The Three Rs: Maria Konnikova

November 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

Maria Konnikova is currently working on an assortment of non-fiction and fiction projects. Her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, will be published by Viking in 2013. She writes the weekly “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American, where she explores the intersection of literature and psychology, and formerly wrote the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, The Paris Review, The Observer, Scientific American MIND, and Scientific American, among other publications.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

When I was in third grade, I watched the older kids in our elementary school put on a play. “The Pirates of Penzance,” I think it was. I didn’t understand many of the lyrics—Gilbert and Sullivan can be tough for an unsuspecting seven-year-old—but I loved everything about the show. The words, the music, the characters, the fact that the whole school got to miss class to watch the performance (there was definitely something about the very public nature of the whole thing that appealed to me). I decided then and there that I would write a play of my own.

And I did. It took what seemed like forever to write – and was over in about 20 minutes, if that. But our fourth grade class did perform it, and everyone did come to see us. I think that’s when I knew that the only thing I really wanted to do was to keep writing. Of course, I lost that conviction a few years later, when I started reading some of the great classics of Russian literature—there was the whole I could never write like this, so why even bother? feeling—and decided I’d never write again. But eventually, I got over it.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

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

I tend to wake up quite early and start the morning off with a 7am yoga class. I’ll give myself an hour after class for breakfast, catching up on news, checking Twitter and Facebook, and doing all those other things that I absolutely can’t let myself do when I’m writing. I write until around noon, then reconnect to the Internet for an hour break (I use Freedom to block my connection while I write; I seem to be incapable of resisting the temptation to check email otherwise). I write for another three or so hours in the afternoon, then run any errands that need running—I find it’s refreshing to get outside for at least a little while; otherwise, I can spend the entire day never leaving the apartment—and catch up on email. Then, I read what I’ve written, make any notes for changes, and map out what I want to do the next day. Unless I’m under deadline pressure, I take the rest of the evening off.

Do you type or write?

Both. It depends on whether I’m working on my fiction or my non-fiction. Fiction, I write mostly longhand, then retype. Non-fiction tends to stay mostly on the computer—though I take lots of notes by hand and jot down ideas all over the place. When I edit, I write everything by hand, whether it’s fiction or non. I have to print my writing out to be able to read it critically. I know it seems a waste of paper, but I can’t help it.

What do you read while you’re writing?

When I’m working on non-fiction, I read fiction almost exclusively—a mix of contemporary writing and the classics. When I’m working on fiction, I shy away from modern writers and gravitate to old favorites. And I read a lot of poetry. I find it inspires me whenever I feel stuck creatively.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I’m not sure if this counts, since it’s not a new release, but I recently re-read Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and it just blew me away (again). Chandler really deserves more credit for his influence on twentieth and twenty-first century fiction. That style, that dialogue, those characters—the man was a genius.

If I had to pick a recent read of a more modern vintage, it would be Daniel Smith’s memoir, Monkey Mind. Funny, poignant, informative: it’s what a memoir should be.

What are your all-time favourites?

If I had to pick my all-time top five, it would be (in no particular order): Salinger, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Bulgakov, and Auden. Also, since I’ve snuck Auden in there, I’d probably have to add Brodsky to the mix. And A. A. Milne. What would life be without Winnie the Pooh?

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

Read, without question. There are so many books I want to read, and I never seem to have enough time to read them all. Reading would be a beautiful way to spend the rest of my life.

What’s your third R, and why?

It’s not an R, but I would say taking walks. There’s something infinitely relaxing—and often inspiring—about being alone with your thoughts, not going anywhere in particular. I try to walk wherever and whenever I can. But I have to admit, I’m kind of cheating here. I always carry around a notebook and will often write down ideas when I walk—so I guess I’m combining walking with one of the two R’s.


The End of the Story by Liliana Heker, translated by Andrea G. Labinger

November 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Diana Glass is a writer living in Argentina in the seventies during the Dirty War—a time when the country’s rulers were waging war on its own citizens, particularly left-wing activists, unionists, journalists and other subversives, in order to rid Argentina of undesirables. This “war” was waged by means of widespread rape and torture, as well as “disappearing” people. As she waits one day to meet her school friend Leonora Ordaz, she sees her being violently taken away and fears that she too has become one of the disappeared. Leonora seems initially to be a glamorous activist, sparkling with hope and excitement. She and her husband Fernando  have devoted their lives to the Montonero cause; even having a daughter does not restrict their political activities. Diana has always been in favour of the guerillas, but her engagement lies more in intellectual methods than in practical action. She spends much of the novel trying to find a way into writing about Leonora and the wider context of her disappearence, but every attempt and every new snippet of information brings her face to face, with depressing regularity, with her own naivety.

It’s tricky to summarise the plot of Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story, published by Biblioasis in a delicately spare translation by Andrea Labinger, not least because the narrative is shared between three narrators, with the borders between them being deliberately blurred. In addition to Diana and Leonora, there’s an older woman, Herta Bechofen, who has lived through a similar period of brutal repression and thus is detachedly cynical about Diana’s moral hand-wringing. The book is, in one sense, actually about the impossibility of one voice dominating with a linear story, and form and content combine organically to achieve this.

Postmodernism is often a good fit for fiction that deals with this kind of subject: resistance, war, the machinations of power and totalitarian regimes, the way it is easy to suddenly find oneself on the wrong side of a line, or how history and rules are rewritten to suit a particular moment. In this novel, the tightly structured circles within which the information slowly unfolds work to change a celebration of activism, loyalty and resistance into a critique of personal gain, collaboration and betrayal. Leonora begins the novel an adored hero, although we sense early on that the almost burlesque portrayal of her character will not be maintained, and ends it disgraced. After Leonora is taken prisoner and tortured (described in horrific detail), she is not only somewhat complicit in the murder of her husband also falls in love with her jailer and becomes an agent of the military.

Heker is well known in Argentina, and indeed in other countries outside the English-speaking world, as a writer determined to bear witness to both the regime and the fractured, complicated resistance. The former comes off as badly as expected, but the novel directs anger and contempt towards parts of the latter. Heker refused to leave Argentina in the seventies when many other intellectuals were fleeing for safer shores, and her determination to call out foul play no matter which side of the political spectrum it comes from has made her extremely controversial. Labinger, the novel’s translator, wrote a fascinating piece about deciding to translate the novel, which you can (and really should) read here.

When we are not part of a country, and its history is not something we feel in our very blood, it’s easy to say that a novelist should be free to write about anything, even if that subject matter means exposing flaws  in something we would like to idealise. (For the record, there were documented cases of activists changing sides after capture.) But in many cases, the concept of solidarity is well named: if you are not for the cause, you are against it. The left often finds itself tangled up in these simplistic Bush-isms even as it wants to prevent them. In Argentian, Heker has been criticised–as a writer who avoided imprisonment and torture–from all sides: for judging Leonora too harshly as well as for corrupting the ideal vision of resistance as pure and good.

The End of the Story is not an easy read, either in subject matter or language. It’s a work of meta-fiction that has a weird parallel with the discovery of the “true” authorship at the end of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, but while that’s merely a grand, stylistic punchline, this revelation is integral to the novel’s work as a document that questions who exactly gets to tell whose story.

Review copy

The Three Rs: Sam Byers

November 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

Sam Byers was born in 1979. His first novel, Idiopathy, will be published in the UK by Fourth Estate in April and in the US by Faber and Faber Inc in June.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I remember writing stories pretty much right through my childhood, but it took me a while to realize it was something I wanted to do seriously. I think I was 17 when I started saying I actually wanted to be a writer, and maybe 19 or 20 when I started to think about writing a novel. After that I was hooked.

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

For some reason, if I leave the house at all, I won’t write, so I keep the whole day completely ring-fenced. It really has to start as soon as I open my eyes in the morning. From there, a quite spectacular amount of pottering goes on. I play some music, make some coffee, play some more music, maybe read a bit. At some point there will be an altercation with the cat. I will inevitably over-caffeinate. It’s quite important I don’t talk to anybody, as even one vaguely decent conversation gives me another hundred things to think about. If I hit my quota quickly I give myself the rest of the day off. If not, I’m not allowed out. I make time for a late afternoon run most days to slough off the writing and reconnect with the world.

