Tag Archives: writer’s questions

Writer’s Questions – Anna Lawrence Pietroni

2 Feb

I’ve been reading a lot of bare bones writing lately, which I’ve enjoyed, but sometimes you start to miss colourful adjectives and complex sentences. This is where Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni came in.

Ruby’s Spoon takes place in the fictional Black Country town of Cradle Cross, in the 1930s. It doesn’t technically involve magic, but it has some mysterious folktale elements running through it that appealed to me (witches and mermaids!).

It’s hard to describe Pietroni’s writing as anything other than musical – her words follow a clear, resounding rhythm and each sentence could be its own little poem (which is why I took a while to get into the groove of reading her). It makes sense that the village kids chant schoolyard songs to taunt Ruby, the book’s lonely teenage heroine. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pietroni was able to so honestly describe her own writing for me instead of jumping on the self-deprecating bandwagon. Oh, and she wrote part of Ruby’s Spoon in a garden shed (see, writers? All you need is a shed!).



What are you reading right now?

Sarah Bakewell’s ‘How to live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’ and Jackie Kay’s short story collection, ‘Wish I was here’. I’m also rereading ‘The Secret Garden’ (Frances Hodgson Burnett) and slowly savouring ‘The Gift of Stones’ by Jim Crace.

What’s the last book you read that made you think, “I wish I’d written that?”

I don’t really think that way – I tend to marvel – but if I did, it would be ‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels.

Are there any books you feel you “should” read but don’t really want to read?

Ulysses, James Joyce.

Do you have a favourite fictional character?

I love Dicey Tillerman and come back to ‘Dicey’s Song’ (Cynthia Voigt) whenever I can. She’s stubborn, fierce, loyal and totally engaging.



Are you writing anything now?

I’m in the very early stages of a new story about a family in Severnsea in the late nineteenth century. It’s set in the same fictional universe as ‘Ruby’s Spoon’, but I’m so happy to be writing about the coast after living with Ruby’s yearning for the last few years.

Do you have to write in the same spot all the time?

Not at the moment, because I’m in the very early stages of writing a new story and this part of the process is very fragmented. I like to work where there are people. When my children were younger and I wasn’t getting much sleep, I wrote at a café that sold coffee in a pint cup with two handles. That helped, along with the fact that it’s not polite to put your head down on the table for a quick snooze in a café.

When I’m further into the writing, I like to work in the same place: I wrote much of the final draft of ‘Ruby’s Spoon’ in a shed at the bottom of my garden where there were no distractions, my books and papers were close at hand and I could dash back to the house to fill the kettle when I needed more tea.

Who reads your earliest drafts?

‘Ruby’s Spoon’ was the first extended piece of prose I’d written, and right at the beginning I’d thrust every new paragraph on anyone who showed an interest. When I had something approaching a draft, I showed it to a friend who’s a literary agent, and she and her assistant read and commented on every iteration that followed. When I have a proper draft of the next story I’ll share it with them, but otherwise I’ll keep it to myself.

How often do you come back to rework sentences?

When I first started writing in earnest, I was seduced into thinking that I had to get the words right straight away: it felt easier to labour over a sentence than to do the freewheeling exploratory writing that allows the characters to tell their stories. But later on, I found myself reworking less and less – just a bit of culling. Some sentences spill out and never get touched again. These are incredibly rare and when they appear it feels like magic.

Do you read fiction while you’re writing?

Hardly at all, unless it’s relevant to what I’m writing. I might read something I’ve read repeatedy before (like Sara Paretsky’s fabulous V. I. Warshawski books, or Harriet the Spy).

Do you think you have your own writing style?

Oh yes, whether I like it or not.

How would you describe it?

Lavish and rhythmic. I admire lean prose with clean lines, like Tove Jansson’s writing – her touch is so light and the detail sings – but I suspect I’ll always write about dirt under the fingernails and get excited about metaphor. There is a strong rhythm in my head that can be a bit tyrannical and dictates the number of syllables a sentence must have, but I’m grateful for it.



This story came out of a writing exercise with the prompt words “spoon, button factory, witch, fire.” Were those really the only words?

