Tag Archives: author interview

Interview with Claire Fuller

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clairefuller-68-2-copyClaire Fuller is a writer and an artist who lives in Winchester, England. Her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, has been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award 2015, and was a finalist in the American Booksellers Association 2016 Indies Best Book Awards. Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, was published in January 2017. You can find her online at clairefuller.co.uk.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your new novel, Swimming Lessons?

Claire Fuller: A couple of things started it. A piece of flash fiction that I wrote about a man on a beach and the things he finds washed up there. And a project I did with my husband before we were married, and when he had his own flat. We decided we would write notes to each other and hide them in each other’s houses – love notes, I suppose. When he packed up his flat to move in with me, he found all the notes I’d written to him, but seven years later there are still two notes somewhere in the house we share together.

I noticed that some of your descriptions in the book (for example “smelling the khaki colour of unwashed hair” on pg 51, “cigarettes the colour of wet bark” on pg 261, and “the place still stank of burning, the only smell that was pure black” on pg 287) were very synaesthetic. These descriptions always occurred around Flora. Did she have synaesthesia?

Flora does have synaesthesia. I wrote one of the descriptions without even thinking about it, and someone in my writing group pointed it out, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to go with, especially since Flora is an artist. I don’t have synaesthesia but I think I do see non-visual things visually. I was trying to explain to my husband the other day about how I see decades: the 1960s and 1970s are vertical, the 1980s change to horizontal, with the 90s at an incline of about 30 degrees. He had no idea what I was on about!

Wow, that’s interesting; I hope that will make its way into your writing one day! But now I have to ask – why did Flora love wandering around naked?

Hah! Flora’s a bit of a free spirit, don’t you think? She doesn’t care what other people think of her. Being free of her clothes makes her feel liberated, when actually she isn’t free at all of her family’s history.

And her family’s history is so important in Swimming Lessons, as half of the story is told through the letters Ingrid wrote to her husband about their marriage. Did you always know you would be telling the story in this way?

Not at all. The story started from Gil’s point of view and I got to about 30,000 words before I realised that it was wrong, and deleted half of it. Now Gil’s point of view is only the prologue. I decided I wanted to hear from Ingrid, but because in the present she has disappeared, I started writing a letter from her to Gil, and they just continued.

I’m so glad they did – I absolutely loved Ingrid’s letters. Thinking of things I loved, I thought your short story “Emily, Baker and Me” was fantastic. Do you still write short fiction?

Thank you! I do still write a lot of short fiction – short stories (I recently won the Royal Academy & Pin Drop short story prize) and flash fiction. I’m part of an online group called Friday Fictioneers where a photograph is posted online each week and writers around the world each write a 100-word story inspired by it. It’s great for honing writing skills, and anyone can join in.

Friday Fictioneers sounds like a lot of fun, and congratulations on your win! You’ve written a blog post from a year ago about your writing process. Has your process changed at all since then?

It hasn’t changed much. I’ve now finished the first draft of my third novel, and the only thing that was different to the process I described in that blog post is aiming for a particular word count each day. I stopped doing that when I was about half way through and just made sure I wrote something new each day. Making sure I had 1,000 or 800 new words each day was too much pressure, and too often I found the next day that they were bad words. It was better to aim for fewer, better words.

Your bio on your website says you studied sculpture at the Winchester School of Art. Do you still make sculptures?

I’m not doing much at the moment. It feels like writing is my creative outlet, although sometimes I do a bit of drawing.

That’s fair. What are you working on now?

As I mentioned, I’ve just finished the first draft of my third novel. My literary agent gets to read it first, and she and her colleagues have given me some broad ideas for improving it, so now I really want to get back to it and write another draft. It’s still too early to say what it’s about, mostly because I don’t know how to explain it without it taking three pages!

Well I can’t wait to read it, whenever it’s done. I’ve just got a few more questions for you about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

I’m not sure a particular book or author inspired me to write, but there are plenty I would like to write like. The ones that spring to mind are We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and Legend of a Suicide by David Vann.

