by Andrea MacPherson
Published by Random House Canada
346 pages, 2007
by Andrea MacPherson
Published by Palimpsest Books
128 pages, 2007
One gets the feeling that Andrea MacPherson always had a plan. That perhaps people warned her that her chosen course was difficult; for some impossible and that she either scoffed, or looked right through them to the other side; to the place where her dream existed. To the place where it lived.
Even so, the former January Magazine contributing editor claims a different sort of joy when she's teaching. MacPherson says the university level writing courses she teaches reaffirm her own passion for her craft. “It’s easy to get cynical and frustrated when you are sitting alone in front of your computer cursing a paragraph or character,” says MacPherson, “but my students are all so excited about everything they write, and everything their peers write. It reminds you to be thankful for the joy in it."
This has been a banner year for the author. Her second novel, Beyond the Blue -- a historical work set in Dundee, Scotland in the early part of the 20th century -- was published to profound critical acclaim early in 2007. A collection of poetry, Natural Disasters, initially intended for publication in 2003, made it to bookstore shelves last month. Still another collection, Away, will be published in the spring of 2008.
MacPherson says that, in her own work, poetry and prose are closely connected. “They leak over to one another and I can’t imagine not having that interplay. I would miss each form too much, and would probably wind up grieving for it and ignoring what I was supposed to be writing.”
The author lives near Vancouver with her husband, Stephen and her step-daughter, Taylor. She's currently working on a novel that she won't say too much about, “other than it’s historical, and the inspiration came from a trip to Northern Ireland and a bedroom that was painted bright cerulean blue with a dead crow on the floor.”
Linda L. Richards: Your second novel, Beyond the Blue, was published earlier this year. Natural Disasters came out just last month. You’re looking forward to the publication of your second collection in just a few months. It seems to me that this would be a banner year in the life of any writer, any human. How does it feel? Like the stars aligned? Like all your work finally paid off? Or am I missing the point entirely?
Andrea MacPherson: It’s a strange paradox, actually. To the naked eye, it would seem that I have been incredibly prolific, and that I am sitting at home writing up a storm 24/7. But, really, all these manuscripts have been completed for quite a while -- 2001, 2004 and 2005 respectively -- and are just now appearing at the same time. That's the strange and wonderful world of publishing. Certainly, I am thrilled to have them all (finally) out in the world -- a year ago, I wasn't sure what the fate of Natural Disasters would be. There had been so many delays and disappointments with it, I thought that perhaps it would simply sit on my desk forever. But, now, there is also this perception that I might have to keep the pace up -- which would be impossible.
Or, wait, strike that. The trinity of these three books does seem fated somehow, so maybe the stars have aligned.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It’s the only thing I ever really remember wanting to do. I have a firm memory of telling my mother of this plan when I was six. Of course, it couldn’t have been a surprise; dining room tables, kitchen tables, the floor, every surface was covered with papers and pens and stories I wrote about bunnies and little Hawaiian girls.
What form did that desire take?
I wrote a lot, but never shared it with anyone. There was a creative writing class in my high school, and I was really excited to take it, but it was cancelled. So I took some theatre classes because I knew I would be able to write a short play for production. Then, when I went to Kwantlen University College, I took every creative writing class I could. From there, I went on to do my Honours BFA and MFA in creative writing at [the University of British Columbia]. That was when it solidified for me: I could do this as a career.
What about that high school play? Did you ever write it?
I did, and it was produced as part of the young playwrights festival. There were about ten students who wrote the plays, then directed them and had them featured as productions at school.
Categorize yourself, please: Novelist? Poet?
Both! I started out thinking I was a poet early on in my BFA, but found myself writing a novel. So I do both, depending on the day and my mood.
When someone asks, which do you say first?
Now, I probably tend to say novelist. It’s taken so long for my poetry collections to come out, it seemed like I was jinxing them if I said “poet” too soon.
Do you anticipate a time when you give up one for the other? Or are the two, for you, entwined?
Entwined, definitely. They leak over to one another and I can’t imagine not having that interplay. I would miss each form too much, and would probably wind up grieving for it and ignoring what I was supposed to be writing.
