Q&A Arley McNeneyBy Corey Redekop • Oct 31st, 2011 • Category: Feature Post, Goose Lane Authors, Interviews
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 28 years old and from New Westminster, BC. Last July, I moved back to British Columbia after doing my MFA at the University of Illinois, where I also played varsity wheelchair basketball. I was on the Canadian wheelchair basketball national team for six years and won two World Championship gold medals and a Paralympic bronze, though I’ve since retired. I work as a Communications Coordinator for various wheelchair sports organizations. Currently, I live in Vancouver with my cat, Mika.
Some interesting facts:
· I’m ambidextrous.
· I make wedding cakes as a hobby.
· My cat and I have the same hip problem. I’ve had two hip replacements and this August, she’s going to get one. (Well, the feline version of a hip replacement).
The Time You All Went Marching is your sophomore novel, after the Commonwealth Award-nominated Post. Did you feel any extra pressure for you second book because of this recognition?
No, mostly because when I’m writing a book I forget that anyone’s actually going to read it. It wasn’t until I saw the proofs of the cover for The Time We All Went Marching that it really sunk in that the book was going to be something more than a Word document on my computer, and by that time all the hard work had been done and it was too late to feel pressure.
Post seemed to take much from your own life (your past as a wheelchair athlete). The Time We All Went Marching is a radical departure in theme, style, and tone. Was this a conscious decision to change your style, or do you feel it is a natural evolution of your talent as an artist?
The funny thing about Post is that nearly everyone assumed it was autobiographical, but beyond the protagonist having the same disability as I do and playing wheelchair basketball, it wasn’t. (My life wasn’t nearly exciting enough to make into a 425-page book). When Post came out, however, I got a lot of heat because people either thought I’d turned them into a character in the book or assumed that I’d actually had a relationship with a much-older man and were trying to guess who it was. I’ve joked that the reason I wrote a book set in the 1930s and 40s is so that no one could get mad at me.
I think, however, that Post and The Time We All Went Marching actually have a lot in common. They both tackle the question of what happens after the “best” years of your life are over. They’re both interested in the obsessive nature of memory and how a person’s history is manifested on his or her body. That’s a long way of saying that I’m never conscious of having a style. I just write about things that interest me and The Time We All Went Marching came out of that.
The Time We All Went Marching takes place in Canada’s past, the 1930s and 1940s, with special mention made to real-life events such as the On to Ottawa Trek. How did you go about synthesizing factual events within a fictional framework?
I’ve always been a believer that non-fiction tells “the truth” whereas fiction tells “a truth” and so right from the beginning I gave up wanting to have precise historical accuracy. The truth of what happened on the On to Ottawa Trek doesn’t make for great fiction, since there wasn’t a lot of nuance coming from any party involved. There’s also been very little scholarly research written on the Trek and most narratives therefore come either from the Trekkers themselves or their children/grandchildren, which means that the Trekkers are presented as these noble working-class heroes and the government and police are uniformly evil. In fiction, that’s a one-way ticket to flat, stock characters. I’m hugely sympathetic to the Trekkers and it took me a long time to get comfortable with the fact that I was going to have to depict the Trek in a way that a Trekker wouldn’t like were he to read it.
Actually, what was harder for me was the question of whether to use a memoir my grandmother had written about living in Ymir in the ‘40s in my own work. Earlier drafts had a lot more of my grandmother’s story in it, but I quickly realized that a) she could tell her own story way better than I could and b) I look up to my grandmother so much that I would never be able to get enough distance on the story to use it in fiction. Knowing when to let fiction take over was a valuable lesson.
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?
I think every book’s different, but this one was really tough at the outset. I’d been interested in the On to Ottawa Trek since high school and had been researching the ‘30s and ‘40s with the intent of writing a novel set in that time period for years. When I was 11 or 12, my grandmother had also written this really raunchy memoir, which let’s just say had left quite an impression. I’d had the vague idea of wanting to use some of her memoir in a novel.
I started off trying to write a book with a clear beginning, middle and end, since that’s what I thought I ‘should’ write. I wrote 250 pages of a draft of that novel, but kept also writing these weird fragments about the On to Ottawa Trek on the side. I would literally wake up in the middle of the night to write these fragments, but I didn’t know what to do with them.
The 250 pages I’d written just weren’t working, so I threw them away and nearly dropped out of grad school in the process. I went back to Canada over the summer and met up with Lorna Jackson, who was a teacher and mentor of mine when I’d done my undergrad the University of Victoria and had been instrumental in my writing and publishing Post. She read the first 50 pages of my awful novel and simply said, “I think you need to rethink the role of ‘haunting’ in this piece.” In the span of a half-hour chat over tea, she managed to completely put the project back on track. On the ferry ride home, I began The Time We All Went Marching and ended up writing the whole thing in the span of six weeks in a Starbucks in Urbana, Illinois. Obviously, that draft needed a lot of revision and I’ve spent quite a bit of time grappling with the structure, but on a larger level it was fully formed.