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

No, I don’t think there is. We all like different books, different authors, different genres, and that’s just fine. I’d just like everyone to read, full-stop.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. I’ve only just started it, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s non-fiction about loneliness and how that’s reflected in the lives and work of some particular artists.

cover of Swimming Lessons

Interview with Peadar O’Guilin

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Picture of Peadar O’GuilinPeadar O’Guilin grew up in beautiful Donegal in the far northwest of Ireland.  These days, he lives in Dublin where he toils day and night for a giant corporation.  You can find him on Twitter by following @TheCallYA.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired you to write The Call?

Peadar O’Guilin: I have always believed that one idea is never enough to make a good novel — you need at least two. Everything grows from the interaction of these concepts. The first piece of inspiration I had for The Call was an image of somebody disappearing in a crowded room. I imagined their clothing falling to the floor and I wondered what had happened to them. I knew it had to be something bad, I just didn’t know what. I guess a lifetime of reading mythology and folklore finally broke through to the surface because I used the Irish mythology I’d grown up with to supply the answer. Our version of fairy tales are weird and beautiful and quite unlike the ones that are more common in the rest of the western world. Nobody could fail to be inspired by them, in my opinion.

I completely agree!  So why does the Call last exactly 3 minutes and 4 seconds?

I wanted it to last three minutes so that any witnesses would be on the edge of their seats and counting down all the way, terrified of what might come back. The extra four seconds are there for no reason other than the fact that life isn’t very neat.

That’s fair.  How did Nessa, a girl with weak legs, become the heroine in a story where the teens have to run for their lives?

I always pick heroes for my stories that everybody else expects to fail. They put her in a box, they dismiss and pity her. But Nessa is not the type to lie down and I love her for that.

You said you “picked” Nessa. Were there other characters you were debating about making the protagonist?

No, there were no other characters before Nessa came into existence. All of the others materialised in response to her. I “picked” her, in the sense that I knew I would need somebody that others would consider useless. My main characters are often thought of by others as a “waste of resources” and a “waste of time”. But, like all of us, they have enormous value that society is in danger of squandering.

All of the teens had such different adventures in the Grey Lands.  How did you decide on what each of them would go through?

I never do a lot of planning in my novels. I want to be every bit as surprised as the readers by what happens. When I sat down to begin each “Call”, I didn’t always know if that character would live or die, or what would happen to them. This is why I wrote it in the present tense. I wanted to feel the unpredictability of the story that I was creating. And you’re right — I knew I had to be very careful to make all of the stories wildly different from each other. To do anything else would have quickly bored the readers.

So which character’s Call surprised you the most?

There were quite a few that surprised me. I didn’t know Cahal would turn out to have an inner decency. I didn’t know Chuckwu would do what he did. And I really didn’t expect what happened to Emma. I could say more, but… spoilers!

Emma’s Call was probably the most surprising one for me as a reader as well.  Outside of the whole idea of being Called by the Sidhe, I found the Sidhe’s world to be quite fascinating.  Where did you get the idea for the Grey Lands?

The Sídhe needed to live somewhere awful so that their desire for vengeance would be bottomless. So, I designed a world that would be the opposite in every way from the home they lost: The Many-Coloured Land. I took away the colour they loved so much. I left them no animals, so that they had to create their own out of pure hatred.

The Grey Lands and the Bone World of your previous trilogy are both very brutal settings.  Why do these types of worlds appeal to you as a writer?

It’s all about increasing the stakes. The greater the threat, the more heroic the characters have to be to overcome them and the more we, the readers, fear for their safety and root for their success. At least, that’s how I feel.

So what are you working on now?

I’m working on a sequel to The Call. I have no name for it yet and don’t plan on writing more than two books in this series. I have plenty of other stories in my mental queue for when that’s done.

How exciting – I can’t wait to read that sequel! Let’s finish up with a few quick questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

I’ve been writing stories my whole life — at least since the age of five! So, I can’t remember what book first got me started. But the one that made me passionate about world-building, has to be The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading that the first time was like having a bomb go off in my brain with lights flashing and trumpets blaring. It changed everything for me.

