We writers may not always admit it, but we love to know how other writers work, and, if my experience at readings is anything to go by, it’s something readers find fascinating, too. Why should this be? On the face of it a person sitting, standing (or even walking) at a desk, either typing or staring into space is not a promising subject, but perhaps that is just it: What is really going on? Can it possibly be as dull and peculiar as it sounds? No. The devil is in the detail: routine, word-count, early start, midnight oil, inspiration, perspiration, planing, free-fall, cork-lined room, cafe, music, no music, same music every time… There are indeed many ways of getting those words on the page. So when Barbara Lambert, author of The Whirling Girl, invited me to participate in this blog tour, which asks two writers a week to answer four questions about the way they work, and then nominate two more writers to answer the same questions, I said yes. My responses are below.
What are you working on?
I have a story collection, The Two of Us, forthcoming with Biblioasis in 2015 and a set of linked stories, The Other Man, forthcoming in 2016, so I’m busy with both of those. I’m writing new work at the same time as researching for stories-to-be (there’s a historical element to the linked stories) and revising pieces that are already drafted. I enjoy having all these different tasks to turn to, and writing stories fits better with the fragmented nature of the time currently available to me than would a novel. All the same, I do miss my novel, and write to it in my note book. We’ll get back together eventually, and I know from experience (see the last question below) that the time away is likely to be beneficial.
How does your work differ from other work in its genre?
The first thing to say is that I write in a variety of genres, and that in itself may be distinctive. In terms of the short story, this year’s collection, Paradise & Elsewhere is unique in the way it blends myth and fable with contemporary concerns and solid, believable settings. I don’t see anything else quite like it. However, the next two collections will be completely different from it and to each other. As a (literary) novelist, I’ve written contemporary realism, but also speculative and historical fiction. There’s definitely a dark, thriller-ish edge to my last three novels. These are serious books about very complex characters and they and the issues they face are what interest me, but at the same time I do have a natural drive to build suspense, and end up with a book that hovers on the border between literary novel and psychological thriller. Perhaps what pulls all this together is that I’ve always been very interested in power, the way it flows between people, and how the flow or balance can unexpectedly change. Many of my stories and novels feature some kind of radical transformation. At the same time, story-telling itself fascinates me and consciously or unconsciously, I often tap into the archetypical and mythical, which I think can add resonance to a basically realist narrative.
Why do you write what you do?
I write what I do because it interests me emotionally, intellectually and, in terms of how to shape the particular piece, aesthetically. As to why I’m interested in what I’m interested in, I can only (and affectionately) blame my family. I’ve been thinking about this for a book John Metcalf is compiling called Writers Talk. There was a great deal of conflict in my family, which includes some dramatic, complex characters. I’ve always credited them, and my mother in particular, for the lessons they unknowingly taught me about writing dialogue; I realize now that they are also in some way behind the characters and the kinds of storylines I’m drawn to. It’s because of my family and how it made me that I have an affection for difficult characters, an openness to the messy, imperfect qualities of human life, and an understanding of the potential in conflict.
How does your writing process work?
In a word: slowly. I have ideas and then put them to the back of my mind for years before setting to work, or start to work on something and then realize I’m not ready or have backed myself into a corner so then put the project aside for years. The first half of my novel Alphabet, eventually a GG finalist, sat in a drawer for almost a decade; it was only when packing to move to Canada that I rediscovered it, saw what it needed and completed it. A short story I recently wrote for Paradise & Elsewhere has its origins in a visit to a lighthouse made five years previously, though in that instance the writing itself was relatively swift. The collection itself took years to put together, and many of the stories have been through multiple revisions. Sometimes I’m impatient with myself and send work out too soon, and I always regret it. Sometimes I wish I wrote quickly and more, but it is fruitless to argue the way things are, and after all, many worthwhile things, such as wine and gardens, do take a long time to make. As for the rest of it, mornings are best, routine is good, and I can’t work to music, though sometimes Debussy will put me in the right mood.
Next up on my side:
A multiple award-winning poet, playwright, novelist (To All Appearances a Lady, Cat’s Pilgrimage, What it Takes to be Human) , and songwriter, Marilyn Bowering recently adapted her collection of poems about Marilyn Munro, Anyone Can See I love You, into an opera, Marilyn Forever, which premiered to great reviews in Victoria. Soul Mouth, a collection of poems, came out in 212.
I am jealous of Susan Juby a) because she makes such great use of humour in all her work and b) because is one of the most industrious and disciplined and productive writers I know. She too works in more than one genre. Her teen sci-fi novel Bright’s Light was shortlisted for a Sunburst Award. Her most recent and very funny adult novel, The Woefield Poultry Collective, earned rave reviews.
Other stops on the tour: