October's Author of the Month is Armin Wiebe. Armin's newest collection, Armin's Shorts showcases a selection of stories from his 30 year writing career. He has four published novels, one play, and his short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. He is is the recipient of the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Armin Wiebe (below), he shares a few thoughts about his creative process and invites us peek into his studio in My Studio: Armin Wiebe.
Armin Wiebe's books with Turnstone Press are:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
I think I first thought of myself as a professional writer when Grain magazine accepted one of my stories and paid me for it. This happened in 1978 when I also discovered creative writing courses and met other writers. Being part of a class led by Robert Kroetsch that included Sandra Birdsell, Jake Macdonald, Brian Mackinnon, Margaret Shaw, and Victor Enns solidified thinking of myself as a professional writer. Joining the Manitoba Writers’ Guild at its founding meeting in 1981 sealed my fate.
What is your typical writing routine like?
Mornings are still my best writing time, though as I get older and farther away from the 5:30 a.m. rising time of my teaching years the early start is more difficult to achieve. So first thing after breakfast is when I try to write. Two of my novels were written during residencies, so a good writing day would begin by 7:30 a.m. and I’d be written out by noon. On a few occasions I wrote in the afternoon and after dinner as well, but then I found I had nothing left for the following day. When working on a novel it is important to write every day, even if it is only 15 minutes, so as to keep the story alive and moving forward. It is also useful to write during “waiting times” as in before appointments or if you are waiting for someone to arrive. Jotting down notes on the back of an envelope, or a notebook, or on one’s phone can lead to productive time later. I find myself feeling looser under less pressure at these times when I’m not “really working.”
How has your writing routine changed from that at the time of your first publication?
When I first began publishing I wrote mostly during evenings, weekends, and vacations because my time was organized by work. When I was writing “full time” the challenge was to create a routine not imposed by outside forces. I learned how to use impending tasks such as I have to begin work on my income tax return by March 31, so in the meantime I won’t think about it and focus on getting a writing project done. The most important thing I learned was to write anyway, no matter what my emotional state, and allow initial drafts to be messy. Sometimes the most interesting material comes out of the fog of being tired the morning after a late night and your inner critic is too lazy to wake up.
What inspires you?
Memories, reading, visual art, music, characters who emerge from the landscape of all these things. As I say in my dedication of Armin’s Shorts—the “compost” of living.
You write novels, plays, and short fiction, many of which are comedic. What is it about the “belly laugh” which engages you?
The laughs that engage me most are the ones that come out of allowing a character to be painfully honest about the absurd situations life has placed him or her in, whether it’s Yasch watching his girlfriend on the Ferris Wheel with another guy and feeling like he could commit murder but smoking a pack of Export “A” instead, or the vulnerability of a nearly naked Olfert jostled through the layers of changing cityscape crowded with people from all over the world including refugees from Alberta. As a writer I have found that “going for the joke” usually results in a groaner, whereas if I remain immersed in the character’s serious and often painful predicament comedy may result.
While each literary mode has its own charms, which is your current preferred form? Why?
I think by inclination I am attracted to the novel form because of its sprawling, messy nature, where not everything needs to be wrapped up neatly. However, any story, no matter how long or how short, involves choosing and selecting what to leave out from the millions of possibilities one begins with. For me the risk of writing a short story is that once completed, it wants to grow into something larger. I enjoy the process of writing a play because of the restrictions of the stage, of having to convey the story through dialogue and action in the present tense with no recourse to narrative summary. A perk of playwrighting is that once a script is developed to a stage where it is being considered for possible production the writer gets to work with other creative people.
Do you know at the moment you start to write something if it will be a short story, a play, or a novel when complete?
Often I have the form in mind when I begin writing something I’ve been pondering for some time. However, I leave myself open to being surprised. For example, the story “And Besides God Made Poison Ivy,” began from two free-writing exercises I did during a workshop I was leading. I recalled an old family anecdote and began speculating about details that had never been revealed in the versions I had heard. I had a short story in mind, but I had not made any decisions on point of view, voice, or plot. When I actually began to write, the voice came out as that of a grandmother telling her story to her adult grandson. I thought the story worked as a short story, but it raised many unanswered questions, which led me to trying to write a novel. At the same time I happened to enrol in a playwriting class and used characters and situations from the draft novel to write scenes for a play. Eventually the play took precedence and went on to a professional production while the novel has yet to be completed.
