Matt Bell

Interviewed by Charles Brown

Matt Bell

Photo Credit: Hannah Ensor

Matt Bell is the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.

His writing has often and accurately been described as incantatory. His poetic prose floats through lakes and marches through forests. It drags you through the dirt and the asphalt. It sings moons into the sky, and watches as you writhe uncomfortable below. And when his spell releases you from its grasp, you aren’t quite sure how or why, but you feel it – a subtle shift in consciousness, a bodily confirmation that everything’s okay and maybe even a little more than.

To start, I’m interested in when your relationship with writing changed. When did you see it as something that could become a career path, and to take it further, when were you able to see your work as having the potential to contribute to a global discussion? When did you come to understand that what you had to say about the human condition was important? Was there a specific moment that you can recall?

I didn’t really start writing until I was in my early twenties, which was also when I started reading literary fiction, people like Amy Hempel, Denis Johnson, Chuck Palahniuk, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders, or Aimee Bender: those were my real points of entry into contemporary fiction and into writing. At the time, I was in and out of college and working as a bartender, and wrote my first stories outside of school or a workshop system. But eventually I went back, started taking creative writing classes, and aiming for what might come after I finished school. I wanted to eventually publish something, but I wasn’t sure exactly what a career like that would look like.

By the time I went to grad school, I was definitely thinking about “career” more earnestly: I was starting to publish stories in magazines, and became very invested in the small press and lit mag scene. Between grad school and the writers I got to know while living in Ann Arbor, that kind of life began to seem a bit more possible, which made it easier to go after. I also discovered that I loved editing and teaching, and so aimed for both of those jobs as part of a fuller literary life.

As for the work having the “potential to contribute to a global discussion”: I don’t know if I exactly think of what I’m doing in those kinds of terms. Obviously, I hope the work is entertaining and that it moves people—to feeling, to thought, maybe even to action—but I don’t think I start from the stance of “having something to say.” My first stories were really written as a kind of reader response—I loved some existing story so much I wanted to make more of it—and there’s still a large component of that in my process. I want to write books because I’ve loved other books. I want to write about the world because I love the world.

 I follow your Instagram account (thank you for that), and I know that you have a new novel in the works. How does the process of working with an agent and having readers now that you’re an established writer differ from when you started out, emotionally or otherwise?

I think the biggest change to how I share work with others while it’s in-process has less to do with being established or working with an agent and more with the difference between novel writing and story writing. I’m not a very linear writer, and my rough drafts are rough. I try to wait as late in the game as I can before I show my work to anyone else, so that they’re helping me with the best possible version of the book, the one taken as far as I can go on my own. As you mentioned, I just finished a new novel, and I didn’t show it to anyone until I was three years in. I didn’t even tell anyone what it was about until I’d worked on it for a year. What I need more than anything while drafting is to protect the weirdness and the wonder and the possibility that I’m chasing in a book. Sharing a draft too early—and letting other voices into my process—ends up being more risky than beneficial, at least for me.

That said, it’s also moderately terrifying to give your first reader three years of work all at once, hoping that it was worth it…

That makes a lot of sense to me. I know a lot of writers do it differently, but I really admire that dedication to self that you seem to be cultivating, and I think, too, there’s an inherent kindness in giving the best possible version of your work to someone who is going to help shape it. So how does it feel after having protected something for so long, to get that feedback from your agent or The New York Times that reaffirms that what you’ve created was worth it, not from an egoic perspective, but in the sense that you’ve successfully created more of what you originally loved and responded to? Does the three years of silent working affect your response to that feedback? Or is it all about the process of creation for you?

 I’d be lying if I said outside feedback didn’t matter. I’d like not to be defined by it, if possible, but of course I care what people think about my books and stories. I will say that there’s something incredibly moving about talking to the first person who reads a new novel manuscript. By that point, I’ve lived with the characters and events inside my head for years, but they haven’t yet lived in anyone else. I recently had a conversation where a first reader said the names of my characters back to me for the first time, and I immediately got chills. It’s an incredible feeling to realize that what once lived in only you will soon live in others, and the feeling is just as powerful whether that’s one person or ten thousand.

I’m also curious about “GO BIG WITH WONDER” – which I love! You say on your Instagram that you wrote that note to yourself after the second draft of your current project. Having read your debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, I’m in awe thinking about the kind of wonder you might impart into this new project. How can the sense of wonder get bigger?! Can you maybe give some insight as to how that manifested in your latest manuscript? Or talk about how important it is to write notes like that, little reminders, to yourself?

GO BIG WITH WONDER was a huge help with the new novel, which is an environmental/climate change novel set over a large span of time. I think it’d be easy to be overly dour or depressed in such a book, but I think that one of the things I wanted to focus on was how amazing and beautiful the world is, even at the worst of times. You can be furious about climate change and worried about what is being lost and still be in awe of the phenomenal world all at the same time. It was really important to me that the wonder and awe I feel at the world—at both the human and the nonhuman worlds, which are of course really not so separate—came through wherever it could.

I think most of my novels have eventually discovered their own marching orders like this: little provocations or reminders to help guide the long slow work of drafting. I don’t know them in advance, usually, but I’m always excited to discover them.

This is a more personal question, maybe. Your schedule seems to be really full. How do things like teaching, running, and your culinary explorations inform or impede your writing practice? How beneficial is it to learn from other artforms, like cooking, and take lessons inherent within that medium and apply them to your practice? 

I’m sure there are a lot of crossover lessons. For instance, runners talk about having to “run your own race,” not worrying too much about what other people are doing, and that certainly applies to being a writer too, where comparison and envy are the roads to imposter syndrome and writer’s block. But really, I think it’s best to do each thing for its own sake: I love teaching and trail running and cooking and writing. They don’t have to have more purpose in my life than that. I think I’m always happier doing the activity itself, as opposed to hoping for what the activity might do for me or how it might define me.

I love your response to this question. Crossover lessons may be understood consciously or even bodily, but to do each thing for its own sake – there’s no better way to be fully present in that moment with whatever it is that you’re doing. And sometimes it’s nice just to have a break. On that note, and because we’ve had a lot of discussion about the beauty of the natural world, I’ve got a fun question for you: if you could go running anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

I’m lucky to get to run in the Sonoran Desert every week, and to have had some good adventures while traveling for teaching and for work. I’m sure there are many new places I’d like to visit, but honestly I think the place I’d like to run again most is somewhere I’ve already been: last year, I ran the twenty-plus-mile “Cowboy Loop” in the Grand Canyon, down South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch and then back up Bright Angel, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. This fall, my wife and I backpacked Rim to Rim, and I’d love to go back and do that again as a run. Someday, I hope!

Charles Brown is an MFA candidate in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program. His poetry has been published in Anima Poetry Press and The AZ Republic. His Fiction can be found in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. He enjoys basketball, games of any kind, and a steaming cup of coffee in the morning.  

 

 

 

Micheline Mayor

INTERVIEWED BY JUHYUN TONY BAE

bio picMicheline Maylor is the poet laureate emeritus of Calgary and a decorated professor who has inspired many students to write, including yours truly. She has published five books of poetry, the most recent of which, Drifting Like a Metaphor, featured twelve emerging Calgarian poets handpicked by her. She joined me for this interview from Windsor, Ontario, the day after participating as a featured guest in Poetry at the Manor.

From 2016 to 2018, you served as Calgary’s poet laureate. Looking back, what was the most memorable moment from that time?

The most memorable moment… Oh boy, that’s a tough question because there were a few. Many of them had to do with the people that I met. People were coming to consult with me anywhere from someone who had a polished memoir about his alcoholism, all the way to a new immigrant who had been in Canada for only two weeks, and there were kids as young as three and people as old as eighty-five. It made me realize that poetry, literature, and self-expression are a hugely connecting factor in our society. Before, I could understand how important poetry was to me but I couldn’t see it on a societal scale until I had that experience.

Wow, so even at a poet laureate level, you’re still learning.

 Of course! I think that poetry is a lifelong art, I think all literature is a lifelong art. It’s you against yourself no matter how long you’re doing it. So it’s a continual thing as long as you’re breathing you’re still learning. So that only puts me at the middle of my journey, so that’s pretty neat (laughs).

(Laughs) Also maybe daunting, especially for new writers.

 Well daunting or glorious because once you can say to yourself, this is a lifelong learning opportunity, you can give up on the idea of perfection and just move into letting it be a process. Rather than having an end goal, the journey is the goal.

