Twenty Questions for Rosemary NixonBy Corey Redekop • Mar 28th, 2011 • Category: Feature Post, Goose Lane Authors, Interviews, Writing Routines
1. Kalila is not your first book, but it is your first novel after several short story collections. How does the experience of writing a full-length novel differ from that of short stories? Do you prefer one over the over?
It is hard for me to separate the content of my novel from its form and structure (how I wrote it) as my first novel was instigated by a painful situation that happened to me. As a result, it broadsided me and my first drafts were melodramatic and it took time’s passing to give me the distance and perspective I needed to both turn the idea into story rather than non-fiction, and to play with style until it supported the content on every page. As a result the novel took me years to perfect. I feel I have to write another one to be able to honestly answer the question. So I will.
Which form do I like better? I think I’d have to say short story. Stories are, as Clark Blaise so aptly put it, “that perfect smug egg of possibility.” Everyone says every line of a short story should be there for a reason, but I believe absolutely that the same is true of a novel. I have been working these last few months on more short stories and the beginning of a novel, so I plan to continue to write both.
2. Without giving too much away, Kalila covers some very personal territory, dealing with themes that may touch a nerve with certain readers. Did you have any qualms about approaching the subject matter? Do you feel you’ve succeeded with what you set out to achieve?
I did go through the experience of having a very ill child in neonatal care. My qualms were not about touching a nerve with readers, as there are countless parents out there who have gone through the same experience as I did, or people who have people close to them who have. When I’d do readings from my novel-in-progress, people would line up to talk to me, some crying. I had a man, tears running down his cheeks, say, “You can’t imagine what hearing this meant to me. We lost our child 36 years ago and we never mentioned her again. It’s been this silent wound festering all these years.” Or a fourteen-year-old girl said, “My mom died at Foothills Hospital and no one talks about her in our family. I feel so lonely for her. Could I really get access to her files?” So I had no question that while some people might not want to enter this story, there would be even more who would be eager to read a story that gives voice to this little talked about experience.
I am so glad I took all the years I did until this story finally began to take control of itself, perfect itself, almost as if it were out of my hands. Don’t mistake what I’m saying. I am not one of those people who say, Oh, I have a muse. I did every bit of the damn hard work on this novel! But in the last few years, thanks particularly to one of my editors, Suzette Mayr, the novel, which I practically knew by heart I had worked on it for so long, began to shake and shuffle itself into a structure that delights me. That is right for its content. As if it were speaking back to me. It felt a bit like a miracle, like I could feel the story sighing with relief as, at last, after years, it fragmented its way toward its end, slipping, finally, into its intended form that had, up until then, eluded me.
3. How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Well,” starting” for me is putting a word down, then a phrase, then a tentative sentence. My writing always comes in tantalizing snippets. I never ever start with a full-fledged idea of the story in its entirety. I start with language. Not even a whole sentence. It’s as if the writing literally flows out of my fingertips as much as out of my brain. I am wildly envious of people who are able to plan out their stories and then when they can catch a moment, they pour the whole thing onto paper in one shot. It’s as if my mind works best when my hands are tapping, as if words slip into ideas, as I said, only out of my fingertips. So writing is a slow process for me. I also am incapable of coming to the computer in the morning and starting where I left off. I have this obsessive-compulsive need to edit from the beginning. And I trust that drive in me, because every time I edit from the beginning, things shift and change, as if the rewrites leave a residue, and the story becomes something I wouldn’t have thought of if I started where I left off the day before. I don’t think I’ve ever carved out the story I thought I was carving out. My rewrites take on a will of their own and veer off in other directions. It’s unnerving and exciting. I trust in and believe in this process. Just as each writer has a different personality, each writer has his or her own unique way of coming at an idea. The process I described is right - for me.
As for last question, the answer is none of the above. My early drafts appear nothing like their final shape, but neither do I make copious notes. I put down some words, edit them, put down a few more, edit it all, put down a few more…
4. Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are brilliant for my creative process. The minute I know I’m going to read at the university or in front of an audience of very good writers, my editing abilities kick in on a whole new level. I can edit my little heart out, fearing the knowledge that I’ll be listened to by critics. That’s when my work improves in leaps - before a reading.
And yes, I love doing readings. I went to school in rural Saskatchewan. Every year we had Oratory Contests where we had to memorize a poem and recite it, a story when we got older, write and essay and memorize it by Grade 7 and 8. We’d compete in our own school and the winner would compete in other school districts. Even though I was very shy in the first few grades (after which every report card I ever got said, Rosemary talks too much), I loved Oratory and it brought me out of my shell. I won year after year. I think, being the baby of the family with six older siblings, I was just delighted I actually got, for once, to talk and talk without getting in trouble - and better yet, people actually sat and listened, unlike my older brothers and sisters who just talked over me, or ran off and played! The lovely side effect is all these great poems I now have rattling around my head.
