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

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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.

Leesa Dean

Interviewed by 23022281_10159684850210624_860664395_nFraser Sutherland

(photo by Renee Jackson Harper)

Leesa Dean is a Canadian author currently living and working in Nelson, B.C. Her debut collection of short stories, Waiting for the Cyclone, was met with wide acclaim when it was first published in 2016, and was nominated for the 2017 Trillium Book Award.

Besides her short story collection, Leesa has also had her fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and interviews published in multiple literary publications, including The New Quarterly and The Humber Literary Review. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph, and currently teaches Creative Writing and English at Selkirk College, where she also spearheaded a new literary magazine called the Black Bear Review. I had the pleasure to sit down and chat with Leesa over the phone.

What was your general writing process like while you were writing Waiting for the Cyclone?

The book actually started as my MFA thesis. I was a student at the University of Guelph, and I knew I couldn’t graduate until I wrote a book. So I said, all right, I better get moving. I spent another year after graduation finishing it. And then, of course, another year working with an editor who had me undo some of the things I was doing that really were not working. The publisher also wanted more content, so I had a summer of fierce, forced productivity, where I had to come up with fifty percent more content than what had taken three years to write, and I had to do it in five months. So that was interesting to say the least. I think some of my favourite stories — if it’s not too pretentious for a writer to have favourite stories within her own work — ended up coming out of that period of forced writing.

Each story in Waiting for the Cyclone contains unique and specific settings. In your bio it says that you have held many different professions, including “jobs ranging from farm labourer to professor” and also that you have traveled extensively. Has that informed your writing?

I have a degree in geography, as well as creative writing, so often I’ll start with the setting as a character rather than having any idea about who is going to be in the story. For example, the last story takes place in Halifax during the 2004 hurricane. I knew about the hurricane, and I had written all the content that had to do with certain areas of the city being decimated, before I had any idea who would be in that story. The same thing goes for Guatemala. There is one story set in Monterrico, and I went to Monterrico and was just so blown away by the intricacies of the relationships between the people and the land there that I knew I wanted to write about it, but I again had no idea who would be in the story or what the conflict would be.

I saw on your Twitter that you used to make zines. Was this your first dive into writing? If not, how did you start?

My very, very first publication was self-published at the age of eight. It was a series called Allie the Alien. It’s funny, I was on a podcast this morning and talked about how I knew at the age of eight what I wanted to do, but I didn’t end up figuring out what I needed to do to start working in that direction until I was twenty eight. As soon as I knew how to read and write, I got out the crayons and I was writing these little books that had pretty structured narrative arcs and typical heroes journeys. I would pass those around to my family. I knew from a young age that I wanted to write, but it took me a while to get onto that path officially. It’s interesting to think about how we sometimes end up doing other things for a long time before we are called back to the thing that moves us the most.

What was the moment in your life —or multiple moments —where you knew that you wanted to switch paths, and make writing a career?

I was 28 years old, in my undergrad, and just getting back into creative writing. I wrote a novel — it was a very crappy novel, but it was nonetheless a novel — before I actually sat down to try to write a short story. I wanted to get this short story I had written published and sent it around and someone from the New Quarterly, a really great literary magazine, called me on the phone and basically said that they were not going to publish this story, but were interested in who I was and what I was doing with my writing career, because they thought there was something there. So I ended up talking to them and felt really encouraged by their ideas about what might happen to me if I continued writing. The woman I was talking to at the New Quarterly, Susan Scott, asked me if was going to do an MA or an MFA. I had never really thought about doing a graduate degree, and when she said it, I was caught off guard. And then I thought, why wouldn’t I? I can do that. So I did. I ended up doing an MFA and then went on to publish this book. It was well received and I ended up getting nominated for the Trillium Book Award in Ontario. I never expected any of these things to happen, and it makes me look back to where I was seven years ago, in my undergrad wondering if anything would happen. It’s a pretty incredible thing to look back and see what can happen in a short time period.

Your book has been out for a year now. Are there any new projects that you are working on right now?

I’m actually working on a poetry manuscript. I have two poems from the collection coming out soon in the Humber Literary Review, so it’s pretty exciting. It’s a found poetry project. I’ve been really interested in this one poem by Elizabeth Bishop called Manuelzinho, which is about an unhinged man living in Brazil, and I wondered what his life would look like if he was given a narrative, so I’m actually constructing a life story for him using found texts. I’m using the complete works of Elizabeth Bishop — words from her own vocabulary and from her own imaginative world — to create a life for one her characters who exists in a single poem. So we’ll see when that comes out. I’m plugging away between teaching five classes per semester and writing, so it’s hard sometimes to find writing space, but I am working on it. And I have an idea for a novel, but I’m not really that far into it yet.

You said that you are teaching as well as writing. Do you think this has changed the way you write?

 I don’t think it’s changed the way I write, but it confirms what I know to be true, which is that narrative summary is typically boring. And I’ve also remembered that any type of cliché or familiar language will just kill a poem. Teaching has been a good reminder of the things that don’t really work. But I also get to see my students work really hard. I have them for two years, and since it is a small program in a really small college, I actually get to see what they are able to accomplish in two years. It’s pretty incredible, and a good reminder for myself that if I carved space for my own writing practice even though I’m busy — because they are busy as well — I could also probably accomplish a lot in a short time period.

Do you have any advice for young writers who have just finished their degrees and are wondering what their next steps should be?

It’s interesting to see what people have chosen to do with their creative writing educations. People who were with me in my undergrad are doing all kinds of things now. Some went into advertising, some are editors, and others work for Air Canada’s En Route magazine. There are a couple of us from the master’s program who are teaching now.

In the end, you just have to figure out what your vision is. There are a lot of interesting paths people can take with creative writing, and it’s really important not to undervalue what a creative writing degree can do. Sometimes people have these views of arts graduates being not super-employable and I would one hundred percent argue against that. I think arts degrees are actually incredibly useful: it means a person knows how to write. Having a writer in any workplace is an asset, since it means he/she knows how to communicate effectively, and that’s a backbone for everything that happens in society. So just figure out a path and don’t be afraid to pursue it with passion and integrity and persistence. It does take time sometimes to get what you want, but people get to where they’re going. We just don’t always have control over the time line.

