Q/A with Award-Winning Canadian Author Dave Margoshes

Author Dave Margoshes was kind enough to respond to some questions about writing, reading and his future work. I hope you enjoy his responses as much as I have.

JO: Dave, to my mind, many of these wonderful stories would be best read aloud. Why do you think that is?

DM: Ha ha, that’s a good question. I’m stumped. Best I can thing of is that there’s a sort of warm, familial tone to them, a sort of family-stories-told-around-the-fireplace tone I worked hard at.

JO: Did your feelings about your father change after you wrote about him so intimately?

DM: I don’t know. All of the stories were written after his death. This isn’t why I wrote them, of course, but they did serve to keep me in touch with his memory. And so much of the stories is fiction, I’m a little fuzzy myself about some aspects of the story – did that really happen or did I make it up? I think it’s safe to say, accurate to say, that the character of my father in the stories is a construct, not a depiction of the real man that a biographer or memoirist might conjure up. I like that character, that construct, a hell of a lot, but he’s a more perfect character than my actual father was.

JO: You work in several different genres. What is it about writing short stories that you like the most?

DM: The short story is the perfect literary form, in my view. It’s the sort of Reuben sandwich of the writer’s art. It’s got everything. Novels, on the other hand, are like a seven course meal, soup to nuts, sometimes leading to indigestion; poems are potato chips.

JO: Not many writers attempt the number of genres you do Dave. Why do you think you have done this throughout your career?

DM: Well, it’s not really that much. Fiction (long and short) and poetry. Lots of writers do that. A bit of nonfiction, but that’s an extension of my journalism practice, the way I made my living for years. Doesn’t really count.

JO: What are some of the issues with writing about your extended family and in particular, your father?

DM: I don’t think I had any issues. As I said above, the “my father” in those stories is a fictional construct. So are the character of “my mother” and the sisters. When you think of them that way, they’re no different really than any other fictional characters.

JO: You’ve written an excellent biography of Tommy Douglas. What were some of the biggest challenges writing about one of more influential politicians in Canadian history?

DM: OK, the Tommy book is the one example of nonfiction I do lay claim to. (I’ve written a couple other nonfiction books, commissioned, that I don’t put on my CV.) I’m not a biographer, really, and not a historian (though that is what I got my B.A. in). I approached that book as a journalist, following the story. Every action in that book happened, all the quotes mined from actual sources. The “challenge,” as in any piece of extended journalism, is in finding the story and sustaining the interest level.

JO: What authors have had the greatest influence on your work?

DM: I grew up in the States, so my earliest influences were mostly American writers: Faulkner, Hemingway, Saroyan. Later John O’Hara, the master of the short story. Poets Whitman, Frost, Williams. And later, too many to mention.

JO: What are you working on currently, Dave?

DM: I’m working on a new novel, but also tidying up a novel that’s been in the works for quite a while and will be published next year.

JO: Finally, what will you be reading over the summer?

DM: Right now, I’m reading Cynthia Flood’s new collection of stories, Red Girl, Rat Boy – not actually out till fall. She is amazing, one of my favourite Canadian writers. I’ve also just started David McFadden’s What’s the Score, which won the Griffin poetry prize last month. I’ve always liked McFadden, and he’s long overdue for some national recognition. Beyond that, who knows?

Sarah York Shares

Recently, author and academic Sarah Kathryn York took some time out of her very busy schedule to respond to some questions I had for her about writing in general, her latest book, writing influences, and her future projects. I trust you will find her responses as insightful and honest as I have.

JO: Can you share how you discovered Edouard’s story and what inspired you to write about him?

SY: I first heard of him through my friend and Canadian singer Daisy DeBolt. She’d been out to Willow Bunch where he was born, and recorded a ballad with words by Michael Ondaatje. I was taken by Edouard’s quiet vulnerability and strength. There’s something accessible about him that testifies to us all. To me, his story is not tragic. It’s important, and it should be told and retold.

JO: Your Edouard, is a gentle and very sweet man. Was this reflected in the archival record or something you chose to develop while writing?

