October has been a whirlwind of bookishness. I had a wonderful time reading and discussing on two panels at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest and then the good fortune to participate as a delegate at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council. But more (much more — I have some scribblings I am trying to make sense of, and lots of ideas competing for brainspace) about those events soon. For now, an excerpt of a continuing discussion I have been having on goodreads as part of a virtual book club meeting dedicated to Mad Hope. Thanks to Lori at The Next Best Book Club for making it possible, and Coach House Books for allowing Mad Hope license to travel — eight copies given away internationally! It’s been great talking to people about the stories.
Lori: Heather, at what point did you realize you were a writer? What did you see yourself becoming when you were a kid?
Joe: To add to Lori’s question: Once you knew you were a writer, how did you pursue it? Did you go to college? Do you have an MFA? Or did you just write?
Heather: You know, children really don’t see professions or careers or jobs in the same way we do as adults… By this I mean I don’t think they have the same notion of what is required to “have a job”. For example my friend’s daughter always wanted to be either a lamb or a “stirrer” when she grew up because, well, she liked lambs and she liked stirring the cookie or cake mix. And my daughter is fascinated by the “workers” she sees doing the renovations on the house across the street because she sees worth and excitement in lifting and hauling and building things. As a child, I think there were many things I could see myself doing, and they changed by the day… I’m not sure I ever saw writing as a job. It was just something you did; telling stories, or writing about how you felt, that is. I did win a writing contest run by OWL Magazine (a children’s publication) when I was about 10, and I’ve saved the note and book I received from the editor, so obviously it was important for me to have some recognition for my writing early on….
I had a hard time once I’d graduated from university with a Liberal Arts BA. I couldn’t think of ANYTHING I really wanted to do. I worked for a year as an educational assistant in a grade 4/5 classroom, because I had always worked with children. It seemed like something you should do as a matter of course. But then I felt like I needed something more. Maybe I was missing that sense of play and possibility that hovers around you while you are still a student. In any case, I decided to apply to grad school in Montreal at Concordia University — an MA program with a dual focus in Literature and Creative Writing. I took an evening course in Creative Writing and worked on a portfolio. I was writing mostly poetry at the time. I didn’t get in to the creative writing program initially, but had checked a box on the form re: being considered for the straight up English degree. So I began my grad studies in English Lit and eventually made it into the combined program. At that point in my life, the structure and legitimacy of writing ‘school’ was important. I come from a working class background — my dad quit school when he was 16 to work in a mine in Scotland — so while my family saw post-secondary education as prestigious, they also wanted me to find a job and security and a better life for myself. I felt the expectations of my family pretty keenly, and going to school for something I loved (instead of scribbling away in a garret) was a way of compromising and buying some time I think… Plus it provided me a community, some much needed deadlines, and an excuse to live in Montreal!
So that was my path (or at least part of it). But there are so many paths to becoming a writer! And I have two pieces of advice for aspiring writers: Quit your day job AND Don’t quit your day job. There are times when having a full-time job absolutely stifles creativity. And then there are times when the uncertainty (and poverty) of NOT having a regular job absolutely kills the creative impulse. And: although non-writing work can be time and energy consuming it is also LIFE, and writers should make it a point to be engaged in it… I have learned so much about myself and other people through my work as a mother and a teacher. I don’t think of it as sacrifice; it is its own reward.
Those people who know me know that Deborah Eisenberg is one of my literary idols and an unofficial writerly mentor. I was first introduced to her work when I was studying at Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal in the mid-nineties, and recently enamored of the short story form. I read one of her stories and had a ‘Oh! The beauty! Now I can die. /No point living (writing) any longer.’ moment. She was so good; she made things spark and spiral in my mind. She plumbed the depths and measured the breadth of her characters in amazing and elastic story shapes. How could I write anything that would even come close? I couldn’t. I was paralyzed by awe. But the problem remained; I still wanted to write. So I went back to her stories with a larger measure of humility and what I hoped was a craftsperson’s openness. I wanted to be transported AND to learn.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to e-interview Eisenberg about her most recent collection Twilight of the Superheroes. The interview (along with a review) was posted on the now (sadly, sadly) defunct, Bookninja. Here is an excerpt wherein she explores notions of causality and character. The story she is referencing is the excellent ‘Window’:
It’s true that I’m very interested in how it is that people come to be living their lives the way they are, and in that story pretty explicitly so. It’s partly what we were talking about earlier – that people, in my part of the world, at least, tend to overestimate the degree of control they have over their lives, and their freedom of choice. Though at the same time, people so rarely imagine and initiate alternatives! A paradox. I think often that “choice” is retrospective – that you find yourself doing something and you believe that’s what you’ve chosen to do, that your actions are the result of a decision, or at least that they’re rational in some way. Also, I believe that usually by the time you think “I need to make a decision about this” the decision has already been made. I believe that people can’t really know with any clarity why they’ve made one decision rather than another, because what really goes into a decision isn’t so much a set of factors that one can consciously sort out, but instead is a compound of all kinds of influences that are deeply buried and far flung, both inside and outside of oneself, over which one’s control is necessarily minimal – both because they’re hidden, and because they themselves have histories; I think of actions as a sort of compromise between factors and impulses one doesn’t know much about.
Later, when she came to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors, I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person (Imagine the state of my overwhelm; imagine the thrill!) and she was as gracious and generous as her work suggests.
I will admit, there are times I have to fight the impulse to hoard Eisenberg’s work; she’s that much of a treasure to me. And I’m that much of a pirate. But a couple of days ago, I discovered two (two) new Eisenberg stories available on line through the New York Review of Books. How could I have missed these? (Okay, the first was posted when I was on the brink of baby #2 and about to move house, and the second only a couple of weeks ago, but still.) I read almost all of ‘Cross Off and Move On’ a couple of nights ago on my i-phone, after a late night breastfeeding session — tiny little tile of light and text aglow in the night. Say what you will about these new reading gadgets (and the jury’s still out drinking bad coffee for me on this one) but one of the pleasures of having alternate means of absorbing fiction — along with convenience — has been the knowledge that I will get to experience the stories I love in a number of different ways. These new stories seem different to me — preoccupied by the ways in which our relations, both distant and near, lurk and glisten, loom and shrivel within us. Oh, and I just finished ‘Recalculating’ — wow — it treats time like silly putty, lets it stretch and snap back into itself. These stories are funny and dreamy and so very wise. If you are not familiar with Eisenberg’s work, please go seek it out. You can start with these incredible stories. I loved them, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?
On April 11th (my birthday!) I had the great good fortune of reading at Harbourfront as part of their weekly reading series. I was joined by fellow writers Yejilde Kilanko and John Boyne and Catherine Bush (a friend and former thesis advisor) hosted. It was pretty darn perfect — reading a story (that I wrote!) to a room full of people who were really listening. On my birthday. C’mon.
Here are some pictures. The smiling woman behind me brandishing my book is my Auntie Ann. But for the purposes of this blog, she is a stranger. Hear that? Complete stranger. Fan? Oh, what a fan.