Monday, October 8, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Anne Simpson

Anne Simpson's most recent poetry book, Quick, was published in spring, 2007. She has published two other books of poetry, Loop (2003), which won the Griffin Poetry Prize, and Light Falls Through You (2000). Her first novel, Canterbury Beach will soon be followed by a second, Falling, due out in 2008. She is currently working on a book of essays, drawings, and poems. She lives in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where she works part-time at St. Francis Xavier University.

1 - How did your first book change your life?
Well, I didn't think my first book would get accepted, or at least I thought I would go down a long list of publishers before getting an acceptance. My friend and I figured out a list of five or six publishers. We were having coffee -- she was giving me advice -- and we wrote out the list on a napkin. So I guess I didn't expect a publisher to accept it. I expected to work my way down that list on the napkin, getting rejections as I went.
What changed for me was that things could be accepted, first of all, by publishers that I didn't expect would want my work. I had been trying to get a novel accepted around the same time, and it took longer to find a publisher (for the novel), so the idea that my poetry might be accepted was pretty mind-boggling to me. Somehow I didn't expect my work to go out into the world and find readers. That acceptance made a huge difference, almost more than the publication of the book itself. It gave me the confidence to write another manuscript.
2 - How long have you lived in Antigonish, and how does geography, if at all,impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
Well, I live in a small town. At first, I didn't know what I'd be able to do, in terms of work. But I realized I could work part-time, and also do things I'd wanted to do. I started painting big canvasses (I'd go to the Art Department at StFX University and paint there in the mornings when there was no one around). I saw that I could live creatively in a small place, though I did feel pretty isolated at first, as a young mother with two small children. After I had my second child -- my daughter -- I took a night class in creative writing. It was the first creative writing class I'd ever taken (though I'd written before -- I used to go to Bronwen Wallace's house in Kingston, Ontario, where she helped a group of us with our writing). The night class helped give me the impetus I needed with writing. And soon I was spending more time on my writing than on my painting, though there wasn't much time for either, since I was with my kids a lot.
I've lived here for nineteen years -- longer than I've lived anywhere -- and Atlantic Canada has become very important to me. It's rugged, and beautiful, and not as developed as other places where I've lived. It has fewer resources, and this has a tendency to make people more =resilient, I think. I'm far removed from a "scene" in terms of writing, but I don't think about this very much. It allows me the time and space to write.
Being a woman who writes is something that I take into account all the time. Women weren't able to give voice to their imaginations until quite recently, though there were wonderful exceptions to this, of course. A great many women have started writing in the last fifty years or so. And the newness of this -- the fact that we have a voice -- I think this gives women strength of purpose in their writing.
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?
As far as poetry goes, I write what I want to write and put all those things together. Then I begin to see what I've been concerned with, what's been on my mind. At times, I can't let go of a bigger idea, and this usually stays with me for a while until I know how to work it out as a long poem.
Sometimes I think my poetry is one long book, divided into smaller books. Like so many poets, I go back to some of the same ideas, even as I'm working on new issues, new problems.
In terms of fiction, the novel I'm finishing now was never clear to me. The writing of it was like jumping out of a plane with a parachute, with no idea of where I was going to land. But then, gradually, it became a novel. I began to know the characters. Then, with revision, I began to know them better and better. I knew what they might do, given their passions.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Public readings can be wonderful. And yes, I think they're creative. What's difficult, sometimes, is trying to communicate to the media. Breakfast television is not exactly designed for thoughtful exchange.
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?
In poetry, I see things visually, so it's almost as if I see a poem in three dimensions. Yet it has to be on a page. So I'm always trying to play with a poem so that it has a structure -- a shape -- that is at one with what I'm writing about. This is not simply an interest in form; it really is a deep interest in the complex shape of the "telling" of a given poem. Someone might object -- "oh, well, that's not a theoretical concern," but for me it is a fundamental theoretical concern. And it's happens to be fun working it out -- it's a kind of play.
