Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Alissa York Answers rob mclennan's Questions

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Alissa York Answers rob mclennan's Questions

By rob mclennan

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 Alissa York.

Alissa York’s novels include Fauna, Effigy, (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize) and Mercy. She is also the author of the short fiction collection, Any Given Power, stories from which have won the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award. She has lived all over Canada, and now makes her home in Toronto with her husband, filmmaker Clive Holden. For more information, please visit www.alissayork.com.

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?

AY:

My first book helped me to absorb the fact that what I was doing was real — it shifted my fundamental understanding of myself away from "someone who writes" to "writer." All three of my novels, including Fauna, required a great deal more research than that first collection — a process I've come to value and enjoy.

RM:

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

AY:

Fiction came to me. In my experience, every piece of writing is possessed of its own innate form; the pieces that found me were either short stories or novels. There was never any doubt.

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?

AY:

With all three novels, I indulged in a good year of research before I ever wrote an entire scene. I take many, many notes, glean them for scene ideas and set up an elaborate cross-referencing system for my files. First drafts are very different from finals — scenes out of order, plenty of repetition — not to mention the fact that I write the initial material in longhand.

RM:

4 - Where does prose 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?

AY:

It's a book from the beginning — it may begin with a single scene, but that scene has a novel-sized buzz about it.

RM:

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

AY:

I enjoy doing readings, but I'm not sure they have much to do with my writing process. It's just great to have a reason to leave the neighbourhood!

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?

AY:

In truth, I don't concern myself with theory. I feel my job is to get the book as close to its own organic form as I can. The questions I grapple with tend to be along the following lines: "Would he/she really think/say that?" or, "Is there space in the narrative for an event of this size?" or, "Why the hell won't this line lie down and behave?"

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?

AY:

The role of the writer is to write the best books she can. Everything else is gravy.

RM:

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

AY:

I'm blessed with a gifted editor (Anne Collins) who is both kind and incredibly astute. I depend on her eagle eye.

RM:

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

AY:

"Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working." Picasso, I think.

RM:

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?

AY:

There's no such thing as a typical day. When I'm writing first draft, I try to get to the desk first thing and usually manage three or four hours. I can be less rigid and work longer hours during the research and revision phases.

RM:

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

AY:

I usually fan the embers with a combination of research material (generally non-fiction) and really fine fiction (by the likes of Eva Hornung, Marilynne Robinson and John Steinbeck, to name a few).

RM:

12 - What was your most recent Hallowe'en costume?

AY:

Morticia.

RM:

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?

AY:

All of the above, with a special nod to the creatures of the wild.

RM:

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

AY:

In addition to the three I've already mentioned, I'd begin with Tim Winton, Flannery O'Connor, Naguib Mahfouz, David Malouf, Alice Munro, Jim Harrison, Peter Carey, William Faulkner, Margaret Laurence, Sheila Watson, Michael Ondaatje, Thomas Hardy.

RM:

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

AY:

Keep alpacas. And an Irish wolfhound.

RM:

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?

AY:

David Attenborough.

RM:

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

AY:

There were stories inside me that wanted out. Also, being an actor requires working with others.

RM:

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

AY:

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung. Mid-August Lunch by Gianni Di Gregorio.

RM:

What are you currently working on?

AY:

A new novel, too young to speak of in any detail.

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