Fraser Sutherland is a writer based out of Vancouver BC. She writes poetry and fiction, and is currently in her final year of studying creative writing at UBC.

 

Daniel Zomparelli

Interviewed by Duncan Catellier

Daniel ZomparelliDaniel Zomparelli is the founder of Poetry is Dead magazine and a prominent literary voice in the gay community of Vancouver. In 2011, he was the recipient of Pandora’s Collective Publishers of Magazines Award. His latest book, Everything Is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person, was published in the spring of 2017. It is a collection of interconnected short stories in which he meshes poetry and fiction prose to great effect. He has also published two books of poetry, one of which he co-wrote with Dina Del Bucchia.

I was interested in interviewing Daniel Zomparelli because of what he has done with his writing and his work as an editor, which is incredibly inspirational to young up-and-coming literary voices. I can only hope to one day be able to deliver honesty with such tender sass in my writing as well as in my responses to simple interview questions. I asked him about his beginnings and about how I should get my own start (by proxy of an elusive fictional character, who may or may not in some regards reflect my personality).

When did you decide to you wanted writing to be your career?

I was in University and was working on LSATS and getting my GPA up to go to law school. To get my GPA up I had to switch all my courses to English Lit because it was where my grades were stronger. I had always wanted to be a writer, but had been trained by my parents, who came to Canada with no money, to think of a financial career over one I enjoyed. I remember that in some classes the professors would let me write poems and short stories instead of essays and I was getting perfect marks. It brought me so much joy to create worlds, especially since I was closeted at the time. I found that I’d rather be happy than financially successful. I told my mom and she was devastated. I, on the other hand, was excited to do something I loved.

Tell me a bit about how you started Poetry is Dead magazine. I know you were young, but did you have any prior experience with editing, and how did the idea come about?

I had plenty of experience in magazine publishing but not in editing. I wanted to start a poetry magazine that represented all the things I like about poetry paired with reading events that were a little looser than the ones I was attending. I was young and wanted to have a fun party but also hear poetry and attempted to figure out what that could look like.

As for the actual magazine, it was a very tough learning lesson in editing. I made a LOT of mistakes and sent a lot of apology emails, but don’t regret creating it. I’m happy to pass it along now as I think there are more in-tune editors than me and I want to see the magazine change and grow.

How has being the editor for Poetry is Dead helped with your own writing?

I’m not sure if it did help all that much. I’m already and was an avid reader of poetry, and that helped inform my writing. I would say that the people who I befriended and admired that we published in the magazine helped shape my writing. Poetry Is Dead helped more with my career as a poet, via networking and creating an additional space within the poetry world.

I’m curious about your collaboration with Dina Del Bucchia on Rom Com. There aren’t names attached to individual titles in the book, so I’m wondering what the process of writing it was like. Did you co-write poems or is the book a collection of both of your separate works?

It’s a mixture of both. We have separate poems, but even those were edited by both of us. And many of the poems were collaboratively written. We had a Google doc, and we started by writing call-and-response poems to each other, but then it got weird and we got experimental. So the poems expanded, and changed, and edited, and remixed, and moved around. It really did become a collaborative book that I’m super proud of. I don’t fully believe books need to be written by one person. I think we are just stuck in that mindset, or maybe writers are too controlling to collaborate. I think Dina and I will produce another book again, I hope.

A lot of your work centers on gay culture in Vancouver. Do you feel that occupying quite a specific demographic niche has helped your voice reach a wider audience?

 Honestly, no. I think people expect me to write something outside of the gay experience and I just don’t want to. For the most part, writing that centers on gay culture will more than likely stay within a gay market, and I’m fine with that. I think people expect gay books to be an “It Gets Better” campaign, and I want to write about the muck. I want to see the humanity in our shittier moments, in our fuck-ups, in our messes. Also I am very bad at sticking to one form or another, so I enjoy experimental writing. For all these reasons I think I’ll always be in that niche category. And that’s cool with me because I get anxiety when an audience is too big, which causes me to stop writing altogether. If I ever write a bestselling book, please make sure there is some sort of panic room I can go in.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: you’re walking down the street, it’s kind of a rainy day in Vancouver, and you come across a young man who’s not looking so happy at the bus stop. Something comes over you. You feel the need to stop and ask him what’s wrong, so you do. You don’t expect it but he opens up to you and tells you he is a young gay writer who is afraid to take his experiences and put them into his work. He’s not sure it will appeal to the audience he wants. What do you say to him?

I would probably say that’s not why he is sad, but then also explain that worrying about audience is for someone who already has a book deal. No magical being is going to show up at your door once you’ve written something and be like “HERE IS A BOOK DEAL!” If someone does show up like that, they will probably steal your identity and get thirty credit cards made in your name. Write what you want to write. If you decide that it isn’t what an audience wants, then fuck that audience and get a new one. Also, not all writing has to be for an audience, you can write your experience down and say, “Cool, this was for me. I feel better and now I can work on writing something else.” There are hundreds of poems I’ve deleted that were just for me and I don’t regret deleting them. In this scenario you described, for some reason I imagine I’ve had three beers and I’m yelling at him, so I don’t know if my advice is sound. I grew up in an Italian household where yelling means caring.

To be more sensitive to this imaginary young gay: writing your experience is scary because it means an audience can potentially reject some form of you, or not even like you. That’s an understandable fear. Make sure that if it is something that will hurt too deeply to be rejected for that maybe it isn’t time for it to be sent out and some growing and healing needs to happen. If you’re ready to share your experience, then prepare for some people not to like it because not everyone is going to like it. Have you seen Goodreads? You’re going to get some one-stars and it will sting, but you’ll be okay. Rejection is a part of growing as a writer, and your experiences are valid even if they don’t make it on the page.