SY: Edouard is described as gentle, kind and shy by those who knew him. I think he was also tremendously generous, trusting and brave. He took care of his loved ones, rescued strangers, and never hurt anyone, even in professional fights. His goodness and grace were immediate. It was who he was. Of course, the Edouard in my book is imagined. So it was also a choice to portray him that way.

JO: How did writing this book change you not only as a writer but as a person?

SY: Anatomy threw me into experimental forms and spare language. The genre changed three times, in part because there’s a respect in dealing with actual people. The process led me to reconsider storytelling and representation, and where those delineations lie. The closer I ran with the facts, the less “true” the story felt in some ways. Fiction allowed me to honestly engage the characters and the integrity of imagination. Yet real details were important. The research was intense.

The book left me with more questions than answers. The need to be “lifted” up or personally resolved through stories is a peculiar aesthetic demand. If we’re not trying to understand each other better, build empathy, and change ourselves, what are we doing? Fortunately, the world has no shortage of good readers. I hope people will go on forging their own relationships with Edouard in their own ways.

Personally, writing was both engaging and taxing. Also, my life altered while I was writing it, on the edges of writing it, and in order to write it. So there’s a sense of investment, of risk.

JO: Were there ways that you were able to identify with Edouard as you wrote his story?

SY: Absolutely. In fiction, you enter characters through the humanity that binds us, and whatever stories reveal. I identify with those things foremost. His sensitivity and solitude, dreams and sacrifices, distance from home and mixed heritage, the desire to be seen, and to see others, for our authentic selves, his troubles and love of life and need for freedom – lots of people can relate, I think. Complicating the feelings of people who cared for him was not so easy. It was harder to identify with gawkers, but I avoided judging his audiences, especially in an historical context.

Edouard’s physicality was not my focus, though he was lovely inside and out. I tried not to emphasize his body, yet it shaped his experience. In order to inhabit him, I had to confront his form. I am wary of this word, “inhabit,” as though you wear your characters or somehow invade them. I didn’t want the book to be about, you know, did he really kick the ceiling and leave a shoe print?

I grew up with eccentrics and outcasts, so ‘normal’ is not something I understand well – does anyone? We’re all unusual. In some ways, Edouard was ‘regular’: a good man from humble beginnings in a small rural town, who worked hard and was passable in school, an athletic but awkward teenager, with traditional family and religious values, who wrestled with hard poverty, but never shied from eating, drinking, joking and hunting. He was also gifted, fluent in many tongues, an astounding strongman, toured the continent, led an extraordinary life, tolerated celebrity, and was a brilliant horseman, roper, and dead shot at a young age. He was flawed and heroic. He broke through everything, but didn’t fit anywhere. The poetry of finity, so to speak.

JO: What was the best part in the entire process of writing Edouard’s story?

SY: I learned a lot, but was glad to see it finished. Some people said they wished I’d written more – a good sign, hopefully. Talking with his family was the best experience.

JO: Were there books that you used to help in crafting this book Sarah?

SY: Not specifically. I avoided other creative works on the subject for fear of influence (by the wonderful Geoffrey Ursell for instance). As a child, I loved this old anatomy book that had wax paper layers. You started with a skeleton and added transparent pages of muscle, veins, and skin to get a whole impression of a body. Remembering that helped me in the narrative layering of the book.

JO: What authors have been some of your most important influences as a writer?

SY: There are too many great writers to choose from. The influence changes constantly. James Baldwin has never been an influence, but his story “Going to Meet the Man” is about as perfect, if disturbing, a story as I’ve read. I always return to the ones who blur the boundaries between place and people: Faulkner, Keats, Munro, Morrison, Robinson, MacEwen (Gwendolyn), Kafka, Dickens, McCullers, Erdrich, Woolf, James, Brontë (Emily), McCarthy, Nabokov, and many others. Who knows how it all filters down. I recently sat down with Lee Maracle, and her personal stories blew me over. The writers around me, my friends, have a sort of radiating effect.

JO: Would you care to share what book(s) you are reading currently Sarah?

SY: Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing. Simon Van Booy, Everything Beautiful Began After. Arley McNeney, The Time We All Went Marching. Arley and I went on book tour across Canada, along with others, and her book is so lyrical. As a creative writing teacher, I’m always re-reading. Right now, lots of poetry and North American fiction.

