely something I was jealous of. Definitely something I found inspiring, because it made it seem so simple and accessible. It made me think if telling a story is really what I want to do, then why am I not making comics?

You have a very consistent tone throughout Deep Dark Fears. Some are funny and some are very dark, but they seem to keep a cohesive voice to them despite coming from strangers on the internet. What about each fear draws you to it, and how much do you consciously curate them?

 The curation is very conscious, but I do think it’s also partly taste. Because I have to like them, and I have to draw them, that ends up being a self directing thing a little bit. And also because at this point I’ve seen so many of them. I’ve gotten thousands and thousands of fears. I usually have to spend at least two hours a week just reading submissions.

How many submissions do you usually get in a week?

Maybe anywhere from one hundred to five hundred, and if it gets onto a big website I might get a thousand. It’s really like reading a book that’s just submissions every week, and that really helps narrow it down, because I don’t want to repeat myself.

I know it’s something I’m going to have to read and have a new image pop into my head. I’ve really slowed down on fears about having their eyes poked out, because I feel I’ve covered that ground a lot. I’m skeptical every time I get a mirror fear, because there’s a lot of fears about mirrors that I’ve already drawn. I want something new. I don’t want something that for the most part exists only on one level. The one about getting a spider in your shirt when you put it on that’s mostly just a comedic one, but for the most part I like ones that people can read twice and see a different thing each time.

For the most part that’s how I pick them. It has to be something new that I haven’t covered before, and it has to be something that when I read it I start getting pictures in my head of what I might like to draw. There’s certain ones that I’ve gotten many times, and each time I get I it I think, “Yeah, that is a scary thing, but what does a drawing add to that?” There’s one that I get a lot that’s just,“if you’re in your house alone and you sneeze and you hear someone say ‘god bless you.’” That’s definitely scary, but what does that look like? Is it just a character sitting alone in a room sneezing and a word balloon coming from offscreen saying “god bless you.” It’s better off being something you think, than something written down.

How do you approach illustrating each fear, and how is that different from how you approach your other comics like your Adventure Time short?

 There’s not much of a difference between the Adventure Time and the Deep Dark Fears stuff in set up, because in both cases I start with text, and I’ll write out all the text before I start drawing. I shut off all the music and I just sit there in silence and try to get the text figured out. Then I start the illustration. Sometimes it goes through a draft or two, but usually I do a rough pencil sketch of the illustration, then an ink pass. I use waterproof ink so when I erase all the pencil lines I have something I can watercolor over top of without smudging.

With the Adventure Time thing I was trying something a little different. I roughed it out on my computer, and my computer tablet was working weird so all my lines turned out wrong. Then, when I had the rough pass of that with all the lines messed up I cleaned it up with pencil. That was really fun because I had all these messed up drawings that I couldn’t get perfect. I was trying to make good versions of bad drawings.

Do you ever work in scripts or thumbnails at all?

 Well, my comics are basically thumbnails already. So the comic is the rough sketch that way. I work with a pretty quick timeline. I only have about three or four hours to do each one, then I have to put it up on the internet. I don’t really have time to do thumbnail passes that much. Sometimes I’ll do a little scratch on the side of the page if I’m really nervous about the composition, but that’s about it.

 A lot of your work is very collaborative. You work in animation, television, and your comics are often based on other people’s voices. Jow do you think that helps and informs your process?

 It’s nice to have some surprise. It’s easy to think there’s no ideas left in the world until somebody comes up with an idea right next to you. If you don’t have a source of extra ideas popping out every once in awhile it can feel like there’s nothing else left.

I was doing a film class earlier, where everyone’s making their films, and they’re each responsible for their own film this year, and we actually played Dungeons and Dragons as a warm up to doing our stories, and it was really fun! Everyone in the room thought it was going to be a mess, myself included, but eventually you get a good story out of it. That’s partly because everyone in the room is trying to do something a little different. They’re all on the same page, but by everyone trying to do something slightly different you end up with wonder, some surprises, and everyone has to think the whole time they can’t just go into autopilot. I think that’s a helpful way to go about things.

It’s fun to work alone. I like to be a hermit every once in awhile, but it’s good to have some surprises.

Your most recent book The Creeps just came out: congratulations! Was there much of a difference between publishing each book?

Well, the first one (Deep Dark Fears) was all big surprises. I had never made a book before. I’d never written anything more than a few pages before, and they said okay you should make a 144 page book, and it was a little overwhelming, but I basically just approached that as making a bunch of one-page comics. There’s only a few three or four page comics in there.

The publisher was very nice they were very supportive of letting me basically do whatever I wanted to do. One of the nice things was first it was 144 pages, which since it had one hundred comics in it already, there was hardly any blank space put together and felt very overwhelming. I asked if we could add more blank pages without making the book any more expensive. And they were nice, they put about twenty more pages into it without making me draw anything new. It had a little more space too breathe. They submitted it to awards and things. It got nominated for an Eisner, and it was on the New York Times bestsellers list.