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

I think the book everybody should read is the one that will do to them what The Lord of the Rings did to me. However, that book is different for every reader. Please, read whatever you love and feel no guilt about it. Sure, you need to study whatever books your school demands too, but in your own time, you should be free in every sense of the word.

And what are you currently reading?

Kid Got Shot by Simon Mason. It’s a YA mystery with fantastic characters. I loved his previous novel, Running Girl.

cover art of The Call

Interview with Shane Peacock

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author picture of Shane PeacockShane Peacock was born in a place that doesn’t exist … the city of Port Arthur, Ontario. He grew up in Kapuskasing, Ontario, then earned a Bachelor’s degree (Honours) in English and History from Trent University, and a Master’s degree in Literature from the University of Toronto. Shane worked as a labourer for Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company, a wilderness bush sprayer for Ontario Hydro, and a box mover for a university bookstore. But ever since childhood, his mind was on other things: on extraordinary people and events, on personalities who made legends of their lives, on what motivated them, and what made others accept supporting roles. He set out to write about such individuals, some real, some invented, and others so eccentric that they seemed to be a combination of both. Because he writes about unusual subjects, his research methods have, at times, been out of the ordinary too. He has learned the arts of tight-rope walking, silent killing, trapeze flying, and sumo eating, all in the service of his art. Shane and his wife, journalist Sophie Kneisel, live with their three children on a small farm near Cobourg, Ontario, where he continues to search for and imagine larger-than life characters. In his spare time he enjoys playing hockey, reading, and walking the wire, pretending that he is the hero in each story.

Shauna Kosoris: You are most well-known for your Boy Sherlock Holmes series.  What inspired you to write about a young Holmes?

Shane Peacock: The Boy Sherlock Holmes series grew from an idea for a novel about racism and prejudice, and the need for the opposite of those two horrible things, justice. There was no one named Sherlock Holmes in the first draft of the first novel. It was a story about a brilliant half-Jewish boy in Victorian London, plagued by racist tormentors in school, who ends up being implicated in a murder and must find the villain. It wasn’t until someone suggested that my character could actually be Sherlock Holmes that I re-constructed the novel to make it about him. That allowed it to grow in both its appeal and complexity.

That most certainly would allow the story to grow in interesting ways.  More recently, you were involved in the Seven series; how did you get involved in that?

Eric Walters asked me to be involved in the Seven Series. We had been friends and colleagues for a while, and when he came up with his brilliant idea of a series written by seven different novelists, with novels all with the same starting point (a grandfather’s dying wish that his seven grandson’s attempt the seven amazing things on his bucket list), I thought it would be fascinating to be part of it, almost like a writing exercise.

That does sound like fun!  Did you choose to write Adam Murphy’s stories in the Seven Series/Sequels/Prequels?

I most definitely chose to write Adam Murphy’s stories in the Seven Series/Sequels/Prequels. Eric simply gave the other six authors the premise of the series and then we all created our characters and took them where we wanted them to go. One of the many strengths of this triple series is the uniqueness of each novelist’s creations in their respective novels.

Your new series, The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim, centers around a very sensitive character who suffers from night terrors.  Did you plan for your protagonist, Edgar Brim, to have this sleep disorder?

The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim was always meant to be a book about fear and, in particular, a story about a boy who suffers from a sort of anxiety disorder (though it certainly wasn’t called that in his day). I added the sleep disorder known as “sleep paralysis” or “the hag phenomenon” to his character, a terrifying ailment that most certainly still plagues people when they wake up suddenly and cannot move. Some people, over the centuries, report some sort of presence in the room with them, often a sort of hag or witch who is sitting on their chest, paralyzing them, squeezing the breath out of them. Edgar Brim struggles with this throughout my horror trilogy.

Both your Boy Sherlock Holmes series and your new series about Edgar Brim are set in the Victorian era.  Why does the Victorian era/Gothic period appeal to you so much?

I think the Victorian period appeals to me so much because it occurred after photography had been invented but before moving film, so we can see images of people and places and buildings and machinery from that time, but they sit or stand there, ghostly and immovable. I am fascinated by the idea of making it move in my novels, of animating that fascinating historical period, especially in London. I am also a huge Charles Dickens fan … that will do it to you!

In the middle of working on all of these series, you’ve also written a children’s picture book.  Why did you decide to write a picture book about Vincent van Gogh?

As is often the case with artists of all genres, I didn’t choose to write a picture book about Vincent van Gogh as much as it chose me. I had written a short story about him long ago that Karen Li, a brilliant editor at Owlkids Books, learned about and asked if I might consider turning into a picture book. I am an admirer of Van Gogh, of his genius, his individuality and courage, and an enemy of bullying, so I put those two things together in “The Artist and Me” and told what turned out to be a unique picture book that has, thankfully, met with great critical acclaim.

All of your books to date have been aimed at younger audiences, both young adult and children.  Why do you like writing for these younger age groups?

Actually, my first book, The Great Farini, was for adults, all my plays, documentaries, journalism and even a novel I am working on now, are for adults.

Whoops, that’s my mistake.

But I do enjoy writing for the younger audiences. It is definitely fun to be anywhere from six to eighteen again. And it is also intriguing to tell stories that are challenging, as all YA literature is if you try to get it right – to stay on plot, make your work exciting, AND make it say something and be structurally and stylistically interesting.

It is often commented that my books are like adult novels for kids.

So what are you working on now?

I am writing the second novel in the Edgar Brim trilogy, entitled Monster, as well as a new picture book, and the adult novel. I also have an idea for a Teen romance (a very different sort of one) and am developing a strange new YA series.

Wow, you’re very busy – good luck with everything!  Finally, let’s talk a bit about reading.  What book or author inspired you to write?

I think the aforementioned Charles Dickens may have been the greatest influence on me. My father actually read us Oliver Twist and other Dickens works when we were pretty young and I was absolutely enchanted by the characters and the worlds I encountered. I am also a big fan of The Little Prince, which is prominent in each of my novels in the Seven Series, Sequels and Prequels.

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

Well, everyone should read Shakespeare. I know he is difficult for young people, but he is undoubtedly the greatest writer who ever lived and his stories are absolutely alive. They are magical. But Dickens is close behind.

And what are you currently reading?

I have been reading a lot of classic Horror stories for The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim, lots of Frankenstein, Dracula, Poe, and I recently read an amazing novel called Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which is 1,100 pages long and very complicated but also rewarding. At this moment, I’m part way into Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The Fault in Our Stars, which I’ve somehow avoided for a while, is up next.

cover picture of Edgar Brim

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

Interview with Cordelia Strube

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Author picture of Cordelia Strube taken by Mark Raynes RobertsCordelia Strube is an accomplished playwright and the author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including Alex & Zee, Teaching Pigs to Sing, and Lemon. Winner of the CBC literary competition and a Toronto Arts Foundation Award, she has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Book Award, the WH Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A two-time finalist for ACTRA’s Nellie Award celebrating excellence in Canadian broadcasting, she is also a three-time nominee for the ReLit Award. She will present On The Shores of Darkness, There Is Light at the International Festival of Authors Lit on Tour event in Thunder Bay on November 1st.

Shauna Kosoris: You began your career as an actor.  How did you go from acting to writing?

Cordelia Strube: In theatre school I had the opportunity to act in plays by the greats.  In real life I discovered that complex roles for women were rare.  Rather than gripe about it, I decided to try and write some.

That’s so frustrating!  But good for you for actively working to change things.  You started out writing stage and radio plays, with your most recent ones having been written in 1989.  How did you move into novel writing?  

Budget cuts to radio drama meant fewer contracts, and mounting stage plays requires many players all in the game at the same time.  Novel writing requires me, alone, with a laptop.

Do you think you would ever write another play?

If all the players were in the game at the same time.  I love writing dialogue and still, when asked, doctor both stage and screen plays.

Thinking of dialogue, your characters all have very strong voices.  Where do their voices come from?

Life.  I listen, watch, watch and listen.

