Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Michelle Berry

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The Lucky Seven Interview, with Michelle Berry

Michelle Berry's newest book, Interference (ECW Press), has become one of the summer's power house novels. By teasing back the calm veneer of a small town to expose the complexity below, Berry creates a tense, witty and lifelike atmosphere. As the town deals with issues as large as suspected pedophilia and as claustrophobic as obsessive compulsion, readers will find the linked stories, in Berry's hands, cause "the pages [to] practically turn themselves", as the National Post observed.

Michelle speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today Michelle tells us about how the title came to be, how the book evolved from standalone stories and how chocolate can be an important part of the publishing process.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Michelle Berry:

My new novel is called Interference. It's about a group of characters who are neighbours in the fictional town of Parkville. It's about how these neighbours deal with the curve balls being thrown at them — life's little (and big) interferences. Things like: cancer, affairs, divorce, children becoming independent, fear, job insecurities, on and on. There is a strange little man stalking the neighbourhood children and a disfigured man peering into backyards. The book is structured around one season of women's house league hockey (senior ladies, nonetheless), where several of the characters learn to be strong and to interact positively and to let go of their fears on the ice rink. It's a witty book — darkly humourous — but also serious at times. It took me a long time to put this book together as I started it as stories — each chapter was originally a short story. These were stories I was writing about my neighbourhood (fictionalized, of course) — about my kid who was suddenly out playing basketball in the street, old enough to take care of herself, about my age-group of women (mid-forties) and how we were adjusting to our lives, about my husband who was going through radiation treatment for cancer (luckily now cured!), about my fears and insecurities and my women's house league hockey team (something I joined, having never played hockey, when I was 42 years old). I was sending some of these “stories” out (and publishing them) when I realized that I had more on my hands then a collection of short fiction. I saw that they weren't connected stories or just thematically linked. I realized that with a lot of structural tweaking and layering and weaving, these stories could become a complex and satisfying novel.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

MB:

I guess the central question is the title — Interference. I guess I was thinking about all the things that interfere in a person's life — the good things and the bad things — and how we all deal with these things. Things like aging and not being needed as a parent in quite the same way, and disease and divorce and relationships. Funnily, I didn't have the title, my good friend, Jen Wales, thought it up one night after a late hockey game. I needed a title that dealt with cancer, stalking (pedophilia), affairs and hockey and she said, “Interference,” and that was it! Genius title. But I don't think I was consciously trying to thematically put anything together when creating — I try not to think when I write, I think when I edit. I think I was just in the same place as some of my characters and so my life was coming out in my work. Somehow it all came together and all was heading toward the same thing. I think we write about things that mean something to us, things that involve everything we are going through in a specific moment in time. And all of these things link up to become the grand theme, I guess.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

MB:

I guess I've already sort of answered this question — it was mostly short stories when it started and now it's a novel, so yep, it did change significantly. I also added the letters — the book began with a letter home from a prinicpal at an elementary school warning of a man stalking children so, later, when I was weaving everything together, I thought that more letters would work to connect the threads that were sticking out of the large picture. The letters would tell their own story but they would also connect all the other chapters. The novel took me about four years to write and edit. I'm faster on the writing side of things — the editing is the hardest part. It went through many drafts — so many that I sometimes forget now which draft I published — I really should reread the book!

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

MB:

I like to be alone. Quiet. If my kids are home or my husband I find my attention strays easily. I sometimes put music on but most of the time I'm concentrating so hard I can't hear it anyway. I love to start writing with coffee — gets the adrenalin going. I often rearrange the furniture in my office (or change what room in my house my office is in) before I start a new book (or even before I start a new edit). I use my Mac laptop and it's getting old — needs a new fan — and so is very hot and sometimes noisy (a whirring sound). I'm terrified it's going to die as it has my life on it. I sit in a large faux-leather desk chair pushed back with my feet up on a footstool under my desk. I have large windows in my office and they look out onto two beautiful Catalpa trees that flower at the end of June for one week. The rest of the year the trees just look messy. But for that one week they are full of stunningly large clumps of white flowers.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

MB:

I'm never discouraged while I write. The discouraging part happens when I try to sell my novel or even when I've had some people read and edit the new work. That's when reality sets in — maybe, my friends say, my book isn't as cohesive or polished as I thought it was. Or maybe, the publishers say, it just doesn't “fit” into their line of books. Or maybe no one knows what's “wrong” with it and so I have to go back to the drawing board. Coping with this kind of discouragement is getting harder the older I get. Funnily. You'd think I'd be used to it by now, you'd think I'd be more mature about it all. But I find that every year, every new book, makes me a little less confident than I was before. I guess when you are young you are ignorant about the realities of publishing (and most things) — the older you get the more you know. But I cope by eating chocolate (99% Lindt only) and drinking wine. And enjoying my kids and my husband and my friends and my life. What more can I do?

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

MB:

Hard question. I consider so many different books great. I guess, for me, a great book has to be something that stays with me for a long time, that I carry in my mind forever. An image/theme/character/setting that will appear out of nowhere for me years and years later. Appear as if I've experienced it, as if was part of my life. Like the hot air balloon scene in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, or the explosion in the art gallery in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, or the Tourette's detective in the back of the car in Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, or the opening monologue where the narrator is bathing his demented mother in Rick Moody's Purple America, or Diane Schoemperlen's comical advice on How to Write a Serious Novel About Love, or... I could go on forever. I can't pick just two books. That's impossible. I like wit. I like spot-on dialogue. I like plot and character. I don't employ poetic, lacey language in my writing, but I have fallen in love with books that are lyrical. I'm impressed by a lot, actually.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MB:

I have just finished the first draft of a novel I'm calling, 12 Hours. It's a departure for me as it's not about dysfunctional, suburban, middle-class characters... it's about death row. About a prisoner and a chaplain and the prisoner's last 12 hours before execution. The book is incredibly tight, only 200 pages, and is a count down to the end — so it's very very hard to edit. Every time I move something or add something the structure changes. I'm hoping to spend the summer finishing the edits and perhaps start showing it around. We'll see.


Michelle Berry is the author of three books of short stories, How to Get There from Here, Margaret Lives in the Basement and I Still Don’t Even Know You (which won the 2011 Mary Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher and was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011), as well as four novels, What We All Want, Blur, Blind Crescent and This Book Will Not Save Your Life (which won the 2010 Colophon Award and was longlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011). She is a contributing reviewer for The Globe and Mail.

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