What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think one of the many shifts that’s happening with the advent of the Internet and especially social media is that storytelling is no longer the sole purview of “writers.” Anyone can write a story or post a video and have it reach a mass audience. But what’s missing from a lot of the storytelling that’s taking place online is the ability to enter into someone else’s headspace for an extended period of time. Movies can do that, but not to the depths that novels can. Being able to imagine another person’s point of view is such a crucial skill and it’s one that’s on the decline. I recently read, for example, that today’s college students are 40% less empathetic than college students in the 1970s. Obviously, we’re talking about systemic problems that can’t be fixed just by getting kids to read more novels, but I still maintain that we need writers more than ever.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’ve received too much great advice to be able to pick one, but the quote that has always guided my writing life is by Adrienne Rich: “The problem is to connect, without hysteria, the pain of anyone’s body with the pain of the body’s world.”
What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
It really depends on what I’m working on. When I was writing The Time We All Went Marching, I was on a strict writing schedule. I have the benefit of coming from an athletic background, so I’m used to being on some kind of structured program, whether it’s for training or writing.
Right now, however, I’m less productive because I tend to not be able to finish a new project until the old one is completely put to bed. I write when the urge strikes me or when I have time, but a lot of that writing is for the blog I started about my hip replacement (http://youngandhip.blogspot.com/) so it’s not polished. Once I settle on a new project, however, I’ll put myself on a stricter schedule.
What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There were two works that I encountered at 16 or 17 that made me first say “I want to do that”: Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Talk to Your Mother” and The Great Gatsby. I’m also hugely influenced by Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy and Timothy Findley and return to their books again and again. Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping was another major influence for this particular book. I also read a lot of poetry and craft essays by poets – I would love to be a poet, but I’m way too verbose—and I have this dog-eared copy of Twenty-first Century Poetry and Poetics that I read from at least once a week.
What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t think I really ever considered doing anything else, except when I briefly wanted to be an Egyptologist. I taught myself how to write at a really early age – I think I was 3 – and from then on I’ve pretty much been focused on it. When I misbehaved, my parents would threaten to take away my books. I think the first time I thought clearly that I wanted to be a writer was when I was in elementary school and I read a poem I’d written about war aloud at the Remembrance Day assembly and it made the school librarian cry.
What book had the biggest impact on you? Why?
Probably Timothy Findley’s The Wars. I read it in high school in an AP English class and we had to get permission slips signed to read it because of the sexual content. I’m not sure that I liked it during the first reading – it made me uncomfortable – but I sensed that it was a book that I wasn’t equipped for at the moment, but that I would grow to love it. Sure enough, it’s stuck with me and I’ve loved it more and more on each read. It’s one of those books that would have been terrible in anyone else’s hands and I really admire the way that Findley makes Robert Ross’ story into a comment on larger political forces in a way that never feels didactic. I’ve probably read the book 15 or 20 times and I’ve even gone through and highlighted it to try to break it down and see how it works, but it’s never lost its energy for me.
What was the oddest job you ever had?
Well, being an athlete full-time is a pretty weird job, considering I basically got paid to put a ball in a hoop. I also make cakes as a little side business mostly for friends, which doesn’t seem that weird until you consider that sometimes I spend hours turning tootsie rolls into chest hair for a half-naked man cake or that I was once commissioned to do a cake that depicted penguins fighting dinosaurs. The penguins had to have tiny little guns made out of gumpaste.
Which individual has, for better or worse, had the single greatest influence on your life?
I couldn’t possibly pick one. Obviously, my parents have made a pretty big impact.
What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome or challenge you have ever faced?
In 2009, I had a hip replacement that ended up not going as planned. I was basically in bed for 8 months and had to have a revision surgery the next year. I’m absolutely terrible at sitting still for long periods of time and hate not being busy, but the forced down time ended up being really good for me.
What talent would you most like to possess?
This is less a talent and more a basic life skill, but I’d really like to have a good sense of direction. I am absolutely useless at finding my way anywhere and I basically require a GPS (backed up by an iPhone) to get even to places I’ve been to a million times before.
What is your secret, guilty pleasure?
Celebrity gossip blogs. When I was recovering from the hip replacement, a friend got me hooked on LaineyGossip and now I also read Dlisted. The funny part is that I don’t have a TV and don’t have the time to watch many movies, so I’m not actually familiar with most of the celebrities’ work, but I can tell you whether they were photographed going to Starbucks on any given week.
If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?
Timothy Findley’s The Wars, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lionand John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright. When I lived in the States, I was always trying to push those three books onto Americans.
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?
There are probably 20 books I wish I’d written, but the first time I had the “I wish I’d written that and want to study this whole ‘writing’ thing until I can write a sentence as good as that’ was from The Great Gatsby: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.”
Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?
I’ve worked for a few different publishers/ literary magazines and it seems like 90% of the stuff that crossed my desk is just…okay. The person’s taken a few writing classes and knows that they’re supposed to use a hook intro or not have the story end with “and it was all a dream,” but there’s no urgency to the writing, no energy. I think it’s easy to look at literary magazines and think, “Well, if I write about this or that, then I’ll get published,” but I think it’s best to focus first on writing about something you’re interested in and letting the “getting published” part come later.