Do you type or write?

Type. Always. I’m quite geeky, so I like my software. I’m lost without Evernote, and I’ve recently switched from Word to Scrivener. Some of my best writing happens when I tell myself I’m not writing, so I tend to move notes around a lot, adding to them here and there, until I’ve created some pretty clear chunks to work with. That said, I do all my editing on paper, with a red fountain pen. Frankly, though, I’ve got no time for all this romanticizing of writing materials; people who insist they can only use a quill or whatever. It’s still just words on a page at the end of the day.

What do you read while you’re writing?

It’s complicated. When I first start a book there is a chaotic shopping phase where I buy anything I think might be vaguely related. At some point I will realize that none of the hundred books I’ve bought are actually what I’m looking for. Then I will convince myself that this is because the book I’m writing is the book I’m looking for. A painfully brief period of manic excitement ensues, only to end when I read what I’ve written and realize it is in no imaginable way the book I am looking for, at which point the cycle begins again. The further through a book I am, the more of a tightrope it becomes. I don’t want to read anything too close to what I’m doing but I don’t want to read anything too different either. People get very annoyed when they lend me books, as unless they’re the right kind of book I will not read them. Music is also very important. I find as many ideas and solutions in music as I do in books.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

A lot, actually. It’s been a great year. I was absolutely stunned by Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. It’s the funniest, sharpest, most intelligent thing I’ve read in a good while. Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child was beautifully fractured and deeply haunting and, I think, a rare example of a novel that genuinely pushed outwards towards new places and ideas. Katherine Angel’s Unmastered stayed in my head for weeks after I read it. It’s brave, moving, and perfectly structured. I also loved Sam Rivière’s poetry collection 81 Austerities. He’s a completely fresh voice in contemporary poetry.

What are your all-time favourites?

I remember very vividly the summer I finished university being completely transformative. I hated my English degree. I’d vowed never to read anything I didn’t want to read again. I felt my time of being in service to other people’s ideas was over. I read Delillo’s Underworld; Pynchon’s V; Ulysses. I would say those books, and that summer, changed my life. I go back to Delillo constantly. For me, his sentences are without equal. Their rhythm, their precision, their little linguistic surprises. Some time later I discovered David Foster Wallace, and he is another writer I re-read a lot. If I want to laugh, I pick up George Saunders or Evelyn Waugh.

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

Writing. No question. It’s how I exist in the world. It’s how I think about things, how I process them, and I am just never happier than when I’m doing it.

What’s your third R, and why?

To be honest, this is a surprise even to me, but I’m going to say running. I’ve only been doing it a year, and I must stress that I am laughably bad at it, but it’s become something I look forward to as much as writing. I’ve been a non-smoker for two years now, and I feel like I’m slowly working my way back to being alive. I love the peacefulness of a long, slow run, and the sense of steady, undramatic progress reminds me of novel-writing. It’s the only thing for which I might leave off writing a little earlier.

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

November 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

In the last couple of weeks I’ve read my favourite book of 2012 (Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods) and been admonished about lazy reading by a great writer (not personally; I read Steven Heighton’s excellent Workbook). So feel sorry, then, for Jami Attenberg, whose novel was the first I read after that literary double whammy.

Luckily for all concerned, Attenberg is a good writer. Her new novel The Middlesteins tells the story of Edie Middlestein, a plump child who is now an exceedingly obese woman about to have surgery for the second time to keep her alive. Despite knowing that she’s killing herself with food, Edie can’t stop eating. Her husband, Richard, no longer able to live with this fact—that his wife is prepared to die rather than face a life without constantly shovelling in the food—abandons her at the start of the book, leaving more responsibility on the shoulders of Edie’s children, Robin and Ben, or more precisely Ben’s wife, Rachelle.