Are you one of those who loves to write? Or one of those who loves to have written?
I’ve never been asked that. Hmm. I think I’m one who loves to write. Certainly, I’m happy to see pages filled, but I am most excited to be sitting down and having the words suddenly come out. It’s kind of magical when the story and the moment take over. I’m most enthusiastic and optimistic when I am writing.
Forgive me if I’m reading to much into something -- and you’ll please correct me if I am, but... you said, “I’m happy to see pages filled.” I find that an interesting choice of words. Almost as though you’re giving up ownership of the process. Does it ever feel that way to you? As though it’s coming from outside of yourself? Or do you feel very much in control of it?
That's an interesting question. I do feel, sometimes, like it is something that comes from outside of myself, especially when I am re-reading work after it’s been sitting for a long while. I recently picked up my rough, rough first draft of my new novel and some paragraphs seemed completely foreign to me. I thought: I wrote that? I talk about this on my blog, how the process of writing in a way seems almost like a fugue. I honestly remember very little of the process after the fact.
I know that the collection of poetry, Natural Disasters, was meant to have been published in 2003. If I’m not mistaken, it would have been your first book. And it was finally published last month, making it your third book to be published. Is it like naming a boat something that flies in the face of the sea, Andrea? Natural Disasters. Is there a story there?
Oh, if only I’d known then! Maybe there is something fated in the title.
No, it was meant to be my second book -- When She Was Electric came out in April 2003, and Natural Disasters was to follow that fall. But, then, there were publishing delays and concerns and more delays and bigger worries. Finally, I found a new publisher for it -- Palimpsest Press in Ottawa -- and the process from then on was pretty much seamless. A long and bumpy road, but I think the collection turned out beautifully.
How is it now, four years on -- perhaps more since you were working on the pieces that comprise the collection -- and encountering, as it were your younger self? How have you changed? Are there things you would have done differently? When you read the collection now, are there elements that startle? Things that make you blush or roll your eyes?
It feels a bit like sneaking a peek into a former life. Certainly, I’m in a drastically different place in my life -- the collection was completed when I was doing my Master’s, so 2001. It’s been over six years. So many things have changed. I’m married now, I’ve published two novels, I’m teaching. I have a different vantage point now, and different interests. I recognize the voice in Natural Disasters, and I appreciate it, but it is a record of another time in my life.
There are definitely things I would do differently now -- if I was writing it now -- but I came to the realization that I had to let it go at some point. The collection symbolizes me as a writer then, not now; it was part of a process and a journey. I think you can forever edit, forever look back and see things you would change. But that’s part of the charm of it in a way, too.
I’m not quite there with you. About the charm, I mean. Explain it, please.
It’s a strange and lovely thing to be able to see yourself through your work; the way you have changed, the things that were influencing you at the moment of writing, all those aspects. To a certain degree, it feels like documenting your life through words.
What’s your favorite piece from Natural Disasters?
Oh, I’ve never been good at picking favorites. It’s just too cruel. I don’t know that I have an actual favorite, but I do feel a certain affinity for “Ena & Wilma & me,” for many, varied reasons.
Share with us, please, just one line.
but the grass has turned wild/strange once captured
Lovely, Andrea. Thank you.
Your second collection will be published early in 2008, right? I’m anticipating the work will be very different from Natural Disasters. Do you think so? In what way?
Yes, Away will come out in Spring 2008 with Signature Editions. It is a very different collection than Natural Disasters; it’s a new step in the journey. For one, it had a thematic concept from the start, and that helped to shape the collection. It’s about history and memory and travel, the way travel leaves an impression on you. And I think that stylistically it’s different. It’s still narrative, but it’s somewhat less personal. It looks at political issues and social issues and tries to make sense of the past.
Does it succeed?
I hope so! I don’t mean that the collection sorts out these issues for all of humanity. Rather, through writing the poems I sorted them out to some degree for myself.
It’s no secret that I really enjoyed your most recent novel, Beyond the Blue, published earlier this year. Both that novel and your first, When She Was Electric, were historical -- Beyond the Blue set in Scotland in 1918, When She Was Electric set in western Canada in -- if I remember correctly -- the 1930s. What brings you to history?
