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Pickle Me This

December 11, 2011

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Kristen den Hartog

When I fell in love with Kristen den Hartog’s novel And Me Among Them last spring, it really felt like a spring, because it was the first novel I’d loved in ages after a long cold winter. The magical elements of her story about a girl who grows to be seven feet tall and is blessed with a strange omniscience were so perfectly countered with a realism that kept the story’s feet on the ground, and the entire effect delighted me, which is remarkable when one notes my aversion to books about freakish sorts (confession: I am of the handful of people who hated Geek Love).

But it’s because den Hartog’s novel is not about freakishness at all that the story so resonated; instead of staring at the giant girl, we’re given the gift of the world through her eyes, and the view is extraordinary. And the novel is so rich that when I finished it, I wanted to know more.

One Thursday morning in mid-November, Kristen den Hartog came over to my house for some conversation, cheese and baked goods. We tried not to be distracted by the toddler in our midst who decimated the cheese plate and sang made-up songs. What follows is an edited version of our talk, the toddler-centric bits edited out completely (and you probably won’t even notice that at one point here, I was in the other room changing a diaper). 

Kristen den Hartog is a novelist, memoir writer, mom, sister, wife, daughter and incredible kids’ book bloggerAnd Me Among Them is due out soon in the U.S. as The Girl Giant. Her previous novels are Water Wings, The Perpetual Ending, and Origin of Haloes. The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-torn Holland, was written with her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, and they are now at work on another collaboration. She lives in Toronto with her husband, visual artist Jeff Winch, and their daughter.

I: Where did And Me Among Them begin?

Kdh: At first it was a short story about parents whose son is a giant and dies of complications from his condition. Much of that early draft focused on their loss and how they tried to get over it. Then I decided I wanted the boy to be a girl, because it presented more complicated body issues. It isn’t easy to be a teenage girl, even with a normal sized body, so I was interested in exploring that, and the more I did it, the more I realized I couldn’t have her die. I didn’t want her to be a victim. I wanted her to be powerful and strong, which is why I told the story as if she was looking down on her life from above, seeing things she couldn’t possibly see. I kept thinking, I know it can’t be that way, but I’m just going to plow through and do it because it feels right. I’m so glad I persisted, because that unusual perspective seems to me the very core of the novel.

I: I’m also interested in the Diane Arbus photo Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents in the Bronx, which you mention in your acknowledgements. How did that factor into your creation of Ruth?

KD: I’ve known about that photo for a long time. What I love about it is how ordinary the background is and how ordinary the parents are, but he’s just rising up and changing everything by being there.

The image inspired me because of the sheer size of the boy in relation to his parents. But also I thought, when our daughter Nellie was born, in a way her presence was like that too. She was this massive force. Even though she was a normal-sized child, everything changes when you have a baby.

I: The novel literalizes so many things that I’ve only ever seen in metaphor—I’m thinking of “bird’s eye view”,  “head in the clouds”, even the image of a child’s fumbling fingers playing with a dollhouse, sentences like, “After she arrived, the roof of our house came off.”  It occupies this strange space between  awake and dreaming, between plausible and otherwise, between metaphor and concrete. And it’s kind of a constraint to be writing in a space like that. Or did you think so?

KD: It just came really naturally. It felt like the right way to tell the story. I knew that because I was writing about an actual medical condition, there were things I needed to get right, like how it feels to inhabit a body like that, to hold a pencil, or to walk down stairs when your feet are so huge; and what can be done medically for such a person. But there had to be this playful, magical quality too, so the reader could embrace the idea of Ruth telling the story from above, and watch with her as her life unfolds.

I ended up reading other accounts like that written by people who knew a giant. So that’s how I got to understand what it’s like to be in a body like that, because they’d talk about the size of the hands and the difficulty of walking down stairs.

I: Did you come across any accounts written by giants themselves?

KdH: I came across some interviews with a woman called Sandy Allen who just died recently, actually, and her life story was very useful to me because she was born around the same time as Ruth. But mostly I read accounts by people writing about a brother or an uncle.

I: Which makes sense, actually, considering how much your story is about the family dynamics. Which was part of the reason it reminded me of a Carol Shields book, how you illuminate the ordinary in the same way she does. Your book is rife with allusions to children’s books, and the stories about giants you mentioned, but I wonder if it has any less overt antecedents?

KdH: I tend to stay away from things that feel too familiar to the project I’m working on. So for instance, when I was writing Water Wings, I read a lot about bugs and butterflies, gathering the facts I needed to create my characters’ world. This time it was the fact side of being a giant that I was looking for, and also the details I could mine from fairy-tales. I didn’t want to read novels about close family relationships and the connections between people. Those things needed to come from inside me or be the sparks I notice in my daily life.

But also, books creep in. There’s a book I read with Nellie, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg. It’s about a donkey named Sylvester who has a magic pebble and wishes himself into a rock because a lion is nearby. And he can’t wish his way out again, so he’s gone missing and his donkey parents are terrified and can’t find him anywhere.

It’s a heartbreaking story to read to a child, because every parent has had those terrifying thoughts. So those kinds of books are always in my head, since they explore what I write about as well—family, relationships, and the things that pull us together, as well as the things that threaten to pull us apart.

I: How has reading with your daughter and a focus on children’s books changed you as a reader and as a writer?

KdH: It’s been amazing to either rediscover or find new stories with her. It’s such a moving thing. And blogging about what we read together is wonderful because it means the stories stay with me longer. I have to put my thoughts about them into words, so I appreciate them more. As with a book club. When you sit and discuss a book with others, you get so much more out of it. I: What’s different about reading with kids too is that as an adult, you don’t very often read with people. But as a family, we’ve found ourselves talking about characters in books as a kind of shorthand, connected with ordinary life.

KdH: We’ve just gone through the whole Harry Potter series, which had us all three reading together. We got up in the morning and read at the breakfast table and then as soon as we were all together again, we would read. And in fact, that has stuck with us, because we did it so regularly with those books. The first thing Nellie says when she gets up is, “Don’t forget the book, Mom!”

I: Something else that interests me, because you talk about things creeping into books, is that I found that in your book, the outside world didn’t appear to creep in so often. There were a couple of references to songs on the radio, but we never know the song. The one exception to this is when Iris says that “women have finally had enough and they’re beginning to fight back,” and I guess this is around 1960. But otherwise, we don’t get a sense of the popular culture, and I wondered if that was a deliberate omission and what role did it play?

KdH: I wanted to keep specific reference pulls you out of that, and makes you flip to your own experience.

I: And also makes you measure the plausibility of what’s going on.