Ben, Robin and Rachelle have all the usual problems of middle-class Americans their age. Children and spouses for some; lack of same for the others. Their kids are acting up. Their parents  are acting up. Their jobs are going nowhere, they’re incapable of fulfilling their promise, they can’t seem to grasp the reality that this life is not a dress rehearsal. We know how they feel; it’s all quite familiar.

This familiarity is something of a problem (does the novel feel too much like something we’ve already read, even as it’s particular subject is different?) as well as perhaps guaranteeing The Middlesteins some success. Jonathan Franzen blurbed the novel, and Attenberg describes writing the book as having a conversation with The Corrections. The similarities are obvious: vaguely dysfunctional family life in the suburban mid-West, ungrateful and uncomprehending adult children who have moved away, but who nonetheless inhabit a small world that is mostly comprised of interactions with family members and a few others, usually chorus-type characters (synagogue attendees, for example).

A strong feature of The Middlesteins is how the parents wrest back some of the control from these children who can’t, and definitely won’t, understand them. Edie and Richard have much more sense of self than The Corrections’ Enid and Alfred, who were confused by the modern world and cowed by authority. Edie was a very competent lawyer before being forcibly retired because of her size, and we see her going through some of the same existential crises (early promise fading to mediocrity) that are usually ascribed to the generation below her. Richard stumbles for a time into the stereotypical world of a newly single older man in a novel, but quickly finds his feet and becomes more interesting, less slapstick.

The novel is described several times on the cover as funny, hilarious, humorous. I can sort of see it: it’s full of the sort of sly, knowing writing that has become almost obligatory for a literary domestic novel, particularly the type that deals with love and death in families. It gives a little distance and makes the reader more comfortable than something more earnest. But do we really want our writers to be funny like this (and I’m not sure it is actually funny. Arch isn’t the right word either, but it’s closer) about everything, all the time? I’m not trying to bring up the old debate about whether humour can or should be used for weighty matters, I’m simply wondering whether this blasé-morbid voice (usually described with words like “searingly honest”) has become automatic for a certain kind of literary writer. Attenberg’s good at it, but is she really doing herself justice? I think the book deserves to sell well, but I also think she has much more potential than this voice allows her. With The Middlesteins she’s been adventurous in subject matter and the way she depicts her older characters. With the next one, I hope she’ll take a huge leap into the unknown and do something really exciting with language.

Review copy.

The Three Rs: Tamas Dobozy

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Tamas Dobozy is an associate professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He has published three books of stories: When X Equals Marylou, Last Notes and Other Stories, and Siege 13. His work has appeared in over fifty publiciations in various journals, including “One Story,” “Agni,” and “Granta.” He won an O Henry Prize in 2011, and The Rogers Writers Trust of Canada Fiction Prize in 2012. He lives in Kitchener, Ontario, with his wife and four children.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I was sixteen when I started writing poetry, so I guess that would be about the time. I was a terrible poet, though, so I switched to fiction in my early twenties. My first book came out in 1998, and I regard it as a huge mistake, and regularly leave it off lists of my publications. I don’t even think they’re much available, because the press that published the book went bankrupt, though I still have a fantasy of collecting every copy and destroying them. Maybe I’ll write a short story about that one day, a writer wandering the world trying to get his books back for one glorious auto-da-fé…

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

It looks busy. I have four kids, and a full-time job, and more things to remember than I can. Most days I get one hour, sometime during the day, never at the same time. Camilo Jose Cela, the great Spanish novelist, once said that in order to be a writer one must be, “a rag-picker of time,” and I completely agree with him. I write wherever I can, and try to avoid rituals. Some of my most productive moments of writing have happened in hotels, busses, and airports (I absolutely love airports, being alone in them, preferably with a long stretch between my arriving and connecting flights, and have written for longer and in more concentrated ways there than any place else).

Do you type or write?

I type. My hand gets really sore writing by pen, and it’s slower. Though lately I’ve been thinking of switching it up for a change (since the medium of writing does, oddly, affect what is produced in some way, and also because the presence of email and the internet is increasingly intruding on my time as a writer in a very bad way).

What do you read while you’re writing?

