An Interview with Award Winning Canadian Author
The title of your book is unique. What made you choose it?
Originally I was aiming for a short story collection where all the stories related, either obscurely or directly, to natural disasters and their fallout. Each character featured in the stories was flawed, and some were as dangerous as the natural phenomena they were fighting- hence the word “other” added to natural disasters. I got as far as writing The Hurricane, a story about a Mexican man who tries to rebuild his life in Calgary after losing his wife in a hurricane, only to be swept back into the terror of losing again (available to download from Queen’s Quarterly), but then Simon came along and claimed a whole novel, not to mention four different disasters, all to himself. Although it is rare to keep a title so long (twelve years!), it fit so well, as Simon first ascribes the failures of his life to unavoidable natural phenomena to avoid facing how he himself may be implicated in the disasters of his own life.
How long did it take to complete “MAOND”?
A long time! My first draft was written in 2000/2001 in nine months after the birth of my second child. I then spent three years while working full time editing the novel. I put the manuscript aside to finish another novel, only to bring it back in 2010 to rewrite for publication. So all in all, from conception to publication, the book was more than 10 years in the making.
What is your favourite part of the book?
The last paragraph of the epilogue, I guess. It’s a bit like the last words you ever say to a soon-to-be former lover—you never forget them. As difficult a character as Simon was, I found it hard to leave him after all those years together, and those last words haunt me still.
Can you tell us a little about your process? How do the ideas/stories make it to paper?
All my stories, or any that ever made it to the point of appearing in print, have originated from a ‘voice’ popping into my head. It’s not a disembodied voice—I know it’s not coming from anywhere else but my head—but there’s something in the word choice or insight I hear that tells me it isn’t my own run-of-the-mill mind-chatter, but the voice of a character. In the beginning, I usually know nothing more about the character than the few sentences he or she has expressed. That’s when I begin writing. I give the voice free reign on the page and slowly, inevitably, a scaffold of a story and a shadow of a character emerges. It is not always the final story, or even the final character, and I do admit to editing heavily throughout the process and do not rely solely on ‘channelling’ the character, as some have called it. But even during the major edits I continue to rely a great deal on synchronicity, coincidence and inspiration, and have completely rewritten a whole section late in the process because ‘the voice’ insisted upon a different resolution. Writing becomes a bit of a battle at this point between me and my characters, but a fun one, and the tension helps build not only a strong story but (hopefully) a surprising one.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?What I really want readers to do is enjoy the book, although I always hope they will take away whatever messages they feel relevant to them and their life. I think that’s what makes fiction so magical, the way the same story can have a markedly different impact on different people. All readers come to a story with a unique life experience behind them, and it is in this mysterious mix of individual insight and universal story where meaning manifests. Which I suppose is a fancy way of saying take what you want out of it, my job is to ensure you enjoy the ride.
Any amusing stories about your background research for the book?
I always love to tell this story.So when I was writing Simon, I knew he had “created” a fictional world and this world had become his whole life, erasing his past, but I didn’t know whether or not this was a real psychical phenomenon. Then I was reading a psychology textbook one day and say mention of a fugue disassociative state. For those who follow the news, this state has become popularly known after Linda Hegg went missing for three months in a fugue state, http://shine.yahoo.com/healthy-living/lost-souls-disorder-could-missing-woman-found-everyone-200500170.html), however at the time it was relatively unknown and many felt it didn’t really exist.
To get the scoop on what the medical profession thought, I wanted to interview a psychologist. Not knowing any, I picked a random name from the phone book, and, after introducing myself as an investigating writer, I asked the psychiatrist if she’d ever heard of fugue states.
“So you say you’re writing a novel.”
“There was an awkward pause, then she continued. “And the character, you say, is in a fugue state.”
“That’s right. I just want to learn a bit more about it so I can make it plausible.”
“Uh huh.” Again, she paused. “Interesting.”
I started telling her about the research I was doing and what I needed to know when she interrupted me.
“So tell me,” she said, “why do you think you might want to write about a character in a fugue state?”
Then she proceeded to try to get me to book an appointment. I didn’t call any more psychiatrists after that J
Did you learn anything from writing your book?
So much! I don’t know where to begin. Before I began the book I didn’t know anything about the doukhobours and the terrorist movement in the west in the 50s. I also didn’t know how magical (or prolonged) the writing process could be.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?There’s a few lines and words here and there that I might change, given the chance and the time. There’s probably also some material I would add, but there’s nothing major that I would change, not right now. I’m too busy working on my new novel to think about changing anything from
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing?
Finding as much time and energy to devote to writing as I’d like to is my number one challenge – probably every writer’s challenge. Second greatest challenge is to find time to read all the books I want to read.
What made you decide to become a writer?
I read from a very young age. I learned to read by leaning over my older brother’s shoulder while my mom taught him, and so I was already reading chapter books in kindergarten. Almost as soon as I started reading I started writing. In fact, I wrote my first daily diary when I was five and my first book of poems when I was six. And long before I was writing, I was making up stories and telling them to anyone who would listen.
I can still remember the day when, balancing on the wooden bench of the arena seats during my brother’s hockey practice, in the middle of telling an ear-muffed fellow hockey sister about our family’s recent trip to the Artic, my mom yanked me down by the ear and called me a ‘liar’. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that what I had been doing had been lying. The story in my head was so real and so detailed (I even had three types of lichen pressed between pages of my imagined photo album) I had already convinced myself if was true. Only when my mom asked me when, pray tell, did this magical trip occur and how did we get there, on magic carpets?, did I realize that my story couldn’t possibly be true because for the life of me I couldn’t remember a plane trip. Suddenly I realized: I had made it all up, every detail. I was a liar.