5. What do you see the current role of the writer being in the larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Hmmm. I think the writer’s role changes to some degree, though not altogether, depending if the writer lives in a country that allows freedom of speech. I don’t think a writer’s job is to be a moral compass, but rather to incite thinking. I know I am drawn to write about what I don’t understand in this world. I’m drawn to writers whose books make me change, or at least consider changing, my way of seeing. I hope my books open to the reader a new way of looking which hopefully will inspire more complex considerations about subjects that the reader may have a set opinion on, or perhaps never gave serious thought to. I know as a reader I’m delighted to step into a story that challenges my views of the world. Writing is a way of thinking.
6. What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard?
Is this advice?: A true writer is not someone who writes but someone who rewrites. In other words, anyone can start a story. It’s damn hard to finish and perfect one.
7. What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day for you begin?
Step one: Avoidance. Avoidance works really well for me. This year I am writer-in-residence at the University of Windsor. I love when one after the other, the delightful profs in my hall arrive, see my open door and step in to chat. Then students start. I’m happiest when an hour or two passes and I haven’t yet touched my work. But really, these conversations inspire me. Other years, in my own house, I sit down at my desk in the morning, get all my books and papers ready, and phone my sisters. Then a couple of friends. I have an overwhelming need to avoid first thing in the morning.
Step two: When I’ve exhausted calling, I read. I don’t think I’ve ever started writing before picking up poetry, a short story, a novel that uses language well, and fall into the rhythms and cadence of language.
Step three. I do all the other work I have to do - teaching preparation, editing students’ work, letters to write, if I’m home, check the mail. It’s often afternoon before I get the first word down. I just have to slip into it slowly. And I don’t write every day. I write in spurts, usually buoyed by desperation as deadlines loom.
By afternoon I feel ready.
8. When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for inspiration?
I read, read, read. I love Alverez’s line in The Writing Voice: “Reading well means opening your ears to the presence behind the words…Reading well is as much an art as writing well, and almost as hard to acquire. ” Reading while writing is vital. It opens possibility in my own story. I pick up writers whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, writers whose writing inspires new insights, no matter how many times I reread the story or poem. This year I am delighting in Susan Holbrook’s Joy Is So Exhausting. If you want to be inspired by delightful, hilarious, poignant writing, read Holbrook. Her poetry was nominated for the Trillium last year. I often return to Dionne Brand. I endlessly reread certain fiction writers whose language resonates. Joy Williams’ Taking Care is astonishing. Nancy Houston’s The Mark of an Angel. I am always teaching advanced private classes that come out of classes I teach at a university or college. Nothing inspires me like our Wednesday night or Sunday morning three-hour interactions sipping wine in my living room (well, not Sunday mornings) - or coffee, deep in the heart of language. Language always flows on the page for a bit once the participants leave.
9. What other writing/writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I can get lost over and over in Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes. His mother poems, his lemon poems . . . I love Ondaatje’s In The Skin of a Lion, and could reread endlessly the scene near the end of The English Patient where Kip is lost in imagination at the table with his children, and the reader believes he is with Hana when he reaches out to catch what turns out to be his daughter’s fork full of rice. Beautiful wrenching scene. I love two novels which each in their own way seem to be big unwieldy messes from which despite this, or perhaps because of this, the whole rises greater than the sum of its parts: Ann Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The haunting pain and beauty of Alessandro Baricco’s Silk. George Saunders wacko absurdist Pastoralia. Elise Levine’s rule-breaking Driving Men Mad. And I confess I go back and back to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill, which as a child I loved even more than the Anne books. If I were at home in Calgary I’d go to my shelf and name many more, but I could bring so few books with me to Ontario this year, I have slimmer pickings. I go back to The Book Thief for its astonishing poetic voice.
10. What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Along with all the things I can’t admit publically, offer creative writing workshops on the Island of Samos on the Aegean Sea in Greece, which I get to do in June. I’d like to see Eastern Europe. I’d like to sing and play in a band. I’d like to take African dance. I’d like to speak Arabic.
11. 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?
A singer - that’s the answer to the first question, certainly not to the second. If I’d been born in a different age, a minstrel. What would I have ended up doing? I apparently cried every day for the first two years of school, claiming a terrible stomach ache mornings, and had to be dragged down the lane by my older brothers and sisters and shoved on the bus, but I bolted off it afternoons and ran in the lane of our farm to line up all my dolls and a blackboard and teach until I went to bed. So a teacher, which I also am.
