The Three Rs: Betsy Struthers

June 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Betsy Struthers has published nine books of poetry – most recently All That Desire: New and Selected Poems (Black Moss Press, 2012) — three novels, and a book of short fiction. She also co-edited and contributed to a book of essays about teaching poetry. She is a past president of the League of Canadian Poets. Winner of the 2010 GritLit Poetry Award, the 2004 Lowther Award for the best book of poetry by a Canadian woman, and silver medallist for the 1994 Milton Acorn Award, her poems and fiction have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. Struthers lives in Peterborough, Ontario, where she works as a freelance editor of academic texts.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I always wanted to write poems and stories  but wasn’t sure about the book part for a long time. It was enough just to write. I started to think about a book after my first poems were published in The Fiddlehead in 1978, but it took another seven years for a book to come out. Except when writing fiction (the mystery novel trilogy, for instance), I don’t really think about writing a “book” of poems per se. I just write the poems as they come along, usually in creative spurts separated by long fallow periods, until I realize there are enough for a manuscript and then I assemble one, seeing what fits where and how the poems “speak” to each other. In the process of assembly, I write and edit, and rearrange and delete, until I finally I feel the book is done.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?  

I am a professional procrastinator. So, I’m at my desk usually by 8:30 in the morning. I turn on my computer, read and write emails, check the news and weather, look at Facebook… Then I’ll turn to my most recent poem and edit it. Sometimes that will lead me to another poem. Sometimes I’ll read a book by a favourite poet as reading almost always leads to writing. Play a game of solitaire. Look up old drafts to see if there’s any nugget there that will spark a new poem. Make lunch. Take the dog for a walk. Play more solitaire… When I have an editing job, I usually turn to that in the afternoons. Morning is my best time for creative work, though sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a poem in my head which demands to be written down before it’s forgotten.

Do you type or write?

Always type. My handwriting has always been so dreadful that I could never “see” the poetic line and stanza breaks properly unless the poem was typed. I started off with an old Royal typewriter whose “s” and “e” keys would always stick. Since I write a lot of drafts before I’m satisfied with a poem, I went through a lot of paper. It was only after I got my first computer in 1990 that I began to write prose as the ease of putting down my ideas was so novel.

What do you read while you’re writing?

When I’m thinking poems, I read poems, both familiar and new as well as books about poetics (honing the craft). I also like to read reference books and dictionaries of facts and fables as they always open doors to poetic ideas.

In Her Fifties

What have you read recently that you really loved?  

Poetry: Phil Hall, Killdeer; Tanis MacDonald Rue the Day; John Steffler, Helix; Susan Musgrave, Origami Dove.

Fiction: Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot; Kim Thuy, Ru; Michael Crummey, Galore; Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers.

Nonfiction: Charles Foran, Mordecai; Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars; Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great.

What are your all-time favourites?

I often reread Lorna Crozier’s books of poetry, especially Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence, and all of Jane Austen.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Definitely reading. If all you could do was write, the writing would become pretty boring and self-centred. Reading is always varied, always a window into new ways of perceiving.

What’s your third R, and why?

Relaxing at the lake. Reclining in the hammock under the cedars by the shore while reading and listening to loons and redwing blackbirds. Replaying cassette tapes from the 1980s on the boom box while rain reverberates on the cottage roof….

One Story

June 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

One Story is one of my new favourite things. You subscribe to the magazine, and then every three weeks or so you get a dinky little envelope in the post. It’s a joy all round: interesting post; and unlike other subscription periodicals, since this is only one story per magazine, it’s pretty difficult to get behind with your reading, so the pleasure at the interesting post is unalloyed (no guilt/obligation/desire to postpone the subscription). So far the stories have been pretty good. One thing I particularly like is that each writer can only publish with them once, so it doesn’t become cliquey and you can always discover someone new. I firmly believe short stories are meant to be read singly, although I frequently fail to act on those beliefs. Here, the format forces my hand.

