June 14, 2010
Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Sheree Fitch
A few months ago, The Afterword ran their Canada Also Reads, and I noticed a novel by Sheree Fitch on the longlist. At that point, I knew Sheree Fitch from the much-adored board book Kisses Kisses Baby-O(which, incidentally, was provided to all newborns in Nova Scotia in 2008 as part of a program called Read to Me) and I was intrigued to read a novel by its author. So I read Kiss the Joy as it Flies over a couple of days last winter, which brought me such pleasure. And seriously, pleasure in January is an elusive creature, and so I decided email Fitch and thank her for a glimpse of it. Her response was very kind, and this email interview grew out of our conversation.
Sheree Fitch is amazing– here’s proof. Though I have read her picture book Peek A Little Boo every day for the past six months, I am not remotely tired of it. Her poetry collection for adults In This House There Are Many Women is sad, wise and funny. Her first novel for adults Kiss the Joy as it Flies, I decided, was “Fannie Flagg meets Miriam Toews”. When I bought Sleeping Dragons All Around for Harriet, it was really a gift for me. Fitch has also written novels for young adults, and the latest, Pluto’s Ghost, is out in September.
I: I just started re-reading Kiss the Joy as It Flies this morning, and joy indeed. In order to write a novel, did your poetry have to be tamed into prose? What was that process like?
SF: A good question. Short answer would be yes. But… not that simple.
I’ve been writing ( seriously) since the age of 20. In the beginning, I was writing short stories. I wanted to be Alice Munro. I took a short story and play-writing and poetry course– I was interested in all and any kind of writing. As things turned out, my first published work was a short story for children. I was inspired every day by my own and so I started writing “for” them. I decided I would learn everything I possibly could about the art and craft of writing for children and I soon found myself gravitating towards nonsense– word play and the oral tradition combined. I was hooked — mostly by the pure joy in playing with language the genre allowed. So I kept exploring other genres and this included adult poetry –much more sober content, free-verse– but still I had a sense of working in an oral tradition. “Utterature” I called it in my master’s thesis.
After a little over a decade of mostly focusing on verse and poetry, going to prose meant the orality was gone– and I really did not like that! I knew if I was ever to go back to prose that language would still be paramount and voice would become very important– either voice of character or voice of narrator.
The Gravesavers –my novel for early teens took me, yes it did, eight years of working on and off. And this is where I tamed the poet and rhymster long enough to do things like develop character and learn and manage narrative arc. I think work in radio and drama and some film helped too in terms of sense of story etc.
But I am painfully slow. The book that comes out this year took five years. Senior teens and up but again, language and word sparks and how it sounds in the reading. Cadence– all things I still work with. Vital. It is challenging because I am pretty sure I hear words the way many people hear musical notes. Say MUD. Say Zamboni. Every word is a poem if you want it to be. So Kiss the Joy… was me intentionally writing a novel and finding a storytelling voice for adult work that word-played in ways that I hoped was fresh and would lend to a great out-loud reading.
cling clang the way words bang
slip slide and boomerang around
the alphabet’s surround sound
and me —a wannabe composer
a writer who is Clown.
I have a fave line in the novel, but you will have to ask…
I: So I’ll ask?
SF: The line is on page 263, second paragraph. “Mercy rose, washed, ate, brushed, flossed, flushed, dressed, scrunched, lip-glossed, smacked, smiled, dabbed, patted, changed, fluffed, fed the cat, and left.” A line like in a kids book and all alliteratively tongue twisty– but the storyteller of Mercy, that omnipotent narrator was playful. Next time , who knows?
I: Is there any sense to nonsense? (“Cervix, ovaries, clitoris, uterus, vagina, Saskatchewan. She giggled, remembering the silliness from childhood.”) If nonsense is useful, is it something specific to childhood? Why are adults so drawn to sobriety?
SF: Oh– this is a huge conversation we could have. Think of the fool in Shakespeare. Think of the concept of holy fool, the not knowing, wise person. In a world that makes no sense to me, making nonsense has always made sense to me.
So yes, I actually, honestly, think nonsense is an art form in which profound truths can be revealed. Not always. Sometimes. A kind of tricksterism.
If you read The Clown at the Foot of the Ladder by Henry Miller, or Henrich Boll’s The Clown, they are two books that explore this in different ways. Look at one line punch line zingers…in Dorothy Parker.. pow pow.
