December's Author of the Month is Brenda Hasiuk. Brenda is the author of three books including the short story collection Boy Lost in Wild. Her books have been short-listed for numerous awards. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Benda Hasiuk (below), she shares a few thoughts about her creative process and let's us peek into her studio in My Studio: Brenda Hasiuk.
Brenda Hasiuk's book with Turnstone Press is:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
My first publication was a personal essay that placed runner-up in a Prairie Fire contest. It was terribly affirming for me as a twenty-something writer and I think I spent the money on a marked-down, “as-is” couch from the Bay. But as for feeling “professional,” it was probably my first Manitoba Arts Council grant that made me feel like, “Someone is paying me to do this! I am answerable for this tidy sum of cash which has been invested in my writing.”
Has your writing routine changed from the time of your first publication? How?
I can’t say it’s changed much. Sometimes I get an idea for a story that doesn’t require a whole lot of research, while other times, especially in the case of a novel, I’ll need to immerse myself in a place or topic for some time. I try and schedule things so I can be working on writing a first or second draft of something (what I tend to call “big brain” work) while doing research for something else in my spare time.
I suppose what has changed is that years ago, places I’d travelled to would often inspire my writing ideas, whereas now, my writing ideas inspire my travel plans.
Do you contribute to literary journals or ’zines? Why or why not?
Not anymore, strictly because of time constraints, but submissions to literary journals are how I began my career. By the time I started my first novel, I’d published several stories in different literary journals throughout the country (three of which made it back home into Boy Lost in Wild).
I found short story contests particularly helpful in training me to edit, because I was always slashing and burning to meet word count criteria. I would tell beginner prose writers trying to get their feet wet through journal publications to keep things relatively short (no more than 4,000 words)―editorial boards are more likely to take a chance on something new if it doesn’t take up a quarter of their quarterly publication.
What inspires you?
People or situations that baffle me, or break my heart. Ideally both.
I began writing fiction, and am still driven to write it, as an act of burning empathy.
You write novels and short fiction, each genre having its own set of charms and quirks; do you have a favourite? Why?
Like most people, I prefer reading novels. Several hundred pages or so is just the right length of time to leisurely immerse yourself in a particular world or person.
But for me as a writer, stories come much more easily. Plot doesn’t interest me as much as “moments”―I write to those moments at the end of a story, or scene, or chapter, that hang suspended in the air and demand you feel them; smell them; remember them.
I can’t get through the first half of a story―or a novel, for that matter―without jumping ahead and writing the moment of my closing scene. I can’t resist.
Do you know at the moment you start to write something if it will be a short story or a novel when complete?
Yes. Writing a story is a bit like having a romantic fling―it can be intense and profound, but is by definition fleeting. Before setting out on a novel, I’ve got to be sure it’s something that can hold my interest and keep me committed for the long haul.
A novel has to have the whole package―voice, setting, some semblance of a plot―and I know I’ve got to be up for keeping those balls in the air even when my arms are tired and things are lagging a bit.
You write for both young adult and adult audiences. Are there specific things you consciously try to do differently when writing for one or the other?
No. To be honest, I almost never have an “audience” in mind when I write.
I seem to be drawn to characters who are either on the verge of adulthood or who are reflecting on that time of their lives simply because I find it so damn fascinating.
So my first novel, Where the Rocks Say Your Name…, revolves around three very different teenagers in a remote northern mining town much like Flin Flon. Its publisher marketed the book to adults, and it sold well in Canadian high schools. My second novel, Your Constant Star, revolves around three very different teenagers in Winnipeg and its publisher marketed it as Older YA. The stories of Boy Lost in Wild almost exclusively express the viewpoint of youth or youthful moments, but no one would think of calling it YA.
My next novel also has a teenage narrator, so it’ll be interesting to see where it ends up.
Do you create an outline of the story you hope to tell before drafting the narrative, or do prefer the story to organically evolve as you write? Do you know how it ends before you begin?
I don’t create formal outlines, but I always know pretty much where things will end up before I begin. Certainly, I can’t imagine taming the meandering beast that is a novel without at least having a reassuring sense of roughly what the tail looks like. I know many people do it, though.