This next one, we’ll see how it does. I think it’s a better book. I worked on it harder, and I was able to do more with it, but at the same time it’s my second book. I’m not sure how it’s going to sell. I did the pre-sale campaign and did an extra zine to hand out with that. I think I put more into this one than the last one, and I’m really happy with how it turned out, but I have no idea what the response is going to be. All I can really do is make something I’m proud of and keep my fingers crossed.

Social media is a huge part of your work. Deep Dark Fears started on Tumblr. Do you suggest young writers try and cultivate an online following?

 It really depends on what you want out of your writing. Some people are happy just writing and never showing it to anyone and keeping it for themselves, but I don’t think there’s much of that in our world now, people making something and not sharing it immediately. There’s definitely a value to that, and I’m really proud of people who don’t need the constant encouragement of everyone in the entire universe. I also think it’s becoming rarer to find people who know if their work is good without showing it to anyone. I’m lucky that I grew up before the internet, so I spend time with my work before I share it with people and I decide if I like it or not. Every once in awhile I’ll make something that I think is wonderful and everyone will love it and something happens, one famous person doesn’t retweet it, and suddenly it doesn’t have many likes. I wouldn’t want that to reflect on me, and tell myself “this is crap,” when really it’s the luck of the draw.

I think it is a valuable thing to have a following if you want to convince people who don’t necessarily follow you directly that you’re worth following, and you’re worth putting some time and money into. I think ten years ago if you wanted money for a project you needed to somehow prove it was going to be a success without actually showing it to people. That was a scary thing. Now if you want to show something’s success, you have all the power to do that, you just put it up anywhere online, and if it’s successful great, and if it’s not no one sees it so it’s not a big deal.

It’s definitely a mixed bag. I don’t like the internet in a lot of ways. In my more lonely times in New York I would be walking around the city a lot, the thing I always knew was the the people that most wanted to return eye contact were the people who were walking with their partner while their partner was on their cellphone. No one likes being with someone who’s on their phone, and I think everyone knows that, and yet everyone’s on their phone. It’s some weird disconnect.

I don’t like cellphones in a lot of ways, but I do like the art that’s on them, and I do like what’s being made with them, I think they’re a tool. But I do wish there was some way they could be moderated in certain parts of society. Like, I have to tell my students to take them off their desks, and stop messing with them. But at the same time it’s a wonderful tool for artists to prove that they are worth while. It’s a little bit of a mixed bag.

Do you have any advice for beginning artists, writers, or people going into television?

 Get a job as soon as you can, and don’t worry too much about artistic purity and making something perfect. I think what you get out of a job is you get a lot more professional experience, and you get experience working with people, and you get a lot of good life memories. You also figure out how the business works which is very valuable. If you’re looking for artistic fulfillment, you can get that on your own for free. I think that if you connect what you do for fun in order to feel good about yourself with money really soon, it’s just a recipe for sadness. If I wanted to make a living off of comics I would hate comics so much at this point, because there’s no money in it. I like making comics and I like writing my books, but there’s no way this could’ve paid my rent at all. Unless I lived in a car. I think that having a job on the side and doing this means this doesn’t have to support me, and when I get a check for comics it’s like extra bonus money to put in my savings account.

If I was doing this to support myself for one thing, it would look like a totally different thing, like Game of Thrones fan art. Like, “click on this! Please follow me on Patreon,” and it doesn’t have to be that. It can be something that I would like if I saw it online.

I think comics are sort of like poetry, in that in America there are probably only two or three people that make a living on it, and to everyone else it’s a hobby.

Any future plans for your work? Obviously you’re just finishing up a book launch now, but any future plans?

I’ve started outlining a sci-fi book about time travel. I’ve never written a novel before, but I’m hopefully going to start that this weekend. I’m still publicizing The Creeps, I’m going to do a couple comic shows for that. As long as there’s an interesting idea out there for me to do I’ll still keep on doing Deep Dark Fears every Monday at about 7:00 pacific time. I still teach at CalArts, and that keeps me busy most of the week. And I still do freelance animation in LA, sometimes I’ll work on shows a little bit, but my schedule at CalArts does make that a little difficult. I’ve been trying to learn how to make guitars, and I try to run as much as I can. So that’s kept me busy so far.

Camille Mousseau is an undergraduate student in the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in in television, screen, and graphic novels, and is currently working on a sci-fi television pilot. She makes a mean cherry pie.

Denise Jaden

denisejadenpr (1)Interviewed by Michael Reyes-Smith

Denise Jaden is a master of the fast draft. Her first novel Losing Faith was drafted in under thirty days during one National Novel Writing Month. Since then, Denise has penned four other young adult novels as well as several writing guides including Fast Fiction and this year’s Story Sparks: Finding Your Best Story Ideas and Turning Them into Compelling Fiction. Denise balances her writing with working part-time in the film industry background acting, as well as homeschooling her son, and dancing with a Polynesian dance troupe. I asked Denise about her relationship with writing, including her style, her process, and the workings of the fast draft and YA.

