Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

New Lauren Kirshner Interview

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New Lauren Kirshner Interview

Lauren Kirshner was Open Book's Writer in Residence in July 2009 and she reads tonight at Toronto's International Festival of Authors. Full event details here. Here is a new interview with Chris Bucci, discussing on her book, her characters, her writing life, ALF shoelaces and more.

Set in Toronto throughout the 1990s, Where We Have to Go is a sassy first novel about the last days of Lucy Bloom’s childhood. When we first meet Lucy, she’s an imaginative eleven-year-old dreaming of a taste of freedom — and only beginning to grasp that all is not well between her parents. Both humorous and affecting, Lucy’s voice needs to be heard.

On Lucy’s journey to adulthood she is joined by her boisterous mother Joy, and her father Frank, a failed glamour photographer turned travel agent who’s never been out of the country. There is also Lucy’s best friend, Erin, an artist whose outspoken iconoclasm inspires Lucy; and Crashing Wave, a mysterious former exotic dancer who Lucy imagines as the ideal of all that is feminine.

The Globe and Mail has already said that, “Bloom is an imaginative only-child brilliantly imagined by Lauren Kirshner, who creates a first-person narrator you never stop rooting for, even while cringing at the awkwardness of her journey. . . . Where We Have to Go is a sombre but playful saga of a nerdy girl's fight for herself and her family . . . . A very strong, original debut.”

Where We Have to Go introduces Lauren Kirshner as one of our most striking new voices. I had the opportunity to interview her about her book and work.

CB:

Where did Lucy come from? Who or what was her inspiration?

LK:

Where We Have to Go really started with Lucy’s voice. At first I wrote her into a short story, but after fifty pages, I kept going. I knew I wanted to write about a tough, funny, survivor of a girl and how her life could unfold against a series of complications. I like writing characters who are dynamite tough, yet vulnerable. Lucy is incredibly shy, yet says what she means; she’s easily injured, but a fighter; she’s self-deprecating and self-critical, but has a well of inner strength.

CB:

How do you feel about Lucy now? She’s such a likeable, lively girl; will we see more of her in other fiction?

LK:

After I finished the novel, I had a few weeks of missing Lucy. I had spent as much time in her world as I did with some of my friends for about two years, so it was weird to let her go into what at that point was the unknown world of publication. I’m totally the kind of person who gets attached. I have ticket stubs from the 1990s and I can’t remember why.

Now I relate to Lucy as an old friend, someone I went to school with, watched across the playground, whose house I spent time in and whose parents drove us to movies at the mall. She’s close to me, but not inside me any longer, if that makes sense.

I don’t think I’ll be writing about Lucy again, because I feel like I told as much of her story as I could. I think I left her in a good place.

CB:

Who or what was the inspiration for Erin, Lucy’s best friend?

LK:

Erin was inspired by some of the wildly creative and independent women I’ve known so far in my life, mixed with my idealizations of early punk musicians like Richard Hell and Patti Smith, capped off with a dose of Florence Nightingale and Keith Haring. Erin is confident, she’s focused, creative, funny, and she knows how to use her negative energy creatively.

CB:

Lucy, her mom, and dad are such full, three-dimensional characters, how did you create them? Can you describe your process for creating characters that seem so real?

LK:

When I write, I’m always discovering new things about my characters, so making them ‘real’ is very much a process. Graham Greene once said that some of his best characters were those he chipped out of hard wood, and I really relate to that description, because it always feels like really hard work to make characters live.

I’m always alert for pieces of real life that I can use to become sure about characters, to hear their voices, know their tastes and inclinations. I carry a notebook with me, take notes on interesting dialogue I hear around me, on the subway, in the street, wherever I happen to be. I also work from images. Lucy’s dad, Frank, used to be a glamour photographer so when I began putting together his character I kept a scrapbook of images relating to photography, cameras, and the general timeframe in which he was working as a photographer. Lucy’s Mom, Joy, worked at Eaton’s when she arrived in Canada in the late 1970s. I used old catalogues to inspire my imaginings of this time. So there’s all of this research going on in the background. But of course I always go back to my instinct. There’s just a certain feeling I get when a line, a description, or an action, feels true.

CB:

I think a bit part of the reading experience is that the book is so true to adolescence that we can’t help think of ourselves at that age. How did you manage to keep this feeling alive for readers?

LK:

I just tried to be honest with myself about how it felt to be a teenager: hopeful, scared, excited, lonely. There are a few parts in the novel that I wrote then thought of deleting because they seemed too honest. I’m really glad I kept those sections in.

CB:

When did you start writing and who were your biggest influences?

LK:

I started writing when I was about eleven. My grade five teacher brought newspapers to school and I was especially and morbidly interested in the local pages, which contained the crime stories and also the human interest pieces about cats who walked across America and people who accidentally stuck beehives on their heads and were thus forced to call the police for help. Through these stories, which were 300 words at best, I discovered that news provides us with only one point of view, and I wanted that kind of tome-like detail. So I started supplementing the news stories with my own invented details and basically was spinning yarns out of the news before I graduated grade six. I kept all of these stories very private. I believed I was insane and treacherous to tamper with the news and wanted to maintain my straight-A persona.