These clown books I just mentioned are not funny but illustrate my fascination with the sad/ happy contradictions inherent in life, like the sunshower Mercy Beth finds so strange. She herself is some kind of an admirable frustrating lovable buffoon to me.
I am doing an essay for publication based on a convocation speech I just gave called “Lessons I Keep On Learning” and will explain “play” and nonsense a bit more. (I love to ruminate…..a Mercy wannabe.)
I think I admire comedic genius most.
Serious joy and profound silliness not a contradiction but risky to do. I think people want their work to be taken seriously and so very often sobriety is seen somehow as a “serious artist at work” and comedy still considered more light or frivolous somehow. Slowly but surely that might be changing. Funny can be serious artist at work too.
I find life so sad, so very very sad, but the capacity to create and to laugh to find joy to see the absurdity boggles my mind. Beauty that makes me stop breathing also fills me with a helium happiness– an inspired burstingness. So, how to channel all that ? Dance, sing, write, etc….TELL A STORY.
Grim and joyless work are not true reflections of what it means to be human or humanity (for me.)
The darker I’ve experienced life, the more my imagination has been source of light and way out. Mercy Beth and her world was me kicking my way of out of sadness of my forties when I lost so many friends to cancer. Losses increase as you get older so I think it was my way of making peace with this? Hmmm. A way to make my self keep laughing even when crying?
The writers I admire most balance light and dark and light and grey and purple, too. Look at the best and we see they have always done this. It’s a question of degree and balance and spirit of writer, too. It really is about how we play the light and dark. The Balance. AND LANGUAGE.
I: But there is a brilliant wickedness at work in your novel as well, a different kind of humour not quite on that same dark/light spectrum (or is it?). A satire that pulled no punches in who it targeted, and as a reader I delighted in that. But did that kind of humour ever seem like a risk to you? How do you strike a balance between joyous and (delightfully) nasty?
SF: It seems to me that question is at the heart of satire and also at the heart of subjective/objective tastes in humour– as in what is funny to some might be offensive to others and what is sarcastic to some and not hurtful could be to others and on and on. Personally I think sarcasm in real life is a very dangerous and potentially abusive dismissive form of humour but in a book it was fun to allow myself to be a tad nastier than I might be in real life. I did want to play that edge and I felt Mercy was self-deprecating enough to make us see she judged herself as harshly if not more so than others.
I had a ball with it really I did, female envy for example, and mother daughter complexity (which was tricky as I love my mother dearly and wondered if she would think it was her at times etc. etc. but it wasn’t– it was a relationship based on an lie between mother and daughter) but it was like getting inside the heads of many people I love and allowing myself to let them be– as you say wicked, delightfully nasty, and well, that surprised me too, little piercing shots now and then. And sometimes I ‘d think, oh my- how ….. um.. bad.. No, truthful!
The limp balloon penis gets a lot of laughs– from women The men tend to wince. Mercy’s jealousy of Teeny– she is scathing at times, but I let her say it anyhow. I remember a time in my early twenties when I was jealous of every woman I read about in the newspaper because my life was not the one I wanted. I’ve been on the other end of jealousy too and it feels so “unfair”, but there you go– in a way I think giving Mercy and others that sideways mouth spewing stuff at times was a way to show how warped perceptions can be.
I loved the scene where the three women walk past Mercy and each have a different take on her. That was not planned on my part of course, but I loved it because it does kind of explain my world view. We rarely see ourselves as others see us and see what we see because of where we are, who we are, truth is ever elusive — can any of us get back to presupposition-less beginnings! See CLEARLY.
So yes, RISKY INDEED. Also, worth the risk!
I: Can you locate Kiss the Joy… within a Canadian (or wider) literary tradition, or a wider one?
SF: O lordie– that is really vulnerable to say– I mean I studied satire in University and argued the whole term with my professor about humour and social commentary and what is excellence and subjective and guy humour versus female and on and one etc. etc. etc. If I tell you what I wish for, you will know how far I failed, but set the bar high, I say, and do the best you can so…
I can tell you to be a female Mordacai Richler and John Irving would be nice. I love Margaret Atwood’s bitey humour at times, in Lady Oracle… (but other times it is just too mean for me) and one of my fave novels of all time is The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Carey. They are all literary and funny, but at the same time I wanted a kind of folksy take for this. Almost like a once-upon-a-time for certain adults who from the get-go could pretend to be a yellow bellied sapsucker and not throw down the book right there. I wanted to play, as I’ve said. Despite the short list for Leacock Award– which I absolutely was thrilled with — I do not see myself in that tradition really. Maybe I’m a just a mutt.
