Wednesday, March 26, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Stacey May Fowles

Photo Credit: Kelly Clipperton

Stacey May Fowles' written work has been published in various online and print magazines, including Kiss Machine, The Absinthe Literary Review, and subTERRAIN. Her non-fiction has been anthologized in the widely acclaimed Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity and First Person Queer. Her first novel, Be Good, was published with Tightrope Books in November 2007, and Quill & Quire called it "a thoughtful examination of sexuality, relationships, and what it means to tell the truth."

Her next book, Fear of Fighting, is a graphic novel collaboration with artist Marlena Zuber ( and will be released with Invisible Publishing in fall 2008. She has work forthcoming in the anthologies IV Lounge Nights (Tightrope Books) and TOK3 (Diaspora Dialogues). Fowles currently lives in Toronto where she is the publisher of Shameless Magazine.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

When I was a teenager I genuinely thought publishing a book would change my life, but if I'm honest it hasn't really. Don't get me wrong, I do think it's a fantastic process, but you have these teenage daydreams about glamorous book signings and parties with champagne all around, and it's very rarely like that. Thankfully, it's a job like any other. Having said that, I don't think I was fully prepared for that sudden feeling of being exposed and that has changed me—writing is such a solitary act and then all of a sudden you're sharing it all with grandma, your fifth grade teacher, and many more people you've never met. It's surprising how much anxiety that can create, but after a while life just continues on the same way it did before. You learn not to take it all to seriously. I'm still exactly the same person I always was, only now with a box of books with my name on them in my living room. It's hard not to get caught up in the drama and romance of "the novel" and "published author," so it's really best to step back and enjoy it for what it is. If anything it's just helped me be more confident as a professional writer.

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 was born in Scarborough and left for Montreal as soon as I finished high school. After a brief stint in Vancouver I came back to Toronto when I was 25 and have been here ever since. I've always been very interested in the kinds of characters urban environments create. In Be Good I really wanted to focus on place as a character so really investigating geography was imperative to that. After all the lonely city living I've experience I've become mildly obsessed with what the urban landscape can do to a person. I suppose one day when I become a suburban soccer mom in the suburbs I'll write about gated communities, cookie baking and the PTA instead.

As for gender, I'm the publisher at Shameless Magazine so it's very hard not to see everything through that particular lens. I also really feel that there are very few books depicting women in their twenties that don't treat them like they're boy-crazy, vapid morons, so in some ways it's important to me to create literature for young women that is genuine and that they can identify with. When Sex in the City is the only thing young, urban women can vaguely relate to, there's a real problem.

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'm a pretty messy writer—a cliched notes on napkins and receipts type. I tend to write whenever and whatever comes and worry about cleaning up and weaving together a narrative later. There's a lot of constant rearranging, editing and piecing together involved, and of course, a lot of cutting. Sometimes short stories decide they want to be novels and vice versa, and sometimes a character from one piece decides she wants to wants to end up in another piece. I have this grey and white tailless cat that repeatedly ends up in my stories. I try not to do much planning or have too many expectations beforehand— I find I'm more productive and much less neurotic that way. If you give yourself permission to write crap you'll get rid of later, you'll likely come out with something good, whereas if you restrict yourself via perfection and a stringent plan you'll likely just get frustrated.

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

I used to be terrified of reading in public. It's legendary. I actually chickened out of the first reading I ever signed up to do. Since then I've vomited a couple of times beforehand and armed myself with some homeopathic remedies in order to get myself on stage. I wouldn't say that readings are part of the creative process for me (I certainly don't write with the intention of reading it to a crowd) but I do think readings are integral part of connecting to readers. Performance is the dynamic and communal part of an often reclusive activity, and after a while readings become exhilarating. The trick is to keep 'em short and swear at least once. The f-word works well. And vodka—vodka helps.

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 always trying to write things that readers can identify with, which I think can be easy if you write in an honest way. That's probably why I'll never write about civil war love affairs or alien invasions. I'd rather just write about fucked up girls who like Led Zeppelin and Jager shots because that's all way more interesting than aliens anyway. For me the most satisfying and elusive comment from a reader is "it's like you were inside my head."

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

Absolutely essential. I have the pleasure of working with a fantastic editor, Ari Berger, who refuses to coddle me or placate me, and my writing is so much better for it. If you spend too much time with a piece you tend to become blind to its flaws, whereas a really good editor can weed them out and in some ways reveal to you what you really meant to say. I tend not to be very emotional about the editing process and I think having an editor that I trust is key to that. Someone who writes chapter ideas on placemats at restaurants really needs a good editor and I've been blessed in that regard.

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

Me and my partner received a juicer last Christmas that we're currently obsessed with, so I consume pears regularly. Almost daily. It's my way of tricking my pervasive hypochondria into believing I'm healthy. I often think the juicer is an icon of how boring I have become in my old(er) age, but I try not to dwell on that.