What is, in your opinion, the single most important piece of advice you could give to the young emerging writers out there?

It would depend on the person so I think my advice is to my younger self and maybe that will be of help: Learn to love what you write, and not the idea of being a writer. Being a writer is not very exciting. Creating art is exciting. Being a successful writer means going to literary parties where there is still a cash bar and maybe a free snack or two and reminding people that, actually, they have met you several times before and no you are not that old guy from that TV show. I think enjoying what you do is more important than people enjoying what you do, but that’s probably why I haven’t written an award-winning bestseller.

Duncan Catellier is a BFA student in Creative Writing at UBC and is well on his way to completing a six-year degree. Before UBC, he completed a two-year diploma in Creative Writing as well at Langara College. His writing aspirations range from anywhere between chalking poetry on sidewalks to having several of his screenplays produced by Hollywood.

 

 

Susan McCaslin

SMcCaslinInterviewed by Michael Cole Klassen

Susan McCaslin, an established Canadian poet and Faculty Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at Douglas College, New Westminster, BC, has published fifteen volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Into the Open: Poems New and Selected (Inanna, Sept. 2017). Susan has also published a memoir, Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga (Inanna, 2014) and a volume of essays, Arousing the Spirit (Wood Lake, 2011). Her Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011) was short-listed for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (BC Poetry Book Prize) and first-place winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award. Susan currently resides in Fort Langley, BC, where she initiated the Han Shan Poetry Project as part of a successful campaign to protect an endangered rainforest along the Fraser River.

Susan and her husband are friends of my parents. I saw her books around the house as I grew up, but I didn’t read them—too busy playing videogames and reading fantasy. Recently, I’ve sunk into her lovely mysticism and nature-filled poetry and nonfiction. Eager to absorb the stories and strategies behind her writing and career, I emailed her and we arranged to meet at my parents’ house in Langley.

It’s perfect that you published Into the Open right before this interview: it’s your whole poetry career in one book!

Yes, it was hard to choose! It’s good to see enough of my work in one place that a person—a reader—or even I, can get a sense of patterns of development and recurrent images. Russell Thornton, who wrote the introduction, noticed a recurring image of the magnolia. Though I knew we’d always had a magnolia tree in our front yard, I hadn’t realized it was a pattern, and didn’t know that the magnolia is one of the oldest flowering plants on the planet. So an astute reader gave me back my poems in a new way, which is a rewarding part of putting your work out into the world.

Has talking to your readers about how they experience your work been important to you?

Oh yes. Someone ended up with a volume of my poetry—I forget which one it was—a woman from Australia. She had cancer and would read a poem a night, keeping my book by her bedside. She said it gave her hope. I had no idea the impact it might have on someone so far afield. She later sent me a volume she had written, and we corresponded for a while. Occasions like this come as surprises. I think writers write because we wish to share. When we connect with the beauty of nature, for instance, we want to share it with others. It’s that simple.

How important to you are writing groups and feedback? Has this changed over time?

When I was younger I was much more introverted than I am now. For instance, I didn’t gravitate toward groups or events going on in Vancouver—like the Literary Storefront series that my friend Mona Fertig initiated. And I was never enrolled in a Creative Writing program, since when I began writing in the 60’s and 70’s such programs were relatively new. Then in the 90’s, when invited to teach creative writing at Douglas College, I began to understand the value of receiving feedback from peers. So, I began to participate in the occasional workshop. My husband Mark is one of my best editors. He’s an environmental activist, a nature lover, and has written some poetry as well. He’s excellent at concision, and I would say that now much of my revision process moves in the direction of compression.

Reading your poems, I noticed concision. Personally, I can find so much time and thought into so few words frustrating. Do you ever get frustrated working with concision?

To me, it’s become a pleasure rather than a pain to pare some of my poems down. Sometimes, you can feel you’re losing what you see as your babies or whatever. But a poem can be more powerful when it allows silences in which the words can breathe. You see something—you’re chiseling it—something is emerging that you didn’t previously sense. I feel like, overall, I’ve produced a lot of words. When you add them up, there are perhaps too many, but there they are.

I’m 70 now and I don’t write every day. I don’t try to force the process. There will be months when I’m not writing and then suddenly something will catch my attention. It will take me in deeper till I somehow find myself within a more profound gestalt. In that flow, I’m about the happiest person one could be. Being taken into something larger and more whole is one of the highest states I know. Being part of a larger field, ecology, or web of interconnections feels like something is moving through you. The publicity side, though—what I’m doing right now—is my least favourite piece. Once I’m reading and sharing, I’m fine. But figuring out how to get places and advertising events on Facebook is something I do because I want to stand by my books and interact with readers.

I have a question regarding the publicity stuff—sort of. You wrote in Into the Mystic about how your niche can be isolating. You write many pieces around Christian themes, but in the arts Christianity can be a red flag. At the same time, I can assume that most churchgoers wouldn’t be into your mystic, holistic Christianity. On top of that, poetry is already super niche. So that’s like triple niche.

Exactly.

How has that affected marketing and finding a publisher? Also, how have you coped with the isolation?

I would say that, in some ways, the isolation has been good for me. I had to delve deeply into what really mattered and go with my deepest intuitions. There was a phase where I was afraid people would lump me together with fundamentalist Christians or forms of institutional Christianity that weren’t me. And I did try to distance myself from what to me seem aberrations or distortions of the deepest levels of Christian tradition. When putting my Selected Poems together, I decided not to avoid using the “Christ word” or “Jesus word.” I know that the holistic side of a spiritual tradition, as you called it, is much more inclusive than the rigid forms to which thinking people rightly react negatively. I didn’t want to minimize the uniqueness of the Christian tradition, but also I felt a need to divorce myself from anything that would say “Oh, you have to believe this or that to be saved.”

