Thursday, May 29, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Diane Schoemperlen

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Diane Schoemperlen graduated from Lakehead University there in 1976. Immediately after graduation she headed to the Banff Centre where she took a six-week writing program with W.O. Mitchell, Eli Mandel, Sylvia Fraser, and Alice Munro. She then moved to Banff and worked as the Staff Writer at the Banff Centre. Soon she moved to Canmore and lived there for the following ten years. She began publishing her stories in literary journals and, in 1983, three of her stories were featured in Oberon Press’s annual anthology, Coming Attractions. She published her first book, Double Exposures, with Coach House Press in 1984. She gave birth to her son, Alexander, in Canmore in 1985.

Her second book, Frogs and Other Stories, was published by Quarry Press of Kingston, Ontario in 1986. This book received the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. That summer she came east to teach a weeklong workshop at Queen’s University. She promptly moved to Kingston, new baby, old cat, a hundred boxes of books, and all. Quarry Press published her third book, Hockey Night in Canada, in 1987. She taught Creative Writing at St. Lawrence College for a number of years as well as many workshops throughout Ontario.

In 1989, her short story, “Red Plaid Shirt,” which appeared in Saturday Night, received the Silver National Magazine Award for Fiction. It has since been performed as a one-woman play across the western Canadian provinces. In 1990, her collection of stories, The Man of My Dreams, was published by MacMillan of Canada. It was short-listed for both the Governor-General’s Award and the Trillium Prize.

Diane’s first novel, In the Language of Love, was published in 1994 by HarperCollins Canada.
It was short-listed for the Books in Canada/W.H. Smith First Novel Award and has since been published in the United States, Germany, Sweden, and France. Adapted as a stage play by Mark Cassidy of Threshold Theatre, it was performed in Kingston and Toronto.

In 1998, Diane’s collection of illustrated stories, Forms of Devotion, won the Governor-General’s Award for English Fiction. It has been published in the United States, Spain, Korea, and the UK. It too has been adapted as a stage play by Mark Cassidy and performed at the Fringe Festival in Toronto.

In 2001, Diane’s second novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found, was published in Canada and the United States. It has since also appeared in China. Red Plaid Shirt: Stories New and Selected, came out in 2002. This was followed in 2004 by Diane’s first book of non-fiction, Names of the Dead: An Elegy for the Victims of September 11.

Diane’s most recent book is At A Loss For Words: A Post-Romantic Novel, published in Canada by HarperCollins and in the UK by Maia Press. In April 2008 she received the Marian Engel Award from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. She still lives in Kingston, with her son Alex, her three cats, Max, Sammy, and Buster, and her lovely little dog, Nelly.

1. How did your first book change your life?

My first book, Double Exposures, was published by Coach House Press in 1984. At the time I was living in Canmore, Alberta, and working in a convenience store. The day the first copies of the book arrived, I decided to go out and celebrate. I was supposed to work that evening so I called in sick and went to a local watering hole with a group of my friends. Later in the evening, after we’d had many pitchers of beer, the husband of the manager of the convenience store showed up at the bar. The next day I was fired.

But besides that, yes, the publication of my first book made me believe in myself as a real writer. Prior to its publication, I had published quite a few stories in literary journals, but if someone asked me what I did, I could only say, usually while shuffling my feet and avoiding eye contact, “I write.” After the book’s publication, I could say, “I’m a writer.”

2. How long have you lived in Kingston, 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 Kingston since the fall of 1986. I first came here that summer to teach at the Kingston School of Writing held at Queen’s. I was living in Canmore then, my son was a year old, and I was thinking about moving. After a week in Kingston, I went back to Canmore, packed up my books, my baby, and my ten-year-old cat, and moved to Kingston. The impulsiveness of this makes me shudder now, but I’ve never regretted it.

Geography definitely has an impact on my writing. The city of Kingston features largely in my books, unnamed but identifiable to anyone who lives here. I think of these references to the city in my work as secret messages to my Kingston readers. The cities in my stories remain nameless because I intend them to be generic, representative of any small city anywhere.

The possible impacts of race and gender are less conscious on my part, but I believe they necessarily do have an impact because they influence everything about how I see and experience the world, and this, of course, comes out in any writers’ work.

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?

Most often, a piece of fiction begins with an idea about form and structure; for instance, the idea of writing a story with pictures, or a story told in e-mails, or a story alternating between fact and fiction, or a story based on the 100 words of the Standard Word Association Test. Sometimes a story begins with a sentence that is stuck in my head. Sometimes this is a sentence of my own (my story “Forms of Devotion” came from the first sentence: “The faithful are everywhere.”) Sometimes the sentence is from something I’ve read. I’ve just finished reading an old book of stories called Sadness by Donald Barthelme. From his story, “The Catechist”, this sentence has lodged in my brain: “There is never a day, never a day, on which we do not have this conversation.” Do not be surprised if someday soon I publish a story called “Never A Day”!

My earlier collections of stories were written one story after another until there were enough to make a book. I had no overall theme or concept in mind as I wrote. But Forms of Devotion was definitely conceived as a book from the beginning.

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

Both. I don’t like travelling and find it very disruptive to my writing. Somehow having to do a twenty-minute reading out of town tends to take up three whole days: one day getting ready and being anxious about having to leave home, one day being there, one day afterwards getting over it and back to my regular routine. Many people have said how lucky I am to be able to go around and do readings all over the place…they say this must be one of the best perks of the writing life. For me, it feels more like my punishment for having written another damn book!

But I love giving the readings themselves. It’s exciting to meet real readers and to hear their responses to my work. I usually choose something rather humorous to read because I love to hear the sound of the audience laughter. I most often come home from a reading feeling encouraged and inspired. (Okay…well, there was that one time at a Chapters store when only four people showed up: two of them worked there, one of them fell asleep, and the other one left in the middle. Okay…so that one wasn’t so great for the ego!)

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?

Generally speaking, I think the theoretical concerns are best left to the critics. I don’t think about theory while I’m writing. I think it would interfere with the creative process. Sometimes what the critics have to say after a book comes out can also interfere. One reviewer a long time ago said I was “challenging the short story form.” I don’t want to be thinking that when I sit down at the computer every day!

While actually writing, the only question I am trying to answer with my work is: How can I best tell this story?

Away from my desk, I do think about other questions of a theoretical sort. I have long been intrigued with the idea of fragments, writing in short sections, turning the traditional sequence of beginning, middle, end on its little head. Do I have a theory about all this? Not really. I think this is how my mind works: in little pieces that in the end can be connected to make a whole story.

I love writing, the physical act of writing. Theories are not important to me. All I want to do is write. So for me, the current question is always: Why do I have to do all these other things (shopping, cleaning, eating, mowing the lawn, vacuuming, laundry, etc.) when all I want to do is write?

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

Since my first novel, In the Language of Love (published in 1994) my editor has been Phyllis Bruce at HarperCollins Canada. I love working with Phyllis. We are a perfect match, if only because we are both nitpickers and want every single word and comma to be exactly right. We also have a very similar sense of humour. Phyllis is better than I am, I think, at seeing the bigger picture of the book and for this, I am always grateful. In the very few cases when we have not agreed on something, she always says that in the end it’s MY book and I must do what I think is right. There are times when I’ve felt dissatisfied with a certain passage but hoped that I could just slip it in and nobody would notice…Phyllis always calls me on these and she is always right!

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

In most ways, I find it harder. Mostly because I am now making my living as a writer. This takes away from the sheer joy of doing it and loving it. There is always the blasted bank account lurking in the background. However, it is easier in one sense. When I’m feeling very stuck and frustrated with what I’m working on, I can look at my shelf of previous books for reassurance. Looking at the past books, I can convince myself that yes, yes, I really can do this!

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

I ate a pear two weeks ago and was definitely the better person for it. I do not eat enough fruit. I am not fond of fruit. I only like seedless green grapes, cherries, and….pears! The rest: I can take it or leave it. Most often I leave it and eat unhealthy things instead. Most often I got to Tim Hortons and have an iced cappuccino when I should be eating, if not a pear, then at least a peach!

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

The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard was actually the worst piece of advice I’ve ever heard.
When I was a student at Lakehead University back in the seventies, my Creative Writing professor said: A short story must never be written in the present tense. For many years I believed him. But eventually I got over it.

This is the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard because it reminds me that there are no hard and fast rules in writing fiction. (My evil twin now takes some pleasure in the fact that I’ve done quite well for myself in the writing world and, although that professor has also published, I am much more famous than he is! So there…)

10. How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short story to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

Initially it was difficult and somewhat accidental. My first novel, In the Language of Love, was based on the 100 words of the Standard Word Association Test which I found by accident while at the library looking up something else. Being inordinately fond of lists even then, I filed that list in my folder of story ideas. I thought I’d write a short story from it but I soon had to admit that even if I wrote only one page to go with each of the 100 words, it would be a very long story. I was very intimidated by the thought of writing a novel. I referred to it as “the n-word.”
I think I tricked myself into writing that first novel by writing it in 100 short chapters and then putting them altogether at the end.

Now I don’t find it difficult at all. I love novels and short stories about equally (in both writing and reading them.) I think the story itself decides which it’s going to be. My most recent book, At A Loss For Words, actually began as a short story. But it grew and grew and became a short novel. I’ve always wanted to write a very short novel so I’m pleased with the way this one turned out.

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?

My ideal writing routine is to write from early morning until early afternoon. Then after lunch, I like to have a nap, then do all that other stuff that is always demanding to be done (errands, chores, phone calls, etc.) I sometimes also like to work in the evening, particularly if I am doing research or copyediting or some such relatively mechanical task.

The beginning of each day is hugely important to me. I begin every day in the same way. I get up early, have coffee, and read for an hour or so in my special chair (usually accompanied by my dog and one or two of my three cats.) Then I get dressed and get straight to work. If for any reason, I cannot have my morning routine, I am grumpy and unproductive for the rest of the day. If it’s not a writing day (if I’m out of town or otherwise busy) I still do the first part: coffee and reading time. I feel completely disoriented without it. I am old and set in my ways!

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

My most recent book, At A Loss For Words, is a return to some of the themes of my first novel, In the Language of Love. It felt very comfortable and natural to be once again writing about misguided romance after writing weightier books about the Virgin Mary and September 11. This latest book is primarily intended to be humorous, although of course there are some sad passages and also some serious questions of moral ambiguity raised too. One of the things I love most about At A Loss For Words is that it’s only 189 pages. I love reading short novels and I’ve always wanted to write one. This time I’ve actually done 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?

Visual art is a strong influence on my work. I’ve been told that my writing is very visual and this makes sense to me. I love to describe things. I am something of a frustrated visual artist myself. Combining text and collage art as I did in Forms of Devotion was an ideal form for me.

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

The essential writers/books I turn to again and again are:
Carole Maso (Ava and Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, & Moments of Desire)
David Markson (This Is Not A Novel and Reader’s Block)
Renata Adler (Pitch Dark and Speedboat)
Susan Griffin (A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War and Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her)
Alan Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams)
Alain de Botton (Essays in Love)
Eduardo Galeano (The Book of Embraces)
Georges Perec (Species of Spaces and Other Pieces)
Fernando Pessoa (The Book of Disquiet)
Tomas Eloy Martinez (Santa Evita)
Donald Barthelme
Alice Munro
Annie Dillard.

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

I would like to visit the Maritimes, own a cabin or a house in the country, go to a writers’ retreat, spend a summer on a houseboat, sleep for a week. I would also like to write a book of poetry and a play.

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?

If I could pick any other occupation to try, I would be a visual artist. If I hadn’t become a writer, I think I would have ended up being an accountant or a mathematician.

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

Sheer stubbornness.

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

The last two great books I’ve read are The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill and The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. The best film I’ve seen recently is No Country for Old Men.

20. What are you currently working on?

I’m working on stories again now: some in the form of lists, some with illustrations, and some based on old texts I’ve unearthed.


Anonymous said...

Great to be able to read the 12 to 20 questions" with Diane Schoemperlen. Thanks for posting these here!


Barbara said...

I'm just reading Forms of devotion, can't believe I haven't come across it earlier. I am blown away.
I've decided to put pictures into my thesis as a result.
Must read more.

Denis said...

Reading your answers is better than many books I've read.
I look forward to finding more of your work, like treasure hunting, and fortunately, bound to be successful.

Unknown said...

Just finished reading, "Our Lady of The Lost and Found" followed by the 12 or 20 questions. Loved both.

Many opinions given in the book were mine too!

I was a little disappointed you didn't mention wanting to come to British Columbia!! Guess you haven't realized it yet.

Unknown said...

I'm an avid reader and can't believe that I haven't discovered D.S. before ...I'm ashamed of myself!
I am now reading everything written by this enchantingly brilliant author! Every intelligent person I know is being told they must read Diane Schoemperlen!

cdngypsygrl said...


As I read "At a Loss for Words", my thought was this: Damn, someone already wrote my book.

Ecclesiastes was right; there is nothing new under the sun. This wordsmith captured the rapture of being in love and the incredible pain of its death.

I'm on the hunt for earlier books now.

I was irrationally proud to discover she is both a Canadian and a fellow Kingstonian. Kewl.