Monday, October 8, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Priscila Uppal

Priscila Uppal is a poet and fiction writer born in Ottawa and currently living in Toronto. Among her publications are five collections of poetry: How to Draw Blood From a Stone (1998), Confessions of a Fertility Expert (1999) Pretending to Die (2001) Live Coverage (2003) and Ontological Necessities (2006); all with Exile Editions; and the novel The Divine Economy of Salvation (2002), published to critical acclaim by Doubleday Canada and Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and translated into Dutch and Greek. Her poetry has been translated into Korean, Croatian, Latvian, and Italian, and Ontological Necessities was recently short-listed for the prestigious Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry. She has a PhD in English Literature and is a professor of Humanities and English at York University.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book of poems was published in 1998 when I was 23 years-old. It was a huge shot of confidence into my writing arm, giving me permission to take myself seriously as a writer, and to make writing even more of an explicit priority in my life. In this way, it also helped others in my life (family, friends) understand that writing was something I was going to do (and something I was good at), and because one must do it on top of everything else, it made my family and friends more understanding when my writing schedule interfered with other obligations or events.

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 moved to Toronto from Ottawa in 1993 to attend university. I have lived here ever since. Geography certainly impacts my writing. My first two novels (one published, The Divine Economy of Salvation, one forthcoming, To Whom It May Concern: A Novel, in August 2008 from Doubleday Canada) are set in Ottawa. I think Ottawa is actually a fascinating city politically because of the government presence in the capital and the fact that so many people who live in Ottawa do work for the government. Like Toronto, it’s a very diverse city, but unlike Toronto, the diversity isn’t ghettoized into specific areas of town (at least when I was growing up, Ottawa had few specifically ethnic areas like the Little Italy or Little Cambodian or Little insert-ethnicity-here areas of Toronto). I’ve enjoyed writing scenes where my characters stroll The Market or skate on the canal during Winterlude or walk past the Parliament Buildings.

I’ve also written about Toronto, and its various neighbourhoods, and I think Toronto will be the setting for my third novel (it is already the setting of various short stories and poems). Toronto is my home and it’s taken me a few years to really achieve the kind of distance that I think is necessary to take stock of a place, to understand how its structure works or doesn’t work, how the people in the place move, speak, live, and dream. I think I’m ready to tackle Toronto now, after over a decade of living here.

Race and gender certainly influence my work. I’ve always been rather stunned when I’ve read urban fiction set in Toronto or Ottawa and all the characters seem to be white and never encounter anyone else but white people. I like writing about cultural, religious, gender, ethnic, class clashes—all the competing narratives make for interesting tensions and new kinds of stories. I’m also particularly fascinated by group behavior; my first novel is set in a nunnery and a girls school. I’m fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive in the place we’re in, in our families, our workplaces, our nations. Race and gender affect the stories we tell, how we tell them, and who we tell them too. My new novel explores the imaginative act of telling stories and both uses and undermines typical storytelling conventions and what those generic structures are supposed to communicate.

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?

In poetry, I tend to write a lot of poems over a period of time. When I have at least fifty or so, then I will spread them out, read them, and figure out what universe I’m in, what topics or tensions have me excited. Then I’ll start thinking in terms of book, and I will push and challenge myself to go deeper into that world and try to explore it from many different angles. In Live Coverage, for instance, my poetry collection that is also a poetic news report, I realized after a while that I was obsessed with the news and finding a meditative space for interacting with the news—something that I felt was sorely lacking post 9-11. Once I realized this, I had a structure to explore, and then I started writing “Breaking News” interruption poems, letters to the editor, weather reports, etc. to complete the structure and explore the news from many of its generic angles.

When I think I’m going to start a novel, I have an idea that’s too large in scope and complexity for a short story. I know this from the beginning, and so yes, I then am already thinking of a book, even if I’m only on the first few pages. I tend to write in bursts though, and out of order. For the first draft, I will write whatever scene is pressing on my imagination that day. I figure it’s best to work with that energy, that intuition, rather than following an outline. It’s worked so far, and so I’m fine with this mode of working, although I know many writers who can’t work this way—it’s too open and can sometimes provide plot challenges because you’re not always building on plot chronologically and might have to go back and adjust many details.

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

I’ve learned to enjoy public readings. I think the interaction with the audience is important, and I do enjoy hearing the prose or poetry out loud. However, I used to be quite a nervous person (becoming a professor has pretty much eliminated any self-consciousness I once had about public speaking), and it was difficult for me to expose myself in that way. On the page, the words do all the work. In a reading situation, you need to bring those words to life in a different way. I’ve watched so many readings where the prose or poetry is weak on the page but the writer is very animated and makes up for the weak writing through a strong performance. I don’t like to be a clown or comedian or some sort of tragic actress, but I have enjoyed learning how to read my work, how to bring out the subtext or resonance that is already there in a beneficial but authentic way. I don’t want to give people an alternate experience from the poem or prose piece; I want to give them the same experience that I hope they will have the work in their imaginations when they read it on their own, perhaps just amplified a little.

