Sunday, March 9, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Elisabeth Harvor

Elisabeth Harvor's work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Saturday Night, The New Yorker, PRISM International, Our Generation Against Nuclear War, Best Canadian Stories, The Best American Short Stories and many other periodicals and anthologies. Her poetry book, Fortress of Chairs, won the Lampert Award for best first book of poetry written by a Canadian writer in 1992, and Excessive Joy Injures the Heart, her first novel, was named one of the ten best books of the year by the Toronto Star in 2000. She won the Alden Nowlan Award for Literary Excellence in 2000, the Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career in 2003, and she is the 2004 winner of The Malahat Novella Prize. Her most recent novel, a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award in 2005, is All Times Have Been Modern, and her most recent story collection, Let Me Be the One, was a 1996 finalist for the Governor General's Award.

Harvor also edited an anthology of new writing titled A Room at The Heart of Things in 1998. It mainly celebrates the work of students and beginning writers whose poems and stories she collected while teaching in writing programs at York University, Concordia University, and the Humber School for Writers. She has also written essays on the work of Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing and other writers for Our Generation Against Nuclear War, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Citizen, and a number of other periodicals. She has two sons and is currently living in Ottawa.

Elisabeth Harvor has been praised by The New York Times Book Review for her "brilliantly patterned revelations" while the reviewer for Paragraph wrote of her work, "Startlingly original... Her writing is marked by surprises, a style that's akin to synapses firing in the brain; there are no concrete bridges, just jolts of energy linking cliff to cliff, idea to idea..."

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I felt very exposed after my first book came out. So much so that when I went into a bookstore and there were copies of it set out on book tables, I had to leave the store. Now of course I want to storm out of bookstores if my book isn't there.

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

I've lived in Ottawa off and on for over thirty years, with a number of years away from here spent being a graduate student (in Montreal), a sessional lecturer and course director at universities in Montreal and Toronto, and a writer-in-residence in Saskatoon, Fredericton, Montreal and (twice) in Ottawa....

Geography? Ottawa is a topographically more complex and beautiful city than most people think, but I intensely miss the Kennebecasis River Valley where I grew up (above all, I miss the ocean), but when I lived out west in 1998-99, the prairie made a huge impact on me too. My parents both emigrated to the prairies (from Denmark) when they were young, then when they married they moved east. There's a moody black and white photo from my east coast childhood on my website at:

I have since written a few stories with western locations or connections. Part of my novel-in-progress is also set in Vancouver.

As for race and gender being factors in my work, gender certainly has been, but race has been much less of a factor although I come from such a multicultural family that when my mother died 9 months ago she had grandchildren and new grandsons-in-law and granddaughters-in-law in Kenya, Korea, India, Norway, the Seychelles, Nigeria, the US, and Canada.

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?

I am never working on just one thing unless it's a poem or a very short story, I have a few things on the go, always. And how do things begin? Sometimes with a phrase, sometimes with a whole idea for a story, sometimes with an image. I also have a vast reservoir of work and it's always in flux. Parts of poems have been spliced into stories while parts of stories have occasionally turned into poems. I go wherever my mood or my need takes me.

For example, "In The Hospital Garden," a poem I wrote in the 1980s about the birth of a baby who's a radiation mutation, I deal with the same material I dealt with a decade earlier in my first book, in a story called "Monster Baby."

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

Not so much either way, although of course it's always great to meet people who feel connected to my work and sometimes an audience will laugh at a line in a poem or a story that I didn't know (until that very moment) was funny, and that is obviously a huge high. I remember reading a scene from a story called "Freakish Vine That I Am" in the Poet and Peasant
Bookstore in St. John's
back in the 1990's, a bookstore that no longer exists, I believe, to one of the best audiences I've ever had---they were all drunk, I think---and there was a great spontaneous roar of laughter before I got to what I considered the final perfect line and so I didn't end up reading my perfect final line because their laughter had made it so redundant....

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 more interested in eternal questions than in current questions which, in the best of all possible worlds, are also the eternal questions. For me, those questions are fixed on the polar opposites of power and powerlessness, sexuality and sexual shyness, justice and injustice, hypocrisy and a watchful but passionate engagement with the world. Also, up till recently I've always been much more obsessed with style than with plot. Lately, though, both plot and momentum have been of new interest to me.

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

Both. And sometimes the more difficult the editor the more essential the process. Although I hasten to say this doesn't necessarily follow.

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

It depends more on the genre than on the passing of time. Poems and stories are easiest for me, writing novels is the killer, writing a novel can really eat up your life. And to stay with the characters for years is like having house guests who've overstayed theirwelcome for so long that all you want them to do is pack up and go.

