Q: How many brothers and sisters do you have? Is anyone else in your family a writer?
A: I have one highly cherished sister, Pat, who's had a banking career. I'm the only writer in the family - in fact I'm also probably the only dedicated reader - but I see some prospects in the developing generations.
Q: Did you enjoy school? What is your most vivid memory of your school years?
A: Oh, I was so bored! I remember a few thrilling teachers - one who taught grammar using her own home-made rhymes, one who acted his way through Shakespeare and Hardy, and that essential one who said I wrote well and might want to consider some kind of word-related career - but for the most part I was marking time in an academically clever sort of way, doing what had to be done to get free.
Q: What educational qualifications do you have? Have you had any formal tuition in creative writing? If so, where and what? Did you find it useful?
A: I'm the first - but not the last - person in my family to attend university, which is where I went the minute I was 18. I have a B.A. degree in English, but following that smart high school teacher's advice, I aimed for work in journalism, which I happily found. I've never been in the mood for creative writing programs (except for teaching them now and then), since I have no desire to discuss work-in-progress. The process of writing, for me, is an entirely private pleasure and puzzle. As I rather think it should be.
Q: Did you always want to be an author? If not, what did you originally want to be and when and why did you change your mind?
A: I wanted to be a pilot, then realized fear of heights might be a professional deficit. I wanted to be a psychiatrist, then realized I'm not actually all that good at prolonged listening. I wanted to be a social worker, then realized I was too cowardly to take responsibility for other people's lives. So I became a newspaper reporter and eventually an editor, which was perfect preparation for fiction. As a news journalist, I could enter situations that are basically barred to civilians; I could legitimately ask people all sorts of invasive, rude questions; I could affirm to my complete satisfaction that absolutely nothing, good or bad, is beyond the reach of some human somewhere. All this knowledge, from medical to criminal to accidental to basically incomprehensible, comes in very handy for fiction. At the same time, journalism helped propel me into fiction-writing just because dipping into people's lives and straight out again is unsatisfying - there's no knowing where people's stories wind up, and I wanted the space and time and proper attention to know. I would certainly have dreamed of being a novelist when I was contemplating careers if I'd thought such a thing possible. But as far as I could tell at the time, authors either inhabited an exalted and probably unattainable level of airy existence, or they were dead.
Q: What were the first pieces of writing that you produced? e.g. short stories, school magazine etc.
A: One day when I was about four - before I started school, anyway - my mother and I were sitting at the kitchen table watching the activities of a squirrel in the yard and discussing what it thought it was doing, and why, and whether it had a family, and whether it was playing or working and so on and so forth, and she said, "You tell me the squirrel's story and I'll write it down." I don't remember the story, but I do remember the power and delight of creating it. Parents and teachers - they never know what small moment will stick, do they?
Q: Who were your role models? Which writers have influenced you the most? Which person do you most admire? What jobs did you have before you started writing?
A: I don't think I have role models - wouldn't care to be one, don't care to have one, and in terms of writing itself, I'm not sure I would speak of influences, either. I'm a ferocious reader, and see virtues in a huge spectrum of styles, subjects, characterizations, techniques, themes and obsessions. I can say that as a fairly pretentious teenager, I busied myself among the great men of Russia (and elsewhere), and then was much relieved to discover Margaret Laurence. She was a Canadian who wrote about lives, particularly of women, in ways that first persuaded me that it is not necessary for fiction to contain swaths of tragic, icy, blood-stained tundra in order to be great. Obviously she's not alone in that, but she was the first I read who proved it.
Q: Do you write full-time? If so, when did you start?
A: I write fiction full-time now, but until a few years ago I conducted a simultaneous career in newspaper journalism. When the deficits of journalism finally came to outweigh the pleasures, I quit.
Q: What was your goal then? What is your ambition now that you have achieved success as a writer? What is the next challenge for you personally? Have you ever written in other genres? Under pseudonyms?
