Monday, September 24, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Monica Kidd

Monica Kidd grew up on the rural Alberta prairies, did a B.Sc. at the University of Calgary and an M.Sc. at Queen’s University, and now makes St. John’s, Newfoundland her home. She is the author of the novels Beatrice (2001) and The Momentum of Red (2004), and a collection of poetry called Actualities (2007). Her short experimental films have shown in Atlantic Canada and in Amsterdam; her most recent project, praxis:Twillingate, will be screened at the 2007 St. John’s International Women’s Film & Video Festival. She has worked as a seabird biologist and as a reporter for CBC Radio, where her news items and documentaries won numerous awards. In 2007, she is in her final year of medical school at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She writes a regular column about being a medical student for

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book was Beatrice, published by Turnstone Press in 2001. I didn’t expect it to be my first book. I had been writing poetry for many years, and in 2000, a reputable Canadian publishing company (which shall remain nameless) had agreed to publish a collection. I worked back and forth with an editor for more than a year, and the publisher asked for a photo of me for their catalogue. Then they dropped me, with no satisfactory explanation. Being totally naïve about publishing, it hadn’t occurred to me to get a written contract. I probably would have packed up my pencil then, if a few months later Turnstone hadn’t rescued my faith in the world and offered to publish my novel.

Beatrice was my first real attempt at fiction. I began writing it one summer when my boyfriend at the time was going to be away on a music tour, and I was at home freelancing for CBC Radio with a lot of time on my hands. I spent six months on it, sent it out, and Turnstone picked it up. I know many people struggle to get their first book published, so in that respect I was lucky. I had already started on a second novel before the first was published, but I doubt I would have finished the second if the first hadn’t been published. Having Beatrice published made me feel like a “real” writer. And it made me want to be a better writer.

2 - How long have you lived in St. John's, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I moved to St. John’s in 1998 from Kingston, Ontario, after having spent the two previous summers working on the coast of Labrador as a seabird biologist. From the first time I came here I have been struck by the similarities between the Atlantic coast and the prairies where I grew up. The openness, the raggedness. Communities totally at the mercy of weather and commodity prices, but peopled with fiercely self-reliant women and men. I write about people with a quiet kind of power, and I think that comes from living in places outside the traditional gaze of history – small towns, marginal places. That’s geography. I also consider myself a bit of a landscape writer. Without really meaning to, I tend to anthropomorphize landscape; it’s how I explain my ample emotional response to earth, water and sky.

As for race, I am a Caucasian woman writing largely in Canada about Canadian things. I’m the product of English and Irish ancestors, adopted into a family descended from Slavic homesteaders. All of that frames my understanding of the world, but I don’t think I examined race deliberately through my writing until my latest project, which is a manuscript of (mostly) non-fiction portraying the lives of women who came from central Europe to marry coal-miners and have babies and generally build the communities of the Canadian Rockies at the beginning of the last century. Gender has – unintentionally – shaped my writing from day one. My female characters are always the heroes.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I began Beatrice with the intention of writing a novel, but I ended up writing it as short pieces I later knit together. That’s because I wasn’t entirely sure what was going to happen in the story before I began. The Momentum of Red also started as a novel; that one came out in a chronological fashion that my editor later – very wisely – suggested we mess with. Actualities, the new collection of poetry, was definitely not a book from the beginning; it is a sample of little pieces I wrote as life-lines to myself over the period of about a decade. Any Other Woman, the working title for my next book, began as a novel and became a little changeling of history, journalism, travel-writing and prose poems in the spirit of Eduardo Galleano’s Book of Embraces. Nothing ever turns out the way I expect.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I love doing readings, although I’m always really embarrassed. I find it hard to imagine a group of people would want to sit and listen to me for half an hour or an hour, plus maybe even buy a book. I really appreciate learning what does and does not move people, which tends to come out in the questions they ask.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’d like to have a smart answer for this, but I don’t. I have no idea why I write about the things I do. Some things just cry out to be written.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

My last two experiences with editors (Kate Kennedy, at Gaspereau Press, and Lynn Henry, previously at Raincost Books) have been stellar. Before Kate, I hadn’t had any constructive criticism of my poetry. The only feedback I’d had I drew from whether or not a poem would be published in a literary magazine. But that’s a terrible metric because lots of poems rejected by one publication are accepted somewhere else with no changes. (I keep all my rejection notes in a shoebox on my bookshelf. I’m not sure why.)