How do you find inspiration for your poems?

 Well, as my friend Mary Ann Mulhern said yesterday, “You don’t find inspiration, inspiration finds you.” If you are standing or walking down the street, something can catch your eye and that can be enough. You’re riding your bike down the street, and all of a sudden you hear a line in your head, or sometimes you wake up from a dream with a line, and that can be enough to begin. So inspiration comes from everywhere. I think it’s also essential to add in commonality. Because If I only told of my own experience—that would be fine—but what is even more essential is when you can tap into the experience of the other, the big other. The big other can be the human experience, it can be human emotion, it can be the pure livingness of being on the planet, that can be enough. We all have this common experience of love, sorrow, joy, elation, exuberance, laughter, naughtiness, and sorrow. All of these are common experiences, so when we find those moments where a specific thing can become grander because of its connection to the larger experience, that’s when the best inspirations happen. So my experience comes from walking around being me. I’m a walker, I walk and think, walk and think.

Out of all the poems you write, how do you pick the ones to continue working on?

 The ones that I pick to work on have that element in them. Once I write out a rough draft, I double-check and I say to myself, can this also be someone else’s experience? Because I don’t need to diarize my experience, I need to tap into the connection. When those things come closely with an emotional charge, then it becomes important to work on the language of the thing. Then, is the language also doing something beyond common speech, beyond what can be said in the vernacular? If the language doing something, is the form doing something? And I think both the language and the form is essential to elevate a poem out of a common occurrence. The language is creating the entryway, the spell, the rhythm, it can entice you to think about things in a different way. So it’s the language, the emotion, and does it have that bigger experience available within it?

What’s your editing process like?

 I’ll look at it over and over and over again. I’d say my average is editing something about twenty times. Once I can say to myself, okay, this is satisfying for me at this point, then I have people I send my work to regularly. I break my own rules and I also send my poetry to my mother but that’s because she’s not the typical mother who’ll say, that’s nice dear, you’re so talented! My mother would say, this doesn’t work, this sucks, this word is wrong… So I send her my work because I get good feedback. But that’s because she’s been listening to me for twenty-five years harp on about how you should read, and what you should look for, don’t do this, and don’t do that… She’s been my most consistent student.

Right, so you taught your own mother to become a good workshop partner.

 Yes, and now my daughter also takes my classes but she’s a songwriter. She’s a really good lyricist because she picks up the same elements of poetry writing and puts them into her songs. One of the other people I send my poetry to is Susan Plett, she’s a poet who thinks she should be a psychologist, but she’s really a poet (laughs). Another one of those people is John Wall Barger because he takes no prisoners. He currently works for a magazine in the US called Painted Bride, and they have a podcast where the editors sit together over the slush pile and pull something out of it, read it, and discuss whether or not they are gonna publish it and why. Quite fascinating. You really get an inside view of what it absolutely looks like in an editorial meeting.

Speaking of editing, you’ve also been a long-time editor at FreeFall and now at Frontenac House, and also a professor at Mount Royal University. Does working on other people’s poetry affect your own writing?

 What’s most interesting to me is that I can deeply respect someone’s work and think to myself, oh, I’d love to write like that, then don’t, because my voice is completely different. But typically, I’d say it makes my writing sharper because I see what other people are doing and I think to myself, okay, you gotta clean that up and that up and that, and it forces me to look at my own work and say, alright, is all of this stuff cleaned up?”

But you know, I don’t think that anyone should write like me. I think you know from my classes too, where I don’t say, “write like this.” What I say is, “this is what your writing is doing, is this what you want your writing to be doing?”

Also, there’s this other thing that I learned from working with new writers all the time because I get this perpetual stream of first-year writers coming my direction. I have to remember what happened in my son’s karate class—if you can just hold on while I go for this little ride. I went to my son’s karate class when he was about six, and there is this black belt teaching this class. So I asked, “Sensei, you are a black belt, why are you teaching little kids?” And he said to me, “it’s important to be in beginner mind, if I can’t teach them, I’m learning nothing.” He really emphasized to me what it was like, oh yea, beginner mind! So teaching these first years forces me to have beginner mind and, in so doing, I also get beginner enthusiasm. I go, ah… this is fun. Ah, this is fun!

 What’s the toughest thing about being a poet?