When I was choosing the poems for this volume, I was tempted to omit some more Christian poems, especially if they use language that could be interpreted as patriarchal or doctrinaire. In one originally titled “Hymn to the Father,” I explored how divinity can be expressed metaphorically as masculine, feminine, and beyond gender categories. In the dream experience that was the basis for that particular poem, the figure sitting on a humble chair was androgynous. So I renamed the poem, “Hymn to the Holy One.” If people read carefully, they’ll see I’m moving toward what the title of my Selected Poems suggests—”into the open.” I feel life has moved me into a more open, mysterious, and experiential form of spirituality. But, you know, I can understand why some readers bristle at religiosity. I have friends who had very bad experiences of Christianity growing up, and rightly rejected it. Probably, if I’d been through what they had, I would have rejected it too.

Do you think you would have ended up doing a Ph.D. and teaching if you didn’t need work? Or did you start teaching mostly out of a love for teaching?

Absolutely. I was drawn to becoming an educator out of an admiration for some of my teachers in elementary school, higher education, and so on. I remember doing a report in grade 8 where the instructions were: “Choose a career that you want to research.” I chose being a teacher. When I was a kid, my biological family called me “Suzy head in the clouds” because I always had a book in hand. So, I guess I was a bookish type from an early age. And never very adept at practical things. Yet, even if I could have made more money at another profession, I would’ve said no. I would have been a fish out of water. The first time I lectured at a university a student approached me after class and said, “was this your first lecture?” I had my notes almost written out word for word. But, as I moved into it, I gained more confidence. Truly, if I had it to do all over again, I’d become a teacher.

So, for you, it wasn’t so much a difficult balance between working and writing—two different things—like how many writers experience it?

Well, in some ways balancing the two things was hard because of the heavy marking load. I started to develop back and neck problems from the marking. It was the marking load and the administrative duties that compelled me to retire at 60. I received a lesser pension, but the decade between turning 60 and now 70 has been the most rich and prolific time in my life as a writer. If I’d continued teaching, I would have had to compress all that energy for my poetry into the summers. That’s what I always did. When you’re a mother—there are a lot of things going on. I had my daughter when I was nearly 40 and I was teaching full time. She was born in April and I returned to teach in September. I had a semi-nervous breakdown when she was about 2, finding myself shaking as I was driving to work. So I managed to keep working, but chose to step down to half time and then back to three-quarter time—in order to restore some kind of work/life balance.

Earlier, we were talking about the lovely flow writing can get you into. In your really busy years, did you feel like sometimes the flow came to you, but you didn’t have time for it?

Yes, I did sometimes. During those periods I would keep notes (journals) and think about projects I might do in the summer. But I also found that—now that I look back on it—I began to write more out of my daily life, rather than just about ancient myths or figures like William Blake. I do have this whole lineage of literary ancestors, and still find myself engaging in dialogues or conversations with dead poets, saints, visual artists, and mystics. My busyness forced me to turn to everyday life more, which I think enriched my work.

You just mentioned this lineage of people from history that you draw from. Like, Demeter Goes Skydiving is about Demeter living now, experiencing modern life. What draws you to mine the present through the eyes of the past?

It started with my reading. I was into fairy tales, myths from an early age. The figures and worlds created though books were real places and presences. Alice in Wonderland was one of my main source books as a child. I remember I’d go to a park with my dad, and he would say “Well, this is wonderland right here”. And I’d say: “No, how do I get to Wonderland? Where’s Wonderland?” It drove him crazy. He was right in a way—this world is wonderland if you see it through the eyes of childlike perception. But I was always looking for alternative realities.

As I matured and read writers like William Blake or the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila, they became for me what George Steiner calls “real presences.” I felt like I was communing with their souls or their spirits, to put it bluntly. I had dreams about William Blake and even wrote a poem where I encounter Blake in the afterlife saying “Well, my old stuff was good in its way, but look what I’m doing now!” Such presences come upon me. I enter their work and get swept away. So, I’m glad when that happens. I think anyone can participate actively with anything they truly love. Most writers agree reading widely and well is good for your writing. You’re not going to become so influenced by others that it that it takes away from your voice. Some people might find my subject matter somewhat literary. I mean, they might wonder “who’s Demeter” and feel put off by not being acquainted with the myth. So I try to provide enough context that the poems make sense viscerally, whether or not one knows the myth intimately. Working with ancient materials is part of who I am: as natural as eating peas and carrots.

You write in Into the Mystic about your mother’s schizophrenia in relation to your experiences with Olga—your mystic-teacher. Having these experiences growing up with your mother—how do you think that changed your growth toward being into visions and mysticism?

I would say there’s a double side. One is that my mother’s experiences were traumatic for her and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through them. Yet, she also had a visionary side. As a teenager I was troubled by this duality. Sometimes she would think devils were telling her she couldn’t drink out of the black straw, but she could use the white straw. This form of religious symbolism, apocalyptic and fundamentalist, is something I find limiting and scary. My mother endured horrific experiences when she was in a mental institution at a university hospital and observed by doctors in a padded cell. Yet at the time she also had a visionary experience where she was taken up to heaven. She told me later that Jesus came to her and said “Phyllis, you can come now to heaven and your parents and relatives are here, but if you want to go back to your family—your earth family—it’s your choice.” She said, right out of her heart: “I want to go back and be with my family.” Within three days, she was dramatically improved. Within about two weeks, she was home. Things like that are quite remarkable and have a certain authenticity.

Yet, after returning home, my mother continued to hallucinate: sometimes seeing serpents whirling in the air, being terrified by her “voices.” These things made her anxious and depressed. Olga, however, embodied for me both the visionary and the rational mind. She could mediate between this world and her other worlds, distinguishing without confusing them. She didn’t lose her equanimity or do inappropriate things, and she wasn’t afraid. My mother was full of fear. So Olga, I believe, became a sort of spiritual mother for me in many  ways—having the visionary side of my mother, but with her rationality intact.

Your work makes it obvious that nature is important to you. In his great introduction to Into the Open, Russell Thornton mentions the poetry protest you started in Fort Langley. Was that the first time you initiated that kind of action?