Too often I’ll be surfing the internet. Whenever I get stuck I’ll open my browser instead of doing the right thing, which is to sit there and stare off into space and think of how to solve the dilemma. The internet is evil; it really is. I’m a complete addict. The only way to stop it is to turn off my wireless; for some reason having to turn it back on is enough to make me not do it. Otherwise, I’ll sometimes pull a book off a shelf if I’m stuck on a way to write a sentence or paragraph–usually something by Thomas Pynchon, or Mavis Gallant, or Stuart Dybek, or Alvaro Mutis–all writers I turn to in moments of distress.

book cover of When X Equals Marylou byTamas Dobozy
What have you read recently that you really loved?

The Prospector by J.M.G. Le Clezio. The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe. I’m also in the middle of Robert Murray Davis’s book of essays, Born Again Skeptic, and am really loving it–that voice he uses is so direct and intimate, as if you were carrying on a conversation.

What are your all-time favourites?

Mavis Gallant, Thomas Pynchon, Stuart Dybek, Alvaro Mutis, Mikhail Bulgakov, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, J.M.G. Le Clezio, William Faulkner, Jack Hodgins, Agota Kristof, Max Frisch, Paul Bowles, Kenzaburo Oe, Bohumil Hrabal. These are the really important ones.

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

This is impossible! Read, I guess. But I’d only read one or two books and then kill myself.

What’s your third R, and why?

Recreation. Everyone needs recreation. Where would I be without my snowboard? Nowhere.


November 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

Over the last couple of years, too many similar short stories have been turning up in literary journals: thin, desperate to seem winning, and based on subject matter (usually the deserving poor or the mentally marginalised) guaranteed to guilt editors into thinking the writing must be good, or at least published. One-dimensional narrators without agency (it wrecks the plot, you know), these characters are often over-sharing idiot savants capable of popping out sparkling philosophical gems.

Need to indicate that someone might be autistic? (Of course you want an autistic character; how else to convey that you’re so now?) Give them a mild OCD tic, some bafflement at figurative speech, and you’re done. Story wants to inspire a spot of liberal angst? Wind up the big-hearted, hard-done-by Wal-mart employee (so much the better if they also have undiagnosed autism and an abusive partner) and point them in the direction of the page.

On the surface, these stories chasten us for normalising a certain mental way of being. They tell us off for not being more open-minded, kinder, more accepting. But what they are actually peddling is exploitative, manipulative projections that reduce the narrators to caricature. They aren’t actually interested in—or capable of telling—the character’s experience beyond the obvious surfaces; they are simply vehicles for cheap sentiment.

I’m not going to name and shame here. But come on, journal editors: stop choosing content over quality of writing. You need to read more closely. Far from broadening our definitions of what it means to be human, these stories are bigoted and reductive. The bungled attempt to demonstrate the luminous humanity that we snobbish, superior, heartless people perpetually miss and dismiss actually has the opposite effect, pinning the chess-piece narrators to the board and allowing them only the restricted moves of pawns. A notable exception is Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise—which not only never actually labels the narrator, but also allows her plenty of freedom to choose her own path. For a lesson in how to write about people who aren’t teachers or civil servants without being condescending, read Steven Heighton’s “A Right Like Yours” in The Dead Are More Visible. His characters are not defined by their economic situation, nor emotionally handicapped by a supposed lack of cultural or social capital.

The lazy stories I’m complaining about can be knocked off in about twenty minutes. Just to prove to myself that I wasn’t getting all Jackson Pollock about it (huh, anyone can splatter and drizzle paint over a canvas), I knocked one off myself in nineteen minutes, thirty seconds. In this one, the poor old narrator gets to meet the well-intentioned colonial missionary (aka the writer).

 * * *

… So one night on the graveyard shift me and Corinna are stacking shelves and she asks if I want to go to the diner after work. Of course I want to go to the diner, because anything’s better than getting home at that time of the morning when Randy’s just starting to feel his whisky burn cool off and get sore, and spoiling to start something if I disturb him before he passes out. So I say, yeah Corinna, let’s hang out, but maybe we can split the special or something because I only have twenty bucks from now to payday.