 The paycheque. (laughs)

(laughs) Of course, the grim reality.

 The grim reality! Yea, it’s a tough go, man. You make a couple hundred here, a couple hundred there and that’s it. So, why do you do it? I gotta remember what Tom Wayman said, which is that poetry lives outside of the money economy, therefore it’s an act of social change. Being a poet is an act of rebellion, there is no reason to do it except that you love it because you got something to say and you want to say it beautifully. That’s an act of rebellion against the economy, all the politics, shit news, the crazy president down south, sorrow and suffering that goes on in the world.

Do you have any advice to new poets in dealing with the capitalistic realities of our world?

 Yea. Poetry is still free. You go to your free public library, with your free library card, and you can get free poetry and that’s also an act of dissent. Everything is available to you, a world, a lifetime is available to you. So my recommendation to you is to get yourself a library card and go read. Read, read, read, read. If you have a cellphone, pull it up on YouTube, that’s free too. So the paycheque sucks, but poetry is free, and that’s a big deal. It’s a wonderful amazement of life and it’s available to you, for free, at your fingertips. So my advice to young poets is to read. Use your library, use YouTube, learn something, expand your mind, think of things differently, be awake, be aware, be engaged.

As a final question, what is the most common mistake you see new writers make?

 Self-doubt. Everything else can be fixed in your writing. If you have shit grammar, alright we can fix that. Got writer’s block? Meh, we can fix that too! But self-doubt can kill your writing. The thing that can’t be fixed is self-doubt, that’s the one you gotta break through yourself from the inside out. As a writer, will you have self-doubt? Yes, because that’s human nature, it’s the human experience. But what do you do with that self-doubt? That’s the question. At times of self-doubt, feel it, rail against it, express it, and you rebuild yourself. It’s a tiny act of heroism, denying self-doubt. Giving up is the only time a mistake is fatal.

Juhyun Tony Bae is a Korean-Canadian writer currently studying at UBC. He’s currently trying to establish a sleep schedule, but writing isn’t helping. His work has been published in Grain, FreeFall, Wax Poetry and Art, and most recently, he was shortlisted for PEN Canada’s New Voices Award. You can find him on twitter @jTonyBae.

JJ Lee

Interviewed by Janice Esguerra

jj lee imageJJ Lee is a Canadian writer who was raised in Montreal and studied Fine Arts at Concordia. He later got a Master of Architecture from UBC and wrote his memoir, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Governor General’s Award and the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize. He is also an art critic for the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight, an ELLE fashion columnist, and a CBC radio producer. He now resides in New Westminster, British Columbia.

To start off – why do you write?

When I’m able to take whatever accidental writing I have and begin to hone it and link together the ideas I didn’t know I had, I get excited. I really like the constructive nature and layering that occurs through writing. On a more practical level, it’s sort of accidental that I’m a writer – but it’s the only thing I’m known for and the only way I can make a buck. It’s not even a lot of money, but I do enjoy it a lot. And I like the culture – writing people are my favourite kind of people.

Why are writers your favourite kind of people?

I think they want to be thoughtful and they have a commitment to craft, and even if they don’t have a commitment to craft, they just love books and they want to be published. There’s a sort of fun about them that I really appreciate. Even if they’re the most mercenary writer in the world, they still work with words. There’s this incredible love of the work, and loving something so much that you want to do it is a great thing. It makes for a happy person.

You obviously have the same commitment to craft that you admire in other writers. What’s the first thing you remember ever writing?

Oh – I remember having this kindergarten panic with writing the alphabet. I only knew up to “E.” I didn’t know what the actual letters sounded like, so I didn’t really know how to read. I also remember writing this really ardent Valentine’s card to a girl. I think I was six or seven years old. The most attention I ever got for my writing as a child must have been for a class project in the fifth grade—probably about Samuel de Champlain—and I got asked to enter my schools’ Gold Book. By then, some sort of weird socialism kicked in for me and I refused. I didn’t want to participate in a competitive educational environment. I was so proud of myself for denying the opportunity. My parents were pretty upset with me for doing that.

That’s a really strong stance to take as a fifth grader. If you were to teach a writing workshop for fifth graders, what sort of things would you include in the class?