Lynn ate and slept and metabolized Momentum, and with a few suggestions, turned it into a proper book. The original manuscript had a “before” and “after” the introduction of a major character. The second portion had less depth but more action; Lynn suggested we shuffle the two parts together, which gave it much more tension. I haven’t begun to edit the next manuscript yet.

As an aside, to date, I’ve never met any of my editors. Our correspondence has always been written. Before I got into this racket, I imagined long cups of tea and glasses of wine with my editors. After all, that’s how it works for Woody Allen’s characters!

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Easier, I guess. But maybe (with the exception of the poetry) less satisfying. As I write more, I have greater expectations of myself, which leads to greater disappointment when I don’t achieve what I set out to do.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Last summer. It was dried. I was on a canoe trip. I have a complicated relationship with pears. And peaches, for that matter. I find them both beautiful, but a nuisance to pack in a lunch. Now dried pears, on the other hand…

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

My friend Emilie told me to ask people what they’re most afraid of.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Pretty easy, I guess. Poetry is my first love, but having made my living as a reporter for several years, non-fiction became my practice. Fiction finds itself somewhere in the middle ground.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Today – on a plane from St. John’s to Toronto – is my first dedicated writing day in so long I can’t remember. When I was writing my novels, I was working for CBC, so I’d write news all day, then come home and make myself write 1,000 words every night until I had a draft. The non-fiction manuscript was my first attempt at giving big chunks of time to a writing project. I took time off of work to do research trips to Alberta, and in 2004 when I quit work to start medical school, I had a few weeks to dedicate to it then. In 2005, I made a trip to Slovakia for research.

My writing these days comes in fits and starts. I scribble words and phrases in the margins of my notes at work, then return to them at the end of the day. Lately, I’ve been setting aside an hour once in awhile to finish a poem or write an essay. I want to arrange my life in order to take at least a few hours per week to write. And of course, one day take a year-long sabbatical, live in a cabin or a van and generally just bum around writing my great manifesto. Right after I pay off my student loan. Which should be sometime in 2073.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Poetry. Always poetry.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

The most recent book always feels the best and most important, right? But I’m actually very, very proud of Actualities. I love Gaspereau’s books, and I think I can truthfully say I won’t care about the reviews on this one. Poetry has saved my life on more than one occasion, and this book is like a little breathing thing to me.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Definitely nature. Photographs often seem to beg for words. And medicine, because it’s my window on people’s lives.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I am a complete sucker for writing from Latin America. I love its elements of magical realism and political struggle and desert and chili and the music of Spanish. I’m also a big fan of Jeanette Winterson because she speaks so directly to what matters.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d love to learn to paint. Learn how to play the banjo I got for my birthday. Have a child. Work for Doctors Without Borders. Do a triathlon. Spend a week in Utah and a month in Nepal. Do a bike trip along the Pan-American highway. Figure out the sourdough starter recipe in the Pan Chancho Cookbook. How much time do we have?

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I wouldn’t call writing my occupation; right now it’s more my guilty pleasure. But I think if I could have made radio documentaries full time, I might not have needed to write, and I might not have gone to medical school.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

When I was working as a reporter, I needed to write to say the things that don’t fit inside a news story; ironically, now I find myself writing all that is not said inside a medical encounter. Always, and still, I’ve needed to write in order to remember my life.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Movie – Babel. Or anything with Cate Blanchet.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Finishing medical school. And that non-fiction-journalism-travel-writing-poetry project I mentioned above, for now named Any Other Woman. NeWest plans to publish it in the fall of 2008, likely with a different title.

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