What was the first thing you ever wrote for yourself?

Growing up, I always saw writing as a chore or an assignment. I didn’t keep a journal, and I didn’t equate “enjoyment” with neither reading nor writing. It’s only in the last fifteen years or so that I found a love for both.

I attribute the change to “pregnant brain.” When I was pregnant with my son, I was struck with an insatiable desire to write things down—to-do lists, true stories, fiction, poetry, you name it. At that time, I wrote a very badly crafted novel, but I wrote it just for me, just for the enjoyment of writing. I have taken bits and pieces, plot points and character traits from this novel over the years and used them in other stories, but this first novel itself will likely never see the light of day.

What was the first thing you wrote where you thought “I can make something of this?”

Well, believe it or not, that first badly crafted novel went through many drafts of revision where I had high hopes before I gave up on it. I learned a lot about writing during that time, and met several other writers who were pursuing publication. They convinced me to give it a try, and I ended up submitting this book to many agents and editors. Eventually, I started a second novel, and only then did I gain some perspective on how much work the first one still needed. By that point, I had run out of steam for working on the first.

My second novel Never Enough was actually my third to get published. My third novel Losing Faith was the first of mine to get picked up by a publisher.

What is the most frustrating thing about writing for you?

For me, frustration comes from trying to rework a story that I’m tired of or overly familiar with. Characters and their journeys get stuck in my head the way they’re written, and I sometimes can’t see past them to other options.

I have some great critique partners who often help me through this. A long conversation goes a long way in helping me to see my book through another person’s eyes.

Was there ever a time you seriously considered giving writing up?

Haha, yes, almost every week! Actually, to be honest, I rarely think about giving up writing, but I often think about giving up on getting my writing published. There are many frustrations with working in the overcrowded area of book publishing right now (but there are also some great opportunities in this new digital age—and I try to remind myself of this.) There will always be times when I retreat from social media and all thoughts of sharing my work with the world. For me, I think it’s part of my natural process.

What is your personal relationship with the writing process? Is it expression? Didactic? Purely entertainment?

I see writing as my best avenue for connecting with other people. I’m a quiet, introverted person in everyday life, but I have a lot going on inside me. I’m just not always sure of how to express it in conversation. My characters don’t always believe what I believe, but the disparity helps me see the world from different angles, and then, in turn, I feel like my books get to express some depth of thought on a variety of subjects. I love seeing reviews where a reader has really connected to a particular character or plot point. It makes me feel like I’ve succeeded.

When you are working on something, how much do you keep the reader in mind? Do you think about a target audience, or about how your previous works have been received?

On first drafts, I never think about a target reader. Sometimes when outlining, I brainstorm settings and character traits that might be appealing for my readership, but once I start the drafting process, I like for my story to come out as organically as possible, without boundaries.

I’ve learned a lot from working with a variety of editors in the young adult market, though, and have kept notes on the types of changes I have made. When I come to the point of revising, I definitely keep a keen eye on what will work best for my target audience using the editorial wisdom I have gleaned over the years.

Do you have a writing soundtrack? Is music or some other background noise a help or a hindrance?

For me, music is a hindrance. Lyrics are especially distracting, but even the tone of instrumental music can pull me out of a story while I’m writing. I do, however, like to listen to music when I’m brainstorming a specific story, and I have been known to create playlists for this purpose.

During the actual writing, though, all I like to hear is the buzz of my trusty space heater.

Did you have a genre or style that you aimed to get into when you started writing?

That first badly written novel I talked about earlier was—officially—an adult contemporary novel, starring a thirty-year-old man. However, as I shared it with critique partners, the one common response I received was, “Are you sure this isn’t YA?” I argued that it was starring a thirty-year-old man, so it couldn’t be YA. It wasn’t until I wrote my next novel—intended to be a young adult novel—that I realized that age group truly did feel right for me.

As for genre, so far I’ve stuck pretty closely with contemporary realism. I’ll never say never, but I don’t generally gravitate to stories that are outside the realistic world for pleasure reading, so I don’t see myself writing those types of stories either.

Was YA ever a conscious choice? Or a label attached after writing?

I guess I pretty much answered this above. All I can add is that I have a very strong inner teen that voices herself in my writing effortlessly, so it would probably take a lot of editorial work to mold the voices of my stories into something older or younger.

Why do you think your writing voice fits YA so well?

Here I go again, answering a question before it’s asked! If you talk to me, you’ll pretty quickly hear that I don’t speak like your typical forty-something woman. (I don’t dress like her or act like her either. LOL). Aside from writing, I also dance with a Polynesian dance company where many of the members are teens. I think working in a professional capacity with people this age has helped keep my essence young.

I also love seeing young people who are pursuing something they’re passionate about. The first time I noticed this draw was when sixteen-year-old Avril Lavigne came on the music scene. I wanted to see her achieve great things. I watched her journey with interest and took notice of how fame and her very public life changed her and her music. I’ve had the same experience with other teens I have known personally, as they’ve pursued different goals. I’m smitten with them and their growth, and it’s better for me than watching any movie.

But, honestly, that may be reaching as far as explanations go. I don’t know exactly why my writing voice fits well with YA, but I’m glad it seems to resonate.

What does YA mean to you today?

I’ve always thought that the young adult/teen years come with a bunch of universal and timeless emotions. It’s a time of firsts: first kisses, first loves, first driver’s licences, first rebellions, first true taste of adulthood. I still enjoy reading Judy Blume books as much as I enjoy many contemporary YA authors, because many of these universal themes are present, and I love experiencing these “firsts” with the teen characters.

Why do you think it emerged as its own distinct branch of literature?

The teen years are so unique. Teens are not kids anymore, but they’re not quite adults either. It doesn’t surprise me that there was a demand for literature that represents this unique age, because their propensity is often to think nobody understands them. We all want to feel like someone in the world understands us. We all want to see ourselves in some respect in the books that we read, and teens are no different.

NaNoWriMo puts a lot of pressure on high-mass writing. What is the draw in that for you?

I think I was born a goal-setter, but when my critique partner first suggested trying to draft a novel in a month, I admit, I thought she was Crazy with a capital “C.” I told her I like to set goals that are possible. But somehow, she convinced me, and I gave it a try. The idea of writing a novel this quickly can feel overwhelming, it did for me the first time, but it worked well for a few reasons:

It made me push past my perfectionist nature. While I had spent a lot of time writing and re-writing my first novel and allowing my perfectionist side free rein, that novel ended up with a slew of unfixable problems that I was too close to in order to have perspective. Writing a novel quickly means you’re not overly attached to any of it, and, in fact, I have so much distance from my own fast-drafted stories, quite often I don’t remember writing much of them. This allows me to see my stories from a reader’s point of view. (More than once, I’ve been reading my own stories, and said to myself, “Oooh, I wonder what happens next!”)

And did I mention I’m goal-driven? I truly do get a lot accomplished by giving myself an ambitious goal. But I think the biggest reason I love fast-drafting is because it helps me find solutions that are buried in my subconscious. When you have time to sit back and think about all your plot points and character developments prior to writing them, it’s all on a very conscious level, and in many ways, I default to reaching for the easiest solutions. Fast-drafting seems to help me bypass that level and the writing flows from a different part of my brain altogether. Wild and crazy ideas come to me during the writing and I’m willing to throw them in to give them a try. I’m not sure how else to explain this process, but I highly recommend all writers give fast-drafting a try before deciding it’s not for them. (If you’re not sure where to start, check out my book Fast Fiction, chalked full of ideas based on my own experience with fast-drafting).

What is the most important thing about being able to do a fast draft?

I think I answered this above (again!) but to recap, fast-drafting helps me get a lot accomplished in a short amount of time, helps me see my stories as a reader would, and helps me come up with unique solutions from the back of my mind.

What do you consider to be the difference between work, a job, and a career? And how does writing fit into those ideas for you?

I think I’m in the minority here, but even though I make an income from it, I still think of my writing as a hobby. I’ve always felt that creative ventures don’t thrive under a lot of pressure, so I try to keep this attitude in able to accomplish my best writing. I figure I can always do something else to make money, but I may not be able to do my best creative work if paying my mortgage is dependent on it.

That said, I always wished for a job where I could get paid to sit around and write without any pressure. It was a fleeting wish—I didn’t think a job like that actually existed. It turns out it does! Lately I’ve been working part-time in the film industry doing background acting. I spend hours per day in a holding area, perched behind my computer until I’m called to set. Not only does this allow me a lot of uninterrupted time to write, but it’s also great being around such a creative atmosphere. I really do love my life.

With such a range of experiences, from Polynesian dance to mushroom farming, are there any specific experiences you find that you draw particular inspiration from?

I think I draw more inspiration from people than experiences. My husband loves studying people, and specifically their personality types, and we chat about this regularly. When I talk with new people, I’m often intrigued by how they speak and gesture, and what their countenance says about them. I don’t model characters after specific people, but I think this everyday study helps flavor my characters.

On a more tangible note, my Polynesian dancing has taken me traveling through much of the world. This has led me to exploring some different locations in some of my novels, such as Foreign Exchange, which is set partially in Spain and Italy.

I don’t foresee writing a novel about a mushroom farmer, but you never know!

What aspects of your personal life influence your style and content the most?