JO: To me, it seems that this book sets up very well for a film adaptation. Have you had any discussions with anyone about this to date?

SY: It would be interesting to see it adapted. I think it lends itself to that, and I’d be curious to see it visualized in new ways. I’ve had some interest from a well-known American director, whose name I probably shouldn’t mention. We’ll see.

JO: Would you care to share what you are working on currently Sarah?

SY: I’m currently finishing a novel called Sermon, some shorter creative non-fiction pieces, and a book about aesthetics that I started recently in Paris, France.

Visiting With Jodi Aoki

Jodi Lee Aoki, Trent University archivist and author of Revisiting “Our Forest Home,” kindly agreed to respond to a few questions abour her recent book featuring the letters of Frances Stewart. In our discussion, she talks about some of the challenges of writing about nineteenth-century life, how Stewart continues to resonate with her in her daily life, and some of her possible future writing plans.

JO: Can you tell us what the most challenging aspect of compiling and editing these letters was for you?

JLA: Definitely the fact that many of the archival documents are copies or extracts which were made by recipients of Frances’s letters and passed on to other family members and friends contributes to an extremely complicated set of raw data. Trying to decipher originals from copies and identifying the anomalies in text between the originals and copies was time-consuming. Choosing the content for Revisiting “Our Forest Home” was also complicated by the fact that I did not have access to some original letters which Ellen Dunlop, Frances Stewart’s daughter, published in the 1889 and 1902 editions of Our Forest Home; these letters may no longer exist. An important distinction between the Revisiting edition and Ellen’s earlier editions is that not all letters are represented in all three publications; the earlier publications include letters which were outside the scope of my project around the originals, and the Revisiting edition includes letters which Ellen may not have had access to. All three editions contribute in significant but different ways to the telling of Frances’s story.

JO: Why do you think it’s important for readers to revisit an era that has a great deal written about it?

JLA: If I flash-forward 200 years and look at all the ways in which our lives intersect, how each member of a community contributes to the community and to community development and how we all do influence the governing decisions of our leaders, I can see that it is the complex interweaving of all the lives of a population, of both women and men, which constitutes the essence of human experience. For this simple reason, it is important to consider the writings of nineteenth-century women as an incredible resource for furthering our knowledge of the period in general – the women did not live in isolation from husbands and brothers who were more commonly associated with having authority and power. The personal narratives of Upper Canadian immigrant women – and men – contribute meaningfully to the historical canon and have the potential to constructively extend a founding consensus which has tended to endorse the white male gentry renditions of the historical past.

JO: You’ve worked with these letters for years Jodi, what did you discover about Stewart that you hadn’t known before, in your writing and editing processes?

JLA: I became increasingly aware of the depth of Frances’s feelings of sadness at being parted from her loved ones in Ireland. These feelings permeate all her writing; her stoic acceptance of her situation in the New World seems to be intricately tied, at least in part, to a sense of duty which she had come to embody.

JO: Did you find yourself identifying with Stewart by the end of the editing and writing process?

JLA: I wouldn’t say that I identified with Frances, but I do think that I got closer to seeing who she was. There are so many opportunities for research in these documents. What is intriguing is that, at the end of the day, the writings of Frances Stewart will continue to be what they are, just what their author meant them to be, regardless of the meaning which we impose on them. We can never really “know” her.

JO: Was this project something you would undertake again Jodi?

JLA: I would. It was fascinating to become so involved in the letters. I sometimes look out across the Otonabee from my work-place at Trent University and try to imagine Frances walking along the river between her daughters’ houses in her later life. Frances continues to be of great interest to me.

JO: Were there any other books that you used as models in crafting this one?

JLA: I pored over many books which deal with immigrant writings before I decided how I wanted to present the letters in Revisiting “Our Forest Home”. A few books which were especially helpful were: A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters, and Art of Anne Langton, edited by Barbara Williams; and three books edited by Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael Peterman: I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill; Susanna Moodie: Letters of a Lifetime; and Letters of Love and Duty: The Correspondence of Susanna and John Moodie.

JO: Is there anything in nineteenth-century Canadian literature (fiction or non-fiction) that is of particular interest to you Jodi?

JLA: For my research on Frances Stewart, the many books published by Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie were especially of interest as they helped to provide context for visualizing Frances’s life. Travel literature of the period, including writings which cover the explorations of Canada’s North during the nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century, is also of immense interest to me.

JO: The book is shaped by a feminist perspective. Was it important to you to frame it this way?

JLA: This is an interesting question for me. I guess I’ve never really thought of myself in a feminist framework. Framing this book as I did came absolutely naturally to me; it wasn’t conscious. This does make me a feminist, doesn’t it!

JO: How has the book been received by Frances Stewart’s family?

JLA: Some Stewart family descendants attended the book launch and were very supportive of my project. I had met with a few members of the family while doing my research and they were very helpful in ironing out many elusive details. I heard from some who have read the book and they expressed that they enjoyed it and appreciated that I had undertaken this project. I am grateful for their support. I’ve always felt a responsibility to the family to do the best job I could to represent Frances accurately.

JO: Do you have any plans to write or edit another book in the near future, Jodi?

JLA: I’m very interested in nineteenth-century Upper Canadian history. Currently, I’m looking at other women besides Frances who immigrated to the Peterborough area early in the nineteenth century. Peterborough has a rich legacy of women’s writings from that period. I’ve recently given a paper about six European settler women who arrived in the Peterborough area between 1822 and 1837. I’m interested in understanding how these women coped when they found themselves, separated from their families and loved ones, forging out new lives in the bush in an unknown country. I’m aiming through this lens to glimpse the ways in which female lives intersected community development in the colony. The authors’ representations of their lives in their writings are intricately mixed with nostalgia and memory of their lives in the homeland and this is an intriguing area for me.

Speaking With Jennifer K. Chung

Jennifer K. Chung graciously agreed to an interview with me to discuss a number of topics related to her writing and beyond. While writing is important to her, I am certain you will be impressed with the range of activities and interests that keep her very busy. Much like her novel, her wit and sense of humour is prevalent throughout. I hope you will find her responses as interesting as I have.

JO: What were some of the main reasons you chose to enter the 3 Day Novel contest?

JKC: I’ve found that I write best under pressure, and I can’t think of anything more high-pressure than writing a novel in a weekend. (Maybe writing a novel on a word processor rigged up to a runaway bus full of puppies and children that will explode if I don’t write at least 1,667 words per hour, in a weekend.) If nothing else, I’d hoped to get a good story out of it — actually, two good stories, one for the experience and one for the novel. Of course, I liked the idea of winning, too, but that wasn’t the main reason I entered.

JO: Can you describe for me, the intensity of writing a novel in 72 hours?

JKC: For me, it felt a lot like college, staying up late to finish problem sets or study for exams. I’m a natural procrastinator, so I have a lot of experience with this feeling… it’s an uncomfortable mix of anxiety and dread, always being aware of the deadline, feeling like you’d already run out of time and slogging through it anyway, hoping you’ll produce something worth submitting. I spent the entire weekend always knowing exactly how many hours were left until the next midnight, and I felt exhilarated and relieved when I finished the story.

JO: Humour is prominent throughout your novel. What are some of the challenges of integrating humour into your work?

JKC: I think it’s easy to fall into cliché, so I try to ask myself: Is this authentic, or am I just repeating something I’ve heard? With my friends, my banter tends towards self-deprecating and ridiculous, so that’s the voice I use in my writing. I’m still working on it, of course.

JO: Had you done a lot of preparation for the 3 Day Novel contest? If so, what had you done?

JKC: Hardly any. I knew I wanted to write about chicken teriyaki because it’s so prominent in Seattle and I thought it could make a quirky story. I also had a title that made me giggle when I thought of it, but when I started the weekend, I didn’t know if I was going to write a nice slice-of-life story about a family that ran a teriyaki restaurant (with a different title and no supernatural elements), or a campy story about the Flying Dutchman running a teriyaki food truck. I’m glad I figured out how to write the latter.

JO: Jennifer, how has your ‘everyday’ career influenced your writing?

JKC: I’m an engineer, raised by engineers in an engineering family. That has really influenced my worldview, and, as with many things, I approach writing like engineering. The first draft is black magic; I start writing, and a story (hopefully) comes out. I’m more systematic about the second, third, fourth draft – I treat the whole of the story as a system and figure out where the system’s broken. As with engineering, I use peer review feedback (critique groups and readers) to identify weaknesses and blind spots. Once I’ve identified problems, I can start problem-solving, fixing inconsistent character motivations, making sure plot points are being set up sufficiently, developing alternate scenes, etc. I described my editing process as “debugging the manuscript” to some creative writing grad students once, and they seemed to like that phrase.

JO: Your bio indicates a very broad range of interests Jennifer. What are some of your favourite activities outside of writing and your career?

JKC: At the moment, my main outside activity is music. I’ve had music for almost my entire life; I started group piano lessons before my fourth birthday and I’ve really enjoyed playing piano as a classical soloist, in small classical ensembles and large orchestras, accompanying vocalists and other instrumentalists, as a rehearsal pianist for musicals, in the pit. I also had the great experience of playing keyboard with an amazing group of musicians in a metal band (Red Queen Theory) for two years. Sadly, the band has been on indefinite hiatus since September, and I’m now trying to find other personal and group music-making opportunities. My current project is to get an old Brahms rhapsody from high school back to performance quality. I visited Italy over the holidays, and seeing all the Renaissance art made me realize that although I’m somewhat competent with musical arts, I’m very weak with visual – and I want to fix that. So, I also made a resolution to try a few visual arts this year, see if I can find something that sticks. My new stained glass class starts next week!

JO: Which authors and what books have most influenced your writing?

JKC: I really enjoy Jane Austen, Roger Zelazny, and Isaac Asimov. My humor is probably influenced by Douglas Adams.

JO: Would you tell us what are you reading at the moment?

JKC: I’ve been reading non-fiction recently. The last two books I read were Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea) and Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, and on my nightstand right now, I have a video game book (Extra Lives by Tom Bissell) and a psychologist’s memoir about her own mental illness (An Unquiet Mind by Kay E. Jamison). On the fiction side, I’m also working through NESFA’s awesome six-volume Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny.

JO: Would you care to share some of your writing current projects with us?

JKC: I’m working on a few short stories that I hope will go somewhere, mostly in the speculative fiction genre. I’m also trying to get through the second draft of a young adult novel about robots set in the Pacific Northwest.

JO: It has to be asked. Jennifer, what is the best chicken teriyaki you have ever eaten?

JKC: I’ve been vegetarian for almost 14 years, so it’s been awhile since I’ve actually had chicken teriyaki. However, I have a meat-eating friend who swears by Sapporo Teriyaki in Redmond, WA. I think he goes there at least once a week.

An Interview With Amanda Leduc

Author Amanda Leduc was kind enough to respond to some questions about her debut novel, publishing, writing, social media and reading. Her  responses were thorough, thoughtful, and informed. In the coming days, I will be posting a review of Instructions for an Inexperienced Lover. I trust that you will enjoy her responses as much as I did.

JO: Amanda, you self-published your debut novel, can you tell us why you chose to do this?

