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The Canterbury Trail – Interview with Angie Abdou

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Angie Abdou answers a few questions about her latest novel The Canterbury Trail and writing in general. Thanks Angie!

FFF: I am going to start off by asking the c-word question. When your book first came out, there was a lot of discussion about “polite” society’s acceptance, or non-acceptance, as it were, of such a word. Tell me about that.

Germaine Greer says “cunt” is the only word left with true power to shock.  I suspect she’s right.  I never used it to shock, though.  To be honest, I never thought about it all that much or worried about what readers’ reaction to it might be, and I was, therefore, caught a bit off guard by people who objected to its inclusion in this novel. Mainly, I included it because it seemed real: that’s what these mountain-lovers would end up calling this trail. 

Also, while I was writing this novel, one of my students was reading a book called Cunt.  She was quite taken with it.  The premise was that we need to reclaim the word and that it’s only been made dirty and vulgar by misogyny and a patriarchal medical system.  While I don’t agree with everything the author has to say, the book and my student’s enthusiasm for it did influence my work on this novel. 

 Finally, I wanted to feminize the landscape. I needed to have the characters heading up the cunt and into the womb for the weekend, so that I could deconstruct some of our more naïve and romantic notions about nature as mother. 

 I haven’t really answered your question about politeness, have I?  To be honest, I haven’t given much thought to manners. I guess I’m not a very polite person.

FFF: I won’t ask you to pick just one favourite character, as there are so many, but which characters did you most enjoy creating and why?

I identified most with Loco, and if I had to pick a main character (other than the landscape), I would pick him.  I’m not sure why since he’s so different than me.  In my mind, though, he best captures that ambivalence about place that all the characters feel as well as the ever-present struggle with community. 

 In terms of most fun to write, Alison wins.  How could I not have fun writing a sex-crazed, voyeuristic journalist GORB?  I loved thinking about various modern manifestations of the lusty Wife of Bath.

 FFF: You’ve mentioned that you had other characters, other tales, that you had to cut to keep the length of the manuscript manageable. (I am sure we talked about this, but it may have been a dream. If so, ignore…) If you could have kept just one more of those characters in the novel, who would it have been?

 Believe it or not, I didn’t cut any characters. I fought and revised like crazy to keep them all in.  I did cut backstories to keep momentum moving relentlessly up the mountain.  The material I most resisted cutting was Loco’s backstory.  Maybe I’ll use it for a short story someday.  Maybe, though, that’s why I identified most strongly with him – because I actually took the time to write out his full backstory.

FFF:  Besides teaching at the College of the Rockies, in the past five-ish years you’ve written two novels, had two babies and finished your doctorate. Add in Canada Reads appearances and publicity tours for the new book. It’s hard to whine about having no time to write when you seem to be doing just fine. How do you fit it all in? Any advice?

 You know the saying – if you want something done, ask a busy person. I do find that when I get a bit of momentum going, I can really accomplish a lot in a day.   The other trick is simply: do not let writing be optional.  I put my daily writing task in my day timer along with the rest of my to-do list, and then it has to get done. If it’s optional, I won’t do it. 

 If I make sure to write at least a bit every day, then my brain is always working on my current project – so even when I’m busy with other things, my mind puzzles away on the novel.  In that way, I probably require less time sitting and staring at the computer than you might think.

 My main advice is: marry well.  You have to be surrounded by people who believe in and respect your goals.  Anything else would make writing impossible.

 FFF: I think many writers take teaching jobs to pay the bills, but having had you as a writing instructor, it’s obvious you enjoy teaching creative writing. What is your favourite part about passing on your knowledge of this crazy craft? What’s your least favourite part?

I love teaching. I’m too social to write full-time.  The contact with students energizes me. 

 Teaching is also good for my own work because I have to sit and think about what works and doesn’t work. I have to be able to articulate the details of my own writing process.  Once I do that, it saves me time – I don’t have to relearn to write with each project.  Teaching has taken some of the guess work out of writing for me (and along with it, the anxiety and doubt – some of it). 

 I also like carefully examining poems, stories, and novels that I love, figuring out how they “work” and what exactly the author is “doing.”  That’s the best way to learn to write, and teaching makes me take the time to do it well. 

 My least favourite part of teaching is the extent to which students focus on getting published as if that will solve all of their problems and catapult them into a state of ever-lasting happiness and confidence.  It won’t. 

FFF: Will your next project focus on extreme sports, or are you heading in an entirely new direction? (You can also just say you are working on a new novel, and I will change the question to reflect your answer…in case you don’t want to share!)

