12 or 20 (second series) questions with Christine Pountney
CHRISTINE POUNTNEY grew up in Vancouver and Montreal, and lived in London for five years before moving back to Canada. She has published three novels, Sweet Jesus, Last Chance Texaco (longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2000), and The Best Way You Know How. She has written for The Guardian, the New York Times Magazine, The Walrus, Brick magazine, and NUVO. She lives in Toronto with her partner, Michael Winter, and their son, Leo.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It didn’t. It was anticlimactic. The journey is more interesting than the destination. Every book is a progress. With each book, I’ve gone somewhere a little further in terms of skill. But all three feel as if they came from the same place. I write from intuition, not information. And each one has been different inasmuch as my life is - usually about five years later - also different, my concerns, my experience.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I first fell for the idea of becoming a writer while reading Sylvia Plath’s journals at the age of fifteen. I felt a kindredness with a sensibility there. It was the first access I had to the personality of a writer, to the drive and angst and ambition and yearning behind that profession, and I recognized those feelings as something I had myself. And there was an effort laid bare in her journals of an attempt to look at the world and hold it with words, an effort to make meaning. The fact that she was so troubled by depression didn’t deter me. I was susceptible to the glamour of misery, being a teenager.
And as much as I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t do much about it until university, where I fell for poetry. I had a boyfriend who was a poet and we used to have dinner parties with visiting poets. I knew a lot about poetry back then, but my interest in it waned when the relationship ended - for various reasons. And that’s when I turned to my favourite form: the novel. I like to think of myself as a novelist. Novels are worlds. I like the architectural challenge of creating a whole world. Of sustaining the illusion of its existence from beginning to end. I need an extra-large to fit in all the facets of an investigation - which is what I believe a book to be: an investigation.
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 rush blindly into feeling and wrestle words until I reemerge, twigs in my hair, a bloody scratch across my face, a torn shirt, holding up a manuscript. It’s both fast and slow.
4 - Where does 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 work on “books” - I have large, ephemeral, narrative and thematic arcs in my mind (like rainbows) that I’m constantly chasing down, trying to hold on to, right from the start. And I build around these invisibilities until something concrete, but hollow, takes shape. (The hollow part is where the reader sits.)
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I generally love to give readings, not having done it that much in my life. There is no greater test of the writing than to hear it in your own ear, especially out loud in your own voice in front of an audience. It’s like the orchestra tuning before the symphony, which is the point at which we, the writers, return to work. That’s the real performance.
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?
These are huge questions. I have many theoretical concerns - that’s what’s in the books. Novels are, for me, investigations into theoretical concerns. And, by theoretical, I don’t mean aesthetic concerns so much as moral (although they are inextricably linked in my mind). Books are, for me, lengthy moral investigations, dramatized through character and story - because story is a great model for morality, because stories are all about action and consequence. “The king died, then the queen died,” is not a story. “The king died, then the queen died of grief,” is.
I am trying to answer, with my books, questions no less pressing than, What is this life I’ve been given? How do I live it? What is there to know, and what is my purpose? And why is happiness so elusive? And can we locate the small, personal moments that give rise to the big shifts in history? Those singular moments which may be, in their fleeting, sometimes imperceptible, initial incarnations, cruel or sad or happy, but which can reverberate, often with deterministic, even cataclysmic impact, throughout a lifetime?
I am a great believer in source, that you can trace all things back to the small mountain springs from which they flow. Novels are, in part, hikes back to the source. Novels are about consequence and responsibility: how things are connected. Remember E.M. Forster’s line? “Only connect.” That is my task.
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?
There is a great deal of entertainment culture now, and literature that asks of the reader that they participate, ie. bring an interpretation to the drama, not quite a parable, that is being played out before them, is increasingly met with reader indifference and fatigue. They do not possess the muscle to do the work, because that particular muscle - the muscle of interpretation - is weak from disuse. If I give my students a story they have to work at in order to understand, they tend not to like it, until I give them the tools with which to analyse it. Then they discover the satisfaction of something earned through effort, like ploughing a field - and they all want to become farmers.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It is of course necessary and fruitful to have another talented eye cast its discerning gaze on your work. I had the great privilege of working with Ellen Seligman at M&S, whose contribution to the book was enormous. She is an ideal editor; never tries to make the book into something it isn’t, or even put her stamp on it, whatever that stamp may be. Rather, knocking her tuning fork against every word and sentence and paragraph and section, she works her way through the manuscript with incredible meticulousness and patience, like a master piano tuner, and doesn’t stop until it’s pitch perfect.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do what you have a timorous inkling to do, and do it now, because if you don’t, someone else will beat you to it and get the credit for it. (This is a wildly loose paraphrasing of something Emerson once wrote.)
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have been teaching an autobiographical fiction class for the last eight years at the UofT School of Continuing Studies, so I love the topic of how fact and fiction overlap, are mischievous, cross-dressing cousins.
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?
My typical day begins with taking my five-year-old to school. From there, because we live in an apartment, where my desk is in a narrow hallway, I go to work in a café. It’s not an ideal set-up, but that’s one of the many sacrifices I make doing something I love which has yet to prove financially rewarding.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I try to figure out what emotion is causing me to rebel or shut down. Stalling is an act of will, and can successfully be reversed to the extent that you have an ability to tackle your own demons, perform magic healing rituals on your own damaged psyche.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Fresh baked bread. Palo santo. Burning sage.
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?
Life influences my books the most, conversations with friends, social life, interaction, adventure, emotional states, observation. That’s where I get my material.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The answer to this question changes every six months or so. I will say that, for my last book, I had the word audacious taped to the wall above my computer, and, in my mind, I held Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood like koans.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go horseback camping.
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 love to have been a singer, or a circus performer. If I hadn’t been a writer, probably an academic, or a criminal lawyer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Nothing made me write, but when I look back at the pattern of my life, I see that it is the thing I keep returning to, that I can’t shake - and god knows it hasn’t been for the ease of the profession, or financial reward. I need to do it. I can’t not do it. The experience of reading a book that I love, and as a consequence changes my life, ranks as probably the most valuable experience I can think of, apart from loving someone, especially my son, which is an act purifying and enlightening in the same way.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A non-fiction book of essays.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;