Saturday, February 9, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Rita Donovan

Rita Donovan: Born in Montreal, lives in Ottawa. Has also lived in Edmonton, Germany and Kitchener. Graduate of Concordia University and the University of Alberta. For many years co-editor of Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine, with John Barton [see his 12 or 20 questions here]. Has taught or given seminars in Edmonton, Yellowknife, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit, Montreal and Ottawa. Has taught in literacy projects in shopping malls, in community centers and on the street. Other interests include cooking, hiking and, inevitably, reading.

Author of seven books, six of them novels. Novel Dark Jewels was first-runner up for the W.S. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and won the Ottawa-Carleton Book Award. Novel Daisy Circus won the Ottawa-Carleton Book Award. Landed won the CAA/Chapters Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Award. The Plague Saint was nominated for the James Tiptree Award. River Sky Summer is a young adult novel, and As for the Canadians is a book of historical non-fiction. Latest novel, just published, is Short Candles (Napoleon & Company, 2007.)

1. How much did your first book change your life?

I don't think it changed my entire life, but the publication of Dark Jewels, my first novel, was the kind of validating experience that made sense of the choices I'd made, that all writers make. It was also a relief, as it had been slated for publication a few years earlier, by a press that ran into financial difficulties and pulled out, so I was very pleased when Ragweed published it. The book was up for a national award and won the city writing award so I hope I justified Ragweed's faith in the book.

2. How long have you lived in Ottawa, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Do race and gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived in Ottawa since about 1985, with one year away in between. I'm from Montreal originally, and I've also lived in Edmonton, in Germany and in Kitchener. Ottawa, though, has been my home for a long time now, and my daughter was born here fifteen years ago. That is what really made a difference. This is her hometown, as Montreal is mine. So we are very attached to the place now.

Where we come from hugely influences how we see not only our immediate surroundings, but how we view the world. "Place" is a character in several of my books. Dark Jewels takes place in Sydney, Cape Breton, during the miners' and steelworkers' strikes of the 1920s. The place and circumstances are essentials of the story. Daisy Circus takes place in Ottawa and in the Cambridge, Massachusetts of the poet e.e. cummings. Landed takes place in Minnesota and in Ottawa, and the actual boundaries of the countries are crucial to the story. The Plague Saint, a speculative-fiction novel, is set in seventeenth-century Florence, and in later twenty-first-century Canada. My latest novel, Short Candles is set in a nameless city that is probably Ottawa. So "place" is very important to me.
Gender and race are significant because they are significant to my characters. I always write from character first, so the issues of gender and race play through my characters (and where I put them in time and place) in the same way that these things influence for all of us.

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've written short fiction but my preferred medium is the novel, so I guess there is always the potential of the scope of a novel from the moment a character comes to me. I see and hear the character(s). I probably have an idea of the overriding theme, or of an event that gets the thing going, but it is the character, primarily, that informs me. I often have a couple of clear images or scenes that take place later in the book, but I don't know how I will get to them until I begin writing. I've used the phrases "falling into a book" or "falling into a world" to describe the sensation. It is a big commitment, but surprisingly easily to trip headlong into….

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

It's different for novelists than for poets or short story writers. Usually one is reading from a recently published novel. Given the length of the project, it is something that was probably written a couple of years before. Not the same as reading something that was written the previous week.

This also means most novelists are well into a new project (a new world) by the time they are doing readings of the so-called "current" one. All that said, reading along is a great experience. It is nice and less schizophrenic to hear the voices out loud ("oh, you hear that, too?") and it is also a way to connect with the characters away from the page. And, of course, it is a chance to connect with the audience. In this way it does feed the creative atmosphere one needs when writing.

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 think all writers are dealing with the really big questions. The fact that we write at all means we have concerns, observations, remedies? Well, not remedies, maybe. But I think writers care about the world they live in, and about their spiritual and intellectual place in it. They devote a good deal of energy and years trying to show us how the world "is", and how it could be.
My latest novel, Short Candles, concerns itself with whether we can offer our true selves to the world, and about the cost of belonging to it. And the new book I'm writing right now is about the chinks in memory, both personal and collective, and the ways in which we will be remembered, if at all.

Oh, and I told someone once that all of my books are about life, which they are.

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

Both. And it depends on the editor, of course. Their job is often unenviable on a daily basis, but whether I agree or disagree on a certain point, I am aware that we have the same goal, and that helps.

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

Harder or easier? I don't know. Perhaps it is a bit easier in the sense that I know that there will be another book, another story, to come. The first book or two felt so final, as if I'd never write again. Over the years you come to trust that the well will refill.

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

Hah! A couple of days ago, actually. And I walk by this pear tree near my house. It is sleeping beneath a dense snow blanket right now, and it reminds me of the trees in Oscar Wilde's "A Selfish Giant." I keep hoping it will burst into bloom.

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

My British grandmother used to say, "Pay attention, why don't you? You could burn water."

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

I like creative non-fiction and find that an easy shift from fiction. Regular non-fiction is more of a challenge. But any time you move into another area you stretch yourself and learn new things. I'd like to write a play.

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?

Ideal day: get up, get people out of the way, drink coffee, write.

Real day: get up, people won't get out of the way, drink coffee, try to write.

Before my daughter was born I had a home office and a rented writing studio. Once she came along I had to give up the studio ($$) and my home office was turned into her bedroom. Since then I have begged writing space from friends, I've used study rooms at the National Library (a luxury now discontinued by the library) and, currently, I am using the basement office of a nearby church. So. It is:

Get up, people out, get coffee, walk to church basement and write. (No phone there. No computer either, just me an my writing pad.)

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

I read a lot of poetry. I also suggest to my writing students that they read poetry if they write fiction.

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

This goes back to the 'questions writers ask.' I am continuing to explore the ideas of family (the definition of which shifts depending on the book), the idea of 'home' (as place and as character.) In this particular book, I am looking at 'memory.' The book is told in two different parallel timelines, one in 19th century Britain and Australia and one in present-day Canada.

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?

Books do come from books, but hopefully from many other things as well. Art, music and technology inform a lot of what I currently experience. I'm very interested in technology and literature and I am pursuing that study. And I live in a city with wonderful galleries, museums, etc., as well as excellent drama and music series and venues. I make use of these resources and am grateful for them. But I think the question also reminds me of something a French writer noted once (I have tried to remember who it is, with no luck. Mallarmé? Damn.) He maintained that he was a citizen as well as a writer. And there is that comment by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, who made his living as a psychologist. When asked how his work as a psychologist informed his poetry, he responded (I'm doing this from memory, here) with the comment that he wondered why no one ever asked him how his poetry informed his work as a psychologist? All by way of saying that, hopefully, we are creatures that embrace and enfold experience and combine it with our own particular gifts to create something irreducible and unique. I like it best when we can't figure out how something came into being. It seems much more wonderful than to say, "Well, I was reading Lewis Carroll, and this idea for a book about rabbits just popped into mind." (Hopped?)

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

So many. Too many. My reading is not as disciplined as it once was. That is, the focus is wider, probably a sign of expanding interests as well as the general disjointed quality of my daily life. I try to keep up on the books by friends, and I read from among the new international titles (sadly, not all of them.) I have old favourites like Faulkner, Wilde. I am planning on rereading Hawthorne and Dickens. And I will read Donne and cummings again. Oh, and since my daughter is studying them, Virgil and Shakespeare.

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

Funny. This could either be an enormous list, or a very short one, as I am a pretty content person. Some of the things I'd like to do I would like to do in a different time. Hike the Rockies again, but back when it was less developed. I'd like to walk through London about a hundred and fifty years ago. I'd like to take one of those commercial flights into outer space, but I'm a bit claustrophobic. I'd like to be on the boat that sailed from Ireland in 1847 with my five-year-old great-grandmother on it. Or the other boat, with my Polish relatives. Or the other one, with my British family. In the here and now? I have a couple of non-profit projects I'd like to work on.

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?

Most writers have already done a lot of the "other things" in order to write. I have enjoyed some of those things. Currently I teach, and it can be rewarding. But, as I always knew I would be a writer I didn't really want anything else. I could envision any number of other careers for myself, but after five minutes or so, I'd start daydreaming about what my desk would look like, or my clothes, or what I would say when "she" answered the phone. Before I knew it "I" would be in 3rd person, with another name, a better haircut, and a character in my own story.
I have a lot of other interests. I was very interested in film and could have pursued that. I also loved languages and Classics and could have seen myself doing something with that (asking people if they want fries with that in Latin.)

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

I always wrote. My dad was a writer. My uncle was a writer. A couple of my aunts wrote as well. My cousin is a writer. We're a dime a dozen.

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

"Great" is always subjective. I have been doing research lately, so the books are mostly texts of various sorts (not that they aren't good!) But for pleasure I recently read Don Coles' A Dropped Glove in Regent Street, a lovely collection of autobiography, essays and criticism. Thoroughly enjoyable. Films? I love film. Don't get out as often as I might, but my friend Cheryl just gave me a pass for the Bytowne Cinema so I hope that will be the excuse I need to get to more films. I did see the low-budget, big-hearted Irish film, Once recently and loved it. I also saw an old favorite, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (which , for film buffs, is Tom Courtenay's film debut.)

20. What are you currently working on?

Ah, the aforementioned new novel. It's really in process at the moment so I can't say much about it. I'm still getting used to the fact that Short Candles is out, as well. I guess the key. Here, is that writers are always "working on" something. Far cry from the bon-bon-eating, stuffed-pillow reclining activity I'd been led to believe.

12 or 20 questions archive

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