When I was born, my old Auntie Dovie came over from Dundee, Scotland, in her sensible shoes and cardigans and held me, only to proclaim: She’s been here before. She claimed I was an old soul, and it’s something that’s been said about me many times since (most recently, by my husband). So maybe I’m predisposed? Either way, I’m very attracted to the past, to times that might have been more secretive, mysterious.
Do certain periods and regions attract you more than others?
My attraction has been fairly scattered, but to be excessively general, I would say times up until the 1960s. Regions are more difficult -- I seem to sway between European locales and those within Canada.
Do you anticipate a time when you’ll write novels with a contemporary setting?
The ones that are currently rummaging around in my mind, looking for space, are all historical to some degree. But I would never say never. All it takes is the right moment of inspiration.
You teach writing. Tell us about that.
It’s a totally different viewpoint of the process. It wasn’t until I started teaching that I really looked at the mechanical aspect of it -- and only then because I was asked to. I’d always written on an instinctual level, but when I looked back on my own work, trying to break it down, I saw the patterns that I then talked about in class.
Teaching, for me, works well with writing -- I still think about writing, wade around in its waters all day. This lets me stay connected to my work in a way I haven’t found with other jobs.
Where do you teach?
I teach at University College of the Fraser Valley and Douglas College. I teach both English and creative writing, but mostly the latter. I teach a variety of courses -- from children’s literature to historical fiction to an introduction to creative writing -- over a variety of semesters. I’m also the reviews editor for Event Magazine, which still lets me stay in that dreamy, hazy world of writing and books.
Do your students inform your creative work?
I think so.
In what way?
In terms of reaffirming the passion behind it. It’s easy to get cynical and frustrated when you are sitting alone in front of your computer cursing a paragraph or character, but my students are all so excited about everything they write, and everything their peers write. It reminds you to be thankful for the joy in it.
That's lovely Andrea. In teaching, what is your chief joy?
Seeing the transformation of a student’s piece -- their raw first draft to something, in the end, that is quite lovely and magical. It’s wonderful to be any small piece of that process.
Still on teaching, what do you find the most frustrating?
Those few and far between students who think it isn’t work. The ones who liken a writing class to basket weaving; if you don’t really want to be writing, it will be the hardest thing in the world to do.
I love that, Andrea: basket weaving. I wouldn't have thought of it quite that way, but I know exactly what you mean. What do you most hope that students take away from your class?
Enthusiasm. The desire to write more. A new way of looking at their own words. And understanding that it is work, no matter what anyone else tells you.
What are you reading right now?
I’m usually reading a few books at once -- some for research on a new project, some for the pure joy of story and language. I just finished Susan Minot’s Evening, and loved it. Now, I’m on to The Brambles by her younger sister, Eliza Minot. Also lovely. Two other books on my bedside table: Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe and Explosive Acts: Art & Anarchy of the Fin de Siecle by David Sweetman.
What writers most influenced your work?
This is always a hard question -- difficult to narrow down to a select few. So, a sampling of authors I admire: Michael Ondaatje, Elizabeth Hay, Alice Munro, Roddy Doyle, Alice McDermott. These are authors who use language in a new, fresh manner -- they allow me to see a small slice of the world in another way.
What are you working on now?
A novel that I won’t say too much about, other than it’s historical, and the inspiration came from a trip to Northern Ireland and a bedroom that was painted bright cerulean blue with a dead crow on the floor.
I’m also piecing together a new poetry collection. I’m muddling, experimenting, but writing. And that really is the hardest bit!
Are you yourself a disciplined writer, Andrea? Do you have a writing schedule? Do you write every day? Or...?
I try -- try being the operative word -- to write every day. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. But, even if I’m not physically writing, I’m thinking about the book or books in progress. I’m sorting out characters or phrases or plot points. And that’s the rub: most people don’t realize that when writers are staring out a window, seemingly lost in thought, we’re writing. You have to do a lot of pondering and staring out windows before you get the words to come. | August 2007
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.