This charmingly Victorian idea seems to be gaining hold. There’s Storyville, which I mentioned a while ago, which is going to be first app on my list if I ever get a gadget to read it on. Then there’s Open Letter, the translation press, which lets you sign up for six or twelve months of their new novels in translation. It’s an absolute bargain for what you get, and it’s on my Christmas list. Finally, there’s and other stories, which is a similar sort of idea but with more English-language fiction.

I’m sure there must be more. Is there–or is there room for–a single-story periodical in Canada? Are there other subscription publishers? The whole concept is delightful. I’d sign up for them all if I could.

The Three Rs: Roopa Farooki

June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Roopa Farooki‘s fifth novel, The Flying Man, was longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012. She has written four previous novels to critical acclaim, and which have been nominated for the Orange Award for New Writers and the International Muslim Writers’ Award, and longlisted for the Orange Prize and Impac Dublin Literary Award. Her novels have been published internationally and translated into a dozen languages. She lives with her husband and four young children, aged seven and under, in south-east England and south-west France.

When did you first know you wanted to write?

From when I was very young indeed. It wasn’t even that I wanted to write, it’s just that I did. When I was at school, I wrote poems and short stories, and filled a whole exercise book about the mythical land of “Apoor Ikooraf” (read it backwards), inventing its history, culture, language. I was always getting lost in imaginary worlds, and when I was fifteen, I wrote my first full length novel, and sent it optimistically to every publisher in town. I never made a conscious decision to become a writer, because I always thought that I was one already.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

I write every day, and normally spend a couple of hours working every morning while my boys are at school, and my twin 2 year old girls are either at playgroup or with my husband. Then I take over the twins, give them lunch, do a bit of admin and ineffective tidying while they nap, and then pick up the boys from school, and look after the kids until bedtime. Once they’re all asleep at 8ish, I get back to work for about four or five hours, although I’m much less effective in the evening, and spend much more time editing than writing new material. Occasionally I have to do a library or bookshop event, or a literary festival, and when that happens, my husband takes over the kids, and I do my writing on the train journey. And in the autumn, I teach a creative writing class, so for a couple of times a week, I swap two hours of my writing time for teaching time.

Do you type or write?

I always type, as my handwriting is appalling. When I have to make notes on paper, if I’m teaching a class or abroad without my laptop, I struggle to read back what I’ve written. And I can’t handwrite quickly enough either; my hand is always playing catch-up with my head.

Half Life

What do you read while you’re writing?

I usually only read the research material that might be helpful for what I’m working on, which is always non-fiction. I never read fiction while I’m working on a novel, as I’m too worried about being influenced by another writer’s tone of voice.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

Something that I read recently as part of my research, but which turned out to be a huge pleasure, was “An Intimate History of Humanity”, by Theodore Zeldin. The case studies were drawn from contemporary French society, and were described with great sympathy, finding something extraordinary and universal in the lives of ordinary people.

What are your all-time favourites?

My favourite novels are Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Homer’s Iliad, and AA Milne’s Winnie The Pooh.  These are the books that moved me as a child, the ones that taught me to love reading and want to create my own stories.

Corner Shop

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

I’m afraid that I would write. I read because I love to read, but I write because I must. It’s not even to do with enjoyment – it’s closer to addiction or obsession. I would miss reading my favourite books though – I suspect that I would start to rewrite my own versions from faulty memory just to keep them close to me.

What’s your third R, and why?

Relationships, and by that I mean family relationships in particular. I find endless inspiration in the different aspects of family, the relationships between wives and husbands, parents and children, sisters and brothers, and all the other complicated connections that occur in extended, dysfunctional families. My own experience of family has helped nurture my craft, especially my experience as a mother of four young children, and so I never think of my kids as an obstacle to my work; they help forge my imaginary worlds, and they always remind me that life is more important than art.

Underground by Gayle O’Brien

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s my policy here at Slightly Bookist not to review books written by my friends. But I do want to give another shout-out to Underground, by my friend Gayle O’Brien. Last year she won the Hookline contest, a competition in which book clubs read manuscripts and then vote on which one should be published. Underground is a fantastic dual-narrative page-turner about two American girls on the run, one contemporary, and one a hundred and fifty years ago. Read it!