KdH: It pulls the reader up off the page, I think. It can be very effective, but in this story, I felt their world needed to be contained, closed off like the parents were as people, and that certain things needed to be blurred.

I: Which is unusual with writers writing about that time because the popular culture is such an easy reference point.

KdH: Yes. But to be honest I’m usually put off by that as a reader.

I: But there was one way the world did creep in. I reread this book around Remembrance Day, and what I noticed that I hadn’t the first time is that it’s such a war novel. It’s a domestic novel, so much about motherhood, but war is always in the background. And one of Elpeth’s aunts makes the point that “the world needs war”. Did your novel need war as well?

KdH: I think so, though that happened organically. Before this book, I had been writing The Occupied Garden with my sister so we were steeped in war research for a long time. It took me ages to move on to a new project because the work on that book had affected me so deeply. And when I finally did, I made Ruth’s mom an English warbride and her father a soldier, because it fit with the era I had chosen. At the time, it wasn’t something I thought about a lot. Then as the story progressed and I began to focus on making Ruth powerful and not a victim, I wanted to underscore the fact that James and Elspeth had brought their own baggage into their relationship from separate places. The problems didn’t all come from Ruth and the difficulty of having a misfit child. The more James and Elspeth fail to talk about their pasts and how the war affected them, the greater the distance grows between them. I love that point in the book where James is trying to decide whether or not to tell Elspeth about his affair with Iris. He absolutely wants to do the right thing, and he decides that his confession needs to be about his experience on the beach at Dieppe that day rather than about his infidelity. His guilt and despair about that day is what’s always been in the way of them growing closer. And Elspeth has her own confession in that sense too.

I: It’s interesting because the way that so many writers deal with the 1950s and 1960s and their focus on popular culture gives the illusion that the war was really far away by that point. I guess that’s what people were trying to do, to get on with things, but it really was so close, and your book shows that.

KdH: The children who were born in that time were born into this new world, and yet their parents had experienced all that tragedy and didn’t know how to talk about it.

I: But even if they didn’t talk about it, it was there.

KdH: And that was something that I went back and refined so that it was mentioned consistently, because I realized how much the war had really become part of the story.

I: But motherhood is also part of the story. You write about it so brilliantly. In fact, the first piece I ever read by you was “Draw Crying” in The New Quarterly.

KdH: Which was written when Nellie was Harriet’s age.

I: And Harriet wasn’t even born. I was pregnant. I remember being so struck by the piece. And then rereading it again later and realizing I didn’t even get it the first time.

KdH: Because you can’t, right? Until you go through it yourself.

I: Which you write about in And Me Among Them. That excerpt from when the baby was born—the feeding, the crying. It’s such a small part of the novel, just a paragraph. And if I hadn’t have experienced it, I might have just skipped over that part and not realized the weight of it.

KdH: I’ve always written about families. I never set out to create a body of work about families and relationships but I can see how that’s become a constant thread that runs through my work. And in the beginning, I was often taking the child’s point of view. It’s a really natural place for me to go. Even though I can’t really remember a lot of my childhood very clearly, I remember the feeling so I can write about that very effectively and I enjoy doing it.

But what’s newer to me, and what started to come after I had Nellie, was writing about the parents’ point of view in contrast to the child’s. And I just love that. I think I began to really get it when I was working on The Occupied Garden. The book is about my dad’s family in Holland in WW2, and there’s a point in the story when a bomb landed in my dad’s backyard. He and his brother were outside playing, and they were both very badly wounded—my dad lost his leg and my uncle lost his arm.

My grandfather at that time was inside the house and had heard the plane coming. He didn’t have time to run out and he called out the window to them to run, but of course it was too late, and I remember collecting the information for the book and asking my dad about that day, which he’d always downplayed as being no big deal. But this time I asked him, “What do you think it would have felt like for you were in Opa’s place? If you were inside the house and you were the father and you were calling to us and there was a plane coming?” And when he wrote back, he said, “I can’t believe this. I’m sitting here with tears running down my face because I’ve never thought of it that way. I always thought about it from my perspective, never  my dad’s.”

And hopefully I would have thought of asking him that question even if I’d never had Nellie, because as a good writer you should be able to imagine all kinds of things without having to live through it—

I: Like how you imagined being  7 feet tall.

KdH: Yeah, but it does sort of open things up once you’re actually living it, once you’re actually being a parent.

I: In a way, all the characters in the novel are set apart from one another, and yet, you have so firmly demonstrated that we’re not so far apart in that you’ve imagined what it’s like to Ruth. You’ve allowed us to understand it. There’s such connection there. I mean, at one point, very briefly, you write from the point of view of a strawberry. You show that we really can cross these lines.

KdH: It’s the connections that are really important to me. The connections between people and the natural world around them are more important to me than the story. The connections are the story. And some people love that and totally get that, and some people want something more straightforward. But I can’t do it any other way. I can only do it my way.

I: At some point in the book, you write about giants needing to be seen to be believed. I think it’s in regards to a book that Elspeth was reading about giants. But you managed to show us Ruth without us having to see her.  And you make what she sees even more important than how she looks. Was that always the more interesting question to you?

KdH: Yes. I was interested in how she saw her parents, and people like Suzy and Patrick too, and those descriptions of their dusty, sandy, sun-kissed look;  when she looks down at Suzy’s part line with the bug bites. When we do see Ruth, it’s because she’s imagining what Suzy sees, and then she decides that she doesn’t want to spoil the moment of her imagining by seeing herself that way, and she puts the cloth over her mirror. It was more important for me to imagine inhabiting her body than to imagine looking at her. If we saw her too much from the outside, there would be too much distance while reading her story. I wanted to get across her sense of compassion, and empathy, and how she’s so set apart from people but able to understand them in a lovely way, even if they can’t return the gesture.

I: She’s a curiously unreliable narrator though. I love it when she talks about how the story is “her truth”, if not the truth.

KdH: Whenever anybody tells a story, it’s their version. That’s one thing my sister and I learned while working on The Occupied Garden, and interviewing my dad and his siblings about their lives. They would often tell contradicting stories. For instance, in the story about my dad and my uncle being outside when the bomb dropped, one version says that my youngest uncle (who was a baby) was asleep in his crib and didn’t wake up until after it was all over, but he remembers walking through the house and crunching over the broken glass, and coming down and seeing what had happened. It’s just a flicker of a memory and he doesn’t know if it’s real or something he created from the facts he got later. That was one of the most gratifying things about writing nonfiction – figuring out how to incorporate the various versions, and still tell a “true” story.

I: As a writer, does fiction or nonfiction feel like the more natural fit for you?

KdH: Fiction still feels more natural, because it’s more familiar;  it’s what I’ve done for so long. But I like the constraints of nonfiction. It’s kind of like cooking, when you say, I can’t go out and buy anything, I have to use what’s here, and I have to make something really delicious. That to me is like nonfiction, and fiction is when you can go out and get whatever you want. It’s up to you, it’s a blank slate.

I: But sometimes a blank slate can be as intimidating as a stocked pantry.

KdH: So true.

I: Who are some of your favourite writers?

KdH: I think I answer this question differently every time it’s asked. Today, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Carson McCullers come to mind. For children, Roald Dahl and William Steig.

I: What one book would you recommend that your readers read, in addition to your own?

KdH: Do you mean in conjunction with? That would be an interesting question to flip to readers. Two friends told me they read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn after reading my book, and loved the fit. What comes to mind for me is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I’m stunned to think she was only 23 when she wrote that book.

I: Who were the writers who made you want to write?

KdH: Hmm. I wanted to write before I could read. Then as an older child, I was as curious about L.M. Montgomery as I was about Anne. I was well into my 20s when I finally figured out what I wanted to write about. I suppose Alice Munro had a hand in that, because she wrote about characters and places that were familiar to me.

I: What are you reading right now?

KdH: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

October 29, 2011

Author Interviews at Pickle Me This: Johanna Skibsrud

I was disappointed to have to decline the opportunity to have an interview in person with Johanna Skibsrud as part of her IFOA appearances in Toronto, and grateful when Skibsrud and her publishers agreed to an email interview instead. Though upon rereading her latest book This Will Be Difficult and Other Stories in preparation, I found myself discovering new depths to the stories that I hadn’t even glimpsed, which made me think that an interview might not even be necessary, that the answers to all my questions would be found within these stories themselves if I just looked hard enough…

Johanna Skibsrud was born in Nova Scotia, and is currently completing her PhD in English Literature at the Université de Montréal, with a focus on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Her first book of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, was published in 2008 and shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first book of poetry by a Canadian poet. A second book of poetry, I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being, was published in April, 2010 and was short-listed for the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Her debut novel, The Sentimentalists, was awarded the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, making her the youngest writer to ever win Canada’s most prestigious literary prize. You can read my review of her latest book This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories here.

I: So many of your stories are constructed around questions of theoretical concerns, around ideas of aesthetics, epistemology, language, time and place. When you sit down to a blank page, do you begin with these questions or with narrative? And how does fiction prove useful in generating answers?

JS: All my stories start from some small narrative kernel – an interesting anecdote (told to me or overheard), an image that begs a story, a memory.  The ideas the stories encounter and engage with grow from that starting point. I am concerned with ideas, aesthetics, epistemology, language, time and place—very much so–but only because I am interested in people, and history; of the reality and intricacies of our relationships and every-day lives. I think it is impossible to separate philosophy and epistemology from the everyday—even though we often try.  On a social, political and environmental level this impulse can be very dangerous.

I: Your prose style has divided your critics, and much attention has been paid to the construction of your sentences. Does this surprise you? How would you advise that a sentence be constructed? And echoing the words of Annie Dillard, do you like sentences? Does being a poet shape the way your make yours?

JS: I am flattered that so much attention has been paid to my language construction, but I often think too much is made of it. My writing style—especially in the stories—is not particularly complex, and hardly avant-garde. It is certainly meant to be read slowly and carefully, however, and according to a rhythm that reflects the difficulties and necessities of articulating the writing’s content. My ambition is not to  offer the fact of the writing or of language itself, but it is certainly to pay attention to the implications of rhythm, style and language.

My advice regarding the writing of sentences would always be for the writer to follow their own inner sense of logic and rhythm while at the same time never failing to convey their meaning in the most direct possible way. Sometimes meaning is difficult—this takes more difficult sentences. I don’t mind it when sentences are complicated or difficult if they need to be, but I certainly don’t set out to make them that way. Just the opposite.  A lot of (what I see as) the misunderstanding regarding the “difficulty” of my sentences stems from an unhealthy misconception as to the supposed “autonomy” of what people think of as “straight prose.” Prose is always as constructed as poetry is and often even more so because of how deeply invested it is in recreating the biases and blindnesses of everyday culture and language-use.

The idea that “poetry” is something that can be isolated, and stuck on the back shelf of the bookstore or library is disturbing to me.  That said, the last thing that I would aspire to is what in Canada often gets called “poetic fiction”—the term is often synonymous with loose, floppy, or decorative language.  Good poetry is the farthest thing from this: it is devastatingly crisp and succinct. It can say (what feels sometimes like) everything in just a single brief image, a single well-placed word.  I think that all literature should be poetic in this sense. It should pay attention not only to the limitations but also to the inherent possibilities of its form.

I: What’s the genesis of the stories in This Will be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories? Were they written with an eye toward collection? Have some of these been published elsewhere, and where?

JS: The stories were all written between 2004 and 2007. I revised them after that incessantly. I tried to  tighten them and bring out what I thought was most important to each.  In 2008 I put them together as a collection and began to think of them more consciously in that way.  The characters in all nine stories are united by the desire to push past—and overcome, when possible—the “limits” of perception, communication and understanding.  The stories “belong together” in this way—each confronting what is “difficult to explain” in its different way.  But the stories are certainly not intended to come together seamlessly in a comprehensive whole. Although some of the stories are explicitly connected and share a cast of characters (a network of American ex-patriates living in Paris), many are not.  There are questions that get asked, or ideas that get introduced that remain—for the characters, just as they do for me—unanswered, unresolved.

Four of the stories were published previously. The first to be published was “The Electric Man.” It was brought out as a limited edition chapbook by Montreal’s Delirium Press, edited by Heather Jessup and Kate Hall.  “The Limit” won The Stickman Review short story contest in 2005, and was published in their on-line journal.  “This will be difficult to explain” (originally titled “This will be difficult to explain, and other stories”) was runner-up in a Glimmertrain Magazine contest and published in 2009.  Finally, “French Lessons” appeared in Zoetrope: All Story in 2011.  All of the stories that were previously published (except “French Lessons”) went through extensive overhauls before appearing in the book.

I: What do the stories in this book tell us about your preoccupations as a writer?

JS: Like me, the stories are preoccupied with the relationship between the abstract and concrete, the personal and the collective, the infinite and the everyday.  Also, with limitations—both personal and historical. There is a desire to move past them in the stories, but also an awareness of the inevitable adherence, or return, to the limiting structures of culture and language.

I: In both “Angus’s Bull” and “Cleats”, there are moments in which mothers become disturbingly aware of their own children’s disturbing awareness of what’s going on in the world around them, to their openness to experience. The mothers seem to fear both their power and powerlessness at once. Which one do you imagine is most real and most terrifying?