AL: I suppose I should start this by noting that I went the self-publishing route after trying for the better part of two years to find a traditional publisher and agent. The book had garnered a certain amount of interest—I’d had an agent interested in it who ultimately turned it down, and then it managed to find itself on the shortlist for a new UK literary award, which was lovely—but despite this initial buzz I hadn’t managed to find a publisher. Everyone was really encouraging, though, even in the process of rejection, so I kept taking on suggestions for what could improve in the novel, kept revising, and kept sending it out. Then, at the beginning of 2009, I began working for the London-based self publishing company CompletelyNovel.com, and they encouraged me to publish the book through their website. I will admit that I was hesitant about it at first, mostly because I knew that the responsibility of proofing, editing, and doing the layout for the book would fall entirely on me. I wanted it to be as professional a product as possible, and at the time I couldn’t afford to hire professionals to complete the book for me, so going about it by myself was quite the undertaking. Ultimately, though, I went with the self-publishing route because I recognized that it was a unique opportunity to learn all about the process of turning a manuscript into a book. Anyone who works with a traditional publisher will know that decisions regarding the cover and layout of the text and other such considerations are often made by separate departments within a publishing house, and oftentimes an author doesn’t have as much control over what the final product will look like. Publishing my novel on a print-on-demand platform—in addition to saving me the usual fee paid to standard self-publishing companies—allowed me to retain full control over what the finished book looked like. It was, as I’ve noted above, quite a difficult endeavour for me, especially because I wanted it to look and feel as close to a traditionally published novel as it could. But in the end, I’m glad that I went the self-publishing route. I learned a great deal about the technical aspects of book production, and I came away from the experience with an immense amount of respect for the editors, copy-editors and designers who help to turn the cogs of the traditional publishing machine. Packaging and marketing a novel is tremendously hard work, and as a result of my self-publishing experience I feel that I understand this now in a way that I didn’t before. I am transitioning into the traditionally published world now—my next novel, The Raptured, is slated to be published with Toronto’s ECW Press in the spring of 2013—and my hope is that my self-publishing experience will help me embrace the traditional publishing world with continually humble, grateful eyes. When you self-publish, more often than not you’re a one-woman everything team, so to be in a place now where there are editors and designers there to help and guide you is quite lovely. I think I appreciate this all the more now for having done it, first time around, on my own.

JO: What would be your recommendations to authors who are considering the self-publishing route?

AL: This might seem old-fashioned now, and perhaps even controversial given the momentum that’s been building behind the self-publishing movement, but I would still recommend that authors look to find a traditional publisher before they go the self-publishing route. I do understand that self-publishing is much more than a “last minute” strategy now, that the advances in technology and the ability to hire freelance editors and designers for your book make it all the easier for your books to be as professional as anything put out by a traditional house. I still think that there’s something to be said for having other people behind your work, and having the strength and connections of a known publisher on board as the marketing part of publishing your book begins. Not to mention the growth that can come from having a good editor—someone who isn’t being paid directly by you and may therefore be able to see your work with entirely unbiased eyes. The writer Peter Straub once talked about the ability of a good editor to help an author submerge their ego and put out a version of their work that is “truest to itself”, and I think this is key. The American writer Edan Lepucki recently published an article in The Millions on the debate around whether or not to self-publish, and one of the things she noted was the fact that publishing with an established house, even a small independent literary press, gives a writer a vote of confidence in the literary game. This is especially critical when you’re a writer new to the publishing world. I don’t regret self-publishing my novel—as I said above, it was a very enriching, educational experience in many ways—but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the reach that a more established house might have. Having said that, I think I also need to acknowledge that promotional tools are becoming so widely available now, and for such comparatively little money, that marketing your work is becoming a much easier thing to do. So it isn’t inconceivable to think that in a few years, a savvy writer with an excellent grasp of social media would be able to market and promote their book just as well as a publishing house might have done. You can argue, of course, that this is already happening—witness the likes of Amanda Hocking and JA Konrath. But I don’t think we’re there yet, at least not for everybody, and particularly not in the case of literary fiction. I think traditional publishing houses still play a hugely essential role in helping to develop an author’s career, so I would caution against anyone discarding them entirely in favour of the self publishing model. I would advise authors to strive for a traditional publishing placement, and if that doesn’t work, use the tools available via self-publishing companies to publish your work and build a platform for yourself as another way of strengthening your credibility as a writer, again with the aim of eventually catching a traditional publisher’s attention.

JO: Amanda, you have lived in several places around the world. How has this contributed to and shaped your writing?

AL: Traveling and living in different parts of the world has become such an integral part of me that I no longer know whether I travel because I want to write about it, or whether I write because I’m getting so many stories out of traveling! I think I’ve always had a certain amount of restlessness that has bled, in various ways, into my written work, and in that sense the traveling has helped to intensify the feeling of being unanchored. Ten years ago I thought that I could travel to find myself, and now I’m beginning to realize that I travel because there will never be an end to the questions I ask of myself or the world. In that sense, I can see now how there’s a definite sensibility toward feeling unfulfilled in my fiction—a kind of yearning that doesn’t necessarily always get resolved. In the case of Instructions for an Inexperienced Lover, I wanted to write a story about someone who has very set, definite ideas for how she should live her life and therefore what should make her happy. I wanted to explore what happens to her when she realizes that what should make a person happy is so often different from what actually achieves the aim in the end. And I wanted to look, too, at this idea of being fulfilled, and at how erroneous it can be. Sometimes we are fulfilled—that is, we become the people that we are most meant to be—simply through being unfulfilled, through having our desires thwarted and our lives thrown off-kilter. Sometimes we are meant to exist in between, and float, and ask questions, because otherwise the questions might not get asked in the first place.

