Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Michelle Berry answers rob mclennan's questions

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Michelle Berry answers rob mclennan's questions

Ottawa writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan has started the second series of his 12 or 20 questions and here is his recent and wonderful interview with Michelle Berry, a fantastic writer who, we can't help but notice, gives great titles to her books (case in point: What We All Want).

RM:

1 - How did your first book change your life?

MB:

That's a hard question. I assume you mean publishing it, not writing it. Well, I guess I felt suddenly like a real bona fide writer, you know, one with a solid piece of evidence in my hand. Proof that when I said I was a writer, I actually was. I know people (family members, in particular) began treating me differently. They were always supportive but suddenly they were bragging about me. Like me, they finally had evidence to show their friends.

RM:

How does your most recent work compare to your previous?

MB:

My most recent novel is Blind Crescent. It's about a group of neighbours living on a cul de sac, about a squatter who moves into a deserted house on the street, and about a serial sniper who is forever in the periphery. It's actually a novel that, if you think about it, is a bit of my two previous novels combined. Like What We All Want (my first novel), Blind Crescent is full of dysfunctional characters and black humour and quirky dialogue, but it's also like Blur (my second novel), in that there is a sort-of mystery at stake, a reason to keep reading. It's a little bit more about the bigger picture (middle-class suburbia's big picture, if that is big), then about just family dynamics.

RM:

How does it feel different?

MB:

I think I answer that above.

RM:

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

MB:

I wrote poetry in high school (didn't all 15-year-old girls?) — angsty stuff about suicide and red roses and bleeding hearts, etc., but wasn't very good at it (obviously). I always wrote short fiction. Even when I was in grade school. Stories about how my room, if I had the room I wanted, would have a soda fountain in it, a parrot and a canopy bed. I've never been interested in non-fiction (the world is too much with us, reading lets me escape). I guess I came to fiction because that is what I've always read, because longer narratives are what inspire me.

RM:

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project?

MB:

Depends on what the project is. Sometimes I fiddle with an idea for a novel for a month or so before I realize it's a novel. Sometimes I write a short story in five hours. Sometimes I'm writing what I think is a short story and it becomes a novel, or the other way around.

RM:

Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?

MB:

Again, that depends. Lately, I've been doing these commissioned anthologies and I've found I like them. Someone tells me what to write and I go with it. It's quite fun because I end up writing about subjects I wouldn't normally write about (i.e. 1972 Canada vs. Russia hockey, for Story of A Nation, or David Suzuki for 101 Things Canadians Should Know About Canada). So that kind of writing seems to come quite quickly. I do tend to procrastinate a lot, but when I really am involved in something, I hit a stride and run rapidly.

RM:

Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

MB:

Pretty much first drafts are final drafts. That makes no sense, but I edit on the computer and so my seventh or eighth draft is really the first one I print out. I tend to write a page or two, write until the idea runs dry, the character stops moving, and then I go back and edit that to death. I print out my novel at the end of this, usually give it to someone to read for me, then read it myself on paper, edit again, and start back at the beginning. Sometimes my novels, like Blur, come fully formed (honestly not a big edit at all), other times, like Blind Crescent and What We All Want, the “first” draft looks very dissimilar to the final product (for example, in Blind Crescent, I had 100 pages in the middle of the novel all about the squatter, about his life before he became a squatter, but it was too depressing and dragged the book down so I got rid of him. In What We All Want, the father came back into the story the first draft, but he wasn't impressive and so I quickly got rid of him).

RM:

4 - Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you?

MB:

Mostly my ideas come from other people. Either something I overhear or something somebody has told me, or something I've read in the newspaper or seen on the news. I'm lucky that I'm surrounded by a veritable fountain of interesting people and situations.

RM:

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?

MB:

The second thing. Book from very beginning. I find my brain doesn't work well putting things together. Like the King of Hearts says in Alice in Wonderland, I have to start at the beginning, go on until I reach the end, and then stop.

RM:

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

MB:

I love doing them when I'm there. I hate thinking about having to do them. I hate the nervousness that I feel. I find one reading in an evening will make me stressed the whole day leading up to it. So I waste a day worrying. But then the day after the reading I feel all pumped and like a real writer again, so I work better.

