Interview with Karen Connelly

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Author picture of Karen ConnellyKaren Connelly is the author of 10 books of bestselling non-fiction, fiction and poetry. She has won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novel, The Lizard Cage. Connelly presents her latest collection of poetry, Come Cold River, a searing portrayal of her troubled family. Refracted through different Canadian cities and foreign landscapes, the book expands into an authentic homage to those who are made invisible and silenced. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Connelly is in Thunder Bay tonight for the International Festival of Authors event at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery at 7pm.

Shauna Kosoris: You’ve lived a life full of adventure, having lived in Thailand, Spain, France, Myanmar (Burma) and Greece.  How has living in these other places impacted your writing, beyond the obvious of giving you writing material?’

Karen Connelly: Living in other places has formed me so deeply that it’s actually hard to answer that question. I was apprenticed as a writer abroad, in Thailand and Spain and France; I came of age as a writer a decade later, in Burma and Thailand again; I have spent years in between all that in Greece, which is still my second home.

When I first lived abroad in Thailand, at seventeen, the magic of learning another language fluently got me hooked. Studying independently languages in situ, in the cultures where they were spoken, became my university, my means of simultaneously grappling with the foreign in a physical way and educating myself. This has certainly been a crucial part of my development as a writer and of my experience of the foreign. It has materially influenced some of the ways in which I write, especially the rhythms and complexities (or simplicities) of my use of words. I often hear echoed in my writing lines that I have originally read in Greek or Spanish; I don’t really know how this process works, but what it tells me is that such foreign words are heavily inscribed not just in my mind but in my ear – in my musical understanding of language.

It took me a long time, when I came back to Canada, to figure out how to write “Canada” again. Come Cold River, the last book of poetry, is mostly about Canada, a kind of memoir in poetry of where I grew up in Alberta; and The Change Room is set in Toronto.

Why do you call yourself a reluctant journalist on your website?

Because I’m too much of an artist, too emotional, to be anything but a reluctant journalist. My power as a writer lies in my ability to feel, to enter and experience the world as it comes to me with a profound bias. I love to investigate facts and ideas—but I have to feel. Though I enjoy the hard work of turning ‘true stories’ into art, I lead with my heart. So perhaps I should have written “lousy journalist” instead!

Fair enough!  In another interview, you said “First I write poetry, then I write a nonfiction, then I write a novel.” Why is poetry first for you?

Partly because, as I mentioned above, I am all muscle and sponge, absorbent, lively. Poetry for me is a visceral emotional reaction to the meaningful and sometimes meaningless events of life. Poetry comes from a different area of the brain. Prose and poetry use different techniques, different voices—poetry is like a different musical instrument. When I worked on my last book Come Cold River–despite dealing with truly miserable subject matter—it was like going swimming in almost warm salt water. I floated—moved effortlessly through the language, even when the poems are hard (and, ironically, a number of the poems are about drowning!)

In prose you really have to swim. Prose narrative is all about duty, making sure the reader gets the connections, building the whole scene, the whole world. Poetry is momentary and emotional. Clearly it can and even needs to mean more than one thing. This multiplicity means it is a freer element. Even if it is narrative, as much of my poetry is, very story-ish, it is still more watery, more fluid. And let’s face it, poetry can just jazz up and crash down and stun the reader in a way that prose almost never can. The sharpness and specificity of poetry has much to do with that. While it is the freer element, it also contains, paradoxically, the possibility of driving a stake into the reader’s heart.

What’s great about poetry for me is that no one reads it. Well, maybe a few hundred people. I’ll bring a few secret copies to Thunder Bay, but I don’t have many left. Come Cold River is like a secret, the hard poems I never even wrote. Most poets complain about this but for me it’s a relief. Because of that wonderful obscurity, you can think write say express anything in a poem. There is no censorship, no niceties necessary. At least for me. I do think a lot of other poets do more censoring, more picking and choosing. Or it’s a stylistic consideration—I find there’s a lot of tightness in Canadian poetry these days, a lot of formalism that is neither natural nor emotionally engaging to me. As I get older I am more and more interested in—what? freedom? that’s not exactly it, since I have always had every kind of freedom imaginable. Something else. Not hiding. Telling the truth.

You’ve been writing for many years (your first book of poetry was published over three decades ago) but your first novel, The Lizard Cage, was published just over a decade ago.  Why did you decide to try your hand at writing a novel?

Oh, I’ve always written fiction. I started and ditched maybe half a dozen novels. I have a bunch of really fun short stories embedded in a travel book of mine, One Room in a Castle. And The Lizard Cage took me a decade to write, so really it’s 2 or 3 books.

I’m glad you found your novel even if it took a few tries!  The Lizard Cage is not the first thing you’ve written inspired by your time in Southeast Asia.  Why does this area of the world appeal to you so much?

