The Three Rs: Tanis Rideout

March 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Tanis Rideout’s work has appeared in numerous publications and been shortlisted for several prizes, including the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award for Emerging Writers and the CBC Literary Award. Born in Belgium, Tanis grew up in Bermuda and in Kingston, Ontario, and now lives in Toronto. She recently received her MFA from the University of Guelph-Humber. Above All Things is her first novel.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

Not until quite late. I always loved books and I remember thinking when I was quite small, maybe around 10, that someday I’d love to have a job with books, but it didn’t occur to me that one could write them.

I wrote terrible angst-y poems in high school, as we all likely did, but it wasn’t until I was in university that I truly realised one could be a writer. It was in a Canadian Literature class, reading In the Skin of a Lion by Ondaatje, and I suddenly understood, in a very visceral way, that someone was on the other side of the book, someone that was alive, that didn’t live too far away and had written it because that’s what he had to do, not because someone hired him, or told him to. I think that was the day I figured out that someday I wanted to do that.

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

For me it depends on where I am in the process and whether it’s fiction or poetry. But let’s go talk fiction. In the morning I take care of any other work that needs doing – business-y stuff, other writing for events, or magazines that kind of thing. In the afternoon I try and commit myself to new work. I generally set myself word counts – really early on in the process it might be 500 words a day, and as I get going that increases up to about 2,000 words a day. I work until I get that many words down. Some days it’s really easy, some days I have to go back to my desk after dinner.

I’m generally at my desk from roughly 9-5 Monday to Friday. If writing’s going really well, or really terribly, I’ll write in the evenings and often at least one day on the weekend.  I also occasionally suffer from insomnia, and love writing in the middle of the night when there are very, very few distractions.

Do you type or write?

It depends. For fiction I make a lot of notes by hand, but mostly I write on the computer. I’ve just started on a new project and am using Scrivener – a computer program for novel writing, and I’m loving it for a first draft, it’s great for organising. When I get stuck though, I switch to pen and paper. I write poetry almost exclusively with pen and paper.

What do you read while you’re writing?

Oh – that varies a lot. In order to write poetry I have to be reading poetry. If I’m writing fiction I try and read things that connect to what I’m writing thematically, or structurally, but I also just read for my own enjoyment – I generally have something on the go that I consider I’m reading for work, and something that is purely for pleasure, though there’s generally some overlap with that.

What I find interesting is that when I’m immersed enough in a project everything I read, watch, take in, becomes fodder, becomes seen through the lens of what I’m writing.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I am always the worst with this question! I forget books so quickly, through no fault of theirs. Having just gone to look at the pile of books next to my bed I’m going to name two. One is The Blondes by Emily Schultz. A really smart, almost ‘zombie’ novel about a disease that is turning blondes, real or bottled, in to rabid killers. It’s got a wonderful narrator and is funny and scary, and as I said, tremendously smart. It’s the kind of book I would love to write.

The other is Artful by Ali Smith. I love the mix of narrative and lecture, and her language is just so extraordinary. Again – the kind of writer I would love to aim to be.

What are your all-time favourites?

Oh, again, so so hard! I’m just going to start listing books I love… 1984, Ocean Sea, Never Let Me Go, Oryx and Crake, Moveable Feast, Coming Through Slaughter. I could go on and on.

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

Reading. There’s no way for me to write without it. I think it’s at least half the job anyway. I think I’d be pretty miserable without writing, but could – hopefully – find other outlets. I don’t think I could possibly go without reading.

What’s your third R, and why?

Probably something like re-visiting or re-imagining – because it can apply to work – to edit and go back over stuff from a new angle, digging things up, but it also refers to my not very productive habit of playing things over and over again in my head wishing I had said or behaved differently.

 

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Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin

March 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin

The newly announced longlist of the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards has inspired me to finish my review of one of the nominated titles.

The first reading of Maidenhair is like tipping the pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw out of the box and turning them all picture-side up. It’s quite the endeavour, requiring dedication to a fiddly and time-consuming task. Once the pieces are all out, there’s a vague sense of what the finished puzzle might look like: some sky, some grass, a white poodle with a red ribbon, a Bavarian castle standing grimly above a river. In no way, though, is your task complete. The same is true of a single reading of Maidenhair: once through is simply not enough to really appreciate it. The most you can hope for is to catch sight of some particularly attractive individual pieces, a fuzzy idea of the bigger picture, some parts that look really interesting, and the occasional group of pieces that could be anything.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about difficult books recently, including whether Zadie Smith’s NW is a difficult and experimental book because she doesn’t use quotation marks to set off speech (hardly something new: I’ve been copy-editing a novel from 1767 that doesn’t use them either). Maidenhair is a book, I think, that genuinely justifies the “difficult” label. The translator, Marian Schwartz (who has done an excellent job—all the Open Letter books I’ve read have been very well translated and are, into the bargain, very attractive objects) is quoted as saying “Maidenhair is not tough for tough’s sake. It’s tough because it has so much to offer and especially because it’s trying to construct narrative in a new way.” Schwartz read the book eight times during the translation process, and reassures readers that “There’s not a gratuitous word in it.”

One way for a book to be difficult is for its individual sentences to be challenging, to defy skim-reading, or to be complex in structure, esoteric in allusion and abstruse in vocabulary. Maidenhair is not difficult in that sense; each sentence—indeed, each paragraph and each section–is clear. This novel is difficult in another sense, one that frustrates the brain’s desperate desires to seek out and establish patterns. In Shishkin’s book this intellectual need is thwarted by three intertwined yet unrelated narratives (notwithstanding the suspicion that a second reading might throw up links between them—but then again, it might not). Just when you start to get comfortable with one of the narratives, maybe unbutton your coat and stop perching right at the end of your seat, you have to stand up quickly because someone’s whipped your chair away from behind you. They’ve left another one in its place, sure, but it’s lower to the ground, a bit harder, and just, well, unexpected.

