The Three Rs: Heather Birrell

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Heather Birrell is the author of two story collections, Mad Hope (Coach House, 2012) and I know you are but what am I? (Coach House, 2004). Her work has been honoured with the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, and has been short- listed for both National and Western Magazine Awards. Birrell’s stories have appeared in many North American journals and anthologies, including The New Quarterly, Descant, and Toronto Noir. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Toronto, where she teaches high school English.  Learn more at

Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell. Coach House, 223 pages, $18.95

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I think I knew I wanted to write (although not necessarily write books) sometime in my turbulent twenties because writing is a means of articulating a problem, and sometimes (sometimes) articulating a problem can help a person to solve it or at least look at it in a different — harsher or more forgiving — light.  And then it’s pretty natural to want to share with someone once you’ve laid a problem bare — there is both an altruistic and arrogant component at play in the act of publishing.

But I have never really written compulsively or continuously for long periods and there are moments when I feel I could live without writing.  Because life is so large!  There are so many other things to do and see and hear and smell and feel!  And writing really does require a kind of cloistered, grumpy self, doesn’t it?  (But then there are other times when I feel I might actually die if I can’t access that writing grump; it is a craving for solitude and unfettered thinking and the addictive thrill of creation.)

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

I have a full-time day job and two small children, so the idea of a writing ‘routine’ is pretty foreign to me.  The nice thing about this is that when I do actually carve out time to write, I’m pretty grateful and focussed.  The terrible thing is that these oases of time can be few and far between.  There is a cafe about two minutes away from our house that I treat as my unofficial office.  My three year old knows that when I leave the house with my laptop, I’m going to my ‘job’.  At the beginning of my mat leave with my second child, I left the baby with my husband or my mother and dashed out to the ‘office’ between breastfeeding sessions.  I sometimes work with a writing partner — it’s a bit like a workout buddy, a friendly, motivating force.  It can be really difficult to keep on with a project when you are exhausted and have about 112 other things on your plate.  But I always feel better if I do, like I’ve nurtured an oft-neglected part of myself.

Do you type or write?

I write in a notebook and edit on the computer.  It is rare for new material to emerge while I’m typing.  Most of my being is resistant to writing.  I have to compel myself to focus/write with a pen in a notebook by using a timer and forbidding any intrusion of the bitchy editorial team with whom I share a brain.

What do you read while you’re writing?

I’m not too superstitious or deliberate about this — I mostly read whatever interests me at the time.  And of course whichever texts I need to read research-wise.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

Story collections:  Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne FrankDon’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill.  Novel-in-stories:  Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories.  Poems:  Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook.

The Juliet Stories. By Carrie Snyder. Anansi, 324 pages, $22.95

What are your all-time favourites?

Such a hard question — because the answers are always changing, and I will always feel my response to be incomplete…  I’m not much of a re-reader but I love Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant and have read that book many times — it has a tricky cathartic quality about it I can both experience and admire.  Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for the way it messes with my head.  Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicles.  All of Deborah Eisenberg’s beautiful oeuvre.  Ditto Grace Paley and Alice Munro.  Anne Enright’s The GatheringThe Chronicles of Narnia.  I find much to admire in Paula Fox and David Mitchell’s writing.  And I often return to Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, a brilliant creation.


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

Reading — as long as my library is unlimited.

What’s your third R, and why? 

Oh, I’ll choose Relaxation, because it begins with R, and alliteration is one of my things, and because it acts as an umbrella term for all kinds of obsessions and distractions.

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