12. What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I adore the Japanese film Shall We Dance. And though I hated Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz’s character was brilliant.
13. Have you ever read or written a perfect sentence.
I had an interesting experience this year. I have the good fortune to have Alistair Macleod just down the hall from me who drops in on a regular basis for writerly chats or just story telling. I had several of his books sitting on my desk during an afternoon of editing one on one with students and community members. A 50-year-old man from Detroit had sent me his work and come across the river to get edits. I was explaining to him that his sentences had to be more powerful, that in this draft they were only about themselves, they didn’t resonate. Without thinking, I picked up Alistair’s The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and read aloud to him the first sentence from “The Boat:” There are times even now when I awake at four o’clock in the morning with the terrible fear that I have overslept, when I imagine that my father is waiting for me in the room below the darkened stairs or that the shorebound men are tossing pebbles against my window while blowing their hands and stomping their feet impatiently on the frozen steadfast earth. ” I was about to explain how each bit I’ve italicized here resonates, suggests things, when I looked up to find the man staring into space with with his hand on his heart, and the gentlest expression on his face. It was moving to see. He reached and took the book out of my hands. He said, “Who wrote that. I must get this book. I grew up inside that sentence.” Isn’t that lovely! Now a man who says “I grew up inside that sentence,” surely has the talent to be a writer. It turns out he’s living in Detroit, but he grew up in Newfoundland on the water. What a tribute to the beauty and authenticity of Alistair’s sentence. I have so many fabulous sentences marked in my novels and story collections at home, but this one had a whole little scene to authenticate it.
14. What was the oddest job you ever had?
It’s not that this job was so odd, but rather my behaviour in it. I worked in Jasper as a chambermaid the summer I was 18 and arrived to discover that though I had a job, there was no place to live in town. Kids were paying exorbitant prices for 6 beds in a garage or for a screened-in porch the size of a single bed so you had to slide off the end of it to get up. So friends and I lived in the campground even though it was illegal to stay longer than two weeks. Every day I would try to deke into the public shower before sprinting off to work, but with all the tourists plus all the kids like us who had jobs but no place to live, it was hit and miss. So, one day as I trotted the two miles in to work, I got a brilliant idea. Guests weren’t allowed to check in before 11 a.m., so why not clean the tub, have a bath, clean it again. I could do it fast. So I did just that. Well, I had just sunk into the hot inviting bubbles when abruptly, the outer door to the room opened. I could hear a couple chatting and giggling, depositing their suitcases in the room. Oh god, I thought. Newly weds! You could just tell. They’re going to have sex and then come in to use the bathroom. Or worse, want to have sex in the bathroom. The bathroom door was unlocked. Why would I have locked it? I lay in the tub in a state of frozen terror, my chambermaid outfit plopped on the floor beside the tub. I didn’t dare stand, sluicing all that noisy water off me, in case my lunge for the lock on the bathroom door didn’t beat theirs. I lay utterly still and goosebumpy in the cooling water. They didn’t have sex and nobody have to pee. Saved. Off they went. To this day I don’t know who let them in. I hung onto my job until the end of summer, but it was the last time I tried to snatch a bath.
15. What characteristic do you admire most in others?
A sense of humour. Eccentricity. Warmth.
16. What talent would you most like to possess?
A fabulous singing voice.
17. What is your secret guilty pleasure?
Hmmm. One I’ll admit? Chocolate. Milk chocolate, not dark, so the vice does me no good.
18. William Faulkner was once asked what book he wished he had written; he chose Moby Dick. Is there a book you wish you had written?
The Poisonwood Bible. Those amazing sister voices.
19. Is there a book that you think you should have read by now but haven’t?
I’m reading all the time, but sadly, too many to name.
20. Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?
Don’t focus on publishing. Focus on writing well. Focus on rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Push yourself stylistically. Every story’s already been written. As Eudora Welty said, “Only the vision can be new.”
Think of plot as Ben Marcus describes it: “When we plot for something, we devise secretly, we conspire. It is in this sense that plot might best concern fiction: when it suggests mystery, unrevealed conditions driving the characters or language through a story. If a story has plot in this sense, then it is what the story is withholding, not what it tells. Plot is the hidden machinery that animates a story.
When plots are revealed they cease being plots. Uncovered, they are as tedious as a fully nude person. Good fiction is busy keeping secrets, protecting its plots. The story, then, is what the story is hiding, and a hide is indeed a piece of skin, whose effect is to conceal the body.”
Kalila will be available from Goose Lane Editions on April 15, 2011.