The opening narrative strand was a conceit I liked exceedingly: Russian asylum seekers trying to gain entry to Switzerland having their stories interpreted by the narrator who is, in fact, working as a narrator. The tales the refugees tell are horrific but also banal: so much torture, so much death, so much cruelty. And are they really the truth, or are they simply magic words to gain access to paradise? Another strand is the interpreter’s life, the breakdown of his marriage and his letters to his son, who has remained in Russia; a third is diary extracts from a young singer. The whole thing is intercut with constant historical and mythical allusions, and is constantly questioning the very idea of truth, and of words as carriers of truth. But the essence of Maidenhair cannot be captured well in terms of plot or storyline. It’s more like an amazing university conversation of ideas, the kind that happens late one night and seems the very reason for the existence of universities, and then never happens again. The process of reading the book is more important than having read it, I think. The crucial element is not so much what you know after you’ve read it so much as the questions it makes you ask while you’re reading it.

Maidenhair has stayed with me in the two months since I’ve read it. It’s a book that confirms Open Letter’s excellence in curation (except, of course, for a slight gender imbalance). If I say it’s worth persevering with, it sounds as though reading it is unenjoyable, which is far from true. But Maidenhair is a book that demands and then rewards attention, so it’s not one to read if you’ve turned into a gadget and can’t even concentrate long enough to read a single tweet without checking your email halfway through.

 

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

The Three Rs: Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

March 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the novels Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner and the short story collection Way Up. A new novel All The Broken Things is forthcoming from Random House of Canada early in 2014. Her recent short fiction has been featured in Granta Magazine, The Walrus and Storyville. She is the recipient of The Sidney Prize. Kathryn teaches creative writing at The University of Toronto School for Continuing Studies and is Associate Faculty in the MFA at the University of Guelph.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I knew this from a really early age – five years of age or so. I wrote the first (and only) chapter of my first book when I was in kindergarten, and actually kept it in my bottom drawer. I think all writers know where to hide their manuscripts. They know this in utero. From the womb, they await the dresser. In the seventh grade, I had a teacher who saw me for what I was. Mrs. Simpson is one of the reasons I write. She could see that I was a writer. Years later, she saw me selling bread at a local market, and recognized me. She was much smaller than I remembered because, of course, I had grown. The first thing she said to me: Are you still writing? I was.

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

I’m a very chaotic writer and I don’t have a set habit. It’s hard to describe how my day looks because, in a way, I am not there. I am in a scene in my head watching the words scroll out and sometimes deleting and trying again. I am sure the day is happening around me, and sometimes I notice it, or I’m interrupted, and forced to participate in the day. But if I want to honestly answer your question, the day looks (on good days) like the story coming to life, and on bad days, it looks like everybody else’s day, I guess — breakfast lunch dinner friends facebook reading dog-walking sorrow love joy. Bad days are not so bad, in other words, they just don’t feel as complete or as satisfying.

Do you type or write?

I do both. Don’t they call it keyboarding nowadays?

What do you read while you’re writing?

It used to be that I couldn’t read fiction while I was busy with a new project but lately it doesn’t matter. I can read anything. Usually, though, when I am in a new story, I read things that I think might feed the innovation of that story. For this new novel, All The Broken Things (scheduled to come out with Random House of Canada in early 2014), I read books about sign language, Agent Orange, bear wrestling, professional wrestling, the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call this war the American War), carnival and freak show, handicap, my neighbourhood in Toronto (The Junction) and looking. I read a lot about looking, about how we look at others. I also read the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo, translated it (badly!) and mulled over Tolkien’s translation of it. On of the most peculiar books I came across is a 1982 translation (Janis Pallister) of the mid-1500s On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré. It is filled with more or less imagined creatures (for example, “figure of a monstrous child, coming from a lack of seed in proper quantity.” Shown in sketch form, the child has various disabilities, the strangest of which is to have been born with a jaunty cap upon his head!). It’s always such an act of trust to bring together elements without fully understanding why until well into the writing.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I recently read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and adored it. I also quite loved Ali Smith’s new essay/novel Artful.

What are your all-time favourites?

I don’t really think of books in this way. I love the writing of Kenzeburo Oë, and Yoko Ogawa, but these are in translation, of course. I also have loved John Fante, Italo Calvino, Katherine Mansfield, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, Sylvia Plath, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Celine, all fairy tales, myths, etc. I have enjoyed the work of Roberto Bolaño, Haruki Murakami, Lydia Millet, Chris Adrian. Also, Penelope Fitzgerald, Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge – as you can see the list just goes on and on. Come visit my library sometime!!

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

I would read. I would read and take up painting and drawing. I used to do these things when I was a young girl but they have fallen to the wayside. I suppose you will say I am cheating the question…

What’s your third R, and why?

Religion. It’s difficult for me to admit this since I am a lapsed Catholic and a reticent non-believer. You can’t escape the guilt of not-believing if you’ve been brought up in a religion, I think. It’s in the bloodstream, that guilt. The thing is, I’m fascinated by belief, which makes sense if you think of converting from Catholicism to Authorism. They both require a deep faith, they both rely on believers, they both make stuff up and expect a kind of slavish faith, they are both predicated on text. My novel Perfecting was about religion to a large extent but really all my work tries, and fails, to avoid this central issue of belief, and desire/yearnings around belief. It’s my repetition compulsion — the trauma I have to come to live with.

 

 

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