Monday, May 21, 2012

Simon Van Booy on Writing Alone

In this clip, writer Simon Van Booy comments on writing alone:

Van Booy mentions his need to be in the presence of some movement outside of himself when writing if only to remind himself that he is not alone. This external movement can help Van Booy remove himself from the bubble of solitary existence that is a writer's life. This ripple of external movement is not simply an antidote for a writer's loneliness; it is a necessary lifting of the fog to breathe the freshness of life outside your own mind. Perhaps this inhalation of the outside isn't fresh or inspiring, (it can be) but in some way it invigorates. It clarifies the muddiness of spending hours, sometimes days in solitude.

This solitary existence, living inside the story, or within a single sentence is in every way necessary--to be sequestered from the movement and colour of life so whatever has gummed itself into a solid thud in your brain can be released by a clean, stimulation free environment--empty of even the gentlest of requests from family, of roommates, of the insistence of phones, of other voices, of other people breathing. The freedom of being alone makes the brain unfold, allows you to simply focus, the necessity of living removed for a few quiet hours. The power of solitary creation is only possible after a period of accumulation, time spent living, observing, being in the world. And in the same way, the hours spent alone begin to lose their effectiveness if a ripple of movement outside the self is not permitted. 

Van Booy mentions a mirror--you write and when you look up, there's another person trying to write, just like you. The mirror is also a reflection of the writer in action--there you are doing what you should be doing, it's you taking your place in the world, living as a part of it. And in the same way, simply getting up and opening the door, staring at the blueness of the sky, the brightness of green against that blue--even this brief interlude, infraction, is enough to let yourself retreat back inside yourself, into the solitary business of getting things on the page.

"Leaves" by AuntNett

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Nine Glorious Questions: Aga Maksimowska

Author Spotlight

An interview with author Aga Maksimowska. Her first novel, Giant, launches this month from Pedlar Press.


1. Tell us about your debut novel, Giant.

This is a really long story, but the short of it is that this book has been my education in writing stories and crafting a novel. It’s been a long haul: six years from start to finish, a very irregular six years mind you.

It started as an exercise in a continuing education fiction workshop I took at the University of Toronto. Helen Humphreys was the instructor. She was incredibly supportive of the story I had to tell, of the voice I was trying to establish, and of the world I was attempting to create, so I continued. She gave me the courage to even think that I could one day pen a novel. A novel! It was originally a story about the friendship between two young girls and the effects distance had on it.

I gathered momentum when I revisited the project in the Master of Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. I worked on it during a summer mentorship with Camilla Gibb and decided that it would become my thesis. This book has had many incarnations, several titles, and like every novel, a gazillion edits. It was at its heaviest at nearly 300 pages and at its skinniest at about 180. I’m really happy with what it is today and I have my editor and publisher, Beth Follett, to thank for Giant’s latest metamorphosis.

2. You also write creative non-fiction. How does your writing process change when you’re dealing with “factual” events? Do you suddenly find yourself more vigilant, more indebted to the “truth”?

I haven’t thought about it in terms of “truth” before, but I do know it feels viscerally different writing non-fiction from fiction. Monica Ali once wrote in an issue of The Atlantic magazine on this very topic. The following line really resonated with me: “Non-fiction…is essential in uncovering the lies. But it is fiction that reveals the truth.” I feel more vulnerable writing non-fiction. There is more disclosure, and therefore fear of being judged. And yes, I suppose I am more vigilant about facts when writing non-fiction, and accuracy of course, but that’s the journalist in me. I feel freer when I’m writing fiction. It’s more fun. You really get to lose yourself in the world you’re creating. It’s all about the story and those characters and what they need. [See Monica Ali's article, here.]

3. What inspires you? Or, on the other hand, what bores you?

I bore myself. I recently saw an editorial cartoon on Facebook depicting a stick figure walking toward a giant pit. In the pit was the word INTERNET; on the other side of the pit the words Your life’s goals. That encapsulates how I feel when I bore myself. I think, ‘What the hell are you doing with your nonsensical rotation of checking Facebook, Gmail, Hotmail, work e-mail, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, People magazine, etc., several times a day? What on earth do you think you will find there?!’ The Internet bores me, hinders me, infuriates me. Don’t get me wrong: I also love a lot about the Internet. What I’m trying to illustrate is that I bore myself when I succumb to the pitfalls of the Internet.

Good writing inspires me. I keep a notebook on my bedside so that I can jot down lines of amazing writing that I come across when I’m reading. I jot things down often, and then reflect on them, and wonder how I can become that good at writing.

4. What authors/works have been the most influential in your own writing?

Since I can be very literal, both in my writing and in my temperament, Arundhati Roy, Helen Humphreys, James Baldwin and Jhumpa Lahiri have been instrumental in teaching me how to inject poetry into prose and how to create worlds in novels that leave an emotional imprint on the reader. Jeffrey Eugenides, Jamaica Kincaid, Camilla Gibb, Lawrence Hill and Heather O’Neill have influenced me in terms of first-person narrative (which I find more difficult than third-person); their works have served as examples of how to capture a unique voice for the narrator of my novel.

5. Describe your favourite meal.

I’m going to expose myself here: Food is one of my greatest loves and a picky eater I am not. I’ve had too many favourite meals to count. Ask my husband. He’d tell you my morning steel cut oats with banana or blueberries and my cup of green tea is my favourite meal. There is nothing better than someone making a meal for me and sharing with me his or her love of food. Some of my most memorable and most cherished meals have been: my husband and my brother surprising me with a lunch of black bean burritos and key lime tarts for my birthday; my grandmother’s blueberry turnovers every single time she made them; sizzling garlic prawns in a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Barrio Alto in Lisbon with my friend Aviva; mutton kebabs at Karim’s in Old Delhi… I could spend this entire interview describing my favourite meals.

6. Tell us about a book that resonated with you as a child/teen.

The first English-language novel I read was in grade 7. It was called Copper Sunrise by an author named Bryan Buchan and it blew me away. I couldn’t stop thinking about that book for years. I still wrote poems and made art inspired by it in grade 12. The book was about the Beothuk genocide on the East Coast of Canada. I was incredibly moved by the story and the prose and outraged by the historical injustice. Predictably, this was not the Canadian First Nations People narrative that I was exposed to in Poland as a child. The Hollywood myth of Cowboys and Indians was my education. So imagine how stunned I was when I read this book about the early days of colonization. I must re-read it… 

7. Can you offer three tips for writers seeking to balance their writing life with the practical necessity of having a day job?

a) Stop feeling badly about not writing every day. Set up a routine for yourself and follow it.  Maybe you write on Saturday and Sunday mornings before the rest of the family wakes up? That’s just fine. Don’t let people tell you you’re not a writer because you don’t write every day. You might not be a full-time writer, but you’re a writer.

b) Set up deadlines for yourself to get your project done. Sometimes external motivators like contest or grant submission deadlines help. Use those to your advantage.

c) Kill two birds with one stone whenever possible. I teach high-school English and whenever my kids write for ten or fifteen minutes, I write too. (OK, maybe not every time they write because sometimes I need to take attendance or reply to six emails, but often I write with them.) 

8. What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (which I am loving and marveling at the odd similarities between it and Giant), the May issue of The Walrus magazine (my favourite Heather O’Neill has written a brilliant non-fiction piece on growing up White Trash), and a whole bunch of baby books on sleep, development, feeding, etc.

9. Describe your writing space and why it works for you.

The Robarts Library at the University of Toronto is my favourite writing space when I have a project on the go. The mainfloor reading room, which is clad in ugly brown and red ‘70s d├ęcor is where I go. There is nothing beautiful or inspiring to look at so you don’t get distracted and as a result you get down to work. I used to have an office, but now it’s the baby’s room. It’s way more functional and productive as the baby’s room. [See Deconstructed City's spooky analysis of Robarts Library here.]

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    Russell Banks' "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story"

    "NOT my prince charming" by Dawn Huczek

    In "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," an incredibly handsome narrator relates an unusual experiment where he pursues a relationship with a woman--Sarah Cole--simply because she is incredibly ugly. It's an engrossing read that uses a thoroughly self-conscious first person narration that doubles back upon itself, checking, clarifying and re-imagining what the reader has come to accept as fact. This kind of incessant rumination and re-imagining of things known is fitting for a story that author Russell Banks says was inspired by an urge to re-tell the "The Frog Prince" story from a male perspective.

    He says:
    John Gardner advised retelling the old stories, probably the best of all the advice he gave, and he gave plenty. That was for me the genesis of the story, a sort of formal 'what if...?' I simply plugged into the story the details of the world I happened to live in at the time, and of course reversed the gender dynamic of the story, and wrote it to see not what my story meant, but what the old 'original' story meant. It's how we come to know ourselves finally--by figuring out what our old stories really mean.1
    This of course lends itself quite nicely to a writing exercise--retelling old stories by changing one integral element and depositing elements of the world you know into the world of the story you think you know. By employing the methods that Banks mentions--using details of the world you live in to help you explore the framework of a story that has already been told, and in this case, the retelling of a story that is hinged on magic as a plot device, you create a fable-like quality in stories that have mainly realist foundations. This is accomplished in "Sarah Cole" with an ending that conflates the two worlds, magical transformation made real and believable, the revelation at the end not 'magical' in the typical way, but surprising and cathartic.

    1 Rooke, C., and Rooke, L. (1997). Conversation with Russell Banks. In C. Rooke and L. Rooke (Eds.), The Writer's Path: An Introduction to Short Fiction (pp. 892-895). Toronto, ON: International Thompson Publishing.