I would teach them how to write a ghost story. Like, a campfire story. Oh, and I have these cards that say things like “house,” “car,” “laugh”—stuff like that. I would let them pick five cards and they would have to build a scary story made up of whatever those five cards are. Or I would get them to write jokes, which would teach them how to write things in the right order. You don’t build stairs up to go down, that sort of thing. I would encourage them to take their time writing in an orderly way, trying to stay in the scene without over-explaining anything. When I’m teaching, I keep to form – it doesn’t matter if the people I’m teaching are children or adults.

What’s a genre of writing that you struggle with the most, or find the most foreign to you?

I have a long history of writing bad poetry. I feel bad for people who want my opinion on their poetry, because I’m so bad at it. I’m not cool enough. I just don’t have the intellectual rigor that poets have. I’m too prone to my own feelings and my own dull thoughts about things; it makes me a bad poet. I wish I could write lyrics well, too. It’s an ambition of mine to write a substantial song—ideally a ballad, like an old-timey country song.

I’m looking forward to hearing it once it’s on the radio. Now, I know you studied fine arts at Concordia and got a Master of Architecture degree from UBC. I’m really curious as to how your relationship with writing developed after your university education, and if your experiences within art and architecture inform your process as a writer?

I was first published at the age of twenty-three as a journalist. I joined my school’s newspaper as the Arts co-editor and did some media event for a museum show. The curator was giving everyone a tour of the exhibition, and I was asking questions and taking notes while surrounded by other real Arts journalists who were getting paid to do this sort of thing. A woman came up to me and told me she was the editor of Parachute magazine. She said, “I’m not going to write the review for this exhibition anymore. You are.”

That was how my career started in publishing. I created for ten years, all while I was going to school. I published about forty paid art reviews, and I wouldn’t have been a writer in that context if I hadn’t studied the things I studied. Writing as an art critic led me to journalism. While I was at UBC doing my Masters, my art critique and magazine work led to my interest in journalism, which led me to radio. I joined the CiTR team. The APEC protests happened at UBC and we covered it – we ended up winning a national award for journalism. That led me to CBC. My first gig was with them; I didn’t apply, I was drafted. I hung around either as an intern or as a freelancer from 1997 to 1999, and in 2000 I was an associate producer. That led to my research on tailoring, which led to my memoir. It’s all connected.

As a painter, I learned to muck about and not overthink as much. As for the architectural part, the idea of structure interests me a lot. Having the freeness of being able to put something on the page without thinking too much, and then having the structure to be able to organize what’s on the page after – these are the things I learned from art and architecture. They’re quite complimentary.

That’s amazing – I would have never guessed your memoir was the product of such a long chain of events. In talking about your book, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, you mentioned the idea of memoir as a sort of disruptive technology. How are you able to write on emotional topics with vulnerability and still retain clarity? Do you have any advice to emerging writers on how to do so?

When you’re young, you experience things in a really sharply distinct way. Everything is kind of new. Things can be a big fucking deal all the fucking time, you know? You can keep that in quotes. Anyway, my point is that I teach directly to this idea of emotional distance. I don’t mean you should let time create emotional distance. I would never tell someone to wait ten years before writing about something, because you would lose so much of what you can recall. Most people see a memory through the eyes of the person who experienced it. Let’s say you’re looking back on a memory from when you were ten years old. You’re probably going to remember it as a ten-year-old. Instead, I teach people to write as a fly. You take the fly and watch everyone in the scene, including the person that used to be you. In my class I tell people, “let’s not talk about the character in the story as you, because you’re not that person anymore. You’ve grown since experiencing that.” Taking faith in the idea that you don’t have to re-enact the past when you write—just simply watch the person experience it and have observations about them—creates this sort of emotional distance.

The other thing I teach when it comes to this sort of thing is “the hotter the scene gets, the colder the writer gets.” I think It’s a huge mistake when writers—especially young writers and emerging writers—try emotionally to convey what the character felt. It’s a huge mistake to go “I’m really sad, so I’m going to tell you how sad I am.” The reader has no interest in how sad you were. You need to make the reader feel sad, which isn’t the same thing. The classic Aristotlian principle of “character is action” comes to mind – allowing what people say, do, and see create the emotion itself. At no point do you have to betray how the main character feels about something – the reader just feels it, so further commentary isn’t necessary.