Yes, I would say so. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I protested against the Vietnam war, and I’ve been concerned with peacemaking and justice since I came of age. Later, it was my husband Mark who opened me to environmental activism, something to which he has devoted his life. Back in the early nineties, he got involved in a campaign to save Pinecone Burke Provincial Park. And that was successful. I was always the literary person—the teacher—and he was the activist in the family. So, when I retired, our mutual desire to help save a forest in Glen Valley, near our Langley home, compelled us to join forces. I learned from Mark that there are times when the beauty of a natural area you love compels you to make every effort you can to see it protected.

I was involved in organizing grassroots arts events to bring attention to the plight of the forest, and a poem I wrote at the time contained the line, “I fell in love with a forest and became and activist.” And to me that was it—the connection with beauty linked to the feeling you don’t have any choice but to act. It’s like, you see someone being nearly hit by a car and you’re going to try and save them. So I thought, well, let’s have an art in the park day, and then Mark and the group WOLF—Watchers of Langley Forests—jumped in and helped. Next, I came up with the idea of the Han Shan poetry initiative, whereby a group of us strung up poems solicited from all over Canada and beyond in the forest and invited the community to stroll through. I named the project after a Buddhist monk from the 8th or 9th century AD who was said to have scrawled poems on rocks and trees. Gary Snyder—an ecological poet from the States—named one of his sequences the “Cold Mountain” poems because Cold Mountain in China is where Han Shan was said to have lived. So, I saw the Chinese monk as a Pacific Rim figure because of Snyder. I envisioned the old poet leaping to 21st century BC to help save a west coast forest.

Mark and I were totally conjoined as activists. We had an incredible energy I’d never experienced. We were lucky that the Township came around and that a woman who read the press on the issue donated to make the area an eco-reserve. I think the politicians were embarrassed by all the publicity. And it didn’t hurt that Robert Bateman got onboard. Looking back—I think it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done because saving a small piece of land may serve as a legacy to future generations. Growing up, I was often told that poetry was not practical. The experience allowed me to prove to myself that poetry can be practical, that poetry matters and has power.

Do you think it’s important for art to be connected to activism?


I think when an artist feels called to action from the heart, she should act. But I don’t think artists should feel compelled to be explicitly political every minute. Especially if their muse is taking them elsewhere. If I got to the point where I felt every poem had to make an overt political point, I would feel trapped or narrowed. It just depends on what is presented to you and what you need to write about. The political, after all, isn’t disassociated from everything else. And the personal is political—as the feminists have said. So I think poetry in the largest sense is by definition political, a contribution to what the Greeks called the polis, or public domain. However, it’s also important to avoid the merely didactic or polemical in art.  For me, poems need to sing, not merely teach, and certainly not preach.

Any advice for all us angry writers and artists during a politically erratic time?

Well, anger can be compelling, and be an authentic part of your poetic voice, but it’s only one tonal range. I don’t want to lose the sense of beauty and celebration. I think our innate attraction to beauty and interconnection is what makes us want to be a better species. The current devastation of the natural world, the ecosystems to which we belong and on which we depend, are maybe calling us first to lamentation. Before we can begin to repair and restore the world, I think we need to lament what is lost and being lost, such as extinct and endangered species. Grieving doesn’t preclude action, but sometimes it has to precede it. We need to act and celebrate, but I think we need to grieve too.

Michael Cole Klassen is a writer/musician/performer who lives near UBC and is at the moment finishing his BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in philosophy, focusing mostly on fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and lyricwriting. He also attends the Jennings Institute for Performing Artists and helps students with writing at UBC’s Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication.

 

Catherine Vale

 

Catherine ValeInterviewed by Alyssa Brazeau

Originally from Nova Scotia, Catherine Vale is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling urban fantasy and paranormal romance novelist. Catherine’s novels are self-published on Amazon.com. She began this in 2011 when Amazon unveiled their Kindle Publishing Platform, and has received success ever since.

Her first novel Curve Crazy debuted in 2011 under her pen Adriana Hunter. In 2014, she made the New York Times Book Review E-Book Bestsellers list with Fated Mates, a box set of paranormal and shifter romance novels by various writers. Then in 2017, the urban fantasy and paranormal romance box set Haunted By Magic made the USA Today Best-Selling list.

I wanted to interview Catherine because I was fascinated by her ability to thrive in the unpredictable economy of e-books.

Catherine graciously took time away from her busy work and family life in Ontario, to email with me.

What is your background, work and education wise?

I started out writing poetry, filling countless binders with edgy, emotionally-charged poems that were based on whatever was going on in my life at the time.

Later, I turned to songwriting and finally, fiction writing in my late teens. I had my first poem published in a book distributed by Scholastic Canada in the late 80’s titled Windows of the World. After that, I was hooked.

My first job was working at a bookstore which nurtured my love for literature. Though my paychecks went right back to the store in the form of book purchases!

When I bought my first computer in 1997, I carved out a career in writing copy for budding entrepreneurs and new businesses.

 Do you have an idol that influences your work?

As a teen, I read every mystery novel under the sun and everything ever released by Judy Blume. I was also a huge fan of V.C Andrews and have a full collection of every single book she has ever written. Today, I read a lot of books by Philippa Gregory as I’m drawn to the Tudor era. I hope to one day write a historical fiction novel when the time is right.

What is your daily writing routine?

A routine? What’s that? (wink). I write when I feel inspired to write, and thankfully I’ve managed to stay consistent over the years. I don’t force the process though. There are times where I’m able to write 10,000 words a day for 3-4 days straight, and then I take a week off to recharge.

I do find “sprinting” works best. This is where I literally shut everything else down and focus on writing for just one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon and one hour at night. When that timer goes off, I stop, even if I’m in the middle of a scene.

Breaking up sessions keeps my mind fresh and that way, I don’t suffer burn out. And if I stop in the middle of a scene, even better, because it’ll stay at the forefront of my mind all day until my next sprint and then my fingers fly! It seems to have worked well for me for the last few years because I’ve never missed a deadline!