But I am glad to report that, for the most part, I have learned to keep the fiction to the page. Or at least I try. So I guess there was no moment I decided to become a writer so much as there was a moment where I realized I was a liar, and the most legitimate way to exorcise this evil was to hide it as fiction.
What books have most influenced your life most and why?
God, this is an impossible question! There are so many, but here are a few off the top of my head.
First would be Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. One of the last scenes at the end of the book tore me apart and forever changed the way I understood love. In this scene, the two main characters are dancing (it's their last dance before they die, although they do not know this at the time) and suddenly all the mistakes and pettiness and hurt the characters inflicted on each other over the years melt away and they are left with nothing more--or less--than a lifetime spent together. For an all-too brief moment, with the grievances against each other dropped, they become light, unbearably so, and we realize that all that is left for these two people who have tried so hard and lost so much, and who are now bound in this dance as they had been in their ill-conceived marriage and will be in their soon-to-be tragic death, was this bruised and perfectly imperfect shared experience that the author dares to call love, or something like it. This revelation changed my life, and it was when I read that scene that I actually said to myself: I want to be a writer, so that one day, maybe, I could write one scene even half as powerful and meaningful as Kundera’s.
A second powerful book was Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. After reading it I was depressed for days. Like Kundera, this writer presented a story about two good people whose marriage was doomed, not because of a fatal flaw within them, but because of chains of events that could not be unraveled, and small, minor characteristics that in other instances could have been noble, but which in their cases and circumstances had became fatal. It is a heartwrenching tale about how you can be essentially good, and still cause suffering and even destruction, and it’s also an amazing look at how your understanding of others changes with distance and time.
Lastly, The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer tracks the true story of Gary Gilmore, the first prisoner executed in the
since the Supreme Court’s 1976 reinstitution of the death penalty, and his fateful, senseless murders. Mailer captures not only the facts like any good journalist would, but also applies his novelistic skills to explore how closely love and violence can be entwined, and how impossible they can be to separate. A beautiful, sensitive and challenging book that showed me how a great writer can expand our understanding not only through fiction, but also through fact. U.S.
What book are you reading right now?
What/who do you normally read when not writing your own books?I think it would be easier for me to give up writing than to give up reading, and so I don’t stop reading just because I’m writing. The only time I do stop reading English books is when I’m studying for my French exams, and even then I switch to French novels—they just take a lot longer to get through.
As for what I read, I read a lot of classics, and have been making my way through the Modern Library’s 100 best books these past few years. I usually alternate a classic with a modern literary novel, and at least one non-fiction. On the non-fiction side, I’m partial to well-written science books, particularly on biology or psychology, with the occasional sociology and ghost story thrown into the mix, but my favourites are the great investigative journalist exposes, like Boo’s The Beautiful Forever or Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or a few good crime books like Columbine by Dave Cullen (which I just finished). The science books give me insight into the unsuspected connections between things, and the investigative work provides inspiration for the characters and plot twists in my stories. I also read literary memoirs, particularly of writers, for inspiration, but when things are going very bad in my writing, when I feel all dried up and empty, I turn to my first love—poetry. There is nothing like a beautiful, indelible poem to inspire me to start again.
How real are your characters to you? Do they ever surprise you? Is there a character you relate to more than others?I’ve often been accused of talking like my characters are real, and in a way they are as real as anyone else I know, mainly because we have been so much together. When you’ve lived through your character’s lives, especially over the years of the novel, you grow close to them, the way you do when you go through a difficult time with another person. My characters always surprise me, and when they’re not surprising me then I know that I’m not giving them enough reign. Either I’m not putting them in the right situations or equipping them with the right tools/props to get their story across, or I’m not letting them do what they want to do, and so I have to go back again and change it up, let them loose. This can take time, but it’s worth it.
In Man I relate most to Minerva, as I’m a bit of a disaster myself, especially when I’m writing. I get so deep into my book that I leave my wallet in the freezer and my children at the gym.
Are there any new “up and coming” authors that have grasped your interest that we should watch?
There are many up and coming writers to watch. Unfortunately, many of them only write short stories, which many people aren’t interested in, but I know a lot of them are hard at work at novels so I expect something great soon. Matthew Trafford, Amy Jones, Sarah Selecky and Tom Hanson are just a few of my UBC colleagues who are making fictional waves. (Tom just had his first novel out in the
What do you do when not writing? (Hobbies, Interests etc.)
When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading, and when not doing either of these I’m usually hanging out with my family or friends. My favourite hobby is camping in the Canadian backwoods, and hiking wilderness trails, and I absolutely love dancing, any kind, any time.
Any advice for amateur authors?
Read. Write. Do as much of both of these as you can.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a novel right now. I’m still fleshing it out, but I promise lots of laughs, craziness and tall tales, not to mention at least one dead body (of course).
I’m also working on a non-fiction memoir about my estranged father and the nature of forgiveness.
Where can people go if they want to learn more about you and your work?
They can go to my website, www.nerysparry.com
Anything specific that you want to say to your readers/Fans?
Just thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for listening to my stories, for letting me continue to lie despite my mother’s early admonitions.