Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Martha Schabas

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Martha Schabas credit Natasha Negrea

In Martha Schabas’ debut novel, 14-year-old Georgia turns to the rigor and structure of ballet to combat the chaos of adolescence. Martha talks to Open Book about Various Positions (Random House Canada) and her literary experiences, from creative writing workshops to the economics of the writing life.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, Various Positions.

Martha Schabas:

Various Positions is about women, power, devotion, growing up and about different ways that bodies are aestheticized. I’d say the novel hinges on the politics of the female body as they’re experienced by a 14-year-old girl called Georgia. Georgia’s starting to realize the extent to which conceptualizations of femininity and feminism have been annexed by the public domain, that having a body poses a very particular social and political problem for women. I think that Georgia does her best to resolve this problem, but her so-called solution is pretty troubling — not to mention illegal and a bit creepy.

OB:

When did you realize that the world of professional ballet training would provide such rich material for a novel?

MS:

Ballet was actually a late addition to the book, a kind of happy accident. Writing about a 14-year-old had me, naturally, dipping back into my own early teens, when I happened to be a serious ballet student. Since the book is so grounded in corporeality, and ballet was so formative for me in that way, I think it just managed to wriggle its way into the story. It may be hard to believe, but the fact that ballet was such a perfect metaphor for everything I wanted to explore didn’t occur to me until I was well into the first draft. Ballet is both a foil and an analogue for so many contemporary feminist issues. I think ballet gets right at the heart of the essentialist debate: does ballet glorify an aesthetic ideal of fragility and weightlessness? Is there something inherently inferior about this ideal, or is this thinking only symptomatic of patriarchy? What does female strength look like when it’s entirely self-determined?

OB:

How did your main character, Georgia, develop as you continued to work on Various Positions?

MS:

She got younger. I originally imagined Georgia in her late teens, or even her early twenties, and able to articulate and expound upon many of the novel’s themes. But as I wrote, what fascinated me was the younger voice that came through in flashbacks, the girl who was encountering these paradoxes for the first time and doing her best to just feel her way through them. There’s something excruciatingly shrewd about those little moments when, as adolescents, we make discoveries about the world that are totally irreconcilable with what we previously understood of it. I think a good part of the book is a distillation of these moments.

OB:

Various Positions is your first novel. What was the most challenging aspect of the writing process?

MS:

Paying the rent at the same time. I wrote most of the book when I was living in London, England. I quit my real job at a law publication and started working part-time at a bookstore. I did everything I could to save money, including vowing never to take the tube — you could buy a weekly bus pass for an unbelievable thirteen pounds. Since the bookstore was near Baker Street and I lived way out in Hackney, this meant epic commutes across London three or four times a week. I finally clued in that it would make more sense to stay at work an extra couple of hours and treat myself to a tube ride.

OB:

Tell us about your experience at the University of East Anglia. What is their M. A. in Creative Writing program like?

MS:

Creative Writing programs are strange creatures by nature. There’s very little that’s actually pedagogical about them; instead, you get a bunch of aspiring writers projecting their own preferences and uncertainties onto each other’s work. If that sounds a bit negative, I don’t mean it to. I think I learnt the most that year through spirited argument with my peers and writing tutors, trying to get at the crux of what makes good writing “good.” The best discussions often took place in the pub after class, but that was a crucial part of the experience, having a sense of community and time to just get to work. I made a few lifelong friends that year and cobbled together a bit of confidence. So I guess, all in all, it was pretty great.

OB:

Did you get a sense of how the literary scene in Britain compares to Canada's?

MS:

I think that, in Canada, there’s really interesting, experimental writing happening just at the fringes of publishing, but that there’s a general hesitancy to back debut authors. In the UK, and maybe just on account of its larger market, there seems to be a real appetite to “discover” the next great thing. Call it Zadie Smith-syndrome, who knows, but I’ve read so many wonderful UK debuts in the past five-odd years, most written by novelists under 35: Evie Wyld, Edward Hogan, and Adam Foulds to name a few.

OB:

Who are some of your favourite authors?

MS:

Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Woolf, Jean Rhys, Fitzgerald, Lawrence Durell, John Banville, Anne Enright, Philip Roth, Michael Ondaatje and Gwendoline Riley.

OB:

What is the best advice you've ever received as a writer?

MS:

Gee, that’s a tough one. I wish I had a cherished morsel of wisdom. I’m not sure that I do. In fact, the only advice I replay in my head from time to time is a corny, Latin proverb — providence favours the brave. It was imparted to me at the age of 16 while I was losing a game of chess. It’s pretty all-purpose material.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

MS:

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, whom I’ve been meaning to read for ages. I’m smitten so far. His writing combines many of the qualities I value most in literature; it’s beautifully written, intellectual, ruminative and falls somewhere between melancholic and completely depressing.

OB:

Are you at work on another project? What can you tell us about it?

MS:

I’m working on my second novel. I can’t tell you anything about it. Nietzsche said we only find words for that which is already dead in our hearts. Yes, this implicates writing too, but better to limit the amount of killing, I think.

Martha Schabas was born in Toronto. She earned a B.A. in Political Science from McGill University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she received the David Higham Literary Award. Her articles, book reviews and short fiction have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Broken Pencil and Maisonneuve. She is currently completing an M.A. in English Literature at Queen’s University. This is her first novel.

For more information about Various Positions please visit the Random House Canada website.

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

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