Fiction is not like this, though I'm fascinated by how the narrative line can be arrested. I'm very interested in showing the different landscapes of a character's mind. So, for instance, if it's a character who is having a breakdown, I want to emphasize this by showing how language and syntax begin to break down. If a character thinks differently, as with the character of Elvis in the novel I just finished, I have to find a new way (for me) of telling things from this point of view. This idea -- of showing how thinking can change from character to character -- is perhaps my most pressing concern.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors are like choreographers. We couldn't do what we do without them. And a good editor gets a writer to see what's possible; a really good editor helps a writer take quantum leaps. I've worked with Don McKay on my poetry -- he's one of the finest editors I know. And with regard to my fiction, it was just a superb experience to work with Jennifer Lambert. So yes, I think editors are essential.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Oh, it's always very hard - starting a new manuscript is hard. We all know what it's like. I think the hardest thing for me was my second novel. It was the hardest thing, but also the best thing -- I've never learned so much as I've learned in the writing of it, because I came to an impasse with it. I simply could not write it. And then I found a way to go on and through revising and revising, I found what I wanted to say. And so I discovered it in a way I never would have guessed.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
I ate a pear with a friend while we were on a beach in late August -- a very good pear. When was the last time you ate a peach?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When my husband once asked Don McKay about the best advice to give students who wanted to write, Don answered that they should be advised to take Tylenol -- that the problem might get better by morning.
The best advice (for me) was not to throw out something just because I thought it wasn't good. I was told that it's a lot harder to keep the bad writing in order to find out why it's bad and see if there's any way to work with it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Fiction takes longer to write. When you write a novel, you inhabit a world. (So it can be hard to finish a novel -- you have to let go of this world.) Someone said to me not long ago that fiction is social, that it's binding. For me, one of the most wonderful things about it is that I can go inside a character's mind. But this character is also acting within his or her world with other characters, so the writer is always exploring relationships. But things happen -- this is the beauty of it -- one thing happens, another thing. A mistake is made by one character, and the repercussions are felt everywhere. In other words, I think that fiction enters into the sphere of moral dilemmas, the sphere of the moral. By this, I mean that characters have to decide things that aren't easy. They act; they suffer the consequences.
Poetry is not like this. It doesn't need to follow a narrative line. So it's not, say, horizontal, in that it doesn't move from A to B to C to D. It slices through that narrative line because it has much more to do with the moment.
I love the difference between the two. And I am violently addicted to both.
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?
A typical day begins as it would for someone with a regular working life. I'm usually at my desk by 8:30. I take a break at noon -- or 1 or 2 -- to take the dogs out for a walk. Then I work again in the afternoon, and often in the evening for a bit. But I'm not always working. I'm very easily distracted.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Getting stuck -- well, now that I've been stuck with a novel, I know it's also possible to get unstuck. It's as if I had to keep writing to get out of that sand trap, and then, gradually, the writing improved. During those "stuck" times, I haven't been able to go to a particular writer, a favourite writer for help -- I needed to figure it out on my own.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
I guess I keep reaching out for what I can't yet do. (Quick felt like a reach for me.) I keep exploring. So I don't look back and compare all that much.
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?
Yes, of course, all of these things and more. But mainly visual art and science (when it comes to poetry).
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have old favourites when it comes to poetry -- Jack Gilbert, Robert Hass, Charles Wright, Louise Gluck. Reading Anne Carson makes me want to write. Erin Moure is so inventive that she teaches her readers how to be inventive. I read widely, from lyrical poetry to more experimental stuff. Right now I'm reading Dan Tysdal.
In terms of fiction -- when I'm writing fiction I can't read contemporary fiction, because I can be easily influenced. So this has led me back to the classics... I read and re-read Tolstoy, for example. But there's no question that Canadian fiction compelled me from the beginning -- Ondaatje, Munro, Atwood, Laurence, et al.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd like to get to the Maldives. I'd like to try hang gliding.
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 would have been an artist, though I wouldn't have made much money at it. Because I like teaching, I'd have taught on a much more regular basis than I do now. Sooner or later, I'd have had to switch to interviewing writers on breakfast television.

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

I read something in a book of short stories (meant for teachers of creative writing). There was an essay at the back of the book by a writer, whose name I forget, who talked about living in a small town in New Hampshire. She had a choice, she said. She could watch television or she could write. Those words goaded me into action. I could imagine wasting years of my life sitting on a couch, watching television, because I lived in a small town where there wasn't a whole lot to do. Or I could write.

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

Middlemarch. I'm re-reading it. And in terms of films, I really liked Manufactured Landscapes.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A book of essays.

No comments: