Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Alexandra Leggat answers rob mclennan's questions

Share |
Alexandra Leggat answers rob mclennan's questions

Ottawa writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan is now working on the second series of his 12 or 20 questions and here is his recent interview with Alexandra Leggat.

Alexandra Leggat is the author of the short story collections Animal (Anvil Press, 2009), Meet Me in the Parking Lot (Insomniac Press 2004), Pull Gently, Tear Here (Insomniac Press, 2001) which was nominated for the Danuta Gleed First Fiction Award and a collection of poetry entitled This is me since yesterday (Coach House Books, 2000). Her articles and reviews have appeared in Toro, The Globe and Mail and Niagara Life magazine, and her poetry and fiction has been published in journals across the U.S.. Canada and the U.K. She teaches creative writing classes at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

RM:

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

AL:

My first book changed my life significantly. I was happy, confident, on top of the world. The first feels like everything is going to change, then the second one gets published and you realize nothing changes – haha, but it’s true. And then four books later…

My new book Animal, for me anyway, doesn’t compare to my last book. To me they are very different. Meet Me in the Parking Lot is a much more stylistic book. Animal is raw again, like my second book Pull Gently, Tear Here. I wanted Animal to be a combination of all my books, to be poetic, raw and succinct. I hope I achieved that.

Animal feels different because I know exactly what it’s about, what I meant when I wrote it and what I want the stories to convey.

RM:

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

AL:

Writing for me has been like breathing, I just do it. I wrote poetry long before I knew what it meant to “write poetry” or to be a “writer”. I had no clue how to communicate verbally so I wrote everything down. I was too goddamn young to know that what I was doing was called poetry. I love poetry, good poetry and I said that through one of my characters in my new book. I hope one day to be able to write it again, like I used to.

RM:

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

AL:

It happens quickly. Whether it appears looking close to the first draft depends on the story. Some are one offs, others go through huge transformations. It all depends on the nature of the piece, of the beast. I don’t make notes. I begin writing something in my head. Let it come to fruition in my mind. Even when I know what I want to write about, I allow my subconscious to do the work. Until I get to the second draft, then I consciously take over — it’s a symbiotic relationship.

RM:

4 - 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?

AL:

I have a book in mind. I always have. Why waste time not thinking about something as a whole.

RM:

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

AL:

I love doing readings. But reading has nothing to do with my creative process. It’s a great way to share and test the results of the process.

RM:

6 - 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?

AL:

I write to try and make sense of the perpetual stream of questions I have about our goddamn existence. The challenges I set for myself as far as the craft goes, the way I write, is not consciously theoretical but I’ve been doing this too long for there not to inadvertently be a theoretical undercurrent; it becomes part and parcel to the craft. Like my characters, I’m driven by a search for truth. I just read this great quote by the French writer/psychoanalyst Phillipe Grimbert in the Q&A proceeding his beautiful book Memory where he explains his theory on the difference between truth and reality. It’s short and brilliant! When I read it, I felt like a giant golden door opened and welcomed me to the next plane!

RM:

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

AL:

Haha, don’t get me started on the current role of writer, Jesus, especially in Canada. I’ll spare you a lengthy diatribe. I believe the writer shouldn’t have a role — artistry should be the antithesis of roles.

RM:

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

AL:

Now that’s an important role, the role of a great editor — they’re a dying breed. Working with a good editor is essential. The editor and writer should only have the work’s best interest at heart, to make the work as strong as it can possibly be. At times you may disagree with each other but a healthy disagreement is part of the process. Remember the age of intellectualism — ah, what we’ve lost since the onset of political correctness…

RM:

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

AL:

It was from my publisher/editor at Insomniac Press, Mike O’Connor. He edited my first short story collection, Pull Gently, Tear Here. Upon handing back his edits, he pointed out a few too many qualifiers I’d used and suggested cutting them, he said to trust the way I write. It was great advice. From that I learned to let a good line speak for itself. Over time, that trust has enabled me to leave a reader teetering on the edge — without remorse.

RM:

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

AL:

It’s easy, natural, because I’m not forcing the transition. Songwriting is poetry put to music and music is a story in itself. I taught myself to play guitar because I had some kind of music in me and many of my favourite poets are songwriters like Bowie, Bernie Taupin, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings, Lucinda Williams, Jay Farrar, Thom Yorke, Lou Reed, Steve Earle and on and on and on. The appeal lies in the creation itself, to be able to express myself in different ways. Sometimes I need to sit quietly and write and then there’s the nights I have to crack open a beer and sing and strum my guts out! I sketch too, little odd characters that I have actually ended up creating stories around. My husband has written about a few of them, too! I just do what comes naturally.

RM:

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?

AL:

You don’t want to know how a typical day begins for me. I don’t have a routine, but I am very disciplined, if that makes sense. I write when I can between a hundred jobs and all. I write in my head and you know that’s half the battle. If it’s looked after in there, it’ll come out right. Routine to me implies forcing the words and thoughts and I don’t believe in forcing it. Writing is my life, so I’m writing 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week, any way I can.

RM:

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

AL:

Music. Great books. My dog. Walks. Haiku. Art. Football — both types, soccer and NFL.

RM:

13 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie? Drive or fly (or sail)? Laptop or desktop?

AL:

I don’t like cartoons, so none of the animated characters you mentioned do anything for me. I love driving. Love cars. In my creative realm I write freehand at the moment and laptop for the other stuff.

RM:

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?

AL:

Sure all of that. Great writers and books are my teachers but music has always been a huge influence in my work. I can truly escape through music and at the same time get in touch with myself. Films have been influential in the past but I’m less enthralled with them right now. Cities like Toronto and of course my second home NYC, specifically Brooklyn; nature, science, architecture, philosophy, art. People, my family, are all quintessential to my work. But nature and science aren’t too generous, in the way that great cities, music, art and books are. And my dog Tate, he’s always a huge influence. I dedicated Animal to him. He’s my wolf — my wolf totem. And there is a hell of a lot to learn from a creature like him.

RM:

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

AL:

Many. I read a wide range of books. Reading is so important to my life, to my work. Reading has fueled my life, ever since I was a kid. For the last few years I’ve been immersed in the work of Asian writers — Zhang Jie, Gao Xingjian, Ma Jian, Dai Sijie, Ha Jin — but there are so many writers that on a daily basis are my gods, like Camus, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Virginia Woolf, Steinbeck, Kafka, Philip K. Dick, Jim Thompson — the list is endless.

But I’m constantly discovering new writers like China’s Jiang Rong, Russia’s Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, France’s Phillipe Grimbert and New Zealand’s Julia Leigh. Great writing, great thought, spurs me on in every way. But I mean really great shit. Stuff that challenges me on every level, takes me away. I read a lot of translated work. I’m learning French again, listen to it in the car. I want to do what Beckett did, or Ezra Pound (though he wrote in Chinese characters): write in a different language in order to achieve the purist, simplest way of telling the story. No bullshit contrivances.

RM:

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

AL:

Be a mom.

RM:

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?

AL:

Another occupation? Easy, I would love to be a race horse.

If I wasn’t a writer, I’d probably have ended up being a psychopath.

RM:

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

AL:

Nothing made me do it. Or maybe the devil made me do it. It just happened and even when I’ve tried to deviate from the damn path, the gods won’t let me. Even my mother won’t let me. I’m stuck.

RM:

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

AL:

The last great book I read was Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. And the last great film was Nurse.Fighter.Boy by Canadian film makers Charles Officer and Ingrid Venninger.

RM:

20 - What are you currently working on?

AL:

My new book.

Related item from our archives