I was very influenced living in the States where there was more respect for humour, or so it seemed to me. I was very influenced by meeting Meg Wolitzer and also going to hear David Sedaris read. Oh, the laughter. It was so wonderful to be surrounded with people laughing like that ! Not glib or cool or trendy or clever — just really funny! But maybe that is my taste.
I guess I could squirm out of this by saying no — and quote William Blake “I will not reason and compare my business is to create.” ??? AHEM! Now that I’ve just written more of a tragedy (and is he angry and sarcastic– whew!) I am pretty sure Tradition is not something I work within, though I bow to all who come before, you know.
I: Maybe it’s just the Leacock reference, but I was thinking of Sunshine Sketches of Little Town– folksy with an undercurrent, the small town thing. Your work also reminds me of a slightly more absurd Miriam Toews, with that same spectrum from darkness to light. But one way that your book is different from all these (and perhaps more akin to something like The Jolly Postman) is in its intertextuality.
Like Mercy’s own “‘kind-of’ memoir”, Kiss the Joy… is “a collage of mixed genres”: newspaper clippings, notebook excerpts, lists, letters, in addition to the prose. What about this format appeals to you? Would any novel you write be so scrapbookish? (And also, whose is that handwriting from the spiral notebooks? It looks eerily like mine, which sort of freaks me out).
SF: The writing is the designer’s. I love it– it looks so real to me. The intertextuality seemed to suit this book and was as deliberate as the orality in language — part of the journey of Mercy , too, as she is a bit of a scrapbook person I think (I am not). But she kind of slid into her job and is a bit of a Luddite –skeptical of technology. So I wanted to show the media she uses — handwriting, email, letter, journal, speech, computer, and show also her resistance to blogs– partly because, I think, it threatens her sense of worth.
I’m no techno wiz but I just had a friend who is an actor record a section of Pluto’s Ghost and hopefully will podcast it from my site. I love the play of it all– again , how we tell stories, from cave days to now, using what we have —it fascinates me. The HUMAN voice is still my favourite. And why I love youtube etc.
I was glad to have an editor on board who agreed to the visuals. The next novel has a few as well, But only where I hope it is stronger than words not as decoration.
Miriam– wonderful, lovely, funny, gifted. Miriam is a friend I’ve known for many years. Her GG and success with Complicated Kindness opened a few eyes to humour and literary value in one package in Canada I think. Susan Swan is another woman who is brilliant that way. And was it you who mentioned Fannie Flagg — I think she spins a great folksy folk tale!
I: I never actually read anything by Miriam Toews until I heard her reading from The Flying Troutmans– her novels are pure “utterature”! And yet the novel form doesn’t really lend itself to the oral tradition. How do you reconcile that as a novelist?
SF: Yes, Miriam has an excellent ear, true gift for dialogue especially. I think film script a natural match for her. Have yet to read The Troutmans; but heard her read from it too.
Well, I think for me –outside of pure nonsense which is more like doing word music– it is better to see myself as just a storyteller. And I can tell stories in plays or verse or poems or chapter books or speech or song or novel or non-fiction even but… I want to tell a story and I want to tell it to “someones.” I still read every page out-loud.
I’d love to tell a story in paint! I have never held a paint brush, not really…
I: To be able to tell stories (well!) in so many forms is a pretty rare gift. When you think of a story, is it clear to you from the start what form it will take? Are you ever wrong?
SF: I think I hear voice first –character, not story– so it is usually pretty clear. But it’s a good question because right now I have a character who is 13 years old, but I am thinking I want it to be an adult book, not a tender coming of age YA book like The Gravesavers. And I do not want a sugary nostalgic tone either, which can happen if protagonist is young in an adult book. I think I have to just start writing and see what happens.
In one sense, too, I am never sure where that “first burst” will end up. In the good-idea-never-finished file or the good-idea-not-meant-to-be-anyhow file, or more often, yes, even the bad-idea-so- in-the-garbage (except I don’t ever throw anything away) or the idea that ends up being a lot of paragraphs not so hot but with salvageable lines that end somewhere else. When I peek into my notebooks it looks scary to me– disconnected fragments — now a lyrical song like syllable spill, next a piece of dialogue, then a character sketch, almost like daydreams on the page. When I sit down to finish something after having set my intention, I have this steel trap focus ( obsession?) and clarity to a point.