And Corinna, she’s a student and only working at the store for the cash and the life experience, as she puts it, so she says, sure Jeanie, I’ll treat you, just like I hope she will. One day she’s going to be rich and famous with her book-writing, but I won’t ever be able to get no other job after Pa dropped me on my head when I was a babe and broke something in my brain. Every time I complain about it Ma says, being number ten I should be grateful that nothing worse happened, and John-Paul, who’s number eight, says at least mine is invisible, not like the pinky on his right hand that isn’t there from the time Pa was chopping wood drunk and didn’t remember JP was out there helping him.

Anyway, so after work we’re sitting in the booth, me and Corinna, and it’s four in the morning and I love how this place just goes all night long, and it’s not like the grocery store where only the freaks come in after ten, it’s like here everyone’s allowed to be interestingly awake, like they’re all poets or famous or something.

So Corinna lets me take a few bites of the cheese off the top of my apple pie and then she slides some pages across the table to me and asks if I can look at them and tell her what I think. I’m a slow reader, but I try to concentrate even though I never made it past grade 8 reading level. The story’s about someone called Janie who works in a grocery store and has a no-good husband, and pretty quickly I guess it’s about me, so I say, Well, it seems pretty good, except I never said Randy’s tried to burn me with a cigarette, but why have you written it like how I talk? Your teachers won’t like that.

They’ll love it, says Corinna. It’s authentic. You’re authentic. It’s supposed to represent you how you really are, not force you to be something you’re not.

So I say, well, but those stories about brainy people, they don’t write them like how they speak, they put it all in book language. Anyway, I don’t think like that. I know I can’t speak fancy like you, but I think smart, just like everyone else.

And Corinna says, Jeanie, I know you’re smart. That’s why I’m writing about you. You’ve got such a great voice, so many opinions about things. We can learn a lot from you. And she pulls the pages back across towards her, minding the wet coffee rings from the people here before us, and starts scribbling very fast down the side of one of the sheets.

Anyway, I say, why don’t you write a story about Terry? I’m getting a headache, but I don’t know if it’s from Corinna or from the buzz of those fluorescent lights they’ve got over at the counter.

Corinna rolls her eyes. Terry? Are you kidding? Write about the franchise owner and his sad little life, money grubbing all day, watching TV from dinner until bedtime? Who wants to read about some right-wing white male capitalist?

She’s never really spoken to Terry, so I say, Well, I don’t know about politics and that, but he’s way more interesting than me. He’s just had to give his beehives to someone else to look after, and stop volunteering at the emergency shelter, because his wife’s got terminal cancer and he’s spending all his time at the hospice when he’s not at work. One time when Randy went off with all the cash he lent me the rent money and never asked for it back. And what about Ashelle, I ask. Ashelle’s brainy and sassy and for some reason Corinna is afraid of her, although she pretends she isn’t. I say, Ashelle’s smart enough to be a teacher or anything she wants, but who gets anywhere in life if their parents are only sixteen when they’re born?

Corinna looks down. You make me feel ashamed, Jeanie. You notice so much more than me. But I want to write about you because you’re nice. If you were on a reality show everyone would vote for you because you’re adorable and you don’t make people feel bad.

It feels good to hear that, but the story is still bothering me, because something’s not right, even though I think Corinna’s a great writer and I always feel kind of stupid around her. When I get to the end of my second piece of apple pie and Corinna’s still writing away, I realise what it is and say, it’s like you’re doing blackface or something.

And she says, what?

And I say, you know, when white people act as black people in plays, so they put blackface on, but that’s not what black people look like at all. That’s what you’re doing here, except it’s just you pretending to have no money and a broken brain and a drunk for a husband, it’s not me or any real person. It’s just a puppet.

And she looks at me like I just picked up a dog turd, pulled a diamond out of it and handed to her all nice and polished, and she says, Jeanie, you’re right. I always underestimate you, when really you’re way smarter than the rest of us.

