I was invited to participate in this blog tour by the wonderful novelist Martha Baillie.
1. What am I working on?
Final revisions to three entirely different manuscripts: 1) Safe as Houses, a “mystery” set in contemporary Toronto which is really an inquiry into the notion of personal safety, and has been accepted for publication (details to follow); 2) The Discovery of Flight, “YA” fiction in the voices of two sisters, one of whom is writing a journal, the other a fantasy novel; and 3) What We Carry, a collection of poems based largely on transcriptions of Mozart’s “24 Preludes” for solo piano.
And also a completely new project, which – because it is still at the angelic stage of inhabiting my imagination – is more extravagant and perfectly realized than anything I’ve yet accomplished!
2. How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
Genre is a convenience of academics, a useful way of organizing thoughts and bookshelves, and of describing the influence of tradition upon a writer’s work. I don’t pay attention to it when writing (see the quotation marks around the terms “mystery” and “YA” in my answer to the first question) because life is never just tragedy, comedy, farce, satire, or romance; it’s everything all at once. Thus: the smell of grapefruit and burnt toast + horrifying news about foreign atrocities on the radio + your kid making a profound observation before farting loudly + your husband kissing the back of your neck in that way that still makes you tingle = breakfast.
Still, I have to admit that my reluctance to squeeze into a single category has sometimes proved problematic. Editors and agents usually try to get me to simplify the polyphonic and intertextual elements of my work, and I have capitulated too often in the past in order to get published. I regret this now. My first novel, The Violin Lover, was written in sonata form but I suppressed that fact, and also the many interpolated comments in the voice of Music itself throughout the book (little intermezzi on topics like the difference between the operatic voice and the speaking voice, or different kinds of scales, or the invention of the public concert) because publishing folk felt no one would be interested. And I had a really hard time getting my last novel, The Tale- Teller, published, because it is generically heterogeneous and probably best described as feminist picaresque.
But much to my astonishment, the French translation of The Tale-Teller by Christiane Duchesnes, Les Aventures étranges et surprenantes d’Esther Brandeau, moussaillon, was greeted enthusiastically by critics in Quebec, who welcomed its fusion of history and fantasy in the context of 18thcentury enlightenment philosophy. Their response has made me hopeful that if I keep writing on the edge of genre, I may eventually be accepted in the ROC as well.
3. Why do I write what I do?
If I don’t write this stuff, who else will? Or, as American poet Mary Oliver put it, ”Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
4. How does my writing process work
(Please note: the following is a description of the process for fiction. I’m not even sure I can describe the process for poetry. It’s too much like watching paint dry.
For at least a year, I read around the subject in an improvisatory way. I take random notes, which give me the illusion that I know what I’m doing. I go for a lot of long walks with my dog, Toby, who is a very distractible muse.
Once I find myself intuiting some kind of narrative, I write a cursory outline. Then I start writing what I think is the beginning, though it may not prove to be so once I reach the end. Early on, I go back to the beginning every day and edit my way forward to where I left off before continuing to write new stuff. When I get stuck, or bored, or lose faith in what I’m doing, I abandon chronology and just write something compelling; some scene I know will be in the book somewhere, and then write back and forth from that. When I can no longer sleep because all I want to do is keep writing, I use a trick my friend Helen Dunmore taught me: I force myself to stop while I still know what’s coming next, and leave myself a bunch of notes at the end of the page to pick up when I resume.
Taking into account the fact that I am employed as a freelance editor and a creative writing instructor at two different universities and therefore don’t often get unobstructed time to write, I would say that the first draft unfolds pretty quickly (if you don’t count interruptions for research, to which I’m prone). Then comes revision, for which I must rely on the advice of others more astute than I. If I were less of a hermit, I might know more people to ask for such advice. I see the list of acknowledgements at the back of some writers’ books and am astounded: I don’t have many friends because I’m always either working or walking the dog!
If only the dog could read. I’ve sent far too many manuscripts off to publishers before they were ready because I was desperate for meaningful dialogue.