Is Vale your only pen name?

No, Vale is one of many. I came up with Catherine Vale based on my name, Catherine Valerie. I started writing as Adriana Hunter, and have recently launched a pen name, Kate Nova, in reverence to my home province, Nova Scotia.

Do you use different pen names for different genres?

Yes, I do. I was told early on not to confuse readers and so I segment my books based on genre. Recently I’ve decided to test the waters and publish books from different genres under my main pen, Catherine Vale. I’m hoping it works out because it’s a lot easier to manage just one pen name. We’ll see how it goes!

Which genre is your favorite to work in?

Urban fantasy is currently my favorite genre to write in. I wrote a lot of books in paranormal romance before I ventured into urban fantasy, but there’s nothing more fun than writing about magic and mayhem!

Do you think there’s a particular genre that’s more lucrative?

The popularity of genres changes with the wind. I started out writing erotic romance for BBW readers, and then ventured into paranormal romance when vampires and werewolves were suddenly popular. If you write to market, you need to stay on top of the changes and demands, which isn’t always easy to do. Recently, military romance and cozy mysteries have become popular again, but in a few months it could be something entirely new.

What are some rookie mistakes that new authors should look out for?

Not investing in themselves. If you want to maximize exposure and build an audience, you need to invest in your craft and treat it like a business. Hire professional book designers, editors and set up a beta team of readers as well as an ARC (Advanced Review Copy) group. Don’t try to do it all yourself just because you’re trying to save money. If you can’t afford to properly package and launch your book, wait until you’re able to save enough money to give it the attention it deserves.

What motivates you to keep writing despite an unstable industry?

I write for the pure love of writing. It has never been about sales or distribution for me, though I’ve been very fortunate to have had success with both. I do work in other writing fields as well, including as a copywriter for a very successful marketing company. I also create content for several companies in nonfiction markets, and am currently working on content for www.WritersHustle.com, a website I plan to launch in 2018 that will provide tips and resources for budding writers who want to break into the fiction market.

What advice would you give others that are struggling?

My best advice is that if you are writing for the pure joy of it, write what you are most passionate about. If you are writing with the hope of earning a full-time income, then write to market.

If you are lacking motivation, join an online writers group and network with other new writers. Join a box set. Not only will that allow you to form valuable relationships with other authors, but it’ll provide you with a front row seat into the entire marketing and book launch process. And you never know, you might even hit a bestsellers list!

Alyssa Brazeau is in her final year of the BFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. She is currently juggling projects, including a children’s paranormal/sci-fi novel, and a television crime drama.

 

Michael Hingston

Michael8057Interviewed by Alex Migdal

Michael Hingston’s byline is well known in Edmonton. He served as the Edmonton Journal’s books columnist from 2012 to 2016 and regularly writes about the city’s oddities, from West Edmonton Mall to the failing Oilers to why so many of its local landmarks are named after Winston Churchill. His stories have also appeared in The Washington Post, Wired and The Guardian. Hingston published his first novel, The Dilettantes, in 2013. His newest project — a book about Calvin and Hobbes called Let’s Go Exploring — is slated for release in May 2018. I caught up with Hingston by phone as he drove to Calgary to promote another one of his projects, a short story collection titled The Ghost Box.

 

When did you commit to being a full-time writer?

 

I’ve always told people that you should keep a day job for as long as possible if you’re trying to be a writer. Not having to count on that work for money gives you a little bit more freedom. You’re not hustling quite as constantly and taking on every single thing that comes by for fear of missing out.

 

For eight years, I had a full-time job and freelance on the side. I had kids and a family life at home. My partner had been home with the kids all that time and I felt it was my turn to be at home with them. My son was in kindergarten for two hours a day. I felt confident enough at that point that I could easily fill those two hours with freelance writing. Which is to say that after eight years of freelancing, I was confident I could spend a quarter of a day with freelancing work. That maybe speaks to the constant insecurity of freelance work.

 

Were you able to fill two hours a day?

 

It was way too conservative of a guess. I instantly had too much work to do. I got a contract a month after I quit. I also got a pretty big contract doing a freelance project for the City of Edmonton. It was not a luxurious home life. I ended up doing weekends and evenings more than I wanted to. It was for the best, I think. I like being more conservative than more optimistic because there’s nothing worse than having the time and not having anything to do with it.

 

What’s your writing process like? It sounds like you work in chunks.

 

Chunks, for sure. That was the other fear of quitting to become a full-time writer. I can’t write for eight hours a day. I have to be switching gears between things. Even in university, I was only able to write a page of an essay per day. I would have to then work backwards. If I need to get this done in a week, and it’s a seven-page essay, I would give myself enough time that way. That formula still holds out.

 

The nice thing about the journalism that I do is you always have a chance to do other things when you’re not writing. There’s always researching, pitching, bookkeeping, invoicing, updating your spreadsheets. Even in a full workday, that still gives you a couple hours to write. And for me, that’s all I need. I find I do have to write often. But it has to be small, steady doses.

 

Do you ever have days where you don’t get any writing done at all?

 

No, I don’t. By the time I sit down, it’s been kind of marinating. I have a clue of where to start. I don’t have a problem writing. I don’t have a problem churning out two bad pages in a day. That’s all progress, too. Getting it out of your head and onto the page is sometimes the hardest part. I try not to chastise myself too badly for that.

 

I believe in very strongly in filing early and starting early. I don’t handle pressure well at all. If I had to do 500 words by 4 p.m., that’s a nightmare for me. Whereas if I started two days earlier at 9 a.m., I might get those 500 words done by 11 a.m. That might come from the fact that I’ve never really worked in a newsroom and never had to build that skill.

 

I know you employed the chunk method when writing your first book. Tell me about that.