That’s fair.  What inspired your newest novel, On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light?

I was sitting in a Tim Horton’s, people-watching through the window, and noticed a small boy with an over-sized head. He was gripping his mother’s hand as they walked, both of them ignoring the stares of passersby.  In the mother’s expression I recognized a look all too familiar to mothers a.k.a. if you hurt my child, I will kill you.  There was a grace and nobility about these two seemingly frail people, pushing courageously through their daily grind despite disability.  Once home I googled causes for skull enlargement in children and, shazam, Irwin was born.  Then I started what if-ing, which I do constantly while writing novels.  What if the sick child has a well sibling?  What love and tenderness is left for the well sibling who will always, in the eyes of the mother devoted to the sick child, get better?  How do the well and sick children feel about one another?  I wanted to reveal this complex sibling connection from both points of view, which resulted in two protagonists in a two part novel.

How much of yourself is in your protagonist Harriet?  She struggles in regards to questions of morality and compassion; have you struggled with these same issues?

All my characters live and breath in me, so yes, I live in Harriet.  I have always been an outsider, a non-conformist, a trouble maker.  Not on purpose, I just try to do the right thing.  The hitch is, everyone’s version of the right thing is different.

That’s very true.  I heard you say in an interview that you start with the first sentences of your novels but none of the first sentences in your published novels are the original first sentences you started with.  What was your original first sentence for On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, and how did it change?

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light is one of three of my novels whose first sentence stuck.  The first sentence in Milton’s Elements is: Milton sits in traffic picking his nose.  Alex & Zee‘s first sentence is: Zee doesn’t want to go home.  On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light begins with dialogue: “There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

Simple first sentences pull you right into the narrative.  I agree with Brecht who said “Simplicity is so very difficult”.  My goal is to establish what’s at stake for the protagonist asap.

What are you working on now?

I avoid talking about a novel in progress because I never know if it is a novel until I finish it. I can say that it takes a look at the 21st century’s seemingly unending war in the Middle East, and corporate greed. As always with my fiction, the sneaky humour evolves from a varied cast of characters in unpredictable situations. I like to think of my novels, despite their sometimes difficult subject matter, as situation comedies.

I look forward to reading it, whatever it may be in the end!  I’d like to finish off with a few questions about your reading and how it relates to your writing.  What book or author inspired you to write?

I was an avid reader long before I became a writer.  And those authors taught me how to write without me realizing it.  We learn to write by reading.  I had an extraordinary librarian in high school (the librarian in Lemon is based on her) who kept pushing a variety of authors at me, classical and contemporary.  I rarely went to class, preferred to hang out in the library reading the Georges, Austin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Richardson, Hardy, Dickens.  I was, and still am, happiest when either reading or writing a novel.  In theatre school I studied many plays, classical and contemporary, which taught me the importance of conflict in narrative, and that a line of dialogue can convey the essence of a character.  Which is why I continue to prefer dialogue to extensive expository writing.

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

Reading is subjective.  Narratives mean different things to different people at different times.  Something that resonated with me years ago may not today.  Books find people.  And people find what they need in books.

And what are you currently reading?

I’ve got two on the go: Redeployment by Phil Klay, a vet of the Iraq war.  

His multi-pronged stories jab at that cooked up disaster of a war with humour

and clarity.  I’m also loving Nicholson Baker’s Substitute about his year

substitute teaching in the Maine public school system.  As with Klay,

the darkness of Nicholson’s prose is laced with sneaky humour.  

I need sly wit in what I read and write.


book cover of On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light

Interview with Andy McGuire

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mcguire-andyAndy McGuire is from Grand Bend, Ontario, and currently resides in Toronto.  He is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph.  McGuire’s poems have appeared in Riddle Fence, Hazlitt and The Walrus.  He will present Country Club at the International Festival of Authors Lit on Tour event in Thunder Bay on November 1st.

Shauna Kosoris: What first drew you to poetry?

