Claudia Casper is the author of three novels: The Reconstruction, The Continuation of Love By Other Means, shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and The Mercy Journals. She is writing a screenplay adaptation of The Reconstruction for a 3D feature film co-production. She has taught writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and been a long-time mentor for Vancouver Manuscript Intensive. Claudia lives in Vancouver, BC.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
a) My first book, The Reconstruction, after its first rejection, was the cause of a bidding war. It was like being queen for a day. When the novel came out I was seven and a half months pregnant, and so all the attention it received (television and radio interviews, starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, reviews in the NYT, the Independent, etc.) came at me through a kind of bovine haze. I don’t think I understood quite what it meant. I was overwhelmed. I have a Goldilocks and the Three Bears observation about life when you’re a human – everything is either too much or not enough. The times when we get just the right amount of anything, stimulation, satiety, demand or love, are very rare. The introvert side of me was relieved to go back to the quiet pleasure/torment of writing the next novel.
b) My first novel was about evolution, the second reproduction and gender conflict and this new one, The Mercy Journals, is about war and our future as a species, so they are thematically linked in a biological progression – past, present and future. With The Continuation of Love by Other Means, I moved into a swifter moving, linear narrative with sparer prose, and in The Mercy Journals I worked even more assiduously to cut anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary to the story. The first person narrator was new for me, as was the epistolary form (the story is written as two journals) and the constricting rigors of the form were both thrilling and brain-breaking. My hope is that readers experience this novel as though Allen Quincy, the main character, were whispering his story directly in their ears.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I started writing short stories, but the ideas I wanted to explore quickly became novel-length. You can do anything in the wide, open spaces of a novel, as long as it isn’t boring and the work achieves that slightly miraculous wholeness when the elements start pinging and reverberating against each other, creating a kind of chain reaction that heats up emotions and intensifies meaning.
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?
My process is inefficiently organic. The main idea underlying a novel shows up first, then characters and scenes I know will have to be in. I start taking notes on cue cards, pads of paper, cellphone, desktop, occasionally writing scene fragments, and when I have enough I put them in a folder. This goes on for a year or several, usually when I am finishing my previous novel. I start researching and reading on the subject. When the previous work is finished, I reread all my notes, pack them into my head, and begin a first draft. That takes about a year, and that first draft shows me what the shape of the novel will be, and probably about half of it stays. Then the years of rewriting and further research begin.
4 - Where does a work of 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?
The Reconstruction started with a desire to know who Lucy (the nickname given to the 3 million-year-old fossil of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia) was and what it meant to a woman today that she was descended from her. My second novel started with a desire to understand the gender conflict through the biological lens of reproduction and the emotional lens of the all-consuming love a parent feels for their children. My third novel, The Mercy Journals, arose from a desire to deconstruct the self-righteous rhetoric nations wrap themselves in during violent conflict and a sense that unless we accept that murderous, genocidal behaviour is a part of who we are as a species, we can never really hope to control it. I wanted to understand PTSD as a fundamentally human reaction to horror and I wanted to understand the implications of climate change for our culture. My thinking about who we are as a species and where we might be headed evolves with each new book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. They’re when you get to actively experience how readers are receiving your work, how the words make the leap across the void to other minds. They’re not particularly part of my creative process, except perhaps during the final edit when I anticipate reading aloud. Until then my tuning fork is up for the internal rhythm of reading, more than the rhythm of speaking aloud.
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?
One question foremost in my mind is what is the role of the novel in the age of the internet and the moving visual image. When we are all deluged with content, what can the novel offer us, uniquely, to lay claim not just to our time, but an even more scarce resource, our attention? I wondered whether the novel’s relevance to society was waning and posed myself the question, what does the novel do better than any other medium? Two things came to mind immediately. A novel takes us into the interior world of a character with an intimacy no other medium even comes close to achieving, and lets us share the experience of the meaning of that life. Also, novels weave in threads from myths, fairy tales and other literary works, both bringing them forward in time in a way that deepens our present existence, and reconnecting us backwards with a direct link to the roots of our culture. The Mercy Journals weaves threads from Cain and Abel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella and Hamlet.
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?
