ROB MCLENNAN'S BLOG 12 or 20 (second series) 1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
In some ways my first book changed my life and in other ways it didn’t. Finally, I have a collection of stories together in one place, instead of scattered in notebooks, untidy, illegible, coffee-stained, dog-eared. It was also a wonderful experience to see the cover for the first time: dead birds with ID tags, designed by Terri Nimmo. Floating Like the Dead is my first book. I’m working on a novel. I’m learning it’s far more difficult to take vignettes and quilted-together flashes and create coherence and tension out of them.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I started with poetry. I sent it to Quarry magazine. Steven Heighton, the editor, sent me a note of encouragement with my rejection letter. I was about 18 or 19. In my early twenties I wrote non-fiction for the Saturday Review of the Vancouver Sun edited by Max Wyman when the paper still solicited material from the public. Then I entered my first short story in the 1994 Federation of BC Writers’ Festival Writing Competition. The story was semi-autobiographical. Fiction quickly became the perfect intersection of the two forms: the lyricism and imagery of poetry mixed with the I-just-have-to-tell-you-something quality of nonfiction.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I write without always knowing what sort of project I have on my hands. I follow interests, obsessions: serial killers, genetic mutations, circus people. Sometimes a ka-pow moment catches fire. Sometimes not. Sometimes a situation announces itself as being short story material or novel material. Rough drafts are slow. They involve a lot of sitting with my eyes closed. I take many breaks. I may write in my head while doing dishes or vacuuming during this process. I can only do this type of work in bursts. Usually for no more than four hours a day. However, gathering the seeds of what might go into an honest first draft can be fun. I get pen and paper and “free-fall;” I write without stopping about a character’s, uncensored. Free-fall writing is the mind’s clearing house of thoughts, visions, and dreams. Revision is faster. But the road has more landmines. I can work for twelve hours, forget to eat. Without knowing if I’m making the project better or worse. Writing is 20%. Rewriting, 80%.
4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I inefficiently write a lot of little bits and pieces hoping I’ll be able to cobble them into a whole. It can mean writing fifty pages only to learn I’m just now discovering what the story is about. And having to scrap 47 pages. I’m trying something different with my novel. Working from an outline. Because it’s one thing to rewrite a story twenty times, and another to write 300 pages of a novel only to learn that the true story didn’t begin until page 301. My editor at M&S, Anita Chong, called it “intuitive writing.”
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t mind readings. Giving them, that is. I don’t go to many readings by other authors. As far as live performances go, I’d rather hear a band. I like holding books, seeing how the words look printed on the page. Curled up on the couch I can spend as long as I want with each sentence without rushing. I can reread a passage. Twice. A reading can sometimes feel similar to being on a guided tour rather than being able to see the country at your own pace.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I live in fear of losing days, moments. My writing is an attempt to capture things from the outward flow of time and make then mine. I have a bad memory. Not surprisingly, memory is a recurring theme in my work, how it shapes identity. Other concerns have to do with belonging and acceptance. Do we only exist in relation to others? I’m drawn to people who’ve struggled, and fought, and people who’ve won something, or people who haven’t but have never given up fighting -- these are the people I like best in real life or as fictional characters. I am fascinated by the idea of resilience. Maybe what I’m talking about, and using the word resilience to describe, is something closer to the idea of some kind of identity – or strength – given the context of the human condition. Maybe the question that I pose is: What is your particular kind of resilience and on what is it based? What is it that encourages us to get up and keep getting up in the morning, given the sadness of being mortal?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers shape what we think about and how we think about those things. Fiction is a mirror. But it only offers one true story among millions. Fiction doesn’t “say” so much as ask. Perhaps the writer’s role in society is to ask questions -- so that readers can live the answers. As John Gardner said, in fiction we’re able to see the end result of certain choices without having to make them ourselves. So in this way, reading fiction make us better people. They say not to judge someone till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Fiction gives us the shoes to walk a mile in. I believe in the power of fiction to move, to provoke, to bridge differences, to inspire, and maybe even change the world. I’ve always liked the idea of art “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.” Part of the writer’s call, like a revolutionary’s, might be to write with the deep understanding that of every hundred people reading one’s work, one is dying, suicidal, or losing someone. I’m paraphrasing John Gardner here. That the writer has a moral responsibility. He said good fiction heals. Good fiction encourages other people, if not directly, to live on.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. Having worked with Anita Chong at M&S, I understand the power of a good editor. I heard somewhere an editor acts as a director. “More lights!” “Less volume!” This is true. An editor is also like the best friend who tells you your slip is showing. She understands your vision for the work and helps you see where you’re not yet achieving your desired effect. A bad editor imposes her view of the story onto the story and changes it into something it’s not.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Everyone’s heard, “Write what you know.” I was working as a teaching assistant at UVic when Bill Gaston said to his first year writing class, “Write what you know to be true.” This is the best advice I’ve ever heard. On a level deeper than subject, it invites us to ask of our work, Is every word here honest? Have I reached the heart of the matter? Do I mean what I say?
