Sunday, August 16, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Alice Zorn

Alice Zorn published a collection of short fiction, Ruins & Relics, with NeWest Press in 2009. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines, including Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, and Room of One's Own. Originally from Ontario, she now lives in Montreal.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book was published only four months ago. It hasn't had a chance to change my life yet. (Will it?) Certainly, I'm happy that I finally had a book published after writing for almost twenty years. It helps me believe I can publish another.

My most recent book would be the novel I began in 2005 and just finished. It's obviously bigger and longer, with more characters and a more complex narrative—all of which felt exciting at the outset, if daunting as the months grew into years. Writing a novel—actually, no, finishing a novel, because I tried to write one before—demands a long-term relationship with the characters that short fiction doesn't.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

Character. My writing is character-oriented.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

When I get an idea for a short story, I try to get a first draft on paper as quickly as possible, ideally within a couple of uninterrupted days. I rarely make notes—maybe some lines of dialogue, a detail, a character trait. But then I take months, even a year, before I decide the story is finished. I put it aside, reread, and revise; put it aside, reread, and revise. I diddle with syntax. I add detail. I remove it. I slide sentences around. The narrative usually stays the same. I don't change point of view or introduce new characters or write a new beginning. I might change every word before I'm finished, but I don't tamper with the original shape of the story.

I wrote the novel like that too. One complete draft—which took eight months—before I started editing. For the novel I had notes to help organize the material, though I mostly forgot about them when I was writing. The first draft was chaos. Between the first and the final draft, I cut two hundred pages.

I should add that I used to write first draft longhand, but typing the novel from a knee-high stack of notebooks was such a chore that I decided to start writing on the keyboard. And that's changed how I write first draft, because now I edit as I'm writing.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I'm not sure where fiction begins for me. I'll hear a man shout while I'm cycling or I'll see an abandoned kitchen chair outside a house, and something gets triggered. I feel doors opening, one onto another, and if I can see far enough past the doorways, I might have a story. I wish I knew how the trigger works, because I'd pull it more often.

My short stories, even when they share the same characters, are individually distinct. The novel was a book from the start. I knew it was a big project that was going to develop over a few hundred pages.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Public readings play no role in my writing process. But I like hearing how the words sound out loud. I enjoy the sense of people listening.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I have no theories related to writing. For me, fiction poses moral and emotional dilemmas within a social context. I don't try to answer so much as to explore.

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I believe people have a desire for stories. Stories give shape to detail which would otherwise be random. Writers are the people who tell the stories. Naïve as that sounds, it's my platform.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I thoroughly enjoyed working with Suzette Mayr at NeWest Press. She helped tighten my fiction, pointed out discrepancies and blanks, asked important questions—all without interfering with the original story. She is both rigorous and respectful, a fantastic editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Not to shy away from emotional moments—given to me directly—and which I needed to hear.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I wake in the morning, make tea, and turn on my computer. No phone calls, no radio. I try to work for at least four hours a day. My job that pays the bills starts at three p.m. I adhere to that routine because it works for me.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I return to where the writing worked. I reread and try to pick up the threads. When that doesn't work, I go for a walk or a cycle. I relax. I read. I see a movie. For a longer stall, I translate—French to English—to remind my brain what writing is.

12 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie? Drive or fly (or sail)? Laptop or desktop?

Train, bus, bicycle, or foot. I fly only when I have no other choice.
Try me on Alice in Wonderland, not Archie comics.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above, including travel. Film, visual art, music, and theater excite me as ambient influences. An urban environment is every bit as important a contextual influence as nature. Science, too, because I work in a hospital. I love medical language. (Dehiscence, popliteal, anastomosis…) And though I don't normally keep a journal, I carry a notebook when I'm travelling to document details which I later use when writing.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Writers whose style has marked the way I think about writing: Virginia Woolf, Rachel Seiffert, Lisa Moore, Amy Bloom, Michael Crummey, Kiran Desai, William Faulkner, Zadie Smith, David Bergen, Bruce Chatwin, Jane Austen, Gail Scott, Sandra Birdsell, Don DeLillo, Helen Humphreys, James Salter, J.M. Coetzee, Steven Heighton...
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit Chile and Argentina. Get a jack loom.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Teach young children.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I have read obsessively from a young age, and wanted to engage with books even more than just reading them. I studied literature, up to several years of graduate school, but that didn't satisfy. It didn't occur to me that I could write, though, until I was almost thirty.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I'm impressed by Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly which I'm reading at the moment. The last great film would be The Lives of Others.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Short fiction, perhaps with a new collection in view. I'm not ready to embark on another novel yet.

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