But I’m not falling for that stuff now I’ve seen her game, so I put ten bucks, which is all the cash I’ve got, down on the table and walk out. But I can’t go home. Seeing that story all written out made me realise only an idiot would stay with Randy, so I know I can’t ever go back there again. Instead, I slip out into the five am dark, feel the tired chill in the air, and start walking.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

The Three Rs: Carrie Snyder

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Carrie Snyder was born in Hamilton, and grew up in Ohio, Nicaragua, and Southern Ontario. Her first book, Hair Hat, was nominated for the Danuta Gleed award for Short Fiction. Her novel-in-stories The Juliet Stories is a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s literary award for fiction.She lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her husband and four children. She blogs as Obscure CanLit Mama.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I knew I wanted to write books almost as soon as I learned how to read books (age four). I loved disappearing into those other worlds and characters—and it came just as easily to create other worlds and characters to disappear into. I was seven when I discovered that the youngest published author in The Guinness Book of World Records was a four-year-old poet, and I was quite upset to be already too late. In high school, I remember considering myself quite deliberately as a writer—or more precisely as someone working toward becoming a writer. I aimed myself at that goal with real intention, even while understanding that it wasn’t something I could guarantee, that in order for it to come true I would need to convince other people, and people of influence, to believe that I was a writer too. I was more than willing to work hard to become the writer I wanted to be. I just loved doing it. Still do.

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

The answer to this question really depends on what stage I’m at. If I’m doing research, you may find me at the library staring at old newspapers or listening to recorded voices. If I’m in the early intense stages of writing, I try to bury myself completely for hours and preferably days at a time, surfacing only to tend to the needs of my family. This is a difficult and tense stage, and I find it hard to move between the imaginary world and the real world. I often feel like I’m cheating both worlds, and do experience guilt about not giving my kids my full attention. If I’m editing or rewriting, I can dip in and out more easily. Basically, you’ll find me in my little office at my desk from 9am until 3pm or sometimes 4pm most weekdays, with a break for lunch.

Do you type or write?

I type on a computer. I have since the age of 12. My handwriting (which is a printed scrawl) is indecipherable, even to me.

What do you read while you’re writing?

I rarely read here in my office during working hours. I read at night before falling asleep. I read anything and everything, really. Occasionally I will pull a familiar book off the shelf to give me inspiration or guidance while I’m inside a project. Mavis Gallant is a writer I read when looking for clues to the craft. Miriam Toews is another—her tone is uniquely compassionate, heart-rending, yet funny, and even though I can’t do what she does, I’m inspired by what she does.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I read and loved Dear Life, by Alice Munro (and also reviewed it for the National Post). I knew it would be perfect, and it was. I just finished Out of Grief, Singing, by Charlene Diehl, which I recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the process of grief, and how to be with people who are grieving an unthinkable loss. With much pleasure, I read all through James Herriot’s four collections of vet stories this fall, and tried to unpack their seemingly simple charm. I’m currently reading Lorna Crozier’s The Book of Marvels for my poetry book club, which is filled with tiny gems on small subjects: the extraordinary within the ordinary.

What are your all-time favourites?

L.M. Montgomery: her Avonlea stories, and her Emily of New Moon series

Alice Munro: Dance of the Happy Shades, Who Do You Think You Are?, The View from Castle Rock, Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You, and on and on

American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver, 1989

Mavis Gallant: the Linnet Muir stories, and The Moslem Wife, a best-of collection edited by Mordecai Richler

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

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

This is an impossible question to answer because the two are so intrinsically linked for me. I read and I want to write and respond. I write and I want to read and open myself further. But I would choose writing if I were forced to make a decision. It would be an issue of sanity, frankly. I can’t seem to exist without self-reflection, without a concrete way to interpret and rearrange and place my experiences.

What’s your third R, and why?

Music. Playing piano and singing and writing songs and improvising is part of who I am too. Sometimes it’s the only expression that seems to answer whatever creative impulse I’m yearning to explore. I think it’s the improvisational element that draws me in. I’m not a real musician, so I don’t put the same pressure on myself to create perfect and beautiful work through the piano, I just let go and find interior rhythms and melodies and chords, and kind of fall through them to somewhere meditative and other-worldly.

Where Am I?

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