JS: I think the two things cannot actually be separated. Just like with language.  The moment you say something—the moment you settle on a single word to stand in for something that the word is not—you assert power over that named thing, but you also open it up to a (far greater) powerlessness: what it cannot say.  It becomes instantly impossible for the named thing to speak for, or even directly to, what exceeds it, but at the same time that which exceeds it is afforded (against the newly circumscribed space of the word) a certain definition and form.   It is possible that, at this point, genuine contact becomes more, rather than less possible.  I think this must be true for parenting—and for politics, too, though I don’t have any personal experience practising either.  We are constantly, in so many areas of life, forced to confront the limitations that arise due to our concentrated efforts to avoid, or move past, them. What is most terrifying is when powerlessness is not acknowledged; when power is asserted without recognition of its blind-spots, prejudices and limitations.

I: How does geography and topography influence how your characters think of place and themselves within that place? Is it like Daniel in “The Limit” who thinks that living in a place where the limits are clearly demarked enables you to better situate yourself, or like Martha in “Signac’s Boats” who is disappointed to find that limited perspectives are decidedly portable, and that she’d brought hers halfway across the world to Paris? Are limitations real or imposed/imagined?

JS: Again, both.  Limitations are real because we imagine them that way.  Reality and the imagination (just as Wallace Stevens spent his twin careers—as both poet and as insurance salesman—investigating) are inextricably intertwined. Art and literature can expand our personal, as well as our collective, imaginations.  It can open up a space of empathy, and from this space can open the possibility of genuine action and change.

I: Setting is so essential to your work. Is it necessary for you to have experienced a place in order to set a story there?

JS: Not necessarily—though I do like to have some sense of the territory familiar to my characters.  I haven’t been to Red Deer, Alberta, but I have been nearby.  I think I have been almost everywhere else that I mention in the collection. I think that a writer can’t possibly avoid writing “from life” but should never feel, or be, limited by that.  The material that any one of us draws from can be almost infinitely expanded, reinvented and reimagined, by combining our “real life” experiences in different ways.

I: For me, the definition of growing up lies in Martha’s revelation of love as a simplifying force, “when she’d thought it would have made her at the same time more integral, and more complex.” Do you think this is maturity? Is it a compromise?

JS: I do think that Martha’s revelation indicates the process of maturation that takes place over the story–and I don’t think it’s a compromise. So much of learning to live in the world is, I think, about learning to appreciate relationships and experience in “simple form.” To not will them into being something else, or a preparation for something else. Art helps us look at things in this way, I think—helps us learn how to look.  It can help teach us how to appreciate things from a little distance, by thinking of them in relation to a wider frame of reference. The trick—and this is what Martha struggles with—is to not let this “simplicity” depreciate the value of the thing.  To, instead, like a good poem or a painting (think of Frank O’Hara, or Georgia O’Keefe), allow that achieved simplicity to open the experience up—to reveal its inner richness, and complexity.

I: What books have been most formative in your experiences both as reader and as writer?

JS: The books that made me re-think what writing was capable of were (in order of their appearance in my life): Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and Vladimir Nabokov’s  Pale Fire.  Also, the work of the poets Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery and Lyn Hejinian.  And you brought up Annie Dillard—I should mention also, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and For the Time Being.

I: What are you reading right now?

JS: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum and David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster.

September 26, 2011

Author Interviews at Pickle Me This: Jon Klassen

I’m excited to be part of the Jon Klassen blog tour for I Want My Hat Back. At our house, we first discovered Klassen’s work with Cat’s Night Out, which not only won the Governor General’s Award for Illustration, but also received the enormous honour of being our Best Book of Library Haul on July 25th 2011. I also enjoyed  his interview at the fabulous kids’ book blog 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Clearly, Klassen is an interesting guy (check out his blog for some proof) and I’d love to know more about the trajectory of his career, why he’s so fixated on oblong shapes, what his own hat looks like (and if he’s ever lost it), but I am not going to ask.

Most of the writers I interview on my blog write chapter books (for adults) instead of picture books, and I have strong feelings about these interviews focusing on the works themselves rather than their creators, and just because the work in question here is 250 words in length shouldn’t make it an exception. I Want My Hat Back is also good enough that it doesn’t have to be an exception. In these 250 words and the drawings, even with all the understatement in both, there is a whole lot going on, between the lines in particular.

Klassen is an Ontario-born illustrator now living in Los Angeles. He was kind enough to answer my questions via email.

I: So, is this a book whose words accompany the drawings, or is it the other way around? Was it from images or words that this story originated? If it was from images, was the story implicit in the pictures, or did you have to go searching for a plot?

JK: I’m not sure it’s either one or the other, as far as what accompanies what. The story came from just the idea of a book with the title “I Want My Hat Back”, and a character on the cover who wasn’t wearing a hat. It was done being written before the pictures, but the writing had the notes about the pictures in it. I wanted a story where the characters didn’t have to do very much physically, so knowing that helped in the writing, but it wasn’t a case of having the characters first and then looking for something for them to do.

I: The bear’s character is rife with contradiction: he has a single-minded fixation upon locating his hat, yet he misses the hat when it’s right before his eyes. When the situation has never been more urgent and he fears never seeing his hat again, his response is to lie down on the ground in despair. When we read him aloud at our house, he speaks in a monotone. How do you read the bear?

JK: I read the whole thing in monotone too. I wanted to try to and make it like the animals were given lines to read off of cue cards. That’s why, at the beginning, the animals are looking at us and not each other. The bear doesn’t see the hat initially because he’s sort of in the play by then and is just waiting for that scene to be done, so he’s not really paying attention. When he realises later what the rabbit has done, it’s like he forgets he’s in the play and becomes a bear again and does what a bear would do if he learned that this had been done to him.

I: I can understand the bear’s limited perspective though. Don’t tell anybody, but the first time I read your book, I completely missed the twist on the last page, the “hat on the rabbit’s head”, to speak in metaphoric terms. One man’s obvious is another man’s subtle, or maybe it depends how fast one man is reading. How do you draw the line? (I’m speaking in metaphoric terms again re. line-drawing)

JK: Keeping that last thing sort of subtle has turned out to be pretty handy when people wonder if the story is too mean for kids. Visually, the problem the book started with is solved at the end, and younger kids, I think, might stop there. That what actually happened is kind of easy to miss sort of saves it for older kids who are reading it to themselves, or are at least paying more attention to the words. I don’t want the book to come off as antagonistic or especially cynical or anything, and I hope that by stashing it away in that last paragraph that we’ve already heard earlier, it gets excused from that.