That is to be determined by the larger culture. The writer does not have any control over what happens with a book other than writing it.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Generally, I have found working with editors to be exciting and joyous – they are close companions after years of solitude, working to make your book the best it can be. Working with Brian Lam at Arsenal Pulp on this novel was a pleasure – he had a clarity, assurance and attentiveness that calmed any uncertainties I had. Susan Safyan, who worked more closely on the text, was also a delight – she caught inconsistencies and gaps of logic that had eluded me. I felt lucky. However, I have also had unhelpful experiences – where I lost a year trying to adapt a manuscript to an editor’s notes when ultimately we were not working toward the same book. I then had to spend months sorting through the changes I thought added to the book, cutting the rest. The process did not hurt the final manuscript because I had a clear idea of what I wanted the book to be, but it probably wasted precious time from my creative output. My instinct, though, is to always listen to an editor and see if there’s a way to move forward with their comments in a way that will improve the book. There’s no point in having your ‘perfect’ manuscript in a drawer, unseen by anybody but a few friends and relations.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Recently, I have come to realize how much I hate advice. As someone who has given profligate amounts of unasked for advice in my lifetime, I am trying to mend my ways (but it’s hard, almost as hard, though not quite, as giving up complaining, which I have no intention of doing). Advice, subversively, seeks to place the giver above the receiver. That being said, I do like something Jean Cocteau said, and I paraphrase – what people criticize you most for in your art, that is your talent, do it even more.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I feel unleashed in different ways in fiction and non-fiction. I love the freedom and the wild, open spaces of fiction, where I can build something completely new and unique as long as it’s compelling. Then I love being able to express ideas explicitly in non-fiction, to articulate thinking that drives the fiction. Writing book reviews is a way to give back to the professional community and to further articulate my thoughts on what makes fiction truly sing. Reviewing non-fiction books on anthropology, feminism, war, allow me to tangle with points of view on subjects I am impassioned by.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My writing routine has changed over time. Right now, I get up at 7:30, I have coffee, I dick around on the internet for an hour or so, then I write, refuelling with coffee until I get hungry, usually around 1. I eat something with the idea of keeping it light enough that the blood doesn’t completely leave my brain and write for an hour or two more. After that, my mind is spent for the day, refilling during sleep. I adore the feeling of having uninterrupted writing time.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My writing never gets stalled, which is a surprising admission given how long it takes me to finish a book. When I sense resistance in the text, I get a separate pad of paper and write out questions to myself. I figure out what avoidance is stumping me. A lot of fiction writing comes down to the asking and answering of questions.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
One of the flash cards I had pinned to my bulletin board above my desk as I wrote The Mercy Journals was, embarrassingly, “write like a Billy Idol base line.” Science and nature influence all my work.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Important for my work over time are the writers (among others): Kurt Vonnegut, Marilynne Robinson, J.M. Coetzee, Anita Brookner, E. Annie Proulx, Carlos Fuentes, David Mitchell, Dennis Lehane.
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s work has been important in all three novels. Her research and writing has informed and stretched my thinking about evolution, reproduction, violent conflict, and altruism.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write three more books. Boost my inadequate French to true fluency. Keep chickens, maybe a pygmy goat.
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 like the life I’m living, but if I got an extra life, I’d choose to be an Italian opera singer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think everyone starts off writing – poems, diary entries, school assignments. I just didn’t stop.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. Fascinating non-fiction narrative form using only the voices of people she interviewed, but organized in a way that builds meaning – she reveals the soul of the post-Soviet citizen. Interestingly, as a writer who only uses real people’s voices, she just won the Nobel Prize for literature. The last great film I saw, well there are two. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, by director Ana Lily Amirpour. This is a very cool cult film, an Iranian vampire spaghetti western, by a hot new talent. Her next film is a post-apocalyptic cannibal love story set in a Texas wasteland, starring Jason Momoa, Jim Carry and Keanu Reeves. This week I rewatched Wild Tales, by Argentinian filmmaker, Damian Szifron. Very dark humour, lots of energy, just as good the second time.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I can’t talk about the next novel yet, though I have a sense of the form, naturally I have the theme, I have some scenes, and some of the characters.
I am co-authoring a screenplay of my first novel, The Reconstruction, for a France/Canada 3D feature film. I just came back from an intense three weeks of writing with the producer/director and director/cinematographer in what was a three-way mind meld in French and English. There were times I felt like a stunned cow just standing, staring at a wall, the level of concentration was so demanding. But that’s the beauty of collaboration – you bull through (to use another bovine trope) – and are lifted by the other minds. None of us seemed to hit the wall at the same time. I am fascinated by the differences in the way a story is told in film as opposed to a novel. You cannot use a letter, for example, that one of the characters has written – that’s ‘telephoning’ it in. Very bad.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;