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I drop my daughter off at school and start work when I get home, still in my pyjamas. My routine is to write in spare moments when I’m not wearing the mommy hat. Being a parent disciplines you. Waiting for the right moment means you’ll never get anything done. When my kids are not at home, I can be quite resentful of anything that cuts into my writing time. For instance, I never answer the phone.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I always have a few projects on the go at once so stalled writing doesn’t really happen to me in the larger sense. If a piece stalls, I jump ship. These days I try not to force a stalled work. Given time, the work will flow. A stall means that part of me has discerned a flaw that my conscious mind can’t yet see. I have to respect that. And wait out the solution.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Thrift store furniture, old books and records.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I have a band called The Jukebox Jezebels. We’re an all-female rockabilly trio. Singing gives me a socially-sanctioned way to raise my voice, scream in public. Music is the art form that influences my writing the most. Its rhythms. As well as the “to hell with it” attitude I try to cultivate for the stage: no looking back, no matter what happens. Brass it out. Put your heart in it and make no apologies. (Until it’s over.)
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Wallace Stevens said
after one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that which takes its place as life’s redemption. My life wouldn’t be the same without e.e. cummings, Robert Frost,Patrick Lane, Jose Saramago, Toni Morrison, Michael Turner, William Burroughs, Italo Calvino,Hermann Hesse, and Caroline Adderson.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to write a book about the awesome, staggering love between parent and child.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
When I was little my secret dream was to be a spy. Spies got to assume different identities, meet exciting people – but mostly I wanted to be a spy because I felt gypped, at only having one life to live. I suppose actors get to be different people too, but I didn’t want to be an actor. There was something about the danger of being a spy that appealed to me. Kind of like missionaries, who could end up dying for their beliefs. And maybe a little part of me wanted to be a missionary, too. The truth is, I might be insane or getting high if I wasn’t writing.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Fiction, as opposed to some of the other arts, perhaps, offers up the experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. I wanted to write because of something I realized one day when I was little. Something that hit me like a sledgehammer and filled me with such sadness, and an indescribable loneliness, it has stayed with me to this day. I was sitting there, looking around at my family, and I realized for the first time that I was a separate individual. Forever separate. I could never be you and you could never be me. And this knowledge that you couldn’t just go around hopping into the heads of other people – upset me, and maybe, to day, I’m still at odds with that. Fiction is what helps me battle the daily truth that people are separated by vast distances.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields. Cat Fish.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel about at 19th century sideshow performer, inspired by the true life of Julia Pastrana, whose body was completely covered in hair, from head to toe. Apparently, Napoleon III gave her a diamond for her beard in appreciation for how she’d styled hers like his. She travelled the world and had a baby with her husband who was also her manager.
IN CONVERSATION WITH RUSSEL BOOKS,VICTORIA, BC
Yasuko, we’re so excited to have you read at our store later on this month! You’ll be the first Journey Prize winning author to read here. Tell us a little about yourself, your book Floating Like the Dead, and what you love to write about. I have to ask what was it like to win the Journey Prize for the title story of your book Floating Like the Dead back in 2009?
A surprise. When they called my name, I thought I’d misheard. I walked to the podium unaware of my feet, in that way of dreams. Since I hadn’t expected to win, I hadn’t prepared a speech. Though, at a friend’s insistent urgings, I’d at least made a list of people to thank on the back of a bubblegum wrapper. When I started to speak, my voice abandoned me. I never got past the first two thank you’s on the list. The manuscript took me over ten years to write. I revised three published stories for the collection. Other stories flourished out of half-finished drafts. Other stories emerged from current events of the time.
The title story Floating like the Dead is about the leper colony on D’Arcy Island, which can be viewed from Cordova Bay. I hazard that not very many Victorians know that there used to be a leper colony so close to the city. How did you first find out about such an interesting, dirty, secret?
I hope more Victorians know about the island now. My buddy, local writer Terry Glavin, told me about it. Then I got my hands on a copy of A Measure of Value by Chris Yorath. Ask Terry – it was probably he who lent it to me. (I have such a terrible memory.) All I know for sure: before that brilliant book — in which Yorath compiles all the available data and breathes life into it with creative nonfiction techniques – I groped in the dark. His book turned on the lights.
Can you tell us what it was like writing this collection of stories? Which one came first and how did the rest follow?
PRISM international published “Hunting in Spanish” as “Leaving Puerto Juarez.” I got the call about my first literary magazine publication when I was living in Germany — super cool. So that was the first But when I think of one story coming first and the rest “following” I think of soldiers in an orderly line marching one behind the other. Rather, they sprouted more like plants, growing at various speeds. If you seed sunflowers, some come up faster, and in a garden with many varieties of plants, seeded at different times, some get more water, some more sun, then a dog digs a hole for a bone, then a deer hops the fence that’s supposed to be deer proof… What I’m saying is, everything’s kind of crazy and it all just develops, all comes up sort of organically, all at the same time, and at some point, your publisher says, Enough. Otherwise I’d still be moving commas around something I wrote in first grade, you know?
Which story resonated with you the most? For example did any characters stay in your head and had more to say after you were finished?
I’m excited about some new work. So the new voices are making all the racket in my head right now, leaving no room for anyone else. (Though I will say that a longer work set in French Indochina is in the stars at some point.)
CBC RADIO http://www.cbc.ca/nxnw/featured-guests/2012/04/22/author-yasuko-thanh/
WRITERS’ TRUST http://www.writerstrust.com/Awards/Success-Stories/Yasuko-Thanh.aspx