So—psychological distance created by not letting the writer see through the eyes of the character who experienced the event and instead constructing it from a third-person POV, and writing “hot” scenes with a more clinical voice and tone—those are just two ways of writing that will allow you to write distinctly about hard topics or memories. The second you try to amp it up, the reader won’t trust you. Any extra energy added to a story is seen as a melodramatic amplification of the truth. The idea is to say everything and explain everything without wrenching anything.

What’s the hardest thing about writing? What’s the most rewarding?

I’m a premise-driven writer. For me, it’s all about the setup—so if I write a bad one, it screws me up. For me to have enough steam to finish a first draft, I really have to set up my characters perfectly. If that doesn’t happen for me, it can be really frustrating—especially if I’m trying to reach a deadline for a draft. Once you’re able to break through it, it’s a great feeling. It feels like you’re going downhill from that point on—you really start to hit your stride.

Janice Esguerra is currently in her third year of the Creative Writing BFA at the University of British Columbia. She likes to write about everyday conversations, diaspora, women, love, and people she sees on the bus. Janice works at a coffee shop but doesn’t drink coffee.

Maria V. Snyder

Interviewed by Bree Taylor

mvsbiophotoMaria V. Snyder is a New York Times bestselling author of 16 fantasy and science fiction novels and a variety of short stories. She currently works as a teacher and mentor at Seton Hill University alongside her writing career. Her most popular series, the Chronicles of Ixia series, spans nine books over 12 years. Snyder’s most recent novel, Chasing the Shadows, the second book in her Sentinels of the Galaxy series, is due to be released on November 18, 2019.

What would you consider to be your biggest sources of inspiration when coming up with ideas for new stories to tell? 

Traveling! I love to travel and I’m always finding inspiration for stories. Not all of my ideas will make it into a book or become stories, but I keep a journal as I travel and write it all down. For example, traveling to China back in 2004, I learned about the Terracotta Army discovered near the first Emperor’s tomb and learned that they were built to protect him in the afterlife, which got me thinking about the afterlife and what happens if one of the warriors is broken – do they disappear in the afterlife and, if so, how does that impact the Emperor? This all mutated over the years and I sparked on the idea of the discovery of these warriors on other planets in the galaxy and that became Navigating the Stars.

What is the biggest challenge for you in creating such vast and rich fantasy worlds, like the ones we see in the Study and Healer series?

Keeping track of all the details! As the books went from 1 to 3 to 9, the world became a large complex beast! Also coming up with unique elements to each world. I find that creating new worlds is harder to do as I don’t want to repeat the same elements. The Eyes of Tamburah, which is my latest fantasy novel is set on a desert world and the citizen all live underground to keep safe from the killing heat when the sun’s at apex. I sparked on this idea while traveling in the Australian Outback.

 What writers and/or books most inspired you to start writing?

I started writing because I was bored at work and needed something creative to do. But at the time, I was reading and enjoying Ursula K. LeGuin, Barbara Hambly, Kate Elliot, David Eddings, Mercedes Lackey, and Andre Norton. A mix of science fiction and fantasy authors. I also loved Dick Francis’ mystery books. They were written in first person POV and always had mini-cliffhangers for his chapter endings – something that I do as well.

The Study/Glass series are often considered to be YA. Did you write them with a teen audience in mind?

I didn’t start out writing them with a teen audience in mind. I was thinking Poison Study would be a stand along adult fantasy, which is why I detailed a certain traumatic event. If I’d known there would be so many YA readers, I wouldn’t have written that with so much detail. But Poison Study was published the same month as Twilight and many YA readers were looking for other books to read. Of course once I realized this, I modified my writing a bit. Same tone and same complex plots, but not as much detail. Sex scenes always fade to black.

When working on your novels, do you find yourself writing chronologically, or do you tend to jump around a lot?

I start at page one and write chronologically. I can’t jump around, then I’d be tempted to write all the fun parts and be left with nothing but the drudgery! In Magic Study, I knew Valek would show up and I was looking forward to their reunion, but I had to write up to that point – it was like dangling a carrot.

Do you have a type of scene that is your favourite to write? 

I love it when I’ve got a group of characters all together and they’re bantering and teasing each other. It’s fun – also scenes with humor!

What is your favourite thing about writing fantasy novels? 

