Q&A with Valerie Compton about Tide RoadBy Corey Redekop • Feb 8th, 2011 • Category: Feature Post, Goose Lane Authors, Interviews
- Tide Road is your first novel, after winning acclaim for your short stories. How did writing something in a far longer form feel from your usual métier?
- For a first-time novelist, the phrase “write what you know” can sometimes be taken to extremes. Are there any parts of Tide Road that are more autobiographical than others?
- What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? What do you think the role of the writer should be.
- What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
- When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
- What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
- Finish this sentence: “A writer is responsible for . . . “
- What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
- If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
- What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? Piece of music?
- What was the oddest job you ever had?
- What is your favorite food?
- Which individual has, for better or worse, had the single greatest influence on your life?
- What talent would you most like to possess?
- What is your most valued possession?
- What is one book you’ve been meaning to read?
- What is your secret, guilty pleasure?
- If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?
- William Faulkner was once asked what book he wished he had written; he chose Moby Dick (with Winnie the Pooh as a close second). Is there a book that you wish you had written?
- Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?
The novel began as an attempt to understand a strong image I’d had of Sonia, the protagonist of Tide Road, standing alone in her house. I wrote a ten-page thing-I didn’t know if it was a story or a chapter-and then I wanted to know what had happened to Sonia before and after this moment, so I wrote another thing, and it was a bit longer. This was a great relief to me because I’d noticed that my stories had begun to grow shorter over time! I love the brevity and intensity of short stories, and I love their seeming perfectibility. So it was a surprise to discover that writing a novel is nothing like writing a story. It’s like having a long illness! Your life changes utterly as you accommodate yourself to the novel’s continual and sometimes contradictory demands, and you become doubtful and greedy about the need for solitude. It’s insane, really. Yet I’m writing another one.
Yes. One of my ambitions for the novel was to spend some time thinking about my relationship to the landscape of my home place, Prince Edward Island. In some ways the novel is a love letter to the Island, to its beauty and to what I think of as its private, sometimes prickly character. I will be interested to know how much of my Island is familiar to readers. Because of course the Island I know is different from the Island every other resident or visitor knows: each of us lives in a unique world. Apart from this preoccupation, the novel is not autobiographical. When I teach fiction writing, I do not say “write what you know.” I say, “write what you want to know.” How else to sustain one’s interest in an imagined narrative over the course of many years? The novel must be compelling to its author, too!
I think the role of the writer, like the role of any artist, should be self-defined. To me it seems that the writer’s role is to look at the world and try to see what it is, and then to create something out of that investigation. A novel is an intimate form that can explore interior landscapes in a way that other forms, even film, struggle awkwardly to describe. My aim is to exploit that power.
I try to follow the advice short story writer Amy Hempel credits to editor Gordon Lish: “Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.”
In her wonderful novel, The Lost Dog, the Australian writer Michelle de Kretser has a character explain an artist’s slowness by quoting Renoir: “a roaring fire requires the gathering of a great deal of wood.” Sometimes when we think we’re stalled, we’re really busy gathering wood.
What writing is important to your life? This is a wonderful question. But impossible to answer easily! There are so many-novels and stories mostly, also poems. I need invented narrative every day, the way I need food.
Nothing. In our adult lives we are responsible for so much. Writing, if it is to flow, must be free of all that. My own aim is to write fiction that tells emotional truth, but I would never impose that obligation on another writer. Different writers have different aspirations.
When I was young I wanted to be a naturalist. No one told me this species of creature died off in the nineteenth century. Later, I wanted to be Shelagh Rogers because I loved listening to her voice on the radio. My own is not nearly so mellifluous!
Recently I was invited to join a reading group, and the first selection is Alice Munro’s long story “Too Much Happiness.” Of course you can’t grow up as a writer in this country without reading Alice Munro’s masterful work and asking yourself, How does she do it? So I’ve spent a pleasurable few evenings with this story, pursuing that question again. Last great film: The King’s Speech. Music: the Brooklyn, NY band, April Smith and the Great Picture Show. April Smith has an amazing voice, and her insouciant lyrics are helping me to channel a new character.
This is probably it. Fabricating lives, recording their trajectories and then revising the words a thousand times: what could be odder?
Potatoes from Compton Bros. in Bangor, PEI, roasted with their skins on. I grew up on them, and now they’re a Christmas treat.
My two dear sons, who so enlarged my life when they were born.
I would love to have a useful, practical talent with which I could efficiently pay my mortgage and still have time to write.
The certain knowledge that before all else I am an Islander. In other words, a sense of home.
Oh, there are so many! I seem to have embarrassing gaps: the Brontës, Jane Austen, Henry James.
Must pleasure be guilty, and secret? Scientists now say that chocolate and red wine, those classic indulgences, are good for us. I say it’s guilt that’s bad. In life, I mean: in fiction so much depends on secrecy and guilt.
Growing up on PEI, I was lucky to have an aunt nearby with a wonderful library. I would walk across the stubble field to her cosy cottage and we’d stand in front of homemade shelves bursting with what seemed to be all of Can Lit to date (this was the late 1970s; not so many shelves were required). Early on, she gave me Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley and Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute. To these I would add Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel. Canadian literature is so rich now that you could make many different but equally excellent choices.
Any one of the brilliant short novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, the stories of William Trevor and Alice Munro, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, William Maxwell’s So Long, See you Tomorrow . . . I could go on; it’s impossible to choose only one . . .
Enjoy the actual writing; it’s the best part. Read voraciously. Revise endlessly.
Tide Road will be published by Goose Lane Editions on March 4, 2011