Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Alissa York Answers These Questions Three

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Alissa York Answers These Questions Three

The ongoing discussion here in my blog of the possible role for literature in a world that desperately needs empathy, began almost a month ago now with one of my first posts about my trip to the Eden Mills Writers' Festival with Alissa York. I’m thrilled that despite her mega-busy schedule traveling to France and Banff and being nominated for the Toronto Book Awards, that she has kindly also found the time to answer These Questions Three.

1. When Fenelon Falls and Fauna share animals that are both loved and mistreated by humans. Animals also take on metaphoric quality as "stand-in" humans. As I made connections between my young female protagonist and a caged bear, I often had to pull back, sensing a danger in over-anthropomorphizing animals so that they cease to be themselves. Was this on your mind in any way during the writing of Fauna?

Absolutely -- I was conscious of grounding my animal "characters" in copious research for that very reason. The two questions I returned to time and again were: "What does this creature need?" and "Where does this creature's focus lie?"

2. We both have a background in drama. Sometimes I think my proclivity to see writing as theatre, to hear and watch my characters as actors performing a play as I write it, is both a blessing and a curse. It speeds things up and it slows things down. It gets dialogue memorized, sometimes before it should be. It makes it hard to see beyond the script on the page. Does any of this resonate with you?

I really only tried acting for a few years, so I can't say that the theatrical mindset enters into my writing process all that often. Come to think of it, though, I do use certain theatrical references when I teach -- clever maxims like, "If you bring a character 'onstage' (i.e. into a scene) don't just leave him/her standing there in the corner, distracting your audience and cluttering up the set."

3. I've already written about our drive to Eden Mills, explaining that your hopeful comments about empathy were very moving to me. I'd love to give you a chance to answer Carl Oglesby's question in your own words: When the house if burning down around the poet's head by what dispensation if any can the poet continue the poem?

Okay, here goes. Remember when, shortly after 9/11, artists and cultural commentators began questioning the intrinsic value of art? Suddenly the creation and "consumption" of art (including literature) was considered frivolous, self-indulgent -- even immoral. I was used to that kind of thinking from extremists (both right- and left-wing) but now it was coming from people I admired. It made me so very sad. And it made me angry. Here's the thing, folks: there's nothing so good for what ails us (in short, a massive empathy deficit) as a healthy dose of art. Whether you slip inside the skin of a homeless child by reading Eva Hornung's Dog Boy, or experience the psycho-spiritual rib-spreader effect of standing before any one of Rothko's abstracts, or simply greet the moonrise with a song, chances are you'll feel and think more deeply than you did pre-art. Art humanizes us. God help us if the poet ever stops caring about poetry -- it'll be nothing but burning houses all the livelong day.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page