At the moment, the film work is probably the biggest influence. I sit with different people every day I’m on set, and get to hear bits of their stories. I get to watch how actors portray characters and how changing gestures and tone of voice can affect a scene. I love meeting new people every day and being reminded of how deeply varied we all are.

Do you ever get stranded when a moment of inspiration strikes and you can’t immediately devote time to work on an idea?

I would love to have hours alone with my laptop every time inspiration strikes, but that’s just not realistic. I have an app on my phone I use (Google Keep) where I file ideas away under Characters, Settings, Motives, or Obstacles. Rarely do I have time to fully develop these ideas, but I have zillions there waiting for me when I’m stuck for one of these components. Some writers are stuck for ideas but struggle with sitting in front of a blank page or screen feeling blocked. I’m the opposite. I have a million ideas, but I’m always wishing for more writing time. To tell you the truth, I prefer it this way. I’ll never get to tell all of my stories, but I love feeling eager each time I sit down to write.

Are there any forms you haven’t tried yet that you would like to in the future?

I don’t think so. I’ve tried adapting one of my novels into a screenplay. I didn’t love writing that form and I think there are many people who are far more talented with it. I’ve also written short stories, but I felt like I couldn’t get to the depth of my characters with those. I write some poetry and songs, but those are more for personal enjoyment.

My true love is novels. I don’t see that changing, but again, you never know where life will take you!

Michael Reyes-Smith is a student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. He is compiling a collection of short stories while finishing his Bachelor’s degree. When not looking back into the histories of his mixed heritage, he enjoys hiking and cycling, taking inspiration from the forested ranges of BC.

Dina Del Bucchia

dina dbNineteen Questions Interview: Dina Del Bucchia

Interviewed by Samantha Searle

Photo credit: Samantha Searle

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

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

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

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

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

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

What inspired you to write?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you find time to read?

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

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

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

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

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

What is your revision process like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get your first book published?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was publishing the short stories different from the poetry collections?

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

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

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

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

How do you deal with rejection?

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

What do you like to drink while you write?

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

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

Do you like to listen to music while you write?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you deal with writer’s block?

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

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

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

How difficult was it to get published?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What encourages you to keep writing?

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

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

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

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

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

Go to events! Read local books!

Any other advice you have for emerging writers?

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

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

Don’t stop writing!

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

Sharon Butala

Sharon BInterviewed by Tess Leblanc

Sharon Butala is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction. Her classic nonfiction work The Perfection of the Morning was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award and was a #1 bestseller. Her latest novel Wild Rose was a finalist for the WO Mitchell Book Prize. She is the recipient of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit and the 2012 Cheryl and Henry Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence. In 2002 she became an officer of the Order of Canada. Her new memoir Where I Live Now, about the death of her husband Peter, was recently shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

How has your writing process changed over your forty years of writing?

At the very beginning, a lot of my writing practice was focused on learning craft. One of the big issues that I think most people who didn’t start when they were four finally reach is that moment when you try to figure out what the interaction is between craft and ideas – which comes first, so on and so forth – and I finally figured out that I could not express my ideas, I couldn’t even pinpoint them, until I had developed a certain level of craft. As years passed, and I got better and better at the craft, it became much easier for me to actually take a great leap into better ideas. I didn’t have to fight for the words so much. I was at the Victoria Writer’s Festival recently and they asked about rewriting, because this was a memoir – how many times do you have to write the same thing? For me, with my latest book, it was a great bunch of irritation and defeat and boredom to have to tell the story again. But, for example, when I reached the part where I had to write about the actual day and hours of Peter’s dying, that was actually a great joy to have that task in front of me. Not only had I never written it before, but it was a unique experience, which I think each death is. When you’re a real writer, that is the most exquisite moment, I would say… To render to experience as authentically as possible and in the most truthful kind of language.

How long do you feel like it took you to develop your voice as a writer?

It probably took me a dozen years, but I never knew what my voice was. There’s a part of me that says, “You always had the voice you would wind up with,” but I didn’t really know that, and I’m not so sure now that I haven’t written past voice, into some other stage where the experience itself is of less importance the meaning of the experience, the place of it, the feelings surrounding it.

In Where I Live Now, you talk about knowing a task of your writing was to convince urban people that rural people’s lives were worth reading about. Since you write primarily – and beautifully – about women’s lives, did you ever feel the pressure to convince a male audience women’s lives were worth reading about? Do you see your audience as primarily female?

I suspect that subconsciously I see my audience as mostly female, and I am subconsciously writing for women – although I wish that I weren’t, I would much prefer to be writing for everyone. I think that, because I was writing for women readers, I never felt any need to convince people women’s lives were interesting. I became more and more set in my desire to write about women’s lives with each book.

What was it like when you first began to publish? What path did you personally take to get your work out there?