A: My aim has always been to entertain and challenge myself with story and character - to see where a theme, a person, a notion of plot will go. I am interested in extremities, since that's where a human's actions and reactions will be most true and acute, and so I like to find out where those extremities are. And I have a belief in fiction as expansive - that each of us, including myself, has one life, one set of experiences that unfold in a limited number of settings, and fiction gives us, readers and writers both, a universe of other lives and experiences and places.
It's hard to think, for instance, that a stupid or narrow person could possibly remain stupid and narrow if they read lots of good fiction. (This is one reason it's very distressing when busy people of influence and power in the world apparently mistake facts for truths and insist they have no time to read fiction. That's bad news for us all.) My ambition? It's just to keep on keeping on.
Q: What personal experiences do you feel have informed your writing? Do you have a connection with or fondness for particular characters or locations?
A: It's almost impossible, for me at least, to connect specific personal experiences with writing - even an experience that does make its way into a novel does so in such transformed, translated ways that it's not obviously related to its source. This is, actually, a matter of some discussion in 'Luck'. Most of the people in my novels are either quite different or in quite different circumstances from me and mine, but we certainly develop strong relationships as we evolve together. I am very fond of some - Aggie in 'Duet for Three', for instance; respectful and admiring of others - Isla in 'Critical Injuries', for one; and protective towards one or two who strike me as too vulnerable and raw-skinned - Edna in 'Dancing in the Dark', Jane in 'Plain Jane'.
Q: What inspires you?
A: Anything - you never know. A scene on the street, a conversation in a restaurant, all sorts of little moments can blow up into ideas. In an overarching way, wonderful writing is inspiring - not to steal ideas or compete with the brilliant, but to be awed and challenged and stirred by a Shields, Munro, Ford, Trevor, Cunningham, or the several British Penelopes.
Q: How do you write each book? i.e. do you block out the narrative first, take each page at a time, create the central character, build a cast of characters etc? Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books?
A: My mother used to speak of "running ram-stam through" a project, and that's what I like to do: roll through a first draft without too much looking back. I've begun in various ways - with the idea of a theme, or of a kind of relationship, or of a triggering event, but I've only tried once to plan out a novel, and that not only didn't work, it was tedious. Like life, fiction takes surprising turns, which makes it fun for me. Many days I wake up wondering in an anticipatory sort of way what will happen to so-and-so today even though, obviously, that's pretty much up to me. Of the first draft of a novel, very little is likely to survive. I do an enormous amount of rethinking, refeeling, and restructuring, as well as rigorous paring, until the people are more familiar than my friends, and their situations are thoroughly embedded, I hope, on the page.
Q: How long does it take you to complete a novel typically?
A: The longest time I've spent was four years and thirteen thorough drafts. It's not possible (for me) in under two years. I've learned that when I start having occasional dreams of the people and the interior life of the novel, it has truly grown roots in my head.
Q: What do you do when you are not writing? How do you relax? What are your hobbies?
A: I read, I nap, I shovel snow in winter, and in summer mow the lawns and eat and drink with family members and friends on my excellent porch. I go to movies and occasional plays - all the regular things people do. I tried an actual hobby once, when I thought rug-hooking might be a gentle, unmindful pursuit, but it made me compulsive instead of relaxed, so I don't try to make anything except books any more.
Q: What single thing might people be surprised to learn about you?
A: Margaret Atwood once told an audience that before we met, she'd pictured me with high sharp cheekbones draped - camouflaged - in long hair. By which I think she meant that on the basis of my first novel or two, she expected someone slightly eerie. My very first editor arrived for our very first meeting carefully costumed, she said, in the expectation of meeting Abra, the isolated protagonist of Gaining Ground - which at least meant she was wholly persuaded of Abra's existence. The fact is, though, that I'm practical and organized, fairly sociable and reasonably amusing, and outside of fiction I oppose pain and grief to the extent that I don't eat meat and fish or wear leather. Whereas in fiction, I find the dead quite useful.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: It occurs to me how miraculously fortunate it is to live in a generally peaceable and prosperous country doing something, writing, that so thoroughly suits my own nature. This circumstance has little to do with any personal virtues and gifts, but is the utter blind luck of the time and place draw. Which, in a circuitous sort of way, led me to some of the themes and aspects of 'Luck'.