Probably because I was so young (17) when I first went to live there. It went in—right to my bones. I am so at home in SE Asia. Buddhism has influenced my life too, because I lived in a rural Thai setting as a young person. And that was a real antidote and balm, a relief, after the Christian fundamentalism I’d been raised in.

Your long awaited second novel, The Change Room, is coming out this spring.  What inspired you to write it?

Conversations with women in book clubs, actually. So many of them liked the sexual content in Burmese Lessons—the young woman who is passionately in love with a man who is never around, because he’s an important revolutionary political figure. Burmese Lessons is about many things—the politics of Myanmar in the 1990’s, censorship, violence, the work of witnessing, activism, refugees, being a writer at the edge of war and unrest. But it’s also a book about longing, lust, and sexual fulfilment. Or lack thereof.

Another reason? (there are many!) Well, let’s face it, 50 Shades of Gray was about a sexual nitwit, a completely unsophisticated young woman, a virgin who never used the word ‘clitoris’. Hello! She was annoying! I wanted to write a smart, funny, worldly heroine who is on an intelligent and very transgressive quest for sexual joy.

The Change Room is full of realistic adult sex. It’s very democratic: EVERYONE has realistic adult sex which is sometimes fabulous, but also messy, truncated, and often unfulfilling. My main character has children, and a job, like the rest of us, so she’s having real-life sex. Yet I also wanted to explore the wondrous power and magic of sexuality. It was, needless to say, the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book!

The Change Room features a happily married woman who gets involved with another woman.  Why did you decide to write about this particular relationship?

I wanted to explore the multiplicity and elasticity of female desire. We can be freer to love than men—women often have love built into them by virtue of biology but also because of cultural expectations. We are expected to be nurturers. We take care, we bear children and traditionally have taken care of them more than men. We also take care of men a lot. We do a lot of  unpaid unacknowledged emotional labour. What would happen, I wondered, if Eliza Keenan–my busy, overworked, stressed-out married mother of two–met a lover who could take care of her? Who would be a fabulous lover but also  . . . feed her? What would that look like? Perhaps it’s just another fantasy.

Anyway, to go back to what I was saying earlier, women’s capacity to love is also erotic. I know so many women who identify as bisexual, as I do myself, though I’ve lived much of my life as a heterosexual.

I also thought that a same-sex adulterous affair might engender less anger towards the character than a typical hetero affair. I did a lot of research into adultery for this book: married women having affairs with other men are infinitely more vilified than men who have affairs. Adultery still makes people of both sexes very angry and hurt, even if they are not involved in the affair. The person in heterosexual affairs who is ‘blamed’ and hated the most is—are we really surprised?—the woman. So I was hoping to soften some of those negative emotions by making the lovers women.

With The Change Room set to be published this spring, what are you working on now?

Don’t laugh: the second book in the trilogy of The Change Room. Which a number of my friends jokingly call The Deep End. It might stick, actually. These books are very serious but they are also extremely funny, full of the humour of everyday life, of women and men talking and living and fighting and laughing together.

I also want to collect all my essays and publish them, which I think are some of my best writing.

Good luck with both of those projects. Let’s finish up with some questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

I think it has to be in the present tense. Many writers inspired me and I still need writers to inspire me now. As a teenager, Annie Dillard, the big Canadian poets of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the essays of Camus. Pablo Neruda. Walt Whitman. Lawrence Durrell. And since then, oh, so many writers. James Baldwin—huge. Robin Kelley. I read all the time. I read promiscuously, variously, without a program. Harriet Doerr. Zora Neale Hurston. Elaine Scary’s extraordinary theoretical and political writing. Audre Lorde. Adrienne Riche. Julia Kristeva. The Greek poet Yiorgos Seferis was and still is an enormously important writer for me. Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn, Lewis Hyde, Susan Griffin. A bunch of Buddhists. And I’m a huge fan of British women novelists: Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, Dorothy Sayers, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Rachel Cusk. The Irish writer Edna O’Brien.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin. It’s a wonderfully readable book about history, and women, and who creates the narrative of the world as we know it. Zeldin has a great big brain but it’s not a hard book to read—just endlessly fascinating and hopeful. And we have to all of us face the music of what we’re doing to our planet.  The Global Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger makes it much easier to do that. She is a treasure, a magical ecologist.

And what are you currently reading?

Mark Winston’s Bee Time. Helen Garner’s The Spare Room (she is a graceful Australian novelist whom I’d never heard of—discovered her on the public library shelves.) Katherena Vermette’s The Break. Sun Mi Hwang’s beautiful book The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly—also a local library find. I  also just finished two of Ian McEwan’s recent novels, Sweet Tooth and The Children Act. They were wonderful—really the best novels by McEwan I’ve read in years. He is getting better and sweeter as he ages, more playful. So there is hope for me.

Come Cold River book cover

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  1. Pingback: Long Overdue Update | An Acquaintance with Letters

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