My mum suggested ‘sleepy’ as well as ‘button factory’ because I kept yawning, but I rejected that word early on. I still have the piece of paper. I was doing a short writing course and we were given the task of writing the opening pages of a novel by the end of the week. Isa Fly turned up in the button shop in those first pages, and Captin, and Ruby in the chip shop. It wasn’t a fully formed story: it had the title and these characters from the start, but it took five and a half years to get from that little sketch to the final draft.

Which word was most important in inspiring the story?

It’s really hard to pick one out. The four elements were so enmeshed from the beginning. I can’t isolate one from the others. Strangely, ‘spoon’ was the least significant at first – in that first sketch it was just something Isa used for sorting buttons, but in the end it arguably became the most important.

How much did your childhood hometown influence the fictional town here, Cradle Cross?

It was hugely influential. Cradle Cross took on its own shape and identity, but certain elements of Halesowen – the steep hills, the backyard nail-making – found their way into the narrative almost unchanged. When I was growing up there was a cake shop in the town that looked like it was sinking into a hill, and that was the starting point for Maison Hester’s; parts of the Lean Hills can be mapped onto the Clent Hills and I know precisely where Ruby’s house, Hunting Tree, should stand. I consciously chose – and sometimes doctored – names from the area that held some meaning for me. Ludleye, for example, is the old name for Lutley, the part of town where I grew up and where (I recently discovered) my ancestors lived and worked nail-makers, just a few hundred yards from our house.

Cradle Cross is a place in a specific time, and it was shaped more by my grandad’s tales of growing up in the 1930s than by my own experience of the town in the 1970s and ’80s. He was born in a street next to Grove’s Button Factory and his descriptions of the smell of the horn on rainy days set the tone from the beginning.

Can you explain the importance of representing the Black Country dialect and accent?

Once I’d realized that I had to write about my hometown – or at least revisit it to find my way into writing in a more concrete, less folktale way – the characters started to speak this way. I found that I couldn’t compel them to speak differently and I didn’t want to. It’s an idea or suggestion of the dialect rather than a transcription – there is no single Black Country dialect, and it varies from town to town – so I limited myself to a few critical words like ‘cor’ for ‘can’t’ and ‘day’ for ‘didn’t’. My parents don’t speak in dialect but I grew up hearing it and you don’t forget those cadences of speech.

Is/Was the Cut really so dirty?

There are old canals somewhere in my hometown, but I wasn’t aware of them until I started writing Ruby’s Spoon. My sense of the Cut comes from reading about living and working on canals in the early part of the twentieth century, from what my mom told me and from seeking them out as an adult. I know people are working hard to make them thrive again now, but I find neglected canals ominous and troubling, just like Ruby.

Anna Lawrence Pietroni in the Black Country


Writer’s Questions – Marina Endicott

21 Jan

Last week I confessed that Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault made me cry. This week, she apologised for making me cry (thereby perpetuating every Canadian stereotype, ever) and answered my questions about what she’s working on now (a vaudeville romp), how she chains herself to her desk (a Pomodoro timer), and the worst thing she’s ever written (a poem, okay?).



What are you reading now?

Re-reading Greatest of Marlys by Lynda Barry and Waiting for Godot and slogging through Gurdjieff, the Key Concepts. After reading all the fiction in Canada last year for the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize, I’m taking a bit of a break from reading novels while I work hard to finish writing my new one. But I have Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (with a lovely introduction from Ali Smith) and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs waiting on the bedside table.

What was your favourite book when you were growing up?

Terrible, Horrible Edie by E.C. Spykman—out of print at the moment but New York Review Children’s Collection is bringing it out soon.

Which fictional character do you wish you’d come up with?

Lyra/Pantalaimon in The Golden Compass etc., by Philip Pullman

What do you enjoy reading besides books?

Poetry. Sometimes I read only poetry for weeks at a time. It is very reliable.



What are you writing now?

A vaudeville romp: a melodramatic, action-packed, rags-to-riches fol-de-rol about a sister trio harmony act touring the western prairies in polite vaudeville in 1913.

Has the success of Good to a Fault changed the way you feel about your own writing?

Not at all. It’s the same book that I couldn’t get published for love or money, three years ago. Outside stuff is nice or difficult, but the book you are writing is always the hardest book you can make yourself write, and you feel good or bad about it in ten-minute bouts of self-indulgence when tired; the work is just the work. I guess, though, that I feel less need now to justify writing as a profession.