Underground by Gayle O'Brien

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

June 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s a subject that comes around again and again: writing about planting, growing, harvesting, about withdrawing from the distractions of plugged-in consumer society, about living full lives whose rhythms are dictated by seasons and weather and hours of daylight. But Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill—a book in this fine tradition and recent fashion–is vastly superior to most of its peers, which, although interesting in content and entertainingly breezy in style, rely heavily on philosophical musings of a fairly unoriginal nature or lean on flimsy anecdotes of humorous incompetence.

The only treeplanters I’ve met were students, mostly, along with a few teenagers who’d graduated high school but wanted a handful of easy cash and some time to kick loose before signing up to the nine to five. I say “easy” cash because even minimum wage seems easy, almost miraculous, for a few brief moments when you’re that age and working your first job. It’s hard to believe that in return for a few hours of your time—and what were you going to do with that time anyway, except mooch around and find ways to fritter away money?—someone will give you a few notes and a pile of coins. Fifty dollars! And all I had to do was stand up for ten hours at the drive-through window/dress up in a clown suit and wear a sandwich board from six am to six pm/plant five thousand trees in a day.

But the tree planters in Gill’s book are not the footloose summer jobbers rocking up for a month or six weeks to make some quick money between other plans, other ambitions. These people are the tribe, the planters who spend February to October of every year chasing the right weather conditions for planting and doing stints in ever more primitive conditions around BC. Gill knows these people; she chops them down for us and rolls them over to explain what the pattern of rings inside means—usually, that tree planting has turned the person slightly insane, rendered them no longer capable of fully entering the “real” world, even when this comes at great personal cost (being away from partners and children in particular).

Eating Dirt is quite possibly the best non-fiction book on any subject I’ve read for years. It’s a personal account—although Gill is pretty stingy with the gossipy details, particularly for a readership used to reality TV and confessional journalism—of a writer’s nearly twenty years of tree planting, told as one season that presumably stands in for many. She doesn’t fall for the easy personal development narrative, nor does she belabour the exhilaration of exhausting physical work in a community of like-minded souls. There are riffs on the history and politics of tree planting, the development and life cycles of forests, the history and biology of the trees themselves. Every page contains information to educate and astound; every chapter inspires a curiously addictive blend of longing and revulsion that presumably is what keeps the planters themselves going back year after year to abuse their bodies, torment their minds and be eaten alive by insects.

Of course, the sap bringing the vital force to every branch of this book is Gill’s writing. Every sentence is graceful, elegant, managing to seem, like an old human-planted forest, perfectly natural, while bearing tiny traces–invisible to those who don’t know where to look—of the work that went into their creation. Gill is wry, suffering from no greenwashed delusions about her work, and yet finding the lyrical beauty in both it and the enforced community it creates. Eating Dirt is a book about us—as individuals and as a species—as much as it is about treeplanters and trees. We are the treeplanters and the loggers, the trees and the dirt. This book made me yearn to pack a rucksack and jump on a Greyhound heading west even as it made me middle-agedly glad for mosquito screens, soft mattresses and sedentary employment.

The Three Rs: Alexander MacLeod

June 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Alexander MacLeod’s short story collection Light Lifting was a finalist for the 2010 Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Book Award and the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Story Prize. Light Lifting won an Atlantic Book Award and was named a Book of the Year by the American Library Association, The Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire and Amazon.ca. Alexander lives in Dartmouth Nova Scotia and teaches at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I’m not sure. Sometimes I can’t really believe that I’ve actually written a real book and it’s out there in the world making its way. It took me more than ten years to come up with the seven stories in my collection, and it wasn’t until very late in the process that we started to think of them as coming together as a coherent whole, so even the basic idea of “the writing life” still feels pretty strange for me. Things are changing, though. I’m definitely keen to start working on this new project I have in mind so if I’m being honest, I guess right around now is the first moment I really realized that I want to write books.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book? 

