Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Tessa McWatt

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McWatt Tessa (photo credit  Caroline Benjo)

Hot off the presses, Governor General's Literary Award-nominated writer Tessa McWatt's brand new novel, Vital Signs (Random House Canada) has been called "Part love story, part forensic examination of the psyche". The book features original drawings by New York-based artist Aleksandar Macasev.

Tessa McWatt talks to Open Book about her new book, emotional road signs and the future of reading.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Vital Signs.

Tessa McWatt:

Vital Signs is a love story that explores a long-term marriage, at a moment when the wife’s life is threatened by a serious medical condition. Mike, Anna’s husband, finds himself more in love with his wife after 30 years than he ever imagined possible. It’s a story about the complexity of love, the impossibility of words being enough to express that complexity and it explores different levels and forms of language. It has a very important graphic language in the form of international signs, which are designed by Mike as he tries to understand just how best to communicate with his wife.

OB:

Readers are sometimes eager to interpret fiction as autobiographical. What impact does this have on your writing? In that sense, is it ever intimidating to write about relationships?

TM:

I think all writers deal with this question differently, but I can’t imagine how any writer doesn’t bring in autobiographical elements. I have never written anything overtly autobiographical; on the other hand, all of my characters have bits of me in them. They have to, really, for them to be written with any sort of compassion or passion. I don’t find it intimidating to write about relationships, because my joy is in discovering those relationships between characters. You think they’re one thing, but as you’re writing them they become something else entirely.

OB:

What was most challenging about writing or publishing this book?

TM:

The most challenging aspect of this book was working with the graphics. I worked with an artist from New York who listened to me describe abstractions for human emotions — he’d hear me say things like, “What would be the international sign for forgiveness?” It was always a risk to write a book that depended on another narrative layer that was entirely visual, but that was a wonderful challenge, and for me it had a beautiful outcome.

OB:

What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?

TM:

Language; self-awareness; the body; cultural politics.

OB:

You’ve spoken in the past about a desire to mix other art forms with writing (music, video, etc). What opportunities do you foresee in that vein as publishing methods evolve?

TM:

I have mixed art/graphics with text in Vital Signs, and that was a thrilling experience, but at first it caused some problems when publishers couldn’t read it on their e-readers, but I think we’ve sorted that out now. I’m very excited about the potential for multi-media work with writing as the core. I’ve long wanted to have soundscapes that are led by text, and I think iPads and other e-publishing might allow that to happen more easily. Having said that, however, perhaps the more ‘multi’ media becomes, the more subversive and exciting it will be to simply have words on their own, between covers, in their private relationship with the reader’s imagination, without any other distractions. This is where books still hold sway over other media.

OB:

How does your work as a writing teacher and mentor affect your own writing process?

TM:

Teaching involves giving, and sometimes you receive much more than you expect in return. There’s a sharing of the process of writing, and I learn a lot about my own process by articulating it for others. And I also learn just how much I still have to explore as a writer.

OB:

What impact has your move to London had on your writing process?

TM:

London is both magical and infuriating, like a teenager perhaps, and offers chaos, dynamic exchanges and regular surprises. It has as many nooks and crannies for the imagination to explore as it does for the physical person to explore.

OB:

What books or authors would you recommend to British friends looking to get a crash course in Canadian literature?

TM:

There are so many wonderful Canadian authors, and I tell British friends that it’s the healthiest place on the planet for writers. I recommend them to my friends all the time. There are those that most Brits already know, whom I too love, like Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro, but then there is also a wide spectrum of other writers who have made a mark on me (in no particular order): Margaret Laurence, Al Purdy, Anne Carson, Anne Michaels, Marie Claire Blais, Dionne Brand, Nino Ricci, Wayson Choy, Austin Clarke, Marian Engel, Barbara Gowdy, Anne Marie McDonald, Camilla Gibb, Rohinton Mistry, bp Nichol, Elizabeth Smart, Miriam Toews, Christopher Dewdney, Nancy Houston, Carol Shields. I could go on and on.

OB:

What are you working on now?

TM:

I’m writing a novel that involves 4 different ways of looking at love.


Tessa McWatt was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana), moved to Canada with her family when she was three, and grew up in Toronto. She is the author of five novels; her second, Dragons Cry, was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and the City of Toronto Book Award. She developed and leads the MA Writing: Imaginative Practice programme at the University of East London, and is working with the British novelist, art historian and painter John Berger to develop a film based on his novel To the Wedding. She divides her time between London and Toronto.

For more information about Vital Signs 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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