So I do know when I’m playing in nonsense realm or at prose or as an adult or as child.
I know a writer who has different desks for the different genres he works in. That makes total sense to me. I’d love to try that some time.
FYI– I write long hand and then go to computer. The click of the keys interferes with cadence of sentence and word music in my head. I like the feel of pen in my hand.
Am I ever wrong, all the time– and off the mark– yes. Because of that, when a work gets to a certain point where I completely lose sight of it, I always have this moment of wondering if it is so damn BADDDD and should I dump it and start something else. But this is why I think all writers need good editors or an ideal reader or if lucky — a good husband who just says if it is this hard you must be onto something. Could or could not be true but it helps to have a cheerleader.
I: Where do your characters’ names come from? I ask this question to everybody, because I am obsessed with names. But names seem pretty important in your work too– they’re a major device in your picture book Peek A Little Boo, and no one in Kiss the Joy as it Flies has a name that is completely ordinary. Like Vonda Kitchen and Veronica Curtain, of Odell’s “Mothers of Men Society (M.O.M.S)”, for example. Pretty ordinary names on first read, but something hangs upon them. Anyway, names…
SF: I take as much care naming characters as I would a baby. I love the name Harriet by the way. I have tons of baby name books and I look up the symbolism, roots etc etc etc. They have to fit the character or work as irony even but I am not afraid to be blatant and over the top with this — rather old fashioned– to assign nominative occupations and traits. But I love the naming of people and places too… Mercy Beth is a VERY maritime name, and Fanjoy is, as well (fan joy hahaha).
I did a lot of research on Mercy’s name believe it or not — Faustina is the saint of divine mercy — and Mercy Beth, despite breaking every one of the ten commandments– if not literally, then metaphorically– by book’s end, performs ten acts of divine mercy as well. Bhuddabelly is obvious, as is Belle. And in the new book, Jake and Skye, but their last names are a word scramble. Only I know, tee hee…
Ah yes, the naming of things is the claiming of things. All a part of the casting the spell. Maybe ???
I: What books have been essential in your development as a reader? And what books as a writer?
SF: The two are intertwined of course, but I’ll make a stab of separating list. As a reader —
1. The Best in Children’s Books– a series out of Doubleday New York in the sixties, and in every book there a was a selection of folk tale, contemporary, classic, comedy, poetry, geography, science. These were amazing, amazing books. They came in the mail . My father read them to me until I was able to read them myself.
2. A.A. Milne. First book I read by myself was The House at Pooh Corner.
3. The illustrated version of the Bible. Loved the drama!
4. Life book encyclopedias everything from “ecology to the moon.” I devoured them.
5. The man across the street from us was a book distributor for the Saint John news company, and he always managed (AHEM!) to have a lot of damaged books. You know, the books with no covers that are illegal? Hmmm– cardboard boxes filled with really good books –Treasure Island, Red Badge of Courage, etc. etc. etc Real treasure… There, from the BOOKMAN. He has to be a character some day. His name was Mr. Woods, paper comes from trees. He was the reason I read such excellent literature and a billion comics as a kid. Anyhow, the classics, including Readers’ Digest condensed versions of adult work –Agatha Christie! I love a good mystery!
6. My Grade Two Teacher read aloud Toby Tyler and the Circus and I remember her crying and a lot of us were too when we got to the tragic part. I think that was when I realized the impact a created world could have.
7. The Bat Poet by Randall Jarrell.
8. The poetry of Wiliam Blake, ee cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Shakespeare was okay,too.
9. The Horses Mouth by Joyce Carey.
10. Canadian: everything Mordecai Richler ever wrote, Spit Delaney’s Island by Jack Hodgins, Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood, Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, and The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. Also, The Quilt by Donna Smythe.
In recent years, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Cloud Street by Tim Winton, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Good to A Fault by Marina Endicott, David Sedaris.
For writing, Paris Review Interviews, A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, The Bat Poet as an analogy, and well, I devour books on writing .. as craft and art.
I: And what are you reading right now?
SF: The book on my shelf waiting for me to read is The Book Thief. The one just finished — a 1960’s book on yoga. Last novel –Come Thou Tortoise.