I have been Chosen. By one James K. Moran, an Ottawa writer and friend. James nominated me to be the next stop on the Canadian Writers Blog Tour. I’m not sure where it originated or how long it’s been going on, but all I have to do is take a week to respond to four questions, paste them on the internet, and pass the torch. Here’s me being obliging:
1. What are you currently working on?
I’m working on three writing projects. The first is a post-apocalyptic novel set in Southern Ontario — something I’ve been making notes on for about 15 years. It’s coming in fits and starts and slowly rolling into shape. The second is an epic fantasy novel that contains no magic: no spells, no enchanted items, no PSI, no dragons. It’s still entirely speculative and depends on some old tropes, but I feel as if I’m working in some kind of forbidden zone. The great thing about world-building is there really are no external rules, genre aside. This world has also been fermenting for decades and it suddenly feels urgent to make it tangible. My final project is a short story that I’m determined to finish — as soon as I figure out how it ends. It’s the final tale in my Breton triptych, which includes “Flesh Color” (published in Vagabond Press’s The Haunted Traveler anthology, 2014) and “Charlemagne and Florent” (Myths Inscribed, 2014). I’m not sure why but I don’t feel my work is done there until I squeeze out that last story, which is set in a fictional west Quebec town. Apart from writing, I edit Lackington’s and co-edit Postscripts to Darkness and do my part to nurture the SFF writing and publishing cluster in Ottawa, along with dozens of other locals.
2. How does your work differ from others?
That’s assuming it does. I’m not the most original SFF writer in terms of content, especially as my interests lean more toward idea and language than plot. Which a lot of writers shake their head at, I know. I’m not very sellable in that respect and I’m grateful to the editors who include me in TOCs despite my work’s failings. My stories look, even to me, very basic on the surface — no crackling derring-do, however much I enjoy it in others’ fiction. But I also enjoy static, contemplative art; my favourite films are the ones in which “nothing happens,” like Beau Travail, and I honestly love reading the whaling details in Moby Dick. I find secret richness in these. I tend to work mostly below the surface in short fiction, and use language partly to help guide the reader there. And yes, I know that’s not where some readers care to go. But for myself, as a reader, I find plot can sometimes be…sort of impersonal. It’s the base we hang everything else on, and I’d rather look at everything else. The base can be pretty minimal, for readers and writers like me. My work also differs from many SFF writers (though by no means all) in that I shy away from conventional or conversational language, preferring prose that tends towards the rhythmic, the epic. I sometimes choose a word based on how many syllables it has or where its stress lies, because I want some sentences to sound like they’re on a metre; sometimes the last word in a sentence has to be a two-syllable trochee, precisely. It’s probably a bad habit but I can’t break myself of it. I’ve done the more conventional language — I put in my 10,000 hours writing the English that’s expected of me — but now I embrace a controlled maximalism (or what looks like maximalism to some readers even when I’m abiding by the prescribed number of adjectives).
I’ve also stopped fighting my synaesthesia and accepted that language does different things in this one’s head. I see a lot of texture and idea and emotion and story and character in language alone, which is three-dimensional and substantial to me, so I get full up on that — maybe distracted, I admit. I haven’t figured out yet if my synaesthesia is a feature or a bug; I can name several canonic writers who had it (or probably had it), so I shouldn’t make excuses about any shortcomings I may have as a storyteller. But in my case the synaesthesia is a bit overwhelming, and it’s funny how I can read a stranger’s prose and immediately recognize a fellow synaesthete (we tend to write for each other). Feeling like an oddball in this sense is what spurred me to found Lackington’s. I wanted to see more of the kind of stuff I was only seeing in dribs and drabs in other markets. The magazine’s slogan is “speculative prose” and it does what it says on the tin: the prose itself is speculative as well as the stories’ content.
3. Why do you write what you do?
My friend James replied in this spot that he writes to be read, and that’s the smart answer. I wish I were as smart as him — that I wrote fiction with the reader entirely in mind, as I do when I write everything else. But honestly I write because I want to put these particular people, stories and words on a page just so. I write what I want to read. We all dream of birthing a beloved novel and making money off it and leaving a literary legacy, but I still have to write in the voice that comes out of me at the end of the day, whether it results in legacy or not. Writing has always been instinctive, exorcising. It’s my idea of fun even when it isn’t fun. This isn’t romance, either; it’s compunction, as it is for many creators whether we’re hobbyists or pros, no matter how hard we have to work at it.
To be more precise in my response, I write what I do because that’s what interests me. If I want to reproduce a glowing crystal cave in a World of Warcraft zone that I fell in love with as a player, then I’ll find a story to fit in that cave. If I want to write about quantum entanglement, however eye-rolling, then I’m writing about quantum entanglement. If I want to riff off Angela Carter or James Macpherson, however unfashionable, watch me go. I’m a stubborn impractical narcissist who lives by Woolf’s admonition: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters.” I write to other people’s needs and expectations in my day-job, so when it comes to my fiction, I won’t “sacrifice a hair of the head of my vision … in deference to some Headmaster” or Workshop 101 rule or Twitter clique. Workshop 101 rules are as ideological as anything else, built on last-decade protocols. They’re great tools to help novices find their way, but I don’t believe we’ve “perfected” the formula for good writing, if such a thing exists — that we should just keep repeating what worked in the second half of the 20th century ad infinitum. Again, this isn’t romance on my part, or ignorance about audience preference or how the SFF industry works, or any kind of dismissal of what’s being published now, much of which I love; this is a long view of literary history.
4. How does your process work?
If my style sets the teeth of some writers on edge, how I go about the job of writing follows the standard advice: just fucking write. Make the time, don’t make excuses, just get that first draft out and realize you’ll probably hate it and doubt yourself (true! I hate it and doubt myself!). I have my daily word-count quota and I keep a Seinfeldian chain going on a calendar by my desk, which I refuse to break. In short, my writing process is to write. I also workshop with other writers, vent with other writers, whine with other writers, so I get constant reminders that I’m no snowflake, that this is how it is for most of us. I’m lucky in that I’m never too married to my words — working as an editor for years has trained me — so revising isn’t an unpleasant task and I’m merciless. I love to strip away, strip away. When I edit, I feel like a sculptor carving a mass into its best and most human form. I enjoy that as much as I do writing. As for the peripheral stuff, I like to work alone, in the best silence possible. I’m not so good at shutting out nearby conversations or tinny soundtracks so I avoid writing in public places. Still, I enjoy having “word wars,” competing with other writers over word counts. There’s no denying that having others’ eyes on your count keeps you motivated. I’ve been way more productive as a writer since I started hanging with other writers in pods. I’ve learned a lot about process from them. Mentorship, encouragement, praise, criticism and commiseration occupy real estate in that process, no question.
Next up on the tour is another writer with an R-dependent alliterative name, Robin Riopelle. Born in Ottawa and raised on Canada’s west coast, Robin Riopelle’s life has been marked by adoption, separation, and reunion. Like many of her characters, she has a muddy past and a foot in (at least) two different worlds. She’s always had interesting work in museums and social service agencies. Her first novel, Deadroads, came out this year from Nightshade Books.