The Three Rs: Kyo Maclear

August 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kyo Maclear was born in London, and grew up in Toronto. She is the author of two novels: The Letter Opener and, most recently, Stray Love, both published by HarperCollins Canada. A dual British-Canadian citizen, Kyo is also a visual arts writer and the author of two illustrated children’s books: Spork and Virginia Wolf.

When did you first know you wanted to write?

I never thought that I would be a writer when I was young. I didn’t take myself seriously in that way. What could I possibly have to say? That feeling shifted a bit in Grade 11 when I took a Writer’s Craft class. By sheer luck, I fell into the hands of a wonderfully astute teacher who looked at the botch job I was doing trying to imitate Somerset Maugham and basically said, “No, Kyo, what’s your story?” I was stumped. To help me along she had me write a “credo”. What do you believe? What irks you? What moves you? It was an incredible experience and definitely the first time that I had any sense that my personal voice, background or interests might be worthy of a story.

But that still didn’t make me want to be a writer. Really, for my first twenty years my primary passion and preoccupation was visual art. I drew and painted any chance I had. In university, I studied fine art/art history with every intention of continuing down that path. Then I moved into printmaking and while working on a large intaglio print series, I noticed my art was becoming more narrative. I started doing work that combined text and images. Then, at some point, the images evaporated. At the same time, I began to publish a bit of freelance art writing. Truthfully, I think I was suffering from “art school malaise” and found writing to be a less self-conscious and more liberating until eventually drawing became the harder thing to do.

For a long time I considered myself an accidental writer. I think I finally committed to this path with some degree of intention after the birth of my first child. I had stopped working fulltime and suddenly had this very small myopic life (with maternity benefits!) that gave me room to imagine other worlds. I started playing around with a novel idea. I didn’t show the manuscript to anyone, just wrote on my own, every day, until the pages piled up and writing became a habit and necessity.

More recently, I have gravitated back to images with my picture books. This has been a huge highlight. I love collaborating with artists.

Stray Love by Kyo Maclear

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

I have a zealous and superstitious attachment to routine when I am working on a project. Ideally, I wake up very early and meditate for half an hour. Then I do yoga or go for a swim or run. I have found that if I get moving first thing in the morning, I am better able to sit for a day of writing because I’ve burned off any unhelpful, negative or jittery energy. After I exercise, I return home for breakfast and to see my children off to school. Then I go to my studio and start writing. My husband is a musician and we both have workspaces at home so we usually share lunch together. My day typically ends when school finishes, though I sometimes fiddle for an hour or two once the children are asleep. I also use the evening to catch up on administrative stuff.

The question that plagues and motivates me most as a writer is: “How will I ever do it?” I have never worked from a place of confidence or complacency. When I am in the middle of a project and the story is unspooling or unraveling, I always feel that I haven’t a clue how things will work out. That might sound horrible but I’m used to working with uncertainty. The question for me is how to create an emotionally spacious and quiet container so that I can work through these states of doubt without becoming immobilized. A routine helps a bit.

Do you type or write?

I do both. I fill up dozens of tiny Rhodia and Moleskin notebooks with handwritten ideas, character sketches, scraps of dialogue, scene notes, and mental flotsam. (Beyond the obvious advantage of portability, I find a mini notebook infinitely more inviting in the divining stages than a blank computer screen.) These notebooks litter my desk, lending the pretense of productivity and direction, and sometimes get wrangled into use but often they just rest, facedown, like colorful rooftops. Once I get started on the computer, I type and print, type and print, and so on to infinity. I waste way too much paper but the only way I know to revise is by working directly on the page with my favorite Pilot G-Tec pen. (Sorry. When it comes to stationery, I am an unabashed product pusher.)

The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear

What do you read while you’re writing?

There are writers I return to again and again. I turn to some for the spell they cast (Haruki Murakami, Marguerite Duras, Per Petterson), some for their creative derring-do (Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith), some for the rhythm of their sentences (W.G. Sebald, Toni Morrison), some for their comic-sadness (Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Anne Enright), some for lessons in plot and structure (Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan).

Basically, when I am writing, I turn to books the way Christians turn to gospel music—to be enhanced and uplifted and to fill the room (of my head and  of my heart) with soaring inspiration.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

Non-fiction: Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

Fiction: Open City by Teju Cole. Into the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs.

YA: Darkest Light by Hiromi Goto. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

Picture Books: Little Bird by Germano Zullo and Albertine. Julius, The Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes.

What are your all-time favourites?

My list changes all the time, but here are a few that I have kept close over the years: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger. The Lover by Marguerite Duras. The Deep by Mary Swan. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit.

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

Writing has made my life more meaningful by allowing me to examine things more carefully, but I would be completely lost if I didn’t read. So I’d say reading so long as I could find some other solitary, creative outlet.

What’s your third R, and why? 

Roaming: as an antidote to the very internal and introspective work of writing and so I remember to turn off my path regularly and stray.

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