I’m working on a novel about foreign nannies, but Bikram Yoga plays a big role in the story.  The physical keeps coming up in my work, which makes sense since I’m a physical person as are the people with whom I share my life.  Also the physical (in many different ways) influences my understanding of what it is to be human – and isn’t that what fiction is always about?

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Memoir of a Good Death – Interview with Anne Sorbie

I was lucky to run into Anne Sorbie at a recent book launch and then again at a reading. She was kind enough to re-answer some of the questions I had for her on those occasions.

FFF — I was really impressed by the representation of the Bow River in your book, both as a metaphor, and the literal descriptions. You chose a river to tell your story. Why?

I’ve always believed that women’s lives are demonstrative of fluidity, and I wanted to include a physical aspect of the local landscape that would allow my narrative to show that. On a critical level I connect the idea of fluidity and women based on Irigiray’s chapter on that subject in “Speculum.”  On a narrative level the river is a character and like its female counterparts, is a source of life.

FFF — The relationships between the different women in the story are fascinating. Rhegan and Sarah have a complicated relationship, but the lines between the other women in the story are also strong. These are not cardboard characters. I would like to know more about Rhegan’s friend Nemit and her role in the story.

Nemit has been Rhegan’s friend since childhood. She’s gay and she and her partner Joy adopt a son, Adam. Like Rhegan she has split from her partner so there is a direct parallel between them in that sense. Her role in the story as a secondary character is to offer readers another opportunity to consider and understand  Rhegan’s outlook.

FFF — I’ve stayed away from discussing the theme of death, it seems, but it’s obviously an important one. Tell me about the different deaths in the book: actual, near, metaphorical.

As your question implies, there are a number of deaths in Memoir. My intent is that readers consider those, the literal, the metaphorical, and the near and decide for themselves which one is “good!”

FFF — At Wordfest, you read Rhegan’s death scene. It is a very powerful scene, but one might think you are giving away the ending by reading it first. Why did you read it, and are you glad you did?

I read the climactic scene at WordFest after being asked by Noah Richler to do so. This was prior to an event that included myself, Emma Donoghue, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Katherine Govier. Richler also asked each of them to read a particular scene…as in he asked all of us to forget about what we had prepared and to read excepts of his choice as a part of an interview style “chat.” When he asked me to do that I immediately said no! However, he asked me to think about it, and I had a deja vu moment. I had suggested the same thing to a writer friend. Long story short,  I read the scene and it was extraordinarily well received. Since then I’ve read it a number of times and the audience reaction has been consistently positive. I decided that if the scene was as strong as Richler said it was, people attending events like WordFest, the Galiano Literary Festival and local readings would still pick up the book to find out how Rhegan got to that point in her life. Just under half of the first print run sold between October, when the book was launched, and the end of December. That confirms for me that the scene is strong, intriguing and that it engages readers.

FFF — I mention in the review that, like Kroetsch and van Herk, your depiction of the land is brilliant. I am still struck by the way the various places were described. I have been many of the places you wrote about and your descriptions of Longview, or Carseland or Banff — they are anchored in truth. Long after reading What Crow Said or A Likely Story (Kroetsch), or The Tent Peg (van Herk) one is left with a clear sense of place. Memoir of a Good Death evokes similar feelings. Do you believe landscape can be a character in a novel?

Absolutely. And. I believe that the Bow Valley is one of the places in this land, this Alberta, in which our connection to the landscape is so profound. Our environment, especially our weather extremes for example, often affect our moods and our ways of doing things. These ‘truths’ if you will, offered fantastic opportunities on a number of narrative levels. I recognized that in particular works by my mentors Robert Kroetsch’s What Crow Said, and The Studhorse Man;  and Aritha van Herk’s The Tent Peg, and No Fixed Address. In Aritha’s work the female characters are strong, able, and infected by what I think of as a particular brand of movement mechanics. In Robert’s novels the characters are overtaken by their environments. Think about Vera Lang and the bees or the Hazzard character and his stallion. In the four aforementioned novels there are various degrees of magic realism and  surrealism at work. Couple these influences with my love of Marquez, Lorca and Neruda and you’ll get a sense of the degree to which I think connections between character and landscape provide limitless possibilities.

FFF — Who do you like better, Rhegan or Sarah?