As a rule, my days contain almost no writing, certainly nothing regular. That’s why it took so long to do just a few stories. I teach full-time at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and I have to do all the research, the lectures, the grading and the committee stuff that comes along with that kind of job. I also have a young family at home so those two major activities gobble up 95% of the time. I’m not complaining about any this. I actually love it, but it means that writing is rarely the main priority of the day. I’m always thinking about what’s going to happen next in the story I’m working on and I always know what I’m going to do as soon as a block of time opens up, but, so far anyway, there’s never been a scheduled routine. As I said, I’m actually starting to move things around right now and trying to follow a more regular plan, so I’m looking forward to finding out what will happen when I hunker down and start grinding through the process.

Do you type or write?

I write notes to myself and I use a pen when I’m working through the basic outlines and the major concerns and characters and images of the story, but when it’s time to get serious, I type the actual sentences.

What do you read while you’re writing?

I read a lot of academic work most of the time: books for the lectures I have to prepare, lots of student papers, theorists, literary criticism, and most of the poetry and fiction coming from Atlantic Canada. For fun, I like to read brand new stuff from younger writers I’ve never heard of. I like that moment, just before you start something, where you’re wondering where it’s going to go and how it’s going to work.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I’ve read great short stories by Michael Christie, The Beggar’s Garden; Deborah Willis, The Vanishing and Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh. I also really liked Jennifer Egan’s story collection / novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Cover art for REFRESH, REFRESH

What are your all-time favourites?

Stories by Alistair MacLeod, William Trevor, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor. I also love The Wire and I think of it as a linked story collection or a 19th century novel played out in 60 episodes of TV.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Ouch. If it came down to that stark choice, I’d definitely have to go with reading. I’d miss the writing, of course, but I think a writer has to love literature more than they love their own contribution to it. It would be tragic to artificially cut yourself off and miss out on the collective work of the world’s imagination. It seems weird to say this, but I think books matter more than writers.

What’s your third R, and why?

My third R is running. When I was in my early twenties, I used to be a pretty serious athlete and I gave many years over to almost full-time training and trying to get faster and faster in the 800m and the 1500m. I competed on the university team and most of my best friends come from that community.  Now, though, it’s more low key and just part of the daily ritual. If I can fit in an hour of running every day then that usually makes everything else easier.

Malarky by Anakana Schofield

June 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

Grief can do strange things to a person, both physical and mental. Anakana Schofield’s fabulously deranged new novel Malarky explores the effects bereavement has on sanity; indeed, it questions the very meaning of the word sanity, and summarily upends our prejudices and fears about mental illness.

For a summary of Malarky, I can do no better than quote the publisher’s blurb:

Our Woman will not be sunk by what life’s about to serve her. She’s caught her son doing unmentionable things out by the barn. She’s been accosted by Red the Twit, who claims to have done things with Our Woman’s husband that could frankly have gone without mentioning. And now her son’s gone and joined the army, and Our Woman has found a young fella to do unmentionable things with herself, just so she might understand it all…

This doesn’t mention the grief that is stamped through the novel like the writing in a stick of rock, nor the fact that the narrative jumps around in time to make sure that the reader never gets too complacent, too comfortable in a particular emotion. Characters are dead, then alive, the dead again, which plays nicely with our internalised propriety that makes us shy away from speaking ill of the dead.

If all this talk of death makes Malarky sound bleak, it is anything but. It’s a glorious, breathless romp through the mind of an immensely likeable woman, a book reminiscent of Under Milk Wood in the beautiful and unexpected cadences of the writing. It’s the kind of book a foreign student might dread having to read: the language playful, inventive, wacky, and barely comprehensible to all but the most fluent of non-native speakers; the time frame fragmented, and the narrative voice switching between first and third person with few indicators. Our Woman is an innocent, perhaps, and a little conservative, but Schofield never exploits this for cheap laughs.

It says something about the book’s playfulness and careful construction that when I discovered a whole section had been inserted into my copy twice, I spent some time making sure that it really was a mistake and not some kind of postmodern device to undermine the story so far.

Malarky is, apparently, the product of ten years of work. It will take more than one reading to do justice to this dense, layered novel.

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