 

I wrote the book on my lunch breaks in one of my day jobs with the government of Alberta. I did basic math. I know my book should be 300 pages long and I wanted a first draft done in 18 months. I just divided the days. I realized to get there, I would have to write 120 words a day, every day. That’s two paragraphs, which is nothing at all. I wrote up these homemade calendars and I would note how many words I had written each day. Seeing a couple zeroes on there would give me a kick in the pants. I don’t think there were ever three zeroes in a row. It was always satisfying to look back and see that very glacial progress. It did add up. Each week I would have 1,000 words by the end of it, which goes a long way.

 

The block I did have with writing fiction was opening the documents. That was daunting. Getting back into the world is the scary part. If I told myself, you have to write 120 words today, that would convince me that it wasn’t going to kill me if I opened the document. I could get through it. Once it was open, then it’s super easy. You see a sentence you don’t like and you change it. But I look back the novel and think, man, that was hard. I might have to trick myself in more sophisticated ways.

 

The Dilettantes was published in 2013. When you read it now, what do you think?

 

I don’t read it now. That’s the trick. I went to a Sloan concert a couple nights ago. I was just thinking, man, the bands have to just play the same hits every night. That 45-year-old man has to play a song he wrote when he was 21. I don’t know how you stay OK with that. It was crystallized at a certain time. Fans love it. That is just so scary to me. Writers can just disown books and not read from them.

 

I haven’t read from The Dilettantes in awhile. There are a couple of sections I enjoy still. But even then, I still edit stuff. And I think that’s actually instructive with how I would go ahead writing fiction in the future. Not because the books are dated, but just the language itself, the way that the sentences work. You figure out what works pretty quickly in front of a crowd.

 

You’ve just finished a book about Calvin and Hobbes. What’s the premise of the book?

 

It’s part of a series that ECW Press in Toronto does called “Pop Classics.” It’s a series of books about pieces of pop culture that are culturally significant. One that’s coming out after mine is about The Bachelor. It’s a funny topic about something that people like on a simple level and you’re going to tell them why it’s more significant than that.

 

When I quit my day job, I had been figuring out what my next book was going to be. I knew it was going to be non-fiction of some kind. I tried selling a couple of full-length non-fiction books and they didn’t sell. I thought an entry into a series would be an easier way. And these books are shorter. They’re just 120 pages. Anyone can submit a proposal.

 

The thing with Calvin and Hobbes is that fans already know it’s a significant piece of art. The fun was lying out why that is. The strip hasn’t appeared for 20 years. The creator is this semi recluse. The book is about why the strip matters, but specifically this idea of imagination. The main character, Calvin, has his best friend named Hobbes who turns to life when he looks at him, but everyone else just sees this stuffed animal. So I talk about how imagination functions in the strip — and what it means for Calvin in his childhood.

 

How has the workflow for this book differed from your first book? Is there more pressure this time?

 

I had three months to write this one. I had my plan to become a general freelance writer and immediately I got this book contract. I was writing the book and not doing much else. It was a lot more condensed, a lot more pressure. But I really enjoyed it. Just because it was a longer non-fiction project, which I hadn’t really done at that point. It’s 30,000 words. I really like the structure of non-fiction. A 1,500-word piece has its own rhythm and structures that are different from a 30,000-word piece. Just discovering what a detour in a book chapter looks like was super fun.

 

You’ve written on a really eclectic range of topics. Your two most recent book proposals, for instance, were about the history of teeth and why the Oilers suck. What draws you to a subject and makes you want to write about it?

 

I really love the notion of taking interests a bit to the extreme. I’m always interested in how people have the confidence to do that in an age where it’s easy to be ridiculed online for having an obscure interest.

The Oilers has this fan base that follows a god awful hockey team. How does it go wrong – how do you mess up that badly? The teeth book is also full of those characters. A lot of people are scared of the dentist and their teeth. But the people that like teeth are so interesting. There’s a dentist in Red Deer, Alberta who owns one of John Lennon’s molars. And he paid $30,000 for it. I talked to him and he said, ‘I was thinking of making a clone of John Lennon.’ That’s a crazy thing to say. But he’s just in this world where that makes sense to him.

 

In recent months, you’ve posted online your two failed book proposals. How do you grapple with failure? Does it help you to share it with other people?  

 

I dealt with failure a lot worse when I was starting out. At this point, I think I’ve had enough successes that one failure doesn’t make me want to quit writing. Writing agony makes me want to quit, but failures are never the problem.

 

Selling a novel is just an exercise in hilarious failure. I think I had 50 agents and 20 publishers turn it down. You become numb to it at a certain point. I also realized pretty early that there’s never a personal element to it. In fact, that’s the challenge of it — trying to find the right editor at the right place at the right time with the right story.

 

I like having multiple ideas on the go at once, so that’s there’s various fallbacks instead of poring over the rejection. I’ve tried a lot of different things and haven’t gotten anywhere with them. I’ve been trying to write a picture book for kids for three years and I’ve got four manuscripts I’ve been sending out. That’s just relentless failure.

 

I think people don’t talk about those failures. Or we do, but in romantic terms. I like the idea of being honest about the life of a writer. I’m not an expert on it by any means. The teeth book proposal is so long and I’ve spent so long working on it. I believe in that proposal certainly more than magazine pieces I’ve written over the years. So I hope it’s useful to other writers.

 

You’re a journalist and a writer. Do you attach yourself to one role more than the other?

 

I usually say I’m a journalist and an author. But more and more, the publishing side is catching up to me too, so I’ve got to figure out how to describe myself. My Gmail signature has three pieces to it and I don’t think that’s helpful. I was trying to order business cards a few months ago and I just gave up. (laughs)

 

I think that’s reflective of how the industry has evolved. You have to wear so many hats.

 

That’s true, hey? I’m teaching this class with Jana Pruden from The Globe and Mail right now. We’re working with a group of students on non-fiction pieces. It’s funny how we just expect writers we follow on the Internet to be able to do everything now. I assume that they have personal essays out in the world and can turn around a 2,000-word reported piece on their hometown. But those are totally different skill sets.

 

You’ve worked for years now in Edmonton. How has it figured into your writing and your network?