Andy McGuire: The money and fame. Actually, I really don’t remember. Whatever it was has become historical fact. My earliest attempts at writing poems coincided with a pretty dark time in my life. The main feature of that time was a super unhealthy disassociation with the world, and myself, that apparently was amenable to a poetic impulse. Maybe that was a poetic impulse, or my poetic impulse, who knows—all I have to go on is the memory of a feeling. It was the beginning of my love of language. The engine is a love of language, poetry is whatever that engine puts in motion. All I know is that for me, that engine only became available, or possible, at my absolute lowest.

If your absolute lowest was the beginning, what is driving you now?

This is a hard question because I spend most of my time writing, and thinking about writing. I only ever step back and consider things like what is driving me now when asked in an interview. The thing that drives my work, besides the supernatural Rube Goldberg machine that pulls the mysterious stops in turn, is a love of language. There you have it, the dull moment of truth. Also, I feel crippling guilt and anxiety if I go more than a few days without writing, without making something, anything, really. Yeah, that definitely drives me also. Guilt, anxiety, and shame. The three amigos in the heart of a classic buzzkill. Inside of any maker—someone who feels an imperative to create—something is a little broken, I think, in a good way.

What is your favourite poem form to write and why?

I don’t have a favourite poetic form. On the one hand, I try not to have too much tension in the reins while writing, and yet I find great value in introducing constraints to a poem in progress. A rhyme scheme, a repeated stanzaic structure; these sorts of formal elements usually reveal themselves during the compositional process. The filmmaker Errol Morris has a theory of art: establish an arbitrary set of rules and follow them. I love that. Even though I’m not very interested in writing sonnets and sestinas (at least at the moment), the reasons why some poets are interested make perfect sense to me. It’s the freedom of a limited repertoire. It makes things sayable. The art of encumbrance often leads to otherwise unavailable aesthetic possibilities. I am sympathetic to the formalist cause, I just find that it doesn’t square well with the eternal pursuit of good times. Several of the poems in Country Club flirt with a formal grandiosity and deploy all sorts of traditional techniques in weird ways. Lately I’ve been writing poems in the form of top ten lists. I have found the form to be incredibly versatile and deeply inclusive. I labour endlessly over these lists, but it’s fun, I get away with a lot. I can say things like This life owes me a death, and Love is an unmarked van, and Maybe cashmere just wants to be left alone, all in the same breath.

What made you start writing poems in the form of top 10 lists?

It happened by accident. I was reading an article about Afghanistan, and the supernatural Rube Goldberg machine pulled some mysterious linguistic stop and suggested the title, Top Ten Stans. So I made a top ten list of preeminent Stans that included Stan Cup, Paul Stan, Stan Park and Afghanistan. It was my first taste of the linguistic slippage that characterizes the lists. I was hooked.

Do you think you’d ever be interested in writing sonnets and sestinas in the future?

Absolutely, maybe, who knows. I may wake up wrecked on a formalist shore one cold New England morning. It wasn’t in the cards of all my old futures. Still, I carry around a little emergency kit with a bag of scotch mints and a list of words like chesterfield.

Earlier you said that formalism doesn’t “square well with the eternal pursuit of good times.”  What exactly do you mean by the eternal pursuit of good times?

I mean the pursuit of pleasure, the diametric opposite of scotch mints and words like chesterfield.

Country Club  examines human passions, such as wealth, power, leisure, and desire.  Which passion did you find the most interesting to explore in poetry?

Several of the poems in Country Club are either about or set in Florida. The reason being that I wintered there one year while I was working on my manuscript. The human passions you mention are hard to parse in the Sunshine State. They kind of come as a package deal. That winter I was living in a private golf course community deep in the heart of retirement country. A few weeks ago Donald Trump held a campaign rally just down the road from where I was. That is where I spent the winter, American Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. The frozen sea within me melted. At that latitude, you would only need an axe when Florida freezes over. Anyway, the culture down there amounted to conspicuous excess, a kind of disengagement from the world. I wanted the Florida poems to reflect in some way the cultural attitudes and postures, the sheer idleness, that gave rise to their occasion. The Florida poems, in particular, were a pleasure to write.

So gluttony and sloth (in Florida)?