Do you approach short fiction different than you approach a novel?
With a short story I’m more likely to begin writing the actual story earlier in the process, whereas with a novel I’m likely to spend months, even years, making notes, researching, and making more notes before I start writing the novel, though the making notes and researching tend to continue throughout. Setting out to write a novel requires imagining a big story. This is similar to setting out on an open-ended journey, so have to pack differently than if you just intend to drive across town to visit a friend.
What role does research play in your writing?
Most of my fiction has required some research, even stories that are inspired by memory. There is the routine “detail-checking” to make sure the fictional facts are accurate enough to create the illusion of truth. Sometimes my research involves searching for the state of mind that what I am writing needs. For example, when I was writing Murder in Gutenthal I immersed myself in first-person hard-boiled detective novels so I could create my own detective’s voice. For The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst I read theological titles such as Harold Bloom’s The Book of J and Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels as well as an abundance of current political analysis. I had a scene set in Ottawa around capital hill, but since I couldn’t travel there in person I found maps and tourist guides in the library which allowed me to describe major action in that city. For Tatsea which is set in the subarctic in the 1760s, I read explorers’ journals and history books and visited museums to view artifacts and was introduced to a man who showed me how a muzzle-loader musket worked. For The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, among other things, I read biographies of Beethoven and books about music. Contrary to popular wisdom, fiction does not come out of thin air.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a first draft to a story while others prefer the editorial stage of fine-tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
Fine-tuning and polishing, the process of getting the words right, is very enjoyable especially when it happens near the completion of the work. However, it can be deadly if one allows oneself to slip into editing mode when one’s focus should be pushing the initial draft forward. Polishing and fine-tuning can be a form of procrastination, like waiting for the rain to stop or hoping to win the lottery before moving on. Word-processors can have a negative impact on productivity because it is so easy to edit and it is so much fun to move text around on the screen.
While in the editorial stage do you ever start writing or working on something else?
I used to think I could work on one project in the morning and another in the afternoon, but it hasn’t really worked out for me, especially with novels. I have worked on more than one short piece at a time.
Please walk us through how you go about character development.
I don’t have a formula for developing characters. All whom I have met are a part of me and that’s where my characters’ come from. My characters develop as I get to know them and to get to know them I have to live with them, have conversations with them, consciously interview them, make friends with them. I concrete terms, as part of preparing to write a novel, I will place the character into a situation and follow the character around and watch how this character behaves. Sometimes this writing finds its way into the story. Other times this writing is discarded. I think for characters to resonate with readers they must be deeply imagined. Mechanically created characters, no matter how clever, won’t quite ring true.
Of all characters who’ve walked through the pages of your books and collections to date, who is your favourite and why?
Oata Siemens, Suschkje Kehler, and Tatsea all still have potential in future work.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?
Facebook seems to have replaced smoking cigarettes as the writer’s break; whether this is better for writers’ health has yet to be determined.
What’s your favourite moment in the life of your books? And why?
My favourite moment occurred in 2006 when I was invited to Bechoko, Northwest Territories to work with a group of teachers who were preparing teaching materials to use with my novel Tatsea. The organizers had invited a number of Tłı̨chǫ elders to participate and tell their versions of stories I had used in the novel. One of the elders, Rosa Mantla, began by commenting that I had told stories that were unknown to her and for a moment I was worried that I had overstepped some boundaries by writing this book. But then she thanked me for writing the novel and added that she had given the book to young women to read as a way into discussing their Tłı̨chǫ traditions. She accepted my novel as fiction that respected their traditions, even when I might have deviated from history as she remembered it. I cringed a little when she used the phrase “as you well know, Armin” while talking about practices such as the menstrual hut. Later in the truck driving back to Yellowknife, another elder, Rosa Romie, who had told one of the Tłı̨chǫ origin stories at the workshop, spoke up in Tłı̨chǫ from the back seat to Mike Nitsiza the driver, telling him that she was thinking about different ways she could have told that story if she had had time to think about. That the same story can be told in multiple ways depending on the setting and the audience was an important take home for me.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
Whole bean Fair Trade coffee from Ten Thousand Villages. My personal blend of Bolivian and Tanzanian medium roast.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Instrumental classical music mostly. The composer varies with what I’m writing.
If you could not be involved in the literary arts, what career might you have?
Political cartoonist, however I never did learn how to draw.