I don’t know who started the Writers’ Blog Tour, but I am delighted to hop on. Each writer goes on “tour” for a week, posting their answers to four questions–all at once, or one at a time. At the end of their posts, the touring writers offer links to the postings of those who have gone before in this marvellous literary travelogue. It reminds me of those chain letters that promised you a thousand recipes by the end of the week, provided you send the letter to three friends, and they send it to three friends,…
I was invited to join the tour by Marilyn Bowering, a writer I have long admired for the beauty of her language and her insightful explorations of history and myth. In turn, I am inviting Sandra Gulland and Wayne Grady to come on board. Sandra is Canada’s queen of historical fiction. She just launched her new novel, The Shadow Queen. Wayne spent a career writing nonfiction and just published his debut novel, which was a Giller finalist and won the Amazon First Novel Award. Next week each of them will invite two writers to the tour, who will in turn each invite two writers in an ever expanding literary conversation that everyone is invited to read. Facebook and Tweet your friends, readers and writers alike.
You won’t get any recipes. What you will get is a glimpse into why writers do what they do and how they do it. Though the questions seem simple, I have found them oddly provocative. I am enjoying the ride, and I hope you enjoy this whistlestop on the tour.Collapse all | Expand all
I can’t seem to get past the question: it circles and spins again. I think maybe I have nothing to say, then I realize: I’m avoiding the answer.
I would like to be driven by grand themes: human resilience in the face of poverty, the crush of society on an individual, the place of women (see: crush and resilience, above). This is why I stopped writing as a young woman. I had been making up stories since I was seven, writing down snatches of dialogue, shreds of narrative. Inventions and observations. Then, in university, when I was finally seated in those classrooms I had fantasized about, about to study the books I had been reading for years, gobbling them up, now the professors at the front of the room were talking not about Jude and Anna and Morag. They were talking about Marriage & Education in Thomas Hardy; Social Change in 19th century Russia; the Search for Identity and the Power of Myth in The Diviners. The stories hardly mattered.
I can’t be a writer, I thought. I have no declarations to make.
Twenty years it took, to regain the faith of my youth. To nurture not-knowing.
Writing, for me, has little intention to it. I don’t decide; I am compelled. I’ve spent most of my writing life learning how to be open to the stories around me, to follow the faint resonances I feel. Perhaps that is why place matters so much in what I write.
I look out my study window onto a gentle rise of land, a farmer’s field fringed with wide old trees, vestiges of an original forest. An intersection of cultivated and wild. For fifteen years, through four books, I’ve been fingering that fringe. A novel, a book of essays, an anthology, a collection of flash fiction and prose poems: through them all I’ve wondered what it means to put down roots, to watch the shadow of the past move over the landscape of the present.
Alyson and Margaret, The Frisian and The Rosarian, Vivien and Adam: I wouldn’t have got to know them, conjured them, in any place but this.
I’m thinking of them now, because I am about to leave The Leaf, our two-hunded-year old stone house on the edge of the woods in eastern Ontario. We have already bought a small brick condo on the edge of the water in the city. This isn’t just a matter of moving house. It is a seismic shift. What I write about will change.
This morning, looking out my window, it occurs to me I may be moving because the writing needs me to. Recently, the fringe of trees alongside the field has begun to seem just that: a windbreak, a snow block, a slant of shade where the farmer sits to drink his cider halfway through spring seeding. Green on green no longer stirs me the way a tendril of mandavilla vine against hard brick does. I lean towards this sharper intersection, and wonder where it will take me, what stories are waiting there for me to tell.
My novel, What’s Left Behind, is almost ready to send to my agent. When I began it in 2004, I thought, Okay, I know what I’m doing, this one will be faster. Three years. Four, tops. I thought it was done in 2008. I thought it was done in 2010. I think it’s definitely done now.
I am a slow writer. Perhaps not slow in crafting words and sentences but slow in worming my way to the heart of the story, fashioning a structure that is not only sturdy but lovely, the edges sanded smooth. The kind of structure you want to run your fingers over. I look back on those “finished” drafts of earlier years and wince at their clumsiness. I may look back on this one, too, but for the moment, it seems to me to catch the glancing light and deep shadows just right.
You may never find this novel under this title. Over the years, the 22 drafts have borne a variety of names: The Darkling Beetle, Take a Look at my Face, The Last Death. Tom McCarthy took the working title that I used in the first years: C. My punishment for being so slow.
As soon as this final tweak of the novel is done, I’ll go back to Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, a memoir of the making of The Paradise Project, a collection of flash fiction published as a hand-typeset book, hand-printed on a 19th century letterpress. Closely involved with the production, I found my ideas about the concept of “book” profoundly shaken, especially since I was also, at the time, making the collection into an ebook. Neither represented the kind of books I grew up loving.
The title of the new book comes from a conversation with Hugh Barclay, the book artist who produced the print version of The Paradise Project. Hugh sees himself as a kind of latter-day Gutenberg, much as K.D. Lang sees herself as the return of Patsy Kline. Throughout the making of the paper Paradise Project, Hugh and I exchanged an email correspondence about Gutenberg and the printing-press technology we’ve relied on for 600 years–an irony that was lost on neither of us.
This email correspondence forms a running thread through the book, which is part memoir and in part, a philosophical and historical exploration of the meaning of “book.” Ultimately, this is a book about collaboration and change, about the significance of story and all the ways it can manifest itself, about leaping into the future and hanging onto the past, and about the persistence of the “printed” word, whatever that might mean.
I rarely work on just one thing at a time. During the ten years of What’s Left behind, I published a travel memoir Breakfast at the Exit Café, a collection of personal essays, A New Leaf; an historical anthology, Gardens, that gathers together fiction and essays from writer/gardeners; and The Paradise Project.
Similarly, as I finish What’s Left Behind and forge ahead with Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, I’m also reading around in a new novel that takes place in Brazil, a country that grips my heart as only a childhood home can. Now that I know what I’m doing, it should only take three years. Four, at most.
Genre: Kind; sort; style
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is uncharacteristically terse on the matter. I’m of the same mind: it’s not worth a lot of real estate.
The whole notion of genre runs counter to creation. It attempts to pigeon-hole the creative impulse, which by its nature operates without bounds, or at least, within bounds of its own choosing, not within categories imposed from outside–from publishers, bookstores, reviewers, and the like.
Genre comes into play at the moment of publication, not at the moment of creation. I write in the form that the idea requires. Let the publisher worry about where to put it in their catalogue and in the bookstore.
The Lion in the Room Next Door, for instance, was published in hard cover as nonfiction short stories. It was published in paperback as short fiction. In the UK it was autobiographical fiction; in the US, a novel.
Some critics have said the pieces in The Paradise Project are prose poems. Others call them flash fiction. Some say The Convict Lover is a nonfiction novel.
Who cares? Not me. Not my readers. I write what moves me; I write it in the way that seems most appropriate. Sometimes, as with The Convict Lover and The Paradise Project, I find myself fashioning a form that seems original and new, though when I look, I inevitably find others doing something similar.
In the end, we are each of us following our own path across the literary landscape. If there are fences corralling us along, I hope we have the good sense to jump them.
My writing almost always starts with an image, though it’s an image I sense more than see, like squinting through a dense fog. I’m curious about its shape and sound, what’s making it the way it is. Sometimes I sense the time and place, sometimes a person. Over time, sometimes years, the fog thins and I see it more clearly. I start to think about what came before and what came after, and who is involved, what happens, what it means. I start reading about the place or time or person. The fog thins more and a see a vista, a world that gains detail and texture as the days or weeks or months pass.
I make notes. I buy a new notebook for each project, which means I have a lot of notebooks with only a few pages written on. Not all images hold me for long. In the notebooks, I write only on the right-hand side of the page. At the top of the page, I put the broad subject I’m making notes about, and start a new page for each subject. I almost never read the notes. Writing them is enough.
At some point, I become so full of the story that I have to start writing it down. I write only on the right-hand side of the page and I write as fast as I can, just to lay down the narrative. If I think of something I should have mentioned earlier, I not it on the left side of the page roughly where I think it might belong. This is not the first draft.
The first draft is more intentional. I work from my notebook, typing the story into the computer, crafting it as I go. I make changes as I write. If the changes are substantial: changing tense or point of view or protagonist, I copy a new file and call it a new draft. I always start out thinking I can finish a work in three, four, five drafts. I always end up somewhere around fifteen.
I don’t make an outline until the story starts to gel. I write major scenes on Post-it notes, writing the first line and the last line and how long the scene is. If there are two stories–thus far in my longer work there are almost always two stories intertwined–I use different coloured Post-its for the different stories. I stick the Post-its to a large piece of paper tacked on the wall or laid out on a table so that I can always see it as I read and write and think and daydream. It feels a bit like a photo album or a family tree: it holds a world I love.
I make timelines and character profiles and narrative arcs. As the draft becomes more polished, I print out on coloured paper–yellow, then blue, then green, then pink–as I try to trick my eye into seeing what is actually on the page, without filling in all the bits that are in my head.
At some point, I’m done.
It is a slow, clumsy process, like playing murder in the dark. It’s an endless game and I’m always “it.”