Friday, September 26, 2008

An Interview with Chandra Mayor

Chandra Mayor, the ever-so-gracious Winnipeg writer, agreed to answer a few questions about her new collection of short stories, All the Pretty Girls.

Chandra is the author of two previous books: a novel, Cherry, and a book of poetry, August Witch.

She also teaches creative writing here in Winnipeg.

Brad Hartle: There is something about your writing that is unmistakably Winnipeg. It's in the tone of the stories, the language that characters use, in the things they spend their time doing and the things they scoff at doing. How has Winnipeg influenced your writing and what is it about this city that has made you want to write about it (aside from the fact that you live here)?

Chandra Mayor: Actually, part of my answer is, truly, because I live here. I realized the other day that I haven’t spent more than a week in any other place than Winnipeg for over 20 years. That’s a long time. Mostly, though, that’s by choice. There’s much that I like about living here, and very much that I like about writing here, and about writing about here. I think that in some ways it’s much harder to set a book in New York or Toronto or London; so very many of those stories have already been told, and so many of those places have already been written. And so many of Winnipeg’s stories are still unwritten. For me, it’s a city of ghosts (ghosts of people I’ve known, places that might or might not still exist, and ghosts of various versions of myself), without quite the same literary ghosts clouding one’s vision. (How do you write about Toronto ravines, for example, without Atwood’s terrifying little Cat’s Eye girls smirking at your elbow?). And chasing ghosts always feels compelling to me.

Plus, Winnipeg is such a bizarre and ornery and tangled up city – wildly diverse and defiant neighbourhoods that barely deign to be part of Winnipeg at all (think Transcona or St. Boniface). Winnipeg is permeated with this fierce, no-bullshit, blue collar mentality that cuts any attempts at pretension off at the knee caps, and yet it wraps its arms around these incredible, abrupt, and almost unbridgeable socio-economic and racial divides – our dirty little secrets. It’s an isolated prairie island – hours and hours away from any other city – that serves to both protect its quirkiness, and also to nurture a DIY attitude to everything from culture-creation (music, theatre, festivals, etc. etc.) to fashion (remember late 80s Cougar boots and long-johns under flowered peasant skirts?) to accents (listen to Jian Ghomeshi interview Randy Bachman sometime) to political movements (Nellie McClung was a Manitoban).

It’s a “Hey, let’s put on a show!” kind of town – and the people putting on the shows all have booster cables in the trunks of their cars, and know how to use them. Winnipeg’s hearts are tough and scruffy and scarred and frost-bitten – and still, wide-open. As a writer, what more could you ask for?

BH: With the publication of All the Pretty Girls, you have now completed a book of short stories, a novel and a book of poems. As you were writing the stories within All the Pretty Girls, did you find that writing short fiction is more like writing poetry or closer to writing a novel? Or is writing just writing?

CM: When you’re sitting at the computer, staring at the blank screen and weeping a little, writing is just writing. At the same time, the interplay between form and content fascinates me. When I started the stories in All the Pretty Girls, I didn’t really know a damn thing about short fiction. I’m not sure that I still do, but I learned a lot. The short story form requires a similar kind of economy, of writing close to the bone, that poetry does, and yet, more like a novel, is engaged with different kinds of plot requirements. (Or, at least, expectations of plot). It’s the notion of plot that I feel I learned the most about in this project.

Sometimes I’d send drafts of the stories to my girlfriend (then living in Montreal). She’d call me and say, “The writing’s really beautiful [she’s required to say that, obviously], but, you know, nothing really happens.” I’d be silent on the other end of the phone for a moment, and say, “Oh, yeah. Do you think that matters?” “Umm,” she’d very diplomatically answer. “Yes. Yes, I do.” And I’d laugh, and take another crack at it. I started off that project trying to capture moments. I hope, by the end of it, I also, sometimes, figured out how to capture movement.

BH: Your stories are filled with telling little gestures, gestures that hint at the reader that everything isn't as it seems. Sometimes these gestures suggest that things are far worse than they seem, like the way an old man runs his fingers through the hair of a little girl, and sometimes these gestures are in the form of small acts of kindness, even grace, like a bag of Wonder Bread left on the doorknob of a down-and-out neighbour. These moments, however brief, however sparse, seem to shine amidst all the gritty-meanness and selfishness that mark so many of your characters. Why is it important to you that your fiction contain these little gestures and how do you work to incorporate them into your stories?

