Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

rob mclennan's 12 or 20 Questions, with Sandra Nicholls

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Sandra Nicholls

In rob mclennan's latest 12 or 20 Questions interview, poet and novelist Sandra Nicholls talks about her writing process, future projects and her forthcoming novel, And the seas shall turn to lemonade.

1. How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book, The Untidy Bride, was written largely in Victoria, after taking an unpaid leave of absence from my cozy government job. It completely changed my life — very soon after that I quit the government altogether. My most recent work is fiction, and it feels very different from the poetry. Suddenly I had to figure out how to get the characters from A to B, and I had to let a lot go from the poetry. I think the biggest difference, and I love it, is that poetry was largely mined from my own life, whereas the fiction feels like a much freer canvas — with characters and situations I have never experienced. I am most at home with the novel form, but sadly have been unable to write any poetry since I started writing fiction.

2. How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I had a lot of stuff to work out, to work through, the ending of a marriage, the death of my father. The poetry was a way of coming to grips with my feelings, a way of feeling, in some ways. It felt the most natural, at the time, and I was also very inspired by my mentor at the University of Victoria, Robin Skelton. He taught me to let go, to get the guts of a thought down before you start editing it. Poetry, because of its brevity, seemed like a form I could approach.

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?

Sometimes it takes minutes, other times years. It depends on the project. I write very fast when I have the chance. I think I learned that when I had my daughter — an hour was precious; there was no time to wander about waiting for the muse to arrive. Besides, usually the days when I thought the muse was with me were the days the writing was crap. I went on a silent writing retreat for a weekend recently and wrote 10,000 words of my second novel. Yet in the previous six months, with life and work and all that going on, I had only managed about 500 words. I don't make notes, and I don't work with outlines. I just start and off I go. I try to let the characters take me where they want to go. The current novel, set in 1950s Malaya, was started three times before I found the right voice and narrative structure. But now that I have it, I expect to finish it fairly soon.

4. Where does fiction or a poem 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?

Now that I have found my most comfortable form — the novel — I would say it starts as a book from the beginning. I like the freedom of knowing I can write as much as I want, it relaxes me as a writer.

5. Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love to do public readings, to share with an audience. I remember with Robin when we had to read our poems for the first time in class, and everyone was so nervous, spoke rapidly, barely breathed, and Robin banged his walking stick down on the desk and roared at us that if we thought something was worth writing we damn well better give it its due when we read it. Otherwise, what was the point? It was an invaluable lesson. After that, I began to respect what I had written, and really try to read and share it with an audience.

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?

I am not a very theoretical sort of person. I like to tell stories. I love the pleasure of a well-constructed paragraph. The only questions I suspect I am trying to answer are ones about the human experience itself. The main character in my second novel, The Third Road, is a young Chinese girl who has been uprooted by the British and resettled in a "camp" set up by the British to stem the flow of food and supplies to the Communist insurgents living in the jungle at that time. That issue of displacement is of interest to me, and I am trying to understand how it would affect someone, their attitudes and beliefs. I am also interested in why people attach themselves to a political ideology and how the ideology differs from the practice. So I guess there is a political aspect to this theme. I am very curious about why people do what they do — and often I simply don't understand. Writing helps with that fundamental blank spot in my brain.

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?

I think the writer can help us understand the larger culture and also other cultures. I think the writer also helps us to understand ourselves, allowing us to compare our reactions to the reactions of characters. A book can change the way you see the world, and so that can by extension change the world. But I think the role of the writer is first and foremost to be authentic and true, to be honest with themselves and their characters.

8. Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I have not done it all that much, but I think it is essential. It is only difficult if the editor does not understand your vision of the book.

9. What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

About writing? Write every day. So simple, so impossible at times, yet so frigging brilliant.

10. How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to song lyrics)? What do you see as the appeal?

From poetry to fiction was a huge leap, with many adjustments, and the subsequent amputations of certain poetic instincts have been painful. However, that being said, I never feel as alive or as wholly myself as when I am working on a novel, so I guess it was a necessary operation! Song lyrics are a whole other species, but they seem to come fairly easily; I am not sure why. I am a frustrated singer, so perhaps the musical aspect of the song lyrics satisfies something in me long held back.

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?

When I freelanced I worked on my own writing every day from 9 to noon. Now that I have a full-time job again it is more tricky. Most days start with walking the dog and getting ready for work. I am a morning writer too, so this can be hard. I am trying to dedicate at least two mornings a weekend to the writing. I am thus not following my own advice of writing every day, but so far this is the best I can do. Coupled with these crazy writing retreats, which are marvelous for me.

12. When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I used to agonize about this, but not any more. If I get stalled, which happens very rarely because writing time is so precious, I just relax. Another narrative voice is just waiting to come out.

13. What fragrance reminds you of home?

Shepherds pie. It was my favourite supper to come home to when I was a kid.

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?

Movies. I am a very visual writer, and so I am very interested in the cinematic form of expression. Man Facing Southeast (I think I have that title right) was one of the most profound movies I have ever seen, from Argentina, and I think about it often when I write. Science too, sometimes, because I am very curious about how the universe works, even though I know very little about it. Music also, although I don't think it informs my writing, it frees up my soul sometimes which probably affects the writing.

15. What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I continue to be fascinated by what people find to write about, and by the constant drive to write. I applaud all good writers, and I wish I had more time to spend with other writers. I guess other writers are important in the same way breathing is. I am also lucky enough to meet with group of writers each month to discuss some of this stuff.

16. What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Swim with dolphins.

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 would like to work with animals, to study the behaviour of animals, and to save them from cruelty and extinction. I am particularly interested in whales.

18. What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I always liked words. A difficult thought translated perfectly into words — what a joy. Plus there was no math involved. I hate math.

19. What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, amazing read. Winnebago Man; I loved that film.

20. What are you currently working on?

A second novel, The Third Road, and also a website to promote the first novel, And the seas shall turn to lemonade, which I will be launching in the fall.

Sandra Nicholls has written two books of poetry and numerous short stories. Her first novel, And the seas shall turn to lemonade, was short listed for the K.M.Hunter Artists Award for Literature and will be published in the fall of 2011. Her second book of poetry, Woman of Sticks, Woman of Stones, won the Archibald Lampman Award. A poem from her first collection, The Untidy Bride, took third prize in the international Stephen Leacock competition. That collection was also a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. She is currently working on her second novel, The Third Road, set in Malaya during the Communist uprising of 1948. Sandra lives in Ottawa, where she works for Library and Archives Canada. You can read her blog at:

For a complete list of rob's 12 or 20 Questions interviews, please visit

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