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

I can't remember when I last ate a pear. This is some kind of test for poets that I'm failing?

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

Don't lounge around waiting for the Muse to drop by. And revise, revise, revise. Keep a journal, write in it every day. Bring a notebook with you wherever you go. But do I follow my own advice? No, but I always intend to, at least in relation to the notebooks.

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

Maybe I have Attention Deficit Disorder, but I find it incredibly easy. It comes naturally to me, possibly to a degree that's pathological. And the appeal? It's fun, it feels like a form of play.

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

I have been writing all night every night for the last 11 years. This sounds either totally dedicated or totally mad, but my dedication comes and goes, particularly now that YouTube has come on the scene. I often go there when I am allegedly working...The Police, when they are doing an early video of DON'T STAND SO CLOSE TO ME are so great, I could watch them forever, they were so much better and so much more fun in their 1980 video than they are in the later pyrotechnical versions. Other performances I've visited again and again are Simon
and Garfunkel
singing early versions of THE BOXER and MRS. ROBINSON, Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo singing TRY, Sinead O'Connor singing NOTHING COMPARES 2 U, the mesmerizing Leonard Cohen singing almost every song he has ever written....

And I sleep in the mornings from about seven till noon or early afternoon, then critique the work of my students in the late afternoons and evenings. A typical day begins (as it probably begins for most people in the western world) with checking my emails. Then I have a shower and grab an orange or a coffee and go back to my computer again.

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

I turn to Woolf, Plath, Bernard Malamud, James Salter, Philip Roth, and at least twenty others.

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

In terms of my novels, I'm going after deeper emotions now and more interlocking plots, or so I like to think. But speaking of poetry and speaking technically, I could say that between my first poetry book, Fortress of Chairs, and my second poetry book, The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring, I learned something about line-breaks and quite a lot about white space. I learned that space is as much a mode of communication as words are, even if it is also the background
that allows the poem to "feature" particularly odd or idiosyncratic or memorable arrangements of words. Space can make you ache, at least if you have the right words reaching out into it...

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, other writers are very important to me, above all the four writers I just mentioned. But many others. Katherine Mansfield's Journals, Nabokov's SPEAK MEMORY and LOLITA, Hanif Kureishi's INTIMACY, Nadine Gordimer's THE LATE BOURGEOIS WORLD, the great Russian writers. Especially NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND and ANNA KARENINA. Music and paintings are also strong influences. Nature and weather too.

But science? Not so much. Although one of my more recent poems begins with the words "Like all paranoids, I am a scientist..." and another pits an unexpected pregnancy against images that bloom out of references to DNA.

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

I admire stories by many North American story writers and poems by many Canadian poets and would rather speak in terms of individual poems than speak of poets... A terrific poem by Alden Nowlan about being young and in love and thinking about dying, a brilliant poem by Nadine McInnis [see her 12 or 20 questions here] about a woman poet writing against the moment her little boy will get home from school, Rhea Tregebov's series of breathtaking poems about her son's stay in hospital with extreme asthma...Wonderful fiction by two Ottawa writers: Elizabeth Hay [see her 12 or 20 questions here] and Mary Borsky [see her 12 or 20 questions here]. And the list could go on and on...

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

Live in some warmer place and swim every day.

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 liked to be a midwife. I love birth and babies but, unlike Angelina Jolie, I doubt I would ever have been a serial adopter.

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

I wanted (and apparently needed) to throw my story down before the World Court of Readers.

19 - What was the last great book you read?

SEEK MY FACE, by John Updike, a novella about a woman painter that is really extraordinary. I also admire John Updike's stories (or at least many of them) but I despise his banal poetry.

20. What was the last great film?

I admired many of the actors' performances in THE HOURS, although the script for the movie was mostly awful. And the movie I most want to see soon is THE LIVES OF OTHERS. Movies stretching far back in time that had a big effect onme were, among others, EASY RIDER, THE GRADUATE, BELLE DE JOUR, THE CRYING GAME, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, WILD STRAWBERRIES, THE HUMAN CONDITION, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, BLOW-UP, THE LAST DETAIL, and NASHVILLE. I was also fascinated, and am still fascinated, by that whole documentary series that began with SEVEN UP.

21. - What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a book of stories that's to come out this August, but in spite of the fact that this is only six months away from now, it doesn't yet have either a title or a cover image. I'm also working on a novel that I hope will come out in 2009. The launch of the story collection will be at the National Library and Archives on Tuesday, September 9th, so as soon as my publisher
gets back from Australia we'll have to come to a few major decisions....

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