Friday, February 15, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Mary Borsky

Mary Borsky, author of short story collections, Influence of the Moon and Cobalt Blue, is equally in love with the Prairies and the Canadian Shield. Borsky is lives in Ottawa where she writes, teaches writing, rides her bike and skates. She is the author of the Benny Bensky children's books.

How did your first book change your life? I don’t think it did, though writing has. I accumulated those stories one by one, never knowing whether I’d be able to pull off another one, but eventually I had enough for a book.

How has writing changed my life? Hard to answer. I think writing helps me enter aspects of my experience more deeply, and think about things I might never have thought about otherwise. (William Stafford says that a writer is a person who would not have written what they wrote if they hadn’t started out to write it. I’ve always liked that quotation.)

How long have you lived in Ottawa, and how does geography impact on your writing? I’ve been in Ottawa for a long time now, thirty years, I think. It took me a long time to relate emotionally to the eastern landscape. I used to see colour more vividly in the west, for example. But at some point I began to see eastern landscapes in colour too. The colours in the east are more subtle, the lines finer and more small scale. If I were a painter, I would paint eastern landscapes in water colour, western landscapes in oil.

Does race or gender make any impact on you? Race strikes me as a red herring. Class, however, is extremely interesting. Saying that, I’m not sure I’ve ever written about social class. I would like to though.

Most of my stories are about women, but only because I am used to seeing the world from that angle. I have occasionally written from a male point of view, and some of the books I most admire have male protagonists - Disgrace by Coetzee, for example, or Blue Angel by Francine Prose.

Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you a writer of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning? A story can begin almost anywhere for me, from an image, (“Myna” began from my memory of the water dripping from the water wagon), or from the pragmatic desire to write a story (I think “The Ukrainian Shirt” began this way, by me casting my memory back over my life until I snagged on something I thought might be interesting. I remembered the eavestrough project, then tried to write about it. I hadn’t realized at the outset that I would be writing about marriage, etc.)

It strikes me now that one other way I might come up with a story is to think of trips or visits. A friend of mine (who was likely quoting someone else) said there are only two stories in the world. A person goes on a trip. Or a stranger comes to the village.

I’m always working on a story, not on a book. I was at a writing retreat in Saskatchewan and when there was a falling star, all the writers would call out “book!”, “book!”. I would be calling out, “story! story!” This is not to say, of course, that I don’t care about writing a book, because I do, but for some reason I keep my eye on the story.

Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? To write, I have to enter my own dream world, and public readings don’t intersect a whole lot with that. I do remember, however, looking up in a public reading to see a woman look completely engaged with the story (“Viewfinder”) I was reading. I found that very encouraging. It helped me think of the story as a story worth telling. I had some doubt about that at the time.

Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What questions are you trying to answer with your work? I don’t have theoretical concerns. My concerns are about how to get a particular experience on the page, or how to stand back and let a particular situation deepen, how to get out of the way and let the characters interact.

Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult, essential, or both? I welcome working with a good editor. I’ve found that a good outside eye can help me a great deal. Often I experience resistance to a suggestion, but I’ve learned to try suggestions, for sometimes what initially sounds like a bad suggestion is really a good suggestion!

After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier? I wish I could say I found it easier, but I don’t.

When was the last time you ate a pear? I haven’t had a pear for months! Maybe tomorrow!

What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard? Mavis Gallant once said that the most important thing about a story is whether it is alive or whether it is dead. This has often helped me hang in with a difficult story, for if I feel the life in it, I want to hang in and make it work.

Another piece of advice I often return to is from Alice Munro. She said she had only two suggestions for stalled stories. One was to start again. The other was to pull yourself closer to the story. I find pulling myself closer can help a lot.

How easy has it been for you to move between genres (children’s lit to adult fiction)? What is the appeal? If I’d started writing sooner, I may have written more children’s books, but I didn’t begin until my youngest child was eight. I wrote Benny Bensky and the Perogy Palace for her, then have done two others with the same cast of characters.

I enjoyed writing for my daughter (who was a perfect audience at the time), but I also had a secret agenda. I thought I might discover how a novel worked. I’m not sure it helped me with that!

What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep? I work in the mornings, the earlier the better. Which depends, unfortunately, on getting to bed the night before.

When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? Reading what I really love is good. Moving even microscopically closer to the story I’m working on is good too.

How does your most recent book compare to your previous work. How does it feel different? Influence of the Moon and Cobalt Blue are both collections of stories, but the stories are set in the 50’s and linked in the first book I was writing from a child’s consciousness in the first book as well. I think I’ve felt freer to write as I like in the second book.

David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but is there any other form that influences your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art? I love reading pop-science articles about black holes and quantum physics and that kind of thing, usually newspaper articles. Needless to say, the articles have to be extremely low level to be comprehensible to me! In a subliminal way these likely influence my way of seeing the world.

What other writers or writings are important for your work? My list of favourites changes month to month, but some have been on the list for a long time: Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Norman Levine, J.M. Coetzee. I’m the kind of reader who could, in a pinch, whittle down my collection to 50 books and keep reading the same books over and over for the rest of my life. I’d rather keep an open-ended collection though!

What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done? In terms of writing? Another story?

If you could pick any other occupation, what would it be? What do you think you would have ended up doing had you not become a writer? I would choose to have an occupation where my thoughts were my own, as they are when you are a writer. Where would that leave me? As a gardener, a farmer, a micro-film filer? I used to think I would make a good bee farmer. I still hope to do that.

What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? Reading made me want to write. Reading about some other person’s journey emboldens me to tell my own story.

What was the last great book you read? I’m reading Falling Man and like it very much.

What are you currently working on? A story.

1 comment:

Simon said...

Very interesting interview, have been a fan of Mary Borksy for a long time.