When did you start writing?
I was one of those kids who loved to write stories in school, from an early age. I filled notebook after notebook with crazy stories, mostly (no surprise here) about family life. Even at that age I wasn’t writing science fiction or fantasy. I was writing about things that happen in families. My mother kept all these notebooks–at that time we wrote in big fat rectangular ones with huge line spaces–and one of my favourite opening lines is: “One night, when I was going to the bathroom, I met my father.” Who runs into their father going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, but I guess I once did. He was probably up late, worrying about some adult problem. In my stories, I’d get kidnapped and taken off to cages–there really were none in the neighbourhood I grew up in–but someone, often my father, would rescue me. I wrote a lot about fights with friends because I had plenty of those. One reason was that I was the only one of my friends who wasn’t Greek and my friends would all speak Greek, so I felt very left out. I think many writers feel they are always on the outside, looking in, and that experience was early training in that position, I guess.
So, the desire to write was inside me very early on, as it is with most writers. My teachers were always so impressed with my stories that I received praise and you know that praise can be addictive. When you get a bit, you always want more. If you’re good at something, why not do it?
Why do you write?
That’s a common question and one that is always hard to answer. It’s a bit like asking a fish why it swims, or a bird why it flies. It would feel wrong not to be writing. It would be a bit like having a child that you never take care of, or bringing home a fantastic puppy that you just ignore. It’s almost like a real, live presence for me. But, like a plant, the writing needs watering and sunshine. I think a talent is a bit of a responsibility. I come from a family where people had talents that they didn’t always nurture. My mom was a great artist–she painted and drew–but she didn’t keep it up. She now does amazing things with needlework, though. But, even as a kid, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just stop everything else and just do art. Of course, now that I’m and adult and a mother, I know you can’t just do that. You have other responsibilities too. But I was always determined to make room for the writing, just like a new mother makes room for her baby.
From a more psychological perspective, writing is one way to make sense of all the strange things that happen in one’s life. When I was a teenager, I thought of writers like vultures. Even if something bad happens, there is a writer circling, taking notes, thinking of ways to use the pain in a story. But now I know the vulture metaphor, although still a good one, isn’t entirely fair. We’re not only using material, we’re decoding it, making sense of it.
Where do you get the inspiration for your stories?
From everywhere and anywhere, but always from somewhere deep inside me. I have to feel my characters inside before I can turn them out. They’re like a tiny presence at first, almost like watching someone walk down from a very large hill–you see the dot over the horizon, then they begin to descend, getting bigger by the minute until suddenly they are on top of you, demanding that you move out of the way.
Most often, there is a real memory or experience behind the kernel of the idea, even though that reality gets changed along the way. It can be the recollection of something a real person once did, or said. For each book, it’s been different, but strong nonetheless–the memory, I mean.
How much of your work is based on your real life?
I can only answer this question in a paradoxical way: everything and nothing, all at the same time. I think that’s because a story always starts to feel so real that after a while I’m not even sure if I’m including something I’ve made up or something that’s real. Certainly, much of my work is based loosely on people and events I’ve known, or friends or family have known. But much fiction is folded in. It’s kind of like baking a cake that you start with a base batter, then gently fold more and more layers of special ingredients into.
Has anyone you know ever recognized themselves in your work?
I don’t know, really. They certainly should, because there are definitely touches of real people in my work. But I think that by the time the story hits the page, the characters take on a life of their own. Sometimes, the original person the story was based on doesn’t even recognize him or herself. That means I’ve done a good masquerade job.
It’s a tricky part of writing though and I know a few people who have great stories they want to tell, but are afraid of doing so because they might offend someone. You kind of have to be prepared for that, especially if you are writing realistic fiction, although even characters in fantasy and sci-fi can be based on real people. I guess if you’re sticking horns on people, they’re somewhat camouflaged though.
What is your writing process like?
As I said, I start with an idea based on a character. It can be simple, even just something they do or say, then I jump in and let the story come to me. I don’t plan ahead or outline. That would seem restrictive to me. In the later stages, in a third or fourth rewrite, I might plan a bit, once I know where the story is going. But the first draft is an act of discovery, even for the writer. Sometimes, I only really understand the story itself on the fourth draft. That‘s when you might cut and reshape the book. Sometimes, you have to cut out scenes that really don’t belong, even though you might like them. Movie directors and their editors often talk about how difficult that can be too. But I save everything–maybe I can use a deleted scene elsewhere one day.
I write fairly quickly and always early in the morning–up with the birds (mostly crows)! I generally write from 6 – 10, on days when I don’t have to go to work. Every day I reread what I wrote the day before and do some touching up, then I continue. If I’m in a rewriting stage, I print up what I’ve done continually and edit by hand. I can write directly onto a computer, but I can’t edit that way.
For me, a good book is a journey, a process that you have to be willing to take. You don’t get there overnight. There are days when you don’t move at all, and others where you write like a turbo jet. But I believe you have to have great faith in the creative process, that even the slow moments are essential, as much as the fast ones.
What is your favourite part of writing?
A first draft of a brand new book is kind of scary but also a lot of fun. It’s a little like Mary discovering her secret garden–things you didn’t even know were there have been growing in your imagination and this is your chance to bring out their colours. A second and third draft is the weeding and pruning. A fourth is painful because at that point you may wish you had never found that key–the view is getting old, if you know what I mean. And then for your fifth and sixth you may need to call on every resource you own to get you through. People ask if I’m ever sad when a book is finally finished. The answer to that is NO. I am usually very relieved, it’s such a hard process. Many people I meet are good at the early stages, but don’t have the fortitude (or stupidity!) to stick to a project through all of its stages. If I can use the baby metaphor again, the idea of a baby is often appealing to people, but you need to take care of that baby until it is 18 and be there though all its yucky stages (poop, vomit, crying etc). If you’re not willing to do that, don’t have the baby. It’s no different with a book.
Which of your books is your favourite?
Each one is a part of me, so it would be like asking a parent which of their children in their favourite. Okay, since I believe parents do have favourites–they might just not want to admit it–I guess I’d have to say that Split is closest to me. That might only be because it was my longest project, so it lived with me the longest before moving out. Klepto would be like my easiest child, the one that you don’t have to fuss over much and is always easy to get along with. Tattoo Heaven and Strange Beauty were all good children, but they needed a lot of discipline along the way.
What books or writers influenced you?
Probably every single one I ever read, in some way. I read a lot as a kid, like all writers. I remember my school librarian, in grade four, not letting me take a book out of the big kids side of the room. She was really nasty about it too, but it was something I really wanted to read. I have to assume they didn’t carry any x-rated material there, so it couldn’t have been anything too racey. That seems to me a tragedy, to stop a kid from reading a book just because it might be too hard.
I love the classics, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Hardy, Dickens–all that 19th century stuff. I still read it, when I feel I really need to get away from this world. I also love good mysteries. I love books set in India, I don’t know why. I always have, ever since I saw a beautiful version of Passage to India at a bookstore when I was kid and begged my mother for it. I also really like to read non-fiction about all sorts of things, from science to politics. I find that if I read a lot, it inspires me. I included a lot about the Roma in Strange Beauty because I read a fantastic study about the Roma, by a woman who traveled through eastern Europe for years and lived with them. Other books have given me ideas for what sorts of interests my characters can have, like geology.
back to About the Author