Swords and horses and magic! Oops, that’s three. If I had to pick (do I, really?), I’d say magic. Because that’s the only thing unique to a fantasy story. Magic is fun to create and use and takes just as much work as building a fantasy world. It appeals to my scientific side.
What do you feel is the hardest part of the writing process for you? 

Getting that first draft done. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer and figure out my story as I write. The hardest part is usually the middle of the book, when I’m not sure what’s going to happen next or what I need to do to get to the end. I usually have an ending in mind, but sometimes, the plot goes in a different direction. In those cases, it’s always better than what I’d been thinking. And it’s also instinctual – I’ll reach a point and go “yup, that’s it – that’s the end.”

There was a seven-year gap between Fire Study and Shadow Study. Did you find it difficult to return to Yelena’s world (and POV) after so long?

Yes! I had to re-read all the Study and Glass books to get back into that world and characters. However, I’d been thinking of Valek’s past and his character arc for a couple years and so when I wrote the book, his chapters just came so easy. I had a harder time with Yelena because I got her to a good point at the end of Fire Study – she had her character arc – the new books are more focused on Valek’s character arc – also Yelena was super powerful, what could I do to her? The answer was to yank her powers and see what she does! I’m not called a super villain author for nothing.

Have you found it difficult to balance writing, teaching, and personal life?
Yes! It’s been a constant struggle. I’m lucky that I have a very understanding family and my friends are patient! I must admit these last two years, I’ve been writing two books a year and it’s exhausting! I’ve one more year left and then I’m going back to one book a year. I know readers like having books more often, but I can’t keep up this pace.

What would you consider the hardest part of getting a book published? 

There are so many people writing and submitting manuscript to publishers, just getting noticed by editors and agents is super hard. Then if you do find a publisher, finding readers is also difficult as there are a ton of books out there.

A lot of research has gone into some of your novels, like Inside Out/Outside In. What do you feel is the biggest benefit of research? If any, what do you feel is the biggest drawback?
The biggest benefit is being able to accurately translate an experience/information to your readers. I love hands-on research just for this very reason. I can read that a glass kiln is super-hot at 2100 F, but it’s not the same as standing next to one and feeling the heat pulse and press on your skin and squinting at the bright orange glow inside as if a piece of the sun had been broken off and stuffed inside.

If you had to pick one of the worlds you’ve created to live in, which would it be? Why? 

The world of the Study/Glass series (Ixia and Sitia). Because all my friends live there and it’s the most complex of my worlds. Plus I’d get to hang out with Ari and Janco – need I say more?

If you could go back, what would be one piece of advice you would give yourself when you started writing?

To listen to my editor!! When I finished Fire Study, I was burned out with the world and characters. I’ve been with those characters a long time – it took me three years to write Poison Study and another two to find a publisher. However Fire Study hit the New York Times bestseller list when it was released and my editor and publisher wanted to keep up the momentum. I should have listened. I think the Study/Glass books would be more popular if I’d done that.

Bree Taylor is in her final year of the Creative Writing BFA at the University of British Columbia. Her primary focus in writing is Young Adult and New Adult fantasy. She is currently working on a New Adult fantasy novel centered around modern witches in Vancouver.

 

Lindsay Wong

Interviewed by Alex Cole.

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Lindsay Wong grew up in Vancouver, BC. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and a MFA in Literary Nonfiction from Columbia University in New York City. She is the author of The Woo-Woo (Arsenal Pulp Press, Oct 2018), which was shortlisted for 2018 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, and the forthcoming novel The Summer I Learned Chinese (Simon Pulse, Summer 2020).

What was your experience in UBC Creative Writing program like?

I began taking writing seriously at UBC. When you’re placed in an intimate workshop environment and expected to produce semi-polished pieces in various genres with the sole purpose of receiving honest feedback from other writers, it makes you instantly understand that writing is both a profession and practice. UBC taught me how to prioritize writing over all else.

The UBC Creative Writing program also introduced me to some amazing and very generous mentors. I’m so grateful for the multiple kindnesses and encouragement from Linda Svendsen, Mary Schlendlinger, Alison Acheson, Andreas Schroeder, Nancy Lee and Kevin Chong. When you’re a student writer, any sort of feedback, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can shape your determination and motivation to continue. These instructors recognized the raw potential in me, and I’m so grateful.

Did you find your love for non-fiction during the BFA? Or before that?