I: The key to this story’s success is its really simple language, and repetition. Were these a limitation or an aid to you as wrote the story? Similarly with the basic nature of the drawings (ie that the animals are devoid of facial expression). Can limits have an expansive quality?

JK: I think they definitely can. I’d never written a book before, so the formality of narration was really intimidating and I kept feeling like a fake. When the idea came up of doing the whole thing in dialogue I got a lot more comfortable with it. The stiffness of the language was really the only way I felt comfortable getting the facts across, and the drawings of the animals are kind of the same way. The feeling I wanted to get into the illustrations of them was the same expression you get from a pet that you dress up. They look kind of surprised, they don’t want to move, and they are just generally unimpressed.  I think they all have better things they could be doing, but I have this story I want to do, so just hold still for a minute.

I: Is this a story about lying? About complacency? About carnivores? About hats? How do you explain it?

JK: I like to think that it’s just a story about itself. It came together so randomly that I can’t really claim a big message. The only abstract idea I had when it was being made was about the rabbit being indifferent, and how threatening indifference can feel. When the bear comes back to him and accuses him of something he’s pretty obviously guilty of, the rabbit doesn’t have a reaction. And when it becomes clearer what the punishment is going to be for this, he still doesn’t really react. He’s silent and unapologetic for this thing he did, and there really isn’t any way you can think of dealing with such indifference. There’s no reasoning with it, so the bear does what he does.

I: Until the story’s conclusion, the bear takes real action just once, when he helps out the turtle and lifts him atop the stone he’s been struggling to climb all day. But then the turtle is stranded there, isn’t he? Isn’t that kind of terrifying? What happens to the turtle??

JK: I think the turtle’s going to be fine. I wanted the bear to do something like that to remind us that even though he’s polite and sad and everything, he is still physically capable of picking most of these guys up off the ground, which is an important thing to keep in mind.
It sounds strange to say given that the turtle only has one line in the book, but I think I “get” him more than most of the other characters in the story, so I’m hoping there will be a book just about him some day.

Blog Tour Stops:
Tuesday, Sept. 20 – UK: Playing by the Book
Wednesday, Sept. 21 – AUS: Kids’ Book Capers
Thursday, Sept. 22 – US: Not Just for Kids
Friday, Sept. 23 – UK: Bringing Up Charlie
Saturday, Sept. 24 – AUS: My Book Corner
Sunday, Sept. 25 – UK: Wham Bham
Monday, Sept. 26 – Canada: Pickle Me This
Tuesday, Sept. 27 – US: There’s a Book
Wednesday, Sept. 28 – AUS: My Little Bookcase
Thursday, Sept. 29 – US: Chris Rettstatt

August 9, 2011

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Carolyn Black

Until I read The Odious Child, Carolyn Black existed foremost in my mind as being the woman who looks exactly like a girl I worked with at McDonalds when I was seventeen, and then I read the book and discovered she was also brilliant. I’ve met her twice, we have several mutual friends, and I’ve never met anyone as well-talked-about behind her back as Carolyn. For good reason, as I discovered when she was kind enough to conduct the following interview with me over a week last month via email. 

Carolyn Black’s stories have appeared in literary journals across Canada. “Serial Love” was published in the prestigious Journey Prize anthology, and “At World’s End, Falling Off” won Honourable Mention at the National Magazine Awards. The Odious Child (Nightwood Editions, 2011) is her first collection of short stories.

I: I will begin rereading The Odious Child today, and have been looking forward to it. And I want to begin our interview by asking you the question that has been perplexing me since reading your book for the first time– where did you come from? (As a writer, I mean.) None of the standard equation “Author A meets Author X” lazy reviewer staples quite fits with your style. What writers do you regard as your influences?

CB: Writers I enjoyed reading while writing the collection, who seemed to enter below the ribcage, were Kazuo Ishiguro, AM Homes, and Sheila Heti. I read Muriel Spark throughout high school, and later Nathanael West, Eudora Welty, and Angela Carter. Sexuality, satire, and the surreal are the common elements. I read Miranda July and found her hilarious, but then had a reaction against her, so the first story in The Odious Child is almost a parody of her style, a musing about what would happen if I put a Miranda July character into a story about various degradations … would the childlike language be able to support the story? I am still waiting to have my grand passion, when it comes to influence, to tear out my hair at night because I cannot be a particular writer. I’d really like to have this, an influence whom I wanted to marry and kill, but it hasn’t happened yet although there have been some close calls. I remain optimistic, however, for I am a romantic.

I: See, this is why you’re tricky, Carolyn Black. I’ve never read Miranda July (I had a reaction against her too after seeing her movie, and decided I’d had enough Miranda July for one lifetime) so I missed the joke. I understood what you were up to though—your story is generous enough to contain its own “key” so to speak, as your narrator explains the work she does labelling exhibits at a museum:

“I pile the simple words on top of each other—like beads on a string or pennies in a roll of fetishes hoarded in a cabinet [!]—and connect them with a series of coordinating conjunctions.. The logic must surge forward, as it does when a child tells a story.”

Sometimes it’s not so much that logic surges forward when a child tells a story than the listener indulges the child in listening to a story without surges. There is reward to this of course, as there is with the spare prose of Ishiguro, Sheila Heti, and also you. But do you think that a bit of indulgence is also required on the part of a reader in order to appreciate writing like this? In addition to the usual close reading required of any literary fiction? Or do you think that all literary writers need to be indulged a little bit sometimes?

CB: Are your indulgent readers those readers whose patience is being tried in some way but, still, they persevere? I think this is what you mean. It is curious you would group writers as different as Ishiguro and Heti together, sharing a “spareness” that tried the patience. What would that shared spareness be? Inexplicability? Their works do contain dark matter. Even though Ishiguro writes from inside his characters’ heads, their perceptions of the outer world, to which we do not have direct access, are distorted. The author conceals. And Sheila Heti is not, perhaps, merely concealing, but writing a world where a hidden world does not exist. I remember reading The Middle Stories for the first time, trying to figure out what objects represented. What did the rubber doll mean? What did the flyaway curls mean? Why was a story told about a miserable dumpling that had fallen to the floor? What did it all mean? Why was the author not helping us! The writing was a big fuck you to the reader, which surprised me and made me laugh. I am so used to having everything, every motivation, explained while the plot grinds to a halt. For me, now, writing that explains everything requires a good deal of patience, if only because I’ve read so much of it; writing that resists explication seems beautiful and true. (more…)

November 15, 2010

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Zoe Whittall on The Middle Ground

Photo by Shannon Webb Campbell

Zoe Whittall is author of novels Holding Still For As Long As Possible and Bottle Rocket Hearts, which was named a Globe & Mail Best Book of 2007. She won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Award in 2008, was shortlisted for the 2010 ReLit Award, and is currently adapting both novels for screen. Her poetry books include The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life, The Emily Valentine Poems and Precordial Thump. She edited the anthology Geeks, Misfits & Outlaws in 2003. She lives in Toronto, where she works as a journalist.

