PASSING THE BATON: FOUR QUESTIONS ON WRITING
I was asked to join a blog tour by the smart and brilliant Eufemia Fantetti (who has a well-fitting kind of name that you want to give a truly smart and lovely character). She is the author of the short fiction collection, A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love, which was runner up for the 2013 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. You can read her answers to these same questions at eufemiafantetti.com.
What am I working on?
I am currently working on my first novel, Gutter Child. It is a dystopia set in the past that explores a question I have been wrestling with ever since I started my first book, a memoir about my father: How do you survive in a world designed for your failure? What makes some thrive and others, perhaps the greater majority, falter?
The story focuses on the life of Elimina Madeleine Dubois, a young woman who is born in the Gutter and adopted as a baby by a woman who raises her on the Mainland as part of an initiative to help a growing population of disadvantaged children. It is a novel about the ways a world can be set up to steadily improve the status of some at the expense of others.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
It’s hard to know how things differ from others, outside the obvious subject matter. I can say that I didn’t originally set out with the intent of writing a dystopic novel. I had a general idea of the plot and I had a firm sense of the main character. A dystopia just seemed like the right “container” for the story.
Gutter Child is perhaps unique from other dystopic novels in that it is a dystopia set in the past, where most dystopias set out to tell the story of an alternate world somewhere in the future. Gutter Child will address how the events of the past have impacted our current circumstances. It focuses on characters of colour and explores the challenges associated with class and the problematic nature of systemic racism.
Why do I write what I do?
In terms of genre, I have been published in three different forms (theatre, memoir, and children’s literature). While many writers specialize in a particular genre, I believe that every story finds its own format(s), and I enjoy the task of finding that “write fit”. I equate it to finding the right container for a gift. There is something good that happens when the box fits nightly around the thing you want to share–not too big and stuffed with tissue and not too small. Once I know the key elements, and maybe the key character(s), I evaluate the best method of presenting it.
There are two key governing concepts that influence what I write about in terms of content:
- I write what I need to understand. I write to answer questions.
- I write what compels me, what causes me to lose sleep, or what grips me from what I’m seeing/reading in the news, the thing I cannot seem to shake.
Gutter Child, for example, evolved from an encounter I had in my father’s hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio and from an interview I did about my memoir The Stone Thrower. I could not get over the meeting and I found myself making ill assumptions about people that deeply bothered me. I had to write about it. I had to figure out where my own assumptions came from and how to present the complex problems I saw in African-American/Canadian communities, and the flawed ideas I had because of the way (and the places) I was raised.
It’s important to note that as a woman of colour, I feel compelled to write things that can change the way people think about race, in particular. It is not a coincidence that the main characters in the fiction I have written are women of colour who are finding their place in a world that is unwelcoming at times, or a world that presents great, often impenetrable, obstacles. This is my world, and this is what I consider my greatest duty and responsibility as a writer.
How does my writing process work?
I am very goal oriented, which probably stems from a childhood spent fully engrossed in competitive sports. Reading was a side hobby. But that practice-first-play-later, train-hard-and-be-the-best work ethic has proven helpful in the often isolating world of writing.
Once I figure out my general story, once it keeps me up at nights or causes me to talk about it compulsively, I get an outline done pretty efficiently (assuming I have the time and space to do so–I have a five year old and I kind of have a job, so this is trickiest part—allowing myself the time to create thoughtfully). I talk about my ideas with other writers early on and I listen for feedback and advice on the gaps and the strengths of my ideas.
Then I write. Usually by the time I’m 2/3’s of the way through a draft, I have an idea about how to change things. It’s a dangerous way of procrastinating for me. Getting to the end of each draft is the hardest thing, but has proven to be the most important lesson in writing. I have to see each draft all the way through. Like running a race. No matter how bad you start a race or how bad you are in the middle or near the end, the important thing (as my dad used to say) is to finish.
Check out the other ladies on the tour: Kathy Para, Ayelet Tsabari, Theodora Armstrong, Lorna Suzuki, Matilda Magtree, Alice Zorn, Anita Lahey, Pearl Pirie, Julie Paul, Sarah Mian, Steve McOrmond, Susan Gillis, Jason Heroux, Barbara Lambert.
Stay tuned as the blog tour continues with Aga Maksimowska and Alexis Kienlen.