Do you have to force yourself to start writing?

Of course. It’s an incredible pleasure to write when it’s going well. To get to the point where it’s going well, you have to crawl, stagger or blast your way through a thicket of boredom and stupidity and bad starts and doubt. Some days the muse whacks you with her wonder-stick, but it’s sadly true that most of writing is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I’ve got a great new thing, the Pomodoro timer, recommended to me by a hard-working television writer. It sits on your computer and doles out work-time in 25 minute parcels, then bings for a five-minute rest (to check email and get another coffee). You can do that, you can sit still and type for 25 minutes, you tell yourself. And another 25, and another, all the livelong day.

Do you have any bad habits that you have to keep in check as you write?

Ouch. Many, including over-use of just, very, fine—like Mark Twain, ‘I go through my manuscript and change all the verys to damns, and then my editor takes them out.’ (Poor Twain, with no find-and-replace.)

But I don’t try to keep them in check as I write, that’s for the editing process. To write at all, I think you must be willing to be a holy fool, not censor your impulses. Then you have to (at least I have to) edit like a ravening pitbull.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

Oh, for heaven’s sake. A poem, okay? I’m not saying anything more about it.



Which character did you relate to most?

Changed from day to day as I wrote. I have a great deal in common with Lorraine, with Paul, with Clary. But Dolly is me. And Mrs Pell is what I’ll be like when I am old.

Do you think this story could have taken place in a larger city?

Yes, although Saskatoon is the best of cities, and the first place where I saw this kind of thing going on. Communities and make-shift families are created in every place where humans live. The family that is created in Nick Hornby’s About a Boy is very urban, urbane, but just as useful as what Clary pulls together. Even Hillary Clinton talked about a village being needed to raise a child, and although some staffer probably found or invented that old proverb for her, it’s true. I have lots of friends I’d never have talked to except that our children were the same age, so we were thrown together by proximity and common need for an occasional baby-sitting trade.

Dolly’s perspective was such a spot-on representation of how a kid thinks. Would you ever do a story told entirely from a child’s or teen’s voice?

I am working now on a four-part YA series about time/death/memory/ghosts, written from four young teenagers’ voices in a Nova Scotia village called the Hand. The four books are Summer in Hand, HandFall, Winter in Hand, and HandSpring. I love writing from that eye and ear; I don’t think interior consciousness changes much from childhood to adulthood, although our concerns and outer voices might.


Name and species of any writer’s pets, please:

A 4-year-old Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier named Nemo (as in Captain, but also, sigh, as in the little fish) who is my constant companion. He lies at my feet all day as I write, and is here right now.


A mess after my own heart.

Writer’s Questions – David Vann

25 Nov

When David Vann was 13, his father committed suicide. In Legend of Suicide, Vann creates five alternate-universe versions of this event, all based in Alaska. His sparse language packs a breathtaking punch – the anchor story, Sukkwan Island, is spectacularly gut-wrenching. I’ve honestly never read anything like it (no other book has ever given me such a graphic nightmare), and I had lots of questions about how someone goes about writing something like this. Luckily for me, Vann agreed to answer them.



What’s the last book you read that made you think, “I wish I’d written that”?

Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country has such an original voice I was immediately jealous.  The closest comparison I can think of is John Gardner’s Grendel, because Raisin’s protagonist is an outsider watching the villagers, thinking in fragments, lonely and finally thirsty for blood.

Are there any books you feel you should read but don’t really want to read?

Ulysses and War and Peace, of course, like everyone else.  But most recently Bolano’s 2666, because it’s supposed to be magnificent, but it’s like 900 pages.  I read about 25 pages an hour.

What do you enjoy reading other than books?

Online news bits and occasional lit blogs.

Do you have a favourite fictional character?

I like the boy in Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Liar.”



Do you have to force yourself to write?

No.  I feel cranky if I don’t write.

Are you a day or night writer?

When I’m working on a first draft, I write every morning, 7 days a week, holidays included, for about 2 hours.  I never make lunch dates during a first draft, and I can never write anything worthwhile later in the day. 

Your writing time is cut short if...

something happens in my magazine writing life, such as a sudden request by an editor to turn around a revision in a day.  But I’m lucky otherwise.  I don’t have kids, my wife lets me write as long as I need, even if it’s into the late afternoon, and there are no other interruptions.

