Tuesday, March 25, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Beth Follett

Beth Follett is the one-woman show behind the Canadian literary publishing house, Pedlar Press. Her first novel, Tell It Slant, was published by Coach House Books in 2001. She was born and raised in Toronto, spent her adolescence and young adult life in Winnipeg, and returned to Toronto in 1985.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Publishing the novel was wonderful. It deepened my understanding of the cost of writing to a writer's psyche. One doesn't necessarily have to be tough to be a writer, but certainly will do better if brave and realistic.

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

I have lived in Toronto off and on for 28 years. I love the big city, crashing energy next to perfect peace. I get up very early, usually, when the city is quiet. Then the buses start up, the traffic, the mechanical noises. The kids' shouts. Birdsong. Dog barks. The city has its rhythms, much like an individual human. Studying Toronto's character has assisted my thinking about character.
I grew up within feminist thought, and I live in the most multicultural city in the world. I am interested in psychology, how gender and place and race and ability and class affect thinking and behaviour and desire. My world view is deeply affected by the 'what' of me, but I know it doesn't end there. Shame is something that interests me. Also gullibility. I think shame limits us more than we know or can with any clarity describe. Shame belongs to all of us, regardless of race or gender.

3 - Where does a 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 started Tell It Slant in fragments, bits and pieces. It stayed fragmentary. The new novel I'm working on has been a book from the outset, begun at page one.

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

I love to read aloud to others, whether one other or one hundred. Reading other people's work out loud is phenomenal. Reading my own work, no. I think one's own work doesn't allow for much distance, or perspective. I cannot see mine. I'd love to be regularly invited to read from wonderful works by authors I admire.

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?

Many theoretical concerns, yes, of course. I am fascinated by questions of identity, questions about mind and how mind attaches to its thoughts, or doesn't. I am also interested in questions of leadership and power. I have had a long-standing interest in the power of group mind.

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

Editors are essential, but one has to stand strong in one's own convictions, even if wrong. How else do we learn? I'm very fond of my old clunkers.

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

Last August, warm, with soft Stilton cheese, at a lake.

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

"Sweat the details."

9 - How easy has it been for you to move between being editor/publisher of Pedlar Press and working on your own writing? What do you see as the appeal?

Trickster walks the line between these acts that I perform. Sometimes, working with a Pedlar author is unbelievably holy, and I am ready to give up my own writing in sheer exuberance for the fact of this other writer's existence. At other times, O, the greed, the envy, the wish that I could write full time! Pedlar Press activity has its cycles and rhythms, and there are times in a year when I can take three or four or five days in a row to concentrate exclusively on my own work. Maybe four or five times a year. The thing is, Pedlar Press activity demands perpetual thinking about writing and the writing life. Thinking is a pleasure that is also a necessity where the business is concerned; it enriches my writing. Publishing is a pleasure: it's the best way I have found to put beans on the table. I'm pretty realistic about how much time will be afforded to me for writing.

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

When I am writing, I get to the work immediately on rising. I make a good coffee and begin. I will write for eight hours, sometimes more. I write longhand. I complete at least two edits before transcribing my work onto the laptop. I drink a lot of water in those eight hours.

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

I read when I get stalled. Poetry often, also essays.

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

I think I am a very different woman from the one who wrote Tell It Slant. This new work feels more compassionate. It seems to contain my longing more fully. It's also much much harder to write.

13 - 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?

I would say architecture influences my writing. How one moves in built spaces or in cities. Nature, as well, is an influence. Wind. And photography. The light upon the earth.

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

Elizabeth Bishop is a constant companion. And Penelope Fitzgerald. Also Marie-Louise von Franz. Italo Calvino. Linda Gregg, her brilliant work, The Sacraments of Desire. Does anyone turn a sentence more perfectly than Jose Saramago, I wonder?

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

Make Gâteau à l'Orange, a recipe in the cookbook, Paris Bistro Cooking.

16 - 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 wanted to be a modern dancer, but I don't have the body type for it. I was a clinical social worker and therapist for many years. Actually, "full time writer" is the occupation I secretly want to attempt.

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

I had to. Everything to me is story, and this has been true since I was very young. I simply wanted to participate in story, and to be a good story teller. I wanted to overcome my original shyness, my muteness. I have imagined containing in one sentence the world's greatest stories. Now that's telling.

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

The Outlander by Gil Adamson is a marvel of a book.

In the same week I saw two movies, There Will Be Blood and The Lives of Others. In both cases the idea to sit through the film a second time crossed my mind. This hasn't happened since seeing Bertolucci's 1900 at a repertory cinema in Winnipeg in 1978.

19 - What are you currently working on?

The new novel is getting my attention right now. Recently, a poem and a short non-fiction piece got it.

1 comment:

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Thanks for an insightful interview. I enjoyed reading it.

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse