Heather Jessup grew up in Vancouver and now lives in Halifax. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto and a creative writing instructor at Dalhousie University. Her fiction, poetry and reviews have been published in literary journals across Canada and in the United States. The Lightning Field is her first novel.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
Which part of the first book? The writing of it, which took ten years? Or the publishing of it? The having it out there in the world outside my head, in its handsome-looking dust jacket? The days of sitting myself down at my desk, even if I wanted to be outside, or doing anything else other than writing? The relief of moving on to other lives and stories that have been stuck in my head? I don’t know if my first book has changed my life. I’ve travelled a heck of a lot this year. I’ve had tremendous experiences at writing festivals, in elementary schools, and in libraries. I’ve met lovely writers I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet if I too wasn’t now magically a writer in a more public sense. I met the lovely Shelagh Rogers. But is my life changed? In the way any life changes over the course of ten years, I suppose. Over many cups of coffee, through many conversations, with many dear friends, over many mornings.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I’ve always written in all three genres, without necessarily worrying very distinctly about which was which. But poetry somehow let me say what I was thinking and feeling best when I first started to write. Poetry came most easily to me – now I find writing a poem extraordinarily difficult. I need to be open and slow to the world in a way that I haven’t had a chance to be in the past few years. I miss writing poetry, although I still read poetry quite a lot.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially 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?
Every writing project I’ve worked on has been a different entity and has required different amounts of time. I have short stories that I’ve tinkered at for seven years. I have poems that have come out Athena-like at first. I tend to like projects that involve research, which can involve a slow process of reading, visiting archives, and taking out library books. Copious notes for some stories, a blind leap into that swimming pool of a blank page with others. Always careful editing.
4 - Where does a project 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 finished my first novel The Lightning Field by telling myself that I was just writing a series of prose poems. Thinking that I’m writing a “book” from the very beginning seems very scary to me. Especially given that a book involves a publisher and readers and a whole lot of people outside of my room with its desk and its window. I think what ultimately makes a good piece of writing is a whole bunch of very good sentences – so I try to take it back to that: the sentence. Every project begins with a sentence. Hemingway suggests trying to write the “truest” one. This is incredibly good advice, but much more difficult than at first it sounds.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings – both sitting and listening to writers, and also reading my work to others. I often think when I’m attending readings how beautiful it is that even in these days of a million personal and technological distractions, we as humans still gather to hear stories and poems being told to us in cafés and bars and classrooms and libraries. It makes me wish for a warm fire and lots of stars.
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 don’t know if I would use the term theoretical concerns so much as curiosities or obsessions. In The Lightning Field I was wondering about disappointments and expectations. What we do when our lives don’t work out as we’d imagined them. I actually think that personal disasters or disappointments can be incredibly good for us, in revealing what we hadn’t yet imagined for ourselves, in demonstrating reserves we might not have known otherwise.
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?
Attendants to the world. We pay attention to the details of crooked hemlines, glass on pavement, bathtubs, balloons, starlings, the crispness of good baguettes, all of which might otherwise go unnoticed. In noticing, we ask readers to notice too: to live more fully to what at first seem like insubstantial details. But really, to recognize people in their humanness and things in their thingness might actually be the most important part of life. Writing and reading is like the slow movement of the mind: taste everything fully. Linger, a good book might tell us.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find the process of working with an editor absolutely essential. An editor allows the writing to be seen again differently, for a writer to re-vision or revise what has come before. I don’t consider a piece finished unless it has been edited by a reader and wise-person I trust. I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with outstanding mentors and editors: Michael Winter, Jack Hodgins, Lisa Moore, Kate Stearns, Sarah Selecky, Stephanie Bolster, Derk Wynand, Lorna Crozier, and so many more.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do what you love.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t know if I find any kind of writing easy, but I just can’t imagine only writing in one genre. Some thoughts are poems. Some are stories. Some are longer pieces of fiction. Some thinking requires an academic project. Sometimes I wish I could write comic books. The appeal? Perhaps the same feeling that comes when I pack my purple wheely suitcase for a voyage: the pleasure of not knowing what will happen.
What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Right now my writing routine varies in accordance with other obligations in my life. I wish my routine was more regular than it is at the moment. I would like to say I rise and immediately sit down to write and bluebirds swoop down to bring me my coffee, and I never run out of good ideas – but teaching comes in, and this whole PhD I’m working on, and life, and making a living. My best attempt lately at finding writing-time is to set a kitchen timer for 45 minutes. Sometimes 45 minutes of writing a day feels like a miracle. Sometimes I can fit 5 or 6 of these timed writing spells into a day. With every new project I kind of feel like I’m still trying to figure out how to be a writer. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to be an academic writer as well as a creative writer. Really I don’t want them to be too terribly different.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I usually do laundry. If I’m stuck, I’m stuck. And if I’m stuck, I may as well have clean clothes. Or I return library books. Or go for a run. A page usually looks different after I’ve seen the sky.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home. That dreaded word for those of us without a pair of ruby slippers. I have had many homes with many different fragrances. The smell of wool reminds me of Regina, because my mom was a weaver then, and I used to help her card the yarn. The smell of Gortex and rain on concrete remind me of Vancouver, and cedar reminds me of Gabriola Island. The smell of cigarettes and a freshly pulled café au lait remind me of Montréal. The smell of slightly damp library books reminds me of Toronto. Salt air, Warren’s homemade curry, and cinnamony market-crêpes remind me of Halifax. Which one of these places is home is another question entirely. I love them all.
14 - 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?
Books inspire me most stylistically, but yes, also visual art (right now the art of Jeff Wall and Brian Jungen and Edouard Manet), and music (Tom Power’s Deep Roots on CBC Radio Two), and a well-eavesdropped conversation (“You know the Titanic wouldn’t have sunk if it weren’t for the British steel. Now British steel is strong, sure, but it’s brittle. That iceberg just poked at the boat and Bob’s your uncle it was over”). Isn’t anything an influence if one stops to really pay attention to it? Spider webs? Cherry blossoms? The house on the side of the road on the way to Great Village that sells quilts? Immanuel Kant?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writers who are truly important to me right now are my students. I’ve just taught my first two semesters of creative writing fiction at Dalhousie, and the imagination, revision, insight, and boldness of my students inspires me continually. They are superstars.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to take flamenco classes in Seville and walk the Camino de Santiago.
17 - 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?
I don’t really want to attempt another occupation right now. I love writing. I love teaching. I love being a student. Right now I’m all three. I suppose, if pressed, I would choose an occupation equally impractical and financially-absurd: an organic farmer, a letterpress operator, a small-press editor, a tinker, a parent, a button-maker, a purveyor of fine homemade preserves, someone who gets paid to ride her bike. Whatever the job, I would need to be called to it by love (see question 9).
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Foolishness and falling in love with language made me write. Stubbornness and perseverance helped to get a book done.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished reading Scott Fotheringham’s new (first) book The Rest Is Silence and it was pretty darn phenomenal. A few of my latest favourite reads have been Cloud Atlas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Middlemarch, and Amanda Jernigan’s collection of poetry Groundwork. The last few great films I’ve watched have been by the French director François Truffaut: 400 Blows, and Stolen Kisses, with the wonderful character of Antoine Dionel. Jean-Pierre Léaud’s face is a marvel.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on my dissertation for my PhD at the University of Toronto in English Literature. It’s about the distinctions between truth and fiction in contemporary Canadian literature and visual art.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;