Do you ever write in public places?

No.  I can’t imagine that, and I can’t stand peripheral movement or the sound of human chewing or swallowing.  The idea of writing in a café doesn’t make any sense to me.

Who reads your earliest drafts?

No one.  I don’t show anyone my work until it’s finished and sent to my agent.  I don’t want anyone’s input.  It’s not a team sport.

How often do you come back to rework sentences?

When I was working on my new novel, Caribou Island, which will come out in Jan or Feb 2011, I reread the previous 20-50 pages before writing each day, so by the time I had a first draft, I had been through everything at least a dozen times.  So the first draft is almost exactly the same as my final draft.

Do you think you have your own writing style? How would you describe it? 

I’ve never tried for originality.  I think it’s just inevitable that we’re all both original and derivative.  Our styles come from all we’ve read and studied and loved, but a reader wouldn’t necessarily recognize all those shadows.  And my style varies a lot in Legend of a Suicide.  There’s a stylistic debate between the stories.  The first and last stories are the same story, for instance, written in different modes.  And the landscape meditation in “Ketchikan” is completely at odds with the voice in “Sukkwan Island.”  To me, these differences in style are as important as the differences in fact, all part of representing the fragmented experience of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement.  How we tell a story is as important as what we tell, in other words.  “Legend” in the title comes from Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, meaning a series of portraits, and the idea of debate in style and fact comes from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Most of my strongest influences have been women, by the way (Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, and Elizabeth Bishop, for instance), though I have been influenced a lot by Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, and other male writers

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

I wrote a terrible novel years ago, which luckily is not out there for anyone to see.  The structure of it is beautiful, but you’d never read past the first five pages, because who could believe or care about the characters?  But really, anything I’ve ever written for false reasons (to get published, to be a writer, to write something great, etc.) has always failed.



You said in an interview that your father’s suicide led to the best things in your life – do you think you still would’ve ended up as a writer if it had never happened?  

I do think I still would have been a writer, because I was writing all of our family stories from when I was a young kid.  And when I was 12 years old, before my father died, I had an early draft of the first story in Legend of a Suicide, focused on my parents’ divorce.  So I was already mining family material.  But I think his suicide and all the lies surrounding that suicide helped develop and focus my writing.

Why do you think Alaska is such a creative goldmine for you?

It’s the place of my childhood and remains mythic in my imagination.  As I’ve mentioned in several radio interviews with the BBC and the Guardian, I’d run around the rainforest imagining wolves or bears chasing me, and we really did have wolves and bears.  I’d sometimes fall through the false second floor of the rainforest, disappearing out of sight beneath the fallen branches.  And the giant halibut we caught served as metaphors for imagination.  Mottled dark green and brown, they were shapes first anticipated or imagined but then suddenly real as they rose from the depths.  We were always out on the water fishing, and water itself has always had such a powerful pull on me.  I like the idea, too, of story being born of place.  I believe that’s true.

What else were you up to while you were writing Legend? It’s hard to imagine you hammering out one of these stories and then watching a Friends re-run.

Ha.  I never watch TV (haven’t since I was about 13, around when my father died).  I wrote Legend over a ten-year span, so I was up to many other things, but what I most remember is sailing from San Diego, CA to Hawaii as I wrote Sukkwan Island, the novella at the center of the book.  I do remember a few of the other stories.  I wrote the first story, “Ichthyology” at 3 am after telling jokes to my housemates out in the hills south of San Francisco, and finished it the next afternoon, for instance.  We were living off the grid, no electricity, and I was cycling up to 60 miles a day to get to work and back.

Why do you like fish so much?

Fish are so specialized and odd, there’s one out there to represent each of our human traits.  I think everything human can be mapped onto one fish or another and made clearer by the exaggeration of the fish’s adaptation.  I love, also, that many of them inhabit a world without air or light.  They are the unconscious, the place of mystery that we try to touch when we write.



If you wrote a children’s book, it would be called… The Halibut.

Name and species of any writer’s pets:  My wife and I have a cat named Cruiser.

Can you provide a photo relevant to your writing?

Ketchikan, Alaska, from when I was a kid. I'm not in the photo, but my dad Jim is far left, uncle Doug in middle, grandpa Roy on right, and the halibut is 250 pounds (18 stones).