RM:

Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

MB:

Yes. I guess.

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?

MB:

That's a loaded question. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. I don't know, my writing comes from within me, it comes from a need to see the world a little clearer. I'm not a political writer, but I have strong political beliefs. I think my characters often react in ways that make a reader question something. Like in Blind Crescent — all these characters are struggling with their inner demons (teenage troubles, affairs, unfaithful husbands, mid-life crises, agoraphobia, parent-hating, etc.) and the story is about them as individuals, but it's also about them as the epitome of middle-class, suburban North America and all the questions and problems these kind of people face every day.

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?

MB:

I know I don't think about this much when I'm writing. It's only after I've finished something, or after I've read something, that I contemplate my role — where does my book fit in the huge scheme of things? Of course my politics and my beliefs, if any, come out in my stories, but not in an intentional lecturing, didactic way (I hope). My goal is to "entertain" (and I say that loosely, because entertaining is so broad a subject) but with added depth and humour. My goal is to make you want to read and think — but read first, think later. Writing/reading are just additions to the greater culture, I think. Movies, TV, video games, opera, symphonies, Broadway musicals; everything works together to give us choice, to inform us and make us layered individuals. And reading (and writing) books hopefully makes us even more culturally rich.

RM:

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

MB:

It's essential. But, also difficult. All writers need fresh eyes to tell them what is working and what is not working. It's an imperative part of being a writer. I tell my students, "I can't teach you how to write, but I can teach you how to edit." How to look at their work in a new way, or, with someone else's eyes. And that's what an editor does. A good editor is a gem. I've had some great editors in my life. I've also had some bad ones, or ones who steered me in the wrong direction and made my book something it wasn't intending to be. You have to chose your editor by their skill; like I have someone who reads for me as "the average Joe," looking for what might be embarrassing or wimpy or confusing or way too artsy. Then I have the "copyedit" reader: the editor who finds the typos, the grammatical stuff, the fact that it's raining on one page and then snowing on the other with no explanation. Then I have the "theme" editor: the one who reads and says, "Ah, there is a lot of water imagery running through this piece. “ That's the editor who tells me what my book is about. All of these eyes help me see my novel or my stories in new ways.

RM:

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

MB:

I've heard lots of great advice, but one thing that sticks with me is: Write because you love writing, not because you love publishing. Eliza Clarke said that to me when I just started publishing work and was much more keen on being published than I was on sitting down, all lonely and hermit-like and actually writing. The writing part seemed to me the boring job. Now, years later, I love the writing and dread the publishing, strangely enough. When the book goes out there, into the big wide world, you have no control over it, It becomes something else, not your baby. Best book to read about writing is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Still my favourite.

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?

MB:

Always with a coffee. A cappuccino, in fact. I make my own with a dinky little machine. Then I email and check out stuff online (this is after I've read the newspaper), then I get down to writing or editing or answering questions like these. Some days I'm so busy with my kids, or with exercise classes, or grocery shopping, or running errands, that I don't sit down until 1 p.m., but most days I'm on the computer by 9 a.m.. I spend a lot of time looking at my dog, who stares at me forlornly and makes me feel guilty for not taking him for a walk. I tend to stop at 3 p.m., because my kids get home from school at 3:30 and I have to take about ½ hour to decompress, to get back into the real world. I'd love to write at night, but the house is full of people, we usually have stuff to do, and I'm usually tired and need to sleep. If I lived alone, however, I'd definitely write all night and sleep all day. I think.

RM:

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

MB:

Movies, definitely. And books, of course. But mostly movies. I watched Doubt, Revolutionary Road and The Reader this weekend and couldn't wait to dive back into my writing. Especially after Revolutionary Road, which really needed to have been written and directed by a woman instead of a man (Richard Yates, writer – Sam Mendes directed it). The men got it 'almost right,” but not quite: being a woman is so much more complicated than freaking out about living in suburbia — like, where were the kids in that movie??? Anyway ... after I watched No Country for Old Men, I couldn't stop writing. Movies really inspire me; perhaps because I “see” my work like a movie in my head while I'm writing, so for me it's the same process as watching a movie on a screen.

RM:

12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

MB:

My kids, of course — what kind of a mother do you think I am? Then my animals (two cats and a dog, I might leave the fish because I'm sick of cleaning him and he's old anyway). Then I'd start taking my mom's paintings off the walls and throwing them out the window (my mom is an artist). I have way too many books to save — I know you want me to say “books” — and it would be horrific if they burned up, especially all the personally signed copies from my good friends.

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?

MB:

I think I answered this with number eleven — movies — but also I could definitely say that music influences me. Movie soundtracks, lately: Darjeeling Limited, or the Juno soundtrack, or Slumdog Millionaire, etc. When I was writing What We All Want, I would start my writing day every day listening to The Pogues’ “Tuesday Morning” as that song seemed to sum up all the ideas in my novel. Nature influences me only to a small extent. I mean, I appreciate it, and being out in nature on a hike or at the cottage certainly gives me time to think, but I don't really write about nature as such. I can't even tell the difference between an oak and a maple (OK, maybe I can, I'm not sure, don't quiz me on it). And I hate gardening but I love looking at gardens. I have a cat-dog-shit phobia thing and it seems that any time I chance to dig in a garden I pick up a pile of crap by accident.

RM:

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

MB:

All my friends who write are important for my work — the “tribe” of us, I guess. They discuss my work with me, discuss ideas with me, make me feel part of something other than my little office and computer. I don't want to single any one writer out. It seems unfair to me.

RM:

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

MB:

Can you believe I've never been to New York? I'd like to go to New York but go there in the “right” way. Like on a publisher's tab. Or with someone who knows everything about the city and is a fantastic tour guide. I would also like to work in the movie industry somehow. Actually on-set. Not behind the scenes. Not be an actor, but maybe one of those guys who hold the little board and snap it and say, “Scene One, Take Two.”

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?

MB:

I've never been good at anything else. I temped my way through university in the summers and therefore tried lots of secretarial jobs in lots of different offices. So I can say, without a doubt, that I would never want to work in some big office building in downtown Toronto. God, those horrible, waste-of-time meetings that take hours and hours, where there is stale coffee and gas-inducing donuts, and always, without a doubt, one person who likes to hear himself talk. I've always wanted to be a doctor but my science and math skills suck. I thought of going into nursing a little while ago, giving up writing and getting a "real" job, with hours and salary and health benefits, etc., but then my novel started to consume me again and I decided not to apply for nursing school. I probably couldn't hack having a real job. I can't really stand to be around people for longer than about three hours a day — can you see me as a doctor or nurse? "Stop bleeding and leave me alone, I need to think."

RM:

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

MB:

See above. I'm not good at anything else. I'm also a hermit. I like to be alone with my thoughts.

RM:

18 - What was the last great book you read?

MB:

I can't name just one. I read great books all the time. I've been on a Cormac McCarthy kick lately: The Road, No Country For Old Men. And I liked James Frey's novel, Bright Shiny Morning, although someone (Charlie Foran) recently said that I might not have good taste as every critic out there panned it. Ian McEwan is always wonderful especially the one with the hot air balloon (Enduring Love?). My reading habits are really quite different; I'll read anything, really, and usually, at least, like what I read. It's not often that I love what I read. But it's also not often that I hate what I read.

RM:

What was the last great film?

MB:

I think I mentioned some above. But I really did like Revolutionary Road, although, as I said earlier, I could see where I would have added to it and edited it. I'm a sitcom fan; I adore The Simpsons and have lately been watching The Office quite a bit.

RM:

19 - What are you currently working on?

MB:

Two things. I have a short story collection coming out in Spring 2010 with Turnstone Press, so I'm editing that with Wayne Tefs. I'm also finishing off a novel, titled This Book Will Not Save Your Life. It's about morbid obesity and arson and attempted murder and magicians. It's about Dr. Benjamin Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. It's about family, sisters, mothers and fathers. Not sure what will happen with it. All I can hope is that it will, eventually, someday, be published.

Photo courtesy of the Montreal Gazette.

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