Originally Rhegan was my favourite! In the earliest versions of the novel, I insisted that she was the protagonist. But Aritha van Herk, who supervised my Master’s thesis, Altar Ego, believed the opposite! She tried to tell me numerous times how strong Sarah’s voice was and that I should consider working with that. Being the resistant and stubborn student that I was, I ‘refused’ her excellent advice until AFTER my thesis was complete! It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I ‘let’ the Sarah character ‘speak’ if you will. I am endeared to both these female characters. Each represents unique elements of the female persona. I will say though that narratively Sarah and I still have a way to go: she has already made a significant appearance in the novel I am working on now!

FFF — You write of communities and areas along the Bow River. Is there a place you wish you’d had more space or time to explore more fully, both in real life and in the book?

No…I’m happy with the narrative explorations of places along the Bow in Memoir. As for personal journeys on the Bow, I’ve spent some wonderful blocks of time canoeing and hiking areas from Bow Summit to Carseland. I have a fondness for moving water and the Bow in particular and I know I will do more of the same in the future!

FFF — What is the next project you are working on?

I am currently at work on another novel. It too is set in Western Canada and    involves interactions between the landscape west of Turner Valley, and,  man reincarnated as a bear, a lost dog, and a host of other characters. All are searching for various things as they negotiate the Sheep River trails on foot and on horseback.  Most significantly perhaps is the idea that this particular place is akin to a cold heaven in which anything can happen! 

FFF – Thanks Anne!

Bats or Swallows – Interview with Teri Vlassopoulos

Teri agreed to answer some questions about her work – Looking forward to that forthcoming novel, Teri!

FFF: I mention in my review that the words in the title of Bats or Swallows can be taken as verbs or nouns. I was being a little facetious, but the intent of the title is clear — we must be certain of what we’ve just seen flying past our windows in the early morning light. I think that’s what I like best about the book. Everyone is searching, not just for answers, but the right answers. Did you plan to write to this theme, or did it just become more obvious as you wrote?

The stories in Bats or Swallows were written over a period of about 5 years, and include some of my first “serious” attempts at short story writing. I didn’t have a book in mind when I first started writing, and I definitely wasn’t thinking about theme. It was only after a few years that I realized that I had a series of stories that worked as a collection. Like most writers I write about things I’m interested in. It felt like a happy coincidence when I realized that I’d been interested in the same thing for awhile. Incidentally, it never occurred to me that Bats or Swallows could be construed as verbs until a friend of mine pointed it out last year – I had the image of the birds planted firmly in my mind. I could pretend I was clever enough to have come up with the double entendre myself, but I didn’t. Another happy coincidence!

FFF: The characters in Bats or Swallows have really stayed with me. I mentioned in my review that My Son, the Magician is my favourite story, but I think my favourite character is probably April, the teenager that works at the storage facility in Art History.  The characters in your stories are so complete, so well-drawn that we can easily imagine their lives before and after the small piece you allow us to see.

Which characters do you most feel an affinity for? Why?

Thank you, Kim! I tend to feel (maybe overly) sympathetic towards my teen girl characters, like April in Art History or the main character in What Counts. From my authorial god-like stance I want to reassure them that everything will be okay in the end, but they’re not real and it would be kind of weird if I whispered that to my laptop. Zoe from Swimming Lessons is probably the character I loved the most. Actually, I liked her so much that she’s one of the main characters in the novel I’m working on now.

FFF: Were there any characters that you disliked?

There are characters that might do things I don’t agree with, but, because I wrote them, I understand the motivation for their actions or feelings. It’s hard to dislike someone – real or imagined – when you have a deeper understanding of where they’re coming from. It’s annoying, almost. Life would be so much easier if we weren’t all so multifaceted!

FFF: Each story seems to have a symbol or a sign that could be said to be representative of the character or a plot point — roadkill, church signs, an earthquake. An international border. An extra pink line on a pregnancy test.  Tell me, in general, of the significance of symbols and signs in this book.

I’ve always been interested in the tendency people have (or fine, that I have) to look for signs when trying to discern certain life events, especially when these people (okay, me) know that ultimately these kinds of signs don’t have any logical bearing on real life. I’m also interested in how, in the absence of religion, people try to assign meaning to their lives. Like, why pay attention to your horoscope but not the Book of Revelations? Why go to a psychic instead of a priest?  So, I’ve assigned this characteristic to many of the characters in my book, and they do it both consciously and unconsciously.

FFF: When you write, what comes first, the idea for the plot, or the character?

What I like about short stories is that they can be written around a hook, whether it’s a particularly vivid character’s voice or an almost too clever plot twist. Usually I have a certain image or tone or idea, and the story will blossom from that.