 

It’s been huge. If I hadn’t moved to Edmonton when I did, I don’t think my career would have been where it is right now. When I moved from Vancouver, I had a couple clips. I had written a story for The Tyee and a couple of book reviews for the Georgia Straight. But I didn’t have steady work at either of those places. Then I came to Edmonton and, at the time, it had two alt-weeklies. More than that, they were looking for writers. The writing community was really welcoming and I found it way faster than I did in Vancouver.

 

We don’t take for granted the writing community in Edmonton because there’s this fear that anything of cultural value is going to disappear unless you fight for it. There’s a sense of urgency that we want to keep the people and opportunities here.

 

As I’ve tried to become more of a national writer, I just love pitching myself as being the Alberta correspondent. The stories in Alberta are amazing. If you’re writing for a national publication, it’s a huge advantage not to be from Toronto. They want to be seen as representing all of Canada, so you’re doing them a favour. I use that geographic diversity quote to my advantage whenever possible.

 

Any final words?

 

Persistence is the only thing I would remind people of. The difference between someone who’s a successful writer versus someone who quit and went into communications ten years earlier is not that they were worst writers. It’s just sticking with it. Staying in the game and keeping your muscles flexed is your best competitive advantage. It’s not talent – it’s more just sweat.

 

Alex Migdal grew up in Edmonton and is now a Vancouver-based journalist. He’s in his final year at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, where he’s pursuing a SSHRC-funded research project on the decline of local news coverage. He is also a fellow in the school’s International Reporting Program. His stories have appeared in CBC, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, Postmedia and VICE.

 

 

Eden Robinson

Eden RobinsonEden Robinson

Interviewed by Stephanie Chou

Eden Robinson is an internationally acclaimed author from Kitimat Village, BC. She is a member of the Haisla and Heilstuk First Nations. Her debut book, Traplines, a collection of four short stories, was a New York Times Notable Book and won Britain’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. Her first novel, Monkey Beach was nominated for the Giller Prize, the 2000 Governor General’s Award for Fiction and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. The novel was also selected as a Globe and Mail Editor’s Choice. It was the first English-language book to be published by a Haisla writer. Her most recent novel is Blood Sports, and her extended essay Sasquatch at Home, first delivered as a talk at the 4th annual Henry Kreisel Lecture, explores modern storytelling through a blend of personal anecdotes and the intricacies of cultural protocol.

Eden Robinson has the most contagious laugh on this side of the globe. She shares a birthday with Edgar Allan Poe and Dolly Parton and is certain this affects her writing in some way. Combine these sensibilities with her early influences of Stephen King and David Cronenberg, and it’s natural that Eden’s writing is at once humorous and dark. As a long-time admirer of Eden’s work it was my absolute pleasure to interview her via email.

Eden received her MFA from UBC’s Creative Writing Program and is the program’s Virtual Writer-in-Residence for the Fall 2014 term.

What moves you to write? You’ve said that your characters have “sprung from your muse.” Can you explain that compulsion? 

People are intricate puzzles, and I find myself wondering how their minds work, and then try to put myself in their boots and then see where the story goes. For instance, I was listening to NPR and the Unibomber’s brother was being interviewed. He spoke very movingly of the moment when he realized his brother might be a murderer and the emotions he went through and what he knew it would do to their family, to his brother, to himself. I was haunted by him, and that’s where my muse steps in, that’s when he whispers in my ear. The resulting story was “Dogs in Winter,” whose title comes from the opening scenes of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. How the two things became joined in my mind is one of those quirks that I find hard to explain. [Read more…]

Miriam Toews

Miriam ToewsInterviewed by Sarah Ens

Miriam Toews is the author of five bestselling and critically-acclaimed novels and one work of non-fiction. Her novel A Complicated Kindness was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Kindness was also the winner of the 2006 Canada Reads, making Miriam the first female writer to win the competition. Her fourth novel, The Flying Troutmans, was the winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Miriam has received the Writers Trust Marian Engel/Timothy Findley Award for her body of work, was admitted to the Order of Manitoba, and nominated for Best Actress at the Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences’ Ariel Awards for her performance in Carlos Reygadas’ film Silent Light.

A long-time admirer of her work, I was thrilled to chat with Miriam via email about her journey as an author and the haunting yet hilarious characters she brings to life, from Summer of My Amazing Luck’s single mom living on welfare in Winnipeg to Irma Voth’s young Mexican Mennonite woman breaking free from her abusive past. Her highly-anticipated new novel is All My Puny Sorrows.

What was your experience publishing Summer Of My Amazing Luck? What were some of the obstacles you faced as a new novelist and how did you overcome them?

Getting my first book published was incredible. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I was absolutely thrilled. Turnstone Press, in Winnipeg, took a chance on me and I’m forever grateful to them. I’m not sure there were any special obstacles I faced other than the on-going pressure to make a living and still find time to write.

[Read more…]

Matt Rader

RaderInterviewed by Christopher Evans

Matt Rader has authored three books of poems:  Miraculous Hours, Living Things, and, most recently, A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in The Walrus, All Hollow, The Fiddlehead, Geist, and many other publications spanning the globe; his work has been nominated for the Journey prize, a National Magazine Award, and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, among others. Rader has studied writing at the University of Victoria, the University of Oregon, and the Banff Centre Writing Studio, and has taught at the University of Oregon, Okanagan College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and North Island College on Vancouver Island. His first book of short stories, What I Want to Say Goes Like This, will be published by Nightwood Editions in Fall, 2014.

A wise friend turned me on to Rader’s work; A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno became the first book of poetry I ever purchased and revealed to me a secret history of the West Coast, half-concealed under a tangle of weeds. I caught up with Rader via email at his home in Cumberland, BC.

What does an ideal working day look like for Matt Rader?

Though this never happens, my ideal workday begins after a long sleep. It involves a cup of coffee in the morning, swimming, sunshine, fresh fruits and vegetables, various other things that we don’t talk about in interviews like this, and so on. My ideal workday involves almost no work.

[Read more…]