When the clocks went back two weekends ago, I used my extra hour to devour Zoe Whittall’s latest novel. The Middle Ground is short, fast-paced and plot-driven, part of the Rapid Reads Series by Orca Book Publishers. I was particularly interested in the book as a tool for adults with low literacy, permitting them access to the bookish magic that so many of us are lucky to take for granted.

Zoe was kind enough to answer some of my questions about Rapid Reads, and writing a book like The Middle Ground.

I: Can you tell me about Rapid Reads? How did you come to be involved in writing for the series?

ZW: I learned about the Rapid Reads publishing program at Orca through my agent, Samantha Haywood at TLA. She knew they were looking for authors, and I had just finished writing HSFALAP and was taking a creative breather between big projects. I also knew I was about to start working on the script for the Bottle Rocket Hearts film. I was drawn to the idea of writing a short book that was straightforward and high on plot and suspense. I’ve never been that great at plot, so I figured this would be a really good exercise for me as a writer, and something that would help me when I started writing the script, because you always have to be mindful of action and conflict in every single scene. I read a whole bunch of mystery novels as research into how to craft suspense, and built on that. I’d spent years reading a lot of poetic prose, experimental narratives and literary novels, so switching gears this way was very helpful, I think, in the long run.

I: What direction were you given by the publisher?

ZW: I was given very specific direction by my publisher, and wrote several drafts of plot outlines before they approved it and we signed the contracts. Basically, the book had so be short, with simple vocabulary, employ no flashbacks, have no more than a handful of characters, and it had to move forward as fast as possible. It sounds easier than it was.

I: What challenges were surprising?

ZW: I only had a limited amount of pages in which to explore who Missy is and why she would decide to make so many unlikely or irrational choices. I read a fair amount about Stockholm syndrome and how different personalities might react to crisis or violence. I thought a lot about how she might feel about the three major aspects of her life – her job and financial stability, her love life, and her child and family – and if all three of those constants in her life were disrupted in one day, the same day that she is a victim of a crime, how would she deal?

I wrote the book while visiting the small town where my partner grew up, so I felt like the setting was easy to settle into it. I also spent my childhood on a farm, and identify with rural life, so that was comfortable. But Missy is about as different from me as you can imagine, so that was a challenge, but a great one. It’s like playing dress-up in a way.

It was challenging to orchestrate the crime scene as the end – I spoke with some police and former police to know how the cops would enter the space, and if Missy would be considered a victim or accomplice, all of those technical details. I drew a lot of diagrams, about things like “if his back is turned, and she’s by the garbage bins, and the people run towards the door, who would be able to see who, and how would they move fast in this short period of time? What could she say that would provoke him to shoot, where could she be shot so that she wouldn’t be die..” those kinds of details, etc.

I: Did you have to know Missy as deeply as you’d come to understand a character from your other novels? Was there a different way of going about coming to understand what she was?

ZW: Because I wrote this book in about three months, the bulk of it in a few weeks, I wasn’t as immersed in the story as I was with Bottle Rocket Hearts (ten years) and Holding Still (three years). I went about understanding her more methodically, strategically almost. All of my other characters generally appeared to me in those magical unconscious moments and, and then once I figured out some of their basic personality traits and personal histories, I slowly started making them do things. I knew Missy had to go through the story I’d decided ahead of time, so I got to know her in terms of what I know had to happen.

I: What is considered “simple” vocabulary? The vocabulary level didn’t seem terribly conspicuous as I read your book– did you have to work against your own writerly instincts to make it work, or did it come fairly naturally?

ZW: Sentences had to be shorter, and vocabulary had to be at a certain grade level. I can’t remember which one. When I handed in my first draft, the editor said they had to take it down a few notches with regards to some word choices, but that’s about it.

I: As a writer, what lessons did you learn about plot?

ZW: I had to insert some sort of conflict into each chapter, she always had to be making a decision or reacting somehow, so that it would move along. I suppose I learned not to be afraid of action, because it can be difficult to write in a way that is not cliche and television-like.

I: I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be an adult with low literacy, and having most learning resources at your level geared towards children or idiots. So what a wonderful novel The Middle Ground is, in addition to a riveting read for anyone. Have you had the opportunity to receive any reader feedback on your novel?

ZW: Yes, it must be very difficult. I have not had any opportunity to hear feedback yet. Because it was just nominated for a Golden Oak, I will be making some author appearances in libraries and I hope to meet some readers at that point. It’s an entirely new market to me, so I’m looking forward to connecting with potential new readers.

September 30, 2010

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Alison Pick

I met Alison Pick not through literary circles, but because last year she moved in across the street from one of my dearest friends, which was we how ended up attending a babies program at the library together in the depths of winter, and then I happened to run into her one day while I was buying swim diapers at Shoppers Drug Mart. (See, artists are everywhere, out in the world– it’s amazing).

I’d read her first novel The Sweet Edge, and many of her reviews in The Globe & Mail, and I was excited to learn she had a second novel coming out. I read Far To Go over a couple of days in August, and loved it, and it was a pleasure to read it once again in preparation for this interview. Alison and I met up over caffeine and sugar a few weeks ago to get our conversation started, and her little daughter was understanding when Harriet broke her tambourine. Our interview proper was conducted via email during the weeks that followed.

I: I am curious about the idea of adherence to facts in fiction, which becomes much more important in a historical novel than a contemporary one. What kind of factual truths were important for you to achieve in Far to Go as opposed to in your previous novel, The Sweet Edge?

AP: Writing Far to Go was different from writing The Sweet Edge in many ways, one of the primary ones being the need to “get it right” historically. There were two kinds of factual truths I was trying to achieve. Firstly, all the little details needed to line up. Street names, makes and models of cars, kitchen appliances, hair styles: I did a lot of googling, I admit, to ensure all of the above were properly situated in time and place. I wanted all of the small details to work in concert to create the second kind of “truth,’ which was an overall sense of historical aliveness. There’s a danger in historical fiction that the research appears too obvious, too self-conscious. I used hundreds of little facts, but tried to blend them into the background so the reader wouldn’t be conscious of them. Like stitches, I wanted the “facts” of my research, in effect, to disappear within the fabric of the narrative.

I: From a writer’s perspective, what is the relationship between historical aliveness and contemporary aliveness? Issues of period aside, do both kinds of literature “come true” in the same essential ways?

AP: Yes, I think that ideally they do, and that the desired goal is to make the one feel like the other. An historical book needs to be grounded in the small details of its own time and place, but the characters and their motivations should feel entirely contemporary.

I: It’s interesting though that in the present day passages of your novel, we don’t see the same attention to specific detail. Part of this, of course, is that your narrator is to be somewhat of a disembodied voice, but we do come to understand her and her environment even without knowing what shade of nail-polish she’s wearing, for example. So what kind of stitches would you say your narrative is constructed of in these parts of the story?

AP: Yes, good point. The present-day narrator is vague around the edges at the beginning of the story and basically remains so for the duration. Of course, I’m trying to conceal her identity for the purpose of narrative tension, hoping the reader will initially think she is the now-grown Pepik, and then, upon discovering her sex, have to revise. And her theorizing is also somewhat in keeping with her vocation – as a professor of Holocaust Studies focused on the Kindertransport she is uniquely situated to offer overall sweeping commentary on its themes (history, memory, dislocation).

Still, though, I did worry that her vagueness would wind up being a weakness, and tried in various revisions to make her more alive by way of nitty-gritty details. It just didn’t seem to work. At least not in any way I was happy with, and in the end I trusted my original intuition that she was meant to be a different kind of character from Pavel, Anneliese, or Marta. In the final pages Lisa acknowledges that she has chosen to withhold the bulk of her own story, fearing that by revealing too many specifics the overall scope might get lost. So, uh, I’m not sure how that translates in terms of fabric and stitches, but if we can switch to paint, her narrative is created with broad strokes rather than detailed brushwork! (more…)

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. (more…)

April 11, 2010

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Kerry Ryan

This is the way the world works: I met Kerry Ryan last fall when her sister married my husband’s friend, and we were introduced at the wedding reception as two Kerrys who like books. As I enjoyed meeting her, I borrowed her book The Sleeping Life from the library, and absolutely loved it. These days, I have my own copy and was very happy to reread it in preparation for this interview, which was conducted over three days last week, with Kerry answering my questions by email from her home in Winnipeg.

I: Hi Kerry. I started rereading your book this morning– the first section “Winter Itch” sure seems more foreign and exotic here in April than it did back in December, which is a relief. The first thing I want to ask you about is your collection’s narrative “I”. When I’m talking to fiction writers, I make a real point of avoiding conflation of the writer’s and the narrator’s voices, but this seems harder to do with poetry (unless we’re reading something like Gwendolyn MacEwen’s TE Lawrence poems, but even then…). Do you agree? And the following is not a veiled question as to your work’s autobiographical content, because frankly, I don’t care about that, but I would like to know how you talk about the “I” of these poems without referring to yourself. Can you?

KR: Great question! I DO find it difficult to separate the poet from the poem — both as a reader and a writer. I’m not sure why we, as readers, make these assumptions with poetry and not fiction. Is it because there’s not (generally) the same attention to character development in a poem as a story, and thus less distance between the writer and the voice? Or because there’s a tradition of poetry being confessional and soul-baring, a kind of mystique around poems coming from a deeper, more intimate place within the writer? I don’t know. But, as much as I hate stereotypes, I do think we’re usually right to deduce a poem’s “I” is the author, at least at some level.

As a poet, it’s important to me that my work be grounded in genuine experience. But that’s very different than historical accuracy. (How freeing to discover that a poem doesn’t have to be about “what actually happened,” that I could use a poem to imagine a new scenario, a new ending, a better one!) So, while the “I” in my poems shares many things in common with my actual self, especially in terms of experiences, “I” is a character. My friends and family might recognize me in certain elements, but the “I” in my poems is often smarter, more articulate and more graceful than I actually am (though sometimes she’s more lonely, sad or shy than I am). I might look at this differently if I were a more experienced, or scholarly writer, but when I talk about my poems or read them, I proudly claim my “I.” (more…)

February 18, 2010

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Amy Jones

The Author of "what boys like"

UPDATE: Amy Jones’ book reviewed in The Globe & Mail

It would have been hard not to have encountered Amy Jones’ writing during these last few years, with her stories appearing in a variety of Canadian literary journals and her 2006 CBC Literary Award for short fiction. In 2008, Amy won the Metcalf-Rooke award for What Boys Like, which was published by Biblioasis. Before the collection came out, three of its stories appeared in The New Quarterly 111, and once I read them, I knew this was a book I was going to love. It was.

I’d never met Amy until she arrived for our interview on Friday February 5th, but I can tell you now that she’s lovely. We set to talking in the living room over obligatory tea and scones, while Harriet emptied her baskets.

I: I was curious to read in your The New Quarterly interview that part of your education in short stories was learning to read them as well as to write them. What did that education entail?

AJ: I think it was just reading a lot of them. One of the first short story books I read was Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look on Love and I read it the way that a lot of people who don’t read short stories would, [thinking] “No! I wanted it to keep going. I wanted to find out what happens next.”

I had to retrain my brain to consume a short story. I think of short stories as more akin to poetry, or like art. A painting, instead of something that goes on and on. You know, I look at that painting on the wall and I take it in for what it is–

I: It was done by an elephant.

AJ: You’re kidding.

I: So maybe it’s not the best example.

AJ: No, but I see it for what it is, I get from it whatever emotion or story I think it’s telling. As opposed to sitting down and watching a movie, or reading a novel. But when I started reading short stories, I thought they would be like novels, but shorter…

So I read [the Gowdy book], and then I read The Broken Record Technique by Lee Henderson. A friend of mine gave it to me when I first started writing short stories and she was like, “You should read this if you want to write short stories.” And I read it, and I really didn’t understand how to read it. And now, it’s one of my favourite short story collections. Same with the Barbara Gowdy one.

I had to learn to slow down, I think. When I read novels, and I’m still guilty of this, I have this really bad habit of jumping to dialogue and racing through descriptions and not really savouring every single word that comes along. But in short stories, every word is so weighted that you have to spend more time with it.

I: Is there a short story collection you’d recommend for someone who wants to get into the form?

AJ: One of my favourite short story writers is Aimee Bender. I read The Girl in the Flammable Skirt because it was recommended to me early on and it totally blew me away. It was so different from anything else that I had ever read and it felt like it gave me permission to do whatever I wanted. So that’s one, and then anything by Lisa Moore.

I: What do you like about writing short stories?

AJ: I like being able to be ambiguous. Right now, I’m trying to write longer pieces, and I’m having a hard time loosening up. I really like the tightness of short stories.

I: But then for a lot of readers, that ambiguity is the problem.