JO: I’d like to know your thoughts on e-books versus traditional formats. Can they co-exist peaceably?

AL: From the standpoint of a reader, I think they can, definitely. I myself don’t have an e-reader—yet—but there are definite interesting parallels between e-readers and the rise of the indie, or self-published, author, and how the rise of digital music gave independent musicians a new platform to promote their own work. E-readers, and the comparatively low prices for a lot of self-published work, have allowed self-published writers to get their books out in a way that no one anticipated. This has brought an entirely new generation of writers to a reader’s attention, and I admire that a great deal about the e-reading phenomenon. For myself, I don’t have an e-reader because I love the tactile feel of a book—I love turning the pages, and marking in the margins, and while I know you can even do those things on e-readers now, there’s still something about engaging with a physical book that, for me, isn’t there on an e-reader. And I think that there are a great many people out in the world, like me, who still prefer to buy their books in physical form. The rise of the e-reader and the great availability of e-books isn’t going to obliterate that tactile experience of physical books anytime soon. As a writer, I must confess that I feel a little differently. I have inner battles about this all of the time. As someone who would eventually like to make a living off of her work, I worry about the nature of e-book pricing and the prospect of a dwindling “living wage” for a writer. Again, one can always look to the example of writers like Amanda Hocking, who published her novels online for $.99 apiece and made herself a millionaire in the process, but the fact of the matter is that she’s a very lucky exception to the rule. Most writers will never be that lucky. Can they co-exist? Yes. There will always be people who stick by physical books. But are there still questions to be answered around what e-books will do, in the long term, to the viability of writing as a sustainable income? I think so. (Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that writing has never offered all that much in the way of sustainable income anyway, aside from a very lucky few!)

JO: Who are some of the writers that have the most influence on your writing?

AL: The American writer Flannery O’Connor is probably my favourite writer, followed closely by Arundhati Roy, the author of The God of Small Things, which is my favourite book. Both of these writers have influenced me a great deal, though I think they’re leagues ahead of me in many ways. I still have so much to learn! I’m also a huge fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I love the lyric nature of Vladimir Nabokov’s storytelling. Once again, both of these writers are leagues ahead of me—particularly Nabokov, when you consider that he wrote most of his novels in a second tongue, and yet somehow managed to wield the English language in a way that I’ll likely never master. But it’s a continual inspiration to have these writers in front of me, to read and re-read their work and look at the different ways in which they see the world, in the hopes that this can shape my own ways of seeing and telling.

JO: You are very active in social media. How do you feel this impacts and influences you as a writer?

AL: The greatest gift I’ve received as a result of social media has been the companionship and camaraderie of so many writers I admire. From a professional standpoint, too, being active in social media has proven extremely valuable in terms of teaching me rudimentary marketing skills. I’m not on Facebook, but I do try to engage quite a bit on Twitter, and I strive to update my blog on a regular basis. I was a bit hesitant, at first, when I began blogging and tweeting specifically about writing—writing has been such a solitary medium for so long that it felt strange, and not a little inconsequential, to be blaring my thoughts about the process to the world—but as time went on I found that I really enjoyed and was inspired by the connections that happened as a result of the sharing. I’ve met so many readers, writers, and assorted bookish people who are intensely passionate about what they do, and this wouldn’t have happened had I not dipped my toes into social media waters. In this sense, I think it has galvanized me in many ways—I’m no longer prone to feeling overwhelmed by the solitary nature of writing, because all I have to do is sign in to Twitter to see so many others who are there, wrestling with the same things. We can encourage each other now. And the comments that I’ve received from people all over the world who have enjoyed reading my blog have been intensely uplifting. I only hope that I can continue to write and reach out in a way that inspires others as much as connecting with them has inspired me.