The fun and the challenge for me is filling in all the scenes and details until you can’t imagine that particular beast having any other kind of tail.
What role does research play in your writing?
I like to think that writers get to be the ultimate life-long learners. We don’t need to go through a course guide at McNally’s to find something that might help fill a long winter!
For instance, at this point in my career, my writing has made me a bit of a lay expert on the Balkan Wars, international Chinese adoption, the potential future of arctic and sub-arctic ports, the Winnipeg General Strike, and polar bears.
The key for me is to read all I can about a setting or topic (and ideally take a trip or two to experience the details of a place, like how the light generally feels in late afternoon), then spend a few months letting it all sink in deep enough that it won’t come thudding down into my story like a hail of interesting facts.
The exception, of course, is in Boy Lost in Wild, where I consciously collected facts to introduce and offset the fiction to follow. I was so relieved when Turnstone didn’t ask me to change that because I was so pleased with the effect!
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?
There is nothing quite as scary and euphoric as writing that first draft, because it can be like heavy lifting or it can seem almost magical, and on any given day you’re not exactly sure which one it’s going to be. And in reality, to finish a novel, you need a bit of both.
Because writing is not about an idea or a story, but the execution of it. If I were to lose a chapter of a first draft, that chapter would never come out quite the same again. That’s amazing to me. It’s also why one can look at one’s own work afterwards and think, “Holy shit. Did I write that?”
I find the editorial stage much less intense. The magic is over, but so is the pressure.
Of all the characters to grace the pages of Boy Lost in Wild, who is your favourite and why?
Tilly is always with me, because my roots lie deep in her kind―working-class people who don’t overthink things, and other than their obit (a paragraph or two written by a descendant), tend not to have their experiences validated on the printed page.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social media networks?
Right now, there is writing my fiction and there is the business of selling my writing. For me, social networking is exclusively part of the latter because any time spent blogging, or on Facebook, is precious time away from writing manuscripts.
All writers want to be read as widely as possible, even if cash isn’t a concern. And unless you get extraordinarily lucky these days, finding an audience takes a concerted effort on the author’s part. So social media is just another way to get people interested in your work.
Having said that, would I be happy if I never had to spend another minute even thinking about it? Yes.
What’s your favourite moment in the life of your books? And why?
My favourite is the early days of a project, when the research is done and stored away and the story is beginning to take on a real shape. This is a fantastic time to go for a walk late at night and let the key points and curves of my still unwritten narrative appear to me as if in a photographer’s darkroom.
None of my finished manuscripts ever live up to the delicious promise of these formative hours. And while I love to hold the actual physical book in my hands, by then it already feels like an entity unto itself, something to be bought and sold and critiqued.
What are you currently working on?
I have two young kids and a salaried job, so I need to be punishingly efficient with my scheduling. Right now, I have three projects in different stages of production:
- I’m shopping around a mostly finished manuscript set in Churchill to American agents;
- I’m just beginning a short and sweet novel about a young man who fakes cancer to impress a girl;
- I’ve received some grant money to begin researching and writing an ambitious novel that will most likely require visits to LA and Shanghai.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
Nope. I just write when and where I can—coffee shops, outside dance classes, my treadmill desk. All I need is my computer.
Do you draft first in longhand, or on a computer?
I have no interest in computers whatsoever, but I love, love, love my MacBook Air. I write anything and everything on it because it’s not ugly, it’s supremely light and portable, and its battery lasts a good few hours.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
I started drinking Perrier when I was pregnant and couldn’t have my red wine. Now it’s my go-to beverage when I need to be productive and wine is for when I’m ready to kick back and not think too hard about anything.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
With two kids around practising piano and dance moves, writing is my quiet time!
If you could not be involved in the literary arts, what career might you have?
As long as I’ve been writing fiction, I’ve also worked as a communications professional for not-for-profit and labour organizations. This work not only brings in a regular paycheque—it also allows me to contribute to the “real” world and keeps most of my frustrations and complaints about literary life in perspective.
You can visit Brenda Hasiuk's studio here.