CM: This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer. I’m not sure how to respond without sounding trite. I think that people are complicated, messy, and fragile. No one is reliably selfish absolutely all of the time (just as no one is reliably kind all the time). It’s part of what makes bad relationships so hard to extricate yourself from; just at the moment that you decide that your partner is a total jerk, they do something small and vulnerable and sweet, and you get sucked back in. Black-and-white characters and situations don’t make for compelling fiction – largely, I think, because they’re just not true. And if it’s not true, it doesn’t resonate. And if I’m writing untrue things and characters, and it doesn’t resonate with anyone, I’m doing a lousy job as a writer. (And probably being lazy). When I write, I try to get right inside of those places and those people. For me, if it doesn’t feel emotionally wrenching to create, then I’m probably not actually inside, and I’m probably not writing the true things. But when I can get inside the true things, then those small gestures and moments don’t feel like something I have to consciously incorporate or layer – in some ways, the gestures and moments themselves are the story, and everything else gets built around them.

BH: Children play an important part in your stories, like in Casey and Finnegan. The kids are usually on the periphery of things, but they are crucial to the tension that your stories have. What is it about children you hope to capture and what are the challenges in writing about them?

CM: One of the biggest challenges in writing about children is just getting it right...would a three year old really say that? When is it they start walking? The children in my stories are all quite young, but my own daughter is 14 now. Trying to remember some of that stuff is like digging back into the dark ages. I don’t have any illusions about the supposed innate wisdom and purity of children – like everyone, they also have immense capacities for cruelty and kindness and everything in between. There is sometimes nothing more boring in the world than playing the same game, for the millionth time, with a two year old. And there is sometimes nothing more astonishing and revelatory than playing the same game for the millionth time with a two year old. They’re creatures of routine, and yet also wildly unpredictable. Incredibly resilient, and yet immensely fragile. Children, especially small ones, are often the wild card in any setting or life, both in terms of their own selves in their own bodies, and also in the various ways that adults interact with and react to them. They exist in completely separate worlds, and yet are entirely dependent on us, on our own capacities to care for them. Or not.

BH: How do you edit your stories? Do you finish a draft and then go back over it or do you edit as you go? What have you learned about self-editing since you started out?

CM: I do a lot of editing as I go, and try to not have drafts that need substantial revisions. (Probably due to the aforementioned laziness). Learning more and more about writing (through reading, through courses, through just doing it, and a great deal through teaching) has taught me a great deal about self-editing. I think I learned the most crucial thing about self-editing from Catherine Hunter. I’d write something, and I’d suspect that there was a word or a line or something that wasn’t quite working. But I’d think, “Oh, good enough. No one will notice.” And, of course, it was always, always the first thing she’d notice. And circle. And write a pointed comment about. It was fantastic. It helped a lot with the laziness. And it also helped to create and strengthen my instincts and critical awareness of what I was doing. Or, at least, trying to do.

BH: What's the best writing advice that you have been given?

CM: Oh, this one’s easy (and also came from Catherine Hunter). The best writing advice I’ve ever been given is to just write. Write and write and write. I mean, you have to read, talk to other people and writers, learn about the craft however you can, etc etc etc. That’s all important too. But at the end of the day, it’s just you and your notebook. You may have read millions of books, know lots of important authors, and have taken hundreds of courses. But whether or not your notebook is blank or full is only up to you. No one’s first poem is any good. Probably your fiftieth poem still isn’t particularly great. But maybe, maybe your two-hundred-and-fiftieth poem will finally be getting somewhere. You learn by doing it. So do it. Lots of people in this world have great ideas, or a facility with language, or a particular sensitivity to whatever. Lovely, wonderful. But writers write. Even (albeit unwillingly and occasionally interrupted by weeping) the lazy ones like me.

BH: Thanks Chandra!

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Brad Hartle likes books. One day he may try to write one, though nothing is certain. For now, he spends his days in the basement of a big stone building in Downtown Winnipeg and his evenings in a big brick apartment in Crescentwood, where he lives with his wife, two cats, and a scattering of toothpicks, needed because he refuses to see a dentist. He is almost always happy.

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