Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Emily Schultz answers rob mclennan's questions

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Emily Schultz 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 Emily Schultz.

Emily Schultz is the author of the novel Heaven Is Small (House of Anansi Press), which the Vancouver Sun called, "Bold and winning, the sort of novel that satisfies on every level…." Schultz also authored the novel, Joyland (ECW Press), and the collection of poetry, Songs for the Dancing Chicken (ECW Press), which was named a finalist for the 2008 Trillium Prize for Poetry. She is the co-founder of Joyland.ca and its Toronto editor.

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?

ES:

I think it’s hard to compartmentalize the events of our lives. A lot of things happened that year to change my life, like getting hit by a car, quitting my job to be a full-time writer, making a commitment to my partner and getting married. I had been seeing myself as a writer for several years, but after the first book finally other people did as well.

My newest novel, Heaven Is Small, has more in common with my first book (Black Coffee Night), even though those are short stories, than it does with my other novel (Joyland). It’s funny, and so, even though it has a surreal or dystopic quality, I think its humour is what holds it in line with my other work. While writing the stories, I didn’t know what having an audience was, so the stories existed on their own terms. Joyland is both more self-conscious and more earnest — like I felt I had to prove myself to the reader all the way along. In Heaven Is Small, I felt freer, like I trusted the reader again — whomever that might be — to follow me in for the joy of discovery. I was able to disappear into a world, and the writing became more about the story of my main character, Gordon Small, and his journey to the big publishing company in the sky.

RM:

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

ES:

I actually came to poetry first. My first credits in magazines were all poems, but I couldn’t seem to break through with a cohesive manuscript. So I decided to try fiction and see where it went. I’ve since published in all three genres, but people think of me as primarily a fiction writer, and with two novels and a story collection under my belt, I probably think of myself that way too.

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?

ES:

It is a slow process for me. I spend a lot of time trying to get each sentence just right. My first drafts are solid in terms of the level of language, the descriptions and the images, but structure is a struggle. It is only half-built in draft one, shakily built in draft two, and tightened finally in drafts three and four. I’m jealous of people who can bang out ten pages in a couple hours. I roughly write at a rate of one page per hour — and that’s not including multiple drafts. But in spite of my slowness I will write in a kind of binge and purge fashion, where, once I sit down at my computer and begin, I don’t get up again for twelve or maybe fourteen hours, even if I’m hungry or need to sleep. And then I’ll become fixated and return to it for several days or even several weeks in a row in this same pattern. It is pretty crazy-making but it works for me.

RM:

4 - Where does 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?

ES:

With short stories, they come individually, but with a novel it is always a “book” from the beginning. Regardless of form (poem, story, novel), it usually starts with the title, which relates to the central theme or image, and I build from there.

RM:

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

ES:

I don’t mind them at all, but I don’t see them as part of the process. I see them as after-the-fact. When I was younger there were a few times I read from things that were in progress, but I don’t anymore. I will show new work to my husband, or my agent or editor, but I don’t want to show it to anyone else until it’s “ready,” not even my best friends. I don’t even want to talk about it much with anyone until that point. So if you hear me talking about it, it means it must be close to done.

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?

ES:

Class is always a big concern. My work, even the poetry, is concerned with class differences, and biases. Even though my parents were well educated and professional, I grew up in a factory town. Everything I have, I’ve worked very hard for. I can’t stand pretensions or seeing people judged.

Heaven is Small is set in an office so it revolves around work, the kind of relationship we have to our work, as well as to the end product and the corporations who control it. Joyland explored the same questions but through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old: the character notices the way people talk and what it expresses about who they are or where they come from, there’s the tediousness of his first job, and he is always turning objects over to see where they were manufactured.

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?

ES:

There’s a lot of insecurity lately, and I don’t understand it. Writing still titillates because it goes deep into the human psyche, how we deceive ourselves and each other, and the acts we commit every day. Even people who don’t read much tell each other stories, stories in bars and at parties, stories on the subway. At night, people go to see stories played on large screens in theatres. Pop songs too are full of stories. There’s no shortage of demand for narrative.

RM:

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

ES:

Editors are smart people with good instincts. If they select your work, it’s in your best interest to believe that, so trust is essential. I have a nine-out-of-ten rule, where I try to take at least nine of every ten edits or suggestions. I might secretly cry about having to cut a favourite line or section, but by the end I know it will lead to stronger work, deepened character relationships or more solid structure or pacing.

RM:

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

ES:

Name your character.

RM:

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

ES:

It’s not appeal so much as necessity. Only rich people don’t care about money. And critical writing = money. I would rather work all the time on the creative, but can’t afford it.

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?

ES:

Writing is fluctuation, and I don’t force myself if I can avoid doing so. That’s not to say I just let it come — it is work after all, and if I didn’t make myself do it a good portion of the time it wouldn’t happen. I try to set rough deadlines for myself. I know when I’m ready, when I’m in the mood enough that I will create good work, and that’s when I sit down. Once I start, I’ll stay in that headspace for a long time, so I do have to make sure it’s the right time for me to do it.

A typical day might not involve any writing at all. It begins around 9 a.m. and starts with a shower and a dog walk, two cups of coffee, email, email, email, and my paying work, which is usually copy-editing or structural editing for other people’s books. The day ends in bed with a film. I watch a lot of films.

RM:

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

ES:

Poetry, and public transit. I like moving through the city slowly, seeing people and listening in on their lives. I also come up with the scaffolding for my novels on drives on the 401. Around London, my mind finds a place of clarity.

RM:

13 - What do you really want?

ES:

An endless Americano.

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?

ES:

I think everything we experience influences us. My novel Heaven is Small was inspired by working in office buildings, and the films of Preston Sturges.

RM:

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

ES:

To see what I’m digging right now, check out my website, Joyland.ca. A year ago we turned it into a site for short fiction with editors in seven cities across North America and the U.K.

RM:

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

ES:

More off-continent travel.

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?

ES:

That’s kind of like asking, “Who would you be with if you weren’t with your current lover?” Writing has always and ever been my only one.

RM:

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

ES:

My talents were limited. I used to be okay at soccer, but only okay-okay not MVP-okay. And because my father was an English teacher, I do seem to have an intrinsic grasp of punctuation.

RM:

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

ES:

Pasha Malla’s The Withdrawal Method. Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis (a re-watch, I’ve seen it about 10 times and counting).

RM:

20 - What are you currently working on?

ES:

I’m secretive, but when the time is right, you will know.

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