Around this time I also began my love affair with the public library. I was the kind of enthusiastic reader who would proclaim that the latest book she had read was her new favourite. I was fanatic about books as objects. I liked to see a stack of them on my desk, especially old paperbacks with aromatic pages I could smell from my bed. I really believe that books saved me from the darker parts of my personality at what was shaping up to be my socially grim pre-adolescence. No matter how awkward I felt in my own body, I knew that if I had a book with me I could escape into a world in which pleasure and safety were guaranteed. I really needed that.

When I got to high school, I read widely and attentively without notions about high and low culture, which I think is a really good thing for any young writer to do, because it forces us to figure out for ourselves what makes a work “good” or “canonical” rather than accepting Norton’s truth. I read John Steinbeck for his sweeping scope, his epic style; Sylvia Plath for her precision and stolid honesty; I read Anne Simpson, Raymond Carver, E.M Forster, fell in love with James Baldwin, John Irving, and I read a lot of short stories, especially Alice Munro’s. I was so relieved to learn that I could write about home.

My favourite writers at this moment are Mary Gaitskill, whose latest novel Veronica is beautiful, Denis Johnson, Paul Nizan, Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley.

CB:

As a young writer what’s it like to be mentored by someone like Margaret Atwood? Was the first encounter full of fear and anxiety on your part?

LK:

I was totally anxious. Palpitatingly. The night before our first meeting I spent a depressing amount of time selecting and then pressing a skirt, this vanilla ruffled linen thing, and writing in my diary. I took myself out for lunch just before we were to meet and wrote again in my diary in the restaurant, but I was so wooden with nerves. Recently I found the diary and the entry: “I am sitting in a restaurant eating pad thai, waiting for my meeting with Margaret Atwood.” Pretty deep!

The meeting was a relief to my nerves and all-round pleasant experience. As she was through the year of mentorship, Margaret was kind, patient, and attentive. And of course she’s very funny. She always made me feel like what I was writing about was worthwhile. She wasn’t a gushy cheerleader, but occasionally she’d say, “You’ll have a book soon” and I’d say, “Really?” and feel really good inside.

CB:

We hear that writers are told to write what they know, and sometimes that leads us to assume that what they write is autobiographical, particularly with young writers. Are there autobiographical elements to this novel?

LK:

I think we all put ourselves into our writing. How can we not? Lucy’s world is familiar to me; I also grew up in Toronto, trolled Yonge Street and Kensington Market, discovered punk, and hung around some of the places she does. I was a shy kid. So I put some of my own feelings of being an outsider into the book. But the plot and characters aren’t autobiographical in the narrow sense.

CB:

Toronto, the city, plays an important part in the book, was this important to you and why? Were there any worries about setting it in Toronto making it unappealing to those outside Toronto, or in the U.S.?

LK:

Lucy’s story came to me against the backdrop of Toronto, right down to the streets and buildings, so it would’ve felt pretentious to transpose the story to another city for the sake of making the book sexier or internationally saleable. So far the book has sold to Holland and Germany. I think people like to read about the specificity of a city and the city is actually less important than the character’s experience of it.

CB:

Were there any scenes or ideas left on the cutting room floor that you wish had stayed in the book?

LK:

There is one chapter that never made it in. One of the most complicated characters is a woman named Crashing Wave who at one point was Lucy’s father’s lover. Crashing Wave haunts Lucy through the novel, because she represents secrecy, her father’s past life. I was fascinated by Crashing Wave’s character, and I did experiment with giving her an entire chapter at one point, just to see what would happen. I learned a lot of interesting things about Crashing Wave through writing the chapter—namely that she could have a book to herself—but in the end I decided to keep her presence shadowy, which felt more true to how Lucy would experience her in the context of her family.

CB:

Did you have ALF shoelaces as a young girl?

LK:

I wish! I don’t even know if ALF Shoelaces exist. But I did have an ALF blow-up doll that was about four and a half feet tall. I know because we could stand shoulder to shoulder. I used to drape his neck with Mardi Gras beads and I was known to try and fit his bloated torso into too-big hand-me-down tops from my sister. When I was around eleven I lost interest in the doll. My parents have an alarm system in their house and my Mom started using the doll to block the stairs, I guess to remind us not to go down in the middle of the night and trip the system off. So, my enduring memory of ALF is his four and a half foot inflated plastic body shining in the moonlight of my parents’ upstairs hallway.

CB:

What’s next for you fiction-wise?

LK:

I’m working on my second novel. Where We Have to Go was very much about adolescence and now I’m moving on into the twenties.

***

Lauren Kirshner is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s M.A. program in English in the field of Creative Writing, where she was mentored by Margaret Atwood. Kirshner lives in Toronto, where she is at work on her second novel. For more information, become a fan of Where We Have to Go on Facebook.

Chris Bucci is a literary agent and freelance editor living in Toronto

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