AJ: I think when people say they’re turned off by the ambiguity of short stories, a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’re used to the story continuing. I get that so much: “I want to know what happens next.”

I: And they think it’s a compliment.

AJ: Totally! “You need to write a novel about this.” They say that about “Church of the Latter-Day Peaches” all the time.

I: I just wanted it edited so Marty didn’t die. Which is different.

AJ: I sort of like the idea that with a short story you can give somebody a little snapshot into a life or a situation and they can use their imagination to fill in the blanks around it.

I: So maybe learning to accept that ambiguity is part of learning to read short stories.

AJ: I think so. It’s not so much that I’m purposefully obtuse when I’m writing. I want people to know what I’m getting at in a short story, but at the same time I want readers to be able to fill in the blanks around it, to imagine what if these people lived in the world.

I: A lot of your characters are on the edge, particularly the ones we get really close to. The only ones who seem to have control, if only in their ability to manipulate people, are Leah in “A Good Girl” and Emily in “All We Will Ever Be“– both characters seen from a distance in your narrative. But if we were able to get access to their minds, the way we do with the other characters, do you think they’d be as lost as the others?

AJ: Yeah, I’m pretty sure they would be.

I: They were fabulous characters, so hard and ruthless.

AJ: That’s good to hear. Both of those stories started out as experiments, in a way. I wanted to see if I could do the male point of view, for one thing. And I think [Leah and Emily] are very similar characters to the other girls in my stories, but as seen from a different perspective. So, I think a lot of what they are is just the flipside, the way a male would perceive some of the girls, who are actually insecure and pretty crazy. (more…)

January 26, 2010

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Patricia Storms (for Family Literacy Week!)

I first encountered Patricia Storms through her blog Booklust, and I think I’ve only ever met her two or three times in person, but I feel as though I know her much better than two or three times would allow. She is a generous spirit who radiates such warmth and energy, she has a delightful sense of humour, and she’s a talented illustrator (of books including The 13 Ghosts of Halloween, Edward and the Eureka Lucky Wish Company, and Good Granny Bad Granny) and now author/ illustrator (of her latest book The Pirate and the Penguin). I love her books, I think she’s fabulous, and I’m so pleased that she’s answered some of my questions about writing and illustrating picture books, and also about family literacy.

I: Funny, we call them “picture books”, but then the pictures themselves are so often regarded as secondary (that an illustrator might not receive the same credit as an author of the text, for example). What role do you think illustrations play in children’s books? And why do the illustrations get less respect?

PS: In my Utopian world, the writer and the artist would get equal-billing, since they are both so dependent on each other. Ideally, the artist (I would hope) would be more than just a hired hand doing grunt work and translating literal images onto the page from the words provided. In a good picture book, I see the illustrator as someone who takes the story to another level of delight, imagination and entertainment. The illustrator should be just as much of a story-teller as the author. But they should not be competing with each other. It makes me think of a couple in love, walking in the forest holding hands, each pointing to the different things they both see on their travels. Each person has a unique perspective, but they are still connected, and are grounded in the same environment (the story).

Perhaps ‘get less respect’ is a tad dramatic. (I know, I know ­ I’m the one who used this phrase in a previous email conversation. Heaven knows, I can be a tad dramatic at times). That being said, I have on occasion encountered a certain lack of appreciation for what illustrators (and might I add, especially cartoonists) do for picture books. It can be small annoying things like every time I illustrate a book I have to send a special request to Amazon so that they will add my name at the top of the book entry, following the author. Or really shocking situations like when Madonna ‘wrote’ all those kid’s books, and the illustrators didn’t have their names on the cover of the book at all (of course that is a unique and hopefully never-to-be-repeated situation by any other author). Usually it just seems to me that in terms of promotion, the writer’s name gets more coverage than that of the illustrator. And yet it is called a ‘picture’ book. But I have to be fair, here. It’s the writer who comes up with the idea for the story, and yes, the words are usually crafted long before any pictures appear. As much as I would like equal billing, I must concede that the writer is steering the ship (am I using too much cheesy imagery here? This is the wannabe hack writer coming out in me). So perhaps it is assumed that since the writer is the one who has thought of the original idea and the story, then the illustrator will never be as ‘creative’ as the author, and is simply following the author’s lead. I would rather not see the relationship of author and illustrator in this manner. And I am starting to ramble. Next question.

I: Over the course of your career, what have you learned about the art of illustrating children’s books that would have surprised you in the beginning?

PS: I had always assumed that when an illustrator was hired to draw the pictures for a picture book manuscript, that the story was completely polished and finished at this point. But this is not always the case, and the artist may go off in some interesting directions, while editors are still actually doing last-minute edits on the story. Sometimes art can change at the last minute because of this.

I was also very surprised to find out how much control the Marketing Department (in some publishing houses) has in terms of which artist is chosen for specific projects. But I do have to remind myself that as much as I may just want to create silly, adorable pictures for kids, it is, in the end, a commercial product, and well, publishers do appreciate making money (as do I).

One aspect of this industry which really surprised me was when I was told that some big box bookstores even have editorial control over potential manuscripts and art. They are consulted by publishers and can say yea nor nay on a project, if they think it will or will not sell. They can also recommend creative changes on book covers. Frightening.

I: You’ve recently made the leap from illustrator to author too, of your most recent book The Pirate and the Penguin. Would this be a natural extension for any illustrator? Was it a natural extension for you, and why?

PS: I don’t think making the leap from illustrator to author is for every artist. Not every illustrator has a gift of the written word. Some just have no interest in doing it at all (and really, why would one willingly enter into another career that has the potential to do more serious damage to one’s already delicate ego?)

Becoming a picture book author was a natural extension for me, though. I have always loved words just as much as art, and I think this has a lot to do with my enduring love of cartoons and comics. In fact, that’s how I learned to read ­ through cartoons, comic strips and comic books, in conjunction with picture books, of course. As a kid I wrote and drew countless comic strips, and as I got older, I enjoyed writing stories and poems and my own one-panel gag cartoons. Any chance I could get to not write a standard dull essay in high school English, and instead do something creative, I took it. (For example, in my grade 13 Canadian English course, I opted to write a musical based on Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz).

As much as I enjoy illustrating the words of others, I do have my own ideas that I would love to see come alive in a book. I sometimes have to pinch myself when I look at The Pirate and the Penguin, ­ I can’t believe I’ve managed to get this far with my dreams. I hope I may be allowed to write and illustrate more stories in the future. But I gotta be truthful ­ for me, it’s very hard, writing picture book stories. The writing is much harder to do than the art. So really, just ignore everything I was kvetching about in question one. What the hell do I know? (more…)

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