JO: Some critics and writers argue that all fiction is at least partially autobiographical. Would you agree with this in the case of Instructions for an Inexperienced Lover?

AL: Absolutely. In fact, I think it was difficult for friends and family to read the book—knowing that I, like the heroine of the novel, also studied at the University of Victoria—and not wonder, on some level, whether the entire novel was autobiographical. It definitely made for some interesting discussions! Instructions, however, is only that—partially autobiographical. I wanted to ground the novel in a place and situation that was at least somewhat familiar to me, because at the time I think I wasn’t yet sure enough of my ability to delve into territories unknown. But there is plenty in the novel that’s entirely fictional, so writing it ended up being a fascinating exercise in balance. What was real vs. what was not-real, and striving to make sure that the fictional parts had their own authenticity. Many of the comments that I’ve received about the novel thus far have centered around how real readers felt the characters were, so in that sense I think it’s been successful. A lot of readers have commented on how much they identified with both Rosa and Aylish, which was really lovely to hear.

JO: What is the most enjoyable part of being a writer and what do you find the most challenging about it?

AL: I enjoy the freedom that comes from writing. It’s a strange freedom, because on the one hand you’re always at the mercy of words—they can strike you anywhere, and you’d better hope that you have that requisite paper and pen on hand when they do. I can write a good amount of words during the day, leave my work, and suddenly find myself scribbling again over dinner. So in that sense it’s almost a 24/7 job. You never leave it behind. But the pay-off is that it’s a skill you can take with you anywhere, at any time—something that definitely lends itself to an unconventional life. It has suited me very well over the course of the past ten years, when I was picking up and living in all sorts of different places! The challenging thing is the tendency that I have to read old work and feel discouraged by it—even and in some ways especially work that has already been published. You’re continually growing as a writer, and trying out new things, and the upshot of this is that those “finished”, published pieces inevitably fall under your revising eye again—you look at them a year or so down the road and think: if I could have it now, I’d change this word, or maybe I’d say this differently, etc. I find this a hard thing to grapple with. But then, every writer that I’ve ever admired has dealt with this, on some level. Flannery O’Connor published four versions of her short story “The Geranium” over the course of her lifetime, because each time she went back to a published version she saw different things about it that she wanted to change. And one of my instructors back in university used to talk about how she would revise pieces even at author readings—she’d be reading parts of her book to an audience and she’d revise things right in the act of speaking the words aloud. So it seems a necessary part of the game. An occupational hazard, I guess you’d call it.

JO: Can you share with us what books you are reading right now? How would you describe your reading tastes?

AL: Well, at the moment I’ve entered into a Canada Reads challenge with two other friends, so I’m reading The Tiger, by John Vaillant, and I have plans to get through the other four books on the shortlist by the end of January, 2012. I’m also about halfway through State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. I’ve been a huge Ann Patchett fan ever since reading Bel Canto back in my undergraduate days, so to see how she’s progressed and matured as a writer is really quite fascinating. It gives me hope for my own writing in the future! My reading tastes in general are quite varied. This year I’ve been on a bit of a Canadian fiction kick, and my favourite read of the year was Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, followed closely by Trevor Cole’s Practical Jean. But I also read and adored the Inkheart series, by Cornelia Funke, and I will unabashedly admit to devouring the Twilight books when they first came out. (I didn’t think they were particularly well written, nor do I agree with them politically in the slightest, but I did devour them).

JO: Are there any specific writing projects that you are working on that you can share with us?

AL: I’m actually working on another novel right now. It just recently passed my 100 manuscript page milestone mark, which means that for me it now feels like a viable idea, something that could actually make it through to the finished novel stage. And that’s always a great feeling! I’ve also started thinking about a short story collection, which is a bit of a new thing for me. For the last few years I’ve focused almost exclusively on novels, so ruminating on a book of short stories—how to structure it, what to talk about, the different voices I can include—is a really refreshing departure from my usual writing. A bit scary, too, if I’m completely honest. But definitely a challenge I look forward to exploring.