Lyse Champagne writes in French and in English. Her collection of short stories The Light That Remains was published in 2016. It chronicles the lives of six families before History closes in on them; snaps a picture before the film runs out. Many of her stories have appeared in literary magazines, including Descant, The New Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, Room of One’s Own, Windsor Review, and Wascana Review. Her first book, Double Vision: Reflections of a Bicultural Canadian was published by Key Porter and her play, Chicane de famille, won the David Smith Playwriting Prize. She lives in Ottawa with her family.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I wrote my first story when I was 11 so publishing my first book at 40 was exciting, if a bit anticlimactic. Little did I know it would take another twenty-five years to publish my second book and not for lack of trying.
2 - How did you come to memoir first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?
I didn’t come to memoir first. I had three unpublished novels to my credit and many of my short stories had appeared in literary magazines.
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?
I write by accretion. One sentence at a time, always going back to the beginning and adding a little more. I rarely write something straight through. I write many drafts, constantly polishing (it’s my favourite part) and revising.
For my latest project, The Light That Remains, my writing process remained the same but was preceded by months of research. For each story, I immersed myself in the history and culture of my characters, reading their literature, listening to their music, watching feature and documentary films, exploring their geography, architecture, language, customs, and social structures. It’s amazing what you can learn from listening to a language you don’t understand, especially if you are listening to a poem or a lullaby or an ancient hymn.
4 - Where does a work of prose 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 usually know before I start if it will be a novel or a short story.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love public readings. I am comfortable on stage and welcome the opportunity to read a story aloud. The whole process appeals to me: from choosing the right passage, rehearsing the way I will read it, to the event itself. I have listened to many writers read and find that I always learn something new from listening to a story read by the person who wrote it.
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 think about writing a lot. What is it for? Would I serve the world better by doing something else? Is it just an act of self-indulgence?
I am more concerned with the why than the when or where of a story. The context. Why did this happen? This includes the probability that there is no answer to the question. That something can be random.
Writing to me is about understanding. People, events, emotions. Trying to understand because it is an incremental, never-ending process. It’s like knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize how little you know. The more you think you understand, the more you realize how little you understand.
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?
The circumstances change but the role stays the same. To speak the truth. To challenge power.
To help ourselves and others to understand. This is the role of every human, writer or not. As writers, we take an extra step: we write it down, we put our name to it, we send it out into the world.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
No. I welcome the feedback. Having worked as an editor (not for fiction) for many years, I understand the process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Pay attention. It not only makes you a better writer but a better partner, parent, friend, citizen. It forces you out of your head and into the real world.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (memoir to short story)? What do you see as the appeal?
I started with novels. Wrote short stories because they were easier to publish although harder to write. I’ve also written two plays and the memoir. I have no talent for poetry which I consider the most rigorous of the literary forms.
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?
I write every day of the year, even on Christmas. Even on vacation. Even in hospital. I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years. I have a minimum but no maximum. I average three hours a day at the beginning of a project which grows to five or more hours a day as I get to the revising and editing stage and even longer hours when I am getting it ready for publication. But writing isn’t just about sitting at your desk with a pen or a laptop. You write while you walk, wait for the bus, wash dishes, buy groceries, even while you sleep.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I’m stalled, I work on some other project. I read. I go for longer walks.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Jergens lotion, the smell of my mother’s hands.
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?
Writing comes from paying attention to what is happening around you. Reading enlarges the world you live in, offers insights you might never have had, reminds you of how many ways there are to tell a story. I love art and often find a story in a painting or sculpture. Love all kinds of music. And I find film very inspiring, how the story flows from the images more than the words spoken on the screen.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is an impossible question. There are so many writers I love and each of them has had an impact whether I can pinpoint it or not. And because I read in French and English (and translations from other languages), the influences are many. As far as my writing short stories are concerned, the writers who have influenced me the most are Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Grace Paley, and Guy de Maupassant. I love nineteenth century writers (George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and the great Russian writers, Tolstoy in particular). I can’t begin to list all the contemporary novelists I love so I won’t even try. Suffice it to say, there are not enough days in a life to read them all, let alone reread their best works.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Publish one of my novels.
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’d have been a history professor.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t remember ever thinking I’m going to be a writer. I just started writing when I was 11.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read in English was Lila by Marilynne Robinson. And in French, Ru by Kim Thúy.
The last great film I saw was Coming Home, by Zhang Yimou.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel about a journalist who loses her job and writes a blog, a rant about the gutting of journalism, about truth and ethics and politics.
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