That’s a generous way of putting it, but yes.

You’re currently pursuing your MFA in creative writing at the University of Guelph. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned so far during your time there?

I just defended my thesis, which was a novel, this past summer. I had never attempted fiction before, and I learned that the process of novelistic composition involves way more typing than poetry. The Guelph program has a stellar faculty, and the instructors I worked with—Catherine Bush, Kevin Connolly, Dionne Brand and Michael Winter—helped me in various ways to become a better reader and editor of my own work. The Guelph program really encourages students to take risks in their writing. I bet the farm a few times. For me, that was one of the most valuable outcomes of the program: learning what kind of risks I want to take in my work, and developing my writerly instincts in that sense.

How successful were you during those times you bet the farm?

The point was to try things out, so my experimentations were successful, in that I found great value in taking risks (considered risks, of course) and simply trying out different modes of writing. Hence the novel. If we’re talking about publishing as a measure of success, well, my novel and I are on a break. I was like, It’s not me, it’s you. Sometimes you need to shelve a piece of writing to figure out what it is, what it needs to be.

Other than your MFA, what are you working on now?

I have been doubling down on my second book of poems. It’s going to be a collection of the aforementioned top ten lists. My novel is enjoying the inside of a drawer for the time being. I always have a gaggle of projects on the go—things I should wait to talk about until the second trimester.

Finally, I have a few questions about what you read.  What book, author, poem, or poet inspired you to write?

The authors that have been putting the flames in my fire lately are Adam Phillips and Sarah Manguso. Their sentences are special. Also currently in rotation: Alice Oswald’s Memorial, Emily Dickinson’s collected poems, Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, Arthur Waley’s translation of the Tao Tê Ching, James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk, and the letters of Groucho Marx.

Those are all authors and poets who are currently inspiring your writing.  Did anyone or any poem first inspire you to write?  

My old friend Graeme Charles read my earliest poems. They would come back to me creased and stained, covered in slashes and burns. He was ruthless, he really cared. He’s the smartest guy I know, and I haven’t seen him in years. Graeme, if you’re reading this, give me a sign, let’s get together.

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

On the contrary, I would advocate for veering off the beaten path. Read a book written by the trainer of a famous dog. Read The Warren Report. A book about a river, or the greatest art heist in history. An autobiography of a failed lion tamer. I once heard someone say, All reading is counterproductive—a truly stupid thing to say, but an interesting provocation nonetheless. I have gotten the best returns from my most seemingly counterproductive reading. That said, maybe everyone should read Country Club.

So what was the most seemingly counterproductive thing you’ve read?

I guess what I mean is that my reading habits are largely determined by chance. Books lead to other books, and I’ve developed a fairly decent instinct with regard to literary leads. Also, bibliographies, obscure blogs and remainder tables are my best friends. I have found that the most memorable books are the ones that are like portals to weird little alcoves within the world. For example, there’s a book called Letters to Strongheart by a man named J. Allen Boone. Strongheart was the first canine movie star, like, before Rin Tin Tin. He was famous for having apparently cried once in a close-up on film. A little dog tear running down his dog cheek. Anyway, after Strongheart died this J. Allen Boone started writing letters to Strongheart. And so the book is twenty-three letters to a dead dog. The kind of book you might find on a remainder table—my kind of book. That sort of obscure stuff really fills my tank. But also, it doesn’t have to be books. When you value writing as writing, any paragraph, any sentence or line can be as good as the next. Your mom can write a line in a text that sounds like it came from a crestfallen mermaid. Reading is reading, and in the course of a day I read all sorts of things that you probably wouldn’t think contribute or are relevant to artistic work, but there’s always some processing happening on some level. Who knows how these things work. They work, is all, and they’re always working, even when they’re not. I mean, a river doesn’t flip an on switch as soon as someone looks.

Country Club book cover

Interview with Miranda Hill

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Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Miranda Hill is the author of the story collection Sleeping Funny, which won the City of Hamilton Award for Fiction, and of the story “Petitions to Saint Chronic,” which won the McClelland & Stewart/Writers’ Trust of Canada Journey Prize. Hill is the founder and executive director of Project Bookmark Canada, the organization building Canada’s literary trail.  Hill will be in Thunder Bay for the International Festival of Authors on November 4th.

Shauna Kosoris: When you’re in Thunder Bay for the International Festival of Authors this November, you’re going to be reading from your collection of stories, Sleeping Funny.  What can you tell me about it?

Miranda Hill: Sleeping Funny is a collection of nine short stories. And it’s a real mix of voices and styles and time periods, with everything from a story from the perspective of a 14 year-old girl in a sex-ed class where everyone starts seeing each other’s conceptions, to a story about a 19th century Presbyterian minister witnessing the demise of the passenger pigeons, to a modern day look at a group of neighbours in an upscale community, dealing with an outbreak of lice. I like to tell people it’s like a box of chocolates — if you don’t like the coconut cream you got this time, try again the next one might be cherry-filled.

That analogy sounds pretty fitting.  Why did you decide to write a collection of short stories?

I love writing and reading short fiction. It’s a tighter focus than a novel, but there’s so much that you can do with it. It’s wonderful to me that in a small slice of a life or a world, you can create such resonance.

That’s so true.  What was the hardest part of writing Sleeping Funny?

Accepting that so many different kinds of stories could go well together. I thought nobody would want to publish it, because all the stories were distinct. But in the end, it turned out to be something that my publishing company — and many readers — loved.

I’m glad to hear it.  How has living in two places (Hamilton, Ontario, and Woody Point, Newfoundland) influenced your writing?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I have been working on the same book for more than two years now, and that encompasses the time that we’ve had our place in Newfoundland. Mostly, our place in Newfoundland is a wonderful retreat for me — a place that’s great to write in.

Along with writing, you have a coaching service called Page to Podium where you help writers launch their new books.  Why did you decide to offer this assistance?

I really like to perform my work, and I know so many writers who don’t like to do readings, or don’t do a good job at it. I thought that I had something to offer, to help people transform their on the page talent to something that could be communicated to a live audience.

Sounds like a fantastic idea.  You’re also the founder and executive director of Project Bookmark Canada.  What’s that all about?

Project Bookmark Canada puts excerpts from stories and poems in the exact Canadian locations where literary scenes take place, so that you can stand right where the characters or narrator stand in a story, and read it right there. We call these installations “Bookmarks,” and we have 15 around the country. (Our most recent unveilings were of Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief in Port Hastings, Cape Breton and Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood in Oakville.) Piece by piece we’re building a Canadian literary trail so that Canadians and visitors can read their way across our country.

How exciting!  How did you come up with this?

I was a mom of very young children, living in downtown Toronto without access to a car. I was doing a lot of walking — pushing baby carriages — and trying to sneak time to read while my children slept. Coincidentally, I wound up reading a lot of fiction set in the very places I was living or walking, and I realized that my experience of the space was heightened by knowing the stories set there, and that my relationship with the stories were deepened by having visited the places. I wanted everyone to have that same experience. It took a lot of thinking, learning and planning, but that idea became Project Bookmark Canada.

Between Page to Podium and Project Bookmark Canada, I’m surprised you still find the time to write!  Are you working on anything new now?

I’m at work on a novel that stretches from Pittsburgh in the 1890s to Muskoka in the 1960s. It’s exciting to work on such a big project after many years of being focused on the smaller world of short stories.

Sounds like a lot of fun – good luck!  Let’s finish up with a few questions about books and reading.  What book or author inspired you to write?

So many! I’ve been a reader since I was young. It’s the way I experience the world, and the way I escape from it. So everyone I read and love, from Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. LeGuin in my youth to Lisa Moore and Michael Crummey in my current life, have been influences.

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

No! Wait, yes. There is a book or an author that everyone should read. But it’s different for each person. If you read enough, you’ll find out who that person, or what that story, is for YOU.

And what are you currently reading?

I just finished Weathering, by Lucy Wood, and am in the midst of Outline, by Rachel Cusk. I’ve loved them both.

SleepingFunny soft cover