I don’t think anyone makes the conscious decision to be a memoirist, but to be considered for the BFA program at UBC, the portfolio required proficiency in three genres, and writing nonfiction seemed far easier than learning to write libretto. Mary Schlendlinger’s nonfiction workshop was the first time that I began to investigate the genre, and at that time, I found it more organic to write profiles based on real-life interviews than to write short stories crafted from the imagination.

I wouldn’t say I love nonfiction, especially writing memoir. The Woo-Woo was not a particularly enjoyable book to write, but I definitely found it necessary to make sense of some of the bizarre events and individuals that have shaped my life.

Where was your favourite place to do a residency?

I would have to say The Studios of Key West, where the residency organizers would take us boating, parasailing and jet skiing. The first day that I arrived, the engine of our little boat caught fire and we were stranded on the water for seven hours! It was like a short story, seven strangers (six writers and one visual artist) stuck on a boat in the middle of nowhere, discussing potential cannibalism.

The Studios of Key West also felt more like a holiday rather than a writing retreat. They have amazing cafe con leches in Key West, and I’d go to this cafe (5 Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop, I believe Shel Silverstein’s favourite place) for my extra-sugary coffee. For breakfast, I would smoke a fat cuban cigar and then suntan on the beach.

What have been some of the biggest obstacles or challenges you have faced as a writer?

Being diagnosed with MAV (Migraine-Associated Vertigo) was a tremendously debilitating obstacle for me, as I could not write or read for long periods for nearly five years. I would lie in bed, trying to decipher my own handwriting. I was nauseous, suffering from constant dizziness, visual hallucinations, constant ringing in the ears, and I couldn’t eat or sleep. Not being able to read because the individual words in a book or on a computer screen were moving around was an immense challenge for an aspiring writer.

What position did you play in hockey?

I played left defence. I was always the biggest, meanest kid in Peewee. I was essentially the Team Goon! If I didn’t like someone on the opposing team, or if I was feeling cranky, I’d knock a player into the floorboards or trip them with my stick. Sometimes, I’d push them down and just sit on them until the referee blew the whistle.

In October, I did a reading at the Real Vancouver Writers Series and I began chatting with one of the other readers, Meghan Bell. We realized that we had played hockey against each other when we were kids, and she remembered that my team “played dirty.” And I was like, “Yep! That was me.”

What is your most powerful memory from ice hockey?

There’s a powerful memory from ice hockey that I talk about in my memoir. You can read an excerpt here.

I do remember that my dad didn’t tell me that he had signed me up for power skating to prep for hockey season. I was in sixth grade, and he woke me up at 5 AM, and promised me McDonald’s if I got into the car. It turned out that he had signed me up for power skating classes. I had never played ice hockey before, so I showed up to the session without a jersey, barely able to skate. I was also the only girl in a group of twenty boys who all wanted to be NHL players. I was furious at my dad for lying about Mcdonald’s and making me exercise at 5 AM.

What would a younger you be surprised to learn about your present self?

 I think she wouldn’t recognize or necessarily care about her present self. But if we somehow met at a time where the present and past converged, younger Lindsay wouldn’t listen to present-day Lindsay unless I was offering my former self junk food or a lot of $20 bills. Younger Lindsay would probably tell Present Lindsay to “f– off.”

 Alexandra Cole is currently in her final year of the Creative Writing BFA at University of British Columbia. She enjoys ice hockey, cats, and a good cup of tea. She plans to pursue her MFA at the University of British Columbia in Creative Writing.

Trevor Carolan

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Interviewed by Bradley Peters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

2016-08-20_ent_23808280_I2Interviewed by Ella Adkins

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

 First things first, what are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Pohl-Weary

Interview by Rachel White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Nilsen

Interviewed by Jordan Ewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you consider your ideal writing space?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s opened new conversations, reopened old conversations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What drives you creatively?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be fierce.

What sort of advice would you offer to aspiring poets?

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

What are you working on next?

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

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

Amber J

Interviewed by Natasha Silva

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

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

Did you always want to be a songwriter?

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

What inspired you?

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

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

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

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

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

 Who has been your biggest influencer?

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

What’s your favourite part of writing a song?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you write in any other genres besides songwriting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is the most important song on your EP?

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

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

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

What was your favourite song to write?

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

What’s coming next?

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

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