Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Olive Senior

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Olive Senior

Olive Senior's stories, known for their wit, intimacy and vibrancy, capture the feeling of being told a story in the dim, secret light of a late-night kitchen. From war stories to Cinderella tales, the stories in the The Pain Tree (Cormorant Books) represent an experienced and insightful short fiction stylist at her best.

Today we welcome Olive to the site 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.

Olive tells us about the thematic link between the stories in The Pain Tree, untying "knots" in writing and her pick for a truly great contemporary novel.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Olive Senior:

My new book The Pain Tree is a collection of stories of varying lengths. Unlike my three previous collections where the stories were written one after the other within a fairly compressed period of time, these stories were written over many years and are collected here for the first time. I’m not sure though that there is any discernible difference between this and my previous books. Most of the stories are set in Jamaica where I come from, several have child protagonists and the ones about adults are set in an earlier time period from, say, the second world war to the nineteen-seventies. In these latter stories I am particularly interested in exploring the impact of historic events on individual lives and the tensions created by the clash between traditional ways and modernity. One story for instance examines the impact on the psyche of a person encountering television for the first time.


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?


Looking back at the finished book, what seems to link the stories is that all of them focus on people on the cusp of transformation — that moment or incident that will change their lives. I didn’t think of this when I wrote each story, but it seems to emerge naturally from the concept of the short story and the idea that each turns on conflict and a moment of epiphany.


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?


Once I decided with the help of my publisher Marc Côté on which stories would be selected for this book, then it became a question of editing and revision rather than making major changes in the stories.


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


The most important thing for me is time — or what I prefer to call “head space”. I don’t usually start writing until I have done a considerable amount of thinking about a story — and that might take years! I don’t have to have the words or the full picture in my head when I start to write — indeed I’m often surprised — but the characters must be fully living and embodied in my imagination. I can carry the characters around from place to place but once I am ready to write, I do need to shut myself off from everyone and everything to get that first draft down.


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?


I will switch to something else. Or pick up a book. Go for a walk. I have learnt that there is no point in trying to force the writing. But because I live with my characters for so long, I don’t often get stuck with the stories. The real work begins at the revision stage when I start to interrogate what I have written. I am more likely to have knots to untie with poetry or non-fiction. And I tend to treat them as just that — “knots”. If I’m stuck I will ask myself what is the key word or idea in the passage or verse that I am dealing with and I will focus on that, even to doing a “clustering” exercise. That usually helps to clarify things for me.


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


That’s a hard one! It’s a book that holds my attention from beginning to end and makes me want to go back and read it again and again. I want not just brilliant story telling but a work that reflects the writer’s moral conscience and love for humanity so it will set me thinking as well. For that reason I will always be partial to Charles Dickens. Or in more recent times Terry Pratchett. But if I have to name just one truly great contemporary novel I would say One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


What are you working on now?


I’m “resting” after finishing a rather large non-fiction book last year and then this one. But I do have some new projects in mind, including a YA book and completing a new poetry collection.

Olive Senior is the prize-winning author of a dozen books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her short story collection Summer Lightning (Longman, 1986) won the inaugural Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and her poetry collection Over the Roofs of the World (Insomniac, 2005) was a finalist for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. Born in Jamaica, she has travelled widely and now spends most of her time in Jamaica and Toronto.

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