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’m extremely interested in creative writing as hermeneutics, as epistemology and ontology. I want to explore how we know what we know, how and why we interpret our surroundings, ourselves, our imaginations in the ways that we do, and how this process can change over time. I’m also a political writer, I think—a protest writer. I’m trying to figure out why the world is the way it is, why people continue to harm each other, what motivates people to ignore the suffering around them. In terms of contemporary western society, the society I live in, I’m particularly baffled by our screwed up priorities. I’m also interested in how and why people block out the world around them.

Aesthetically, I’m fascinated by genres, their conventions and how they change depending of the needs of the artist and the time he/she is using those conventions. I wrote my PhD about this in terms of the contemporary English-Canadian elegy. I like to blend genres in my own writing, to examine the inherent assumptions underlying generic conventions and to uncover new possibilities within those conventional structures.

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

A bit of both. I think it’s important to receive feedback, and I have a few people in my life, who are not my official editors, who read my work and have consistently been able to ascertain what it is I am trying to do and then push me a little to achieve it and/or answer questions about specific areas where I know I haven’t yet accomplished what I want to accomplish. Outside editors at specific publishing houses are sometimes different. Their needs are not only aesthetic, conceptual, or theoretical, they are also financial. I have had the good luck to have very sympathetic outside editors, who’ve wanted to see me accomplish my vision of the book, but I also think that it’s best not to show one’s work too soon to these editors. After a few different kinds of editing experiences, I’ve realized that while I’m an extremely hard working writer, one who is not afraid of numerous drafts, I need to explore the work thoroughly first, from my own point of view, and get a solid manuscript to work with before I seek out any other opinions on it. If I don’t know exactly what I want to achieve or accomplish, it’s too easy to get confused or to lose one’s focus; especially when the work is rough, it is too easy to second-guess yourself too soon.

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

I think you are harder on yourself with each book. I don’t want to repeat any of my previous books, so it means always learning new techniques, exploring new material, and branching out and experimenting can be scary as well as challenging.

The other thing that makes writing more difficult over the years is what I will call book business pressure. I think this gets worse with every book. You want each book to sell better, to receive more attention than the one before (so you feel like you’re building on something). Once the book is on a publication schedule, I am nervous about what will happen to the book, to this thing that I’ve spent years working on, years creating. You fret about reviews, awards, readings, etc.—the parts of being a writer that I find the least interesting, but are necessary to ensure that your book actually gets read—something every writer wants.

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

I love pears in salads. I used to live two streets north of where I live now. Our street now is primarily couples with young children. Our other street was primarily Italian men in three-piece suits who walked back and forth on the street all day. In the summer, I loved watching these old men in their suits pick up their canes and pull pears down from their neighbours’ trees without asking permission, pausing to take a first bite, then continuing on their route. One day (although hopefully not too soon) I’ll have a cane and join them.

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

Be willing to be lucky.

(I work hard, but hard work is only half the battle of anything. You need luck. Half of luck is recognizing when it’s knocking on your door. I think I’ve learned when to recognize luck. I hope I’m lucky enough to keep doing so.)

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

I like working on more than one project at all times; this allows me to throw out a lot that doesn’t work because it’s not the only project that matters to me, it’s not the only thing I’m doing. That’s very freeing. Also, because I’m fascinated by genre and the possibilities of representation accorded to any given genre, I enjoy exploring the forms themselves. I’m hoping to break out, eventually, into other writing genres too.

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?

Because I’m a professor, my schedule is up in the air a lot and quite frantic, but I do have those wonderful summer months where all of a sudden I’m home and can institute a stricter routine. During the school year, I write when I can (usually once or twice a week—I tend to be able to edit more though than actually generate new material during this time. But there are weeks were writing is not possible, when the duties of being a professor make it impossible to write—the heavy marking stretches, for instance). In the summer and on breaks like the December break, I will write for four or five hours a day (maybe 5 days a week). I will generate as much as I can and edit as much as I can too. Once I start writing, I can block out almost everything and really focus. I am able to get back into the state of writing quite easily, which is good. Also, because I talk about books for a living, I am almost always inspired, learning techniques through reading and analysis, and I make lots of notes about what I’m reading as well as ideas for new poems, stories, or even novels.

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

This might sound strange, but I’ve never really felt stalled as a writer. I know when I need to figure out a problem in my work, and then I just think about it a lot until a solution presents itself. Of course, during this time I’m reading a lot, going to the theatre, talking to other writers, giving lectures, etc. so all of this is turning around in my brain and helping me figure out a solution to my writing problems. I also work on one of my other writings then.

I also find that working out physically really helps my creative process. To end a day of writing at the gym purges the day’s writing out of my head, leaving it open for the next scene, the next poem, or to an unexpected solution to a writing problem. I end up being unexpectedly inspired all the time at the gym, once I’ve sweated out all the frustrations of the day and then started to relax the mind.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Ontological Necessities came directly out of Live Coverage. Live Coverage came out in 2003, and it’s a very political book, a post 9-11 book. Unlike all my other poetry collections and my novel, which were all reviewed in the national papers, and reviewed very positively, Live Coverage wasn’t reviewed at all. This made me quite upset, especially as I saw it as my best book, and it was being ignored in favour of books that I would call irrelevant and uninteresting, books with tidy pretty lines about nothing (creative writing checklist poems—very safe poems, risking nothing). I think in 2003 people still weren’t ready to talk about the changed political climate in poetry. This made me extremely frustrated, so I started to write these absurdist, surrealist poems about the same issues. I started to explore the ways in which we try not to hear or listen or to see. Ontological Necessities was the result.

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?

I think I might be happiest when I’m in an art gallery. I can’t draw or paint or sculpt, so there’s no pressure on me to be able to duplicate what I see, but the aesthetic experience is to me as great and meaningful as when I’m reading a book I adore. I think the process of writing poetry is closer to the process of a visual artist than it is to a prose writer. We tend to work in phases or periods, repeating the same subjects, tones, styles, etc. over several dozens of poems, I think, rather than on individual works like the prose writer. My new novel will include images in it, and I think it’s my way of combining this loved form of communication with my own form of communication.

I also love music, from speed metal to glam rock to classical music to opera. And one of the joys of writing fiction (as well as poetry), is that I get to research topics that interest or fascinate me. For my first novel, this included books and films about nuns and priests. For the upcoming novel, I researched deaf culture and curses and superstitions. I worked as a pharmacy assistant to put myself through school, and I find the legal drug business fascinating and frightening. I am writing about this right now too, among other things.

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

I’m one of those people who looks at the calendar and laments all the obligations that I have that will keep me from the books I should be reading, the great books that I know I’ve missed. I try to read one of those books every summer, on top of all the books that I am reading for teaching or simply for pleasure (although almost all books end up in some mental file called, “How I Would Teach This Book.” One of the great frustrations of teaching is that you don’t get to read as many new works as you’d like, but one of the great joys is that you get to re-read books you love, and know them far more intimately and intensely than you would otherwise. I try to put together courses with books on them I think everyone should read, partly because I’m convinced that many people will leave university and never read another book. So my courses include books about the importance of books themselves, like Don Quixote, Fahrenheit 451, and debates about art and literature from Aristotle to Salman Rushdie.

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

There are many places in the world I’d like to travel to and explore, especially those I’ve read about in books. In terms of my own work, I’d like to write some plays.

If I had won the Griffin Poetry Prize that I was nominated for this last year, I promised myself and my partner, Chris, that I would use part of those winnings to go to Spain and eat at El Bulli, listed by Forbes two years in a row as the best restaurant in the world. I would still like to win that prize someday and eat at El Bulli.

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?

When I was in high school, I took all maths and sciences. My father wanted me to be a medical doctor or a scientist. Now we joke that I’m a doctor, but a useless one, a doctor of literature. I probably would have become some sort of doctor though, and been involved in some field of social work. My desire is to help people, to help them achieve some form of understanding, and hopefully also to relieve suffering. As a teacher, I feel I am conducting social work, especially when society essentially works against literacy, and most of the students I encounter do not think critically about the world they live in, but wonder why the options offered to them most frequently have left them feeling empty and depressed. Books help them ask better, more helpful, questions, and sometimes even help them find solutions that make real differences in their lives. That to me is the greatest pleasure and reward of teaching. If I couldn’t do it through books, through teaching and writing, I would be more literal about it. Maybe I would have become a grieving specialist or something like that (I wrote my PhD on mourning and poetry, so this really isn’t as much of a stretch as it might seem).

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

I love the space that language creates for exploration, experimentation, testing one’s limits and the limits of the world that I see. It’s intimate and public at the same time. I love learning and then changing the definitions of words.

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

I just read Beware of God, a book of short stories by Shalom Auslander yesterday. It’s such a quick read—I literally read it in an hour and half. I thought it was a very brave book, a painful and insightful look at the absurdities and contradictions and cruelty of religion, and it’s also laugh out loud funny too. I would recommend it. He has a great rewrite of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, where his character wakes up one morning to find himself a goy.

I should also mention that I teach an entire course on Don Quixote and some of its literary, film, and other adaptations. Re-reading a great book like that and teaching it to people who’ve never read it before, watching them experience that great read for the first time, is quire a wonderful experience. Every time I read it, the Don is a little different, has something to say about whatever has taken place in the world since the last time I read it. Few books do that, but Don Quixote does. He’s always relevant, and always moving.

Because he recently passed away, and because about three or four years ago I went through a phase where I thought he was the only filmmaker worth watching, that he was the only one wise enough to communicate something about the world, I’d like to list Ingmar Bergman here. I love watching and re-watching his films. I’m also quite smitten with David Cronenberg and Lars van Trier.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished my second novel, but I have other projects on the go, including another book of poems, and a creative non-fiction book, among other things. I have my first sabbatical coming up in January and so I’m very anxious to see what I will be able to get done once I am given such an extended period to write. Wish me luck.

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