Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Gutter Series: Between Projects with Karen Connelly

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Karen Connelly

Today we're speaking with Governor General's Literary Award winner Karen Connelly as part our our Gutter Series: Between Books. (The gutter, as any good book geek knows, refers to the inner margins of two facing pages — literally, the in-between.) This series gave us a rare chance to chat with writers who haven't published in the current season, letting us in on the details of life between launches. Karen's last book, Burmese Lessons (Random House Canada) was published in 2010, but she is already in final edits on a new book.

Read on to hear from Karen about that new project, a lifetime's worth of research and the history of a controversial word.

Open Book:

Tell us about your last book, Burmese Lessons.

Karen Connelly:

Once my novel, The Lizard Cage, also about Burma, was out in the world, I felt that I wasn’t really done with that time in my life. I needed to record some personal experiences in Burma and on the border.

It’s very much a book about life in Burma under dictatorship; it’s also about dissident politics as they played out inside the country in the late 1990’s and on the Thai-Burmese border. I carefully describe the harsh lives of brave political activists, and refugees, and migrant workers. But I also begin, in Burmese Lessons, to explore the nexus between sex and power. The book is a love song to Burma, but it is also a love story about the charismatic revolutionary leader I was involved with when I lived on the border. No surprise that the book came out the year I turned forty; it takes a lot of women about that long to be able to begin to speak and write honestly about sex and power, if we ever do so at all.

The other narrative is one that I didn’t understand until after I finished it. It is a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Here was a story destined to fulfil the old expectation: the heroine — an idealistic young writer — falls in love with a charismatic man, a power broker in his constrained, revolutionary way. He wants to marry her; she is supposed to marry him, in part because he wants her to and in part because she is swept off her feet not just by love and lust but by war, political unrest, and their tremendous excitements. As tragic as war is, it remains, sadly, one of the most exciting human activities; most soldiers and every war journalist will confirm this.

Except there is a problem. The young artist decides, abruptly, in the midst of love and passion, not to marry the revolutionary. She decides to continue being a young artist instead, and struggle through, even struggle against, passionate love. That was a conscious, or at least a semi-conscious decision. I wanted to be a writer, not a revolutionary’s wife; I knew I could not be both.

OB:

What are you working on right now? And what is your approach to speaking about works in progress?

KC:

I am just doing the final edits for a book of poetry called Come Cold River. It’s ‘about’ a lot of things. Can I just quote my publisher’s promotional copy? Or is that too crass? But what the hell, they nailed it. This is from Quattro Books:

Come Cold River is an irreverent, fierce, and deeply humane examination of social inequality and injustice, not in the foreign climes Karen Connelly usually writes about, but here in our own country. Addiction, street prostitution, violence against children and women, the changing faces of poor inner city areas co-opted for development: through work that is as much theatre as poetry, these stories come to life through the individual men, women and children who have lived them.

While this collection questions the very meaning of “Canada” — (Aca nada. Kanata./Oh Canada, what do you really mean? How can I sing you/without lying?) — it is also a beautiful love song to the Western Canadian landscapes and people of Karen Connelly’s childhood.

OB:

Has your current project required any research? What is your research process like while writing?

KC:

That question makes me laugh out loud. My whole f*cking life is in that book; or at least the first thirty years of it. I am 44. So that’s a lot of research. What was my research process? Hmm. Well, I lived, and felt, and wept. And raged. There you go. It’s a very angry book, to be honest — I was living in Vancouver when the Picton farm finally started to be excavated. I say finally because many people had known for years that someone out there was murdering prostitutes. I have a niece who was a street sex worker for a while, and many of her stories on in Come Cold River.

OB:

Do you find there are themes that crop up repeatedly in your work? If so, what are some of them and what do you think attracts you to those particular discussions?

KC:

I am and will always be interested in the body and its intelligences; the way it is the locus of both strength and vulnerability, and how hard it is for humans to manage both in sane ways. I am interested in power and its abuses; I am interested in sex, partly as a form of power, or an act of power, but also as a source of joy and fun. I’m just starting to work on my first ‘light’ book — a novel full of good sex. EVERYONE is going to have good sex in this novel! Dammit! I am so tired of reading these books about unfulfilled people who don’t know what a clitoris is, and never write the word ‘cunt’. Which is a great word with a wonderful history! Country, for example, comes from it . . .

OB:

You also work as a teacher and mentor. How does this impact your writing life?

KC:

In general I love teaching, and I have long relationships now, friendships, with people who were originally my students in one context or another. I have become not just a good teacher but a very adept editor; I love seeing inside a writer’s work and showing them what they’ve missed. Often it’s all there — it’s all waiting to come out; the writer just needs some help seeing that. I love that process; it’s invigorating and mysterious. Very satisfying.

But there is a nasty side to teaching that I was completely unaware of until a couple of years ago. For the first time in my life, I had a group of students who, collectively fed off of some nasty poison. It was my first experience, in teaching, of how mean, vindictive, jealous, and pathetically judgmental people can become as a group. They though George Orwell was ho-hum, and Susan Olding (in her fine collection of essays, Pathologies, was just a whiner. Everything I know politically about negative group dynamics was played out before my eyes. It was bizarre; it was like being trapped in a profoundly dysfunctional family, though I didn’t fully understand that until the course was over. That experience was like getting kicked in the head, and it took a tremendous amount of life energy to get over it.

OB:

What advice do you find yourself offering emerging writers most often?

KC:

The same advice that was given to me by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the great Indonesian writer who spent years in prison, a hero of mine. When I asked him for advice, he said, simply and beautifully: Be daring.

OB:

Tell us a little about your writing schedule and habits. Do you set word quotas? Use outlines?

KC:

Paperwork and waking up and procrastination in the morning. Writing in the afternoon. 1000 to 2000 words per day, if I can manage it. No outlines, though I do try to imagine, sort out ‘what is going to happen next’.

OB:

Where do you look for new ideas, when you've finished a major project? Do you actively seek out starting points, or do they tend to find you?

KC:

I have too many ideas, too many unfinished books, too many novels dangling by a hundred unfinished pages. It’s quite pathetic, really, all I don’t do.

OB:

What are you reading right now, and when was the last time a book absolutely floored you?

KC:

I’m reading Myrna Kostash’s fascinating book about . .. . surprise! Sex and politics, in particular, her fascination with doomed heroes, how her life as a writer has been shaped by the heroic men she has loved and lost. It’s called The Doomed Bridegroom. I’ve heard tell of this memoir for years, so it’s great to be reading it finally. One of these men is someone she never met: but she resurrects from his death, in the 1985, in a Russian gulag. Vasyl Stus was a Ukrainian poet, hated by the KGB for his outspoken protest against the tyranny of the Soviet regime. It’s amazing, what she does in the section about Stus: death doesn’t stop her from bringing him back to life so she can fall in love with this heroic, extraordinary man, murdered by the Soviet regime. It’s a very brave, generous book. She lets us into her obsessions without any shame or embarrassment. It’s the kind of book that gives other writers permission to do the same.

A book that floored me? Hmm. I recently reread Louise collection of poetry, The Wild Iris, and I was floored by it all over again. It is an astonishing, perfect book of poetry. From the title poem:

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice…

That passage suddenly makes me think of Vasyl Stus, brutally ground down and driven to his death in a penal camp in the Soviet Union, and how Myrna Kostash, another writer in another country, returned him from oblivion with his voice restored . . . We forget, we writers, how much power we really have.


Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, the most recent being The Lizard Cage, which the New York Times Book Review compared to the works of Solzhenitsyn, Mandela and Orwell. It was nominated for the Kiriyama Prize and won Britain's Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers. Raised in Calgary, Connelly has lived for extended periods of time in different parts of Asia and Europe and now has two homes, one in Toronto and one in Greece.

For more information about Burmese Lessons please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the Gutter Series: Between Books, Poetry Edition interviews in our archives.

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