FFF: You have worked on ‘zines in the past. How has publishing this collection of short stories differed from your past experiences in the industry? How was working on these stories similar to putting together a ‘zine?

I made zines primarily in my teens and early twenties before I thought seriously about fiction writing and before I even considered publishing a book. For me making a zine is such a vastly different experience from publishing a book that they don’t really compare. Zines are, for me, much more head/heart to paper, not much in between. They’re personal – I rarely include fiction in my zines, I have no editor, I don’t think much about promo. They sometimes have spelling or grammar mistakes, or maybe a sentence gets chopped off accidentally when it goes through the photocopier, and it’s maddening, but you live with it. I like being able to be looser with my writing in zines, but these days I prefer the rigour associated with writing fiction, getting edited, and, you know, not having missing sentences. I still occasionally make zines, though.

FFF: What are you working on now?

Who isn’t working on a novel these days? As I mentioned above, Zoe from Swimming Lessons is one of the main characters. The book is about small families, marriage, the Greek shipping industry and road trips. Kind of. I’m still figuring it out, and I feel a little superstitious talking about it out loud, but it’s well on its way. I also blog at http://bibliographic.net.

Thanks, Teri!

And thank you, Kim!

Snowdrift-Interview with Lisa McGonigle

Earlier this month I posted a review of Lisa McGonigle’s Snowdrift. (see her profile on Book Club Buddy here.) It’s a collection of emails she sent back to Ireland while living in the BC Kootenays. Lisa and I sat down together at Weeds Café in Calgary while she was in town on her book tour.

What follows is part of that interview.

FFF: The 2009 Fernie Writers’ Conference was a life-changing experience for you. How did it come about that you decided to attend?

LM: I had just finished up a season in Rossland. In the springtime, I didn’t have any firm plans as to what I was going to do. I went back over to Fernie. I just did a load of writing on these emails, and I saw a poster up for the Fernie Writers’ Conference…I thought maybe this is a writing project. I sent off the email I ended up reading at the conference and went to work in Calgary. A few weeks later I found out I  was awarded a scholarship to the conference.

FFF: What were your expectations of the Fernie Writers’ Conference?

LM: I had no idea what it was going to be like. I was afraid it was going to be all emotional and inner-child psychological writing kind of stuff, but I got down to Fernie and the first morning, I met Sid Marty , the most down-to-earth, straight-spoken person you could ever come across. It was brilliant, such a good experience.

FFF: To me, Sid is the kind of person that would sit back for fifteen minutes and just listen, then come up with the perfect thing to say.

LM: That’s exactly what he was like. It was such a diverse group of writers writing on our own individual projects, and Sid was really good at bringing discussion back and honing in on the details.

FFF: What was the format of the workshop?

LM: Everyone got their individual attention each day. Some worked on different pieces each day. One girl had a piece she was working on and she’d come back each day having edited and revised it. It was good to see how those pieces progressed.

FFF: To see how Sid Marty’s comments and input forwarded the work.

LM: Definitely.

FFF: What is one piece of advice you remember him giving you that’s stuck with you?

LM: For me, I think it was just the validation. I’d been writing all this stuff purely for friends absolutely not with an eye for publication. When someone like Sid says “yeah, there is something there,” it’s validating.

FFF: Tell me about the public reading at the Fernie Arts Station that got you a publishing deal with Oolichan.

LM: Sid told me I should read something, so I read the email about my friends Chris and Ally in Rossland. Then the next day I had my meeting with Susan M. Toy [the FWC provides formal and informal opportunities to meet with those who work within the publishing industry] who was a sales rep at the time. We went over to Mugshots and met with Ron Smith [owner of Oolichan at the time, and audience member for the readings]. Ron said, “Send me the manuscript to date.” I went back to Calgary and spent ten days polishing it and sent it off to him and got an email a few months later saying they were going to publish it. It was seamless. I feel very lucky.

FFF: Do you know what you’re going to write next?

LM: I’d like to write a book about Quebec.I loved Quebec when I was there. But my next book should really be my Ph.d thesis (laughs).

FFF: Thank you, Lisa.

Q & A with Darcie Friesen Hossack, author of Mennonites Don’t Dance

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Darcie Friesen Hossack’s Mennonites Don’t Dance was recently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada). Though not a finalist, Darcie’s book is definitely turning heads. Mennonites Don’t Dance has made its mark on the Canadian literary scene. We haven’t heard the last of Ms. Hossack.

If your book club is looking for a book to read, Mennonites Don’t Dance would be a great choice. The book is filled with rich,thought-provoking themes to discuss.