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

In the months leading up to the publication of my first book I was desperate for words of wisdom from more seasoned writers. One let me know I should "get a therapist immediately," but the best advice I received overall was as follows: "Float above it all a little and play the game, keep the rest of it for yourself. All will be well." Since then I've been living by "the perfect is the enemy of the good." That one works well for letting go of typo anxiety.

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

I am so much more relaxed about writing non-fiction. It feels like a safer place for me in some ways, but perhaps that's because I'm not as emotionally tied to the end product. I can write a non-fiction piece, publish it and move on to the next piece quite easily, while I'll lie in bed at night and think of all of the things I could have done differently with a short story. Despite my different feelings on each, one definitely helps to other. I've said before that writing fiction is simply a process of writing, re-writing and reassembling real life.

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'm working on a larger manuscript I tend to (or rather try to) be really disciplined about it. I set daily goals and try to keep a realistic schedule. I give myself an "office" (a pro-loitering coffee shop with wifi) and go there in the morning and stay there until six, five days a week. Because I usually have a variety of freelance projects on the go prioritizing is usually a challenge, but I much prefer it to "writing in-between your day job."

The hardest part about not going to a job every day is convincing people I'm actually working—because i don't have a "real job" to go to it's hard for people in my life who are not writers to wrap their head around the fact that I'm actually working. That means that when someone has a day off they're always trying to drag me into a shopping trip or martini lunch, which can be unbelievably tempting.

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

I always try to be a reader, instead of a writer, for a little while. I enjoy other people's work from the perspective of a person who loves books and not just someone who's trying to make them—although the two don't need to be mutually exclusive. Experiencing those little scenes and lines when a book is truly fantastic can really re- energize your own work.

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

It feels like it has a greater potential to haunt me. That and it's heavier and taking up much more room in my apartment.

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 can't write unless I'm listening to music on my headphones. At first I thought it was a way to block out background noise, but I actually noticed that whatever I was listening to would become an automatic soundtrack. If I want to write a scene in which a couple begins to break up, I need only throw on Kate Nash's Foundations and all of a sudden they hate each other. It's a pretty good system.

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

This question is so funny because in the book I'm working on right now the main character creates a list of authors pretentious people put on their list of favourites, and right now I'm trying desperately not to include any of those. It's making me want to go back and rewrite the chapter.

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

I really want to take boxing lessons but am slightly insecure about my status as a weakling. I'd also like to go to a whisky tasting, take my unruly dog to obedience classes, and finally learn how to knit. It's kind of appalling that I'm the publisher of a feminist teen magazine and I don't know how to knit.

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 always wanted to be a hairdresser. The freedom and independence was always really attractive to me, along with days of talking to strangers about their lives while making them happy and attractive.

For a brief time in University I actually studied to be a high school teacher, which, if I had not abandoned that idea, would have been a real disaster for everyone involved.

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

I never really considered doing anything thing else other than writing, I just assumed I'd always have to do something else in addition in order to eat. I had these brief dreams of having a "career" other than writing but quickly realized that the best job a writer can have is one that doesn't detract from their work. I'd vote for a job I hated over a full fledged time-consuming career. I fell into magazine business development quite by accident and I find that works really well—I get to be involved in the world of publishing, but because circulation enhancement initiatives have so little to do with writing the two never detract from each other. Doing an excel spreadsheet is certainly a good break from a major work-in-proress.

Lately I've been able to do more and more writing and that transition has been an interesting one. Sometimes feel kind of guilty that I get to spend my days doing what I love. I forget that I'm not actually goofing off—this is my actual job now. I feel like someone is going to come up to me and say "just kidding" and send me back to some awful desk job and make me do data entry.

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

I don't have cable so I watch a lot of television on DVD and recently became completely obsessed with Battlestar Galactica. I realize it's not a film, but it certainly has so many filmic (and for that matter, literary) qualities. I never in a million years thought I would become so invested in Sci-Fi, but I am officially addicted and wonder why it didn't happen sooner—I can watch six episodes in a row easily. Love does strange things to you, and my love for a web geek means my general appreciation for sci-fi has certainly increased in the last three years we've been together.

As for books, hands down Allan Carr's Easy Way To Quit Smoking because thanks to Mr. Carr (may he rest in peace,) I finally quit smoking. After that I've been reading a lot of non-fiction lately; books on anxiety like A Brief History of Anxiety by Patricia Pearson and books on fetish culture like The Pleasure's All Mine by Joan Kelly. I actually just read a book about pregnancy and childbirth called From the Hips to see if I might be ready to have a baby, and evidently I'm not.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I'm just finishing up the manuscript for a collaborative book project I'm doing with artist Marlena Zuber called Fear of Fighting. In fact, if all goes well, it should go into editing tomorrow. It's due out with Invisible Publishing in fall 2008 and there are no alien invasions in it.

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