I was at a weeklong writing workshop that used to be held at Cypress Hills Park once a year but hasn’t been for a long time. One of the teachers was a well-known – at the time – Saskatchewan critic and writing teacher, and she was giving me a ride one morning from the cabin I was staying in. It was a very, very foggy morning, and she pulled to the side of the road. I had asked her to read the manuscript I was working on – this was my first novel – and she pulled over to the side of the road and said, “I want that manuscript, it’s got everything, blah blah blah.” She said, “I’m starting my own publishing company and I want that novel for my publishing company and you owe it to me, I discovered you.” Like a Hollywood movie. She did publish the novel, though I think I waited a year after she got the publishing company going. The first one sold a couple hundred copies at most. Then she published a few other books of mine, and then I got an agent and a contract with HarperCollins Canada. And after that happened, of course, I was moving into the midlist author’s area – meaning I wasn’t a big star but neither was I a beginning writer who didn’t have much purchase yet.

That’s how it started, but at the same time Peter died there was this huge break and change in publishing companies. Although I was still writing every day, people immediately stopped asking me to write for magazines and newspapers, which was probably just as well since I couldn’t do it anyway, and I sort of dropped out of the whole writing scene. They didn’t ask me to go to festivals, they didn’t ask me to do reading. I was away for seven years, and when I returned the world had changed utterly. None of the big publishers wanted what I wrote, because they had the imperative to only publish books that would sell above a certain level, and nobody believed Wild Rose would. So we then sent it to Coteau Books. So there I was, I had dropped out of the big leagues and into the regional publishers again. I just changed agents, and my new agent is telling me it’s hard to make the leap from the small publisher back to the big publisher. I’m sort of shrugging my shoulders. In a lot of ways working with a regional publisher is better for you as a writer. You have a lot more freedom, and even though you don’t sell as well and you don’t get as much publicity, you get to publish what you really wrote. What you really wanted. The big publishers are a lot less open to experimentation. They know what they want, and they have pretty strict parameters. That limits a writer like me, who was able to create a career in a time when they were happy to get the book you gave them, and they’d work with it but they wouldn’t utterly change it.

You’ve spoken about the disappointment you felt in the past when your books were shortlisted for major awards but didn’t win. How do you feel about awards now, especially with Where I Live Now being shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award?

There’s a part of me that still thinks, like an 18 year old, that if I win the Governor General’s the world will be mine and I’ll be levitating with joy, and there’s a larger part that says in the general scheme of things, what’s the Governor General’s Award worth? Not nothing, but it isn’t going to make me 18 again. I’m tremendously pleased to have been shortlisted, and I like to think of my career as having started where it should, at the bottom, and having it slowly build and build until finally now I’ve reached the point in the normal course of events where my work is prize-worthy. That would be very satisfying, but not in the way of a kid at Christmas. Something grounded and sensible.

Something interesting in your book is the way you talk about how your career benefited from being quite isolated from the wider writing world. Do you have any thoughts for emerging writers who are wondering about networking?

It can be exhausting and embittering. There’s a line in the new biopic about Emily Dickinson – obviously I have to wonder about the screenwriters – where she describes herself as feeling that way, embittered. That’s what you have to struggle with, but the forces you encounter are rarely specifically aligned against you. Mostly it’s the way of the world that does this to you. Emily Dickinson was a woman living in a very repressive time and she didn’t go out in the world at all, and that’s probably a main reason she didn’t get published in your lifetime. When you think about the networking events you might feel pressured to do, I believe a lot of them are very worthwhile, but you have to pick and choose. On one hand, if nobody ever heard of you and you never talk up your own work, things will be denied you, I suspect. But on the other hand, overfamiliarity produces a kind of contempt to. “Oh yeah, he’s at all the readings, I don’t know who he is.” I can only speak for myself and look where it got me, but I always consoled myself with the thought I was becoming a better and better writer, and that in the end justice will out. In fact, justice won’t out, but at least you’ve got to hope, if you’re a really good writer. And if you’re always spending your time hanging around these other people, you’re not writing. It often muddles, and makes you envious, and makes you think, “That’s the fashion, I need to put some of that in my book! It’s originality, I think, that in the end gets you furthest in the literary world.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

I give advice to emerging writers all the time! Probably conflicting advice. I say “Don’t listen to your teachers or editors or your fellow writers, there are no rules in creative writing, the best memoirs find their own form… but here’s how you write a memoir.” I say that you have to stick to your essential writing self is saying. You have to resist the best advice, often. At the same time, you can’t think you’re so wonderful you don’t have to listen to anyone. It’s a hard path to walk. The problem with creative writing schools, in my view, is that they have a tendency to kill creativity in their workshopping process. They terrify people, and that’s not good either. I’ve people come into the classes I used to teach, and they left when they found out there’d be workshopping – they had vicious experiences in universities.Sharon B

Thomas Fucaloro

Thomas F.pngInterviewed by Jenna Mann

Thomas Fucaloro is an author slam poet, editor and Creative Writing instructor out of Staten Island, New York. Fucaloro is a Creative Writing MFA holder from New School and is the author of two books of poetry published by Three Rooms Press. Along with his colleagues Jane Omerod, David Lawton, Mary Slecta, George Wallace and the late Brant Lyon, he is a cofounder of Great Weather For Media. You can catch him slamming on Button Poetry, pick up one of his books or see him live at one of the events he performs at in New York City and Staten Island. You may even have the opportunity to catch him on tour with his Staten Island Advanced Slam Team. Fucaloro also works as a Writing Coordinator at Harlem Children’s Zone. If you’re looking for a poet who deals in honesty and an introspective narrative, Fucaloro fits the bill.

Going into this interview, what are the three most important things you’d like readers to know about you?

  • I used to be addicted to substances. Now I’m addicted to poetry. It’s all about the substance.
  • I deal and write about a lot of mental health concerns. I used to take meds, now I write sonnets.
  • My beard is fluffy.

How does addiction and mental health concerns shape you as an artist? How do you think these things effect the reception of your work?

I think addiction and mental health are just one part of the overall writing equation. I think they have aided me in being able to dig deeper into myself. Both are doorways that take me somewhere inside of me, what that somewhere is, changes often. I know that is a bit cryptic and vague but it is a hard question to answer. I think the reception of these topics is like a double edged sword. Some people enjoy the honesty of it, some people will think it’s your shtick and define you as such. I have been exploring many new and wonderful avenues in my writing and am happy to be walking down them.

At what point did writing, teaching and performing poetry become your career?

Hmmm, not sure about that, I feel as they have always been there, just accessed each of those things at different times. A more concrete answer would be; I was a retail manager for 15 years. Once that career ended, a new one

How did the end of your retail Career act as a catalyst for change?

I think retail helped build me as a performer. You have to deal with the needs of so many customers and their emotions, you have to carry the weather each customer is emoting, and do it with a smile. You have to lie a lot. So the vessel for me to actually use performance for art was there, just not accessed. The change came about, because I was doing a lot of substances back then and it all came to a crash, where substances were taking over my life. I was hollow. Retail offered nothing for me. It was something I did to pay rent, the entitled little prick I was back then. I hate that version of Thomas and I am glad that Thomas is gone.

How are you able to be as prolific as you are?

Whisky and comic books. Seriously, I’m not sure how to answer this question. I know how to fail, and I know how to capture that failure in a poem.

What are some clichés about writers that you find off base or annoying? Which do you think are generally true?

I find a whole lot to be cliché. I even find calling writers cliché, to be cliché. I think every cliché is true to a degree and every cliché is false to a degree. I think it’s more about reinvention. Love poems are cliché. Poems about your ribs are cliché. Poems about drinking are cliché. But if you can reinvent how we see and feel those themes, there ain’t nothing cliché about that. I think the most cliché thing is a poet, who doesn’t recognize their own work and how to improve upon it. That their work is fine the way it is. That’s the most cliché. You find that the most in academic settings and playgrounds.

You post a lot of haikus on Facebook and Twitter. How has social media changed the landscape for poetry?

They’re technically not haikus, more like very short poems. Actually they are usually a stanza from a much larger piece. For me, social media has helped me share my work. I’m a sharer, and I need to get it out there. It’s hard to wait for something to be published in order to share. I’ve been able to reach so many people because of it, and that is what is most important. And other poets have been able to reach me.

I think social media is also just providing another canvas. Another way to get a poem across. I mean social media, in and of itself is the ultimate found poem. It would make sense to have some poetry in there.

What part of a writer’s lifestyle do you prefer? Editing, networking, writing, performing?

Anything that has to do with the creative aspect of it. I hate networking and my social anxiety leaves me a bit useless in that category. Performing is great because it’s like a therapy session and that really helps me on a creative and personal level.

How does being a sharer with social anxiety work?

It’s very easy to share your work now while being the only person in the room. Social media allows recluses to share their work and still remain in the confines of the pillow fort they have built at home.

In regards to the stage, that’s something I will never be able to understand. Could be the customer service in me. But I have always felt comfortable on the stage.

What does performing poetry add to the experience?

I am loud and obnoxious and it is good to be able to hone that into an auditory poetic emotion. It allows me to not be me, which is good for my well-being. I have some poems on Button Poetry that you can see me leaving my body for a moment and allowing something else to enter. That is freeing for me. I don’t like being me.

How does it feel to leave your body while performing? Do you ever have similar experiences watching others perform?

I think when the poem starts taking over your body, where you are moving with the rhythm of the poem, where you know the words and don’t have to think of them. That sounds cliché, I know, but it’s rather heard to explain. It’s being blue while looking like the color red.

I have seen other’s perform in this manner like William James, Timothy DuWhite and Jeanann Verlee. They soar out of their bodies but reenter them as song.

For someone whose poetry is often performed, how does the performance factor into your first draft?

It factors in a lot, which can be a problem. If I am writing a performance piece, that’s great, but if it’s a page poem, that’s where it becomes tricky. When you are writing page poetry, I have to remember, that when the reader is reading the poem, I won’t be there to read it aloud for them. So I have to take that into account, breaking my lines more, and really trying to focus on how the words build off each other. I think and speak in fragments so that helps with the page poetry aspect as well. I don’t want to become too dependent on my voice. The page has a melody and sometimes I have to listen to that.

What are the key differences between your written and performed poetry?

I don’t see too much of a difference because when I write a page piece, if I am going to read it, I will perform it, not just read it. That’s a really hard question for me. Each allows you to do different things but I am consistent, which makes it feel the same. As I mentioned earlier the difference is how I approach the writing of them.

How prominently does feedback from your audience affect the final product? Are your poems continually work shopped or finished before they are performed?

Audience feedback does help in the editing process, but not in the writing process. I try not to think of the audience when doing both, but the audience definitely lets you know when something needs more editing and that is helpful. I don’t think a poem is ever finished. We are constantly changing so I feel like our poems are as well. Wisdom and age are great tools for the poetry editor.

Your 2016 Chapbook was titled Depression Cupcakes. What are the ingredients in depression cupcakes?

Regret, anxiety, bipolar disorder, a grain of sand, salted caramel frosting.

Do you find living in New York City affects the subject matter of your writing?

For Depression Cupcakes, it definitely did. Depression Cupcakes is very much an ars poetica and it has a continuing series of poems about being a poet in the NYC. With that said, I don’t think it drives content, but it does drive the attitude of my poems. I think you can hear the New York in them and definitely hear it during performance.

How important is community for writers?

Extremely important. At times, we are all we got, especially in the poetry community. They are your support system and you try to be the same for them. Without a community to inspire you, staleness erodes.

As someone who both teaches and has a MFA in creative writing, how important do you believe formal education is for aspiring writers?

I think learning and developing are a huge part of poetry, but I don’t think a formal education is required. For me, I needed it. It was what my poetry was lacking. But that is me. I have met many poets with a formal education who didn’t know the first thing about the sensibilities of a poem. I’ve known people with no formal education who could cry you a poem of beauty and depth. I think it’s about the poet, not the education.

What was the intention behind co-founding Great Weather for Media?

I was part of a press called Uphook with Jane Ormerod and the late Brant Lyon. That press was great but we had some issues with one of our members (I won’t mention their name) so we decided to dissolve that press and start something a little bit more inviting. So Great Weather was born. And we really wanted to start something that crossed all spectrums of poetry from spoken word, to form, to dada, to whatever makes a great poem. The intention was to support and give a platform to poets.

What steps did you take to insure your press would be more inviting?

I think to try and give as many writers as many platforms as we can whether anthologies, single poetry collections, readings and online interviews, we try to assist in as many voices being heard as we possibly can.

What advice would you give to others looking to star their own publication?

Be committed (as possible as your life allows) and know what you are getting into. If you are looking to make money, you are in the wrong business. You have to be willing to do the work and understand that the work takes precedence, not money, not ego, but the work. But also find balance. It’s easy to say be committed but also remember that your health is important, and to not overdo it and overwhelm yourself. When you are working with other people you have to try and be as empathetic to them and home the same for you.

What advice would you give authors looking to submit to Great Weather For Media?

Just be as you as you can possibly be. Let it come from the heart.

What is your process for giving feedback and edits to other writers?

Just try to be as honest and from the heart as possible and take into account their sensibilities and what the poet is striving for. To be as respectful as possible and understand a poet’s experience may be different from my own, and it is important to take that into consideration when offering feedback.

What do you do when you’re not in the mood to write?

Whisky and comic books. I’m an idiot aren’t I?

What’s your favorite poem that you’ve written? Why, and what do you think it says about the author?

I don’t think I have a favorite that I have written but I think “God is a Cigarette” on Button Poetry. I think it’s a good example of my voice, style and content all doing different things yet finding each other in the end.

What’s next?

I have a new chapbook coming out through Mad Gleam Press called “There Is Always Tomorrow.” It is 11 list poems, each one of them illustrated by the great Julie Bensten. It will be out in mid-November. Continue to work with Great Weather for Media and Nysai Press. And keep Staten Island’s Advanced Slam going. We operate out of a great boutique called Richmond Hood Company and will be sending a team to compete in National Poetry Slam in Chicago in 2018.

Jenna Mann moved from Saskatchewan to Vancouver in 2015 to pursue a second degree in Creative Writing. She also enjoys comic books and videogames. Whiskey? Not so much. Find her on instagram at @jeghn, twitter @jenligh or view her other works at smudgesandstains.com

 

 

 

 

 

Would follow up with how did this become a catalyst for change?

Yep. Otherwise it seems like you’re running down a list of questions instead of having a conversation.