For more information on Darcie, check out her blog here. Her blog is filled with great posts on her journey to publish her first book. You will also find links to reviews and news on her Commonwealth nomination. And maybe a link to a recipe or two.

This past week, Darcie kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her book for Fresh Fish and Foolishness.

FFF: Mennonites Don’t Dance is the stunning culmination of years of toil and tears. How does it feel to finally have your stories find their way to the masses?

A: I’m looking at the word “masses.” The book sold out and is being reprinted (so if you’ve ordered online, or your local bookseller is shrugging his or her shoulders, it won’t be much longer!). Still, one print run maybe qualifies as a mass. Singular. I hope it continues to reach people.

That’s not really the question, though, is it? How does it feel? My emotions skip all over the place. The reality of so much work finally being realized in a bound book, created by a real publisher, will hit me and I’ll be exhilarated. Then I’ll panic that no one will ever hear about it. Or, when I know there’s a review coming, there’s the hand-wringing (just a little, I try to keep perspective) of wondering what will be said. Because all the reviews (so far) have been very positive, there’s elation and relief. No one works for ten years on eleven stories and doesn’t care what people think. I try to not let people’s opinions either make or break me, but it matters.

FFF: The stories are fiction, and are all linked to family. How did your family react to the release of your book? (Negative or positive anecdote)

DFH: There’ve been a lot of reactions, mostly positive. Some not, but not necessarily because of the book itself. It’s complicated.

The non-reactions, though, are the ones I don’t know quite how to file. They leave a lot to the imagination. But when I hear from my mom that a pair of Mennonite aunties (not my aunties, but someone’s) called one another to cackle over the scene in the title story where the feet of a soup chicken keep poking out of the pot, it makes my day as much as when someone is moved. Given that the stories are dark in nature, it’s a thrill when someone gets the jokes.

FFF: So many of the stories deal in one way or another with crushed expectations and disappointments. Yet, the stories are uplifting as well. How did you make that happen?

DFH: That’s grace. When there’s no hope, there is. Sometimes it’s offered and not taken, other times it’s darkness fading to light. I don’t know for sure, but it might be that you must experience grace in order to put it on the page. To recognize it, though, is also grace.

FFF: One of many things that is so impressive about the book is how even though it is sometimes billed as a “Mennonite” book, the themes of each story are actually universal and so fundamental that any of us could identify with the characters. Can you describe how your Mennonite roots inspired the writing of this book?

DFH: I’m Mennonite on my mother’s side. And while we lived in town, my earliest and best memories are of visiting my farming grandparents and aunts and uncles. My mom, sister and I visited them most weekends and I the culture, the food, the landscape, influenced and coloured my world more than I once thought. My grandfather’s faith, which he clung to through some truly faith-shattering times and events, is what I continue to appreciate the most, although I could sure go for a batch of roll kuchen right now!

FFF: In my review, I wrote that Mennonites Don’t Dance is Saskatchewan. The people reflect the land and vice versa. Do you think you could have written the same stories with a different setting, say in the orchards of the Okanagan, or in the Nickel Belt of Ontario? What did you have to do to keep the same feeling for the stories set in Calgary?

DFH: I can’t imagine taking the stories off the prairies and not having them, the characters, change to fit their landscape. The stories need grasshoppers or they wouldn’t writhe where then need to write. The coddling moth just isn’t the same sort of adversary.

The stories that are partially set in Calgary carry Saskatchewan with them, with characters either wrought or having found refuge there. Perhaps little would be different if the farms were in either Manitoba or Alberta, but Saskatchewan has its character that isn’t either or both. I’ve lived in three provinces, but these stories had to be Saskatchewan.

FFF: And last but not least, the food must be mentioned! Why is the food in the book so important to the characters?

DFH: Mennonites, whatever else we are, are eaters. Practically speaking, a lot of calories were once needed to break ground by hand and make a living from agriculture. Mennonite food, with all its fatty meats, its butter, cream, lard, the bread and sugar, is fuel.

Food is such a universal, visceral, experience. Whether people have positive associations with it or not. The lack of food, or the withholding of such a basic necessity, says more in a story (or of a life) than any frayed pantleg. When it’s given in abundance, freely, it speaks of love. Who can feel safe and valued if they aren’t, first, well fed? And if hunger is punishment, or a lesson, a person will end up perceiving the world and themselves in it, in a completely different way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always lived in cities. I work at a desk. I know perfectly well that I don’t need cream gravy and deep fried dough. But oh, it’s good for my soul!

FFF: Thanks, Darcie!